Tough choices

Where was the mayor?
That was the question on a lot of people's minds on the night of Sunday, September 8.
It was 8:30, and 367 nicely dressed people were assembled in the Galleria Ballroom of the Westin Hotel--all of them friends and supporters of a small Jewish day school, located on Churchill Way in North Dallas, called Akiba Academy of Dallas.

As fundraising dinners go, this one was pretty nice. The decorations were understated--a dozen white roses on each table--the people seemed happy to be in attendance, and the program for the evening was blessedly short.

Plus, as an added bonus, there was star appeal; the seventh speaker listed on the printed program was none other than the Honorary Ron Kirk, mayor of the City of Dallas and honorary dinner chairman for the evening. As the keynote speaker, Kirk was going to introduce and congratulate the 1996 recipient of Akiba's Civic Service Award--an honor bestowed annually on a member of the Jewish community who has performed important civic and charitable deeds.

But it was now well into the program. Speakers had come and gone, and Kirk's place at the head table was empty. People looked around the room expectedly--but no mayor. Sure enough, when it came time for Kirk to speak, there was an announcement, instead.

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The mayor was not going to be able to join the group after all, an Akiba board member announced, surprising a number of guests, including me and my husband. (Our daughter attends the school.) Something had come up, the board member continued. The mayor had to be someplace else. He was sorry, but in his stead he'd sent a letter to be read aloud.

So the mayor's letter was read aloud. The first two paragraphs thanked the awardee, Wally Rynek, profusely for his endless hours of volunteer work at The Vogel Alcove--a downtown Dallas day care center for homeless children. "I am sorry I cannot be with you to celebrate this wonderful occasion," the letter ended. "However, I want to personally thank you for all the work you have done for the children of our city, and wish you the best on this wonderful night."

As the letter was read aloud, I looked at Rynek thinking, of course, how nice it would have been for this 74-year-old man to have been thanked in person, as promised. Then I began wondering: Where was the mayor? What was so important? Was there a family emergency? An urgent mayoral matter that needed his full attention? (Giant pothole? Burst water main?) Or was there simply another dinner with a more intriguing menu?

"I was told he's out of town," one of the dinner's organizers, Dr. Susan Diamond, told me as soup was served at our table. As Diamond and the others began to eat, I quietly excused myself from the table. I walked across the room and out the ballroom doors.

I was in search of a pay phone.

When the phone began to ring at Kirk's home moments later, I naturally expected a baby-sitter to answer.

"Hello?" a man's voice on the other end said.
It was the mayor.
After telling Kirk how surprised I was to hear his voice, I asked him what he was doing. "Sleeping," he answered with a large sigh indicating great tiredness. "I'm tired. I had a long day."

Not playing mayor, mind you. Although I would learn none of this until later, Kirk had had an extremely busy weekend attending major sporting events at other people's expense. His official mayoral schedule--copies of which I subsequently obtained--offered a fascinating glimpse at what Mayor Ron Kirk chooses to do in his spare time. And what he chooses not to do.

At noon on Saturday, Kirk had flown to Las Vegas on a private plane owned by Jeff Marcus, chairman and CEO of Dallas-based Marcus Cable, the ninth-largest cable company in America. Marcus--whose company does no business with the city--is a friend of the mayor's, and he'd invited Kirk to attend the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight with him.

"I had my son and nephew with me," says Marcus. "It was a family-and-friends, boys' trip out to Las Vegas for the fight."

The "boys" had choice, front-row seats for the fight, Marcus told me, courtesy of Showtime--the cable channel that does a lot of business with Marcus Cable. "If it was a good fight, it would have been great," says Marcus, lamenting that the much-anticipated fight lasted only 109 seconds. "We were right in front, watching it live and on television, with headphones on. It really was disappointing."

After partying and spending the night at the MGM Grand--all courtesy of Showtime--Kirk and his friends left Las Vegas at 9 Sunday morning to return to Dallas. After landing at 1:30 p.m., Kirk joined his wife, Matrice--the kids stayed home with a sitter--for a 3 p.m. Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants kickoff at Texas Stadium.  

This time the host was Fina Oil and Chemical Co., which had invited a number of celebrities and their spouses to watch the game from its luxury suite. The guests included the mayor, sports anchor Scott Murray, former Dallas Cowboy Pettis Norman, U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson, and public-relations executive Stan Levenson. Beer and wine were served, along with a delicious catered spread that included sliced beef tenderloin, pasta with chicken, shrimp, salmon, and--for dessert--lemon bars.

At that point, Kirk went home to spend what was left of his weekend with his daughters. "He wanted to spend some time with the girls," his administrative assistant, Kristi Sherrill, told me last week. In fact, Sherrill told me, Kirk is so concerned about spending time with his children that he has asked his staff to, whenever possible, decline events on Sundays. "We rarely accept things on Sunday, because, you know, he has to have a break sometime," Sherrill says.

(That's a rule made to be broken, however--at least when the mayor wants it broken. The Sunday after the no-show Akiba dinner, Kirk attended yet another Dallas Cowboys game, in another local company's luxury box. Later that evening he attended a Mexican Independence Day celebration in Pike Park--one that he'd been invited to just three weeks earlier.)

From the sound in his voice, I told Kirk that night on the phone, it was clear he'd had a busy day. But I pointed out that I was standing at a pay phone outside a hotel ballroom, wondering why he was sleeping in Lakewood instead of honoring one of the city's citizens at a dinner he'd been invited to back in May.

"I don't know what you're talking about," the mayor snapped defensively. "What dinner? I don't know anything about it."

In fact, he told me, he'd never heard of the school. But how was that possible? I asked. On the program it clearly stated that he was the evening's honorary dinner chairman--the keynote speaker. "People use my name all the time without getting permission," Kirk said. "Happens all the time."

I was sure that wasn't the case here, I told him. I'd been hearing for months that he had accepted this invitation to speak at the dinner. And at this moment, there were almost 400 Jews assembled in a huge ballroom down the hall from me--wondering why the mayor had stood them up.

"My black churches are all over me, saying I do too much for the Jews already," Kirk said. Besides, he told me: "The Jews always do things on Sunday nights, and I'm not doing things on Sunday nights anymore--I'm staying home with my family."

I was astounded at what I was hearing. No matter what anyone has ever thought of Kirk--and the reviews to date are almost universally good--no one could accuse him of lacking finesse or charm as a politician. Moreover, wasn't this the man whose No. 1 campaign pledge when he was running for mayor was "stop the blame game"--which, of course, includes all the race-baiting and cheap ethnic slurs that consistently, and insanely, divide us?

Clearly, there was really nothing else to say. The mayor was home in bed. The reason for that--either he really hadn't been invited to the dinner, or he simply didn't want to go--was by now a moot point. He wasn't coming up here anytime soon--and he was in no way concerned about not being here. To the contrary, in somebody's mind--maybe his--he'd apparently done enough for the Jews in the short 15 months he'd been mayor.

When I returned to the ballroom, I told the people at my table that Kirk--among other more disturbing comments--had insisted that he knew nothing about the dinner.

That was strange, several people said, picking up their copies of the thick, glossy tribute book that had been placed on everyone's seat before dinner. The book--a common fundraising tool--was filled with paid advertisements from people who had wanted to congratulate Wally Rynek on his award. The book also contained a dozen or so congratulatory letters from various elected officials. One of those letters was from Ron Kirk.

"GREETINGS! Akiba Academy of Dallas," the signed letter began. "It is both an honor and privilege to serve as Honorary Dinner Chairperson for this year's Akiba Academy Service Dinner."

Which made me think I needed to learn a little more about the dinner the mayor didn't know about.

Three weeks after the dinner, my phone rang at home at 6:30 p.m.
"Hello," a familiar voice on the other end of the phone intoned. "This is your mayor."  

My mayor had called me on his mayoral car phone unsolicited--a rare occurrence, indeed--to tell me he was annoyed with me. He'd been getting calls from people who said I was asking a lot of questions about his schedule from the first week of September. He'd also been hearing from a number of people who were accusing him of making some disparaging comments about "doing too much for the Jews."

"I did not say that," Kirk told me emphatically--after I repeated, word for word, what he had told me on the night of September 8. "The words you are using are not my words. And they're certainly not my sentiments."

I didn't know his sentiments--although I've never, ever thought of Kirk as being a bigot or anti-Semite, and I prefer to think he's not even either today. But I assured him that he had said those words to me. Kirk then responded that our discussion had been off the record that night. "I remember very well; you were calling me for a story, and we did our usual deal where I say, 'Are we on or off the record?'" Kirk said. No, I responded, I was not calling to interview you. I was calling you--spontaneously, from a pay phone in a hotel lobby--merely to find out where you were that night.

Kirk offered another explanation: "If you think I said that, you must have misunderstood me. I may have said, 'A lot of black churches are disappointed with me because I don't do events on Sunday.'"

No, I assured him, it was impossible to misunderstand what he said. "Well, nobody--no group of black churches--has ever said, 'You're doing too much for the Jews,'" Kirk said. "I haven't had any pressure from anybody regarding my calendar or schedule. Not a conversation with anybody in the black churches."

Kirk said he was less concerned about the particulars concerning his no-show at the dinner. As far as he knew, he told me, he was never invited to be there. "I don't speak at one gathering where I don't get a letter saying, 'Will you speak at this group or that group?'" Kirk told me last week. "And there is no letter from the Akiba Academy. Nothing."

If he were never invited, then how did he explain the letter from him--signed by him--that appeared in Akiba's tribute book, gushing about how honored he was to be named honorary dinner chairman? Did he not dictate or know about the letter? Did he not sign it? "Some letters I sign," he said. "Some letters my staff signs. So I don't know."

Clearly, this was going nowhere. But I was sure that it would all be cleared up once I saw the Akiba Academy file in the mayor's office, I told him. In fact, I had called his office that very morning, trying to get the chronology of events straight. Quite frankly, though, talking to the mayor's staff had only made things murkier--and more at odds with the mayor's version of events.

"What I understand is the invitation had been extended, and the mayor said, yes, he would look at it," mayoral assistant Kristi Sherrill told me. "But we declined it. It was never accepted. We declined it because it was on a Sunday."

And how exactly did the staff decline the invitation? "We had sent a decline letter," said Sherrill. (That was strange, I thought, considering the Akiba officials had never received one. In fact, they received nothing but the cheery tribute book letter--drafted by some mayoral staffer on July 17.)

According to the Sherrill Version of Events, Kirk--the man with no recollection of a dinner he had never been invited to--was forced to decline a second time when an Akiba board member faxed over a confirmation letter on August 16.

"We went back to him," Sherrill told me. "And we said, 'Do you know anything about this?' And he said, 'No, I never accepted it.' And he personally called [Akiba] to explain that it was a Sunday, and he was spending time with the family, and he had never accepted it."

Actually, he never called anyone at the school. The school got a call from a mayoral secretary named Betty Merkle, who called 12 days after Kirk's office received the fax. Merkle informed the school's bookkeeper, Lois Rogers, that the mayor's office "had no record of this event in their files" and anyway, "the mayor will not be able to attend since he will be out of town."

But the mayor did call a woman named Gayle Haney, who is a secretary at Kirk's law firm of Gardere & Wynne.  

Haney, you see, was the one who originally called the mayor's office last May on behalf of Akiba. Haney did so out of loyalty to her former boss and Gardere partner Don McCleary, who died of AIDS in April. McCleary's doctor had been Susan Diamond, an Akiba parent and one of the organizers of the school dinner. Haney believed that because her boss thought so much of his doctor--and because he mentioned something he needed to do for Diamond during his last, very ill days--McCleary intended to help Diamond secure Kirk's presence for the Akiba dinner. There's no question that McCleary had plenty of clout with the mayor:It was McCleary who came up with idea of offering Kirk his cush partnership at the law firm; and it was McCleary who gave Kirk $3,000 out of his own pocket to run for mayor.

"Don thought the world of Susan," says Haney. "I know if he hadn't been so sick he would have said, 'Gayle, take care of this.'"

So Haney called Kirk's scheduler, Oweda Johnson. She explained that she needed to get on Kirk's September 8 calendar. "Oweda said yes, she would put it on the schedule," Haney says. "She said yes. I thought it was all taken care of--though I stressed to Susan and her husband that they had to follow up on this. They had to get a commitment in writing."

Unfortunately, they never did. They figured--silly citizens--that some city employee's word was her bond. Therefore, the Akiba dinner either didn't stay on the calendar--or never made it there in the first place. "We were naive about the process, and because it wasn't nailed down, there may be been a miscommunication," says Diamond's husband, Rick San Soucie, who is upset, but not angry, about the mayor's no-show. "We thought it was the kind of thing he would want to go to; there were a lot of good people there, and Wally certainly has done wonderful things for the homeless. I guess I'm learning things all the time here."

Oweda Johnson, who no longer works for Kirk, says she does not remember getting a call or a fax about the Akiba dinner. Likewise, she doesn't remember putting it on the mayor's calendar. "I would have told her that we book him 60 to 90 days out, and September was a little far out for us to be booking him," says Johnson. "But if she faxed me the information over, I'd be happy to put it in his suspense file, and as we got closer to the event, we'd consider it."

Last Wednesday, I went to City Hall in search of the last piece of the puzzle--the mayor's Akiba file.

I had tried to obtain it the day before during my conversation with Sherrill, but had had no luck. "Why do you need that?" Sherrill asked me suspiciously. "What's this for?" Her response was typical. Sherrill has been the steely grand protectress of Dallas mayors since Steve Bartlett was elected in 1991.

Sherrill never did produce the file, so I figured I'd pay her a visit.
Now, though, I was shooed away from the mayor's inner sanctum while a game plan was hatched, the mayor's office door opened, and Kirk himself emerged--tossing a football from hand to hand. Which I thought was very appropriate in this case.

"What do you need?" he said.
"Well, I really don't need to see you," I informed him. "I just need the Akiba file."

Kirk ushered me into his office and shut the door. During the course of a long conversation, Kirk told me that he had instructed his staff to no longer talk to me. Only Sherrill was allowed to talk to me (which, I knew, was as good as talking to myself). As for the Akiba file, he said, holding it aloft, what specifically did I want from it?

All of it, I said. And Kirk, to his credit--though, come on, these are public records here--promptly asked a staffer to fax it all.

Funny enough, one of the things Kirk was holding was that paper trail that he claimed didn't exist about the dinner invitation. As it turns out, on May 7 Gayle Haney had sent Kirk's scheduler, Oweda Johnson, a three-page fax about the dinner. The third page consisted of a short description, written by Susan Diamond and her husband, Rick San Soucie, of the dinner and the mayor's role in it. "The dinner usually starts at approximately 6:30 and finishes no later than 9 or 9:30," the summary stated. "Mayor Kirk does not need to stay after his talk if he needs to leave; we will work around his schedule. More details to follow."

When those details finally arrived three months later, Kirk--who during our third conversation finally recalled this--decided, once again, not to go to the dinner. Never mind that the school was counting on him. Never mind that there was nothing else on his calendar that night.  

"I don't know Wally Rynek," Kirk told me last week in his office. "I mean, I'm sure he's a great guy, but I don't know him. And I didn't know anything about the Akiba Academy. My judgment about this was just that I was on a pretty tight schedule; I was going out of town either Friday or Saturday and going to the Cowboys game on Sunday with my bride. And Sunday night I was with my kids--and I don't feel a need to apologize for spending an evening home with my children."

Later, in yet another conversation we had about this, Kirk finally, blessedly, just summed it up: "I just didn't want to go.

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