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Dallas Mayor Gets Credit for Dispersing City's Cloud of Hate

Ron Kirk, the community's first black chief executive, aims to bridge differences and spread the wealth. But divisions remain.

April 13, 1999|CLAUDIA KOLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DALLAS — When Ron Kirk, Dallas' first black mayor, talks to counterparts from other cities, he tells a joke about how blacks used to get mayors' jobs: There's an airplane hurtling along at top speed. Suddenly, the navigation system dies. The engine fails. The wing catches fire. The pilot bursts into the cabin and singles out a black passenger. You, he says, haven't you always wanted to fly a plane?

The 44-year-old Kirk clearly inherited a city with far more resources than did earlier black mayors of other cities. Dallas retained much of its financial base, despite white flight and a 1980s real estate bust. What remained, however, was a city with divisions so deep it couldn't shake its nickname: the City of Hate. In the last 3 1/2 years, Kirk, a lawyer with a beguiling personality and a lobbyist's gold touch, is widely credited with helping cast off that image.

"Ron is so likable and gregarious, you just want to help him," says longtime lobbyist Neal "Buddy" Jones. "He disarms you. He gets you to 'yes' more times than not."

Mentioned as a prospective Democratic candidate for governor, Kirk is running for reelection in May and is largely thought to be a shoo-in. After all, in 1995, he mustered 62% of the vote, winning every white precinct and near-unanimity among blacks. While in office, he has brought together white business interests and impoverished minorities to back two multimillion-dollar development projects. Under his eye, Dallas' once dispute-ridden City Council is brisk and businesslike.

No longer a novelty elsewhere, an African American mayor still has striking symbolism in this conservative city of 1.1 million people. Until recently dominated by whites and home to some of the nation's worst housing segregation, Dallas is slowly coming to terms with its new character, in which blacks are about 30% of the population, with Latinos about 30% and growing.

Kirk is emblematic of a new generation of young, pragmatic, minority mayors, seasoned not by grass-roots civil rights work like their predecessors but by professional training that tends to appeal to a wide range of constituents.

But Kirk himself says his first term barely dented the city's deepest problems: neglected minority neighborhoods and a public school district so troubled that corporations shrink from transferring workers here.

Detractors say these problems reflect Kirk's preoccupation with business interests that helped fill his 1995 war chest with about $1 million. But to Kirk and his supporters, these projects are groundwork for new jobs that will enrich families and schools.

Dallas possesses something of a dual personality, combining lusty pride in its spirit of private enterprise with what Dallas-born author Lawrence Wright calls a "neurosis" about image.

Police brutality, severe housing shortages and the absence of a vibrant black university helped stunt the growth of a vital black middle class like those in Houston and Atlanta. In the mid-1960s, when Arthur Ashe arrived for the Davis Cup finals, the Dallas Country Club barred him from playing because of his race. The Dallas solution: a lavish new tennis court built virtually overnight elsewhere in the city. The 1963 assassination of President Kennedy sealed the city's harsh reputation.

It didn't help that Dallas schools and city government integrated long after those in most major cities. Both transitions led to racial conflicts on the school board and City Council well into the 1990s. Into this grim atmosphere strode the ebullient Kirk, with a gift for reaching across races and cultures. His motto: "End the blame game."

Platform of Harmony, Opportunity

The approach captivated Dallas' mighty business elite, which until the '70s had virtually handpicked elected leaders. Kirk's platform of harmony and economic opportunity also appealed deeply to African American voters. During his first campaign, the weekly Dallas Observer described a 94-year-old black woman hesitantly approaching, then touching, Kirk's face during a campaign stop. She was blind, she said, and she never thought she'd live long enough that a black man would be mayor of Dallas.

Growing up in Austin, Kirk wasn't always so confident about who he was. His mother is a retired teacher and an activist with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. His late father, a post office worker, was a college graduate who turned down acceptances to two medical schools because he couldn't afford to attend.

Kirk attended a newly integrated school and found it excruciating. At school, white students were hostile. At home, "a lot of our black neighbors accused us of being Uncle Toms," he says. "You felt like, 'Jesus, I'm too black at school and not black enough at home.' "

Kirk credits his father for a perspective he still invokes when accused of being "too white." Dogged by identity questions at Austin College in Sherman, Kirk dropped out. His father met him at their front door.

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