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Facing Goose Eggs in Texas, Democrats Field Big Hitters

Politics: Ex-Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk heads a 'Dream Team' billed as the party's best chance in years to top the GOP.

April 11, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — When former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk was chosen this week to run for Senate on the Democratic ticket, a carefully crafted comeback strategy went into effect for a party that has slumped dangerously close to irrelevance in Texas politics.

Kirk is one-third of a so-called "Dream Team," a racially diverse triumvirate that Democrats hope will win back a portion of the party's long-lost Lone Star eminence. As the first black man elected mayor in what was long a famously segregated city, Kirk holds automatic sway with minority voters. But, like gubernatorial candidate and borderland oil baron Tony Sanchez, the former lobbyist is known as a socially centrist, economically conservative candidate.

"It's the best shot Democrats have had in a long time," Southern Methodist University political science chair Calvin Jillson said. "They're positioned here to make a comeback."

The Kirk-Sanchez duo is rounded out by lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp, a white and the state's former comptroller. "It's one of the most exciting tickets ever in this state," Democratic chairwoman Molly Beth Malcolm said. "It's real. It's made up of real people from all parts of the state. A lot of times people look at the South and think we're kind of backwards. We're going to show you we're not."

Times have changed since the tumult of the civil rights movement fractured the decades-old Democratic "solid South" and stripped the Texas party of its former glory. These days, with every statewide elected office in President Bush's home state held by a fellow Republican, ethnicity is once again at the heart of the two-party power struggle.

Analysts say race politics are Texas Democrats' surest chance to get back into business in a state marked by rapid ethnic evolution. The Texas electorate is already more than 40% black and Latino--and Latinos are the fastest growing portion of the population.

Casting for a viable candidate to face Gov. Rick Perry, Texas Democrats approached Sanchez, a savvy businessman who speaks flawless Spanish, walks with the swagger of a borderland cowboy and made millions in oil and banking. Sanchez agreed and began pouring his fortune into a costly campaign to beat former state Atty. Gen. Dan Morales in a March primary.

Then the party looked to Kirk. His father was an Austin post office worker; his mother an activist with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

In a 1999 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Kirk recalled the daily childhood journey from his black neighborhood to a newly integrated school. He was teased in both places. "You felt like, ' . . . I'm too black at school and not black enough at home,' " he said.

In the years before he was mayor, Kirk worked for then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and moved on to become assistant city attorney and lobbyist for Dallas. He was pulled into statewide office when former Texas Gov. Ann Richards--renowned for her diverse appointments--named him secretary of state.

Kirk made history as Dallas' first black mayor--but radical social reformer he wasn't.

During his seven years at City Hall, Kirk pushed for a $125-million stadium for the Mavericks and Stars, the city's professional basketball and hockey teams. He plugged upscale downtown renovation and lobbied unsuccessfully to bring the Olympics to town.

"It was big-ticket, glamorous, signature projects," Jillson said. "There was maybe not enough attention to the nuts and bolts of daily life--streets and parks. He was not a black civil rights candidate."

And that, analysts say, is just the point.

"It's hardly a radical ticket," said Ed Martin, an Austin political consultant. "It's a very mainstream ticket, an interesting mix of people."

Kirk is likely to face a particularly arduous and expensive fight. With the Democrats clinging to Senate control by one seat, the position left vacant by the retirement of Phil Gramm is of premium value to both parties. Bush already popped home once to raise cash for state Atty. Gen. John Cornyn, Kirk's Republican competition. And given the opportunity to elect Kirk to a Senate that doesn't have a single black member, "the money will be pouring in from all over," University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan said. "Nobody will lose for lack of spending."

Due to sheer demographics, few analysts doubt that Texas politics will become more Democratic in the next decade. But it remains to be seen whether Kirk can help spark the changeover.

"We're not packing up and moving to Washington yet," Kirk campaign spokesman Justin Lonan said Wednesday.

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