Kirk, Ron 1954—
Ron Kirk 1954—
Ron Kirk would rather not be known as the first black mayor in the history of the city of Dallas, Texas. Nevertheless, his 1995 election landslide-which included support from blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans-signalled a new era in Dallas, a new impetus to improve everything from city services to race relations. Kirk campaigned on a platform that promised increased economic prosperity, a lower crime rate, and the important notion of uniting Dallas’s diverse ethnic and racial population in order to improve the city. As he told Ebony magazine soon after his election: “It doesn’t matter whether your ancestors came over on the Mayflower [17th century ship that carried European settlers to North America] or a slave ship. We’re all in the same boat now.” That “boat,” in Kirk’s case, is the seventh largest city in United States.
No stranger to Texas politics, Kirk has held important positions in the state, including a stint as secretary of state in the administration of former-Governor Ann Richards. He has also served as a lobbyist on behalf of the city of Dallas before the Texas legislature and has served numerous local and national charities. According to Washington Post correspondent Sue Anne Pressley, what Kirk brought to his successful mayoral race “was an impressive career record and an outgoing personality that many powerful whites find appealing while also standing as a progressive symbol that Dallas is no longer mired in the 1950s.” Former Dallas Cowboys football team superstar quarterback Roger Staubach-now a Texas businessman-perhaps best described the optimism surrounding Kirk’s election. “From the inner city to the corporate board room, from the Dallas Zoo and Cotton Bowl [football stadium] to the granite dome of the Texas Capitol, Ron has a lifetime history of getting the job done for Dallas, “Staubach wrote in the Dallas Morning News.”He is a leader who brings people together, instead of looking for someone to blame.”
The youngest of four children, Kirk was born and raised in Austin, Texas. His family knew its share of adversity, but both of his parents were politically attuned and active in their predominantly black community. Kirk’s father was a college graduate who, although he was
At a Glance…
Born June 27, 1954, in Austin, TX; son of a U.S. postal worker and a school teacher; wife’s name Matrice; children: Elizabeth Alexandra, Catherine Victoria. ¿Education: Austin College, B A, 1976; University of Texas School of Law, J.D., 1979, Politics: Democrat. Religion: Methodist
David Cain (law firm), Dal las, TX, private practice lawyer, 1979-01; Office of Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Washington, DC, legislative assistant, 1981-83; City of Dallas, assistant city attorney and chief lobbyist, 1983-89; Johnson & Gibbs, P.C. flawfirm), Dallas, shareholder, 1989-94; Secretary of State, Austin, TX, 1994; Gardere & Wynne, LLP, (law firm), Dallas, partner, 1994-; City of Dallas, mayor, 1995- Executive committee member, Dallas Regional Mobility Commission, 1992-94; member of board of directors, State Fair of Texas, 1993-.
Member: National Bar Association, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Dallas, North Texas Food Bank, Leadership of Dallas Alumni Association.
Selected awards Volunteer of the Year Award, Big Brothers/BigSisters of Dallas, 1992; Distinguished Alumni Award, Austin College Alumni Association, 1992; named “Citizen of the Year” by Omega Psi Phi, 1994; C. B. Bunkley Community Service Award, Turner Legal Association, 1994.
Address: Office-Office of the Mayor, City Hall, 1500 Manilla, Dallas, TX 75201.
accepted at two medical schools, had to give up his dream of being a doctor because he could not afford the tuition. Instead, the elder Mr. Kirk took a job with the U.S. Postal Service, becoming “a racial ground-breaker of sorts … as the first black civil service employee in Austin,” to quote Dallas Morning News reporters Lori Stahl and Sylvia Moreno. The postal job might have been an important step for black Texans, but Ron Kirk recalled in the Dallas Morning News that his father became extremely frustrated working “35 years in a career that was below his intellectual ability.” Kirk added: “He stayed there, and he endured…. There was an expectation from everyone that we are going to have it better.”
In addition to the ideals of hard work and social commitment, Kirk’s parents stressed Christian values such as helping the needy and being supportive to family and friends in troubled times. Kirk noted in the Dallas Morning News that, then and now, his family believed the African proverb, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” Kirk attended public schools, where he earned good grades, played sports, and sang in the school choir. Even though he was a student during the disruptive early years of desegregation in Austin’s schools, he was rarely affected personally by racial strife. In fact he was elected student body president as a high school senior. The issue of race became more important to him when he entered Austin College in Sherman, Texas. He was one of only a few blacks on campus at the time, and, as he told the Dallas Morning News, he finally underwent an identity crisis. “I got called Uncle Tom [overeager to win the approval of whites] so much it made me wonder who I was,” he explained. His response to the personal confusion was to leave the school during his sophomore year.
The hiatus from college was temporary, however. While home with his family, Kirk received an internship as a legislative aide to the Texas Constitutional Convention of 1974. He became so fascinated by the political process that he returned to Austin College and completed his degree in political science and sociology in 1976. From there he went directly to the University of Texas School of Law, earning his law degree in 1979. Kirk admitted in the Dallas Morning News that he was an “undistinguished” student, both as an undergraduate and in law school. “I was much more interested in politics and law practice than law school,” he explained.
Having worked as an intern with the Texas legislature even during his law school days, Kirk naturally gravitated toward the political arena. After only two years as a private practice attorney, he took a job in the office of then-U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen, a popular and well-connected Washington insider. Kirk worked in Bentsen’s Capitol Hill office for two years, from 1981 until 1983, and then returned to Texas with a clear vision of the political process. He joined the staff at the Dallas City Attorney’s office, rising quickly to the position of chief lobbyist for Dallas. As Stahl and Moreno put it, Kirk’s job “was to push the city’s legislative agenda with state legislators in Austin.” Among his other initiatives, Kirk helped to persuade the state legislature to toughen penalties on the most serious criminals and saw bills enacted to enhance economic opportunities for women and minorities. At home in Dallas he also worked as an attorney for the firm Johnson & Gibbs and played an active role in the Dallas chapter of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, a volunteer organization linking children with adult role models.
The opportunity that put Kirk on the political map permanently occurred in 1994. Early in that year, then-Texas Secretary of State John Hannah resigned to accept a federal judgeship. Governor Ann Richards appointed Kirk as Hannah’s replacement. Kirk agreed to become the new secretary of state but declared that he would only fill the remainder of Hannah’s term. By that time, Ron Kirk had his eye on another, even more high-profile political prize.
Over the years, Kirk became convinced that the federal government had become so mired in bureaucracy that real political change could only be initiated at the local level. When friends in the Dallas business community began urging him to run for mayor, he and his wife, Matrice, prayed about the decision and then announced his candidacy. The political commitment was not entered into lightly. Not only did Kirk have two preschool-aged daughters, but his wife also held a job. Mrs. Kirk was faced with resigning from a job she loved in order to further her husband’s career, and this sacrifice was not lost on Kirk. “It’s a lot to ask of someone,” he stated in the Dallas Morning News.”Any two-career family can appreciate the difficulty with one [partner] sacrificing something they’ve given a lot of time, education, and passion to. It says more for her love and unselfishness that I’m in the position I am now.”
Kirk was one of six candidates running for mayor of Dallas in the spring of 1995. Earning a broad base of support among the black community and the important backing of many influential black and white business people, he campaigned on a platform of stopping the “blame game” and ending the gridlock-producing bickering in City Hall. His more detailed plans for Dallas included targeting 400 city businesses for growth, a reduction in government regulations for small businesses, and a response team to help cut through government red tape.
Like his opponents, Kirk promised to be tough on crime, but he was the only candidate to suggest that Dallas’s future prosperity as “the gateway to the largest free trade zone in the world” hinged on enhancing racial and ethnic harmony. “You don’t become an international city until you become a city that understands diversity,” Kirk told the Wash ington Post.”Historically, Dallas has been seen as a white power structure, but those days are over now…. We now live in a city [where] a candidate of color can now win with a coalition of blacks and browns and Anglos.”
Ron Kirk did just that. On May 6, 1995, he won the mayor’s race with a phenomenal 62 percent of the vote. His closest opponent earned a meager 22 percent, and Kirk drew more white support than two other white candidates. Kirk’s inaugural ceremony was the largest ever seen in Dallas and was attended by Ann Richards and other state dignitaries. At his request, a choir sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” In his inaugural address, Kirk declared that his victory was all about vision, not color. He said he hoped the voters of Dallas had reacted to his positive, optimistic campaign and not to any history he would make as the first black mayor of any major Texas city. “I’ve always believed that if you have to choose between making history and making sense, you ought to make sense, “he was quoted as concluding in the Detroit Free Press.
Many serious challenges await Kirk as mayor of Dallas. The city’s tax base is 21 percent lower than it was in the 1970s--a result of suburban flight and a high crime rate. Although he is a Democrat and is seriously committed to social issues such as homelessness and the need for decent public housing, Kirk has placed a priority upon encouraging business expansion and new economic opportunities in Dallas. “We can’t address any of the human-services issues we’d like to without a tax base,” he explained in the Christian Science Monitor.Perhaps the most pressing issue facing Kirk is the need to build a new arena in order to keep the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and the Dallas Stars hockey team from pulling out of the city and relocating to the suburbs. Kirk told the Dallas Morning News that he hopes to provide a “legislative framework” that will expedite negotiations between the team owners and the city, as well as working to get financing for a new arena that will not put a new tax burden on the citizens of Dallas.
The city charter of Dallas provides the mayor, who serves primarily as head of the City Council, the small salary of $50 per council meeting. Kirk has therefore retained his partnership with the law firm of Gardere & Wynn, the office he joined in 1994. Kirk seems undaunted by the prospect of leading one of the nation’s largest cities while still holding a private sector job. “Most people spend 10 minutes with me, and it’s obvious I’m more a big-picture guy than a detail guy, “he joked in the Dallas Morning News.”Now what I have to do is convince the city that what I said during the campaign wasn’t gimmicky.”
A dedicated family man whose chief vice is a fondness for fried foods, Kirk feels that his victory in Dallas is a harbinger of better times to come for a city that has known its share of racial discord. His greatest challenge, he told Ebony, “is to get people of different cultural and national backgrounds to work together peacefully and build a community that is economically viable and a wonderful place for families to live.” As for himself, Kirk has declared supreme happiness at achieving his goals. “I became convinced some time ago that the most dynamic job in American politics was being the mayor of a big city,” he said, “and I had decided a long time ago that if I ever did run, that there was only one job that I was interested in, and that was being mayor of Dallas.”
Asked in the Dallas Morning News why he thought he had won so handily, Kirk replied: “I think people believe I will be fair. Everybody I’ve met in Dallas wants this city to be as vibrant and dynamic as it can be. Every person that is a parent wants their children to be as safe as they can be and go to the best schools there can be. Every person I know that’s a homeowner wants their neighborhoods well maintained and adequately policed and proper code enforcement. Every business owner wants the city to be as much of a partner in a positive way than they do a hindrance in a negative way. And in that sense, as long as we keep articulating agendas that aren’t defined by culture or race or demographics I think we have a chance to build a winning coalition for this city.”
Christian Science Monitor, May 8, 1995, p. 4.
Dallas Morning News, January 25, 1995, p. 21 A; April 30, 1995, p. 5J; May 8, 1995, p. 1A; May 14, 1995, p. 1J; June 4, 1995, pp. 1A, IF.
Detroit Free Press, May 8, 1995, p. 4A.
Detroit News, May 7, 1995, p. 3A.
Ebony, September 1995, p. 32.
New York Times, May 5, 1995, p. 14A; May 8, 1995, p. 11A.
Philadelphia Daily News, June 6, 1995, p. 44.
USA Today, May 8, 1995, p. 3A.
Washington Post, May 7, 1995, p. 3A.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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