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How Ron Kirk Plans to Captain Dallas

His win by a large margin makes him the first black mayor of a major Texas city

By Scott PendletonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 1995



AUSTIN, TEXAS

RON KIRK recalls a scare tactic that Atlanta officials have used to lure competing corporations relocating to the South away from Dallas. They showed videotapes of bare-knuckle brawls that passed for Dallas City Council meetings.

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''The perception of a city at war with itself has hurt us,'' Mr. Kirk says. ''Until we stop beating ourselves up, we can't attract business.''

With his victory in Saturday's race, Kirk becomes Dallas's mayor and thus inherits the job of taming the fractious 14 city councilmembers elected from single-member districts.

Kirk has made history as the first African-American to be mayor of a major Texas city and as the first nonwhite mayor of Dallas, where 52 percent of the 1 million citizens are not white.

A lawyer, Kirk served under Democrats Lloyd Bentsen in the United States Senate and as Texas secretary of state under Gov. Ann Richards.

In a telephone interview from his home, Kirk divides his attention between explaining his agenda and refereeing differences between his two children. He remains courteous and cool-tempered, characteristics that evidently appealed to the strife-weary voters. They handed him a 62 percent landslide that surprised even Kirk, who, like most observers, expected a runoff.

''Ron will be a calming influence,'' predicts Allen Parks, manager of a real estate agency in Dallas's high-priced, largely white north side.

Jan Coplin, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says Kirk will have ''everybody reading from the same page'' when he presides over the unwieldy council. The current council structure was created in 1991 by court order after years of acrimonious debate over how to make the body more representative of the city's ethnic diversity.

''My strength is coalition building and finding win-win-win solutions,'' Kirk says. His diverse campaign team is testament to that.

In search of harmony

Kirk began his campaign quest last fall by calling on former Dallas Cowboy football star Roger Staubach, now a real estate developer active in Republican politics. The two agreed that Dallas needed civic harmony in order to stop the tax-base erosion and defection of businesses to satellite cities like Plano, Richardson, and Las Colinas.

Some blacks sniffed at Kirk's pro-business agenda as evidence that he was a candidate of the white establishment. Other blacks unhesitatingly endorsed Kirk, including John Wiley Price, a county commissioner who has stirred controversy for participating in marches and rallies demanding more hiring of blacks by city government.

''People don't want anyone to tell us who's black enough or not,'' Kirk says.

Race was a factor in an election between Kirk, white lawyer Darrell Jordan, and Hispanic city councilman Domingo Garcia.

Kirk's campaign focus of attracting more business to the area is understandable. He inherits a city with a tax base that has stabilized at a level 21 percent lower than a decade ago. But crime in the city is down.

While a city manager handles the day-to-day business, Kirk hopes to hone in on improving the business climate. Kirk acknowledges that homelessness and lack of low-income housing are problems, but he says, ''we can't address any of the human-services issues we'd like to without a tax base.''

Keeping teams at home

The immediate challenge is what to do about Reunion Arena, home to the Mavericks basketball team and Stars hockey team. Game crowds spill over into the shops, eateries, and hotels in the nearby historic West End, where Pat Garza manages the restaurant, On The Border.

''We need them,'' Mr. Garza says of the teams, which add an estimated $200 million to the city's economy.

The team owners have threatened to move to the suburbs unless they get a new facility, but the city still owes $40 million on the current one. Dallas residents already fret that the ''Dallas'' Cowboys football team has its home stadium in nearby Irving. And the Texas Rangers baseball team is in the bedroom community of Arlington.

''I want to keep the Mavericks and the Stars in downtown Dallas, period,'' Kirk says. But he hopes to avoid putting more bond debt on taxpayers. One possibility, he says, is a proposal now before the Legislature that would allow some hotel tax dollars to finance sports facilities construction.

The Legislature is at work on another measure of interest to Kirk: a law allowing residents to carry concealed weapons. ''A dangerous and ridiculous notion,'' Kirk scoffs. ''I strenuously oppose it.''