In Texas, a new kind of black candidate

Senate hopeful Ron Kirk sticks to a centrist agenda in his tight contest against Republican John Cornyn.

It seems everything in Ron Kirk's life is a first. He was the son of Austin's first black postal clerk. He was the first black mayor of Dallas. Now he is vying to be Texas's first black senator.

But this charismatic and imposing Democrat doesn't dwell on skin color or use the race card in his campaigns; instead, he calls the issue irrelevant. Throughout his political career, Mr. Kirk has been able to build support across racial lines by sticking to a centrist platform and winning friends in the business community.

In fact, his few attempts to use the politics of race have backfired – as happened last month when he told a group of minority veterans in San Antonio that war with Iraq would mean sending a lot of soldiers "who look like us" into battle. He later apologized for the uncharacteristic, awkward statement.

But while Kirk may dismiss race as a political factor, it's important to many others. Currently there are no African-Americans in the Senate, although they represent 12 percent of the country's population. Since Reconstruction, there have been only two, the latest being Carol Mosley-Braun, elected in 1992 and defeated after one term in office.

"People are able to accept African-Americans as role models in entertainment and athletics. Why not our politics and government?" says Ed Martin, a Democratic political consultant in Austin.

The Texas Senate race, left open by retiring Republican Phil Gramm, is one of about eight nationwide that are considered too close to call – and is of particular interest to President Bush because of his ties to the state and his party's interest in controlling the Senate. Bush has returned to Texas twice for fundraisers and appeared in ads for Kirk's opponent, state Attorney General John Cornyn.

A close race, and a new type of leader

Less dynamic as a campaigner than Kirk, the former judge-turned-attorney general has spent the campaign pointing out his backing by the White House and focusing on issues that often parallel the Bush agenda. He favors tax cuts, allowing people to invest their Social Security in stocks, and oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He'd approve Bush's department of homeland security proposal and supports invasion of Iraq.

But despite presidential support and the prodigious amounts of money left in Mr. Cornyn's campaign coffers, the race remains tight. Though the latest polls show Kirk trailing, Texas demographics are slowly shifting away from the Republican Party. But it's unclear whether that shift has enough momentum to carry Kirk into office. Remarkably, Kirk has made progress even with white Republicans. Experts say he symbolizes a new type of African-American leader seeking the nation's highest posts. In the past, many such would-be candidates were discouraged by party leaders who thought they'd hurt the ticket with strong civil rights agendas. But just as African-American issues have changed, so have the candidates – and Kirk's political career provides a glimpse into some of those changes.

He earned a law degree at the University of Texas at Austin and became an aide to then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. He went on to work as a corporate lawyer and lobbyist in Dallas before being appointed secretary of state in 1994 by former Gov. Ann Richards. He was elected mayor of Dallas in 1995 and again in 1999, with strong backing by the white business elite.

During his seven years as mayor, he pushed for a new $125 million arena for the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. He backed several large downtown development projects and launched an unsuccessful bid for the Olympics.

He bills himself as a moderate, business-friendly Democrat in the Lloyd Bentsen tradition, having spent more time on economic issues than social ones. Though he and Cornyn disagreed over the nomination of conservative Priscilla Owen to a federal appeals court, the two men are not, in general, far apart ideologically. Kirk, too, has emphasized support for Bush in tax cuts and a possible war against Iraq, and has even suggested he might vote for Bush in 2004.

Spreading a new political message

A black civil rights leader he is not. But analysts say that is precisely the point.

"Many white voters still see black candidates as liberal urban civil rights leaders, so today's black candidates need to convince white voters that they understand suburban issues and concerns," says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Kirk did that in Dallas. Blacks got a black mayor, and whites got a mayor they could feel comfortable with."

Now, Kirk must spread that message statewide. Dr. Jillson estimates that Kirk needs almost all the state's African-American votes, two-thirds of its Hispanic votes, and almost 40 percent of the white votes.

Blacks are some of the most staunchly Democratic voters and will surely turn out in large numbers, thrilled to have such a strong black candidate. Hispanics also vote heavily Democratic, and a high turnout is expected because of the governor's race, pitting Gov. Rick Perry (R) against challenger Tony Sanchez (D).

"That really leaves the white vote as the one that Kirk has to hold his own with," says Jillson. To that end, Kirk has been campaigning on a centrist platform, steering clear of racial issues and promoting his ability to bring all sides to the table.

"Ron Kirk represents a new generation of black political leaders," says David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an African-American think tank in Washington. "They know that seeking a larger stage ... involves white voters."

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