Midway through his second year at Austin College, Ron Kirk suffered the painful identity crisis of a young black man making his way in a white world. On the mostly white campus in Sherman in 1974, Kirk felt adrift from the African American friends of his youth and the familiarity of his East Austin neighborhood. He left school, went home, and announced to his father that he needed time off from college to find himself. Lee Kirk’s response was unsympathetic: “You can find a damn job!”
But in later conversations the father talked to his son about the hard lessons of race. As Kirk remembers it, “My dad said, ‘It’s a real tragedy—all you have to do for a white person to know you are black is just open the door and let the sun hit your face.’” But, he warned his son, there would always be some black people who would question his “degree of blackness” if he won success in the white world. During the next few months, while Kirk worked at the state capitol, he came to understand his father’s message: Don’t let race alone define who you are. “I finally realized you are a product of everybody who has been in your life, and that person is fine,” he says now. “I got this sense that I didn’t need to meet everyone else’s expectations of blackness. It liberated me. I was who I was.”
Being who he is has taken Kirk a long way—first, to two terms as mayor of Dallas and now, at age 48, to the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Phil Gramm. His battle against Republican attorney general John Cornyn looms as one of the nation’s closest and most important races. Not only is control of the Senate at stake but also the political prestige of George W. Bush, for whom the loss of a seat in his home state would be devastating. Early polls show Kirk running anywhere from a little behind Cornyn to a little ahead. And yet, as the campaign heats up, Kirk faces a familiar problem. The very thing he prides himself on—that he’s not the kind of person who can easily be stereotyped or pigeonholed—runs counter to the conventional wisdom of how to win an election: A candidate must define himself or run the risk of having others do so.
The latter is exactly what is happening. That door his father spoke about has swung open once again to illuminate the color of his skin. While Kirk is running a race of politics, friend and foe alike seem to want to talk about the politics of race. To the media, he is the first African American to seek a major statewide office in Texas. To his own party, he is—along with gubernatorial nominee Tony Sanchez—part of a Dream Team that will energize the party’s dormant core constituency of ethnic minorities. To Republicans, he is part of a cynical Democratic effort to assemble a ticket based on race instead of leadership and qualifications: “Is it a ‘dream’ because their candidates are proven leaders? No,” said Gramm at the Republican state convention in Dallas earlier this summer. “The Democrats believe they can divide Texas based on race.” Democrats fired back a week later from their convention in El Paso: “Republicans have launched a very cynical attack of division that essentially says to Texans that a qualified African American is not fit to run for the Senate,” said Molly Beth Malcolm, the state party chair.
More than a quarter century after wrestling with his racial identity as a college student, Ron Kirk again finds himself struggling to explain who he is. This much we know: He is a member of the last generation of blacks to live under Jim Crow laws and the first to enjoy post-segregation opportunities. His career is a mirror of his time: His boyhood ambition was to be a civil rights crusader, but over the years he has gravitated toward politics—first as a staff member, then as an appointed official, then as an elected official whose policies were closely aligned with the wish list of the rich and the powerful. He has a sunny personality and a quip-cracking style. But as for what he believes and how he would vote on the great issues of the day—including all the civil rights issues, from affirmative action and reparations to redlining—he has had little to say. Sometime in the next few weeks, Ron Kirk is going to have to decide: Is his best chance to win the Senate race by running as a black politician or as a politician who, among other things, is black?
KIRK ARRIVES AT THE DEMOCRATIC STATE CONVENTION HALL in El Paso in mid-June amid an atmosphere of great expectations. To overcome Cornyn’s advantages of a nearly $15 million campaign war chest and the president’s strong support, he will have to generate excitement as well as campaign contributions; he will have to become what political pros call a rock star, someone who can incite an audience with the electrifying aura of celebrity. So far, so good. The crowds in El Paso jam in around him so closely that he can hardly move. Even in the huge arena he is easy to spot: His solid six-two frame, topped with a gleaming brown dome, bobs and weaves in a mass of well-wishers. Dressed in a black pinstripe suit, his signature round wire-rimmed glasses framing a relentlessly cheerful face, Kirk shows off his cuff links, a pair of silver dancing stick figures, one adorning each crisp white sleeve. “That’s Mr. Happy Man,” Kirk explains. “Just like me.”
Right now, Mr. Happy Man is late for a speech, despite the best efforts of a cadre of youthful campaign aides trying in vain to push him through the crush. Every few steps, a shriek of recognition goes up, and Kirk is battered back by the next wave of admirers. He recognizes many of them,