Mayor Ron Kirk Addresses Students at HBS

The Mayor was neither wearing a cowboy hat nor did he sport a pair of lizard, boa constrictor, or ostrich boots, but rest assured, Ron Kirk, spoke like a true Texan. Animated, articulate and insightful, Kirk provided a compelling portrait of the modern mayor in a large metropolitan area with a twist. Kirk, an African-American, represented the city of Dallas from 1991-1996, not the most exciting of observations until one notes that Dallas’ African-American population comprises less than twenty percent of the total. Under most accounts, Kirk was wildly successful in bringing together highly disparate constituencies.

The Mayor’s visit was well-timed, coming just a few days after the Black Law School Student Association (BLSA) held a provocative panel on the role of moderate and conservative African-American leaders in modern politics during its Spring conference. Kirk, a self-admitted moderate, was so successful as mayor that he ran for the US Senate in 2002, after Phil Graham (R) retired. Kirk’s successful tenure as mayor was partially helped by the fact that Dallas regulation did not compel him to declare party affiliation. Thus, the Mayor was able to sidestep (at least at times) the divisive mudslinging associated with party politics. But that was not the case during his senatorial run whereby Kirk faced an uphill battle running against a well-financed Republican contender and perhaps more importantly a popular, former Texas governor serving in the White House.

Kirk did, however, fight the good fight leading in the polls at various stages of the race and garnering glowing press coverage as the “new face of the Democratic party” in several marquee magazines including the Economist, the New Yorker and Black Enterprise. Losing by a margin of 55% to 43%, Kirk raised over $9,000,000 during his unsuccessful bid to become the US’s first African-American senator since Carol Mosley-Braun (D)-Illinois, lost her bid for re-election in 1998. He has returned to his law practice at the firm of Gardere Wynne Sewell, where he serves as partner. Harvard University’s JFK School Institute of Politics invited Kirk to spend a week in Cambridge as a Visiting Fellow.

Kirk spent the first part of his speech reflecting on his love for Texas and his tenure as the Mayor of Dallas. He initially talked extensively about Texas and how its unique location makes it an attractive location for global businesses that require easy access to major markets. He talked about his initial career as a self-described “street lawyer”, who was very entrepreneurial in outlook, taking on a variety of cases. Kirk asserted that this was crucial for him to learn the inner workings of the city of Dallas and the letter of the law.

Simultaneously, Kirk became very involved in the Dallas community serving on the local zoo and orchestra boards amongst others. He served on these boards for many years because he truly cared about the respective institutions’ goals. Luckily for Kirk, the core financial backers of his mayoral campaign happened to sit on the boards right alongside of him!

Once becoming mayor, Kirk quickly realized that if the streets aren’t clean and the water isn’t running, you’re going to have a hard time focusing on anything else. The majority of a mayor’s budget is non-discretionary as it goes to pay for police, fire, education, and other general infrastructure needs. Discretionary funds are rare and the ability to perform acts that could truly be considered special doesn’t come along too often. For Mayor Kirk, his big contribution was the railway system in Dallas that is considered a model for the nation.

Several students during the session expressed their interest in eventually joining the political fray to which Kirk replied that it was important to learn another skill before running for office. The Mayor posited that many elected officials enter office too early in their career and are ultimately so beholden to the system that they find it difficult to risk re-election.

This phenomenon ultimately resulted in timid policymaking that was at times shortsighted. Instead, the Mayor recommended that candidates need about eight to ten years of “real-world” experience before moving into elected politics. He was also quick to point out that elected officials don’t make a great deal of money and the cost of running a campaign is quite high.

Kirk also took some time to reflect upon a trade mission that he undertook years ago to South Africa as mayor. Although impressed by the country’s sense of civic responsibility and pride, Kirk thought that a plethora of basic human needs had to be addressed before that nation could thrive. In the United States, there is such apathy and disdain for politicians that candidates for political office take pride and find success in running as the outsider candidate, someone who’s never or has minimally been involved in the political process. One of Kirk’s most memorable musings was the humor associated with the apparent lack of logic the American voter employs when choosing a representative. “If you went to the Emergency Room with a life-threatening illness, would you ask for the least qualified doctor?” It seems like the Mayor is smart enough not to have sacrificed his sense of humor and recognizes that life in politics can be funny, fickle, and illogical but a highly rewarding endeavor.