Ron Kirk's Way
Preparing to return to Dallas, the U.S. Trade Representative recalls his Texas roots, his life in Washington, D.C.—and his drive to improve America’s standing in international commerce.
Elizabeth and Catherine, the two young daughters of Matrice and Ron Kirk, skip up the path at Camp David just behind the President of the United States. Their father, United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk, can only shake his head at this picture, which is forever etched in his mind and heart.
But it is not the defining moment for the former Dallas mayor. It’s not the moment when he took politics personally—became an actor, decided to gut it out down his own path and make his own imprint on the political stage.
That moment did not come at the University of Texas School of Law, or while he was lobbying for the city of Dallas, or even while he was serving as Texas’ first African-American secretary of state before his 40th birthday.
No, that moment—the truly defining one—would not come until 1995, at an event organized by South Dallas power broker Kathy Nealy. Back then, Nealy was not the toxic alter-ego to Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, a key figure in an FBI probe, or more than $100,000 behind in payments for her private suite inside “The House That Kirk Built”—aka the American Airlines Center.
Although Nealy may have arranged and coordinated the ’95 occasion, she was not what Kirk even today calls “clearly the matriarch of the entire function.” That designation belonged to the elderly black woman clutching his face, her fingers moving across Kirk’s forehead, thumbs feeling of his jaw as she pinched the fatty parts of his cheeks. Kirk recoiled in shock, but the lady persisted in tracing all of his features. Finally he realized she was blind. Tears spooled down the woman’s face as she loosened her grip and said, “I never thought I’d live to see a black man who could be elected mayor of Dallas, Texas.”
That was the real launch date. Kirk was now overwhelmed with a sense of duty that would steer him almost ceaselessly toward a life of public service. Not everyone has been crazy about that chosen direction. After D Magazine’s FrontBurner blog reported in May that—no matter what the November election results—Kirk would not serve another term in the Obama cabinet, one reader commented, “He will just go back to whatever trough will pay him.”
Similarly, in an interview with D CEO in 2010, Kirk’s long-time nemesis and fellow former Dallas mayor, Laura Miller, rebuffed her predecessor as all “big business and big projects.” And there was a nearly audible hiss when she dismissed another rival as purely “another Kirk guy.”
As a lanky pre-teen, fourth-generation Texan, and the grandson of a Buffalo Soldier, Kirk lived under the Jim Crow laws while attending Blackshear Elementary in Austin. But by the time he was a sophomore at Austin College, he became his own critic and underwent something of an identity crisis. “I got called Uncle Tom so much it made me wonder who I was,” he says.
It would not be the last time he heard those words. As a mayoral candidate supported by many white Dallas businessmen pledging to cut red tape for small businesses and be tough on crime, some of his own race spat derision Kirk’s way. And it hurt.
Kirk calls himself and other black friends, including President Barack Obama, “first-generation beneficiaries of the civil rights movement.” Growing up, he says, he was acutely aware that his “mom and dad were fighting for things they shouldn’t have to fight for.” Kirk has never forgotten that civil rights pioneers “fought for my right to live life on my terms.”
To that end, Kirk has remained steadfast to a two-point self-doctrine: “Number One: Never tolerate discrimination. I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, and I’ve felt it. I know it is toxic to people on either side. Number Two: I have a responsibility to be involved.”
That sense of duty and devotion to public life has not always been a popular one, even within the family. It’s a subject that Kirk and President Obama have discussed often. The two are both married to what Kirk calls, “powerhouse wives.” They have frequently talked about how men operating from glass offices can manage two daughters in today’s society.
People who know Matrice Ellis-Kirk will tell you that she has certainly made her own way and her own money—and has not always cherished the role of wife to a public figure.
“I am hypersensitive to my wife being alone and raising our children,” Kirk says, adding that in private conversations with the President, “we talk about our families a lot. I tell him all the time that Matrice has always been supportive, but not ‘encouraging.’”
That’s the major reason that, after the upcoming election, Kirk said he has told the President, “It is not my desire or my intent to serve another term … I have served the city, the state, and the country. I think it is now time to serve the Kirk girls.”
Kirk refers to his own nomination as the U.S. Trade Representative—his agency recommends and coordinates trade policy for the president and negotiates trade agreements—as a “curious choice.”
“I didn’t go to Harvard, and I was not part of his Chicago Mafia,” Kirk says.
In fact if you knew the story about the first meeting between Obama and Kirk, you would wonder how they ever became friends, much less political bedfellows.
And you should hear it.
Advice For Obama
They met in Chicago at a 2004 nationwide fundraiser. Kirk was running for U.S. Senate in Texas. “It was one of those grab-the-money-and-run-before-anyone-knows-you’re-gone events,” Kirk recalls. As the Kirk entourage was trying to leave the building, a hand appeared between the closing elevator doors. The doors re-opened, and three men were standing there telling Kirk how much they enjoyed his speech and lauding the former Dallas mayor for his accomplishments.
They next asked Kirk if he would meet their friend, who was considering running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois.
“They asked me what pointers or recommendations I could give him,” Kirk says. “Since I was in a hurry, you know me, I said, ‘First of all, he will have to learn to talk. Where is he? Who is he?’ “
A skinny young man suddenly appeared and firmly grasped Kirk’s right hand and said, “Hi, I am Barack Obama.”
Kirk tells the rest of the story: “I said, ‘For real? What does your momma call you?’ He said, ‘Well, she calls me Barack.’ I told him, ‘Well, here’s your first bit of advice: Change your name or you will have no future in politics.’ ”
Kirk may not have been a Harvard or Chicago guy, but he was an early and enthusiastic supporter of, and Texas state chairman for, the Obama campaign. After Obama’s election there was rampant early speculation that Kirk would be named secretary of transportation. However, The New York Times and others theorized that Kirk’s lobbying efforts for his law firm, Vinson & Elkins, posed a “baggage” problem. While at Vinson, Kirk had represented both Continental and Southwest airlines, which would have brought serious questioning during the vetting period.
For his part, Kirk was elated when he heard his name first mentioned as possibly the next U.S. Trade Representative. He had friends “come up to me and say, ‘What’s this? I thought the President really liked you, and Democrats hate trade.’ ”
It was exactly the job Kirk wanted, and he went after it. He pushed for it.
“I am still stunned that I was appointed,” Kirk says, “but when my name was floated and people were counseling me, I said, ‘You’re telling me I can have the head job at the trade commission?’ I wanted it. I lobbied for it … I knew we had to regain our economic footing and our international prestige.”
Clearly, Obama did not want some long-time trade technician taking this job. “My role,” Kirk says, “was to attract foreign investment.”
Not everyone was thrilled at the notion of having someone in the post that had been a clear champion of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Kirk, as Dallas mayor, had more than once been quoted that he had wanted to make Dallas the “Capital City of NAFTA.”
Labor leaders, in particular, saw the Kirk appointment as something of a head-scratcher. So, there was this “baggage” issue cropping up again.
“They [labor interests] were not excited about my appointment,” says Kirk. He recalls one opponent screaming the question, “Why don’t you go back to Texas?!”
Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers, the largest industrial union in North America, did not start out as a huge Kirk fan.
“But I have gotten to know him since he became [the] USTR,” Gerard says, “and found him to be open, accessible, and extremely honest. Now, that is not to say I agree with him all the time.”
This is a Kirk quality that goes back many years. He has been in the minority and in the catbird seat. Most people who know Kirk will probably tell you his tact and disposition rarely change. Dallas District Court Judge Eric Moyé, a close, long-time friend and confidante of Kirk’s, is a charter member of the Kirk “first-generation beneficiary” club.
A B.A. from Southern Methodist University, a J.D. from Harvard, and a straight shooter, Moyé says, “Ron has scarcely any real guile. It is just not in his nature to be deceitful. He will look for common ground, but that does not mean he is going to give up ground for you. When you get to the core portion of an issue, he will either talk you into it or move on without you.”
Apparently without anyone getting bruised.
Gerard, a rough and tumble Canadian who began his odyssey unclogging tuyeres—or blast-furnace pipes—with a sledgehammer, will be the first to provide you with a long list of grievances against the current administration’s trade policy. But he knows Ambassador Kirk will hear him out and act if he thinks labor has a point.
“Whether we agree or disagree, this is a terrific quality,” Gerard says. “Given some previous administrations, I found this refreshing.”
Gerard and Kirk vehemently disagree on how to treat China as a trading partner, for example. Gerard howls that we’ll soon be facing a $300 billion accelerated trade deficit with that country. However, when the labor leader brought up clear instances where China violated trade agreements—or as he more succinctly put it, “we caught China cheating”—in each case, Gerard says the USTR took the problem directly to the President for action.