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The Dallas Citizens Council Picked These Two Guys to Talk About Equity

On the left: Michael Milken. On the right: Kenneth Hersh.
By Tim Rogers |

In recent years, the Dallas Citizens Council has worked to become more diverse — in its membership and with its goals — but for a long time it was the very seat of the White oligarchy in this city. That’s the most charitable way I can characterize the organization. So let’s call it bemusement. It was with bemusement that I read about the program for this year’s annual meeting of the Dallas Citizens Council, to be held December 14 at the Hilton Anatole.

The topic: “how we may all work together to define a more equitable future for all.” The men who will take the stage to tackle that topic: Kenneth Hersh, wealthy White financier who runs the George W. Bush Presidential Center, will direct questions to his friend Michael Milken, wealthy White convicted racketeer and fraudster who was fined $600 million and who went to prison and who was pardoned for his crimes last year by President Donald Trump.

After I picked my chin up off the floor, I got on the phone with Kelvin Walker, the DCC’s CEO, and Rob Walters, its chairman. Because race matters in this conversation, Walker is Black, Walters is White, and I am White. This is an unedited transcript of our conversation:


ROGERS: I’ll get right to it. Were you guys surprised that I contacted you about this?

WALTERS: Where we surprised? No. No, I mean, I’m happy. I’m glad you did. Absolutely. I mean I look I — and Kelvin should weigh in on this, too. I mean we, yes, I mean we thought long and hard about all the issues that you raise, and we feel like we came out in the right place. We try to be thoughtful about this. Maybe it makes sense to give you some sense of why we went in the direction we did and how we think it’d be fair to think about, you know, maybe a little broader context, if you’d find that useful.

ROGERS: Yeah, yeah. Please, Rob.

WALTERS: So look, I mean, just back up half a step — and I don’t know how much you follow us, but we are not your father’s Citizens Council, right? What we try to do is a couple fundamental things. One is we really try as a business leadership group to help jump in when the city finds itself in a ditch, like on the pension thing, and influence anything we can to make sure the city and the region works well. We want to do that.

Number two, the second one is really the biggest one. Which is we’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of effort really thinking hard and going to the people who know what they’re talking about, everyone from the Fed to national places to Brookings to Texas 2036 to understand essentially, how do we as a community, you know writ large, how are we going to be the most relevant we possibly can be in 10, 20, 30 years, right? I mean, because you think about it, and there are plenty of cities, whether it’s Saint Louis in 1904 or other places where they’re feeling pretty good about themselves and everything went to hell in a handbasket, and we in the region don’t want to be that. So where that takes us is — you know, there are a couple big fundamentals we’ve figured out, and it’s like massive investment in human capital from very early to later on, more than we’re doing. It’s about the right transportation networks, about affordable housing. It’s got all the things.

So we wanted the theme of this year’s meeting, particularly coming on the heels of COVID? We hope it’s the heels of COVID. How are we going to define our community writ large together? Because one thing we do as a Citizens Council is, we don’t sit behind some curtain. What we do is we collaborate, right? I mean, we don’t make a move without close collaboration with really important thought leaders across the community, particularly in Hispanic and Black communities in the southern sector. And we’re pretty proud of that effort.

So where does that lead us? It led us to, Who are the best thinkers out there on what does a community, a city need to do? What kind of important infrastructure investments? I mean infrastructure writ large, soft and hard, to make sure it maximizes the chance of being relevant and vibrant in the future?

Michael Milken is one of those people. There are others, but he is a leader on this. He’s particularly a leader on social and economic mobility. And our principal thesis is, This ain’t gonna work very well for any of us unless we’re all a big part of it. Right? Just look at the demographics. You look at workforce and nothing good’s gonna happen unless we’ve broadened the base of prosperity.

And so we thought, Well, yeah, he’s the guy. And so we listened to him. We watched a bunch of his stuff. Yep, he’s a guy who gets it and will resonate and will introduce actually into our thinking and the thinking of business leadership more broadly than perhaps we’ve been thinking about. And then we say to ourselves, Well, OK, but, you know, he’s got a checkered past. How do we think about that? And, you know, I mean all things being equal, it would be better if he didn’t. I happen to know a fair bit about that from sort of a previous life, and you can have a debate about, you know, how heinous it was and all that. But the truth of the matter is, it was 30, 32 years ago. And we said, OK we’ll just take that ragged edge.

Then we said, OK, well, who’s the right guy to do this? And we said, Well, Ken is because, one, he’s really good at interviewing folks and pulling the best out of them. He does it really well. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to some of his stuff. And it also dovetails very nicely with what the Bush Institute has been doing, primarily on these big infrastructure issues, particularly around affordable housing and how do we make that work to increase our competitiveness. So we say, OK. We’re gonna do that.

Then we say to ourselves, OK, well, there’s two middle-aged White guys. What do we think about that? And if you look at all of our programs, I mean across the board, every single one, whether it’s last year Matrice Kirk interviewing Doug Parker because they were both heavily involved in aviation issues or every other program. In fact, we just had Katrice [Hardy] from the Dallas Morning News doing around some cybersecurity issues. So we make it — we’re really pointed about making sure that we have all the optics of inclusion of a broad community.

So for our annual meeting, you have focused understandably and perfectly correctly on one piece of it. But we also have — obviously Kelvin will be intimately involved as our CEO. [Pastor] Richie Butler is going to have a prominent role. Arcilia Acosta, a Hispanic woman who will succeed me as chair. And then we also have members of our board who are going to be prominently involved, whether it’s Antonio Carreras [Ed: it’s Antonio Carrillo], who is a CEO in town, or whether it’s Darren James, who’s the chair of the Black Chamber of Commerce and is on our board. So we’ll have a full array of complements across the community to achieve what we want to achieve.

So right, wrong, or indifferent, that was kind of our logic for our annual meeting. That’s probably more than you bargained for, but that was our thinking.

ROGERS: There’s one thing, I guess, Rob, I would disagree with, and that is that Milken, because his crimes were 30 years ago, is now suitable to sit on a stage, especially when the topic is equity. I disagree with you there. I don’t think you could pick a topic that he is more ill-suited to discuss.

But let’s say I’m wrong, and let’s say you’re right. OK, so then I agree with everything that you walked me through in those steps of making that decision. Except when you got the part where you said, Now who’s the best guy to interview him? It’s Ken Hersh, another centimillionaire White guy who runs the Bush Center. And the two of them, if I’m not mistaken, worked together in New York at some point at Drexel, right?

WALTERS: No, they didn’t.

ROGERS: OK, withdrawn. But when you got to that point, especially given the organization that you work for, and its own history, when you got to that point — I mean my first thought was, Who would you replace Ken Hersh with? Show me Michael Sorrell [president of Paul Quinn College] doing that Q&A. I mean, without even thinking too hard, that was the first name that came to mind. I mean, there’s a guy who’s deeply involved every day of his life with equity in this city. Man, I don’t think that he even is in the same conversation with Ken Hersh, who is a fascinating, intelligent guy. You mentioned optics, and you made a bunch of decisions, and then right at the end, it seemed like you dropped the ball.

WALTERS: Let me just push back on that a little bit, because those are all pretty fair points. By the way, Michael [Sorrell] is among my closest friends, and some people are available, some people aren’t available, all of that. But part of it is, this program — look, equity is in the eye of the beholder, right? And I don’t know exactly what you mean by it. I know what I mean by it. But this program is not about everybody’s equity, right? I mean, this program is about, How do we as a community, how do we maximize our chances that past is prologue, right? In the sense of that we are going to become and remain one of the handful of the leading city states in the United States? Now, a principal thesis on that is broadening the pipelines of opportunity is not only — it’s not a “nice to have,” it’s a “must have.” I mean, because nothing works unless that happens. And so if you call that equity, I call that equity, and, yes, then the program is about equity.

But I don’t know, why when Ken’s institution is focused like a laser on that — as is Michael’s — OK, why that would be disqualifying. That’s all. Particularly when you look at the balance of the program that we have organized.

WALKER: I think we could debate that till the to the cows come home. I think for us, Tim, you should know we believe that Ken will do a great job in really teasing out the discussion. I’m sure others would as well, but based on our thoughts, we just thought he would be a great person to have the conversation, and we think not only is Ken suited to do it but that he and Michael, we believe, can have a conversation on a range of issues that we believe will be interesting to the audience and won’t be off-putting just because they both happen to be White. I would hope you’ll come and reserve some of your judgment for once you get there. I mean hear everything from the things that Milken is doing with his Center for Advancing the American Dream around education and job training and the whole idea of economic freedom and equity to just really hearing more about his thoughts around philanthropy and its role in partnership with business. I think it could be a pretty interesting conversation.

WALTERS: By the way, I think that Michael [Sorrell] would be a great choice as well. I think you and I could probably put a list of 20 together, and they would all look pretty close to one another. I would say this: this conversation is broader than around education or even job training. So in that sense, Michael might not have quite the breadth that a few others would. The other piece of this is, understand, we’re talking 600 or 700 people who occupy roles of business leadership. It’s not an NGO crowd. And so what we want business leadership is to take ownership of that and Ken has tremendous credibility within the business leadership. There might be an advantage at the margins for that reason. Reasonable people can differ on this.

ROGERS: I don’t disagree with what you said about Ken, for sure, in terms of how he comes across to the business community. Sure. Well, you said you hoped I would reserve my judgment. I can’t make you that promise. Let me just say this: I think the lineup, especially having been assembled by the organization we’re talking about, it almost reads like an Onion headline. That said, having talked to you guys and you guys being kind enough to give me some time, I’m definitely going to be there, and I’m prepared to have my mind changed. But I just don’t — I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all. But I hope you guys prove me wrong. And I say that sincerely.

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