DRING AN UNUSUALLY VEXING AND stressful week, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price HI paused to take one of the several hundred phone calls his staff of three screens each week, mostly from blacks with a multitude of problems and opinions. The caller was a parent whose son had just been handed twenty-five years in jail for his part in the kidnapping of a white woman from a local fast food restaurant. “It’s not fair,” snapped the angry mother. “My son wasn’t the only one involved. Besides, that white woman had no business being out at two o’clock in the morning an) way.”
“I really vent off on her then,” recalls Price. “I told her that this is America, a free country, that the white woman had a right to be anywhere she wanted to be at any time of the day. I told her that her son was just as accountable as the rest of his party, and asked her how would she feel if her son or daughter had been kidnapped and violated. I told her that her son should have gotten life.
“In the emotional ism of it all,” says Price, sounding more disgusted than repentant about the phone call, “African-Americans always think they’re right.” This brief burst of fury surely contradicted the perception this mother and perhaps most blacks in Dallas County hold of John Wiley Price. Dallas’s highest-ranking black official. For thousands of Dallas blacks, John Wiley Price is “Our Man Downtown,” and they cling to him with hope. For them, Price stands guard over mainstream Dallas. If Commissioner Price can’t take care of it. nobody can.
ON AN EARLY, NEW MORNING PRICE IS MUCH calmer. Upon greeting his visitor to his Commissioner’s Court office downtown on Elm Street, he sits near his desk and toys with the remains of his favorite tossed salad from Lim’s. The usual few minutes of preliminary chitchat find Price praising the new energy and stress relief he has enjoyed since beginning a rigorous early morning workout routine five months ago at Thurman’s Gym in South Dallas. Relaxed, he begins expounding on one of his favorite topics: how to make Dallas County play fair with minorities. He gestures and diagrams with his hands, occasionally leaning forward in his chair to drive home his points. The more he talks, the more Price sounds like his idol, Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. Both men share large hopes, but Price may be in Washington before Jackson. All but assured of an easy win over challenger Robert Parish, a political unknown, in the March 8 primary. Price is already looking ahead to a run for the U.S. House of Representatives after the anticipated redistricting transforms Rep. John Bryant’s Fifth Congressional District. By the early Nineties. Price could easily become Dallas’s first black congressman. Dallas is the largest city in the nation-and has the largest black population-without minority representation in Congress, and Price aims to change that.
Nattily attired in a pale blue, monogrammed shirt with French cuffs, gold cuff links, and a matching European-styled, double-breasted suit, Price might have glided out of an issue of Ebony Man. At three years shy of forty, he is without a doubt the most visible and controversial of Dallas County’s eighteen black elected officials. Dallas County Democratic chairman Sandy Kress calls Price “a charismatic, forceful, and pretty aggressive player who will advance the interests of those who need the sympathetic help of county government no matter whose feet he steps on.”
That’s putting it mildly, some would say. Depending on who’s talking, Price is either a great people’s leader or a publicity-seeking egomaniac. But it’s hard to decide what to believe because Price’s admirers envy him and his detractors admire him. (’There are always two kinds of people around Price,” says one observer. “Those who want to be with Price and those who want to be Price.”) He is clearly a political force to be reckoned with. He has made no obvious career-damaging mistakes during twenty years of grassroots and mid-level politicking, and he harbors no regrets except, perhaps, over the eleven-year m]arriage that ended in divorce and split-time with his seventeen-year-old son. Price is :he same man who used to publicly insult white and black leaders and charge podiums with screams and fist-pounding. That’s the Price most of Dallas knows, the Price who led hundreds of screaming minority citizens to protest the Dallas Times Herald’s Joe Bob Briggs columns and bullied the paper into dropping the redneck reviewer, the Price who called Parkland Hospital administrators racists when they fired two black security guards.
But today, a more mature Price is a leader that aspiring leaders and politicians want to be seen with a man whose advice and endorsements are sought by whites and minorities alike; a man widely respected for being brilliantly prepared before he goes on the attack. He’s a master of timing, choosing the ripest moments to initiate his policies and launch his cau]ses. That’s made him the man downtown to call-even before city council members Al Lipscomb and Diane Rags-dale-when bureaucratic red tape snarls, or when water bills or bail are too high. It is said that Price’s telephone number is the one written most often on the walls of the Lew Sterrett Justice e Center.
But those w ho watch Commissioner John Wiley Price Know that it’s possible to like him and still be suspicious of him, and one feeling often accompanies the other. His detractors critcize him for being too flashy with his foreign sports cars and tailored suits while representing a largely black, mostly poor district hat includes sections of Oak Lawn and East Dallas and stretches from downtown east to Balch Springs and south to Seagoville. They say he should use his position to compel Dallas County to condemn apartheid and force better minority representation on the c county’s grand juries. Accusations of showboating flew when he took the lead in arranging the congressional hearings into Dallas police shootings. As with the rivals, so with the media. The press has long harped on Price’s love for cars and antiques and his refurbished Lake Cliff home, A staple of Price coverage is the “How does he live so well on $60,000 a year” question-a question seldom asked of white officeholders. Still, the press drops everything and conies running when Price calls.
“John has eilled our attention to several things that we ’we responded to,” says Times Herald publisier Art Wible at a January luncheon host:d by Price. “We’ve learned some important things from him.”
“I’ve seaso my approach some;’ Price says, chuckling when reminded that he publicly called a fellow commissioner a “jackass,” branded a minority state representative “the establishment’s boy,” and labeled a local civil rights leader “lethargic.” “But I haven’t changed my philosophy one bit. And dial’s because I have a platform now. whereas before, I was frustrated because I didn’t have or was denied a platform, a chance to speak. If I’m angry, it’s because I’m more pissed off at myself because I don’t think I’ve done enough. And too little, too late, I discover something else I could have done. My father always said, when you do so much, you want to see a product. So I’m mad and anxious because I don’t want anybody to ever say, lHey, you didn’t go all the way.’”
Price sees his mission as “consciousness-raising,” and that means holding Dallas County partly responsible for the welfare and advancement of its minorities. His constant issues are more and better jobs, more business with minority firms, better police protection and treatment, better health care, fairness in electing minorities to county offices. To help overcome the unconscious racism he sees permeating Dallas, he uses the term “African-Americans” instead of “black,” a term Price says doesn’t acknowledge a people of African descent. (“I’ve never heard anyone refer to white history,” says Price. “Hispanics, Caucasians-these terms indicate what continents these races came from.”)
Satisfied that his point is made, Price leans back in his chair, his hands folded behind his head. He is silent for a few seconds before a remembering smile appears and he bolts forward again to drive home the clincher.
“One way or another, I’ll do everything I can to make sure Dallas County is fair. It’s like my daddy used to always say: it’s better to die for a cause, than because.”
POLITICS, EVEN FOR JOHN WILEY Price, is the art of compromise. And politics is a helluva compromise between the computer programmer Papa Price wanted his oldest son to become and little John Ill’s early desire to become a mortician.
“I think he was just fascinated with being a mortician because one of his best friends was one,” remembers Shotzie Hurd, a Dallas-based flight attendant and third oldest of the six children (three sons, three daughters) born to Willie Faye and H.C. Price. “But he took it seriously for quite a while.”
John Wiley Price III was born April 24, 1950, in St. Augustine, Texas, but grew up in nearby Forney, where his mother was a housekeeper for several prominent Forney families and his father was a truck driver, janitor, and eventually a preacher. Friends and relatives recall Price as habitually busy. “He was always working, keeping busy at something,” recalls Hurd. “He constantly kept an odd job, whether it was picking cotton, mowing lawns, or whatever. He was always, always so very busy.”
For Price, school was secondary, as it was then for too many black children, who were expected to do well in the cotton fields instead of the classroom. But integration changed most of that, and Price found life at his new high school more challenging than the all-black school he had left. In the classroom. Price flexed his mental muscles. He excelled in math and public speaking and was selected for the University Interscho-lastic League competition in both areas. Meanwhile, his father was working nights as a janitor for a company that used computers. The elder Price felt that computers were the moneymaker of the future; he encouraged his oldest son to board the train early.
Upon graduating from high school in 1968, Price struck out for the nearby lights of Dallas. Work, not college, was his top priority, but he began sales work at Sanger Harris and classes at El Centra College the same year. A year later, he met his future wife, Vivian. They married in 1970 on Valentine’s Day and John Wiley Price IV was born the same year.
Two significant events nudged Price toward politics while he was still a student at El Centro. As he remembers it, he was in a computer programming class when the professor walked up and asked what Price was doing in the class. “I told him I wanted to be a computer programmer, but he shook his head and told me I didn’t belong there. He said I should be in politics.”
Impressed with Price’s personality and eagerness to learn, the professor introduced Price to former Dallas County Commissioner Mel Price. That meeting landed young Price his first county position, a job in the public works department.
Later, Price “stumbled into” a coalition of black leaders called the Progressive Voters League after hearing a black community leader speak at El Centro. “He came up to me after my speech and told me he wanted to get involved,” recalls Texas State Senator Eddie Bernice Johnson. “So I invited him to the next PVL meeting.”
Betty Culbreath, now Price’s administrative assistant, met him when she was a social worker trying desperately to keep an elderly widow from losing her home because of unpaid taxes. “I had called around to all of the colleges and asked fraternities for help,” recalls Culbreath. “They all said they were not service organizations. Finally I called out to El Centro and someone told me about John Wiley Price.”
The next day, Price-as vice-president and pledgemaster of the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega-arrived with several of his white and black fraternity brothers to spruce up the woman’s home. Within a few days, through a car wash and bake sale, the students had raised enough money to pay off the back taxes.
Each move the young Price made seemed to be the right one at the right time. In 1972 a future Texas attorney general named Jim Mattox convinced Price to run for chairman of Precinct 2260, which was 90 percent white. He won and served two terms as chairman. It was during a district convention that Price met another community activist and future Dallas city councilman, Al Lipscomb. “I’ll never forget Al’s face,” laughs Price, who-although he personally supported George McGovern for president-was duty-bound to lead a delegation that supported George Wallace, the former segregationist. “He kept looking at me and asking everybody who I was because I was rounding up votes for Wallace.”
“I could see he had what it took even then,” remembers Lipscomb. “He was young but he was sharp and impatient in that he really wanted to make a difference.”
Price springboarded from one job, one situation to another. He worked as an intern reporter at WFAA-Channel 8 for about a year, but politics kept beckoning him. In 1974 he signed on with Dallas economist John Sartain, who ran for and lost the Democratic nomination in the Fifth Congressional District. Undaunted, Price joined the law firm of Steele & Hopkins as a paralegal and while there, took classes at the University of Texas at Arlington. In 1975 his close friend and employer Cleo Steele was elected Justice of the Peace in Precinct 8, and Price followed him as an aide. Five years later, Price ran for the constable’s office in the same precinct but came up on the short side. After demanding a recount, Price lost by ten votes.
By then, Price was board chairman of the PVL and had become a loyal ally of a community activist and councilwoman named Elsie Faye Heggins. His admiration and support for Heggins was so steadfast that he wanted to resign from the PVL (the group refused his resignation) in 1981 when the organization declined to endorse Heggins for another term as councilwoman. But Heggins became one of several black leaders to quarrel with Price in 1985 after the two faced each other for incumbent Jim Tyson’s seat on the commissioners’ court. When Price won the race by more than 2,500 votes, Heggins challenged the results in court, claiming voting irregularities (“Everything I touch, seems someone wants to recount it,” Price said afterwards). Their relationship was never the same.
IT MIGHT BE WISE TO WARN DALLAS County that Price’s New Year’s resolution is to be more aggressive. For some in City Hall and on the police force, that’s some pretty scary news since the commissioner has for so long been a thorn in their sides. But Price can be just as scathing with his fellow minorities. Just as he is often furious with the Dallas Police Department, Price is also angry that blacks don’t work together to force Dallas County to clean up its act. “We’ve got brothers and sisters who can’t walk to the corner store without getting robbed, shot, or killed.” snarled Price at a January press conference he called to discuss the “real issue” of crime in Dallas communities. “And it’s minorities preying on minorities, and African-American leaders have condoned our own plight by being silent. You never hear the African-American leadership come out and cry about minority-on-minority crime. You only hear them when the police do something to us. White folks aren’t killing us, we’re killing us. And you can’t blame that on racism.” Price challenged District Attorney John Vance to “prosecute to the fullest extent of the law and cut down on so much plea bargaining.” He also pleaded with the local minority leadership “to take direct action to help curtail crime in our communities.”
But Pride always draws fire for his continued criticism of what he calls criminal acts by the Dallas police, among them the shooting of a sixteen-year-old black girl and the death of a black man after officers subdued him with a choke hold. The county coroner’s : report lists the man’s death as a homicide. In the wake of the killings of officer James Joe and John Chase, Price deplored the murder of Chase, who was white, but wondered why a similar outpouring of grief and rage had not followed the earlier shooting of Joe, a black officer “That situation there ;hows you exactly the improper mentality not only of Dallas county’s law, but many of its citizens.
“The bar of justice seems to work everywhere else but here in Dallas,” said Price. “We want a responsible and accountable police department and no leniency in the courts. MaDD [Mothers Against Drunk Drivers] can come in here and force changes in laws on every level. What we’re saying is, we’re mad too.”
JOHN WILEY PRICE’S LIFE IS CRAMMED wither end less injustice-busting, meetings with an; number of political, business, and professional organizations, treating school children to brief lessons in African-American history (“Gee, he’s so neat,” exclaimed one grade schooler. “He even knows about Pee Wee Herman”), and referring hundreds of dissatisfied citizens to various channels of assistance and relief. It’s almost enough to obscure the fact that John Wiley Price has a job as a Dallas County Commissioner.
“Nobody can say my county business isn’t taken care of,” says Price before the obvious question is asked. “Not that some of these things aren’t county business, they just aren’t in the job description of a county commissioner.”
Price reiterates that his elected office is his platform, that he would be doing the same things if he were a low-paid councilman. But while others, such as activist Marvin Cren-shaw, agree that Price’s sympathetic handshaking makes him more sought after than councilmembers Lipscomb or Ragsdale, they also feel Price’s much larger salary endears him to minorities and affords him the luxuries that go hand in hand with his role as commissioner and key leader.
The county commissioners’ agenda isn’t standard front page material, so much of Price’s work goes unnoticed. But quietly and firmly. Price the commissioner has consistently belied the image of Price the free-spender. His fellow commissioner, Chris Semos, calls Price “one of the most fiscally responsible people I’ve ever seen, particularly in light of the county’s recent tight budget situation.”
Last summer, Price pushed through a county redistricting plan that will boost minority voting strength in elections for constables and justices of the peace. But perhaps his biggest achievement is seen in the increased number of minorities hired by Dallas County since Price came on board and the whopping hike in the amount of business Dallas County now does with women- and minority-owned businesses. In 1985, the year John Wiley Price became commissioner, Dallas County did $253,617 in business with minority vendors. Last year, that total from fifty minority businesses had soared to a staggering $3,035,859, not including an extra $3,311,000 in commitments from prime contractors.
Price’s dogged, often strident style has come back to haunt him at times, and it has been a great source of friction between black community leaders. On the heels of his snit with Heggins came much-publicized verbal bouts with some of Dallas’s Old Guard minority leaders, many of whom favor a more conciliatory brand of minority leadership. It is no secret that Dr. S.M. Wright of the People’s Baptist Church and other influential South Dallas clergymen want Price out of office, as witness their support of Price’s long-shot opponent in the March primary. Then there’s former Slate Rep. Paul Ragsdale, who insists Price threatened one day to “kick [his] ass.” The feud between Ragsdale-who supposedly quit St. Luke’s Methodist Church when he learned Price had joined-and Price split the ranks of the PVL, landed Price in jail a few times (Ragsdale took him and the organization to court for misusing its influence and violating state laws), and drove Paul Ragsdale out of politics. In last year’s mayoral election, Price and the PVL split again; he endorsed candidate Jim Buerger, while the group supported Annette Strauss.
But of late, growing tensions between Price and Sen. Eddie Bernice Johnson have most intrigued political and minority activists. Price and Johnson are expected to battle it out for a congressional seat in the Nineties; like Price, Johnson has been accused of using her office to garner good PR. in preparation for that battle. Price says he hasn’t seen Johnson come forward on any real issues like alleged police brutality and economic development for minorities, and admits he and Johnson “really became separated” when they publicly squabbled about the qualifications and chances of Jesse Jackson as a presidential candidate. “If you’re going to say Jesse can’t win and there are others in the race, then say something about the others too,” snaps Price. “If you do that to Jesse, you’ll do that to your own mother and father.”
Replies Johnson: “I would hope that our goals are the same where minorities are concerned, and I would be happy to defend anything I have said with him. But John is very cautious in my presence and there’s a lot more to his bark when he is not in the presence of those who don’t see things his way.”
Meanwhile, Price continues his agenda, his mission, and remains unfazed by charges and rumors that float around him. In late January he made headlines again when he prematurely announced the members of a delegation who, he said, would meet with Justice Department officials to discuss problems with the Dallas police. Rep. John Bryant and others named by Price said they had not agreed to join such a group and in fact opposed the idea. But for every critic of Price, there is an ardent defender. “Any time you have an African-American leader like Price, the community becomes suspicious of his motives and sincerity,” says Oak Cliff precinct chairwoman and longtime Price supporter Ruth Wyrick. “And that comes from not really getting to know the person well enough,”
“John can’t wait on someone else before he acts,” explains the Rev. Zan W. Holmes Jr., pastor of St. Luke’s Community United Methodist Church and Price’s campaign manager. “And that’s not saying others aren’t as concerned, but John just moves faster because he feels something needs to be done now. Besides, when you take a mind like his and a slow moving city like Dallas as far as minorities are concerned, you can see how John sticks out.”
Price smiles when asked whether his role as the supreme leader of black Dallas is a burdensome and lonely one. “I don’t mind being in a position of leadership because it’s not a position only for African-Americans, but for the consciousness of all Dallas County,” he says. “Hopefully when I’m gone, that consciousness will remain, regardless of who succeeds me, but certainly, hopefully, in the remaining [commissioners’ court] members.”
Pausing, he fingers the specialized license plate with “TX NO 1 B” on it, the tag that used to adorn his Mercedes. “It’s like my daddy used to always say. When you go into a gunfight, take all you can carry. Don’t worry about help, or your back. Just do it.”