In the old days, Dallas’ politics were easy to figure out.

The old days are officially gone.

They vanished May 6, when Ron Kirk scored a victory in the Dallas mayoral race that was so massive that to call it unprecedented is to almost certainly to belittle it.

That a city as conservative as Dallas would elect a black man who had been one of Ann Richards’ political appointees is hard enough to believe, but that it would elect him overwhelmingly, without a runoff, is mind-boggling.

It’s almost mind-boggling to believe that anyone can even pretend to figure out what it means.

In the old days, Dallas voters always voted against things, whether it be the 14-1 council system (repeatedly, as a matter of fact) or renovating Fair Park (crushingly, as a matter of fact). That made it surprisingly easy to be a political pundit. All you had to do was look knowledgeable, nod knowingly and predict defeat for anything that involved any kind of change.

That certainly evaporated in the wake of Kirk’s landslide. But whatever it was, this was not a vote against change.

Dallas voters dipped their toes into the waters of the final decade of the 20th century and discovered that the water was hospitable.

Of course, whether they’re going to go swimming is another question entirely.

The election did nothing to answer that, no matter how many times Kirk said his victory was a triumph of unity. The only thing that many of the people in the coalition that elected Kirk have in common is an intense desire not to be seen in public with each other. After all, when is the last time John Wiley Price had dinner with Jack Evans?

In fact, the things that are clear are only clear in a roundabout, backward sort of way. Kirk’s victory doesn’t mean:

  • That Dallas has suddenly become a city of multi-cultural, interracial brotherhood. This would be nice to believe, but it would also be stupid, naïve or both. You can’t paper over Dallas’ racial inequities with one mayoral election.
  • That Dallas has become a bastion of big-city, Democratic liberalism.

First, there aren’t any cities like that left. Second, a mayoral election in Dallas is not like a mayoral election in New York City. Elections here have less to do with ideology than with getting the garbage picked up.

Dallas voters usually give the benefit of the doubt to someone who delivers City services, regardless of party affiliation. If anything, Kirk’s election – along with the re-election of Councilmen Craig McCaniel in District 14 and Chris Luna in District 2 – was a repudiation of so-called ward politics.

Voters apparently didn’t care that each candidate had some partisan political skeletons in his closet, be they an association with former Gov. Richards, support for gay rights or a reputation as a Democratic Party stalwart.

  • That Dallas is going to focus on its neighborhoods in the next four years.

During the campaign, Kirk talked about revitalizing the communities inside Loop 12 – tax breaks for small businesses, community policing and the like. That’s hardly the agenda of most of the big-money developers who paid for a substantial portion of his campaign.

If they had wanted to turn dirt south of the Trinity River, for example, they didn’t have to wait until 1995. There’s no doubt everyone wants economic prosperity for Dallas; there is doubt about whether Roger Staubach’s idea of economic prosperity is the same as Don Hicks’.

The true impact of Kirk’s election probably revolves around that definition of economic prosperity. If Kirk can convince the traditional Dallas power structure that it can make money redeveloping the neighborhoods, he’ll be a hero. If he can’t and most real estate activity continues to take place north of LBJ, Kirk may face as much undeserved scorn as Annette Strauss once did.

Unfortunately, Kirk probably won’t have much time to discuss these finer points of political philosophy. His first task may well be what to do about City Manager John Ware’s continuing struggle with cancer. Ware’s illness may force the new Mayor and Council to decide whether Ware is up to running the City.

If Kirk’s coalition survives the test, we’ll be one step closer to understanding what his elections means. If the coalition falls apart, we’ll be no closer to figuring out why Dallas did something so wild and unpredictable.

Worse, it will almost be enough to make everyone long for the good old days.

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