Thursday, June 28, 2007

History-maker focuses on future

Garland's first black mayor says Dallas pioneer's advice inspired him
Denton Record-Chronicle - Wednesday, June 27, 2007
On the eve of his historic inauguration as mayor of the 10th most populous city in Texas, Ronald Jones was relaxed and reflective.

It's to his credit – ever cool, calm and collected – that his election as the first black mayor of Garland didn't become the main focus of his campaign.

That's not the longtime city administrator and ordained minister's style. He's more circumspect.

"I ran to be mayor of all of Garland, not just parts of Garland," said Mr. Jones, 63, who was sworn in yesterday. "At the end of the day, it's all about performance."

That's a lesson he gleaned from Ron Kirk, a downtown Dallas lawyer who became Big D's first black mayor in 1995.

That fraternity (and sorority) remains small, with only a handful of North Texas cities – Dallas, Arlington, Lewisville and The Colony come to mind – ever electing a black mayor.

But the number of black elected officials nationwide has grown steadily over the past three decades, from 1,469 in 1970 to 9,101 in 2001, the last year for which the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies has statistics.

Texas had 460 black elected officials in 2001. Only eight other states had more. So when another black mayor is elected virtually anywhere in the United States these days, it's ho-hum.

"It's noteworthy now, and may even be [bigger news] in a local context," said David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center, a think tank on issues affecting black Americans. "But in a national context, largely no."

These days, Mr. Bositis added, it takes something like Deval Patrick's getting elected governor of Massachusetts (2006) or Barack Obama's being elected a U.S. senator in Illinois (2004) to crack national headlines.

"I think it takes a person of courage" to defy the odds and break down old barriers, Mr. Jones said. Even in Garland.

Mr. Jones, a former Garland assistant city manager, called Mr. Kirk before jumping into the race. It was a smart move.

"He asked me why I was running," Mr. Jones recalled. "He said, 'Understand this one thing: You have to run because you want to be mayor, not because someone else wants you to run or thinks you should be mayor.'

"He made that real clear," Mr. Jones said. "And I remembered."

Mr. Kirk wasn't surprised to see Mr. Jones break down another barrier.

"It is relevant and it ought to be mentioned," Mr. Kirk said. "But if you don't have the credentials and experience that people are looking for, it doesn't matter what color you are."

Mr. Jones has that. "His background and accomplishments attracted people," Mr. Kirk said.

There was a misguided and downright sneaky attempt by one former Garland council member to make sure that the largely white electorate was fully aware that Mr. Jones didn't look like them. Mr. Jones deftly dodged that poisonous arrow.

"I thought it was just an opponent trying to dismiss me," he said of the racial allusions found on the ex-council member's blog.

But Mr. Jones was not about to fall into that trap. He stuck to issues that resonated with all voters, not just a few.

"There may have been a strong core group that didn't want a black mayor," he said. "But that didn't mean that Garland didn't want a black mayor."

Like Dallas, Garland certainly has had its share of racial and geographic friction. Notice how much time Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert spent talking about the need to unify the city during his inauguration Monday.

"You're going to have the same issue here," Mr. Jones said. "At the public forums, the question was, 'What are you going to do about South Garland development?' The question wasn't about ethnicity; it was about geography."

But in some respects, he said, the two go hand in hand, just as they do in Dallas. The key, he said, is to push for balanced growth and equal opportunities. "We will be focusing on that," he said.

I'm not sure if Garland could have elected a better mayor, but it would have been hard-pressed to find a better man than Mr. Jones, a Dallas native, devoted husband (his wife, Peggy, ran his campaign) and father of two fine young men.

"Personally, it means a lot," Mr. Jones said of his historic achievement. "But this event is bigger than Ronald Jones.

"We are just stewards," he said of his role as mayor. "We are here for a particular time, and then we are gone. All I want to do is to leave things better than I found them. That's what it means to me. And I think it means a lot for the Garland community."

Let's hope he's right.
See photos and article in Denton Record-Chronicle

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