A Dallas Democrat Rises To New Prominence, Power

Correction Dec. 13, 2010

An earlier Web version of this story incorrectly said Dallas is the largest city in Texas. Houston is the largest city in Texas.

Dallas has long been considered one of the country's most politically conservative cities. But four years ago, to the shock of nearly everyone in power, Dallas went from decades of red Republican rule to nearly completely blue. Now, Democrats like John Wiley Price, a former activist for equal rights, are shaping the city's future.

A Visit To South Dallas

At 11 a.m. on a recent bright weekday, County Commissioner Price stands on Lamar Street in South Dallas. Although the gleaming blue glass of downtown shimmers large on the horizon, the area nearby looks more like a Third World country.

Men are stripping copper wire out of air conditioning units on the backs of their pickups; a massive salvage yard seems to be the only going concern. Suddenly, a black Nissan Maxima executes a quick U-turn and pulls up next to Price.

A young man and woman hop out, and greet Price.

The two, Omar Jefferson and Sherri Calhoun, are part of a youth group that is taking on South Dallas' gang problem. They have a big event planned, and they want Price to come by.

Leaving, they tell each other, "Keep up the good work."

In his pinstripe suit and cornrows, Price looks perfectly comfortable on the streets of South Dallas, although the once-young activist is now in his 60s. His campaign slogan is "John Wiley Price — Our Man Downtown."

It captures perfectly the relationship of the outsider Price and his mostly black and Hispanic constituency to the conservative-dominated, business-controlled body politic of Dallas.

A Colorful, And Loud, Past

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Price was infamous for organizing street demonstrations if a Dallas news organization or business did or wrote something about black Dallas he didn't like.

He was not averse to confrontation, and even violence, if he felt condescended to by the white community. Those days seem to be behind him now, but Price can still exhibit explosive behavior.

For instance, one exchange with a white commissioner turned into a shouting match last year. After Price was told "you don't know anything," he became furious. As the chairman called for order, Price yelled, "You make me come to order, God damn it."

Price says he's too old to apologize now for who he is and who he's been, even if he was inclined to — which he's not.

When confronted with disrespectful behavior, he says, "I will still revert to my usual self. I spend a lot of time trying to manage me, the most difficult thing I have every day is to manage me."

An Agitator's 'Reasonable' Side

But not everyone buys Price's "angry black man" act.

"He always acted like a guy, when the cameras were rolling, who was out of control, dangerous, crazy. When those cameras shut off, he was the world's most reasonable, let's make a deal, guy, says Jim Schutze, the political columnist for the Dallas Observer, the city's alternative newspaper.

Schutze has been covering Price since moving to Dallas as a young reporter in 1978. Back then, Schutze says, "Dallas was so backwards that black people would not meet a white person's eye. White people sometimes used the 'N' word in gatherings where there were black people present."

Over the years, Schutze says, he began to understand that Price's angry public persona had subtleties he didn't originally see.

"But he was doing, I always felt, this kind of kabuki theater for the community," Schutze says, "saying, 'This is what it looks like to stand up, and look how I can do this stuff, and I'm still alive — and they haven't lynched me, and you can do it too.' "

Setting His Own Priorities

Price is known to drive Dallas progressives crazy, too.

In the '80s, Price learned how to be a county commissioner from watching the conservative white Republicans who were in office. Now he has a reputation as a fiscal conservative, and while transformation is coming to southern Dallas, the sluggishness of new capital means change is slow to arrive.

Price dismisses his critics on the left who say he's too much like the city's white dealmakers who came before him. He says he measures himself by his connection to his constituents, regular people.

"That whole power thing, you have to be real careful about that," he says. "Can you get things done? Do you answer the phone? When somebody calls you, do you answer the phone? Do you get up out of your bed? Do you still do that?"

After nearly 30 years as a commissioner, Price he insists he is still John Wiley Price — "Our Man Downtown," still answering the phone at 1 a.m.

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