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DON GONYEA, host:

We're going to check in, now, on Dallas, Texas - politics in Dallas, to be specific. The politically conservative city is now in the hands of Democrats, and politicians once on the margins are now shaping the future.

That includes this former activist profiled by NPR's Wade Goodman.

WADE GOODWYN: Its 11 AM on a bright weekday and Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price is standing on Lamar Street in South Dallas. Although the gleaming blue glass of downtown shimmers large on the horizon, this place looks like a Third World country. Men are stripping copper wire out of air conditioning units on the back of their pickup tracks. A massive salvage yard seems to be the only going concern.

Suddenly a black Nissan Maxima executes a quick U-turn in the street and pulls right up next to John Wiley Price. A young man and woman hop out.

Mr. ROMAN JEFFERSON: Come on. Mr. Price, Roman Jefferson.

Mr. JOHN WILEY PRICE (Dallas County Commissioner): Yes, sir.

Mr. JEFFERSON: My brother is Omar Jo. They have this big deal today.

Mr. OMAR JEFFERSON: How you doing John?

Mr. PRICE: OK, you all right?

Mr. OMAR JEFFERSON: All right, yeah.

Mr. PRICE: Good.

Mr. OMAR JEFFERSON: This is Sheri Calhoun.

GOODWYN: Omar Jefferson and Sherri Calhoun are with a youth group that is taking on south Dallass gang problem. They have a big event and want Price to come by.

Mr. PRICE: Keep up the good work, right.

Mr. OMAR JEFFERSON: Keep up the good work baby.

GOODWYN: In his pinstripe suit and corn rows, 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.

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 didnt 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 he still can exhibit explosive behavior. Like this exchange with a white commissioner last year.

Unidentified Man #1: Im not asking you.

Mr. PRICE: Yeah, I know, but I know...

Unidentified Man #1: You dont know anything.

Mr. PRICE: Well you know what?

Unidentified Man #1: Will you please tell...

Mr. PRICE: You tell me what happened...

(Soundbite of gavel)

Unidentified Man #2: The board will come to order.

Mr. PRICE: So what. Make me come to order.

Unidentified Woman: This court has voted...

Mr. PRICE: Yeah, (Censored)...

GOODWYN: Price says hes too old to apologize now for who he is and who hes been, even if he was inclined to, which hes not. When confronted with disrespectful behavior...

Mr. PRICE: I will still revert to my usual self. I spend a lot of time trying to manage me, you know, I mean, you know, it's the most difficult thing I have every day is to manage me.

GOODWYN: But not everyone buys Prices angry black man act.

Mr. JIM SCHUTZE (Political Columnist, Dallas Observer): 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 worlds most reasonable, lets make a deal, guy.

GOODWYN: Jim Schutze is a political columnist for the Dallas Observer, the citys alternative newspaper. Hes been covering John Wiley Price since Schutze moved to Dallas as a young reporter in 1978.

Mr. SCHUTZE: Dallas was so backwards that black people would not meet a white persons eye. White people sometimes used the N word in gatherings where there were black people present.

GOODWYN: Schutze says that over the years he began to understand that Prices angry public persona had subtleties he didnt originally see.

Mr. SCHUTZE: He was doing, I always felt, this kind of Kabuki theater for the community, saying, this is what it looks like to stand up, and look how I can do this stuff and Im still alive and they havent lynched me, and you can do it too.

GOODWYN: Price is known to drive Dallas progressives crazy too. In the 80s, Price learned how to be a county commissioner from the conservative white Republicans who were there. Now Price has a reputation as a fiscal conservative, and while transformation is coming to southern Dallas the drip drip of new capital means change is slow in coming. He says he measures himself by his connection to his constituents, regular people.

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

GOODWYN: After nearly 30 years as a commissioner, Price insists hes still John Wiley Price Our Man Downtown, still answering the phone at 1:00 AM and getting out of bed.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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