U.S. trade rep and ex Dallas mayor Ron Kirk envies Atlanta’s universities

By Maria Saporta

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk came to Atlanta for a meeting Tuesday afternoon with business leaders at the Metro Atlanta Chamber hoping to galvanize support for a bi-partisan solution to prevent the nation falling off the fiscal cliff by the end of the year.

But it was the comments that the former mayor of Dallas said about Atlanta that really captured the attention of the business leaders.

Kirk was the first black mayor of Dallas, but in reality he should have been the fifth. “We exported all of our talent,” Kirk said.

Ron Kirk

The late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson was born in Dallas. Tom Bradley, the late mayor of Los Angeles, actually came from Calvert, Texas just outside of Dallas. Flamboyant Willie Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco, was born in Mineola, Texas, just outside of Dallas. And Emanuel Cleaver, the former mayor of Kansas City who currently is serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, also came from Dallas.

Back in 1999, a group of Atlanta leaders went to Dallas on the annual LINK trip, when they met with Kirk. And during that trip, Kirk lamented the fact that Maynard Jackson had left Dallas.

Why? To attend Morehouse College. At the time, Dallas did not have a four-year college within its city limits to educate the best and the brightest in the third largest city in Texas. That was still the case in 1999.

“You have an educational infrastructure that rivals any other city in the country,” Kirk said. “Having the educational cluster you have makes you the envy of most of the mayors in the country, if they’re being honest.”

Kirk explained how it was sometimes difficult for Dallas to compete against Atlanta because business leaders would become aware of the antics on the Dallas City Council. By comparison, Atlanta appeared much more together — playing off its reputation of being a “city too busy to hate.”

When comparing African-Americans in Dallas to those in Atlanta, Kirk remembered some business leaders complaining: “Why can’t we be more like Atlanta.”

To that Kirk would answer: “Because you don’t have five historically-black colleges.” Kirk went on to rapidly list the many colleges and universities in the City of Atlanta — Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Morehouse, Spelman, Clark-Atlanta and Emory, which actually is not in the city limits.

Then directing his comments to the people at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Kirk said: “Everybody in this room has a degree.”

Partly because of his efforts when he was mayor of Dallas, there is now a University of North Texas in Dallas, which began in 2000. Currently, it only has about 2,000 students, but Kirk hopes it will grow to having a student body of 20,000.

“Education is the name of the game,” Kirk said. “You have one of the most educated work-force in the country.”

Kirk went on to describe Atlanta’s institutions of higher learning as “jewels.”

But both Atlanta and Dallas are facing the same issues when it comes to K through12 education. “We are competing against the most talented young people in the world,” Kirk said. “We better get serious about education. Our kids are dropping out of school because they can’t read.”

When talking about the danger of going off the fiscal cliff, Kirk said he was “so proud” of U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) and his willingness to work on a bi-partisan solution to the debt crisis.

Kirk also applauded two business-led efforts — Fix the Debt and No Labels — for working on efforts to reduce the nation’s debt. He added that President Barack Obama’s administration also has been trying to get the U.S. Chamber of Commerce more engaged on the issue.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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