The jagged silhouette of the Houston skyline is a testament to many things. The enduring power of oil is one. So, too, is the city’s popularity as a base for Fortune 500 companies – only New York City is home to more. And another is the city’s cultural renaissance – museums and galleries abound. But the city’s recent meteoric growth can also be traced to its effective governance. And in Houston’s case, the buck stops at the desk of Annise Parker, its mayor since January 2010.
She is quick to agree that few jobs are as fulfilling, but adds that she’s walking a political tightrope. “I have the ability to make 2.3 million people mad at me at a moment’s notice,” she admits. “The lives of everyone in my city, and also in the surrounding areas, are dependent on the decisions I make – the water quality, the air quality, the gridlock on our streets, the quality of the police service and so on.”
In the works
Parker’s is a career steeped in Houston’s public and private sector. Prior to her mayoral election, she served as city controller for six years and before that as a member of the city council for five – making her the only person in Houston history to hold the offices of council member, controller and mayor. These positions followed 20 years working in the oil and gas industry, as well as 10 years as the co-owner of a leading local bookshop. From these eclectic experiences she has developed a strong belief in the importance of infrastructure as a key factor in citizen’s well-being and quality of life – even though it does not reap immediate electoral dividends.
“It’s not visible while I’m mayor but over the next five years we’re going to have an unprecedented investment in the water sewage, and the street and drainage infrastructure of the city,” she says. “Cities exist on a platform on which people build their lives and that infrastructure has to be first class. There is not another city in America that is putting as many dollars into this kind of horizontal infrastructure as Houston.”
Other achievements of which she is proud include the city’s emergence as a cultural and historical beacon. “I started as a council member working on development standards,” she recalls. “Although we impose very few development regulations, the ones that we do have my fingerprints all over them – from preservation of historic properties to regulations on density and the preservation of neighbourhood character.” And the city’s achievement of reducing the number of homeless people is another to point to. “I have had an initiative addressing homelessness for three years and we have significantly reduced the number of transient and chronic homeless on the streets of Houston,” she says. “We are now recognised as a national leader on ending homelessness and I’m very proud of the work that we have been doing.”
This track record, together with her success in balancing the city’s books – a stance that served as an effective barrier to the financial crisis – helps explain not only her popularity at the ballot box, but also her top ten placing at this year’s World Mayor of the Year contest, where her seventh placing was higher than any other US mayor. Parker, though, says that she is fortunate that her position endows her with an unrivalled opportunity to make a difference.
“There is no doubt that it’s easier to get things done,” she says. “Mayors will say as one that we have the best political job there is. Particularly in America, the big city mayors tend to be what we call a ‘strong mayor position’. I have the ceremonial responsibilities – I am the head of state for the city and I am the public spokesperson for the city – but I am also the CEO of the city and I run the day-to-day operations. There is no level of government that has as much direct action tied to any one position, and the ability to directly impact people’s lives on a daily basis.”
Just do it
Parker has come to believe that implementing key policy measures is dependent on several factors, often interlinked.
“You really need to know where you’re going in order to get there,” she says. “You can have the best idea in the world but if you can’t effectively articulate that idea you can’t go anywhere with it. If you can’t convince other people of the worth of that idea and the need for them to engage with you, you’re just not going to make progress. And too often, public policy is a process of simply lurching forward from crisis to crisis. It is extremely difficult particularly when you’re at the higher levels of government. I’m doing crisis management every day and it is very difficult to get up into a position where I can survey the entire battlefield, because I tend to be down in the trenches fighting. From a management perspective you have to be able to get above it and see the big picture.”
Urban leaders, she continues, have much in common – irrespective of the size of their town or city. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a huge urban metropolis or a collection of mud huts in the middle of the savannah, leaders still have to provide the same services,” she says. “Human beings cannot live in one place together without services that a municipality provides – where do you have the fresh water, where do you put the latrines, what is the power source, where is the food supply and so on. All cities do that.”
Parker is a Democrat, which is something of a surprise to an outsider. Texas has long been a Republican stronghold, and although Parker’s political party may benefit from recent demographic changes – few states have as many Hispanic voters – there is little doubt that it faces a steep electoral ascent. Parker, however, is quick to downplay the importance of parties in cities – no sign that the partisan gridlock that has gripped Washington, DC is poised to head south-west.
“Most US cities are non-partisan, although each of us has a partisan affiliation of some kind,” she explains. “The difference is that cities have to function 24/7 and they have to function at a pretty high level. I compare it to riding a bicycle – if you stop pedalling then you fall over. This means that while we can debate policy, most of what we do is about immediate things like the provision of basic services. There is no partisan way to fill a pothole or to take out the trash.”
That is not to say that Houston is a partisan-free political nirvana, however. Parker says she adopts a pragmatic approach and does not hesitate to seek advice when necessary.
“There are often partisan divides at various levels of government, including resource constraints that prevent things from happening,” she says. “But often, there are very few times when a public official knows an area on which they are working intimately. We often make decisions based on very little real knowledge or experience. We hate to admit that, but it happens. There are a million things that I have made decisions on during my time in public office that I can point to. For example, we have to buy a new paddle at the sewage treatment plant. I don’t know what the paddle is supposed to do and I don’t know what it is supposed to cost, or how long it should last or how often it should be replaced, but we’re going to go out and buy one. ”
An approaching crossroads
A second generation native Houstonian, it is clear that Parker has relished her time behind her city’s mayoral desk. However, the finishing line as mayor is appearing over the horizon. Unlike many other US cities, her mayoral terms last two years, not four – “which means that I have to be engaged with voters at a much more intimate level than some of my peers” – and she is limited to three terms in office.
Looking back on her six years in the hot seat, she has few regrets. “When it comes to this kind of job, there are two philosophies,” she reflects. “One is to pick one or two high profile issues and work the heck out of them and the other is to try and do a lot of small things and achieve on those. I’ve tried to tackle every issue that I thought was an impediment to the long-term growth and prosperity of Houston and make progress on all of them. I drive my staff hard but I’m proud of the fact that there’s not a single major issue facing the city that has not gotten better during my term of office. I also think that I have changed the world’s perception of Houston. We’re not a cultural wasteland out in the middle of cowboy country. We’re a sophisticated, international and global city.”
As for her next move, she freely admits that she doesn’t know what the future holds. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says. “I’m the CEO of a $5 billion dollar corporation. It would be very difficult for me to transition into a legislative body at this point or into a hyper-partisan environment, so I don’t know what I will do yet.” Whatever the future holds – be it a move to another public-service role or back to the private sector – there is no doubt that Parker’s impact on her home town will continue to be felt for generations to come.
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