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Low-key Houston mayor hopes his hometown popularity translates statewide


BY Corrie MacLaggan [ July 04, 2010 at 19:11:49 ]

During one of his regular group bike rides around Houston, Mayor Bill White was held up because a freight train came to a stop, blocking the street. The problem of stopped trains in the city was already simmering -- a few months earlier, White was outraged to learn that middle-school students had crawled between train cars to get to school.

That day, he came face-to-face with the issue. He got angry -- this could keep emergency vehicles from getting through. And he made a call on the spot to a railroad official. "I just decided we weren't going to put up with it anymore," said White, the mayor of the nation's fourth-largest city.

That wasn't the end of White's fight against railroads to limit such stops inside the city -- his tactics included dispatching police officers to give engineers tickets and threatening to use federal laws to break up train companies -- and it was just one of a long list of projects that the mayor, and now Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has pursued with success.

"He's on 24 hours a day," said Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who was on that bike ride and whose students have worked pro bono on policy research projects for White. "When you think he's recreating, he's actually looking at public policy problems."

White, who'd long said he planned to run for the U.S. Senate, emphasized his policy successes as he jumped into the Democratic gubernatorial fray on Friday, becoming the frontrunner to take on the winner of a high-profile Republican contest between Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. He faces businessman and political newcomer Farouk Shami, author Kinky Friedman and several little-known candidates in the Democratic primary.

White, who won re-election to his second term in 2005 by the highest margin in decades for a Houston mayor, winning 91 percent of the vote, has salvaged the city pension system, gone after polluters, cut the tax rate and helped unsnarl traffic through a program that tows disabled vehicles. And, most famously, he oversaw a massive shelter operation after Hurricane Katrina sent thousands of refugees to Houston.

"He put the city on the map for welcoming people who were in harm's way," said Stein, whose wife has worked as the agenda director for several mayors, including White.

Low-key personality

What you don't hear people call White is charismatic. The 55-year-old is known more for being a low-key wonk -- he worked as a deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy during former President Bill Clinton's administration -- than a captivating public speaker.

"Obviously that Clinton personality didn't rub off on him," said Renée Cross, associate director of the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston.

White's critics say that he decided not to pursue a program that would have trained Houston police officers to identify illegal immigrants, that Houston's budget is on the verge of bankruptcy -- which White says is "ridiculous" -- and that he hasn't done enough to combat crime (although official statistics show crime is down). Jared Woodfill, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, has similar concerns. "I don't have too many favorable things to say about Bill White's tenure," Woodfill said.

Being mayor of Houston -- a job White will vacate in January because of term limits -- is not like being mayor of Austin.

"Night and day," said Stein. He said Houston has arguably one of the most powerful mayors in the country because of the city's size and the mayor's ability to influence its direction. That's because, unlike in Austin where the mayor is just one member of the City Council and day-to-day administration is left to a city manager, the mayor of Houston sets the City Council agenda, controls the budget, appoints and oversees department directors and generally acts as the city's chief executive.

More than any other Houston mayor in decades, White has pursued a political ambition beyond the office of mayor, Stein said. In his six years as mayor, White has worked to cut the city's energy use, time downtown traffic lights to smooth vehicle flow and transform blighted neighborhoods by building affordable housing. He has also used his bully pulpit to take on issues that aren't technically in his purview, like school dropout rates. And he called on the private sector to help with everything from aiding Katrina evacuees to developing Discovery Green, a 12-acre downtown park.

White has taken on polluters both in and outside the city limits. Last year, he took the unusual step of calling on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to hold a hearing before renewing a permit for Lyondell Chemical Co., Houston's largest refinery and one of the nation's top emitters of the carcinogen benzene, the Houston Chronicle reported.

"If the company believes that it's just fine to put tons and tons of benzene in the air," White told the Chronicle, "then we would like to hear what scientific evidence they have that benzene is good for you."

More than a year later, Houston is still waiting to hear back from the commission, said Elena Marks, the city's director of health and environmental policy.

Reputation as a listener

White, a married father of three who grew up in San Antonio with schoolteacher parents, emerged from obscurity in 2003 to win his first mayoral term, beating two better-known opponents: Orlando Sanchez, a former City Council member who is now Harris County treasurer, and Sylvester Turner, a Democratic state representative.

Before his mayoral run, White, a Harvard graduate who earned a law degree at the University of Texas, had served in the Clinton administration, headed the Texas Democratic Party and served as CEO of an energy and real estate company. But outside of "big business insiders and diehard Democrats," few in Houston knew of him, Cross said.

"He came out of nowhere but quickly established himself as someone who was a moderate ... and he has really stayed down the center for the most part," Cross said. "He has equally annoyed both hard-core liberals as well as hard-core conservatives."

White cut a sharp contrast to his predecessor in the mayor's office, Lee Brown, who clashed with the City Council, according to Charles Kuffner, who writes the left-leaning political blog Off the Kuff. Instead, White listened to members, giving them committee assignments that were meaningful to them, Kuffner said.

"From the beginning, he got people to buy in to what he was doing," Kuffner said. "What we'd been used to up until then was a lot of bickering with the mayor and council."

And City Hall scandals. For example, Brown's director of building services, Monique McGilbra, got a three-year sentence for bribery after she accepted gifts including a Super Bowl trip and a Louis Vuitton purse in exchange for her influence over a city energy contract, according to a Houston Chronicle report.

"When you start off with that much power concentrated in one position, and you mix in big-city municipal government ... contractors, lobbyists, developers -- that's a natural petri dish for one scandal or another," Kuffner said. "It just hasn't been there" under White.

State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, a friend and political ally of White's, said White doesn't bring up items for consideration by the City Council if he doesn't think there's a sizeable majority in favor. Instead of going for an 8-7 vote, he will hold off, listen to members' concerns and try to build a consensus, said Alvarado, a former mayor pro tem of Houston.

White said all but a handful of votes during his tenure have been unanimous. He said he has focused on "building consensus in a community where there had been divisions." And he said he's "tried to make it safe for people of different political views to find common ground."

City Council Member Anne Clutterbuck, a Republican, told Texas Monthly recently that White "is frankly one of the reasons I chose to run for office. I wanted to be part of working with that leadership style."

White was re-elected in 2005 with 91 percent of the vote against four perennial candidates, then again in 2007 with 86 percent of the vote in a three-way race.

Houston Chronicle City Hall reporter Bradley Olson said he finds support for White among his neighbors in the suburbs, where folks are more likely to be Republican than city-dwellers. "Neighbors where you might expect them not to like the Democrat -- they really like Bill White," Olson said during a Statesman.com podcast last week.

Response to Katrina

A lot of that has to do with Katrina.

When the evacuees arrived in 2005, White worked with Republican County Judge Ed Emmitt and others to coordinate shelters and find food, medical care and housing for the new Houston residents.

His efforts earned him the 2007 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.

"Bill White marshaled the resources and goodwill of his city to provide refuge and essential services to hundreds of thousands of people who fled the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita," says the Web site of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. "When the federal emergency response faltered in the days and weeks following the crisis, White mobilized more than 100,000 Houstonians in the public, private, business and faith-based communities to help evacuees rebuild their lives with independence and dignity."

However, not all see him as a hero.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said he'd give White a D for his mayoral tenure -- in part, he said, because the city is on the verge of being bankrupt. White's camp says that's not true -- that the budget is balanced and that the city has been unfairly criticized for tapping into a rainy-day fund built up just for economic downturns like the current one.

And Patrick slammed White's decision to back off a federal program that trains local law enforcement to identify illegal immigrants.

"We have had a number of illegal aliens let out of jail who have gone on to commit crimes, including killing police officers, and he did nothing about it," Patrick said.

Houston police officer Rodney Johnson was killed in 2006 by an illegal immigrant who had a criminal record, city officials said. And after the March shooting of officer Rick Salter by an illegal immigrant with a criminal record who had been deported but returned, White did pursue the federal program, which is known as 287(g). However, when he couldn't come to an agreement with federal officials on customizing the program, he pursued another program, Secure Communities, which gives local law enforcement access to an immigration database, according to Houston Chronicle reports.

"The Secure Communities program is a superior means of providing information to identify those who we bring in through our jails who are wanted for violent crimes and serious narcotic crimes and serious property crimes," White said.

Though White has critics, there are also people like Darrell Miles, who came to hear White's campaign announcement in Houston on Friday. Miles, the state director of Main Street Chamber, a small business group, said of White: "He's a businessman, so he knows how to plan. He knows what success is. I've lived in Houston for 30 years, and I've seen a progression of mayors come through. I'd rate him as one of the top ones. He's not the usual politician."

Austin American Statesman
Additional material from Jason Embry
December 6, 2009


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