The White Stuff

The Observer talks with Houston Mayor Bill White


On January 1, Houston Mayor Bill White will complete his first year in office. It has been a remarkably successful year for the first-time elected official. The mayor has a 76-percent approval rating, according to the Houston Chronicle, and is praised by a broad spectrum of the city from immigrants to the business community.

Nothing in particular in the 50-year-old White’s resume presaged this success. A lawyer by trade, he came to City Hall from a job as president and CEO of the Wedge Group, an $8.6-billion investment consortium. He also served as deputy energy secretary under President Bill Clinton and as chairman of the Texas Democratic Party from December 1995 to June 1998.

Sprawling Houston is the fourth largest city in the nation. It’s beset by a raft of problems, from emergency room overcrowding to maddening gridlock and the worst air pollution in the country. To further complicate matters, Houston has been a Republican town in a dark red state, not exactly friendly territory for a Democrat. And yet, White has forged a reputation as a hands-on, populist-minded pragmatic, a centrist who has aggressively tried to improve the quality of life in his chaotic city. In person, he looks like a banker with large ears that frame a face prone to earnest responses formulated after thoughtful consideration.

The mayor has actively pursued bipartisanship. He had the city building department privatized. The move had long been on the wish list of the city’s powerful builders—Republican sugar daddies like David Weekley and Bob Perry—who already have the luxury of little to no zoning. Using his financial connections, White has assiduously helped to court both Republicans and Democrats from the appropriations committee in Congress in the hope that they will reciprocate with much-needed federal dollars for the city. He has even developed a working relationship with U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. During the coming legislative session, White plans to travel personally to Austin to lobby the Republican Legislature for Houston.

Back in the city, he has won community praise with a focus on quality-of-life issues such as closing down disruptive neighborhood cantinas and synchronizing traffic lights. He takes pride in his “after 5:00 p.m. job,” when he goes out into the community for neighborhood meetings. The mayor has worked on issues championed by environmentalists as well. He has repeatedly pushed state and federal regulators to crack down on local polluters. In a further effort to create a cohesive city, he has spearheaded the creation of a 13-acre park downtown. The city is expected to pay only $10 million for the project, raising an additional $35 million or so from private sources. White has already received commitments for much of the money. And while those around the green space are expected to reap a development bonanza, White promises a world-class park in return.

Bill White is a long-time subscriber to The Texas Observer. In November, we sat down with the mayor at City Hall to talk about his first year in office and the issues facing Houston in 2005. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

TO: What do you see as Houston’s most pressing need?

Bill White: Most citizens in every neighborhood just want better services, a higher quality of life with a reasonable price for government. The greatest overall need is to maintain this as a city of opportunity where people can get a good job, a job with a future. That means growth, but we can’t grow the way we have always grown and neglect features of our quality of life such as better ways to get to and from work, affordable housing closer to the workplace, air quality, green space. And that’s a challenge. Those things have to be harmonized. It’s not a compromise because most people do want a better future. You won’t get a better future if you are a shrinking city and can’t attract and retain young people.

TO: Recently the Observer ran a story (“The Emergency,” November 5, 2004) on overcrowding in Houston’s emergency rooms. Is there anything the city can do about the crisis in health care?

BW: The number one solution is to get more clinics out in the neighborhoods. Well over half the visits to our emergency rooms are for primary care by people who don’t have group health insurance or Medicare to fall back on. We need them to be able to get some diagnostic services and treatments closer, in the neighborhoods, with community health clinics. This is why, during my administration, with any help from the folks in Washington, we will at least quadruple the number of neighborhood clinics we have out there.

We had six applications pending with the federal government. They are good applications for clinics that should be qualified for federal funding, but about two or three weeks ago I heard that the administration had denied all six applications, even though in Chicago there are over 50 of these health clinics and they approved applications in other states. I’d like to think that on a bipartisan basis in this county [Harris County], we can do better than that. We have to get our fair share of federal funding for neighborhood health clinics so that we can provide good services to the public and not have people crowding into the emergency room who just need to see a doctor because somebody has a 5-year-old who is sick and they don’t have money to pay. It crowds the emergency rooms. And they often wait to get the treatment until it is an emergency, until it is pneumonia instead of just bronchitis, and then it costs the taxpayers a lot more money.

TO: The City of Houston has embarked on a project to build a downtown park. Why is this important?

BW: If you look at the major urban areas of the world they have parks in the central area of the city that are well used, are a great common space, and people develop around those parks. We are doing it on a fast track with more private money raised than in any project we’ve ever had in the City of Houston. I’ve raised over $30 million in solid commitments in a matter of months to combine with the city funds. You will see this become an island of a green space where there are activities for families. You will see people from all walks of life come down to this area. I have always been struck by other cities with a vital urban center. Whether they are in Europe, or cities large or small in Mexico, they have a central plaza area where people of all ages get together. That is the kind of thing that we will have here in downtown Houston. Bryant Park is a good example in New York City. Where you see people watching outdoor movies, where people bring their families and have a hot date or eat snow cones that are served at the park. It will be a first-class park.

TO: Houston once again this year topped the list of U.S. cities with the worst air pollution. What can be done?

BW: I spend time every week working on this. In particular, we have an unacceptably high level of low-level ozone, which is often referred to as smog and which is irritating to the lungs. It can hurt the respiration of young people. We want to bring those levels down. Starting several years ago, well before I even thought about running for mayor, I was working on this problem steadily with the nonprofit, Environmental Defense, and the business community. It started before I was mayor by having a sea change in the business community where we passed a resolution supporting compliance with the EPA targets and goals. Historically, the Houston business community had fought the compliance, and there are some emitters who still do, but most people understand that economic growth and clean air go hand in hand. We can’t attract the type of skilled people and jobs for the future unless we have cleaner air.

I have asked the TCEQ [Texas Council on Environmental Quality] in Austin to give us more local enforcement responsibilities. I’ve asked the city attorney to get some top-notch lawyers to [work] with our investigators to go after some of the chronic polluters. I’ve asked state regulators to tighten the regulations on chemicals such as benzene and propylene, which contribute to these emissions. We are hoping to convert our city fleet of passenger vehicles, where practical, to meet the kind of specifications [found in] the car I drive, which is a hybrid that gets 45 miles per gallon. I want to encourage Houstonians to do this. We are building over 70 miles of bike paths and we want to encourage people to take mass transit. That is one of the reasons we want a park…to encourage residential development close to the employment centers so that people can walk to work and don’t have to drive a car. These are all part of bringing the pollution down.

I rarely left Houston this last year because there is so much work to do here, but at least twice I have gone to meet with the commissioners and staff of the state regulators. I told the regulators that the people of Houston support strict compliance with air quality regulations.

TO: Do you get any sense that state officials are receptive to that?

BW: I think it depends—some commissioners more than others. I think we have had good discussions with the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] regional administrator and they sense a change. We want the City of Houston to be allies of the public and not just a handful of large emitters.

TO: In the year that you’ve been mayor, what are you most proud of?

BW: Really bringing the city together. Attracting some new employers to our city and creating a sense that things can change, that it doesn’t need to be the lobbyists in city hall that call the shots—that the civic clubs and the citizens have the ear of the mayor and their elected officials.

The biggest surprise that I’ve had is the fact that we’ve made dramatic changes in the way the city does business without as much controversy in the public as I would have thought. It has caused a lot of controversy in this building, sometimes.

We had the fiasco on our freeways where seven or eight tow trucks would pull up to the side of the road where there was a stalled or wrecked vehicle. They had a very organized lobby. They would negotiate with each other before deciding on which driver got the tow. We were paying more for the tows than in other big cities. And if you went into the city council chamber, it was filled with tow-truck operators who were protesting charging less and having more regulations and having background checks and having a centralized dispatch system. But out in the public they said “This is great.”

In the same way, I knew that the issue of making pensions more secure and affordable—not just being an unpaid IOU to city employees—was going to create fear. There were people, who, to get a headline, claimed that we were going to take away pensions that [workers] had already earned, which we were not. But the public, including a lot of city employees, understood that we need to bring the amount of money in the pension system up and we had to bring the benefits for the future down to make it better for people to work longer at the city and have a secure pension.

The public knows, for example, on towing that there has to be a better way than to have eight tow trucks converge on a busy freeway. The public knows and the employees know that there is something wrong with a system where somebody can retire after 20 years, at say age 45, with 90 percent of the salary, plus annual inflation adjustment at the same time that people working for the city have not received any inflation adjustment for years. Something is wrong with that picture, so we brought up employee pay and we made it so that our valuable employees have to work a bit longer with the city to get their full pension benefit. It just makes common sense.

TO: What would you like the political future of Bill White to be?

BW: I’m going to stay on here at least another term as mayor to try and finish some of the work we’ve begun. I’ve always figured—it may be naïve—that the best way to do politics is to deliver better services at a reasonable price so that’s what I focus on every day. It’s a great job being mayor of a great urban area. I like being able to see the results weekly and I’m happy with what I’m doing.

TO: What has been your most enjoyable moment as mayor?

BW: The greatest pleasure I’ve had as mayor was helping to preside over a ceremony about a month ago of 1,900 new Americans from 121 countries that are living and working here in Houston. One of those who received their citizenship that day was a person who couldn’t be at the ceremony. Her parents were there in her stead, a Ms. Esparza. She had lost her life serving in the U.S. military in Iraq. She was not the only person at these ceremonies who is serving in the military and appeared in a naturalization service. When the Esparzas came to pick up the citizenship of their daughter who died in service to the country, I asked the new Americans in the room to stand and recognize that family. There was a standing ovation for five minutes. There were a lot of wet eyes in that room when Mr. Esparza started showing his emotions. Among those wet eyes were mine. Anybody who attended that ceremony had to be optimistic about the future of our country. They are people who share the dream of an open society where people are judged—as is our goal here—not by who their daddy was or how long they have been here or what gender or ethnicity they are. If people work hard and play by the rules they are as much a Houstonian as anybody else. That, to me, is what is neat about this place.