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FEATURE The White Stuff The Observer talks with Houston Mayor Bill White BY JAKE BERNSTEIN n 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 handson, 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 buildersRepublican sugar daddies like David Weekley and Bob Perrywho 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. -rwInNy 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER -12/17/04