Even after 16 years in public office in Houston, there's one thing that Mayor Annise Parker says she still can't get used to: People wanting to have their photo taken with her. "I don't mind it. I'm happy to do it. But I think, really, what are you going to do with it? Make it your Facebook page?," Parker said with a laugh during a recent interview in the mayor's office.
On the eve of her inauguration for a third — and final — term as Houston's mayor Thursday morning, it's a bittersweet time for Parker, who has always been more of a policy wonk that a back-slapping, baby-kissing politician. She can't run for another city of Houston office because of term limits. Yet, she finds the thought of not running again a bit liberating.
"I don't have any plans to run for anything so I am free to do things that people don't like and do what I think is right."
"I don't have any plans to run for anything so I am free to do things that people don't like and do what I think is right, whether it's settling 16 years of litigation with the topless industry or working on a nondiscrimination ordinance for the city of Houston or acknowledging legal (same-sex) marriages," Parker said.
And that's not all that she plans to tackle. During the interview, Parker touched on her plans and priorities over the next two years, what she hopes her legacy will be and why there are so few women on Houston City Council.
CultureMap: What are your three top priorities during your final term?
Annise Parker: To continue to grow the economy of Houston and try to extend the benefits of that growth to more people who live here. To continue to focus on the built environment of Houston — the basic infrastructure, the streets, the water/sewer lines, the drainage system. And I want to tackle pensions. I have nibbled around the area of pension reform for four years. It's very difficult. It's not directly in my control, but to use my position more to create a sustainable retirement for the current employees.
CM: How big of a problem is pension reform?
AP: A very expensive problem. And it is going to get only more expensive. I get asked about it constantly. There will be 100 people in the audience and there will three people who care about pensions. Everybody else's eyes glaze over. But those people who care, really care.
CM: The new city council will have only two women. Why aren't there more?
AP: I served the last time there were only two (in 2001, during her last term as city council member). And actually with me around the table, there are actually more now because of the mayor's chair. There will at least be three of us.
"When was the last time you had a male politician and people talked about what they were wearing? How much cleavage they showed?"
It's something of a fluke, but it's also harder for women to run for office. It's harder where we are in our careers, how we socialize. There's lots and lots of research — men jump out and say, "I will do that" and just do it. Women want to be asked; women want to be more prepared. Just like women in the work place, women in politics wait until the kids are grown.
There's a lot of different pressures on women coming into politics. We are treated differently on the campaign trail. We're judged more harshly than men. When was the last time you had a male politician and people talked about what they were wearing? How much cleavage they showed?
CM: What legacy do you want to leave Houston as mayor?
AP: I want the city to be running as well as it possibly can, and that means the internal processes and our interface with the public and the services that we provide. I want the city to be effective and efficient and to function for people who work for the city and are in the city. That is a worthy goal in itself.
But if you talk about things that I look back on in two more years to get done, I am going to drive hard for infrastructure because I blew all my political capital on ReBuild Houston.
I am working on major initiatives around homelessness. We are winning national attention on the success we've had in housing chronically homeless individuals and I believe that by the time I leave office in two years, we can't eliminate homelessness, but I think I can help eliminate chronic homelessness where people are on the streets for years because there is no other place to put them. That is the goal.
And I am going to increase the available green space and park space for Houstonians and make it more accessible. That's why I am so excited about the Bayou Greenway Initiative.
CM: There are no plans on your agenda about the Astrodome?
AP: I don't have anything to do with the Astrodome (since it's a Harris Commissioners Court issue). I want us to save the Astrodome. I still think it would make a great indoor theme park, amusement park. If we have casino gambling someday in Texas, it would be a great place to put a casino. I have spent a whole lot of political capital in my first term as mayor creating a real preservation ordinance for Houston, so I believe in saving our history, and I believe the Astrodome is part of our history.
CM: As your last term as mayor, it must be a bittersweet time.
AP: It is because I hear the clock ticking. While we have done some amazing things, I really had to spend a lot of the first two years patching holes in a leaky boat. The economy was dreadful. I had to walk in and slash hundreds of millions of dollars in spending and it wasn't possible to drive an agenda at first, it was much more reactive.
"We're a $5 billion dollar corporation and we turn our leadership every two years. No corporation would do that."
So I feel the clock ticking. I also fully intend to do something about term limits before I leave, not that it will benefit me, and probably not benefit anyone serving in city government today. But two-year terms are too short. We're a $5 billion dollar corporation and we turn our leadership every two years. No corporation would do that.
CM: What are your plans for your inauguration speech?
AP: That first inaugural speech, I had to hit a lot of notes in the right order to bring the GLBT community along, to make sure that citizens were assured, reach out to people who didn't support me. That was the big pressure. This is the chance for me to relax a little bit, look back briefly, to look forward. It's not a State of the City speech, because I give those. But to pretty much say thanks and outline the vision for the next two years.
CM: What do you like most about Houston?
AP: The people of Houston. It is a warm and welcoming place. I really believe that Houston is the place where the American dream comes closest to reality for most people. Houstonians really do believe if you prepare yourself and you work hard, you have a chance here. People come from all over the world believing Houston is a place where that can happen, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Mayor Parker, City Controller Ron Green and the Houston City Council will be sworn in Thursday morning at the Wortham Theater Center. The mayor and the Houston Inaugural Organizing Committee will host a celebration at the Houston Food Bank Thursday night. Proceeds from the event will benefit the food bank.