Houstonians are mourning the death of Bob Lanier, who made a lasting impact on Houston as the city's mayor from 1992-1998 and as a powerful political kingmaker. Lanier died Saturday afternoon at his River Oaks apartment, with his wife, Elyse, by his side. He was 89.
Born in Baytown in 1925 and raised during the Great Depression in a home without indoor plumbing, Lanier worked as a sportswriter and served in the Navy before graduating from the University of New Mexico. He earned a degree from the University of Texas Law School in 1949 and worked as a lawyer for Baker & Botts for a decade before entering the banking and real estate business, where he amassed a fortune as a Houston real estate developer.
Lanier served two three-year terms as mayor and could likely have won again but was prevented from continuing in the job by term limits.
As a Democrat he supported Mark White for Governor and was appointed to the Texas Highway Commission, where he served as chair and supported the rebuilding of the state's transportation system. "He lobbied hard for gasoline-tax increases (75 percent dedicated to highway construction) in 1984 and 1986 with hardball tactics linking local highway projects to legislators’ support for tax bill," according to Texas Monthly. The magazine quoted one House veteran who called Lanier “the best outsider at counting votes I’ve ever seen.”
Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire appointed Lanier as chairman of METRO, but they clashed when he opposed a monorail system she supported. At a memorable holiday party that Lanier and his wife, Elyse, hosted for reporters and politicians in 1989, he and Whitmire could be seen arguing through a glass picture window in an adjoining room after she had fired him from the job.
Although he had never seemed interested in political office, preferring to support candidates of both political parties behind-the-scenes, Lanier ran for mayor in 1991 and defeated State Rep. Sylvester Turner in a bruising runoff. (Whitmire placed third in the race.)
As Houston's mayor, Lanier canceled the monorail system and diverted METRO funds to hire hundreds of police officers; crime fell drastically during his tenure. He also concentrated on upgrading Houston's neighborhoods and public parks, and he and Elyse often could be found on the weekends visiting parks and neighborhoods to check on progress.
Lanier also battled to keep the city's affirmative action policy, which survived in a referendum, and pushed hard for downtown redevelopment, engineering a public-private partnership to build the Hilton Americas-Houston hotel near the George R. Brown Convention Center. But he refused to commit public funds to a new football stadium and Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams' moved the team to Nashville.
Lanier served two three-year terms as mayor and could likely have won again but was prevented from continuing in the job by term limits. However, he remained involved in politics, supporting candidates and appearing at public policy conferences.
The couple made news again in 2012 when they held a downsizing sale after selling their 13,386-square-foot River Oaks home and moving into an apartment tower.
In a statement, Elyse Lanier said:
Today, Bob Lanier, my husband and best friend for the last 30 years, passed away peacefully at our home at 4:35 pm this afternoon.
Bob’s life, like that of many in his generation, was defined by his love for family, friends and country. Bob considered his service for six years as Mayor of Houston (1992 - 1998) his greatest honor.
The pleasure of working with thousands of diverse Houstonians to make our City better along with his service as Chairman of Metro (1988-89), chairman of the Texas Department of Transportation (1983-87) and as a young Naval Officer in World War II always brought a smile to his face and a twinkle to his eyes these last few years.
To his many colleagues and employees in public service, Bob wanted me to pass on a final goodbye and a hearty "Thank you for making a guy like me look good!"
A memorial service will be announced soon and we appreciate your prayers and respect for privacy."
Geo. H. Lewis & Sons is handing funeral arrangements. UPDATE: Lanier's funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday (Dec. 23) in the Jasek Chapel of Geo. H. Lewis & Sons, 1010 Bering Drive. At 10 a.m., prior to the service the family will be receiving guests in the grand foyer of the funeral home. A private family interment will be held at Memorial Oaks Cemetery in Houston after the service.
In a statement, Mayor Annise Parker mourned Lanier's death.
I am saddened to hear of the passing of Mayor Bob Lanier. He was a strong, popular leader who left a lasting mark on this city. Never one to shy away from a tough battle, he used his strength and popularity to push through Affirmative Action protections, rebuild the City’s wastewater system, improve neighborhoods and add hundreds of officers to the police force. Although he became very successful in life, he never forgot his humble beginnings in Baytown. He will be greatly missed. My thoughts and prayers are with Elyse and the entire Lanier family."