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The Influentials
Ed Emmett

The Astrodome Judge opens up on enemies, social media critics, a king and his future

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Shelby Ed Emmett Influentials July 2013
Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com

No question, it was Hurricane Ike and his commanding role as director of the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management that earned Harris County Judge Ed Emmett high marks and widespread recognition among the 4.2 million constituents that live in his domain. But it will likely be — in lieu of another troublesome hurricane — the fate of the Astrodome that seals his place in Harris County history.

Last month, Harris County Commissioners Court, led by Emmett, referred the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp.'s proposal for saving the dome to the budget office. As he has frequently said, funding is the key consideration in all plans presented on the hot button issue. Despite the broad public interest, the Astrodome is just one of a multitude of issues that the Harris County Judge deals with daily including the emergency management office which remains at heightened alert throughout hurricane season.

Emmett was appointed by the court in 2007 to fill the position vacated by former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels and he has handily won his elections since then.

Born and raised primarily in East Texas, his rural youth spawned a soft-spoken charm while his intellectual voraciousness forged a wise demeanor coupled with a dry wit. Emmett is not your typical politician, even though the desire to hold public office was his impetus for earning a graduate degree at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, after receiving his undergraduate degree at Rice University.

What is your chief characteristic?

My gosh. I don’t know how to answer that simply because if I answer it honestly it comes off a little egocentric. But probably thoughtful, well-read introvert.

The best advice you ever received?

It came from an old, crusty legislator that didn’t like me and it was obvious that I didn’t like him and that I didn’t have any respect for him. He took me aside one day and told me I was smart and told me I really had a future, but  I needed to learn a few things. "The first thing you need to learn is never 'permanent-ize' an enemy."  Now, I don’t think 'permanent-ize' is a word, but it speaks volumes. And there’s real truth in it.

Who are your real life heroes?

I have a lot. I love reading biographies because I think you learn a lot more from reading about mistakes that other people have made and so in no particular order and you’ll quibble with the first one being “real life” — King Arthur. I actually toyed with the idea of going and getting a graduate degree in Arthurian literature. The concept of this person, who when the Romans left the British isles and everything was falling apart, he worked to hold it together, that to me is fascinating . . .

Henry II . . . Abraham Lincoln . . . George Washington . . .

And, more recently, a person that I just have tremendous respect for. And he and his wife are the reason I am where I am today. Everything we do is based on what somebody else did for you at some point in the past.  And that would be George H. W. Bush and Barbara. In his case, he’s just the epitome of a class act. 

Your pet aversion?

Because of the line of work I’m in right now, I’m particularly put off by self-aggrandizement. And boy do I see it a lot.

How do you chill out?

I read and I play tennis. I don’t get to read near as much as I used to. I started back in the late ‘80s, I’ve written down every book I’ve ever read. I used to read 12 or 15 a year and now it’s down to six or seven.

I grew up playing tennis and then I quit playing tennis for a long time and was playing golf two or three times a week and then I took this job. Now I play golf once a year, maybe, if I’m lucky . . . I went back to playing tennis. What’s great about playing tennis is you don’t have time to think about anything else. You’re just out there banging the ball. So it’s relaxing.

What's the most difficult thing about holding elected office?

Putting up with the criticism, particularly when you know it’s not warranted. I mean some is warranted and that’s bad enough. But they always talk about you have to have a thick skin to be in politics, I know very few people in politics who have a thick skin. They all growl about it. And in today’s world, anybody can put anything they want in social media and gee it must be true.

What's it like to be constantly in the political limelight?

Hurricane Ike really changed the dynamics of my life because County Judge is one of those positions that most people think, it’s a judge. But it’s more of a county executive who works with the County Commissioners Court. But the high profile role in terms of emergency preparedness causes people, and still to this day, to stop and take note. It’s moving to me. After Ike, I was sitting in a restaurant and somebody came by and dropped a little coaster with a smiley face and note on it which said “Great job!”

How long would you like to hold public office?

At this point, I’m running one more time . . . I'm 64 this summer so I’m not running for something to run for something else. I like being County Judge most of the time. I mean it’s got its moments, but I don’t want to be doing this, to be in political life, past 70. It would take an unusual circumstance. 

How did you get into politics?

My parents were always real interested in public affairs even though neither of them ever ran for office, neither one of them ever went to college. 

I was in college during I think the most tumultuous time of all. I entered Rice in the fall of ‘67 and graduated in the spring of ’71 . . . During that time I was college president of Lovett College at Rice and all the Vietnam protests were going on and I wake up and I say, “You know what, I don’t like either side. I think there just needs to be some reason and moderation in the way we approach things." And so that got me interested in politics. I was a tennis pro for a year and a half and then I went back to graduate school, the LBJ School of Public Affairs with the thought that I was going to go into politics and so I did. 

What are your favorite Houston restaurants?

Oh, you’d get me in so much trouble. Nobody can answer that question. We probably have five favorites in Houston: Tony’s, Tony Mandola's,  Antica d’Osteria, Cafe Brussels and Mockingbird Bistro.

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