How Annise Parker will change Houston's image
Houston, we have an image problem.
You don’t need me to tell you that. If you have friends or business acquaintances who have never been here, I bet you have a tough time convincing them it’s a great place to visit and an even greater place to call home.
Past promotional campaigns like “Houston’s Hot” and “Expect the Unexpected” did little to change national perceptions that the city is a dusty cowtown ruled by old ways of thinking. Outsiders have no idea that Houston is a melting pot of cultures that welcomes entrepreneurs and opens its heart to evacuees. Instead they revert to stereotypes of the evil Texas oilman or warmongering president.
I, too, get angry when I have to defend the city to friends around the country. Like a lot of Houstonians, I planned to stay for a year at the most and then move to New York or L.A. I’ve been here nearly 30 years, in part, because Houston continues to be an endlessly fascinating place to live.
But, as Tiger Woods can attest, image is everything. So it's time to quit grousing about how no one understands that Houston is a cosmopolitan city where good things happen and put a different spin on the situation.
That’s why I believe the election of Annise Parker is the best thing to happen to Houston in a long time. When voters decided to elect the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, they sent a message that Houston judges people on their accomplishments instead of their background, race, gender or sexual orientation.
During a press conference Sunday, Parker acknowledged that her victory might be a good public relations tool. “I believe it’s an election that will change some people’s minds about the city of Houston,” she said. “We are a diverse city that values what people do and we welcome everyone regardless of who they are or where they come from.”
Her election has spawned stories on CNN, NPR, The New York Times and other national media outlets. Already, some Web sites with preconceived notions about Houston are expressing amazement at the outcome. “Of all the places in the United States, who would have thought it would happen there?” one respondent commented to an article on the Huffington Post about Parker’s election.
If could have turned out differently. If Parker had lost, news accounts would have credited a negative mailing by anti-gay groups headed by David Wilson and Steven Hotze and bankrolled by former Port of Houston Commissioner Ned Holmes. And Houston would have likely been slapped with the "intolerant" label.
At her press conference, Parker noted that she had debated gay issues with Hotze on local television in the 1980s. “I have grown and matured,” she said. “It’s a shame he has not.”
If they’re smart, many in the Houston business establishment who refrained from backing Parker because they thought she couldn’t win should jump at the opportunity to tout her election. According to The Rise of the Creative Class, young creative types who power the national economy gravitate to cities that are open and diverse, so Parker’s victory should make Houston a more attractive place for the best and brightest job candidates.
But Parker has her work cut out for her. She said she expects her popularity to plummet when she makes hard choices on where to cut the city budget if the Houston economy doesn’t improve. “I'm going to spend all my time telling people no,” she said.
Most people who know her will tell you her sexual orientation is not the most important part of who she is. She’s been in a 19-year relationship, attends church regularly, and often frets she doesn't spend enough time with her teenage daughters. When I stopped by her home briefly to say hello on Thanksgiving (I supported Parker’s campaign and co-hosted a fundraiser for her), she was at the sink washing dishes.
After her victory party, Parker posed for photos with friends and supporters for a couple of hours before heading back to her room at the Hilton-Americas hotel. She then called her children, who had returned home, and indulged in a long bubble bath before going to bed at 2 a.m.
She’s not so different than many of her gay and lesbian supporters who also lead pretty traditional lives. On Saturday night, Pacific street – where many of Houston’s most popular gay bars are located – was closed off in anticipation of a wild celebration in the event Parker was elected mayor. Yet there were no massive outbursts. Instead many in the gay community had a feeling of quiet satisfaction that one of their own had attained the city’s highest office.
“I never thought I would see this day,” one older gay man told me at Parker’s victory celebration at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where music selections included the Sam Cooke classic, “It’s Been a Long Time Coming.” “What a wonderful moment in time. I had to be here.”