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MA: Today is December 29. We are in the Mayor’s office of the City of Houston where we are interviewing Mayor Annise Parker for the Houston Oral History Project. I am Madeline Appel. Mayor, tell us about your formative years and where you lived and went to school.
AP: I grew up in Houston, largely in Spring Branch. I went to Spring Branch Elementary School, started at Spring Woods Junior High School, and then my family started moving around. We moved to Mississippi and then we moved to South Carolina, back to Houston. Then, we moved to Germany and then back to South Carolina. And I actually returned to Houston when I entered Rice University for my freshman year in college. So I have deep roots in Houston. Both my parents were born in Houston but I have lived in a couple of other states and one foreign country. It had an impact. So did moving so many times – 3 different middle schools -- I think 3, maybe 4, middle schools and 3 different high schools. It certainly helped me learn how to make new friends, talk to people. There is a benefit to moving a lot. You get to reinvent yourself everywhere you go.
MA: You said you were very shy as a child. How have you overcome that shyness in public life? Did moving around help you do that?
AP: Moving around helped me overcome shyness to some extent but I actually in high school and college made a conscious decision that I was going to try to conquer it because I realized how painful it was and how crippling it was to just . . . I would go to a new school, I would have to start over again, I would have months and months of anxiety attacks. It was not fun. I realized it was going to be limiting and so I consciously in high school began to put myself in positions where I would have to learn how to cope. I am sort of a sink-or-swim person. You can throw yourself into the deep water and hopefully you learn to swim before you drown. So, I volunteered for things that put me in positions where I had to learn how to talk to people. I would script out everything I would say. I would write notes to myself. I would do affirmations.
Through my freshman and sophomore years in college, I spent the summer in Fort Worth and I had the choice of going to work for the library system up there for a summer job or going to work at Cox’s Department Store as a salesclerk on the floor. I consciously chose to take the Cox’s job. I had nightmares every night all summer long. But now I can talk to people in elevators. I don’t like to do chit-chat but I can do it. I have learned how to walk up to people. It was easier because I worked in the toys and the luggage departments and I had to walk up to people and say, “Hello, may I help you?” For someone who does not have social anxiety, they do not know how difficult that is, but if you have some reason to go up and talk to somebody, it is possible to do and if you do it enough, you can conquer the problem.
MA: Tell us how your turtle collection relates.
AP: Because I am always going to be a very extreme introvert but because I was so painfully shy growing up, my family’s nickname was “the turtle” – shy and slow. And so, I have a turtle collection that was started when I was a kid that I still have – the turtle being withdrawing into your shell and being so reserved.
MA: When did you realize that you were gay and how has that shaped your life?
AP: I realized when I was in high school. I came out when I was about 15 when we were living in Mannheim, Germany. Let me back up a little bit. We moved from Houston to Biloxi, Mississippi when I was about 12 and just finished my 6th grade year at Spring Woods Middle School. My dad’s dream had always been to own his own business and he and a relative bought into a fishing camp in Biloxi, Mississippi. So we went from the Spring Branch area to Mississippi – very different culture, very different community. We actually lived next door to the fishing camp so we were in a rented house but it was a really interesting house, kind of overlooking the bay. So, we could walk out the backyard and there was the water. I was on the water all the time. There was an industrial accident, a barge accident, that took out the only bridge to where we were living and the fishing camp, and very quickly, my dad, who was running the business, lost the business, we lost the house, we lost basically everything we had. It ruined his credit. He did not declare bankruptcy but it ruined his credit and we moved to a small place nearby and my dad took a job as a night watchman. He became acquainted with the Red Cross worker on base. He was a night watchman at Keesler Air Force Base. And he decided he wanted to join the Red Cross. He applied and was accepted and then he spent the next 20 years in the Red Cross service to military installations. A couple of things about that. By being assigned to military bases, we were moved around the world. And those frequent moves, other than the move to Mississippi, were all because of his job. But the other thing is I saw how quickly fortunes could change; how you could be working hard, doing all the right things and something completely beyond your control could take it all away. That made a huge impression on me. And how my family dealt with losing everything they had. My parents did not declare bankruptcy. They were bankrupted but they called their creditors, they made payment arrangements, they paid everything back over time, so they faced the problem and they paid back the people that they owed and they started over again. It made me . . . certainly, a lot of life lessons out of that but, I mean, I believe that you face problems directly and I learned that from my family. I believe that you save for the future and it has made me very careful with money, but it also has made me aware that life is unexpected and that you have to be able to roll with the punches.
MA: And you certainly have. Tell us about your experience in the energy business and how that has helped you as an elected official.
AP: I spent 20 years working in the oil and gas industry. I graduated from Rice University in 1978 with a triple major in anthropology, psychology, and sociology. A lot of fun to study but not anything that you can really get a job in. I had intended to go to graduate school in anthropology and I actually toyed with law school for a while. I had gone to Rice on an academic scholarship -- I was a National Merit Scholar – and I needed some money. My parents were not going to fund me going to graduate school. I had student loans for my room and board, part of my room and board at Rice, and so I needed to make money. I went to work for an oil company. In the late 1970s in Houston, it was 80% of the economy. So, where else would I go to work? An oil company. And once I started working, I just never could make myself quit and go back to school, even though I love going to school. And actually, in my early years in the industry, I was always taking classes. I took geology classes; I took basic petroleum engineering classes – anything that I could convince my company to pay for so that I could go to school. I spent 2 years working for a company called Texas Gulf Oil & Gas and it was, at that time, a Fortune 500 company. I worked for the only woman manager in the entire company. This is, again, the late 1970s. She mentored me. She needed someone who could learn a new software package.
This was very early days of computers. The computers I had at college were the punch cards, the big computers that you had to feed the decks of cards into. So, these were early Apple computers, Wang word processors. I said, “I am always glad to go to school.” I was willing to go learn how to use this new petroleum software package and the new PCs and spent the next 20 years doing just that – continuously learning new software and upgrading my skill set. Two years of working for her at Texas Gulf, I was offered a job because of my newfound skills with Mosbacher Energy and I spent 18 years at Mosbacher Energy. So, I have only had 2 bosses my entire adult life: Toby Turner at Texas Gulf and Steve Siegfried at Mosbacher. They were both always professional. She was a mentor and helped me out on a personal level. He was very polite and professional. And both very interested in making sure that all of the people who worked for them advanced in their jobs and had opportunities to grow. And then, at Mosbacher, of course, the owner of the company, Bob Mosbacher, I had the chance to watch him. I did not interact with him very much. I worked for one of the two executive VPs so I was not very far down on the food chain but vastly far away in terms of authority in the company. He knew everybody that worked in the company, he knew their kids’ names, he walked the floor, he interacted with his troops and that is something that I think is important in a manager. So, I learned how to manage from my two bosses.
MA: And it is certainly standing you in good stead right now. You have been involved in community building for many decades. When did that start and how did you get into community involvement?
AP: I was an active community volunteer when I was in high school. My grandparents, both sets of grandparents, were very active in their church. My dad’s parents were active volunteers in party politics. Both my parents were active community volunteers. We were expected to participate in community activities. We were supposed to give time. So, I said I chose volunteer activities that I decided would help me get over some of what I considered deficits of being so shy and so forth. But the expectation was that we would all volunteer and we did. When I went away to college, they were, at that point, living in South Carolina where I graduated high school and I came back to go to college. I volunteered in things on campus but was really not very active until the second year I helped found a lesbian student organization. Again, this is mid 1970s, so very, very early on. I had a mentor. Just as I had a mentor in my professional life when I first came out of college, I had a mentor, an older woman, very active in this brand new gay community. The modern Gay Rights Movement only started in 1969, so this was very early on. I was like a mascot then. I went to many of the organizational meetings for the groups that are still active in Houston today and state-wide organizations, I had an opportunity to see what was happening. I graduated in 1978. In 1979, some friends and I formed the Rice Gay Student Association. It is still active today. I went from there, spent probably the first 10 years after I graduated from college, being an officer or board member of every gay organization you could think of here at the local and state level. I got a little burned out and then focused on civic associations. I was a United Way volunteer, senior services. I visited all the senior centers across the City and did the congregate meals with the seniors and so forth. And so, I was always a volunteer.
The gay organizing or the gay activism, I was kind of led into it by my friend, Joe, and because I was coming into my own as an adult and a lesbian but just as I could see it, if I did not tackle how painfully shy I was, I was not going to be able to do any of the things I really wanted to do in life. I could see that if I could not get more comfortable with who I was in terms of my sexual orientation and if the world was not going to be more comfortable with me, then I could not do what I wanted to do in life either. And so, that kind of directed my activism in that way.
MA: One of the things that has amazed me working with you through the years and particularly now is that you are very comfortable with yourself, which is a lesson we can all learn.
AP: I had to work hard at that!
MA: Well, it comes across. It gives you, in times of crisis, a certain serenity and I think it stood you in very good stead.
AP: It has taken a lot of conscious effort to get where I am comfortable with who I am and what I am, but on the other hand, I had a family that loved me; particularly my maternal grandparents absolutely adored me. I mean, every human being deserves someone who gives them complete unconditional love and I had that from my grandparents. And that kind of foundation allows you to do the other.
MA: Well, and also, one set of grandparents taught you to love growing things and being out in the country and riding horseback.
AP: They were all, actually on both sides, farmers at heart and gardeners. And I do love being outdoors. I love growing things. This last year, I actually planted a couple of tomato plants. I had never planted tomato plants before. Mostly cactus and some orchids and houseplants, but I have had an herb garden for a while and I thought, oh, what the heck, I’ll put some tomatoes in. I was astounded at how it connected me back to my grandparents and the gardens that they always had.
My first job when I was a kid was helping in the garden, particularly my maternal grandparents. My granddad was an organic gardener. He did not put pesticides. This is in the 1950s and early 1960s. He did not use pesticides. I would go pick bugs by hand. We would get a little can with a little bit of kerosene in the bottom or tobacco juice and I would pull the bugs off and drop them in the can. I’d just go down the rows picking off the bugs. Again, life lessons: not to be afraid to get your hands dirty but that don’t do any harm. Think about what you are doing. And that often, the simplest solution – pulling that bug off – is the best.
AP: Well, to switch subjects back to community involvement, how did you go from civic associations to politics?
AP: There was something in there between . . . I did go from college to my only 2 jobs other than politics, but I did own a business in there. I had a retail bookstore, Inklings, for 10 years. Inklings was a women’s bookstore. A lot of our clientele were lesbians. A lot of them were feminists but we also sold children’s books and so forth. And so, I had the example of about 10 years of gay activism and the 10 years I owned Inklings, I was also president of one of the largest civic associations in town. I was doing the community volunteerism. I was rubbing shoulders with the folks at the women’s center and Planned Parenthood. I kept seeing things at the City that frustrated me. And I had worked to help elect other people over the years. The very first campaign I volunteered on was Eleanor Tinsley for City Council. I have always considered Eleanor Tinsley a role model. It never had occurred to me to run myself but as I, particularly my work in the civic associations, I was seeing more and more the politicians – they were not doing the things that I thought needed to be done. I allowed myself to be talked into a campaign for City Council, District C, against the incumbent. I ran against the incumbent, Vince Ryan. I got shellacked. Deserved to be shellacked, should never have gotten into the race. But, again, learned some things from the race. One is that if I was going to run, that it needed to be a race that I absolutely believed I could win and had to be strategic about it and had to do what was necessary to win. That was 1991. I did not think I would ever run again but knew what I would need to do. I came back in 1995. Special election. Sheila Jackson Lee resigned her seat on City Council. There was a special election to replace her. There were 19 candidates, 6 week campaign. I finished third behind John Peavy and Katherine Tyra. John Peavy being backed by the Democratic Party establishment. Katherine Tyra being backed by the Republican Party establishment – both of whom had won a county-wide election in Houston and had been reelected so they were experienced candidates. So, I did well, got people’s attention, and was devastated because I knew I was the best candidate in that race. Curled into a fetal position for a couple of days. I said, “I am never going to do this again, ever, I swear.” And then, in 1997, I did decide to do it again and was successful fortunately.
MA: What were your biggest challenges while you were a Council member?
AP: I focused on the same things that I had focused on as a community volunteer. Quality of life and neighborhood issues. I threw myself into tweaking ordinances that no one else was paying any attention to - the first Pooper Scooper Ordinance in the City of Houston. But the Percent for Art Program that we did, I carried a lot of the stuff for Scenic Houston on sign ordinances. We did the Minimum Building Line and the Minimum Lot Size Ordinances that impacted development. But I was going to say, something like the Pooper Scooper Ordinance which I mention because it makes people smile but if you look at the kind of things that just make people nuts who have to live together or in close concert with each other as neighbors, there are a lot of things: You don’t want to hear your neighbor’s music late in the night. You don’t want to hear your neighbor’s car alarm. You want to be able to park in front of your house. You don’t want your neighbor’s pets to be leaving their droppings in your yard. There is a whole range of thing. And so, I tried to start ticking off some of those. In order to pass something like the Pooper Scooper ordinance or the Exotic Animal Ordinance because I also passed the Exotic Animal Ordinance, you have to figure out, well, who is the constituency here? Well, for the Pooper Scooper Ordinance, it is not just citizens in the neighborhood who want their neighbors to pick up after their dogs but at the time, we were having a huge problem with the ISDs. We did not have any dog parks in the City of Houston and people would go and take their dogs to any fenced field they could find and turn them loose. The most common fenced fields were at schools. And so, I talked to the superintendent, Kay Strippling, at that time, the superintendent of the HISD schools and said, “I am thinking about this ordinance and I know that no police officer is ever going to go write somebody a ticket for not scooping poop but if I write this ordinance, I would like to write it in such a way that you could use it. Would you enforce it in the schools?” “Absolutely.” “Well, will you write me a letter to Council that you want this ordinance, it would be helpful to you and you will enforce it?” “Absolutely.” And we started putting the pieces together. And then, at the same time, I helped create the first dog park, the City’s Maxey Road Dog Park. So, we were making people responsible pet owners and you don’t have to go run your dog at a school yard – we are going to create a series of dog parks to allow you to give your dog a place to roam. Other cities do it, why can’t Houston? But, you know, you have to think strategically. You have to figure out who the real stakeholders are and not just the stick but the carrot – here’s the dog park. And it worked.
MA: While you were a Council member, were you thinking ahead to run for something else or did that just evolve?
AP: No, when I ran for and won my Council seat in 1997, by this point, I had spent nearly 20 years working in the oil and gas industry. I had a good job with a great company. I did spend 18 years there at Mosbacher. We went through all the 1980s with the downturn and people around me were getting laid off but I was really bored, and I was spending more and more time in my volunteer stuff, going to do my 8 hours at work so I could go volunteer. I really wanted to do something different and my passion was what was going on in my city and my neighborhood, and I came to Council to work on those neighborhood and quality of life issues. I would have been happy to be a Council member for a long time. If we had not had term limits, I would not have probably moved on. I would have been content, at least for the foreseeable future, to have been a Council member. I was term limited after 6 years. I looked around. How could I continue to serve? Going into the Controller’s office allowed me to do . . . I did project economics for all those years using software but project economics – I understand the finances of the City of Houston; I understood the economic side. It was an opportunity to actually learn the financial side of the City in a different way and it continued to serve and it was an opportunity and I won. I would have been happy to be Controller for a while longer because I was not done with all the things I could see that needed to be fixed in the city in the Controller’s office. As Controller, I oversaw the transition through a really fully automated financial system for the City of Houston. We were in a system that was 20 years old and patched together and kind of bringing us forward in the modern era was a long, painful process. And so, I had gotten the heavy lifting done but there were a lot of things that could have been done there and I would have been happier with a few more years in the Controller’s office. But term limits caused me to think, what do I want to do? Can I continue to serve the City? Well, there is only one job left and that is mayor. I had to think long and hard if I was ready to be mayor and I had to believe, just as I believed when I ran for Controller, that I was the absolute best candidate for the job and the best person to hold it after I was elected. And fortunately, the citizens agreed.
MA: Did you have any disappointments while you were on Council or in the Controller’s office?
AP: There are always disappointments. I can look back and certainly think of votes that I wish I had not cast or if I knew now what I had known then, the biggest financial problem facing the City right now is our pension, or at least the biggest that is not being addressed currently. We would still have a pension problem today but there were things that we did when I was on Council on the advice of people in the administration that have proven disastrous for the city and I wish I could take some of those votes back but now I have to do what I can to fix them. I am very happy with what I was able to accomplish in just 6 years as a Council member. I keep a list of all of the ordinances that I worked on and I know that there are little things that are going to happen in the City for decades where I can look back and say, “That would not have happened had I not been there and worked on that.” Of course, now that I am mayor, much more of an ability to shape the future of Houston. Unfortunately, it is a lot more fun to be mayor when you have money to spend than when every decision is about slashing spending or squeezing an efficiency of something. I do not really get to work on the parks and the libraries and the quality of life issues that I am passionate about but I can work on the things that I know need to be done.
This year, we had a complete overhaul of the rate system in water, sewer, height, water rates -- put it on a firm financial footing and put elements in place so that we can regularly adjust the rates and we will have enough money to spend to make a secure water system. We are implementing Rebuild Houston which is a drainage fee for the City of Houston and the ability to fund to prevent flooding and to fund street reconstruction for the next 20 years. We did a cost recovery fee increase for the City. It helped me patch a short-term budget hole but also we put in place the elements to make sure that we do on a regular and routine basis a recapture of these specialized fees that the City should have been capturing all along. And so, we are systematically doing the things that will lay the foundation, a firm foundation, for the City to be the city it ought to be in the future. I talk about the City in my imagination. Houston is a great city. Houston is a wonderful city in which to live. I am passionately in love with my city. But it can be a better city. It is like me – I can spend more time on the treadmill, I can eat a little more healthily, I can get in better shape – well, the City can always improve. The foundation is going to be there, the elements are going to be there so that Houston can be a premier city for the 21st century.
MA: Well, and you are still working on the things near and dear to you like historic preservation.
AP: I did. I did not mention that it is something we have accomplished this year. I actually tweaked the Historic Preservation Ordinance several times as a Council member. I actually worked on the Historic Preservation Ordinance as a civic club president before I came to Council. It is now 15 years old. This year, we finally turned it into a real historic preservation ordinance with real protections for neighborhoods. It was painful. There were a lot of . . . all of this stuff has required a lot of heavy lifting on Council. There are people who are extremely unhappy with the decision but history once gone really can never be recaptured. And the changes to the Historic Preservation Ordinance are, again, going to give something to the future, that without this action, they would not have had, because we were losing our historic assets one property at a time, but it might be . . . I don’t know whether it is illustrative of how I approach things but there was a gamble in there. A lot of people said, ‘Well, let the people who want to have a real historic preservation ordinance have it and everybody else not have it or let’s go slowly.’ And I am one, if you are going to take the Band-Aid off, take the Band-Aid off. I used to have to give myself . . . I had horrible allergy problems when I was growing up and I spent most of my summers with massive sinus infections. I used to have to give myself allergy shots. My sister did, too. My sister would take the needle and she would like slowly push it in. It was like, no, that is not the way you go. You pop yourself with the needle, you inject and you go on. The same thing with this Historic Preservation Ordinance. We are going to do it one time, we are going to take the chance that we lose some of these districts, but I can watch the historic houses get torn down one house at a time, month after month, or we can do it and I can mourn over the ones that are going to be lost but celebrate the ones that are going to be protected and I do not have to worry about it ever again. And that is what we have done. That was kind of a long answer to that question!
MA: No, it is very reflective of your approach to life and to governance. Let’s talk a little bit before we end about your family. You have also been a pioneer in your family and establishing a family so tell us a little about your partner, your daughters.
AP: On January 16, 2011, Kathy and I will celebrate 20 years of commitment to each other, 20 years and about 8 months. I have, with her, adopted 2 daughters. They were 7 and 12 when we adopted them. Today, they are 15 and 20. We also have a former foster son who is 34. In our 20 years together . . . actually, let’s see . . . I have had 9 political campaigns - 7 successful, 2 not. We have remodeled, this is our fourth house together. We had been together 1 year and my 90-year-old grandparents moved in with us and we cared for them for, well, my granddad lived with us for 10 months before he died and my grandmother for another couple of years, and then we cared for her for a couple of years in the nursing home. Our former foster son who is 34, he moved in with us when he was 16. My grandmother had just gone to the nursing home. He moved in with us. He lived with us for 1 year. We transitioned him out. He lasted 6 months. He came back. We let him stay 6 months that time. We transitioned him out. He came back after a while and we let him stay 3 months. I was made to be a parent. Unfortunately, my spouse does not have the parent gene but she has indulged me in politics, she has indulged me in parenting, she has indulged me in, as we have gone through these real estate buying historic homes and restoring them. I could not do what I do without having someone who is always 110% with me in what I do.
MA: And she seems to be enjoying her role as First Lady.
AP: She loves being First Lady. She is much more social than I am. She enjoys the attention. And I will say that the former first ladies of Houston have been very gracious with her because she is creating a new role. I have had to correct a couple of people, “No, no, I’m the mayor. I’m not the First Lady.” I am particularly grateful to former First Lady Elyse Lanier who has gone out of her way to reach out to Kathy and has actually consciously working with Kathy partnered with her in a number of things, traditional First Lady activities. Now, I know Elyse enjoys being involved in those things but when you have a former First Lady that everybody acknowledged as the First Lady and the expectation is that from her, that everybody is going to treat Kathy equally, it happens. And that kind of bridge has been helpful to her.
MA: And how about the challenges of parenthood?
AP: Parenting is the most humbling thing that could ever happen to one. I used to think I was calm and organized and efficient and I know that I am not; and patient – not nearly as patient as I thought I was. I used to think that . . . we chose older kids and we chose kids with problems that had to be addressed. The difference in, when my grandparents lived with us, they were the ones who gave me unconditional love growing up and it was a wonderful thing to be able to care for them but changing my grandfather’s diapers, going through their physical losses with him . . . I was the one who made the decision finally when my grandfather was in the hospital to disconnect him from life support. With them, it was the losses were going to mound. With kids, the expectation, the hope is that they are going to succeed and achieve and that they are going up instead of down. And while the challenges of adopting kids out of foster care have been tremendous and hard to cope with, I can see the girls as they were and our son as well. I can see them all, the kids, as they could have been and I can see still the potential unfulfilled but I can also see where they would have been had we not intervened and I am more proud than I can say of all of them. They are triumphing over a lot of things, and they are all going to be productive members of society. I think they are going to find good lives for themselves.
MA: And that is very satisfying.
AP: That is extremely satisfying. I am probably something of a neurotic super achiever but I love my job. I love the City. I had a great job for 20 years in the oil and gas industry. I enjoyed the small business that I owned although I never worked in it. I was half owner and got to kind of dabble in it. But I absolutely believe that I am doing what I was prepared for, what I was meant to do. I am in the right place at the right time. And I intend to do my absolute best for this city.
MA: And what do you hope for this city over the next years?
AP: By the time I leave my job as mayor, I will have fixed the toughest financial problems. I have already knocked out 3 out of the big 4. Pensions remain. I also believe that by the time I leave office, I will have, in some way, changed the way Houstonians think about themselves. It has frustrated me over the years . . . we seem to have an inferiority complex here. We are not New York. We are not Chicago. We are not San Antonio or Austin. We are Houston. We are a wonderful, cosmopolitan, international city. One of the largest cities in the world with a wonderful quality of life. And Houstonians seem to feel like they have to apologize for Houston. I will take credit for having raised Houston’s coolness factor. When I was first elected, the responses fell into two categories. One was ‘Houston elected a lesbian?” The other was, “Houston? This happened in Houston?” Well, yes. People don’t understand Houston. Houston is about what you can do more than who you are. It is a very entrepreneurial city. It is about the new, it is about looking to the future and that can be very frustrating, particularly if you are a preservationist and you believe in preserving history and wanting some of those elements to be there for the future, but that forward-looking, entrepreneurial dynamism that is Houston is really part of who we are, it is embedded in our culture and we need to celebrate that. And the rest of the world is looking at Houston in a different way because of my election and Houston has, in some ways, looked at itself in a different way. And I hope to continue that arc, where we begin to think of ourselves as the great international city that we, in fact, already are.
MA: Well, I think we are well on the way to achieving your goals and thanks for spending time in getting this all recorded for history.
AP: Well, I hope somebody might be interested in looking at it someday but I love what I do and I love this city. I would think, in looking at the mayors that I have known, that they all love the City, too. They may have approached their jobs in different ways and had different goals but we all love the City.