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Mayor Bill White
Interviewed by: Patrick Trahan
Date: November 23, 2009
PT: Today is Monday, November 23, 2009. We are here as part of the Houston Public Library Oral History Project, speaking to Houston Mayor Bill White. Today is a significant day for Mayor Bill White in that his name is being bantered about as a possibility for running for governor. Mayor, can you tell us a little bit about that? Does that create some excitement for you?
BW: Oh, I don’t know, you know. If you have been there for a while and been through hurricanes and stuff like that, I am pretty calm and do not get too excited, but it has been a busy day, I will tell you that.
PT: Let’s talk about you, your life, and your time in Houston. Can you tell us a little bit about your growing up, those days before you came to Houston?
BW: Yes, I thank you, Pat. I grew up in San Antonio. My parents were teachers. I have really great memories of my childhood. We had this house that was on this street, it was really outside of San Antonio in the northwest. A lot of trees, a lot animals. The person across from our house moved there from the farm and they had horses and he grew corn across – they were vacant lots but not vacant lots in the sense of, for us, as a kid, it was an adventure because you could go out there. It was a house that was built by shop teachers. It was in a flood plane. I did not know what a flood plane was then. I do now. I remember the chore of my dad running dump trucks and getting out there and just hauling dirt, hauling dirt so we could raise the house. Now I know it is called increasing the elevation so that it would not flood. But, I mean, it did not stop the flood. We had a ditch, probably it was a little stream that went right by the house. It was a great childhood.
PT: Your early teen years, I think you began to develop your sense of mission as a page in Austin. Can you talk about that and how that might have helped to shape Bill White into who you are now?
BW: Sure. Up until a certain time, probably about 13 years old – I can pinpoint – I figured that I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to do but I spent a lot of time with music. I enjoyed music. Playing music. Composed a little. I mean, just a kid like any other kid, I enjoyed sports and other things but music had been sort of a passion.
PT: What was your instrument?
BW: Piano and I would play guitar. I could pick things up. Not as good as my brother maybe. I remember this sort of sense of excitement with the Civil Rights Movement and seeing the country change. For me and my family, it was not a close call, you know, so we felt the country was really turning the corner. I followed politics when I was a little kid because of that. Then, my dad knew a guy from a bowling league that he also talked with and after the voting rights legislation or appeal of poll tax, then in our community, you got more and more folks who were not Anglo white males who were able to get elected to office. _____ was one of those folks. I went up there and was a page and that was the state legislature where Barbara Jordan got in for the first time and you had more diversity than you ever had and that included a few Republicans that had not been there in the legislature. So those were exciting times. Instead of going to the second part of the 7th grade, I was watching the legislative process and I guess I sort of got the bug, not so much to run for office but feeling that voting mattered and who we elected mattered.
PT: With the help of veterans, you received a scholarship, went on to college. Can you tell me a little bit about what you decided to pursue in those years of your life?
BW: Yes, I enjoyed my time in school. I was able to go to Harvard. I never visited there. I mean, you know, this is one of those things where nowadays, my kids’ generation, they talk about these college visits – all I knew was the name and reputation that it was a good school, and I did know from stuff I had learned in high school debate . . . you would have these topics and you would debate all sorts of things. And in my own mind, what many of them came down to in this debate is, you know, how much does it cost and who is going to pay for it? So I decided before I went to college that I wanted to study economics and, at that time, Harvard had the premium economics faculty on the planet really. I mean, you know, there were probably one dozen Nobel Prize winners there when I went to school. Those were good and interesting years. It was the first time I had seen snow except for a little sleet one year in San Antonio where the rain turned white. It did not stick to the ground too much. But it was a little change for somebody from Texas to go up to where, from October through March, it seemed like, every winter, there was ice everywhere.
PT: You talked about those Nobel Prize winning professors. Were there some that made a particular impression on you while you were at Harvard?
BW: Yes, you know, a number that did. There was a fellow who, oh my gosh, he will be obscure by now but his name was Arthur Smithies and I think Professor Smithies was the first head of the Office of Management and Budget back in the Truman Administration. He was not a Nobel Prize winner. And probably had seen a few better days. I think he was a little bit more interested in having a cocktail rather than writing an article but he was one of a number . . . I generally took the first year what you called upper level courses or graduate courses, really, is what they were. I saw this, from what I recall, he taught history ______ but basically what I thought was that market systems were good, that they allowed individuals to have choice. A fair amount of the Harvard faculty at the time were overtly Socialist. That term has a bad name and deservedly so but I do not think they were bad-hearted people. But it seemed to me that you would be much better if you looked at the Socialist countries at the time; that they really did not offer as much opportunity as we did in a market or in the economy in the United States. So that really focused me on the advantages of markets which, in turn, led me to look at improvements in the way we could do business in the country. Our free market forces had been suppressed and that, in turn, led me to energy policy, so I spent a lot of time in college boning up on energy.
PT: Did you go to law school right after that or did you spend some time pursuing your interest in . . .
BW: I took I think it was about 9 months off to work as a legislative assistant in Congress on legislation that was the first comprehensive energy legislation -- really landmark energy legislation that had the first auto fuel economy standards, the first strategic petroleum reserve, the first auto appliance standards, and I took some time off. When I was in college, I took more than the normal course load so I had, I guess you would say, some hours to spare. But then, I went to law school right after I graduated.
PT: You could say that before you moved to Houston, you were well-versed in the business that was making Houston tick at the time?
BW: Well, I mean, my family did not . . . I mean, I have relatives that were like roughnecks but I did not know any big oil and gas guys. That was a stereotype that a Texan is a rich oil man. I had never met any of those people. But I did get a pretty good understanding of the energy business. I did not understand it as well as somebody who spent 30 years in the business but I really spent a lot of time in school reading every book I could find.
PT: Out of law school, did you make the move to Houston? Is that when you made the move?
BW: Yes, I did.
PT: First impressions for a person just out of law school coming to Houston, what was it like? What did you see when you got here?
BW: I loved Houston. I mean, I loved it. Period. End of story. I had spent a couple of weeks there one summer. A lot of law students had already started going through these clerkships where firms court you and everything like that and based on my record and stuff, I had a few choices where to go to work. I wound up clerking for one of these court of appeals or spring courts. I mean, I did okay in law school so I was heavily recruited. I thought about San Antonio. I thought about El Paso. I thought about Houston. There was a fellow who had and when I heard the idea, I thought, that sounds like me. Steve Sussman was his name. He had been one of Justice Black’s law clerks. Like me, had been editor-in-chief of the Law Review. He wanted to sue people for price fixing and for things that would limit competition between firms and do consumer fraud and securities fraud. That appealed to me because I had this abiding belief that in order to work, the market system had to have rules, they had to be enforced against those firms and generally, you know, this is what I studied in school and I thought I could do something that was basically consumer interest law. Steve wanted to do that here in Houston, set up a firm, and I joined him.
PT: The first couple of cases that you had, what were they? Were they related to the securities fraud or was it related to that type of business? What was the first big case you won?
BW: You know, in that way, in the sense of starting a law practice, I was probably the luckiest person in the world. It was a small firm that we had. We had some smart people there but, I mean, it was tiny compared to this one case. It was called the Corrugated Container Antitrust Litigation. And, you know, from the day I walked in the office through the end of the trial of the Corrugated case, it was probably like a 15 month sprint. I mean, I did not go home. It was a 7 day a week, 7:30 to 10:30. I wound up doing the economic testimony of cross-examining their experts, preparing our economic experts to testify, and that was a lot of the heart of the case. We got the biggest jury verdict in history – in American history, English history and history. Now, we did not have a paying client but the jury found that the makers of cardboard boxes, for years and years had fixed the price of boxes so consumers were paying too much. It was hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.
PT: Was it tried here in Houston?
BW: Tried here in Houston.
PT: Was it because the manufacturers were here in Houston at the time?
BW: No. It is a complicated process. It was one of the earlier cases of what they called multidistrict litigation where people would file lawsuits all over the country and the federal judges in the country would assign them to one court. It may have been probably one of the first MDL cases in what we called the Southern District of Texas; that is the federal courts that are here in Houston. It was interesting. I would go in, I would take a deposition. Here, you had a 26-year-old kid and there would be 20 lawyers. We had name partners. The guy who was opposing council throughout much of the trial was a guy named Les Arps. He found a firm called Scaden Arps which is one of the biggest law firms in the world. We had some of the best trial lawyers in the country trying the case, so I got to observe them and we were off and running.
PT: Any interesting names? Any attorneys that were just starting out then that became big names later in Houston that you either had a chance to work with or work against?
BW: Oh, yes. I mean, you know, after a while ______. I tried lawsuits for about 14 years and in that time . . . you know, the people who were trying lawsuits, we knew each other. I mean, commercial lawsuits. I did not know the personal injury people or the criminal people that much. Then, after a while, as there were more commercial lawsuits as businesses, you know, way back when, you would not have that many lawsuits between businesses because there was a gentleman’s deal with private companies. But then, if you are a public company, if you had shareholders – it cannot be just you and somebody else going on the golf course and decide to work it out. It was not about personalities, it was about somebody thinking they were promised one thing and somebody else having a dispute. And if I went down through the list, there would be a lot of things . . . I would say the second lawsuit I had probably I learned more from that lawyer than anybody else. It was a guy named Dick Miller. Any trial lawyer here in town will tell you . . . Dick was a big of a legend in his own time. He and Joe Jamail tried that Pennzoil Texaco case. Dick was on the losing side of that case. Joe is a great lawyer. Dick. John O’Quinn, who was an up and coming young lawyer, I mean, a few years older than me at that time. I was in the courtroom with a bunch of these guys.
PT: Tell us a little bit about those years. What years were those? And then, when you did finally get a chance to go home in the evenings, where did you live? What was the social life like? Were you married at the time? Who were the great people that you got to meet?
BW: Yes, thanks for asking. Well, you know, for a while there, I just worked my tail off, like a lot of people new to town. You do not know that many people. If I did anything for, I guess you would call it relaxation, I mean, you know, I enjoyed getting out in the mountains, I enjoyed camping in Big Bend and I hung around with people who were interested in politics, too. I became a precinct judge in a neighborhood, it is called Inwood North. It still exists today. At that time, it was extremely diverse, that is all I can say, and it was before people talked about diversity, before I thought about it. I would say probably minority Anglos but there were Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans. Still are, principally African American today. It is right near Acres Home. And I got involved in politics in that area. I mean, just small scale politics. Just going to precinct meetings. There was somebody named Billy Carr who was a bit of a legend in these parts. She had known because I had been active in politics in San Antonio and she taught me a few things back in those days.
Personal life suffered, I guess you would say. I worked all the time. I was married. My wife, a wonderful person. Carol. She was going all over the world negotiating international oil and gas deals for Vinson & Elkins. Our marriage did not last but it was sort of curious. It is more that we were just kids. We did not know what marriage was all about. I mean, we were both working and leading separate lives. She went door-to-door for me when I campaigned for mayor. We are big mutual fans. She lives now in Taos, New Mexico which sometimes I think maybe she had the right idea but she knew that I worked all the time. And then, I traveled a lot. There was a case I had in Beaumont that were suing an organized crime family. I really poured my heart into that case. We broke up the organized crime ring there. A lot of colorful characters. And I really poured myself into the work in those days but I loved it. I loved it. I loved the sense of you are representing the little guy and there are all these older lawyers and they had the big powerful companies and you were suing for the small investor or for the employee. It was messed around because they would not do illegal conduct. We had a good time.
PT: So you spent a lot of time in the law practice. As the years went by, you developed some contacts that led you to Washington, D.C., I believe, after that. How did that all come about?
BW: Well, in 1989, it was a bit of a turning point in my life. I had practiced law for 10 years. I had always followed D.C. and issues because I was there, you know, especially energy policy to the Oil and Gas Journal, represented the energy companies and sometimes sued them. People understood that I was very curious about the energy business, new people in the business. In that year, I tried 2 lawsuits. One, at the time, the judge told me was the biggest jury verdict in a security fraud case in the country. And another one was out at West Texas that dealt with an oil and gas service company that cheated a big oil and gas operator and resulted in them losing a lot of natural gas. I had learned a few things and we were on a roll, so to speak. And then, I had read this book about a fellow named Louie Brandice who was my hero of a lot of lawyers, who took some time off and after that, I had a good 2 big cases in 1989, had a little more financial security than I had before and I could pick and choose about the cases I took. I decided to devote more time on public policy and church and a lot of other things, civic and community. Well, the next thing you know, I had a friend who got elected mayor and then Bill Clinton had contacted me, and I had the first function for him outside of Arkansas the day after he announced his presidency. In those days, people did not think that he had much of a chance. He had single digit support and stuff like that. But I began talking to him and others about where we ought to go in our nation on energy policy. Gosh, a year and a half later, after a long campaign trail and an election, he had asked me to come up and help make energy policy in Washington.
PT: While doing energy policy in Washington, you became an envoy to eastern Europe on oil and gas related issues. Can you talk about that and how that may have opened up your world view a little bit?
BW: Yes, there was a lot of international work at the Department of Energy because the Soviet Union had collapsed and broke up into different nations, and I did have an idea because I had read foreign policy and participated in foreign policy forums . . . I kept up. I had international clients. I had traveled when I was a kid. And I ran around with some people who were influential in the world. And so, I thought I had an idea that if you could get some of the countries that were no longer part of the Soviet Union on their feet economically, then it would be less likely that the Soviet Union would essentially become reconstituted or that they would be totally within Russia’s fear of influence. Now, I did not mind Russia. I went to Russia frequently and dealt with senior levels of the Russian government at that time, but I thought that it would be good for the world, given the course of Russian history and Russian nationalism, if we give those countries a chance to breathe. And so, I did a lot of economic diplomacy and other diplomacy during those years.
PT: And from those years, any great experiences outside of that? D.C. treated you well? What did you learn that you would come back and use in Houston? What would be some of the lessons you would learn as you would come back to Houston for business?
BW: It is hard to say but, you know, I guess I did learn that if you did your homework and you knew what you were talking about, you could make some things happen. I worked a lot in the energy field to try to increase domestic oil and gas production. We had something called deep water royalty relief which I pushed very hard, which were incentives for oil and gas companies to look in deeper water for oil and gas. We were able to accomplish that. That is where most of the new oil and gas in our country, particularly petroleum, has been found because we gave people incentives to look in the deeper water where nobody had leased, nobody had drilled, people thought it was technologically impossible. But that is where most of our new domestic supply is. So when I came back, I had a choice whether to return to the practice of law or to get into the energy business and I decided that I would give it a shot at the energy business.
PT: And so, you became Chief Executive Officer of Wedge. Tell us a little bit about – was it a startup company? Had it been established at that time?
BW: It was an interesting circumstance. I was chairman of the democratic party and I had an exploration company that I was chairman of but did not have more investor in. Then, I had a friend who was the CEO of Wedge who I had been talking to about investing in the contract drilling business. I had a theory that domestic natural gas was going to come back and we had had those ongoing conversations. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack. I went to his funeral. The chairman of the company who was a friend of mine said, “Could you sort of help run this company?” and I said, “Let me take a look at it. I’ll do that. I’ll run it for a little while. Either I will decide to run it or I will find you a replacement. But first, need to get under the hood to see what the businesses were like.” I wound up being CEO and running it for about 7 years or so.
PT: And then it diversified. It did also some real estate or hotel management.
BW: Yes, I sold some companies and added some companies but basically, we did commercial real estate that included hotels, commercial office buildings, mini-warehouses. I added one at the end which was a recreational property. We had – how do I describe it? We had a process and chemical engineering firm that I spent a lot of time with building that up. And then, I would acquire companies. I learned a lot from the CEO but I would tend to acquire companies he would assume ______. And t then, I built oil and gas service companies.
PT: You had a great opportunity between the time that you left Houston. You were there in Houston at first. You came back. What had changed? How had the city changed in that little bit of time?
BW: Well, you know, it is hard for me to say how much the city changed and how much I changed but, you know, certainly from somebody who was living in a house that was a $40,000 house, the cheapest house I could find that was new construction, to, you know, living in River Oaks. Of course, the biggest change – I had kids and so they have been a real blessing in my life. Andrea, during those wed years, she left the practice of law after our second child. More and more civic leadership. I mean, I was not running for anything. I was just participating in all sorts of boards in the city. But I did see a shift because when I got here, one of the biggest changes I noticed . . . I had been involved in like Hispanic politics, Mexican American politics we would call it, where I cut my teeth, and when I came here, I was looking for who were the people like I used to run around with in San Antonio, Mexican American leaders? There were not that many. I mean, they were good people but, I mean, we were we had like one elected official. But I saw a growing increase in the Hispanic population of the city, a lot of people I know like when they were at University of Houston – several of them. Now, in 2009, they are elected officials.
PT: Who were some of those people?
BW: Oh, gosh. Joe Moreno. Ana Hernandez. Carol Alvarado. Jessica Ferrar. All these, I knew when they were kids because I would be supporting organizations, voter registration. At that point, I was sort of now a little older and I was more of a mentor just like the people in San Antonio that were Mexican Americans 20 years older than me were mentors to me.
PT: What were the lessons? What were the things that you were able to impart as it related to politics to these young people who became some of the leaders . . .
BW: Well, mainly, the future is on our side. I mean, you know, our country had some setbacks. We always have the people who want to turn the clock back, who appeal to fear, who divide Americans into groups but the American people are great and Texans are great and it is just a matter of overcoming fears and stereotypes. So, at that time, and today, and hopefully until the day I die, one of the things that people in Texas from all backgrounds want to do is make sure that there is a deep bench of people who understand Hispanic heritage, who can make sure that we have broad qualified leadership in our state which reflects the face of our state, which is increasingly Hispanic.
PT: During that time, you developed a relationship with particular branches of the Greater Houston Partnership, particularly quality of life. What made that appeal to you? How did you determine that that was an important direction for you to take your service?
BW: Well, there were a few of us who were hanging out and it was like 1999-2000 era, and I was very interested in just improving the community in which I lived in those ways where Houston had some catching up to do. So, one of those was air quality and another was parks and green space. And the third, which I started trying to tackle before the mayor’s race with a friend, Alana Marks, was improving access to health care. We formed a quality of life coalition. A lot of credit time. Dick Weekly, a real human dynamo. There are some of us that just, you know, we like parks and green space. It was also removing blighted neighborhoods. This is ultimately where what I called Houston Hope came from because we wanted to remove blight. We wanted to have a lot more park space and trees and we wanted to remove some of the billboard clutter. The mayor was a friend of mine – Mayor Brown. I knew him since he was the police chief. We would go out and have breakfast at some Mexican American food place, and basically since I moved to the city, I knew every mayor of the city. I was not a big shot. I had only been to City Hall once except to have lunch before I came and was mayor of the city. But I just happened to know them and they would pick my brain from time to time. I talked to Mayor Brown about this idea and I helped come up with a plan to finance new park space. So that was my first involvement that deep in City Hall.
PT: And you had some successes as part of that Quality of Life Coalition?
BW: Yes, we had some successes.
PT: Talk about what you saw as the successes as part of that Quality of Life Coalition.
BW: Well, the big success was to increase park funding so we could acquire more parks so that we could improve the parks that we had. So we lost part of MacGregor Park because it had not been developed in accordance to the terms of the will. Houston had these big regional parks like Memorial Park, Hermann Park and MacGregor Park but they were contributed to the city in a period of about 1915-1926 or so, so there was a period of time where Houston really had some big additions to the park space. And there have been parks acquired from time to time. But some of us thought, okay, we just cannot rest on our laurels of what was done 70 years ago. We need to add some big additions to the parks in the future so that the next generation can have a Hermann Park, a Memorial Park, and it has been one of my great pleasures as mayor to have seen at least, I mean, many, many smaller parks but 2 or 3 of those that will become real landmarks in the city.
PT: How did Houstonians respond to what you were trying to accomplish at that time?
BW: You know, honestly, it was pretty . . . there were activist groups but it was a bit of an insider game in the sense that not that many people knew who I was, but I basically understood city finance. I got a bunch of budget books. You know because you have been associated with me – I had a stack of books this big and I took a few days and I read them all. Some people can remember baseball stats, some people can hear a song and they can play it; well, I can read a budget book and I can remember what is in it. So, I came up with a plan to finance parks and by and large, it was not that controversial.
PT: At that point, was there something in your successes there that led you to believe, hey, I should become mayor of the city?
BW: Not really. Some time after Mayor Brown’s last election, and this is sort of a little fuzzy, there was a friend of mine who had strong views – a great businessman; in a sense, a real visionary. He developed the Energy Corridor, West Houston, who said . . . you know, we had been talking about clean air. Both of us were frustrated by the fact that people did not realize . . . we thought that it was good for business in Houston to have clean air but it was hard to get traction on that and I had some frustrations on that when I would try to get things done. So, he said, for that, I had to run for mayor; that and to expand our transit system because he knew I had some skills. And then, there was a group of basically Hispanic leaders who came and wanted to visit with me and they said, “We are concerned about the future of this city.” They did not want to see a city that was polarized and split along ethnic lines. We had had an election where many people who were just struggling to get by – some were African Americans, some were Hispanic, and they had backed different candidates based on ethnicity. And they said, “You would be able to bring people together because we cannot have this thing. It would be bad for Houston if we had the city split into Anglo Democrats, Anglo Republicans, Hispanics, African Americans, with each group competing against each other. And so, that is when I started thinking about, well, maybe I ought to do it.
PT: You said you had some frustrations. Usually those frustrations do not come about unless you really confronted somebody about the problem. Who was it that you confronted about the problem in your efforts to get traction.
BW: Well, nobody took ownership of the clean air issue. The Greater Houston Partnership asked me to head their environmental committee, and some of this can get pretty technical . . . what do the plants need to do? What chemical is the dangerous chemical? How do we hold people accountable on a timeline? That is where I was having real problems with just, you know, having authority. I mean, the Greater Houston Partnership that talked about clean air and I believed that the membership had their heart in the same place that I did. I mean, it makes sense in a global economy, with a lot of mobility, who is going to move, are you really going to attract big new firms if your air is dirty or dirtier? But it was not like there was somebody who could make a decision, that we could get a decision that was made. People would talk about the regulatory agencies in Austin but they were not doing anything. So I just felt that if I was mayor, I could something about that.
PT: I want to jump ahead so we can stay on that topic. You become mayor and at that time, air quality becomes a big issue and so you took Alana along. Talk about that relationship and how you guys progressed, and where are we now on that issue?
BW: Well, Houston has come a long way. We had a consensus within the business community that we were not going to fight, that Houston was not going to fight air quality rules and regulations. We want them to be cost effective but, you know, 15 years ago like enforcement of the Clean Air Act was something that people thought was endanger the economic vitality of our city. Most of our views were far from it. It might hurt a few firms but we are going to be a stronger city if we can . . . this is going to be a great city and people are going to want to move. I will tell you - people are going to move high tech businesses, services businesses. I decided to start with the science and the scientists. I had a member of my staff who was very brilliant but she did not know anything about it. I told her, “You’ve got to do this because I need somebody to know as much as I do. And we started beefing up the scientific capabilities within the city. We enlisted the Medical Center institutions and their senior scientific leadership to help us identify the particular chemicals that would be harmful to human beings and, you know, if you dial forward right now, the two most troublesome chemicals we found are benzene and 1,3-butadiene. And we found out which firms were putting them in the air. That had not been know. But we used monitoring and tracking and calculations from monitors and we put pressure on those firms, and they have cut the amount of emissions substantially as a result of that.
PT: And you did that in Houston where this notion of having these types of controls were probably not thought possible because we did not have the support of big business?
BW: Yes, and Houston, unfairly, I believe, but Houston unfairly was characterized in . . . what presidential campaign was that? Was it the 2000 presidential campaign where Vice-President Gore had various commercials about Houston. They were a big exaggerated. I will say they were exaggerated but they were designed to sort of kick Governor Bush in the shins. But there was some element of truth and certainly on SMOG – the scientific term is low level on smog – was the highest in the nation. And then, these other chemicals called air toxics; honestly, they are worse than human health and smog is but you just cannot see them. And we were way too high. We had the highest concentrations in the nation, and we brought those down and brought those down dramatically.
PT: Mayor, you were known in some circles, very important circles, for your work in politics, for your work in the community but how did you build the name recognition necessary to become mayor, to be elected as mayor?
BW: Oh, boy! It was a series of sort of concentric circles. You take the network of people you know and ask them to spread the word to other people. The good news is I had people willing to do that. The bad news is I was not a household name, by any means. I did have the idea at the time that, you know, we would put on videotape – people who knew me, and just talk about me a little bit so that it was not one of these packaged, generic candidates that you see . . . everybody has a great family, they all like kids and dogs and all that stuff. I just wanted people who knew me to say something to the camera, so we put a camera on them and we put some commercials, and because they were a little quirky, they got some attention.
PT: Probably a little bit of, I know that person, he must be a good guy played into that a little bit.
BW: Yes. Basically I knew there were real polished political pros. I mean, two people had almost won the mayor’s office before and they were very well-known. I mean, they were -- the two principal opponents I had were better known than the governor of the state or stuff like that. They were just very well-known. So I was not going to win just by being the same thing as they were and better known because that would never occur. Probably until the last stage of elections, not as many people knew me as knew them. I was going to win because I could bring some business and organizational talent to City Hall, and I was not going to run a campaign that was based on an appeal to one group or one party. And, you know, I guess that is what people in Houston wanted at the time. They wanted somebody that could bring the city together and they wanted somebody that knew how to get things done.
PT: That has kind of carried through your administration. You have always maintained that sense of dignity for people on all sides of the political aisle. Why does that continue to be important? How do you stay on that track as a leader?
BW: It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of work to not stand still and take bold steps but build a consensus on common goals. It is hard to exactly put it in words but no neighborhood in the city wants to be unsafe; nobody wants to pay more than they have to for utility bills; nobody wants higher dropout rates; nobody wants there to be a delay before 911 ambulance gets there. Most people want good parks and good libraries and nobody wants to pay a whole lot more than they are paying right now to get those things. Nobody likes to be stuck in traffic. So it is really my focus on the things that we share in common and establishing common ground. Then, once you have focused on the common ground and had this reality basis in politics, then once you got the common ground, then it is all a matter of, okay, what are the means to the end? If it was easy, everybody would do it but it takes a lot of patience and a lot of persuasion, and really what it takes is persuading the voters at the same time you are persuading the City Council and the other elected officials because the other elected officials will listen to the voters.
PT: Those are all great values that you brought to the job and you get in, you learn things. Do you remember one of your early hard lessons? What was perhaps one of your hardest lessons in your first year or two in office that really taught you how to govern?
BW: Well, I did learn something that I sort of knew and many people said I did not learn, which is that everybody wants to be the first to know. So I would say it is a sort of undertone of persistent . . . the first year, I got a lot of feedback because I would do stuff right out of Council table and I would just be saying what I thought at the time as opposed to having all these meetings and consultations for the elected officials before. And it is always a balance in government between if somebody says, “Look, I just want to be included in the loop.” Now, people realized that this was not trying to exclude them but I had an obligation to transparency in the public so there is not going to be a bunch of stuff done behind closed doors, but we will make changes in the open at Council table. People were used to the pie being baked before it was taken to the table. I brought some half-baked pies. And then, I said, “Listen, you have to figure out how we can make this to where it is done and it tastes good.” So part of it was an adjustment for me and part of it was an adjustment for the department heads and City Council, and we sort of met each other in between.
PT: You said that perhaps unlocking the opportunity to bring new growth, new construction to some of Houston’s oldest neighborhoods. You put that at the top of your list for accomplishments. Can you talk about the genesis of the Houston Hope Project?
BW: Well, yes. When I was campaigning for public office, I went and had about 50 or 60 meetings principally of these meetings of this nature in the neighborhoods that the lowest income and some of the highest crime rates. And they were principally with pastors. They would last from an hour or two. I would say, “What do you think the next mayor ought to do? What frustrates you? How do you think we could turn around the neighborhood that used to have more people there, now there are fewer people there?” A lot of the neighborhood was pretty close to downtown. And I listened and we had a discussion. I told people, too, “Hey, if I get to work for you, then I will bring redevelopment in some of these neighborhoods and you have my word, you have my word that we will do it in a way where the neighborhood still retains a sense of identity and people are not pushed out of their houses because they have a house and you put a bunch of one quarter million townhomes up there; then somebody who is retired and elderly” . . . at the time, we only had a senior exemption of $44,000. If you made her lot value $100,000, then she may not be able to afford the property taxes. So I gave assurances, “Hey, I will do something about this, and then I need your help because I need to overcome the fear of change in the neighborhoods.” We made remarkable progress.
PT: Travel in your mind’s eye to different areas of town right now. You have seen change and progress over these last 6 years. What are some of those changes that as you travel around Houston, you see that give you a sense of fulfillment that Houston is a city that is maturing and making progress?
BW: Oh my goodness! I mean, there has been so much. The area around Sunnyside actually on two voting precincts of Sunnyside, I walked and knocked on every door. But, you know, sometimes you would have to walk . . . you would have one house at one corner and another house at the other corner and everything in between was abandoned, weeded, and there were no new homes that had been constructed there. People would complain. I mean, great people. I liked the people there but they would complain about the prostitutes and I cannot say that I can spot a prostitute from 100 yards but some of them could and they would say they were hanging out at their street corners. If a kid wants to walk to school, he has to walk by the prostitutes. There is still work to be done but I will tell you this – we still have some time in office. I just got a report that I read before coming in here not because of this, just I get these reports and we are going to level all the abandoned houses there are in Sunnyside. And I can show you the same things that are happening in parts of Acres Home. In Acres Home, between West Little York and Weber Forest, there were streets where you would go down the north/south streets and there would be a handful of homes that were vacant lots at one time and on one of the streets, a body was found on one of the lots which is not exactly a good advertisement for people moving in, and a human tragedy to boot. Now, you go to that same street, Apollo Street where they found the body and you can see all sorts of houses being built. I think we had 40 or 50 houses built. Young families. I have talked to people moving in. And then, there is the Central Business District. Yesterday, I rode my bicycle, it was a nice day, went to Discovery Green. I was there a little earlier than most people but this is really Houston’s front yard or backyard or whatever you want to call it, where people from all backgrounds come together, and that has really made it to where downtown had a feel, especially that east side, of a concrete and asphalt huge parking lot. And now, it is has made it to where it feels like a home.
PT: You can go to Midtown, the Heights, West Houston – you have this great mix of new construction, historical homes. It creates tension sometimes between the old and new residents. Two residents who are in the middle of Houston’s progress and that type of development and yet, the desire to sustain that which is integrity and history, what advice do you give to Houstonians as we move down that path in the future?
BW: Well, that is a great question. We made huge strides in historic preservation and I believe deeply in historic preservations so long as it is historic and not just somebody’s idea of historic. But I have studied other cities and too often, what comes under the heading of neighborhood protection, especially as evidenced in some zoning ordinances, can be used or abused even with high sounding intentions as a way to pull up the ladder behind you, as a way to make it more costly or difficult for lower income residents to live close to where they work. As this country continues to prosper, many people will want to live closer to their work and I do not want to have Houston be like some of the cities where the middle class working people cannot afford to live near the employment centers. So just be careful. City Council members and others, the majority in our city from the day I took office and until the day I leave office think we need to do more to protect our neighborhoods and I agree with that general sentiment but neighborhood protection can also be used to say, hey, we don’t want any apartments around here anymore. Well, just think how many people lived in apartments. I lived in an apartment when I first moved to town. I mean, most people have lived in apartments if they are on their way up or they do not have any inherited money and people in apartments have to live somewhere.
PT: The character of Houston was set on display for the nation and the world. Under your leadership, the city set a standard for how we handle major disaster and major migrations of U.S. population in the case of that disaster. Katrina. Talk a little bit about what is it about you and what is it about this city that helped us lead the way.
BW: Well, that was where we got _____ because I knew that we could do an A job or we could do an F job. We had to do an A job which meant we had to do stuff that had not been done before, and I had been thankful to have many mentors and other people who had helped teach me some simple rules of managing and organizing things. Those rules are pretty simple: You have to clearly focus on your overall mission. You have to define what that is so everybody understands it. Then you have to set some simple and clear, what I call operational goals. You have to assign individuals by name and organization with the responsibility for meeting those goals, you have to establish timetables, and then, you have to have some accountability. And if somebody stumbles, for whatever reason, you need to replace them pretty quick so the whole program does not get off track. Then you need to celebrate those successes. And that is just basically . . . I do not care whether you are running a fast food franchise or running the country. There is a little book by Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill’s Wartime Leadership, and this is stuff I used to learn from people. I would read Warren Buffett’s annual report. I mean, there is just a lot you can learn.
Well, our mission: We wanted to treat our neighbors how they would like to be treated and allow people to live with dignity and respect during the period of time in which they got back on their feet. Give them enough time and allow them to focus on getting back on their feet. Not long-term dependency but a chance to get back on their feet. Impediments. You need kids in school, you need housing that would allow people to seek and find employment and make decisions about their own lives and take responsibility for their own life, not in one of these things they did in other parts of the country, sort of mobile home ghettos. So finding housing for a lot of people like that and that means furnishings and utilities and everything else. I wanted to make sure that people when they got here, they had some basic human needs attended to real quick, because we had people that were dehydrated, we had people who were dependent on ethical pharmaceuticals drugs their doctors that prescribed that did not have that medication for long. We do not want anybody to die. And then, we needed to have the community accept people so that when they apply for jobs – we needed jobs for people, we needed job training for people and we needed the community willing to accept people as new employees.
PT: Do you remember what was going through your mind when you first stepped out to meet the first group of people off the bus at the George R. Brown?
BW: Yes. I mean, this may not be what you are thinking but the first time that I met people over at Reliant, I had to talk them into getting out of the bus. And I cannot exactly remember what the circumstance was but people were just very apprehensive about getting off the bus because they did not want to . . . I know what it was . . . they had been out on a freeway and there were people that had been just standing waiting around. I mean, living in their own refuse, not having water, not having something to eat, and at least if you were on a bus, you were sitting and you had some form of roof over your head. And so, I mean, one of my first things was just telling people, “If you get off this bus, we will take care of you.” So, in those days, I was not thinking lofty thoughts, I was having to do what needed to be done.
PT: You asked a guy by the name of John Walsh to come and assist you in getting people in homes. Do you remember going to one of those homes for the first time to see where one of the refugees had actually been placed in an apartment?
BW: Sure. I was there when we had fire fighters, I think, from Pasadena or Baytown that were put in the apartments. The residents were arriving. I went to the family. This was in north Houston where there were some apartments. And talking to people. In this case, our first round was generally the elderly and those with young children they would put in apartments. They could not believe it. They could not believe it.
PT: And then, there is the other image that Saturday after the George R. Brown had opened and there were thousands upon thousands of volunteers who came out in just a couple of days notice. What were your thoughts that day?
BW: That we could do this. Basically I thought, O.K., if you have a quarter of a million people arriving and that whittled down . . . remember, they did not all arrive after the levies broke. I mean, most people had evacuated before but they were in hotels, they were in friends’ houses and the like. Most of them were not in the Red Cross shelters. They were somewhere else. But they could not just stay at a friend’s house forever, a lot of them, or they could not satisfactory in this church sanctuary or the hotel. I talked. Well, look, O.K., so we have 100,000, 200,000 people but there are about 5 million people in a region. So if everybody just takes some responsibility and if I assign enough competent people, enough individual jobs to get done and they do them, then we will be able to take care of this. If we let time pass and we did not do it quick, with a sense of urgency, then there would be a sense of despair or there would be a sense of people not getting on with their life. We had to do it quick. And this is basic psychology. And this is where we avoided seeing another natural . . . you would see a spade of suicides occur and I did not want that to occur. I wanted people to have some responsibility for getting on with their own lives.
PT: Did we do a pretty good job of that?
BW: Oh, yes. We are sitting here in 2009 . . . every week, I meet people who are still living here who, they don’t just thank me for helping mobilize the resources in the community but they are very committed Houstonians.
PT: When you first hired on to the job, you asked a question, “Who do you serve? If you are hired, who do you serve?” and then my answer was, “We will serve the people of the city of Houston.” And you said, “Who else do you serve?” and you answered that question, you said, “You also serve those who work here whose job, in turn, is to serve people.” What did you mean by that and what has happened as a result of that philosophy, carrying that philosophy forward?
BW: I think it is very important that people know that the citizens own the city, they were public servants but in broad ____, I guess you would call it front line personnel who are delivering services to the public and then you have a lot of us who were providing support for those who are delivering services to the public. In the case of your communication, we are doing both. The public is entitled to know what goes on at City Hall generally but then, the various city departments and the employees within the department, they are not communications specialists and a citizen that knows what is going on and why feels a lot more confidence about the government. And they can give more informed feedback than someone where the details of what is going on in the government is just a big mystery.
PT: You are wrapping up your term as mayor. How do you feel Houston is primed for both the immediate future and the tough roads in the short term and long term?
BW: Houston is in good shape compared to the other big cities. I mean, I think some of the other big cities are going to be into a rough spell just because . . . as well as the federal government, as well as the state government because there has been a tendency in the political process for government to live beyond its means. And I do not care whether it is Republican, Democrat, they call themselves Conservatives, Liberal. We do not have that many business people in government. And all the incentives are to deal with problems or issues for the next 2 years and not those for 10 or 20 years. Americans are living longer, so pension costs are coming up. And we have more drugs and medical services to manage chronic conditions, so Medicare is going up. And on the pensions, we have done far reaching pension reforms but there probably needs to be one more step. Now, the good news is we are still out ahead of the other cities.
PT: And after 6 years as mayor, how would you define the spirit of Houston? What is the essence of the spirit of Houston?
BW: Houston is a city of opportunity. We are a city where people come from all over the country and all over the world just to be able to live with some freedom and independence and to be judged based not on who their daddy was or what their first language or faith is but on how hard they work and whether they contribute to the community. We are creating in Houston a model that you can try to scale up for an international community where we are proud of our heritages just like we are proud of different citizenships and different nations, but that does not mean you cannot work together to get things done. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the world. Houston is a city that is a work in progress, one of the few cities in the United States and Western Europe of its scale where most people have moved here from somewhere else. If we can create a sense of community in a place where people come from so many different backgrounds and a common purpose, then why can’t those places that are less diverse create that same sense of community and common purpose? I mean, we can really be a beacon on the hill.