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Interview with: Judge Robert Eckels
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: July 28, 2008
DG: Today is July 28. We are in the offices of Fulbright & Jaworski talking with Judge Robert Eckels who earned the title for life.
RE: I can still do weddings. I am doing one next month.
DG: He is being interviewed for the Houston Oral History Project and my name is David Goldstein. How are you today, sir?
RE: David, I am wonderful. Glad to be here today.
DG: Great. Let's begin at the beginning. Tell me about your earliest days, where you were born, when.
RE: We were just laughing about being born in St. Joseph's Hospital. I think most of the folks from Houston in the early days - not that early . . . both of my parents were school teachers here. My dad taught shop. My mother was I guess the equivalent of a home economics kind of teacher. I think she was at Sam Houston High School. Dad was in Austin. Shortly after I was born, they moved to Bellaire. It is now the biggest city inside of Houston but at the time, was on the outskirts of Houston. Meyerland was rice fields and it was a place where dad could work his dogs. He quit teaching school and went to work for Lloyd Bentsen in the insurance business and found that he could support his family better doing that, but continued to love education and became president of the school board, where he was elected to the school board a couple of years later. And so, most of my formative years in the 1960s -- I was born in 1957 so the 1960s was a time of tremendous growth in the Houston region, both in terms of population and business. It was a time when Houston was dominated by big law firms and big banks that tied together in kind of a synergistic relationship, that drove a lot of the development and growth of the city. The developers at the time were much more entrepreneurial, so it was a small time. It was the days of Judge Roy Hofheinz and the building of the Astrodome in the 1960s. It was a time in the schools of a social upheaval with the integration of the schools. In fact, probably the two things that my dad felt most proud of as he left the school board were that they air-conditioned the schools and that they integrated the schools here in Houston without major violence that you saw in other parts. There were never any race riots, nobody died. They had marches from the NAACP and the black community on the administration building but, in fact, although he was part of the conservative action of the school board, they merged friendships that lasted forever and activists from those days to help me later as I ran for county judge.
The decade of the 1970s brought a doubling of the population of Harris County. We went from about one million people to two million people. My father, at the time, was a county commissioner. He was elected in 1972 to be county commissioner and grew much of what is now, it was Precinct 3 but what is now the west half of the county. He was the only Republican on the commissioner's court and the court was controlled by a more urban democratic coalition. He always complained that he got 25% of the money and half the people and all of the growth virtually in the west side of the county. But that led to some innovation in the way they built the roads and partnering with the development community. The building of Bear Creek Park and the Cullen Barker Reservoir and the shooting range and the recreational facilities there. So, it was an interesting time for the rapid growth of the city. Now, there are some interesting footnotes during that period, just why we do things like we do in Houston. I guess we will get into it if you want to get into that kind of ________ wonder about the constables, why the constables are so active in Harris County. You have hundreds of deputies in the constables department doing street patrols and that ties back to the 1970s with the federal lawsuits where people were suing the county over jail conditions. There was a federal suit, the Alberti case, in the state courts or the state prison system with the same kind of system in Harris County and, in all honesty, the system was bad. You had jailhouse tenders that were convicts and there was mistreatment in the jails. The suit accomplished its goal of bringing better conditions both at the state and at the local level but the other effect was that the sheriff, with the rapid growth in the community, would go out to the neighborhoods and say, "If the commissioners would give me more deputies, I could have more patrolmen." Bear Creek, west side, the area was growing rapidly. Up on the north side and Precinct 4 at that time, Commissioner Lyons' precinct, there was a lot of growth. There was support on the commissioner's court for new deputies and they gave the sheriffs the new deputies. The sheriff promptly put them in the jail. Jack Heard at the time had been a former prison warden and he put them in the jail and said, "The federal judge is making me put them in the jail. I've got to have jailers." Again, the commissioners gave in a few months later. More deputies. He raised enough concern in the community and he put them in the jail again. The commissioners . . . fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. So, the next time the community got anxious about deputies and patrols, the commissioners figured out that the constables had all the powers of the sheriff but they did not have a jail. So, they gave the deputies to the constables and found an additional benefit is that the constables were not civil service and were not unionized and they all became an army to help and politically support the commissioners and the constables. The commissioners knew where these deputies were, that it was not like the sheriff where you might be a commissioner in Katy and the deputies could be stationed down in Laporte or Baytown or up in Spring or somewhere else - they were where that constable's precinct was located, so they knew where the deputies were and they were much more responsive to the county commissioners and they used them in their park for parks patrol and for neighborhood patrols in the community. It built a very strong power base which ultimately Commissioner Raddack used to get elected commissioner in, I guess the early 1990s. He came in to that office and was able to leverage that into being elected commissioner on the west side in the early 1990s or late 1980s, I guess. 1989 or 1990. The other interesting process that developed in that time was the county's hesitance for the urban commissioners and judge to spend money in the unincorporated areas for patrol deputies, led to the contract deputy program which is a very popular program but it is where the neighborhoods themselves will contract for additional patrol services. The deputies still work for the commissioners court and for the actual elected official, the constables or the sheriff but their salary or a portion of their salary, 70% or 80%, is paid for under contract to the county through the neighborhood and it created a neighborhood-oriented policing, very effective in reducing crime in those communities because that deputy tends to be tied to that community. They do not have to stay there. They run patrols all over. But they spend more time and get to know the neighborhood and the neighborhood has a security committee and their homeowners association. It has been a very effective neighborhood-oriented policing.
It also was a way to have the folks in the unincorporated areas pay more for their police protection and not double tax the people who live inside the city of Houston and other municipalities who pay for city police; if they are in the unincorporated areas, they do not have a municipality. That kind of ties back to the 1960s and the growth of the city of Houston. One of the fun things I found as county judge which made my life easier was that there was really just one big city in the Houston region, Houston dominated, and one big county. The rest of the unincorporated areas of Harris County, again, over a million and a half people probably lived in the unincorporated areas, but it was not incorporated into a city, it was in the Houston extraterritorial jurisdiction, an area that the city, in fact, would annex and in theory, would annex over time. Politically, the city has wound up not annexing. It is, again, more conservative Republican voters in the suburbs and that does not fit the politics of the city administrations as they move forward in annexation. That has left a void that has been filled with a myriad of special districts, municipal utility districts, emergency service districts, that, while a little more expensive perhaps than a municipality, has provided a smaller government that is perhaps more responsive to the needs of those individual communities, while letting the county continue to handle those big regional issues such as health care and communications and law enforcement and those kinds of issues. So, while it was inadvertent, it worked pretty well. It was also fortunate because the city of Houston went out in the 1960s and took a very long-term view of water resources for the region and developed a big water supply system through Lake Houston and Lake Livingston and Lake Conroe to ensure long-term supply for these utility districts and others. The political dynamics changed somewhat more recently with the more people now living outside the city of Houston than live inside the city of Houston. Houston has been able to maintain control of that system and a pretty good relationship. They have been fair in the conversion of surface water, reduction and subsidence, and supply of water for the longer term.
Subsidence -- probably you cannot talk about Houston and those issues without the subsidence issues and you may get into that with other people, too. Baytown, parts of Baytown literally became part of the Bay largely through water withdrawals from the chemical plants and the industrial water use in the Bay area and the coastal areas of the county. A lot of pumping the ground _______ from that area and the unique geological conditions in Houston led to the settling of the ground under the refineries, lowered the water table and the level above sea level and caused storm surge flooding and tidal flooding in those areas. Today, that subsidence has virtually stopped. The surface water conversion has been generally completed in that area. The problems are more inland - the Jersey Village area, the water supplies for Houston but the conversion has begun on that; the large pipelines bringing surface water and converting into the region.
What do we want to cover on the ancient history of the county? Things have changed dramatically. If you go back to the 1960s and the days ______ who was a purchasing agent. He was a purchasing agent for the city and it was a wilder time. There were numerous times where he killed deals with buying fire engines and kick backs to officials and those kinds of things that today, would catch a lot more attention than they probably did in the 1960s. The Astrodome, while a tremendous accomplishment at the time, Judge Hofheinz - it was also a project of Judge Hofheinz, and he owned the team and had the contract and things that I probably would have been indicted for if it happened on my watch. So, the times have changed and Houston has become a much more sophisticated and, in many ways, more open and progressive city, too.
DG: Let's go back to some of your personal history. What did you like to do when you were a kid?
RE: When I was a kid, we had an open ditch behind the house. Most of my early childhood was spent, again, it was G.I.-kind of housing, small houses, one-car garage, little ranch-type track houses in Bellaire, largely being torn down today for the McMansions, I guess, if you will, on the lots. But we had a larger lot on the end of a cul-de-sac. Two lots. It was almost an acre. It was inside the city of Bellaire. Behind the house was an open ditch and it was a wonderful place to play. You could play army back there in the little fox holes and shoot sling shots and mud clots at your buddies across the other side of the river. My mother grew up in the Houston Heights, a large extended family there - a house that has been restored now, a beautiful Victorian home. My grandmother never owned a car. It was a great adventure to stay . . . when my parents would go on conventions or business trips or things with my dad, to stay with my grandmother and she would walk over to the Kaplans _______ in the Heights or the department store that was up near Heralds in the Heights and the shopping districts in the Heights. The Weingartens store was across the street. It was very much the urban environment that we seek today. Until she passed away in the 1980s, she had never owned a car. We would take the bus . . . early, they would take the street car. when I came along, we had busses. The street cars were gone but we would take the bus downtown to Foleys for the big trip at the time in the 1960s and I guess early 1970s. That life is still in Houston. People do not think of it as much but many people still have that kind of life. My other grandmother, my father's side of the family, lived in West University Place, a little cottage house that was built, a pier and beam house that was built in, I guess, the 1930s. That house again was the site of many great family gatherings. A small home. She was a school teacher, drove the school bus for extra money. My grandfather had died at a relatively young age. He was 46 or 49 when he passed away. So, she had very much put the family through and supported the family as a school teacher and driving a school bus and various other jobs. So, it was, again, a home that has today been torn down and replaced with a bigger house that filled up the lot in West U. But that has actually been one of the strengths of Houston, is its ability to transform itself into something that suits the needs of today.
I went to Lovett Elementary School in Meyerland as a new school. My teacher in kindergarten, it was her first day to teach and she was terrified because the president of the school board's son was one of her students. His message to her was that if he misbehaves, "Hit him twice as hard as anybody else and send him to me." But she was a wonderful lady. Ms. Barnhill. Today, she is the wife of the executive director or vice-president of Blue Bell Ice Cream in Brenham, and it is nice to have that connection. Everybody likes Blue Bell.
When I was living in Bellaire, my father had always wanted a pony when he was a kid. So, one day, we came home and we had a pony, a Shetland pony. I don't know if there were ordinances against having ponies or not in that city but no one seemed to care. We bought it from someone else who lived in Bellaire. It was a pretty smart pony and it could open the gate and every once in a while, one of the neighbors would call and say that, "Your horse is down here in our yard." I was one of the more popular kids on the block because I had a Shetland pony in the backyard. Chocolate. Chocolate was not a loving horse. He would try to scrape you off under a branch or the swing set any time he could. But it was truly a different experience than most kids had growing up.
We would frequently go to the Bay. As a child, my mother would spend the summers at the Bay house. My grandfather on my mother's side lived in the Heights but they had a very small little house down in Baycliff. And in the summer times when it was not air-conditioned, they would take the train down to the Bay, I guess, Webster or League City. I guess the train stopped down there, going down Highway 3, and stayed . . . in the summers, the family stayed summers at the Bay house and had a great time with many people from Houston at the Bay. And, as a kid, too, growing up, we would go down there. We had a boat that was, I think, a 16 foot plywood outboard boat that would run around the Bay and catch shrimp, dredge up oysters and water ski and play in the Bay, probably not realizing how bad the Bay was from the chemical plants and the muck and the mud in the Bay, but it was a tremendous experience growing up and a lot of fun. We did not realize the things that we did not have. It was more enjoying those things that we did. We were kind of a typical working middle class family growing up in suburban Houston. A small house; not, by any means, an affluent lifestyle but boom times after the war.
My father, again, was in the insurance business, started his own little agency. He was on the school board during those times until 1968 or 1969, I guess. He ran for county commissioner in 1968 and actually lost an election the first time he ran. It was probably his introduction into the partisan politics. Dad had always been . . . the school board was a nonpartisan election and everybody was democrats in the 1960s. And so, when the new county commissioner precincts were drawn and they were drawn on a single member district basis, there were some new court cases that acquired apportionment of seats, he was elected or ran in a district on the west side of Houston that roughly paralleled the lines of George Bush's congressional district when he was elected to Congress as well. That was his introduction to partisan politics. There was no Democrat running so he decided to run as a Democrat. The Republicans had 8 or 10 people in the primary. Many of them were his friends. After the election was over, he was beat - he understood the Republican and Democrat politics and 4 years later, ran in 1972 and won the primary that he had been defeated in, by the candidate that defeated him 4 years before. So, much of our time growing up in high school was the son of a commissioner which were interesting perks because the county owned the Astrodome and we could go see things in the Dome with the county and it was exposure to a lot of high profile political people that I probably would not have been exposed to at the time. I had watched the Astrodome being built. From my house, in the 1960s, I could stand in the backyard and later climb up on the tree and watch them build the Dome. It was kind of fun to go to the commissioners . . . had a little box up at the Astrodome. At one time and for a period, we could just slip in, the families could slip in and sign in at the back and go, if there were seats available at the press level and watch concerts or baseball games or things. Commissioner Bass had a lot of kids and it got to be abused somewhat and ultimately, we quit doing that. But it was still kind of neat to have your dad be one of the landlords of the Astrodome.
We moved when I was in junior high school from the public schools to the private schools, to Northwest Academy which is now Houston Christian High School. My sister had some problems in the school. It was a time of transition within the school district and there were a lot of discipline problems and fights. It was not so much of an integration issue at that point, it was just more of a management issue in the schools. There was growth, the schools had gotten big, the junior highs and high schools, and we moved and went into the private schools. So, I grew up in a school with 56 kids in my graduating class. I drove a 1968 Volkswagen. I had an old Volkswagen. I drove back and forth to school every day. It was fun because it was a smaller group but they were a very diverse group of kids. You had all of the members of the cliques that you had in the public system but not enough to create a clique. So, the fun part was that in the small class, you had to know everybody else and you had to get along with everybody else, and while we had people that did drugs or people that we might have called the preppies or the jets or whatever, kind of prep-type kids, the kickers - the country music fans, what would might be today called the goth or the darker personalities - we had all kinds of people in the class but there was not a critical mass for them to create a group that would prey upon another group or ostracize the other group. So, everyone knew each other and, while you had better friends than other friends, everyone just had to get along and it was just by virtue of the size of the class and the types of activity we did. But the other fun part was that you did not have the competition that you see today or even back then in a big school, a big high school, for the sports and for extracurricular activities. It was easy to participate. And so, even if you were a poor track star, as was I, you were able to still run and participate in the track meets because there were just not enough kids. They were always trying to get people to go and participate. That is something later on that I looked at, as we started looking at education policy, is the optimum size for high school. One of the tragedies, I believe, in our community today is that we have grown to these massive high schools of 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 children that just logistically cannot give individual attention to some students that need individual attention. It does very well for the average student and some get good things for the excellent students but it is a hard place to participate in a lot of the extracurricular activities. If you want to be a cheerleader today, you have to start doing gymnastics when you are 3 years old or something. That was pretty much growing up in the 1970s.
DG: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
RE: Oh, I had no idea. I am still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up!
DG: Who were your heroes? Were you a sports guy? Did you follow your dad's friends?
RE: You know, my dad was in politics. I knew a lot of political folks. I was not a huge sports guy. I liked sports posts as much as anybody else. I was very active in the Boy Scouts. Once a month, we would have a campout. We had a high adventure troop, I guess, explore ______ later. It was not maybe typical of many of them but we had weekend campouts and very much the father figure was my dad but I also had John Telcamp and a group of people that really cared about us, too. Former Marine sergeants that made us work. When we went camping, it was a hiking campout. We did not go to the river and stay in a tent. We hiked in someplace to go, so I really enjoyed the outdoors more than anything else. The camping. We always had a lot of hunting trips. There were always hunting leases. It was probably more popular even than it is now. That was with some of my extended family and dad and his friends. We would do a lot of the Hill Country type -- deer hunts, quail hunts down in south Texas. So, more of those kinds of extracurricular activities. I was active through school in track. Dad was not real supportive of football or baseball. I do not know if it was because he did not want to come to the practices and the games as frequently or a true concern for health, particularly in the football. He had seen some kids in the school board days that had been seriously hurt playing football in junior high and high school and just did not want to put me through that. But we did have a motor home. When I was a kid, dad brought home . . . he was an entrepreneur at heart and a child of the Depression . . . we can get into probably some of those issues later on in his life that affected him, but he was always looking for fixing things or salvaging things. They brought home a 1958 Continental Trailways Silver Eagle bus. The guy that was helping fix it, the clutch went out as it pulled in the garage and he went down to the Continental Trailways office and found a couple of mechanics that would moonlight at night and helped us to rebuild that bus. I got out there with them and using his old shop teaching skills and my elbow grease, and these guys worked on the bus, we rebuilt a 1958 Eagle in the driveway, a 40 foot highway bus. It did not have power steering, it did not have power air brakes, manual transmission. I was 17 years old and learning how to drive on an Eagle bus. But it worked very well for the high school with, again, at my school, we traveled a lot. It was a small school, but we would be playing football and track meets and sports activities with schools from Beaumont to San Antonio and a lot of us would pile on the bus, 20 or 30 of us piled on the bus, and would find somebody who could drive. It was never one of the kids driving - either dad or someone who worked with him or someone who would drive us to these events. It was always kind of a fun activity to do as a kid. It wasn't, again, that there was a lot of money involved in it - it was an old bus - but it was a fun way to travel around the county. He used that for his political campaigns and town meetings. It was one of those perks of the job of the commissioner that the kids could latch onto. It was not owned by the county, it was his personal bus.
Another thing in growing up, too, though that was interesting here -- the entertainment was very simple. The remote control was me. Dad would send me over to click the TV. We did not have remote . . . we had a remote control and it was one of those mechanical devices we could hear the TV click. There were initially 3 channels, then 4. The PBS channel came on line. You had 2, 11, 13 and Channel 8. Then, UHF came in with 39. You had a very limited number of selections for television. We did not have VCRs or the movies. One birthday party I had, it was a big deal. We rented a 16 mm movie projector and got to watch I think it was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. All my buddies and everybody were very excited that we set up the projector and rented the movie. The movie was one of those big reels that you had, the classroom kind of movies that we used to watch, but this one was a big movie and popcorn for the birthday party, I guess, when I was 11 or 12 years old. So, it was a simpler time, I guess, for entertainment. It is interesting today to look at the pressures that my 12-year-old daughter is under and the options that she has.
DG: You graduated from high school and went to University of Houston?
RE: I graduated from high school in 1975. Really, my father had a plan for me. I was going to be an insurance agent and take over his business and support him. We had talked about that and I did not really know I had an option and had initially thought about going to the University of Texas. He had indicated that my cousin had gone to the University of Texas a few years earlier and became a hippie. He did not want me to go to UT! I suggested Texas A&M and really would have preferred A&M. He said, "No, your uncle went to Texas A&M and he was an Aggie," and that was even worse! The truth was I could stay here. I figured it out later. I could work in his insurance office, I was slave labor, I did not understand minimum wage. It was an ability for him to deduct my college expenses as business expense. I was on a salary. It was just enough to pay my college fees and books. I had a fraternity. I was a KA. I was a member of a fraternity that had $35 a month in dues in the fraternity. It was not like the fraternities you see in most of the movies today. It was more like the Animal House kind of environment. It was a condemned house over on the Montrose that was our house. With the $35 a month dues, we had parties on Wednesdays and Saturdays. And later, for $35 a month, I could live there and paid rent. That was probably more than it was worth at the time. So, I worked at the office, had to open the office every morning before everyone got there. I learned the insurance business, worked with the clients as they came along and was there in the evening to close the office. Probably the most important thing I learned was that I did not want to be an insurance agent. And so, as I finished college, I went to work for General Homes. I looked in the newspaper for the ad for the business that paid the best and looked interesting and the homebuilding industry in Texas was going and blowing. So, as I finished college . . . University of Houston was a great school. The fun part about U of H is it was a college on the size of a University of Texas or Texas A&M. They had probably 1,000 students. But it had a small school feel. It was larger than the commuter school, it was an urban institution, and so, there was a smaller group of students who lived on campus or were active in campus organizations - 6,000 or 8,000 probably, that really ran the student center. We had the student fees for 30,000 students but, you know, I was on the student senate and was president of my fraternity. We had the intramural leagues. But it was a small school feel in a big institution with the resources of a big institution. A big library, a big football team. We went to the Cotton Bowl. We were Conference Champions a couple of times in the Southwest Conference back in those days. It was a fun place to go to college and, again, a great part of our city.
As I finished school, I went to work for General Homes and I did not realize how bad the economy was. I actually had to sell houses. But that is a different story. We can move to that story, I guess.
DG: Well, your father wanted you to go into the insurance business. How did he feel about you going into politics?
RE: He was encouraging but not . . . it was not one of those things that he asked me to do or really wanted me to do but he was encouraging enough and went along. Dad was an interesting character. I quit and went to work for General Homes and the home building business. I was in the sales but worked on the sales and the construction side of the business. I was in Clearlake in a community called Heritage Park. Interest rates had gone to 13%. The market had really slowed down for the home building business in the 1980s, late 1970s, early 1980s. I thought we were doing pretty well selling houses. There were a lot of new people like me that came in to the business because up until that point in the county, people had been unable to keep up with the demand. The 1970s was a huge growth decade for Harris County. Our population doubled. In the Clear Lake area, we were selling to largely engineers and NASA-related or chemical company-related, the shipping industry, the Port of Houston. But a huge growth . . . the Westbelt, Midwest, Detroit - the economy had really crashed in that area in the early 1970s and people had moved to Houston. So, there were many people in the home building business that had just been taking orders and building houses as fast as they could build them. When I came in, interest rates were, again, 13%, 14%, 15%. It was the Carter stagflation era. The economy was in the tubes and the real estate market had just collapsed in Houston. The home building business was much slower although we were still selling houses. As long as people had jobs, they were buying houses, but we really had to sell. And that was . . . I guess the life insurance business and the insurance business, in general, had been good training for sales because that was something I really enjoyed; it was not only the sales part but also in that production home building, we were building entire communities. We got to pick out the brick and the paint and the elevation. There were 5 different houses we built. So, we could pretty much decide what the neighborhood was going to look like. That was a fun business. A couple of years into that, the state representative from my area was a guy named Bill Block (sp?) . . . Bill had, in the 1970s, redrawn the . . . redistricting, I guess, of 1981 . . . redrawn the lines to take anybody who had ever talked about running against him out of his district. Then he decided to run for the State Senate, open the seat and I had recently moved in there, lived in a little condominium in the south part of District 133 at that time; largely Sharpstown and Southwest Houston went from Westheimer in to the Galleria and had grown up around politics and ran for state representative and did that little bit to change the world. But Dad, whether he supported me running for office and my political career, he was very supportive. He did not see a lot of value to the Legislature. He viewed the Legislature as relatively superfluous. They were important but they did not do anything, and the county commissioners, the local government, is where things happened because a road needed to be built -- the state representative had to call the county commissioner or the mayor. If you were going to do the hospital or a park or something that mattered, it was done by local officials. But it was an area that I had an interest in and was a chance to change the world and learn about a little bit different part of the world. And I ran for the Legislature. It was an interesting campaign. My father was helpful. He put his resources and his contacts and his friends . . . I think I raised $37,000 for the primary and the runoff and the election which, today would seem like not much. Then, it was enough to run a campaign. But it was very much a retail campaign. It was a door, door, door effort. I had 2 opponents in the race and I learned about opponents, too, and what they could be like. One of them was a dear friend who we will get to a little bit later about his son and his family and how he and I got to really appreciate each other during the campaign, appreciate what each of us wanted to do for the community. He was the oldest candidate in the race. At the time, he seemed ancient. He was most likely in his mid 50s or something. But he was a wonderful guy, Jim Gwynn. Another opponent named O'Brien Murphy. O'Brien had come off of a group of candidates who ran what was called the straight slate for City Council. He had just lost that election and probably spent about a quarter of a million dollars in 1983 for this campaign, a very aggressive campaign. In the end, I was in a runoff with O'Brien. It was a door-to-door, you know, drag-people-out-to-vote kind of campaign, but it was interesting what drove the election; in the end, I won the runoff pretty handily. I think we were 58 votes shy of winning it outright. Again, largely knocking on doors. I had a little golf cart and parked it . . . a friend of mine owned a gas station and I took a little golf cart with my signs on the side and would just go down the road and knock on doors - people that were voting, history of voting in the Republican primaries at the time. O'Brien ran a little broader campaign but also had a lot of folks going door-to-door. On election day, it was raining and O'Brien had a bunch of kids that he and I had gone to University of Houston together. The difference was I had actually graduated. But he had a bunch of his . . . his dad owned a chain of western wear stores here and he had a bunch of the girls from U of H out there wearing T-shirts from the western wear store . . . that worked at the western wear store, wearing T-shirts for O'Brien Murphy and it was raining. So, it turned into kind of a wet T-shirt event at the polling place. And he had these kids with umbrellas that were escorting people from their cars to the poll. And, of course, the folks are walking by looking at the girls and the umbrellas as they are going along. I was like a little drowned rat out there with my emery board saying, "I'd appreciate your vote." Interestingly, as we came out, the ladies coming out generally walked up to me and said, "You are going to do O.K." It did not have the impact that perhaps O'Brien had anticipated. And I did not do fine with that block of voters. For the runoff though, it was interesting. What makes people vote and drives people to elections? One of O'Brien's neighbors called me and said, "We cannot believe he is in the runoff election here. We need to come talk to you about this." She told me a story of how her husband had found a little puppy in the middle of the street that was kind of bloody and dirty. It had been wired up together with she said piano wire or bailing wire or something, tying this puppy up, kind of hog tied. They had cut the wire off and cleaned the dog up and had taken it to Mr. Murphy across the street and had said that some kids must have gotten hold of this dog and had tied it up and we found it and cleaned him up and we are returning this dog to you. He said, "You can do nothing to keep your dogs in the back yard," threw it over the fence. She said, "He is a puppy abuser." I said, "Ma'am, I appreciate this but what am I supposed to do about this for my campaign?" I said, "I really cannot put out a brochure that accuses my opponent of being a puppy abuser." She said, "You come with me." She took me down the block and it was one of those things that we lived in the same neighborhood - I was around the corner, I was in some townhomes around the corner from his home - she took me down the street, introduced me to every one of the neighbors and told who I was and asked if I would put up a sign in their yard. So, as you went down the block, every sign on his block had a sign for me except for him - had a sign for his yard - and one of his neighbors said he was afraid he would poison his dogs out there. So apparently they put the word out in Sharpstown because I did very well in the runoff election and won handily, and was able to keep a very positive kind of campaign about change in Austin and responding to the voters.
Anyway, that is the beginning of my political career, was getting elected to the House.
I worked very closely in the Legislature with the community. I always deeded myself as being a state representative, not a Republican representative or a Democrat representative but a Texas state representative who represented everyone in the community and as a result, I got along very well with the Democrats. I had been a Republican precinct chairman in my area. Growing up in politics, when I moved out there, there was no chairman. I was appointed by the executive committee and later elected to be the precinct chairman who would run elections in the Sharpstown area. I had become good friends with the Democrat chairman. The year Jesse [Sheila??] Jackson ran for president, in fact, I helped her run her convention because the votes, the Jackson delegates all came in and threw her out and then we had to change places and give her the sanctuary in the little church that we were in. At the time, it was a Methodist church, I believe. It is now the Korean Baptist Church. The community has changed in that whole Sharpstown and southwest Houston area. But I never had a Democrat opponent in the House. I worked very closely and, again, that effort to serve the entire community has served me well both then and later as I became the county judge. I had a lot of Democrat support in my races. I had a Libertarian opponent that would run against me and one year, Ron Paul was running as the Libertarian candidate for president. He received 300 votes in the primary, ran the general election in the fall in November, and my opponent received about 12% of the vote. It was about I guess 5,000 votes in that election for state representative and I was devastated. I thought, these people must hate me. What have I done? Two years later, I spent about $60,000 and ran a very hard campaign against the Libertarian candidate. Once again, he got about 12% of the vote. It taught me that there are a group of people that are highly partisan and will vote against a Republican just because you are a Republican. After that, I quit worrying about it and thought I really just needed about 50% plus one and I would like to be 55% and I was happy. I never wanted to have such huge victories that I was not accomplishing things. You need to burn some political capital to make things happen and I liked doing that. I was reelected to the House for 8 years.
On a personal note, my wife had helped me in that campaign. She enjoyed politics but it is very stressful on families. I had gone back to law school in that period. She went back to law school, enjoyed law school. The glamour of being in political office was quickly gone to the reality of being in political office, between schedules and financial strain, the Legislature is a job that paid $600 a month and you had a per diem of $30 a day during the session so you got another $900 a month to pay for apartments or for housing expenses. I was working at the insurance agency. After I left the insurance business to go to college and the home building business, I stayed in real estate. I was working with a group of real estate developers here but my income was not always consistent. It would depend upon how long I was gone in Austin. There were a lot of challenges in Austin and you could plan for a legislative session that was 140 days every other year but we had some sessions and some years that we were in session more than the U.S. Congress. Ann Richards was the governor. We got along well. Mark White was governor. I got along with Governor White when Governor White called us into session _________ the first governor. Bill Clements, my second governor, the same way. We had many, many special sessions in the legislature. It was very hard on our professional life, very hard on our personal life. My wife was working, too, in the title insurance business, went back to law school. A lesson for anyone else whose wife is going back to law school - it is better to get married after they go. But we did wind up getting divorced. After 8 years in Austin, I came back and said, you know, it is time for me to quit this. I need to get more serious about family and home. I knew there was a problem when my wife suggested that I run for reelection because she had been harping on me not to. It was a friendly parting. We had no children and very little property and we still today remain friends and it probably worked out best for both of us. But it was a difficult time.
I stayed in the Legislature. My father passed away in 1989. I got divorced in 1989. And the company that I had been working with was a title insurance business, it was part of a savings and loan that none of us even knew was a subsidiary of a savings and loan . . . was put into receivership by the FDIC and that was a difficult year, not only for Houston but for me personally. I probably ran for reelection primarily because that was the one thing that was stable in my life at the time. Unopposed in my election, I came back and actually had the most successful legislative career from that point forward. I was there 2 more terms, very successful in the Legislature. I later met my wife today and we have a beautiful daughter. After 12 years in Austin, I had been a Republican in a time when the Republicans were the minority that was appointed by Democrat speakers, committee chairmen, major committees, worked on major legislation. Had really accomplished about all I could accomplish except being elected Speaker and that was not going to happen until there was Republican majority. Had considered running for state office, in the interim period, had gone back to law school, South Texas College of Law. Again, part-time, later full-time, and was just going to quit and be a lawyer but thought I had been in politics so long, I started to run for one of the state offices, looked at the land office - an interesting job, but my heart really was not in it and decided I am just not going to do that. I had been to Dallas for a campaign event. I decided I did not really want to be land commissioner. I had enough to do with the campaign. Later, John Lindsey decided not to run for reelection as county judge. He had been there more than 20 years. I had been very resistant to looking at a county office. My dad had been a commissioner and he was one of those bigger than life political personalities and did not always want to be compared to Bob Eckels and the way he did things. But the Judge's job was different enough than the commissioner's job that he had done and with a lot of encouragement from friends on both sides of the island and folks all throughout the community, I decided to make that race - again, primary, general election. Harris County has always been kind of a close county. The Republican primary was again a spirited campaign. Two strong opponents: one was ________ district clerk, a woman candidate. Katherine Tyler had been elected several times and made a pretty strong candidate. A Hispanic business man here, restaurant, Rafael Ortega, ran a good campaign, too. Katherine and I were in a runoff and I prevailed in that race. It was an interesting comparison of personalities and of base and where we came from; her from a more administrative county position and mine from the broader issues of the state and the history with the county. Growing up with my dad on the west side, again, he had been dead for several years. I guess by then, 6 or 8 years. But have grown up around the county and knew the politics and the people involved. Vince Ryan, my opponent in the fall, was a member of the Houston City Council. But again, it was an interesting lesson in the county in the politics versus the city. Houston is a little different than other parts of the state. The people in Houston tend to not have a very provincial outlook. We are Houston - we come from all over, we are a big city, we don't care where you are from. In Dallas, I would campaign for friends there, they would say, "Oh, she's the candidate from Irving. We can't vote for her, we are the Dallas people." People in Houston would never say, well, you are the Bellaire candidate or you are the West U candidate or you are the Baytown candidate. But the people in Baytown and Pasadena would do that, and they do not want to be told that to do by people in Houston. And in my campaign, I found very much the defense was the Houston candidate because he was from the Houston City Council and I was, even though we had similar overlapping districts, his council district and my legislative district overlapped and we both lived inside the city of Houston. I was not the Houston candidate. I was the legislator. I was the candidate for the county and I was able to do very well with the crossover . . . actually, we called them Reagan Democrats . . . the labor vote _______ Hispanic community in the Houston area, inside the city of Houston, and pretty well carried the race in the fall. It was a good year for Republicans, 1994, both county-wide and nationally. Republicans took Congress, took the governor's office. It was a strong year for Republicans. Governor Bush was elected here in Texas, beat Ann Richards, the incumbent.
So, it was a strong year from the courthouse to the State House to the capital in Washington. But then, there comes a time to govern and what do you do as county judge? While I had grown up in the county and had enjoyed the support of all the commissioners, all 4 commissioners had supported me in that election - Republicans and Democrats - had a very close relationship with Commissioner Fontina, a fondness for Commissioner Lee and his work he had done in the precinct. He and dad were very close. He came in with and with a little _______ the county, we organized an organizational study of the county. We organized, cut the tax rate, really accomplished a lot in the structure of county government very quickly but as in most cases, the same tension evolved between the judge and the commissioners that develops between a mayor and a council or a governor or legislature or, in this case, every county judge, I guess, around the state and the commissioners. The judge really is not as powerful a position as the county commissioner's. You are the presiding officer under state law, elected by all of the voters of Harris County but are not as powerful as a commissioner's . . . as my father would say, "The judge was about as worthless, even more so, than the Legislature," because then when the judge needed anything, they had to come to the commissioners and ask. Shortly before I left office, there is an article that he might want to succeed me and it was pointing out that none of the commissioners were vying for that position in Harris County and the comment from one of them was, "Well, the judge, he does not even have a lawnmower!" And for me, it was right. That is exactly right. I did not want a lawnmower. I would just as soon call the commissioner and tell him when there was a problem and ask for their help because I found that generally, they would help with it.
Big issues - we got along very well in the commissioner's court and I still consider all of them to be pretty good friends but there would develop some tensions on the personalities. I really thought that we needed to have a more open . . . the ethics issues that are coming around today to hit the county . . . like, my dad left office under a cloud. That gets back into his days in the county. He was there during the boom time of the 1970s. It became an open war with the district attorney, with the U.S. attorneys. He was prosecuted from any political agendas. He had one case when I was in the Legislature under the federal court where he was prosecuted for mail fraud. It was a case where they had made a movie about Harris County. Dad was a teacher and had made a movie for schools about the county and ultimately was indicted for raising money to do this movie for production and distribution in the prints of this movie. And was indicted for mail fraud because the letters that he wrote said it was for prints in the schools, not for production and the printing of the movie. A very technical violation. There was an audited financial statement and a budget that was given out beforehand. There were no complaints from people who gave the money but he was indicated. He was acquitted of the cases but was reelected during the trials which was, I guess, probably 1987. No, this was back before then. This was in the earlier 1980s, 1970s, early 1980s, I guess. 1983. Anyway, he was reelected during that period. 1985. Anyway, he was reelected. It was 1985. A tough Republican primary during the trial under a 9 count federal indictment which spoke some to his support in the community. What probably saved him that he was indicated was Judge McIlvain who was investigative reporter who had done that and Lynn Ashby who was the editor of the film who had written the script and helped him with the production and is still a columnist and active in the media here in Houston. But he continued to have a running battle with folks and later was convicted of accepting an illegal gift. Dad was one of those guys, again, child of the Depression, 1930s, grew up your word is your bond, shaking hands, had bought a farm and built a house and did all the work out there on a handshake. One of the projects was a driveway road, probably about a $25,000 project that he did on a handshake with a contractor from the county. Through a series of events, ultimately he was convicted of a crime he did not commit which has also given me an interesting perspective as attorney in the justice system. No doubt that he was not a perfect person but it is kind of scary for me to watch the unlimited resources of the federal government or the local government when they are directed at one person with an agenda and trying to fight that. Anyway, he resigned in 1987 and then passed away in 1989. So, given that history, it was again, part of my reluctance coming back in the county government but I had a particular sensitivity to making clear both relationships with county contractors if you got working relationships with them and probably overcompensated for those experiences as a kid growing up. I wanted to make sure that the T's were crossed, the I's were dotted and that there was no question that those reports were filed. And that chaffed a little bit with some of the commissioners and their private business. I think some of them have viewed that as a personal attack on them, wanting to have more open disclosure. The law was finally passed, it took about 6 years, in Austin and we finally passed a law in Austin that required a much more extensive disclosure like in presessions. I guess the law finally passed in 2006, I guess. 2005. 2006, legislative session, we finally passed that law that required the disclosure by both the vendors and the commissioners. Most of those relationships . . . did not get them all and there is still work to do but that was probably the biggest tension I had with the commissioners, was over those issues - outside income and the reporting of relationships between the commissioners. Today, one of our vendors has been indicted and there is a strong look at the county . . . actually indicted for an illegal gift to a city official, a bribe to the city official who, I believe, has pled to that case. I do not know all the facts involved in it but I know that it has put a cloud over a lot of the activities at the county as well and I still believe in that as very important to have sunshine on government the operation and government.
DG: At this stage, the government sort of becomes Republican, at least in terms of those labels but back when you were an early Republican, it was a big minority. As you say, it used to be said there was a two party system, there were two kinds of Democrats. Why Republican then? What made a Republican a Republican back in the early days when there weren't very many of you around?
RE: Well, as I came in to office, again, I probably had more Democrat friends even after I was elected because there were more Democrats. The Democrat Party came to be dominated by an urban liberal, more of a left wing agenda of the Democrat Party through that decade of the 1960s into the 1970s. The Republican Party represented more a party of individual responsibility, individual accomplishment, lower taxes, more accountability back to the community, local government, or emphasis on local government. The Democrat Party came to be, again, a coalition more of the government knows how to handle and take care of you, the government will be here to solve the problems of healthcare, the government will be here to take care of you in old age, and I just do not trust government as much as that. I come out of government . . . one of the things that I have found about government and many elected officials forget is you are a part of government but you are also apart from government. And I do not represent the state or the employees of the state. To the people, I do, but I also represent the people to ______. And it is not my office, it is the peoples' office and I am just keeping the seat warm for the next guy. So, you have a tendency of people to get elected and then want to do things and take care of people. Now, with that said, the Republicans, as they grew, kind of evolved into one that also still have embraced many of those Democrat ideals and I have never been one who thought that there was not a place for government. I've got a Libertarian _______ politically, kind of live and let live, and I do believe very strongly in Milton Friedman's first rule of politics, is that government spends what government receives plus as much as government can get away with. And so, for me, my goal was to keep taxes low but not do away with taxes because there is a role for government, to find those things that we do well. Big governments do some things very well. We regulate well. Air pollution. Water pollution. Minimum standards for licensing for doctors. You want to have somebody have a minimum standard to be a doctor, some level of competency. You want to have a standard for home construction, so your houses do not burn down. You want banks and businesses to be responsible back to folks and there is a place for government that we do very well in regulations. Government does very well on taxation and we have collection agents with guns that can go out there and collect money that people owe us so government taxes well, regulates well. What we do not tend to do in government is the service side of the equation. We can pass rules for tests for doctors but we do not regulate doctors to assure they do a good job and, as a result, you have a crisis in the court system because bad doctors practice and practice and practice, and make the same mistakes over and over again because the regulatory body does not stop them. It takes continued litigation and inability to get insurance and those kinds of things. We do not provide a lot of services. You do not see, at the county level, a big county, a big city, you do not see people in a small town say we want the Houston Police Department, we want the Harris County Sheriff's Department. People in Bellaire, West U, Pasadena, Deerpark, Laporte, Spring, Katy, the Memorial Villages - they are just fine having a small department. A small city does good on services. They've got a lot more responsive action to the taxpayers. In Harris County, you've got to get in line behind 4 million people and it is a long line.
Healthcare is a great example. We have the Harris County Hospital District. They do a tremendous job, a tremendous job in the emergency room and with what they have, they do a great job. But they will never be a center for excellence in healthcare for the average citizen. Most people, and it was a hard lesson . . . when we started seeing competition for Medicaid dollars, the Hospital District was created and Ben Taub was created as a facility for Medicaid patients. When that became more competitive in the private sector, the director of the Hospital District, Lois Moore at the time, was convinced that they were all going to sail, they love us at the Hospital District, we will stay here. They flew to St. Luke's and Memorial Hermann and Methodist and the other hospitals in the Houston region and the private physicians who all were competing for those doctors and treated people like they wanted them there. And the Hospital District felt a tremendous financial squeeze with an even harder patient base to serve that did not even have the Medicaid coverage.
DG: You were discussing the ideological differences of Republicans. I was curious though, back in those early days, I mean, certainly there was a conservative voice within the Democratic Party.
RE: That was probably the last of those years. 1968. A guy named Briscoe who was district attorney was running. He was a conservative Democrat running for Congress. George Bush beat him. The local parties followed the national trend and the conservative Democrats migrated into the Republican Party. The Democrats became a party that was a coalition of, I guess you had the old FDR New Deal Democrats, government works programs and Social Security and Social Services coming out of the New Deal. I do not think the Republicans have ever been against Social Security, it is just whether we trust that the government is always going to be there for Social Security and what can you do to encourage private saving and investment to be taking care of yourself in old age, too. Social Security is a security safety net, not your retirement fund and _______ he does not trust government to be able to run the safety net . . . they can run the safety net but not . . . I hate the thought of in my old age, determined by the government. Healthcare is another example, too, that we touched briefly on, about the Hospital District and, again, the service versus regulation that we do. And Democrats tend to want to get more and more into the service side of the business and, again, I am one who tends to, again, think there is a place for government. But we have to look very carefully at what we do in government to make sure that we do it well and where we don't, we bring in the private sector. There are some natural places for the government. Police, law enforcement. Again, part of the regulatory structure. The court system. And what I always try to do is bring in business principles but business is not necessarily better than government, it is just different. More businesses fail than governments. Big business fails all the time and while I do not trust government particularly, I do not trust big business either! Small businesses tend to have to be a little more responsive but major industry sometimes overlooks problems and that has been some of the issue with the environmental issues in Galveston Bay and the Channel and the Clearlake area, you know, X amount to each employer, they pay a lot of taxes but you need the government to regulate and make sure that they are doing what they need to do in that area and we need to push them to the regulatory scheme to do more. And that is where, again, the government does very well. And I guess that, again, gets to be the difference between Republicans and Democrats, is whether you push private sector through the regulatory side and penalties and the tort process or you take it over and run it yourself. The Party, over time, grew. Harris County, the year I was elected, was probably the first year that we had not had any county-wide Democrats elected in the county and the Party enjoyed a period after that where there was no Democrat elected to county-wide or regional office in the 12 years that I served as county judge. The Republicans did an excellent job of getting out and working on, get out the vote, new votes, turning new elections, turning out their voters in some of the districts that had been marginal in the past. I do think that you see a cycle in politics run though. The elections have been close, particularly in a down ballot judicial race, the Republicans probably started out with 45%, 42% of the vote. The Democrats 38% to 40%. And then you fight over 15% or so of the difference. And that has tightened as we have moved down the Republicans . . . the judges tend to get more complacent. They are in office. They fret a lot about the election but they do not go out and campaign as hard as they would. The legislators that get elected, the way the districts are drawn tend to be more solid districts. While you have seen a couple of them switch, Republican/Democrat close districts, it is more a personality than it is a party difference. Martha Wong beat Debra Danberg probably on a Party fight. A little personalities in a new district in a near town Republican district. She was later built by Ellen Cohen as a Democrat. It was all women candidates each time. But Ellen came in as a stronger personality and worked the district harder and people just liked her better. There isn't an independent group swing vote within the area. I do not think that means it is bad for Republicans or bad for Democrats necessarily, it is just in those districts, sometimes personalities matter. Usually in my campaigns, you know, all things being equal, two unknown Anglo males running for an office, Republican/Democrat, it would probably be a 52/48 kind of race. I would easily push 55% to 65%. We could move a quarter of a million dollars to would move a point. Typically, I would rather spend the money on turnout than on raising Eckels' vote numbers, trying to help other candidates. For me, if a Democrat got elected county-wide, it just encouraged them for the next time and so I did not want to see one get elected. It wasn't personal . . . if we had good candidates running on the Republican side, there was no reason to encourage the Democrats. I still have a lot of good friends. There may be even few of them now _________. I expect this election that you will see not a sweep by either side but more competition which is healthy. I have always wanted to have competitive races where a Republican or a Democrat could win, and I do believe up until the last . . . it has tended Republican but the right Democrat could have been elected county-wide in Harris County. The city has always voted Democrat. The mayors have been Democrats. I can't remember the last Republican mayor that was elected. I do not think there has ever been one elected. It has been difficult to transition that into a county-wide race but as the city grows, there is a swing vote within the Houston region and that gets into a whole political discussion but it is what I call a squish Republican vote. They are Republicans but they want to feel good about it, and there are some Democrats that are the same way. The Republican vote is today an area roughly Memorial Drive to Westheimer, Beltway 8, inside towards the city of Houston. Beltway 8 probably on the west end to Houston. Through River Oaks, Tanglewood, fishhook down through Bellaire and West University Place, Braeswood, Rice University down in that end of the world, and Clearlake. And those are areas where I would get, as county judge, 75%, maybe 80% of some of those boxes. Paul Bettencourt probably more conservative to the right of me would get 75% or 80%. Kay Hutchison, very strong Republican, would get 75% or 80%. Bush, 75% as governor, maybe drop down to 65% when he was running for president. A strong Democrat in those areas might get 45%, 48% of some of those boxes if people like him or her and they do not know the Republican or think the Republicans or not. They want to feel good about their votes. The suburban areas, FM-1960 is a solid Republican vote. Inner-city vote. African American areas - I had a lot of support in the African American community. Democrat elected officials, Democrat precinct chairman, the faith-based community, C. Anderson Davis, the head of the NAACP when dad was . . . the integration fights in the public school system. A great friend and supporter in the African American community. I think many people in there thought they were voting for me when they voted straight Democrat but you might be able to go from 3% to 5% in that area. That is an area that is Democrat. ________ of our areas are pretty solid Republican. The Democrat areas, Republicans could do well and with that squished ________ it would be the east end labor vote for, again, the democrats. But they are pro gun. I do not know if they are all going to vote for Obama this fall. They are anti-tax. They are union but I work well with the unions. There is a place for unions out there, too, and I found it easier to work with the unions on the things that we needed to do at the county than to be in a constant battle with the unions. If it weren't for major corporations and pressure, there would not be any unions. So, there is a place for all these greats. So, the D's fight and that is when Republican vote areas. The Republicans have to go fight in a swing Democrat vote area for the fall. This year, there will be a new dynamic. Probably the most liberal, most left leaning Democrat national ticket than there has ever been and a more moderate Republican ticket. John McCain is hardly a darling of the conservative Republicans and it will be interesting to see if the Republican base, the social conservatives, will stick with John or just stay home, much as on the Democrat side, the Democrats have been kind of a coalition with the other side of the social spectrum - the gay activists and the abortion rights faction of the Democrat Party is . . . again, but it is real hard to put them all together because there are pro choice Republicans and there is gay Republicans. The gay Republicans is one of my biggest supporters. So, politics, more than about party, has always been to me something that is very personal. Tipp O'Neal will prove that all politics is local. I think that he really missed that, that it was local to the extent that local was partial. Well, that goes back to my dad's thought about the commissioner matters more than the state representative because the commissioner can cut your ditch so you do not flood or mow the grass in the ditch or pave your street, fix your pothole. That may be what is personal to you but for some people, what is personal is whether the U.S. Embassy is in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or whether I could have a gay marriage or whether I have health care for my children - different things are personal to different people and so it is real hard to label folks like that. And today in Houston, I think you've got a pretty even Republican/Democrat base vote going in, probably 38% to 40% for both. I do not think the dues have gone a lot more than they had when I was running. I think the Republicans, as they grew, they have probably fallen a little bit. And, if anything, you are running 40% to 42% apiece and you've got 18% to 20% out there to fight over for the fall. And you will see some Democrats get elected and some Republicans get elected.
DG: You have used the word "responsive" a couple of times in describing a properly functioning government at an level, probably no better example of that than the Katrina experience here in Houston. Probably the best way for me to approach this is just to ask you to sort of take me through the chronology . . .
RE: The Katrina story. The Katrina story really goes back to shortly after I was elected and I found out that I was head of, as county judge, Emergency Management of Harris County. You have to remember that Harris County is different than any other county in America, much less Texas. In Texas, there are cities that have incorporated in all of the counties. Most people live in a city. In Dallas, there are probably 10,000 people or so that live in unincorporated areas. Maybe a few more. San Antonio is the same way. Bexar County is the same way. Most areas, the cities have annexed or have created new cities where the people have moved. In Houston, because of the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the city of Houston, there have not been new cities formed and the people out there could not create cities. The county is created by the state but the voters create the cities. The voters in those areas do not have the ability to create a City at Spring. They do not have a City of The Woodlands yet. They do not have a City of Bear Creek or Cinco Ranch. Katy is a city but Cinco Ranch is all in the Houston ETJ. So, most of those areas . . . Kingwood could not create its own city. It was eventually annexed by Houston. Those areas did not become their own cities. They remain unincorporated Harris County. So, Harris County then steps in and provides governmental services. We do not do it through a county-wide bureaucracy, we do it through a smaller area - county commissioners precincts largely. The commissioner is responsible for the roads, for the bridges, for the parks, for the community centers. The library is a county-wide system but is largely accountable to the commissioners within those precincts. The constables, while they are separate, independent officials through agreement of the commissioners, largely respond directly to those commissioners. They do not work for the commissioners but if they are not responsive to the commissioners . . . an interesting story about that with my father. He had deputies that worked in the precinct on his watch as commissioner. They had uniforms from the Harris County Sheriffs Department, Constable Precinct 1, Constable Precinct 4, and Constable Precinct 5 in their closet. And any Tuesday, if the commissioner and the constable got in a fight, that constable's job might be that position might be transferred to a different office. And the shop would put a new coat of paint on the car and new stickers and they would be working for somebody else. They are still doing the same job in the same park and patrolling the same neighborhoods but they are working for a different boss because the commissioner decided he was in a fight with whatever constable it was. And all the commissioners are like that and the constables, as a result, are pretty responsive, so it gets back to a question of accountability to the voters in that precinct and the commissioners being able to respond to the needs of that district. The county, through its Road and Bridge departments and those precincts, through the Sheriffs Department and the Constables, through the services that we provide in the unincorporated areas, and then with the health care facilities that we have, through the Hospital District and a Health Department. People forget we have a health department that provides community health services, immunizations, and community health issues, that between those two jurisdictions, we have a major infrastructure in that the hospital district itself is close to a billion dollars a year in its annual budget, three or four hundred dollars a million a year just from the county and the local taxpayers and ______. So, we have an infrastructure in place that those counties do not have. Nobody else has the kind of capacity to bring in the sheriff's department, to bring in the road and bridge crews to clear streets and do things that the commissioners can do and they help each other and work very well together.
When I would find things at the county, once we went beyond the reorganization that needed to be done, the commissioners would often - each of them would have their little pet projects and they would not want the judge messing with that - but one area that I had initially started working on was emergency management, and that was one that fell directly under the county judge. John Lindsey, when he was judge, had suggested to me as I came in to office in the transition, and he had not run for reelection - it was a friendly takeover, if you will of the position and the office - most of his employees continued to work for me as I moved on, but John had told me that it was a horrible issue, that you wanted not to be the director of Emergency Management. He had delegated that to the sheriff. But, as I was running for office in 1994, we had a big flood and the San Jacinto River was out of its banks, pipelines had erupted, the river was on fire from these pipelines, houses were under water, I was trying to get to a speech in Baytown, or a debate in Baytown, some event in Baytown. You listened to the radio and the sheriffs department said the I-10 bridge was closed, the Highway Department said it was open, nobody really knew what was going on in the county. It was a case of mass confusion in 1994. There were trucks on interstate 10, pictures of the Katy Freeway that was under water and miles of cars and trucks that had been stuck on the freeway and people had to flee their vehicles because it was a depressed section of the freeway from downtown out to the 610 Loop. It was a mess. Nobody knew what was going on. When I came into office, I looked at it and said, John may be right but we can do more. That gets into what does the government do well? Maybe we do not do the service side and the county judge has no ability to do that but we can coordinate. And what I did was bring two people from Flood Control over, a guy named Jim, and Frank Gutierrez. Jim White and Frank Gutierrez. Jim had run the flood alert system, Harris County and its flood control district. We maintained 3,000 miles of bayous and creeks and he had gauges throughout the system that would tell people how fast the bayous and creeks were rising and how much rain was falling _______. We learned a lot through that process about . . . I became a bit of an expert, I guess, as much as a generalist can be, in flood control and the kinds of flooding you have, and when people would call and say, "Well, it never flooded before when I had 3 inches of rain," well, you know, that was at Intercontinental Airport where the rain gauge that you see on the TV is. The rain gauge by your house had 18 inches of rain. "We never had that kind of rain." We never had that data before. Well, we pulled that into the Emergency Management Office, Flood Control funded that, Jim and Frank started the process and we developed a system to plan and prepare and mitigate, and then respond to which was what the sheriff had done, the full recovery from a disaster and looked at the broad spectrum -- well, what is an emergency management office really about? It is not just about response but it is the coordination. We had done a series of drills every year that was called the hurricane poly exercise. We brought people in and all the county departments went through what they did. We worked with Mayor Lanier at the city in Texdot. You can see it had been sorted out with Texdot. And the Highway Department. And built a joint facility that would be Texdot for their traffic management; also, Harris County and the City of Houston for emergency management and did a fusion center, if you will, of all of these agencies working together, understanding that in a disaster, a big part of that disaster response is the transportation infrastructure and that by having Texdot as our partner and their dispatch and their traffic planning organization with our emergency pool located with our emergency management and Metro came in as part of it on their dispatch, that you could build an institution that you could sustain on a daily basis because you are using it on a daily basis with people that work together every day but then be prepared to scale up when you needed to for a disaster. And so, we continued to try to integrate the entities together. Harris County picked up through contract most of the municipalities in the region because we had resources that a small city does not but we viewed them as clients, whether it is Clear Lake Shores or Bellaire or West University Place or Baytown, they all continue to have their own emergency management director and usually through their fire department, their responders, and their mayor remains in charge as the mayor does in Houston and every other city, but contractually Harris County would come in and bring our resources the bigger picture and try to not serve everybody but coordinate services among service providers. And that was a unique function as we became part of a unified command, not a central command, and there is a big difference. And in the past, the city had always tried to run a central command, the county had always thought in terms of I am in charge as the central command; for us, it was a unified command. And so, to look at what happened in Katrina, you have to go back to the training we did among ourselves and the community, Harris County and the other constituent political subdivisions in this region, other cities, and the media. We did the media training continuously as well.
A great example is of a smaller event. We had a refinery fire in the Pasadena area and you have a number of cities in that Clearlake area - Webster, League City, and Clearlake Shores, Seabrook - we had an incident commander that comes to the refinery fire from the local fire department in, probably Webster, perhaps Clearlake Shores but a small city. The fire lieutenant is running the response to the refinery fire. He orders what is called a shelter in place for the area downwind of this fire as the chemicals spread from the chemical plant towards the schools in the community and the fire, the people are told not to leave _______ but to go in their home, close the doors and turn off the air-conditioner, and we will tell you when the cloud has passed and he had ordered the shelter in place. The plant manager would say it is not necessary to have a shelter in place, and he had his crew there, and in theory, the Harris County Emergency Management Office, because it was multijurisdictional, had the ability to go in and say, you know, I could have made a call on the decision of what we do. And the media called, confused. They said, the people are confused because the plant manager is saying you do not need a shelter in place and the fire lieutenant is saying you have to shelter in place. What do we do? And our response to that office is why is there confusion? You are the media, you are part of this and the only reason there would be confusion - if you are telling people two messages. And the message is the ______ commander is in charge, we support the _______ commander. We are there not to override him and tell people something to do but to support him and give him whatever he needs. You answer to him and respond later if you want to do a story and your story ought to be there was this agreement and there never should have been a shelter in place if that is what you think or the plant manager was trying to discount this for liability purposes and there should have been a shelter in place. We don't know. I don't care what the story is. The point is, there is one point of contact, that is the person in charge, that is the ______ commander. We do not second guess him. From our office, we provide support, we provide evacuation of people from other departments, we help to give him what he needs to run that operation. And if it expanded into a Katrina, it would still have been that guy in charge until it got too big for him to be in charge and then, as a group, we would have decided who else was in charge. I mention that because that is exactly what happened. Our first big test was tropical storm Allison. In tropical storm Allison, we had actually a more difficult test for Houston than the later Katrina event because it was a quarter of a million of our own people that we were taking out of their homes and having to shelter somewhere. They were not in the Astrodome but we had 100,000 homes under water. We had a quarter of a million people dislocated from their homes. We had a disaster on a scale that had never been seen in the United States. It was the largest urban flood in the history of the United States until Katrina came along. And we responded very well. Not everything was perfect. We learned a lot of lessons in that. One of the things we learned was that while we had complete media saturation and we think we told everybody what to do, that when you go to a house over here off I-10 north of McCarty Road or I-10 east of McCarty _______ was under water, they had no power, they had no radio, they had no telephone, they had no way of knowing what was going on and the way they were getting their information on how to respond to the flood was a flyer that was stuck on the door of the Fiesta store. And so, we wound up having volunteers and ultimately National Guardsmen going door to door. We sent trucks with telephones and cell phones so people could call FEMA and get registered. We had tremendous support form FEMA. Joe Allbaugh, the director of FEMA at the time, had known me and called me as the storm was coming - we had that relationship and we did not have to worry about paperwork or interference from Washington. We just had support, anything we needed. And it worked well. We learned things but the response was coordinated and worked pretty well in Houston and became our model. Then, we had, shortly after that, September 11 hit. September 11 changed the face of disaster response in the world and Washington woke up to the same kinds of things we were doing down here in Allison. We had a memo that came in from the White House that the president decided to create a citizens core. Tom Ridge and the Homeland Security Office came in, in a new department, and I was on an advisory board working with them on what was called the National Plan, and it was important. Again, this is the difference of Republicans and Democrats - the philosophy that went into the plan. It was a national plan. It was not a federal plan. And it was designed to build exactly the kind of things that we built in Harris County when we responded to Allison. It was giving each department the capacity to respond at a level within their jurisdiction and regionally, the capacity to respond together to a bigger event. So, if that fireman in Clearlake Shores or Webster needed a hasmat truck, the hasmat truck either came from the City of Houston or from Harris County that had a hasmat truck. And they would scale up as we went along. And we were free to do our jobs differently. In Harris County, we had multiple hasmat vehicles. We had small ones that responded to small spills and we would scale up if we had a bigger spill. Houston had a big fire truck that was hasmat responsive. If they _________, I will know which one is right and which one is wrong. Clearly, Harris County, we are right all the time. We just do it differently. We chose to do it differently and those resources are both there for each other and for other jurisdictions. The national plan is built on that. Tom DeLay, a congressman from Clearlake, controversial guy - pretty much helped us with that. Our ______ system, fingerprint ID systems, communication systems - all of that under Tom, under Bush, under Ridge, under what we had been building under the State of Texas with Governor Perry, was designed to build capacity at a local level but the unified command, not a central command, to coordinate, to bring that, to bear as needed on a regional basis for big disasters.
The failure of Katrina was the service side of the federal government trying to bring in a national response within the Astrodome or in New Orleans. The one place that the federal government can do a tremendous job is lift capacity with the military. They did not bring that into bear in Katrina. There are a lot of things that happened and problems in the law but the real ultimate was that in New Orleans, they did not have what they needed to respond to that storm. I mean, they could have had a big massive federal lift and bring food, bring water, and bring people into or out of the city. What happened instead was there wasn't food, there wasn't water, people were stressed and the people that were stressed were the most medically compromised to begin with, the folks who could not get out, and folks who were less financially able to take care of themselves once they got out - the poorest of the poor from the lower 9th and from the inner-city parts of New Orleans.
When Katrina came, again, as a background leading up to Katrina, we had been doing our regular drills, we saw Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico, we had a group meeting on what might happen if Katrina came to Houston. As I started tracking more towards the east, we stayed on a standby alert but not critical. Jim White had retired. Frank Gutierrez was running the program. Frank was a very talented Emergency Management Office operator. Katrina is moving east towards New Orleans. I actually was on the transportation panel and we have not talked yet about toll roads, stadiums or any other big things that have been in Houston. Maybe we will get to that. But I was going to a transportation meeting among county judges. One of the things I had hoped to do was increase the influence of county officials in Austin and in Washington and part of that was a group in Dallas were meeting on transportation issues. I had chosen to drive to Dallas for the day because of the storm. Katrina was out there. I said, no, we might get some bands and some rain and you never know, it could make flight delays. I appreciated how big the storm was, as I was driving up and was getting rain showers from Katrina as I was hitting Dallas along I-45 coming in from Houston. I had my meetings in Dallas, drove home that night. I got a call about 3 o'clock in the morning; again, it was a followup from my earlier discussion where we had met to talk about what happened here with Katrina, with the state's director of the _________. About 3 o'clock in the morning, and we had talked about the possibility of having a shelter facility at the county, probably using the Astrohall or the Astrodome, some facilities for 2,500 people or so. The call came in and it was, "You know, Judge, we talked about 2,500. We really need 23,750. We are going to evacuate the Superdome and bring them to Houston. Can we do that?" My response was "We can do whatever we have to do. Start the process." And that started the process. It proves true one thing: usually at 3 o'clock in the morning, it is not good news when the phone rings. But it was good that that morning at 6 o'clock, we were having our first meetings of the team to respond to the storm and it was the Harris County response, we weren't at that time expecting to have to expand beyond the county although the city Emergency Management director came to our meeting because she is part of that team of how to respond to disasters in the region. She was at least a part of that. The Astrodome complex, the guy who ran the Dome, Shea Guinn, this gets back to earlier in the story - Shea Guinn had worked for me as we were building the football stadium and baseball stadium. He had been my staff working as a liaison to Paul Tagliaboo and the NFL went ultimately to the Major League Baseball and Drayton McClain and the Texans on the NFL side and Bob McNair. After the county had taken over the Astrodome complex and we built Reliant Center and the new Minute Maid Park, he had gone to work as the administrator for the county contract because the county does not do . . . this is a Republican philosophy versus the city's . . . the city runs their convention center, the county took it over so we don't run convention centers. We don't want to have the problems the city has in their centers so we hired a company to run it. Shea managed that contract for us. It was very successful for us. The company that won that bid eventually was bought out by SMG Management. Shea left us and went to work for SMG and was the operator of the Astrodome. Shea Guinn was the son of my first opponent in my election for state representative. That is how I had first met him and he had come to work for me as an intern in my office in the State Legislature. So, it is a small world. Your opponents become your friends later. Shea had moved. The short of it was Shea had moved. I stopped by his house about 5:30 or 6 o'clock in the morning knocking on the door saying, "Shea." I knew where he lived but I did not know his new phone number. He lived over off Memorial Drive. I rousted him out of bed to get his folks to our meeting as well.
The group got together, started planning for the shelter operation in the Astrodome. The Hospital District engaged Baylor College of Medicine, University of Texas Health Science Center which runs the clinic operations for the county Hospital District, looking at what we would need for healthcare within the Astrodome complex. Frank and our crew got that together. Shea pulled the folks in. Aramark does the food services for the stadium, was there and able to drop right into place. We had never planned to use the Astrodome for shelter but we had planned for our group to be able to plan for whatever we needed to do and it was really just a case of grabbing the folks together and being ready. And we were ready . . . 14 hours later, we were ready and open for the busses from the Superdome to come to Houston and to transfer those people to the Astrodome. What was amazing was that we were . . . one of the amazing things . . . everybody nationally was, well, how can you do this, how can you be ready? It was what we did. We followed the national plan, everybody was ready and they were there. What happened though was it was not an organized evacuation from the Superdome. It was a disorganized mass exodus. It was anarchy in New Orleans. It was chaos as people came out. The state troopers that had gone to pick up the busses were not met by Louisiana state troopers as they had thought they would be met. They were left to fend their own way to the Superdome. In fact, the troopers on their way were not able even to buy gas. The credit cards from the State would not work because there was no power. They had to use cash. The troopers were having to buy gas and unfortunately, they were scrambling around and gas was not $4 a gallon and they were able to get enough gas to get their cars to the Superdome. The busses that FEMA was supposed to have at the Superdome were not there. Nothing was functioning. The helicopters were being shot at and the Superdome had reports of mass rapes, murders and chaos in the Superdome, and people were leaving on their own. People started showing up at the Astrodome in their cars looking for shelters.
Our partners in this, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the other social service providers that provide shelter, were prepared as well. There were about 30 shelters in the Houston area that were already set up and ready for people from New Orleans and we were devoting people from the Astrodome. But the news reports were out that the Astrodome was a shelter and it is a visible place, it is right on the freeway, people knew the Astrodome and they were coming there first. The international media was set up outside and, again, a lesson to responding to the press . . . I remember seeing a report where they were just blasting Harris County because they said, "Oh, they are turning people away from the shelter." We turned no one away from a shelter. We did refer a lot of people to other shelters that we just were not equipped to handle. We were looking for 23,750 people to come from the Superdome. It became apparent that that was not going to happen as more and more people started coming and we had less and less information coming from the Texas Emergency Management office and the Louisiana and FEMA officials. And ultimately, we made the call to go ahead and open the Astrodome to at least the busses that were showing up. The first bus that came in was an Orleans Parish school bus, one of the few that had not been flooded. It pulled up out front and our folks met them all there with the kids that . . . we had a bunch of these fresh-faced little Anglo kids from the suburbs that were there. There were Red Cross volunteers and they all went out to meet the bus of these criminals that had come from the Superdome. Governor Blanco had called me and said, "I hope you have a lot of police there. It is horrible. You need to be sure" . . . we had security, we had constables and the sheriff. We had detectives from the sheriffs office - it was kind of cute - that had not worn uniforms probably in many years. They are tight. They were plain clothes and they were told to put their uniforms on to come out and work. But that is the strength of the county, is that we can pull those resources together and the sheriffs sent his ______ out, the constable's office and the various municipal. . . . we had over 30 police agencies ultimately that were patrolling the Dome inside and out. The first bus showed up. We asked the driver if they all got off the bus. The bus was sitting there with the engine running and we asked if the driver could take the bus around and park it in a certain area for the busses to park. They all kind of looked at each other. Who is the driver? It turned out one of the kids had stolen the bus and had just driven it to Houston. And later, he said, "No, it was given to me by permission. The policeman gave me the keys." Who knows what happened? But it was a young man who had never driven a bus in his life. He drove that bus and just picked up a busload of people and they all came to the Astrodome. That was kind of the story of what happened and that opened the flood gates. 8,000 people that first day processed through and left. About 20,000 came through the Dome those first couple of days. That first day, literally, of the folks that came in that first day, 8,000 of them just spent an amount of hours there before they found a phone or called someone else. We learned that one of the main things they needed were chargers for cell phones. We had to set up . . . quickly we were able to find through our group people to bring in chargers for cell phones. The Red Cross running the shelter started out as a good partner and quickly became a horrible partner in the Astrodome operations but SMG was great. The people who came in filled out a little form with the Red Cross which was their bureaucratic . . . it is, again, a big organization trying to do a service oriented job. They were good at running small shelters but in this case, they did their paperwork but then came in to the Dome. They had gotten the cots there eventually and were set to go. We used the team locker rooms for showers. Bathrooms were set up. Aramark had fresh fruits and vegetables and snacks out for people as they came off the bus. We had a triage location ultimately. We had health care set up but ultimately became a major triage location for the Hospital District. Initially, we just ran a triage and ambulance service and the City of Houston came in. Dr. Persh (sp?) did a great job of the city's EMTs and quickly overwhelmed the city's EMT capabilities but the city managed keeping track of rooms and healthcare and what was available and transporting people until we could get essentially a hospital setup at the Astrodome itself. But it was a Dome and established shelter operation. The people coming off the bus were hoarding food. They would see a bowl of apples and all be wanting to fill up on the apples because they had come from an environment where they had nothing. I said, "Don't worry, we will have breakfast for you in the morning," but they did not believe that. And the next morning at 6:30, they started showing up late. 6:30, the next morning, they had a hot breakfast for everybody. Noon, we had sandwiches and a lunch set up. Dinner, we had a hot dinner. It was like that in the Dome. After a time, people came to expect that and were not afraid. We found that the people that came to the Dome were not vicious criminals but were gracious people who had been traumatized by a storm. They were worn out, they were tired, they were physically compromised, they were emotionally spent, they were trying to find their friends and family. There was no way to do that. I mentioned the Red Cross. We had a problem. They took their paper forms and we had a bank of computers there and the night volunteers were inputting forms. We asked them . . . they had not been part of our Emergency Management operation or planning. We asked them how they were doing on the inputting. They had done 300 that night. We had 20,000 forms. "Let us do them." "Well, they are secret forms. We can't do that. They are confidential information." We kind of rolled our eyes and eventually stole the forms. Jackson Walker and a couple of Fulbright & Jaworski law firms got together. They deal with confidential information. They input all the data. We took the forms back, put it all online. I know the Red Cross. We started daily meetings with the mayor and I and all of the providers. As the event moved beyond the Astrodome into a city-wide and later a regional response, we pulled in many people from around the region and the Red Cross ultimately is very grateful for us getting them that confidential information that they proceeded then to post on the web so everybody knew it, trying to find each other.
One time in the Astrodome, one of the Red Cross workers was there and we were trying to coordinate press events. The mayor and the healthcare providers and everyone who was providing services at the Dome and in the City was coordinating with us, while coordinating our press events, and the Red Cross response was, "We were chartered by Congress and we do not answer by local officials." They would not be part of our press conferences. And, to the end, they were never part of our press conference. And, in fact, they would often schedule over our events. The FEMA organization would come in trying to do debit cards or we would be trying to sign people up for schools and the Red Cross would not coordinate with us. We got through much of that. I did have a kid that came in one time and told me that I could not do something we were doing on the floor of the Dome. He said, "I am in charge." I said, "Great, I am glad to find who is in charge now. You come with me." We brought him along. In spite of that, it all worked pretty well. We had veterans groups. It was great. The volunteers in this community. We had over 60,000 volunteers just showed up through our citizens core, a core organization through that national plan that had been trained nationally, that would come in and know where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do as part of the community emergency response team, sort of the old, I guess, civil defense on steroids workers (??), but these guys are well trained. So, when something was needed, the volunteers just came together and did it. There was no veteran service organization set up. The VA had not yet arrived but a group of people who knew what the VA would need set up a table for veterans services and they started taking a list of veterans and who they were and where they needed to go. And it was like that over and over and over again. And you had CEOs from Fortune 500 companies here in Houston unloading trucks and they would see something that needed to be done a little differently and they would just figure out how to do it and they would go do it. We would empower people to do what they needed to do. Again, it outgrew my office and Frank and our folks' ability to respond. We brought in ultimately, as an incident commander, a lieutenant from the Coast Guard - tremendously talented folks to come together to continue to work together between the various agencies and again create that kind of neutral third party that would be ultimately decided what would happen but be able to bring people in to do what needed to be done because they wanted to do what needed to be done, not because they had to. On paper, in theory, I am the Director of Emergency Management and the sheriffs deputies work for me. As a practical matter, the deputies know that the disaster is going to be over in a few days and they are going to work for the sheriff again and if he tells them to do something else, they are not going to do what I tell them to do. They are going to do what the sheriff . . . so it requires a buy-in and about every 3 days, I had to call the sheriff and remind him what he was doing and why it was important because a lot the folks were getting tired of working in the Dome. We still had real jobs. But we were able to get through all of that and it was a successful operation. The real miracle was not that we were up and that we were there and provided the shelter for ultimately about 60,000 people, that no more than 25 or 30 at any given time in the Astrodome and about a quarter of a million hit Houston, but that we had 60,000 people that were processed through the Dome and moved on to other places - it was that from the very beginning, my vision was that the Dome was not going to become a refugee camp, it was a shelter and we would quickly move people to a more suitable spot. And we were able to do that through a coordinated housing effort between Harris County. We have a pretty large housing department because we have such a large unincorporated population, the city of Houston and mayors working together, Guy Rank (sp?) and his crew working on that partnered with Joe Leonard and the Coast Guard crew, our folks, on how we would get people moved into more suitable permanent housing or smaller shelters where they could get better service. Man people still did not want to leave. But we had gotten down after about 3 weeks to about 1,200 people from that cap of about 30,000 down to 1,200 people. About half of those were problem placements that either had criminal records or physical instabilities or infirmities that were going to require some kind of special housing needs. People still had to pass background checks and they still needed facilities that were appropriate for them. As Hurricane Rita started bearing down on Houston, those folks were evacuated ultimately to Port Smith, Arkansas we put together but with the lessons we had learned, we were able to put together manifests for the people in Port Smith, who was coming, what those physical needs were. There were no surprises coming in to Port Smith, Arkansas.
It was funny though because some of the . . . an interesting aside on that as well . . . the groups we all had working on it were hard workers and well-intentioned, but one little group from the Metropolitan organization, a community activist group that was helping us, again, I do not like to bring the unions in but one of their well-intentioned workers decided that the residents of the shelter had rights and did not have to leave. In a way, that is true - you do not have to leave but you have to leave this shelter because it is not safe in a hurricane. The Astrodome was the staging area that we had moved by then everyone out of the Dome into the Astro Arena. The Astrodome itself was the staging area for Houston's response for the disaster. It was full of Coast Guard boats and fire trucks and ambulances and power company trucks. The Dome itself and the Reliant Center were full of equipment to take out to respond to Rita which was expected to be worst than Katrina and to hit Houston. The Astro Arena itself was not designed to withstand the winds of the category 3 to 5 hurricane that was coming in. So, they were going to have to go somewhere. And all the other shelters were full and being evacuated as well. Most of the shelters were post storm shelters, not pre storm shelters. Houston was in the midst of its own evacuation with massive traffic congestion as people who really did not need to leave but wanted to leave or were on their way out. And so, we had airplanes ready to take these folks out and these activists had claimed to be from the mayor's office and were trying to encourage people to civil disobedience and to stay. Quickly I found out in my conversations with the mayor that this woman did not work for the mayor's office and I was about to put her in jail but he got some folks out there and the TMO came out and the organization came together, helped us to gather the folks up. A few did not leave. They left the Astrodome, they left our shelter because they could go anywhere they wanted to. And as the storm approached and got closer and the traffic got worse, they came back and they asked for us to help with it now but at that point, it was too late. They were routed to other shelters but that was an example of good intentions gone awry. But we did get those folks out to Port Smith, Arkansas, got our shelter closed and were ready when Rita hit.
DG: Obviously when you are dealing with a situation like that, I mean, just get through it every day but now that you have had the benefit of perspective, what is your enduring memory or memories of that period in our city's history? What did you learn about the city, about the people, about the spirit of the city?
RE: No one goes through an event like that, particularly within that shelter, and I spent hours in the shelter - I was, in theory, the guy in charge of that shelter. I was the Director of Emergency Management but Joe Leonard and the guys who were really making that happen - and I spent a lot of time there working on it but also a lot of time on the floor talking to people just running their own problems and business folks. You know, what I said earlier - they are a very gracious people, a very grateful people emotionally and physically warm people. They were. I brought my wife and daughter out to the Dome to see what was going on. My daughter decided that she wanted to bring something for the kids and had a huge collection of Barbie dolls that she had inherited from various cousins and people. Dozens of Barbie dolls. And she decided that she was going to give away her collection and so she went around the floor giving out Barbie dolls to all the kids and, to me, what epitomized the spirit of these people as much as anything was, as we were leaving, one of the little girls that Kirby had given her doll to came up to her and gave her a little book and said, "Thank you. I want to give you something, too." It wasn't that they were just wanting to get. They wanted to give back. And she gave her a little book about Jesus that she had gotten some place along the way. I think that was very touching, both for our family but as a representative of Houston and of these people that were there. The folks of Houston were incredible. They came together in a way that still amazes people around the world, to see how a community could come together and embrace people in need, people in a time of need, to meet that need and to be there for those folks. Again, it was an example of that national plan that Tom Ridge and George Bush had always articulated in action doing what it was supposed to do. Part of the political tragedy of it was they got no credit for that and we had been doing it before they ever came in, and that whole national model completely collapsed and failed in New Orleans because they did not have that institutional history that we had. Different personalities involved, I guess. And I am not sure if my predecessor and some of the mayors out there before could have done what we did either because of the personalities involved. Reliant Stadium, the mayor, the judge, Bud Adams, the team owner, would not speak to each other, literally. And I am not sure that . . . I am sure the city would have risen to the occasion but it would have been a different kind of response. But we found a city that came forward in a big way, financially, with their time, physically with their time at the stadium and at the shelters around the city, people opening their homes, churches. My church essentially took over a hotel for a month, 6 weeks or so and just opened it up. They just rented the hotel for the period and opened it up to people that needed shelter. Never sought reimbursement from FEMA or the federal government for any of that, in spite of my encouragement for them to do so. They said, no, that was what they were doing for the community. You saw the community come together in a way that no one thought possible, so I guess a short, one word description of Houston would be compassion, but it was compassion with the capacity to deliver on that compassion and really make it work for these folks. Then, we had problems. It was not without problems. Ninety percent of the people that came from New Orleans were great folks. I would spent time on the floor of the Dome and there was . . . in that kind of a mass shelter, there are always rumors going around of things happening. Every day, people were getting raped, people were getting murdered. I remember a lady that came in and said 6 children were killed last night. Nobody was killed last night in the Astrodome. They said the body was out there and they were hiding it. I said, "Ma'am, there is no higher authority here than me and I will assure you there was nobody found in the south parking lot last night." So, there was a lot of trying to put out those rumors and I could understand how the Superdome, there probably were problems but I do not think they were as big as they were represented to be in the news media and from the chain that would grow around talking about the problem. What we did find though as we moved people out that there was an element that were bad guys, too, that came to Houston and while 90% of them were good, 10% or maybe a few more of a quarter million people are still 25,000 or so bad guys. And as we moved people from the Dome shelter where we had a huge police presence and it was interesting . . . Bill Cosby came to the Dome and he was giving a talk to the crowd there and asked, "How many of ya'll hate the police?" Coming from New Orleans, they had a bad relationship with the police, I guess, in that part of New Orleans. But his comment to them was, "Look around you." There were all of our police officers that were in the Dome on the floor. They had a very strong presence there. He said, "How do you feel about these guys? Do you feel safe here?" And they did . . . people did not want to leave the Dome. They felt safe, they felt connected to FEMA, they were connected to each other. And they gave them a round of applause. They understood and they got that. I had a man come to me from New Orleans, from the lower 9th Ward, a very poor man, he said, "You know, I used to hate white people but you all are incredible." I had a lady that was passing out . . . had a tray with snacks and drinks that was going around. She was wearing her silk blouse and pearls. She looked like she came out of The Woodlands or something, Memorial . . . serving these people that were probably at least in financial terms, the last among us, would be referred to as _______ and as she was passing that out, it was deeply impacting her as a servant of these folks, people that she had probably never interacted with on that level before, people from that background, and the people who were being served because they had never had a rich white woman with pearls going around serving them dishes on the floor. So, I think it affected everyone. I think it was a positive impact. Now, that said, as we moved people out of the Dome, a lesson learned was that we had a housing program and we set people up in their housing, set them up in an apartment.
The people from New Orleans and, again, this is the difference in . . . it is not just a Republican/Democrat but a Houston, again, Texas kind of deal . . . there have been D's and R's that have done it, and a New Orleans New Deal kind of system where they have housing projects. And this is the difference in the mentality of people from those two projects. In the housing projects, you are assigned an apartment and that is where you go. The government runs it and you are assigned a unit and you live there. And if you like it, don't like it, you complain to somebody. What would become of healthcare if it was run by the government? You get what you get and you are happy with it or you are not and nobody really cares. In Houston, we give people vouchers. A voucher empowers you to go wherever you want to go in an apartment that accepts the vouchers and is qualified to accept those vouchers. And if you are not happy with that apartment, you can leave. Well, people coming in from New Orleans, we gave them vouchers and we assigned them an apartment. And they just got the next _____ list and they would use that voucher with the landlord. Well, for many of these people, it was different. They never had that responsibility. They never had that choice to make about where they lived. And while they were assigned an apartment, they could move to another one if it became available somewhere else. Many of our folks, our folks, the local Houston people that lived in those apartments were poor but they were not uneducated, they were not bad guys, they just lived in public housing, publically subsidized housing with their vouchers. Some of the New Orleans gangsters would move in while people from New Orleans that had lived in projects that had had a different management that required less of them and they might be using the restroom off the balcony or leaving trash in the parking lot or doing things that might have been acceptable in their apartments but weren't in ours and our guys would just leave. They would take their vouchers and go somewhere else. And more people causing problems would move in and as that happened in southwest Houston particularly, in many areas, it caused a downward spiral in those apartments. And there were 2 problems. One was an accountability and responsibility for your own apartment and keeping it up and responsibility to your neighbors that had not existed in New Orleans. The other was the gangs. In New Orleans, the gangs were not like ours where it was the Crypts and the Bloods. It was _______ Street and whatever other project - it was the different projects that they had. Each project had its own gang and so little territory. And you had skirmishes and drug battles and killing each other occasionally but they pretty much kept to their territory and as long as they did, they were O.K. Well, as we were signing people, we did not know about the New Orleans gangs and we would just give . . . the next guy gets the next apartment. And so, we mixed them all up as they left the Astrodome or they left their housing program from other shelters, and while they were behaving in the Astrodome because they were tired, they were sick, and there were a bunch of policemen standing around, there was no incentive for them to __________. Now, there is no doubt there were some drugs and prostitution going around on the floor of the Dome. We did a pretty good job of keeping it out. But they were not the kind of problems you would see in the other places. But when they moved out in the community, they started fighting each other and they started killing each other. And, again, they bumped into Texas versus New Orleans. We had one guy in our jail who was going to trial for murder. He had been in a fight with two of these gangs. He said, "What do you mean trial? This is a 90 day murder." We looked at him and said, "What is a 90 day murder?" He said, "Well, in New Orleans, they would either dismiss us after 90 days to speed a trial or they would let us go on a misdemeanor for time served because it was a drug related deal and _______ was a bad guy, too." We said, "Well, we are Republican judges. We have a little different attitude here. That guy is in prison . . . you kill somebody, you go to jail." So, it was a different . . . there was a clash of cultures in Houston, if you will, between the folks that came from New Orleans, and it spilled out into the community. We had some very tragic incidents where some New Orleans criminal activity on robbery and ________ car wash, a man killed washing his car, being robbed there, store holdups, still a lot of killings among people that were either from or gang members in and around New Orleans. People going back and forth as New Orleans started opening up. It took us a while to figure out who the usual suspects were and most of them . . . there is still a little bit of overflow from that but that led to a bit of a Katrina fatigue for people in Houston as well. I remember some folks from New Orleans coming to me in Louisiana that said . . . I was stopping or getting gas . . . a guy said, "No, let me buy gas for you." _________ and people jump at the ______ to help people from New Orleans because they had been through so much. 90 days, 6 months later, people are starting to get a little tired of the folks from New Orleans and it wasn't everybody but it was the bad guys that were, by far, the minority, that caused that Katrina fatigue, I think, for the community to many of the others. Today, about 100,000 of them, 150,000, probably still live in Houston and call it home. They are Texans today. They like Houston.
My daughter had a young girl, Jade, in her class. Kirby was in school at Middle State Elementary in the Klein School District. It is probably about a 50% Anglo, Hispanic, African American, equally split probably, population. This was a girl in her class in the 4th grade from New Orleans. She was making straight A's at home. Her mother had worked at a university, a clerical worker at a university. Jade was a full year behind Kirby's class in the 4th grade. The school embraced the family, embraced the PTA around the kids and the family and everyone there. This is one where a dozen kids were in that school from New Orleans. She performed ______, caught up by the end of the year, did very well in the test at the end of the year, the standardized test she was taking. Her mom said there was no way she was going back. She did not realize how bad it was in New Orleans. My brother-in-law has 2 folks working for him in New Orleans that found Houston to be home. At the same time, when I talked about my grandmother's house earlier in the Houston Heights and her neighborhood. There was a woman that is still here in Houston, I believe, was here for several years at least - I have not kept up with her in the last 6 or 8 months of the year - 85 years old, was my grandmother. African-American woman. She was my grandmother. She lived in a little apartment downstairs. Around the corner was the deli. The shopping in the neighborhood. The street car if she wanted to go into town. That was her home. And here, she had a much nicer apartment, she had her shuttle bus to take her to the mall, but she was lost because she did not have that neighborhood, that sense of community that she had had. It was very stressful to her to be here. She is on Social Security. She is not welfare. She is a recipient. A very sweet lady. A great addition to the Houston region. I hope she stays and is happy here. This little lady, she is my grandmother. It was a sweet lady from New Orleans. And really, as I looked at how we treat people, not just after Katrina but after anything we do, I would look at people . . . I kind of tend to personalize the folks that are out there in the community . . . if it were me, I would want this lady taken care of like I would want my grandmother taken care of. This is the same lady . . . Eastwood, we always do a community cleanup out there. There is a homeless shelter, does a great job. Takes a lot of people off the streets with mental or substance abuse problems. They had built a cross for this lady's house, a big shelter out of chloroplast signs and had a wall of malt liquor bottles around it, were clearing it out, and the city's attitude was, you know, we don't disturb these people, and our attitude was it is a county project and we cleaned them out. It was not so much about those folks because there is a place for them that was right around the corner where they could get services if they needed it rather than let them be a squatter on a vacant lot. It was more about the little old lady that was my grandmother, again. She spoke poor English. She was a Spanish-Mexican immigrant woman across the street but she was also in her 80s and she was in fear in her house because there was a lot across the road from her that was full of vagrants drinking beer and staying up all night and causing trouble. I always look at things as if it were my grandmother, what would I do for her? And we do the same thing for these folks. So, that has kind of guided me as we go through. The folks from New Orleans, the Katrina event, what we have here - they have been as much a blessing to us as we have been to them, and there will be a little impact on the criminal side but we will work through that and it will be positive for Houston.
DG: Terrific. You decided to leave the office. What led to that decision?
RE: I probably would not have run for reelection had it not been for Katrina. I have always supported terminal and it is not so much . . . I think 6 years is probably too short for the city. That kind of touches back on something we were visiting about as you switched tapes with the various mayors. I have worked with 3 mayors as judge and probably would have worked for 3 more if I had stayed. Bob Lanier was a very strong personality and a strong administrator who ran the city. He was the kind of person that we could sit down with and decide on some course of action and 2 weeks later, it was done. It might be that the grand juries are looking later at how they got it done but the mayor would make it happen. Lee Brown was much more of a bureaucrat. He was know around the _______ as the chief bureaucrat among bureaucrats. I think he had a vision for the city but as he and I were talking as he was running, he viewed the mayor as kind of the cap to his career, his public service career and he wanted to be the mayor. And the city became very bureaucratic in his operation. This was during tropical storm Allison and our offices, Emergency Management offices, were working closely together. It really strengthened the relationship between the county and the city because during Allison, my office had been one where I empowered everyone from the receptionist to the coordinator, the guy who ran that Emergency Management operation to make a decision. And the only wrong decision was no decision. If you were the person there and something came up, and if you could ask me, great; but if you could not, if you were the receptionist . . . what happened in this case was there was an incident in the city where the difference in it was there was a call from AT&T on a switch station that was being flooded during tropical storm Allison and they needed pumps to pump the water out to keep it from rising and cutting off the cellular service to the Medical Center and the telephone service to much of Houston. And there was someone from the city's Emergency Management office there that was not empowered to make a decision to authorize the pumps, and it was a several hundred thousand dollar expense to have the pumps go in. And we looked over and said, "This is nuts!" I signed it and sent it off and said, "___________in our office, we don't care. If it makes sense and you need to do it, authorize it. If you think it doesn't make sense, say no, and we will back you up. I may come back and our management may come back later and say this is what we think you should have done differently but we are not going to fire you because you made the wrong decision because we weren't there, you had to make a decision." And my group felt very empowered to do that and became essentially . . . there was a lot of things we decided for the city folks because their bureaucracy would not allow them to respond. Now, when Katrina came through and we had the same kind of incidents later, the city's office, under Mayor White, was very engaged, very empowered to do their job. We worked very well together and were able to complement each other as the disaster spread to a much larger scale. Again, our folks understanding that their job was to decide and to make things happen. Again, that goes to the theory of the unified command, not the central command. And perhaps because I did not come out of being a police chief or a military model, my vision has been a much more collaborative leadership than a command and control kind of leadership. That said, when I came to the county, I expected that I could do some things. I viewed the county judge as a place to be a change agent. I think that watching my dad go through his political career and he had a tremendous political career: 9 years on the school board, president of the school board, integrated the schools without violence, air-conditioning the schools . . . I remember having fans in the junior high school before their was air-conditioning . . . he air-conditioned the schools. Later, county commissioner. He essentially built the west side of the county and I can drive today . . . my daughter plays in a park that he told me what would be there 30 years ago before he was building roads, knowing what was coming and being prepared. I am a beneficiary of that foresight today. He also got caught up in a political fight in the environment of the county. It is a very mean and tough political environment. He personalized it and let it become personal with other officials to the point where he left not when he wanted to and under a big cloud that he did not need to leave under. That tarnished, in a very real sense for the public at least, his great accomplishments over his time there.
My predecessor, John Lindsey, left office before he really wanted to. He did not really know what to do when he left office. I have always probably overcompensated for that by not wanting to be so identified as the judge and so dependent upon being the office that I do not know what to do when I am not there. And I had planned to run twice, and do 2 terms as county judge. At some point, you have kind of done what you can do and it is time to bring in somebody else with new ideas and a new way to look at things. I had run for a third time because we were doing some things that I wanted to see through -- some toll road expansions, we were doing the stadium issues in Harris County, the football stadium, Reliant. I looked back and said, well, Judge Hofheinz built the Astrodome. But we built the Astrodome, we built Reliant Center at the Astrodome, we built the Minute Maid Park, we built the Toyota Center. That wasn't all me. It wasn't a bigger than life personality but it was bringing together the community to do those things that other people might not have been able to do. So, I had done more than I ever thought we would get done and would have looked to move on to another office or to the private sector and then we had Katrina. And while we had responded to Katrina, there was also a tremendous lesson learned from Katrina, and a void in power in the county judge's office. You know, politics abhors a vacuum and the day you announce that it takes . . . if you are not running for reelection, you have to announce it more than a year out, about 18 months out, so people have a campaign and the way the primary season works. I looked at it and really debated whether to run. I thought, I have been here 12 years, I have done more than I ever dreamed I would do. It is time to go out and either jump statewide or look at some other political office and be the new set of eyes somewhere else, or to spend a little more time with my family and the folks there because the job is not without its stress on the family. I do have a wife and a wonderful daughter now that is the most beautiful child in the world next to yours. And so, I went through that debate but decided to stay because of the rebuilding after Katrina, the work that we were doing together at the commissioners court. I had a relationship with the commissioners that was healthy enough that we were able to do some things we needed to do at the county as we were building a new capacity to take those lessons and respond to the Katrina that hits Houston one of these days. And we had gotten to a point, I was reelected without opposition. That is the first time I had been unopposed in my life so I got more votes than I had ever gotten. And had had discussions off and on since I first has ever been elected to office with various people about what I might do when I leave and this had come up towards the end of, I guess, 2006, 2007. There was nothing new to being in those discussions but the fact that somebody reported to the newspaper that I was having those discussions, I had had some discussions about the possibility of leaving, and I did not try to deny to or evade the question with a reporter when they called, my response was, "I talk to people all the time. Yes, I might leave." I really thought I would stay for at least 2 years, that it would take that long to have things back, but by the end of 2007, after the election, things were pretty close - we had done most of what we looked to do . . . I thought I would stay through the election cycle but I found that the stories and the media and the attention and the pressure became more about is Eckels leaving or staying rather than what is Eckels doing while he is here. And if I was going to leave, which I made a mental jump that it was time to do . . . there is always something else to do at the county but very wise political folks had told me in the past, you have to leave something for your successor to do, but I liked to get it all done, so then it became a question of how is my successor chosen? There was actually an editorial in the Houston Chronicle - thank God that people pay attention to that - and it was saying I cannot leave, there needs to be an election for my successor.
What the editorial writer misunderstood was he was right - there needs to be an election of my successor but the longer I waited to leave, the more of an insider game that successor would become, and it would be more either the commissioners court itself as the powers that be or the party organization apparatus, whether it is the Republican Party or the Democrat Party executive committees, that would select who that successor is and the longer I waited, the more narrow that chooser would become. And while I don't always agree with what the people do in the election process, and sometimes my friends get beat and my enemies get elected to the extent that I have enemies - I appreciate the peoples' ability to make the right decision and their ability to change course very rapidly where politicians are often loathe to do so. And so, for me, it seems that the county was at a point where my effectiveness as a change agent was challenged but if I was going to run for another office down the line, the latest that I could stay was going to be the end of 2008 anyway; you know, through the next 18 to 24 months, I was about to leave anyway, and if I waited until that point, it condensed that appointment process down for my successor and took it away from the people and it concentrated that decision into a handful of folks. And when folks, political figures try to handpick their successor, it seldom works out right. And so, that successor is often a disappointment or, again, they try to second guess what the people might do, cause a problem, so we did go through a process where we got to a point of a successor, a county judge ______ to succeed me in office. Ed was not the first or the natural choice to become the county judge but he evolved into the consensus of the court which was fine, it worked well, I like Ed, he has been a good friend for many years, and it allowed us to have an appointee, a district clerk and I would be the district clerk as well in my election, but a clerk who could wage a very strong campaign, get organized and run and be with the candidate himself; a Democrat to get ready for this fall and any other _______. Nobody else chose to run in the Democratic primary. That has been the different . . . Republicans have healthy primaries. The Democrats just, the insiders are still chosen but it is like the party chair is running as the Democrat nominee. And ultimately, in November, the voters will get to decide. And it is my hope that they pay attention to this race, if you are Republican or Democrat. The politics at the local level, my coalition was not the Republicans and the Democrats. The strongest coalition I had was Eckels and Eversoll and Fontina and Fontina was the Democrat. And the 3 of us would typically get together on big issues and when you have 3, you have 5 because of the county, _________. So, anything big, I was able to pull together for you and get 5. Commissioner Garcia came in and she was a little more independent, she did not really know the court as well and Commissioner Fontina, and it became 2, 2, 1, 1, 1. And it was harder to put that 3 of that coalition together. We still accomplished a lot but it wasn't the natural alliance that had been there with Commissioner Fontina that I had grown up with. I campaigned for him when I was 17 years old even though he is a Democrat back in the early days of the Republican party. So, anyway, to me, my ability to be an agent of change and that is really what I had looked to do as county judge, is be an agent of change who has been compromised (??). I really thought it was time for a shakeup of the commissioner's court and we looked at the counties, some new blood to come in to the county, and an opportunity for Fulbright & Jaworski to be on the other side of the table. They had been a great partner with the county and business over the years. They were the first group that had come in and asked me to come to work not as a lobbyist. I had come to work . . . I had had offers over the years from many law firms and most of them wanted me to lobby. Fulbright was a firm that would love for me to lobby. In fact, they do not do a lot of lobbying. They thought it would be great, you want to come be a lobbyist, but that was not the prerequisite to me coming to work for them and now 18 months later, I am still not a lobbyist for Fulbright & Jaworski and I have not been lobbying the commissioners court for Fulbright. There was a bit of a controversy when I left because the Chronicle asked me to pledge to not lobby the county and the problem with that is that lobbying is defined as appearing before your former employer for money on behalf of another, and the problem with the county is that is what a judge and a court and a lawyer is about, and as an attorney, I might appear before a judge either pro bono or for money. But I have not appeared before the commissioner court for a paying client yet. And that gets into the nature of the county is much more of a ministerial body. We do not do a lot of regulations like the city or the Public Utility Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission. There is not as much to lobby about, I guess. Topless dancers or liquor licenses but there is not a lot of call for a lot of these things. So, the county . . . I think the election process is working well, the county is in good hands, you've got 4 strong commissioners, the county judge is doing a good job - kind of preoccupied with the election now but that is why you've got politics. It is political office. I am comfortably enjoying watching the election as an interested citizen and I care like everybody else. I am a taxpayer still. But my family is happier. The 4th of July, some friends of mine were sitting around asking if I was enjoying being out of office - some of the neighbors. I said, "Well, here I am at the community pool like everybody else watching my daughter out there play with everybody else's kids, having a cold beer and talking to my neighbors, you know and the new county judge is down at the 4th of July celebration representing the county." And I kind of enjoyed just sitting with my neighbors.
DG: Do you think that is a long-term mindset or do you think after a while, you will miss the action?
RE: Fulbright has been very supportive of a lot of civic involvement and I cannot say I will not ever get back into politics. I could see doing that but what I am finding is that if you leave when it is time, if you don't get overripe in office and many people get overripe in office, that you can still be very effective on changing things without having to be in office. I can still pretty effectively work for legislation that I think is important without being on the floor and having a vote in the Legislature. I know the process, I understand the process. If I can find a champion, someone who cares or even if they don't care that much, as long as I make it easy for them to do all the grunt work . . . I have no problem having a different state representative or a different senator or the governor or some of the politicians stand up and take credit for the work that we are doing because they are doing a lot of work, too. He is paying the dues and getting the $600 a month and putting up with the stress on his family and the media and I am happy to help that legislator or that other county commissioner do their job and get done what I think is important for the community. I have a program still that this firm lets me do called Do The Right Thing. It is a juvenile justice . . . Judge Everett is still supporting it. As I left, the only thing I asked him was that there are a few programs that I was active in - I was on the board of a number of national . . . Texas Association of Counties and groups . . . "just don't leave them high and dry." And for the first year, he did that, for the first budget. I said, "Just get through the next budget cycle," and he did, and then he dumped a lot of those things that he did not care about - he will have his own priorities - but one that he has embraced and still enjoys, it is not just a Harris County program - I am the chair for the state - is Do The Right Thing. It is a youth violence program. We will have 18,000 kids in Harris County, 30,000 statewide, a little over 30,000 maybe statewide, kids writing about the impact of violence on their lives, alternatives to violence. It is a program I have done for 8 years now. I am continuing to do that. And what I understand now is I don't have to be county judge to be chair of that program and to make that happen and I have always had shares in Dallas and Fort Worth and San Antonio and Austin and El Paso and Brownsville and Victoria, Lubbock and Amarillo - all over the state. Now, it will be state-wide and it is almost easier for me to do that without being judge because I am not having to deal with the fight between the constable and the sheriff or the clerk and the commissioner or something else out there. The Legislature is the same way. I still chair a group that is a high speed rail corporation trying to build high speed rail in Texas. I love it. It is a transportation issue. A lot of folks think I am tilting at windmills but I really believe we can pull together an organization that includes local officials around the state of Texas. My vice-chair as the county commissioner in Dallas . . . I did try to resign from this board as I left and the Dallas county commissioner said, "No, we are changing the by-laws to keep you because you are the only one we can get along with." So, we all get along. I am the chairman but I have got a vice-chair. He is a Dallas county commissioner and a Tarrant county commissioner and a mayor of Temple and the county commissioner in Brazos county and the mayor of College Station and folks up and down the corridor where this train might be built who are working together to realize a 200 mile an hour plus high speed rail for Texas - I do not know if we will get there or not but this law firm is letting me continue to do that kind of thing. I am doing pro bono cases with the Holocaust survivors now. So, we are still doing good works in the community and being able to work for change in the community but I am also able to work on municipal and public finance, public/private partnerships, things that I did as county judge but last time I was financing stadium, I was the principal financing of stadium. Now, I am the attorney helping to make the stadium deal work for a city under the Department of State. And I am enjoying that, too. And my family is a lot happier. I get to go home and see my daughter tonight.
DG: I could imagine. Speaking of taking credit, the Katrina experience probably raised the profile of the county judge to the average citizen of Houston, and so we have all sort of been educated to just how much can be done from that seat. What do you think was accomplished during your tenure there that citizens are most appreciative of?
RE: Well, the county judge, it is a wonderful job but it is not inherently a powerful job. The way Harris County is organized, and not every county is like this but the commissioners are the road and bridge commissioners and they do the roads and the bridges, the parks and the libraries. I kind of felt like dad and the kids - not to say that they are the kids but it is like it is the dad getting the money. I would have to go out and pass the bond issue and they got to spend it. But I don't get to build the road. They get to build the road. But they would probably resent me using that analogy, and it really was not that we go out and have the campaign for the road bonds, divide it between the precincts and the commissioners, then go do the roads. But in the 12 years that I was judge, we were able to reduce the tax rate marginally, not a lot. The commissioner has resisted any big changes in that. We do marginally reduce the tax rate. Money came in more because of the base query but we ___________. We were able to, I think fundamentally change the way the county worked together among departments and it was . . . there are a lot of things that came from that but it was finding collaboration among the county departments working together and between the county and the rest of the entities around the region. So, I was true to my, you know, let's do taxes and let's apply a business model but let's not be like businesses that fail, let's be like businesses that succeed. I think you saw a transformation of things like the medical examiner's office, bring it in. The previous medical examiner has done a great job for the era but we are now in the CSI era. It is transforming the office into being able to deal with the new issues in our community. The Hospital District, to transition from primarily a Medicaid entity to being more competitive in the community and able to provide better services. And they are still strained tremendously but there are more partnerships now between the Hospital District and the non-governmental entities -- the churches, the faith-based and the nonprofit service providers, the hospitals out there. Everyone's answer is always let's just raise taxes and it will take care of our problem. Well, it is not just raising taxes - we've got now more of the community based health centers that are both federally qualified health centers and privately funded health centers that coordinate with the Hospital District and the healthcare. People do not normally see and that the judge won't ever get credit for but will have a big influence in making happen by bringing people together. And that is really the power of the judge. We had, during the time of the stadiums, we mentioned the stadium issues . . . we had the largest grant and coordinated program for homeless in the history of the United States. The largest grant came to Harris County and Houston through the Coalition for the Homeless. Sally Shipman was a former council member from Austin, ran the Coalition for the Homeless at the time here in Houston. We worked closely with her to get that grant and were having a big press event at the food bank and the Harbor Lights choir was out. We had the stadium issues going on and the press was calling about the football stadium or the baseball stadium, the stadium d'jour, and so if you will come to a press conference at the food bank or the Harbor Lights, and listen to our spiel about the homeless program, what we are doing to combat homelessness in Houston, we will be happy to take your questions there as well on the stadium. And they all showed up and the Homeless Coalition was excited. They had dozens of cameras and we did a press conference and they asked a few questions, and then they got into the stadium issue and that night, all that was on was the football stadium. So, for me, I guess the stadium was my Iraq war. It took over. It was like before Katrina . . . it was the issue that never ended but was different. When Roy Hofheinz was the judge, through his 3 votes on the commissioners court and his personality, he was able to build the Astrodome.
Today, Houston is a more complicated city and the judge cannot go build the Astrodome because too many people would be shooting at the judge. Hofheinz could not have done what he did in 1963 or 1965, in 1995 or in 2005. The city has grown, the city is more complex, the city is more diverse. It is not a bunch of banks and law firms and white guys downtown deciding what is going on. So, we had to put together a group with the mayor and the judge and the team owners and the community organizations that would activate in the rodeo but it had to be a partnership and we had to have an election to get the voters to approve it. It was a close election. When Mayor Brown tried to go separately without everybody on the Toyota Center and ran an election out there and fought the judge, fought the commissioners court, fought the community groups that did not think Les Alexander was being fair with people of Houston, he failed because the voters voted it down. He just could not do it with a forcive personality or as a single jurisdiction ________. What we were building was a city. People say, "What did you do?" The challenge for people understanding the county judge is we did so much. There was not an astronome like Judge Hofkins or a Hardy Toll Road like Judge Lindsey but there were more toll road lanes, it was the Katy Freeway and Westpark and a toll road system that was started by Judge Lindsey but was carried to something that had not been there before. It was a revitalization of downtown with management districts that could bring people to live there and the train that can serve the Astrodome to the downtown area, and Minute Maid Park and exposition centers and the Reliant Center and the Astrodome park, Reliant Park. It was probably best exemplified by a letter when I left I got from the then director of the Toll Road Authority, Mike Stretch, who said, "Judge, I really enjoy working with you. You taught me that I am part of the transportation system," which is really what I tried to do, is that it was not about the Toll Road and their advisors of what they do, or Texdot and the Texdot's advisors, or the major thoroughfares for the city or the county or Metro and what it does but all of them. And what we do on Westpark makes a difference to the city and their ride to Metro on its system and where people live. It is how that system functions together. And that is the same story ______. It goes back to when I was first elected the director of the Flood Control District, Art Storey who now runs _________ and we were building some extensions of the Toll Road, and Art came in and said, "Judge, we need $2 million, I need some land, we've got all this excavation work from the Flood Control projects we are doing for Braes Bayou and Sims Bayou." It was out there around Beltway 8 and the bayou. "We need $2 million to move _________." I said, "Well, it is expensive. It is in the budget. I had just been elected, worked out the budget coming up in March. This was in January. He took me out and showed me where he needed to do all this work. It made sense what they were trying to do. We got a call then from the head of the community college, San Jacinto Community College down in Galveston County, ________ County, and he asked, "We are trying to build a soccer field out here. We need fill dirt. And the county is building this toll road on the southbelt and you are buying all the fill dirt." He said, "We don't need money." And I really liked it. There was a budget coming up, so he did not want money. He said, "We are not even Harris County. We just need to know when you are going to finish that toll road so that the market forces will come to bear and we can afford to buy the fill for our soccer fields." And I was able to check and call him back and tell him when that road was going to be built. And I got to thinking about it and said, you know, here, on one hand, my Flood Control District is spending millions of dollars to haul dirt away from the Flood Control projects and here on the other hand, my toll road authority is buying dirt for millions and millions of dollars. I need to be in the dirt business! And we did get in the dirt business and we saved $2 million that summer hauling dirt for our flood control district to our toll road authority. That was at the same time we reorganized and ultimately put both of them under the same public infrastructure departments they would work together more efficiently and the director of Flood Control now runs all of it. But it is that coordination and that collaboration and that dirt story . . . the dirt in government . . . that really drives everything, that I tried to accomplish while I was county judge. And if it is healthcare or transportation or communications . . . we had on our radio system, I think there are close to 500, maybe 550 different entities from 150 different jurisdictions that are on our radio system. In Washington, D.C., they talk about getting Fairfax County and Alexandria and Arlington and D.C. and Montgomery County and Prince Georges County - 6 or 7 of them all talking together. We got 550 police agencies and public works departments and everybody on one radio. Everybody is there but the City of Houston. It is the biggest disappointment failure I have so far is that we've got the airport system, we've got Metro but the city has not joined our system yet. Technology may get us there eventually anyway. I guess if they had been willing to stay through one more mayor, I could make it happen. But that is the kind of thing we were doing in Harris County and it was changing the world and making at least this little piece of it better. I am still doing that. I am not doing it from an elective office.
DG: You have described the county judge position accurately as one of not having a lot of power in the office but still have the ability to get things done with the right sense of collaboration and bringing people together. If you could pick a job in public service and be elected just because you expressed an interest in it, what would be the ideal job or would you have to create one? What would be the best job that suits your personality and where you would like to be of service?
RE: I don't know. I have loved every job I've had. I love being in the Legislature. The Legislature was similar to being county judge. The institution was designed to protect itself and its members and, you know, there are a lot of questions about votes and _______. I was fortunate to have a constituency that would let me take a long view of things. You get elected until you could explain just so much, but I was able to be, as a Republican in a Democrat dominated Legislature. I was one of 35 Republicans out of 150 when I got elected, I think. There were only 60 out of 150 when I left. But I was able to be pretty effective, and sometimes I had to vote for a bill I did not like but I was able to influence and push it in a direction I liked, so I got my amendments. I liked being able to push. If I push one place, until I cannot push anymore, then I go push somewhere else. So, the ideal job would be a place where I could push a little bit, depending on where it is, to be a change agent. The Legislature was a place where, you know, 12 years, it was time to go do something else. County judge was a great job. I could not have imagined going back and being a member of the State House or even Senate right now. The county judge was a great job. I loved doing that job. I might be coming back as a county commissioner where I had real power, at least within my little sphere of _______ and sidewalks in my neighborhood if they are still. I think any job is what you make of the job while you are there and it does not matter if it is a director of a municipal utility district or the City Council or the county judge of Harris where you are representing 4 million people or a lieutenant governor or a senator or a Cabinet secretary - the county judge's job is like any other job - it is what you make of it. And there are some very powerful . . . the mayor of Houston is a very powerful position and we have had some very powerful mayors and we have had some very weak mayors that have not gotten anything done. And like any job, it is what you make of it. The county judge, just the opposite - it is what you make of it. It depends upon the personality of the person there. Judge Hofheinz made some ______ for his day. Judge Lindsey built the Toll Road system, made something of it for his day. Dad was a county commissioner. He made something of that job in his day. Built much of what the west end of Harris County looks like today and is responsible for hospitals and _______. We all do what we can when we are there and so my ideal job would be one that would let me make of it what I could.
DG: But not an insurance salesman?
RE: Well, you know, I am not sure I even hated being in the insurance business as much as I hated working for my dad! It is hard to make even what I could make of it, as long as you are working for your father.
DG: That is a universal sympathy, I think, for __________.
RE: I loved dad but I did not love working for him.
DG: Well, you've still got a lot of years of service left but what do you think the future holds in store for our city? If somebody looks at this interview 20 years from now, what do you see in the immediate future of Houston?
DG: I see Houston as continuing to be a very dynamic city. What I would hope we would see is one that grows in a very positive way, that we don't fall victims of our own success, that we don't become like the cities that we are different from. We are not in New York and we should not want to be in New York. The strength of our city today has been largely because we are not zoned and it is a very entrepreneurial city. On one hand, I get frustrated because things change in the city, people want to keep their neighborhood the same all the time, but the strength of our city is we do not have the inner-city slums that are zoned to be inner-city slums. That if someone is poor, they can move to a house with a wood fence backyard like at school, and have a better life with their kids. And most zoning law pays lip service to that. The cities that Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago - they are vibrant cities but they've got massive poverty and urban problems, with Los Angeles, problems that we do not have because we were able to change and become something different. So, I think what we are going to see is development controls and you are going to see there is a lot of talk about sprawl - Houston will go all the way to Austin and San Antonio. It will be solid to Galveston. But it is not going to be Houston. And if we can maintain the integrity of neighborhoods and remember that transportation system, we can build a community, a bunch of communities, where anyone would want to live and work and raise their family. And you could drop anyone from anywhere in the city and they are looking to be happy. But because society is changing and we no longer work in the same place all the time like we used to . . .the video system that you are doing today, you could be doing it for M.D. Anderson or you could be doing it for San Jacinto College or you could be doing it for a park up in The Woodlands. The key is having a place where you can live and work and raise your family but if you choose to work someplace else, you can get there. So, you will see your expansion of the transit system, expansion of the roads. As you look at healthcare, as you look at community development, neighborhood protection, transportation system . . . the answer is everybody is right and that is if our city can figure that out, that it is not about busses to solve the problems or roads to solve the problems or trains to solve the problems or helicopters to solve the problems or private car, whatever it is -- it takes it all. And if we can look and appreciate that, well, maybe we need to build the Toll Road to generate the revenue to build the trains. We had commuter rail that we don't have to pay for . . . have not had the way to pay for it without raising taxes. So, yes, I have to take the high road because I get the commuter rail. And so, if we can build a system that realizes that all of it works together and a system that can have a fair and open and honest government which I think is going to happen because of the sophistication and the flow of knowledge of the community. The internet, while it is frustrating, the scrutiny of public life is frustrating all the time. It is also much better than the alternative of having a handful of guys decide what happens and who gets the bootie from the taxpayers. And so, I think that you will see the city continue to grow. The blessing to Houston has been one big jurisdiction, two big jurisdictions of Houston and Harris County, and if those two group entities can get together, they can make anything happen. And the rest of the region is looking for leadership, Houston/Harris County. Houston can no longer provide that drive because we have outgrown it. I live in the City. Well, just outside the city now, I guess, but I have grown up in the city all my life. But more people live outside the city of Houston and their old model if you want to work and so it will take the kinds of mayors and leadership of the city to become . . . hope we never lose that where Houston and . . . you know, we don't have a chip on our shoulder kind of attitude. Your u the risk of that. But that they can still drive and be a leader in the region but have to build that kind of partnerships with Katy and Tomball and Pasadena and the county in the unincorporated areas to make things work. So, I see a bright future for Houston. I think that the environmental initiative is moving forward very nicely. The county has got a huge . . . we are the first people on the environmental side of the environment that cars 20 years from now, there won't be emissions from cars. The refineries will just be doing carbon dioxide water and you will have CO2 sinks for that. Houston is going to continue to grow and be successful. The port, a major distribution center and hub. We ought to grow and be very successful.
DG: Does this city, does this county have a spirit?
RE: Oh, the spirit . . . you saw like Katrina. It goes back to the days . . . there is a sign in City Hall . . . I hate to quote City Hall . . . from the county guy but I represented everybody in the city, too. The fun thing about being county judge is you represent the same people that the mayor's represent, that the county commissioners represent, that you go in and you are talking about doing things in an area in a community and you are with the community leaders - you all represent the same people and that is one of the fun things about the county that you don't get out of the city. But there is a quote in City Hall that "the people are the city." And Houston is not really a place. It is a people. We all live here. But it is the people. It is the spirit of the city. And it is evolving as a city. The people are becoming more diverse and there is a lot of talk about the strength of diversity. And I do not really see diversity as a strength or a weakness. Diversity is what it is. It can destroy a city and you have seen that in some cities. Or it can make a city much stronger. And the challenge of diversity is uniting all of those diverse strengths behind the common vision and a common spirit. We have done that with Hurricane Katrina and its impact on New Orleans and our response to that in Houston. We have done that as a community where you come together on the major issues that face the city, whether it is healthcare, whether it is expansion of the port through bond issues, whether it is building 3 stadiums with a public private partnership. We did not do it like they did it in Dallas where the city sucked it up in sales tax in Arlington and just gave it to the team owners. We brought him a rodeo, we brought him the team, we brought in the public side. If it is a city that will maintain that can-do spirit, the problems don't get bigger, just the opportunities get bigger, we are going to be a city of big opportunities and I think a city that will accomplish great things.
DG: Thank you very much for your time.