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Interview with: Former Mayor Robert "Bob" Lanier
Interviewed by: Jim Barlow
Date: January 8, 2008
JB: This is the Houston Oral History Project. The date is January 8, 2008. We are interviewing Robert Lanier, a man who has been entwined with Houston history as mayor, as developer, as a power on the local state and national political scene, who is also known as Mayor Bob. Who hung that name on you?
BL: One of the newspaper writers. Was there a columnist named Carl Victor Little? He worked for the old Houston Press.
JB: Yes, could be.
BL: Anyway, some columnist, or maybe it was . . . I can't quite remember his name . . . he wrote an article about me and he put "Mayor Bob" in small letters kind of behind my name and kind of put down . . . but I liked it. And so, people kind of picked it up and I kind of enjoyed being called that and it kind of stuck.
JB: You were born 1925 in Baytown?
BL: Right. Pelle.
JB: What was Baytown like in those days?
BL: There were 3 towns. Pelle, which was where I lived, at 2500, and Goose Creek was 5000 and Baytown was 2500. Later they merged. But it was a refinery town. Getting a job at the refinery was a big thing, totally getting on at the plant. My dad worked there. It was the number one employer in the area. It was right there on the port so people would go swim in the port because it was less polluted than Goose Creek which does not say anything much about it - just open sewers ended into the Goose Creek.
JB: You were, what, 5 years old when the Great Depression hit? Do you have any memories of that?
BL: Oh, yes. Like I said, at 5 years old, I started school and my entire tenure at the public school system first grade through graduation was through the Depression from 1930 to 1940 and part of 1941.
JB: And did your father keep his job during that time?
BL: Yes, he did. He got down to where he got to work 2 days one week and 3 the next but he kept his job through the Depression. And he was rearing a family of 5 and he took extra jobs doing carpenter work and doing painting and doing paper hanging work.
JB: So, growing up in Baytown, what were the boundaries of your world? Did you think of yourself as a citizen of this town or a citizen of the Greater Houston area?
BL: I thought of myself a citizen of Pelle. That was a little town where I actually lived. I knew the other towns, I went to them, but one of the reasons I did, they called . . . it was a kind of tough area of town and they called a lot of young people there Pelle rats. I never liked that much. That was my world. My family and close friends lived right in the neighborhood. We did not have a car so your perimeters were pretty ______ where you could walk or later, where I got a bicycle.
JB: So, you graduated in 1941, did you say, from high school?
JB: And what did you do then?
BL: I had been working a little and I went to work full-time for the Baytown Sun newspaper as a cub reporter and office boy.
JB: You were talking about how the ambition of a lot of people was to get to go to work at the plant.
BL: That's it.
JB: What made you different?
BL: I didn't think I could keep the job there. I thought you had to be able to do routine work and keep your mind right on it. I was kind of a dreamer and if I could have kept it, I didn't want to do it. My mother told me to never say that because people might hear you and you may need that job one day. And I did work there briefly for about a month or two as an office boy during one summer but I did not want to do that. I sent in to the Labor Department for an aptitude test and I was down at the bottom for a mechanical routine test. I was taken at the bottom 15%. And at the top, the career they said I was fitted for would either be a writer or a lawyer, and that made sense to me because I liked both the way people thought about the law and I loved literature. I loved writing.
JB: So, what did you cover at the Baytown Sun?
BL: Oh, I did an Around Town column where I would go around town and just put little gossipy stuff in the column about ________ and I wrote the Five Years Ago, Ten Years Ago, Twenty-Five Years Ago Column from the Morgue. And I covered sports. Fred Hartman was an editor and he was a sports writer. There would be 2 events going on at one time or he was wanting maybe a color story - while he would do the main story, he would have me do it. I helped him write sports, you might say.
JB: And, at the same time, were you also going to school?
BL: Yes, I was going to Lee Junior College at night. And the year before that, I worked a certain number of hours at the Sun while I was in high school but after I graduated from high school, I went to Lee Junior College at night and worked there during the day.
JB: And how long did you do that?
BL: Do what?
JB: Work at the Sun and go to college?
BL: The end of that first summer, I missed . . . a quick story. They had a rule that you had to be able to drive a car to get the job and we did not have a car so I did not know how to drive a car. So, I got my sister to give me a one-day lesson because that is all they would let me drive their car. She was married. I went down to get my license. Then, they let you go to the fire station, you’d get there in your own car, you’d drive to the post office and come back. They did not send anybody with you. And if you got back, they gave you a license. And so, I started driving my first car and I had 3 accidents that summer. I blew the brakes out, left the brake on, backed into an unmovable object and hit one moving, at the end of which time he was going to fire me and I told him, well, I needed . . . he said, "Robert, what do you have against my car?" "I don't have anything against your car." He was going to fire me. I told him I really needed to finish the job, I was going to college in the fall and I needed . . . it was just $9 a week but I needed the money. He said, "Well, if you promise to go into college, you could stay." So, I promised and I stayed.
JB: And did you graduate from Lee which was a junior college?
BL: No, I didn't. I got a number of hours there but in general, I went to New Mexico for most of my undergraduate work and went to Lee College in the summers while working.
JB: So, how did you wind up in New Mexico?
BL: Well, my study on where the best school was, I had an uncle who lived there and his son and I were good friends and his son got run over and killed. He asked me to come out and stay with him and said if I would, he would pay my tuition and books and I could live with him free. So, I said, O.K. So, I went and stayed with him.
JB: And were you able to graduate from there before you went into the war?
BL: Well, no, I signed up for the Reserves when I got there. I think you got $5 a month and a free uniform and some other stuff. Naval ROTC Reserve. Then I went on active duty July 1, 1943, and stayed in the ocean, 18 men. I finished enough college to get my ensign's commission in the Navy and left with about 120 hours but I did not get to a degree. I had too many side hours in naval science to have enough for my major which turned out to be literature.
JB: What did you do in the war?
BL: Well, I was on a mine sweeper. I pretty much patrolled up and down the East Coast and would do convoy escorts out to a certain distance out into the Atlantic.
JB: So, the war is over, you come back to New Mexico?
BL: No, I came back home and again went one summer to Lee Junior College. That was the time I went in the pest control business that summer. That was a sorry job, killing roaches. But I took some courses at the junior college to kind of get sharp again academically and went to law school that fall.
JB: At the University of Texas, right?
BL: Yes, University of Texas.
JB: And didn't you work for the Austin American Statesmen while you were there?
JB: Yes, I did. I was a night sports editor for the Austin American Statesmen. Jack Gallagher who worked for the Post was a journeyman writer at that time, a good writer, and Will Bevins (sp?) who was sports editor later went on to be the sports writer for the Southwest Conference.
JB: You told me a story one time which I did not really believe about looking at the paycheck of somebody.
BL: I absolutely did. I knew where the accounting office was, and I was making at the rate of $40 a week for straight time and if I worked a little overtime, I could make more. Back when I did my summer work in construction, at one time, I made $70 a week. Well, I looked in the accounting office and I found out _______ was making $70 a week. I thought, man, you know, I could work up to where I was which was practically an office boy. So, I did not want to do that.
JB: So, that is when you decided that journalism was not for you?
BL: That's it. And Willie had really reinforced my notion of going to law school. And so, I quit my job there at the paper after a while. I worked there maybe one year. And then, I did course master work or assistant _______ work that related more to my legal career.
JB: And so, how long did it take you to get through law school? Three years?
BL: Let's see - I started in the fall of 1946 and finished in February of 1949, about 2-1/2 years.
JB: And then did you go immediately to work for Baker Botts?
BL: Yes, I did.
JB: You know, Baker Botts doesn't hire stupid people and obviously . . . where did you rank in your class?
BL: Well, I know I was in the top 6 because the top 6, they pretty much make in to at least the honorary society or the choir (?) that you were appointed to that I was a member of and then chancellors and Phi Delta Phis. And I was probably second or third in a graduating class of 200 or 300. It was a good class. It was veterans coming back from the war and everybody was pretty serious. They weren't totally serious all the time but they tried hard to do well in law school.
JB: And had you worked a summer at Baker Botts before then?
BL: No, I hadn't. It was just purely a matter of . . . I knew though I had to make good grades in order to get a good job because my daddy was a pipefitter’s helper at the refinery and he did not have much influence. And so, I really tried hard to do the best I could. And so, I made pretty good grades and they selected me and one other guy to interview and hired us both.
JB: So, what kind of law did you specialize in?
BL: One reason I thought . . . I had not really tried for Baker Botts. I did some things to make it likely that they would interview me, was that they had a rule against nepotism and also there were a couple of firms and the other firm hired a lot of sons of big clients and I did not want to have to compete against either sons of a partner or sons of a big client. Baker Botts did not do either of those things. It appeared to me to be the closest thing to a meritocracy.
JB: So, what kind of law did you . . .
BL: Labor law. I picked out labor law for studying because I looked into it and decided it was a growing field but there were very few lawyers that were doing anything about it. So, the field was a growth field and the competition was not high, and I could get to where I tried my own cases very quickly. There was that lack of competition.
JB: What was the legal profession like in Houston in the 1950s?
BL: Collegial is the word I would use. It was kind of friendly. People knew each other. Informal. The documents weren't an inch thick. They would be about a page long. It was a more relaxed, low-key time from what I remember.
JB: Were you still working 80, 90 hours?
BL: Oh, maybe 70. But I worked hard at Baker Botts because it was a meritocracy.
JB: How long were you there?
BL: 3 years, 2 months and 10 days, give or take. I loved it there though.
JB: What made you leave?
BL: Well, 2 things: 1) I really wanted to be in business for myself; and 2) I was making the best, as good as anybody that was of my seniority, I was making a little over $500 a month, $6,000 a year, $6,2000 a year, and they were charging $100 a day for my time. So, I figured that I could either make a lot more money or have a lot of spare time, plus I'd be doing what I wanted to do which was getting in my own business.
JB: So, what kind of business did you go into?
BL: I went and practiced labor law. In fact, every client I had went with me. I went out in the Heights, on Washington Avenue in the Heights, and got an office on the mezzanine in front of the men's room there and I could get that and we got half a secretary who could not type but we sent her to the typing school so we could pay her less and she benefitted. I had about $100 a month overhead out there. So, I figured if I worked 6 days, I am even and the rest of it . . . that math didn't quite figure out but that is the way I looked at it.
JB: And so, how long did you practice law that way?
BL: How long did I practice where?
JB: In your own firm.
BL: Oh, I practiced altogether about 10 years.
JB: Tell me about the slide into land development. How did that come about?
BL: Well, first of all, I went into banking and probably spent more time in banking than I did in land development. And, of course, doing legal work about -- I forgot this but about 3 or 4 years into it, I saw that labor law was just filling my time and that was the end of it, so if I shut the plant down, I would not have any income. And so, I saw that corporate finance lawyers did a lot better. So, I got a guy from Baker Botts, Dave Cunningham, to come in with me and I would learn corporate finance law and bought a book on it and read it and gave away my labor law clients and next, I was a corporate finance lawyer. So, in the course of doing that, I represented people who were buying banks which was a real unique, I thought, opportunity at that time because branch banks weren't allowed, so you could buy one of these that would be today's branch and you could buy it and build it up and sell it at 3 times book. And after a while, I decided that I was working harder than these people who were promoting deals like that and they were making more money than I was so I kind of switched places with them and I bought the bank up in Greenville in 1958. A senior partner at Baker Botts went over to Texas National and I applied for a loan. I did not have much net worth. I saved about $50,000 by that time. The bank cost $550,000. I told them, "Let me have the money, take a life insurance policy out on me, if I lived, I’d pay it." I lived and I paid them.
JB: Did you move to Greenville?
BL: Yes, I did. Became CEO of the bank. I remember driving up with this lady who was the wife of a friend of mine. She said, "Bob, do you know anything at all about banking?" I said, "No, Mary Jane. Absolutely nothing. But I go with a pure heart." Well, right after I got there, they asked me to come to the Rotary Club and give them a speech on commercial banking. So, I finished by that time the book on loss and I went in and gave a speech. I don't know if they were overcome by it.
JB: So, what happened next?
BL: Well, after about 1-1/2 years, I sold it and made really pretty good money. In the meantime, I bought about 4 banks in a row and each time, I would do things to build up the value and sold them. The full cycle there took about 1 year or so but after I sold Greenville Bank, I came back to Houston and I made enough money where I bought me my brick house and joined the country club, got 50 yard line seats and T-bone steaks and thought, well, life is good! But then, with the extra money I had ________, I bought real estate with it. And after a while, I started developing . . . I bought and sold 4 banks in a row then and put maybe half the money into real estate.
JB: What kind of real estate?
BL: I started off buying land and then moved over to buying apartments. And then, along that time, went in with Hardy Kilgore and built apartments on land I had bought. But pretty much focused on the apartment business. Then, we got a big break when Bob Smith sold us a big track of land he had a few years later, that stretched from Westheimer to San Felipe here up to Woodway about 1 mile west of the Galleria. And we developed 1700 apartment units there and sold it off and really did well on it. But he let us have it. I told him, "Mr. ______, I have just made a little money but I don't want to go broke and so I am not going to sign any liability notes. I think we can do you a good job," and I told him if it doesn't work, Fred Risk (sp) and I would go look at those and he thought we could do work and whatever we did to make his property, the rest of them more valuable, we would do and we thought we could pay him. But it was a big note and there wasn't any sense of us signing a big note. We could not pay it if it went bad. So, we did not sign it. It did not require any liability and the banks and the insurance companies lent us all the money we needed so it worked out.
JB: Houston had tremendous growth in that period. Why do you think that happened?
BL: Well, I think a lot of things, and a lot of those I saw before I moved to Houston. I think Houston is an open city. It is a city that comes close to a meritocracy. It has consistently moved in haunting erratic steps but pretty consistently to bring more people in to the economy and where more and more people have a chance to make something out of themselves where there is not just a small group of individuals or families that control the city - different people are dominant in different industries, different guys wake up in first place every day and if they don't do well, they don't stay there long. Now, it had a great port and very creative people that drug the port into Houston from the Bay, from the Gulf. The soil was good. The overall climate was conducive to business I thought. I did not mind hot weather. I had grown up without air-conditioning so I just thought that is the way the world was. But an entrepreneurial city. It had the elements there that I wanted.
JB: Speaking of that, do you think that Houston would have grown as it did without air-conditioning?
BL: Well, it was growing pretty good without air-conditioning. Probably. I’ve got to think now people are going in such a tizzy if it just goes off for 30 minutes, that it would have been a great handicap. But probably no place else as well. But Miami has almost exactly the same temperature Houston has. Probably not as well. Well, surely not as well, now that I think of it. I think of myself growing up not accustomed to it. I did not really become acquainted with it until about 1949, 1950, somewhere along in there.
JB: What about the importance of real estate?
BL: I think real estate is important. I think another thing that gives Houston its unique character - it was founded by the Allen brothers who were a group of real estate speculators and they came down and laid out a city and they worked and they got rich, and a whole lot of people have become wealthy in the real estate field and have been contributors to the city. The other half of it was, and I shouldn’t mention this but it was an energy capital and a lot of people there were wildcatters and they would make a million dollars and they'd go broke and they'd come back and go again. The town respected your idea to fall and fail and come back and do it again; really thought better of you if you could survive a couple of catastrophes. But it is a town of energy and people taking a chance, and real estate was an important area. Energy was the dominant economic thrust and hitting Spindletop and so forth really gave Houston I think probably its biggest motor. But it is a port city. We've got a good airport now, then for its size. And the construction industry has always been good here like Brown & Root who have contracts all over the world, not just in Houston, and there were a number of firms like that here.
JB: Did you ever want to go into the oil business?
BL: No, I never did, which is strange but I really . . . I'll tell you, coming out of the Depression, you have a pretty strong fear of failure and when I look back on it, I probably took steps, by and large, that were safer, that I felt I would have a better chance of making it to a satisfactory point. In fact, I got out of journalism and into law because it gave me a better chance but back in journalism, you really had to be a star before you made any money at all. And the law was a pretty safe place. Banking was a pretty safe place. I thought real estate, particularly land, at the time I started, I didn't know anybody that lost money on buying land in Houston who had been able to pay for it. And then, see, back in the Depression, good men went hungry. They would come knock at your door wanting food and they would be willing to mow your grass or do anything. They had holes in their shoes. Maybe you would know some of them. They used to be your neighbors. And if you lost your job, it was just hard to find another job. And getting on with the plant was the great victory. That was an economic accomplishment. That kind of work, too, I could see I would not be good at, so I had a fear of failure that has always served as a strong motivator for me. I think most people who lived during the Depression have that I have known.
JB: As you went along, did you get more and more into real estate development?
BL: Well, I stayed in banking for about . . . I did more and more real estate development, yes, but I quit practicing law after about 10 years except for kind of my own lawyer sometimes. But real estate and banking - I probably bought 20 banks overall, over a course of 20-30 years. I would keep them anywhere from 6 months to 10 years and fix them up and build them up, a problem bank, and resell it. That was a generator of capital for me. And the real estate was a depository of it. But then, I would trade there, too. They were probably equal efforts on my part.
JB: In your real estate, did you treat it like banking? Did you buy and sell rather than buy and hold?
BL: Yes, but when you _______ for building capital, you buy and sell because you don't have the capital to stand the downturn. One of the first things you need to do in the real estate business - you need to put enough acorns in the tree trunk to make it through the winter because it is a cyclical business. You live a couple of good years, a couple of ordinary years and a couple of bad years. And people get to where they think what they made that good year, they are going to make forever and they go broke because they cannot sustain the downturn.
JB: What time period in Houston was the most interesting in your business career?
BL: Today because the future is so much different. It is so interesting to me. We are in a world economy where the opportunity for the people who can __________ is so immense. They get one idea and it spreads worldwide. We've got billions of new workers entering the job market that is going to push the income of people without skill down. We've got to handle that growing gap between the haves and the have nots. The politics is very interesting. This is the most interesting presidential race I can remember. I think the opportunity for the country, I think the opportunity for the city is better than I have ever seen it and are more interesting than I have ever seen it.
JB: One more question about business and then let's go into the political side. The oil and real estate bust of the 1980s, how did that affect you?
BL: Well, it deprived me of about 75% of my net worth. I am lucky I had that last 25% acorns in the trunk and so I made it good but it was hard. Oil and gas is our economic base and by that time, it was the base for more than 50% of our economy, and when the price of oil went down to $10 and we were thinking it was going to go up and it went down, Houston lost 250,000 jobs. 250,000 jobs! But, you know, in Houston, people stayed in Houston. They did not leave. And they formed a whole lot of small businesses. That was an interesting phenomenon. But it was hard. Now, at the same time, as the savings and loans went broke and the RTC took on property and the prices of apartments dropped way down, so I used it as a buying opportunity to start buying apartments back with the capital I had and you could buy most apartments for $10,000 a unit. And you could see the city was turning and they were chewing up this excess capacity so you could buy a bargain here and I just kind of started on that, maybe bought 1,500 to 2,000 units - something like that - when the political bug bit me. I had helped Mark White in his race for governor and he offered me the choice between the chairmanship of the Highway Department or University of Texas. It was either my great skill in those fields or the fact I had raised a lot of money. But I chose the Highway Department. I thought I knew something about that. I did not think I knew how to do an educational institution.
JB: What accomplishments from your tenure at the Highway Commission are you most proud of?
BL: Well, when I went in, Governor Clements had written that congestion was a cancer on Houston's life flow, that businesses were turning down coming to Houston because the congestion was so unreasonable. On many studies, it ranked as the most congested city in the nation. Houston had very little strength in Austin and the Highway Department was underfunded, and so we built up a funding in the Highway Department and also we moved over the selection of where to build on a cost effective basis; that is, we ranked projects first according to which would lose the most people per dollar invested and then second, what would relieve the most congestion per dollar invested. When we looked at projects across the state that way, the Houston project just floated to the top because we were so congested, so we cut the limit of what Houston could get at 30% but we got a whole lot of funding here on a very fair basis and I think it helped immensely. We had the Don't Mess With Texas program which was a very creative program that the PR people developed _________ and I had a role in that and as chairman, actually ended up selecting them but they have surveyed the market and determined who littered and it wasn't . . . they decided that it was Bubba in a pickup truck. Bubba saw the sign of __________ and he would throw a beer can at him. And so, you had to have macho odds to appeal to Bubba. So, the trash was increasing 17% a year. We did a number of programs but the big dollars we invested were in trying to change peoples' attitudes through these ads that they designed ______________.
JB: And it worked.
BL: It was an incredible success. We invested an amount of money equal to the increase in one year of the cost of picking up the trash, and that stopped it from going up 17% a year which was our goal and it made it decrease. And then, along with that, working with Lady Bird Johnson on the beautification of the highways and Elise working with us there, too. That was very gratifying. And it is also gratifying just to come down and look at a project and know you are a part of it. It is just a great feeling. You can see it. It is something tangible.
JB: Well, let's talk about you and the Metropolitan Transit Authority. How did it all come about?
BL: Well, the city had lost transit elections for rail and I had been a part of it when the Transit Agency was created, part of . . . they had lost the elections __________ and I had been part of helping the Agency get created. We agreed to support them if they would spend roughly 25% of the money on general roadwork and the balance of the sales tax money . . . or 20%, 25% and 50%, and the balance of it on transit. Also, I had been a lawyer for the old Houston Transit Company back when I practiced labor law and negotiated the labor contracts so I had some familiarity with it. And they had asked me to chair the election to approve this program which I had done and then ________ came in and asked me to chair Metro. And Whitmire was mayor. And I thought, well, I am not sure I want to. She talked me into it. I said, "Well, Christine, let me tell you something - I think I can do a good job but I am about as independent as a hog on ice and I really won't bend much. In other words, I will do the job well if it needs to be done and I will give credit for that to the mayor but don't expect anything different than from me." She said she would take care of it. So, she was my liaison between Kathy and me and a great liaison. She would interpret me to Kathy and Kathy back to me. She was sort of a Kissinger. Of course, I was pretty tough and pretty strong about it, too. So, it worked along. But then, when I got to looking at the data on the rail that had been in the program, it just wasn't true. So, we commenced a year long study to bring in experts from all over the world to see whether or not the rail made cost effective sense. I had been used to doing the math on the highways of what would . . . you take a dollar, how many people do you expect to move, what congestion do you expect to relieve, and the program they had, I could not make it work. Then, ________ died. She was a wonderful lady. But then, Kathy and I were left to deal with each other heads up and that was not a marriage made in heaven. But she really wanted me to go ahead and build the train and I would not do it until I got one down that I thought made some kind of sense. I never thought there was no rail that worked but it is very hard to make a rail work in Houston. It is a low density city. In the first place, rail is not a major carrier of a city, the major carrier of traffic anywhere in the South or West anywhere. It carries probably 1% or 2% of the total traffic and maybe 5% to 10% of work trips tops. I had experience with how tough transit was back working with the Transit Company and negotiating to get contracts and try to keep that company afloat. So, I resigned. One day, we had a spat and I resigned and they asked me to come back and after a while, I agreed to come back. After she got by with the election that year, she sent notice over she would not reappoint me to another term so I quit right then again. I told her I felt like the data that I had been part of, given to the public was false and I want to have another election to let me off the hook, and if she would have another election, I told her I would not campaign against it. As a matter of fact, I would go stay in Europe until they voted. But I did not want her telling the people one thing and delivering empty rail cars. And we never could come to a convection against that so I told her, “Well, if we can't, I will try to make it an issue on the next mayor's race and I want to try to get the State Legislature to pass a law requiring the election on this where you've got your friend and mine, Eleanor Tinsley, running against the fellow over at the county that I want to support ________ the rail line and I am going to support him. And I did. So, she sent word back that it looked like war and she was ready for it. So, we got it on and we had that first . . . Eversol won and the person I had supported as far back as school integration lost. A wonderful, wonderful person. But she still wouldn't move. Then, I went to the Legislature and we got a bill requiring an election that passed the House __________, got over to the other and we got it passed there real late in the session and they knocked it off the agenda at the last minute because we had the votes on the floor to pass it, so we lost that. So then, it was the mayor's race and so I tried to get 2 people to run - Whitmire won each time, but getting close to the Conservative and getting off of the Left or getting close to the Liberal and getting off of the Right. So, I figured I ought to have 2 candidates - one on one side of the effort and one on the other. Sylvester Turner was going to run to her left and George _______ to her right. And about 6 months before the election, _______ dropped out and decided he could not win. She was running for a 6th term. She had won 5 terms in a row. And so, I opted in myself. I was low in the polls to start and I knew there was a lot of media support for the rail if that is what they would decide but with my conscience, I wanted to have my say. I explained to the people what I thought about it. And then, I feel good about myself having done that. But anyway, I ended up winning and stayed around until . . . a funny thing . . . I had also worked with, what is that fellow's name, the term limits guy? ______________ somebody to support term limits. That was another way to hit Whitmire in the ________.
JB: And it kind of backfired on you.
BL: It finally got me. I was the first one it got. _______ time to go. And then, I won. That is pretty much the story of how that happened. And then also, I told the public and the election exactly what I was going to do. I was going to terminate the rail line, I was going to take that money and put it into street maintenance, that would in turn free up money where the city could hire police and so forth, worked ______ worked it all out and was running on 3 things to capitalize on our city's diversity, everybody given a fair shot to do the best he could, to build the infrastructure up equally through the city and new infrastructure to meet the growth, and to put the 655 police officers on the street in 90 days because we had a bad crime problem and had reduced the force by 655. For an overtime program, we would get 655 on the street in 90 days. And I ran for office on those 3 things and that is what we did.
JB: I recall I was one of the 5,820 people you asked whether you should run and I should say, "No, the ceremonial and political aspects will drive you crazy." Boy, was I wrong!
BL: Well, let me tell you - the better people knew me, the more they thought that. I will tell you one more story if I am not spending too much time on stories, but my best friend, probably one of my best friends, was Jackson Hines (sp?). He and I went to law school together, we were neighbors together in the same neighborhood. We would play golf together and were both lawyers, went to law school together . . . We had tickets to the games, we'd sit together . . . we are driving to the game and I said, "Jack, you know, I have been thinking very seriously about running for mayor. What do you think about that?" He said, "I think that is an awful idea." I said, "Well, I think I could do it." He said, "You'd make an awful mayor." And he said the same thing you did - about the second day on the job, you would be in a fist fight or you would lose . . . you'd be terrible. So, we went ahead to the game, we are sitting down, the guy in front of us got to heckling a little bit into our conversation and I asked him to turn around and quit doing that and he would not really turn around, so I jumped up and told him I thought he was ugly and bald and I didn't like him, a few other things. "Don't turn around again." So, Jack turned around and said to me, "Good work, mayor!"
JB: And yet, I suspect that most people would say that you were one of the more successful mayors in Houston's history.
BL: Thank you.
JB: Tell me, how did you conduct yourself? What was your MO?
BL: Well, I think, number one, I knew exactly what I wanted to do by the time I ran for the office. I did not go into an office unprepared. I had done before all the components of that job: banking, finance, development of streets and roads, water and sewer plants, the Highway Department, Transportation, Metro Transportation, the Texas Highway Department supervises the DPS police. And so, I had done all the elements of the job. I knew what I wanted to do. I told the people what we were going to do and then that is what we did. But then, I really worked with . . . I learned this first at the Highway job, I learned a lot more than that by reading Caro's book on Robert Moses. I had developed _______ to support his program. But there, I would go to the individual legislators, I would look and see what programs they had . . . this is the foundation for the city . . . what programs they had requested over the preceding 10 years, what had been done. I would go visit their district and see would it make sense looking at it on the ground like you would do if you were developing real estate, and then I would get a file on each one and keep track of all the requests of what happened. If they had little requests that did not cost hardly anything, we would do them so quick it would startle them. Tom Davis had taught me at Baker Botts that most people forget you quicker for being wrong than they will for being slow. And we really cultivated the Legislature and got solid majorities all the way through. I tried to do the same thing with Council except Council is . . . also the Council members try to use them for eyes and ears out in their district like we did with the Neighborhood Standard Program. We did 14 a year. The first time I designated all 14 but that was a mistake. The next year, I had the Council members each nominate two neighborhoods. They get credit for it and they do it and they help bring to us what _______ wants done to bring it up to standard. And then, that was the recommendation and we would make the final decision but we tried to lean over backwards to do it the way they wanted to have it done. That is part of bringing the infrastructure over . . . they could see that was a good thing.
In terms of support on the police, we knew we had to get the police officers out there on the overtime program in 90 days. That was the big issue in the campaign or we would lose confidence of the folks. Well, we got them down there. Some people said . . . we did it, got it approved and it worked. We had the biggest crime reduction that year in the country among cities over one million. We had a crime reduction of over 250,000 major crime reduction in a 6-year time span, over 40,000 a year. But we would really take into account what the members think about things, really try to incorporate it into our program. It was a very collegial atmosphere. I found out that I enjoyed it. I found out that they knew more about their districts than I did. I would never know in 6 years more about 14 districts than each one of those guys would among 9 districts, 5 that were at large. Even the large ones of the areas they would focus on, like Helen Ewing really took hold of the Neighborhood Standard Program. And she really mothered it and stayed on it every day and she could do better than I could there. So, when I get a person like that, I would support them with resources and would agree on goals and the incentive of my main program of safety, diversity. So, it made sense for them. They were thought of better in their district. I tried to never make a member ask a member to vote against his political lifeline. We didn't need it. I would tell them, ___________ you need to _________ the same with the members. We went and tried to take their interest at heart and trying to govern to the point of view of enabling them to do their job better and also that enabled us to do our job better because we would have them in an area where they knew more than we did. Like our first shot at zoning, Greenwood was in charge of that because he knew a lot about it. I really did not want to learn about it. It is just a full-time job. That wasn't my priority. But I really worked with legislators. We got a team working, and the members. Also, the same with the Highway Commission. We got a team working that all felt good about each other and liked each other pretty well. Had a few fights. I did not know myself how it worked. It surprised me there that I knew __________ they felt I knew how to do the work. See, at the Highway Department, I wouldn’t go with railroad cuttings so they just felt like I could put up with . . . but I liked it. Like I said, that was the key to it. And I worked hard at trying to bring them in and make them look better.
JB: And in the process, a fraction of City Council became docile might be a good word.
BL: Well, the only reason I would fuss at docile - that might be their appearance but they were members of the team . . . they signed off on the basic principle of putting a 655 on the street, equal opportunity and bringing the infrastructure up. All of them believed those were 3 good things to do, principles to follow. But then, the implementation of that, they were joint architects of it or participants of it. It was their stamp as well as mine and the more they would do within the framework of our general goals, the better the city was off and the better I was off, so that we agreed on our objectives. That is they key to leadership. That is one thing I learned in the Navy - that you lead better by inspiration and by common goals than you do by beating on people. And that is what I tried to do. I've got my naval officers guide book up there on the bookshelf today. I got it in 1941.
JB: When you were mayor, there was a move to eliminate the Affirmative Action program and you led the fight and beat it back. What really were the issues involved in this?
BL: Well, the point of view of the people on the other side is that Affirmative Action involves preferences and we don't need preferences; that it is true that minorities were handicapped at one time and limited at one time but the need for any preferential treatment had passed. And so, it ought to be all a meritocracy. Well, my feeling was that was good theory but we weren't to that point; that women still had the glass ceiling in many, many respects. I knew it. Like when I graduated law school, I think there were 2 or 3 women in the graduating class. They had worked up to where they were senior partnership. In the banking business, we could find wonderful women as vice-president because they could not progress any further. So, I disagreed with that. Another thing is and this is from my childhood belief on - during the Depression, one thing that gave us hope was, to all the people in my neighborhood, we felt like there was a fellow up there from Hyde Park in New York that cared about people like us. He would come on the radio, and he was a rich guy, but we thought he really cared about us and that materially improved our belief that we had a chance. And I wanted the city to conduct itself that same way with respect to children of these minority neighborhoods where maybe their mothers work and their daddy is gone and they have a hard time . . . that hey, the city government cares some about people like you and it really wants to _______ a chance. Now, to try to close ground with a conservative point of view, we said, hey, I really think there is a lot of merit in what you have to say. I just do not think we are quite there yet. But the difference is I think women and minorities can compete so I am going to have an ordinance that is not going to say that you have a preference. It says they have to compete on price and quality. What we are saying, the requirement is that they search diligently to see if they can find competitive price and quality among the minorities for at least roughly 20% of the contract provided we have done a study ahead of time and we think in our opinion that not much _______ is out there. So, they moved against it and we just sold . . . we started off behind the polls about 70/30, something like that, and Dave Waldman (sp?) worked on that campaign and they did have good relations with the minorities. And we just beat the socks off of them. They had won every election in the major cities up until then. I chaired a committee on minorities coming in to the colleges by the state senate post employment. I was the only ____________ member and he went ahead and did me the discourtesy and died and I was out there without a sponsor but we came to an agreement there on a program, pretty much on the same basis. Let me tell you this: I got into a debate with them. I told this guy . . . we had this one contract, it was an accounting contract and we ________. I said, "Let me tell you this. Are you willing to sit here and tell the folks that in this city of a couple of million people that you can't find ______ there is $40,000 of work. You can't find a woman in this whole city that can do $40,000 of work on that? If you think so, you go home and tell your wife that." We tried to draw a fair one that would work and I just felt like, you know, our daughter had graduated from law school, you go out there and you see women parading across there, they are not like when I was a boy. I thought of my own career. I never thought of hiring women for most of my business career. I mean, I did towards the end of it but that wasn't the culture I grew up in and I felt sad that they couldn't. My sisters had no opportunity because of that. That case, I was not necessarily glad to see who was ______________ but that was a very fulfilling . . . that was a hard election but I really enjoyed the results of that election. This is my core belief - that is the strongest belief I have. It was when I governed, it was when I was growing up. I could see the close to brutality of a system that would let young boys about my age living one block from me, one block, and they could be a drunk and they would be yard man, they could be smart, work hard, be clean, they were going to be a yard man. _________________ waited on young kids like me, made our beds and things like that __________. In law school, we used to debate that in constitutional law but I have always felt like . . . one of my first speeches as mayor was to the Greater Houston Partnership. I told them I felt like the most important element in Houston's success, the most important one that I thought was to be able to treat our diversity as an asset. That is, we got there, it was a fragile asset to retain. That was the cause of most disputes throughout the world. Think of today in Iraq with all the tribal disputes at the heart of it. ________ the Iranians and you've got the Shiites and you've got the Sunis and Afghanistan and all of that business. It was the most important thing in the Constitution and I thought what made this country great. I think that is what will make Houston great in the future, what made it great now - we've made a lot of progress in that plus the partnership of the economic virtue of it. Then, later I expanded my comments to I thought it had a social significance, that also they needed to be every person is entitled to respect. And then I finally decided they had a religious significance, and that it is hard for me to visualize a person that is being spiritual if he thinks his fellow man ought to be subjugated or is really against giving people a chance to do what they want to do. Well, I put that as my number . . . now, safety is necessary to have a civil society and to also feel like you build the infrastructure up, and education is enormously important particularly in the future, but my core value, probably my core value would be all men are created equal.
JB: Turning from that serious subject, let's go to one that is kind of funny - the Houston Oilers. You really made a great effort to keep the Oilers here in Houston. Why did you fail?
BL: I never was willing to take money . . . we were tight. When I came to office, we did not have any spare money. We were running about 5%, 6%, 7% of the budget in a hole every year, our reserves were empty and so we really had to get back to even and I really wanted to spend a lot of money on building an infrastructure . . . hand me that sheet - it shows what we built in 6 years. It might be in that book there. ______________. We thought we could not afford it and my first gambit was to try to get the exemptions from the antitrust laws repealed so that if they left, somebody else would come in and the League could not stop them. We made some progress there but I decided what with term limits, that was a fight longer than term limits. But we went to Washington and had some good days. We kept them from increasing it but anyway, I decided the city wanted to keep them and that we put it to a vote and we got the vote carried but not the same. It turned out that if they left, we have the risk of losing all 3 teams, pretty much the same period - 3 monopolies and you had to pay to play. I hated to do it just to say that you had a situation where Joe Six Pack was buying the stadium for rich ballplayers to be owned by rich owners. People probably could not afford to take _________ but I finally decided you probably needed to or at least to give the people a shot to vote on it and they voted to approve it. Next, I did not want to do it out of the general fund so I went to Austin and got a law passed that allowed us to tax I think a penny or something like that out of the hotel tax and then from that, to get the financing to build the stadium. It was during the time that Adams was making the decision to go or stay, that we had to commit back and I was not committing back to build a stadium unless, number one, I wanted to be sure the law passed and number two, I wanted the people to vote on it. Then after that, we would negotiate it, if we got a deal, I would submit it to them and we would try to get it done. And with those votes, we had another one covering football, baseball and the basketball stadium. And Adams had a lease to run another 2 or 3 years and I thought we could hold him to that lease and we should have been able to. We held Alexander to his lease under a subsequent lawsuit but the federal court ruled we could not do that and then he made his ruling in such a way that we could not appeal it. And Adam had an opportunity to have National really give him a great deal. He and the fellow running Cleveland, ________________ to Nashville to make a great deal. They just made them and we lost them. I wasn't building them out of the general fund . . . I would make that same decision today. I would not slow down on my police or my infrastructure work. Then, I also thought that . . . the League promised us though as he left and I had him go out and say it in public in a press conference, __________ promised to us - that if Adams did leave and if we did get the stadium later, that we would get the next expansion club. And I don't necessarily think that agreement is why I did it - I think Bob McNair really wanted to do it to get the next stadium. But then Adams left and we had McNair instead. Also, Adams would have been a load to carry on the election at that time. He had just negotiated a bunch of improvements to the city for a lease and now just almost ________ turns around and wants to cancel that and get another deal and I was ready to call somebody to see if they wanted to help me and I’d get a dial tone.
JB: One student of Houston politics said, "Any evaluation of the administration [your administration] must also acknowledge the contributions made by an engaged first lady, Elise Lanier. Houston elected one public servant but, for better or worse, got two."
BL: I think that's right. I think it was for the better. She worked a whole lot of things, did a good job on every area she worked on. But she was very supportive of the job I did. It is good to know that at the end of a tough day, you would come home and you've got one ally! She was good at constituent service. She worked on the beautification project. She worked on the city's image to some extent. Of course, she is currently a port commissioner. But, see, she just loves politics, too. I probably would have never run had we not been married. I probably would ______________ because I just did not crave the public eye that much. I was making a pretty good living as it was.
JB: You left office with a very high approval rating. I suppose that gives you a real sense of satisfaction.
BL: Well, that is a number and you like that but what really gives you a feeling of satisfaction is say, if you come on a group of people and they see you and they break into a big smile, and if I am sitting down and they come because I have had some publicity in the office ________ that I might have some ailment from time to time and they come pat me on the shoulder. It is almost like you get a feeling of affection from the city and that is just a wonderful feeling. Now, if they just had an approval for a job well done, I would like that, too, but that is being affectionate. You can't beat that.
JB: If there had not been term limits, would you have run again?
BL: I would have rather not. My health was coming bad. John Williams wrote in this last article that my knees were bad, I was getting a little cranky - of course, I didn't believe that and I was in my 70's. I also felt like we had really accomplished, all of us that worked - Elise and I and Dave, all of who are sitting here, I think are the best _______ chiefs of staff I have seen in politics. We understood what we set out to do. And from that point on, it was a matter of maintaining the thing but the real extra joy of changing things and getting things cranking might not have been there. And I got offered a couple of jobs not running for office and I got calls to run for another office but I did not want to do it. They offered me job as ambassador a couple of times but I told them it wasn't ___________ to Argentina just to have it. I told him most people _______________ about the time I go to bed. I never thought I would really be a good ambassador. I thought I could do this mayor's job because I knew all the pieces of it and I had a passion to do that job. I had a passion to bring about the change that that I thought ______________ present campaign that needed to happen. I saw why people were leaving the city and I thought that could be fixed. I saw it in the ________ business. They would come to my house outside the city - they were renting an apartment outside the city and they would tell us why they left. And all the things seemed to lead where the name could be correctable. And the city was drifting into a two-tier society with a decaying inner-city which is just the death of a city. That is what has helped probably the ability of New Orleans to recover. A democracy does not work that way if those different parts of society get too far, too far apart.
JB: One final question. Would you speculate on how you see Houston's future?
BL: I think we have as good a future as any city in the world but I think if we are going to have power to retain it, do the three things . . . I think we really need to keep this healthy relations ____________ fragile between the different ethnic groups and different religions and different races - to keep that going for us. We need to really work on, accept this as a goal, what the Constitution says - where everybody has a chance and everybody contributes and everybody is respected, to where one person really is the equal of another just as a human being. I think we need to keep the place up. I think we need to build infrastructure to take care of the people as they come in. I think we need to have the police force adequate, and I think we need to maintain our entrepreneurial spirit and focus on those cores of our economy that are part of our success; that is to say I think our development of the construction industry is I think the best in the nation. It is the best in the nation and it is the best in the world because we do housing here at maybe half the cost and much better quality than say is done in Los Angeles or New York but we tend to give people a chance, we turn to our infrastructure to make it safe and to the future, we really need to tend to education. It is jumping up there. Because people are not going to have achievements. To have a fair chance, they've got to have a fair chance at education, too, and that means I am not an educator but as mayor, I tried to do everything I could to support the public school system or colleges and universities here and I think that ________ with this great mass of people coming in to the world market or being _______ many of them are unskilled and the world market is so much bigger and if you get success at all, you can make money beyond what you would have dreamed of before. On the other hand was the guy working at $20,000 a year - he's got a fellow and child that will work for $4,000 or $5,000 ___________. So, that is going to push those wages together. To make our society function, this guy down here needs to have a chance to move into an area of people that can make a difference in this world economy because if you don't do that, I think our government will suffer, I think the people at the very bottom . . . I did not tell you this but back in the Depression years - I don't know if I said this to you or not - that my dad, when I was about 10 or 12, took down the backyard _________ he built our house, this apartment, and he said . . . ________ it wasn't much house but he built it . . . that all I will ever have is a full belly and put food on the table - we had a guard there _______ cows, chickens, fruit trees - "I will have a fully belly, a roof over my head but I am not going to get any further. But you can make something out of yourself. You don't have to accept that. You have to work hard and you have to get yourself an education." And he wasn't atypical. People all over my neighborhood were saying that to their children. They believed that. That is where this voice of the government from Washington came down . . . it really meant something to me. I still have Roosevelt's picture up on the wall. He was hero then. That is the only hero I can think of I have ever had outside of my dad. And I think we need to give big attention to education and I think we need these young people to feel as I felt and as many of us in my neighborhood felt - that the government, in this case, the city, really cares something about them, really does everything it can to give them the very best shot it can. I think that will make a lot of difference and will cause them to have hope. If they look out there and we say have hope, education, they see that is bleak thinking ______________. That is not reasonable. They can't get to school. We need to tend to that. We need to care more about those unfortunate in there.
JB: Thank you.