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Interview with: Former Mayor Kathy Whitmire
Interviewed by: Jim Barlow
Date: July 14, 2008
JB: This is the City of Houston’s Oral History Project. The date is July 14, 2008. We are in the Mayor’s Dining Room at City Hall. Interviewee is Kathy Whitmire, the first woman City Controller in Houston, the first and only woman mayor in Houston. I am Jim Barlow. O.K., you were born in Houston in 1946?
KW: That’s correct.
JB: A very different place then, I would imagine.
KW: Well, I don’t remember much about it in 1946 but I did grow up in Houston and it was a small city at that time. It was definitely a city, but it was a small city, and I have very fond memories of growing up here and living on the north side of town, and learning to use the public transportation system such as it was then, run by private bus companies and to come downtown and go to the Houston Public Library, and I spent a lot of time in the Houston parks system and took advantage of all the things that were available to kids like me in those days to go to the parks in the summer and enjoy the programs there and learn from them, and to go to the public school system. It provided me many, many opportunities, and even Houston Endowment gave me a scholarship which paid my way all the way through the University of Houston. So, I would say I am a product of what was available to the public at that time, being made available by the city and the state for education and for really development of young people.
JB: What schools did you go to in public schools?
KW: Well, I went to Berry Elementary School on the north side and then I went to Marshall Junior High. And then, I went to San Jacinto High School. That was an adventure for me as a north side kid. I wanted to do something different. I had a brother who was 1 year ahead of me in school who was very bright and talented and I always felt I was in his shadow, so I wanted to do something a little bit different and there was an opportunity to transfer from your local school to San Jacinto High School because they had a vocational program there, and even though I was a good student academically, I said, well, this would be good and I will learn some vocational skills as well. And so, it gave me the chance to strike out on my own, as I said, to take public transportation across town to go to school and meet new people and learn office skills which served me well in later years and also to get a good academic education and prepare for college. So, that was what I did at San Jacinto.
JB: Did you have a favorite school subject?
KW: Yes, my favorite subject was math. I always liked math.
JB: Growing up in Houston, did you have any local heroes?
KW: Local heroes? Probably not back then. I probably did not know that much about the broader community so that my local heroes would have just been my classroom teachers and Sunday school teachers and people like that who influenced my life.
JB: When you decided to go to college at the University of Houston, what made you choose accounting?
KW: Well, that is an interesting question because I started off to major in mathematics but I felt at that time, in the early 1960s, that my opportunities for a career would be limited with a mathematics major and that probably the only opportunity I would have would be to teach math in school. And, at that time, from my experiences in public school and from the teachers I knew, I was not sure that was what I wanted to do. I did not look forward to being a classroom teacher at that point and so I wanted something else that I felt would have career opportunity and I chose accounting which got me involved in learning more about business, which I enjoyed very much and went on from there to become a CPA and to work in the business community here in Houston.
JB: You met your first husband . . .
KW: At the University of Houston. I surely did. And he was majoring in accounting also at that time.
JB: And did you meet him through the classes?
KW: Yes, we were in an Economics class together, and got married 5 months after we met. Love at first sight in my junior year.
JB: Were you politically active before that?
KW: Well, no really, but I was interested in politics because my father was interested in politics. In fact, all the members of his family were interested – the Neiderhofer family which came from Walker County up around Huntsville – were an old farming family and they were all interested in politics. My dad had left the farm and come to Houston at a young age and had become a licensed electrician and had his own electrical contracting business. And so, he had much involvement with the city during my growing up years because he had to get permits down here. And so, he always had an opinion about everything that was going on in the local government, much of it negative, and always thought that there was improvement that could be made. One year, he decided to run for Precinct Chairman or something and did not even get elected to that. So, he did not have success at running for office but he did teach me that it was important. So, that was my interest in politics. And then, when I met Jim Whitmire at the University of Houston, he, too, was interested in politics. In fact, his father had been the county clerk in a county up in central Texas, Hill County, I believe it was, when he was born. And so, Jim had a long and abiding interest in politics from his family and intended to get involved in politics. And, of course, in those days, I wanted to be involved in politics but I envisioned that my role would be as the wife of a politician because at that point in time, I really did not recognize that there could be a different role than that for me. So, that brought us together and we started out with the intention of being involved in politics.
JB: Now, as I recall, you graduated magna cum laude from U of H?
KW: I did, yes.
JB: And then, you got a master’s degree in accounting?
KW: I did. Well, I immediately went to work for the accounting firm of Haskins and Sells but by the time I finished undergraduate school, I had already accumulated a few credits towards a master’s so I kept going on to school at night, you know, when I could, to pick up some more credits towards a master’s degree. Jim, on the other hand, went on full-time to graduate school to get his master’s. And so, I was following closely what he did because he got a teaching fellowship and immediately started teaching accounting at the University of Houston while he worked for his master’s degree. And I thought that looked quite interesting although I will tell you, I thought it was quite challenging what he was doing. But finally, after about a year and a half, I felt that my career was taking more of my time and I was not going to finish my master’s unless I took some time away and did it. And so, then, I, too, got a teaching fellowship and had the experience of teaching the accounting students at the University of Houston while I wrapped up my master’s degree in 1970. And that was a very important experience for me because it was my first shot at being a classroom teacher and I have always come back to that ever since. I have taught for many, many years in different places and different subjects. But that was what caused me to find out that I really liked it.
JB: And didn’t you also teach part-time after that as you continued working for the accounting firm?
KW: I did. Yes, I liked it so much that even though I had a fairly demanding career, I would make time to go back out to the University and teach a class. Sometimes when I would be over working on an audit in Beaumont, I can remember driving back from Beaumont to teach my classes. But I enjoyed it enough, the working with students, that I wanted to continue doing that when I could.
JB: And your husband ran for City Council a couple of times, didn’t he?
KW: He did. He ran in 1973. That was very exciting. I mean, he had been working towards that. We were young. He was only 27. I was 26. We knew we wanted to be involved in politics and he had been looking at the city and starting to work on some issues here. He was principally working through his involvement in the Houston Jaycees at that time and he decided that the time was right to really push for some reforms in local government. Maybe he was a little ahead of his time but he decided to run against a long-time council member named Frank Mann. Frank was part of the old establishment that had been running things at City Hall for a long time and Jim was quite young and felt, you know, I can take him on. And Louis Macey took him on that year also and challenged Frank Mann. It was quite an experience for us at that young age to put together a city-wide council campaign. Needless to say, Frank Mann did prevail. Louis did not get elected that year and neither did Jim. Then, within the 2 years after that, Jim’s health began to deteriorate. He was a juvenile diabetic and began to have some complications of diabetes including problems with his eyes and the beginnings of kidney failure. But 2 years later, in 1975, there was a vacancy that suddenly came up at the last minute on the City Council because Jim McCann who had been on Council for a couple of terms, decided not to run again. And so, my husband, Jim Whitmire, and Louis Macey and half a dozen other people or maybe more, all jumped into the race at the last minute, even though Jim’s health was not good at that point. But he came in third in that race and the man who won was Louis Macey, who I later became good friends with during his tenure on City Council.
JB: And then, your husband’s health deteriorated even more. As I understand, you had to basically suspend your life for a while to . . .
KW: Oh, I would not say that at all.
JB: Or suspend your active life?
KW: No. What I did at that time – that was 1975 – and shortly after that, his health was getting worse and so a couple of months later, I decided to leave my public accounting career and try some other things, and the reason for that was because of the travel and the long hours involved in public accounting, and the fact that Jim was needing to be on dialysis for his kidney failure, and we decided that we could handle the dialysis at home and he could keep teaching. At that point, he had left the active practice of accounting although he did have a few clients and he was teaching full-time at Texas Southern University in the accounting department there. He had been for several years. And he continued to teach there for the rest of his life which was only that one more year. And so, I left public accounting. First I got my real estate license -- that has always been another interest of mine, is real estate -- and tried that for a little bit but then I found out there was an opportunity to start teaching accounting at the University of Houston downtown so I took a full-time position there teaching accounting and did that for the following year while being able to spend a little more time with Jim and help him with his health challenges. But then, that following year, in November of 1976, is when he passed away.
JB: O.K. Then, 1976 . . . the next year, you ran for City Controller.
KW: I sure did. He passed away at the end of November and I was, as I said, teaching full-time at the downtown campus of the University of Houston and enjoying it very much but events have a way of taking their course and right at the time that I lost my first husband was when Jimmy Carter got elected president. And that started a new chain reaction and that chain reaction came about here because Jimmy Carter selected Leonel Castillo, who was the maverick City Controller at that time. It was funny – he selected Leonel to be the Immigration commissioner but before that happened, Leonel had called me one day at the University of Houston and said, “You know, I am thinking of running for mayor and what I want to do is put together a group of people who will run for City Council and try to have a slate of reform candidates and let’s see what we can do,” and he said, “I think you should follow in your husband’s footsteps and run for City Council.” And, you know, I did not actually think about that for very long because I did not really want to run for City Council and did not really want to be on City Council. I said, “Well, you know, Leonel, I have lost my husband and I need to work for a living,” and the City Council at that time paid $300 a month. “I don’t think I can live on that.” I said, “But, you know, if you are really not going to run for Controller, I would really like to be the City Controller. That would just be the ideal spot for me.” And Leonel kind of laughed about that and he said, “Well, there are a lot of people who would like that job, Kathy.” But events took their course and Leonel did not get to stay here and run for something else at that time because he was off to Washington and sure enough, I said, “Well, you know, I would really like to be the City Controller,” and I was bold enough to call up all of the City Council members, most of whom I knew and say, “I just think since you have the power of appointment, that when Leonel is gone, you should just appoint me to that job.” Well, none of them agreed to do that. I could not understand why. I thought I was the ideal candidate. But not only did I seek that position but a number of other people were calling the Council members so much so that I think they wanted to quit answering their phones for a while. I actually started a little campaign of getting friends to send in postcards for me to say, you know, please appoint Kathy to this job. The heat turned up on all of that because there were a lot of people, as Leonel said, who wanted that job, and the City Council seemed to have concluded that it would be in their best interest to appoint a caretaker to the job who would agree not to run for reelection. And they appointed Henry Kriegel who was the long-time City Treasurer and knew a lot about city government and was willing to kind of step in and take over that job. So, that was what happened and I went ahead and turned my appointment campaign into a campaign to run for the office and immediately started running.
JB: Didn’t Kriegel run after all?
KW: No, Kriegel did not run. He later ran for County Treasurer and I cannot remember – maybe he was elected County Treasurer, wasn’t he? I believe he was. No, he went back and was the City Treasurer again at the beginning of my term as City Controller, so I had plenty of opportunity to deal with Henry Kriegel at that time because he had an interest in getting some additional benefits from the city in recognition of his time as City Controller because the City Controller’s office did not pay as much as the City Treasurer’s job that he had and, in recognition of that pay cut he had agreed to take, he had a number of different benefits he felt were coming his way, and when I was the City Controller, I challenged him on that. We ended up having a lawsuit over that matter. I think we won that lawsuit. I do not believe Henry prevailed. But he did go on into a political career after that at the County.
JB: 1977 was, well, starting late 1960s and through the 1970s, I think of it as kind of like the era of movements. There was a women’s movement, there were movements by blacks, Hispanics, gays and so on. Do you think this firm had helped your campaign?
KW: Well, of course it did. Somehow in all of my conversation about my history, I have not mentioned the importance of the Women’s Movement which I found out about in my first year working in the public accounting field. I immediately started reading about it, hearing about it, thinking about what it meant for me and for all of the other young women who had grown up in my era, believing that our only opportunity would be to have a role as somebody’s wife, and I had already found out that by getting a good education, I could have a role in the business community which was quite challenging because it was quite rare to have women in the big CPA firms at that time. I had to deal with challenges such as, can we really expect the women to move into supervision and management? Will the clients accept them and can we allow the women to travel or will that be too controversial? So, I had to deal with those barriers in my business career. And so, I was very, very interested in the Women’s Movement and became actively involved in January 1973 when the National Women’s Political Caucus held its first national convention and they held it here in Houston at the Rice Hotel. Actually, my husband, Jim, read about it in the newspaper that it was coming and he cut out the article and gave it to me and said, “Here, you need to do this.” So, that was the beginning of my involvement in the Women’s Movement and in the Women’s Political Caucus. I then became involved in the early organization of the Harris County Women’s Political Caucus which really served as the volunteer base of my campaign for City Controller in 1977, so yes, the Women’s Movement I would say was the most critical factor in the launching of my political career.
JB: Your time as City Controller was somewhat contentious at times.
KW: Well, probably you could say that except that we have had so many examples of contentious controllers since then . . .
JB: Yes, that is true.
KW: . . . that mine probably pales in comparison, but it was a great opportunity for me to take what I had learned from my business and accounting career and bring it into local government. But, you know, the timing always seems to dictate things in politics and the timing was such that Jim McCann, as mayor, was probably not as well prepared to deal with the intricacies of city government as his predecessors like Louie Welch and Fred Hofheinz had been. Jim came from real estate development and had a different approach to the mayor’s office and because I was City Controller at that time, it created an opening for me to challenge him on the particulars of the management of the city. And, of course, the dynamics of the Press Corps played into that considerably because as a journalist yourself, you recognize what a great story it was.
JB: Conflict always sells.
KW: Yes, and when the story is the first woman and she is young and she is small and she is challenging the great big mayor, it was really a great story and so it became a bigger than life story because of the press. The funny thing about that is Jim McCann and I were always friends. I never had any personal animosity towards him. I guess maybe he had a little personal animosity towards me when I beat him but he got over it and was always very nice.
JB: He was always a gentleman.
KW: Yes, he was.
JB: In the 4 years you were in the Controller’s office, what do you see as your greatest accomplishment?
KW: Well, I think my greatest accomplishment was bringing the details of how the city was spending its money to the public forefront and trying to bring more transparency to city government. And then, as we saw the change in the City Council during that time, you know, that was when the Council was expanded and there were new people on Council, providing some assistance to them about the transparency, that really was needed to bring about reform in city government I think was probably one of my biggest accomplishments, although it was behind the scenes. Now, from a financial point of view, you may find this humorous given some of the things that happened later, but I would say from a financial point of view, my biggest accomplishment was bringing to the forefront the problems with the city’s pension system. The reason I say you may find it humorous now is, you know, we did work very hard on that when I was City Controller, brought some attention to it, got some legislation introduced and then I was able to follow through on that when I was mayor and get some major reforms made in the pension system. Unfortunately, they kind of went awry years later and I know that Mayor Bill White had to start his term making some additional reform.
JB: Yes, Mayor Brown gave away the store.
KW: Well, that may have been it.
JB: What surprised you most when you went in the Controller’s office?
KW: I do not suppose there was very much that surprised me. I was anticipating what was there. I had done my homework and knew a lot about the city’s finances and knew the Council members and how things worked. So, I do not think that I was particularly surprised by what was going on in the Controller’s office. One of my big memories of that time was when there was a new Chief of Police -- I believe his name was B.K. Johnson -- and because the Police Department had to deal with the Controller’s office, and because they kind of did not know what to make of me, the Chief reached out to try to establish some relationship and he and some of his command staff members took me out for lunch one day but I think they were a little uncomfortable with just taking me as a woman and they were all men and so they invited another woman who was the purchasing director at that time of the city and the two of us went with them over to a barbecue place over close to the police headquarters. We got in there and started to order lunch and they were trying to help us figure out what to order but they only wanted to order meat and I thought, gosh, this really is the Houston Police Department, isn’t it? So, that was one of my early impressions that stuck with me from those days.
JB: In 1981, you ran and were elected mayor. Probably you could have stayed controller the rest of your life if you wanted to do so.
KW: Maybe so, and it was a very hard decision to give up that job, I will tell you that.
JB: Explain your thinking about that.
KW: My thinking about giving up that job and running for mayor?
JB: Yes, and running for mayor.
KW: Well, like I say, it was hard because I was enjoying the work I was doing as Controller, I was working on bringing some changes to the way we were issuing bonds and looking at all the infrastructure needs of the city and the financing that would need to be available, and that was very attractive to me, but more people kept talking about maybe I should run for mayor because I had this high profile role in pointing out what the problems were in the city’s handling of its finances. And so, that was the reason the talk was there. So, people were regularly talking to me about running for mayor. And I think what caused me to finally make the decision was the recognition that Mayor McCann was not very likely to get reelected; that he was in a bad situation at that time due to some scandals in his administration and due to general dissatisfaction with the way the city was trying to meet the demands of a rapidly growing community and that there was so much opposition to Mayor McCann that there was very likely to be a new mayor if he chose to run for reelection and it looked like he would. And I decided that I had the opportunity to do it, a lot of people encouraging me to do it, a lot of people from the Women’s Movement very excited about the possibility of electing a woman mayor which seemed, you know, almost impossible but since I had been able to break that barrier once, there had never been a woman elected to any office in city government at the time that I first ran and then just 2 years later, the first 2 women on City Council, it seemed possible and I felt somebody was going to do it and why not me?
JB: And what were the issues that dominated that campaign?
KW: Well, the issues that dominated it were the need for improving the infrastructure to meet the demands of a rapidly growing community. Houston’s economy was very good at that time in the 1970s and the old style of government had not moved to address those growth needs as much as should have been. So, that was a big issue. But the increasing diversity of the city and the need for more recognition of that diversity and more transparency in local government I think were also dominant at that time – that people wanted to see change, they wanted to see local government do a better job meeting its responsibilities, but they also wanted to feel that it was not controlled just by a handful of people who were looking out for themselves, but that there was recognition of the broader community. And, of course, there had been a high profile change in the City Council just 2 years before brought on by the federal courts and the federal government that brought new minority representation to the City Council, new gender diversity to the City Council, so we were beginning to see the city grapple with its own growth and the need to recognize not only the demands of the local community for a well-run city but also the need for recognition of the diversity of the city. And those were big issues, and then there was another big issue in the background and that was the Houston Police Department. The Houston Police Department was featured on national television in some of those years as being a police department out of control, that needed to be managed better and needed to have a better relationship with the diversifying community of this area and had not done that. So, the Police Department did take a high profile position in my campaign partly because I had already, as Controller, gotten involved in understanding how the system in the department worked, the Civil Service system that resulted in people moving up into command positions without any evaluation of their performance. It was all based on multiple choice tests. And I began to publicize that as not being good management, that you should not put people in to top management roles without considering their performance. And so, I started campaigning on that a little bit. And so, yes, when I was elected, people were expecting not only attention to infrastructure and diversity but also attention to police reforms.
JB: Let’s look at those issues. Shortly after you were elected, didn’t you push through a very large bond issue or was that before?
KW: Well, probably because I pushed through large bond issues all the time. We were always having bond elections when I was mayor and we were always issuing bonds, revenue bonds that we did not have to have elections for. So, financing of infrastructure was big while I was City Controller and even bigger while I was mayor. And yes, I think we pushed through 2 or 3 bond elections while I was mayor.
JB: And then, shortly after you were elected, the bottom fell out of the economy.
KW: Yes, but in spite of that, since we had arranged the financing through these bond elections, we continued to build the infrastructure, and that was one of the things that I felt was necessary in the mid 1980s when Houston’s unemployment was growing; the fact that the city kept on with its construction programs was a contribution to the local economy that I felt was essential, not only to meet the infrastructure needs of the future, but to keep the construction industry working.
JB: Well, also didn’t it . . . it sort of allowed the city to catch up with a lot of its needs because the growth was not there and yet, you were building so there was a catch up of . . .
KW: We did some catching up. I never felt we totally caught up. The area we were so behind on when I first became mayor was the wastewater treatment system, a fairly unglamorous topic that people who have served as mayors always get interested in – sewers. So, that was, I guess in my first month or two in office, we had a big increase in the sewer rates that people were having to pay every month on their water bills, although I never had any complaint about that. I think people understood that a rapidly growing metropolitan area had to do something to upgrade how you handle the waste and it had not been done. And so, we had a big sewer construction program that went on throughout the 10 years that I was mayor.
JB: I would say that the perception of you by most people was that you were somewhat liberal.
KW: I would say that is true.
JB: But the reality of the way you handled the fiscal problems was not liberal at all. It was very conservative, very fiscally conservative. You refused to push for tax hikes and you cut payroll, you did all these things.
KW: We did all those things. We did finally have to push through a tax hike in 1988, if I remember, that I was not happy about doing but, you know, the terms liberal and conservative I think always have to be carefully examined, whether we are talking local government or national government because they apply to so many different issues in different ways and again, my background is accounting and business and by nature, I am a fiscal conservative. I always have been and always will be. But at the same time, my views on diversity, on civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, are considered and have always been considered liberal and I continue to be liberal in that area. I used to tell people I was a moderate because if you kind of average together my fairly radical fiscal conservatism with my fairly radical social liberalism, you know, maybe you come out somewhere in the middle, but I am really not moderate on very much.
JB: And then going to the Police Department, was that the reason why Lee Brown became police chief?
KW: And later, the mayor.
JB: Later, the mayor.
KW: Probably the most far-reaching decision I ever made was recruiting Lee Brown to be the police chief in Houston and, as I reflect back on that, it is really fairly amazing. It is almost or possibly even a bigger decision than when I decided to challenge the incumbent mayor and run against him because I had just taken office and the police chief, B.K. Johnson, said, “Well, you know, I don’t want to serve as chief in your administration because you’ve said all these things about wanting to change the police department and I don’t agree with you, and, you know, under our Civil Service system, I have the right to continue as one of the top managers of the department anyway, so I will just do that and you can figure out what to do next.” So, I put a man named John Bales in as acting chief, a very dedicated person who I felt was a good choice for that role in the interim but there was a man who had supported my campaign who was the CEO of Tenneco Oil Company and when this happened, when I was needing to find a new police chief, he contacted me and he said, “You know, one of the big decisions any CEO makes when you have a vacancy in the executive ranks is whether to choose someone from inside the organization or whether to go outside the organization, and you have to make that decision now in filling the police chief’s job, and you may want to consider going outside the organization and if you do, I would like to introduce you to an executive search firm that does work for us here at Tenneco, who may be able to help you with it.” Well, another person who gave me good advice at that time was Council Member Eleanor Tinsley, who was on the City Council and who I thought was a very wise woman, and she came to me and said, “You know, I think that to bring about the reforms that are needed in our police department, we should do a nationwide search for the very best person to lead this police department.” And so, Eleanor’s advice, and she advocated for that publicly although the majority of the City Council probably was not willing to join her in advocating it, she was willing to advocate publicly that that was the right way to go. And since I had my friend, Mr. Kettleson, willing to provide me some help with it, I decided to do a nationwide search. I did interview every member of the command staff in the Houston Police Department and there were some good members who, throughout my administration, continued to be strong leaders in the department, but then when I began to interview people that the search firm came up with from around the country, I realized that there were people who were more seasoned executives in law enforcement who would have the opportunity to bring about some of the reforms that I thought were needed, even in an environment where reform was not going to be well received. And it was by good fortune, I believe, that Lee Brown’s name came to my attention in that process. I did interview several other very strong candidates and came down to making a final decision on whether to hire him or one of the others, and I knew it would be challenging to have an African American police chief. I actually did not know at the beginning of that search that there were any African Americans serving as police chief. I found out that there were several around the country. He had such impeccable credentials, having not only served as the chief of police in more than one jurisdiction but as the Public Safety Commissioner and having a doctoral degree in Criminal Justice and having taught at the college level – I mean, there was just no way to criticize his preparation or to argue that he wasn’t more qualified than anyone else who was available to me here locally. So, I decided to go ahead with it. I did think about what kind of a message that his appointment would send to the young African Americans in our community that I thought would make a lasting difference. It did.
JB: What were the reactions of the great majority of the Police Department to that appointment?
KW: Well, they were opposed to it. Not just them, I mean, there were plenty of people opposed to it. What I did . . . I knew I had to have a majority of the City Council or we would not get anywhere and so I started meeting privately with Council members, meeting individually with them, that I thought might be open to the idea and I started meeting with the Council members who were not African American because I thought the Council members who were African American were going to probably support him. And so, I started meeting with the others, certainly with Eleanor and with Jim Greenwood and going down the line until I was able to count enough Council votes that I knew we would be successful. It was not easy. It was not a unanimous vote. And if you happen to have been at City Hall at that time, there was quite a large demonstration against him, even some people in Ku Klux Klan robes out in the hallway outside of Council chambers on the day that the City Council voted.
JB: You also, as I recall, got a new head of Metro from Atlanta at the same time.
KW: Well, I did. That wasn’t nearly as dramatic but probably made just about as big of a difference and that one, you know, I can’t take all the credit for that. The leadership of Metro, the Metro board, I believe, was led by a man named Dan Arnold at that time and Dan worked pretty hard on that search and identifying somebody who would bring some new energy to Metro because that was part of the whole infrastructure issue amongst the many things that people in Houston were unhappy with, was the fact that our bus system was not doing well and we had been talking for years about having a rail transit system, and we had even had a big vote in 1978 where people voted for a tax to pay for it but we still could not even seem to get the buses running on time. In fact, the Houston Chronicle I believe was running a box score every day about how many buses broke down and did not make it through their routes. So, it was a mess. And even before I became mayor, the Metro board knew that something needed to be done and that they needed new leadership, and they had started looking for a new CEO of Metro. And it so happened that Lee Brown came from Atlanta to be police chief here and Alan Keeper who had just finished building the MARTA rail system in Atlanta was recruited to come and lead Metro at the same time.
JB: I was sent to Atlanta to interview both those people when you named them, when they were named. It was almost simultaneously.
KW: Yes, it was.
JB: And your name was taken in vain several times in Atlanta.
KW: In Atlanta? Oh, O.K.! Well, I do remember that. Andy Young had just been elected mayor of Atlanta and I remember him telling me that he was not pleased mostly about Lee Brown leaving because he had just been elected and he had run on a platform of keeping Lee Brown as the Public Safety Commissioner over there so then he was faced with finding somebody new.
JB: During your political career, tell me the key people who helped you who were your closest advisors.
KW: Well, you know, I was in politics a long time and there were a lot of key people who helped me so it would be hard to single out any people who were always my key advisors because there were so many people who helped me out. People who served on the City Council were very close to me because one of the hard lessons I learned as mayor that I did not really fully appreciate back when I was City Controller is that you can’t get anything done if you don’t have the City Council to work with you, and getting the City Council to work with you is really much harder than it looks. And so, I always worked with Council members on everything.
JB: In the 5 terms that you served as mayor, can you list the accomplishments that you were most proud of, that you most look back and say those were good?
KW: Well, you know, people asked me about that at the time I was leaving office in 1991 and, of course, I could pick off the list of infrastructure accomplishments that we made: the George Brown Convention Center and the Wortham Theater Center, and those kinds of things. But, you know, in retrospect now, having been out of office for more than 16 years, I sometimes look back and say, well, you know, the brick and mortar was good, the upgrading of wastewater treatment and of major thoroughfares and those kinds of things, those were things that needed to be done, but in the longer term, the things that you do to change the culture probably make even a bigger difference than the things that you manage to get built, and changing the culture to more openness, more transparency of what goes on at City Hall, more diversity, more involvement of a wide range of communities are probably even more important than the things that we built, and I would say some changes in culture at the Houston Police Department were very important, that maybe my willingness to take some risks contributed to those cultural changes that I believe have served the city well through the years and even beyond our city, have helped to make some changes in the way urban policing is done. We tacked a number of environmental issues. I got very involved in issues having to do with getting rid of billboards and planting trees and as I drive around Houston today and see the tree planting that is going on along all of our major corridors, I am thrilled with that. And I think there was a cultural change that had to do with the beauty of our city and its recognition, and that is something that I have continued to work on up until now. I have continued to be involved nationally in the work for the scenic environment and changing the cultural appreciation of the place that we live. Other environmental issues continue to challenge Houston. We worked hard on water quality and we worked hard on air quality while I was mayor but there is still work to be done and I think having leadership that understands that going from administration to administration and developing a culture where people say, this is where we live, we want to have clean water, we want to have clean air, we want to handle our waste in a sustainable way – it is those kinds of cultural changes that I think make the big difference in the long run.
JB: Let’s talk just a bit about Metro and about choo-choos.
KW: Oh, yes, I love trains!
JB: The long bone of contention still going on in Houston.
KW: Well, I hear that but I don’t know what the bone of contention is now since there has been such great success with the beginning of the . .
JB: Where they are going to be located. It is a NIMBY factor. What are your arguments briefly for light rail in Houston?
KW: Well, my arguments for rail, how ever you define it, my argument for rail transit is that it allows for a more environmentally efficient development of a community, and just from a quality of life standpoint, it allows people an alternative to sitting in miles and miles of traffic jams. So, those would be my big arguments but I was in favor of rail transit for Houston since back in the 1960s when Mayor Welch first started bringing it up. And that is because, as a native Houstonian, I saw Houston as a city of the future and I saw rail transit as a part of that future that would bring us into the new technology instead of the old technology. I think all you have to do is sit in a traffic jam to know that that is the old technology.
JB: The payoff on development with rail is a long way down the line, isn’t it?
KW: Well, I don’t know whether it is a long way down the line and I should tell you that now that I live in Hawaii and am involved in the city and county of Honolulu, I am trying to work with the mayor there who is working very hard to get a rail transit system built, so we talk about the payoff regularly. And one of the things that I have been able to mention is that despite all the controversy, when Mayor Brown here was able to push through the rail system, there were estimates of how may people would be riding it and the estimates of how many people would be riding it in 2020 have already been met. So, it seems to me when Houston and many other cities have been able to get it done and to have more demand for it and more ridership than anybody thought, maybe the payoff is not as far in the future as you might think.
JB: Let’s talk about the last campaign.
KW: Oh, the last one I was in?
JB: The last one you were in.
KW: All right.
JB: It was a very contentious campaign and both you and Bob Lanier spent a lot of money and he beat you. What do you ascribe that to?
KW: Well, there are many reasons why an election turns out the way that it does, and certainly, we are in that case. I think the dominant issue in that election was the money that was being proposed for the rail system and Bob Lanier’s opposition to it and the argument that if we didn’t spend it on the rail system, we could spend it on something else that would make a bigger difference right now. As that campaign developed, there were some very high profile crime problems that occurred in the city, so the two issues of money being spent on rail and the way the Houston Police Department operates and deals with crime came to an intersection and his argument that, well, if we don’t do the rail, we’ll have more money for dealing with crime – was a very persuasive argument. So, I would say, just from an issue point of view, that that was the winning argument that year.
JB: How disappointed were you when you lost?
KW: Oh, well, certainly I was disappointed. I had been mayor for a long time so I don’t suppose I needed to be mayor for another 2 years and it was just a 2 year term, so I don’t suppose I was that disappointed at not getting to be mayor but I was disappointed about the rail system and I was disappointed about maybe the reforms in the Police Department would not continue. Those were a couple of my big issues that I was concerned with then and the future of those issues was a concern to me.
JB: How do you feel about term limits?
KW: Well, I was never really in favor of term limits. I have to take responsibility for there being term limits in Houston right now. I do not know what Mayor White’s official position is but at this stage in his last term, he probably would say, gosh, if I had another term, I could get some more things done, but, you know, I served for 5 consecutive terms and Mayor Welch served for 5 consecutive terms and we were the only ones who did that, and I think, in both cases, people kind of felt like that was enough.
JB: I think people do get tired of you.
KW: People get tired of having the same person. It is not always true. I have a friend who is the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, who was mayor before I was elected and he is still mayor today. And he has done a great job for that city and I am sure there are some people who are tired of him as he is getting older but I do not think that term limits are always a good idea and I do believe that the system in Houston is almost a punitive system because as I talk to people around the country, there is no other city that has a system for mayor like Houston, because Houston has an executive mayor who has the responsibility of the city management as well as the legislative side and a 2 year term, and I don’t know of another city where you have an executive mayor who has only a 2 year term. And then, when you combine that, having to run every 2 years with a 3 term limit, so you have only got 6 years to try to turn the ship of state, if you will . . . I will tell you, when I was elected mayor the first time, I did not advertise it but I fully expected that it would take 8 to 10 years to make the kind of changes that I was hoping to make and I know that my successors have not had the luxury of being able to think about serving 8 to 10 years. They have had to think about the end of that term coming up from the day that they started. So, I think the limit is too short in Houston, especially with the 2 year term. One more thing I would say about term limits: there is a balance of power in government and when you look at an institution like the city government here, you will see that the mayor and the elected officials have some power but that there is another group that has power and that is the civil servants, the people who are employed here who are here year after year because they have the institutional knowledge and in many cases, they know how to manage the levers of power. And then, there is a third group that is influential and that is the lobbyists – the people who are paid to represent various interests here. And they stay year after year, too. And so, you have the civil service group and you have the lobbyist group and they’ve got the long memories and the elected officials are just churning through. And so, I would say that if you see the elected officials as the people who really represent the public interest, who are supposed to be representing the folks who voted for them, their influence has diminished as a result of term limits.
JB: You said you come back to Houston fairly regularly or at least used to.
JB: What differences have you noticed in the city since your term as mayor?
KW: Well, then growth. The fact that my relatives seem to all live 30 miles or more from town and then other friends who used to live closer to the central city have moved out and, you know, you continue to see more and more people living further and further away. That has been a big change in the city that I have noticed. I mentioned earlier I had seen the work that is being done that is continuing to be done on planting trees and I am very, very pleased about that. I see that the State Highway Department has taken up some of that work as well. So, I see that as a positive change, and I guess the diversity. Houston continues to be a more international and more ethnically diverse city and that has been a continuing change in these years.
JB: You are in a sort of minority – a person over 50 who is a native Houstonian. The great majority of folks here are not. Do you think Houston has always welcomed people from outside?
KW: Yes, I do. I think Houston has been a very welcoming city. Another thing I noticed through the years as I keep up with what is going on in Houston a little bit is when I read about who the movers and shakers are – the majority of them are people I have never heard of. And I think this is a good thing – the fact that people come to town and I never heard of them and they did not grow up here but they are able to get involved in the local business and civic community and take a leadership role, I think, is a very good thing for our city.
JB: Is there a question I should have asked you?
KW: Well, I can’t think what it would be. I think you have done a good job of covering the waterfront.
JB: O.K., thank you very much for your time.
KW: Well, thank you.