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Interview with: Former Mayor Lee Brown
Interviewed by: Jane Ely
Date: April 30, 2008
JE: This is an interview with former mayor Lee Brown. It is on April 30, 2008. Mayor Brown, let's go back and do just some early background on you. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
LB: I was born in a little town in Oklahoma called Wewoka, Oklahoma. I was born in Wewoka in 1937. At the age of 5, my parents moved to California. We got in the back of an old truck with several other families in search of a better life, kind of reminiscent of the Grapes of Wrath story. We ended up on a grape farm outside of Fresno, California. So, I grew up in a little small town called Fowler which is about 10 miles south of Fresno. That is the largest city. During that time I was growing up, we were basically migrant farm workers. We picked cotton, chopped cotton, picked the grapes, did all the agricultural work there. I went to elementary and high school at Fowler High School. That is where I grew up, was actually in Fowler, California.
JE: When you were growing up, did you want to be a police chief, a mayor? What were your aspirations?
LB: There were no role models in my life to suggest I wanted to be a police chief and certainly not a mayor. I didn't even know what a mayor was at the time and in my community, the police were not the most respected people in the world. Actually, I wanted to be a high school football coach. I was a good football player in high school and got a scholarship to go to Fresno State University. I was going to major in PE, physical education, and ultimately become a high school football coach but things were, as they were . . . I went to register _______ with a friend of mine who had gone to Bakersfield Junior College - he was 2 years ahead of me - and he was majoring in criminology, so I went to register for PE but they were not signing up PE majors that day. I had no transportation to get back out there so I signed up for criminology just because he signed up for criminology. To tell the truth, I had never heard the word "criminology" before. And I started taking the courses and particularly the courses in corrections, juvenile corrections, and I found I liked criminology. So, I made it my major and stuck with it. My goal at that time was to become a juvenile probation officer. In fact, I had 3-1/2 years of college and I decided to leave Fresno and move up to the San Francisco Bay area, so I drove up to San Mateo County to apply for a job with the San Mateo County juvenile probation officer. I got there, they looked at my application and said, "Well, you are not qualified. You only have 3-1/2 years of college." So, that kind of killed that opportunity. But I looked in the paper and I saw that San Jose was hiring police officers. They only required 2 years college so I went to San Jose, signed up and about 10 days later, I was walking the beat. So, that is how I became a police officer, purely by accident.
JE: You went on to school though, didn't you?
LB: I had one semester to go and under the California system, I could take my classes at San Jose State, transfer them back to Fresno State so I got my degree in criminology from Fresno State University. I did continue going to school. I got a master's degree from San Jose State in sociology with an emphasis on criminal justice. Then, I went to Berkeley, California and ended up getting a second masters degree there in criminology and then ultimately in 1970, I got my doctorate degree in criminology.
JE: Now, you were a police officer at San Jose and then where did you go?
LB: I spent 8-1/2 years in the San Jose Police Department. Then, there was a nationwide search for a chairman of the . . . well, it wasn't even chairman, it was a director of administration of justice at Portland State University. I came on the top of their list. I took the job and I took a program which was a program and developed it all the way up to a Ph.D. program . . . achieved the status of a department degree, granting department, so we offered degrees in administration of justice all the way up to the Ph.D. levels. That was important in a state university. I did that for 4 years.
JE: Portland, Oregon?
LB: Portland, Oregon. I did that for 4 years and then I was asked to go out to Howard University in Washington, D.C. which I did and my goal there was to help develop a research institute. We did. We developed the Institute for Urban Affairs and Research which focused on research, focused on issues dealing with African Americans -- housing, crime, education, and transportation -- all the critical issues that confronted any people. We focused on, by the very nature of the school which was predominantly an African American school, on those issues as they impact black Americans. I thought I could do that in 1 year but it took us 2 years to get the program going, and we did some good research as well.
In my second year, I had a call from a friend of mine from Portland. He had gotten elected to become the chairman of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. He said, "Lee, I would like for you to join my administration." I said, "What position?" He said, "What do you want?" I said, "Well, how about sheriff?" He said, "O.K." So, I went back to Portland in 1975 and served as sheriff of Multnomah County Oregon. I did that for about 1-1/2 years and got kicked up or promoted to a very unique department called the Department of Justice Services. That department was comprised of all the counties' criminal justice agencies: the sheriff, the district attorney, the court system, the juvenile system, all the JO's, even legal services. I was in charge of that for about 1 year. After that, I got a call from Maynard Jackson . . . actually, I got a call from the administration of Jimmy Carter at the time. Griffin Bale was the attorney general. He wanted me to take a job with the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration which does not exist anymore but it gave a lot of money to police officers and also corrections and courts to help improve the justice system. I took the job and before I went before the Senate for confirmation, Maynard Jackson called, asked me to meet him in Oakland. He was in Oakland, I was in Portland, so I flew down and spent a day with him. He convinced me that I should come to Atlanta, Georgia, so I went to talk to Griffin Bale because I made a commitment, told him I wanted to go to Atlanta and work with Maynard, and he let me out of the commitment, saying something to the effect, "Go ahead. I am trying to get back to Atlanta myself." So, in 1978, I went to Atlanta, Georgia as the public safety commissioner. In that department, I had the police and the fire, corrections, civil defense and taxi cabs, and all the problems of the city in my department. I did that for 4 years before coming to Houston, Texas, in 1982.
JE: When you were in Atlanta, they had the child killings.
LB: Yes. We called it the Missing and Murdered Children case which were probably 2 of the most difficult years of my life because during that time, we had young kids that would disappear, be reported as missing. Some time later, we would find their bodies someplace. We did not know what the motive was, did not know who we were looking for, and this went on for almost 2 years. You can imagine a city where children are being killed, we can't solve the case, didn't know who we were looking for or why, and a lot of speculation about who was involved in it. We did solve the case before I left. We arrested a fellow named Wayne Williams. We tried him on 2 of the cases. We convicted him and he is now serving 2 life-time sentences in the Georgia State prison system. And so, we did clear the case up. That was before I was approached to come to Houston.
JE: Kathy Whitmire was mayor then. You weren't her first police chief . . .
LB: Yes, I was.
JE: You were the first one she appointed but she had somebody was functioning.
LB: Well, B.J. Johnson was the active chief at the time.
JE: What did Whitmire say to you to get you to come?
LB: There was no reason to leave Atlanta at the time. She had a consulting firm that was doing a nationwide search. They actually called and asked if they could talk to me. I told them I wasn't interested, I was happy where I was. I had solved that case. Andy Young was running for mayor on the platform of keeping me in my position so it was a pretty good position to be in with a mayor campaigning to keep you and not to get rid of you which is often the case. And so, there was no reason to leave Atlanta. My family was happy there. The trouble that we had was behind me. The headhunter asked if he came to Atlanta, would I meet with him and have dinner with him? I said, well, why not? The worst I could get is a free meal out of it. So, I met with him and he was telling me a lot about Kathy and her aspirations for the city and then, I agreed to meet her. We agreed to meet at the airport in Dallas because she was keeping this as a secret. I flew into Dallas and she flew and we met at the airport. I listened to her and her vision for the city and I found that I was one of only a couple of people she was really seriously considering, and I decided to take the job for more than one reason. One, I bought into her vision for a city and what she wanted to accomplish with the police department and two, I had always advocated that African Americans should be given an opportunity to be police chiefs in some of the large cities. That had never happened before. There was no city of any size where the mayor or the appointing authority had hired an African American to be the police chief. And since I had been preaching that, I felt I was kind of obligated to follow through with my commitment by taking the job, so I took the job and came here to Houston in 1982. So, basically two reasons.
JE: You don't consider Atlanta a large city?
LB: But Atlanta had an African American mayor. I am talking about a white appointing authority.
JE: Did you know what a mess you were coming into?
LB: I had a general idea because the city had a reputation throughout the nation as being a very troubled police department and some would say, out of control. And being in law enforcement, I certainly would hear all the things about the department. So, I had a general idea. I didn't come in blind, let's put it that way. I knew there it was a problem police department, a troubled police department.
JE: Just for a quick aside, what did you think about moving to Houston and what did your family think about moving to Houston?
LB: My wife at the time, who has subsequently passed away, Yvonne, and I only had 2 children at home and had 2 that had gone away and finished college, we always voted on where we went. If I was going to take a job, we would have a family meeting and we discussed the pros and cons. My twin daughters who were in junior high school at the time, they were always adventurous, they would always vote to go anyplace, I would imagine. And my wife, she was always very supportive of anything that I ever did. So, we agreed to come as a result of our family discussion. Now, I didn't know anyone in Houston. I think I had been here one time for a conference. Other than that, I didn't know anything about the city in terms of where I was going, what I was getting into, in that respect.
JE: Where did you live when you came?
LB: Initially, I got an apartment at 2016 Main because it was just me initially, and during that time, I did not want to take my kids out of school. I came in April and school was out in June so I wanted my kids to finish the year there and not transfer in the middle of the school year. And so, during the interim, I was house hunting. We finally found a house over in Meyerland and we purchased a house over there, and that was our first home in the city. And when school was out, the family moved to this house that we found in Meyerland. On many occasions, my wife would fly up and we would take a look at a house. Finally, we found something we liked.
JE: Do you still live there?
LB: No. I don't live in Meyerland anymore.
JE: No, of course not. O.K., so when you came into the police department, you were an outsider and I think you were the first one, at least in recent memory, who had come from the outside; you were black, which made your life difficult with a great many of the officers that were there I would think . . . how do you just walk into that cold and what do you do?
LB: Well, I made an assumption and the assumption was that the vast majority of the members of the Houston Police Department were professional people and therefore, wanted to get the job done and do a good job for the people, so it was a matter of leadership. And so, what I did when I first got here was to undertake what I call an assessment of the department. And there, I looked at all the issues that prevented the Houston Police Department from becoming a professional department that related to the people, that related to the community. And after we did the assessment, I developed a plan of action. The plan of action was really a road map as to how we would get from where we were to where we wanted to go. There are many issues associated with doing that: number one, if you look at the diversity in the department, there was a lack of diversity as far as African Americans and Hispanics were concerned. I think at the time, we only had 6 black sergeants and the highest rank any African American had ever achieved in the department was that of a sergeant. And similar problems with the Hispanic community. So, we set out to hire and attract African Americans and Hispanics to the department. I looked at the philosophy of the Houston police department and as I described it, it was a department unto itself. It did not consider itself a part of government. It did not consider itself part of even City Hall. City Hall were those people on the other side of the bayou. We exist to serve ourselves. We had to change that. There was no relating to the community. People did not go out and meet with the community. So, the first thing I did was, as I said, identify all the problems and that suggested that there were a lot of issues that had to be addressed. So, I developed, and I think this was the first time in the history of law enforcement, a written set of values. There were 10 altogether. And those values were designed to address all the issues that I saw very visible in the Houston Police Department. Things like we shall carry out our duties in conjunction with the public, meaning we involve the public in what we are doing; that we cannot be successful in addressing the crime problem without citizen participation, and things of that nature, and the value system - pointing out, for example, that, and this is one of the values - that our most precious resource would be human life, that the job of a police officer is to protect the Constitutional rights of an individual and that is just as important as making an arrest. And we included those values in everything we did, whether it was training programs, policies, procedures, just publicized them. So, that became my vehicle for changing the culture of the Houston Police Department. That is what I set out to do, to change the culture. I would go out probably every night and certainly on weekends speaking in churches, going to civic clubs, talking about what I wanted the Houston Police Department to become. And my vision was to make the Houston Police Department a model for other police agencies. And after a lot of hard work, we achieved that. It wasn't too long we found that people were coming from all over, literally, the world to come and look at what we were doing in Houston. So, we were able to bring about a fundamental change in the culture of the Houston Police Department. We had to look at how we trained people, how we evaluated them, how we assigned them, how we disciplined them - every aspect of a system that supported organization, we took a look at and in many instances, changed them.
JE: How much resistance did you get?
LB: Well, one thing I knew, that a police department is _________ to your organization. In fact, before I got here, I was warned about 1269M, that was the state law that controlled personnel in the police departments in Texas. That means that we don't control the personnel laws in Houston. They are controlled in Austin. And I was told that I couldn't do anything. For example, I was the only one in the Houston Police Department that did not have a lifetime contract with the City, because everyone else had their position by virtue of a competitive examination. They had assistant chiefs, deputy chiefs, and captains on down, but they had their position that was Civil Service protected. That was the only one that did not have Civil Service protection. I was warned that that was going to be a great impediment but I also knew that 1269M worked both ways. If you don't do your job, I can take appropriate disciplinary action to remove you from the position. I knew that and I think in their hearts, everybody else knew that. And so, I picked people that I thought were going to be important for my reform of the department and put them close to me in critical positions and we started bringing about the changes that I wanted to bring about. And it ultimately happened. I went to Austin and we changed the Civil Service system, and got me the authority to appoint assistant chiefs. That was a big help as well. We abolished the deputy chiefs and made all of them assistant chiefs so they would not have a property right by having been in that position. And that meant that I could appoint my assistant chiefs and move them around. I could always move them around. I could also then appoint them. That made a big difference.
JE: Could you go and appoint a sergeant to be an assistant chief?
LB: No. It had to be someone at the lieutenant level but not a sergeant. It was built into the law.
JE: But you could do a lieutenant?
JE: Did you?
LB: I did not, no. I picked people that were mainly deputy chiefs. I will correct that: my policy was to go no lower than a lieutenant but the law allowed us to go to the sergeant level.
JE: How did the community receive you?
LB: I had great support from the community. They wanted a change in their police department. They, too, saw the police department as a troubled agency. Let me give you a good example by that. I went to give a talk at a doctor’s wives club one night and everyone in the room was white except me, and they were talking about how they were fearful of the Houston police department. This is not someone from the minority communities or low income areas, these are professional doctors' wives. They were telling the stories about if a police officer stopped them, they would drive to the nearest store where there were other people around before they stopped. Now, when you have that type of situation, something is wrong. And they were delighted to see me come in and talk about changing all of that for the better. But I did a lot to also cultivate the support that I got from the community. As I mentioned earlier, I would go to civic associations, I would go to churches on Sunday, your rotary clubs, alliance clubs, and all of those civic groups - I would go speak to them and I would share with them my vision for the department. They brought it to my vision. And so, my job then was to make sure that I was able to implement that vision.
JE: Did you find that the black community was particularly proud you were here?
LB: Very much so. The black community has suffered disproportionately from the problems of the department. And so, they were very happy to see someone of my color come in and take over. I think Kathy had promised the black community an assistant chief position and so when she delivered the chief, there was a great deal of joy.
JE: This was where you developed the neighborhood concept which, I guess in a way, was a return to olden days?
LB: Well, what I did, I convened what I called an executive session. I had been developing a lot of programs that put the police and the community together, the PPIP program, the Police Positive Interaction Program, where the police officers go meet with the civic associations every month, sit down and talk to them about the crime problem. They report the crimes that they know of and then you have a coming together to address the problem. I chose to do that, to choose an existing entity such as a civic club because, as you know, because Houston has no zones here, is not a zoning city, they formed civic clubs to protect the integrity of their deeds because of deed restrictions. So, they were there for one reason. I added crime to that issue because you are going to meet every month anyway and that worked out fine. In fact, that program is still going today. It started back in the 1980s. And programs such as the DART program, Directed Area Response Team, the Oasis program, going to the Public Housing Authority and addressing crime there, and all types of programs to bring the police and the community together to deal with crime in the neighborhoods. I was going to say that I convened when I called an executive session. That is a concept I borrowed from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government where you bring together a group of people for an extended period of time to address a policy issue. And I brought in people from the patrol men all the way up to the chief. I would attend every meeting myself. And the course of my polls to the group was what should be the future of policing in Houston? I brought in guest speakers to come in and talk about what they saw policing to be in the future. We did readings. We came up with a document called Neighborhood Oriented Policing, and we implemented that, and today, that is the generic term for community policing. We pioneered the concept of community policing here in Houston starting just as I described and now, over 85% of the police agencies in America use community policing in one form or another. Many other countries in the world use community policing but it is a concept we pioneered right here in Houston.
JE: And you knew that's what you wanted to do when you came?
LB: Well, I knew we wanted to change what we were doing. I knew the traditional style of policing was not getting the job done but, you see, I have had experience in other places. I knew what a good police department should look like, I knew that there had to be a relationship between the police in the community. As an example, when I was in San Jose, I developed one of the first police community relations units. Those units were formed all over America to better the relationship between the police and the community, particularly the black community because of the riots that were taking place in that part of our history. Our program was a good one and I say that because we did better the relationship and San Jose never had a riot by virtue of our working together. Then, I went on to become the sheriff and I implemented a concept called team policing, neighborhood team policing, which is similar to what we did here in Houston. Then we had crime prevention units that still exist all over America, bringing the people in to help prevent crime before it occurs. So, in my mind, all those concepts were very viable and the challenge was to put them all together in a policing philosophy. You see, I understood that what we were doing was not working. We would put a police officer in a car, have them drive around and someone calls for help - they would respond to that call, do something about it, write a report and that process repeated itself 24 hours a day. We called it random preventive patrol and that was the wisdom that we had in policing at that time. It occurred to me that random patrol would produce random results. We needed more from our resources than random results. So, community policing involved, and having an office permanently assigned to a neighborhood, a beat . . . first of all, we redesigned our beat structure because the existing beat structures divided neighborhoods up. Probably the most classic example is the University of Houston, one side of the University is on this beat, another side is on another beat. And we used the main thoroughfares to divide neighborhoods. So, take Main Street. This side of Main Street, one beat. The other side is another beat. Well, that is the same neighborhood. We didn't want to divide beats up so we did a redesigning of our beat structure, then we assigned officers to beat on the permanent basis. This is your responsibility. You are responsible for getting to know the people, working with the people, and thereby controlling crime in your neighborhood. That is essentially what community policing is about. It is a very simple process. Simple in definition but much more complicated in terms of implementation. It is defined as a joint venture between the police and the public to identify problems, to develop strategies to solve problems, and then to implement those strategies, and then come back and evaluate the results of the efforts. That is what the community policing is about. That is what we pioneer here in Houston.
JE: Do you know offhand what the difference in percentage of officers, the blacks and Hispanics, were when you came and when you left?
LB: Oh, it is a world of difference. I don't have the percentages now but there is a world of difference, and started recruiting minorities. See, my philosophy was that the composition of a police department should reflect the composition of the city. So, you've got X percentage of minorities, you should have X percentage of police officers. And that is what we set out to do.
JE: Who did you consider the community leaders when you were police chief?
LB: It depends on the community. The business community had different leaders. You had Ben Love, Mischer - people in the business community were leaders at that time. In the African American community, you had Jetson Robinson, you had Dr. John B. Coleman - people of that nature were the leaders in the city at that time.
JE: And when did you leave? You left in 1984?
LB: I stayed here 8 years as police chief and left in 1990.
JE: 1990. O.K. That was the year Kathy left, too, wasn't it?
JE: She made it to 1992.
LB: She did 5 terms.
JE: Why did you leave?
LB: I left because I was offered a job as the police commissioner of New York City. David Dinkins got elected as the first African American mayor of New York City. He did a national search for a police commissioner. I came out number one on the list. And when he offered me the job, I took it. Being the police commissioner of New York City is the apex of a policeman's career. It is the largest police department in this country in the largest city in this country. So, it was something I never dreamed about - being the police commissioner of New York City. When the opportunity presented itself, I took it. It had nothing to do with Houston because we addressed most of the difficult times in our city as far as police was concerned. The police department was well-respected. In addition to that, the community was participating with the police department. We had an international reputation as a good police department. So, there was no reason to leave here except I was offered a job that I couldn't say no to.
JE: O.K., you were there 4 years?
LB: About 3 years.
JE: And then you went to be the drug czar?
LB: No, I left New York because my wife at the time, Yvonne, had cancer and I decided to come back to Houston so I could spend time with her and her children could spend time with her. I had two twin daughters that were still here. And that is the reason I left New York, was to come and spend time with her.
JE: Why did you come back to Houston? Why didn't you go to Atlanta?
LB: Because my daughters were here in Houston. They stayed in Houston. They were going to school here. They went to Texas Southern University and University of Houston. So, they were here. My other two older kids were living in, I think Chicago at the time, so I chose Houston as the place to return to. I came back and went to Texas Southern University and taught there for 1 year. Clinton got elected, called and said, "Lee, I need you," and off I go to Washington, D.C. My wife passed away in December of 1992.
JE: And your daughters were still in school and you went to Washington and you were drug czar?
LB: I was a drug czar. The appropriate title is the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
JE: Did you control it a lot?
JE: How long were you there?
LB: I stayed there almost 3 years. I came back because there were a lot of requests that I come back and run for mayor. In fact, I was asked to run for mayor even when I was here when Kathy was the mayor and I said, "Absolutely not. I think it would be unethical for me to run against the person that hired me and besides, I don't want to be an elected official. I am happy being a police chief." When I went to New York, people would come visit me or I would come back home - I call Houston home - and they were asking me to come back and run for mayor. That just continued. I went to Washington, the same thing. They did polling that showed I had a good chance of winning. I had met with different groups, political people, who had some insight as to . . . and so, I made the decision to leave and I left when I did because I wanted to leave before the election. I didn't want my leaving to be a part of the reelection of President Clinton. Vernon Jordan and President Clinton were very good friends, so I told Vernon what I was interested in doing. He said he didn't think there would ever be any problem and he talked to the president. When I spoke to the president, the president said, "Fine, I'll support you." So, I came back and went to Rice University and I taught there about a year and a half, and in 1997, I declared my candidacy. When I declared my candidacy, I had to leave Rice because I was the first senior scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy and taught classes in the sociology department. Because the Baker Institute raised money, I had to raise money . . . there shouldn't be any confusion so I had to resign that position.
JE: How did you wind up at Rice? I mean, did you go to them or did they come to you?
LB: I was approached. People who were my supporters, they approached Rice about a position for me. It was part, as I found out later, of kind of a conspiracy to get me back here.
JE: So, you did not come back with the intent to run for mayor?
LB: That is the reason I came back.
JE: That is the reason you came back? I presumed that always but . . . O.K., Lanier had succeeded Kathy. I guess that is as nice a way I can think of to phrase that. He beat her. He took a great deal of credit for you. I have often wondered if Bob has a tendency to take credit for things that work. How influential was he in getting you to run?
LB: Initially, he was not in the process. Many people who were involved in getting me to come back were people like Grover Jackson and Kenny Friedman and L. Franco Lee (sp?) - people of that nature. When I first came back from New York to Texas Southern University, Lanier asked me to have lunch with him, which I did. The first thing he asked me, "Did you come back to run for mayor?" I said, "No." Well, we have been friends ever since. He was one of my big supporters and he helped me a lot in my campaign and even after being there, he was one of my top advisors.
JE: O.K., that was your first political campaign?
LB: I won a campaign before I ran and was elected to become the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
JE: Oh, O.K. A lot of heavy politics in that?
LB: Yes, about 3 or 4 days of handshaking at the convention.
JE: O.K., so it was your first real political campaign?
LB: That is correct.
JE: How did that work for you and how did you design your campaign?
LB: You know, actually, it was probably easier for me because I had been police chief here for 8 years. I knew the city very well. I had been in every neighborhood. I know most of the leaders in the city. So, it wasn't like I was getting out to meet people for the first time. I had good name recognition. Most people knew who I was because of serving as police chief for 8 years, so it wasn't as difficult as you would think it was. Probably the most difficult part for me was going out asking people to give me money. My basic first ______ is such I don't ask anyone to do anything for me and so, that was probably the most difficult thing.
JE: Well, as I recall, you and Rob Mosbacher, the main guy who ran against you, you all didn't have a particularly . . . did you?
LB: It wasn't that contentious. They did their oppositional research on me but there was nothing to find. Being a police person all your life, your life is an open book. So, as they looked, there was nothing they could find.
JE: I presume you returned the favor?
LB: Oh, we did our share, too. He had a decent life, too, so there was nothing there.
JE: I mean, I just don't remember but at my age, my memory is going.
LB: No, you are right - it was not a contentious . . .
JE: Was there anything you felt was dirty in it?
JE: Whether it came from Rob or somebody outside or whatever?
LB: No. You know, when you are a candidate, if there are issues, they should be addressed, but there was nothing of significance that I can remember.
JE: What platform did you run on? What did you promise?
LB: What I did promise was to work in the neighborhoods to make them better. I promised that we would have an ethical government. I promised that we would deal with economic development for jobs and those are, in broad terms, the things that I promised, but my basic focus was on improving neighborhoods in the city.
JE: As I recall, you were fairly successful at that. Do you think so?
LB: I think so.
JE: What was your major accomplishment as mayor?
LB: That is a tough one to kind of single out one thing because we did a lot. I developed 5 guiding principles for my administration that I had held for all 3 terms that I was in office. One was a neighborhood-oriented government. I took the community policing concept and applied it to all the city government and called it neighborhood oriented government. Very succinctly it meant we would divide the city into 88 super neighborhoods. These neighborhoods would develop a super neighborhood council. The council, in turn, would develop a plan to address the issues in their neighborhood presented to the city and we would use the city resources to address the issues brought to us by that neighborhood council. What it was basically was asking the people, tell us what you need rather than the city telling them what they are going to get. That was very, very successful. What it did, more than anything else, it gave a voice to the people in some of your low income neighborhoods that never had a voice before. We literally opened up City Hall to the neighborhoods. I defined the neighborhood oriented government as first of all solving problems at the neighborhood level; number two, being accessible to the public and in that respect, we had town hall meetings in every area of the city, opened up City Hall at night where all my department heads and I would be there to meet with the people, and third, delivered our services in a prompt and courteous matter, that was, neighborhood oriented government. It was very successful because we told the people that you are important. That is kind of basic but that is what it amounted to. We wanted to do what you thought was important to make your neighborhood a better place in which to live and raise your families. Second, was opportunities for young people. And there, we did a lot of things, too. Expanded greatly the after school program.
My research showed that the vast majority of the crime committed by young people is between 3 and 5. That is when the parents are still at work and they are out of school. So, if we could keep them busy, we could make a big difference and we did. We had the University of Houston, some of the professors evaluate the program. They showed that where we had the after school program, crime involving youth went down, attendance in school went up, and the behavior and grades of the kids went up. So, it made a difference. We could empirically prove that. But we did a lot of other things, too. We had the Power Card to get the kids to use the library. We had the Sam Houston, where we had a program where any kid can go to the library or some of our multiservice centers, have their own piece of the World Wide Web or the internet available to them. I formed the Youth City Council where we had leaders in our schools, one would serve as mayor, other as council members and they, in turn, would bring to us information about what the young people were thinking, so we did a lot . . . Lee Brown kids, where I personally took kids all over the place - to ballgames, to museums and the zoo - not just to serve as a positive role model but expose kids to things that they had never seen before. So, we did a lot for young people.
In addition to that, we had our Economic Development and International Trade. It was a third guided principle. And there are just so many things we did in terms of economic development. Just take our downtown area, for example. A cotswall project where we wanted to create a district, kind of a walking district. Cotswall is a European term which means walking. We wanted to revitalize the downtown area which we were successful in doing. That meant we had to have a new underground utility structure because the one we had was built years ago when the city was much smaller. So, if the city was going to grow, we had to do something there. We did that. We paved the downtown streets. At that time, everybody got mad at me because the streets were all torn up.
JE: I hated you!
LB: But now, you love it. And that is the case. Now, as you drive downtown, people are very happy with what they see. But when I was being criticized, I asked a very simple question, "Tell me how we can repair the streets and put down a new infrastructure without tearing the streets up and I will do it," which no one had an answer to, but I am glad I did it because it made a big difference. We set about wanting to increase the Convention Bureau business here. We had hundreds of national conventions that would bypass us because they wanted to tie up 1,000 rooms in 1 hotel. We didn't have a hotel downtown that could do that because the Hyatt had 900 at the most, so we built the Convention Center Hotel, the Hilton Americas. We almost doubled the size of the Convention Center to help that industry and as a result of that, other hotels were developed in the downtown area, about 8 other smaller hotels. We built obviously the light rail system, 7.5 miles of light rail which brought an approval for 72 more miles and I think that is historic. As you know, mayors before me have tried to develop the light rail and never got it done. We got that done. In fact, the day before I left office, we really opened up the train system. I had the honor of driving, not literally but being in the front while someone else drove the train, the first train. So, that was very, very, I think important for our city. We did almost about a 3 billion dollar improvement in our airport system. New runways, improvement in runways, new cargo terminals, terminal E. We built the consolidated car rental facility out at the airport. New gates and new terminals at Hobby Airport. Improvements at Ellington Air Field for private aircraft. So, we put a lot of money in making our airport system a better place. And that worked to the benefit of the city.
We did a new water plant, the Northeast Water Plant, which now gives us plenty of water for years to come - things people don't think about. We improved our police department with new police stations, improved our fire department with new fire stations. We were able to have our fire department accredited - the largest accredited fire department in America. We got a number one rating on insurance where our fire department . . . the only major city probably, certainly in America that had a number one rating, so we did a lot to improve the public safety. New libraries, new parks, renovation of parks and libraries - things of that nature. We did a lot. So, to say what was the number one, it is very difficult for me to say. Three new sports venues. Opened up Reliant Stadium, Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center. I worked with Bob Lanier to bring the football back to Houston, got the Texans. We captured the Superbowl, the All-Star games. What I felt as a basic philosophy is that if you want to have a first class city, you certainly have to have first class transportation; that means, you have to have a good transit system, train system. You have to have something for everyone. If you want to attract businesses or workers here, you have to have something for everyone. Some people like parks - you have to expand the park system. Some like sports - you have to have adequate sports facilities. Some like the arts, so we opened up the Hobby Center, another venue for the arts. So, that is what we attempted to do. It wasn't done just haphazardly. There is some thought behind trying to do all the things that we are doing to attract businesses to our city, to get people to expand their businesses that already exist here.
JE: Did you go to the Hobbys to get them to do it?
LB: It is named the Hobby Center. I did not do that. Bob Lanier started that. I just carried it through. We did all the construction under my watch but I give Mayor Lanier credit for getting it started. There are many other things. International trade. I led trade missions to the Middle East and to Asia, to Latin America and to Africa. Again, my belief was that if you are not thinking internationally, you are left out. You have to have international contacts and businesses. I took a number of business people with me on all those trips. We signed many agreements, hundreds of agreements, to get things done between different countries and Houston. So, economic development and international trade was a big part of what my administration was about. Then, we had traffic. Transportation and infrastructure. There, we developed a plan to deal with the clean air which was told to be the most technologically advanced plan that they have ever seen. That is what the Environmental Protection Agency told us. I guess the final one would be continuous management improvements. How do we improve how we use the resources? We passed the largest ever bond issue for our infrastructure improvements, opened parks. And so, there was a lot that went on that we didn't get much credit or, if you would, much publicity on because a lot went on during my administration.
We also started the Gregory School Project which is now being continued by Mayor White where we are taking the old Gregory School and making it an African American archival center. I appointed a committee to look at an African American museum. That is still ongoing. We advanced Affirmative Action for the city which was very important - to have women, small businesses, minorities, be a part of the system, doing work for the city.
JE: What was your biggest disappointment?
LB: Term limits. If you look at the ability to only do three, 2-year terms, I think that is a detriment to the city. You get elected and then you have to start worrying about being reelected in 1 year. It is not enough time to do what needs to be done. I think we should change that and have two 4-year terms. Like right now, I could not run for mayor again if I wanted to because of the law. Most major cities in America have two 4-year terms - you lay off for 1 term if you wanted to and if the people wanted you to come back after 1 term, that is not even the case here.
JE: Would you be for doing away with term limits altogether?
LB: I would. I think the people should be your term limits. If you are doing a lousy job, they will get rid of you.
JE: Oh, every time.
JE: Do you think the terms should be 2 years?
LB: I think it should be 4 years.
JE: But you didn't actually have any competition your last 2 elections.
LB: Well, the last one, I did. Orlando Sanchez ran against me. It was in a runoff.
JE: Oh, yes, that's right.
LB: My second election, there was no competition.
JE: Well, the Republicans were getting heady about that time.
LB: Well, we had a lot of opposition against me. If you look at the people that supported Orlando, you had the president, the current president, you had his father, his mother, President Bush and Barbara Bush. They endorsed my opponent. You had Giuliani on television about every few minutes endorsing my opponent.
JE: Well, that is right. You took a hard rap on that on the confrontation between the blacks and the Jews, right, in New York?
LB: No, that was in my first term. It wasn't a hard rap. It didn't turn out to be a big issue. That was not in my third term. The third term, the Republicans wanted the seat and they had everybody, from the president, the president's father, the mother, Giuliani, they sent Cabinet members down. My opponent raised more money than he could spend. You can only spend so much money on television. He had money left over.
JE: Oh, he spent it.
LB: But we beat him and we beat him by going to the people. We rented about 150 vans and on election day, we filled those vans up, went into the precincts where I knew if I got my people to the polls, I would win and about 6 o'clock in the morning, we started hanging materials in the door, came back at 10 knocking on those doors and taking people to the polls. So, it was a people movement. We got people out to the polls and we won.
JE: How involved was Clinton in that ________?
LB: She helped me in terms of fundraising but he was not as actively involved. He came down once to do a fundraiser for me.
JE: I remember . . . I don't know, I think I was at Billy Carr's and they were doing a conference call with him about you.
LB: Yes, he helped me that way, too, talking to people because it really became a partisan issue and, as you know, this government is supposedly nonpartisan. And so, it became partisan because the Republicans wanted to take the office and the Democrats wanted to keep it.
JE: How would you describe yourself in terms of do you think that your tenure was that of a Liberal or Progressive, Conservative, Moderate?
LB: I always operated under the assumption that this was a nonpartisan government but it is not. We have 14 Council members and the mayor, that is 15 members, with the mayor serving and presiding over Council. Before I even took office, the 7 Republicans on the Council were meeting, I might add, illegally, trying to derail my train. And that continued really throughout my administration; where the Republicans, for whatever reason - I can only assume that it is political - decided even before I took office that they wanted to be an obstacle at my achieving things that I wanted to achieve. That, I regret. I think we could have done a lot more if we had everyone working towards achieving the same thing. So, saying that we were a partisan government, at least in my situation, was not true. Nonpartisan, I meant.
JE: Actually, that race is the only one I can remember that was very much Democrat/Republican. I don't think there has been one since.
LB: No. That wasn't the case in Bill White's election.
JE: When you were mayor, did you have any people in the community that you turned to for help?
LB: I tried to talk to everybody I could and that is why I made myself accessible. I had an open door policy. Anyone who wanted to come in and see me, they could come in and see me. They may not see me if they walk off the street - they may not get in because I am busy but I took myself to the community. We had town hall meetings in every part of the city. I talked to Bob Lanier regularly. We would have lunch to go over issues. I wanted to take advantage of his experience. I talked to people like Kenny Friedman, Franco Lee, Grover Jackson. Other people like Dave Walton have been the chief of staff of Bob Lanier. I talked to people at the Greater Houston Partnership. Every month, we would have a luncheon meeting in the mayor's dining room just to talk over issues and see where we could work together and get things accomplished for the city. I talked to people at the Visitors Convention Bureau to see how we could attract more businesses, more convention business to the city. So, literally, I tried to relate to the entire community. The ministers would meet with me at the Mayor's Ministerial Advisory Committee. I had the Mayor's Advisory Committee for International Trade where we had people from different parts of the world. They would meet with me. I had a Women's Advisory Committee. I had a liaison for the gay and lesbian community that would work with me and I would meet with them. I had a Hispanic Advisory Committee. I had an Asian Advisory Committee. So, literally, I wanted to just make myself available for the entire community because, you know, we are not monolithic. People have different interests and different needs. The Neighborhood Oriented Government helped me address the neighborhood. Just being accessible and talking to all segments of the community makes a big difference.
JE: Are you glad you were mayor? Do you wish you hadn't . . .
LB: Oh, no, I loved being mayor. As mayor, you can do something to help somebody every day. It may be a phone call helping a senior citizen take care of his or her problems. Then you can do things to make the city a better place. So, from the individual to the entire city, the mayor can do something to make even the city a better place. I think we did that under my administration.
JE: Did you actively support anybody as your successor?
LB: I supported Bill White. I had to organize all the living mayors. We had a press conference in front of City Hall where we supported him.
JE: That's right. You did, didn't you?
JE: You and Kathy have remained friends, is this correct?
LB: Yes, we have.
JE: Did she offer you advice along the way?
LB: She flew in and supported me to endorse me as kind of a crew. She and Bob Lanier stood up and supported me.
JE: Yes, that was a real news-y event here. What about Hofheinz? Do you ever talk to Fred Hofheinz?
LB: Not very often. Fred supported me. He and I . . . I consider a friend but he is not someone I see often. Even Louie Welch. I would talk to him as well when he was alive.
JE: I'll bet Louie had a lot of advice for you.
LB: Well, he had a lot of experience. He had been around for a long time. He knew a little bit about everything in the city.
JE: Yes, he did. Mayor, I am not exactly asking . . . I'd love it if you wanted to, you know, grade your predecessors and your successor but what I am really getting at is what did they do that stands out to you? What did you think of Kathy and Lanier and White?
LB: I think Kathy brought me to Houston. That certainly stands out. Different times calls for different types of leadership. In the 1980s, we had some difficult times in our city because of the collapse and the oil crisis and thus, the collapse in our economy here. I was the police chief and there was no money. We had to literally close down the police academy. We couldn't hire new police officers. We couldn't give them salary increases because of the lack of money. Kathy took us through those difficult times. She had the nerve to go ahead and spend money on capital improvements which kept jobs and improved our city. So, her administration was one where she governed over a very difficult part of our city, a difficult period in our city. Bob Lanier did not have that challenge and Bob came in as someone who wanted to improve neighborhoods, so his Neighborhoods to Standards Program did a lot in traditionally neglected neighborhoods. His focus on Affirmative Action was certainly outstanding, where he wanted to make the city services in terms of contracts available to everyone. So, different times called for different leaderships and I think both of them did a great service for the City of Houston.
JE: What about White?
LB: White has done a good job. He has different issues. He is doing a good job carrying out his responsibility as well. One of the things I have learned is that there is no finish line in the history of a city. I come in, I do my job, kind of like a relay, carry the baton as far as I can and the next mayor takes the baton and he/she runs and do as much as they can and they pass it on. That is just the nature of city government. There is no finish line. There is no stopping. As time goes by, you have different changes and different challenges and different problems and different opportunities. Each mayor tackled their problems taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them at the time.
JE: Are you involved in politics?
LB: Not now. No more than the presidential campaign.
JE: Are you involved in it?
LB: I support Hillary Clinton and I have done fund raising for her, made phone calls for her, yes.
JE: That's involved. Any local campaigns?
LB: I have supported some local campaigns, many by donating money. I haven't gone out and really campaigned for anyone. I am supporting Chief Bradford for the district attorney's office as much as I can. I have given him money, and will also do what I can to get him elected. I think he would make a good district attorney.
JE: He is part of your company, isn't he?
LB: Yes, he is. He is senior associate of my company. And I have given some money to some of the council members that ran for office and supported them a lot and used my name. I made phone calls for some of them.
JE: So, you are involved.
LB: Not at a very visible level but I am involved.
JE: Well, it sounds like at the level that counts.
LB: Well, the ones I supported have won.
JE: Well, that speaks well of you. Let's hope you succeed with the presidential one.
LB: I do, too.
JE: What was your impression of Houston when you first came?
LB: Well, first of all, it is a big city. You had a lot of area to cover. Secondly, it was a friendly city. Third, when I went downtown at the noon hour, I didn't see anybody in the streets. That is before I knew there was a tunnel! Where are all the people? This is lunch hour. There are no people. I found out where the tunnel was. That was a surprise. People reached out to me and they were very supportive of me. I can remember, I think my first week or so here, John B. Coleman, Dr. John B. Coleman did a reception for me at his home. Then, there was a reception at 3D. Jack Raines had a reception at 3D, his company at the time. Introduced me to the business community. So, everyone kind of rolled out the welcome mat for me. That, I really appreciated. A very friendly city. And it still is a friendly city. People come here from all parts of the world and not like many cities where, if you didn't grow up here, born here or your grandfather wasn't here, then you can't participate in what the city has to offer. Houston is a city of opportunity for everyone, regardless of when you came here or why you came here, it is a city of opportunity.
JE: Did your children like it?
LB: Yes, they did. They enjoyed . . . my two kids, my twin daughters, they went to middle school, high school and college here and they fit right in.
JE: Did they stay here?
LB: They married Houston people. This is their home. In fact, I spent more of my adult life in Houston than any other place.
JE: I don't know . . . did it ever occur to you to leave it after you got out of office?
LB: No. By choice, I am here. I got remarried, so I married a lady from Houston. My wife, Francis, is an educator with the Houston Independent School District. My ties are here. My roots are here right now. I have had, as could be expected, opportunities to leave in terms of jobs. I have had very attractive job opportunities. I have had a recent position where I am comfortable here, I like the city, I like the people so why move and start all over again?
JE: You grew up in a small town. You moved to an awfully large one. In terms of the neighborhood concept that you _______, do you feel like you live in a neighborhood?
LB: Not so much now because I live in a townhouse and we don't have a neighborhood association. When I lived in Meyerland, I lived in Meyerland twice: when I first moved here and when I came back from New York, I bought another house in Meyerland. And so, that was the neighborhood. You had the Meyerland Homeowners Association was very active and so, yes, there are many neighborhoods in this city, so I felt I lived in a neighborhood then.
JE: Did you ever consider trying to put zoning in the city?
LB: No. I had higher priorities in terms of trying to fight that battle. I left that for other mayors.
JE: The diversity in Houston, I find that some people aren't really aware of it, that the live in their neighborhood and they don't interact. Do you think that there is a good level of interaction?
LB: Well, remember that Houston is still a very segregated city when you look at housing. People of certain ethnic backgrounds tend to live in the same neighborhoods. And so, in that context, you have a lot of interaction. Today, Houston is probably one of the most diverse cities in America. It is what America will be in the future. If my figures are correct, we are about 40% Hispanic and about 25% African American, and about 6% to 7% Asian, so there is no ethnic majority in Houston anymore. And what I tried to do as mayor was to take that as a strength and not a weakness, to celebrate our diversity. There are a lot of benefits when we have different cultures. We have some of the best restaurants than any place in the country right here in Houston, different ethnic foods, you have different celebrations. When I was running for mayor the last time, I started my morning by going over to the family cafe which is an African American restaurant in the Third Ward with a group of African Americans. We had breakfast there. Then, I went over to the Hispanic community and there was a baseball game. I went out there and talked to the people there. From there, I left and went to the park where it was the Japanese Festival. You had the Asian community. From there, I went to an event in the Pakistani community. And then, I went and had Italian food. So, all in the period of 1 day, I touched a lot of different groups, different cultures. And that is the beauty of our city, we have that. I have always said continuously, "We must celebrate our diversity as a strength and not a weakness."
JE: Did any group visibly support or oppose you when you were mayor? You had some Hispanic support ______?
LB: Oh, yes, I had Hispanic support. On my first election, I did something that had never been done before, was to get the Asian community actively involved in politics. The Asian community came here, particularly the Vietnamese via a small Chinese community, the Vietnamese community or South Asian community came here and have been very successful in terms of their business, in terms of getting their kids educated, but they have never gotten involved in the political process. I offered the opportunity which they accepted on my campaign to get involved in the political process which brought them full circle as far as the mayor is concerned, and I am very proud of that and proud of them for getting involved in the political process because they can have their voice heard that way. But as far as the Hispanic community, I have a very good relationship with the Hispanic community. As I mentioned earlier, I had a Hispanic advisory committee that worked for me and I made sure as we hired people, we hired people from the Hispanic community in policy making positions in my administration. The same for the Asian community. The same for the African American community. I wanted my administration to look like Houston and I think that is extremely important.
In terms of the opposition, I don't think there was any particular group that was opposed to me because of their ethnicity. The opposition usually comes from party affiliation or supporting somebody else who happened not to be me but I did not see any division in terms of support or opposition based on ethnicity.
JE: You had so much time devoted to policing when you were a police chief and then being mayor when you were a mayor but aside from what you think, you know, on a professional level, let's go to a personal level -- what is it about Houston you like? I mean, you obviously did not have a lot of time to go picnicking in the park but what does Houston offer you as an individual, not an office holder?
LB: I would think that if I came here just as Lee Brown with no political background or no public service background and came to Houston, I would still like it. It is a city that is hospitable and friendly. People will go out of their way to help you even if they don't know you. And in addition to that, about anything you want from a city is here. If you like the arts, we have more theater seats that anyplace, outside of New York. The ballet, the symphony, opera and what is the fourth one?
JE: Drama. The theater.
LB: The theater. We have all of those here in our city. As far as open space, we have great parks here. As far as eating out, as I said, we have some of the best restaurants any place in America right here in our city. About anything you want, you can get it here. You are not crowded. You have over 600 square miles in the city. The population is a little over 2 million. Compare that with New York where you have about 8 million in 300 square miles. So, you are a little more crowded there than you are here. As far as the cost of living is concerned, it is the most affordable city of any large metropolitan area in America. People can still afford to buy a decent house here at a reasonable price. Your cost of living is cheaper here than any other major metropolitan area. And so, if you look at quality of life issues - a decent school system here. As I said, my wife, Francis, she is a career educator so I know a lot about the school system and I support teachers for a lot of reasons, not just because she is my wife but it is a good reason to support them though!
JE: Real good!
LB: I often say that there are two people I think that are drastically underpaid in our society - teachers and the police officers. We ask the police officers to go out every day and put their lives on the line and we don't pay them enough for that. We ask our teachers to perpetuate our civilization by preparing the future citizens - we don't pay them enough, so those are 2 groups of people I think we should pay much more money than we do right now. So, a good educational system. If you look at public safety, we are a relatively safe city right now. We did a lot when I was a police chief to change what we had before where people now support their police and are not afraid of police officers. Our fire department. We have good fire services right now as well. Good ambulance service. We are the world's largest medical center. People come from all over the world to get treated here. So, basically, if you were to do an objective assessment as to where you want to live, by every criteria you could think of, Houston would come out ahead. That is why I like Houston.
One thing that we were lacking when I first came here that I tried to change was a vibrant downtown area. When I came here in 1982, if you'd go downtown after 5 o'clock, everybody has gone home. You had some skateboarders in the streets and that was about it. Well, I knew that if you wanted to attract businesses, if you wanted to get business to expand here, you had to have a vibrant downtown area because some people want to go downtown. And now, that is changing. We have people living downtown. I cut the ribbon for a supermarket that is downtown now. I cut the ribbon for Rice where people are living at the old Rice Hotel. And we opened many other lofts and apartments and condominiums downtown. Look at what we used to call the Fourth Ward. Now, it is called Midtown. Look at what it is right now in terms of residents. If people live downtown, then you have to have things like the grocery store, your pharmacies, your restaurants, your shoe stores - all the businesses that support a neighborhood have to also come downtown and we see that happening right now. That was a big deficit of not having a good downtown area, a vibrant downtown, but we have changed that as well. We close downtown on Friday and Saturday nights right now. We have sidewalk cafes. You can go down there and sit and enjoy yourself.
JE: Do you remember the story about the New York Times reporter who came and reported that Houston was a deserted town. He didn't know about the tunnels.
LB: I know. Maybe we should publicize that more, I guess.
JE: Well, there are an amazing number of people in Houston who have never been downtown so in that sense, there are a lot of people, I guess, who just hang in their neighborhoods.
LB: Because we are so spread out, for many people, there is no reason to come back downtown. You have shopping centers in your neighborhoods, whatever you want there to go shopping. You have restaurants in your neighborhoods. I live out by the Galleria right now. Whatever I want is right in the Galleria area.
JE: If you can get there.
LB: I live there so I have to get there.
JE: How do you get there? That is a crowded part of town.
LB: It is but I say that to make a point: Greenspoint . . . we have what would probably be the downtown areas in other cities, we have Greenspoint, Galleria, Greenway Plaza, your medical center . . . any other place, it would probably be a downtown area. We have several of them here in Houston.
JE: I will confess that I was once in Dallas and I looked out the car one day and I said, "Oh, what area is that?" It was downtown. What about the Dallas/Houston competition? How did that affect you?
LB: It didn't. The only competition I saw was the first time the Cowboys played the Texans and the mayor and I had a bet, if I won, she would wear a Texans jersey at the next Council meeting; if I lost, then I would have to wear a Cowboys jersey, and fortunately, as you may recall, we won that first game.
JE: That is the only one we won through the years!
LB: But getting the Texans back was also very important. I remember many trips I made with Bob Lanier where we would go to the owner's meeting kind of with hat and hand . . . give us the football team back. We are in competition with Los Angeles . . . and we won. We also won the Superbowl for 2004. I think that is a big deal. As you know, Texans, and particularly Houston, we love football, so having the Texans back was a major benefit for us.
JE: Do you go to the football games?
LB: I haven't recently. I haven't gone to many places where there are a lot of crowds. That has been my life forever, being in crowds. I watch it on television every Sunday. I have been to a few basketball games.
JE: Well, what about them Rockets right now?
LB: I wish we had Yao Ming back. One quick story - on one of my trade missions to China, the Rockets were trying to recruit Yao Ming and the Rockets had their first draft choice. So, I was in Hong Zhao (sp?), got a phone call from the Rockets people, and they did not want to use their first draft choice if Yao Ming couldn't leave the country. So, I changed my schedule and went to Beijing and spoke to the Party Chair. And while there, I met with the director of the China Basketball Association, convinced him it would be a good idea, then I went and spoke to Yao Ming's manager who was his cousin and went to Shanghai and spoke with the mayor of Shanghai where Yao Ming lived. That was an interesting meeting. He was in another meeting. He gave me the courtesy of coming out and visiting with me and I made my peace, made my case for him. He thought for a while and said, "O.K. I'll tell the parents it is O.K. for him to go. He has won the championship so it is O.K. to go." I convinced him that he would be a good ambassador between the 2 countries which he has turned out to be that as well. So, a little side story in how Yao Ming actually ended up getting here.
JE: You ought to tell that one more often. I don't think I've ever heard it. I may have but . . .
LB: No, it hasn't been published.
JE: What about the baseball stadium? Did that open in your . . .
LB: Yes, we opened all 3 of the new sports venues: Minute Maid Park which started off with Enron. For some reason, we changed the name! And then, Reliant Stadium and also Toyota Center were all built under my administration.
JE: Are you given good credit for that or are people still mad about it?
LB: No, I don't think people are made about it because it didn't hurt the people who live here. If you remember, we built those stadiums with a tax on hotels, motels, car rentals. And then, the tickets. So, if you don't go to a baseball game, you don't rent a car, you don't go to a hotel or motel, you don't pay anything. So, that is a great way of building those facilities.
JE: Which one do you like the best?
LB: Well, I am a football player. I went to college on a football scholarship, as you may recall. I like our retractable roof. I kind of like the Astrodome, one of the first in the country. It is one of the firsts in the country for that as well. We also have a good baseball stadium with a good retractable roof, a good basketball arena that also serves more the purposes than just basketball -- hockey and some of your entertainers come here as well so if I had to pick one, I think it would be the Reliant Stadium.
JE: How do you feel about the Astrodome? There is a big movement to save it or possibly a big movement to destroy it.
LB: I think it would be a shame to destroy the Astrodome! I am a big supporter of keeping it.
JE: Are you?
LB: My plan was, when I was mayor, if we got the Olympics here - we worked very hard to get the Olympics - we came out in the top 4. I still think we were cheated. I think we had the best thing to offer. If we had received it, I would like to have seen it turned into an enclosed track and field stadium. I think that would have been a big winner, particularly for the athletes because you have no problem of wind. If they set a record, there is no wind factor there. I wish we could have done that. Then, there has been talk about kind of a medical hospital there because it is close to the Medical Center. There are a lot of good ideas and I think it would be a shame to not have it.
When we built the Toyota Center, we had a problem about what we would do with the Compaq Center out there. The city owned that building. And so, I pushed and got it passed through Council to lease it out to Lakewood Church for 30 years. I think that was a great decision as well. Now, we have a lease where we are getting rent from it rather than just sitting there.
JE: A lease? I thought they bought it.
LB: No, we have a 30 year lease on it. Still owned by the City after 30 years. The same thing with the Hilton Americas Hotel. That is a City hotel. After 30 years, it reverts back to the city unless we lease it out to the Hilton people again.
JE: There is talk about getting a new hotel in there, isn't there, I mean, besides Hilton?
LB: There is and we should probably use it. The convention business is very competitive, and hotel rooms is a key issue. I have gone to a convention like the International Association of Chiefs of Police. We bring them here. They look at can we put our people up in one hotel, 1,000 rooms? We didn't have it. So, we have to have the hotel rooms. Getting the Hilton Americas went a long way. And then, the convention center itself . . . if you had one big convention, national convention, and it closes, you have to tear that down. And that means you can't use that facility while it is being torn down. Now, we can have 2: we can have one going and when it is completed, we can use facilities on the other side to open up another one. So, all that was necessary to be competitive in the convention business.
JE: Oh, you are talking about the George R. Brown? You can use half of it?
JE: Oh, I didn't realize that. The convention business . . . what about tourists?
LB: Well, one of our goals is to make Houston the destination. At least, you have to have something to bring people here. I think we have gone a long way in achieving that objective. We had to brand Houston some way and I don't think we do enough to sell what Houston has to offer. But now, we have I think a lot to offer for convention people. If you come to a convention, people don't want to just sit in the hotel - they want something to do. That is why I am making the downtown a vibrant place to go. That made a lot of sense and we were able to accomplish that. If you wanted to go out and have dinner, go out into a nightclub and things like that - not just to sit in a hotel. Coming to Houston as a visitor - what do you do? Well, we have a great museum district out there. We have the Johnson Space Center which many people go to visit. We have the Theater District, is a great place to go. We have great parks that people can go to. We have a zoo. I knew that we were not going to have a world class zoo on city dollars and so what I did, to work with the private sector - we couldn't really privatize it but they kind of manage the zoo right now and raise money for the zoo. We put X number of dollars, X million dollars in every year which was what we were budgeting at the time, and they raise more money. I think in the long run, we will have a world class zoo out there that we could not do just using city dollars because the zoo is not that much of a priority when you look at other things you have to do with city government. I am glad I did that. I see a lot of improvements taking place at the zoo. So, all the things that make another city a place where people want to come, we were trying to do that under my administration.
I mentioned earlier taking the old Gregory School which was the first school for blacks after slavery . . . it has the same designation as the Alamo. That means, the facade. The outside, you can't do anything to it. But on the inside, you can revitalize that. We are going to make it an African American archival system as part of our library system. And if you make it part of the library system, that means it is going to be around. As you budget, you have to budget for that as well. I appointed a group to develop an African American museum. Many cities have that. People come to see the museum, the African American museum. So, that is being developed right now. They are raising money for that. In fact, I gave them a check not long ago for that. So, those are things that you can do to make Houston a destination. Look at what we have: the world's largest medical center. We have the Johnson Space Center. We have a great theater district. We have a great museum district. We have a great park system. We have a now emerging, good downtown area. That makes us a destination people want to come here. We have to do a better job of telling people in other parts of the country what we have here. Great restaurants. I would put our restaurants up against any city in the country.
JE: What about this park over by the Convention Center? Do you think that is going to work?
LB: I think so. If you go to New York, in Central Park, you have Tavern on the Green. That is a good place and people go there because it is there. I think the same thing would happen with the park we have downtown - they will go there because it is there.
JE: Yes, but will they take a cab there because they don't want to walk through the park to get back to their hotel because . . . look at it from the standpoint of a mayor and look at it from the standpoint of a police chief. What do you think about it?
LB: Well, I think the police department has an obligation to make sure it is safe. You deploy your resources so your visitors do not have problems. I think that's the chief's job.
JE: Will it happen?
LB: I am sure it would.
JE: Going back to that, who succeeded you as police chief?
LB: Betsy Watson.
JE: She was kind of a protege of yours, wasn't she?
LB: Yes, she worked right under me. I put her out at the Westside station to implement what we called Neighborhood Oriented Policing at the time. She did a great job in doing it. And when Kathy Whitmire asked me who I recommended to be my successor, there was no question - I recommended her. Then, she stayed here . . . when Bob Lanier came in, he brought Sam Nuchia as his chief and Betsy went to Austin as the police chief of Austin.
JE: Is she still there?
LB: She is still in Austin. Her husband is a police chief at one of the smaller cities in the area and she is doing consulting work now.
JE: What is it with all you consultants? Your consulting work here? Do people in Houston use you or is it people from elsewhere?
LB: I haven't done any work in Houston.
JE: You did such a good job as chief, they don't need you!
LB: They don't need a consultant. I formed my firm back in 1997. When I left Rice University, I had to find some way to make a living, so I formed a consultant company, Brown Group International. When I was elected mayor, certainly, I did not do that work. When I was out of the mayor's office, I went to Rice University for 1 year. After that 1 year, my intent was always to go back into the consulting business. And I find it is something that I want to do, particularly working with police departments because I have had some experiences that no one else has ever had that I think I can share with other people. I can share my knowledge and experience with other police departments. So, I enjoy what I do. For example, I have been training some police officers from Nigeria in community policing. I went and introduced community policing to South Africa before there was a free South Africa. I have lectured on community policing all over the world: in Europe, the Caribbean and places like that where I can share my knowledge. So, the consulting work gives me the opportunity to share with others that which I spent a lifetime doing. And also, hopefully make a living.
JE: Does it require a lot of travel?
LB: Well, since I am not doing any work in Houston, it does require a lot of travel.
JE: And that requires that you fly out of the airport, right?
LB: That's correct.
JE: Does the airport work? Did you do a good job?
LB: I think it is a good airport. The problems I have with the airport have nothing to do with the airport - it is the security systems we have right now. It is not that bad. As I go through there, it takes a couple of minutes to get through the checkpoint after that.
JE: Well, this isn't really Houston but in a way, it is because a lot of people do fly out of Houston . . . What do you think about that . . . I cannot understand why they have old ladies take off their shoes.
LB: I don't see why they have old mayors take off their shoes! It is interesting. They are following regulations - there are no exceptions.
JE: I understand.
LB: Even when I was mayor, I'd go to the airport with Rick Vakar who is my director of the airport system, we are going to walk through - they shake both of us down. The mayor is not going to do anything to the airport and certainly, the director of the airport system is not going to do anything to the airport. We had to sit down and take our shoes off and get searched as well. I certainly didn't complain about it because I would rather have a safe system than one that is not safe. But I think, in my own opinion, there are things they can do. Someone like me who flies regularly and not known to even be suspected of being a terrorist, there should be some way of identifying travelers like me and avoid all of that. I think that would make a big difference. And there are many other people who find themselves in the same position as I do.
JE: Just because there was one guy who tried to put something in his shoe, does that mean everybody in America is going to have to take their shoes off every time they go?
LB: Well, I probably would not implement that system myself.
JE: That is my question. Why don't you go consult with Homeland Security?
LB: If they asked me, I would do it.
JE: In your travels, are you asked about Houston?
LB: Whether I am asked or not, I talk about Houston. If you look at the trade missions, for example, I think I was able to do a lot to put Houston on the international map. That was very important. One quick example: I went to Taipei City and in the city hall, there was a picture of the mayor of Dallas. And Taipei City and Houston, we were probably one of the first sister city programs in the country. And so, there was a new mayor and I was a new mayor so I pulled him aside and said, "Listen, you are a new mayor, I am a new mayor, you should have the mayor of Houston's picture up there." And so, my picture went up. I tell that story for a reason because if you don't have personal contact, particularly in your Asian countries, when they look at going to a city for a vacation or business, they go to places that they have familiarity with. That could be accomplished by going there and meeting the people. The mayor that was there when I was there in Taiwan is now the president of the country. And so, I am sure he still will remember my trip there in a favorable manner because we brought a delegation of people with us that . . . he was very generous with his time and spent a lot of time with us. Or going to China, when I first went to China. They sent a television crew here and did an extensive story on Houston in preparation of my trip. And then, they played that and they played it over and over and over again. And when I went there, they interviewed me for about an hour about Houston. They played that over and over and over again. And, at one point, I was probably one of the best known, besides the president, the best known American in China because of going there and doing that. So, it has great benefits for the city. So, telling the story of Houston, oftentimes, it means you have to go there and talk to the people, meet the business community, take business people with you, meet with your governmental people so they get to know what you are about and tell your story.
JE: I have the sense that since the Space Program which, by the way, was the first time that newspapers brought Texas on the date line of Houston . . . it was Houston, Texas - it would be Dallas - but it would be Houston, Texas. And when the Space Program got going, Houston became at least well enough known that you didn't have to say Houston, Texas. But do people still consider Houston a cowboy town? You know, that has figured so much in trying to figure out a way to sell it.
LB: To a large extent, if you have not been here, you consider Houston as a small country town. When you get here, you are very pleasantly surprised and you go back and tell that story to other people. That is one of the difficulties I found as mayor - getting people here. Once you got them here, then they would see what we have to offer; then they would tell the story. That has been kind of, I think, the history of our city. The tumbleweeds rolling down the middle of the street. Everybody wears cowboy boots and cowboy hats.
JE: Yes, takes a stage coach.
LB: When I left Atlanta to come here as police chief, the legal department in Atlanta bought me a cowboy hat. This is not true but I tell it oftentimes, a story . . . I say, "When I got to work, I put on my cowboy hat and my cowboy boots at work and I was the only person in town with a cowboy hat and cowboy boots on. Everyone else had business suits." That is not a true story but it kind of makes the point.
JE: It makes the point. Do you wear boots now?
LB: Only at the rodeo.
JE: You don't like them?
LB: Well, it is not that I don't like them, I am just not a boot person. I like my loafers, particularly now in the airport - they are easy to take off than your lace-up shoes.
JE: Well, cowboy boots used to set off the things because they have that steel deal in them.
LB: Yes. But only during the rodeo time do I ever wear my cowboy gear - my hat and my boots.
JE: Are you a rodeo fan?
LB: I have been to a few of them. I haven't gone since I left office but I like the rodeo.
JE: It seems to me that at one time when we had the rodeo and the stock show, it dominated Houston. Everybody in the whole city was involved in it. And now, it can kind of come and go.
LB: I think you are accurate, which is a loss. People came from other countries to come to the rodeo and livestock show as well. We would have international night or day and people from all over the world would be here.
JE: Oh, I think they still do that but the city of Houston has grown to a size and . . .
LB: A lot of competition for other things.
LB: You know, there are a lot of things that I thought we could do like I revitalized the Veteran's Day Parade when I was mayor honoring our veterans. I think that was very important. Probably more so now than ever since we have many of our brothers and sisters and daughters and sons over at war right now. I think it is very important to pay tribute to those who made the sacrifice for our country to make it what it is today.
JE: Well, you started another parade but you didn't resolve the Martin Luther King.
LB: Well, I tried. There were some deep feelings on that issue that I just wasn't successful.
JE: If you weren't, can anyone be?
LB: I guess there would have to be a court order someplace and there is no basis for the court to rule that say you can't have 2 parades. Another generation will take care of that problem.
JE: Do you think so?
LB: I think so.
JE: What do you see for the future of Houston?
LB: I see Houston to continue to grow and prosper and become an even larger city and I say that because as you see many large cities right now having very difficult economic times - that is not the case of Houston to the same degree primarily because we have such a diversified economy. If I go back to when I first came in the 1980s, probably about 80% of our economy was predicated upon the energy . . . when the energy business went down, so did our economy. Now, energy is still a major part of our city, probably close to 50% but we are more diversified. In addition to energy, we have the transportation . . . our port is number one in foreign tonnage. Number two in overall tonnage. Our airport is the gateway to Latin America right now and flying to many foreign countries as well. So, transportation is a big industry for us. Our medical center is the world's largest medical center. People come from all over the world to attend our medical center. That is a big industry for us. They are a big employer as well. Then, we have the high tech. We still are a high tech city. When Compaq merged with Hewlett-Packard, many felt we would lose but we still have that complex out there, just a different name. There might even be more employees out there than we had before the merger. So, if you look at it, we are just a much more diversified city than we were before. Small business is still the engine that drives our economy in this city. What I tried to do was be a big supporter of small business. So, if you add all that up, you will see Houston continue to grow. We have room for growth with all the mileage we have in our city. We have an infrastructure that can support the growth. I mentioned that we built the northeast water plant and we then did a couple of other water purification plants. That was very critical. So, in the northeast, not only can we supply water out by the airport for years and years and years to come, but also sell water at a reasonable price to other people that are not in the city.
That is very critical. And it deals with subsidence as well. So, that is the long answer to the question but the short answer - I think Houston will continue to be a major city. I think we have room to grow in terms of the internationalism of our city - to become better known in other parts of the world as one of the American great cities. That is not the case right now because when you talk about the great cities in America, you look at New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles and places like that. At some point, I think Houston will be among that number as well but for that to happen, we have to interact with other countries in many ways. We expanded considerably the sister city program when I was mayor. It was kind of dormant. I cut off any new sister city programs until we could get it vibrant again. I did that and we added other sister city programs. Mexico, Africa, other places. I expanded considerably a number of consulates here in Houston. That is very important, too, because we probably have more consulates here now than any place outside of New York City. That is very important. So, we have people here from other countries that represent their countries in terms of culture as well as economic development. That helps us. If the council generals come here and they feel good about the city, when they leave, they will go back and talk about Houston. I made sure that everyone who left when I was in office was made an honorary Houstonian and gave them a big plaque and they appreciated that. I told them that as an honorary Houstonian, your job is to go back and promote Houston and come back and visit often. So, there are things that can be done to make our city better known _________ the world. The Johnson Space Center does a lot to help us in terms of our image, as a world class city.
JE: But Houston has never come up with a sales pitch.
LB: I tried that when I was in office. We developed a marketing program - someone developed it for us at my urging. I thought it was a pretty good one. But then, the Convention Bureau had their own marketing program, Space City. That is the one that the Convention Bureau had.
JE: What did you do?
LB: I supported the Convention Bureau. The one we had was kind of like "I Am Houston." You could use it any way you want to, whether you are the oil industry, city government or any kind of aspect of city life, I Am Houston in the picture. I thought that was a good idea, but we had spent a lot of money to develop the Space City Houston theme and I just chose to support the Convention Bureau.
If you look at Houston, I now have 11 grandchildren. My wife had a grandchild, so that is 12 grandchildren. I have 2 children that live here, 2 daughters. I have 2 children that live in Chicago. And I think many times of the year, they are envious of us in Houston, particularly in the wintertime. So, if you look at it as a place to raise a family, a place to work, a place to enjoy life - I don't think you can find a better place than Houston. All the things that make for a great city, I would say Houston is as good as any and better than most. And so, that is why I am so high on Houston.
JE: That is probably a good place to end it. Thank you, sir.
LB: Well, my pleasure.