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Interview with: Mayor Louie Welch
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava
Date: April 10, 1975
LM: Welch, I would like to discuss your early political career. What lead you into politics?
LW: Actually I was not even in the city of Houston more than 9 months when I became a candidate for office. I had lived in Harris County since 1924, but the area in which I lived and the area in which my automotive wholesale supply store was located were outside the city limits. We were annexed December 31, 1949. I filed for office on September the 12, 1950. This was a little less than 9 months after I was annexed. I was the vice president of the Lion’s Club, which was the only active civic organization in the area where my store was located. In that role in the Lion’s club, exercised some leadership in the community. I had become known by all the other merchants in the area – or the business people, lawyers, and doctors. After we were annexed, the business people in the community decided that they needed a voice on the city council. They asked me the evening of August 31, 1950 if I would consent to be their candidate. My response was delayed while I checked a few things. First, I found out that I was not eligible to run for a district councilman in the area because I didn’t live in the district where the store was located. At that time the elections were by district for 5 members of the Houston city council. Of course there is an effort now being made to go back to district election. That was the way it was elected then. There were 3 councilmen at large. The other thing that I wanted to clear up was my eligibility to run, because the charter required 5 years of residence. Also, I wanted to find out a little bit about the time commitment and money commitment for the race. It never occurred to me that I might be elected. I did agree that I would become a candidate with the understanding that they did not expect me to be elected. They would furnish the money for the filing fee, which at that time was $1100. There was a filing fee to run in a Democratic primary. There was no Republican primary, but a Democratic city primary. That was the last year they had a city primary. I ran, and at that time the councilman at large was a single position with 3 places. So if you wanted to run for councilman at large, you just put your name on the ballot. The 3 receiving the largest number of votes were elected. There was no run-off in any election then. The plurality won. It developed that 8 people, including the 3 incumbent councilmen at large filed. I was the only unknown person on the entire ballot. The next least well known was a chief deputy sheriff. There was a constable of the largest precinct in the city, and former postmaster of the city of Houston. It was quite a hodge-podge of candidates. To everyone’s surprise –except mine—by the time election came I expected to win. I did not expect to win when I filed. The election was just 32 or 33 days later. I had become well enough known from a standing start with virtually no money—the total money spent in the campaign was less than $500 in addition to the filing fee.
LM: What was the issue that you feel elected you?
LW: I was elected as a new face. I was elected because people were tired of ticket politics. At that time the mayor and council runner were single ticket in the Democratic primary. I ran against the ticket. Two newspapers, the Post and the Chronicle, supported all of the incumbents. All of whom were seeking reelection. I was supported by the Houston Press, and rather vigorously by the Houston Press. I was the first candidate for local government city office ever to make Houston television. I had two 15 minute panel shows on the only station in town. There was only 1 station, so they were a captive audience. All in there were only about 50,000 sets in town. Everybody invited his neighborhood to watch television. It was quite an audience. In any case, with that kick-off I won with the second highest number of votes. I did not even come in third, I came in second. My campaign theme—you asked the issue--We talked about issues of unpaved streets and outdoor toilets. At first there were more than 10,000 outdoor toilets in northeast Houston. And mud streets—not soil streets, mud streets—miles and miles of them. Those were the issues we talked about. The theme that I used to become known and to be elected was, don’t waste your third vote. You will have 3 votes to cast for councilman at large. No matter who your other 2 choices are, I would like to be your third choice. I, luckily, drew the third place on the ballot. I identified with a movie that had just been very popular, and a piece of music that was played by zither known as the Third Man Theme. I adopted the Third Man Theme as my theme. Make me your third choice, no matter who your other 2 choices are. Make me your third choice. I came in second choice. It was quite a delight. I became very interested in the procedures of municipal government. I studied hard—before I took office—on (07:56:1) (inaudible) procedure in council. I guess I was the first member of the council in many years—maybe in 20 years and there have not been too many since—who actually studied the rules of order. I learned the public procedure. I also learned what rate banking was all about. Rate banking was a very hot topic at the time. I learned the rules of evidence in rate banking procedures. I learned municipal things; what bonds were all about, how they were marketed, and how they were raised. And a little bit about the current procedures used in municipal finance, which was more than most people on city council had bothered to do anyway in the state of Texas. Texas tradition has been a city manager, state council members, and mayors generally concern themselves only with the day to day routine of legislative matters. Houston does not have that kind of charter, but it did have that kind of tradition because it was about to add a city manager form of government until 1947. After that 2 years, I had decided that I would like to be mayor, and so I ran for mayor. As I said in this case there was no primary. We had eliminated the Democratic primary by charter revision. There was still no majority vote required. Plurality election was all that was necessary. In the plurality election we had what was called preferential ballot. If there were 3 candidates for the same office, you voted first and second choice. In effect you were casting your run-off ballot in the preferential ballot the first time. This really is not fair, because you had to vote for someone other than your first choice as your second choice. If there had been a run-off, you might have had the opportunity of voting a first choice twice, but you couldn’t move to vote your first choice twice. In a very close election, with 4 candidates where you were able to vote a first, second, and third choice Roy Hofheinz won by about 3%, but all 3, first, second, and third preference votes were counted. He lead pretty strongly first choice and I was second. He still didn’t have the majority by any means. Then when they counted the second choice, I gained on him substantially. When they counted third choice, I gained on him even more, but I still lost the election. Two years later I ran again for mayor in a 3 man race. I again came in a very respectable second, but lost. A year later, when the people decided they were wanting to terminate the terms of all officials in the middle of the term by another charter amendment, they made the mayor and all members of the city council run for election in the middle of the term. I did not run for mayor then. I ran for city council, and I ran into the best of Oscar Holcombe who had decided to run for mayor again. I had served with him on his last council, and I was sort of a (11:54:4) (??hair shirt??) for him. He asked me to run. I never thought about running for mayor in that election. My daughter was in (12:05:1) (??___??) Hospital, and I just didn’t want to take the time away from her and my family to run for anything particularly. I did put my name on the ballot for the office of the council at large again. In that election it was changed from at large to at large position 1, 2, and 3. You ran for a specific place in the council, rather than a potpourri. I won handily in the primary with no run-off. I served 2 more years with Oscar Holcombe. Then I served 4 years with Lewis Cutrer still serving as council at large. Then I challenged mayor Cutrer, and lost by 2.6%. Two years later I ran, lead the primary, and got into the run-off with (??Bob Hurley??), who had edged Lewis Cutrer out of the run-off position by about 1%. Mayor Cutrer challenged the results and had a recount, but still lost—in fact lost by a few more votes than he had in the primary on the recount. I won that election then by oh 55% or thereby. Then I won 5 in a row, and it was a real interesting period, politically, socially, economically.
LM: (14:06:6) Let me ask you this—I don’t think anyone could ignore that. What makes a man want to run for mayor? The responsibility is there? The salary is not that great.
LW: The salary has not been raised since 1922, and I went in debt every year that I was there. The required amount was substantially more than the amount of my salary. (speaking together) I owed $400,000 more than I did when I went into office, an average of $40,000 a year. I am still not out of debt. I will not be for maybe 5 or 10 years.
LM: That underlines my question, though. Why would a man want to run and assume this responsibility and not receive…
LW: You’ve got to be a little bit crazy. I think it is a matter of dedication. I think there are many, many dedicated people in public office. Everybody gets the idea that everybody is in politics for money. I don’t even think Richard Nixon was in it for money. Either that, or they are power hungry and I don’t believe this. I believe it is a sincere desire to serve. I do think that the people who do it are just a little bit nuts. To go to the point of involving themselves and their family, and the amount of sacrifice that is required in order to stay as long as I did. I quit because I had to quit. I still liked being mayor, but I could see a time coming soon when it would be a lifetime of indebtedness. I had to get out while I could still have a period of high earnings—of activity—in order to get out of debt before I died. I just don’t want to leave a lot of debt when I die. I enjoyed what I was doing. I am enjoying what I am doing now. Financially it is much more rewarding. I have a great deal more flexibility in what I do. I have more opportunity to make money outside of my regular salary than I had as mayor. I have a lot more time really just to do the things that a man ought to enjoy doing all of his life. I postponed those.
LM: You did 5 terms.
LW: Yes, 10 years. There were many things during my 10 years that I would never have had the opportunity of doing. Not that they are particularly important, but they have an ego satisfaction I guess. Of what importance is it that I have met queens and kings? All those ruling monarchs, so what? My father never did, and he was a very happy man. It did not make me any happier, just a little ego satisfying.
LM: How does a man go about seeking support; financial support, votes, when he wants to run for mayor? What is involved behind the scenes of getting the necessary support to win?
LW: My first running election for mayor was the first time that I had adequate support financially. In prior elections I had always wound up with tremendous debts, ranging anywhere from $12-35,000 of personal debt. There was nobody there to help pick up the tab, whenever you lose. The first one that I won was because there was just an outrage among a number of people who are concerned with city business, builders who were so irritated by the amount of unnecessary red tape that had been set up in City Hall. It was costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in interest payments, while they were waiting for an answer—A simple yes or no. The interest was running on projects. There was great irritation among engineers, engineering firms of Houston. Virtually all of the business was going to either 2 or 3 firms. It was not being spread out on a per item basis among all the engineering firms in Houston. I learned this lesson real good. As long as I was mayor, there was never an engineering firm that had any capability that was not given an opportunity to do their share of the work. If it was a 2 man shop, they probably got more than 1% as much work as a 200 man shop, but they got some work. They got work. They all are contributors to the city, and all should participate in the work load. This is the sort of source of thought that came to me overwhelmingly in that race. I won it. It represented more than just the dollars. It represented a desire on the part of those people to make a change at City Hall. During that 6 year period, the administration had become lazy and arrogant. The public, those who dealt with City Hall everyday, wanted a change. I hoped that from that point forward that the only thing that anybody wanted was to perpetuate the opportunity for everybody to get a fair deal. The money came from thousands of other people in the years that followed. It came from people that never did business with the city of Houston in any way, never had any expectation of it. Insurance companies, banks, who just looked at the general economy of the city of Houston, liked what they saw, and said let’s make a contribution to keep this going by keeping the mayor in office. There was never any problem of my having money for campaigns after that. Only one time I think—perhaps twice, in all of the years--eight years on city council and 10 years as mayor, did anyone ever make an improper request of me, and then say you know I contributed to your campaign. Both of those people wish that they had never done it.
LM: (21:02:5) What happened to them?
LW: They were just told exactly how quickly they could get their money back. If they thought they were buying anything besides good government, they had made a poor investment. While the money had been used in a campaign, I would personally see it was refunded to them out of my own money—if I had to borrow the money. I did not want them to think that they had made an investment in a county government.
LM: Are these men from the areas of business, building, or private interests?
LW: One of them was a stock holder in a company that wanted a particular type of franchise, which would have given them an advantage over competitors. It was turned down. Another one wanted the city to expend some money in providing services for a project in which he was interested—which was not on the same formula that applied to all other developers in similar circumstances. When I told him that no we can’t do this because this is what we do with everybody else. He said not everybody else made a contribution to your campaign. I said just hold up, if you thought that you were buying something special or buying anything at all except good government, you made a mistake. Now, how much was the contribution that you made? One instance I had a buzzer on my desk that nobody could see. I buzzed, and my secretary came in. I said—in the presence of the man. I had not said a word back to him. I said would you check the file and see how much Mr. Black contributed to my political campaign and make out my personal check to him in that amount. He turned as red as a couch. She said fine, and she went right on out. He wouldn’t even wait for her to get back in. He was in the biggest hurry of anybody you have ever seen in your life.
LM: That must have given you a bit of satisfaction.
LW: I was disappointed. I was disappointed that he had made that improper assessment. He did not take his money—would not take it. He apologized to me, maybe some several months later. He did not see me for several months, and I did not see him. Then, he apologized and said I was completely out of line, I knew better, and I want you to forget it ever happened. I said what, what happened? I forgot.
LM: While we are on this type of subject, perhaps I could bring up something that many people assume. That is that a lot of pressure is brought upon men who have real estate connections, who work—or are in employed in the government as elected officials, are working there to give them the advantage of future plans for the city. Which way they might plan a road raise, drainage and so on. Did you experience any of this in your whole career?
LW: We avoided that by making—as soon as anything was known, we made it public to everybody. There was no time for advanced (24:33:0)(??___??) making. When a decision was made, it was made under the glare of the spotlight. The citizens committee, known as the planning commission, is the one that makes those decisions. They are not made in any back room, or behind closed doors. They are made in a public meeting, where as 40 years ago, they may not have. I was not the one who started that, it has been that way for quite some time. I don’t think they will ever go back to any other way. I would be greatly surprised if they ever do. During my time it just was not so. It was not available.
LM: In your early campaigns—apparently you attracted a great many of the black folks in Houston.
LW: In 1961 I carried 90% plus of the black folks. In 1963, I won with only 38%, I think, or 40. There was a frugal labor candidate endorsement to my opponent. He carried most of the black vote. I got 38%, I think, 36-38. The next year I had 94%, then a couple of years later about 96. Then I had a black opponent named Curtis Graves who ran the most blatantly racial campaign that has ever been run in the city of Houston—before or since. He ran a black, anti-white campaign in the entire black area of Houston. He attacked every white institution government. Of course we knew what he was saying in the black areas, and he tried to act like he was white when he came to the white areas. The hypocrisy came through. He did polarize this community terribly in that campaign. He created more animosity for the chief of police than he could ever again overcome. Herman Short had been hailed as a friend of the blacks until about 1968. This was the 1969 campaign when—actually an idiot, Curtis Graves. He is the guy that raved and ranted, and ran up and down the press table, on top of the table, when he was a member of the state legislature. He behaved like no other member of the legislature has in the wild history of Texas legislature. He, fortunately, has now lent an (27:48:3) (??___??) into the state of Texas for quite some time. He is in Washington DC; I think teaching in the civil service school. Teaching blacks how to get jobs. He was blatantly racial—racist I mean.
LM: When you first became mayor—it seems that the law enforcement during the administration has always been at the forefront to some degree—you fired (28:16:6) (??Carl Shutree??). You did not?
LW: I promised if I won in 1961, I would fire him just for being ineffective. One of the nicest guys, he is sort of a professor type. He had never made a felony arrest in his life. He had been in training and in clerical jobs. He had never been a policeman. He always came in first on the promotional exams. Nobody’s enemy, he was everybody’s second choice for chief at a time when there was a lot of politics in the police department. He was everybody’s second choice. They wanted somebody else worse than they did him. He was such a weak leader that he got second place votes everywhere, which made him a bad choice as the leader. He was a nice guy, but he was so ineffective that the police were not adapting to the changing social structures. For example, during the last term that I was on the city council the cops arrested a bunch of blacks who had committed the crime of trying to get in a line to buy a ticket to attend a movie downtown. I objected. I raised the roof about this mistreatment of the blacks. They were arrested for going in and sitting down, and trying to buy a cup of coffee in the Union Station. They were not allowed to buy coffee. They made a move to city hall, and came in and sat in on a cafeteria at city hall. All the whites left. The booing and catcalls and threatening of those employees on the outside of the employee’s cafeteria, because blacks were in there, was so loud that the lady who was cashier became frightened and called the mayor’s office. The mayor’s office wouldn’t talk to her, so she called the council floor and asked who was there. Was I there, she asked to talk to me, and I did talk to her. She said what do I do? I said sell them a cup of coffee at the same price you do anybody else, and I will be right down. She said I don’t think you ought to come down, they are scaring me. I said that is all the reason I should. I went down, went into the cafeteria, and had a cup of coffee. When I walked through that group, they said oh boy go in there and chase those niggers out. I said huh? I walked over to the end, sat down with them, and had coffee. The roar outside was just—you would not believe it. Their business fell to almost 0. It is one of the episodes that almost broke the bonded operator of the coffee shop.
LM: What year was this?
LW: This was in 1960 or 1961. I was the first public official in the city of Houston to sit down with blacks in a public place and have a cup of coffee.
LM: Did you fire (31:57:1) (??Betty McGill??)?
LW: I fired (??Betty McGill??).
LM: What were the reasons surrounding that?
LW: When I was elected, I received a list of gamblers who were operating in the city of Houston. I don’t know whether it was so that I would know who I could go to for political funds, for contributions, for payoffs, or what. I received this list. I did a little discreet inquiry through a detective, who was a friend of mine, and he confirmed that these were all professional gamblers who were operating without even the subterfuge of being arrested for misdemeanor and hangouts. They were just riding wide open here in Houston. Immediately after I took office, I sat down with the chief and gave him this list. I told him that I understood that they were operating. He looked at them and said that is a bunch of general (33:10:4)(??___??). I understand they are not so (??___??) when they run books as high as a half a million dollars on a single local college ball game. That is not exactly. When they are booking any sports event in the entire United States. He pooh-poohed it. I reminded him of this several times and would ask him what was being done. Virtually nothing, they had never made a single arrest. One morning I picked up the paper and saw where the entire (33:50:4) (??rotary service??) had filed charges and indictments had been returned. A secret grand jury investigation had returned indictments against every name on the list that I had given him. I was embarrassed that a federal agency had been able to make a case on gambling, and our own cops couldn’t. I had already gone to—incidentally before this had happened. I had already gone to the attorney general. First I had gone to the governor, governor Connally. Governor Connally set it up for me to meet with the attorney general. The attorney general and I had met with Colonel Garrison who was head of the DPS. He agreed to send some undercover people in to check out this gambling, which was pretty widespread. They said they didn’t have any budget for it, so I agreed to underwrite it out of an unrestricted cash fund of $5,000 a year that the mayor’s office has. I rented an apartment for them. I made the arrangements for them to have a telephone. I laid out of pocket expense to have them come here and stay. I arranged for them to get cash to operate with—a per diem in effect, paid for by the city. They came to Houston and the next morning I had a report from a police officer—a detective—that the bookies knew that these 2 guys were in town. This was the next morning after they had come in. Knew where they were staying, and were laughing about my bringing them in. I knew that somebody had spilled the whole thing. The grand jury found out about it, and they subpoenaed me and the attorney general to come in and testify. They did not want any publicity on it. They wanted to meet quietly in a private hall, not in southwest Houston.
(36:31:0) (While Aldoff Memorial Drive) as a matter of fact. I agreed that I would go there. When I arrived, television cameras set up all over the place, a fairly obvious leak about this. It became sort of a circus, still no names used. A very few weeks later these federal indictments were returned. It all became fairly clear, somebody in the DPS office and the chief knew all about what was going on. They were tipping off the news media, and had tipped off the gamblers. I called the chief in and handed him a letter—written on the regular city of Houston letterhead—of resignation. He looked at it and said I’m not going to sign that letter. Why don’t you fire me? Then he was pretty egotistical. He asked why I didn’t fire him, and my immediate, instant response was you’re fired. Why don’t you fire me? You’re fired. I accommodated him. Under state civil service law he could only be placed back as low as he was when he came in. He suggested that there was a vacancy between the 2 positions that he would be interested in. I told him no way. I put him back just as far as the law would let me. He wanted to know where I was going to put him. I said I am going to put you in traffic because I think you will do less harm there than anywhere. He stayed till he retired, in traffic—he didn’t stay in traffic to long, I had to put him down in records, so he would be completely buried. I don’t know that he was on the take; I just think he was stupid. He may have been, I don’t know. I never made any judgment on that. I knew he was not doing a good job as chief. I had no idea when I fired him who I was going to appoint. I didn’t make up my mind for 10 days or 2 weeks. I appointed Herman Short. He stayed chief as long as I was there.
LM: Were you satisfied with the performance of chief Short?
LW: (39:24:4) In law enforcement, yes. He, I thought, lacked a little bit—particularly during the last 2 or 3 years. He lacked a little bit of the sensitivity to some of the problems that we were having among the minorities, although he had been very progressive in the early years. We were making huge strides. Strides that people can’t even recall having been made. He did not make all of them. It was not his fault that we did not hire blacks. We were just in a period of time when it was difficult to hire blacks. Blacks did not want to be policeman, because of the social stigma in their own areas. They still don’t want to be, and they still are not being hired in any significant numbers. They are averaging spending, I guess, $2500 for every black that goes into the department. That is a lot of recruiting expense, when their drop out rate is about 2 to 1 of those that they are recruiting. They are not qualifying them, and they are not able to pass the work. They have graduated some who have failed. I think this is wrong. It makes it difficult for blacks later. It makes it difficult for those blacks. Anytime you graduate an unqualified person—black, white, male, or female you have created a problem.
LM: You did not find him to be a racist, as he has been accused of?
LW: He was never a racist, never a racist. He was a native of Tennessee or somewhere. His attitude is they are entitled to everything, every opportunity that everybody else is. They are not entitled to anything else. You are not supposed to give them anything; they are supposed to earn it. I have the right, in his opinion, to chose my friends from among my own race if I want to. They have the right to do theirs, but they don’t have the right to force anything on anybody. Nor do I have a right to force myself on them. His viewpoint of the white and the black was the same. Each had the same right and the same obligation. He did not think that either had the right to push himself on the other. I believe he expressed this in various ways. If he is racist, he has become that.
LM: Did supporting chief Short cause you political problems in the black community?
LW: Oh yes, in the black communities, but that was primarily the work of Curtis Graves. Curtis Graves was a pathetic excuse for a man.
LM: Let me go into another subject dealing with background in doing your administration. A lot of experience…
LW: We were the regulatory agency of the telephone, gas, electric company, and numerous other small water companies that we annexed from time to time.
LM: Did you have any clashes with them over the rates?
LW: Oh yes.
LM: Did you find they were unreasonable in their demands?
LW: No, I found that they followed the typical pattern that I didn’t agree with. They finally reached the point where they didn’t do that with me. They would ask for more than they expected. They would ask for more than they wanted, because they thought that I wanted the privilege of cutting it. So that I would look good for giving them less than they asked for, because this is typically the attitude politicians take. Ask for more than you want so I can cut you back, and I’ll look good and you’ll still get what you need. That is wrong.
LM: How did you handle the situation?
LW: I just said tell us what you need, what you have got to have. Then we will look at it. We are going to offer you what we think that you are entitled to. If you don’t like it, you can go to court. That is all we are going to give you. That is what we did.
LM: Did you hold them back on their increases?
LW: Oh yes. We did, we had a rebate from the power company twice while I was there. Where their earnings exceeded what they should have. The power company came in, in one instance before I was even aware of it, and said we want to make a 1 time rebate. So they made an adjustment in the rate for awhile, until that excess had been used up. I thought this was a pretty good indication that they were good citizens.
LM: Are they a powerful political force?
LW: They are the least political people you ever saw. They are scared to death of politics. The utility companies in Houston, Texas are not political. They may be in Austin. The Houston company may be political at the Austin level, I don’t know. They dog gone sure were never political here.
LM: There has been a lot of criticism lately--the last few years--that business interests aren’t taxed as they should be. According to (45:34:7) (inaudible). The claim is that they have a low assessment, a low tax rate, so that they could be attracted to this area. I was wondering if during your administrations they were given special consideration with regard to taxation?
LW: (45:51:4) Never, but let me tell you that it is difficult to know how to tax. On inventory for example, who can tell you the inventory of Foley's on midnight on December 31? Nobody except Foley’s. You take the figures they give you, because obviously the tax collector can’t go in and count it on January the 1. That is what the law says, the value of their inventory on that day. While the average inventory for a store—I won’t say Foley’s, but a store—may be a million dollars average year round. Particularly if he is in a business that lends itself to it, such as a department store, he runs his inventory down as low as he can at the end of the year, and he converts merchandise into dollars. The dollars are not taxable, the merchandise is. So his merchandise is low. While his average may be a million dollars a day, he may be down to $300,000 that one day with a million dollars in transit, shipments that have not arrived yet. He hasn’t paid for them, so they are not his. He is not taxed on them. It is difficult to get a figure that would truly represent. The charges are made—I don’t know that any expert has every said it. (47:29:0) (??Mator??) sent a fellow in and he came away saying we were not taxing properly.
LM: (47:39:8) (??Lionel Castele??) has made the same charge, I think.
LW: I said no expert has ever said it though. (Lionel) knows I know he is not an expert, and he knows that I know that he knows he is not an expert. This is not something that is confidential between us. I like (Lionel) very much; he is just not an expert. Dog gone good at getting his name in the paper though. Pretty good at getting it in with a good image. That is one way to get a good image, is to kick a big guy and say they are riding free. When you sit down with (Lionel) and say let’s be specific, he just goes off into the vaguest sort of generalities. If he names a company, say how do you know. We use the same figure for assessing, for example. The light companies, the same inventory—for the light company, the gas companies as we do for rate making. They expect to earn a rate of return on the value of their properties. They are assessed by a law, on a depreciation from original cost. That is the assessment for tax purposes. The same law says the rate has to be on the basis on a weighted balance between original cost depreciated and replacement cost depreciated. You have got both sets of figures, but you can’t tax them on the same set. You tax them at the maximum by law. You’ve got the figures, they’ve got to give you the figures or they can’t get a rate of return. There is no question about it. They are assessed on that basis. The banks are assessed by a formula set by state law. It is not variable; the tax assessor has no discretion. The state law says the rate at which banks shall be assessed. There are several other companies that are the same way. There has been a tax exempt strip 2500 feet from the center line of the ship channel extending on both sides for the 52 miles from the turning basin all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. That was tax exempt from municipal taxes. This ended during the time that I was mayor. Industrial districts were set up which made them fully taxable within a 5 year period, with a transition period to bring them in. This was done instead of annexation. Annexation could have reduced the ability of industries to expand in our area, because they would then have to take out building permits for their construction. The processes and construction design of petrochemical plants—particularly—and refiners are so highly secret that they would not file a set of those plans at city hall as would be required under the building permit law. They would not do it. They would go somewhere else and build a plant rather than to give an industrial secret to a competitor. This was the reason that it was not fully annexed. It was a wise decision. It was not one that was lightly arrived at. It was one that was recommended by a commission that studied the matter very carefully, and went to Austin and asked the state legislature to pass a bill permitting this sort of treatment. They did pass it, we negotiated the contract. We did annex everything, and the district did not go into an industrial district.
LM: Did this have any effect on the tax rate that was finally settled upon? By them not being annexed? Would it have been greater if they had been annexed?
LW: No, the tax rate is the same. There was a 5 year transition period. During that period they paid a little less tax. So this was a 10 year contract, and the tax benefits were eaten up in the first 5 years.
LM: So they under the same rate as…
LW: The same rate precisely as if they were annexed. A new plant, when constructed, has a 5 year period during which it reaches the full value. Upon completion it goes on at 37.5% and 12.5% of the 100% is added to that each year for the next 5 years. At the end of the fifth year it is on at the full value. That is new plant construction. The land is all on at 100% of the assessment rate. Whatever the assessment rate is now, I believe it is 53%.
LM: I would ask you a couple of questions dealing with the office of the mayor. How important is your leadership in the city council? Is it necessary for you to exert pressure to have the policies formulated?
LW: By the city council?
LM: How do you get things done that you want done?
LW: How did I get them done? I tried to have it understood. I didn’t lose very many measure battles in city council. I never lost a real major one for any length of time. I would lose one for a week or two—or a month, or 3 months, but it would come back if it was right. I think the best thing is just timing. Something that is particularly damaging politically, no matter how necessary it is, needs to be timed very delicately so that it doesn’t hit a fellow at a time when he is vulnerable in a reelection campaign. A sharing of responsibility and hard decisions, I think, was the easiest way to get support. If I would get out there and take the brunt of the leadership flack, and stand by something that was politically unpopular—but necessary. If the council knew that was necessary, then they weren’t afraid to take the position with me. I think this is the thing that must be a part of our system—the Houston system of municipal government. The mayor has to take a leadership role of responsibility on tough decisions. He has got to be visible so that the councilmen are not out her being shot at by themselves. If there is a barrage being laid down, the mayor is out there in front of the council taking the first shots.
LM: You served for awhile under Mayor Holcombe.
LW: I served for 2 terms as a member of his council, yes, in 1951 and 1952, and then in 1956 and 1957.
LM: It has been said that he probably had the city’s only political machining.
LW: It was a personal machine. It was not a political machine. It was friends, followers, and devotees of Oscar Holcombe. It was never organized as a political machine. I thought it was a political machine from the distance, but it never was. It was just a personal following. I became very near it, having the same type of relation with my constituency.
LM: I was just going to ask—you jumped the question. This is exactly what I was going to ask; if you had adopted any of his techniques in city government to your own needs when you were mayor.
LW: City government and city politics are not the same necessarily. It is assumed that city employees form the nucleus of the mayor’s political strength. It is not so. They usually help the guy who wins and comes in. Thereafter the man who is on the outside can promise them more than the incumbent, so they don’t support the incumbent. This has traditionally been true. The employees would cry for Oscar Holcombe, please come back and be our mayor again. We never had it so good. Then after he was in 2 or 3 years, they would say he has forgotten his old friends, he forgot the city employees—we that put him in. He won’t give us the key to city hall. He won’t give us $10 a day raise, or $50 a week raise, or something like that. So they go out and move somebody that promises they will. The nucleus of the political strength of Oscar Holcombe was in the business community, and the organized non-political groups. That could be garden clubs. It could be civic and service organizations; non-political totally. If the mayor knew them, called on them, involved them in bond elections, involved them in the hospital planning, involved them in all of the things it takes to make a good community, then they felt a part of it. They were a part of the governmental unit, not a part of the political group. When election time came, they just naturally with their friends said let’s keep him. It is hard to beat an incumbent if he really loves people.
LM: You found it useful training under Mayor Holcombe?
LW: The greatest training I got from him was not in that area, but in learning how to run a meeting. He was a master with the gavel. He knew parliamentary procedure backward, forward, and sideways. He ran the meetings; the meetings did not run him. I served with Lewis Cutrer who was such a nice guy he didn’t know what a gavel was for. He thought meetings ought to end when everybody wore out. The meetings ran us when he was mayor. I determined that when I became mayor, I was going to run the meetings. I think if you will talk to anybody at the city council or the city secretary’s office, they will tell you that when I was there I ran the meetings. The public didn’t take the meetings away from me on Wednesday morning. There were a few times when they tried. On one occasion, at least, I recessed rather than let them take it away. I told them I would come back when they settled down. We recessed 10 minutes, came back and there wasn’t another word, just as smooth as glass.
LM: During your administrations what do you consider the major contributions you made to the growth of the city?
LW: The national stability, the national strength, improved credit rating, improved capability in meeting the service requirements, and economic stability. We also had a period of social stability when cities were blowing up all over the country in the 1960s. When they were burning cities, we didn’t burn. We continued a physical and social progress in a period of national retrogression. I think this will probably be my source of greatest pride. If you look at things, I have got to take tremendous pride.
LM: Miller Theater?
LW: Is the finest outdoor theater in the world that I know of or that anybody else has told me about. I have seen them in many, many plays. Programs, I don’t know anything that has given me more satisfaction than the telephone reassurance program for elderly people. This is something that involves the volunteer sector of our community, costs virtually no money, and yet it brings a tremendous amount of reassurance to families and the people themselves. Hundreds of elderly people who are checked every day to make sure that their health is alright, that they are not suffering, that they have got food, that they have clothing, and that their lights have not been turned off. Somebody calls every day to check on those old people. They don’t lay suffering with a broken pelvic bone for 4 days. They don’t starve to death. They don’t have their light turned off—their electricity—or their telephone taken out. If a telephone is taken out, somebody goes that day. If their telephone service is cut off, someone goes that day to make sure. It is a thing that I am very proud of. It is a social service that is being done by volunteers, not by government. This is the kind of social service I like, the kind that is motivated by love instead of compulsion. Social service that is paid out of tax dollars is out of compulsion, and that is a cold sterile way to tend to the social needs of the community.
LM: Let’s just go a bit further on one of the statements you made about the improved credit ratings that you managed to bring out of your economic policies. How did you do that? How did you improve the city’s credit rating? What particular policies did you enact?
LW: Number 1, we built up the cash reserve so that we always had 1 full year of debt service fund on hand. When I came into office it was about 60% of a year, in other words about 7 months of debt service. Got that up to a full year working in close cooperation with (64:02:0) (??Roy Oaks??). (Roy) had always wanted to do it. We have never had a mayor that would stay with him to do it. I did it. I also established close liaison with the mortgage companies that buy our bonds, the bond dealers association, and the bond rating agencies in New York, with at least 2 trips a year to the bond market. I had the privilege of speaking to the municipal advisory council in New York, one of the—perhaps the only Texas mayor in many years that had ever had that opportunity of telling the story about Houston. Many times I made speeches in New York, but this was a non-council. I know this helped. We also were able to get the rating agencies to come to Houston on 2 or 3 occasions. We just built up other sources of income like sales tax, which relieved our budget requirements substantially. I had the privilege of serving as president of the United States conference of mayors during the year that we were able to obtain revenue sharing for the cities of the United States, all of which strengthened and stabilized the economy of Houston. Some of the cities were is such bad shape when revenue sharing was passed, that they immediately put the money into their operating budgets and used it for recurring items expense. We didn’t do that, we put ours into a special capital expenditure fund so that if it were cut off, we would not have to discontinue a civil service. Gradually some of that now is being eroded. They are putting money into operating funds. So far it is limited, I think, to the transit system. This is disturbing because if something should happen, then the taxes would have to be raised in order to supply those dollars that are going into the transit subsidy. If there is to be a transit subsidy, it should start out as a tax supported thing rather than in a fund that might be discontinued. I think you would move a lot less rapidly into the area of subsidy, and with a lot more caution than you do when there is money that you are not accountable locally—directly to the tax payers for.
LM: When the present mayor took office, he raised the sewage rates.
LW: Substantially more than they needed to be raised.
LM: Someone in the administration said that this was because of the neglect during the past years. That necessary work hadn’t been done. Do you have a comment on that?
LW: Malarkey. The money that is going into the sewer funds today, last year to this year, are all funds that were authorized by my administration. They are in a bond fund that was voted—after I announced I would not be running for reelection—in order that they might have the money to build the sewer lines. I submitted the bond issue, campaigned vigorously for it, got it passed, and left the money intact for it. Those are the dollars that are being used for the sewer. The sewer money is going directly into the general fund of the city of Houston. It is a misrepresentation to say that is being spent for sewer lines or sewer plants. It is not. It is going in to the general fund of the city of Houston. Some of this was necessary. It was required that there be an adjustment in the sewer rate by EPA. But EPA expressed tremendous astonishment that this amount of raise had been passed. They were shocked. This is just a bunch of malarkey. The money that is being spent now and will be spent next year is money that I left, that my administration left earmarked for sewer. Any lie repeated often enough will find some people that believe it. Apparently the story has gotten around that I had neglected it. We had done more in the 10 years that I was mayor on the improvement of the sewer system in the city of Houston than had been done in the entire century. When I became mayor, I had the ship channel. There was not a living thing. There were no microorganisms. There was nothing living. There were no barnacles. When I left the office of mayor, hundreds of thousands of minnows were swimming in the turning basin. Barnacles had been farming on the piers, and a shrimp feed had been put on Iron Co. Steel of shrimp that were gathered right near their discharge point. That is how much clean up was done of sewer during the time that I was mayor. End of speech. (laughing)
LM: Probably not because that leads into another question—I know time is getting late and I will wrap it up shortly. It has also been said that your administration was easy on industrial polluters. That you were afraid of hurting them because they may pick up and leave.
LW: Who said that?
LM: It has been said by critics who—I don’t know offhand. I was just skimming through the newspapers.
LW: (70:20:5) Let me tell you something. I was the fellow who threatened every industry in the ship channel with total annexation if they did not clean up air and water. It was during my administration that business and industry along the ship channel spent over two hundred million dollars in the first effort to clean up the air and water that had ever been taken in an organized way in the history of the city. It was during my administration that the smoke stacks which had erupted the black melting smoke, that everybody thought smelled like bacon and eggs suddenly began to smell like cancer and emphysema. We did do something about it. We didn’t leave the air totally pristine, but it is not totally pristine in Lovett, Texas where nature fouls it up with sand storms. The area is not perfect, and will not be perfect. Wherever man goes there is some pollution, but the lifespan of Houstonians has even been extended beyond what it was when I became mayor, two hundred million dollars expenditure by industry alone. Plus well in excess of a hundred million by the city of Houston, proven indication that we were doing something about it.
LM: I think those criticisms were made with regard to a remark you made concerning a report by the government. They wanted to lay down certain programs—very strict programs. You thought that they were not practical.
LW: That is a fruitcake! The program that they have now happens to be one that says that we will by 1977—this is 1975 and I understand I am putting this on a tape for posterity to look back at in the twenty first century. They have said that we must reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled by July of 1977—that is a little more than 2 years from now—by 75%. We may, by the turn of the century, reduce it by 75% but the bureaucratic idiocy that comes up with this kind of regulation can only be characterized as totally stupid. It has no regard for the economic impact of a region that is today producing 23% of the refined petroleum products of our entire nation. We are, at this point, dependent almost totally on fossil fuels for our mobility, for our industry, electric supply, and our heating loads. This is our source, 23% of all those refined products come from Houston, Texas. That is for the entire nation. And 40% of the petrochemicals of the entire nation are produced in Houston, Texas. This is the largest supplier of petrochemicals in the entire world, by far. And 80% of the synthetic rubber that is used in the world is from Houston, Texas. For them to say they are going to reduce mobility as a test in this area by 75% is to say to the rest of the world you don’t have to worry about what you are going to do because when Houston shuts down you are automatically going to be shut down. If we can’t get to work to produce these products, they won’t be going to work in Detroit. This is just another one of those bureaucratic messes. That is the biggest threat that I think we have got to the American system of life. It is bureaucracy which sets down regulations with all the impact of law. The Congress of the United States has not passed a gasoline rationing act. The President of the United States has said if they do he will veto it. But the Environmental Protection Agency has said we don’t care what the Congress says and we don’t care what the President says. We are going to impose gasoline rationing on Houston, Texas and the 13 county area around it by July of 1977 to the extent of reducing mobility of private vehicles by 75%. If that makes me a polluter, I hope that millions more will join me. They are every day.
LM: (75:16:3) Well I see that I have gone somewhat over the time I told you it would take.
LW: You couldn’t compute accurately without knowing how when you scratch me with a phonograph needle and get me started on some of these subjects, I just go longer than anybody normally would. If I may just add one closing word?
LM: Yes please, I would invite you to do so.
LW: Anyone with enough curiosity to listen to this at any point in time, this will be no earlier than my demise. Let me say that Houston is more today in 1975 than just a place to live. It is a way of life. It is almost a philosophy. Houston, Texas is the product of a great deal of love, and a great deal of hope. The greatest amount of opportunity, I think, that has ever been afforded any society. I came here very young—my wife and I with 2 small children, a 5 year old Studebaker—you probably don’t know that this used to be the make of an automobile. It was a very old automobile—and something less than $800 in our pocket. We have lived here, our children have grown up. We have lived here 30 years, and now we don’t have a 1939 Studebaker and we don’t have $800 but we owe several hundred thousand dollars. That is a part of the opportunity of this community. It is a great place to live.
LM: Can we count on seeing you back in the political arena?
LW: I would have to lose my mind to get back into politics as an active campaigner or office holder.
LM: I do appreciate your participation in the project. I know you are being very busy. It has been a very informative interview. I thank you on behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives.
LW: Thank you.