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Interview with: Ronald Green
Interviewed by: Adrienne Cain
Date: June 12, 2013
Archive Number: OH GS 0063
AC: This is Adrienne Cain, Oral History Librarian for The African American Library at the Gregory School. Today is Wednesday, June 12th, 2013 and on this day I have the privilege of interviewing Houston’s City Controller Mr. Ronald Green. Welcome Mr. Green!
RG: Thank you.
AC: Before we get started, um, before we discuss your current position as City Controller, I just want to start with your background. Tell me when and where were you born.
RG: I was born in Houston, Texas, right here at Saint Joseph’s Hospital.
AC: Okay, and discuss your childhood. What were your parents like?
RG: Uh, [my] parents were good people. My parents were married—before my father died; my parents were married 30 years so I did grow up with both parents. I grew up in Third Ward. My parents are both from Louisiana and so they settled there in the Third Ward area and that’s where I, you know, kind of learned all about Houston and was pretty much in the middle of everything. As a matter of fact I got exposed to a lot of things by living in the inner city. Certainly, uh, was educated at Baroque’s Elementary. I went on to Lanier Middle School and graduated from DeBakey High School for Health Professions and went on to college and law school and college again.
AC: Okay. Did you have any brothers and sisters?
RG: I did. There were two of us. There are two of us. I have an older brother. I am the youngest. Some reason people think I’m an only child, I don’t know why I give that impression. There are two of us. I have an older brother.
AC: And did you, what did you want to be when you grew up, when you were a child?
RG: You know, interestingly enough I thought I wanted to be a doctor. That’s why I went to DeBakey High School for Health Professions. I always knew that I wanted to help the community but never did I think I wanted to go into politics.
AC: And you went to University of Houston, is that correct?
RG: I did.
AC: Alright, and around what time was that? Was that 1988?
RG: I started in 1988. Graduated in ’93 with a Bachelor’s and went on to law school after that at Texas Southern University.
AC: What did you study while in undergrad at U of H?
RG: Interestingly enough, coming from DeBakey High School I started off as a Biochemistry major. Eventually I ended up getting a Bachelor’s in Psychology and a minor in Business Administration in Sociology and figured that I wanted to go to graduate school so as I was probably about my third year I kind of lost interest in the practical care part of being in the health profession and started looking at Master’s in Health Administration programs. And then I found out that a lot of those had joint programs as far as and MHA and a JD, a law degree, and that’s what kind of drove me towards the law degree and I just eventually stopped thinking about the Master’s in Health Administration and did just the law degree.
AC: So when you graduated, what was your first job?
RG: My first job from undergrad? Or from-
AC: Well, from both.
RG: Well, I didn’t. That’s why I went to graduate school. I was trying to not have a first job. (laughs) So I went straight to grad school. After I graduated from law school, I worked for a very small law firm at that time it was called Lewis, Sewell, & Green, and the Green in that firm was a—is now currently a city council member. It was attorney Larry Green. But it was a very small law firm and that firm broke up shortly after I got there and I ended up starting my own firm. I didn’t cause the break up though.
AC: (laughs) Well what motivated you to start you own firm? When you starting it did you face any opposition? Did you have any challenges?
RG: Well, you know absolutely. The thing that helped me, and I will go back to before I actually started my law firm, while I was in law school I worked from Lewis, Sewell, & Green so I saw the small law firm atmosphere. But prior to that my first year I clerked from two federal judges—Judge Calvin Bodley and Judge Mary Malloy—and I think that’s what made me want to get into trial work. Typically the best way to start trail work is you really do kind of start your own firm. It will take a very long time for a lawyer at a big firm to do trial work as opposed to who is in a small firm. So that was the impotence for me starting my own firm. I did want to do trial work and was able to kind of start doing it immediately.
AC: Who were your role models?
RG: My parents. I mean obviously I think that having two parents—I mean obviously they kept me on the right track. They told me some of the things to do; they provided examples of things to do. I’ve learned from their successes and I’ve learned from their mistakes. And I think that’s probably the best thing that worked for me. And in outside of that, I had teachers who helped me along the way. I think many—I see some of my teachers now and I think more of them thought I would be a politician than I did. So there’s something to be said about just really that whole village that you come in contact with. There are in your church, there are other family members, people in the neighborhood, and I think for me, primarily my immediate family, my parents. But, just so many other people. I could go on and on about the people who have influenced me and are still influencing me.
AC: So how did you make the transition from having your own firm to I believe you were a city council member first, right?
AC: Explain that. How did that happen?
RG: It was interesting. At some point, I kind of woke up one day and I thought that I wanted to do more. My wife and I were both practicing lawyers, we didn’t have children at the time and we had purchased our home—we were in the Third Ward area—and thought we wanted to do a little bit more. I think it’s a great opportunity for us to come back, reinvest in a community in which I grew up. But I got involved in politics, but really by helping other people. So I would initially would try to get—help people get elected. Some of the judges, some of the lawyers we knew were running for judge, we’d raise money for them. We helped them. When Ron Kirk ran for Senate, I gave his campaign office space in my office so I really got an intimate look at a campaign on that scale. And then when Ron didn’t win, I started thinking well you know there’s got to be some good people out there who can give back to their community and we have great candidates like that. How could I do more? Well I thought I could offer myself up. And that’s why I did. I decided to run for city council and I’ll be honest, I thought that, you know, it was an uphill battle. And I thought that when I lost that first race that I would maybe run for state rep[resentative] or something like that because higher education and access to higher education is a huge passion of mine. So after I won my first race, and said okay well I’ve got to do this every day and it’s time to do it. It was just a great thing. I haven’t stopped—I’ve hit the ground running and haven’t stopped since. So I was able to practice law along with being a city council member because the job is technically a part-time job but we all know that it really is full-time, but I think that’s probably why you get so many people with their own businesses involved in politics because I can bill a client at night and work on their case. It’s very difficult to do if you work for somebody else. So the flexibility that it provided for me allowed me to still be able to work and to be on city council and help the community and obviously with my partner—my wife, who was law partner at the time when I first started practicing law. I mean when I first got on city council.
AC: So how was your first year?
RG: The first year was interesting. It, it—I was at-large council member so obviously there was not a particular district that I had to hone in on, so I concentrated really on policy issues and concentrated on the money, on the finance and consequently, [I] was named the Chairman of Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee that second term on council. But it is a—it’s a huge job and I think that when you look at budgets that total 4.1 million dollars and you look at the debt that’s out there, you look at all the services we provide. The first year was a lot of learning. I did not step out of any huge box but I certainly wanted to advocate the things that I believed in which was transportation, I wanted to concentrate on the equitable division of the resources that we had and so at the end of the day you start to hone in on things and for me I figured that everything that we do around the city had a dollar amount attached to it. So I concentrated on the money. I concentrated on these and the minutia of those contracts.
AC: So you ended up serving, was it three terms?
RG: Three terms.
AC: Three terms. So how did you make that transition from there to City Controller?
RG: Well, while I was on city council, I was the chair of the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee so I knew how—what went into creating the budget. I knew what went into distributing the resources. I also worked with the Controller on some of the debt issues and things that we had dealt with. But while I was also on city council, I went back to school and got an MBA. So that helped me put a box around the practical things that I was doing along with the fact that I already had a law degree and I had a very, very much a financially based practice so I did a lot of financial crimes and some corporate type things. But it just kind of put it all in the proper perspective and then when I ran for Controller I had something to offer and I had seen it from each side. So now being able to not only know the quantitative part of it, I knew the qualitative part of it by being on city council.
AC: So what do you want for the city? In your position, what is your goal or what do you want to do for the city of Houston?
RG: My primary goal is to make sure that we are very good stewards of tax dollars. There is a finite amount of money that the city has to deal with on a daily basis. But the needs are infinite. And so my job is to make sure that we deliver services efficiently, that I am a watch dog for those people who put me in office. I don’t work for the mayor; I don’t work for city council, so they go to rely me to be that independent voice. But at the same time, I understand the goals that they’re trying to accomplish, and that’s the delivery of services. And I think for all of us, while we’re not a corporation, we don’t want to make—we want to make sure we don’t waste money. And certainly you want to deliver a product, and you also want to deliver a service, you want to make sure that it is done efficiently, legally and equitably. Most important equitably.
AC: I believe I was reading Houston is one of the very few places that actually elects their City Controller. Is that true?
RG: It is. It’s one of the few big cities that elects the controller. Most time the mayor appoints their CFO and I’m technically the CFO for the city, so ours is elected. But the mayor does have a person who is their director of finance and they look at things in order to accomplish the mayor’s goal. Mine is to be—my role is to be the independent person. So as I said before, while I know what the goal, the overarching goal is for the city, I still have to be the bearer of bad news most times. And I have to be the more conservative person when it comes to what our projections will be and what our outlook will be, which you want somebody just to give it to you straight. And that’s the job that I’m very proud of the fact that we do, that we don’t—that I have not—been a person who is relatively sat in lap if you will to kind of just confirm what the mayor has done, which is what I think you want from a Controller.
AC: Now the City Controller position for the City of Houston started in 1903? Was that the first?
RG: I think it did start back in 1903.
AC: So correct me if I’m wrong, you’re the first African American to be Controller for Houston?
RG: I am.
AC: So a hundred plus years, you’re the only- how does that feel?
RG: You know when I ran for the Controller spot, I knew that there was never a, an African American Controller and I have made it a practice in when I run for something I run for something one, that I want to do and that I think I can add value for. So by being an educated—I did everything that my family said do, my parents said do, my community said do. They said go to school, get educated, come back and help your community and I think that was just really a logical outgrowth for me. The fact that I did come to the table with a law degree and an MBA, I knew that I could add value to the position. The fact that I am the first African American and one of the youngest that’s held the position I think just really shows how the city has changed. While I don’t, I didn’t run on being the first I’m proud to be the first and it’s a badge of honor that I wear and I hope that I won’t be the last.
AC: Personally, what does Houston mean to you?
RG: Houston means everything to me to be honest with you. It’s the city which I grew up. It’s a city in which I—my parents came from another state and moved to Houston, so they saw promise way back in the 60s. They both grew up on farms, no offense to farms; I thank my parents all the time. Thank you for moving to the big city! So after you go from that point, Houston means everything. It’s a great place. I’ve gotten everything I’ve needed from Houston. I’ve not had to move. I’ve gotten three degrees here. I’ve met my wife here. We’re raising our family here. In fact my in-laws have moved here. My wife is not from Houston so I’d like to think that Houston is so good that I was able to get my in-laws to move here. But at the end of the day, it has everything you want. It has a great quality of life. It has a reasonable quality of life. There are so many different diverse neighborhoods. There’s a great educational system. I just think that Houston is poised to be an even greater metropolitan area. It’s going to be a more cosmopolitan area and I want to be here for that.
AC: I think uh, I saw on the news that we’re headed toward being the third largest city.
AC: We’re going to pass, is it Chicago I think?
RG: Yes, we’re on the cusp.
AC: (laughs) Yeah.
RG: We are on the cusp and we will be the third largest city probably the time the next census comes through. We will exceed that. This area is growing so fast and you have to look at the city proper. It’s growing. But you look at the suburbs growing and there’s so much to do outside of the city. And this metropolitan statistical area, it will continue to grow.
AC: So what’s next for you?
RG: What’s next for me? I’m running for Controller again. I plan on doing six years as the Controller. I like city government. I’ll determine what happens when the time comes. I’m weighing options and obviously I have a young family so the private sector is always calling, but I think I still have something to give in the way of public service.
AC: Is there anything that you would like to add?
RG: Houston’s number one. (laughter) I didn’t talk a lot about my family.
AC: Well, go ahead! Feel free.
RG: Well, when we talked about the “what’s good about Houston”, my wife is in public service as well. She’s a judge here in the area so I think that, for both of us, it’s a good city. It’s provided great opportunity. It’s providing a great opportunity for us to give back as well.
AC: Where is she from?
RG: My wife is from New Jersey, actually.
AC: Oh wow!
RG: Yes, so she’s from the East Coast and we met in undergrad at the University of Houston. So she’s been here for twenty-five years and there’s no going back to the East Coast for here anytime soon.
AC: When you were, let’s go back, when you were U of H, what was the student life like? Were there many African American students then?
RG: It’s interesting that you mention that. When I got to the University of Houston, it was three percent African Americans. And when you look at thirty thousand students, that’s a very small amount of people there. So we—it was a very small-knit group. I’m in a fraternity and so I was active on campus, so many of us knew each other there. But it was a commuter school, so there was—so it was kind of a dichotomy. There were those students who just came to school and left—they were grown up, they had families, they did that—and there were those of us who were 18 year-olds that tried to make—get a lot out of college life, which we did. So consequently, a lot of those same people we see each other now. A lot of go to church together. It was an interesting time and it’s changed a lot.
AC: It’s funny you say that. I interviewed Commissioner Lee and he was telling me while at TSU how so many of his classmates—how they all ran in the same circle. And so when he went on to other positions, they were all like kind of—they stayed together.
RG: Oh yeah. They did and it’s interesting. Same thing with us. That group of us, of African Americans and—you know, at the time I have to give the school credit because it did help me become an at-large councilmember because there were not a lot of active African Americans and I happened to be one of them so I was involved in so many different things. And a lot of that was because the campus was trying to diversify. They needed that black voice over here; they needed that black voice there. I don’t mind being the only one in the room. I tell people sometimes—I’m writing a book and that’s what my book’s going to be called : The Only One in the Room, because I think that we’ve got to be in these places that we normally are not so that we can give some value to the conversation. So, as a result the president of the university at that time put me on different committees, the vice president. And when it came time for me to run for office, not only did that African American community know me, but the at large community knew me and that’s why I ran at-large.