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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

THE NEWEST EDITION OF HOUSTON POLITICS

On this past Saturday, Houston elected a new mayor. That in and of itself isn’t particularly newsworthy; unless it’s a national election, mayoral campaigns aren’t something that a lot of journalists get excited about. Usually they don’t attract national attention, either.

Well, this one sure did. Houston now has the proud distinction of having elected the very first openly gay mayor in the history of the city, the state and the country. I cried when President Obama won, and I cried over this one too – and believe me, they were tears of incredulous joy. We are, finally, finding out that the best person for the job is just that – the best PERSON, and that it doesn’t matter, and SHOULDN’T matter what colour they are, or whether or not they’re male or heterosexual either.

Annise Parker has been in Houston politics for a long time. I remember her first run for office; my wife and I both worked for her campaign, and I remember meeting her for the first time. She is smart, savvy, shrewd and personable. You got the feeling that, no matter what, she was going to do the best job AT the job that anybody could ask for. Well, she got elected, and she did. She could have chosen to be the gay member of City Council, pandering to her largest and most vocal group of backers – but she didn’t do that. Instead, she represented her district and she did her best always to support the policies that would benefit Houston as a whole, rather than concentrate on just one part of it.

Here’s the story of her rise to the mayor’s office: Ms. Parker ran unsuccessfully for City Council District C in 1991 and again in 1995, finishing third in the special election for At-Large position 4, the seat vacated by Sheila Jackson Lee after her election to Congress. In 1997, Ms. Parker prevailed in the runoff election for At-Large position 1 to become Houston's first openly gay elected official. She was re-elected twice to the same seat in 1999 and 2001 without being forced to a run-off. Think about that, gangers: elected twice without having to go through a run-off. How many other politicians can say that?

In 2003, Ms. Parker was elected City Controller. She was re-elected in 2005 and 2007 unopposed. Now think about this last statement: she ran unopposed. Guess that she was doing something right, no? In addition, Ms. Parker also secured a seat for a controller's appointee on the Houston Municipal Pension System Board of Trustees, marking the first time the city's chief financial officer has had any involvement in the pension system.

In 2009, Ms. Parker announced her candidacy for the office of Mayor of Houston in a video posted online to her campaign website. She was endorsed by several organizations and campaigned on a platform of better city security and budget cuts. Other people who were in the running for mayor included Houston City Council Member Peter Brown and Harris County school board trustee Roy Morales; they were eliminated from the race on November 3, 2009. On December 12, 2009, Ms. Parker made history when she was elected mayor of America's fourth largest city. When she assumes office in January, 2010, Houston will be the largest U.S. city to have an openly gay individual serve as mayor. After the election, Ms. Parker declared that the top priorities of her administration will be improving transportation, balancing the city's budget, and selecting a new police chief.

OK, NOW is where the spooky coincidences start to come in. The first female mayor of Houston was Kathy Whitmire, a CPA. Annise Parker worked as a CPA for Mosbacher Energy. Kathy Whitmire’s husband was a CPA. Ms. Parker’s life partner is a CPA and a financial planner. Kathy Whitmire was the first female elected to Houston city government. She was first elected as City Controller for two terms, and then mayor. The Montrose area of Houston held the core of Whitmire's political support in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the 1991 Mayor of Houston election the sole area where the majority of residents voted for Whitmire was Montrose; she took 40% of the vote in Montrose precincts. Houston's 1985 mayoral election, in which Whitmire won reelection over former mayor Louie Welch and supporters of the "straight slate" ticket, attracted national attention. She served five continuous two-year terms as mayor, partly during a downturn in the economy. HER agenda was eerily similar to what Ms. Parker's stated one is as well: improving transportation, balancing the city's budget, and selecting a new police chief.

Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Houston, Montrose is the GLBT enclave, and has been for the past 40 years. At one point, roughly 85% of the “out” GLBT community lived there or close by, in the Houston Heights area. It used to be derisively referred to as the “Queer Ghetto”, and it wasn’t a exactly a pleasant place to live when the gay men first went down and started buying up and refurbishing the old houses, some of which dated back 60 to 70 years.

Annise Parker is the first openly gay female to be elected to any office in the City of Houston – and guess what, *her* ultimately successful campaign drew national attention. While her support base is very broad, about 35% of it came from – surprize, surprize – Montrose, even if the ‘Trose is more of a yuppie community these days rather than the GLBT enclave that it was for so many years. Most of us that worked on her first campaign worked on this one. Her career and Kathy Whitmire’s parallel each other so closely it’s not even funny. Unfortunately, we’ll only get to keep Ms. Parker for 6 years – term limits being what they are, that’s a shame.

Both of these women broke barriers right, left and center. Both of them were very good at the jobs that they held before being elected Mayor. Kathy Whitmire did an outstanding job while she was in office. Only time will tell if Annise Parker will do the same – but with her track record of success, I’d be willing to bet that she’s going to do a terrific job.

All I can say at this point: SURE gonna be interesting ‘round these parts!

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