By Maria Saporta
HOUSTON – As mayor of the fourth largest city in the United States, Annise Parker said she is judged by what she brings to the table rather than by who she is.
Parker, now in her second term, is nationally recognized for being the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city.
But when Parker addressed a group of about 110 leaders from metro Atlanta Wednesday night on the 17th annual LINK trip at the Asia Society Texas Center, she was much more focused on how she has been able to lead the city of 2.2 million people.
Thanks to a strong mayor system of government, Parker is a voting member of the Houston City Council where she controls the agenda and casts the first vote.
She told Atlanta’s business leaders that there are at least five downtowns in Houston, which she referred to as a “multi-nodal” city.
“You saw our second largest downtown today — the Texas Medical Center,” Parker said. Although half of Houston’s economy is still dependent on the oil and gas industry, Parker said other sectors are growing — healthcare and bio-science research, the port, manufacturing and NASA and aerospace.
“This has always been a business town,” Parker said. “Houston has always been a dynamic and energetic city — trying to make the impossible happen…. Our past and our future is about creating things that don’t exist.”
When she was first elected mayor, Parker said she had to lay off 700 city employees and raise water rates by 30 percent because of the economic crisis and the budget shortfall.
“We are in some ways the blob that ate South Texas. We are 640 square miles. We have to provide services over a large area,” she said. “For a long time, we didn’t think much about mass transit. We were way behind.”
Politically, Parker described Houston, Dallas and Austin as “big blue islands in a red sea,” adding that “Texas is an increasingly urbanized state.”
Despite their different political leanings, Parker said she has a “good working relationship” with Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
The general sentiment in Texas is that the best form of government is the one that governs least. Although she believes Texas should accept expanded federal funding for Medicaid – something Gov. Perry opposes, but on other issues, they are working in unison. Both she and the Texas governor have received political heat for making Houston a “sanctuary city” — allowing undocumented workers to live and work in the city’s communities.
Parker also has been pleasantly surprised to see that her residents have been willing to invest in the city’s future.
One example is that the voters approved $100 million in bonds, which will be matched by $100 million in the private sector, to build hiking and biking trails along Houston’s extensive network of bayous — connecting virtually every neighborhood in the city — which Parker described as a “linear park system.”
During their first day in Houston, members of the LINK delegation received a tour and briefings about the Texas Medical Center. They also were given an in-depth demographic review of the changing demographic dynamics in Houston. More to come.