Mayor Annise D. Parker
Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker, now in her third and final term, sat down with Texas Medical Center Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer William F. McKeon, to reflect on the initiatives of which she is most proud—from infrastructure to reducing the homeless population—and what she considers her favorite place in Houston.
Q | Can you tell us about your formative years? Where were you born and raised?
A | I was born in Houston, and both of my parents were born here. My grandparents came to Houston in the 1920s and ‘30s, so this is home. I grew up in the Spring Branch area, where my mom also grew up. In fact, Beltway 8 goes right through the land where my grandparents had a farm. I have seen many changes in the city over the years.
Q | What led you to attend Rice?
A | When I was young, we would often take weekend trips to the zoo or just go for a drive. That was what you did on weekends back then. It often led to a trip through the Rice campus. My parents would say, ‘If you’re really smart, when you grow up you may be able to go to Rice.’ And then they would laugh. We were living out of state when I graduated high school and Rice was the only school to which I applied. I was a merit scholar in high school and I knew I could go anywhere I wanted to go, so I came back to go to Rice.
Q | Did you know early on in life that you would end up in a career in public service, or were you leaning toward a career in oil and gas?
A | Actually, neither. At Rice, you are expected to have two majors. I ended up with three: psychology, sociology and anthropology. After college, I wanted to go to graduate school. I was going to become Margaret Mead, I guess. Teach anthropology somewhere. I attended Rice with a full merit scholarship. I wanted to work for a while after graduation so I could make enough money to pay for graduate school. I just never went back. Once you get out of school, it’s hard to go back.
I was a shy, brainy nerd—very socially awkward, not unlike a lot of my peers at Rice at the time. My family still can’t believe I wound up in politics, because it never occurred to them that would be the direction I would take. My career actually began at Texas Gulf Oil and Gas where I worked for the only woman manager of a Fortune 500 company. The company always hired a lot of Rice students for summer employment.
It was the very early days of those clunky, slow Apple computers. No one I was working with knew how to use them. They asked for volunteers to learn how to run this new petroleum software program. I was the only one who knew how to do it. Two years later, I was recruited away by another oil company that needed someone with that particular skill. I spent 20 years riding the tech wave in the oil industry, completely accidentally. Always volunteering. I’m willing to go learn that new software program. I ended up doing reservoir mapping, project economics, building spreadsheets on foreign fiscal tax regimes…for over 20 years. That’s important: volunteer to learn something new.
Q | Tell us about your mentors.
A | Toby Turner, the woman I just mentioned, she was in information services. In the mid-‘70s women were either in HR or information services. She helped me professionally, but she also helped me with some personal things. I left that position for a job at Robert Mosbacher’s Mosbacher Energy Company. I spent the next 18 years there.
While I didn’t work directly for Mr. Mosbacher, he had a huge influence on how I approach my current job. It was his company, he knew everybody, he knew their names, he was a walk-around manager. And it was not unhelpful for me, when I ran for public office, to be a Democrat who worked closely for a very famous Republican in Houston. And accidentally, too. So he was not a direct mentor, but a huge influence.
Q | What is different about the corporate environment early in your career compared to today?
A | As I mentioned, there was a real lack of women in management roles across most industries and certainly very, very few at the C suite level. I really didn’t know any. I think it is better today. There is a lot more outreach. I get regular requests to address diversity groups and women’s groups in major corporations. That was completely nonexistent when my career began. I am now in my 18th year in public life, and it is still one of the most male-dominated professions that exists today. The best elected bodies in the United States are about 20 percent women. As for governors and big city mayors, I think it’s about eight percent right now. There have only been ten women who have been mayors of major American cities with over a million population—two here in Houston. That’s a feat.
Q | Do you remember the exact moment when you decided to run for mayor?
A | I do. There is a lot of research out there indicating that one of the challenges for women in politics is that we wait to be asked. In the private sector, I was asked if I wanted to learn that software program. I was asked to run for city council. And I ran against an incumbent, and got absolutely crushed in the election. But I did something that most women don’t do when they run for office and lose, and that is I ran again. And I lost. And then, even rarer, I ran a third time and won. Now I have ran and won nine citywide races in Houston.
I have read a lot of research about that. As it turns out, a lot of the women who persevere in politics have been in sports. That is true for me. I was a jock, I was in track in high school and I played varsity softball in college. I still enjoy sports to this day. Of course, I am a big Rice baseball fan. I like all sports, but most of what I enjoy is attending Rice baseball games. Reckling Park is one of the best places to watch baseball, and Rice has one of the top teams in the country, so it’s good baseball, too.
Q | Congratulations on recently being named as one of the best mayors in the world! Looking back on your career, what are some of the most significant accomplishments?
A | I was a very active community volunteer for the 20 years before I decided to enter politics. I was a president of this and an officer of that. My evenings were filled with meetings. I helped found a civic association, and I realized I was going to work every day to support my volunteer habits. By becoming a council member, I got to do things every day that I was passionate about. I had a good job, but it wasn’t changing the world. It wasn’t fulfilling. When I became a councilmember, the Mosbacher company offered me a consulting contract, that lasted three months, going back and forth. Being a council member is technically a part time job but I took a full time approach.
Because I entered public service after having been a civic club president and a neighborhood activist, I had a whole list of things that I wanted to work on. My agenda included everything from the pooper scooper ordinance that requires owners to pick up after their pets to regulating ownership of exotic pets. Believe it or not, it used to be legal to own a tiger in Houston. There was no law against it until my ordinance passed. I also authored the ordinance that we use today to regulate density of development in inner-city neighborhoods.
My tenure as city controller was focused on bringing the city of Houston into the modern era. I’m not a techie at all, but I rode the tech wave, so I had an understanding of the power of technology and how rapidly it was changing. When I became a council member in the early 2000s, the city’s financial systems were still housed on a mainframe computer, held together with duct tape and bailing wire. I was able to lead the city’s massive migration to SAP Business systems. In fact, SAP contacted me after we were done and said it was the most successful municipal migration that they had ever worked with.
As mayor, I have been all about infrastructure. Oddly enough, what I’m most criticized for today is potholes, potholes and potholes. But what people don’t realize is that we had spent 30 years not investing in our infrastructure. We created a new revenue source via the voter approved Rebuild Houston drainage fee. We are now putting more money into infrastructure than ever before, but you cannot recover from thirty years of deferred maintenance overnight. The drought of 2011 didn’t help.
Houston has 6,000 lane miles of road, but if each lane is considered separately, the total is 16,000 miles of road. Utilizing vans equipped with special radar that can detect voids under the road surface, we mapped the entire city. We finished and rolled out the data in June of 2011, just before the drought hit. The lack of rain caused so much shifting we had to start all over again the next year.
Rebuild Houston includes a very good government aspect that I could shoot myself for agreeing to. It is financed on a ‘pay as you go’ basis so there is no more debt financing for any of our street and drainage projects. And yet, here we are today in the cheapest money environment in decades, and I am not allowed to borrow money to do street repair. The new fee gives me $100 million of additional money a year—more than we have ever spent. As we pay down old debt, more money becomes available. However, I am prohibited from leveraging it. The voter-approved City Charter provision won’t allow it. So we kind of outsmarted ourselves on that.
This commitment to rebuilding our infrastructure is what I am most proud of. We are overhauling the water sewer system. We are overhauling the street and drainage system. Two years from now, the new mayor is going to look like a genius because there will be so much work going on.
I am also proud of the Bayou Greenways initiative. I am just thrilled to pieces about the new hike and bike trails this project is adding along our bayous. It’s a five to seven year plan. Again, we have made a lot of progress, but it will really be about two years after I am out of the mayor’s office before you will really see the impact. It’s more than just trails. Once we reconnect people to the bayous, they are going to want to rip up the cement that lines these waterways. They will want to plant wildflowers. They will want more trees. They will want benches. The end result will be an amazing linear park system that connects our neighborhoods and provides all Houstonians with access to green space.
The other thing that I am really proud of is what we are doing to address homelessness in Houston. Unfortunately, the perception hasn’t quite matched the reality for a lot of folks in downtown Houston. The reality is that both transient homelessness and chronic homelessness have been cut in half over the last three years. Our efforts are getting a lot of national attention. In fact, several cities are looking to Houston as the model for how to get it done.
Obviously, we can’t force someone into housing who doesn’t want it. That is why we have focused a lot on reparative social services for the chronic long-term homeless who have either a mental health issue or substance abuse problems.
My goal is to eliminate chronic homelessness in Houston by the end of 2015. I don’t know if we will get there by then, but I am optimistic that we will be close to having no one on the streets of Houston simply because there is not a bed or social service resource available.
Q | Let’s speak a bit now about the Texas Medical Center. What impact does the Texas Medical Center have on Houston?
A | As a destination, as an employer, I think anyone who has been in Houston for any length of time sees it as ‘the medical center.’ Even if you are going to a particular institution, people say they are going to ‘the’ medical center. And it is a huge economic engine for Houston.
As a commercial downtown, if you will, it is significant in its own right. It is the single most popular destination for foreign visitors to Houston. If you can imagine pulling that out of Houston and throwing it away. The traffic through our airport system would plummet—the economy of Houston would be fundamentally different. A lot of the diversification we have seen in the Houston economy since the oil bust of the 1980s has been due to growth in the medical center. The oil and gas industry is less price-sensitive than it was, but the impact of the Texas Medical Center has grown exponentially. I always say the current Houston economy rests on five pillars: oil and gas, medicine, the port, aerospace and manufacturing. We are seeing a manufacturing explosion in other areas. It needs to happen in medicine. You have the research capabilities and the built-in patient population. It is a perfect storm for manufacturing anything from big pharma to biomedical.
Since the founding of Houston, there has been a tradition among the city’s business leaders of giving back to the city that has given them so much. This ranges from those who can donate $50-$100 million and have huge buildings named in their honor, to those who buy a $1,000 table at a gala. Houston is not a place that cares where you were born or who your people are. We care about what you have to offer. You can achieve anything here, but to be embraced by Houston society requires a willingness to give.
Q | What other aspects of the city positively impact our brand?
A | NASA. Our connection to the space program is very much part of our psyche. We all know that ‘Houston’ was the first word spoken from the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. What many of us forget is the rest of what was said. When I am giving a speech, I’ll say, ‘Houston’ and everyone will answer with, ‘We have a problem’ Of course, what was really said was: ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.’ ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem up here,’ was actually said by the Apollo 13 crew. Of course, Houston had the solution. Solving problems is what we do. It’s been that way since the Allen Brother’s saw a future in this mosquito-infested swamp, to the discovery of oil at Spindletop, to the dredging of the Port of Houston.
Q | How do you balance the intensity of your schedule with a family? I imagine you are constantly invited to every event in the city.
A | I get invited to the opening of an envelope. When people talk about work life balance, it’s not like you find this magic balance where both get the same amount of attention. It’s more like a seesaw. Whatever is in crisis mode gets the attention.
We have a 38-year-old son and three daughters. The girls were adopted when I was running for city controller. They were older, but still in need of all the attention required of parents. Being in the controller’s office was very helpful. I was able to be home in the evenings. I went to the games, I went to the dance recitals, I coached little league, I coached T-Ball, and I coached machine-pitch for one year. By the time I was elected mayor, they were high school teens who wanted nothing to do with me.
When I finally get to go home, I dock my phone and unplug. I am not shooting emails out. There are people on my staff who send emails at 2 a.m. I tell them not to bother with it because I’m not going to look at it at that time. There are ways to get a hold of me if there is an emergency.
My favorite place in Houston is home. It’s where I putter in the garden or read. So when I am with my family, and I am at home, I am with my family and I am at home. Also, when at work, if the kids or the wife call, I will stop any meeting and take care of that.
Q | Can you share what’s next for you?
A | I have now had the best political job. Having talked to other former mayors who have gone on to other things, they all agree. This is the best job. I believe them. But I will be leaving at the end of this year, and I plan to run through the tape, because there is still a whole lot to get done. I do plan to look for an opportunity to continue to serve—either in a nonprofit organization or in politics. Unfortunately, the posi- tions that I might be interested in either at the county or state level won’t be available until 2018, so there is a gap that I am going to have to fill. I’m not interested in going back to the business world.