Judge Emmett delivering 2015 State of the County Address. (Credit: Richard J. Carson)
Judge Emmett delivering 2015 State of the County Address. (Credit: Richard J. Carson)
Judge Emmett touring Hurricane Ike aftermath with Texas Dept. of Public Safety. (Credit: Office of Judge Emmett)
Judge Emmett touring Hurricane Ike aftermath with Texas Dept. of Public Safety. (Credit: Office of Judge Emmett)
Judge Emmett working to coordinate PODs. (Credit: Office of Judge Emmett)
Judge Emmett working to coordinate PODs. (Credit: Office of Judge Emmett)
Judge Emmett featured with a quilt made by his wife.
Judge Emmett featured with a quilt made by his wife.

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

16 Minute Read

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett sat down with Texas Medical Center Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer William F. McKeon to discuss the path that led him from the halls of Rice University to the Texas House of Representatives, and how he is helping to address some of the city’s most pressing challenges.

Q | Can you tell us about your formative years?
A | I was officially born in Overton, Texas, but my whole early youth was spent in New London, Texas, which is three miles from Overton. Famous in the old days because the school blew up in 1937. Because it sat on top of the East Texas Oil Field. And that’s why you can now smell natural gas. Natural gas is naturally odorless, so they added mercaptan to it. My father was an oilfield worker his entire life, until they moved him into an office job later on. He had a panic disorder that I didn’t know about until I was a junior in high school, such that he could never be alone. And that’s why I have this passion for mental health. Now, he was able to cope with it and mask it with things as extreme as he would always ride the bus when we lived here, because there was always someone on the bus. But he had such good friends, they’d meet him at the elevator and ride up with him to his office. They’d come get him for lunch. And then he would ride out to where my mother worked at Meyerland Mall at JC Penney and he would just walk the mall until she got off of work, because there were all of these people around. That plays into the mental health, for the obvious reason, but also, had he not been kind of a mid-level oil company guy, he would have been arrested for vagrancy, particularly if he had been a minority.

So, back to where I grew up. East Texas Oil Field. We moved to Tyler for five years after that because the regional office moved there, and then we moved here. I didn’t know anybody, so I had nothing to do but play tennis all summer. You come to the end of your junior year, and what do you do? I didn’t know that you didn’t go to Hermann Park and play tennis at night. But I did. So I got to know all kinds of people, mainly in the Third Ward. But me being from up there, it didn’t matter to me.

I graduated from Bellaire, and the simple reason I went to Rice was that if you got into one of four schools, then the Humble Oil Company would give you a scholarship. It’s called the Teagle Foundation. Humble Oil changed its name. It’s called Exxon now, but my father never agreed to that name change. He always said he worked for Humble Oil. So you had to go to Columbia, Rice, MIT or Tulane. I didn’t get into MIT. I didn’t apply to Columbia. I got into Rice and Tulane. Rice was a better financial deal, but one of the real reasons was the admissions director at Rice went to Bellaire Methodist Church and had this sort of penchant for Bellaire kids, I guess. So a whole lot of us went to Rice. That’s how I ended up at Rice.

Q | Did you imagine, before you started at Rice, where you would end up?
A | I was going to be a physics major. Even though I came at the end of my junior year to Bellaire, I represented Bellaire at the nuclear science symposium that summer. In high school, I thought I was a whiz when it came to physics. The chair of the physics department at Rice convinced me otherwise when he gave me, I think it was a 12 on my final in my freshman year. I passed the course, but I thought I probably didn’t want to be a physics major anymore. So I ended up getting a degree in economics.

And of course, going to college in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, everything was political. You had Vietnam, you had women’s rights, you had birth control, you had drugs, civil rights. All of that was just this maelstrom of activity. So I got interested in politics in a big way, and was president of the college—not to be confused with the actual university, since Rice has the college system. I did that, played tennis, though not well enough to be very good at it. I was on the team at Rice, but I didn’t get to play. I tried to be a tennis pro for a year and a half, and actually made decent money straight out of Rice in 1971.

But I went back to graduate school. I thought I was going to go to law school, but through a total quirk of fate, walked across the street from the UT Law School to the LBJ school, where my brother-in-law worked, and ended up going to the LBJ School. Full ride. And got my master’s degree in public affairs. I thought I’d come back and get into politics. And eventually I did.

Q | When you thought about politics at that time, what did you envision?
A | Oh, if you had asked me at that time, ‘Gosh, if I could grow up and be in the legislature, that would be the coolest thing in the world.’ I did that at age 29. I served four terms in the House, and was chairman of the House Committee on Energy, which was interesting because I was a Republican. There were 110 Democrats, and a Democrat speaker, and yet I got appointed as chairman of the House Committee on Energy.

Q | How did that work out?
A | That was a time when people weren’t as partisan as they are now, and that’s a time that I would like to get back to, frankly. Which is one reason why I am a Republican and I am proud to be a Republican most of the time. But at the same time, if we don’t find a way to compromise and have a little bit of a bipartisan approach, we are going to be in a world of hurt.

So anyway, I did that. But the key story behind that…I picked a district in East Harris County. I ran against a six-term Democrat opponent incumbent who had never had a Republican opponent. And the party, everybody said, “You are a nice young guy, but good luck.” Nobody would give me any money or anything. But there was one woman, who, a friend of a friend said that she wanted to help a federal candidate, a state candidate and a local candidate, and that I ought to go see her.

So I drove down and visited with her. We had tea or coffee, and she agreed to help me. Her husband had been in Congress a few years earlier. As it turned out, I was the only of her three candidates that won. So she kind of adopted me, and that woman’s name was Barbara Bush. The other two candidates that she helped that year—and I love telling school kids this—her federal candidate was her oldest son, George. He ran for Congress, and he didn’t win. I don’t ever know what happened to him.

And then her statewide candidate was her husband’s tennis partner, who ran for attorney general of Texas. And that was James Baker. So he would have been attorney general of Texas, but instead he was White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of State. All because he lost. She used to delight in telling the story, ‘Ed’s my candidate. He’s the only one who won.’ And I would always say, ‘Yeah, that’s why I ended up so famous compared to those other two guys who lost.’

Later on, after running for the Railroad Commission and losing, that same year, her husband George got elected president and I got a phone call to come to Washington. So I went up as interstate commerce commissioner. And that produced one of the great scenes in Senate confirmation history. When Senator Hollings from South Carolina—who didn’t like me because I was still in my 30s, didn’t like my stances on truck deregulation—kept asking me, ‘Why are you here?’ And finally, he was running out of time, and he said, ‘Let me put it to you this way. Are you the most qualified person to be on the Interstate Commerce Commission?’ I said, ‘Mister Chairman, no, because it would be presumptuous of me to say I am most qualified.’ So he had me, he said, ‘Well, if you aren’t the most qualified person to be here, why are you here?’ And I said, ‘Because I know Barbara Bush, and they don’t.’

And he just started laughing hysterically and said, ‘That’s the most honest answer I’ve ever gotten out of a witness.’ But it’s true. Nothing we do, we do on our own. I mean, would I have gotten elected without Barbara Bush? Yeah, but then I wouldn’t have known her, I wouldn’t have known her husband. Because I did knock on 19,404 doors in that first race. But we always have to remember that we are just a small piece. What we accomplish depends on how other pieces fit in there.

Q | At your recent State of the County address, you were introduced by one of your former interns, Gabe Baker. For a young person to be so excited about the future, it must be a good feeling to see this next generation of leaders, particularly those like Gabe who you have mentored.
A | John Tower was a Republican U.S. Senator, the only Republican elected in 1961, before the Republicans won anything in Texas, and he served a long time. He was considered this staunch conservative. And of course by the end of his career he was considered a moderate, and some people didn’t like him. But at the end of his career, before he died in a plane crash, he was asked, ‘What’s your proudest accomplishment?’ He had passed all of these bills and done all of this stuff. He didn’t hesitate. He said, ‘Proudest accomplishment? That’s easy. It’s all of the people who have worked for me who have gone on to do better things.’

I thought that was just the coolest statement. I mean, that’s really much more important. Yeah, I could tell you the bills I have passed, or this, that and the other. But if all of these people who have worked for me go on to do bigger and better things, then my life is good.

Q | What were some of the key points of your State of the County address?
A | The two main topics were indigent health care and transportation. And when I say transportation, I mean everything: roads, rail and water. And in a way, they are similar. My staff, where I used to work, got tired of me using the analogy—I used to talk about transportation in terms of the health of a person. You can go to your doctor, and they want to know how good your circulation is. Because if the circulation is good, your health is good. Well, it’s the same way with transportation.

If people and goods can’t move through a community, then it’s going to stagnate and it’s going to die. So, long-term, one of my main interests is to make decisions now that I know won’t really come into fruition for 20 or 30 years, which is why I’m chairing the TexDOT Advisory Committee right now. We are looking at how to plan for transportation that will allow for this whole region to continue to grow.

On the health care side, 20 years ago health care wasn’t a public policy issue and it certainly wasn’t something a county judge paid any attention to. But for a variety of reasons, it’s here now. And as I pointed out in the State of the County address, wealthy, well-educated people are confused enough about health care. They are looking at insurance premiums and which doctors to select, and all of that. But for other people, it’s just a maze. How do you get through it? I am a big believer in preventive care.

Establishing medical homes for people, so that they are not afraid to go get health care, and show up at the very end in an emergency room. Emergency rooms are nice, but they are expensive and they are not the ideal place for getting care. So those are the two main things: taking care of the health of the community, and the health of the economy. And they are pretty much tied together.

Another thing I talked about was TranStar, which is kind of like the Texas Medical Center. No one today would have designed something that has TexDOT and the city and the county and Metro all in it, but they did. And then this domed building down there that I inherited. But I think we ought to use it. It’s an asset.

Q | Let’s talk a bit about mental health. If you could wave a wand and make one or two things happen in the next few years, what would those be?
A | I think one of them is already happening, and that is that people are no longer viewing mental health as different from physical health. That’s a huge change, just in perception. And that’s where someplace like the Texas Medical Center, or the member institutions at least, can ultimately play a bigger role. Because why should a disease of the brain be treated any differently than a disease of any other organ? So I think we are there. That magic wand may not have fully been waved, but it’s on its way.

But the bigger issue, and it applies to mental health and several other categories, is that we have got to get a realization that investing in things now is really the conservative, smart thing to do, because it saves so much money down the road. And it will allow people to have productive lives, which will generate all kinds of good things, economic or otherwise, for society.

Q | How would you describe the Texas Medical Center?
A | I describe it to people as being the best collection of medical facilities, period. Sometimes I talk about it, and I don’t meant this to sound as negative as it might at first, but it’s an accidental occurrence. I mean, yes, some very generous people made some generous donations back in the beginning. But who could have known that it would develop into the 56 institutions that is it now?

If we were sitting here today and it didn’t exist, I doubt anyone would design it that way. But the fact that it has developed, I consider it to be an absolute gift. Now we need to take advantage, and all of us need to be part of nurturing the Texas Medical Center and its institutions so that the institutions, and the whole medical center, can really grow into its full potential.

Q | Looking forward, what do you get most excited about looking at the next five or 10 years?
A | We have got things going in the right direction on mental health. We’ve got people in Austin, from really conservative Republicans to really liberal Democrats, all talking about mental health. So that is going to be a big thing that I don’t want to let go of. I do want to solve the Astrodome dilemma, and make use of that asset. And again, being repetitive, I hope to get some decisions made, not just by me but by the decision-making bodies, to build certain transportation facilities so that when I’m living in my cabin up in the East Texas woods, people down here can be moving around because someone made a decision long ago.

Q | That’s a beautiful quilt you have hanging here in your office. Can you tell us about it?
A | My wife is part of a quilting group that has met for many years, and when I went to Washington in ’89, she was going to make a quilt to hang behind my desk in the Interstate Commerce Commission. And this was finally finished six years ago, so it didn’t quite work out. It’s a Baltimore album quilt, and that’s why you have the federal eagles in the corners, and they are always supposed to tell a story.

So, birds and flowers became the theme. And we both went to Bellaire High School, so that’s where the cardinal is from. Baltimore Oriole, because we were living in Maryland at the time, and going to the Orioles games. Gwen was born in Louisiana, so the pelican. State bird of Texas is a mockingbird. Robins were always a favorite of mine as a kid, and we just needed something colorful, so we added the blue jay, and of course, the Rice owl. And then the flowers, you have the black-eyed Susan, which is the state flower of Maryland, and then the yellow roses and blue bonnets. And then you have the Texas Flag, and the Scottish flag because we used to go there every year. And that leaves that one bird, a canary, and no one ever knows what that’s for.

I am the only person you will ever meet who gets signed jerseys from the Norwich Canaries soccer club. A friend of mine is one of the minor owners of the Canaries, so I started following them years ago.

Q | One last question. What advice would you give someone who is beginning their career in public service?
A | The advice I always give, that I still do, is to read books about people who have been here and done this. Not just the real famous ones. You read and you come across things and you learn from what they did. And you learn from the mistakes that people made, too. So I tell people just absorb as much as you can from people that you know, and from people you can read about.

Secondly, there was an old gentleman named Bill Heatly in the Legislature, who when I first went up in my 20s, he was exactly the kind of person that
I didn’t like. Old-line, conservative Democrat, West Texas, nothing about it matched up. And I guess he kind of sensed that because he took me aside one day and said, ‘Look, I know you don’t like me, but I’m going to give you some advice. Never permanentize an enemy.’ Now, I don’t know that ‘permanentize’ is a word, but he and I got to be pretty good friends after that, because you start thinking about it and you are going to vote on something one day and be on opposite sides. And then the next day, you may want to be on the same side. But if I have made you such a personal enemy that you aren’t willing to work with me, or vice versa, then we aren’t going to accomplish anything. And I have always remembered that. It was such great advice.

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