This past Thursday, I was lucky enough to be standing in the press box at the Wortham Center to watch Annise Parker’s third and final inauguration. I would be remiss if I did not note that other officeholders –namely City Controller Ronald Green– also took their oaths, but considering how strong the Mayor in Houston is, it truly is a non-issue.
The Mayor, in this case Parker, unilaterally sets the agenda and determines when to vote on things. She also has extremely broad powers to take any number of executive actions on her own. We saw this recently with the issue of full benefits to the same-sex spouses of City employees. We have also seen Parker continue to act more decisively in enacting major ordinances and presiding over the Council with an iron fist.
Accordingly, when I was standing in the theater, I could not help but to begin to wander about the issues Parker would enumerate in her inaugural address that were important to Houston. Parker proposed three concrete issues: a non-discrimination ordinance, protections against hurricanes and eradicating chronic homelessness. The former issue has already been discussed by the Mayor, but the latter two were quite novel and deserve increased scrutiny.
The Gulf Coast has been notoriously lucky in that it has eluded a major tropical system for all of Mayor Parker’s tenure (**knock on wood**). Accordingly, we have yet to see the Mayor lead in anything approaching a natural disaster, or come to grips with some harsh truths about the future of our coastline. A recent study from Rice University concluded that the next major hurricane could “endanger tens of thousands of lives and cripple the Houston Ship Channel,” as well as jeopardize countless refineries that are invaluable to this country’s energy production.
The proposed “Ike dike” that Mayor Parker mentioned is a proposed 17 foot revetment that would serve as a major seawall add-on for both Galveston and Bolivar. The project, which has previously received support from Governor Rick Perry, has been far less in the public eye of late ever since funding became a major obstacle. By breathing new life into the issue, Mayor Parker has the capacity to both turn the City of Houston into an underwriter of the project and put renewed scrutiny on the Federal Government to subsidize the project, which is arguably a necessity for national security.
The homelessness issue is far more tricky to nail down. Most cities are afflicted by the unfortunate tragedy, but few have actually taken concrete steps to end it. The Atlantic recently noted that the City of Phoenix has ended chronic homelessness among the Veteran community, which is admittedly a much smaller sample size. However, this was done only by a large influx of money that was directly used for housing, rather than social programs or other acts of welfare.
It remains to be seen if Mayor Parker is willing to do this back in Houston. The act has obviously political undertones, as the Mayor has taken actions that have caused her to be viewed as rather insensitive to the plight of the homeless. Back in 2012, Parker rammed through an unconscionable ordinance prohibiting giving food to groups of homeless people on public land. The odd populist coalition of libertarians, religious and left-liberals opposing this ordinance contributed to the election of individuals such as Michael Kubosh to the City Council. Personally, I believe the attention given to this issue is being done more as an olive branch to him than anything else.
While I have been very supportive of the Mayor’s recent actions before the Council, I cannot help but to think most of them are somewhat fleeting in nature. Extending benefits to same-sex couples will be a moot issue in just a few years, as the day the Supreme Court declares nationwide gay marriage is quickly approaching. Payday lending reforms will most likely be superseded by a State law next year. But protecting against the bigger, badder storms created by climate change would be an indelible mark of the Parker administration. And eliminating homelessness, while it is a rather quixotic goal to accomplish in the next biennial, could put Parker up there as one of the great American Mayors of our time, right alongside yesteryear’s LaGuardia and Richard Daley.