Bob Lanier, 1925-2014

On Saturday evening, former Mayor Bob Lanier passed away. He was 89. In his lengthy career of public service, Lanier served as the Chairman of the Texas Highway Commission, Chairman of METRO and the Mayor of Houston for three terms from 1992 to 1998.

Born to humble beginnings, the brilliant Lanier earned a degree from the prestigious University of Texas Law School and went into private practice in Houston. Soon thereafter, he shifted his sights to real estate and development, and amassed a small fortune. But Lanier’s central priority was never to earn money, and he made a point of shifting toward public service later in his career.

Serving on both the Highway Commission and at the helm of METRO, Lanier tirelessly worked to improve traffic and congestion around town. Perhaps most notably, Lanier butted heads with the mayor at the time, Kathy Whitmire, over an ambitious and pricey proposal to build a massive monorail system throughout Houston. Lanier decried the idea as a naive boondoggle, and — among other reasons — used it as an impetus to run for mayor and win. One of his first goals was nixing the monorail proposal; a decision that is still divisive within Houston political circles.

Over the next six years, Lanier worked hand-in-hand with business leaders and political establishment figures. He did a lot to improve traffic, namely by investing more into roads. He also increased the number of police officers in the city, a driving factor in a huge plunge in the crime rate (which was also attributed to a nationwide trend).

But, Lanier — always a card-carrying Democrat — also accomplished many progressive goals. He dedicated the bulk of his last term in office to saving/expanding affirmative action in Houston, namely reserving a share of city contracts to minority & women owned businesses. In a time when the national sentiment moved against the use of racial preferences in places as liberal as California, Houston bucked the trend in 1997 when they approved Lanier’s affirmative action program. The New York Times ran a headline on the topic, because of just how unexpected the voter support was. Lanier fastidiously worked to accrue corporate backing for affirmative action, and touted the program as a way to ensure diversity within Houston.

Lanier was also an important union backer, insisting upon their inclusion in big public sector developments such as the downtown Hilton Hotel at the convention center. Perhaps most importantly, Lanier worked to ensure diversity in this city within politics as well as business. He appointed both Ben Hall and Gene Locke as City Attorney, propelling both men’s political careers, and he was also invaluable in electing Lee Brown, the first African-American Mayor, as his successor.

I only met Lanier a few times in passing, but I am close with few people who knew him very well. What they all told me was that the casual, cheerful, “grandfatherly” demeanor he emitted in public did not change one bit behind closed doors. Even ideological opponents of Lanier conceded that he was a righteous man who tried his hardest to do what he thought was right for this city.

Lanier was the mayor when I was born and, unlike any succeeding mayors, I do not personally remember any of his term. But what I’ve read and what I’ve been told suggest, better than I could ever recall, that he was a truly inimitable figure within local politics. Among others reasons, Lanier’s endorsement of Locke was one of the reasons my family supported him in 2009, the first mayoral election I intently followed.

Houston has truly lost a giant. My deepest sympathies and condolences are extended to his widow, Elyse Lanier, as well as his other family.

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Tony Morris, 1950-2014

This afternoon, Tony Morris passed away just days after his 64th birthday, following a long battle with cancer.

Anyone who does not know who Tony Morris was obviously not paying enough attention to Houston city politics. He has been a fixture at City Hall for more than 30 years, since the Mayoralty of Kathy Whitmire and throughout the four administrations that followed. An independent freelancing photojournalist, he worked with Houston Style Magazine and many other respected publications throughout his tenure, as well as provided photography for the City in certain situations. He was perhaps most renowned among the general public for his larger-than-life presence in the press section of the City Council chambers, as well as his often flamboyant sartorial selections. However, fewer people had the privilege of actually getting to know Mr Morris, his unmatched kindness & patience or his fantastic political acumen. In fact, I had the pleasure of getting to know him from a number of different perspectives. First as a City employee, but also as a member of the press corps; not to mention interactions with him on the campaign trail with my father last year.

But my very first interaction with Mr Morris occurred before any of that, when I was just a 15 year old with an audacious plan to address the City Council during public session. I had never been to a City Council meeting before, and was quite unfamiliar with the entire procedure. Kindly and patiently, Mr Morris walked me through everything that would happen, and the typical protocol of what I should do when I approached the lectern at my turn to speak.

That speech lead to me working at City Hall for the remainder of High School, through the Mayor’s Youth Council program. Once again, Mr Morris was a regular attendant to our events, and even volunteered his photography skills to us when no one else from the City would document the important tasks we accomplished. He was, with perhaps one exception, the only member of the City Hall press corps to ever see what the young people were up to. I have a picture of Mayor Annise Parker and me, standing behind the Mayor’s seat at the council horseshoe that Mr Morris took, it’s still framed and hanging on my wall. Heck, I think he took my Senior Yearbook Photo too!

Mr Morris understood the value of young people in politics in a way that, admittedly, many members of the City Council at that time simply did not. He approached every person with whom he conversed the same. Young or old, black or white, powerful or not, he gave you the utmost respect and attention, yet again in a way that many elected officials could learn therefrom.

But it was only last Autumn, when my father was running his campaign for the City Council At-large #5, that I truly discovered the local treasure that was Mr Morris’ nearly unmatched acuity in local politics. He engaged us over why my dad was running, and why not support the incumbent. We must have talked to close to an hour, and I must concede that he bested me on a few points of discussion. While his sheer intellect was indubitably very impressive, Mr Morris possessed an unmatched wisdom in City politics perhaps only matched by the City Secretary herself. He was able to see the long story in a way most others can’t –and never will.

City Council meetings, simply put, will just never me the same without Mr Morris. His role transcended that of the press, of spectator or even of longtime observer. He carved out a new place on Bagby Street, just for him, a unique legacy for an inimitable man.

Chronicle endorsements in ‘D,’ Controller

The Houston Chronicle fielded its first two municipal endorsements over the weekend, which included Anthony Robinson for District D and Bill Frazer for Controller.

I have previous interviewed each of these candidates, and was somewhat impressed by their answers. That being said, the Chronicle endorsement of them really surprised me.

Starting with the post of City Controller, it is worth noting that the Chronicle endorsed Green in 2009. Though he ran unopposed in 2011, the paper also was quite content to see Green be re-elected. The similarity of the 2009 editorial compared to yesterday’s is somewhat amusing, as it includes nearly identical language on the role and responsibility of the Controller, with both noting Kathy Whitmire as the gold standard later Controllers should be measured against.

Differing itself from four years earlier, however, the Chronicle scrutinizes the office and all the responsibilities thereof. They allege that incumbent Ronald Green has not been a very effective “watchdog.” Further, the Chronicle lambasts his seemingly endless scandals over the last year. Therefore, by the process of elimination in the very uncrowded race, the Chronicle supports the challenger, Bill Frazer. Specifically, the enjoy his credentials as both a CPA and promise to be more of a watchdog.

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Equality in Houston

The Houston Chronicle reports that Mayor Parker has doubled down on her calls to institute a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBT people in Houston.

When Mayor Lee Brown took office in 1998, he issued an executive order forbidding municipal employees from discrimination because of sexual orientation. In 2010, Mayor Parker took office, she expanded this to also include gender identity. The San Antonio ordinance, by comparison, prohibits employment discrimination in all forms and bans all city-condoned discrimination, including in public housing.

Gay rights has a somewhat long and tumultuous history in this city. In 1984, the City Council, under the leadership of Mayor Kathy Whitmire, passed an ordinance protecting municipal employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation. The next year, voters strongly disavowed the ordinance, in an epic moment of homophobia that climaxed with Louie Welch saying the solution to the AIDS epidemic was to “shoot the queers.”

Mayor Brown restored the protections in 1998, and attempted to push through a domestic partnership package near the end of his career, in 2001. At that point, a charter amendment was approved —with a mere 52% of the vote— to ban any “plus-one” benefits for municipal employees. If 2001, the height of the culture wars and homophobia, could only muster 52% in support of discrimination, a repeal effort would surely cruise to victory today.

While I do not see why charter language prohibiting partnerships would preempt a non-discrimination ordinance, the City Attorney, David Feldman, thinks it is a somewhat substantial roadblock. “We would have to either accommodate the prohibitions in the charter or, to effectuate it as San Antonio did, we would have to put an amendment on the ballot. The cleanest thing would be to take it the voters,” Feldman told the Chronicle.

Morris then interviews both Ellen Cohen and C.O. Bradford on the matter. Both appear to support it, but Bradford is somewhat more tepid (probably in an attempt to take a shot at the Mayor more than anything pertaining to the issue).

If the issue goes on the ballot, it would hopefully do so in 2014. Next year will most likely be a pretty awful one for Democrats and Democratic values nationwide, but I would predict that in a city as progressive in Houston, considering how far most people have come on the issue, the amendment rescinding the discrimination would probably pass easily.

Perhaps the biggest immediate story on this whole issue is a tidbit at the very end of the article. Morris notes that “A campaign spokeswoman for Parker’s top challenger this fall, Ben Hall, declined comment.” I attempted to contact Hall’s campaign myself, but received no response by press time. However, Morris uses the word “declined,” indicating to me an active rejection. This would appear to me that Morris got in contact with the campaign, and was stonewalled when he brought up the ordinance.

As the astute may recall, Ben Hall’s campaign was at the gay pride parade, where it was prominently featured. I have never gotten a straight answer out of his campaign on any LGBT issues but this is a somewhat pressing inkling. At that time, I had the following words to say about Eric Dick’s campaign (who also participated in the parade but refused to support any gay rights issues):

It is the height of hypocrisy to participate in the gay pride parade yet not stand up when questioned about gay rights, specifically gay marriage. His statement come across, to me, in my humble opinion, as a whimpering sycophant, seeking the approval of the crowd but when directly questioned, equivocates as to his approval on the issue at hand.

Ben Hall would too be a whimpering sycophant if he opposes this proposed charter amendment. For the good of this city and his campaign, I hope he is not.

UPDATE: Ben Hall DOES NOT support gay marriage. Whimpering sycophant, indeed. Hall still has yet to take a position on the issue of the non-discrimination ordinance or domestic partnership benefits, but given his position on gay marriage, I have a bad feeling about the issues now.

Hall’s campaign truly needs to figure out what side of the aisle they occupy. 72% of Democrats, which Ben Hall ostensibly is, support gay marriage, as do over 80% of people under 30. To take such a reactionary position on the issue in such a liberal City is horribly damaging to his brand and his chances as a candidate.

Parker endorsed by AFL-CIO

From another one of those Press Releases that somehow doesn’t find its way into my inbox:

Annise Parker has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO. The labor organization lauded Parker for not being too austere with city services and for helping the Middle Class. With the disappearance of labor support, the paths to victory for Hall keep getting smaller and smaller.

I believe the time has come and gone for a competent Republican to run for this office. Any GOP candidate that would enter over the summer would probably only put up token opposition (a TJ Huntley of sorts). Accordingly, we are going to have to start discussing the reality of an election with only two major candidates. Such an election could easily be solved in November if the fringe candidates don’t take away too many votes. Hall still has a chance, but he would have to do quite a few things first.

The Mayoral election of 1991 brought the idea that Mayors would have to be “moderate” in order to win the election. This was allegedly evident by Bob Lanier’s defeat of Kathy Whitmire after so many years in office. Throughout the 90s and most of the 00s, Houston retained an identity as a broadly centre-left city, which would still elect some real conservatives to citywide positions (Michael Berry and Shelly Sekula-Gibbs, to name a few). Accordingly, Lee Brown faced some excruciatingly tough and close elections, and Bill White retained the identity of Lanier’s moderation.

I posted a while back about why Parker seemed to be imitating Brown, but I think I was a tad mistaken in that assertion. The demographics and politics of Houston have significantly changed then. Conservatives can only win citywide in three very distinct possibilities:

The first is that they are such a RINO that nobody even knows or can tell they are Conservative. This was my experience with Stephen Costello. I wasn’t very in 2009 because of his political affiliation, but by 2011, I didn’t really care what letter he chose to put next to his name.

The second is that the candidate’s opponent is either incompetent or horribly unpopular (or both). Jack Christie is the perfect example of this.

Last but not least, if the Republican/Conservative is just so then there is still a chance of victory. This is what I call the “Kubosh Coalition.” Michael Kubosh has a very god chance in November, mainly because of all of the support he may garner from the African-American community. Now, the vast majority of Houston Conservatives can’t say the same, so this is a very special occurrence.

Hall isn’t a Conservative by any means, but the consensus is that he will have to masquerade as one if he wants to win. White Progressives aren’t going to vote for him when they like the incumbent. With Labor now out of the question, Hall has to become a “Kubosh Conservative” if he wants to win.