Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker sat down with Urban Edge editor Ryan Holeywell last month shortly before she left town for a three-month fellowship at Harvard University.
Parker served in elected office in Houston for 18 years, including six as mayor. But what will she do next? Nobody -- not even Parker herself -- seems exactly sure.
In this interview, Parker discusses the big issues she faced during her three terms as mayor and elaborates on the challenges likely to face her successor, Mayor Sylvester Turner. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
Ryan Holeywell: When you woke up Jan. 2, it was the first time in nearly 20 years you didn't have constituents. What was that experience like?
Annise Parker: A little bit lost. I have, for 18 years, lived and breathed the City of Houston. But I also could feel the weight lifting. Not going non-stop, seven days a week, 12 hours a day has been refreshing. But there's only so long I can do home remodeling projects until I'll have to have something to do again.
RH: Is it a relief that there aren't people saying 'fix this' or 'you should have done it this way'?
AP: I miss the job. No, I don't miss the media. I don't miss angry constituents of course. But the job itself -- I think I assembled a great leadership team. I'd put that leadership team up against any corporate team anywhere. We successfully ran a very large organization. I feel comfortable that I'm turning over to the new mayor a good organization with a great team at the top. Hopefully he won't mess it up.
RH: What sort of conversations did you have with him?
AP: I didn't necessarily give advice, but we had multiple meetings. The first one was saying 'this is what the job is really like.' It's an administrative post. It's every day. It's about making decisions. It's not politics. It's about running an organization.
I had a meeting with him about personnel issues, what the strengths and weaknesses are, what the background of each person was. We talked about agenda items in flight and the land mines he needs to look out for. Obviously the big problem is pensions, and I've been talking about pensions for six years. That's no big surprise.
RH: He gets two, four-year terms.
AP: Well, if he wins the second term. That was a gift.
RH: Right. So how do you think that affects the way he approaches the job compared to previous mayors, who only got as many as six years?
AP: I prided myself on taking the long view and looking at things over a 20-year arc, not the next two years. But I think two-year terms .... are a detriment. Most of the things mayors work on have long-term impact. You have to have enough of a horizon where you're not looking over your shoulder to immediately start campaigning again. It doesn't mean Mayor Turner will tackle big things, but it means he has the ability to tackle big things.
RH: Are there things you would have done differently if you had had eight years instead of six?
AP: I knew what I wanted to do. I blew through the difficult things in the first term and part of the second term. I would have liked to have had more time. For example, we desperately need a new public safety compound. I spent two years trying to see if we could build a new one or an alternative, like repurposing the Exxon building downtown. Had I had two more years as mayor, we'd be in that building.
I didn't slow down anything in the normal course of business. But that would have committed $500 million. I didn't want to decide it for the next mayor.
RH: You mentioned pensions. In the city's new financial report, the comptroller said this is the biggest challenge facing the city. Do you agree?
AP: Yes, and we've been talking about it. Pensions are a problem, but they will be solved in Austin. There is nothing the mayor and council can do, locally, unless the fire pension goes along with it. I always have to stop and explain: there are three pensions and they are governed by independent boards. We have the ability to negotiate with the police and municipal workers. And they have negotiated. Both ... are close to where you want them to be. If they stopped doing an annual cost of living adjustment, they'd be funded.
The answer from the fire pension has always been: just raise taxes. For all three, in order to force changes, the changes have to be made Austin. And for the two besides the firefighters, if it's not mutually agreed upon, it has to be done in Austin. If we could do it by mutual agreement, we would have already done it.
RH: You know the politics at play. You know how City Hall is handcuffed. How do you expect it to get fixed, because eventually, it will get addressed one way or the other.
AP: Is the City of Houston going to go bankrupt? No. We're not Detroit. But is there a potential the cost of pensions starts to push everything else out, that we start laying people off and cutting services? That's a very real possibility. The constituents will rise up and revolt, or we'll get pension reform in Austin. That's one of the things I'm most hopeful about the new mayor.
That's where his legislative experience is. It's where his contacts are. He knows everybody up there. It's his opportunity and his big challenge.
RH: How was the actual job of being mayor different from what you might have thought it was going to be?
AP: I was probably the most prepared person to become mayor that the city's ever had. It was very much what I expected but more intense. The thing that surprised me the most about the job was that I could no longer be anonymous anywhere in the City of Houston.
Every mayor has a different style. I came in knowing a lot of the things I wanted to work on. We were a much faster-paced administration than certainly the last three.
RH: Everyone around town is always talking about affordability. Houston's strong suit is that it's been one of the most affordable big cities to live in. But housing prices have gone up. The falling cost of oil might pump the brakes on that, a bit, but how concerned are you ... that Houston could be losing one of its biggest selling points?
AP: It has helped Houston tremendously to be the most affordable big city. I think the lack of zoning had a lot to do with affordable housing prices. But as the city densifies ... the marketplace will begin to crowd out lower-priced options. As a city, we've done things to try to make it easier to maintain a range of housing options. We changed Chapter 42 to allow more dense, infill development. You have to have small apartment complexes for the workforce. You have to have a range of options.
There's still a lot of available, close in real estate that's underutilized. I think you'll see more and more new projects spring up. It is absolutely awful for Houston to have oil prices where they are. But it's slowing down what was a superheated economy. There will be more of a chance to have a range of housing built at different price points than when everybody wanted to be in the Inner Loop and had lots of money to spend.
RH: You're probably better qualified than anyone to discuss how oil prices will affect the city. I'm not going to ask you to predict the price of oil. But how do --
AP: We need about twice what we're getting for oil right now. When I entered the workforce in the late 1970s, oil was 80 percent of the Houston economy. It's only about 40 percent of the Houston economy today. You can see even with lower oil prices, the economy is still expanding -- very slowly, but expanding. That's the strength of the port and the medical center and manufacturing. Oil and business at the port are closely related, but they are distinct.
RH: I'm sure you're sick of being asked questions about your future, but I'll ask you anyway.
AP: I have no earthly idea.
RH: It's got to be frustrating that you can lead the biggest city in the state, but because of the politics of the state, statewide office would certainly be a challenge.
AP: It's funny -- or it's not funny, it's ironic -- Texas has some of the largest cities in America, and all the big cities in Texas are Democratic islands in a Republican sea. We're so darn big that it's a challenge.
I hope that I have an opportunity to continue to serve. I spent 20 years in the private sector in the oil industry. I was a small business owner for 10 of those years as well. I'm not interested in doing either of those things.
RH: You're not interested in the private sector any more?
AP: I've been in discussions with headhunters with corporate boards. I think I'd have a lot of value to add, particularly in the energy sector or in infrastructure. But personally, I'm interested in the nonprofit world or potential future political races.
I'm not interested in being a member of Congress. I'm interested in executive or administrative posts. After running a $5 billion corporation for six years ... I don't want to talk about things. I want to do things. That was my style as mayor. I'm not wired to just sit and think about things. It's like, what's next? I want to move the ball.