What Being Mayor in California Taught Me About Working in Houston


Coming to the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, who knew that my experience in Ventura would translate so well to Houston?

Houston Night Skyline Randall Pugh

Randall Pugh

Coming to the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, who knew that my experience in Ventura would translate so well to Houston?

This post was originally published in the Houston Chronicle.

It was September 2014, and I was about to make my first public appearance in Houston. I had been named Director of the Kinder Institute, but I hadn't started yet – I was still living in San Diego.

Maria Irshad from the City of Houston had asked me to come down to the George R. Brown (which I called "the Convention Center," not knowing you're supposed to call it "the GRB") to speak to a group of folks.

About parking. In California.

As soon as I stood up in front of the crowd, I was reliving the emotional rollercoaster of my previous life as an elected official in Ventura, Calif. I found myself recounting how the city instituted paid parking in the downtown area, enraging the Tea Party and leading a couple of right-wing shock-jock talk radio hosts in Los Angeles to spend an hour excoriating "the stupid City of Ventura and its dumbass Mayor Bill Fulton."

Everybody in the room nodded knowingly. Who knew that my experience in Ventura would translate so well to Houston?

When you run for office, there are two things you can't know in advance: First, what the experience will be like. And second, how you will carry what you learn forward into your life after you leave office. (Believe me, what happens after you leave office is something most politicians never want to think about.)

In my new book, "Talk City: A Chronicle of Political Life in an All-American Town" – a collection of real-time blogs from my time as Deputy Mayor and Mayor of Ventura, a medium-sized beach town near L.A. – the experience is rewarding, but it's also stressful and sometimes emotionally searing.

The best and worst thing about local office is that you are never off duty. Once, as I was pulling out of the parking lot at our local farmers market, another car cut me off; when I cursed the driver, he said, "Sorry, Councilman!" This kind of ouch! was an almost daily experience.

When I left office in Ventura at the end of 2011, I never imagined that I would live in Houston. But I also didn't imagine how valuable my elected experience would be in the job I eventually took running the Kinder Institute.

Part of the value came from understanding a lot of issues that cities have to wrangle with – budgets, public works, parks, police service. In Ventura, our downtown parking strategy was very controversial, partly because it re-instituted paid parking for the first time in 40 years. But our underlying philosophy was that more parking isn't always the answer; you have to use paid parking, time limits and a wide range of other tools to make sure the parking that exists is better utilized.

This came in handy several years later when the Kinder Institute undertook a parking study of Rice Village. Before our study, everybody assumed there wasn't enough parking in Rice Village. But we found that the problem wasn't the overall supply of parking but how parking is utilized. I am sure that never would have occurred to me if I hadn't experienced the parking controversy in Ventura.

Similarly, public pensions were a major issue when I was Mayor of Ventura, and pensions were already a major issue in Houston when I arrived. In 2016, when the Kinder Institute undertook a comprehensive analysis of the City of Houston's pension situation, we didn't have a lot of in-house expertise on the financial ins and outs of pensions.

But I had been through some similar pension wars in California, so I understood the basic issues, and I also had some sense of the nuanced politics around pensions. I like to think this was one of the reasons why our pension report was well received and served as a baseline of knowledge as Mayor Turner and the other stakeholders worked those issues through in the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017.

And that's maybe the most important point to make about the experience of serving in local office: You get substantive knowledge about important public issues, but you also get a much better feel for the politics of every situation – where people are coming from, what you have to take into consideration and what it takes to get things done.

Before I was elected, I had spent decades as a journalist and researcher analyzing and writing about local government issues. I thought I knew how things worked – but I didn't know enough about the obstacles to getting things done and how you slipstream around those things in order to reach your goal.

That's been more valuable than I can say in a can-do town like Houston. From its inception in 2010, the Kinder Institute has positioned itself not as a think tank, but as a think-and-do tank. The think part I had down a long time ago. The experience of being an elected official in California has helped me understand how to help people in Houston work on the do part.


What: Book launch and conversation with Bill Fulton and the Houston Chronicle's Lisa Gray

When: Tuesday, April 3, 2018, 7 p.m.

Where: BioScience Research Collaborative, Rice University, 6500 Main Street

Click here for more information

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