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The Lone Star Progressive

Annise Parker Sells Houston on Brass-Tacks Urbanism

Story by Anna ClarkTwitter

Photography by Scott Dalton

Published on Mar 10, 2014

Annise Parker, mayor of Houston, is hurt. She’s limping when we meet in her third-floor office at City Hall, wearing one black shoe and one tan leather slipper fitted around a bandage on her sprained left ankle. Another bandage circles her sprained wrist. “I tangled with a City of Houston trash can,” she says from behind her polished wood desk. “One of those big black boxes.” A staffer in the room suggests that Parker needn’t mention that it was specifically a City of Houston trashcan. But Parker does anyway. Several times.

After all, it’s not as if Parker is easily beaten. We’re speaking on a Tuesday morning at the beginning of her third term as leader of the nation’s fourth-largest city. She has tackled the most provoking and most mundane of urban challenges and now, because of term limits, she has only two more years serving Houston as an elected official. She’s already hearing from people who want her to run for state office.

Parker made headlines in 2010 by becoming the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city. Shortly after her third inauguration, she flew to California to marry her longtime partner. Parker’s ascent spurred what she described as “lots and lots of frankly unearned media attention” that had the attitude of, “How could this have happened in Houston first, and not all these other places?”

Her reply: “It’s because you don’t know Houston.”

Houston is strangely under-chronicled for a city that could fit the entirety of Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Baltimore inside its 600-square-mile footprint. While the city’s sprawling reach makes Los Angeles look dense, its population of 2.1 million makes it the fourth most populous city in the nation, following New York, L.A. and Chicago.

When media coverage does appear, journalists tend to “confirm biases they already had,” according to Parker, a 20-year veteran of the oil and gas industry and the owner of a hybrid SUV. They might swing by the annual rodeo, for example, or color the landscape as a “mosquito-filled hellhole.” It’s not surprising that many Americans picture Houston as an ultra-conservative place where cowboy culture thrives, the petrochemical industry dominates, and highways barrel through an endless mishmash of out-of-context skyscrapers, subdivisions and strip malls. There are, after all, no zoning regulations.

When the spotlight fell on Parker four years ago, she says, “it gave me the opportunity to say, in effect, ‘let me tell you the other things you don’t know.’” Born and raised here, and serving as councilmember and city controller, Parker was primed to reveal Houston for what it is — and what it can become.

What is the story of Houston? One former resident jokes that the city’s motto should be “it’s not as bad as you think.” A more apt line may be: It’s not as conservative as you think.

The METRORail train runs through downtown Houston.

Houston is a profoundly international city. Twenty percent of its residents are foreign-born, with nearly as many Asians and Africans as Latinos. It’s the fifth most popular city for American immigrants. As a result, Houston developed a reasonable immigration policy that those squabbling elsewhere might learn from. Undocumented immigrants are welcome unless they commit a crime. Only then will the city facilitate their deportation. City Hall continues to support programs that help immigrants participate in Houston’s civic and economic life, while strict regulations have cracked down on industries that prey on their vulnerabilities.

The city’s dependency on oil and gas has dimmed in the last three decades, and it is investing seriously in sustainability: Transit, green space, renewable energy and a dense urban core. Parker created the position of sustainability director for the city and recruited Laura Spanjian, from San Francisco, to run the new office. Her marching orders? “Shake things up,” Parker says. In addition to investing in rail, bus and bike infrastructure, the city launched the massive Bayou Greenway Initiative, a $480 million public-private project that will transform the relationship between city residents and the bayous.

Houston is also making progress on inequality. Parker restructured the city’s Office of Affirmative Action and Contract Compliance into the newly christened Office of Business Opportunity to help minority- and women-owned small businesses compete for municipal contracts. She instituted one of the most expansive anti-discrimination ordinances in the country. And Houston was first in the nation to solve its rape kit backlog, a horrific problem plaguing most major cities. Standing next to Parker to mark the achievement was another up-and-coming Lone Star Democrat: Sen. Wendy Davis. The senator — a fellow female politician with a media-friendly personal story — helped secure $11 million in state funding for Texas’ 20,000 untested rape kits. Houston combined the state dollars with federal and city money to not only eliminate its backlog, but also improve evidence management in the long term.

Finally, there’s Parker’s stance on economic inequality. While homelessness in cities is ubiquitous to the point where it is almost accepted as a natural part of the urban fabric, Houston is working eliminate chronic homelessness. The mayor, whose son was homeless when she adopted him, dedicated her last two terms to the issue. Her inaugural reception, after all, was held at the Houston Food Bank.

None of these accomplishments were done by template, as there’s no mold fit for the city’s brass-tacks culture. In Houston, reform must happen on decidedly local terms. If visionary policies catch on, it’s because they are useful — not because they are visionary. Here, you have to make the business case for what you do.

“We’re not going to purchase renewable energy because it’s great for the planet — although it is great for the planet — but because it’s good for business,” Parker said. “Obviously, we want to save taxpayers money when we can.” Against all odds, Houston is the largest purchaser of renewable energy in the country.

Houston has become a case study for the practicality of progressivism. The city’s radical transformation over the last three decades, and its finely tuned evolution under Annise Parker, speaks to the nuts and bolts of intelligent urban policy. Ideals are not the fuel here; utilitarianism is. The main mode of reform incentivizes change rather than regulates it. (This is still small-government Texas, after all.) Yet the new Houston looks far more idyllic than the old.

In tackling three of the prickliest issues in urban policy — immigration, transportation and homelessness — Houston is a model for cities where old partisan divides are a dysfunctional way of doing business. The biggest lesson? Practicality is the language that builds substantive collaboration among citizens, organizers, business leaders and elected officials. That collaboration, in turn, is essential for on-the-ground change.

“You don’t hear of bickering public leaders in Houston,” said James Brooks, director of city solutions at the National League of Cities. “You hear about partnership and collaboration. There’s clearly something there.”

A 180-Degree Turn

Parker has deep roots in Houston. She remembers the city of her youth as a “segregated, biracial, much more Southern” place than it is today. These days, more than 80 languages are spoken in the school system and you are just as likely to find beef pho served for dinner as barbeque ribs. But while Houston looks and sounds different than it did when Parker was young, the city’s identity as a place where you can make something out of nothing stretches back to its very founding.

Before oil, Houston trafficked in ingenuity. The city itself exists through sheer force of will. Its founding in 1836 on the banks of Buffalo Bayou is almost inexplicable. The land was swampy, the climate humid, and the city 50 miles from the coast. To promote it, brothers John Kirby Allen and August Chapman Allen (described to me as “shyster lawyers from New York City”) placed ads in newspapers in New York, New Orleans, Washington and Louisville, Ky. that described Houston as the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas” with an enticing “sea breeze” that didn’t actually exist.

People did come to Houston, and they made it work. The city dug a 50-mile channel to connect with the Gulf of Mexico. In the 1870s, it celebrated itself as the place “where 17 railroads meet the sea.” The city seal still features the image of a puffing engine. “We’ve always been a city of business,” Parker says. “This was a city about moving goods. This was a city where people came to work.”

The turn of the century brought two ground-shaking events. First, the Hurricane of 1900 killed around 8,000 people overnight and ended Galveston’s tenure as the region’s great port. In 1914, Houston stepped up and built the Port of Houston. At first a fully inland port, it is now one of the world’s largest.

Four months after the storm, at the exact moment when automobiles were transforming American life, oil fields were discovered 80 miles northeast of Houston in Beaumont. The ensuing boom dominated the region for most of the century. Even in the 1970s, when most other cities were stifled by stagflation, Houston poured money into new downtown skyscrapers.

Then it went bust.

“We’re not going to purchase renewable energy because it’s great for the planet — although it is great for the planet — but because it’s good for business.”

Nobody tells the story better than Parker’s former professor at Rice University, Steve Klineberg. Something of a rock star in Houston, Klineberg co-directs the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice. But he’s most famous for his Houston Area Survey, which for more than three decades has tracked the evolving demographics and attitudes of Harris County residents. His live-wire energy and raspy voice bring life to data, making him a TEDxHouston favorite. (See his talks here and here.) The New York City native, who arrived in Houston in the 1970s thinking he wouldn’t stay for more than a few years, has made it his life’s work to thread together Houston’s future and past.

In 1982, 82 percent of primary jobs in Houston were tied to oil, gas and petrochemicals, according to the Houston Area Survey. But that year, after an 80-year boom, the market collapsed. By 1987, one in every seven jobs was gone. “Houston recovered into a very different world,” Klineberg says.

These days, about 50 percent of Houston’s primary sector jobs are in energy. The economic shift parallels a monumental change in demographics. The 1980 U.S. Census shows more than half the Houston population (834,061) were Anglos, with African Americans making up more than 25 percent of the city and Hispanics, 18 percent. Since the bust, the city’s growth has been nearly entirely non-Anglos.

Even as Houston’s overall population has grown by more than half a million, the number of white residents dropped: the 2010 Census counted 537,901. Today, Houston is the most ethnically diverse city in America, according to the city survey. By 2010 Census numbers, it looks like this: 25.6 percent white, 23.7 percent African American, 43.8 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian and 0.8 percent identifying as another ethnicity.

Why Houston? For Latinos, it is the first major city they encounter after crossing the Texas-Mexico border. Houston was also a key resettlement community for Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees after the Vietnam War. And change in national immigration policy in 1965 made it possible for more non-Europeans to come to the U.S., with preference for family reunification and professionals in short supply. Houston offered good jobs for doctors and engineers, thanks to the Texas Medical Center, NASA and, yes, the energy sector. This led to a rise in the Chinese, Filipino and African communities.

Gordon Quan, an immigration lawyer and former councilmember, experienced this firsthand. In the early 1950s, his family immigrated to Houston. They were a rarity: The 1960 Census showed Asians as half of 1 percent of the population. While as a kid, he fretted about being an “oddity,” he knows of a Chinese immersion school in Houston today with a student body that is only about 20 percent Asian, with the rest of the students choosing the school for its language classes.

“There’s a pride in multiculturalism,” Quan says. “It’s a 180-degree turn.”

José Villarreal, executive director of AVANCE Houston, a service agency for immigrant and low-income families, says that Houston remains appealing to immigrants because unemployment is lower than the national average and it has “one of the strongest economies in the country.” Plus, the cost-of-living is low. “It means people worked for lower wages,” Villarreal says, “but it also means there is affordable living.”

Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University and the co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

How has City Hall responded to the changing population? It’s made a point of understanding that it’s “not in the border enforcement business,” Parker says. She’s aware that the city’s immigrants include those who don’t have documents. Unofficial policy, she says, is to welcome undocumented residents so long as they work and pay taxes. Houston benefits from their contributions to community life. But, Parker says, if an undocumented immigrant breaks the law, “we will arrest you and prosecute you like anyone else.” And “because you are no longer a good guest, you will be deported.”

This is what Parker posits as the “rational immigration reform” that should be mirrored elsewhere. It has cross-sector, bipartisan support behind her, with everyone from local civil rights groups to the chamber of commerce agreeing on immigration’s economic benefits and supporting comprehensive reform.

Houston’s welcoming stance toward immigrants isn’t unusual for Texas’ big cities, but that doesn’t make it uncontroversial. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is now defending just such a stance after Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houstonite running for lieutenant governor, repeatedly described the influx of undocumented immigrants as an “illegal invasion.” More drastically, the popular mayor of San Angelo, after winning a fourth term in 2009, abandoned his office and fled for the border because his partner was an undocumented immigrant.

In comparison, the administration of Parker and her predecessors have built allies in the immigrant community. (Democrats have led Houston City Hall since 1982.) While on the council, Gordon Quan watched Houston’s office of immigration and refugee affairs transition into the office of international communities, designed to help acclimate newcomers to city services. Quan served as an adviser for the old office and co-chaired the committee for the new office, which gained a new face under Parker.

One of the center’s programs protects basic rights by ensuring day laborers get paid, have accessible restrooms, and have educational opportunities on days they aren’t picked to work in fields. Parker supported the office’s work by signing an executive order requiring city agencies to translate all essential public information into five languages other than English and designate a coordinator to eliminate any lingering language barriers. The international office is currently studying exactly which five languages to use in order to serve the greatest need.

Parker also issued tough regulations on the payday lenders that prey on immigrants who lack bank accounts and aren’t familiar with U.S. money systems. The ordinance limits the number of times payday loans can be refinanced or rolled over, which contributes to the borrower’s debt cycle. It also capped payday loans at 20 percent of a borrower’s gross monthly income. Houston was the fifth major Texas city to restrict payday lenders — Austin, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio have similar ordinances — but with nearly twice the population of San Antonio, the state’s next largest city, Houston’s impact is disproportionate. As James Brooks of the National League of Cities puts it, the ordinance will “make an enormous difference to typical wage earners.”

Payday lending, Brooks says, “is a hard thing for cities to tackle, because states are not always amenable to moving into this environment. But [Parker] wasn’t afraid to go after that.”

Villarreal says the city could go further. He’d like to see better promotion of the payday lender laws and other recently toughened ordinances so that immigrants have a chance to learn about them. If they suspect someone, they should know how to report it. “They need a place to call,” Villarreal says. Despite the work still to be done, he is sanguine about the progress being made.

“What Houston can show other places,” he says, “is the coalition and collaboration of business, the city and immigrants all working together on a proactive agenda.”

Green Houston

Walk through downtown Houston, and you may be surprised to see empty streets. Cars zoom by, but the wide sidewalks look barren. Yet when you step into a bar, the place is packed. What gives? Where did all the people come from?

The secret is Houston’s network of climate-controlled tunnels spanning 95 blocks and 77 major buildings. Largely patched together — there was never a central plan — the first tunnels were built in the 1930s. Today, it is a color-coded but confusing web of tunnels that look like airport terminals. Restaurants and boutiques line the windowless sides of long, wide aisles. You enter and exit through stairways in surprising places, like the lobby of a Marriott or a street-corner doorway.

The unusual system was all of a piece for mid-century Houston. As Parker remembers it, by the 1970s Houstonites were going from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned restaurants. “We stopped being an outdoor city,” she says. Just like expansive highways, the tunnels existed so people wouldn’t have to walk outside.

In light of all that, Houston may seem like a strange place to witness a culture of sustainability, especially in infrastructure and transit. But it’s happening, and immigration has something to do with it.

“People come here with an attitude of what cities should have and do,” says Parker, who serves on President Obama’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. “The expectation is we’ll have transit, the expectation is we’ll have zoning — and [zoning] they’re not going to get, but transit we’re working on.”

Raw data helps make the pragmatic case for transit. In 1960, two-thirds of Houston households had a child, making suburban homes with a yard and a car appealing. Today, less than one-third of households have a child at home. Meanwhile, baby boomers remain a large segment of the population, with many of them approaching or already into old age. “Do we want them to be driving?” Klineberg asks.

Investing in better mobility options, then, is a matter of enlightened self-interest for voters, business leaders and community organizers. People in Houston expect and need more choices.

To diversify transit in Houston, Parker signed an executive order committing Houston to a “Complete Streets” makeover intended to make urban streets — freeways exempted — more welcoming for all users, whether in a car, a wheelchair, on bike or on foot. From Chicago to New Orleans, more than 610 U.S. jurisdictions have passed Complete Streets policies, according to Smart Growth America, but Houston is only the third city in Texas to do so (Austin and San Antonio are the others). Preceding Parker’s order was a new requirement that vehicles give cyclists three feet of space.

Houstonians ride rented bicycles through B-Cycle bike share program.

It’s easy to imagine a backlash to these new regulations — maybe a protest line of SUVs — but, interestingly, it never happened. That’s because the city only acted after the community conversation about multi-modal streets was cast as a matter of mutual benefit. Last April, long before Parker passed the order, Houston radio discussed “how to make Houston’s streets safe for everyone.” Thirty-three organizations sponsored more than a week of lectures, bike rides, walks and other events meant to build awareness about complete streets. Politically, Parker was no rogue. She didn’t issue her order until it was reviewed by city council (approved 15-2) and developed in partnership with public works and planning officials. Complete Streets came to Houston not because it sounded like a nice thing to do and brought the city in line with national best practices, but because widespread buy-in was cultivated through the program’s benefits.

To some extent, Houston had already been following the Complete Streets framework. It is focusing urban development along transit corridors, like the $556 million Memorial Park project, which will widen bus-only lanes on Post Oak Boulevard and reforest an Uptown park. The city is also slowly growing its 12.8-mile METRORail system. When it opened a decade ago, its single line became the 14th most traveled light rail route in the U.S. Recently the line expanded to connect the University of Houston with downtown, a long-desired addition paid for largely with federal funds.

Transit, however, is just one part of Houston’s larger move away from the gas-guzzling, resource-blind ways of the past. Early in Parker’s tenure, she led Houston’s big investment in improved city systems, most of which aren’t visible. (ReBuild Houston, a city infrastructure website, aims to change that.) Houston’s new sustainability office also standardized green planning and building. With a 2004 resolution that set a LEED minimum for all forthcoming buildings, Houston ranks fourth among U.S. cities with the most LEED projects.

Houston may seem like a strange place to witness a culture of sustainability, especially in infrastructure and transit. But it’s happening, and immigration has something to do with it.

Many of those gains bear the imprint of Laura Spanjian, who left the San Francisco city government intrigued by the possibility of “leading by example” in an oil and gas town. If Houston can be green, what city can’t?

Spanjian’s signature accomplishment to date is B-Cycle, Houston’s bike share program. Launched in 2012 with just three stations and 18 bikes, the program grew to 29 stations and 230 bikes across downtown and adjacent neighborhoods the following year. These bikes share the road with one of the largest electric and hybrid city car fleets in the country — an investment emblematic of the administration’s knack for finding a middle ground that offers an example of change while upholding a comfortable status quo. “If you’re going to be a car city,” Parker told the New York Times in 2010, “you might as well acknowledge that and help people get into cars that don’t pollute as much.” Spanjian has adopted her boss’s pragmatism, invoking the business community as a partner as much as traditional allies in the environmental community.

“Business leaders see where business trends are going,” says Spanjian, who oversees the Green Office Challenge, an incentive program designed to encourage companies to reduce their carbon footprint. “Employers hear young professionals asking about green buildings and dense downtowns,” she says. “We’re trying to push through initiatives that help companies attract talent that wants to live here and set down roots.” Businesses who want to recruit the “best and brightest” have found that these employees are increasingly dissatisfied with an indoor lifestyle.

The most significant complaint Spanjian hears about her work? That she is trying to make Houston like “some California city.” She must clarify, “No, we love Houston! We want to be Houston!”

Perhaps the most monumental environmental effort in Houston is the Bayou Greenway Initiative, which will connect 10 bayous across the city and on its periphery through a network of trails and recreational areas. “We get asked a lot why there are not more bike lanes,” Parker says. “We’re building a complete off-road trail system that will connect you to everywhere.” More than half of all Harris County residents will live within 1.5 miles of the network.

One of the initiative’s first projects is Bayou Greenways 2020, which will build 150 miles of parks and trails within city limits. Taxpayers will end up paying $100 million for the effort, while the private sector will pick up the other $115 million. This exemplifies the new Houston mindset: Not only will the region’s fiscally conservative private sector chip in for a public park system, but the city’s equally tax-shy public voted to tax itself to pay for it. Today, Parker says, the private sector has raised $80 million. Residents are already crowding the construction cranes on Buffalo Bayou, eager to take advantage of emerging trails. The network will be completed in five to seven years.

Sustainability is the “first and best known” dimension of Houston’s changing national reputation, according to the NLC’s James Brooks. “It’s very forward-thinking in that area,” he says, “particularly for a city of that size.”

As Brooks says, sustainability can be a “fuzzy issue.” But Houston is showing how to green a massive city — one that credits its development to petrochemicals and air-conditioning, no less — in a smart economic way. Houston’s sustainability progress, juxtaposed with its thriving economy, is a powerful counter-argument to cities that are dragging their feet on green policies, suspecting them to be money-losing fringe projects rather than an effective way of doing business and serving citizens.

A Thoroughly Conventional Mayor

It was never a secret that one of Parker’s adopted children was once homeless. But it wasn’t until the 30th anniversary luncheon of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County that the whole story came out.

Standing behind a podium as flashes lit her face and silverware clinked on plates, the mayor said, “I can deliver an hour-long speech on the history of municipal pensions… Usually what I talk about is what’s going on in the city of Houston. I love to talk shop.”

But here, she was about to pivot.

“I’m interested in the issue of homelessness as a compassionate human being, because in a rich city in the richest country in the history of the world, we shouldn’t have homelessness,” she said. “But I also have a personal connection, which has helped inform my views on homelessness, and why I care so much about it.”

Before public life, Parker met the person who would become her son. Now 37, he was then a teenager “living on the streets of Lower Westheimmer,” a Houston neighborhood near downtown with a high rate of youth homelessness. Parker, an advocate in the gay community, was part of an outreach effort to homeless kids in the area, many of whom were gay. She met her son, then 16, at gatherings where she gave “the pep talk about how you too can make something of yourself.” During a gay pride parade she saw him again, carrying a “little tiny duffel.” After he came out to his parents, he had been on and off the streets.

“I fished in my pocket, I pulled my house key out, I handed him the house key, and I said, ‘You know, here’s my address, go let yourself in, get cleaned up, you can stay with us for a little while,’” Parker recalls. The goal was to get him in supportive housing. But as Parker and her wife learned, “there was nothing there.” He still lived with them a year later. In time, he became family.

Parker is staring down homelessness over her final term. It’s a big problem: The Houston area has the ninth largest homeless population in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Mayors of other major cities largely have a sorrowful but shoulder-shrugging attitude about homelessness. It is a population easily knocked off the priority list. Homeless people, after all, are not major voters.

As with her other projects, Parker’s urgency builds on the work others are developing. In 2009, the federal HEARTH Act set new regulations for homeless agencies. The Coalition became the lead in a massive restructuring intended to address service gaps and duplications. Marilyn Brown, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County, says the network found that Houston had a 42-square mile footprint that homeless people negotiate to meet basic needs like breakfast, showers and laundry. With limited transit — for now, at least — they spend too much time walking. Restructuring will shrink the footprint.

Brown says that because the mayor made homelessness a priority, “we’ve been able to implement changes just by leaps and bounds. There is the political will behind it to make it happen. Every time we’ve gone to her for support, she says, ‘I’m there.’”

The mayor’s role, for now, is relatively limited. Brown says Parker understands that you can’t legislate an end to homelessness; making it illegal to sleep on the streets doesn’t cut it. But Parker gave the network a timeline to meet its goals when her term ends. Once service solutions are in place, she’ll work on policies to make them last.

Parker has gotten technical support from the U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Development for the agencies. She appointed a special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives. She pulled together major Houston figures in faith, business and the non-profit sector, asking them to hold the city accountable. The Mayor’s Leadership Team, as it’s called, meets every other month with Parker and a special assistant. While the team helps the city stay on track to fight chronic homelessness, the city educates the leaders. “Especially from business people, many of them want quick solutions,” Brown says. “But then they realize it’s more complicated than that, if we want it to really work.”

The most significant complaint Spanjian hears about her work? That she is trying to make Houston like “some California city.”

During Parker’s tenure, the city drew fire for instituting an ordinance that made it illegal to hand over food to more than five homeless people at once. Some media outlets ran stories characterizing the ordinance as an outright ban. (A Daily Kos headline, for instance, read “In Houston It’s Illegal to Feed the Homeless and for the Homeless to Feed Themselves.” The Houston Press ran a similar line.) In fact, the ordinance requires people feeding the homeless to have permission from the given property owner and to clean up after themselves.

The regulation was conceived to address a food safety concerns, though not everyone bought this line of reasoning. “We’ll be criminalizing charity,” said Houston Councilmember Helena Brown after what the Houston Chronicle called a “bitter debate.” Those who do give food to the homeless with permission are asked to let City Hall know about it so it can keep a master calendar.

For all the bad PR that the ordinance attracted, Parker’s own story gives her a sort of moral authority on a big issue. “The credibility it gives her when she says [homelessness] is important,” Brown says “you can’t measure how important that is.” But is it enough for Houston to end homelessness?

“Houston has a history of commitment to be willing to tackle big things,” Parker says. “For a long time, that tended to be physical concrete things.” The city was also vital in putting a human being on the moon, and it took on the massive humanitarian role of inviting refugees from Hurricane Katrina to the Astrodome — a civic response to a homeless crisis, as Brown points out.

A couple walks their dogs on a newly constructed bridge over Buffalo Bayou in Houston.

Parker calls herself a “thoroughly conventional mayor.” By epitomizing the practicality prized by Houstonians, she is credible when she ventures into more classically progressive territory.

Comparing Parker with Wendy Davis, the mayor’s occasional partner in the statehouse, is a study of contrasts. Davis’ 11-hour filibuster in the Texas legislature won her the national spotlight, inspired a groundswell of progressive activism and propelled her gubernatorial campaign — but did not ultimately stop the abortion ban she was protesting from becoming law. Parker’s managerial brand of progressivism doesn’t incline her to take show-stopping risks, and her rhetoric often sounds decidedly straight-laced, even conservative. But, as she tells me, she has a list of things to accomplish, and one by one, she’s checking them off.

The trick, though, will be for Parker to not let the brass tacks keep her from dreaming big and taking risks — with or without a coalition. After all, the energy for progressivism that Davis catalyzed marked a turning point for state politics in Texas. And Parker is in her final term as an elected official in Houston. As her former professor, Steve Klineberg puts it, “This is her chance to be a visionary.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Anna Clark is a freelance journalist in Detroit. She has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, NBC News online, Pacific Standard and other publications. She is a political media correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review. Anna is the editor of A Detroit Anthology and author of Michigan Literary Luminaries: From Elmore Leonard to Robert Hayden. A former Fulbright fellow, she is also the director of applications for Write a House. Her website is annaclark.net.

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