The Corner Office: Annise Parker
As Houston’s 61st mayor, Annise Parker has spent many years in service to the people of Houston—six years as a city council member, six years as city controller and two terms as mayor. Parker’s many accomplishments as mayor include job growth far exceeding the number of jobs lost during the recession, resulting in Houston being named the job growth capital of the nation. In addition, she bucked the trend of most other major U.S. cities by balancing three city budgets during the tough economic times without raising taxes or having to eliminate police or firefighter jobs.
Mayor Parker is a second generation native Houstonian. She graduated with a B.A. from Rice University (a triple major in anthropology, psychology and sociology) and spent 20 years in the private sector working in the oil and gas industry, including 18 years with Mosbacher Energy Company.
What was it that attracted you to public service after working in the private sector?
I was a very active community volunteer for the 20 years I worked in the private sector. I decided finally that I was going to work every day to support my volunteer habit, and I wanted to be able to do things I was passionate about full time. I didn’t want to be in an office. I wanted to make things happen.
What big changes do you foresee in Houston in the next two years and what are the biggest challenges in maintaining the current growth the city is enjoying?
We’re one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. We’re going to continue to grow, and there are a range of problems associated with growth. Traffic jams, air quality, education concerns and making sure there’s a sufficiency of workforce housing for all the folks who are coming here. As long as we have a strong economy, people will come…but we also have to make some investments to make sure that we can handle the people who are moving here.
How has Houston changed over the years since you were a student?
It’s bigger. It’s more international. It’s more cosmopolitan. It’s more open, more tolerant. It’s a better place overall. We still have elements of being a big small town. It’s friendly and welcoming. We may be sprawled out all over creation, but you can have a sense of community in any part of the city. What I hear over and over again both from visitors and people who live here is that it’s a very livable place and they feel welcome. And that’s priceless.
What is the most challenging aspect of being the mayor of the fourth largest city in the US?
Cities are 24/7. They’re never finished. And this is a strong mayor system so I am the CEO of the city. I have the ceremonial duties plus I run the city. I hire and fire the departmental directors. With the strong mayor system, if the wheels come off, it’s my fault.
In your years as mayor, what has been your most rewarding experience?
[Long pause.] I can’t point to just one. To be able to know that I have made decisions, initiated efforts that have changed the future of Houston, from the hike and bike trail initiatives that’s being rolled out along all our bayous, to the work that’s going on Buffalo Bayou, to the work we’re doing in homelessness right now and in the last year we’ve housed more than 500 chronically homeless veterans. Every day I get to do something that changes Houston and so there’s not one thing. It’s that I get to make positive progress and change people’s lives for the better every day.
I also have the potential to really piss off 2 million people every day. It’s the nature of the job balancing legitimate competing needs and interests so that there’s almost nothing that we de that’s going to make everyone happy. It’s not possible. Many of the things we do as we grow we have to do things to enable large numbers of people to live together and so we end up limiting the things that they can do. That means that there are losers in that process.
I do more to try to engage with Houstonians—quarterly Teletown Halls, where we dial into a neighborhood and try to get people on the phone. It’s amazing we’ll have 300 people listening to a phone conversation. We also do quarterly Web Chats. We do what I call Merchant Walks where we pick a strip center and I go in and out of stores accosting shoppers and proprietors and talk to them about what’s going on. Through the Merchant Walks I’ve learned that barber shops are the best places to go because the guys are always happy to see me. They always want their picture taken, and they know all the gossip about what’s going on in the neighborhood or who got robbed.
The fourth thing we do is Three Minutes with the Mayor. We do it in different areas of the city. The hardest part is that I can’t have a three-minute conversation. There’s no substitute for being out in the neighborhood. I learn things on the drive over there. I see what’s around whatever venue we are visiting. I hear from them directly and someone can say, “Now, Mayor, when you leave here I want you to go down to the corner and turn left. You can see the weedy lot that I was talking about.” It also means that people have the opportunity to look me in the eye and raise any issue they want.
The hard part is, even with those four initiatives and meeting 48 weeks a year where anyone can sign up and come down and speak to us, I just barely scratch the surface of the population of Houston. I do my best to get myself to as many places and as many venues to get a sense of what’s happening. The good news is, what I’m hearing from Houstonians right now is great. But there’s just so much I don’t know. Being a type A, super achiever, Rice alum, I want to master the job. I want to master the process. Can’t happen. And you can’t ever get it all done because cities are never finished.
This article is from the Fall 2013 issue of Jones Journal