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A Look Back At The Parker Years

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker starts a fellowship at Harvard Monday to teach public policy. It’s part of her transition from public servant into a private citizen. We’re taking the opportunity to look back at her accomplishments as the city’s chief executive officer.

Mayor Annise Parker at a city council meeting
Mayor Annise Parker at a city council meeting on July 22, 2015.

Annise Parker spent 18 years at City Hall: three terms as council member, three as city controller and finally three as mayor.

She was Houston’s second female mayor and the first openly-gay head of a major U.S. city.

So after six years of leading Houston, how did she do?

We asked some Houstonians.

“I like that she championed those people that are different in terms of same-sex marriage and things of that nature,” Cheryl Woods said.

Some gave mixed reviews.

“I’m disappointed with the roads – that’s why I don’t drive,” Yevgeniy Gladkovitser said. “I like the bike trails, they’ve proliferated quite a bit. I like the rental bikes; I like the parks.”

And then there was the issue her administration may be most remembered for.

“The HERO act or whatever, the right for gays to go into the kids… or the female restroom,” Chris Serna said. “Because I have a daughter and what if some guy’s in there waiting for her or something like that. You never know.”

Let’s stop right there.

The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was designed to protect 15 different classes from discrimination, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

But voters repealed it, largely because opponents pointed out it would allow transgender women – and those pretending to be – into women’s bathrooms.

“Whether fairly or unfairly, that becomes her legacy issue to some extent,” Jay Aiyer, political scientist at Texas Southern University, said.

He said despite Parker’s accomplishments in her first two terms, people are likely to remember her very public failures in the last term.

He also said the fight over HERO is an example of Parker’s uncompromising style.

“She took a really, I think a strong, and I think ultimately history will prove, a correct moral decision that she did not want to exclude certain communities from HERO protection, when everyone else was suggesting, look, just compromise and you’ll get this thing passed,” Aiyer said.  

Parker emphasizes that HERO was not a priority for her, which is why she introduced the ordinance in her last term.

And she said she has achieved a lot through compromise.

“Principle compromise is something that I think is important and I have engaged in it when it was appropriate,” Parker said. “Compromising principles, such as backing off on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, is never appropriate.”

Bob Stein, political science professor at Rice University, said the problem was Parker insisted on many principles. And he thinks Parker could have gotten more done had she communicated her points better.

 “She often made these votes in many ways very personal, about her or her causes, and if you weren’t with her on one, often was the case that she didn’t really want you on another,” Stein said. “She was never very, I think, inclusive in terms of building these coalitions. In fairness, many of her opponents were the same way.”

Stein said it may just be a sign that city politics have become much more partisan, something Parker disagrees with.

When asked about her legacy, Parker points to three areas: better infrastructure, more parks and reduced homelessness.

But her critics often point to Houston’s abysmal roads.

TSU’s Aiyer said with her Complete Streets program and Rebuild Houston, Parker focused on the long-term.

“She made a decision that says, look, we’re going to build streets, we’re going to actually fundamentally rebuild them. And they did that,” Aiyer said. “It meant fewer streets were built and it was going to be slower, but the ones that were built were going to be built in a better way.”

Aiyer said Parker’s successes came in increments, with smaller achievements. And also long-term projects, whose final impact we don’t yet know.

The future of Rebuild Houston, the dedicated pay-as-you-go fund for drainage and street repair, is uncertain. Recently, a court ruled the city has to redo the referendum that helped establish it.

And Parker’s One Bin For All recycling program has yet to materialize.

But Stein is optimistic about Rebuild Houston.

“I think eventually this new administration and council will rectify that legal problem,” he said. “And I think they’ll figure out a way to keep this revenue stream coming into the city.”

Stein and Aiyer agree that Parker did a good job leading the city through the recession when she came into office in 2009.

“She’s the first mayor to have to downsize city government dramatically,” Aiyer said. “She had to deal with layoffs. No other mayor had done that before. Other municipalities in the state and others had simply raised taxes, and she made a decision not to do that.”  

To that, Parker said she was only doing her job.

Stein gives her a lot of credit for her effort to expand green space in Houston, which not only improves quality of life but also spurs development.

He also said under her and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the city-county partnership has become very productive.

Bottom line: Stein and Aiyer give Parker a B.

And how does the Harvard fellow grade herself?

Parker acknowledges that she wasn’t able to solve the pension problem that is facing the city, but she did all she possibly could about it.

“If you take pensions out of the equation,” she said, “I’m a solid A.”

Click here to listen to the full interview with Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker. 

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

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