Customer Service

Running a big city is like running a business, say two new Texas mayors: You cut costs, manage your resources, and try to keep your clients happy.

PARTICIPANTS:
Editor Evan Smith
El Paso mayor Joe Wardy
Houston mayor Bill White

Smith: You both ran for mayor at a time when being the guy in charge of a major American city is no day at the beach. Why would either of you want the job?

Wardy: It’s an issue of leadership. I’m one of many people who’ve succeeded in different walks of life and now want to make things better in their community. It’s not for the light of heart, but El Paso is my home. My roots are here. I look forward to the opportunity to make a difference.

White: I love Houston—it’s been great to me—but we need to make a decision on where the city goes next. I’ve seen politicians talk about issues but not get anything done, and I’ve seen politics become divided along partisan and ethnic lines. I know how to manage organizations and bring people together. I thought it was time to offer those skills to the community.

Wardy: What Mayor White said applies to El Paso as well. Our politicians talked a great game but didn’t execute. Coming from the business community, I know how to work with limited resources and achieve large objectives. The voters want to see those of us in office do something and they want accountability.

Smith: Mayor White, you also have a background in business. Why is that a good thing?

White: In challenging financial times, you need management experience. I know how to serve customers and cut costs to provide more service for the dollar. It’s important to get more bang for the taxpayer buck.

Smith: Talk about the challenging economic times you each face.

Wardy: I’m going to tell you that this is a great time to be mayor. Various economic entities have been forced to work together, and the result is that we see regional unity in the economic development efforts of El Paso, Juárez, and southeastern New Mexico. The stakes are so much higher now that our joint efforts allow us to compete, we hope, against Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix, Tucson, and Albuquerque.

White: The economic slowdown makes it important to attract new businesses. I’ve relocated businesses to this region before, and I know we have a lot to sell: room to expand, the absence of a state income tax, a diverse and hardworking young workforce. Those are all very important to companies right now. I can’t wait to make calls on companies on the East and West coasts.

Smith: To what degree are ethnic politics a defining fact of life in your cities, and how do they influence the way you’ll govern?

Wardy: We have a fundamentally strong Hispanic culture in El Paso: We’re 77 percent Hispanic, 18 percent Anglo, and 3 percent black. To be a successful mayor, you have to understand how this community works. You can’t decide the city is going to work your way. You have to respect its culture and customs.

White: We have no majority ethnic group, but the population is divided among Anglos, blacks, Latinos—who are the largest in the plurality within the city limits—and Asian Americans. We have one of the fastest-growing Asian American populations of any city in the country. People appreciate it when you understand the differences in our cultures, and they expect the face of our workforce to reflect the face of our city. At the same time, the issues of flooding, air quality, and traffic know no ethnic bounds.

Smith: New York’s mayoral elections are nonpartisan, just like yours. But the mayor of New York wants to change that. How about it, guys? Are you also interested in running as Democrats or Republicans?

Wardy: I’d be against it. We allow people to judge candidates free from party labels. It allows more people to enter the mix.

White: I’d oppose it too. We ought to seek to find common ground in our public lives whenever we can. I’m a Democrat today. I’ll vote in Democratic primaries in the future. But I’ll govern absolutely in a nonpartisan manner. The more I take stands that could divide, the less effective I’ll be.

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