A Letter to the Mayor

July 1998By Comments

The Honorable Lee P. Brown
Mayor of Houston
Houston, Texas

Dear Mayor Brown,

THANKS AGAIN FOR SEEING ME the other day. I’m always happy to have a reason to go to Houston City Hall. It’s not much to look at from the outside, but inside it’s one of my favorite buildings in Texas. I particularly like the high-minded mottoes in that great 1930’s lettering that are on the walls to remind the city’s servants of their duty. As I waited to see you in the lobby of the mayor’s office, I kept reading the two mottoes there—“Virtue in the civic body is eternal” and “Cities and thrones stand in times eye.” After talking with you, I came to think they are closer to expressing what I understand of your political philosophy than that of any mayor of recent memory. Unfortunately, that may not be entirely a good thing, but more about that later.

I want to tell you now what I should have said to you in person. Houston owes you a debt. Before you became police chief, the conduct of the Houston Police Department was always a major issue. Since you arrived in 1982, it has been a minor issue. Yes, there have been incidents and there have been several chiefs after you left for New York in 1990, but the dynamic between the force and the city changed when you came on board. Houston is better for it. Now the question is this: Will Houston be better for your having been mayor?

So far, the reviews aren’t that good. One complaint is that you are remote, that you don’t have the easy charisma of, say, Ron Kirk, the mayor of Dallas. I wouldn’t worry about this criticism. You’re a big, imposing guy with a light-bulb smile and a gentle manner. That’s fine. There’s no point in trying to be anyone but yourself. That said, there are a few things you can do to deflect these barbs.

Another complaint is that your office is a comedy of errors. There’s something to this one. Most famously you had to suspend your affirmative-action director, Lenoria Walker, and then accept her resignation. In the space of a short talk at a convention in New Orleans, she had managed to make patronizing remarks about whites, Hispanics, women, dwarfs, and Republicans. Her remarks were worse than gaffes. They revealed a woman filled with antagonisms and resentments that determined much of her conduct in office. In other words, she was exactly the opposite of what you claim you want your administration to stand for. In May your director of communications resigned with his office in disarray. He was a man with little experience in news or government. What was he doing there? Then you appointed a 29-year-old man as your chief of staff. He may rise to the occasion, but it should be no surprise that people are wondering if someone who is 29 and green is the person to be running the office of the man who is running Houston.

And last, the critics say you lack vision. I don’t agree. I believe you have a practical, legitimate, workaday, sleeves-rolled-up, not-very-sexy vision that needs packaging.

What makes these criticisms interesting is that you believe you are accessible, efficiently staffed, and possessed of a great vision for Houston. During our talk, you returned to these subjects with pride again and again. Your critics think you’re doing the worst exactly where you believe you’re doing the best.

As for aloofness, I have to say my heart sank when your scheduler told me that any request for an interview would have to be in writing so that it could be reviewed. I know scheduling can be a problem, but that was the first time I’ve gotten that response from an elected official. Usually, I speak with the person handling appointments or the press; that person talks to the boss and calls back with the date. It’s simple. Then your office asked for written questions so that you could “prepare.” I appreciate your taking me so seriously, but you shouldn’t have to prepare for anyone who just wants to ask you about being the mayor of Houston. But I dutifully submitted a list of general questions—What are your best accomplishments so far as mayor? What challenges lie ahead? I was disappointed when I asked some of these easy questions and saw that you were reading the answers from a file someone had prepared lying in front of you on your desk! You were responsive to the questions, but that’s not the point. No mayor, for that matter no elected official, for that matter nobody at all, should have to consult his notes to find out what his best recent accomplishments have been. Reading to me from your prepared notes, you seemed aloof, one step removed from the direct communication that should have been happening. In your mind you were responding; to me, you were reading notes.

Another thing—cool it with the bodyguards. I know a mayor needs to be conscious of security, and you told me you had the same number of officers in your security detail as past mayors Lanier and Whitmire. Still, you go everywhere with two beefy guys with a wire coming out of their shirt collar going into a tiny earphone. When you went to meet the edito-rial board of the Houston Chronicle, before you would enter, a guy came in and poked around the room, jostling everyone in their chairs, to check for bombs! Bombs in a conference room at the Chronicle? Maybe your wall of security is thicker than it needs to be.

I worry that you are not paying enough attention to politics. There’s politics to being a police chief, but not the same kind of politics as being an elected official. In fact, being mayor of Houston is more political than ever. Although officially nonpartisan, the last city election was really Democrats versus Republicans. You are starting in a good position because the Democrats have a comfortable majority on the city council, but I would not count on partisan loyalties being permanent. When Lenoria Walker’s remarks first became known, the Republicans criticized her, and the Democrats supported her. But soon that partisan split began to evaporate as more Democrats became critical. The same shifting could—will—happen on divisive issues in the future. When I asked you what the next major battle on the council was going to be, you said, “Oh, something always comes up.” But was there anything specific? “No,” you said. Well, maybe you didn’t want to tip your hand, but that wasn’t the impression I had. You need to be much more informed and alert politically than you seem to be so that you can be prepared for events. If there isn’t anyone on your staff who can help you do this reliably and accurately, you need to find someone quickly. Your opponents on the council and in the city are not going to submit written questions.

Now for the vision thing. You spoke to me about your concept of city government based on neighborhoods, much as you reorganized the police force into neighborhood patrols. As mayor, you have taken your department heads to meetings so that they could hear neighborhood concerns and solve problems right on the spot. But then you went on to talk about a host of other goals—helping children, economic development, transportation, ethics in city government, clean air, getting the Olympics in 2012. “If you want to hear more,” you said, pointing to the file folder, “I’ve got a whole list.” Those are all worthy and important issues. But to have so many goals is to have none. You should steal a page from Ron Kirk, who stole his page from George W. Bush’s last campaign. Kirk picked two issues and made them his. He wanted to pass a bond proposal for a new sports stadium downtown and to pass bonds to rebuild and beautify land around the Trinity River. The two bond proposals took practically all his energy. He was everywhere—on talk radio shows, in front of civic groups, in churches. He used all his political capital on these issues, and they passed. You must decide what the corresponding issues are in Houston. If you don’t have a few—very few—big ideas to carry the town forward, then everyone else is going to feel free to push personal agendas. The result will be constant bickering, nothing happening, or even worse, the wrong things happening.

In closing, I have to say that what struck me most about you was your idealism, despite the copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince on your desk. Your idea about people in neighborhoods bringing their problems to a responsive and kind city government was the sort of political talk I hadn’t heard since college. It was as if your political thinking really was determined and informed by the mottoes on the walls of city hall: Virtue in the civic body is eternal. But actually achieving such ideals requires tough fighting that may not be pretty. I’m worried that beneath your idealism, there is just a bit of dangerous complacency. The story going around is that you think you are politically invulnerable because you will always get the black vote and a smattering of the rest of the vote and that’s enough to win. Yeah, well, you need to dominate the city or else your life as mayor is going to be miserable. If you eke out a 55—45 victory in the next election, you’ve won an empty office and you’re vulnerable to challengers, black and white. That’s the sort of thing we didn’t understand in college when we talked about politics. Remember, Houston’s city hall is a lot more attractive inside than outside.

Yours very truly,

Gregory Curtis

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