The Great White Hope

Democrats haven’t won a statewide race since 1994, so why does this middle-aged guy with a bald head and big ears think he's the fresh face of the party? Because outgoing Houston mayor Bill White has a record that makes some Republicans envious, he can raise a ton of money, and he will kiss as many babies as it takes (whether they want him to or not).
The Great White Hope
White, photographed on October 15, 2009, while courting a future voter.
Photograph by Chris Buck

Editor’s Note: This story went to press when Bill White was still running for Senate. Mayor White officially announced his candidacy for governor on Friday, December 4.

Mayor Bill is on the move. Strapped into the passenger seat of an unmarked Lincoln Town Car, cell phone stuck firmly to his ear, he rolls through the vast grid of streets. He issues orders, barks out instructions. In the waning days of August 2005, something terrible has happened, and in some ineffable, fate-ridden way, it has fallen to him to fix it.

That terrible thing is Hurricane Katrina. The storm, which has slammed into the Gulf Coast, has also loosed a flood of evacuees. Of these, 200,000 have landed in Houston. There is no guidebook or FEMA manual that addresses such a massive shelter operation. In Dallas, 30,000 victims have arrived, and Mayor Laura Miller is already complaining that her city is nearing the saturation point. In Houston, 30,000 people will come through the Astrodome alone.

This is Mayor Bill’s problem. This is why he is pounding through the city at all hours of the day and night in the wilting, late-summer heat. He is learning, as the rest of America will soon realize, to its horror, that the federal government cannot be counted on for much of anything. Nor, really, can the State of Texas. Nor, really, can anyone else. No one knows what to do.

Except, as it turns out, Mayor Bill. In those first moments of chaos, he makes a large conceptual leap: The evacuees are not going home. Almost no one believes this, because it’s unthinkable that a single city could possibly absorb so many people. Mayor Bill believes this. Even better, he has a plan. Well, it is more of an objective, with the details to follow. But it is an extraordinary idea. “The overriding policy goal,” he will say later, “was to treat people the way we would want to be treated. We wanted people to be on the path to living with independence and dignity, to finding work and getting their children in school.” Permanently. Mayor Bill is old-fashioned: a Sunday school teacher who believes in the mysteries of God and in the quaint notion that people are inherently kind and generous. Each time he welcomes someone into the shelters, he offers a verse from the New Testament: “When I was hungry, you fed me. When I needed shelter, you took me in.” The Book of Matthew is the overriding policy goal.

In press conferences and interviews, he pitches this idea to Houston, and the city signs on. Its residents become, in effect, the people Mayor Bill believes them to be. Within a week, a staggering 100,000 individuals are mobilized in churches, schools, nonprofits, and businesses. One thousand doctors from Houston’s Medical Center—the best hospital in the world—are dispatched to provide care. Problems are swiftly solved. When Mayor Bill learns that thousands of evacuees can’t get prescriptions filled because they lack the proper identification, he responds by dictating a crisp letter to the CEOs of the major pharmacies, asking them to relax their rules. He has the entire Houston-area congressional delegation sign it and faxes it off. Within 24 hours, fully stocked pharmacies miraculously appear at the main shelters, staffed by pharmacists who suddenly have no trouble bending the rules.

Mayor Bill does not brook delay. He calls up a friend who is a director at Walmart and essentially demands that the company, the third-largest corporation on earth, put the full power of its global supply chain at his personal disposal. This happens immediately. Thus Mayor Bill can get anything he wants—cots, blankets, clothing, refrigerators, food—in hours instead of days or weeks. He holds daily logistical meetings at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which becomes the command post for the relief effort. He cuts off political speeches; he bans turf battles. He shames FEMA. In a meeting federal officials proudly announce that they now have an 800 number that will solve all the problems the storm victims are having registering for aid. White sends two of his lieutenants into a hallway to try it out. The number is useless. Mayor Bill demands to know why.

He does this sort of thing again and again with FEMA. He aligns himself closely with Republican Harris County judge Robert Eckels, and the two men work as one. Along the coast, government at all levels is breaking down. In Houston, as each minute passes, the relief effort becomes tighter, better organized, and more efficient.

Still, Mayor Bill has a problem: Where is he going to put all these people? FEMA’s answer: trailers and temporary shelters. His answer: apartments and permanent dwellings. He digs up every landlord he can find—eventually there will be some six hundred of them—and tells them, “The only place that these fellow Americans of yours can stay is in apartments, so if there is an apartment that has been abandoned, rehab it, fix it up. If it is due to go online in a month, have people work overtime.” Plumbers and electricians and building inspectors are recruited and deployed. Empty nursing homes are converted. With astonishing speed, reminiscent of wartime mobilization, the city and county come up with 30,000 empty units, ready for occupancy.

But that doesn’t answer the question of who is going to pay for them . The feds have already bailed out. There is no precedent for what is happening, and if there is anything a bureaucrat fears worse than losing his job it is those two words: “no precedent.” So Mayor Bill invents a program without anyone’s permission. It is essentially the Mayor Bill Plan, backed only by the full faith and credit of Mayor Bill. Without waiting for Congress or the White House, he issues thousands of housing vouchers that bear the seal of the City of Houston. People can give them to landlords to pay rent, but the apartment owners know there is nothing behind the vouchers. They want to know how they are

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