‘Redneck white city down in Texas.”
That’s how Houston Mayor Annise Parker sums up the caricature of her town, and she wants everyone to know it’s bunkum. Houston is “a really cool city,” she says. “Open and entrepreneurial and welcoming.” It’s also booming.
The mayor herself is a walking testament to the cosmopolitan contrarian reality of modern Houston. Annise Parker is a Democrat in a deep-red state, the first openly gay mayor of a major American city. She’s a social liberal who’s also a former oil-industry executive with a pro-business attitude running what may be the nation’s least-regulated metropolis.
Houston’s recent track record is startling. For the calendar year ending in February, it saw the fastest pace of job growth (4.5%) among the country’s 20 largest metropolitan areas. (With a population of 2.1 million, it’s the fourth-largest U.S. city.) In 2011, the last year such data are available, Houston had the fastest-growing large metropolitan economy, at 3.7%.
Add to that a cost of living that is 7.8% below the U.S. average—New York is 53.4% above the average—and you can see the attraction for waves of new arrivals. Housing costs run a third less than the average in the 29 largest metro areas. Adjusting for these lower costs, Houston has the highest per-capita income of any city in the nation.
The mayor, who is 56, and I are discussing the city’s makeover at one of its hottest new restaurants. Underbelly, Ms. Parker’s choice for lunch, is in the Montrose neighborhood where she lives. “This was a huge lesbian bar,” she says, before the neighborhood turned “trendy” and places like Underbelly moved in. As diners fill the capacious restaurant, Ms. Parker notes that Houstonians eat out more often than anyone else in America.
Like Texas as a whole, Houston sells itself as “business friendly,” and Ms. Parker ticks off the attractions—ease of permitting, unobtrusive regulations and low taxes. She also supports Houston’s limited restrictions on land use, which some here call its real secret sauce. Without zoning, Houston can adjust to shifting market demands—whether for townhouse complexes or retail outfits—faster than most any other city. It looks unwieldy to anyone of the urban-planning persuasion, but it also keeps prices down.
Tory Gattis, who writes the Houston Strategies blog, says: “I’d argue we may be the most libertarian city in America. Live and let live; strong property rights; not much corruption; small business culture.”
The economic dynamism has demographic consequences. A couple of years ago, Ms. Parker says, she argued with New York filmmaker Spike Lee over whose hometown was “the most international city in the U.S.” The debate isn’t as lopsided as it might seem to a non-Houstonian.
The city has surpassed New York as the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse, according to a study last year by Rice University. One in five residents was born outside the U.S. The city attracted the second-highest number of new, foreign-born residents in the first decade of this century, after the more populous New York. A Manhattan Institute report last year named Houston and Dallas the country’s least segregated cities.
Hispanics are hardly the only newcomers. The Korean, South Asian and Chinese communities are a backbone of the small-business community. European expatriates work in energy and at the Texas Medical Center—which, this being Texas, touts itself as the world’s largest.
No ethnic group makes up a majority, and Hispanics, whites, Asians and African-Americans are evenly represented. Houston’s “melting pot” makes it “impossible for any one group to dominate another,” says Fred Hofheinz, who was mayor in the 1970s. Leave the politics of ethnic and racial division to other places.
Stephen Klineberg, who led the Rice study, argues that in some 30 years all of America will look like Houston today. Conservatives and liberals can both find something to like in Houston’s post-racial, post-ethnic present.
Certainly broiling heat and sopping humidity aren’t the draws. “We’re never going to have the climate or the views of San Francisco,” says Ms. Parker, who shares the Houstonian habit of managing to sound both proud of and deprecating about the city.
Likening Houston to “a good soup where all the ingredients come together,” she says: “All the things that people say you have to have to have a great city, maybe we don’t have. But it’s still worth it.” The phrase echoes the city’s promotional campaign: “Houston. It’s Worth It.” This being a town that doesn’t take itself too seriously, the campaign’s website explains that Houston is “worth it” despite a list of 20 “afflictions” that include “the flying cockroaches,” “the ridicule” and “the refineries.”
It wasn’t always worth it. A visiting journalist in 1946 called Houston “mostly ugly and barren, a city without a single good restaurant.” Over several decades, it went through a couple of oil booms and busts. The last petered out in the early 1990s, when former Mayor Bob Lanier invested in roads and policing to prepare the city for when the good times returned.
Houston’s revival is of course rooted in the current oil and gas bonanza, though less than in the past. Energy is half the city’s economy, down from nearly 90% in the early 1980s. Houston is also now a global energy center. Anything related to the exploration, transport or refining of crude, gas or biofuels anywhere can be found here.
Ms. Parker spent almost two decades in the oil and gas business, working for former U.S. Commerce Secretary and Republican Robert Mosbacher’s energy company, Mosbacher Energy. “We were a one industry town,” she says. “That’s clearly not workable for anybody.” She calls herself a “booster” of oil and gas but says Houston’s strength comes from its ability to adapt to new trends.
“We’re 50% energy today but that’s not just oil and gas,” she says. “It is solar, it’s wind, it’s biofuels, it’s transmission lines. We’re a headquarters city—we’ve never been a big producing area. So we have to make sure that we maintain the ability to be the headquarters, the brain trust.”
Another driver of growth is the Texas Medical Center, which now has more commercial real-estate space than all of downtown Dallas—a particular point of Texas-rivalry pride. Biotech is taking off. The shipping port has, by some measures, become the nation’s busiest.
As a city council member and controller in the 1990s and 2000s, Ms. Parker built a political coalition of liberals, gays and business. When she decided to run for mayor in 2009, the business groups abandoned her, she says, because they doubted her electability as a lesbian, which she says was “frustrating and a little bit hurtful.” She won narrowly.
Those bad feelings are forgotten. Business appreciates Ms. Parker’s response to the city’s budget crisis and they’re behind her bid for a third—and under the law, final—two-year term this fall. Coming into office in 2010 amid a recession, she laid off 776 city employees, starting with her deputy chief of staff. “I wanted to show it was going to start at the top,” Ms. Parker says. No firefighters or cops were fired, but public swimming pools and libraries were shut.
She also didn’t raise taxes. “Raising taxes, that’s the easy answer,” the mayor says. Ms. Parker did impose the first drainage fee on properties to fund street improvements that would reduce flooding. It was dubbed by some as a “rain tax,” but she says most Houstonians understand the need to invest in such basic public works.
Ms. Parker plays up the need for a “working city” to serve people here and to attract those still put off by Houston’s reputation. She wants to find ways to liven up downtown. A citywide network of bike and running trails is being built. Early one morning, I joined her and a few dozen others for a six-mile bicycle ride promoting the city’s new bike-sharing program—yes, in this oil-guzzling, no-zoning-laws sprawl of some 600 car-friendly square miles.
Some common urban ills remain. The public-employee pension funds are a mess. The funding shortfall is “the only cloud on our horizon,” she says. Her critics says she hasn’t shown the daring or urgency to take on government unions to fix the problem, but that’s been a bipartisan failure nationwide.
“If you look at her record in governing,” a political consultant I meet in Houston says, “you’d think she was a conservative.”
Hearing this description, Ms. Parker doesn’t choke on her Korean braised goat and dumplings.
“There used to be jokes about how a Democrat in Texas was a moderate Republican in Connecticut,” she says. “I do think there’s a sweet spot there, where government is a tool to make peoples’ lives better. . . . But I’m fiscally conservative. I came out of a conservative industry. I understand making payroll and balancing books.”
She also doesn’t sound like a mayor who will tell you what size soda to buy.
“I’m the black sheep in my family,” she continues. “I’m from a long line of Republicans. Everyone else in my family is a Republican. The social issues are what drove me away from the Republican Party.”
Situated on a bayou and close to Louisiana, Houston mixes the South’s hospitality and the West’s independent streak and tolerance of differences. Ms. Parker cites these qualities to explain her political career. “The vast majority of Houstonians are pragmatic and they judge me for what I do, not what I am.”
She is a former president of the Houston GBLT Caucus and militated for gay rights in the 1990s. In her various stints as an elected city official, she emphasized financial matters and played down social issues. At least her mayoral victory, she says, got Houston a bit of attention for defying typecasting by outsiders.
“I’m not a spokesperson for the gay community,” she adds. Gay marriage is personal. “I’ve been with my life partner for 22 years.” They have three children. “I want to marry her.”
Ms. Parker is holding out for Texas to legalize gay marriage. “I may be old and creaky, but it’s gonna happen,” she says. “This is a war we’ve already won. There are still battles left to fight. . . . mopping up operations.”
Anything, they keep telling you, is possible here.