While at the 2017 World Leadership Conference in Houston, Texas, we asked keynote speaker, conference co-chair, and IWF Texas Member Annise Parker a few questions about public service and the conference in Houston.
Parker was a three-term Mayor of the City of Houston and is now a Senior Vice President at BakerRipley.
At the IWF World Leadership Conference, you presented a keynote address on the city of Houston entitled, Global City For Tomorrow. As former Mayor, you know better than anyone that your city is the most diverse in the U.S. What unites Houstonians, and what divides them? What can the rest of us learn from Houston about helping each other, and helping the rest of the world?
Houston has the problems found anywhere in the world—poverty, pollution, inequality. Add to that, we are a city of immigrants and migrants—one in four is foreign born and the majority of residents are not born in the region—so we are divided by race, ethnicity, language, and national origin.
But we have two strengths that transcend these challenges. We are an entrepreneurial and innovative city. We are eager for new people with ideas and energy. Our four largest economic sectors are energy, medicine, NASA (aerospace and engineering), and the Port of Houston. All have large international and high tech components, and all are future focused.
And you become a Houstonian the day you arrive. Where you grew up, what church you attend or where you went to school is a matter of interest, not an entree to acceptance. America is often described as a ‘melting pot,’ where cultural differences disappear as newcomers are assimilated. Or, as a tossed salad, where cultural groups retain their distinct identities. Houston is both and more—a fusion of the dreams, experiences, goals and traditions of everyone who comes to the city.
Earlier this year, Houston and the Texas gulf coast were hit by Harvey, a category 4 hurricane. In your current role at BakerRipley, you’ve been active in the relief effort and managed the shelter at the NRG Center. What was that work like? What’s the current status of the relief effort? How can people help?
While having never previously operated a shelter, BakerRipley staff has vast experience in disaster case management and operations, and our CEO has visited refugee camps in many parts of the world. For nearly 4 weeks I became co-manager of a city that served 7,500 people. Ultimately, we had a medical bay, pharmacy and optometry clinic; dining hall for three hot meals a day; government service providers; beauty and barber shop; children’s zone; dispensary for clothing and necessities; pet kennel and much more. It was safe, clean, secure, and welcoming. I used every bit of experience and all the skills of my years as Mayor to make it work.
While most of this region is back to normal, those who were directly affected face years of recovery. Direct contributions to strong, locally based charities like www.unitedwayhouston.org or www.bakerripley.org are still needed.
How important was bipartisanship and seeking common ground to your success? How do you feel about the status of cooperation across party lines both in the U.S. and around the world today?
Houston elects centrist, pragmatic policy wonks. Although I have a party affiliation, like most U.S. mayors I served in a non-partisan position. That meant I needed a broad base of support for election and sought it across the political spectrum—from former First Lady Barbara Bush to the Houston Police Officers Union to the Jewish Herald Voice. While in office I tried to govern free from partisan influences as much as possible to reflect that range of support. But this also gave me latitude to promote issues on their merits rather than through a partisan lens. It’s almost impossible to guess the political party of most mayors from their public positions. That’s because these are operational jobs; the core functions of every city are the same and there is a very direct and immediate feedback loop. There is no partisan way to pick up trash or fill a pot hole.
Partisan drawing of district lines in America is directly related to gridlock at the state and federal levels, as those elected representatives are beholden to narrow partisan constituencies and face strong pressure to conform. Every public official should follow the dictum of Sam Houston, “Do right and risk the consequences.”
You were the second female and the first openly gay mayor of Houston. You kept a journal in your office titled “Would This Have Happened to the Last Mayor?” In what ways have these factors impacted your career and how you were perceived? In your mind do women and LGBT individuals need different leadership qualities to succeed?
I started my activist career in college, attending my first LGBT organizing event in 1975 and also becoming active in the feminist movement. I still consider myself an activist and a feminist. Every day in office I was aware that I would be viewed as a role model, but also judged as an exemplar of women and LGBT office holders. Women are judged by different standards. And we often place added burdens on ourselves. If failure isn’t an option, you aren’t pushing hard enough. You can devote energy to changing the system or stepping up your game. I’ve done both
At the closing gala of the World Leadership Conference, Hillary Rodham Clinton was inducted in the IWF Hall of Fame. Last year, she became the first woman in U.S. history to become the presidential nominee of a major political party. You have been a strong supporter of her throughout her career. What did that moment signify for you—and for women in public service?
There are too few women in leadership in business or politics. We bring different skills, experiences, and ways of addressing problems to our jobs. America can’t be the country it should be if more than 50 percent of the population doesn’t have the ability to fully contribute, and this vast reservoir of talent is untapped. I am a strong proponent of women running for and serving in office, and have personally supported many extremely qualified women candidates. Hilary Clinton, with George H. W. Bush, was arguably one of the two most qualified presidential candidates of the last half century. It was exhilarating to see her nominated. But as long as one is counting milestones, the journey isn’t over.
You’ve always been open about your love of reading. Before entering politics you even owned and operated a local book store. What are you reading these days?
Not enough! I’d love to give a list of mind expanding tomes, but I am a voracious reader and I read for pleasure. I read science fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance novels, largely in that order, with a healthy dose of poetry thrown in.
What do you hope to achieve next?
I want to always have meaningful work where I can serve my community. Contributing is not a matter of a particular job or position.