Mayor Annise Parker by Terry Shaffner
In an article by journalist Matthew Kaminski, the Wall Street Journal wrote a love letter to open lesbian Houston Mayor Annise Parker. The long article focuses on her extraordinary leadership in leading Houston to being an "American Boomtown".
Here is an excerpt:
'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.
The Mayor also speaks about marriage equality:
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.