HOUSTON — Annise Parker keeps a leather-bound journal on the desk in her wood-paneled office in City Hall. If it had a title, she says, it would be: “Would This Have Happened to Another Mayor?” Its pages are filled with her cursive script of the stories she could tell about being the first openly gay mayor of a major American metropolis.
Parker is reserved and wonky, not the sort to tell tales, so the journal remains closed to prying eyes. In fact, she got elected mayor — and was re-elected twice — not on charisma or personal narrative but by positioning herself as an effective manager.
Because of term limits, Parker cannot run again, and as the Democrat moves through her final year as mayor, she has left her mark on the nation’s fourth-largest city and become a national figure in LGBT politics. Doing both at the same time hasn’t always been easy.
Parker likes to present herself as mayor first, but her symbolic national significance hovers about her like Houston’s humid air — comforting for some, clammy for others. She was in her fifth year as mayor before she engaged the city in a contentious gay-rights debate, and her handling involved some political missteps.
“I was a gay and lesbian activist in my college days, so that’s always been part of my acknowledgment of the world,” said Parker, sitting at her large antique desk by a window overlooking the tangle of highways that engulfs Houston. “What is different as mayor is I’m not a spokesperson for the community. I am the public face and voice of the citizens of Houston. I just happen to be a lesbian when I’m doing it.”
Parker won the mayor’s race in 2009 after having first served on the City Council and as comptroller. As mayor, she pledged to make the difficult budget cuts to get Houston through the nasty recession that waylaid America’s cities. She cut hundreds of millions of dollars in spending and 776 jobs. Through attrition, she has downsized the government by about 1,000 workers. Conservatives and progressives in this largely Democratic city praised her steely resolve as she trimmed opening hours for city libraries and swimming pools.
In recent years, Houston has found itself ranked high on lists of best places to live. In 2012, it was named the nation’s “coolest city” by Forbes, noting its “stylish housing developments,” theater scene and world-class museums. Earlier this year, it was listed as the country’s fastest-growing city, and Food & Wine magazine called it “America’s newest capital of great food.”
Parker’s supporters see these all as proof of her able stewardship.
“It dispenses with the notion that when LGBT people run, they are running as activists,” said Denis Dison, the acting executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute, which has backed all of Parker’s campaigns. “They are doing so to fill the potholes.”
That part is true — Parker is trying to fill the city’s potholes, which are legion — but it’s not the only truth. One of her most prominent moves in her final term has been pushing the city ordinance to protect gay rights, which has landed the city in a court battle that attracted national attention.
“She talks about it in personal terms,” Dison said. Her election “changed for a lot of people what was possible for our community in politics.”
Parker, 58, grew up in Houston going to Astros games with her father. After moving around with her family, she returned in 1974 to attend Rice University. There she studied anthropology, psychology and sociology, and helped to found a gay student group on campus.
After Rice, she built a career in the oil and gas industry, working 18 years for oilman and Republican politician Robert Mosbacher, who later served as commerce secretary under George H.W. Bush. She remembers him fondly as a good boss and magnetic leader. “All the women in the office had a crush on him,” she recalled.
She also established herself as an active leader in the city’s LGBT community, which had blossomed in the late ’70s but was then facing challenges. In 1984, the City Council passed a law banning discrimination in city employment on the basis of sexual orientation. The next year, the ordinance faced a citywide referendum and resoundingly failed.
About the same time, Parker was elected president of the city’s Gay Political Caucus.
“It was a scary, very different time,” she told the Houston Chronicle in 2009. “We had regular death threats, our tires slashed, vandalism.”
In 1988, Parker and a friend opened Inklings Bookshop, which catered to lesbians, gay men and feminists. Parker, who kept her day job, described the store as a kind of community center, bustling with author appearances and visitors who lingered: “You could bring your dog.” During her first campaign, she says, “one of my opponents went after me for having a gay bookstore — [but] probably the biggest seller we had at that time was something called ‘Koko’s Kitten.’ It was a children’s book about a gorilla that had a kitten.”
The bookshop closed in 1998, just as many other independent booksellers were getting crushed by big-box stores — but before it shuttered, Parker met her future wife, Kathy Hubbard, an accountant. They later became foster parents of a son and adopted two daughters, and Hubbard was on stage with the political spouses in January 1998 when Parker was sworn in as a council member, becoming the first openly gay elected official in Houston.
After winning six local races, she was elected mayor. Her victory made headlines internationally, and the president called to congratulate her. Locally, the celebration of the broken barrier was somewhat more muted.
“I don’t know how to say this,” said Sean Theriault, who is a professor of government at the University of Texas and is gay. “She was one of the least-gay candidates who are openly gay that I’ve ever seen. She never ran as ‘Houston, elect your first gay mayor.’ Her orientation never became an issue, but once you leave the 610 Loop it becomes pretty unfriendly territory.”
Miles outside of Interstate 610, Houston’s beltway, is Republican-led Harris County. In recent years, party officials have tangled with Parker.
“She has spent her last term pursuing her own social agenda over the will of the people” is how Paul Simpson, the recently elected head of the county Republican Party, described her.
Simpson was referring to Parker’s decision to put to a City Council vote last year a measure to protect the rights of the lesbian, gay and transgender community in public and private places, which included a provision that would allow people to use the restroom that best fits their gender identity. Social conservatives called it “the bathroom bill.” The provision regarding public restrooms was amended out before the measure passed.
“To my trans sisters/brothers: you’re still fully protected in Equal Rights Ordinance. We’re simply removing language that singled you out,” Parker tweeted after the vote.
A move by conservatives to bring the ordinance to a citywide referendum has become a divisive mess: City lawyers subpoenaed the sermons of pastors backing the referendum, which triggered a backlash, so Parker dropped the subpoenas. The fate of the ordinance is still playing out in court.
Robert Stein, a political scientist at Rice University, said she would have done better by taking a more detached approach to the ordinance and staying focused on core human rights values.
“She made it very personal, so it took all the air out,” Stein said. “She called this a personal battle. … She let her heart, rather than her head, lead us.”
The push for the law came about the same time that Parker married Hubbard in a California ceremony. Parker has said she and Hubbard decided to marry after the Supreme Court’s initial decision last year not to take up the issue, which effectively extended same-sex marriage rights in 14 states, but not Texas. (The court has since agreed to take up the issue of whether states can prohibit same-sex marriage or refuse to recognize marriages from other states.)
The political battles have taken their toll. According to Stein’s polling for local news media organizations, her job approval ratings range between 55 and 60 percent — substantially lower than those of her predecessor. But, he adds, if she were able to run for re-election next year, she would probably win again.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Parker’s schedule was packed with meetings. She had been in an ugly battle with the leaders of the city’s firefighters pension fund and was eager to strike a deal that would lessen the amount the city is forced to contribute to the fund. The night before, she had stopped by the city’s livestock show and rodeo, an annual rite for the leader of this Southern city. That same week, she was honored at a Victory Fund champagne brunch for “changing the face and voice of America’s politics.”
She has begun identifying the successes she thinks will mark her time as mayor. Besides leading the city through a tough recession and helping to promote it as a great place to live, she’s pleased that efforts to reduce chronic homelessness have been gaining ground.
One of her final priorities is an effort to do away with the city’s two-year terms in office, which she believes are too short. The change would not affect anyone now in office. But Parker said if she could run for mayor again, she would. She loves the job.
She has begun to publicly contemplate her future in Texas. It’s the state that gave the nation Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and Gov. Ann Richards, two mold-breaking, colorful politicians. Parker has risen in a time very different from theirs. No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas for two decades, but she is seriously pondering a run for higher office in 2018.
It would clearly be a long shot. But Parker would like to have another journal someday. Call it: “Would This Have Happened to Another Governor?”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Rice University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.