All About Elyse

After years of making Mayor Bob presentable, Houston's First Lady is ready to get serious. Seriously.

Elyse's unpretentious warmth and Bob's folksy, mush-mouth delivery mitigated the danger that they would come off as rich swells. So what if their house was on the block for $6.9 million? They had a personal chef, but by god, she specialized in greens and gravy and green-pea salad; they presented departing guests with monogrammed mementos, but ones that any Texan could relate to: plastic go-cups inscribed "Elyse & Bob." Indeed, so thoroughly did the Laniers embody Everyman's Houston dream that there was a magnificent inevitability to the thought of them as First Couple.

When Lanier beat Sylvester Turner in the ugliest runoff in memory, much ado ensued about Elyse's role. She wanted an office at City Hall, and was startled to find letter-to-the-editor writers and phone callers railing against such a notion. Even the Chronicle, while conceding the city might be getting a two-fer, wagged a cautionary editorial finger: "A Mrs. Mayor is not what the voters bargained for." Lanier decided to pay $202 a month out of his own pocket for a tiny office carved from Kathy Whitmire's old storeroom, and the waters calmed ... for about 20 seconds.

Elyse couldn't win. On the one hand, critics acted as if she might meddle in issues of substance; on the other, when she announced that her focus would be sprucing up Houston's public spaces with flowers, critics acted as if they'd prefer a combination of Mother Teresa and Eleanor Roosevelt. Why couldn't the First Lady tackle such pressing problems as homelessness, poverty, illiteracy? "These are the '90s," noted one columnist with asperity.

Elyse, however, was determined to be Elyse. She and Bob had talked it over; she would do what she was most comfortable doing. "It would look foolish if I said literacy was going to be my whole focus," explains Elyse. "I think people would see through that." She knew flowers, she knew pretty things, she knew she could help the city put a better face forward. It was as simple as that. And all too easy to lampoon. A skirmish flared when vases of Lanier roses that Elyse had brought to council chambers blocked TV angles; a Lanier aide took umbrage when cameramen removed them. Then there was the heist of several rose bushes from the $20,000 worth she got Shell to donate to City Hall park. Elyse was photographed gazing forlornly at the ravaged beds. She opined that the thief -- who later proved to be a homeless man nabbed in an eight-man police sting -- was "not a very nice person" who needed to "get a job, make a few dollars and go buy [himself] some rose bushes." It was one of those let-them-eat-cake-ish utterances that escape the First Lady's lips on rare and memorable occasions. And the image of eight lurking cops defending Elyse's fiefdom made the affair smack of a comic operetta.

But the flaps died down. Elyse persevered. Cynics may have smirked when during her privately funded planting drive before the Republican Convention she brought in her personal landscape architect to make sure the colors didn't clash. But the city looked swell, and many of the improvements made a permanent difference, from landscaping at the airports to such private projects as the lively flower beds at Shepherd near Greenbriar. Just driving by the rose plantings Elyse and Bob donated to Sweeney Clock Plaza can induce a lightening of the spirit. And it is impossible not to smile at the exuberant dottiness of the Elysian City Hall park, where she has commissioned Richard Flowers -- who once embellished the Lanier mansion for parties -- to create holiday looks to her taste. "Decorations I want big and exciting and grand," she says, adding that Central Houston Inc., not the city, foots the bill.

Elyse's hostess instincts made the leap to the civic scale, too. She has encouraged so many special events that the area around City Hall looks like a perpetual party these days. Raffish tents and towering stages sprout and melt away again; odd strains of music seem to beam in from another dimension. If there is life down there, thank Elyse. And if there are people sunning by the reflecting pool in little white cafe chairs, or lunching under umbrellaed, wrought-iron tables that seem to have migrated from Patio King, thank Elyse. Unless you're from the Texas Historical Commission, which considered removing the plaza's historic designation because original 1939 stone benches had been ripped out from around the pool. Think-and-do had struck again. Said an injured Elyse, "Times change and needs change. Maybe we came up with an idea they didn't come up with in 1939? Is that so bad?"

The parks and plants and parties were just Elyse writ large. But as the mayor's wife, Elyse discovered something new under the sun: the joys of clout. "My phone calls get returned so fast you wouldn't believe it!" she told an amused audience at a fundraiser for her husband's second campaign. Elyse had cut her fundraising teeth on the parks board, which manages donations of cash and land for the park system, but now she found her leverage had magically increased. During Bob's first year in office, Elyse lobbied donors so successfully that she felt compelled to start her own Houston Beautiful Foundation so she could control the money. "If I'm going to raise a half million dollars, I don't want to just send it over to somebody," she says. Sitting with Elyse on the board are her friend Barbara Hurwitz (wife of Charles) and downtown power broker Joe B. Allen, a major Lanier supporter. It's a tight circle that, according to Elyse, "we can expand when we want to."

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