Situational Ethics

As Jew Don Boney has moved upward in public life, have his values changed to meet his needs rather than those of his constituents?

"The Fourth Ward is a continually large and challenging issue," he argues. "You cannot address all of the issues at one time at the same time. The master-planning process was an attempt to develop a vision, with input from the public and the community, for redevelopment that would take into account economic and fiscal reality, historic principles, community concerns and institutional concerns.

"How do you balance all of those issues when 1 percent of the land in Fourth Ward is owned by African-Americans? That's a financial fact, that's reality."

In Shabazz's mind, talk like that reflects the almost perverse idolization Boney feels for Bob Lanier -- a white developer who used his political muscle to repair the city's neighborhoods and build ballparks, but did little to improve the lot of African-Americans in the Fourth Ward and beyond.

"He extols Bob Lanier as the last great white liberal of Houston politics, probably the most liberal and wonderful mayor in 20th-century Houston history," says Shabazz, who worries that Boney may be throwing away his grassroots political influence. "So, when I hear Jew Don give this old Economics 101 rhetoric about Freedmen's Town, I just sort of shake my head and look away, because he knows better.

"My concern is, because I go back 18 years with Jew Don talking about building a black agenda and how we must make politicians accountable to that agenda, how are we planning for the least fortunate in terms of housing, city services and treating them like human beings?

"I really hoped Jew Don would come into office as someone who would read the issues of the day through the prism of commitment and concern for the grassroots, working-class culture and community. But he's filtering things through this grab bag of how it will play with this constituency, how it will play with downtown.... For some of us, we thought of him as something quite different."

It's almost noon at the Greater Houston Partnership offices on the seventh floor of Two Allen Center, and Jew Don Boney, seated at one of several tables arranged in a boardroom off the main hallway, is confronted with a question he doesn't often hear these days.

"And who are you with?" asks a woman attending the Partnership's monthly corporate ambassadors luncheon.

"I'm a city councilman," Boney replies with kindly patience.
The woman grins broadly, but is clearly unsure of what to do with the information.

"You know who the mayor is, don't you?" Boney asks gently. "Well, I work for him."

Boney has been invited to speak to a group of young corporate types from around the city on the role of the mayor pro tem and anything else that comes to mind during his 20 minutes. After a brief overview of his priorities as a district councilman (constituent services) and his responsibilities as mayor pro tem (ceremonial, with a little strategic guidance thrown in when needed), he begins talking about his personal vision for Houston.

At times, Boney is so downright boosterish, he sounds like an amalgamated caricature of George Babbitt and Elyse Lanier: "Outside the city, people don't understand the greatness and power of Houston," he gushes from behind a podium, the silver bracelets on his wrists clicking in time with his dancing hands. "It's a world-class city with the highest quality of life and the lowest cost of living of any major city in the country."

This isn't exactly news to anyone associated with the Greater Houston Partnership, but the corporate ambassadors seem to appreciate the affirmation. And, if they paid any attention at all during the six years Bob Lanier was in office, they're familiar with the term "economic diversity" -- a topic Boney leaps into next.

"I met with some downtown folks, and they said District D, your district -- your people -- need jobs, they need housing, they need services, they need role models," Boney said. "I said, 'You're right, we need all that. But we don't just want jobs. We want business opportunities and economic development. We want businesses we can own ourselves.' "

Certainly, this, as well, is familiar rhetoric. A few years back, in the wake of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, Bob Lanier proposed something similar to the Marshall Plan to funnel money and resources into urban areas. But the more equitable distribution of wealth is a conversation to which Jew Don Boney can contribute something that, while not exactly new, is more credible than Lanier's squishy paternalism toward people of color.

He can talk about how the wealthy just keep getting wealthier without sounding guilty. He can point out, without sounding like a cheap poseur, that poor neighborhoods keep getting poorer because no one starts a business in a poor neighborhood.

After a few minutes of this, Boney takes his audience somewhere it hadn't expected to go: Africa. Next year, he explains, the Corporate Councils of Africa will hold their biannual conference in Houston. That's why it's important to deepen the Port of Houston, he says. That's why we need to improve mobility and, most of all, why we need to continue "stimulating diverse economic growth."

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