The Good, the Bad, the Imprisoned

Houston's best politicos were not always the ones elected -- or the ones who stayed in office

Anyone attempting to compile a list of the all-time top politicians in Houston's history faces a problem of definition. For a good part of the city's history, the men who created our freewheeling laissez-faire dynamo of the western hemisphere, the poster child for urban sprawl and pollution, didn't answer to voters.

Instead, the on-the-ballot politicians mostly served as handmaidens to a series of business giants who set the municipal agenda behind closed doors and then gave the pols their public marching orders. Minorities didn't have a place in those back rooms except as servants, and the input of women into the political process, with some notable exceptions, came via pillow talk.

Jesse Jones, who served as a cabinet member under President Franklin Roosevelt, was the greatest of these movers and shakers, carving out a role by which all future Bayou City-turned-Space City kingmakers would be measured. Jones lured the 1928 Democratic National Convention to Houston and planted the government-funded starter seeds of the Ship Channel petrochemical complex. According to some irresponsible purveyors of urban myth, Jones, who married late and fathered no children, legit or illegit, may have also been way ahead of the times as the town's leading closet gay power broker. Perhaps Annise Parker, the first openly gay elected city official, could be considered his goddaughter.

Did Jesse Jones have something in common with Annise Parker?
Did Jesse Jones have something in common with Annise Parker?

For a good chunk of the 20th century Jones and his surrogates pretty much ran the place, for better or worse. If you were the people that Jones's mouthpiece, the Houston Chronicle, wrote about, it was better. If you were black or brown, on the other hand, you were expected to keep your mouth shut and show up for work on time. By Deep South standards, that was a racially enlightened attitude on the part of the establishment.

The political barriers finally began to fall in the 1950s, with the first stirrings of the civil rights movement and of black voting power and, eventually, a massive influx of Hispanic immigrants. The process led to the diverse Technicolor political scene that is Houston today and culminated in the election of the city's first black mayor, Lee Patrick Brown, in 1997.

Along the way there have been any number of elective officials who have left their marks, and scars, on the face of the city. Here's a quick take on some of our faves, with a touch of whimsy in the choice of categories.

Best Town Father

General Sam Houston: Who else but the man the Indians affectionately labeled "The Big Drunk"? He led the Texas forces to victory (or massacre, depending on your point of view and ethnic background) over Santa Anna's siesta-groggy Mexican army in the Battle of San Jacinto. He generously lent his name in 1836 to what started out as a developer land scam on gullible Yankees by the Allen brothers. (We're still looking for those cool, healthful highlands advertised in the New York papers.)

During the first of two terms as Republic of Texas president, Houston officed in his namesake city, making him and George Bush the only two heads of state to reside here while in office.

Most Tenacious

Oscar Holcombe: He fought the KKK's influence in the '20s and held office a record 11 terms, although not consecutively. In a political career spanning 1921 to 1957, Holcombe laid the groundwork for the city freeway system and backed the acquisition of East Texas water rights that guaranteed Houston the liquid resources to support a megalopolis into the next millennium.

Best Father-and-Son Act

Roy Hofheinz, the mastermind of the Astrodome as a private citizen, was at age 24 the youngest Harris County judge in history -- and a two-term mayor of the city to boot. His son Fred, nicknamed The Boy Mayor, rode to power in the first decisive exercise of African-American votes in a municipal election in 1973. With that election, police chief Herman Short resigned, and the halting reform of the notoriously racist Houston Police Department began.

After failing in a comeback bid against Kathy Whitmire in 1989, attorney Hofheinz stepped in something sticky in Louisiana and is now fighting a federal bribery indictment.

Best Voice-of-God Imitation

Barbara Jordan: This stentorian-voiced orator and debate whiz at Texas Southern University became the first black state senator and then congresswoman from the city. She sealed her place in history with a stirring speech on the House Watergate Committee calling for President Richard Nixon's impeachment. The current holder of Jordan's seat, Sheila Jackson Lee, is blessed with similar vocal cords, but not, alas, similar brains to operate them.

Biggest Joker

Councilman Jim Westmoreland's penchant for wisecracks cost him his office when he made the mistake of trying out a racially tinged joke on a Houston Post reporter. When the Post wouldn't print the story, the Chronicle did, and joking Jim wound up getting beat by political unknown Beverley Clark.

Out of office with his sense of humor intact, Westmoreland got a good laugh when the downtown powers that be decided Clark was too wacky and engineered her replacement in the next election.

Best Martyr to the Cause

Mickey Leland: Jordan's flamboyant successor, a protégé of Jean and Dominique de Menil's, was the brightest of a crop of young minority state representatives who emerged in the mid-'70s, including Ben Reyes, Anthony Hall and Craig Washington. As a congressman he developed an agenda as an internationalist and humanitarian, an image immortalized by his death in a plane crash during an inspection of Ethiopian famine relief operations in 1989.

Best Antidote to the Good Ol' Boys

Kathy Whitmire: The co-holder with Louie Welch for most consecutive terms as mayor (five), she routed the good ol' boy developer clique with the backing of a progressive coalition of moderate whites and minorities in 1981. The only woman to serve as mayor worked wonders for the city's image by appointing the first black police chief, Lee Brown, and by guiding the city through its worst economic downturn since the Depression.

Best U.S. President from Houston

George Bush: Well, he was the only one, so there wasn't much competition. He brought the 1992 Republican Convention to the Astrodome in Houston, but it nominated a loser.

Best Congressman

Albert Thomas: Working with Senator Lyndon Johnson, this legislative meat cutter excelled at slicing the pork on the House Appropriations Committee and sending it all back home. He helped corral the Johnson Space Center for the Clear Lake area, a development that polished the city's futuristic image and produced the best publicity any town has ever received from beyond the atmosphere: "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed."

Strongest of the Strong

Bob Lanier: This developer went from playing power broker behind the throne of mayor Louie Welch to municipal king after Kathy Whitmire pissed him off. He ended Whitmire's reign, killed her monorail plan and spurred redevelopment in the inner city, even though the primary beneficiaries were the gentry. Lanier dominated City Council as few have before him, never losing a vote of consequence and reducing the 14 members to rubber stamps. Wife Elyse virtually created the role of mayoral first lady, launching a Houston image campaign with the immortal slogan "Houston, Expect the Unexpected." Under Lanier's iron fist, it hardly ever happened at City Hall.

Biggest Feet in Mouth

Former mayor Louie Welch's comment to what he thought was a dead mike during his unsuccessful comeback campaign against Kathy Whitmire in 1987: "Shoot the queers." Gay activists responded with campaign T-shirts featuring bull's-eyes.

Doddering councilman Frank Mann characterized challenger Eleanor Tinsley's supporters as "queers and odd wads." Apparently there were a lot of them, since Tinsley won and went on to a distinguished career on Council.

Biggest Prude

Councilman Rob Todd: He could pass for an entry in an Elvis impersonator contest with all that doo-wopped hair, but deep inside the District E representative burns the soul of a Church Lady. Rob, once described by colleague Jew Don Boney as a funny, funny guy, has fulminated against the evils of sex boutiques selling edible underwear, opposed allowing shock rocker Marilyn Manson to perform at a city-owned facility, and dismissed Bill Clinton's oral fixations and fibbing as typical of Democrats. If Rob weren't so righteous, you might think he was just severely repressed.

Runner-up: Anti-porn activist Geneva Kirk Brooks, who exposed a bunch of Houston Lighting & Power workers who had hired the infamous Salad Sisters for a stag party performance at a company warehouse. She reveled in playing the videotape over and over to anyone who would watch. Unfortunately Rob wasn't around back then.

Best and Worst Councilman at the Same Time

Ben Reyes: Can anyone serving federal time for bribery and conspiracy make a best politician list? In the aftermath of the feds' Hotel Six sting that led to Reyes's and former port commissioner Betti Maldonado's convictions, it's easy to forget how Reyes virtually created Hispanic politics in Houston and held his own on City Council as perhaps the best wheeler-dealer for nearly two decades. Never mind that he was fooling us with that phony Purple Heart in Vietnam stuff all those years and had the worst midlife crisis in Houston political history. When Ben was good, he was very good, but when he was bad, he stank out the house.

E-mail Tim Fleck at tim.fleck@houstonpress.com.

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