Is This Guy Too Smart to Be Mayor?

Bill White hopes brains and big bucks will get him elected

Herb Butrum, who moves in Republican circles, was the fund-raiser and adviser to Rob Mosbacher in his losing mayoral run against Lee Brown in 1997. Butrum says that in contrast to that campaign, there is only tepid GOP support for Sanchez. He attributes the malaise to the candidate's scant business background and predicts many conservatives will cast quiet votes for White.

Former mayor Bob Lanier endorsed White, calling him "fiscally conservative and compassionate on human rights," and adding, "I think people can make their own comparisons as to his fiscal ability compared to his opponents'."

According to Lanier, only White has hands-on experience with budget-based enterprises. "Where this city is now," Lanier says, "I think it's absolutely essential."

Trying to link White with Brown, a Sanchez brochure 
created this two-headed beast.
Trying to link White with Brown, a Sanchez brochure created this two-headed beast.

If White does succeed in bridging the partisan and racial divide, it will be the next step in a career path that began before he got to junior high in San Antonio.

Bill White was born into a lower-middle-class household of books and workaholics. His father, William Byrd White, taught history and held several side jobs to provide extras. His mother, Gloria Howard White, also was a San Antonio-area public school teacher. She recalls that her older son was a little different from the beginning.

She remembers noticing the boy mumbling to himself and walking up and down a drainage ditch near the family property.

"He came in the house and his dad said, 'What are you thinking about, son?' He said, 'Well, I just read we have excess poultry and starving people.' He wanted to solve this problem at nine years old! He was thinking about serving and solving problems. He couldn't understand why his dad had to have an extra job to pay for pharmaceutical and doctor bills. He was very aware of people's needs and where they stood."

His father often took Bill on runs to thrift stores to pick up day-old milk or bread to trim expenses. According to his mother, their son devoured encyclopedias and had read the Bible through twice before graduating from high school.

Bill and his brother, Robert, 15 months his junior, studied piano in their preteens, though it was clear from the beginning which one was the gifted player.

"Bill could play very well, but his brother at five was already mimicking and playing his pieces before he had a teacher," recalls his mother. "Bill was a precise player and played with exactness. His brother played with more emotion and creativity."

White turned to debate and politics, and in 1967 snagged a sponsorship as a Texas Senate page to Senator Joe Bernal, who knew his father. So for his first year in junior high, White commuted with the senator to Austin and stayed the week with a family friend. The 13-year-old did his schoolwork on weekends and maintained an A average. It was around that time that the term "prodigy" began to be routinely applied to Bill White.

"He's always been somebody who had a good focus and a sense of where he wanted to go and where he wanted to be," says his brother. Robert is a concert pianist and composer who changed his legal surname to Avalon and runs the Foundation for Modern Music out of a cubbyhole office in the Montrose. If the mayoral candidate grew a short beard and donned a Mexican guayabera shirt, the pair could pass for fraternal twins.

"He was always very self-motivated," Avalon says of his brother. "My parents were not standing behind him with a whip saying, 'Study, study.' It was by example. My parents were constantly reading, and there were books everywhere."

Avalon says White, since childhood, has had a knack for bringing groups together and mediating disputes. He recalls how his brother once delivered a speech in high school about "how labels prevent us from knowing who each other really are. That we're not that different from one another. Bill had a way of looking at those labels and barriers as artificial."

The subject was especially significant to Robert, who realized he was gay in high school and came out to his family in his early twenties. He and his longtime partner are close to the rest of the extended White clan.

"Bill's a pretty sharp guy, so he probably knew when I was in my teens," says Avalon of that conversation long ago. "He is fair, and throughout my life I've never experienced any form of discrimination from him. He's my brother. He talks about it. He's comfortable with the issue and he's aware of the discrimination we've been facing."

At the endorsement meeting of the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus several months ago, Avalon stood beside his brother and appealed for support. Despite Sylvester Turner's excellent record on gay rights issues, the group endorsed White.

In his senior year of high school, White won the American Legion's national oratory competition and received a scholarship. He attended Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude. During 1976 summer classes at the University of Texas law school, he met Carol LaVergne, a law student from Houston.

"He was an amazingly personable, delightful, brilliant man," she remembers. "Tremendous sense of humor, very mature and very serious person." They married a year later, about the time that Bill faced a career crossroads.

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