Why Can't They Be Friends?

Bill and Annise confront a City Hall curse

Live, from Houston, it's Saturday Election Night!

In a suite in the upper reaches of the city-owned, almost unseemly opulent Hotel of the Americas, mayor-elect Bill White tinkered with his acceptance speech while kibitzing with son Stephen about the teen's humorous introduction for Daddy, to be delivered a few hours later.

Several blocks north, at the Home Plate bar next to Minute Maid Park, controller-elect Annise Parker, partner Kathy Hubbard and their two adopted daughters mingled with the crowd. Unlike White, Parker had no private executive suite to retire to while awaiting returns.

The two unlikely winners sat atop twin landslides with almost identical 62-37 margins over conservative opponents. He's a lawyer and businessman who had nearly zero name ID in the city a year ago. She's a former oil company analyst who got her political start as a gay activist, and who barely avoided a runoff against an unknown challenger in her third at-large council race.

Now that they've triumphed over ballot opponents, can they also surmount recent municipal history, a legacy that seemingly condemns them to a future of conflict rather than cooperation?

Let us pause for a moment of silence in memory of those past puerile pairings: Jim McConn and Kathy Whitmire. Kathy and Lance Lalor. Bob Lanier and George Greanias. Lee Brown and Sylvia Garcia.

This is not a roll call of the great love affairs in Houston city government. Rather, it's a list of twosomes ordained by the prerogatives and constraints of their respective offices to relationships poisoned to greater or lesser degrees by condescension, hostility, backbiting and frustration. In another life, they might have been best friends, or partners, or at least polite strangers. But not in the one they were given.

Blame it on the City Charter, which sets up a bureaucratic conundrum between the top two elected officials: The mayor is gifted with enormous administrative and legislative clout, while the controller is barely more than a glorified accountant, with no vote on council and only the power to refuse to certify municipal expenditures. Add the mandatory ambition and ego of anyone attaining these positions, and it's a wonder that all the blows exchanged between the past combatants have been only rhetorical.

Leonel Castillo was the first to use the low-profile Controller's Office as a stepping stone, in his case to an appointment by then-president Jimmy Carter as Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner. Then Whitmire stormed City Hall with her reform campaign for controller in 1977. She utilized the previously noncontroversial office as a political turret to lob bombshells at the bumbling McConn. Whitmire breathed life and blond ambition into the position, becoming the only controller ever to run for mayor from the position and win.

Greanias and Castillo lost subsequent mayoral bids after their terms as controller ended, and Lloyd Kelley and Lalor burned out along the way. Some of the more eccentric behaviors of both spawned rumors that being controller of the city of Houston can drive you batty.

Lalor disappeared in a poof of credit card theft allegations in London after he did not file for re-election, and later resurfaced after being caught shoplifting a pea salad from a university commissary. Kelley, whose overwrought ambitions ran all the way to the White House, became the first modern controller to be beaten after only one term.

According to Parker, predicting a controller's future -- by using statistical approaches based on the fate of past controllers -- can lead to only one conclusion: "I have an equal chance of ending up in a homeless shelter, like Lance Lalor, as using it to send me off to the mayor's office."

On the other hand, women do seem to hold up better in that office. In addition to Whitmire's success, former controller Sylvia Garcia was elected Harris County commissioner.

"Everybody else ended their political career," muses Parker. "It seems to be good to women, but the guys have flamed out."

White and Parker accepted their victories brimming with goodwill and verbal equivalents of flowers and chocolates toward each other.

"If she shares my commitment to good government -- and I think she does," says White, "then we can think of a very innovative and constructive role for the controller's office…"

"It is better for the city [for the controller] to work whenever possible cooperatively with the mayor," declares Parker. "I don't think it's good for the city, here in Houston or the bond markets of New York, for there to be story after story about a huge fight between the controller and the mayor of Houston."

If a political marriage counselor were analyzing the two, a strong plus for compatibility would be ideology: Both are moderate Democrats, pro-rail and uninfected with the suburban Republican phobia of anything that smacks of taxes.

The pair also shared an almost identical pool of supporters. In the mayor's race, White drew about 10,000 more votes, but it's a good bet that almost all of Parker's 127,279 voters also went for White. All those folks expect their candidates to work as a team in cleaning up the administrative and financial mess Brown leaves behind in January.

On the minus side: Both White and Parker are detail freaks with unspoken ambitions for higher office. Even in the rosy glow of their election triumphs, one can already discern some familiar fault lines that could lead to quakes and rifts between the erstwhile allies.

During her tenure as controller, Garcia fought with Brown over her office's conducting performance audits of his departments. City Attorney Anthony Hall advised the mayor that the audit concept infringed on his authority in Houston's strong-mayor form of government, and Brown rebuffed most of Garcia's initiatives. Parker pushed the issue in her own campaign, and audits could become an early sign of how she and White will get along.

White indicates he will be more flexible than Brown in bringing the controller into a management partnership.

"I think there is a role [for the controller] in what we call reliable management information systems that can be used by decision makers. And I know there may be some within the departments who will resist it."

White recalls how, during his tenure at the federal Energy Department, he used the agency's inspector general office to scour the bureaucracy for waste and inefficiencies.

"That is a big role where somebody's going to have to do it, and if we can use dedicated personnel at the Controller's Office to perform that useful function, that would be great for the city."

At first glance, Parker likes the idea.

"I think we may be thinking somewhat along the same lines," the incoming controller says. "I would like the opportunity to be used the way a good audit division of a major firm would be, where you're part of the team but everybody knows your integrity and independence are untouchable."

In the midst of all this happy talk there are a few warning notes.

"What I don't think there's a role for is somebody who just always goes in after the fact and offers criticism with no solutions," says White. "That is not part of the solution, to issue a press release to get their name in the paper…"

Parker sees her job as providing councilmembers with analysis and projections that may not always dovetail with the mayor's figures.

"Councilmembers want a controller that they can go to and say, 'The mayor has said that XYZ is going to happen. Do you think these are realistic revenue and expense numbers? Are there any other alternatives?'

"I want to also develop this relationship with council where I can say, 'Yeah, I think the mayor's right in this instance,' or 'Here are some alternatives they have not considered.' "

And at that point, where both sides begin issuing dueling documents and rival financial estimates, it could start sounding a lot like those contentious City Hall relationships of the past.

"I believe that the new mayor is a micromanager," says Parker. "I'm an information junkie…I'm coming in with the attitude that we'll be teammates with different roles, but if I have to step out and become referee or umpire, that's part of the controller too."

Insider recommendation: Keep that political marriage counselor handy for the next couple of years.

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