He styles himself the ultimate City Hall outsider, and for sure, William Howard "Bill" White brings some unique credentials to his campaign for mayor. After all, how many Houstonians could or would brag that they launched a successful international oil-and-gas venture and never earned a cent off it?
Likewise, how many corporate chief executive officers have as their titular bosses the deputy prime minister of a small Middle Eastern country? In White's case, his Wedge Group holding corporation is chaired and controlled by billionaire Issam Fares, who indulged his own political itch several years back by running for the Lebanese legislature. Fares is now the No. 3 man in that government. He represents the Greek Orthodox Christian minority in the strife-torn nation squeezed between Syria, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea.
The 49-year-old White is a former partner in the Houston civil law firm of Susman Godfrey, and he was deputy energy secretary in the administration of former president Bill Clinton. Although his résumé is studded with national and international connections, he'll emphasize far less global concerns in kicking off his candidacy at a lunchtime event at Minute Maid Park this week.
Whereas White once helped negotiate the shutdown of the disaster-prone Chernobyl nuclear facility in Russia, now he'd be happy just to figure out a way to dissolve gridlock on congested city freeways and roads in areas like the Texas Medical Center.
"Why build the world's greatest medical center, with the investment of human talent and buildings and equipment for tens of billions of dollars, without doing the planning and investment to make it accessible?" he asks. White promises a comprehensive transit plan that will include an extension of the Main Street rail.
He previously had to sit down with ancient adversaries to negotiate the construction of a pipeline connecting Caspian Sea oil and gas fields with Western consumers. Nowadays White puts a top priority on defusing partisan animosities in city government.
"For six months I've talked to Houstonians from all walks of life, and what they really want is somebody who can get things done, who works hard and is independent and will attack these traffic and quality-of-life problems and cut waste wherever it exists," says the candidate. That's sure to be a much repeated campaign laundry list over the next nine months.
There are those who wonder how a seemingly mild-mannered corporate exec and former Texas Democratic Party chairman can successfully navigate Houston's tricky partisan and ethnic political waterways. White has this answer: "When I set out to do something, I have a lifelong track record of success, so I have a lot of self-confidence."
White may pitch himself as Mr. Everyman, but not everybody can live in the exclusive gated community of Stablewood just outside the West Loop. The White family resides there in a two-story decked home overlooking Buffalo Bayou. White's wife, Andrea, is a former corporate lawyer who is preparing for the publication of her first book, a novel aimed at teenagers. They have three of their own: Elena, Will and Stephen.
During the holiday season the candidate mailed family Christmas cards to Houston precinct judges, displaying his children posing in a golf cart adorned with an American flag. At least one local political consultant winced at the photo, noting it had a distinctly country club air that inadvertently emphasized the family's affluence. If White wanted to use a card for political purposes, says the source, a simple family pose featuring the candidate himself would have been far more appropriate.
White is also using an unusual team to push a local mayoral candidacy -- it includes the Rives Carlberg public relations firm and Austin-based consultant Michael Moore. Over the next few months, the campaign will use generous amounts of White's personal wealth to launch a multilevel media blitz to introduce the candidate to the city.
"We will build name ID and build it early on through lots of meetings, speeches, talk shows, radio, television, mail, whatever," says White. He vows to base his campaign on "issues, track record and experience, and not let a bunch of consultants and City Hall 'indeciders' divide this city by party or ethnic group."
White's vaunted international résumé may come back to haunt him before the campaign is over. During his tenure as deputy energy secretary in the mid-'90s, White repeatedly visited the Caspian Sea area, where he met with Azerbaijan President Haidar Aliyev and Georgian Prime Minister Otar Patsatsia to discuss energy deals with Western companies.
After White returned to Houston in 1996, he founded Frontera Resources with another former high-profile Clinton administration figure, former senator and commerce secretary Lloyd Bentsen. Frontera then secured energy concessions from the same leaders White had dealt with as a U.S. official.
White claims his motivations in joining the Caspian Sea black gold rush were humanitarian rather than pecuniary.
"I had an interest in the former Soviet Union before I went into government, during government and after government," explains White. "I thought it was critically important that the United States and the whole West try to teach good models of free enterprise over there. I have not made one penny, one dime, from activities in the Caspian Sea and any area in which I did business" as deputy energy secretary.
If so, White will surely go down in history as the Mother Teresa of the oil industry.
The candidate's relationship with Deputy Prime Minister Fares of Lebanon could also become a campaign issue. Two years ago, a Fares-endowed fund paid incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell $200,000 for a 30-minute talk at Tufts University. Fares also ponied up a $100,000 contribution for President George W. Bush's inaugural festivities. Media reports focused on allegations that the Lebanese official was trying to buy influence with the new administration.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Fares angrily responded in a statement blasting "the Zionist lobby in the United States and its agents" for "distortions and lies." Fares also opposed the U.S. government's decision to add the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia group Hezbollah to its terrorist list in the wake of 9/11.
"It is a mistake to make a comparison between the [Al Qaeda] network which Lebanon has condemned, and Hezbollah, which Lebanon considers a resistance party fighting the Israeli occupation," Fares told Agence France-Presse. He claimed the group has never targeted Americans, a position disputed by U.S. officials as well as Fares's own Wedge Group CEO.
"I personally think the Hezbollah militia is a terrorist organization," counters White, who notes that he and Fares rarely talk politics. The candidate says his own position on the Arab-Israeli conflict is clear.
"I think I am the only non-Jew on the board of the American-Israeli public affairs committee," the candidate says. "Regionally, I've been on the board of the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs out of Washington for six years. I think that Israel has been victimized by terrorism, period."
As for Fares, White describes him as a member of an oppressed Christian minority in a predominantly Muslim area whose dream is to create a peaceful, multireligious democracy in Lebanon.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
At the moment, White is faced with a more down-home problem. He needs to find a formula that will lift him out of the likely crowded field of mayoral wannabes and into a runoff next fall. It's a task that has confounded a number of well-qualified candidates in the past, including then-incumbent Kathy Whitmire in 1991 and former city controller George Greanias in 1997.
White predicts he will disprove the pundits who say it's impossible to build a Houston mayoral campaign across political and racial boundaries.
"I think they're wrong. I think folks do not want to rehash old elections, and want to take the city to the next level," White contends. "A lot of what we can do with city government has not kept up with the growth of the city. People don't want business as usual."
In terms of Houston municipal politics, Bill White most definitely represents business with the unusual. Whether voters are in a buying mood remains to be seen.