Updated: Though we spoke with Mayor Annise Parker's staff before running this story, her communications director, Janice Evans, called back and wanted to voice some displeasure with our assessment that Parker doesn't elicit much national attention. (No surprise there.)
She referenced Parker's recent appearance on The Colbert Report, as well as national media attention at the Democratic National Convention. Parker was also named one of Time's 100 most influential people in 2010.
Says Evans: "Houston has always been the nation's best kept secret, but that secret is getting out since Mayor Parker has been in office."
Original story: Last weekend, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was a busy guy. He was all over California, meeting with President Barack Obama, hanging with George Clooney and getting loads of national face time.
Across the country, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg poured loads of money into the U.S. Senate candidacy of Maine's former governor, Angus King.
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel batted away suspicions that he was acting as a conduit between Obama and the Israeli government following a private meeting he had with that country's defense secretary.
In California, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took to MSNBC to downplay Obama's catatonic debate performance.
All had one thing in common: They were national politicians doing national-level work.
Meanwhile, Houston's Annise Parker, the mayor of an economically dynamic, culturally relevant and fast-growing metropolis -- and the first openly gay executive of a large city -- has chilled at home, underused. Why?
Well, the simplest explanation is that no one's asked her to do anything. "The answer is," said press secretary Jessica Michan, "it's not her decision to make. It's theirs. She's serving in whatever capacity she can, but whether or not they use her as a spokesperson is not her decision."
But there's more to it than that. They haven't asked Parker because they don't need her. She's not the most gifted public speaker, and her demographic, white, female and hailing from a red state, isn't something national Democrats apparently want.
"The nicest way to put it is that she doesn't represent the demographic the national party wants," said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein. "Gays and lesbians aren't an important demographic because they turn themselves out, and they're more in blue states the president already has."
Whether through her own doing or not, Parker has somehow slipped into national irrelevance. She's become one of the most low-profile big-city mayors in the nation.
This fits into a larger theme. Houston, for whatever reason, nets very little national street cred. Don't confuse this with bellyaching. It's not. It's the reality. People know we're down there somewhere (on the Gulf, right?), and they've heard rumors of our economic growth (something about energy?), but outside of that, our national dialogue gets sucked into a coastal-driven vortex. A vivacious Houston mayor could change that. Right now, San Antonio is getting more national attention than Houston purely based on the charisma and toothy smile of Julian Castro. Granted, he's Latino, which is of greater importance to national Democrats this electoral cycle. But he's also accomplished something that Parker hasn't been able to: He's gotten noticed. And then, he's successfully lent that attention to his broader city.
San Antonio, for the time being, means Julian Castro. Could the same ever be said of Parker? Or will she always be something of a Tim Duncan -- a boring front person leading a successful team.
Before Parker, we had Bill White, who, if anything, was even harder to listen to than Parker. Neither are gifted orators like Castro. Then again, same goes for Bloomberg in New York, but he's got so much pugnaciousness about him that it doesn't seem to matter.
Parker does very little to help herself. She very rarely reaches out to the press and only makes herself available at weekly press conferences, which are oftentimes stilted, choreographed affairs. There's nothing freewheeling or interesting about them.
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"This is not someone who feels comfortable with the press, and tends to be defensive when she's asked questions," Stein said. "Especially when it involves her administration."
Parker can't change that she doesn't represent a target demographic. There simply aren't enough gays to determine any election, and they're firmly Democratic anyhow. But is that just an easy excuse? Parker could represent something much grander -- if she's willing.
And, of course, if she's asked.