In his first inaugural speech, Bill White urged Houston to "embrace strangers." At the time, the new mayor didn't know just how much his call for inclusiveness, a big theme in his 2003 campaign, would be put to the test. Less than two years later, Hurricane Katrina would ravage Louisiana and Mississippi, and more than 100,000 strangers — neighbors, White likes to say — showed up on Houston's doorstep. Mayor White, and his city, gave them a bear hug.
Just three days after the levees broke in New Orleans, Houston was printing vouchers for a housing program that White made up on the fly. Thousands of apartments needed fixing up, furnishing and utilities to be turned on. White gave landlords his word that he would get the federal government to reimburse them — and he did. Families began moving into homes — not FEMA trailers — within a week, and children were enrolled into schools almost immediately after. Evacuees were given ample medical care and help with job placement.
Up the coast, it seemed government at all levels was breaking down. But Houston showed that government, marshaling the resources of volunteers, businesses, nonprofits and faith-based groups, could respond to disaster decisively and compassionately. "The mayor clearly imparted on us that the focus was to get the job done," recalls Dr. David Persse, Houston's emergency medical services director, "and not to let bureaucratic roadblocks get in the way."
That's been Bill White's modus operandi as mayor, in times of both crisis and calm. White, a former business executive with no previous experience in elected office, is a cool pragmatist who wants results rather than excuses. Key to his success is that he embraces his rivals as much as he does strangers. The Democratic mayor appointed Republicans to chair key council committees, clearing the way for much of his agenda and proving that good government is also the best politics. White won reelection in 2005 with a staggering 91 percent of the vote and this month is a shoo-in to win a third and, because of term limits, final term.
White, 53, is not the most charismatic big-city mayor around today. He's not on a crusade to take over the schools, bust up the bureaucracy or build expensive sports stadiums. Rather, he looks for definable problems with serious consequences and then figures out how best to use the power of his office to solve them. Two of White's biggest coups include shoring up the pension systems for city employees and police officers, and signing a labor deal with the city's firefighters, who had been without a contract for five years. White tries not to focus on more than four or five priorities at a time, he says, "because successful organizations, like successful people, can't optimize everything at the same time."
The first issue to attract White's attention was traffic congestion. White had signals coordinated along major corridors as one part of a broad "mobility" program. The mayor also imposed order on tow-truck drivers, who used to descend like vultures on highway accidents in a dangerous free-for-all that only made traffic tie-ups worse. Within months, Houston drivers could notice a difference.
Another of White's quality-of-life priorities is mitigating air pollution. In Houston, that's a task that leads directly to the local refineries and petrochemical plants. White wasn't thwarted by the fact that regulating air quality is supposed to be a state job. He negotiated an enforceable agreement with Texas Petrochemicals to reduce emissions of a carcinogenic chemical and is currently trying to extract similar agreements from plant owners located outside Houston's city limits.
Bill White may be a businessman-turned-mayor, but he's not one to say government should be run like a business. He's seen too many companies fail to believe that old saw. "It doesn't matter if you're in the public sector or private sector," he says. "If you listen to the customer, you'll be able to run a good organization."
"Too often, people change boxes on an organizational chart," White adds. "So and so is taking over such and such. They consolidate. They decentralize. But in neither government nor the private sector is that real management. Management is providing services more quickly or better, or providing a service that was not there before. And if you can't do that, and see results, then it all tends to be smoke and mirrors."
— Christopher Swope
Photo by Rocky Kneten