Annise Parker Is Not Going Away

A very visible lesbian activist of the 1980s became the three-term mayor of America’s fourth largest city — and in Texas. With her sights set on statewide office, is Annise Parker proof Texas politics have grown up?

BY Tom Dart

May 12 2014 4:00 AM ET

Standing for a sixth term as mayor of Houston, Louie Welch went on a local TV newscast to discuss how to stop the spread of AIDS. Unaware that his microphone was on, he offered a suggestion: “Shoot the queers.”

The gaffe revealed plenty about the political climate of mid-1980s Texas, where prejudice was often shouted, not sotto voce. A nondiscrimination ordinance to protect city employees was handily defeated in a referendum after right- wingers mobilized against it. A group of antigay candidates dubbed themselves the Straight Slate and polled well in elections in 1985, the year that Welch’s indiscretion contributed to his defeat by the progressive Kathy Whitmire.

Welch died in 2008 and did not live to see the irony that the poisonous antigay atmosphere of 1980s Houston helped shape the character and convictions of the woman who became the first lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city.

Annise Parker’s election in December 2009 made headlines from Midland-Odessa to Melbourne. Last year, with much less media rumpus, she easily won her third consecutive two-year term, now the maximum allowed. Ed Murray, who is also out, was elected mayor of Seattle on the same November night.

In a couple of years, Parker will be seeking a new role in Texas politics, perhaps even mulling a run for governor. But is the nation’s second-most populous and most notoriously conservative state ready for an out and proud gay politician to hold prominent statewide office? And are the tactics that worked for Parker in Houston a blueprint for success in other cities and other states?

Parker is not just a lesbian, she’s also a Democrat. It’s tempting to apply Manhattan’s unofficial theme song to the Lone Star State; surely, if she can make it here, she’ll make it anywhere. In truth, the demographics are not as unfavorable as one might think.Texas lives up — or down — to its stereotypes in many ways, its perception as a blood-red Republican state ignores the differences between its urban and rural areas. The GOP dominates in statewide races, where no Democrat has been elected since 1994, but Texas’s biggest cities can, and do, dye themselves blue. Barack Obama won Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin in the 2012 presidential election. Yet he only secured 41% of the vote statewide, underlining the deep conservatism of the suburbs and countryside.

Houston is an epic, sticky, homely mess whose association with problems goes far beyond Apollo 13. Heedless growth has been abetted by a boomtown mentality and ample space, coupled with a lack of zoning laws and a focus on creation rather than preservation. And there are flying cockroaches.

But the city’s affordable housing, abundant jobs, and status as the world capital of the energy industry have molded it into a prosperous and underrated international hub on track to oust Chicago as the United States’s third-most populous city. A 2012 Rice University study found that Houston’s metropolitan area was the most diverse in the nation.

Parker soon realized that interest in her sexual orientation gave her an opportunity to counter the city’s reputation. “As my public profile went up, Houston’s public profile went up,” she tells me in her Texas-sized office downtown, shortly before heading off to Houston’s livestock show and rodeo. At the rodeo parade a couple of days earlier, she rode a horse through the streets sporting a cowboy hat and a belt buckle big enough to double as a Frisbee.

“When I was elected more than four years ago, it got worldwide media attention. Mayors of Houston don’t merit a box on the front page of the Times of India. It was ‘Lesbian Mayor Elected Mayor of Houston,’ or ‘Houston Elects Lesbian Mayor,’” she says.

“The entertainment-focused media on the West Coast and the news-focused media on the East Coast — neither side paid much attention to what happened down in Houston except to make fun of us. I was able to give people a glimpse of a different kind of Houston and suddenly we started popping up on ‘best of’ lists.” A few months after taking office, Parker was named in Time magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people (as was Sarah Palin).

Parker had no novelty value in her hometown, where she had already won six elections: three to the city council and three as city controller, a key financial office. Born in Houston in 1956, she graduated from Rice and spent two decades in the oil and gas industry.

While the oil business is politically conservative, the combination of the Texan frontier mentality and the quest for profit, exploration, and exploitation fosters a can-do spirit that values results over reputation. Houston, despite its Bible Belt location and the religious conservatism it connotes, is an especially pragmatic town. Thanks to Parker’s experience and professionalism, the lesbian Democrat was a sensible choice for the city in 2009 amid an economic downturn that required difficult decisions.

Parker’s résumé helps explain how she combines liberal social policies with fiscal conservatism. While gradually growing more prominent as a community activist, Parker spent 18 years working as a computer-savvy economic analyst for Mosbacher Energy, a Houston company controlled by a prominent Republican family. It was founded by Robert Mosbacher Sr., who was a close friend of President George H. W. Bush, served as U.S. secretary of commerce, and was a major GOP fundraiser.

After Mosbacher’s death in 2010, Parker told the Houston Chronicle that she admired his leadership style. “He had a profound influence on me. He made it clear he knew something about me personally. He felt it important to make that connection to people. It was good for business and it made the office run more smoothly,” she said. “I also learned you never fall in love with a deal. The numbers always have to make sense. That is a value I absorbed there and have tried to take into government.” But government and elections are distinct matters.

“If people thought that conservatives would hold her sexuality against her, they’ve demonstrated that they haven’t,” says Mustafa Tameez, a Houston-based political strategist who worked with Parker on an ordinance to curb payday lending firms.

“It doesn’t mean that every conservative is OK with it, but enough [voted] to get her elected in a fairly good margin in parts of town that people would have said were not winnable for her. She’s done that because she has demonstrated that she can do the job and, at the end of the day, most people that are reasonable are judging others on their ability to get the job done, more so now than ever before,” Tameez says.