On a fall day in 1991, a fresh-faced woman with lightly freckled cheeks and feathered, light-brown hair stood before the assembled media and announced she was running for City Council. The neophyte candidate, 35 at the time, explained that she was challenging District C Councilman Vince Ryan, in part, because Ryan had opposed creation of a Montrose-focused council district that presumably would give Houston’s gay community a stronger voice in city affairs.
The challenger insisted she was not running to punish Ryan, but to encourage gays and lesbians to get involved in the political process. The councilman — now the county attorney — felt betrayed. He had been responsive to the gay community and considered himself something of a mentor to the young activist.
Ryan got his revenge. In a bitter contest, he sent the newcomer to the showers, winning re-election with 77 percent of the vote.
Nearly two decades later, a few weeks before Annise Parker takes the oath of office as Houston’s first openly gay mayor, Ryan declares himself an enthusiastic supporter of that young woman he trounced in 1991. “My goal in life,” he says, “is to remain an important footnote in history as the only person to defeat Annise Parker in Houston.” (She also lost a 19-candidate council race in 1995.)
Parker characterizes the ’91 race as a mistake.
“I wasn’t ready to run a political race. I had no idea what I was getting into,” she recalled last week. “It was extremely painful. I don’t get energized by crowds, and I hate campaigning.”
That mistake ranks as one of the few political missteps the mayor-elect, now 53, has made during a dozen years as an elected official. Friends and longtime supporters see her career as a careful, calculated, almost inexorable advance toward the mayor’s office.
Elected to City Council in 1997 and as controller in 2003, Parker has built a reputation as a thoughtful and deliberate public servant with a technician’s penchant for mastering the mechanics of running a large, diverse city. An adept political tactician, she’s also learned — to paraphrase an old saw — to see her chances and to take ’em.
Short and compact, with a strong voice that occasionally betrays her childhood years in the South, she’s not charisma-blessed, and no one would ever compare her rhetorical skills to those of Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan or Ann Richards. Nonetheless, she has inspired a steadfast cadre of supporters whose loyalty and experience have stood her in good stead during seven election campaigns.
However inevitable her march toward the mayor’s office may seem today, it would have seemed about as likely as a black man winning the presidency in the years she was growing up the painfully shy, tomboy daughter of middle-class parents. Born in Houston to Kay and Les Parker on May 17, 1956, she spent her early years in Spring Branch. Her mother worked as a bookkeeper; her father was at various times a mail carrier and stockbroker who usually had a newspaper route when Annise and her younger sister, Alison, were growing up.
She loved sports and tagged along with her father when he refereed boxing matches and high-school football games around Houston. She also loved her grandparents’ 100-acre farm in Spring Branch, where she learned how to ride horses, milk cows and fix tractors.
School was more problematic. She much preferred walking the rows of her grandparents’ organic farm picking bugs off tomato vines than trudging, head cast down, through the hallways of Spring Branch Elementary. She enjoyed learning, but school was a nightmare for the frightened little girl.
It got even scarier in 1968, when her father bought a fishing camp on the back bay of Biloxi, Miss., and 12-year-old Annise was forced to adapt to new surroundings. A year after the Parkers moved to Mississippi, a runaway barge knocked down the only bridge connecting the fishing camp to the mainland. Cut off from its customers, the camp went bust.
Les Parker eventually found a job with the American Red Cross, and his position required frequent moves. Annise attended three junior high schools and three high schools, including a high school in Mannheim, Germany. As a teenager, she was prey to anxiety attacks and in a constant state of stress.
Coming to terms with her sexual orientation also was stressful. From an early age, she said, she felt different. At 15, while living in Mannheim, she fell hopelessly in love; many a night she found herself playing Romeo beneath the upstairs window of her winsome Juliet. Her parents realized the nature of the relationship and did everything they could to keep the two girls separated.
As a senior at R.B. Stall High School in Charleston, S.C., she was a high jumper and long jumper on the women’s track team and a member of the school’s Ecology Club, National Honor Society and Christian Youth Fellowship. She graduated in 1974, won a coveted National Merit Scholarship and enrolled at Rice University, the only college she had ever wanted to attend.
Working to improve
At Rice, where she triple-majored in anthropology, sociology and psychology, she lived openly as a lesbian. During her sophomore year, she and a girlfriend chose each other as roommates, but no other student would become the third occupant of the three-person room. In her junior year, she lived alone in a room intended for two. When she graduated, the mother of a classmate wrote Parker’s mother an eight-page letter detailing the torrid love affair that Parker and the woman’s daughter had been having. The woman demanded that Parker’s mother put a stop to it.
The elder Parker ignored the letter. Although Parker had never talked to her parents about being lesbian, they long had been aware and were supportive of their daughter.
Parker still was stomach-wrenching shy, but she forced herself to confront the problem. She had worked in the library the summer after her freshman year, a job that allowed her to hide out in the stacks, but the next summer she got a job selling toys and luggage at Cox’s Department Store in Fort Worth, where she had to interact with customers.
“Over and over, she’s determined to do something and if she needs to improve, she’ll do what she needs to do,” said campaign consultant Grant Martin, who has run all of Parker’s campaigns since 1997.
Parker insists she would much rather curl up in bed with a good book than be out and about among crowds. But she does a good job of masking her shyness. When she speaks, she is direct and forceful, although she notes that she has the shy person’s tendency of weighing her words carefully before uttering them. She also is not afraid to express her unhappiness when things don’t go the way she thinks they ought to. As a longtime staffer noted, Parker does not erupt, she simmers.
Life after college, activism
Although she was not involved in campus politics, she helped found the Rice gay student group. Steven Kirkland, now a Harris County civil court judge, recalled meeting her about that time. He was not yet out of the closet at the time, but he attended student association meetings where the gay group was under consideration. Parker, who would become a close friend, was adept at pushing the process forward, he recalled. “She’s tenacious,” he said.
Graduating from Rice in 1978, Parker took a job with Texasgulf Oil and Gas, where she got interested in software for economic modeling. Two years later, she took that interest and expertise to Mosbacher Energy. Working in the reservoir engineering department, she became an economic modeling specialist, relying on the latest software. She stayed with the company for 18 years.
“It was the cusp of the computer revolution,” she recalled, “the ground floor of the new technology.” Years later, she would make sure the controller’s office was up to date technologically, and she can be expected to do the same thing in the mayor’s office.
At work, Parker was a self-described “cog in the wheel,” but outside the office she was becoming more involved with the gay movement in Houston, home to the largest gay community in Texas. Pokey Anderson met Parker in 1981, “when she had spiked hair and a rat-tail.” Anderson, a founder in 1975 of the group now known as the Houston Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Political Caucus, recalled that Parker had a house of her own in the early 1980s and invited “orphans” over for Thanksgiving dinner. In 1988, the two women co-founded Inklings, a gay bookstore and community center at the corner of Richmond and Hazard. The store closed in 1998.
Parker’s activism was mostly behind the scenes until 1986, when she was elected president of the gay political caucus. She also volunteered on the campaigns of local candidates, including Eleanor Tinsley, Nicki Van Hightower, Anne Wheeler, George Greanias and Kathy Whitmire.
Whitmire — until Parker the only city controller to become mayor — appointed the young activist to an advisory committee organized to encourage more civilian involvement in police matters. “She was fair-minded and analytical, not afraid to speak her mind, but willing to listen to all sides,” Whitmire recalled last week from her home in Hawaii.
In 1990, Parker met the woman who would become her life partner, when Kathy Hubbard, a tax preparer, stopped by Inklings and Parker asked her to do her tax returns. They’ve been a couple ever since.
In 2003, they adopted two older African-American girls — 7-year-old Marquitta and 12-year-old Daniela.
“The black children in foster homes — it’s very hard to find homes for them,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a close friend and adviser. “It was such a loving thing for Annise and Kathy to do. These are people who take on the tough things, who live their values.”
Parker and Hubbard also took in a 16-year-old street kid, Jovon Tyler, who had been kicked out of his grandparents’ house because he was gay. Now 33, he graduated from mortuary school last week.
Parker’s involvement with neighborhood groups, in addition to her work with gay organizations, prompted her quixotic City Council effort in 1991. Kirkland recalled her candidacy as “a fit of pique on the part of the gay activist community, who demanded that someone run against Vince Ryan. It was put to Annise, because she had talked about running. … That was not a battle we needed to pick.”
Wins council seat
In 1995, Parker entered a special election to replace Sheila Jackson Lee on the council after Lee decamped to Congress. Out of 19 candidates, she finished third, and vowed never to run again.
After the campaign, she took a trip to Big Bend National Park — her favorite place in the world — and pondered her future. She realized that she still hated the whole campaign rigmarole, but she also realized that her ’95 campaign had gotten people’s attention. She decided to run again, if she could make sure her campaign was not purely symbolic — she refused to be “the lesbian candidate” — and if she could learn how to raise funds.
In 1997, she plunged in again — against the advice of Kirkland and other friends who did not want to see her hurt — and won the At-Large Position 1 council seat in a runoff. She was Houston’s first openly gay elected official.
Chris Bell, who served on the council with Parker, recalled that it was not an easy time to be a council member. The seven Republicans on the panel organized themselves in opposition to everything Mayor Lee Brown aspired to do, while Brown’s fellow Democrats felt left out of the decision-making process.
“She had formed a close alliance with Brown,” Bell recalled. “We all were kind of allies back then, but the allies felt they were being consulted after the fact rather than before, and it got a little bit old.”
A messy dispute over an airport parking contract in 1999 prompted a walkout by five council members, including Parker. As Bell recalled, “she went back to her office, consulted with Brown and went back in. She stepped in to fill that void, while I was exiled to Siberia. Like most folks in politics, she looks for opportunities. That was pretty smart politics.”
Parker also forged a reputation as the council member who worked hard to master complex tax and spending issues.
“You could always tell that when she walked into a room she was armed with facts and figures,” said political consultant Joe Householder. “She was a person people looked up to as an authority figure.”
Kirkland said, “There’s nobody sitting at the council table who doesn’t think they can do that job better than the mayor, and Annise didn’t exclude herself from that. She’s been training for it.”
First though, she ran for controller in 2003, in part, because she was term-limited. She won and ran unopposed in 2005 and 2007. Although she took pride in her accomplishments, which included expanding the role of the office to conduct performance audits of city functions and taking politics out of the operations of the office, she grew frustrated that her job was purely administrative. She missed dealing with constituents. Term-limited again, she declared her candidacy for mayor.
‘Willing to listen’
Her campaign was as steady and professional as longtime political observers expect her administration to be. Although she considers herself a friend and ally of her predecessor, she will not be Bill White.
Most observers expect Parker to be more managerial than White, someone more inclined to confer with council members and department heads before making a decision.
“I see her sort of managing, as opposed to White, who came in to fix the city,” said Marty Stein, the longtime agenda director at City Hall. “He was extremely ambitious and very motivated to take on everything. Having been around City Hall for 12 years, she’ll choose her battles more narrowly.”
Bell expects “a more open administration in being willing to listen to a greater number of people from the outside.”
“I have a different management style, and we face a different set of circumstances,” Parker said. “We still have serious pension underfunding and declining revenues. Cash reserves are hovering very close to the suggested minimum.”
Her immediate priority is to deal with those fiscal difficulties. She also expects to tackle police staffing, as well as the ongoing challenge of providing the same level of service for fewer dollars.
“My focus is a little myopic,” she said last week as she sat at a conference table in the controller’s eighth-floor City Hall office. One end of the table was anchored by a tall bouquet of flowers, the other by a thick notebook of transition details.
“Somebody expects me to read this,” she said, shaking her head.
Looking beyond immediate priorities, she said she envisioned a sophisticated international city, a city the world needs to know better. She noted that when Houston has made great leaps forward, it’s usually been Houstonians, not their government, who have provided the impetus. She hopes to encourage a similar sense of hope and opportunity.
“I want us all to realize,” she said, “that we’re all in it together.”