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?



Kathy Hubbard and Annise Parker, together 23 years, wed in Palm Springs, Calif., in January

If she intends to run for statewide office after her stint as mayor finishes at the end of 2015, she will have plenty of time to pause and consider her next move ahead of the 2018 elections. By 2016, Wendy Davis could be starting her second year as governor. Or not. Current polling suggests Abbott will cruise to victory over Davis this year, in which case Democrats will be searching for their next great hope. No doubt a tough, credible, scandal-free veteran with strong name recognition would be a desirable choice.

“I hope Wendy Davis becomes the next governor of Texas, and then four years from now I’ll be on a ticket with her, perhaps,” says Parker. “I would like to stand for office again. I have run for everything I can here, really, at the local level.”

Houston’s City Hall is modest on the outside but the interior is opulent. Completed in 1939, the building has beautiful art deco details, marble lobbies, and noble mottoes. Virtue in the Civic Body Is Eternal is written above a desk in the lobby outside Parker’s office, next to Cities and Thrones Stand in Time’s Eye.

A floor below, Parker presides over council meetings in wood-paneled chambers, wearing a cream-colored fedora with a dark band. This afternoon in early March she has just come from a “Hats in the Park” luncheon benefiting a local park. She sits in her hat at the center of a semicircle of plush green chairs, Justice and Counsel in huge lettering on the wall above her head.

The public meeting has a vaguely X Factor vibe to it as diverse members of the public take turns airing grievances in front of the panel of council members, hoping one or two will judge their cause to be worthy of more analysis. A mellow 25-year-old asks for better bike lanes. A man with a voice that twangs like a banjo discusses firefighter pensions. A gray-haired, mustachioed gentleman in a cowboy hat and boots raises a right-of-way issue. Someone claims there is a plot to kill him for a million dollars. And a pastor expresses her frustration that transgender members of her congregation are being mocked in restrooms. Parker handles this potpourri of concerned citizens expertly; firm and businesslike while also friendly and interested.

A couple of days later, a different set of political skills were tested in a very different environment, in which she was the one at a lectern talking about her life. The 57-year-old had returned to California to speak at the state Democratic party’s convention in Los Angeles. She started by thanking Californians for allowing her to get married. Her speech felt like a rehearsal for the kind of tub-thumping that is mandatory on the stump in national and statewide elections. It was a 10-minute pep talk that offered oratorical flourishes but limited substance, the kind of grandiloquence that she generally shuns back in Houston.

“Family, freedom, faith — all are Democratic values. We need to claim ’em, we need to own ’em, we need to talk about ’em. That’s how I won in Houston and that is how Democrats win in red states and again, those kind of issues are going to carry Wendy Davis to victory in Texas,” she said.

It ended with audience participation as she exhorted the room to yell, “This party is mine!” and ordered them to go out and promote Democratic values to nonbelievers. Judging from the YouTube footage, it was well-received, if a touch forced.

“One of the dirty little secrets about Mayor Parker that she might disagree with me on is that she’s not really a fan of politics,” says Joe Householder, a public affairs adviser who splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Houston. “You can tell that while she’s very good at it, it’s not what she considers fun. What she considers fun is the governing side.”

Undoubtedly resilient and smart enough for the fray, Parker clearly does not relish the theatrical aspects of the job. While confident, at times she seems self-conscious on occasions where the attention is on her personality rather than her policies. Bookish? Well, she did co-own a bookshop for a decade. But the California speech showed that she can be evangelical as well as practical.

It’s easy to believe she has the talent to take on a major statewide race in 2018. But is Texas ready to accept her, let alone embrace her? “I’m going to jump out on a limb here and say I think it is,” says Kirkland. “And I’ll say this with a couple of caveats: Texas is still a very divisive, very difficult state for progressive candidates, a difficult state for gay and lesbian candidates. We’re still a target for the right wing, but the right wing is shrinking.”

Householder agrees. “Nobody works harder than Annise Parker. It’s a political cliché and I hate saying it, but it’s true. If she decides that she’s going to run statewide, she’s going to coldly calculate whether or not she can do it, how she’s going to do it, and then she’s going to apply herself and get it done,” he says. “I wouldn’t bet against her.”