Houston Mayor Annise Parker said Friday she uncomfortably found herself becoming part of the recent Texas gubernatorial race in which Republican incumbent Rick Perry handily defeated her predecessor, Democrat Bill White.
“I didn’t appreciate seeing pictures of myself in Rick Perry campaign ads,” Parker told an audience during a freewheeling discussion with Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of the nonprofit, online news site The Texas Tribune.
Parker, also a Democrat, had had some fiscal policy differences with White while he was mayor and she served as the city’s controller. But she said he was surprised how comments she made during the campaign, which were very similar to ones she’d made earlier, were used by the Perry camp against White.
“I probably could have been more politic in some of the things I said,” Parker told Smith and the audience at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
Parker said efforts by Perry and others to paint Houston as a “sanctuary city” in which police do not enforce immigration laws were misguided. She said that if undocumented people are living in the city and contributing to the economy, they should not have to fear Houston police.
“The issue is how do we treat and how do we deal with the criminal element that is part of (that population),” Parker said. If an undocumented alien commits a crime, the police and courts should treat that person like anyone else, she said. The problem, she said, is that the federal government has not effectively dealt with closing the border.
Parker also said that the city has to stress the fact that police, while enforcing the law, are also meant to help people. If undocumented aliens fear deportation, they may not call on police when necessary. In a city that is a hub for narcotics and human trafficking, she said, police also depend on the community for tips and other help in investigations, which could be hampered by a hard-line approach to immigration enforcement.
Asked by Smith if she felt Houston’s image had become a “casualty” during the governor’s race, Parker said it had somewhat, but not as badly as it could have been. “It did become a political football,” she said.
Parker, elected in November 2009, said that although she was “arguably the most prepared and experienced person” to serve as mayor after having served as controller and on City Council, there were some events during her first year that could not be anticipated.
Among those were the fallout from the explosion of the BP Deep Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, since many of the companies involved are based in Houston, and the decision by the Obama Administration to curtail plans for NASA’s manned space exploration program, based at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
“Thank goodness we didn’t have a hurricane. That would have been the trifecta,” she joked.
Turning again to the immigration debate, Parker said she has “fundamental concerns” about the Texas Legislature enacting in next year’s session an immigration law similar to the one passed earlier this year in Arizona.
“There has to be a path to citizenship, and you have to secure the borders,” she said.
Parker said she’s also concerned that Houston and other major cities will suffer financially as the legislature deals with a massive budget shortfall. That will cause municipalities to shoulder the burden of cut state services, exacerbating the problems of the homeless and providing health care.
Asked pointedly by Smith if raising city taxes was “off the table,” Parker said that was true for 2011. After that, and assuming she’s reelected (“These two-year terms are hell”), she’d have to rethink that following whatever happens after next year’s legislative session.
“You don’t go into battle deciding you’re going to leave one of your big weapons behind,” she said.
Parker said another issue she’s been dealing with is an Obama Administration that “doesn’t understand” the needs of cities, particularly very large ones like Houston. She said the federal government should provide more direct funding to the state’s larger cities rather than “add a level of complexity” by sending funds through the state government in Austin.
“We know better how to use it locally,” she said.
Parker touted her administration’s efforts to make Houston the nation’s “greenest city,” noting that many people outside the city are surprised that Houston could be environmentally conscious.
“Houston is a place where, if you have a good idea, it’s the best place in the world to test that idea,” she said.
She said she hoped that the city will be able to connect its numerous bayous into one linear park system that would entice residents to spend more time outdoors. “But it’s hot here,” Smith joked.
Parker responded by noting that Houston was founded by the Allen brothers in August 1836.
“Houstonians are tough. We just need to remind ourselves that this is a great climate to be in ten months out of the year,” she said.
A video of the discussion is available here.
Copyright © 2010 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.