COULD ANNISE Parker be any more Houstonian? Born downtown at St. Joseph's Hospital, she went to Rice University, worked in the oil-and-gas industry, and co-owned a local bookstore. In December 2009, Parker, a longtime city official and gay activist, was elected the 61st mayor of her hometown. Over lunch at Irma's, a Houston institution that serves some of the city's best Tex-Mex under the motherly eye of chef-owner Irma Galvan, Parker talked with Fast Company about cowboy boots, sauna-like summers, and her role as her city's evangelist-in-chief.
Why did you choose Irma's?
It's so Houston. It's very egalitarian: Everybody waits in the same line — politicians, lawyers, workers. It's idiosyncratic and entrepreneurial: Everybody talks about local, fresh ingredients and daily menus now, but Irma was doing it years ago. There's no menu: It's just fresh ingredients and whatever she wants to cook that day.
People may think of Houston as idiosyncratic, but most don't think of it as a creative, innovative place.
People just have this image of Houston as a redneck, cowboy place. We're a diverse, sophisticated, urbane place — some of us may wear cowboy boots, but we wear them with our tuxedos. There's been a cultural transformation here from a biracial Southern city into an international melting pot.
How has that happened?
There are low barriers to entry. Consider what it costs to start a business in New York or Chicago, or what it costs to live in Washington, D.C. You can live palatially here compared with those cities, and we have all the amenities: We have the opera and the ballet and the symphony. I'm a huge fan of the Houston Zoo and of the Natural Science Museum. We have affordable housing — you don't have to live in a closet. Yes, it can be like living in a steam bath in August and September, but you can be outdoors here for all but a few days of the year.
What's the role of the mayor — and of the government — in creating the right climate for business, investment, and opportunity?
The role of government is to do things that can't be done by the private sector, do them well, and then get the hell out of the way. My emphasis is on infrastructure; our job is to provide the platform on which business can thrive. It's the blessing and curse of Houston that we're never satisfied with where we are. Sometimes that makes it messy to govern the city, but we're willing to take chances on things.
What's the biggest chance you've taken so far as mayor?
I supported a citizen petition, called "Rebuild Houston," to place a drainage fee on the ballot. We've been neglecting our infrastructure for a very long time. Remember this was a Tea Party — driven, antigovernment election climate in the middle of the recession. We went to the voters and said, "We want you to agree to put this fee on yourselves. We don't know how much the fee will be or what projects it will fund. But we pledge it will go into a lockbox and it will just be used for infrastructure." I put the odds at 50-50, but Houston weighed the issue and decided to approve it.
What's your top concern right now?
The budget. That's universal. I thought the economy would have been better by now.
Has it been tough to adjust to being in such a singular position, in which people hold you responsible for things, like the economy, that are largely beyond your control?
I sometimes wake up at night thinking about the responsibility of 2.1 million people and 21,000 employees, but I knew what the job was going to be. I called Rahm Emanuel the other day to congratulate him on being elected Chicago's mayor, and I told him being mayor is the coolest job in the world. Things go well, it's on you. Things don't, it's your fault. It's all on you!
It's not, really.
No, it's not — I'm joking. When I was running, I said, "Don't expect to send me to City Hall to fix things. Expect me to open doors so that we can work on things together." "Rebuild Houston" is a classic example. It wasn't my idea.
Tell us something we don't know about Houston.
Houston is the nation's largest municipal purchaser of alternative energy. We know we're energy hogs, so we're making a conscious choice to do this. We don't do so well with solar here because of the cloud cover, but we're rapidly becoming a center of wind energy. And we've learned it doesn't always cost more to go green. We've been retrofitting several thousand traffic signals, replacing incandescents with LEDs. We knew they'd use less energy, but we also learned the new bulbs last seven times as long. We're saving money in both the short and the long term.
It seems like a big challenge to constantly have to change people's perceptions about your city.
It's part of my role as mayor to evangelize for the city and to tell the rest of the world that Houston is not what they think it is. But I've also had to do it with Houstonians, oddly. I think we've had an inferiority complex. People feel like they have to say: We are, too, cultured! A few years ago, there was a guerrilla marketing campaign called "Houston. It's Worth It." It said things like, "Cockroaches as big as hummingbirds — but Houston is worth it!" and "98 degrees and 98% humidity — but Houston is worth it!" It drove the Chamber of Commerce nuts, but I think most Houstonians immediately got it. We have a good sense of humor. This city works, and it all comes together. I just want the whole world to see that.