Monday, December 22, 2014

Lanier's legacy

I'm not joining the chorus of others in mourning the recent passing of former Houston mayor Bob Lanier.  He was certainly a man who made himself very wealthy as a real estate speculator (if you can call knowing where the highways were going to be built and then buying land there 'speculating').  And he spread that wealth around amongst his buddies, quietly tipping them off to potential deals.  That would be called 'insider trading' if someone investing in the stock market did it.  Used to be a crime, don't know if it still is.  If it is, a mostly white Harris County grand jury isn't likely to indict anyway.

Lanier set the standard for how Houston is now governed: of, by, and for the developers.  And in the early '90's, those guys didn't cotton to the idea of a monorail for mass transit -- no matter what the voters of Houston said -- so when Lanier decided to challenge five-term mayor Kathy Whitmire (after she had fired him from Metro), the race wasn't even close.  She came in third, and Lanier bested Sylvester Turner 53-47 in the runoff, with the city split precisely along racial lines.  Oh, and now we have term limits for Houston municipal offices.

Lanier took his 1991 election to run City Hall as a mandate to kill the monorail, and he diverted the money into road projects (surprise!) and large numbers of new police officers.  Though he angered suburbanites by annexing Kingwood, many locals were forgiving, bestowing plaudits on Lanier for the drop in Houston's crime rate as a result of his change in policy direction.  The facts are, however, that crime fell dramatically all across the United States during Lanier's tenure as mayor -- which coincided with the Clinton White House years -- and that drop was due to an extensive variety of social and economic factors, not just more cops on the streets.

It's worth footnoting that there is academic disagreement on precisely which causes may have produced the most effect.  And for the record, one of them wasn't Bill Clinton's economy, stupid.  Crime has continued to fall, worldwide, even as the economy has both worsened and improved over the past twenty years.

Lanier rode the non-partisan nature of Houston's municipal elections as far as anyone has.  He was the kind of conservative, pro-business, law-and-order Democrat that Republicans could love.  A neoliberal, in other words.  Annise Parker has carried on much of this fine Bayou City tradition.  A handful of 2015 mayoral wannabes from both sides of the so-called aisle are already lined up in the same queue.  I've identified some of them, but you're smart enough to know who they are without my reminding you.  The Ds and Rs behind their name mean absolutely nothing in the context of how we do City Hall elections, and that's how Houstonians have (apparently) always wanted it.  As we should know from recent history, all these armadillos bumping around in the middle of the road produces voter turnout in the low double digits.

So let's give Bob Lanier praise for shrewdly becoming a very rich man based on insider information.  And setting a local governmental standard that so many of Houston's 1%, uncontent with just being wealthy, now strive for.  And maybe a few nice parks in town.  And that's about it.

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