Mayor triumphs over media label

Mayor Annise Parker visited UH on Friday and gave a speech to a small group of students about her unique campaign experiences. | Courtesy of zblume

Mayor Annise Parker paid a visit to the main campus to speak to a small group of students and invited guests from the English Department on Friday.

Parker entered the small classroom in the Roy G. Cullen building dressed in full Western attire: black denim jeans, boots, a gold-plated buckle and a Western shirt complete with pink snap buttons

“It’s ‘Go Texan Day’ in Houston … I don’t always dress like this,” Parker said.

Parker peppered jokes such as these throughout her 35-minute talk with English professor Maria Gonzalez’ Queer Theory students. She used her wardrobe to jump into the importance of appearance, especially when she first ran for public office in 1991.

“I had a rat-tail,” Parker said. “And I ceremoniously cut off the rat-tail and went out and bought a powder blue skirt and suit to campaign in. I spent more time in pantyhose and heels than I had in probably my entire life.”

Every campaign since then, Parker has donned a powder blue skirt suit. Whether she will wear one in future campaigns is unknown.

“I burned that sucker when I won (the mayor’s race),” she said.

Parker explained how she took steps to make sure it was her message, and not her appearance, that people remembered.

“Running a political campaign is a marketing exercise in a singular product: yourself and your ideas,” Parker said. “It is about making sure people receive your message.”

After losing her first two campaigns for at-large positions on the City Council — even with “the heels and hose and the slightly more conservative hairstyle” — Parker and her campaign manager at the time noticed the media was treating her a little differently than others.

“Every time I saw my name it was, ‘Annise Parker, lesbian activist’ or ‘gay activist Annise Parker,’ and I thought that was a problem,” she said.

Before beginning her third campaign in 1997, Parker sat down with the editorial boards of the Houston Post, Chronicle and various news stations in an effort to change the way she was identified.

She told them although she is a lesbian, she had not been a member of a gay or lesbian organization in a decade. She explained that it didn’t bother her to be called a lesbian, but she did “want and demand parity.” Like her opponents, Parker was a businessperson and volunteer.

“Fortunately for me, I think the times had changed so much that they got it,” Parker said. “Then they didn’t write it next to my name.  (They wrote) it in the next paragraph (instead).”

All of Parkers’ trials and tribulations were exemplified when she won her first election in 1997. Twelve years later, the hard work paid off in a way she only somewhat imagined; and it became a worldwide news event.

“What’s the biggest surprise? The level of media attention,” Parker said. “I have worldwide media coverage, and I’ve been in office for 12 years. Nobody cared for 12 years. Nobody paid attention.”

Her newfound celebrity and its sometimes-tedious effects —she has a higher security detail than any other mayor before her, the agents of which she called her “new best friends” — still hasn’t hampered her excitement.

“Let me tell you what it’s like to be mayor of Houston,” Parker said. “I love my job!” she said.

The floor was opened up for questions, with the first one concerning the troubles of NASA.

“Good question, not a gay question,” she jokingly said. “Thank you.”

Parker went on to answer questions regarding the METRO expansion, gentrification of the Third Ward and market forces, the often precarious relationship between the city and the county governments, intergovernmental relationships, immigration, the jail system and panhandling.

Gonzalez welcomed the direction the discussion took.

“It’s terrific; it shows the gay issue isn’t an issue. It’s about the city,” Gonzalez said. “She’s the mayor of a major city with very complex problems, and she was the most qualified person to help us fix many of our problems. So of course those are going to be the questions people ask.”

The idea of Parker coming to speak to the class first arose last summer. Parker agreed at the time, but when she became mayor, Gonzalez wasn’t sure whether Parker would still have enough time to honor her commitment. But when Gonzalez sent in the scheduling request, Parker said she would visit the class.

Parker said she enjoys being in public service, and part of that job includes creating time to speak with and offer advice to all college students in Houston.

She reserved her piece of advice for Gonzalez, who was also dressed for ‘Go Texan Day.’

“Get some boots, Maria,” she said as she walked out, leaving her audience in laughter.

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