The Politic: In your 2014 Inaugural Address, you stated: “A city has been called a place where ideas can rub against each other and perhaps strike a spark.” If I’m visiting your city for the first time and have just two free hours, what should I do? In other words, what’s the iconic Houston experience?

I would say it’s impossible to answer that question without knowing what your personal interests are. That’s one of the great things about the city – there is something for everyone. If you love museums, I could tell you where to go; if you want a great regional chef-prepared meal, I could tell you where to go; if you love sports, and you come at the right time, I would send you off to our stadium for a sporting match. It’s about plugging you into what you’re passionate about.

The Politic: It is quite impressive that your $5.2 billion budget proposal for the 2015 fiscal year includes no expected layoffs or tax increases. What has been your strategy for identifying the most important issues that face Houston?

When I took office at the beginning of 2010, we were in the midst – well, really the depths – of the recession. I had to make some severe cuts and civilian layoffs at that point. I had to sharpen my pencil and focus on the critical, core services of the city. At the same time, I looked for ways to expand funding – not tax funding – in areas that needed it or would support it. I think one of the most critical issues is that of infrastructure. During my first year in office, I tackled our water sewer funding structure and tied it more to the actual cost of producing water. I did this, for example, by setting it at a replacement level. That initiative is supported by an enterprise fund, which is meant to be self-supporting. I also went to the voters that fall with the ReBuild Houston program, creating drainage and infrastructure fees that go strictly to street and drainage work. I said, “If infrastructure is the highest priority, then let’s figure out how to appropriately pay for infrastructure.” Public safety is another high priority. One-third of the general fund budget goes to the police department, and the other two-thirds goes to public safety. We must ask ourselves, “Are there things in public safety that we’re paying for today that we don’t necessarily need to pay for?” In dealing with public safety, we accomplished three big things. First, we have been trying for a couple of decades to find a way to close our aging city jails. We have finally signed an agreement with Harris County to have them take our prisoners until we jointly build a new processing facility. It’s still our core service to arrest people, but we don’t have to be the jail. So we work with Harris County to do that. Second, we privatized a crime lab that was under fire and that we have had in the City of Houston for a long time; we’re still paying for the work, but it’s independently managed and operated. Over time, we expect they’ll begin to take in work from other jurisdictions and begin to operate more independently from our business. Third, we have opened what’s called the Houston Center for Sobriety, which is a sobering center. We arrest between 17,000-19,000 people a year for public intoxication; we asked ourselves, is there a way to not take them to jail? They don’t have a criminal record, and it’s cheaper to house them in the sobering center than to put them into the full city jail that we currently operate. The sobering center is about a third less expensive per-capita, and also offers an opportunity for intervention instead of just incarceration. So those are three areas in public safety in which we’ve managed to, in the long term, cut costs and create efficiencies. Infrastructure, public safety, quality of life, jobs and economic development – those are the four big priorities that I’ve had as mayor.

The Politic: Houston is known for its incredibly resilient economy; job creation and capital investment are just two areas in which the city continues to see impressive growth. How has your administration, since 2010, built on the successes of previous mayors?

Every administration builds on the successes of the previous mayors. While infrastructure has been a big priority of mine, when we decide to invest in water sewer infrastructure or street drainage infrastructure, we are also creating good jobs and good wages and stimulating the economy. But the big sectors of Houston’s economy have been built over the years. It used to be, in the ‘80s, that oil and gas were 80% of the Houston economy. Since then, mayors have diligently worked to broaden our manufacturing and industrial base, and to drive that number down, all while the oil and gas industries have been exploding. So it’s particularly impressive that those industries make up only 50% of the economy now, but this is partially due to the fact that the whole pie has gotten bigger. As did the previous mayors, I have worked to build a port, to expand the medical sector, and to increase our manufacturing base. All of these advancements are helping to create jobs and expand the economy. Still, the 50% portion of the economy devoted to the oil and gas industries is a whole lot bigger than the 80% portion of the ‘80s. Even in oil and gas, we have attracted the consolidation of headquarters here; we now have not only the refinery capacity, but we have the brainpower side of the industry. We want to be a headquarters town. Our synergy here attracts a lot of the other majors – they like to be where the other big boys are.

The Politic: Moving away from the economy, tell us about the passage of your landmark Equal Protection Ordinance. How do you view its enactment in relation to the national LGBT movement?

I’m a Houstonian; I grew up here and I was actually involved in the community the last time the city tried to pass a nondiscrimination order. We weren’t successful in the ‘80s because it truly was an ordinance that focused on the gay and lesbian community. When I picked it up again this year, I was a little surprised to find that – even though I had written an executive order for broad nondiscrimination protection when I first became mayor – the City of Houston had never had a general nondiscrimination ordinance. So unlike what’s happening in most cities around the United States, where the administrations have decided to add sexual orientation and gender identity to already-existing ordinances, we had to write one from scratch—or, rather, we had the opportunity to write one from scratch. This fact actually makes the passage of the Ordinance a little more positive; it’s certainly a step forward for the movement. For us, it’s an affirmation of the fact that Houston has operated very well for a long time in a welcoming, tolerant community, without a general nondiscrimination ordinance. But now we have protections in place for instances in which they are needed. That it is a broad-based ordinance is of particular import to me, and it’ll certainly make it easier to defend if the anti-folks get it on the ballot.

The Politic: What impact can a mayor have that no other elected official can?

Cities have to function 24/7. Cities have to function at a very high level, and the bigger the city, the more complex the interaction. Mayors lead local governments—the only level of government from which citizens receive direct and immediate feedback. When you go to a state capital or Washington, you deal with language in a bill that may or may not have an impact on someone’s life when it’s officially passed. Mayors have to make sure that the trash gets picked up, and the toilets flush, and the traffic signals work. We impact people’s lives in a way that nobody else does. The other thing is that mayors are indelibly identified with their cities. You are the public face and voice of your city. I’m the CEO, but I’m also the chief marketing officer and the head cheerleader, all rolled together; that part of the job is different from most other elected positions.

The Politic: How do you envision Houston in the year 2020?

I’ve put a lot of things in motion of which I won’t see the benefit while I’m still mayor, such as the overhaul of our water sewer system, the street drainage system, and a hike-and-bike trail construction process. I have a few months to serve, and those are five-to-seven-year programs, which have just begun. So we’ll have great infrastructure – we’ll be way ahead of other cities. We’ll have this wonderful $200 million hike-and-bike trail system. We’ll continue to expand as an international destination because we are investing very aggressively in bringing new, direct flights to Houston. Forbes called us the next great global city; I think we’re already there, but by 2020, the rest of the world will realize it.

The Politic: With the current polarization in Washington, city mayors across the nation are beginning to form their own movements to affect change. Could you please tell us more about your recent involvement with the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry petition?

A lot of mayors have very direct administrative authority; they have the power to conduct marriages, for example. I actually don’t have that power. I got involved with Mayors for the Freedom to Marry a couple of years ago. The fellow mayors who are a part of this effort and I all agreed that we know our constituents, we know what they’re talking about, what they’re interested in, and the time has come. Mayor Bloomberg said at a press conference that, frankly, we’re going to be making a lot of money off of gay weddings, and we might as well embrace the understanding that marriage and strengthening family ties is important to the health of the communities we serve. It provides for better economic outcomes, creates better support for children in those families, and strengthens neighborhoods. For all those reasons, mayors across the United States stepped up and affirmed their support. In the interim – the two-years since its inception – states have begun to, through the legal process, fall, one after the other like dominoes. Two weeks ago, at the National Conference of Mayors, we affirmed our commitment to this process. But it wasn’t new to us. We were out front, helping to lead, and now we’re going to help support the state governments and the litigators who are pushing this forward.

The Politic: How would you suggest the federal government apply the solutions implemented by local governments to issues as widespread as, for instance, chronic homelessness?

The City of Houston’s population is larger than fifteen states. Our economy – the economy of the greater Houston area – is bigger than, probably, those of thirty-five states. We have resources that come from Washington; one of the things that we regularly suggest to the federal government is that, based on our capacity to handle sophisticated grand apparatuses, they should fund cities directly, put protocols in place to make sure the money is being used correctly, and then get out of the way. A lot of the times, for anything that flows through the state, the state takes a cut, it flows down, and then it eventually comes to the city. That’s a frustrating process. Also, each city is different; the tools that work in one city might not work in another. We talk about the states as being fifty different experiments in democracy, while the big-city governments are fifteen hundred different experiments in democracy. But the great thing about cities is that we share information, especially at our national conferences. The federal government could be a better conduit for sharing some of those best practices that we discuss. Right now, they’re trying to do that on homelessness, young male violence, and climate change. It’s exciting to see the White House go directly to mayors of big cities and let us teach each other what works and what doesn’t. The feedback loop is really fast and can move us forward quickly.

The Politic: What one piece of advice would you offer to all mayors of the United States?

You can’t be a mayor unless you love your city. You can’t do a good job as mayor without being passionate about government. Not as a piece of advice, but as a reminder: The things that we do as mayors are necessary for human beings to live in concert with one another, and they are the same things that have been done in gatherings of people for millennia – whether you live in a mud hut, in a small collection of mud huts, in a cave, or in a steel skyscraper, the same things have to happen. You have to have fresh water and a latrine, you have to figure out what to do with the trash, you need a power and food source, and you need someone to stand in front of the gate with a spear to keep the tigers away. We are, as mayors, part of a chain of history. What city governments provide is no more and no less than the mechanism for human beings to live in one place together.

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