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Annise Parker elected Houston's next mayor

Nation watches as city becomes the largest in U.S. to choose an openly gay leader

By BRADLEY OLSON
HOUSTON CHRONICLE

Dec. 15, 2009, 5:38PM

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Smiley N. Pool Chronicle

Annise Parker, current city controller, defeated former City Attorney Gene Locke in Saturday's tight runoff election.

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Annise Danette Parker was elected mayor of Houston on Saturday, winning her seventh consecutive city election and becoming both the first contender in a generation to defeat the hand-picked candidate of Houston's business establishment and the first openly gay person to lead a major U.S. city.

Parker, Houston's current city controller who first emerged in the public arena as a gay rights activist in the 1980s, defeated former City Attorney Gene Locke on an austere platform, convincing voters that her financial bona fides and restrained promises would be best suited in trying financial times. Parker, 53, will replace the term-limited Mayor Bill White on Jan. 1.

Her victory capped an unorthodox election season that lacked a strong conservative mayoral contender and saw her coalition of inside-the-Loop Democrats and moderate conservatives, backed by an army of ardent volunteers, win the day over Locke, a former civil rights activist who attempted to unite African-American voters and Republicans.

In complete but unofficial returns, Parker coasted to a comfortable victory with 52.8 percent of the vote to 47.2 percent for Locke. Turnout was 16.5 percent.

‘Join as one community'

When Parker finally appeared at 10:30 p.m., resplendent in a gold pantsuit and pearl necklace, the room at the George R. Brown Convention Center jammed elbow-to-elbow with supporters erupted with a deafening cheer. Some were newcomers to political waters. Some had been with her a dozen years ago when she claimed her first City Council seat.

“Tonight the voters of Houston have opened the doors to history,” she said. “I acknowledge that. I embrace that. I know what this win means to many of us who thought we could never achieve high office. I know what it means. I understand, because I feel it, too. But now, from this moment, let us join as one community. We are united in one goal in making this city the city that it could be, should be, can be and will be.”

Parker harkened back to her earliest days of involvement in civic issues, when she served as president of Neartown Association, saying that work gave her the insight she needed as she headed into public office, and especially an understanding of the human repercussion of politics.

“Hear me: The city is on your side,” she said. “I learned about the problems and the needs and hopes of our city at the neighborhood level. I understand what needs to be done to move us forward.”

After introducing her family, including her partner, Kathy Hubbard, their three children and her mother, Kay Parker, she made a post-campaign promise to those who live in Houston.

“I promise to give to citizens an administration of honesty, integrity and transparency,” she said. “The only special interest will be the public. We are in this together. We rise or fall together.”

Locke's concession

Locke conceded at the Hyatt Regency shortly after 10 p.m., celebrating the diverse coalition of ethnic groups, unions, business leaders and political heavyweights represented in his campaign.

In a short and gracious speech, he congratulated Parker and called on supporters to get behind the mayor-elect.

“Don't let past disappointments, past anger, past frustrations guide us into the future,” he said. “Let's unite and work together.”

In many ways, the race was framed by the financial anxieties voters have experienced over the past 18 months. At the polls, voter after voter cited Parker's experience watching over the city's $4 billion budget as a primary consideration in their choice.

Instead of being turned off by a politician reluctant to promise the world, voters responded to Parker's straight talk about all that might not be possible in the coming years.

Dozens of Houstonians interviewed by the Houston Chronicle said they appreciated her often blunt answers that made Locke's proposals seem vague.

She attacked his past as a general counsel to unpopular local governmental agencies and their debt problems, painting him as a “lawyer-lobbyist” in broad strokes that sought to cast doubt in the very arenas in which voters perceived Parker to have strengths.

Efforts against her

Although the general election heated up toward the end, Parker's sexuality never emerged until the field had been narrowed to two candidates. The race was also unusual for the relatively even split among four contenders in the first round of voting Nov. 3. To win, Parker and Locke had to earn the support of 70,000 voters — slightly more than 40 percent of those who cast their ballots in the general election.

Less than two weeks into the five-week runoff, social conservatives mounted a campaign to turn voters against Parker because of her sexual orientation, sending out mailers and e-mail blasts that cast the election as a referendum on gay rights.

While some voters acknowledged it was a matter of concern, many saw no problem voting for a gay candidate, especially given Parker's assurances that she did not intend to expand gay rights through her position as mayor.

Ray Hill, the dean of Houston's gay activists, saw victory in more ways than one.

“For me, it means 43 years of hard work has finally paid off,” Hill said. “For Houston, it means we have finally reached the point where being gay cannot be used as a wedge issue to divide the community and prevent us from reaching our aspirations. Annise Parker is not our mayor — she is the city's mayor.”

Chronicle reporters Moises Mendoza, Joe Holley, Mike Snyder and Mike Tolson contributed to this report.

bradley.olson@chron.com


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