The Ethics of Now Tackles the Challenges of Governing in America in Conversation with former Houston Mayor, Annise Parker

“A political office is a tool…not a destination.  Political capital is there to be spent!” 

Blunt talk from Annise Parker, the 61st mayor of Houston, Texas in conversation with Professor Adriane Lentz-Smith in the latest in a series of conversations in the Kenan Institute’s “Ethics of Now” series.  Ms. Parker, whose mayoralty lasted from 2010 to 2016, holds the distinction of being one of the first openly-gay mayors of a major U.S. city.  Raised in a Republican Texas family, Ms. Parker was instilled with a strong sense of volunteerism during her childhood, that made her a natural leader in the LGBTQ movement in the 1970s.  She founded the first openly gay student organization at her alma mater, Rice University and has remained active in the fight for equality ever since.

In keeping with the theme of the “Ethics of Now” series to address topics of mutual concern to Duke and Durham, Dr. Lentz-Smith emphasized the mutual responsibilities individuals and public officials have to each other to ensure that government works the way it should, especially as American cities like Houston and Durham have become more diverse and more susceptible to external shocks like climate change.

Ms. Parker recounted how Houston had changed from a classic, bi-racial southern city thirty years ago to one in which a quarter of its residents are now born outside of the United States and locals are in the minority.  These demographic changes occur due to economic growth which make such cities magnets for global citizens. 

Managing this diversity poses challenges to public officials, Ms. Parker observed, who are in the difficult position of explaining to wealthier residents why limited municipal resources may have to be targeted towards alleviating the effects of neglect and poverty, while crafting policing strategies that address minority communities’ concerns as well.  Here, altruism should act as a guiding moral principle for ordinary citizens and policy makers: for example, we all ought to support education as a public good even if our children are grown or we have none of our own.

Dr. Lentz-Smith concluded the discussion by praising Ms. Parker’s remarks and observations as “an ode to local government,” and asked her to provide insight into the upcoming midterm elections.  Describing herself as “energized” going into the midterms, Ms. Parker pointed out that while many candidates are angry at the status quo, most also care deeply about the communities they seek to represent.  She concluded by encouraging the audience to balance concern over issues such as voter suppression with hope stemming from the unprecedented number of candidates who hail from diverse gender and racial backgrounds in this election cycle.

Gautam Chebrolu is a P’17 Alum

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