Politics & Policy

With Its Bathroom Ordinance, Houston Takes Leave of Its Municipal Senses


Houston is having an election today, and it’s an interesting one: There’s an open mayor’s seat, and early voting has been unusually strong, particularly in — this is an unusual pairing — African-American neighborhoods and conservative neighborhoods. The nation’s fourth-largest city is well on its way toward becoming the third-largest — Houston adds to its numbers something close to the population of Santa Cruz, Calif., in a typical year — and it has all of the enormously complex problems and institutional challenges characteristic of 21st-century American cities.

The big question in this election: Where should a man in a dress go potty?

Despite recent downturns in oil and gas prices, Houston is in better shape than you’d expect. The local economy is performing robustly, and unemployment is well under 4 percent. Houston has more than its share of violent crime, but it remains far, far safer than most U.S. cities, coming in right behind Minneapolis in the rankings at half the violent crime rate of Detroit and one-fifth the murders per capita of St. Louis. It is a city that is 44 percent Hispanic, 24 percent black, 26 percent Anglo, 28 percent foreign-born, with only half of its people speaking English at home, but it has relatively little in the way of ugly Chicago-style/Los Angeles-style/Philadelphia-style racial politics.

Driving along Interstate 10 in Houston last week, I saw a wonderful inversion of the familiar urban scene of a sad homeless fellow standing in an underpass with a “Will Work for Food” sign: Houston’s version is guy standing in an underpass holding a placard reading: “General Labor Wanted,” handing out fliers to passers-by looking for work.

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But Houston has its problems, too. It suffers from Cairo-style traffic ensnarements that make one think wistfully of Los Angeles, a problem intensified by freeways and city streets in a positively dangerous state of disrepair, as a result of which it takes longer to get from the east side of Houston to the west side than it does to get from New York City to Philadelphia. Houston has insanely upside-down city finances, with a deficit expected to run nearly a half-billion dollars between 2017 and 2020, along with the usual urban plague of $3.3 billion in unfunded government pension liabilities. A relatively large number of Houston’s public schools are held in low esteem by the state’s educational authorities, and 23 of them have been ranked “academically unacceptable” for two years or longer.

Instead of a competent city-builder who is also gay, Houston got a culture warrior whose parting gift to the city is a deeply stupid fight over “HERO” — the Houston Equal-Rights Ordinance.

Last time around, Houston elected as its mayor Annise Parker, the first open lesbian to serve as mayor of a major U.S. city. There are some ass-kicking lesbians in the world, but Parker is not one of them. Texas has a reputation for being a hotbed of Evangelical fervor, but Houstonians are in the main blasé about their mayor’s sexual orientation — it’s her political orientation that’s the problem. If she’d been able to do something about the city’s lunar roadscapes or its incipient fiscal emergency, nobody would have cared if her main sexual enthusiasms was lurking in airport restrooms hoping for stray Republican congressmen — they’d have built monuments to her. Even Parker’s progressive-minded constituents must, in their honest moments, judge her a failure: On such lifestyle-liberal metrics as mass transit and environmental quality, Houston is kind of a mess.

Instead of a competent city-builder who is also gay, Houston got a culture warrior whose parting gift to the city is a deeply stupid fight over “HERO” — the Houston Equal-Rights Ordinance — which among other things would create a new body of local civil-rights law (the lawyers cheer with one voice) covering transgender/transsexual people in the matter of public accommodations, meaning public toilets and the like. This wasn’t preceded by some crisis in the matter of toilet accommodations for men in dresses, but the issue is critically important to some people: Namely, to people who are in their affluence and comfort able to maintain a state of graceful blindness to the actual nuts-and-bolts problems facing Houston. 

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The leading candidate in the mayor’s race is Sylvester Turner, a member of the Texas state house, an African-American Democrat and Harvard Law graduate whose big idea is putting shiftless young people to work filling up potholes and calling it a job-training program. He talks in fairly vague terms about economic inequality and the like, but he’s pretty much a potholes guy. That’s not so bad, really: Houston could use a potholes guy, assuming he’s any good at it. The race is expected to go into a runoff, though whom Turner will face is unclear. One possibility is Republican businessman Bill King, who has been a mayor before: of Kemah, Texas, a Houston exurb on the coast. King’s program is in the main stuff that’s familiar to conservative urban reformers: moving city employees to a defined-contribution pension plan rather than an unsustainable defined-benefit plan, reducing the management footprint of the police department and redeploying resources in a way that might actually reduce crime (the Houston police manage to arrest a grand total of 6 percent of the city’s burglars), replacing the city’s so-called Rain Tax (a pay-as-you-go program for drainage and other infrastructure projects) with old-fashioned bond issues put to a public vote. Solid stuff, though by no means visionary.

#share#Conservative think tanks and policy wonks have done excellent work over the years in developing intelligent critiques of, and innovative policy approaches to, big-city problems. And most of that concentrated brainpower has gone exactly nowhere, as conservative politicians have in the main given up hope of making inroads into big U.S. cities, which are almost exclusively — take a bow, San Diego! — monopolistic Democratic fiefdoms.


Because a great many city-dwellers are dumb enough, and sufficiently poisoned by preening moral self-regard, to believe that voting for a mayor based on some irrelevant demographic characteristic — color of his skin, whom she prefers sharing a bed with — is an act of virtue rather than an act of bad citizenship. These people don’t really vote with what’s good for their city in mind; rather, they are members of the Lena Dunham school of democratic participation, those whose vote is primarily an expressive rather than instrumental matter: “What does my vote say about me, and about which character I’d be if I were a character on Girls?”

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Of course, the public-sector unions and other government-insider interest groups ensure that if the GOP should put up a candidate who punches some progressive demographic button (such as Kevin James, a gay conservative activist and talk-radio host who was the Republican candidate for mayor of Los Angeles some years back), then every available piece of political artillery will be trained on him. Destroying black, Hispanic, gay, and female Republican candidates is a top progressive priority.

The unions have a lot of money, but they don’t have a monopoly on votes, or even a majority of them.

American cities will continue to be badly misgoverned for as long as residents choose to be governed by incompetents, misfits, criminals, race-hustlers, and practitioners of cheap identity politics.

Republicans shouldn’t be under any illusions about their ability to punch through that kind of boneheaded tribal thinking. Which is to say, American cities will continue to be badly misgoverned for as long as the residents of American cities choose to be governed by incompetents, misfits, criminals, race-hustlers, and practitioners of cheap identity politics.

Unhappily, it isn’t only the cities: Progressive tribal politics are the main reason that Barack Obama was twice elected president of these United States, in spite of a pre-election curriculum vitae that suggested he was entirely unprepared for the presidency and a first term that proved it. It is why Hillary Rodham Clinton will be, despite her documented incompetence in the lesser position of secretary of state and the fact that her surname is a byword for dishonesty and the worst kind of self-serving politics, a formidable candidate.

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And that same kind of affiliation-driven politics is the reason why, in spite of all of Houston’s serious municipal challenges, the topic that is dominating the discussion is a so-called civil-rights ordinance addressing in part the all-important question of public accommodations — read: toilet rules — for transsexuals. Houston may not know how it’s going to balance the books, but it is by-God certain that a fellow who wants to while away some time in the damas’ room at Taco Cabana has a civil right to do so if he’s feeling feminine that day, and that this right simply must be codified in the city’s legal code. (The rule was already thrown out once by the state supreme court on the grounds that it was improperly adopted.) In Houston’s well-heeled and hipsterish Upper Kirby neighborhood this morning, I took a moment to speak with some volunteers for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, who were very excited about the great toilet battle to come on Tuesday. I asked them what they thought about Bill King’s pension-reform plans.


That’s the problem with American politics, that right there.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review



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