December 14, 2009
After Annise Parker’s election to be Mayor of Houston, the Texas Tribune invited Senator Watson to contribute a piece describing lessons he learned as Austin Mayor and offering advice to Mayor-Elect Parker.
Congratulations, Mayor-Elect Parker. Now you get to govern a great city that’s much bigger than the electorate and much more complicated than the campaign. Perhaps you’d like some aspirin? Or a re-count?
I’ve actually written before about principles that have served me well in public service, many of which come out of lessons I learned as mayor of Austin.
The first of these lessons, I think, is even more important after this election: Be willing to throw away labels. I believe we label each other far too readily, particularly in politics. Too often, labels become an excuse not to hear what someone really thinks, believes or is saying. Of course, that means leaders can miss out on great ideas.
I write that knowing you’ve been subjected to some of the most vicious and angry labels that a new Texas mayor has ever faced. You saw how some people tried to use vitriolic shorthand as an excuse to ignore or belittle someone’s ideas. It didn’t work.
And now, you have a unique opportunity. By truly governing for all of Houston — and inviting even your opponents into your coalition — you can improve your constituents’ lives in profound ways and leave a lasting, transformative legacy. You’ll get diverse input to refine your policies, new constituencies to help make those policies stick, and relationships that will make your life and your tenure much richer. Your election is actually a testament to Houston’s ability to transcend labels.
You can, and you must, stay true to your values (and, as they say, dance with them that brung ya), while still opening the door for others. And by allowing your adversaries to approach your administration with a blank slate — and by passing up the always-attractive chance to punish those who deserve it — your tenure will be a far greater victory than even your campaign was.
Oh, and one other thing: You’ve probably noticed how many people seem to think they know how to be mayor of Houston better than you do. Be sure to take all of this mayoral advice with a few grains of salt, even when it comes from former mayors. Labels aren’t the only things you’ll find yourself throwing out.