Houston Mayor Bill White's speech Saturday afternoon in Plano was initially as insipid as the front of the brochures handed out at the door touting his experience as a Sunday school teacher. "I'm here to work for you, and that's about it," White said at the Baker Bros American Deli on West Parker Road.
After apologizing for arriving an hour late and introducing himself to the dozen local Democrats on hand, White -- one of several candidates lining up to battle in a potential special election for U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's seat should she resign, as she's indicated, to focus on winning the Republican gubernatorial primary against Rick Perry -- said he'd fight for better education and reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil as senator. He briefly discussed his experience as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy and subsequent tenure as the chair of the Texas Democratic Party, stressed that he "knows how to win" and didn't hesitate to reinforce negative stereotypes associated with the Republican Party.
"I'm frustrated with people that stand up at town hall meetings and try to out shout their neighbors. Aren't you? I mean, really," White said. "I'm embarrassed as an American by people who get up and shout liar at the commander and chief of the United States in the House of Representatives of our country. We need leadership in this country who want our national leadership to succeed, not people who are wanting them to fail to satisfy their right-wing agenda."
White, 55, noted that he's raised more money than the other candidates combined (more than $6 million), but Texas is a big state, and he'll need word-of-mouth support. He reminded the small crowd of his efforts during Hurricane Katrina, that he has the best environmental record of any elected official "probably in the history of the state" and that he started out as a precinct chair in the Democratic Party. White, whose third and final two-year term as mayor expires at the end of the year, also stressed that Texas has been turning Democratic since the down-ballot races began shifting blue in 2006.
"We're so close right now in this state to having a majority that represents the mainstream values of our state rather than the people who think we should secede from the union," White said. "But it's going to be a battle. I may not be the glamour candidate. I don't have the big hair of Rick Perry. And unlike Perry or Hutchison was, I was not a cheerleader in college."
After saying his goodbyes, White kindly sat down with us afterward.
There's a lot of talk that if Kay doesn't leave her seat, you'll switch to the governor's race. Is that a consideration? Have you ruled it out?
I think that Senator Hutchison is going to do what she said she's going to do. You don't have marriages with contingency plans. You don't plan on somebody not showing up for the wedding. We're on course, and I believe that she's going to do what she said she's going to do. She's running for governor, and I think to win for governor, she needs to campaign full time. I think she believes that too. That's what she's told her donors, and that's what she's told people who've urged her not to quit.
But let's say she doesn't quit and you have to make a decision at the filing deadline.
Honestly, it's not something I think about at all. I just think about how we win this race. That's an honest answer.
You honestly haven't thought at all about it? There has to be people who've talked to you about it.
Oh, yeah. People talk to me about it every day. The way I was able to run marathons is just, you're training everyday. The way that we're able to build up a grassroots organization is focus on task. The reason I was able to do a good job as mayor is we concentrated on job growth, cutting traffic congestion, cutting crime, improving the neighborhoods and running the government efficiently -- those five things.
A lot of people view you as the brightest star among the Democrats in this state, and if she wouldn't run, you would then have to wait two years for the race in 2012. Is that something that you'd be happy to do -- to wait that long to get back into ...
You can ask me the same question five times, and I'm going to tell you what I think, which that I think she's going to do what she's said she's going to do, and I'm running for the senate.
What do you think about her style as a senator, and what are some of the things you would do differently?
That cuts a wide swath. Especially during the last year, you've seen her rhetoric become more strident and really ideological, but I'm not a strident type of person. I think that I would spend time trying to craft the details of legislation that reflects the values of our state. For example, I think it's important that we substitute more renewable forms of energy and natural gas for some of the electricity now provided by these big coal-powered plants, and I think I'd be doing a lot of work on Capitol Hill right now in order to make sure that there are federal policies to reflect that. I think it will be good for Texas. I think it will be good for consumers. I think it will be good for air quality. So I would expect to be one of those individuals who gets their hands dirty on the details of trying to craft legislation to move the country forward.
I'm one of those people who frowns on wedge-issue politics -- starting culture wars. People in our state may have different deep seeded cultural, faith based and other value systems, but I don't think we need the politicians in Washington to sort that out. I think we have a job to revive the economy, cut dependence on foreign oil, provide some of the funding to improve education, and I don't think that Washington politicians need to be the culture arbiters in America.
I think that Senator Hutchison has done ... and people in both political parties would give her pretty high marks for consistent service. And so in that one sense ... and she's certainly gone to bat from time to time for federal facilities, and Texas is at least getting its fair share of federal dollars. I would continue to do that, but I think I could do that more effectively because I would be in the majority party.
Do you think she's doing a disservice to Texans by trying to juggle both balls -- running for governor and continuing her duties as a senator?
Not so long as she puts her Senate job first. I put my mayor's job first. I think that's some political disadvantage. I think if I did not put my city job first, I would go to more towns and be on telephone calls more -- so long as somebody does that. But I do think at a particular point that she will face the dilemma of not being to compete as well if she'll have to choose between missing votes in the senate and competing effectively in the campaign.
Give me a quick analysis of how you feel like President Obama has done so far in office?
I think we're seen a major turnaround and a positive turnaround of the perception and influence of America in the world, and that is critically important to us. I think we will need other countries for our country to over time have more of the burden of the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq shared by others in the world community that should have an interest. I think he's tried to set a tone of reaching out to build some bridges, and certainly you've observed in the health care debate and others where they've really worked very hard to try to get support that crosses the aisle with whoever it may be.
I think that he's taken a different approach than we did at the beginning of the Clinton Administration when we did not have the severity of the recession, but the U.S. had an economy which had been in recession. There were a number of things that we needed to do as a country, but you can't do everything at the same time on borrowed money. So I think there's been a tendency to spend money too fast in light of the fact that it's being borrowed.
What are your ideas to reduce the dropout rate as it's not only an epidemic in Dallas but nationwide?
Well, first reducing our dropout rate should be one of our highest national priorities, and it requires ... there's some role the federal government can play, some state, some local including school boards and a big role that every nonprofit or church or community organization and citizen will do. It should be something that where it's not just government's job to cut the dropout rate. In fact, it won't work if it's just the government's job. We need to treat it as we would a medical emergency when a young person doesn't show up at school. If somebody tears up their knee in a high school gym -- the star player -- then the crowd stands up and the stretcher is brought out. And then the EMS unit comes to take somebody so they can go have expensive medical tests on the knee. And I understand that concern, but what's the equivalent concern when somebody does not show up at school for two or three or four days and then it stretches on later on? We oughta have that same attitude in this county, and if we could do that and reach out and try to address the root causes.
There are some students, but it's a minority of those who drop out, where you almost need to have an alternative channel because there's mental health issues; there's serious substance abuse; there's problems where I don't think any of us could go home and see what some of the kids see going on at home and not be emotionally affected in a way that distracts them from what they've got to do.
There's got to be more flexible hours. Many, many people have to work during school, and we've got to recognize that fact and then have more hours that are more like the community college system. We're experimenting in Houston where people can work during part of the day and take some of the hours at night or catch up during weekends. Too often schools have very structured hours based on what is more convenient for the provider than for the student, and we need to adjust that.
One way -- it's a small way, but it can be reinforced in many ways -- is I've ask ninth graders to sign a commitment form to me. And then we monitor that they'll stay in school -- those at high risk. We recognize those who've made the commitment, and we use peer pressure, which is very effective, and we invited the people who signed these commitments and had a random drawing for the NBA All-Star Game for these folks. And just within the last year, the first group of people who signed their commitments four years ago with me, we furnished their college rooms and let people know who signed these commitments that we were following and whether somebody graduated and made a difference. Too often there are young people who've said to me as I've knocked on their doors and gone to their houses, and the same thing has occurred to my wife and others who have gone to the houses that they've heard the young people say that they did not know anybody cared or that it was so important to anyone that they stayed in school. ...
The consequences are not just for the individual; the consequences are for society as a whole. Too often we use these figures about dropouts when we're communicating to the young person about the fact that if they get a high school diploma, their lifetime earnings will be doubled on average from someone who drops out. But the flip side of that is all that purchasing power out there is being lost to everybody else, so we all have a stake in this.
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How do you appeal to conservatives and moderates while carrying the label of a Democrat?
I know how to make government run efficiently, and I'm honest and straightforward. Sometimes the conservatives want to borrow. Sometimes the liberals want to borrow. So I don't know what it means, but I don't believe that government should consistently borrow money to pay operating expenses. Long term capital expenditures in business or government can be financed through debt, but operating expenses should be paid based on your revenues. And then, to me, that is forward thinking because otherwise you mortgage the future. It's the same value and the same norm as good environmental stewardship. My political philosophy is we oughta leave this country and we oughta leave this earth better than we found it, and you don't do that by spoiling the air, and you don't do that by piling up debt that the next generation's going to pay.