The Kinder Institute at Rice University on April 14 hosted a forum of current or former mayors of three different cities, who shared stories about their administrations.
The panel featured Annise Parker, mayor of Houston and a Rice alumna; Bill Fulton, former mayor of Ventura, California, and current director of the Kinder Institute; and Jon Gnarr, comedian, pundit and former mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland. The forum was moderated by Michael Emerson, academic director of the Kinder Institute and the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology. Listen (1:16:14)
The mayors shared stories about some of their more difficult times.
“It was an incredible struggle to be mayor, particularly in California at the time of the recession when our revenue went down 15 percent in one year, a fact that the unions never seemed to grasp,” Fulton said. “So, the high credit rating came at the cost of a lot of public services. So I am remembered in large part as the lucky mayor who got to close a library and fire station.”
“Yeah, I had to close a swimming pool in August,” Parker said.
Emerson asked the mayors why they ran for the office.
“I wanted the job,” Parker answered. “I came into public office because I wanted to do specific things. I wanted to work on certain neighborhood issues as a council member and I systematically went through those projects.”
“I really don’t know,” Gnarr answered. “It started kind of as a joke and then it just escalated and more people joined and more and more people supported it. And it ceased being so funny and became more honest and real.”
Gnarr said the campaign turned serious and he was elected.
“I started a joke and the joke was on me,” he said.
Fulton said he entered politics reluctantly, because of circumstances.
“I had pretty much gotten to the point where it was either run or move,” he said. “I didn’t like the direction things were going in, particularly on real estate development and urban planning.”
Fulton, who began his career as a journalist, said he came from a long line of perennially losing candidates, and was the first who actually won his race.
Parker said mayors are only noticed when something goes wrong.
“You get graded on your work 24/7,” she said. “People only notice the city by exceptions. When we execute perfectly, you don’t know we are there. When you hit the pothole, when we forget your trash, when the traffic light blinks, you notice the city.”
“You are never excused,” Gnarr agreed. “You are Mayor. On New Year’s Eve, you are the mayor; on Christmas Eve, you’re the mayor. In the middle of the night, you know, when you wake up – it’s not just you waking up, it’s the mayor also.”
All the mayors said they enjoyed their terms.
“It’s the hardest job I ever had,” Gnarr said. “But also the most exciting.”
I was unable to attend the meeting in person, but Rice University kindly provided the audio and the photos. I really enjoyed the program and recommend it as good listening.