Houston. -- The mayor of the nation's fourth-largest city leans far back in his swivel chair, plants two cowboy-booted feet on his desk next to his well-worked computer and undertakes to explain his preternatural popularity.
His constituents, who re-elected him to a second two-year term in 1993 with 91 percent of their votes, still feel more fondly toward him than is normal at this moment when the public's mood regarding politicians is to tar and feather them because that is quicker than impeachment. Says Bob Lanier in Lyndon Johnson accents, "They flat understand the street in front of their house, or a street light so the street is safer."
Which is to say (as another mayor who was easy to underestimate, Fiorello La Guardia, memorably said), there is no such thing as a Republican or Democratic way to collect the garbage. Houston's mayors, who have 680 square miles of city to collect garbage and fix potholes in, are selected in non-partisan elections, which is fine with Mr. Lanier, who is essentially unopposed for a third and final two-year term. (He is term-limited, which also suits him fine.)
Mr. Lanier, a large portion of politician (he is 6 feet 4), has come a long way since he was a $40-a-week sportswriter in Austin who peeked at the newspaper's payroll, learned that the sports editor was making only $100, and decided to seek greener pastures, which he found in corporate law, banking, real estate and other Texas pastimes.
He came into the mayor's office by getting sacked by his predecessor, whom he served on transportation matters. She wanted to build, with the help of heaps of federal money, a billion-dollar downtown monorail system of the sort that can be seen, for example, virtually unused and hemorrhaging dollars in Detroit. The city council wanted it, as did the two newspapers. (There then were two.) He said there were better things to do, such as erase graffiti, fill potholes and cut crime.
Today if you call to report graffiti in a city park or on a right of way, it will be scrubbed off in 72 hours. Report a pothole, it will be filled in 48 hours. In fiscal 1996 he will fill 475,000 of them, compared to a paltry 254,000 in fiscal 1991, and he has a pretty multicolored bar graph to illustrate that, and just about everything else, thanks to what must be the fastest computer in the West. "I'm sort of a statistical manager," he says, in a Texas-sized understatement. Ditches regraded? Street lights installed? He's got a graph.
There are now 50,000 fewer major crimes a year, largely because he has expanded the police force: By the end of this year he will have added 1,300 police to the 3,900 who were there when he became mayor. In his first 90 days in office he put the equivalent of 655 new officers on the street by paying veteran officers overtime. "Standard military doctrine," he says. "You don't come in timidly, but with a massive show of force."
His strategy is saturation services: Take a one-mile square neighborhood and flood it with police and improvements, "enough so people can see it." This encourages people, who start fixing up their homes. His aim is to make the city attractive enough to reverse the flow of residents to suburbs.
A voracious reader, conversant with the literature of "fringe cities" and "the elasticity of cities" and other current topics of urbanologists, he speaks plainly about his comparative advantages. Houston is a relatively new and low-density city, and the ethnic groups get along reasonably well. Besides, when someone moves back from the suburbs, "that gives him back two hours a day of his life. If I can't compete, with a two-hour advantage on my side, well, shame on me."
Asked what he has learned in office, he matter-of-factly ticks off three things: "How easy it is to get things done. How much there is to do. And it's more important than I thought it was."
He is agreeably free of the woe-is-me tone of many officeholders. A conservative Democrat, with pictures of FDR and Ronald Reagan on his office wall, Mr. Lanier, now starting his eighth decade, combines the (when he wants to deploy it) folksiness of the latter with the (when necessary in dealing with opponents) guile and hauteur of the former. It is a potent combination, as this November's election may teach his opponent, if he has one.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.