When Houston's voters sought a fresh breed of mayor in the early 1980s, they turned to Kathryn J. Whitmire, an accountant who proved to be a rebel in yuppie garb.
During a decade that saw Houston crest and collapse, she cleaned house and opened doors to outsiders in a town previously defined by a brash, good-old-boy mentality.
Now, as the University of Maryland, College Park builds a think tank to train future political leaders, Whitmire has again received the call. This time she hopes to help prepare members of a new generation to guide their communities.
"You have a role as a citizen that requires you to take leadership in issues of public interest," says Whitmire, who is wrapping up her first year as a faculty member at the university's Academy of Leadership.
The academy has recruited Ronald Walters, a scholar of African-American history and politics. And Whitmire, who joined UM as part of a five-year, $5.25 million grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, helped persuade former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey to join the institute as a scholar and board chairman.
"Getting Kathy was a coup for us," says Stewart L. Edelstein, an associate dean of the university's college of behavioral and social sciences. "She brings a lot of perspective and insight in how states and cities operate."
She says she does not foresee returning to Houston to live -- "I tend to look forward, rather than back" -- and that she is unlikely to find another job in the public sector as appealing as that of a big-city mayor.
Whitmire, 50, reflects on her 10 years as mayor of Houston -- she was the first woman to hold the job -- and her new career as a professor at College Park. White paint, barely dry, covers the cinder-block walls of her spare new office in Maryland's Taliaferro Hall. A few posters show the Houston skyline, but there are few other visible mementos of her time there.
She does not dwell on her past, but rather is animated by the prospect of reaching new audiences with her perspective on leadership through lecturing abroad, creating World Wide Web sites to promote volunteerism or meeting with students on campus.
As part of the academy's program, Whitmire spent a recent morning on the UM campus addressing about 20 young adults from Ireland, some of whom are affiliated with antagonistic religious and political groups.
It is important, she suggested to the group, to weigh how public policies can set civil liberties and civil rights at odds. It is vital to articulate what resentments linger, she said, and mandatory to figure out a way to get along.
Simple to say. More difficult to do.
From the start of her first two-year term as nonpartisan mayor, Whitmire was portrayed as an upstart who didn't know what she was doing. She was young. She came from the wrong side of town -- Houston's working-class North Side -- and was mocked for what critics called her yuppie careerism. She was criticized for being aloof. And she was a woman.
"She was a controversial mayor," says Eleanor Tinsley, a Houston City Council member from 1979 to 1995. "I think one part of it was being a woman mayor. People in a city like Houston aren't always ready for a woman to do a so-called man's job. She did a man's job and did it very well."
Whitmire had not intended to become a politician. She had managed the unsuccessful City Council campaign of her husband, Jim Whitmire, then left her job at a major accounting firm to tend to him as his health declined. After his death, she was elected city controller, a post she held from 1977 to 1981.
Victory margins grew
She ran for mayor in 1981, knocking out the incumbent in the first round and then defeating a candidate backed by the business establishment. By stitching together a coalition of young professionals, blacks and Hispanics, she won handily. And her margins of victory got larger in later contests, even as she took seemingly controversial stances, such as one in support of gay rights.
Houston entered the 1980s with racial divisions fueled by the reputation of the police for harsh treatment of blacks. Whitmire appointed the city's first black police chief, Lee Brown, backed his community policing methods and met continually with neighborhood groups. Crime, long a problem, dropped.
She reached outside the city limits to hire capable department chiefs and was largely successful in holding them accountable for results. Buses arrived on time. Potholes were filled. And when Houston's oil-based economy fell apart in 1986, she had the credibility to keep winning elections.
Never beloved, Whitmire alienated some business leaders, who might have otherwise have found her fiscal prudence attractive, with her brusque style. The collapse of the city's tax base led to her decision to ignore some infrastructure concerns. Morale in the police and public works departments plummeted as she pushed civil service reforms.
"She was an unusual Texas politician," says Democratic political consultant Dan McClung, who worked on several Whitmire campaigns. "She was diminutive, she was intelligent, and she didn't suffer fools. I don't think most people had her figured for a five-term mayor."
Whitmire lost her sixth bid for office in 1991, when her challengers -- a popular black state legislator and a liberal white real estate developer -- peeled away much of her support.
The city monorail system she championed has not been built. Yet, scholars and associates say she succeeded as mayor by plunging ahead on certain core policies and by drawing together public officials, business executives and the leaders of not-for-profit groups to reach consensus on contentious and unforeseen issues.
"I'm not sure that people who are successful in leading are those who tell other people what to do," Whitmire says. "It's more a question of taking responsibility for the issue.
"When I first ran for mayor, I knew about the pollution in the waterways. I knew about the problems with traffic. I knew about the law enforcement problem. I didn't know that the price of oil would fall and people would be out of jobs by the hundreds of thousands. Later on, I had to respond to AIDS. I hadn't really thought of that."
She describes her current chores in much the same way, saying she wants to offer insight into ways of confronting issues in the public and the private sectors, especially for people who are not in elected office.
"Whether it's the fact that your neighborhood is flooding or your kids are not getting an education, the question is how can you, in your role as citizen, make a difference," she says.
Pub Date: 7/12/97