By Daniel Rigney
This will be the first time in recorded history that a story about Annise Parker doesn’t begin by identifying her as “the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city.” Mayor Parker of Houston was on The Colbert Report (pronounced coal bear ra por) tonight to discuss life in her sprawling and (surprising to some) rapidly internationalizing hometown.
The Houston Chronicle this morning said little of the scheduled appearance except that the mayor would be “talking about Houston” on the program, in which Colbert plays the part of a vain, pompous, self-aggrandizing conservative.
In real life, Mr. Colbert is not a conservative.
Ms. Parker, for her part, is an openly Democratic supporter of Barack Obama in this fairly hard-right but evolving state.
Colbert’s fake political news show, a spinoff of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, originated as an eviscerating parody of Fox News in general, and of gas distributor Bill O’Really in particular, though Colbert’s audience demographics skew considerably younger, more liberal, better informed and less comedically-impaired than Fox’s.
Colbert’s mock interviews are, of course, less about his guests than about Colbert himself, not unlike O’Really’s unintentionally comic interviews with himself on Fox.
As Colbert’s guest tonight, Mayor Parker is smart and assured as usual. She’s been in the Houston and national spotlight for several years now, so this is not her first media rodeo. She knows Colbert’s comic persona, and she plays along good-naturedly.
In the tease at the top of the show, Colbert says his guest tonight is Houston’s first openly gay mayor. "We’ll ask her how she broke it to her parents that she wanted to live in Houston.” [Parker is a native of Houston, where she graduated from academically tough Rice University.]
Colbert says that “for the Yankeeish out there who don’t understand, we’re not talking here about a rinky dink burg like Charlotte or Akron.” Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, with a metropolitan population of six million. I think of it as a kind of southern and more politically regressive LA, revolving economically around a different industry -- not entertainment, but energy.
Black Gold. Texas Tea. Liquid Carbon.
Colbert asks the mayor how Houston has managed to weather recent economic storms so well. Here Parker puts on her Chamber of Commerce hat and rattles off the usual boosterist talking points. Businesses and people are drawn to the city’s livability [well … maybe if you stay off the freeways and spend summers in Vancouver.] She says it ‘s a fine city for foodies [true], lovers of theater and arts [also true], and sports [certainly not the Astros this year, but okay].
Colbert asks: Doesn’t Houston combine the heat of Texas with the humidity of New Orleans? [That’s for sure.] Parker comes back with “quality of life” again, and with Houston's strong economic base, including oil and gas [i.e., carbon], the largest medical center in the world [It’s amazing], a huge port, NASA and aerospace, and some manufacturing.
Colbert compliments her on her “cosmopolitan quality” and wonders how it’s possible that Texas (Texas!) could have elected the first gay mayor of a U.S. city. No offense, he says, but isn’t Texas the home of six shooters, conservatives, George Bush, Rick Perry? What’s a mayor like her doing in a place like that?
“I’m good at what I do.”
She is. Anyone who can walk this city’s political tightrope without a net and still be elected to a second term as mayor in this diversifying city is doing something well.
In Houston, she says, “it’s not who you are or where you’re from, but what you can do” that counts. [I’d add: Especially if what you can do is make money. I've never seen a more corporate city.]
Can gays get married in Texas? “No.” Do you think that’s right? “No.” Does your partner of 21 years have a title? “First Lady, but I call her Kathy.”
Colbert, who hails from stereotypically-rich South Carolina, wonders whether, as mayor, Parker has to wear a ten gallon hat, with thumbs in her pockets, packing a six shooter, and spittin’ tabacca? “You had me until tobacco,” she shoots back.
Parker does allow as how she gets up on a horse, in hat and boots, for the rodeo parade each year. [But just between you and me, if you want to see cowboy hats most of the year in Houston, you have to go to one of the airports and watch visitors depart for other parts of the world wearing souvenirs on their heads. This never was a cow town. Oil, yes.]
I attended RodeoHouston myself this year and wrote about it here from the perspective of an urban tenderfoot who had accidentally wandered into the twilight zone. To be honest, it was fun, and I may go back next year for the Cajun alligator.
Mayor Parker was also on view this year in the Art Car Parade – in the banana car, to be exact – shown below. The Art Car Parade is, from my curbside POV, the height of the cultural season in Houston.
Mayor Parker is the one without a funny hat.
I have plenty more to say about this strange city, having lived here now for more than two years, but I’ll just say this now: If you visit Houston, come in the winter. Winters are great. And there's lots to do. After two years here, I'm still finding easter eggs.
To boot, we have as progressive a mayor as one could hope for in the carbon capital of the world. I’d be plum tickled to vote for her again.
Danagram, reporting almost live from a television in Houston.