A Texas Liberal With Soaring Ratings

Houston Mayor Bob Lanier supports affirmative action, raises taxes - and is hugely popular

BOB Lanier is the Hootie & the Blowfish of politicians.

Forget all those people who are mad at elected officials. In a conservative era when politicians often rank just above tax collectors in popularity, Mr. Lanier, the liberal mayor of Houston, is as hot as a top-of-the-charts rock band.

Consider just two numbers: A late October Gallup Poll gave him an 83 percent approval rating - the highest in history with the exception of Lyndon Johnson after the Kennedy assassination and George Bush at the start of the Gulf war. Earlier this month, the mayor was reelected to a third term by a landslide.

This approbation is showered on a self-described ''curmudgeonly businessman,'' a liberal in a conservative era, a white male who actually likes - even embraces - affirmative action.

''Bob Lanier knows how to get things done,'' says Gordon Bethune, chief executive officer of Houston-based Continental Airlines.

Part of Lanier's appeal stems from his can-do spirit in a can-do state.

''Mayor Bob'' has squashed what he calls ''boondoggle'' projects, such as a downtown monorail. He has channeled taxpayer money toward filling literally millions of potholes, rebuilding sidewalks, sprucing up parks, and cleaning out sewers in many of Houston's long-neglected neighborhoods.

Sitting in his office with his trademark black cowboy boots up on his desk, Lanier says such spending is crucial to the city's future. ''It's a matter of priorities. It gives people some sense that the government cares something about them,'' he says.

A lock on crime

Lanier has also checked a runaway crime rate by fielding hundreds of new police officers. While the crime rate has declined in most major cities, in Houston it has dropped an impressive 29 percent. The murder rate has declined by more than 50 percent.

To pay for city improvements, Lanier raised taxes once, improved debt collection, and postponed repayment of city obligations.

Most controversial was his move to raid Houston's share of money from the county transit authority to pay for more police and city improvements. That once caused the city controller to balk at certifying the mayor's budget. Lanier sued him into submission.

''Bob Lanier historically hasn't cottoned too much to people saying 'no' to him,'' says Maryann Young, a spokeswoman for the controller. ''No one wants to take him on.''

Critics charge that his financial management will put the city at risk in the future by burdening it with much higher debt payments, something Lanier denies.

A wealthy lawyer, banker, and real estate developer, Lanier for years swayed Texas politics from behind the scenes. Now, as mayor, he says he wants to save Houston from becoming a Detroit-like ''decaying doughnut,'' surrounded by affluent suburbs.

Indeed, Lanier says he has been able to reverse suburban flight since becoming mayor in 1991. About 100,000 people have moved back inside Interstate 610, or ''the Loop,'' in the past three years, and about 40,000 jobs were created last year in Houston.

Lanier's efforts to spruce up decaying city neighborhoods bespeaks his commitment to affirmative action, something that also puts him out of step with politicians in this conservative era. As Lanier sees it, Houston must provide safe, clean, well-repaired streets for all as a prerequisite for equal opportunity.

''This is a white male who talks about multiculturalism as if he thought he was Jesse Jackson,'' says Robert Stein, a political scientist at Rice University here. ''It is more than economic policy. It is from the heart.''

The impact of Lanier's first two terms can be seen in Woodcrest, a low-income neighborhood filled with salsa music where Lanier's popularity runs high. Because of a capital-improvement schedule that will eventually bring the whole inner city up to grade, Woodcrest boasts freshly paved streets, unclogged ditches, rebuilt manholes, and two new basketball courts.

''He's really done a lot,'' says Angel Madrano as she sells shirts under a tree in her front yard. ''We need somebody like that.''

Few critics

Complaints about the mayor are few. Most of his critics have honed in on the issue of financing city improvements with transit authority funds.

The Rev. Bill Lawson, a leader in the African-American community, wishes the mayor would give community-development corporations a bigger say in erecting low-income housing. But his overall assessment of Lanier is ''very sensitive and responsive ... he's the best mayor in four decades.''

Lanier's record has not been entirely without blemish. The mayor withstood heavy pressure to shovel taxpayer money to Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams to keep the hapless football team in its hometown of 36 years.

Lanier disapproved of spending public money without approval on a team that the average person can't afford to see play. Mr. Adams recently announced that Nashville had lured the Oilers with incentives worth $650 million.

Losing a major sports franchise might have ruined the day, if not the career, of another mayor. But Lanier shrugged it off. As Adams ended a press conference, the mayor was busy elsewhere, reading ''The Sailor Bear'' to schoolchildren at the public library for National Children's Book Week.

As he walked back to his office, Lanier pointed out that the money Adams will get from Nashville would almost finish the job of upgrading Houston neighborhoods. All Nashville gets, he says, is 10 home games a year.

''That's going to shake my sense of priorities?'' the mayor says. ''Not in this lifetime.''

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