While Houston has long played an important role in the Texas political scene, it is also a city unique unto itself. It’s a place where two people can grow up a few miles away from each other and come into adulthood with vastly different views, simply based on where they lived and what they experienced. And sometimes those people go on to become some of this town’s most intriguing and complex leaders.
Part of this sprawling metropolis’s dynamism stems from its location on the Texas Gulf Coast, where it has proved prone to disasters, natural and otherwise. Although the Bayou City has never been entirely decimated by the floods, energy industry contractions, hurricanes, and other blights that roll through every few years, these events have molded Houstonians and our political apparatus. “Houston politics is, and has always been, shaped by a cycle of tragedy and recovery,” Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor, recently told Houstonia. “The most memorable politicians shine or fail in those moments of adversity, when the hurricanes come, or oil busts again. From there it’s either an opportunity or a curse: It all depends on what they do with it.”
But it’s not our familiarity with handling misfortune alone that has made the men and women who step forward able—or unable, as the case may be—to lead in our darkest hours. There are many forces at work influencing how our leaders view the world, according to Rottinghaus. “This is a city of tensions, both racial and economic,” he says, “and these tensions have helped fashion the political structure everyone operates in, and the people who emerge from it.”
As a result, every public personality who’s made a name for themselves in this town has done it in unique ways, Rottinghaus notes. “They all went into the same machine, but came out of it different,” he says. “The reason for a lot of that is rooted in community, in connections that were forged in fire, that are a part of the environments that have bred them and formed who they’ve become. That’s how the same city created Roy Hofheinz and Barbara Jordan, how it has produced Ted Cruz and Sylvester Turner.”
In other words, if all politics is local, that’s especially true in Houston. So we went back to the roots with eight current and former elected officials from our city to better understand their perspectives. Even in these divisive times, as we move toward what will likely be a fiercely fought presidential election this November, we discovered, it’s still possible to learn more about U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw from hearing about his suburban childhood than by watching him on Fox News, or to gain insights into Houston City Councilwoman Letitia Plummer from her youthful idolization of Mickey Leland rather than watching her give pithy soundbites on the local news. All these Houston politicians were influenced deeply by this city, but no two are alike. — Dianna Wray