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Houstonians have many reasons to thank, and miss, Eleanor Tinsley.
By Annise D. Parker
Eleanor Tinsley, who died February 10 at age 82, personified a “public servant.” Houstonians from every walk of life gathered to pay tribute to this great Houstonian. This was Eleanor Tinsley’s public—a cross-section of Houstonians living in one of the country’s most diverse cities.
Whether serving as a pioneering Houston Independent School District board member, groundbreaking City Council member, or on a volunteer board, Eleanor always put the public first—all the public—young, old, rich, poor, every ethnic group of the great human family. That surely explained her truly legendary public appearances. If you attended any public or civic event between 1970 and 2000, you may have trouble remembering any occasions when you didn’t see Eleanor Tinsley and husband, Dr. Jim Tinsley, working the crowd, talking and listening, but never grandstanding.
The Supreme Court may have opened the doors to integrated schools in 1954 by outlawing “separate but equal,” but HISD schools remained segregated in 1970. That’s when Eleanor and three other candidates on the Citizens for Good Schools slate were elected specifically to integrate HISD.
Those were the hardest years of her life, Eleanor once said. Although HISD integrated without infamous cross-town busing, bigots confronted her in public, called her home, made death threats, and littered her lawn with garbage and black roses. As always, Eleanor stood firm. She even complied with new school zones and moved her own son to a new high school in his senior year. As HISD board president, she also championed the creation of Houston Community College, HISD magnet schools, and the first alternative school for pregnant students. Sadly, after one term, a conservative backlash voted her out.
Many people would have walked away from public life after such rejection. Not Eleanor Tinsley.
She looked at Houston in the mid-1970s and envisioned beauty—a city with more parks, fewer billboards, orderly development and historic preservation. If Eleanor didn’t invent the term “quality of life,” she certainly talked the talk and walked the walk long before quality of life became a popular movement.
In 1979, Eleanor won a City Council seat as one of five new at-large council members. Christin Hartung won the District G seat, and the era of all-male councils finally ended.
Political scientist Dick Murray recalls Eleanor’s 1979 campaign against longtime incumbent Frank Mann as “one of the most spirited” council races he’s ever seen. As you may recall, detractors labeled her supporters “oddwads and queers.” Supporters included the Gay Political Caucus, making one of its earliest endorsements. GPC printed “Oddwads and Queers for Tinsley” T-shirts. When Eleanor won, the city’s political establishment was awakened to the potential power of the GLBT vote.
The 1979 election was my first taste of politics. I was an envelope stuffer/volunteer for Ms. Tinsley (and “Ms. Tinsley” or “Miss Eleanor” is what I always called her).
During 16 years on City Council, Eleanor Tinsley proved to be the most visionary, honest, hard-working, pragmatic, and gracious elected official in city history. Her son, Tom, swears his frugal mother often applied the family’s “cookiesinthecarwaterwillbefine” doctrine to the city. Before entering a cafeteria, Tom recalls repeated reminders that cookies in the car would suffice for dessert, and water, not soda, would be ordered.
Here are just a few of Eleanor Tinsley’s many City Council accomplishments:
• Passed historic billboard ordinance. In 1980, there were 11,000 billboards. Now: 1,500. All except those on federal and state highways must come down by 2013, thanks to Eleanor Tinsley.
• Sponsored ordinances to ban smoking in public areas, such as malls, city buildings, enclosed areas for public performances, and enclosed stadium concourses.
• Initiated three studies that showed women and minorities in city government earned less than white men.
• Supported city policy setting city contract goals for qualified minority and women-owned businesses.
• Helped create the 911 system.
• Passed the city’s first codified development ordinance, establishing setbacks and bringing commercial development under city review for the first time.
• Initiated ordinance creating the Houston READ commission to combat illiteracy.
• Co-sponsored the first tree and shrub ordinance.
• Originated the SPARK school park program, which has created more than 200 public parks on school grounds.
• Initiated creation of the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission.
• Initiated ordinances to limit signs, such as portable signs, most attention-getting devices, and most spectacular signs.
• Originated concept of downtown mounted-police patrols.
• Originated Houston Boot program for parking violators.
Could there be a stronger argument against term limits?
Eleanor Tinsley set the standard for public service in Houston. She inspired the female-elected officials who followed her. At the same time, she set an unreachable standard. Our lives and our city have been truly blessed.
A candidate for Houston’s mayor in the November 3 election, Annise D. Parker is Houston’s third-term city controller and one of the highest-ranking openly GLBT-elected municipal official in the U.S. Her webpage is AnniseParker.com. To receive the controller’s newsletter, send an e-mail to [email protected]