Next stop, mayor? Whether overcoming crippling childhood shyness or mastering the art of judo, Houston city controller Annise Parker has consistently set—and met—lofty goals for herself.
by Brandon Wolf • Photo by Pam Francis
As a teenager, Annise Parker says she felt powerless. Now in her 12th year of elective office, currently as the Houston City Controller, she is the most politically powerful woman in the city’s government—and an announced candidate in the 2009 mayoral race.
“My mother still can’t believe I’m in politics,” says 53-year-old Parker. “I was so painfully shy as a child, I could barely say my name.”
A childhood and adolescent introvert, Parker always knew she felt “different.” In the sixth grade, reading a dictionary entry, she finally understood there was a name for her feelings. She realized she was more than just a tomboy with a passion for baseball. She was gay.
From the beginning of her political life, Parker has maintained unapologetic openness. “I’ve always been honest with Houston voters,” she says. “Voters appreciate that honesty, and they have responded to it.” Their responses have given her a Houston City Council seat three times and also entrusted her with the duties of Houston City Controller three times. In November of this year, she will ask voters to respond once again and name her Houston’s 61st mayor.
A Texas Girl to the Core
Roots in Texas run deep in Parker’s family. Her maternal great-grandparents lived in Nacogdoches. Both her maternal and paternal grandparents settled in Houston during the 1930s. Her mother, Kay, grew up in Spring Branch, and her father, Les, was raised in the Lindale area. They married after meeting each other at the University of Houston.
Parker herself was born in St. Joseph’s Hospital in downtown Houston on May 17, 1956. Her sister, Alison, followed 15 months later. Les and Kay Parker called Spring Branch their home, and began raising their two daughters there.
Parker’s maternal grandfather was a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) for several decades, with an office in downtown Houston. “But he also owned a 100-acre farm in Spring Branch, back in the days when the Katy Freeway was a little bitty road,” she says. “Both of my parents were career people, who needed a babysitter, and so they moved near to the farm. My sister and I spent large amounts of time on that farm, and I learned how to milk cows and ride horses. It was an organic farm, and they didn’t use pesticides. So I would walk among the crops and pick bugs off the plants.”
Parker’s maternal grandmother was a retired English teacher, and she began to home school her two granddaughters by the time they were three. Both of the girls were ahead of their peers when they entered school at Spring Branch Elementary.
“I enjoyed learning,” Parker says. “But I was so shy, I was miserable. I was already ahead of my classmates and was the class brain. And that was very isolating. School was a scary place for me.”
Parker says that she adored her father and grandfather. “I followed them around like a little puppy,” she remembers. “I helped them fix their cars and tractors and learned all about plumbing. My father was an umpire for nearly any sport. I learned how to judge boxing; I helped my dad move the flags at high school football games.”
Parker’s mother was a bookkeeper, and her father pursued a variety of careers. At one time he was a letter carrier, at another he was a stockbroker. “He often worked three jobs to make ends meet,” Parker remembers. “He usually had a paper route. I used to ride with him on Saturday and Sunday mornings, tossing newspapers in the dark on to lawns in the Memorial area. That’s where I got my throwing arm.”
Parker notes that she and her sister were complete opposites. “We have a good adult relationship,” she says, “but as kids, there was enormous rivalry. I was the studious and quiet one, always where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing. My sister was the popular party girl. We didn’t look alike and we didn’t behave alike, and people expected her to be an exceptional student just because I was.”
With an introvert’s personality, Parker struggled socially. Then in 1968, at age 12, her life became even more of a struggle. Her father, wanting to become his own boss, bought a fishing camp located on the back bay of Biloxi, Mississippi. Whatever fragile stability she had at that point quickly vanished.
Adversity Begets Determination
The move to Biloxi was emotionally difficult for Parker. “But it forced me to learn how to make new friends and adapt to new situations,” she says. “We used to take a motorboat across the lake from the peninsula to where the school bus stopped. And it was freezing cold in the mornings.”
Her father’s fishing camp rented boats and sold bait, tackle, and gasoline. The business thrived for over a year. Then a runaway barge knocked down the only bridge to the peninsula, and her father’s business was left with no customers. “Through no fault of his own, his business went bankrupt,” Parker recalls. “At Thanksgiving time, we sat around our radio and tried unsuccessfully to win a turkey from a call-in show.”
Parker’s father found a night watchman job at the nearby Air Force base and became interested in the Red Cross installation there. Soon he was working for the installation, providing social services for soldiers in need. He also studied to be an emergency medical technician (EMT). “But he didn’t like blood,” Parker laughs, “so he became an EMT instructor. I often volunteered to be a training dummy. I would be covered with fake blood and lie all crumpled up inside an automobile. I spent one Saturday climbing to the bottom of a 20-foot pit, lying down, being tethered to a stretcher and hauled back up.”
Les Parker worked with Red Cross installations for another 20 years, and his career required frequent moves. Parker went to three different junior high schools and three different high schools. In 1970, she began classes at Springs Woods High School, but in 1971 her father was transferred to Mannheim, Germany. For the next two years, she attended a local high school there. Parker was 14 at that point in her life and cratered emotionally. “I was constantly in a state of stress,” she says. “My stomach cramped up all the time and I experienced severe anxiety attacks.”
Amidst the anxiety, Parker fell hopelessly in love for the first time at age 15. “I used to go out at night and stare up longingly at my girlfriend’s window,” she remembers. “Her parents realized the nature of our relationship, and they did everything they could to keep the two of us separated, which only made us work harder to be with each other.
“I knew I was smart and I knew I was loved,” Parker remembers. “But I had to determine what was important to me. I knew that I was living in a shell. I felt extremely isolated and could see that I was missing out on a lot of wonderful and exciting things in life.”
So Parker enrolled in a martial arts class. “I had always been athletic,” she says, “but this was a different kind of body control.” She worked hard and earned three judo belts. She also volunteered to set up a Candy Striper program at the base hospital. She organized other student volunteers and oversaw the whole program.
Parker made up her mind to start making more friends. “It’s all about showing interest in other people,” she says. “I forced myself to go up to others and introduce myself and ask them about themselves. Some people just ignored me. But in other situations, I realized I had taken the first step towards building some sort of a relationship.”
Looking back on those days, Parker says that it is important for young girls to realize that they can recover from similar problems such as social fears. “I’m here to tell them that there is a way out. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. You have to set small goals and achieve them—being very careful not to overwhelm yourself—and then slowly set higher and higher goals.”
In 1973, Parker’s father was transferred again, this time to Charleston, South Carolina. The family moved with him, and at age 17 she entered Stall High School for her senior year. She joined the campus Ecology Club, the Girls’ Athletic Association, and the Christian Youth Fellowship. Knowing few other students, she didn’t campaign for a student government office.
Parker also joined the track team. “I participated in the high jump and the long jump,” she recalls. “My technique was perfect, but I was only 5 feet 4 inches, and the 6-foot-tall women could always do better. So third place in the high jump was the best I ever did.”
In 1974 Parker received her high school diploma. “I had attended so many schools and the curricula were all different, so I ended up the third highest in my class,” she says. Still, she was a member of the National Honor Society, and she received a four-year National Merit Scholarship.
“I could have gone to any college I wanted to,” Parker says, “but I only applied to Rice University. When I was young, my parents would drive us through the grounds. I loved the big oak trees and the beautiful ivy-covered buildings. My mother and father would tell me that if I worked hard and was smart, I could go to school there someday.”
Parker was now 18 years old, living in a big city, and totally out of the closet. Thinking that her greatest social challenges were in the past, she lived openly as a lesbian. “But in 1974, it just didn’t work,” she says. “I tried to learn how to integrate my sexual orientation into the larger social picture, but I never did feel accepted in the women’s dorm. I would walk into a room, and everyone would stop talking. It was discouraging after I had spent so many years trying to be comfortable in my own skin.”
So Parker turned to her studies and immersed herself in a triple major of sociology, psychology, and anthropology. “I wanted to add a physical education major,” she says, “but I don’t swim well, and I couldn’t pass the water safety instruction test.”
Still troubled by what she perceived as a lack of social confidence, Parker spurned a summer job in a library after her freshman year. “I could have hid in the stacks,” she says. “Instead I got a job selling toys and luggage at Cox’s Department Store in Ft. Worth. I knew this would force me to go up to people and talk. I didn’t sell much merchandise that summer, but I did learn how to say hello to people I didn’t know.”
Life in the women’s dorm became more of a challenge. During her sophomore year, she and her current girlfriend chose each other as roommates, but no other student would become the third occupant in a three-person room. In her junior year, she found herself the only female student in the dorm living alone in a room intended for two.
By her senior year, the 21-year-old Parker found an off-campus job as a nanny working for a young couple with a home on North Boulevard. “They provided me with free room and board and I took care of their three boys. I drove the carpool and babysat whenever the parents were out of the house or out of town.”
Parker intended to become a teacher and spend her life in academia, so she didn’t involve herself in campus politics. “But I did play softball,” she says, “and I helped found the Rice gay student group. After 30 years, it’s still there. It’s sort of sad that it’s still needed, but things have changed so much for our community since those days.”
In 1978, Parker completed her coursework and graduated from Rice. “I still had student loans to pay off,” she remembers. “I had lived on a shoestring for so long; I didn’t even have a car. So I thought I would take a job in the private sector, make some money, and then return to college life and teach.”
Learning How to Make a Difference
Parker found a job at Texasgulf Oil and Gas, working under their first female manager. “Her name was Toby Turner and she was an angel at the right time,” she says. Turner took Parker under her wing and helped her develop professionally. The computer age was just starting to dawn, and Parker became fascinated with software that did economic modeling.
In 1980, at age 24, Parker went to work for Mosbacher Energy, owned by Robert Mosbacher Sr., who later became George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Commerce. She worked in the reservoir engineering department, becoming their specialist with the economic modeling software she had learned to use. She stayed with the firm for the next 18 years. “My being openly gay was never a problem,” she says. “Mr. Mosbacher’s daughter, Dee Mosbacher, was also openly gay. He was a first-class gentleman, very respectful and understanding. And it was a wonderful company to work for.”
The first 10 years after college, from age 22 to 32, are years that Parker describes as a time of enormous personal growth. While at Rice, she had met a number of older women who were involved in the feminist and LGBT movements, and she became increasingly interested in the political process. Still determined to overcome her social reticence, she accepted board positions with such organizations as the Lesbian and Gay Rights Lobby, the Lesbian and Gay Democrats of Texas, and the Montrose Activity Center.
“Most people don’t remember me from back then,” she says. “I was very quiet, but I was involved. I sat in the audience at the 1978 Town Meeting I in the Astrohall, and I rode in Houston’s first Pride Parade in 1979. I was a good friend of the late Mort Schwab, who founded the Texas Human Rights Foundation. I used to join a group of his close friends every week to watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman on his television.”
Finally, at age 30, Parker took her first shot at elected office and ran for the presidency of the Houston Gay Political Caucus in 1986. She won and served as president for two years. She became involved in the local campaigns of Eleanor Tinsley, Nicki Van Hightower, Anne Wheeler, George Grenias, and Kathy Whitmire.
Parker’s political role models include Ann Richards and Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor Tinsley holds a special place in her heart. “She was polite, genteel, unflappable, and could not be intimidated,” she says.
After 10 years of local LGBT activism, Parker says she found herself burned out. She gravitated to neighborhood activism and became involved in civic associations, serving as president of the Neartown Civic Association from 1995 to 1997. But the more involved she became, the more she felt that city government was not listening well to what neighborhoods needed. Eventually it occurred to her that she should give the idea of public office a try.
In 1991, Parker was 34 years old and ran for the District C seat on the Houston City Council. Although she lost, she felt that she had raised a lot of important issues during her campaign and that she had learned a lot about how to campaign. As a result of her political involvement over the years, she was chosen to teach special human relations sessions at the Houston Police Academy, orienting the cadets to the realities of Houston’s LGBT community.
In 1995, aged 39, she entered a special election to replace Sheila Jackson Lee on the Council after Lee was elected to the U.S. Congress. Out of 19 candidates, Parker placed third for the At-Large Position 4 seat. “It was a very respectable showing. I rose out of that pack,” she says.
But the defeat was difficult and Parker vowed never to run again. “Then I turned 40 and realized I had to decide what to do with the rest of my life,” she says. In 1997, she mounted her third campaign, this time for the At Large Position 1 Council seat. She made the runoff, ran a hard campaign, and when the votes were counted, she was declared the winner.
Parker remembers the victory party that night at Riva’s. “It finally sunk in when I walked into the restaurant and the place erupted,” she remembers. “The feeling was nearly indescribable. I thought I was going to explode with happiness.” Parker retained her Council seat for six years, winning two more elections. Term-limited, she ran for the position of Houston City Controller in 2003 at age 47. She won that election and ran unopposed in 2005 and 2007. Once again term-limited, she has tossed her hat into the 2009 Houston mayoral race.
The Personal Side of the Politician
Parker recently celebrated her 19th anniversary with life partner Kathy Hubbard. “We have different versions of what was our first date,” she laughs, “but Kathy will tell you it’s April 20, 1990.” On that day, Hubbard hand-carried Parker’s personal tax returns to her and then invited her to lunch. Hubbard had recently begun her own tax return service. She stopped into Inklings Bookstore, which Parker at the time co-owned with local activist Pokey Anderson, asking for their tax business. The bookstore already had someone preparing their returns, but Parker asked Hubbard to prepare her personal returns.
“I like to kid Kathy that she already had a crush on me, from my days as president of the caucus,” Parker says with a smile. “I told her I thought she was really sweet, but I wasn’t interested in a relationship. Kathy took it well and asked if we could just be friends. She invited me to a Mensa meeting, because we were both members. I said yes, but then changed my mind later in the day and invited her to a party instead. All night long, people kept coming up and asking if Kathy was my new girlfriend, and I kept saying that we weren’t dating.”
Parker kept telling Hubbard and herself that they weren’t dating. “But after eight months, I realized she was indispensable,” she says. “Now I’ve been with her for 19 years. I have to admit I still haven’t figured out how her mind works, and I never know what is going to come out of her mouth next.”
At her 1998 inauguration as a Council member, Parker was introduced with her partner, and they held hands as they walked across the stage for the swearing-in. “It was very affirming,” she remembers. “After I won the election, I got a call from the protocol office for City Hall, and they asked how they should refer to Kathy at the ceremony. I didn’t feel that “wife” or “spouse” sounded right, but I finally decided on “life partner.” At the next couple of public events, they used that title. Then they stopped using titles and just introduced Council members and said the names of their partners.”
When Parker’s maternal grandparents needed assisted living, she invited them to live in her home. Her grandfather died about a year later. Her grandmother stayed for several years before her death.
In June of 1993, Parker and her partner became caretakers for a 16-year-old street kid, LuJack Tyler. He lived with them until he was 18, and is still a part of the family.
Parker says she always wanted to have children, but it took her 12 years to work it out with her partner. Because they were both career women, they decided to adopt older girls. In 2003, they adopted 7-year-old Marquitta. Six months later they adopted her 12-year-old sister, Daniela. “They have already gotten a lot of public scrutiny,” says Parker. “But I have taken them places with me and given them my expectations of their behavior. They have always been a credit to Kathy and me.”
The children have many other friends with same-sex parents and spend time in each other’s homes. “They have male and female influences,” Parker says. Daniela, now 18, lives on her own.
Thinking ahead to the possibility of being the mayor’s children, Parker says she and her children accept the reality that they can’t be anonymous. “They know there is a downside,” she admits, “but there are also benefits that most other children don’t have. They get to meet interesting people and have unique life experiences.”
Parker has several cats and a dog. She enjoys raising orchids and has a number of them in her City Controller’s office. She has been a member of the Houston Cactus and Succulent Society (HCSS) for over 20 years, grows an impressive collection of plants at home, and guest lectures at HCSS meetings. “I have one really tall cactus,” she says. “It’s a record of our moves, because it always gets broken, but you can see where it’s grown back four different times.”
Poetry is one of Parker’s creative outlets, and she is a past winner of the Houston Poetry Fest. She is also a member of the Houston Women’s Softball League. The African Queen is her favorite movie. In her early years, she read all the stories of Captain Horatio Hornblower. “He was all about righting wrongs,” she says. Still a voracious reader, she now finds it hard to set aside time to read. But when she does, she likes science fiction books and paperback romance novels.
Parker was influenced deeply by her father and grandfathers. “They were hard-working, decent men who always supported their families,” she says. “They taught me to be straightforward and to always tell the truth.” She was particularly impressed that her father paid off all his debts and restored his full credit after losing his fishing camp.
“My grandmothers and my mother were all strong, working women with their own careers, and they were wonderful role models,” Parker adds. But she feels that unreasonable expectations are often placed on women, and the role of women in society is an issue close to her heart.
Parker saw many bright, upper-middle-class female students at Rice suffer with bulimia and anorexia. She herself experienced violence from an abusive girlfriend. When a professional colleague was accused of sexual harassment by another female employee, Parker stood up for her—explaining to their boss that the two women had once been lesbian partners—and the charges were dropped. Now she reaches out to help young girls and women understand that they can overcome social fears and neurotic behavior and escape abusive relationships.
Active in the Houston community, Parker currently serves on the board of directors of the Holocaust Museum Houston and Girls Inc. She is also a member of the advisory boards of the Houston Zoo, the Montrose Counseling Center, Bering Omega Community Services, and Trees for Houston. She is a past recipient of the Good Brick Award from the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance for her restoration of historic properties in the Old Sixth Ward. In 1990, Parker was named female grand marshal of Houston’s annual Pride Parade.
Recently Parker gave many of her personal papers to the Women’s Archive at the University of Houston. The same archive houses papers from the late Eleanor Tinsley and former Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire.
Parker’s opposition is unlikely to dig up anything from her past that she has not already publicly revealed. She admits that she sometimes stresses her campaign staff by her willingness to share details of her life. “But I want people to be able to get to know me,” she says, “and all my experiences make me what I am. I come as a complete package.”
In keeping with that sense of candor, Parker reveals that her father, Les Parker, is her adoptive father. “My parents were high school classmates who married, but they divorced when I was one and a half years old,” she says. “My mother remarried when I was three years old, and my stepfather adopted me when I was 12, and my name was legally changed. He was a wonderful father to me and my sister.” Parker says that her birth father is still alive and lives in Central Texas. “I’m the spitting image of him,” she says. Except for that information, she retains a strong sense of personal privacy on the subject.
The Important Role of Local Government
“I love local government,” Parker says. “Local government has to work. It has to produce every day. The water has to flow; the trash has to be picked up; the traffic signals have to function. A city is like a living organism. All the parts have to mesh. And when they do, it’s a great feeling.”
Parker says she loves to identify a problem, find an answer, and implement the solution. She is especially proud of creating the city’s $20 million Rainy Day Fund. “Austin and Washington are about keeping the other guys from doing things,” she says, “but city government is about fixing things. As a Council member, I worked on a whole range of quality-of-life issues. As City Controller, I’ve strongly endorsed the use of technology.” She recently implemented a paperless payroll system.
The most frustrating thing for Parker about local government is the pace of change. “When I was in the private sector and we wanted to do something, it was done instantly,” she says. “But a city is a big bureauracracy, with a lot of stakeholders, and it can take a long time to get things done.”
“The number one issue for this city now is the economy,” Parker says. “We need a mayor who can manage the city in the current economy. We need someone who doesn’t have to undergo a learning curve, someone who can maintain our forward movement, someone who can manage to the bottom line. No one else in this race has the depth of experience that I have. I have experience in the private sector; I owned a small business; I served on civic associations; and I’ve worked for 12 years in city government.”
Parker is known for her advocacy of such issues as jobs creation, light rail transit, alternative energy, the Houston Police Academy, historic preservation, city parks, after-school programs, libraries, low-rent apartment ordinances, crime prevention, and pollution control. “Houston is an open, vibrant, global city,” she says. “We are a big cosmopolitan place where people from all kinds of cultures and backgrounds can mix and be successful.
“I have enjoyed being the City Controller for the past six years,” Parker reflects, “but it’s an administrative job. I have missed being able to have a direct impact on my constituents. I look forward to the possibility of being Houston’s next mayor and being able to meet the needs of the citizens of Houston, rather than the City
“I’ve always given 100 percent of myself to my jobs as a Council member and as City Controller,” she says, “and I’ve always made myself available to explain why I’ve made the decisions I’ve made and to be accountable for those decisions.”
From the days when she was a shy little girl in Spring Branch up to her current role as City Controller, Annise Parker has consistently proven the power of human determination and perseverance. If elected mayor of Houston this coming November, she would become the highest ranking openly LGBT-elected municipal officeholder in the United States.
Brandon Wolf also writes about Preserving Houston’s LGBT History and the Houston Transgender Archives in this issue of OutSmart magazine.