Avoiding ‘a Howard Dean moment’ is a full-time job.
I will have been in elected public office 10 years this month and have been writing for OutSmart for six of those years. I like to write, so having a column can be fun. And, as I do a lot of public speaking, I am sometimes able to re-craft speeches into my monthly article. But I must confess that too often it is a real grind to churn something out as that deadline approaches.
The magazine editors do not edit my work or request certain topics, although from the beginning they have requested personal observations and insights as much as possible. I try to balance articles about my personal life and feelings with articles about political topics, and then I’ll throw in a “grab bag” of disparate short items when I feel uninspired.
Personal pieces have included ones on what it means to be a GLBT candidate, how I choose which events to attend from the multitude of daily invitations I receive, my experiences at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and how it felt to turn 50. Political pieces inform about what is happening in city hall, explain the importance of voting, or analyze upcoming ballot items.
The four-part series I wrote about adopting my two daughters with my life partner Kathy garnered more comments and touched more people than anything else I’ve done. It was also the hardest, being both very personal and involving the feelings of three other people. I may revisit it someday and try to expand on what was a very emotional and sometimes painful experience. I have shared copies with people who are going through the adoption process.
I am regularly asked by readers to do more of the personal articles, and I’d certainly like to. There are three drawbacks. One is that those articles can’t be dele gated. I can’t ask my staff to gather info and shoot me a paragraph or two (reference those uninspired moments mentioned earlier) when other responsibilities are overwhelming my schedule.
Another drawback is that I am conscious that anything I write may be thrown back at me by an opponent in a future campaign. The desire to be plainspoken and honest often conflicts with the desire not to shoot myself in the foot. In this current media age, stupid quotes, bonehead jokes, and less-than-tasteful pictures are forever available on the Internet. While I don’t believe I have to fear any of those indiscretions, quotes out of context can sting.
Of course, even the political articles can come back and bite me. Talk about unintended consequences. An early article about people who contacted my council office with complaints about HPD led to me being deposed for a lawsuit by someone suing the city. I spent hours being grilled on the accuracy of every word I wrote.
Finally, my personal positions can have implications for the city. I was incensed when the antigay adoption legislation was considered in the State Legislature in 2005 and felt a personal responsibility to speak out, including some rather pointed comments on the evening news shows directed at the bill’s sponsor. At the time, I had legislation dealing with financial reporting by municipalities pending in the House.
Former state representative and now Houston Council Member Melissa Noriega was carrying it for me. There was no opposition, and it went to a hearing in committee the following week. As luck would have it, who do you think was chair of that committee? (My bill finally passed in 2007.)
The trickiest thing for a politician (or any columnist) is humor, which is so much a matter of personal taste and too much a matter of the latest fashion of political correctness. Of course, starting with a joke is a staple of public speaking. Making a joke that is clean, topical, and funny is a juggling act few can master.
Things I might say in person are often more direct than what appears in print because they aren’t scripted. But even then I am aware that the microphone is always on! I take my responsibilities as both a public figure and as a community role model very seriously, so there are few opportunities to let my hair, or my guard, down. The phrase “a Howard Dean moment” has entered the political lexicon for good reason.
These are not complaints, only observations. I am honored to have both roles and am always thankful for what I consider a sacred trust. I am fairly reserved by nature, so it isn’t much of a problem. It is, however, the reason for my personal rule that I don’t drink alcohol when I’m working. Since I’m almost always working (in one sense or another) when I am in public, I make a good designated driver. Notwithstanding all that, my daily prayer would still be somewhere between “Make them proud of me” and “Don’t let me screw up today.”
Annise Parker is the second-term city controller and the highest-ranking openly GLBT-elected municipal official in any of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Her website is www.houstoncontroller.org. Parker’s television program, Money Matters, airs Monday on the Municipal Channel (Comcast) at 2 and 8 a.m. and 2 and 8 p.m. The City Controller’s webpage is www.houstontx.gov/controller/index.html. To receive the controller’s newsletter, send an email to [email protected].