Earlier today, several of us from Texas (and a few from outside the state) had lunch with Houston Mayor Bill White, who is running to replace Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison when she steps down as expected to run for Governor. Mayor White was introduced my Mike Lux, co-founder of OpenLeft, former member of the Clinton Administration and Obama Transition team, as well as numerous other progressive projects. Mike discussed the perennial musings about Texas turning blue, which always touch on the demographic destiny of the state. At the same time, Texas always seems to underperform based on its potential for progressive votes, and inevitably gets written off later in the election cycle. At the same time, the changes in Texas, both in terms of increasing diversity and more progressively minded youth of all backgrounds, has begun to become too overwhelming to ignore. Mike believes that Houston Mayor Bill White is the person to capitalize on this opportunity in 2010.
For those of you that don't know who Bill White is, he is a successful energy businessman, was Deputy Secretary of Energy for Clinton, and served as Chair of the Texas Democratic Party. He is serving his second term as mayor of Houston, after being re-elected with nearly 90% of the vote even with a Republican opponent (though technically a non-partisan election). White spoke after Lux, and he unsurprisingly focused his message on a platform of competence, inclusiveness, and reality-based politics, as opposed to the extremist secessionist rhetoric and other far-right pandering that dominates Texas state politics today. White could cite his own much lauded record as Houston mayor, from vastly improving Houston's abysmal air quality and energy usage (to what is now a national model), his management of Katrina and Ike, for which he still gets international praise, and increased government efficiency. White can rightly claim credit for what has happened, given that Houston has one of the most powerful mayoral offices in the country. Predictably, White focused heavily on Texas specific issues, bread and butter policies from energy efficiency to local education for low income students, and shied away from bigger progressive goals on health care and civil liberties.
However, he did not shy away from talking about immigration, the increasing diversity of Texas (discussing Cornyn and Hutchison's votes against Sotomayor in particular), and his strength, energy. When confronted about calling natural gas "clean," even though it still is a fossil fuel that has harmful emissions, White defended his support of gas as a better option in a transition away from oil and coal. White was particularly critical of the large exemptions and benefits granted coal in the climate change bill and noted that replacing much of coal with gas in a mix of renewables and other sources would cut CO2 emissions by as much as 5%. He also noted that energy efficiency mandates on building standards, etc. would have a huge impact - potentially a fairly easy 10% reduction in nationwide energy usage. He also noted a program in Houston as part of a Brookings Institute study that cost only $1400 per student to provide 5 weeks of enrichment summer school that increased standardized test scores among low performing students by 20 percentile points.
Ultimately, White's emerging message is clearly one of mainstream values, competence, and inclusiveness versus fear, division, and ideology. He is staking a lot on his demonstrable record as mayor and as a hands-on manager, rather than as a crusading progressive. On the other hand, White demonstrated a courage to speak directly on issues in a way that encourage progressives - he was unequivocal in the enormous damage done by the GOP to our international alliances and ability to cooperate with other nations to solve larger global problems, and he said he was proudest of Obama for the incredible transformation on that front. He also spoke very directly to immigration in a way that proponents of comprehensive reform can appreciate.
I asked Mayor White what he would do to reach out to Asian American voters in Texas, a rapidly growing and increasingly Democratic voting constituency. As Mayor of Houston, he governs one of the largest Asian American populations in the country. Mayor White noted that the immigration debate has left issues such as H1B and student visas and skilled worker immigration in a "no-man's land". Mayor White asked for my perspective on how to reach out to AAPI voters. I noted that politicians treat AAPIs as an afterthought, if at all, that we are left out of debates on issues that impact our community. I also asked him not to forget that Asian Americans are not all holders of high degrees with great jobs, and that issues of poverty and challenges to education, employment, and more are growing and major issues in our community. Mayor White asked if I thought that was more than just being forgotten and if it led to actual discrimination, and I said there is a real sense in the community that outreach and assistance to AAPIs in social programs and on poverty and similar issues is believed to be unnecessary.
All in all, I thought it was a solid event for Mayor White. I am still undecided as to my position in the Senate race between him and John Sharp, but Mayor White did much today to alleviate some of the concerns and anxieties I had previously heard. That being said, I want to hear more to increase my confidence that Mayor White will stand with us on key progressive priorities. Many of us in Texas are still a bit disappointed with Mayor White for failing to campaign for the Harris County Democratic ticket in 2008 (other than the Sheriff), despite his popularity and how close we came to flipping key offices such as Harris County Judge and Tax Assessor-Collector/Voter Registrar. When push comes to shove on pivotal issues, I want to konw that our Democratic Senator will vote for the people's interests, and not his or her own political ones.