he is barely 5 feet tall in a city of soaring expectations, a 35-year-old accountant in a den of dealmakers, and the first woman elected mayor in the history of brawling Houston. But if any of that overwhelms Kathy Whitmire, she isn't letting on.
She won a landslide victory Tuesday, swamping her opponent with 62 percent of the vote, and as a horde of reporters camped outside her city hall office awaiting her first official press conference as mayor-elect, Whitmire stared straight at the problems that confront her.
"I'm not a no-growth candidate and I didn't think my opponent was a no-growth candidate," she said, "so it wasn't a referendum on growth. People in Houston have had a lot of opportunities that have been brought on by the economic boom, and I don't think there are very many people who want to do away with that kind of opportunity.
"But I think the growth would stifle itself if the city government is not about to do something about the traffic and the flooding and the crime."
She has none of the flippant feistiness that marks her mayoral sister to the north, Jane Byrne of Chicago, but there's a steeliness about Whitmire's conviction that what this fast-growing city needs more than anything now is good management in city hall.
"That's what I ran on," she interjected when asked whether management reforms alone were enough to overcome the monumental traffic jams, inadequate public transportation, rising crime and deterioration of city services that mark daily life in Houston. "In Kathy Whitmire's opinion, that is what's needed. Absolutely."
She is trying to devise a tricky formula to guide the city in the next two years--an attack on the effects of growth without wrecking the growth climate that has made Houston the nation's fifth-largest city. But Whitmire sees the formula from the other side. Solving the problems of growth, she says, is what it takes to avoid inhibiting growth.
Whitmire has yet to persuade skeptics that reforming the local bureaucracy is the kind of leadership that Houston wants or needs. "Many of the traditional powerbrokers in the city that did not support Whitmire will have to be convinced that she can do a competent job as mayor or they're going to start looking for an attractive candidate to run against her in 1983," said Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston.
"I think Dick's just wrong," Whitmire said, characterizing her election as representing "a new direction at city hall."
Whitmire was born and raised in Houston, the daughter of working-class parents. She remembers when the first freeways were built, how she used to get around on the bus and that she never worried about locking her doors at home, but she shares the view of many local residents that Houston today is a better city than when she was young.
Married at age 20, she got involved in local politics through her husband. "I've always been interested in politics," she said, "and I always expected to be involved in politics, except that I expected to be the wife of a politician or a candidate rather than to be one myself."
But in 1976, her husband died, and shortly after that the office of city controller was vacated. Whitmire, a certified public accountant, jumped into the race, and because Houston had never elected a woman to any elective office, her campaign became a crusade that attracted thousands of volunteers.
As controller she became a visible critic of incumbent Mayor Jim McConn, opposing pay raises for city employes and denouncing a $1.35 million street inventory as a "pothole study." She also reformed the pension program in the city and reworked the financing of the city water system to head off tax increases.
Whitmire is a Democrat, but she seeks to avoid political labels. "I think that everybody recognizes that on financial matters I am very conservative," she said. "But when you say conservative...people extend that into a lot of other things like being against women's rights and against individual liberties.
"I don't subscribe to any of those philosophies," said the woman who won the active support of the city's gay community. "I'm not in favor of the government trying to control anyone's life. I'm really even a strong defender of property rights in that I don't favor zoning. So how you classify that in terms of liberal and conservative, I don't know."