Buttressed by the generally high marks she has received so far for her orchestration of the cleanup following last week's hurricane, Mayor Kathy Whitmire tonight formally launched her candidacy for a second two-year term.
"Our biggest vote-getter just might turn out to be named Alicia," the mayor's campaign manager, Clintine Cashion, said, referring to the hurricane that caused damage estimated at $1.2 billion and took 20 lives in the Houston/Galveston area.
"The storm has given the mayor the opportunity to show off her best qualities: she is take-charge, indefatigable, and she's assembled a first-rate management team," Cashion said.
Although not everyone has been as bullish, the early notices on Whitmire's first pass at crisis management have been good. The Houston Chronicle, which has had battles with the mayor during her stormy first term, patted her on the back editorially today for the cleanup effort. An even more impressive, if unspoken, testimonial comes from her opponent in the November election, businessman and political operative Bill Wright, who has decided not to address the cleanup issue--at least not now.
Whitmire has been praised for barricading the downtown business section after thousands of panes of glass fell from skyscrapers, and for ordering residents to boil all water to guard against possible contamination. The order was lifted within a day, when enough electricity came back on line to maintain the water pressure needed to prevent seepage of ground contaminants.
The city is finding other cleanup chores more nettlesome, however. About 75,000 customers of Houston Lighting & Power were still without electricity today, and though the utility has no connection with city government, residents forced to forgo air conditioning in August could start looking for scapegoats.
The electricity is expected to be fully restored within a matter of days. But city officials say it will take months, perhaps as long as a year, to finish cleaning up the thousands of trees felled by the hurricane. An estimated 7.5 million cubic feet of trees are down in Houston.
Even Cashion worries that the cleanup might eventually turn into a political minus. City crews are inadequate for the job, in part because of budget cutbacks Whitmire ordered earlier this year when it became apparent that Houston's recession-devastated local economy had created a $25 million budget shortfall.
Whitmire and the City Council Wednesday hired four local contractors to spend a month on the cleanup, at a cost of $2 million. They've also borrowed a 35-man chain-saw gang from the City of Dallas, and are encouraging residents to pitch in through an adopt-a-truck program run by City Hall.
The mayor's request for National Guard aid in clearing the debris was denied, but it appears that the federal government will allow her to hold a massive bonfire to get rid of the trees once they're collected.
Whitmire, 37, an accountant, became Houston's first female mayor in 1981 after a campaign in which she emphasized management techniques and assembled a coalition of blacks, Hispanics, gays and women.
Her first term has been rocky. The city's economy has been hit hard by the vagaries of the oil market and overbuilding by developers. Its 10.1 percent unemployment rate in June was a record high, and it has enough vacant office space, local developers say, to accommodate Denver's entire downtown.
Wright, 39, a former aide to President Johnson and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), was a major fund-raiser for Whitmire in 1981 but turned against the incumbent earlier this year when, he says, he concluded that she lacked the vision and leadership to handle the job.
He says City Hall must be more aggressive about attracting new businesses, and he faults Whitmire for what he calls a combative and inaccessible management style.