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Houston’s Candidate of Firsts

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By Dr. Teresa Tomkins-Walsh

In 1977, when Kathryn “Kathy” Whitmire became the first woman to win public office in Houston, she opened an expansive path of firsts in local government. As City Controller from 1978-1982, Whitmire assumed the role of financial overseer, in contrast to earlier controllers who has served more or less at the pleasure of the mayor. Whitmire brought political acumen and strong business sense to the office and ran unopposed for her second term.1

When Whitmire organized her campaign for mayor of Houston in 1981, she was both experienced and prepared to run the city efficiently as its chief executive officer. At the time, it was conspicuous that she was a woman running for office in a city where white, middle-aged men had governed from a base of development interests since Houston’s founding in 1836. Whitmire garnered the support not only of women but also of African Americans, Hispanics and the gay political caucus as well as some unions. She won the contest in spite of a condescending campaign run by the local sheriff.2

Upon election, Whitmire faced a declining economy in a city rife with crime and lacking appropriate city services. During her first term, she appointed Houston’s first African American police chief. When Lee Brown left Houston in 1990, Whitmire appointed Elizabeth Watson, the first woman to assume the role of police chief in Houston. Also appointed by Whitmire, Sylvia R. Garcia became the first Hispanic presiding judge in municipal court.3

During her second term as mayor, Whitmire succeeded in passing an ordinance barring discrimination against homosexuals in city hiring. A rancorous referendum campaign led to repeal of the ordinance in 1985, but the same year Whitmire again won the mayoral election. When Houston elected Annise Parker, the city’s first gay mayor in 2009, the diversity introduced by Whitmire reached full bloom. Noticeable parallels in campaign style became visible when Whitmire traveled from her home in Hawaii to support Parker’s campaign in 2009.4

Now that term limits oblige Parker to leave office, city council and city government more closely match the diversity of the Houston’s population. It was Kathy Whitmire who blazed a trail toward enhanced diversity and a more representative city government.


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Author Dr. Teresa (Terry) Tomkins-Walsh is historian and archivist for the Houston History Archives with the Center for Public History at the University of Houston.  Located in Special Collections at the UH Libraries, the Archives collects historical documents on the growth and development of Houston with particular concentrations in energy, environmental and ethnic history. Contact her at tomkinswalsh@uh.edu.  

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