Houston, Ithaca mayors address Rice School of Architecture students
Running a city isn’t easy, but if you can stand the heat, there are few jobs more satisfying. That message came through loud and clear Nov. 14 from two mayors – Houston’s Annise Parker ’78 and Ithaca’s Svante Myrick – who gave the final talks in the Rice School of Architecture fall lecture series, titled “Citizen.”
Parker, a Rice alumna fresh off winning election to her third and final term as mayor, told a packed Farish Gallery she chose her job “because it’s interesting, challenging and fun.” Despite the daily overload of information, she said she enjoys arriving to a job that almost assuredly will present unexpected challenges each day.
She listed and gave anecdotal evidence for the primary challenges to a big-city mayor seeking ways to make things happen, even for “people of good will” who want to work together.
“Let me explain the job of an elected official,” Parker said. “It’s hard to know who your constituents are. We make decisions every day in areas in which we have no expertise. Most of our decisions have no right answer. Many of our actions result in unintended consequences. Lots of things require our action but are ultimately beyond our control. And we may never see the results of our actions, because decisions we make take so many years into the future to play out.
“And on top of all of that, we want everybody to like us.”
Parker addressed one clear difference between serving as mayor as opposed to working at the state and federal levels. “If you want the short version of why it’s so hard to get things done in Austin and in Washington, the answer is very easy,” she said. “Because of the way we have constructed our state representative districts, our congressional districts, everyone preaches to their own choir. Everyone is aimed at a very narrow constituency, and those constituencies are fairly uniform across their districts. … That is why it’s so hard to get things done: Because there’s no benefit to compromise.”
Cities, by comparison, “actually function pretty well,” she said. “Shutting down the government in a fit of pique is not something that’s going to happen at the city level, frankly because cities can’t stop. The functions that allow you to live together, particularly water, sewage, how fast you can take garbage, can’t stop, or human beings … become ill in a hurry.”
That evening, Myrick, elected mayor of the central New York city of 30,000 at age 24, discussed his own compelling story and the need for young people to step up to the challenge of governing.
Myrick talked about power of stories to help keep society on track. He noted how inspired he was, as the son of a biracial couple, when he read Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father” at 15. “The story changed the way I thought about myself,” he said.
“The truth about my story is that I was lucky enough to be raised by a mother who worked three minimum-wage jobs, just to get us out of the homeless shelter.
“What do we call lessons that come from stories? Morals. And morals instruct the way we live our lives, and the way we govern our cities. Unless we have the right stories, we get the wrong morals.”
Myrick became one of the youngest African-Americans in the nation ever elected to office at 20 when he joined Ithaca’s Common Council while still a student at Cornell University. He credited the community around him – family and the social safety net – for his success and said the lessons they taught him inform his decisions as mayor.
“Every success story is built by a cast of thousands of people who gave not because of an expected return on their investment, but because they believed that is what it took to make this successful,” he said. “If we understand that more, then we understand our responsibility to be citizens.”
He encouraged Rice students to take part in government now, and not wait to gather experience. “We have plenty of experience,” Myrick said. “What we need is more energy. We need more creativity.”