Former mayor, future leaders Campus: Kathyrn J. Whitmire is wrapping up her first year at the University of Maryland, College Park's Academy of Leadership, where she hopes to prepare members of a new generation to guide their communities.

July 12, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

When Houston's voters sought a fresh breed of mayor in the early 1980s, they turned to Kathryn J. Whitmire, an accountant who proved to be a rebel in yuppie garb.

During a decade that saw Houston crest and collapse, she cleaned house and opened doors to outsiders in a town previously defined by a brash, good-old-boy mentality.

Now, as the University of Maryland, College Park builds a think tank to train future political leaders, Whitmire has again received the call. This time she hopes to help prepare members of a new generation to guide their communities.

"You have a role as a citizen that requires you to take leadership in issues of public interest," says Whitmire, who is wrapping up her first year as a faculty member at the university's Academy of Leadership.

The academy has recruited Ronald Walters, a scholar of African-American history and politics. And Whitmire, who joined UM as part of a five-year, $5.25 million grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, helped persuade former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey to join the institute as a scholar and board chairman.

"Getting Kathy was a coup for us," says Stewart L. Edelstein, an associate dean of the university's college of behavioral and social sciences. "She brings a lot of perspective and insight in how states and cities operate."

Since leaving office in 1991, Whitmire has taught at Rice University in Houston and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

She says she does not foresee returning to Houston to live -- "I tend to look forward, rather than back" -- and that she is unlikely to find another job in the public sector as appealing as that of a big-city mayor.

Whitmire, 50, reflects on her 10 years as mayor of Houston -- she was the first woman to hold the job -- and her new career as a professor at College Park. White paint, barely dry, covers the cinder-block walls of her spare new office in Maryland's Taliaferro Hall. A few posters show the Houston skyline, but there are few other visible mementos of her time there.

She does not dwell on her past, but rather is animated by the prospect of reaching new audiences with her perspective on leadership through lecturing abroad, creating World Wide Web sites to promote volunteerism or meeting with students on campus.

As part of the academy's program, Whitmire spent a recent morning on the UM campus addressing about 20 young adults from Ireland, some of whom are affiliated with antagonistic religious and political groups.

It is important, she suggested to the group, to weigh how public policies can set civil liberties and civil rights at odds. It is vital to articulate what resentments linger, she said, and mandatory to figure out a way to get along.

Simple to say. More difficult to do.

From the start of her first two-year term as nonpartisan mayor, Whitmire was portrayed as an upstart who didn't know what she was doing. She was young. She came from the wrong side of town -- Houston's working-class North Side -- and was mocked for what critics called her yuppie careerism. She was criticized for being aloof. And she was a woman.

"She was a controversial mayor," says Eleanor Tinsley, a Houston City Council member from 1979 to 1995. "I think one part of it was being a woman mayor. People in a city like Houston aren't always ready for a woman to do a so-called man's job. She did a man's job and did it very well."

Whitmire had not intended to become a politician. She had managed the unsuccessful City Council campaign of her husband, Jim Whitmire, then left her job at a major accounting firm to tend to him as his health declined. After his death, she was elected city controller, a post she held from 1977 to 1981.

Victory margins grew

She ran for mayor in 1981, knocking out the incumbent in the first round and then defeating a candidate backed by the business establishment. By stitching together a coalition of young professionals, blacks and Hispanics, she won handily. And her margins of victory got larger in later contests, even as she took seemingly controversial stances, such as one in support of gay rights.

Houston entered the 1980s with racial divisions fueled by the reputation of the police for harsh treatment of blacks. Whitmire appointed the city's first black police chief, Lee Brown, backed his community policing methods and met continually with neighborhood groups. Crime, long a problem, dropped.

She reached outside the city limits to hire capable department chiefs and was largely successful in holding them accountable for results. Buses arrived on time. Potholes were filled. And when Houston's oil-based economy fell apart in 1986, she had the credibility to keep winning elections.

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