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Mayor Bill White’s Inauguration Speech January 2, 2008

We gather on land first settled by dreamers and drifters and slaves. They forged a new community in raw wilderness, just a half dozen generations ago.

From those humble beginnings Houston grew with unprecedented pace and prosperity.

Yet there has never been anything like the amazing progress made by this City since several of us first took this oath four short years ago.

In little more than 200 weeks our urban area has added a quarter of a million new jobs. Consider this: we have added about four times more jobs than our total population a century ago; the total new jobs we have added in four years is more than the total number of jobs within the city limits at the end of World War II, and even more than the total number of cars in the Metropolitan area back then.

We have served this new population by expanding our libraries, health clinics, and parks, and other services. We’ve cut our violent crime rate by 9% and increased the senior exemption from property taxes more than 60% since 2003.

Our remarkable growth makes a simple statement: a record number of people both have the desire and opportunity to make Houston their home. Let’s consider some of their stories.

Doan Nong was reunited in Houston with his wife and children after his escape from 12 years in North Vietnamese prison. His wife had bought the convenience store she had worked at as a clerk. Now there are ten college graduates among their children and grandchildren, seven with degrees from the University of Houston .

Dan Duncan’s grandmother raised him in East Texas , and Dan inherited nothing but a strong work ethic. Now his business employs over 2000 people in Houston alone, and his gifts of $187 million in recent years to Texas Medical Center institutions funds medical research which will touch so many lives.

My neighbor, Ali Saberioon, made Houston his home after the Iranian revolution. Starting with nothing but his training in petroleum engineering, he has built a great company and he leads numerous philanthropic activities in our region.

Marie Mukule, a dental assistant, arrived as a refugee from Congo , where she slept in the forest to avoid the rape and murder spilling over from Rwanda . Five of her sons appeared in a production by America ‘s most innovative large opera company, the Houston Grand Opera. In the words of their song, “our story is your story.”

We are the home of both former President Bush and Beyonce; the proud of home of both a new Catholic Cardinal and Lakewood , the world’s largest televised ministry.

In the words of the theme song from the TV show, The Jeffersons, in Houston we are “moving on up.”

As we celebrate our success, let us keep in mind that some of our greatest challenges arise directly from our growth. Those include more traffic, changing neighborhoods, the need for more law enforcement, and higher appraised values. Most cities would envy these problems if they could enjoy our growth.

So we’ll make tough choices dictated by success. As employment soars we need new strategies to counter traffic congestion, including new mass transit. As more people move close to work, we’ll need protections to avoid gridlock and flooding in our neighborhoods, while avoiding excessive controls which raise housing costs and limit consumer choice.

In short, continued success means we cannot stand still.

The physical backdrop of this inauguration illustrates just how quickly things can change. When I moved to Houston 29 years ago, I parked one block from here, in back of a sea of surface parking lots. I walked eight blocks to work, saving money by paying a dollar a day for parking. Most of the buildings now east of Fannin, rising behind me, weren’t yet built. The rail line, hotel, convention center, and the ballpark or arena weren’t here. The cheap apartment I lived in three miles from here was razed last year to build a $200 million mixed use complex. And we take this oath in the middle of the construction of America ‘s greatest new urban park, looking up to the cranes building the largest residential tower in Houston . None of these new projects was on anyone’s drawing board just a few years back. And in the next two years we will make important decisions right around this block on both new parking facilities and mass transit as the surface parking disappears. So much for my $1/day parking.

Other cities and even countries cannot turn dreams like this into reality so quickly because they are gridlocked by partisan divides, slowed down by the politics of patronage or “what’s in it for me,” or torn apart by the diversity which is our biggest asset. Urban areas which struggled for years with racial desegregation now find they have been slow to assimilate many first and second generation Americans, constituting much of their younger population. Large European cities, which flourished before Houston even existed, now look to us for lessons on how to assimilate their large Islamic minorities.

When I first announced for Mayor, many forecasted that Houston had already slid into the politics of division. But rather than descending to those depths, we have scaled new heights by seeking to include as many as possible.

Let the world take note: we have moved on up by searching for and finding common ground on higher ground.

By promoting hundreds of new houses in our most neglected neighborhoods, we also make all neighborhoods safer. By removing magnets for despair, we stand on common ground.
By completing almost $100 million in drainage and mobility improvements for the Medical Center in the last few years, we have made world-class healthcare more accessible to all Houstonians. We stand on common ground.
By responding with compassion and efficiency to the needs of those displaced by hurricanes, we strengthened both our economy and image throughout the world. We found common ground on the higher ground of our shared humanity.
Common ground does not mean slow or meek. By working together we have made progress on a variety of our toughest issues – from reforming pensions to funding a half a billion dollars in drainage; from reducing air pollution to expanding ever-more-expensive park space.

Now common ground will never be embraced by those who just don’t seem to be happy unless they are angry at something, or those who want to turn back the clock. But theirs is not the optimistic spirit of Houston ‘s future.

Four Council Members take their oath for the first time here today. Wanda Adams, Jolanda Jones, James Rodriguez and Mike Sullivan each bring far different life experiences to this job.

Though only one name appears in front of each seat at City Council, each of us is supported by a team beginning with family and friends and our immediate staff. Your love and patience helps us be our best.

To my elected colleagues I issue a challenge: let us rush to help one another when we stumble on matters not affecting the public trust, and stumble we will. Let us remember that the large number of uncontested or lopsided City races and City bond issues in the last two elections reflects in part public perception of our effectiveness as a team.

Helping an elected official who stumbles may sound like a risky proposition. But remember the lesson that Dr. King taught in the sermon before his death. He said that the Levite who passed the wounded man without helping asked the wrong question. He asked himself, “If I help this man, what could happen to me?” The Good Samaritan asked, “If I don’t help this man, what could happen to him?”

And for both city employees and elected officials remember that matters affecting the integrity, the honesty, of one affects the reputation of all.

We thank each of over 20,000 City employees who keep this City running every single day. Let’s remember the 45 city employees currently serving in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan . And keep in your thoughts the family, friends, and co-workers of Harold Norwood, a gentle giant of a man, who helped maintain streets and remove hazards to motorists. Harold, known to his friends as Big Bop, was killed by a motorist as he was finishing a job 20 days ago. Earlier in 2007 we had lost another street maintenance worker, Jerry Hines, Jr., who was killed by a motorist as he was shutting down a dangerous, icy overpass. Mr. Norwood and Mr. Hines may not be buried in Arlington Cemetery , but they are everyday American heroes, city workers who sacrificed everything for the rest of us.

Pray that those who take this oath, and those who serve at other levels of government, will have the wisdom to understand that important jobs do not make us more important people than those we serve. Be inspired by Captain Grady Burke, a firefighter who lost his life three years ago in a burning crack house, looking to make sure no one was left inside. Or police officer Rodney Johnson, whose widow gracefully reminded us that his death should unite rather than divide the people of this community.

Help us keep in mind that much good can be done in just two years. Consider this great work in progress, Discovery Green. Within 24 months several of us conceived of this special public place, City Council acquired the land, the Conservancy raised tens of millions of private funds and completed the design of this park. So plenty can get done in two years in a can-do city like Houston.

And with your help, and the help of your neighbors, today we can inaugurate the two very best years in Houston ‘s extraordinary history.

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