Fix-it man Bill White to join mayor's race

The Houston Chronicle
John Williams, Houston Chronicle Political Writer
February 02, 2003, Sunday 3 STAR EDITION

Two years ago, Bill White saw a serious problem brewing for his town.

Houston city officials were running short of money at a time White believed neighborhoods desperately needed more parks and libraries to cope with a population boom.

But instead of complaining to City Hall, White volunteered his time, effort and business acumen.

Within several months, White had helped Mayor Lee Brown's administration squeeze an additional $ 120 million from the city's bond program by restructuring the repayment schedules.

As a result, Houston has $ 80 million more for parks and $ 40 million more for libraries, with no tax increase.

And the soft-spoken White added another notch on his status as a fix-it man capable of solving complex problems.

"I don't think I am a stranger to public finance," said Houston Chief Administrative Officer Al Haines, "but this was like going back to school. Bill really immersed himself in this, and he enlisted the help of his Wall Street associates. Really, it was like working with (former Mayor) Bob Lanier.

"I'm telling you, he is really smart."

On Wednesday, White plans to announce his candidacy for the mayoral seat that Lanier - his mentor, friend and one-time client - held from 1992 through 1997.

Saturday, White considered postponing the announcement because of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. After talking with friends and family, he decided to go ahead with his Wednesday news conference, said spokesman Michael Moore.

The 2003 mayor's race is wide open because Brown is serving the last of the three terms allowed under city term limits.

White - lawyer, investor, former Clinton administration official and former chairman of the Democratic Party of Texas - will need all of the smarts that Haines and others talk about if he is to have a chance at winning.

First, White is not particularly photogenic, with a balding head and awkward ears that might be a liability in the world of television politics, said Richard Murray, a University of Houston political science professor and pollster.

He probably has enough time and money to move voters past those superficial deficiencies, Murray said.

White's bigger problem is the current state of Houston municipal politics, where the two largest voting blocs are blacks and conservative whites.

Should state Rep. Sylvester Turner, a black, and former Councilman Orlando Sanchez, a conservative, run for mayor as expected, White could get squeezed as other moderate whites have in prior mayoral elections.

And other mayoral candidates, such as City Councilman Michael Berry, also will be fighting for attention.

"It will take a lot of heavy lifting," Murray said.

White's candidacy is the latest in a line of career changes that have seen him move to the top of his class in unrelated fields.

White, 48, grew up in San Antonio, the son of schoolteachers whose social activism included taking part in the so-called "Methodist Mafia" that helped register minority voters.

White's first political campaign experience was as a teenager working for Joe Bernal, who won a seat in the Texas Legislature in 1966. White dropped out of school for a semester to work as a page in the Texas Legislature, where he developed a passion for government.

At Churchill High School in San Antonio, White won a speech contest for a $10,000 college scholarship sponsored by the American Legion. His theme was the civic duty Americans have to better their communities.

He used the scholarship to attend Harvard University, where he majored in economics and wrangled a job with U.S. Rep. Bob Krueger - convincing the Texas Democrat he could help devise an energy deregulation policy that would reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.

Though Krueger failed to get a bill passed, many of the ideas for withdrawing price controls on oil and gas took root under President Reagan.

After graduating from the University of Texas Law School with the highest grade-point average in his class, White joined a young law firm in Houston called Susman Godfrey.

The firm became one of the highest-paying in the country, where partners earned more than $ 1 million annually, and White helped in the case that earned the firm a national reputation.

In 1982, the firm represented some of the box buyers that reached a $ 550 million settlement with Corrugated Containers after accusing Corrugated and other box makers of price-fixing.

While at Susman Godfrey, White made two important acquaintances - Lanier and Issam Fares, now deputy prime minister of Lebanon.

Lanier was part of a court-appointed panel that established the $ 8 million legal fee Susman Godfrey got in the cardboard box case. White later helped Lanier with legal matters on a development project he was doing before he was elected mayor.

In recent months, Lanier has advised White on a variety of city issues, particular transportation.

"He's very bright and orderly, and does lots of research before he gives an opinion," Lanier said. "If you want to hide things from some people, you put it in a book. But not with Bill."

Fares, the Lebanese official, owns a Houston-based investment company called the Wedge Group Inc., which has interests in real estate and energy, among other investments.

White became president of the Wedge Group in 1997, but will step down from his position there as he prepares his mayoral bid.

White's government, business and political careers have been intertwined.

Before joining Wedge, White worked as deputy energy secretary under President Clinton after raising more than $ 2 million for Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.

In that job, he developed relations with officials in countries of the former Soviet Union. As part of those efforts, he helped negotiate the closing of the troubled Chernobyl nuclear plant.

White also helped develop U.S. inroads to oil fields in the region.

Drawing partly on contacts made with the Clinton administration, White formed Frontera Resources Co. after leaving his government job.

The company is producing oil in the Caspian Sea region.

"I haven't made a penny," White said of his relationship with Frontera. "I have some stock, but it is so subordinated to the other interests that I am told it has little or no economic value."

On the political front, White served as chairman of the Texas Democratic Party from 1995 to 1998, a tenure that could come back to haunt him in the mayor 's race.

White was part of a movement to bring the party back to the center by avoiding hot-button topics such as gun control.

"He came back from the White House wanting to do what worked for Bill Clinton in 1992, head back to the middle," said political consultant George Strong.

But his Democratic Party ties will make it hard for him to generate support from Republicans around the country who want to push Sanchez as the city's first Hispanic mayor.

"Some Republicans are afraid supporting Bill will get them in trouble," Strong said. "But Bill White is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met, and I figure he can get around that."

White has been involved in a variety of other interests in recent years.

From 1997 to 2000, he served as chairman of Howe-Baker International, a fast-growing engineering and construction firm specializing in small refining and other processing units.

He has worked with the Greater Houston Partnership to develop a clean air plan that emphasizes reducing emissions rather than postponing federal requirements, as Houston's business community did for much of the 1990s.

He helped city officials put together a financing plan that led to the construction of a downtown convention center hotel.

Two years ago, White and developer Dick Weekley co-founded the Quality of Life Coalition, which is pushing for more parks, libraries and other amenities.

White and wife Andrea Ferguson are involved in numerous civic projects. They are raising three children in their Memorial Park-area home.

"I love this city, and I believe it is at a critical point in history," White said. "What I want to do is apply the business abilities I have to the city and make it a better place to work and live."

Bill White
Age: 48

Profession: Lawyer, energy-real estate investor as president and CEO of Wedge Group Inc.

Political background: Texas Democratic Party chairman, 1995-98; deputy energy secretary in Clinton administration, 1993-95.

Career highlights: Helped draft landmark energy conservation legislation in 1975 as a congressional aide; negotiated the first agreement committing Ukraine to closing the deadly Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Why he's running for mayor: "We have bold, practical plans to end the traffic nightmare, improve the quality of life in all neighborhoods, and make Houston's City Hall the most responsive and efficient in our country."

NOTES: First in an occasional series introducing this year's mayoral candidates.

© Copyright 2003 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company