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Kathryn Jean Niederhofer Whitmire

Kathryn Jean Niederhofer Whitmire

Certified public accountant and public official Kathryn Jean Niederhofer Whitmire (born 1946) was mayor of Houston, Texas and later taught at Harvard's School of Government.

First elected mayor of Houston, Texas, in 1981, Kathryn. J. Whitmire took office in January 1982 just as the Houston oil boom had crested and was beginning to decline. Mayor Whitmire proved a durable chief executive who rode out the oil recession and was elected to five consecutive two-year terms as mayor.

Kathryn Jean Niederhofer was born on August 15, 1946, to Karl Niederhofer, a Houston electrician, and his wife Ida. She was raised in a blue-collar, lower-middle-income neighborhood on the northeast side of the city. A hardworking and brilliant student, she graduated from the University of Houston with honors in business administration and two years later earned a master's degree in accounting and joined the firm of Coopers and Lybrand.

Fascinated by politics since her father's spare-time dabbling at the precinct level, Kathy fantasized about marrying a politician and did that in 1966 when she married Jim Whitmire. Twice an unsuccessful candidate for the Houston city council, her husband died in 1976 after a debilitating bout with diabetes. Whitmire, who had risen to audit manager at Coopers and Lybrand, had resigned her job to attend to the daily needs of her ailing husband. She never exploited politically the compassion shown for her dying husband, an oversight that would later help earn for the cool and dispassionate mayor such epithets as "ice princess."

Inspired by her deceased husband and the women's movement, Whitmire in 1977 ran for Houston's second most powerful political office, controller, and won, becoming the first woman elected to citywide office. Aggressive and serious of purpose, as controller Whitmire became a leading critic of the sitting mayor for his inefficiency and lax administration. At the same time she reformed the pension system, avoided tax hikes by innovative adjustments in the water department, and put the brakes on large salary increases for city employees. She denounced the mayor's street survey as a frivolous expenditure of $1.3 million for what she called a "pothole study." Also critical of the mayor's poor management of explosive growth and its attendant problems, Whitmire entered the 1981 mayoralty race promising to bring efficiency and to run the city like a business corporation. Supported by an unlikely (in Texas) coalition of women's groups, African American leaders, Hispanics, some unions, and the gay political caucus, she drew ahead in a crowded field of candidates in a non-partisan election and went on to win the runoff election, defeating the local sheriff.

When Whitmire assumed office in January 1982 as Houston's first female mayor, the oil boom was cooling. As oil prices fell, so did city tax revenues. Vacancies in office space went up. By 1983 Houston was in a recession, with a former labor shortage transformed into a 10 percent unemployment rate. Nevertheless, Whitmire fulfilled her campaign promises by repairing city streets, improving garbage collection, and stepping up the efficiency of city workers. Delivering on her promise to fight crime, she hired more than one thousand new police and put 50 percent more officers on the street by hiring lower-salaried civilian clerical workers to replace deskbound cops. She helped defuse racial tensions by bringing in the city's first African American police chief, a highly regarded former Atlanta safety commissioner. Her prudent fiscal management retained for the city its prized triple-A bond rating.

Whitmire's first term had a down side. She failed to win public support for a new transit system, worked poorly with the city council, and outraged the police when she increased their insurance payments while offering them only a modest pay increase. The disgruntled police officers besieged city hall, shouting obscenities at the mayor. In addition, the city was a mess, littered with broken tree limbs and rubble from Hurricane Alicia. However, she was elected for another term.

Re-elected in 1985, 1987, and 1989 Whitmire faced a number of tough challenges in her administrations. Cool, detached, and with the demeanor of a technocrat, she generally sought efficiency by paring away waste, pushing for higher productivity from city workers instead of relying on tax increases during serious drops in city revenue. During a precipitous fall in 1986 oil prices which saw tax revenues sag even further, Whitmire adamantly refused to raise taxes and downsized the city workforce, including the sanitation department where she cut salaries by 3 percent and got higher production from the remaining force. She also fought for and wrung more efficiency (in an earlier term, her second) by moving highly paid firemen out of desk jobs and chauffeur duty to the fire-ready force. She stumbled, however, when it came to ridding the department of an inside chief and bringing in an outsider as she had done with the police. She yielded to union demands and permitted a deputy officer to become fire chief.

It was also in her second term that she pushed through an ordinance barring discrimination against homosexuals in city hiring, which provoked a fire storm of criticism and a popular referendum in January 1985 which repealed the ordinance by an overwhelming 82 percent. The gay rights question became a heated issue in the 1985 mayoral election campaign when a former five-term mayor, Louis Welch, turned it to his favor and led the incumbent in the public opinion polls by 17 percent. She managed re-election in 1985 with 56 percent of the vote. During her last term as Houston's mayor, Whitmire served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors (1989-1990). She received the Good Heart Humanitarian Award in 1990, presented by the Jewish Women International.

After her defeat in a hotly contested race in 1991 to Bob Lanier, she directed a policy institute at Rice University and briefly served as president of Junior Achievement. This was followed by an appointment to Harvard's JFK School of Government. In 1996 Whitmire was selected by a national search committee to be president for the American Public Transit Association, but old political foes in Houston blocked her appointment. Later that same year, while addressing the North Houston Greenspoint Chamber of Commerce, she announced she was leaving her teaching position at Harvard to accept a new job with the University of Maryland.

Further Reading

For general information on Kathryn Whitmire see Mayor's Biography File, City of Houston. For her political career, see Molly Ivins, "Kathy Whitmire," Working Woman (March 1987); "Whitmired," The Economist (May 14, 1988); Lisa Belkin, "The Women Mayors of Texas," New York Times Magazine (March 20, 1988); and Eileen Ogintz, "Texas Mayor," Chicago Tribune (November 29, 1983). Interviews with Whit-mire, during the 1990s, can be found in the Houston Chronicle and other Texas publications. □

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