In Buzbee’s Houston, Diversity is More than Just a Buzzword, it’s an Opportunity

BY JAWAHAR MALHOTRA

HOUSTON: The floor-to-ceiling glass windows of his 73rd-story office provide a spectacular and all-encompassing view of the city that he has come to love and admire.
Behind the tall, Phillip Johnson designed, Gothic-spired brown skyscraper snakes the spaghetti bowl of the elevated I-45 freeway and just in front lies Jones Plaza and the Aquarium Restaurant. Many of the other iconic skyscrapers that give identity to the Bayou City crowd out the view to the left and in the clearing to the right, you can see the vastness of Houston with Uptown in the distance.

It is the view that makes Tony Buzbee’s mind dream of the possibilities that could be for the city that he has adopted as his own. He was born and raised in the rural small town of Atlanta (population 5,800) in Cass County, in northeastern Texas about 25 miles from Texarkana; the son of a butcher and a school cafeteria worker. But he set his sights high and earned a bachelors in psychology from Texas A&M University and rose in the ROTC. He later served in the Marine Corps in the Persian Gulf and Somalia, rising to the rank of Captain. On his return from duty, he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Houston Law Center.

It is Houston that offered him opportunities that have made him one of the highest profile and highest paid lawyers and certainly one of its wealthiest. He has represented former Texas Governor Rick Perry, recording artist Jimmy Buffet, horse trainer Bob Baffert and in 2009 won the largest jury verdict against British Petroleum.

All the while, Buzbee has seen deficiencies in the way the city was being managed and instinctively knew he could do better. On October 30, 2018, he quelled his detractors and announced that he would run for mayor of Houston, committing his own money rather than raise it from donations.

And he has always sought out new ideas to guide him further, looking outside the box. On a whim this past January, he took off for Mumbai – a city that always fascinated him – and spent 7 days visiting different areas from Leopold’s Café (site of the November 26, 2008 terrorist attack) to the Dharavi slums (made famous by the film Slumdog Millionaire). “I like to travel and be around people,” Buzbee said during an interview in his office. “It inspires me to write poetry, which I started when my daughter was born 20 years ago.” While on his trip to Mumbai, he ate a lot of pani puri off the street (“I was brave!”, he quipped) and he bought a lot of art, saying “India inspired me.”

During his Mumbai trip, Buzbee was fascinated by the way people handled waste. “There was so little of it as most of it got recycled,” he recalled.

That thought brought him to how solid waste was collected in Houston and how a recent investigative report showed that waste and recyclables were being dumped together even though two trucks went out to collect each. “We should do it once a week without sorting and send it to Ecohub which has markets for its waste,” he said, “but that contract was cancelled by the city. Why else would Goldman Sachs invest $500 million into the company?”

He recalled the moment that motivated him to run for Mayor. The tire blew out on his car when he hit a pothole. Then, while he was in a local Walmart, someone smashed the window and broke into his car. “It made me frustrated and I thought ‘I could do a better job for the city’.” He decided to run even though he had done a huge fundraiser for the current Mayor Sylvester Turner in the last election against Bill King.

He realizes that, in order to win, he must reach out to people from everywhere. Towards this end, he wants to cultivate the people from diverse backgrounds and place them in qualified positions. The notion that diversity should be promoted as a way of gaining worldwide attention to the Bayou City resonates with him. And he also wants to provide more access to city contracts to MBSBE firms, not just through a majority of contracts going to one large firm.

“I want to put the city on the map,” Buzbee said, “and get credit for what we do right. Not the same old politicians, failed pothole program, uncontrolled flooding. The landscape of politics is changing dramatically. We must embrace new technology land educate people about it. We have the resources to be as good as Austin. What do we want to be known for in the future”

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