Monday, January 28, 2008

Me gotta go

Louie, Louie
me gotta go,
Louie, Louie,
me gotta go The Kingsmen

In the spring of 1961,diminutive Louie Welch, a City Councilman from Houston lost the Mayor's race to the honorable and very rhymable Mayor Louis Cutrier.It was my first Mayor's election and I, like all third graders, loved "Mayor Cutrier". It just rolled off of the tounge. It was Louie's third loss in a row, causing my father to dub him "losing Louie". But Losing Louie never gave up, two tears later he came back to defeat Mayor Cutrier and finally get the Downtown Lions Club a Mayor of its own. He grew more and more powerful, holding onto the job for ten years and presiding over phenomenal growth in Houston. He was quite probably the most powerful Mayor in Houston history. But yesterday, in the memorable words of the Kingsmen, " Louie gotta go" and he ascended to that great political heaven, preceeded by many of his contemporaries including Wagner of New York, Daley of Chicago and Yorty of Los Angeles. The last of America's Big city Mayor bosses.

Louie started his political life as a pretty darn liberal Lions Club member, he personally intervened in the 1960 sit-in of the City Cafeteria in Houston, forcing its integration.It was a brave and correct thing to do. Throug his long career, Louie managed to alienate just about anyone in Houston who was not a conservative white male, which for most of his tenure in office, was still a clear majority of Houstonians. When he left office in 1973, the handwriting was on the wall that a candidate appealing only to white conservatives would probably not be mayor of Houston again.

Louie was the first person I ever voted against, in the spring of 1971. I had just turned 18, and it was the first election in Houston where 18 year olds were eligible to vote. My hero, young Fred Hofenienz, lost a close race to Louie after throwing him into an unexpected run off because, in the words of Louie, "all my white friends went hunting". Another one of my political heroes, Leonel Castillo was elected as Controller that year, the first hispanic to win city wide office. Castillo would become a political mentor for myself and my friend Gary Marfin while we were in college.

By 1971, many white Houstonians had finally accepted the fact that Louie was running a racist administration (as every other past administration in Houston had been). The issue had been brought to the forefront in 1969 by a black candidate for Mayor, named Curtis Graves whose campaign slogan "I dig Graves" is one of my all time favorites. Graves had turned Welch Police chief Herman Short ( pronounced by Graves "Hoiman Short") into something of a national lightining rod of the racist cop variety. In so doing he had polarized the races in Houston to an extent not seen before there.
From that point on, for a number of elections, black ballots would come in at 85-95% for their endorsed candidate. Fred Hofeninz beat Dick Gottlieb, a radio and TV guy, known as "the voice of Houston" though Fred carried less than a third of the boxes Dick carried. It was an awesome thing to watch those return roll in.

In my bitterness against Louie Welch I once slandered him on a radio show in which I was a frequent guest. There was an African-american Politician, whose last name now escapes me (his first name was Bennie), who had a show called "Young Generation" that ran on a small R &B station at 6:00 on Sunaday mornings. The premise of the show was that Bennie and "his young co-host, Darvis Pyle" would go to a different high school every week to see what was going on in the "young generation" Bennie (Darvis never uttered a word) would throw out a general question to get the ball rolling and then sit back and listen as the high schoolers, most of whom were avowed communists, tear down the system. It was great fun. On one particular show, which was recorded by Bennie on a hand held dictaphone at my girlfriend's house, I alleged that the Houston airport had been built on land owned by Louie's brother or brother in law, I forget which, and had made Louie rich. Neither Darvis nor Bennie challanged my statement and it went out over the airways at 6:00 a.m. the next Sunady. Since I had no evidence for such an assertion, and had heard it from some guy in my gym class, it is a tribute to the lack of interest in "Young Generation" that I never got sued.

After Louie left the Mayor's office he took over the job that he had already really been doing for years, President of the Houston Chamber of Commerce. As such, he once appeared at a PUC hearing attended by my friend Bennett and spoke forcefully for some unjustified rate increase for HL&P, Houston's light company. To my everlasting delight, Bennett reported to me the next day that someone in the audience had yelled out "we know who's winding your clock Louie." Boy did they ever.

Every dog has his day, and some last longer than others, but there is a special sadness reserved for those who try to come back after their time is long gone. Such was Louie's fate when he attempted to return to City Hall after it had been radicalized by Kathy Whitmire (called "Tootsie" because she looked so much like Dustin Hoffman in his Oscar winning performance). Louie had lead some gay bashing group in an election of some kind that kept gays from getting medical benefits from the city (or some similair issue). He had won a huge victory and took it, not for what it was, proof that the City of Houston was homophnbic, but as a mandate that those homophobes wanted him back as Mayor, which they did not. As the campaign got going Louie appeared on a TV debate and for some reason thought that his microphone was not on before the show when he jokingly announced his four part plan to rid the world of Aids. "Part 1, we shoot all the queers". Well Houston may have been homophobic, but they could not look foolish about it, Louie became person non gratia and went down to an awful defeat.The defeat was punctuated by t-shirts worn by gays in the election which read "Don't shoot Louie !".

Even that was a long time ago. Louie was 89 when he passed on from Lung Cancer yesterday.There are more than a million people in Houston who never saw or heard Louie in his prime. The truth of the matter was that was not very loveable. My friend John Phillips' father was Louie's pharmacist and said that Louie was one of those guys who delighted by blowing into the drug store and telling anyone with ears that "I just got back from Chicago". My friend Trey Fectaeu, whose father was a Louie friend said that in the 1971 election, Louie was called by Vice President Spiro Agnew and assured that "The President and I are watching this one closely". Well maybe he was called and maybe he was not, maybe Dick and Spiro were watching, and maybe they did not really give a damn. Louie was sure they cared, that is what mattered. It helped the little pipsqueak stand a little taller.It is true that a giant has died, but it just shows what used to pass for giants.


Blogger jhmbthames said...

What a great post!! Wade, you need to write your autobiography, concentrating on the 60s and early 70s.

11:10 PM  

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