Tuesday, December 20, 2005

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like Him Anymore (Which Is a Good Thing)

Walter Mischer, recipient of an appropriately played send-off on the front page of Tuesday’s daily newspaper, was among the most influential people, if not the most influential person, in late-20th century Houston.

Mischer was the acknowledged King Daddy of the hell-bent-for-leather suburban developers who in the flush years following World War II pushed the city farther and farther out from its core while stretching public resources and turning a very nice profit. But that, it should be noted, was what people wanted at the time, and many still desire (people like our relatives and old friends of our parents who lived in those wood-frame cottages on the east side that we remember as being particularly cold when we made our annual visitations at this time of year). Mischer was responsible for the development of a large swath of the part of town we call home, areas now considered “old” and relatively “close-in,” and through the spread of the municipal utility district concept he left an indelible mark on Harris County, for better or worse. His influence is still strongly felt today, in the ongoing controversies over the Grand Parkway or in the person of Port of Houston kingpin Jim Edmonds.

Mischer, as state senator and former county judge Jon Lindsay told the Chronicle, was a “powerbroker par excellence,” a direct heir to the 8F clique that for so many years met behind closed doors to make decisions for most everyone else in Houston (in those long-ago days when the banks, newspapers, the radio and then TV stations were controlled by locals). For many less-powerful people in Houston, that made the secretive and publicity- averse Mischer something of a Prince of Darkness, the prime local exemplar of those who manipulated public entities and officials for private enrichment. Mischer was an object of fascination for investigative reporters, particularly Pete Brewton of the Houston Post, who found in Mischer one link to the titular entities of his book The Mafia, the CIA and George Bush through what Brewton alleged were Mischer’s longtime ties to New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello (we mention Brewton’s book in the interest of presenting a more, um, fleshed-out portrait of the deceased, not necessarily to endorse his hypotheses, which we had to jog our memory to recall far past the point of the usual necessary jogging, and which we may have nonetheless misconstrued [if so, sorry]).

Mischer had a seemingly inexplicable animus toward Kathy Whitmire, and it would have been interesting if the Chronicle had managed to scare up a quote or two from the ex-mayor. Democracy had sporadically broken out in Houston prior to Whitmire’s becoming mayor, through the election of the elder and junior Hofheinzes, but Whitmire, a woman who had worked her way up through the political (not business) ranks, was for some reason particularly irksome to Mischer and his cronies, Bob Lanier among them. As the Chronicle obit noted, Mischer backed Louie Welch’s unsuccessful comeback bid to unseat Whitmire, and he later supported Lanier in his successful campaign to oust the city’s first (so far only) female mayor. Prior to that, Mischer even constructed a candidate mostly out of whole cloth to run against Whitmire (the guy, who had several pressing personal problems that went unrevealed to the public, was badly beaten). It is mildly interesting that Mischer, though past his heyday, backed both Lanier and Bill White, each of whom turned out to be a much bigger liberal than Whitmire ever aspired to be.

It’s impossible to think of someone in the city now comparable to what Mischer was to Houston in the 1960s through ’80s.

And that’s progress.

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