Chron Mayoral profile: Steve Costello

Here’s “the second in a series of profiles on the top candidates running for mayor in Houston”.

CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

It was July 2007, and Steve Costello, leading a crowded meeting of the region’s most influential engineers, had just silenced the room.

“You know, we participate in a lot of campaigns now,” Costello said. “We need to get someone on City Council who can be our spokesman for infrastructure investment.”

Heads nodded. Many in the room long had contributed to candidates who, in their view, had focused elsewhere while Houston’s street and drainage systems crumbled. But then he added: “Who wants to volunteer to become a council member?”

Three dozen men sat studying their hands, the mood having grown tense. The pause lingered.

“OK,” Costello said. “I’ll do it.”

His peers’ sense of relief, Costello recalls now, grinning, was obvious. Less obvious was how this buttoned-down engineer with a Long Island accent would transform himself into a politician.


Costello reads constantly, and if a book doesn’t catch his interest in 20 pages, he picks up the next one. If a run is scheduled for 5 a.m. and a friend arrives at 5:02 a.m., she should expect Costello to be two minutes down the trail.

“If we were planning on running at 4:45 a.m., he’d get there at 4:30 a.m. and fall asleep in his car waiting for me every day,” said Donna Rickenbacker, with whom Costello trained for 15 years. “He’s fiercely competitive – but he never used that competitiveness to go out there and try to beat me on the runs or not hold back if I were having a bad day. He just had to get the park first.”

Even his mannerisms suggest impatience, in part because the former smoker always has something in his hands. In the office, he bounces a tennis ball. At council, he trades the dark chocolates he keeps in his desk for rubber bands.

His approach has flaws. In a political culture that assumes council members must praise every civic leader present, Costello never speaks just to speak. As a result, when he weighs in, his colleagues listen – but they do not necessarily fall in line.

Even when trying to rally support, Costello often lays out his logic just once, even if opponents peel away votes by chiming in again and again. He trusts his solution is right, and expects others to recognize that.

Some colleagues find his style refreshing; others think it overconfident.

Like the first entry, about Chris Bell, this one is long on biography and what-makes-him-tick and not so long on policy. Unlike the first one for me, it did tell me things I didn’t already know. I like Steve Costello and I think he’s been a good and effective member of Council. I’ve said before, I think the main obstacle he has to overcome is affinity. Both Republicans (who think he’s a RINO) and Democrats (who are aware of his voting history and continued sponsorship of the annual Harris County GOP fundraiser) have alternatives to him who are equally strong on the issues they care about as Costello, but are one of them. I believe he’d be the second choice, or at worst the third choice, of a lot of voters. That would work in his favor if he makes it to the runoff, but it won’t help him get there in the first place.

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3 Responses to Chron Mayoral profile: Steve Costello

  1. Mainstream says:

    As you note, Council Member Costello is a back-up choice for a number of voters. He is the most conservative of all the candidates who is electable citywide, but nonetheless many Republicans, conservatives, libertarians will be persuaded to vote for Hall or King, neither of whom can win a December run-off.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    I may be biased, but it would be nice to see an engineer take the helm, someone who can look at issues logically, vs. allowing emotion to override everything. The CoH is a business, much of that business is or should be apolitical. Getting things done and fixed with a limited budget? You could do a lot worse than an engineer for that.

  3. Steven Houston says:

    Bill, it would be nice to see an apolitical engineer run for the spot but Costello doesn’t qualify. He has used emotionally driven rhetoric for years now to vilify city employees and their compensation as the biggest drivers of economic woes. As such, he has rendered himself virtually worthless for getting anything done, his belief that he could have done better by violating this state statute or that city ordinance as the need arose leaving people unimpressed at best.

    His elitist manner of proclaiming pensions as driving Houston toward bankruptcy when they account for under 6% of the total budget, based largely on what a group of pension hawks cherry picked to denounce defined benefit pensions had to say, is almost surreal when you look at other large cities. That a significant portion of firemen, and reportedly police, are eligible to retire without notice with absolutely no means of replacing them anytime soon (the same for public works, city legal, and other city departments) doesn’t sway him one bit, despite proof that Bill White’s biggest claim to fame was arguably getting hundreds of police to retire early when he tampered with pensions yet continued to under fund them, is telling. Given the problems of the city, I would suggest a skilled financier would be a better choice for the time being, not an engineer accused of cronyism so often.

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