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More on former Mayor Welch

Here’s the longer obituary for former Houston Mayor Louie Welch, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89. I’m going to highlight the bits that deal with his his infamous remarks of 1985.

“He was one of Houston’s finest mayors,” said former mayor Bob Lanier. “He was a good and decent man who loved public service and fought to make people’s lives better.”

Welch, who served four terms on Houston City Council and won the mayor’s office on his fourth try, was an effective, aggressive politician whose salty comments occasionally landed him in political trouble.

And while younger generations will remember Welch for the “shoot the queers” joke he made while describing his plan for fighting AIDS that submarined his 1985 mayoral bid, Welch made his most lasting mark on city government decades earlier.

It was on his watch that lakes Conroe and Livingston were completed to provide water for Houston. Welch also boasted of closing 40 inefficient sewage treatment plants; beginning the cleanup of the Houston Ship Channel; bayou beautification; and the development of the downtown Civic Center.

[…]

After running unsuccessfully for mayor in 1952 and 1954, Welch was elected mayor for the first time in 1963, ousting the entrenched incumbent, Lewis Cutrer.

In challenging Cutrer, Welch’s role was as an outsider jousting with the establishment. As such, he drew support from labor, the poor and minorities. In later years, much of that support evaporated, especially that of blacks.

In 1973 he did not run again, joining what was then the Houston Chamber of Commerce. In his political swan song in 1985, Welch tried to wrest the mayor’s job from Kathy Whitmire. In so doing he alienated another group of outsiders, the city’s gays, who turned out in force against Welch.

During the campaign, Welch, who often referred to the career of politics as a “shooting gallery,” made the notorious remark about homosexuals that was accidentally broadcast during a TV newscast and contributed to his loss to Whitmire.

The newscast included a report about Welch’s four-point program to prevent the spread of AIDS. He offered the joke without realizing his microphone was still on.

The gaffe triggered numerous newspaper articles and denunciations from various political figures and organizations. Some gays struck back with humor, donning T-shirts that sported the slogan: “Don’t shoot, Louie!” Welch apologized for the remark, but the damage was done. He lost to Whitmire.

[…]

Perhaps Welch’s most vexing problem as mayor stemmed from the police chief who served under him: Herman Short, a tough, no-nonsense, outspoken chief who became a lightning rod for discontent among the city’s blacks.

These feelings erupted in May 1967 in two days of battles between Houston police and students at predominantly black Texas Southern University. One police officer was killed and about 500 TSU students were arrested. These events created a rift between the administration and many of the city’s blacks.

More than 20 years later, during his race against Mayor Whitmire, Welch acknowledged that the imputation of racism to him in the wake of the TSU episode still rankled.

“It hurt,” Welch said. “It still hurts to be accused of racism. It’s just a bum rap.”

Despite his problems with the black community, Welch boasted of improving race relations in the city. A fluent speaker of Spanish, Welch was deeply interested in Mexican culture. He resented reports that his support among Mexican-Americans had slipped.

As for gay opposition to Welch, it didn’t originate with his “shoot the queers” remark. In early 1985, Welch was a leader in the opposition to a discrimination referendum that sought to extend job protection rights to homosexuals employed by the city government.

More than 80 percent of those voting in that referendum voted against the proposal, a major defeat for Whitmire, who had endorsed the idea.

It’s a more nuanced picture, and the print edition of the Chron includes some fond words for Welch from longtime gay activist Ray Hill, so perhaps bygones should be bygones. I can’t say I see any evidence in this story that Welch changed his mind about gay rights, however, and to me that’s the more serious sin than any didn’t-know-the-mike-was-live joke. As I said before, I’m just glad we’ve at least moved past that type of campaign. Rest in peace, Louie Welch.

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One Comment

  1. Trish says:

    I remember Louie Welch very well. He rode rough shod over Houston and bullied anyone who didn’t see things his way.

    I also remember the huge uproar when the new airport was built on property owned by him and the long commute from Hobby Airport to out in the boondocks.

    Amazing how time adds wings and halos to a person who didn’t own them during their lifetime or their time of authority.