King, 67, spent 40 years practicing law and managing businesses. “I find the experience of building something to be very gratifying,” he says. “I have been both successful and unsuccessful. Frankly, while the unsuccessful times were painful, I learned much more from them.”
Managing partner of Linebarger Goggan Blair and Sampson LLP from 1998 to 2005, King was of counsel at Bracewell LLP from 2006-2011. He was mayor of Kemah (current population, about 2,000) from 2001 to 2005. He spent 10 years as an opinion columnist for the Houston Chronicle and was on its editorial board from 2011 to 2015. He has written two books and more than a thousand published articles on a wide variety of local and national issues.
He recently spoke with Texas Inc. about his approach to business and his thoughts on Houston’s strengths and weaknesses.
A: I grew up in northern Galveston County, Kemah primarily. My dad was a union pipefitter. We lived about a block from the water, so I spent a lot of time in and around Galveston Bay. I went to Clear Creek Schools and played basketball and was on the debate team. I earned an undergraduate and a law degree at the University of Houston. I was first in my family to go to college. I worked my way through school by being a pipefitter helper or working on fishing boats.
A: I had a hard time deciding what to do. I went to business school for a while before finally settling on law school. They say “law school is the last refuge of intellect without talent.”
I graduated from law school in 1978 and opened a law office in Clear Lake. After that I became involved in real estate and finance, a career choice that turned disastrous in the 1980s with the collapse of the Texas oil economy. I eventually recovered from my losses and continued my law career and became owner or partner in numerous businesses. Losing everything in the late 1980s was a particularly difficult experience. But the insight I gained set the stage for the back half of my career.
A: I was always interested in politics. My family discussed politics around the dinner table. They were union, Yellow Dog Democrats. Politics was fascinating for me because it could affect so much in ways that actually help people. I also grew up during the activism of the ’60s. I was a junior in high school at the time of the 1968 Democratic Convention.
A: Houston is a city of opportunity. If you have something to contribute, you will find a place here. People don’t care where you go to church or mosque or synagogue, what color you are, what accent you have. I don’t think there are many places in the world as ready to welcome people. That’s why we attract so many smart, able and ambitious people. We don’t just tolerate diversity, we celebrate it. It’s a huge advantage when people from all over the world, with special talents, education and skills, want to come to Houston.
A: Local government hasn’t kept up with the pace at which the city has grown. We are way behind on investing in infrastructure. Our public safety has some very serious problems. The flooding is a real problem. If we don’t straighten that out, people will stop coming here. A company is not going to move to a place where their employees are going to be flooded out on a regular basis.
A: Unquestionably. The state of our infrastructure is a huge challenge. We built things cheap around here for a long time and it’s catching up with us. We have regional governance problems. There’s a tremendous amount of overlap and confusion about who’s responsible for what. We see that issue a lot in flooding — the city and county pointing fingers at each other about who’s responsible for cleaning out a ditch or something.
A: The city’s responsibility for flooding is to get the water out of neighborhoods and into the rivers. About half the flooding that occurs comes from rivers overfilling and spilling into neighborhoods. That’s the county’s responsibility. The other half of the problem is where there is capacity in the rivers, but the city’s infrastructure is so poorly designed or maintained that it can’t get the water out of neighborhoods into the rivers. I would make sure we effectively use the rivers’ capacity. Raising building heights is one way to improve the flooding situation. I’m generally in favor of building higher. However, raising buildings does nothing for water and sewer plants that get flooded, or cars that get flooded. Lowering flood waters is a much better way to deal with the problem. We should spend 100 percent of the city’s voter-approved drainage fee on drainage. We take in about $100 million a year for drainage but are spending about a half of it on something else.
The government has failed in lowering flood levels, so they made people raise buildings, even where it is not necessary. This is a knee-jerk reaction to Harvey and a tremendous overreach.
The 500-Year-Plus-2 Flood Ordinance is going to cause all sorts of problems. People do not understand the full impact of that yet, although they are now starting to. It’s going to add tremendous costs.
A: I think we go elephant hunting, like with Amazon HQ2. If we focus more on startup companies and making Houston an attractive place for startups, we will have a lot more success. That’s where real innovation is taking place, and the competition is not as severe. With Amazon HQ2 we would have had to give up half the city to get the deal, but with startups, if we could provide support out of our universities and a source of venture capital funding, we should attract more. We should be able to get folks here in town to create funds for startups. You never know when one of those companies will become a Google, a Starbucks, or an Amazon. I want to make Houston a much more attractive place for startup opportunities.
A: The city’s responsibility is to provide the canvas for businesses. The city’s responsibility is to make sure we have decent streets, to make sure houses don’t flood, make sure we have good public safety, make sure we don’t have homeless camps all over downtown so it is an attractive place to do business. And we also have to focus on the regulatory environment. It’s almost impossible to get a building permit now in less than six months. And to do anything in the city, you have to make campaign contributions to the mayor and council members. Houston’s reputation as being one of the worst pay-to-play locations in the country is starting to hurt us in terms of attracting business. We need to change that culture.
Regulations and taxes, crime, flooding, poor streets – those are the kinds of things that cause people to go somewhere else. It is becoming increasingly burdensome to operate within the city.
A: Immigration is one of Houston’s great strengths. There are immigrants here from all over the world. But there’s no question that the uncontrolled immigration coming over our southern border is having some negative impacts on Houston, from gang violence to people driving with no insurance. But we never lose sight of the fact that immigration is generally great for Houston. People come from all over the world and make tremendous contributions. Very few people here are Houston natives. Fundamentally, immigration is a national responsibility. I don’t think cities can solve the problem. The federal government has failed to provide a rational immigration system in control of our southern border. So the states on the border feel the impact.
A: I have been studying this issue a lot recently. I used to view homelessness as a mental health issue. And certainly that is a huge part of the problem. After interacting with the homeless, I learned that there are many ways people end up homeless. Certainly, mental health and substance abuse are huge parts of the problem, but there is a growing economic homelessness that is driven by how long people are living — people are outliving their retirement savings. There is growing homelessness among young people who age out of foster care. There is growing homelessness among young girls who are running from abusive situations. They become a target for human trafficking. Almost every major social problem we have ends up contributing to the problem of homelessness.
A: We need a very multifaceted approach to the problem. We need people who really understand the different reasons for homelessness and we need to address the causes differently. A “one size fits all” approach is clearly not working. Addressing vagrancy specifically – I think we need to provide people alternate ways to make money. There is construction work to do. We need to require contractors to employ some of these people. And we need to be aggressive in enforcing traffic regulations around intersections. Letting people wander around there isn’t safe. If we keep giving them money, the problem increases. Give the money to the homeless agencies instead.
This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate results of the 2015 mayoral runoff.