When Louie Welch first ran for public office in 1949, two PR consultants told him, “The first thing you’ve got to do is drop that nickname.” “I told them it wasn’t a nickname. My name is Louie, not Louis. I was named for a man named Louie.”
“They said, ‘Then change your name.'”
He didn’t change his name, and won anyway. His first public office was an at-large seat on the Houston City Council; the beginning of a long career in city government. Welch died Jan. 27 of this year, about four months after being diagnosed with untreatable lung cancer. A few years ago I visited him in his home in northern Harris County. He sat in his chair, surrounded by memorabilia of 18 years in City Hall. At this time, Welch was 84 years old. He had suffered three heart attacks and undergone a triple bypass, but was still a walking encyclopedia of local politics.
I asked what a voter should look for in selecting an office-seeker. “Character,” he responded immediately. “Next is intelligence which includes a knowledge of government. Then leadership. You can’t buy it. You can’t force it. We’ve had mayors who had these characteristics, and some who didn’t. Having a career in business may be helpful, maybe not, because the goal of a business is to make money. The goal of a government is to spend money, but spend it very wisely.”
Welch believed that governments should only do for people what they can’t do for themselves. “The first thing most people do when they get out of bed in the morning is brush their teeth. They’ve got to know that the water they are using is safe. But they cannot find out for themselves,” he said. “It’s the same thing when I go to a restaurant. I can’t hire a health inspector to first check it out.”
“Over time, a city derives its own culture. This is done with museums, symphonies, that sort of thing. But Houston has had more circuses than bread. We are building expensive playpens for sports but the average citizen can’t attend very often. The tickets cost too much. Maybe these sports palaces give us civic pride, but they do not fill a need. People need fresh water. Taking care of our sewage, that fulfills a need. People take these services for granted, but you want a real problem? Don’t pick up the garbage for two weeks. That happened once in New York City. It was awful.”
Welch was a strong Republican, but in his later years did not like the way city government had become so partisan. “When we have City Hall divided between political parties, one party’s mayor gets in power and loads the city’s payroll with political favorites who are then protected by Civil Service. The other party’s mayor eventually gets in power and can’t fire the political appointees. City Hall’s issues are not national issues. They are not Republican issues and they are not Democratic issues.” When it came to city finances, Welch’s philosophy was simple: “I never had a budget crisis because we budgeted to spend only the funds available. When these bills come due it won’t be the mayor who pays them, it will be the people of Houston who pay them.”
In watching mayors and city council members come and go due to term limits, he continued to support a strong-mayor form of government for Houston. “They all have to understand that the council has no administrative authority,” he said. “It’s illegal for the council to attempt to administer the city. That’s the mayor’s job. The mayor and only the mayor has all administrative powers. If you’ve got more than one person giving orders in City Hall, then you have chaos.”
“A city manager operation like Dallas’ is not a good idea, but Houston should consider doing what Miami, Nashville, Jacksonville and Baton Rouge, to name a few, have done: combine the city and the county governments and have a county mayor. In 1957 we got an outside commission of professionals to study our situation and the report back recommended that we combine those two governments.”
He had his own opinions of mass transit: “Light rail is a problem to me because I have a degree of ambivalence. I haven’t noticed that traffic is any easier in towns that have it. If you go rail, go heavy commuter rail. It would go to Katy, Tomball, maybe to Galveston, to Angleton maybe. When I was mayor in 1973 we made a study of mass transit that designated five corridors. The plan included heavy commuter rail, not a Toonerville Trolley and not Disneyland. But it did include people movers in certain areas — the Galleria and the Medical Center.”
The former mayor continued: “I don’t think that’s the only answer. Los Angeles does not have much rail and its traffic is no worse. Dallas was actually laid out before the automobile. So was Houston, but our streets were built wide enough so a six-mule team could turn around in them. That’s why we have those 80 and 100-foot-wide streets. Those widths are unparalleled in any large American city except Salt Lake City. But some developments have to be made besides just widening freeways. The Katy Freeway is a good place to look at before just stacking up more freeways and building little light rails that go slower than cars. People won’t go slower. They won’t use them.”
During his tenure as mayor, he presided over a Southern city experiencing the rigors of integration, and endured some anger in the black community, which he felt was unfair. “I didn’t pick my police chief. I inherited Buddy McGill. [Buddy] paid no attention to the fact that the city had a mayor. I asked him to look into a bad situation and he didn’t do a thing. Finally the feds did, and made seven major arrests. So I called him in. I said, ‘You had full information on this, but took no action.'”
“So McGill said, ‘What do you want me to do about it?'”
“I pulled out a letter and said, ‘I want you to sign your letter of resignation.”
“He said, ‘I won’t sign that. You’ll have to fire me.'”
“I said, ‘You’re fired.’ I hired Herman Short, who was the right man at the right time. I had told McGill that I did not want police using the N-word about black Houstonians, and nothing happened. The day that Herman took over, that was the day it stopped.”
Welch came to be mayor of Houston through the usual route: he owned an auto supplies store. He was born in West Texas and attended what was then Abilene Christian College and married his high school sweetheart, Iola Faye. They were married for 51 years. Welch came to Houston during World War II and opened his first auto supplies store. Six years later he was active in his church and became president of his Lions Club. On Dec. 31, 1949, Welch recalled, he made a speech at a dinner the Lions gave for some city officials. It must have been well-received because in 1950 a few friends began asking him to run for City Council. He told his would-be supporters that he didn’t even live in that council district. “Run at-large,” they said.
“I don’t have the $1,100 filing fee.”
“We’ll pay it.”
He ran, got elected to the City Council and began his career in public service. After his first two-year term, in 1952, he ran for mayor against Roy Hofheinz and lost. Two years after that Welch again ran for mayor against Hofheinz and lost. In 1955 Welch ran for a seat on City Council, won, and held that seat for eight years, during which time he ran for county judge and got trampled. He ran for mayor of Houston again in 1961. For the third time he lost.
He decided to get into the real estate business. He rented an office from another up-and-coming real estate investor, Bob Lanier. “I made more money than I had ever made before,” he says.
In 1963 Welch ran for mayor for the fourth time. He was finally elected mayor and served for 10 years.
When he left the mayor’s office, the Chamber of Commerce asked him to run that organization. He did for many years. His wife died in 1991; a year later he married Helen, a widow, who had been his secretary at City Hall. He retired on a city pension of $900 a month. “Helen worked for the city longer than I did, so she gets a bigger pension,” he said.
Despite Welch’s constant clarifications about his name, the Houston Chronicle’s obituary editorial in praise of the former mayor was headlined, “Louis Welch.” You can practically hear him tapping his gavel in council chambers and lecturing the press corps, “My name is Louie, not Louis.”