Louie Welch Has Died

Former Houston Mayor Louie Welch has died at the age of 89. Welch served at City Hall nearly 20 years over several decades, but a long time friend and associate says he's remembered more for an offensive joke on live TV than for his other accomplishments. Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell reports.

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Louie Welch served four terms on Houston City Council in the 50s and 60s, and five terms as mayor starting in 1964. He came out of retirement in 1985 to run against popular incumbent Mayor Kathy Whitmire. During that campaign, unaware that his TV microphone was on, he told a joke about AIDS that offended a lot of people and he lost that election by a big margin. Welch's city hall press secretary and former TV reporter Lee Tucker says unfortunately, that is what many people remember about Welch, and he thinks that's sad because Welch was a fine public servant who did a lot of good things for Houston.

"He was the one that put in the ambulance system which has saved countless lives. He provided the water from Lake Livingston and Lake Conroe, he built Intercontinental, which is Bush Airport. He did the infrastructure of the city, the sewage, streets, he was a visionary." 

Welch didn't run for re-election in 1973. He became Director of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, where Tucker says he was instrumental in expanding the chamber's influence and membership and growing it into the Greater Houston Partnership.

"And he brought countless innovations. He stepped up the chamber into more than just a city booster. It was a city development engine, and an information engine for the rest of the world. And again he went all over the world selling Houston."

Tucker says Welch worked through the Chamber of Commerce, and later the Greater Houston Partnership, to get as many foreign countries as possible to open consulates in Houston, and he helped them develop business relationships with Houston area companies. After President Nixon opened relations with China in 1972, Houston was one of the first U.S cities to get a Chinese Consulate, in large part because Louie Welch had helped lay the groundwork.

"He was very instrumental in working with the Chinese, when they first came to the United States after many years of suspicion and they sent a delegation here.  Houston, after Washington D.C. was their next stop."

Welch's most notable failure was his relationship with the black community, largely because of his tough no nonsense old school police chief, Herman Short. Their feelings boiled over in 1967 with two days of battles between police and students at Texas Southern University, and the death of a police officer. Hundreds of TSU students were arrested, and it caused a lot of ill will that some people still feel today. Late in his life, Louie Welch said of all the bad things that were ever said about him, being accused of racism hurt more than anything else.  Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.