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How to Privatize Central Planning: Sugar Land's sweet to S.F.'s smug

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Jan. 5, 2003

The sign inside this Republican enclave's City Hall -- on Corporate Drive in the Sugar Land Business Park -- tells visitors, "Sugar Land . . . there is no equal."

Joe Zimmerman, a local businessman who runs Sugar Land's privatized municipal water services, sits for a moment pondering where one might find Democrats here.

"There aren't many of them left," he replies with a smile. "Most of them went to Louisiana."

This is the home of Rep. Tom DeLay, the bullwhip-cracking, fire-breathing new House majority leader. It's a place where "country club" goes with Republican, just as "liberal" goes with San Francisco.

Here in this wealthy Houston suburb, churchgoers outnumber peace activists by roughly a zillion to one. Although one resident claimed that no one would bat an eye if a cross-dresser appeared on a sidewalk, that seems unlikely. There are no sidewalks.

DeLay hails from a world far removed from his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who gives fresh meaning to the term San Francisco liberal. Indeed, his Sugar Land is a sort of anti-San Francisco, as homey is to hip and flat is to hilly. Just as DeLay is a kind of anti-Pelosi, and vice versa.

"We wouldn't elect (Pelosi) dogcatcher in Fort Bend County," says Eric Thode, local chairman of the Republican Party. "The flip side is y'all wouldn't elect Congressman DeLay dogcatcher in San Francisco."

Like San Franciscans, Sugar Landers consider themselves thoroughly progressive. It's just that their definition of progress is precisely the opposite of San Francisco's. Rather than an embrace of liberal causes, Sugar Landers define progressive as less government and more freeways, more development and more commerce.

Janna Golden, 14, and her father, Sam Golden practice their golf game on the family's home putting green in Sugar Land on 9-28-02. There is growing trend of installing residential putting greens (mostly synthetic grass) in people's backyards. Most are serious golfers who want to improve their short game. But it's also about fun. It's great when visitors come over and for recreation. The Golden's artificial turf plot is about 625 square feet. HOUCHRON CAPTION (10/02/2002): Janna Golden and her father, Sam Golden, practice their golf games on the family's backyard putting green in Sugar Land. John Everett

Yet far from a cultural backwater, Sugar Land is the quintessential new suburbia, welcoming immigrants, shopping centers and jogging paths with equal enthusiasm. In many ways, Sugar Land represents the future.

Here, the business of government is business, and the expansion of the huge interstate freeway bisecting the town is a chief object of civic pride. Mayor David Wallace is a youthful, lean professional investor and ardent devotee of Margaret Thatcher.

"I guess I would want people in San Francisco to know that the city of Sugar Land is utopian in every sense of the word," Wallace says. "In the quality of life, in the cultural diversity that we have, in the economic foundation, in the fact that every decision we make as local leaders is made looking out for the best interests of the people that live here."


An agglomeration of master-planned communities, Sugar Land is the heart of the fastest-growing county in Texas, the city's population booming from 24,000 in 1990 to 63,000 in 2000.

Immigrants, particularly Asians and Latinos, are a big part of that growth, making Fort Bend County majority minority, with whites at just under half the county population, although at just more than 65 percent of Sugar Land's.

The Imperial Sugar mill that gave the town its name is closing, replaced by acres of spiffy new shopping malls, office parks and verdant country clubs with names related to sugar. It is so churchgoing and family-oriented that there's not a freestanding bar in town


"You have to go to Applebee's or TGIF's" to get a drink, says Loren Koziol, a young single guy who works in Sugar Land but lives in Houston. "The sidewalks roll up at 6 unless you want to take the kids to Chuck E. Cheese."

Sugar Landers say they are living the suburban dream.

"You feel like you're living in an Archie comic book," says Susan Alexander,

stopping one night for takeout at Brookstreet Barbeque.

Her friend, Duffy Riklin, says she's not conservative, but most everyone else is.

"I swear I tell people I live in Mayberry," she says. "At night, all the mommies go out and sit in their driveways and watch the kids play in the street. The daddies go to one daddy's house and lean against the car and talk about whatever they talk about.

"I like the community, I like the sense of belonging. I can tell my son, 'Yeah, go play outside,' and I can go inside for half an hour and know perfectly well that there are other people in the neighborhood there watching him. That means a lot."

People are so sweet in Sugar Land that even when you imply that the man they elect to congress is an ogre, they disagree politely, smile and invite everyone to come see Sugar Land for themselves.

"Whatever one needs in life, it is available here," says Dinesh Shah, a native of India and the first immigrant elected to the board of the local Chamber of Commerce, a powerful Sugar Land institution. "Education, church, a good standard of living, all these things. What's wrong with that?"

Sugar Landers consider themselves thoroughly diverse. There are Chinese Republicans and Indian Republicans. Palestinian Catholics run the town's popular Brookstreet Barbeque. Muslims have a bagpipe band. Hindus are building a temple.


Far from complaining that the tech boom was despoiling their cultural authenticity, Sugar Landers celebrate their freeway as a new free trade corridor linking Mexico with Canada in a ribbon of happy commerce.

"If you think we're diverse now, you just wait," says Sharon Wallingford, a journalist who wrote a history of Fort Bend County. "We're futurists. We're visionaries. What was the word you used? Progressive."

Many city services are privatized, and the city government is bent on holding down tax rates, at 0.32 cents per $100 of property value compared with San Francisco's $1.24. A new five-bedroom house goes for $250,000.

"This is a place to start a business," David Wong, a native of Macao and the first Asian elected to public office in Sugar Land, as a city councilman. "Sugar Land is the best place, that's all I can tell."

For all its free-market ethos, however, few places are more heavily planned.

It's just that the planning is largely private. Sugar Land began as a true company town, the sugar mill issuing its own scrip, mowing everyone's lawns and picking up their garbage. The freeway that now defines the city grew from the road to the mill.

As Houston grew, Sugar Land continued to embrace a private version of central planning, initially with the First Colony master-planned community on 9,700 acres, now joined by similar developments with such tight building restrictions that one can drive by a Denny's and not know it. Architects compete in shades of beige.

"It's like the video game Sim City, where you can draw your own city and watch it grow," says Lufti "Louie" Rukab, who runs Brookstreet Barbeque for his uncle. "Everybody is always in polo shirts. Everybody drives. No way they'll have a bus in Sugar Land. Ever."


Immigrants are drawn by good schools, cheap land and a wildly pro-business climate. And most seem to fully embrace the Sugar Land mind-set, which boils down to you have to earn things here, and once you do, whether it's a nice house or a prosperous business or a country club membership, it's a thing to be proud of.

"My life is running a business, working very hard to make a living, and now Al Gore is telling me I need to pay this tax because I'm doing well?" says Councilman Wong. "I work harder and pay more taxes? Doesn't sound right to me."

It's a free-enterprise philosophy shared, and promoted, by DeLay, the former owner of a pest control business whom residents have elected to Congress since 1984.

"It's not that we don't like Democrats, but it's natural we are Republicans, " Wong says. "This city is truly a Republican city."

Immigrants say they have to work hard to fit in, but once they do, they are accepted.

Shah, the Indian immigrant and developer, said he approached an African American restaurant owner and asked him how he became so popular.

"He gave me the secret. He said, 'Get involved with the community.' And from that day on, the whole Fort Bend County knows me by name," Shah says. "I've been doing it, and I'm well received and well respected. I'm not tooting my own horn, but I'm really very happy with people."

Wong says Sugar Land's conservatism is driven by a strong focus on religion and family that crosses ethnic groups.

"You drive along and you see all the churches. I don't mean it will make people intolerant, but I think it will make people more, how do you call it, more principled," he says. "Because of religious background, you are taught to see things in right or wrong. Relativism is not here."

Abortion and gay rights are not viewed kindly, says Wong, a nondenominational Christian. "From a religious point of view, those issues cannot be even compromised. It's like the thinking is already set. It's very hard to discuss these issues.

"I won't say we are extreme, but definitely, I like the word conservative," Wong adds. "It's a good word."

Riklin, the nonconservative mother, said one doesn't have to go to church, "but people like it more if you do."

She noted, however, that two lesbian friends stayed with her while they relocated from New York, and they were "both very accepted in the neighborhood. "

"I'm Jewish myself," Riklin said, "and I know I'm the only Jewish person on my block. But I have my dreidel decorations out and they have their Christmas decorations out, and I've never had anyone say anything, but 'Oh, that's so nice.' "


In fact, Sugar Landers will smile sweetly at the rudest questions. As the city motto suggests, they don't take themselves too seriously. Where San Franciscans can be smug, Sugar Landers tend toward cheerleading.

Over at the Sweetwater Country Club, receptionist Veronica Denton chats amiably with a stranger seeking country club Republicans.

"I've always been a Republican," Denton says, even though she was born in England to a French mother.

A self-described citizen of the world who lived for years in Paris, Denton chose to settle in Sugar Land, to the horror of acquaintances in New York.

"I've been to all the major cities," Denton says. "This is very cosmopolitan, very friendly, and I love it. People have to come here before they understand what a lovely place it is.

"You see," she explains, "you have to take it in context. It's entirely different, so you don't compare. It's like comparing a hamburger to a lovely French meal. If you go to Paris, you get a lovely French meal. This is where you can get a really good hamburger."


-- DAVID WALLACE, mayor: "The city of Sugar Land is utopian in every sense of the word. In the quality of life, in the cultural diversity that we have, in the economic foundation, in the fact that every decision we make as local leaders is made looking out for the best interests of the people that live here."

-- DINESH SHAH, Chamber of Commerce board member: "Whatever one needs in life, it is available here. Education, church, a good standard of living, all these things. What's wrong with that?"

-- DAVID WONG, city councilman: "You drive along and you see all the churches. I don't mean it will make people intolerant, but I think it will make people more, how do you call it, more principled. Because of religious background, you are taught to see things in right or wrong. Relativism is not here."

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1991 to 2018, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University.

Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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