Remembering my friend and what his life meant

Houston attorney Steve Mostyn in his office on Sept. 13, 2017. Photo by Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune

A year ago my friend Steve Mostyn died by suicide.

A story from the Cloak Room: Steve and I are by ourselves having one last one before turning in when a then-incumbent House Republican chairman walks up and says — and I swear this this true — “Hell, Mostyn I know you own bunch of properties, if you would just hire me to broker some of your real estate deals, I could start voting with you on your tort reform stuff.” This is what some prosecutors might call “soliciting a bribe.” We paid for our drinks and left.

There was the time Steve called and said “Rotkoff, I want to figure out how to pay for college for some of these DREAMers. Y’all call UT and figure it out.” Joe Madden figured it out.

There were the times Steve called and said, “Hey I’m sick of being around all these rich people. You wanna skip out and go to a basketball game?”

There were the times Steve got up and left important meetings well before they were complete, because he had to get on the road to make his son Mitch’s game or his daughter Ava’s swim meet. There were, likewise, the times he didn’t get back to Houston when Amber and the kids were counting on him, because he’d stopped the car to get a meal and a hotel room for a homeless stranger.

There was the time early in 2012 when Steve stood up in a room full of countywide candidates in Houston and said, “We are doing things differently. No more wasting money on billboards. No more only campaigning to white swing voters. No more hoarding your IDs and refusing to share them. We’re gonna win or lose by knocking on doors of people who don’t vote, and we’re going to sink or swim together. And if you don’t go along with it, I’m gonna cut your fucking money off.”

I love Beto O’Rourke as much as the next guy and proudly supported him, but anyone who tries to tell the story of Texas’ historic election results in 2018 will get it wrong if they leave out Steve and Amber’s willingness to invest in Harris County community groups’ door-to-door field efforts to engage working class people of color in our political system in 2012, and their organizing candidates and other donors do the same statewide in 2014 and 2016.

There was the time the famed executive director of a famed progressive non-profit inexplicably worked to pass an industry-friendly payday lending “regulatory” bill. We’re meeting with state legislators, staff, and representatives from the advocacy group. The diminutive executive director stands up, points his finger at Steve, and squeaks, “Who the hell do you think you are?!” Steve, a 6-foot-4 former defensive end, stands up and booms down, “I’m the motherfucker that’s gonna cut off all your money!”

Steve never delivered on that threat, but he maneuvered to help kill the payday lenders’ preemption bill.

From paying for vacations — for his staff, an exoneree released from a prison sentence for a crime he did not commit, an unsuccessful presidential campaign manager — to giving millions to charitable causes in support of differently abled children, to caring for the homeless, to fighting racists (literally and figuratively), to his political giving, Steve was guided by an almost painful duty to do right, alleviate suffering, and somehow make this world a better place.

Sometimes Steve’s need to improve everything around him was more a burden than a joy. There was the night we spent cleaning spilled soup out of the floorboards of the truck. Countless flight delays while we scrubbed a spot off the carpet. The three-hour trip across the coast of Southern California, hunting for an elusive specialty light bulb. And if I never make another binder of settlement charts or bill analyses, it will still be too soon. I used to joke that motto of the Mostyn Law Firm was “Right, Now.” Steve believed anything worth doing was worth doing immediately, and to perfection.

We laid Steve to rest on a small hill overlooking water in a Houston cemetery. I take some comfort in the relentless sound of that water feature. Steve loved the water.

Nearby, there’s a tombstone from the 1860s inscribed with a biblical quote: “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.”

Steve was not a religious man. The wide aperture through which he viewed the world captured too much of the pain often caused by the hypocrisy of organized religion. But I think he might love the idea of appropriating this quote to upend its meaning. The city we seek is not the biblically promised afterlife. But it is also not the city, state, country, nor world we share today. It is up to each of us to look at the people around us and the world we share and do the work to build that continuing city. To share the good in our lives with those who have less. To do right when no one is looking, to do even the smallest of tasks to the best of our abilities, and to fight for justice when others look away. The world we seek — the one Steve fought for — is still to come.

Disclosure: Amber Anderson and the late Steve Mostyn have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Jeff Rotkoff

Political consultant