There were 13 candidates in the November 2015 election, and most all of them seemed qualified for election (I said “most,” not all).
Bill King and Sylvester Turner survived the first round of the General Election and if you think Trump-Clinton or Bush-Gore was close, the population of about two city blocks separated the candidates in the Dec. 12 runoff.
Turner received 104,711 votes to King’s 104,125. That’s half of one percent difference, if you’re keeping track at home, and after two previous runs at the office, Turner finally won his turn.
In a moment of brutal honesty, I’ll tell you that I didn’t think Turner was the right choice for mayor in 2015. I thought the city was headed toward fiscal calamity (we were) and Turner’s credentials and demeanor on the campaign trail didn’t match up with what I thought our city needed at the time.
My reasoning made sense, at least at the time. Turner had spent two decades in Austin serving as a state legislator. He had done that job without much opposition, and let’s face it, state and national political governance aren’t exactly the same thing as running a city the size of a small country. (The city of Houston has as many people as the entire country of Jamaica.)
In Austin, any decision that needs to be made goes through a sickening spectrum of red tape. Bills pass from interest groups and lobbyists and – sometimes – actual legislators. Then they go to a committee and get sent back for revisions. If they make it out of committee, they end up on 4th Street, where they are discussed over Stubbs, and then, if lucky, the bill gets compared to similar Senate bills where it may get changed, scrapped or actually voted upon.
Let’s put it this way: State and national politics are slow, slow going, and I was worried Turner would come to Houston with 20 years of experience in red-taping every single issue Houston needed to fix.
I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life. Most weeks, our readers are quick to point them out. But I don’t know that I’ve ever been more wrong about a political candidate than I was about Sylvester Turner. In fact, I’m not sure Houston could have gathered the most qualified candidates in the entire country and found someone better than the person we have sitting in the mayor’s office on Bagby.
Part of the reason is because I’m not sure Turner ever actually sits down in his office.
Recently, I sent a note to Turner’s communications director asking if I could spend some time with him talking about the issues most important to our area of Houston. Immediately, I was told the mayor’s schedule was booked through April. I got a note back later that day saying he could fit me in for 30 minutes.
The reason Turner doesn’t have much time for interviews with people like me is because he has spent his first 15 months in office confronting every issue previous mayors have only serviced with glancing admissions.
In his first week, Turner took on potholes and, if you haven’t noticed, those things usually get fixed within 24 hours of being reported. More importantly, our mayor has tackled a pension issue that has haunted our city for the past decade.
Maybe I’m so bullish on Turner because, in my opinion, the bar was set pretty low. His predecessor, Annise Parker, had served as the city’s controller from 2003-2009 and mayor from 2009-2015. She was a member of the city council from 1997-2003. Again, if you’re counting at home, that’s 18 years of being elected by the voters in Houston, and we never attempted to seriously address the debt piling up in pension funds to our city’s most valuable servants – police and firefighters.
It took Turner nine months to craft a pension plan that could be presented to his old buddies in Austin. Turner will admit the solution isn’t perfect. He likes to call it “actuarial sound,” meaning it keeps us from piling up more debt while fulfilling our obligation to municipal pensions.
Potholes and pensions aren’t the only things Turner has done. He’s already implemented enormous solutions to flooding, he has faced a budget shortfall head-on and figured out a way to keep this city running. He has addressed the homeless issue our city faces and even led a movement to clean homeless encampments twice a week.
Turner has sent spies into the permitting office to figure out ways our city could help businesses and homeowners, and he’s even been successful at helping Houston ISD cut its obligation to a Robin Hood law that would have taken $165 million of Houston taxes and sent them to other districts in the state. Instead, his savvy political move got that number down to $77 million, saving us almost $90 million.
But here’s why I’m most proud of Mayor Turner. A few weeks ago, he was seemingly attacked by members of his own party – people who said he wasn’t being progressive enough on social issues.
At the end of our interview, I briefly asked him about that, and his answer was a lesson all politicians could stand: He didn’t seem to care much.
For Turner, he may have one more election fight in him when his first term expires at the end of 2019. But until then, the guy just can’t seem to sit still.
He wants to fix everything wrong with his city, and he’ll travel anywhere at anytime and talk to anybody if it will help. Along with trips to Bahrain, Cuba and Mexico – all in the name of trade and improving Houston – Turner spent Monday in Austin and Tuesday in Washington, D.C. He wasn’t taking trips for the sake of travel. He was promoting Houston and fighting to fix our pension crisis.
While it’s fine for the Mayor to travel, if he keeps up what he’s doing now, we need to keep that guy right here, in his office on Bagby, for another seven years.