New Mayor, New Priorities

Yes, there’s more on Sylvester Turner’s mind than potholes.

By Jeff Balke February 5, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Yes, there's more on Mayor Sylvester Turner's mind than potholes.

Image: Brian Goldman

On a chilly, rainy January morning, at the first Houston City Council meeting of 2016, Chris Brown, the city’s new controller, and Kelly Dowe, its director of finance, took the floor to lay out the city’s financial outlook. They presented an analysis predicting that the budget for the next fiscal year, beginning in July 2016, would fall short by $126 million. With oil prices projected to remain at record lows and an unfunded city pension liability of over $5 billion, a real budget crisis, they explained, loomed.

Newly elected Mayor Sylvester Turner sat quietly as council members peppered Brown and Dowe with questions. The anticipated budget gap was no surprise to him, nor was it the worst deficit he’d ever seen—after all, he’d previously served on the Texas legislative budget committee and been faced with shortfalls in the billions. Finally, it was Turner’s turn to speak. “The only issue is, how do we get our arms around this?” he said. “Everyone will have to sacrifice for the greater good of the city.”

Despite the dire situation laid out that day, the media seemed to focus less on the craters in our budget than on the ones in our streets. Turner opened his post-meeting press conference with an update on his new pothole initiative—announced two days earlier during his inaugural address—and reporters kept coming back to the topic. How would it work? Would the city really be able to repair street damage within 24 hours of a 311 report?

It was enough to make one wonder: With all of the problems facing the city, is fixing potholes really the most important issue? Rank-and-file Houstonians, at least, say yes. A pre-election poll this fall showed that potholes and traffic problems represent, by far, the most pressing issues for voters. And in January, days after Turner’s address, 311 pothole reports nearly tripled from last year’s average of 22 per day to 65—a number Turner insists the city is able to handle.

Sylvester Turner has wanted to be mayor of Houston for more than two decades. Born and raised in Acres Homes, the predominantly African American, near north-side neighborhood where he still resides, Turner attended UH and then Harvard Law School, serving in the Texas House of Representatives from 1989 all the way through last year. When he first ran for mayor, in 1991, he made considerable inroads against favorite Bob Lanier. But just six days before the election, a local news report erroneously tied Turner to an insurance fraud case, torpedoing his chances of becoming the city’s first African American mayor. He gave it another go in 2003 but failed to make the runoff.

“I guess you could say timing is everything,” Turner—the city’s second African American mayor—told Houstonia in an interview, sitting behind his desk at City Hall on his first full day in office. “In this game, you just have to be patient.”

Turner is not only patient, but also quiet and remarkably unassuming for a man who spent decades in Austin at one of the most bombastic and toxic statehouses in the country. As a lawmaker, he became known for his wooden abacus, which he would set on his podium as he talked about keeping an eye on legislators not doing their part to trim the state budget.

There’s a steadiness to Turner that has served him well. Speaking in slow, measured tones and smiling often, he’s known for consensus building, a skill he’s going to need as mayor. “I’ve had to work with 149 different personalities in the Texas House of Representatives, and their personalities go from normal to off-the-charts,” he explained. “If I’m not prepared to deal with 16 city council members who all want what’s best for the city of Houston, then I missed the mark.”

At his first meeting, anyway, Turner’s shared-sacrifice message resonated with council members from both ends of the political spectrum, all of whom seemed prepared to accept that there would be no easy fix. District F’s Steve Le even joked that he was glad to see so many fiscal conservatives in the room this year. As for the mayor, he seemed cautiously optimistic. “I think it went well,” Turner told reporters afterward. “It didn’t matter what your political persuasion was around the table. I think people recognize the challenges.”

The key to long-term financial stability for the city, most agree, is getting employee pension spending under control. Costs for firefighters in particular have soared in recent years, but when asked about the issue, Turner demurred, saying he intends to focus on more than that one group. “I don’t think it has been productive in the past when we have only focused on one element,” he said. “To have the same conversation and point in the same direction, that has already been demonstrated that it doesn’t work. Every Houstonian, every major stakeholder has to be at the table.”

There are, of course, other concerns Turner must confront as he assumes leadership of a city straining under recent population growth, a stagnating economy and an electorate, much like the rest of the country, that’s divided along ideological lines, as most recently evidenced by the fight over HERO.

Turner, who supported the failed anti-discrimination ordinance, believes the city must eventually come back to the equality issue but knows the budget has to come first. “We will always face discrimination where it is. That is a day-to-day ideal,” he said. “I don’t want us to get to the point where we become so engaged in other things that it will cause us to lose our focus.”

But it’s on Turner’s list, along with flooding, public transportation, encouraging young people to remain in Houston, and affordable housing—the last two of which hit home last year when he helped his daughter, Ashley, find her first house. “It took us a long time to find something in her price range,” he explained, as Ashley did everything she could to remain inside the city limits. “She wanted to be able to vote for her dad,” he said with a smile.

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The new Houston mayor's inauguration.

There was no break for Turner in between the grueling 24-month campaign that finally ended after his tight runoff race against Bill King and his transition into the role of mayor. He barely managed to get time to visit with family on Christmas before digging back into the business of taking over as leader of the fourth largest city in the country.

That day in his new office, he vowed to tackle the things that matter to the people who voted for him. “What’s important to people is, when they are trying to go to work or to the store, that they don’t run over a pothole, damage a tire and get a $700 bill,” he told us. Who would want to argue with that, or with the mayor’s desire to tackle a problem and produce immediate, tangible results?

At the same time, of course, Turner is painfully aware that if the city is unable to pay its own bills, things could get much worse for Houstonians than the occasional $700 repair bill. Making up for budget deficits can often mean increases in taxes and/or cuts in city services—including things like, oh, pothole repair—though neither Turner nor members of council are ready to concede on either front yet. Coming to a consensus on budget cuts, the mayor has said again and again, will require “shared sacrifice.”

But on that early-January day with so much ahead of him, Turner seemed at ease. There was a sense that he was finally where he’s supposed to be, a quarter century after his first run for the office.

“As of today, I enjoy my job,” he said. “I love it more today than I did yesterday.” He felt buoyed, he said, by something his mother told him—“Tomorrow will be better than today”—which nearly brought him to tears as he repeated it during his inaugural address. Three days into his term, he still believed that. Then, with a grin, he said: “Now, ask me again next week.”

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