Meet the Mayor Fighting to Save Houston

Meet the Mayor Fighting to Save Houston

By Libby Coleman

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner
SourceAaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg via Getty Images


Because what happens in a major Texan city doesn’t stay there.

By Libby Coleman

In light of the devastating flooding that Hurricane Harvey has brought to the Texas and Louisiana coastlines this week, we look back at this OZY encore, originally published on Nov. 18, 2016, which introduced readers to the Houston mayor who’s now leading the disaster response.

Nothing gets on the city council agenda that Mayor Sylvester Turner doesn’t want passed. At Houston City Hall, sporting a smart blue tie, glasses perched precariously low, he sails through appointment approvals with the air of a principal. The agenda runs smoothly because of the hours of meetings he schedules beforehand with the council members one-on-one to make his case on the more complex issues. Best to talk about the wonky policy details behind closed doors — where disagreements stay secret and every nuance is exposed. 

Before becoming mayor 10 months ago, 62-year-old Turner, a Democrat and veteran of the state House for 26 years, served as head of appropriations — an important title that he held even under a Republican-majority House. Republican state representative Patricia Harless remembers one of Turner’s major priorities was education. Along the way he was named the “Most Valuable Player in the Texas House” by Capitol Inside and earned praise from Republicans and Democrats alike for his “straightforwardness and honorability,” according to Harless. “I think that every single Republican that knew him respected him. He was a man of his word,” she says. 

He took the mayorship with a margin of some 4,000 votes … But he’s inherited quite the muck.

Now he’s back in H-Town, America’s fastest-growing city, set to overtake Chicago in population size in the next decade. His reign comes at a time when Texas is acquiring some bluer tinges, as millennials and young Hispanics are voting at higher rates and urban populations grow, and we might look to Houston as a case study in that political shift. For now, the burning question is: How do you turn Houston into a top-tier metropolis, defined, according to Turner, as a city with strong infrastructure, balanced budgets and diversity? Urban politics expert Robert Stein says the big question for Houston is how to grow at a sustainable pace.

Turner doesn’t quite have a universal mandate to rule — he took the mayorship with a margin of some 4,000 votes, defeating Republican Bill King in a race that centered around the city’s finances (Turner’s area of expertise, fortuitously). But he’s inherited quite the muck. Oil prices, which determine much of Houston’s economy — more than 7 percent of exports are tied up in oil and gas — have settled at less than $50 a barrel, down from $139 in 2008. In 2001, the Houston government agreed to an exorbitant pension deal. And the city cannot collect taxes above a strict cap. Weeks ago, Turner released his first cut of a plan, slated to pay off the $7.8 billion debt within 30 years. The Houston City Council passed a resolution — a 16-1 vote — in support of Turner’s plan. He’s “laser-focused” on sorting the pensions, says Stein.

Houston’s is the story of many American cities: Rising pension costs hamstring the local government from addressing other issues like crumbling highways and weak public transportation systems. After the bullish 1990s, pension plans across the country — which heavily invest in the market — soared, says pension expert Josh McGee. Houston’s, developed in 2001, suffered after the 2008 crash. “The problem is still solvable today, but it can get very tough very quick if we don’t take action,” McGee says.

Turner, a Houston native, still lives in the same area where he was raised and has served as an elected official since 1988 — the historically Black neighborhood Acres Home. The son of a painter father, who passed away when Turner was 13, he grew up the sixth of nine children. Yet he made it to the University of Houston, while older siblings got jobs or joined the military to support the younger kids. He caught two buses to reach each class. The political science major, who had a passion for reading JFK’s speeches aloud, then attended Harvard Law School before returning to help take care of his younger siblings with his mother, who worked as a maid at the Rice Hotel.

One brother has intellectual disabilities; another suffers from mental issues following military service. This, he says, was on his mind when he decided to run for the seat in the commissioner’s court in 1984, four years out of law school. Without private health insurance, his mother couldn’t get his brother adequate care, he says. He lost that race, but won the state legislature seat in 1988. 

Without any seniority to pick his committee roles, he passed a boring first four years, serving on the employment and labor standards and the House administration committees. Soon, he made his way to seats with more power, working on appropriations, calendars and state affairs (utilities, electricity and environment). All the while he held his job as a lawyer. He ran for mayor twice before 2015’s victory, in 1991 and 2003. “Most people didn’t give me a shot,” Turner says of 1991’s race — but he made it to a runoff and might have won in 1991, Stein says, except for a scandal. He was accused of participating in life insurance fraud, and poll numbers plummeted. “[Turner’s] been bruised,” Stein says. In 1996, Turner won a defamation lawsuit against the fraud allegations. 

Though Turner sits in the council meeting with his ducks in a row, you can’t plan for everything. An hour in, some conservative city council members ask to hold off on a deal with the fire department for a few months. Months. Turner sits up straighter. He remains preternaturally calm. “I am asking you to move forward.” Drops heavy words: trust, responsibility. OK. “You’re a man of your word,” Councilman Steve Le agrees. The vote passes.