Mayor Sylvester Turner’s opponents again challenged him on just about every topic at a debate Tuesday afternoon, hardening already evident differences between the incumbent and his rivals on flood control, transportation and city finances.
Early in the debate hosted by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the Wortham Center, a moderator asked Turner about the recent revelation that he had signed off on a $95,000-a-year executive internship at the Houston Airport System for a man Turner at first denied knowing, despite evidence of their prior connections.
In response, Turner said the hire was part of his plan to hire millennials at the city. The mayor also defended the 31-year-old intern’s salary, which he said fit within a range set by the city’s human resources department for executive positions.
“I had nothing to do at all with the salary,” Turner said. “In that category, it can vary from $70- to $130,000. This is in the mid-range spot.”
One of Turner’s opponents, Bill King, responded by noting that many millennial-aged interns at the city, as well as other employees, earn far less than $95,000. Mayoral candidate Tony Buzbee, who has been fiercely critical of the hire, summarized the hiring process, which was not open to other applicants.
“I understand this is probably not my crowd, but I have to speak truth,” Buzbee said, looking out over the luncheon room of buttoned-up elected officials and professors. “…I have the texts between this mayor and this intern that were sent at 10:59 at night. And then the mayor is asked three different times, do you know this young man? And he says no, I don’t know him. And then when we produce the (recommendation) letter that he created for this young man — then he says, oh, I do know him.”
Throughout the debate, the candidates largely reverted to points they have made in campaign ads and at prior forums and debates. Early in the forum, however, the moderators challenged each candidate with specific questions, including one in which Buzbee was asked where he would find “the huge amount of money it would require” to hire 2,000 more police officers, as Buzbee has said he would do over eight years in office.
In response, Buzbee said he would shift more officers to patrol duty from desk duty, and repeated a statement by the police union president calling for 1,500 to 2,000 more officers. Buzbee also said he was not fear-mongering by making crime a key part of his campaign, despite a Chronicle fact-check that found Houston’s violent crime rate has risen under Turner while the overall crime rate has fallen.
“I reject the notion that crime is down in this city,” Buzbee said. “We need police officers and I’m going to put more police officers on the street.”
Meanwhile, King was confronted over his central campaign message of rooting out corruption and “pay-to-play” transactions at City Hall, which moderator Richard Murray suggested runs contrary to King’s history of working at a delinquent tax collection firm that has come under fire for its outsized political influence.
“Doesn’t it take something of a leap of faith on the part of voters considering your candidacy to think that now that you’re in a different position, that you would reject the system that helped make you successful?” Murray asked.
King said he often would receive calls from prior mayors and county commissioners inviting him to birthday parties but asking him to bring a check for their campaigns — a system he likened to extortion.
“I didn’t have a change of heart,” King said. “I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. I actually liked it less then, because I was having to write the checks.”
King and Turner later clashed over one of King’s signature issues: his contention that the city should spend all revenue collected from the drainage fee on drainage projects.
“Only about half the drainage fee is being spent on drainage,” King said. “We need to spend every dollar of the drainage fee on drainage until we get ahead of this problem. And fixing streets is not fixing flooding. Most of the street money we spent in the last year is on asphalt overlays, which actually makes drainage worse.”
Turner responded that half the fee goes toward streets because they comprise part of the city’s drainage system.
“We’ve made a decision that we would rather have water in the streets rather than in our homes,” Turner said. “…In actuality, all 100 percent is spent on drainage, because drainage and the streets all go hand in hand.”
Former councilwoman Sue Lovell was asked at one point to explain why voters should “seriously consider” her candidacy in light of a recent poll that showed her trailing far behind the leading candidates, and with no indication yet that she has raised enough money to be competitive.
Lovell said she knew it would be hard to raise money, because people are “afraid they’re going to get a call from the mayor” if they donate to other campaigns. She also said she initially won her city council seat despite facing long odds.
“Everybody said I couldn’t win the first time,” Lovell said. “My opponent out-raised me half a million dollars to my … $100,000. But we won, because I had a good network of volunteers, a good network around the city that knew me and worked with me.”