HOUSTON (CN) – Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner took on four candidates vying to unseat him in the 2019 mayoral race’s first debate Wednesday, and brushed off attorney Tony Buzbee’s claims an intern’s $95,000 salary is emblematic of the corruption plaguing the city.
In the hour-long debate, the candidates answered questions from residents about a pay raise voters approved for firefighters that’s been waylaid by a court battle, their plans to deal with recurrent massive rain storms and widespread flooding and crime.
Tropical Storm Imelda’s rains caused chaos in the city late last month, shutting down freeways as first responders rescued hundreds of drivers stranded by high water. It also flooded homes that didn’t even flood amid Hurricane Harvey’s record-setting deluge in August 2017.
Turner said the city is making progress on flood mitigation.
He highlighted a fully funded impending project to install 10 gates in the Lake Houston Dam so water can be released more quickly from the reservoir before big storms hit and prevent spillover into Kingwood, a master-planned community where some homes have flooded multiple times in recent years.
Bill King, a 67-year-old former attorney, lost to Turner by around 4,000 votes in the 2015 mayor election runoff. He grew up in Kemah, and was mayor of the city on Galveston Bay, 35 miles southeast of Houston, from 2001 to 2005.
“I’ve flooded three times in my life. I know what a terrible experience it is,” King said.
He said the country is starting to talk about Houston’s flooding problems and it’s damaging the city’s brand.
Dwight Boykins, 56, has served on the Houston City Council for six years. He faulted Turner for taking credit for federal flood-mitigation projects and said he has a simple solution.
He said as mayor, he will have the public works department install two additional inlets on each side of flood-prone streets so water drains more quickly.
Buzbee picked up on Boykins’ critique of Turner and amplified it. “Like most career politicians Turner takes credit for things he has nothing to do with, then for things he’s directly responsible for he ignores, makes excuses about or lies about,” he said.
Buzbee, 51, has refused campaign donations and spent $7.5 million of his own money on his campaign. He said he wouldn’t even take a salary if he wins the election.
The former Marine has made himself a mint winning multimillion dollar settlements for clients who sued BP for refinery pollution and over its 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Buzbee claims under Turner’s watch, a program meant to award contracts to disadvantaged businesses owned by minorities and women is handing contracts to companies owned by millionaire lobbyists, some of whom have put on campaign fundraisers for Turner.
This week, Buzbee called for the state to investigate Turner’s administration paying Marvin Agumagu a $95,000 salary for an intern position in the management training program of the Houston Airport System, which manages the city’s two international airports.
Turner defended himself on the debate stage. “I’m proud of the fact that we’re bringing in millennials to city hall. … It’s good for Houston,” he said.
He also released a statement Wednesday in which he said Agumagu’s work experience and education justify his high salary.
Turner’s No. 1 priority when he took office in January 2016 was to address the city’s $8.2 billion unfunded pension liabilities.
He helped convince his former colleagues in the Texas Legislature, where he served for nearly 27 years, and Governor Greg Abbott to pass legislation approving his package that has moved the city out from under the specter of bankruptcy.
The reforms had to be approved in Austin because state law dictates how much the city pays into its municipal worker, police and firefighter pension funds.
“Four years later, that $8.2 billion unfunded liability is now $4.03 billion and going down,” Turner said Wednesday in his closing statements.
Turner also fought back on his opponents’ claims that FBI stats showing crime trending downward in the city are misleading because many crimes are not reported.
“I’ve knocked on 140,000 doors, met 25,000 people, I know HPD crime stats,” Buzbee said. “I know when they smash-and-grab and take your computer from your car it doesn’t get reported, when someone takes a package off your porch it doesn’t get reported. Turner’s relying on stale crime states.”
Turner said the Houston Chronicle recently published an article that said Buzbee and King are misleading voters on crime.
“If it’s one crime, it’s one crime too many. But FBI stats show it is down,” Turner said. “We’ve added 200 police officers over and above the number when I came in. We need another 600 and we’re working on that.”
There’s a consensus among the candidates that the city’s current police force of 5,200 is inadequate to patrol the 669-square mile city, almost three times the size of Chicago, which has more than 11,000 officers.
Boykins said to deter crime he’d have the 1,200 Houston police who live in the city patrol in their neighborhoods 30 minutes before they go to work and 30 minutes before they go home and park their patrol cars in their driveways.
Boykins has won the endorsement of the Houston firefighters’ union. The union is embroiled in a bitter dispute with Turner over pay raises that voters approved for firefighters in December 2018, so their pay would match that of police of similar rank and experience.
Sue Lovell, 69, served on the Houston City Council from 2006 to 2012. Though her chances of winning are slim, she said she’s running because her children urged her to and asked her, “What will you tell grandchildren if you decide not to run?”
For firefighters, she said Turner is going against the will of voters by trying to block their pay raise in court.
“The pay-parity vote has been ignored. This mayor has decided not to honor that commitment and that’s wrong. My oldest son is a firefighter-paramedic. I could sit down with the firefighters right now and we could come to an agreement and settle it,” she said.
Seven candidates were not invited to the debate by hosts KTRK-ABC13 and Univision 45.
A recent poll of 500 voters showed Turner with a lead of 37%, to Buzbee’s 20% and King’s 10%, but it’s too soon for Turner to write his victory speech as 22% are undecided.
Buzbee said he believes he is a shoo-in for a December runoff against Turner.
“This is a two-person race,” he said in his closing statement. “Every poll shows it. And we’re standing at a crossroads. Are we going to be the city we all hope we can be, the city we aspire to be, the city we know we could be, or are we going to be the city we are a little bit afraid we are rapidly becoming under the current leadership?”