As Houstonians prepare to vote in city elections next month, incumbent mayor Sylvester Turner continues to dismiss allegations of cronyism and mismanagement at city hall as mere campaign rhetoric. But recent revelations about a $95,000 intern and state intervention on disaster recovery funds are lending credibility to the mayor’s challengers.
While there are 11 candidates vying for a chance to replace the beleaguered mayor, recent forums have included only the top five contenders: city councilman Dwight Boykins, attorney Tony Buzbee, former Kemah Mayor Bill King, former city councilwoman Sue Lovell, and incumbent Mayor Turner.
Challengers have been questioning the current city administration under Turner for several months on issues ranging from infrastructure and flood control, firefighter’s pay raises, crime rates, and so-called “pay-to-play” at city hall.
A $95,000 Intern
Last week KPRC 2 broke the story that Turner had orchestrated the creation of a non-competitive $95,000 per year internship for his 31-year old friend Marvin Agumagu. Initially, the mayor claimed he did not know Agumagu, but in the face of ample photographic evidence, later admitted he did, in fact, know the young law student.
When asked about the highly compensated intern at last week’s televised forum, Turner said he was “proud” to be “bringing in millennials.”
Challenger Tony Buzbee blasted the mayor for crafting the position for a friend during a city-wide hiring freeze and at a rate significantly higher than 95 percent of city employees, and amidst a contentious legal battle over firefighter pay raises.
Flood Recovery Management
An announcement from Governor Greg Abbott’s office on Friday brought additional attention to city operations under Mayor Turner.
According to the governor’s office, more than $4 billion in HUD funds for flood prevention projects will not be dispersed to either Houston or Harris County, but will be managed by the Texas General Land Office due to management problems at the local level.
“Houston and Harris County have proven that they are unable to ensure victims are receiving resources in a timely manner,” said Abbott spokesman John Wittman.
Two years after Hurricane Harvey devastated the area in 2017, the Houston Chronicle reported that despite qualifying for billions in federal funds, the city had only completed or were working on 15 homes. Meanwhile, Texas GLO processes had resulted in work completed on 100 homes and $6.1 million dispersed directly to 182 families.
Prior to the governor’s announcement, Turner was asked about the delays at an ABC13 televised forum. Turner defended his administration by saying the city had only received $1.3 billion and was “moving through that process.”
“You have to do two things: you have to first determine eligibility…and then you have to do an environmental site inspection on every single property testing for lead and asbestos,” Turner protested. “That takes about 45 days.”
Buzbee firmly rejected the mayor’s explanation.
“To say that 15 people have been helped? That’s ridiculous. We could build a house literally in 45 days.”
Following Governor Abbott’s announcement regarding the $4 billion in HUD funds, candidate Bill King called the decision “unsurprising.”
“Sylvester Turner has shown he is incapable of managing this process,” Said King.
Referring to allegations of cronyism that have persistently followed the mayor, King added, “One can’t help but wonder if Turner’s $6.8 million sweetheart deal for his former law partner was the straw that broke the camel’s back with the state.”
As ABC 13 reported last year, in addition to flood recovery contracts given to Turner campaign donors, Turner’s former law partner Barry Barnes was awarded a contract for nearly $7 million for legal work related to recovery efforts.
Both Tony Buzbee and Bill King have pledged to reform city contract policies to prevent the kind of cronyism they allege Turner has promoted. Buzbee has refused to accept any campaign donations, and although entirely self-funded, boasts a campaign fund of more than $5 million.
Crime and Law Enforcement
At recent forums Turner and his challengers have disagreed sharply about the performance of Houston police chief Art Acevedo and whether crime in the city has increased or decreased since Turner took office.
Earlier this year the botched “Harding Street Raid” led to the shooting death of two suspects and resulted in felony murder charges against one HPD officer and tampering with a government record for another. Dwight Boykins and the other challengers have pledged to replace the police chief, but Turner praised Acevedo in a recent press conference.
While the mayor has defended his record on crime rates, FBI crime statistics for 2018 released last week indicate that while overall crime is down, violent crime has increased between 2015 and 2018.
“In 2017, there were 25,609 violent crimes. That was the highest total since 2009 and the second-highest since 2000,” said Bill King in an email to supporters.
Tony Buzbee disputed even the stated overall crime rate since he says people don’t bother to report most car break-ins and lower-value burglaries. He also said the FBI statistics are dependent on what police chief Acevedo reports.
“I don’t trust the police chief,” Buzbee told viewers during a segment on FOX26 Sunday morning.
Instagram and AstroWorld
While most Houstonians are looking for solutions to the city’s infrastructure, flooding, and crime problems, some unusual questions came at a “Houston Millennials” candidate forum last week.
The forum launched with a question about each candidate’s “Instagram” handle and campaign “hashtag,” and later asked what candidates could do to bring back an AstroWorld-style amusement park.
Turner said he would have an amusement park announcement in a few weeks.
However, not all millennials are clamoring for government officials to provide amusement parks. Charles Blain, the 29-year-old founder of Urban Reform, told The Texan that as a Houston resident he was more concerned with fixing governance issues that make it difficult to work and live in the city.
“Addressing the constant flooding and poor infrastructure are more important to me than government-funded amenities. This is exactly why people in my age group are not civically engaged, because elected officials often fail to prioritize needs over wants,” said Blain.
When asked about Turner’s amusement park plans, Tony Buzbee told The Texan, “This is typical of Sylvester Turner. He can’t fix the streets or pay firefighters fairly, but he wants to pretend to promise a theme park just to get votes? He should just try and administer the city and stop making promises he can’t keep.”
The only available polling data was collected prior to Tropical Storm Imelda flooding in September, and is predicated on higher than expected turnout (30 percent) for an off-year local election. The survey of 516 likely voters indicated Turner was leading with 36.5 percent, but nearly 22 percent were undecided. In second place, Tony Buzbee garnered 19.2 percent and Bill King took nearly 10 percent.
Although technically a non-partisan contest, former state representative Turner is a Democrat, while Buzbee and King are politically independent.
In 2015, King enjoyed support from both independents and Republicans and lost in a runoff by fewer than 4,000 votes. Since then King has maintained a prolific blog analyzing nearly every aspect of city government.
Buzbee has donated generously to both Democrats and Republicans, and supported Donald Trump in 2016.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent on November 5, the top two contenders will compete in a runoff election on December 14.
Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.