BY LIZ FARMER | MARCH 2019
Sylvester Turner is speaking in the intimate confines of the Rothko Chapel, Houston’s shrine to modern art. The mayor is in an expansive mood. It’s the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and he has been asked to kick off an evening panel discussion on two of his favorite subjects: political unity and the civil rights movement. His leathery voice, which sometimes sounds rough and tired, now has a quiet energy. He tells his audience that as a kid he practiced speeches in front of a mirror to try to emulate King. This is a respite for Turner, now entering his fourth year as the leader of America’s fourth-largest city. Before entering the chapel, he was intercepted by a local news station asking him about an ongoing pay dispute with the city’s firefighters. His aides are whispering to one another, discussing how many members of the local media might now be gathered outside.
Turner stays longer than expected. He listens attentively to the panelists, an eager 64-year-old student. Eventually, an aide hands him a phone and he goes back to the business of running the city. By the time he does leave that night, the reporters are gone.
Before becoming mayor, Turner, a lifelong Democrat, spent 27 years in the Texas Legislature, remaining in a position of influence even after it started tilting toward Republicans early in the last decade. But being Houston’s mayor was his dream job. It took him 24 years and three tries, but he finally won the office -- narrowly -- in 2015. He started off on a high, trading on his statehouse connections and his instinct for finding common ground to push through landmark pension reform. But the last 18 months have been tougher for Turner, who faces reelection later this year. The mayor’s first three years in office, says Texas Southern University political scientist Jay Aiyer, “has kind of been a tale of two terms.”
The issues Turner faces are familiar ones for a big city these days. In addition to pension problems, the tax base isn’t growing to meet the increases in population. Natural disasters have forced a conversation about development choices. And the political climate has grown more partisan. But Houston, arguably, is dealing with some of these problems at their most extreme. The metro area, now home to about 6 million people, is expected to more than double in size over the next 20 years. Four major fl oods in the past three years, including Hurricane Harvey, have not only destroyed thousands of homes but have also taken dozens of lives. Meanwhile, the city is falling behind on a core service: picking up the garbage.
Among Turner’s most important attributes are thoughtful oratory and an ability to find compromise. When he can apply these skills to the city’s problems, he’s usually successful. But transitioning from a part-time policymaker managing half a dozen staffers in Austin to a full-time chief executive overseeing a workforce of more than 20,000 hasn’t always been smooth. He’s struggled with management, both in handling personalities and in some of the day-to-day tasks. His senior staff has been plagued by turnover and the embarrassing indictment last year of his former press secretary.
His biggest struggle has been with city firefighters over pension reform. He’s been unable to find middle ground with a group that doesn’t see shades of gray, and it’s cast a shadow over his term. Turner has achieved some of his biggest career successes by working across the aisle. “It’s easy to vote against people you don’t know,” he says. “It’s harder to vote against a friend.” But in Texas -- as almost everywhere -- the willingness to negotiate and cut a deal with the other side is increasingly an underappreciated quality.
The morning after the event at the Rothko Chapel, Turner is presiding over the city council. Houston has one of the stronger mayoralties in the country. Turner is chief executive and chief administrator and controls the legislative body. He decides what goes on the agenda, which means council members have to pick their battles with him carefully. That’s put an enormous amount of pressure on him to be a multitasker and manager of subordinates. Turner hasn’t always succeeded gracefully, and a Wednesday morning in mid-January provides a case in point. Residents’ recycling bins have been sitting out on curbs for a week or more, waiting to be emptied. The council has approved the purchase of dozens of trucks to help replace broken-down, 16-year-old equipment, but those trucks won’t arrive until August. Turner is urging a stopgap in the meantime: spend $5 million from Houston’s general fund to rent trucks. He has the votes he needs, but some council members are peppering him with questions just to get them on the record. Dealing with this takes some eff ort for him. “I stay away from personalities,” he says, “and stay on substance.”
Turner is deliberative, controlled. When he speaks, he often closes his eyes to concentrate, carefully choosing his words. One of the few clues his poker face does provide is the slight shift of his smile into a grimace when he talks about something unpleasant. Rather than raise his voice -- something he mostly reserves for speeches -- he’ll transfer his frustration into a cajoling that borders on condescension. “C’mon, y’all know this,” he’ll say repeatedly to council members or the media when they press him on a topic he thinks should be over and done with.
The council members ask him repeatedly about the rental trucks: Where will the money come from? Why do they have to spend $5 million on an “expensive Band-Aid?” And if the old trucks were in such bad shape following Hurricane Harvey, why is the city only now getting around to doing something about it?
The last one is a fair question. Turner’s response -- that pension reform was the city’s No. 1 issue in 2016 and 2017, and “now we’re dealing with solid waste” -- is a window into his methodical approach. He likes to tackle big agenda items one at a time. But that’s not always the luxury of a mayor, says William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research in Houston and a former Governing columnist. “I think it’s taken him a while to understand that you can’t control the issues,” he says. “When you’re a mayor, you’re dealing with everything coming at you all the time.”
Turner’s pension reform was a marquee accomplishment. The problem was something previous leaders had been unable to resolve. By the time Turner took offi ce in January 2016, the city was facing skyrocketing payments and an $8 billion unfunded liability among its municipal, police and fi refi ghter plans. Two months into Turner’s tenure, Houston got slapped with a credit rating downgrade because of it.
The city was desperately in need of someone with a track record of finding a common solution and an ability to get bills through the legislature, which ultimately has to approve any pension reform plan for the city. Turner was the right man for the job. In remarkably quick fashion, his office worked with nonprofi t advisers and all three pension boards to come up with a plan by the end of his fi rst year. It was a proposal that struck the right amount of give-and-take for all parties to get on board.
For its part, the city would commit to making its full pension payments each year, something it had not been doing. The pension system would also change the way it calculated its liabilities to more realistic terms, lowering the assumed annual rate of return on investment. Houston would borrow $1 billion in the municipal market and plug the proceeds straight into pensions. The respective pension boards were charged with coming up with their own proposed cuts to benefi ts, something that is legally easier to do in Texas than in other states. All told, the plan was expected to cut the $8 billion unfunded liability in half and save the city’s budget tens of millions each year.
Despite its verbal commitment to the plan, the firefighters’ pension fund was always a bit of a wildcard in the process. Things broke down in the spring of 2017, when the fund’s leaders withdrew their support for the bill in the legislature. Unlike the municipal and police plans, the firefighters’ pension plan is under the legislature’s direct control. Not only did the reform pass, but lawmakers added more benefit reductions.
As Turner saw it, the firefighters had gambled with the legislature and lost. It was the first of several times the mayor had used his knowledge of how politicians are likely to react. More recently, he threatened to raise Houstonians’ property taxes temporarily to pay for Hurricane Harvey damage because Gov. Greg Abbott refused to call a special session to take $50 million out of the state rainy day fund to meet the city’s obligations. With the ball in Abbott’s court, the two traded barbs for a week before the governor cut Houston a check.
That kind of gamesmanship goes on frequently between experienced politicians. But in the pension fight, the firefighters saw things in stark black and white: They got hosed by someone whose election they had supported. The relationship has been broken ever since. “We are not the ones that started this,” says Marty Lancton, the president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. “And I’m not going away.”
Later that same Wednesday in mid-January, television cameras are setting up in a third-floor room in a city hall annex. A drab municipal building erected in the 1970s, the annex has cheap carpeting and fluorescent-lit rooms devoid of character. It’s almost the antithesis of the dramatic, Art Deco city hall built in 1939 and adorned with walnut paneling and lightly veined marble. Lancton is already there, impeccably dressed in a dark suit with monogrammed French cuff s. Turner enters the room and seems subdued, even for him. Maybe it’s the drizzly weather. Or maybe it’s because he’s here yet again, trying to cut a deal with the firefighters.
Following passage of the pension legislation, Lancton’s union took up a new fight: their pay gap. Houston firefighters are underpaid compared with their counterparts across the state. On average, their first-year base salary is 29 percent less than in other large Texas cities, and that diff erence persists throughout a firefighter’s career. Houston is the largest city in the United States in which firefighters and police officers of similar rank do not receive similar pay. Collective bargaining negotiations with the city have gone nowhere for years, so Houston firefighters tried another tack last fall and put the issue to a public vote. Proposition B, which requires pay parity with police officers, easily passed.
But the measure lacked a funding mechanism. Unfunded mandates are always problematic, but in Houston they’re particularly sticky. The city budget operates under a revenue cap, which limits increases to a formula tied to inflation and population growth. Houston has been bumping up against the cap for years and Turner has deftly managed to pass two balanced budgets without major cuts. But digging up an extra $100 million a year to afford 20 percent pay raises, he has warned repeatedly, would break the bank. He’d be forced to lay off firefighters.
It’s put Turner in a difficult position. One of the reasons he believes he’s earned the respect he has among other lawmakers is that he doesn’t waver. “No means no, and yes means yes,” he says. But no politician wants to let dozens of firefighters go just as he’s running for reelection.
That’s not to say Turner always plays it politically safe. During his first year in office, he blocked a $56 million mixed-income apartment complex the Houston Housing Authority wanted to build in an affluent, nearly all-white neighborhood west of downtown. The move prompted the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama to all but accuse Turner of being a segregationist. A yearlong investigation by HUD concluded that the city’s procedures for approving certain applications were influenced by racially motivated opposition to affordable housing and perpetuated segregation.
This was hard to understand. Turner was one of nine kids and grew up poor in a virtually all-black neighborhood north of downtown called Acres Homes. His father died when he was 13 and his mother, who worked as a hotel maid, had to keep the household together. When Turner graduated from Harvard Law School and began earning a lawyer’s salary, he didn’t pack up and move to affluent River Oaks. He stayed in Acres Homes, although he lives in a walled-off section of stately houses built during a boom time.
For his part, Turner said the cost of the housing authority project was too high for what the city was getting. Just 10 percent of the 233 units were to be for low-income renters. But there was another reason. To the mayor, moving up doesn’t mean moving out. He knows that in many cities, that’s been the theory of affordable housing: The way to improve the lives of people living in poverty is to move them to more affluent places with much smaller minority populations. Whether or not the approach is effective is a matter of debate. But Turner’s policy toward housing is based on his own experience. “I don’t want to tell thousands of kids that the only way you can do well is to move out,” he says.
To that end, he’s launched a program called Complete Communities, which engages hundreds of residents, local business owners, community leaders, and corporate and philanthropic partners in trying to reimagine neighborhoods. The ultimate goal is to create places with affordable homes, good jobs, well-maintained parks, improved streetscapes, retail commerce and better schools.
Creating more transit options is also a key component of the program. Unlike most Sunbelt cities, Houston scores well on having jobs clustered around public transportation; the city launched an extensive light rail line more than a decade ago. But that mostly serves the central core. Houston’s long-standing problem -- thanks in large part to its irregular, inkblot-shaped sprawl achieved by annexing smaller jurisdictions over decades -- is that the trains don’t actually reach many of the residents who work at those jobs. Responding to that, the region’s transit authority redesigned its transit plan in 2015, unveiling a proposal for 20 additional miles of light rail, 75 miles of bus rapid transit, new high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and a larger regional bus network. The new plan mirrors much of what Turner called for early on in his administration when he repeatedly talked about a transportation “paradigm shift” for the city that leveraged state and federal money for transit rather than for highways.
Progress has been slow, as other events have preempted that discussion. In January, the most visible transportation project underway was a massive expansion of the city’s downtown freeways. Still, Turner is capitalizing where he can. Many of the transit authority’s proposed lines will run through the five diverse neighborhoods, including Acres Homes, that Turner has named in the city’s first round of Complete Communities.
And Turner is slowly making progress on his investment approach to affordable housing. Last year, he cut the ribbon for six new houses on Sunnyhill Street in Acres Homes, about a half-mile from his own residence. The bright new homes, ranging in price from $105,000 to $150,000, look out of place amid empty lots and ramshackle dwellings.
To many in Houston, Turner’s approach to housing is an example of his ability to get things done. But to others, that sometimes means he’s doing only the bare minimum. He’s been criticized for taking his time in making development changes following Harvey. Seven months after the hurricane, Turner pushed through the fi rst major changes to the city’s floodplain ordinances in more than a decade. Previously, homeowners in the 100-year floodplain were required to have flood insurance and build new homes one foot above the floodplain. The new law increased that to two feet and expanded it to homes in the larger 500-year floodplain.
Still, some have called that a half-measure, mainly because it didn’t block new development. The Bayou City Initiative, a collection of civic groups focused on flooding and drainage issues, has been particularly critical, saying that homes shouldn’t be built in a floodplain at all. In the year following Harvey, 1 in 5 new homes permitted in Houston were located in a floodplain, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis, even as new rainfall data showed existing flood maps understate the risk posed by strengthening storms. Builders received permits to tear down existing bungalows in favor of new townhomes, packing more people into the flood zone. Other developers were allowed to build brand new subdivisions in areas that were previously open fields.
But blocking private development in Houston, where there are no zoning laws, has proven to be virtually impossible, even for a strong mayor. Homeowners -- even those whose homes had been destroyed by flooding -- were vehemently opposed to the relatively modest new requirements, as was the real estate industry. The city council still passed the legislation, but only narrowly and after hours of contentious debate. Turner had gone for what he could get: He argued that his new rules would have spared more than 80 percent of the homes in Houston’s floodplains that were damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
Back in the muffled quiet of the conference room in the city hall annex, Turner is again trying to eke out some kind of concession, asking in every way he can think of if the firefighters will agree to phase in their pay increases. He’s getting nowhere. Union attorney Troy Blakeney keeps responding that they don’t want to agree to abstractions. “Until they bring specifics,” he later tells the local media, “it’s impossible to take information back to 4,000 firefighters and have an intelligent discussion about what the options are.”
The meeting ends without a resolution but with an agreement to meet again. Turner does achieve a symbolic victory in that he invited the media to observe and record him making overtures to the firefighters only to be rebuffed. But he’d rather be done with this.
This sort of tension is something he might have to get used to, though. Houston and surrounding Harris County have changed dramatically in recent years. The city has long been a blue raft in a sea of political red, but in November, Harris County turned blue, too. It elected a political newcomer -- 27-year-old progressive activist Lina Hidalgo -- to lead it. Her views are well ensconced in confrontational politics, rather than in the backroom-bartering style that Turner likes to use.
The mayor had worked well with Hidalgo’s predecessor, Republican County Judge Ed Emmett, particularly in the aftermath of Harvey. They may have been on opposite sides politically, but they were playing the same game. Increasingly, Turner is facing people who aren’t playing that game. “The sea has become so Democratic now,” says political scientist Aiyer. “He’s at his best when he’s able to be bipartisan. But the politics of the day doesn’t really lend itself to that.”