Houston Mayoral Debate Takeaways

Last night, I attended the KPRC Houston mayoral debate between Bill King and Sylvester Turner. This has been a long, grueling campaign season, and it comes to an end next week. One of these men will be Houston’s next mayor.

The League of Women Voters, KPRC, and Telemundo Houston produced this debate. They selected questions that address both local and national issues. You can read a recap here.

This blog isn’t a complete analysis. These are the just a few thoughts that stuck with me after I left the studio.

  • On mass shootings, open carry, and gun laws: Both Turner and King toe the line between “respecting the second amendment” and feeling “uncomfortable” with the Texas open carry law. Other cities have seen activist Mayors who seek to reform gun laws at the municipal level. That is unlikely to happen here.
  • On body cameras and data policy: Both Turner and King support body cameras, and they believe that developing sound policies governing that data is important. A few weeks ago, Houston entered into a contract for body camera hardware. But they are missing clear policies about secure data storage and third-party auditing. This is an opportunity for the next Mayor to build on Mayor Parker’s success and put in place data policies that respect the citizens’ right to transparency. Or risk the consequences.
  • On technology: Both candidates provided disappointing responses about how they will use technology to improve citizen service and increase transparency. Turner said technology just “costs too much.” In his view, modernization requires a “comprehensive approach” with the right people on board. King believes that much of the IT function can be outsourced, and “big companies” are set up to handle just that.  Neither candidate offered any basic talking points, such as broadening the open data policy, encouraging local technology vendors to work with the city, or reforming procurement to buy better systems with more favorable contracts.
  • On the economy: Both candidates recognize that we are in a deep economic downturn. Turner believes that our growing transportation, airport, and spaceport projects will buttress the economy. King is less optimistic; he believes that the “City’s fundamental job” is to make itself attractive to businesses, and asserts that his three point plan does just that.
  • On flooding, infrastructure, and streets: King wants to finance the streets with bonds. Turner wants a pay-as-you-go policy, like Rebuild Houston. The difference lives in the corners of wonky fiscal policy. It’s super important, but also really difficult to talk about. So while the candidates lock horns about this, everyone else yawns.
  • Turner, the collaborator. Several times throughout the evening, Turner emphasized his desire to collaborate with county, state, and federal agencies. Citing his record as a work-across-the-isle politician, many of Turner’s solutions for roads, pensions, and crime rely on inter-governmental cooperation. If his collaborative approach is successful, it could provide much-needed relief for our stark financial projections. If he is unsuccessful, then he becomes just another Mayor kicking the can down the road.
  • King, the businessman. King’s pragmatism came through in his response to nearly every question. When asked about what to do with the Astrodome, King said, “I have no idea,” citing bigger fish to fry in the Mayor’s office. When asked about the Memorial Day flooding, he cited poor project management from the City. King is a disciplined politician, and he never strays far from his “back to basics” message. But after the election, he’ll need more than basics to govern. He’ll have to own bad projects in times of crisis. And like it or not, he’ll need to have answers about the Astrodome.

There were several smaller-scope questions asked by the moderators, and one in particular stuck out for me. The candidates were asked about negative campaigning, since each camp went negative as soon as the runoff began. Their answers to this question, their defense of their records, and their accusations against their opponent spilled over into a question about Syrian refugees. We could have heard more about Turner’s deep knowledge of our refugee resettlement infrastructure, or King’s experience working with refugees through his church, but we didn’t.

This wasn’t a debate full of surprises. It’s clear that both men are qualified, both are well-versed on the issues, and both have carefully considered positions on the key points. But they are different, and they have different plans for the future.

You can watch the full debate here.

Jeff Reichman

Jeff is passionate about data. He founded January Advisors, and serves on the board of two Houston nonprofits. Read his full bio on LinkedIn.