For Gilbert Garcia, the time is right.
With his investment firm in a good place financially and his youngest child preparing to leave for college, a run for public office finally makes sense, the 60-year-old bond manager says.
And Garcia has found his first run for public office a rewarding experience.
Listening to concerns from residents, discussing his vision for the city’s future, even meeting the 17 other candidates competing for the same job, Garcia talks about it all with a smile.
“I love talking about this city,” he says, sitting inside the conference room at Garcia, Hamilton & Associates. The investment firm’s downtown office space near Discovery Green doubles as his campaign headquarters.
At times, Garcia jumps from his seat, grabbing a marker to scribble out explanations, plans and diagrams on one of several oversized drawing pads set on easels around the room.
Garcia says he is disappointed in the direction of the city, pointing to poor road conditions, growing concerns about crime and last fall’s boil-water debacle as examples of unnecessary problems Houstonians are forced to face.
More technocrat than visionary, perhaps, Garcia hopes to bring his financial expertise to the table, coupled with his years of public service experience to address residents’ concerns. To do that, he is positioning himself as an alternative to the “longtime career politicians” currently leading the race.
“This is not a two-person race,” he says, adding that polling places him in third place and climbing.
It is a distant third, however.
A recent poll conducted by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs found Garcia tied for third place with former City Council member Jack Christie, both listed as the choice of 4 percent of likely voters.
His name recognition appears to have grown, however. In the same survey, 43 percent of likely voters said they would definitely or might consider voting for Garcia, up from 29 percent in July.
The poll surveyed 800 people and has a margin of error of 3.5 percent.
Garcia grew up in Corpus Christi, and his family has deep roots in South Texas.
“The border moved on us,” he says. “We were generations here.”
Military service was a ticket out of poverty for Garcia’s grandfather, a Marine Corps veteran who served in World War II. For Garcia’s father, real estate was a means to pull his family into the middle class.
Garcia remembers the stories his father would tell. The stories of being forced to work from home so he would not scare away the real estate brokerage’s white clients, or being allowed only to sell homes to other Latino residents in the area.
“And that was legal. And that was normal,” he notes. “But it wasn’t right.”
Despite those experiences, Garcia says his parents drilled into him what they believed were the keys to reaching the American Dream.
“All they knew was, ‘You got to work hard. You got to work hard, you got to get an education,’” he says. “That they knew, and they instilled in me.”
Garcia was the first in his family to attend college, graduating with a degree in economics from Yale University.
While at Yale, Garcia tried to please his parents by studying pre-med, but quickly found the sight of blood made him sick.
Pre-law was next on Garcia’s list. Doctors and lawyers were good professions, he recalled his parents telling him. Reading and writing, however, were not his strong suit. He was always more of a numbers guy, he says.
During a summer internship with Wall Street investment firm Salomon Brothers, Garcia found his calling.
“That single-handedly changed my life,” he says.
Garcia worked full time at Salomon after graduating college, becoming the firm’s first Hispanic vice president in 1988.
Garcia moved to Houston in 1990 to help former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros build Cisneros Asset Management Company, a money management firm that later closed. In 2002, he joined Garcia Hamilton & Associates, where he now is managing partner. During his tenure, assets managed by the firm have grown from some $200 million to more than $21 billion.
He credits much of his success on Wall Street to that first internship through Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a New York City-based nonprofit that connects students from underserved communities with internships and jobs at top-performing companies.
Garcia still works with SEO today, serving as treasurer on the organization’s board of directors.
William Goodloe, the nonprofit’s president and CEO, says Garcia has been an integral part of realizing the organization’s potential for growth.
Because of Garcia’s advocacy and support, Goodloe estimates the number of Hispanic students taking part in SEO’s internship programs has tripled.
For Garcia, working to diversify Wall Street, and the financial industry as a whole, is personal. He remembers looking out at the trading floor during his internship at a sea of white faces. There were no Latinos on the floor then, he says.
“I feel a moral obligation and a corporate responsibility to give back, because I represent generations of Latinos that have struggled for the right to vote, struggled to work in places, struggled to eat in places,” Garcia says. “And here I am benefiting. I need to be grateful, and remember, and be generous. That’s what motivates me.”
That struggle for diversity is not lost on Garcia on the campaign trail.
In a city rich with diversity, where nearly half the population identifies as Latino or Hispanic, Garcia, if elected, would be Houston’s first Latino mayor.
The prospect of that reality, however, is a bit nuanced for Garcia.
“I know the importance,” he says. “I know what it means to the Latino community for them to see the mayor being Hispanic.
“The other part, though, is I don’t want to be labeled a Hispanic candidate,” he adds. “I want to be the candidate for all of Houston.”
The idea of creating a Houston that works for all Houstonians is a key focus of Garcia’s campaign messaging.
“There’s plenty of room at the table for everyone,” he says.
Along with promising to root out corruption at City Hall, Garcia details his ideas to fix the city’s financial woes.
It begins with audits, Garcia says, beginning to scribble on one of the oversized drawing pads.
By reviewing the finances of each city department, Garcia hopes to find — and put a stop to — wasteful spending.
Department audits also could reveal a need for department consolidation, the candidate says. He is positive there must be some unnecessary overlap of duties inside City Hall.
Garcia says his plans always center the taxpayers, who he likens to shareholders of the company he is hoping to run come November.
One thing Garcia knows is, those shareholders do not want is a tax hike. That is why increasing taxes for residents, even just by implementing a garbage collection fee, would be a last resort for him.
No matter who ends up winning the election, Garcia says, he wants to see substantive changes from the next administration.
That is part of the reason he created Gilbert’s Pledge, a poster board-sized manifesto outlining plans for his first 100 days in office.
Garcia ceremoniously signed the oversized document at his campaign launch party in early June, and encouraged supporters and fellow candidates alike to sign on as well. The pledge is on his campaign website, too.
It covers a variety of issues, from broad statements about improving the city’s water system, repairing relations with state leaders in Austin and addressing affordable housing challenges, to specifics, such as entering arbitration with the Houston firefighters union, putting the city’s check registry for the last five years online, and increasing fines for illegal dumping.
In addition to his fiscal plans, the pledge highlights other key focus areas, including improving infrastructure and residents’ quality of life, as well as addressing concerns about crime.
“People need to feel safe,” he says.
He wants to expand community policing by adding substations across the city. That would have dual benefits, he says, decreasing police response times and improving police-community relations.
If officers are embedded in communities, he says, they can better build relationships and trust with residents.
Garcia also plans to improve lighting across the city, as he says areas with poor lighting can attract crime.
Other candidates have proposed hiring thousands of new police officers. That solution, he says, is not realistic or financially feasible.
Instead, Garcia plans to hire more civilians to work inside the police department, which he says will free up officers to do more policing around the city.
‘A lot of drive’
While this is Garcia’s first run for office, he is no stranger to public service, or Houston politics.
From 2010 to 2016, Garcia served as chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, a position he was appointed by then-mayor Annise Parker after successfully running her 2009 campaign for mayor.
“He elevated my game,” Parker says of their time campaigning together.
Parker was hard on Metro during her campaign, and when Garcia approached the newly elected mayor looking to serve the city, she knew a challenge he could handle.
“Rome was burning at Metro,” Garcia recalls, pointing to the organization’s lack of transparency, financial woes and violation of procurement laws.
While Garcia was chair, Metro added 15 miles of light rail, redesigned the entire bus network and improved its financial position.
Garcia points to his success at Metro as an example of what he could do for the entire city, noting the size of Metro’s budget is almost one third that of the city.
“I’ve turned around difficult agencies before,” he says. “I know how to do it.”
Parker calls Garcia a champion for Metro, willing to work with anyone to get the job done.
She remarks on his relentless tenacity, which she says was a major driver of Metro’s ability to redesign its bus system.
That tenacity can have its pitfalls. Parker mentions Garcia’s tension with George Greanias, a former CEO of Metro during Garcia’s tenure as chair, saying they could be like two big dogs in the same room.
“Gilbert has a big personality,” Parker says. “And he has a lot of drive … but you know, unstoppable force, immovable object — he’s one or the other, and he tends to prevail.”
Gilbert Garcia’s wife, DeeDee, knows that determination well. It is a part of what makes up Gilbert’s “Midas touch,” she says, along with his passion and joyful outlook.
She felt it at the start of their relationship, when he told her parents he intended to marry her just weeks after they started dating.
She has seen it throughout the endless hours spent coaching their kids on the soccer field and during the countless school and community charity events they have attended over the years.
Now, she says, her husband is ready to put his Midas touch to work for Houston.
The couple previously had discussed Gilbert running for mayor after his time at Metro, but DeeDee felt the timing was off. Their children were younger, with fuller schedules that demanded more time and attention.
When Garcia called a family meeting last Christmas Eve to discuss his plans to run for mayor, DeeDee knew things were different.
Three of the couple’s children now live on their own, and their youngest daughter, a junior in high school, is preparing to leave for college.
Now, the timing is right.
“He’s ready,” she says, “And we’re ready as a family.”