The small percentage of Houston residents who watch City Council meetings and mayoral debates probably are confused.

Is Houston in the midst of a post-pandemic revival or is it a city of crumbling infrastructure, overrun with crime and corruption? This campaign season, it depends who you ask.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has pushed back against criticism of his administration repeatedly throughout campaign season. At an event celebrating the grand opening of the Texas Medical Center’s TMC3 Collaborative Building, Helix Park, Turner highlighted his policies that he said helped bring the “transformative” building to Houston’s medical district.

During a debate Monday, however, moderators led with questions about the rate of crime in Houston. Debate host ABC13 broadcast clips of its recent coverage of violent crime across the city before asking candidates if residents should really be concerned about their safety. 

“We’re going to discuss many issues tonight, but none of them matter if we don’t take care of public safety,” responded state Sen. John Whitmire, the race’s frontrunner. “The first solution to public safety is to admit that you have a problem.”

Public safety has been the cornerstone issue of the campaign through October. Polling shows the issue is top of mind for voters, and the platforms of leading candidates center around efforts to reduce the city’s crime rate. 

As candidates hoping to succeed him campaign on the issue, Mayor Sylvester Turner repeatedly and publicly has noted improvements in the city’s violent crime rate during his final year in office. 

Speaking at a City Council meeting on Oct. 18, Houston Police Chief Troy Finner offered a wide-ranging defense of the city’s progress on crime over the past two years.

Compared to the same point last year, murders are down 18 percent, violent crime is down 10 percent and all crime is down 5 percent, Finner said.

Turner seized on the statistics, arguing the city’s crime fighting success since the pandemic highs in 2020 and 2021 is not chronicled the same way that spike in crime was. 

“When crime was soaring in the city, people highlighted the numbers. And they highlighted the numbers almost every single day,” he said. “It is unfortunate that when the numbers are trending in the right direction, people don’t highlight what’s happening in those trends.”

Crime is down in 2023 compared to the last couple years, but it remains well above rates during the years leading up to the pandemic. Whitmire noted as much in his answer at Monday’s debate.  

“We can’t look at one year’s statistics. You have to go back several years,” Whitmire said. “The real issue is the people that are not solving these crimes. We have to hold people accountable. There are so many unsolved crimes.” 

Not just crime

The centerpiece of Whitmire’s campaign is a plan to invite Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to supplement HPD staffing. Sixty-five percent of likely voters surveyed by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs in early October said they support the idea. Seventy-four percent said crime is one of the top three issues in the city. 

Available polling on residents’ concerns is likely the main driver of campaign trail rhetoric, said Mark Jones, a senior research fellow at the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs and a professor of political science at Rice University.

“Public opinion polling shows the people who vote believe things are in a very bad situation,” Jones said. “You generally want to be in sync with the attitudes and preferences and opinions of the people who are going to cast a ballot.”

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, previously shied away from the issue of crime but has sharpened her message on public safety in the months leading up to Election Day, Jones said.

“She’s taken a harder position on that and has been more critical of the current status quo because she, like everyone else, knows that is the No. 1 issue for likely voters in the city of Houston.”

Nearly all other leading candidates for the office feature platforms to improve public safety prominently on their campaign websites and public appearances. 

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos, the only city elected official running for mayor, usually finds himself as the only candidate defending the city’s efforts to reduce crime.

“It’s very disheartening,” Gallegos told the Houston Landing. “I haven’t called the candidates out by name, but there are candidates in this race that are putting out … false information, for example, that crime is rampant, which is not true.”

Public safety is not the only area where rhetoric on the campaign trail splits with that coming out of City Hall. 

Candidates frequently promise to address corruption, reign in wasteful spending and improve city services. Campaign ads feature video of broken water mains and images of potholes around the city

Several candidates are running as political outsiders, promising a wholesale change in management, if elected. 

Businessman and former Metro chair Gilbert Garcia regularly promises to audit several city departments — Public Works, Permitting and the Houston Housing Authority  — to identify potential waste and corruption. 

“We need to audit these city departments, we need to turn the economics around because we’re heading for a fiscal cliff,” Garcia said. “In my view, I’m precisely what’s needed because I have no conflicts of interest.” 

Attorney Lee Kaplan says he will find solutions for underperforming city departments through his managerial experience in the private sector, promising to audit those same departments. 

Jackson Lee, who previously had not addressed the issue, said she would audit city departments to identify wasteful spending during Monday’s debate. 

Low morale

That kind of rhetoric could be harming the morale of city employees, Gallegos said. 

“I’m not saying that everything is perfect. It can be better,” Gallegos said. “But to be a candidate and scaring the voter by saying crime is rampant, nobody is doing anything about the potholes, that’s ridiculous and it affects morale.”

The local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, HOPE AFSCME Local 123, has endorsed Whitmire in the race. 

Union president and 311 senior customer service representative Sonia Rico said the morale of city employees is low, but it is not because of the mayor’s race. 

“The morale is bad, period, because of the situation each department is facing,” Rico said. “Our morale is low, but it’s because we’re all being overworked, we’re doing the jobs of two to three people sometimes to fill in the gaps.”

The union endorsed Whitmire because he was the first candidate to approach the union directly to ask about problems city employees are facing, Rico said. 

“I honestly think we need better leadership, someone that’s willing to look at the actual issues we’re addressing in each department,” she said.

Rico has worked at 311 for 17 years and said the volume of calls from unhappy residents is the highest she has ever seen. The call takers always heard about issues with solid waste collection, but the number of complaints about Public Works has skyrocketed in recent years, Rico said. 

Two Public Works employees who spoke to the Houston Landing outside of their downtown office Tuesday said the department is full of longtime public servants who have worked through several mayoral administrations. Both employees declined to provide their names, citing a policy that bars them from speaking to the media. 

“If we do well, they’re going to take the credit,” one said. “If we don’t do well, we are to blame. It’s a thankless job here.”

Morale at the department is low, but that is due to long hours and a lack of adequate compensation, they said. 

As the Nov. 7 election nears, Turner has continued to hit back against critics of his administration. 

On X, formerly known as Twitter, Turner takes frequent swipes at those who are critical of his tenure. Monday morning, Turner posted crime statistics, noting homicides are down in Houston this year and HPD’s clearance rate for murder investigations has reached 88 percent. 

When faced with critical replies, Turner responded to several detractors. 

“Why does success and getting things done bother people like you. You will be alright,” Turner wrote

Turner repeatedly has expressed a wish that he could serve as mayor for another eight years. He also hasn’t ruled out a campaign for a different public office in 2026. During his final State of the City address in September, Turner defended his administration and warned candidates against criticizing the city. 

“I am not anxious to leave. And if I could run again, I would,” Turner said. “But a word of advice for those who seek to follow me: Be careful what you promise, be careful what you criticize, because you haven’t looked under the hood.”

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Houston Landing. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...