Mayor Sylvester Turner trumpeted his leadership of Houston through financial peril, natural disasters and a pandemic as he gave his final state of the city address Wednesday to a crowd of hundreds at a downtown ballroom.
Two days after some candidates tossed darts at Turner during a mayoral debate, Turner defended his tenure and warned the winner to be prepared to wheel away from those critiques upon taking office Jan. 1.
“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.”
Turner’s last state of the city address came during a luncheon in the Hilton Americas hotel sponsored by Houston First and attended by a sold-out crowd of business and civic leaders who lavished the mayor with applause.
The speech, which contained no new initiatives, came at a moment of relative calm compared to the tumultuous seven-and-a-half years that preceded it. During that period, Turner noted, the city saw seven federally declared disasters. Hurricane Harvey still may loom the largest for many Houstonians.
Turner started off his address by rattling off infrastructure projects the city is launching during his waning days in office, beginning with the Inwood Forest Stormwater Detention Basin project near White Oak Bayou.
Other projects he highlighted included a new solid waste transfer station in northeast Houston, the realignment of Interstate 45 and $2 billion in planned improvements for the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Turner said the public should judge him not only by the projects that have been finished during his tenure, but also by “the things that we have done that will unfold in years to come.”
He gave scant attention in his speech to crime and the state of the city’s streets, two issues that have come to the fore as the race to replace him heats up ahead of the Nov. 7 election.
A candidate leading in the polls, state Sen. John Whitmire, accused Turner of ignoring the city’s violent crime problem at a televised debate on Monday. The number of violent crimes reported to the police has dropped steadily over the past year, but as in many cities, it remains higher than before the pandemic.
“You’re not going to fix the problem if you don’t admit you have it,” Whitmire said.
Crime and the rising cost of housing have contributed to a growing sense of unease in the Houston area. Residents surveyed by the Kinder Institute at Rice University earlier this year expressed some of the lowest levels of optimism since 1982.
On Wednesday, Turner spoke of his pride in efforts to hit the ground in Houston’s many diverse communities.
“People want to see you in their neighborhood. People want to see you at their events,” he said. “You have to embrace that diversity, and people have to feel as though you are embracing that diversity.”
Turner also pointed to his fiscal record, which includes winning the passage of major pension reforms in 2017, and handing off a significant fund balance to his successor.
“Instead of $160 million in the hole, we will give you a surplus of nearly $420 million. Instead of an unfunded liability of $8.2 billion, we will give you a pension system where the unfunded liability is less than $2.2 billion,” Turner said.
Houston’s finances have been bolstered since the pandemic by $608 million in federal funds from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act.
In a question-and-answer session with Melinda Spaulding Chevalier, Rice University’s vice president for public affairs, Turner said his next stop after City Hall was “in God’s hands.”
“For the next three months, after dealing with seven federally declared disasters, social and civil unrest, COVID that just won’t go away, Winter Storm Uri, extreme heat and drought conditions, cancer – I think over the next three months, I’m just going to take it all in. And whatever comes next for me will be just icing on the cake. That’s the way I look at it,” Turner said.
There are 18 candidates, including one write-in, vying to succeed him. They include Whitmire, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, attorney Lee Kaplan, former Metro chair Gilbert Garcia as well as current or former City Council members Robert Gallegos, Jack Christie and M.J. Khan.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of candidates running for mayor. The story has been updated to note there are 18 people seeking the mayor’s office.