Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner Shares His Perspectives on COVID-19, Economic Recovery, and Social Unrest

Wednesday, September 2, 2020 - Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston offers a Mayor's perspective on managing COVID-19, dealing with the economic recovery, and addressing social unrest.

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Sylvester Turner is serving in his second term as mayor of Houston, after first being elected in 2015.
Sylvester Turner is serving in his second term as mayor of Houston, after first being elected in 2015.

Sylvester Turner is serving in his second term as mayor of Houston, after first being elected in 2015. Turner served for 27 years in the Texas House of Representative and ran his own boutique law firm, Barnes and Turner. Today, he will discuss how political priorities have shifted since he took office five years ago, how Houston is combating its COVID-19 outbreak.

Mayor Turner notes that pension and budget issues were a huge priority in Houston when he took office, but with Hurricane Harvey and other natural disasters in the few years after, the city government has had to redirect efforts. Now with COVID-19 and the racial unrest that soon followed, Mayor Turner is dealing with a truly unprecedented set of challenges. But he believes Houston will rebound because it is the energy capital of the world and home to the world’s largest medical center, creating a natural ecosystem for innovation.

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In This Episode

Opening Remarks

Mayor Turner:
Thanks, Glenn. And thank you for a very gracious introduction. It's good to be with everyone and I know Fred Zeidman is on the call and let me just give a special acknowledgement to him because he helped me to get in this seat some five years ago, so I appreciate that. I hope he doesn't regret it five years later. But this is a great city. I was born in this city. And then I left here for a few years and went east, I went to Law School and then I came back and served at a large law firm downtown for a number of years before starting another law firm, boutique law firm in the downtown area and was a part of the day and then went to the legislature and then came back and now mayor of city of Houston. When I came in five years ago, the focus was on the budget and pensions, the unfunded pension liabilities, which hadn't been addressed in 17 years in the city, we had a short window to get that address, and we did and we put in place permanent pension reform, reduced the unfunded liability by a third, and without raising anybody's taxes, without significant infusion of cash from the city, but turned it around and it's now treated like a mortgage of 30 years and every year slowly goes down. And so that was a major accomplishment for our city, and it did it with the collaboration of the unions, the municipal workers, police, fire to some degree. And then the business community and of course members of city council into the legislature.

So that was at the beginning of the administration. And then four months into my administration, we had a major tax day flood. We had to address that situation. A year later, we face Harvey, more rain that fell on the city than any other city in the country's history. Now that was in 2017. Then we dealt with tropical storm and melter the following year. And then in 2020, of course, we're dealing with the Coronavirus, and then on top of the Coronavirus we had to deal with the aftermath of the George Floyd's death, the civil unrest and then of course, I had to read the balance of city's budget again before the end of June. But the loss of sales tax and it just seemed like that was going to be a very difficult task. It was challenging, but we end up balancing the city's budget. Unanimously, I might add Democrats, Republicans alike, City Council all voted for it. We're in the midst now of hurricane season.

So there's been a number of things. Sometimes things come one at a time. Sometimes they come two, three, four at a time. 2020 has been a very challenging year. But I will tell you, we've been able to address it by working together in this city. This is the most diverse city, in the United States, there's no group that dominates, it is a pluralistic society in its truest form. But people have worked very well together. In March and April, our numbers with regards to the Coronavirus were quite admirable. When New York innocence shut down in March, so did the city of Houston. So at the end of April, our numbers were exceptional. And since then, things have kind of jumped up. And now we're working to kind of get on top of things and bring things down. But even as it relates to up with this, I think in New York City, I think as many as 18, 19,000 people died in New York City, in the city of Houston at this point is a little more than 500. That's still, for us, for Houston standards, way too hot. But when you compare it to other cities our size, the number still is relatively low. But we'll do and working very hard to get on top of that.

And then in terms of civil unrest, you saw a lot of cities in the news across the country, from Atlanta to Seattle and LA, New York, Denver. I will tell you with the exception of one evening, that Friday evening, May the 29th, there were a couple of buildings downtown where windows had been broken in. Other than that one evening, the demonstrations, protests, unrest in the city had been relatively peaceful. I never had to put in place a curfew of any kind. Things were just relatively peaceful, and even when we had 60,000 people to march downtown on June the 2nd, I joined with them in that march, and again 60,000 right in the midst of protests and demonstrations all over the country, 60,000 marched downtown starting at 3:00 and again, at the end of the day, things were relatively peaceful. So I give credit to those who marched, who demonstrated give credit to the George Floyd family who asked for things to be done peacefully. They would read it in this city, and some still live in this city. I give a lot of credit, also to our police force, who handle things in a very professional and respectful fashion. Things were relatively peaceful.

So there are a number of things we're dealing with. This is an incredible city. It is the energy capital of the world, bringing energy in a transition sort of mode, the world's largest Medical Center is right here. And the focus is now, for us is creating this innovative ecosystem. Other cities across the globe have kind of jumped out ahead of us. We've had a lot of innovation, for example, in the energy sector, the health care delivery system, NASA, you name it, but we just haven't done a good enough job in creating an integrated, robust ecosystem. We are now doing that so we're not just walking, we're really sprinting in developing that.

So, we've all been adversely affected by virtue of the Coronavirus and other things. But this city has proven to be strong, resilient, and we're working every day to build a more sustainable economy in the city. So let me just stop there. I just wanted to touch on a few things. And if there are more specific questions, I can address those.

Mayor Turner's View on Need for Federal Funds in Wake of COVID

So Mayor Turner, I get the privilege of being a Firestarter. It used to be called icebreaker I think today it's called Firestarter. And honestly, I do swell with pride about Houston for many reasons and a lot of what you just articulated. But first question is the problem solvers caucus in the house has spent a lot of time with a few senators working on a $500 billion bill for states and cities. And that's been moved around the house and senate. What's your view on Houston's need for federal funds in the wake of COVID?

Mayor Turner:
The need is there, and it's a real need. And let me just explain why. For the city of Houston, we're the fourth largest city in the United States. When we asked people to work from home, stores to the retail sector, for example, to suspend their operations. Since March, almost all conferences and conventions have shut down. So there has been a tremendous loss in sales tax for the city of Houston. That's way in excess of 100 million dollars that we have lost just because people have not been coming to the city, or purchasing deals. And we get our recent revenue from two primary sources, property taxes, as well as sales tax. Well, when that goes down, we're adversely impacted. However, when we ask people to stay home, they don't stop eating. They don't stop putting no trash out. So the services have to continue. You cannot pick up people's trash remotely. Sanitation, solid waste workers still have to do their job.

And what we have found is that people are putting more things out since they're at home, which means our solid waste workers are having to work even overtime. For police and fire, they cannot work remotely. They have to do their jobs. For people in public works, who attend to our water and sewer system, they can't do that remotely. So the expenses for the city continue to be there, they don't go away because of the Coronavirus, okay. And we represent the infrastructure that support businesses and people who stay at home. If you want the economy to open up, who support, who is the backbone of the private sector, in a sense in terms of permitting, you don't want that to shut down, okay. Even during the Coronavirus, the city of Houston, we never stopped residential and commercial construction. It has never stopped in the city of Houston. In terms of our streets and roads, that never stop. So those expenses keep coming.

The other thing too is that, they did send us, for example, the city received $405 million in chaos funding, okay. But because there has not been hardly any movement, the city is facing issues of evictions and the pressures on local government, like the city of Houston to stop eviction. And so what we had to do with some of the dollars that we've received? That was the first round where we provided rental assistance from those chaos dollars, okay. We hadn't really planned on spending the money for that. But we did and then the 2nd round when people were pushing for a city wide moratorium on evictions, which I have not supported, I don't think it's a good idea because it only digs the hole bigger. We've just done another round for rental assistance $20 million. 15 million of that is coming from the city. But at the same time, I've reached out to other people who have generously in a matter of days, contributed another five million to put together a $20 million fund for rental assistance. The point that I want to make is that I represent a public corporation, not a private one. My public corporation never closes, the services that we render cannot stop and many of our services cannot be done remotely. And so what other people may have gotten, for example, a bailout. In a sense we have not, because you can't use the $405 million that we received in chaos funding for revenue replacement, okay?

And someone said, well, we don't want to give money to the cities because we don't want to bail out their pension system. Look, we solved our pension system in 2016. So the monies that we're asking for has not being used for pension reform, that's been done. We are needing balance in order to continue to provide police, fire, solid ways, permitting, all of those services that are vitally needed to support businesses as they open and seek to [inaudible 00:12:37].

What has Houston done that other cities haven't to reduce crime?

To respond to what you said before, let me just tell you that I took a lot of arrows with my politics for having accepted being your finance co chairman, and I have not had one moment of regret for having done that ever since. You have been an absolutely incredible leader for this city, and I think this city has shown it. I will tell you I want to take issue with one thing that you said, you said we're the fourth largest city in America. I contend with the crime rate in Chicago and their attrition that we probably have moved into third place. So that being said, my question to you, and I looked at these numbers the last couple days is what do you attribute -- And first of all, I think, again, your leadership has just been unreal through one crisis after another, and particularly through this virus. I think you've been feeding the mainstream media what they want, reasons to bash Texas, because you're telling everybody, we better watch out. But that being said, our crime rate this year, when you look at the other major cities in America and you look at what's happened with this virus, we are way behind. I mean, not way behind, that's the right word.

Our crime rates have not increased anywhere near what other cities have. And obviously that additionally is attributable to your leadership. So I'd like to ask you what you think you did right that all of the other major cities in this country did wrong that's kept Houston truly peaceful.

Mayor Turner:
I mean, thanks. Thanks, Fred. And again, let me thank you for your support and I really appreciate it, wouldn't be here without it, and I would be remiss not to acknowledge [Mary Bouton 00:15:18], who's on line and Mary has just been a tremendous fan and supporter. So thank you, Mary. Let me just say this, you have the national standards of fit a number of statistics, and then you have what I call Houston standard, okay. And what I mean by that, for example, is that since I've been mayor, in terms of homicide, we've not gone over 300 in a year, okay. This year, and it seems that we may go over that, we may get to like 318, 323, 325. When you look at others, city of Chicago, for example, its numbers will be two, three times higher than that. And they're third and we are number four. So for Houston standard, we like to be somewhere about 260, 270. But when you get to that 300, we're yelling and screaming and we have too much crime.

What we've always tried to do is recognize that, and let me just add, we have 5300 police officers, okay. Covering 640 square miles, to give you some comparison, Chicago has 13,000 police officers covering 275. We have 5300, covering 640. But having a safe city is not just based on the number of police officers you have. Y'all also have to make sure that you are meeting the needs of people within your communities in these neighborhoods regardless of where they are. And hence, when I came into office, I said I wanted to focus on communities that have been underserved and under resourced. Driving resources into these communities, and not in an incrementalist sort of way, but by leveraging the city's resources with the private sector, with nonprofits, with financial institutions, the resources that they have, and we've asked them to kind of pool their resources so that we can bring about the greatest amount of transformation in communities that have been underserved for decades to bring about positive change. And that's been the goal.

And what I have said repeatedly, that when people see that you are investing in their communities, even though it's going to take some time, they will give you credit, and because it is said acknowledgement that we see them and we are doing everything that we can to transform their communities for the better. If you don't do that, then the frustration and the anger, and all of that will amount in these communities, and then you'll see that you're having to send police into areas, and it makes it more difficult for police. So it's a holistic sort of approach, is not just community policing or relational policing, but it's also investing in communities and neighborhoods. Fred, like the one in which I grew up in, and the one in which I still live, I still live in the same community and neighborhood in which I was born and raised.

So it's very much a holistic approach, because you need police and community on the same page, on the same team working together, not at odds with one another. I think that's one of the reasons why even with the civil unrest after the George Floyd death, that we had, by and large, peaceful protests in our city, because of the relationship that exists, but you have to work at it every single day. Yes, crime is increasing, but by Houston standard is too much, by the national standard, it may not appear to be as much as what's happening in other places.

How is Houston doing in terms of state vs federal relations?

I wanted to join this in all seriousness to just reconfirm what I hope you're hearing from everyone which is universal acclaim for your management of the city during these various difficult times. And I really do mean that and I have lived here my whole life and seen a lot. It's unbelievable what you have been presented with and how you've handled it. I mean, universal acclaim, I really do mean that. So thank you as a Houstonian and good friend.

Mayor Turner:

Question (cont'd):
My question is, given Houston's current financial problems, even some potential issues with social issues, social fabric, etc, how are we doing with state versus federal relations, governmental relations, and which of those two can help or hurt the most in terms of being responsive?

Mayor Turner:
Good question. I would tell you that no city in a sense when you're dealing with this a lot of challenges that we're all facing globally, certainly nationally, cities can do things by themselves. Quite frankly works best when you have meaningful partnerships at all levels on the federal, state and local side, I mean, without question. It makes it challenging. For example, if you have local governments going in one direction, and state and federal partners moving in another directions are quite frankly, at odd. It makes it very, very, very difficult. And I give you the case in point that's before us right now. And after dealing with, when Tesla put forth the recommendation on me for a grace period of moratoriums across the board in the city of Houston. And we've been waiting on another sort of package coming from federal government that is yet to come.

And so when you don't have, for example, either the extension of unemployment benefits, whatever that amount may be, or some of the other measures that people are waiting on, then the pressure flows downstream. And then when you don't get any assistance, for example, from the state in terms of resources, then it flows downstream. Well, who are people able to get to and talk to, most of the anybody? They're your local officials. And so if the help doesn't come from the federal level, if it doesn't come from the state level, then the burden falls heavily on those of us locally. And so this claims were getting louder and louder. Moratorium, moratorium, grace period moratorium, and the question then becomes you just can't ignore it, okay, you have to find a way to be responsive.

And so quite frankly, I had my team to go back and look at some of the downloads that received chaos funding. And where we redirected some things to come up with some additional dollars for a cash rental assistance program, but even that wasn't enough. So if you don't get help from the federal estate, I called on private partners to contribute, and that's when you see endowment and the Greater Houston Community Foundation Relief Fund, the Kenda Foundation, Janice McNair from the Texas all stepped in and said, mayor, we will add to what the city has because we too don't want people off the street. And then we leverage with the Houston Apartment Association, and I want to thank them for saying, look, if you're going to provide this cash assistance, then we'll work with you, okay, because now you're not creating a win lose, so let's try to put together a paradigm that will create a win win. So we've done that. But it's not nearly enough to meet the need, because we still need the feds and the state to step in.

And, I kind of hate when we get into political years, like now, because things become so politicized. And people go to their corners. And even when people know the right thing to do, they're scared to do it because they feel as though whoever's in their particular party is going to chop their heads off. So the tendency is to do nothing. But people, the needs of people, the needs of businesses and others in our city can't wait. They have to be addressed right now. And so in large part, then the responsibility falls on us locally, to at least put some things in place that can hold until such time as additional help can come down the pike.

So to be honest with you, I've been kind of disappointed on the support that we've gotten from the federal and state level. But we find creative ways. What has been the hallmark, I think of this administration is collaboration. And we've turned to the private sector and nonprofits and others to step up. And I've found them to be more effective partners in many ways than those coming from the federal and state level.

Mass Transit Successes in Houston

Thank you. Over the last decade, a lot of progress has been made in reducing carbon footprints by having a greater number of people using mass transit. I am semi captive in New York, where our mass transit system has lost the total confidence of its users. And so part of getting people back to work is the unwillingness of people actually, to ride mass transit. What have you done in your city to keep people confident that mass transit works, or otherwise handle that problem? So the weak link in getting back to work isn't the fact that people can't get there.

Mayor Turner:
It's interesting in the city of Houston, our mass transit network is not nearly as built out as that in New York. So we're still building out our mass transit network. It made it much easier for us, for example, with our bus system to take some seats out, to create some social distancing on our buses, or even on mass transit, to put some ribbons in certain sections, to keep people from sitting there. So that's been very helpful. We are in the process of transitioning more to the utilization of mass transit. So it gives us, we kind of got an opportunity to take what's happening now. And then design so to speak a massive mass transit system that will work in the midst of a pandemic like the one in which we're facing.

So we're getting people back to riding on our mass transit system. At the same time, interesting that you raised this question, just yesterday, the city of Houston passed several ordinances that will really help to transition us to a much more walkable city, walkable, pedestrian friendly city. Because up to this point, we've been very vehicle centric, okay. So we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. And the good news is that we can learn from what's happening right now, as we seek to build our mass transit system. In November of last year, the voters just approved by a large margin is Metro Next Program, which is a transit program. So this is a good time for us to learn from what others are doing as we are in the process of expanding our mass transit network.

Mayor Turner on Navigating the Challenge of Bipartisanship

Thanks Glenn. Mayor Turner, another Houston fan of yours here. I appreciate you joining us. I'm not sure how familiar you are with No Labels. But the mission really is about bipartisanship and problem solving.

One of the things I would notice, you've been facing a really unique challenge, particularly around COVID, and both working with Judge Hidalgo, Harris County on the one hand, and Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Patrick, on the other hand. And I was wondering if, given our mission around bipartisanship, if you could address and share with us kind of what you've learned in navigating that challenge and any recommendations you might have for this group as we work to bring the greater bipartisanship to Washington.

Mayor Turner:
Working in a bipartisan way is not new to me. I was in the legislature for a number of years. I came in when Democrats controlled the State House, the Senate, every state wide position. I came into the legislature in 1989. Democrats were in control of everything. I was still there in 2003 when Republicans took over everything. But even in 2003, as a Democrat, I was chosen by a conservative Republican speaker of the Texas House to be the Speaker Pro Tem in 2003. And remain the Speaker Pro Tem, second in command for his entire term those nine years.

It was also, even after that, well, when it came time to put on the Appropriations Committee, it was the republican speaker, and I was on the losing side when the transition occurred, okay. So when the next republican speaker came in, I guess you could say he kind of demoted me. I was no more the Speaker Pro Tem, I remained on the Appropriations. No, he took me off the Appropriations committee and put me on business and industry and some other committees. But the Appropriation Committee at that time was my, it was the one that I really focused on. He took me off in 2011. But then, in 2012, he called me up. And he said, "Sylvester, we're going to face a huge financial deficit in the state, and I need one of my best budget writers to be on the Appropriations Committee. So I'm going to return you back to the Appropriations Committee. And because it's the conferees that's really going to write this budget, and I need you on the conference committee, I'm going to name you vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, because the chair and the vice share those positions automatically, they automatically go to the conference committee. And he said, I'm going to do it so I don't get any problems to my republicans and all of that.

So he named me vice chair of the Appropriations Committee. And I continued to serve on that as Vice Chair until the time that I left. I say that all of this was under Republican leadership. So from a bipartisan point of view, I didn't have a problem in the legislature, working with Republicans in leadership whether in the house or in the Senate. Because quite frankly, like I tell the people in my district, it doesn't matter who's in control, the people in my district still expect me to be effective. And so I have to find a way to be effective. And what I also discovered is about relationships, regardless of party affiliation, relationships matter. Being able to go to breakfast, lunch and dinner, being able to go on trips together. The speaker of the Texas House for example, Conservative, he and his family and friends, we all took off for example to South Africa, and hung out for like 13 straight days, never talked about politics. We were together every day, morning, noon, in the evening, did all of that. So it's relationship driven.

The same thing that helped in working across them in the legislature are the things that I brought here to the city of Houston. This is a bipartisan position. On the ballot is not whether you are Democratic Mayor or you Republican, it's just your name. And you sell your ideas and try to get as many votes as you can. But my Mayor Pro Tem, who I select, my Mayor Pro Tem happens to be a Republican, David Martin, that I selected, who represents both Kingwood and Clear Lake. Now, so what does that mean? In my last election, Kingwood, they voted 81% against me. Okay. 81%. I got 17% of the vote out of that area, but their representative has been someone who's been very... Number one, he's very good at what he does. He's an excellent council member. And I thought with the partisanship that exists right now in this country on the federal and state level, that it was important to have someone in the second position who, someone who our values, our relationship is very solid, he is a Republican, but his heart is Houston. And I thought it would be important to bridge the Republicans on city council, along with the Democrats, that would be a way of bridging all of that together. And let me tell you, he has been exceptional. He's been exceptional.

And so many of the things at the state level, for example, I would say Dave, go and talk to him, on the federal level, Dave, go and talk to him and then vice and vice versa. So it works. But relationships go a long way. And just throwing spears at one another, that's not going to solve it. And so I represent 2.3 million people, whether you voted for me or didn't vote for me, I represent you. I go out to the people in Kingwood and Clear Lake as if they voted for me 100% just like I'll go out to the people in my own district where I was born and raised who voted for me almost 100%. So it really doesn't matter. The point is, flooding knows no partisan label. A pothole is neither Democrat or Republican, okay. Balancing the city's budget, doesn't matter you're Democrat or Republican, when the credit rating agencies are looking at how you are operating, okay. People want efficiencies. They want a government that works for them, and that stand in their way. All of those things are not party label items, so to speak. People just want good results. And so that's the way I approach it. I get along well still with Governor Abbott. I just talked to him last week, and the week before then. He knows I've disagreed with the way things open up. But nonetheless, I still have that one meaningful relationship.

And the other thing too, and I say in closing, many of the people that I've worked with over the last 30 years, are either working on the Senate side or working with the governor in various positions are supportive, and they will call me up and say, "Hey, Sylvester, can you do this? Because of our politics, we may not be able to do certain things, but can you assist." The back door channels still work. There are ways that you can make it work. But I will tell you, you can't make things personal, your personalities get into the equation, you have lost. If you're fighting based on the policy of the issues, you can fight all day long, and when it's all over, you can still go and get a cup of coffee, if you make it personal, if you make it personal, is hard for people to get past it. And so as a leader, I tried just to keep things as level as possible not to go up or down, so to speak, and I do my best not to get into personal attacks. I do my best not to go there. That doesn't work on any level.

K-12 Education and Reopening of Schools in Houston

Yes, I have a kind of two part question on K-12 education. Number one, just a very short introduction to the ecology of public education in Houston, with maybe particular reference to charter schools and vouchers. I've been an early supporter of KIPP, Houston's greatest import to New York. And so I'm intrigued how it works in Houston. Number two, the second part of the question is, what may be the biggest human crisis coming out of COVID is the potential closure of public schools for students who were just so elemental to the ladder of learning and everything that comes with it. Could you give a brief kind of synopsis of where you are in opening the schools in Houston and how you see it getting done?

Mayor Turner:
Yeah. And that's a such an important question. Let me start by addressing in this way. It is important for kids to be on campus, learning on campus on so many different levels, kids with disabilities, it's important for them to be on campus. Kids coming from communities, especially low income areas where parents are having to work. They may be parents like the ones that I had, and I don't mean this at all with any disrespect. Neither one of my parents graduated from high school. So my parents were not in a position to teach me, to homeschool me, they could not, okay. And so if kids are coming from those sort of families, then it really puts them at a disadvantage. If they're coming where they maybe not as familiar with Wi-Fi, hotspots or have the devices, even though people are trying to put them in their hands. You just don't necessarily pick it up overnight, it becomes very challenging. And so it is important, no doubt, to keep people from falling further and further behind, but then be on campus learning.

And that's why it is so important how we approach COVID-19, and to make sure that we do it in such a way that you can drive down the positivity rate, drive down the community spread, such that you can open up safely, because my number one priority as mayor city of Houston is the health and safety of the people in my city. That includes these kids, the teachers, cafeteria workers, janitors, bus drivers. And so you want to have the community spread at such a level that it is safe or as safe as possible for kids to grow or safe to the level that my testing and contact tracing program can be very meaningful if an outbreak should occur, and then I can quickly identify, quarantine, isolate and treat. So the infrastructure has to be solidly in place such that when something breaks out at a particular school on campus, you can deal with it immediately.

If we were talking about opening up right now, for example, in the city of Houston with the amount of community spread that exists, I will quickly tell you, it is simply not safe. But we are working on it every day to get it as safe as it can. So it's imperative that kids return to school as much as possible. And that's why it's imperative from the federal level to the state level to the local level that we work in tandem. We work in tandem to put us in the best position to manage this virus. And I think that's the greatest mistake that we have made. When the messaging becomes conflicting, when there is no national, when there is no strategy, no consistency, we all lose. It's not about one person winning and losing, we all lose. So that having said that, so public education is vital. I am a product of the public education system. And it's vital. With respect to options, I do believe in the educational setting, it is, having options are good. But it's also means that you have to make the investment in public education networks, the example that I can give you when I came into the legislature, people approached me about vouchers, Sylvester can we get you to support vouchers? You coming from Houston and acres home can get you to support it. And so initially, I said, it was like a pilot program sometimes. I say, okay, I go out, I believe in options. Okay, I'll do that.

And so I was assigned known as an author on this pilot voucher program, at the dismay of many of my Democratic friends. During the course of the session, I went to people who are joining on S authors, some of my Republican friends I would tag, and on the Appropriation Bill, it was calling for more funding in education, public education. And I asked them, I said, "Look, y'all are supportive of this or you're not?" And they said, "Well, now we can support this lesson," So I said, well look, at view vouchers as an option, but public education, there are more people on the big ship that are on this boat. And if you only want to provide resources for people on the boat, but you're going to deprive all these other students on the big ship, and that's not a winning philosophy for me. It's got to be a win win, not a win lose. So the KIPP program is exceptional. I have spoken to them. I've been out there, and in many ways they are now working even within the public school setting. So there are creative ways of making things work where you're providing options to our schools and to parents, but not at the destruction of the public school system. Because I am a huge, huge believer in public education, and the fact that public education works, my attitude is that if you teach them our students can learn. And if you invest properly in our public education system, then that talent will rise to the top, and I know that's the case.

Because, look, you're talking to me, and I come from a family of nine, when my mom and maid raised nine kids, and I'm the mayor of the fourth largest city. So a kid that benefited from the public education system, went to University of Houston, then the Harvard and now I'm back and I'm now sitting here as mayor, and primarily I have come through the public education system. I am not unique, but there were people who invested in my education.

Mayor Turner on US Congress

Thank you. Mayor Turner, thank you for everything you're doing.

I really hope 2021 you break your streak of having a crisis for every single [inaudible 00:44:19] you can cost at least for one year. But, here's my question, because you have a great perspective on, and I want to get back to Congress. You mentioned a little while ago that you were a little disappointed in the way Congress was working during this time of need in our cities. And I'd like to ask you, what are they doing right? What are they doing wrong? What do you want to commend them for and why do you want to grab them by the lapels and shake them? How can we hold them more accountable?

Mayor Turner:
I think people have to constantly be reminded who they are, why they are there, and for whom they have been put there. I always say to myself that I am an employee. The people who voted for me are the employers, I work for them. And regardless of labels, what people want is they do want results. They don't want to hear all of the Republicans control everything. So there's nothing I can do. And they don't want to hear Democrats over there in control and they don't want to but they don't want to hear that. Nobody wants to hear that. There are tremendous needs that we are facing in our communities. And people want people to operate with the greatest degree of urgency. It may not be important. I know it's important for them, but they are looking at it through their lens.

Mayor Turner:
And I don't care who you are, I don't care how left wing or right wing in between, relationships do matter, friendships do matter. I give example, I came in, pitch and issues have been going on since 2001, okay, we had not been able to address it. You know one of the major reasons why we were able to do it? The relationships that had been established. I simply brought in police firemen, this will work, I sat around and talked to them at the table and just say, look, are we all in this together or not? Okay. Are we all in agreement that we need to make a change on that? And in the first meeting, I only asked two questions. Do we have a problem? They all said yes. Do we need to fix it? They all said yes, and the meeting was over, I said, we'll meet again. But it was important to at least establish that.

Mayor Turner:
The next meeting came and I said, these are the things that the city needs, that I need in order to fix it. And I'm going to leave it up to you all to achieve the objectives that I outlined. So y'all work on it. And we met some more. And then eventually we just got to the point we got, and I told them, look, and we have to get this done before the year's out, because the legislature's meeting the following year. The point is, is that we have to you have to constantly bear in mind relationships are not established just overnight, it takes a while, and you have to work at it. And I'll never forget when I was on the floor of the Texas House. Bills keep coming at you left and right. And you really don't have all that time even with your staff to read every single bill. I don't care what any legislators say. If the legislator tells you that they've read every single bill, they're lying, it's not true. Too many bills. But what's happening on the floor of the Texas House is that depending who was up at the front of the mic, if that person happened to be a Republican, and Democratic normally say, we normally oppose. So if you had to step out of the room, people would say, just vote me no, okay.

Mayor Turner:
And if a Democrat was up there speaking, Republicans step around in most cases, just vote me, no. If it was the Democrat up there speaking, okay, I'm with that. Okay. But let me tell you when it changed. If there was a republican who was at the front mic, and I had a relationship with, let's say a friend of mine, before I would vote no, I would take the time to at least listen a little bit. And then before I would vote against, I would go either to the back mic or go up to the front and say, "Hey, Sam and Mary, if you would tweak this bill just a little bit, I think I can get there. I really think I can get there. And then once that was done, then you move forward, but it was based on the relationship.

Mayor Turner:
Another example that I would give you, I had a bill that was in committee. And I couldn't get a hearing. I mean, the Republican chair just would not give me a hearing, and it was a good bill. But I couldn't get a hearing. A friend of mine, Republican, came to me on the floor. And he said, I won't tell you a nickname that I had. But he said, "Sylvester, that's a good bill you got but you'll never get it through, you're Democrat." He said, "I tell you what, let's do this. Do you mind whose name is on the bill?" I said, "No, I don't mind. Look, I just need the bill." So he said, "Let's redo the bill. Put my name on it. Let me carry it." And I said, "No problem." Changed it. Bill came out of committee. Bill was on the floor of the house, but did this, when it came to the floor of the house, he was up at the front presenting it. The Democrats started lining up at the back mic to attack the bill. But heck, it was my bill, he just carried it. So I kind of walked to the back of the mic. And I told the Democrats at the back of the mic, I said, "Hey, I read this bill. This is a pretty good bill. Y'all need to stand down on this bill. This is a good..." They say, "You read?" I say "Yeah I read," I said, "Clearly, trust me, this is a good bill." They went back to their seats. The bill passed, no objection. My buddy Republican came to the floor, shook my hand. And I said thank you and he went on by his way.

Mayor Turner:
There are ways to make things happen when the relationships are real. And I don't care what form you're in, friendship is a powerful tool and a powerful weapon, and relationships, in many cases can trump partisanship, but in the absence of a relationship, and if it's strictly partisanship, you will run into a brick wall almost every single time, or it will take too long to get an end result, because someone has to be the winner, and someone will have to be the loser.

Final Question and Sign Off with Bill Galston

Bill Galston:
Well, first of all, Mayor Turner, it's a real pleasure, make your acquaintance. My first job was a young assistant professor, University of Texas at Austin and I got a very nice offer from the University of Houston. And if I had taken it all those years ago, I think I'd be proud to be one of your constituents. Thanks so much.

Before I ask my question, I just want to make two points about what No Labels is doing. Because we're on your side. We really are. We have helped to broker a compromise on state and local aid for the pending bill, which we're convinced is the only thing that Democrats and Republicans are going to be able to agree on in the end. And if they do, help us on the way, we are also helping to create a national testing program that would create public confidence so that your schools, your restaurants, your bars, your public events can reopen, and everybody else's can too. Here's my question, in states and cities around the country, the pension problem has been the biggest and most intractable problem. And almost in passing, in your introductory remarks, you said that you had helped lead the city of Houston to solve that problem. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you did it? Because that sounds like a miracle?

Mayor Turner:
Well, I will tell you, I did bring everybody and very, very early on. And what I said, the priorities that I said, I said, look, I need a solution that will reduce the unfunded liability by almost a third without raising people's taxes. We need a solution for us to be able to reduce our annual costs, okay. And we need a permanent solution, but what I meant by that was that depending on what happens out in the economy, it has to constantly go down. I mean, it just can't be we're doing something today, and then three years or five years from now, it starts rising again. And we're having to face this, it needs to be a permanent solution. And then the fourth one was that it needed to be worked out by the end of the year. I came in office in January, of 2016. I started meeting with the different groups in February, of 2016, is when we started. And so those were the elements that I... Those were the things that I said I needed. And I said to the different groups, police, fire, municipal employees, you know your employees the best, you know what they are willing to accept. So you can... Let me back up. There was one other thing that I said, I asked them, I said, how do you feel about the defined contribution? And I went around, police said no. Fire said hell no. Municipal employee said no.

And so I went to the board and I wrote down defined contribution, I put an X through it. And I said, okay, that only leaves us now with defined benefit. And if we stay with defined benefit, that means there's going to have to be some drastic reductions, there's going to be some pain, you all understand that, they all said, yes. And I said, okay. And then the next time we met, I laid out the criteria, the things that I needed, and I said, now you go in, and you all work to redesign your own plans in order to achieve my results. And one, of course, was reducing the unfunded liability by a third, and at that point in time, the city's Houston's unfunded liability was about $8.2 billion, costing the city a million dollars a day. Well, it took about seven to eight months to come up with a plan that would meet my objectives.

And once we were able to do that, their different groups had to vote on it. City Council had to vote on it. City Council voted and approved it, the 16 to one. Then the business community joined on locally, we had to go to the legislature. And I asked a Republican in the house and a Republican in the Senate to carry the city's bill. It passed out of the house and senate by two thirds margin. Governor signed it. And a part of the deal is that over the last 15 years, the city had borrowed from the police pension funds about $750 million. They had borrowed also from the municipal pension fund quite a bit, and a part of the agreement is that we would pay them back and that we were agreeing to make the full annual payment on a yearly basis. And then lastly, which was the big piece, is that what happens if costs started to go up, how do you control the costs? Because it's not a defined contribution. How do you control the costs?

So we put in place what we call this corridor that set a maximum, that if the costs start to rise, and if it hits that maximum level, then the pension systems, they were obligated to go back and adjust their benefits to stay within the corridor. And the corridor had to go down over 30 years, like a closed amortization of 30 years. And that brought on some of the Conservatives, for example, in the legislature, who said, well, it may not be a defined contribution, but mayor is certainly operating like a defined contribution so that they could go with that, with the corridor that said that the city would never have to pay more than what it was obligated to pay, and over 30 years, it would go down. It was a closed 30 year amortization. So did that, the people in the city of Houston had to vote to approve the bonds to pay off the police and the municipal workers. People in the city of Houston approved that, like 75% to 25%. And ever since then, the city has paid the full annual costs. The unfunded liability already has dropped from 8.2 down to about $4 billion. So almost in half, the unfunded liability has dropped and it goes down from this point forward.

Bill Galston:
I have only one suggestion. Would you visit the mayor of Chicago, refer on what you did? Because I think you have the only way out. Let me just close this in two ways. First of all, Mayor Turner, No Labels is sometimes asked, well, what kinds of leaders do you have in mind when you're talking about bipartisan leadership? And I think we've just found a new person to send them to, because everything you said, and the way you said it exemplifies the best kind of leadership we're looking for, including your story about naming your number two from the parts of Houston that gave you the least support. That was terrific. I mean, that's the way it should work. And I really do think that your voice could be a really important one, speaking with and on behalf of the kind of national leadership model that we're championing, which is really just what you're doing in Houston, taken national. So we hope this dialogue can continue.

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