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Two Decades On, Turner Holds Sway in the House

Throughout his 24 years in the Texas House, state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, has taken a pragmatic approach to politics, maintaining close ties with Republican leaders if it means a seat at the negotiating table.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, at the state Capitol on May 27, 2013.

HOUSTON — As he walked through a reception 25 years ago, Sylvester Turner wondered why so many people were wishing him good luck.

The 33-year-old civil lawyer's confusion cleared once he came across Beulah Shepard, a community activist and the unofficial mayor of Acres Homes, the close-knit, predominantly black Houston neighborhood in which Turner grew up. She admitted that she had told people that Turner was running in the open race to replace state Rep. Clint Hackney, who had announced he was not running for a fifth term.

Sitting at his law office recently, Turner paused in retelling the story as a wide smile unfurled across his lean face. He recalled explaining to Shepard that he did not want to run for state House.

"She said, 'Boy, you don’t know what you’re interested in. I’m telling people you running. Until you decide that you’re not, just don’t say anything,'" he said.

Turner ultimately did not turn Shepard into a liar. He succeeded Hackney and is now the sixth most senior member of the 150-person House and a rare breed of Democrat in the Republican-dominated chamber with considerable sway on policy, particularly the budget.

Often described as "the conscience of the House," Turner is as well known for his fiery floor speeches as for his unapologetic pragmatism, most visibly in his cultivation of close ties with Republican leaders in order to better promote the policies favoring low-income communities he so often champions.

“Sylvester always finds a way to pivot to a position where he has influence,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Houston Democratic political strategist.

That influence was on full display in this year’s regular legislative session, in which Turner served as vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which helps write the budget. The committee’s chairman, Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, described Turner as pivotal in budget negotiations, particularly in working on a deal in the regular session’s final days to phase out the System Benefit Fund, a state account created to help poor and elderly residents and fed by fees on most Texans’ electric bills. Turner had long defended the program and lobbied against efforts to refund hundreds of millions of dollars sitting in the account. A compromise that included granting deep discounts on electric bills through 2016 for thousands of low-income Texans allowed both Turner and Republican budget leaders to frame the outcome as a win.

“We could have been here in special session on the budget if we didn’t have Sylvester Turner,” Pitts said.

Playing a part in such high-level negotiations is why Turner joined the Legislature. He described his early years in the House as boring because of his lack of seniority.

“The first two sessions, I was on the outside looking in,” Turner said. “I just want to be at the center of things.”

In 1993, he was among those who supported the election of Pete Laney as House speaker. When Laney, a Democrat, asked Turner about a possible committee chairmanship, Turner said he was interested only in three particularly powerful committees: appropriations, state affairs and calendars. Because those chairmanships were unavailable, Turner asked instead to have a seat on all three committees. Laney immediately appointed him to two and added him to the third in 1995.

Over the next 18 years, as the House shifted from a Democratic majority to a Republican one, Turner’s close ties to the chamber’s leadership continued, occasionally at the expense of his relationship with fellow Democrats.

When Tom Craddick in 2003 became the first Republican House speaker in more than a century, Turner led a group of about a dozen House Democrats known as "Craddick D’s" who supported his leadership and often received plum committee assignments. Members of the group were accused of being traitors and targeted in Democratic primaries. Turner drew particular scorn in 2003 when he did not join 50 fellow House Democrats in fleeing to Ardmore, Okla., to block Republicans from pushing through redistricting maps that Democrats believed disenfranchised minority voters.

Turner defended himself by highlighting ways he influenced policy by working with the Republican leadership, like securing more financing for the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 2007.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, was among those who had criticized Turner for his alliance with Craddick. Looking back, she said Turner might have understood the changing House dynamics better than most.

“If I could go back in time, I might have made the same choice myself,” Thompson said. “Change was inevitable.”

A stark pragmatism has been a trademark of Turner’s political career from the start. In his first House campaign in 1988, he was the only black candidate running in a district in which a majority of voters were white. His first campaign mailer did not include his photo, and that was no oversight.

“The decision was made by campaign folk that we would run with the résumé first,” he  said.

Voters learned from that mailer that Turner was a valedictorian and student council president at Klein High School, a University of Houston and Harvard Law School graduate and a successful civil lawyer.

"People form their opinions on a lot of different things, and the question is, what do you want them to see first?" he said. "I think it was a wise decision."

After winning the seat in 1988, he has never drawn a Democratic primary challenger and has consistently coasted to re-election. Last year he faced his first Republican opponent in more than 20 years and won with 77 percent of the vote.

Turner had less success in his two mayoral bids. In 1991, he was within striking distance of winning until a television news report, broadcast shortly before Election Day, linked Turner to an insurance scam involving a client who had faked his own death. Turner denied the allegations and later sued the television station and its reporter, accusing them of libel. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the report was misleading but overturned an earlier jury award, deciding that Turner had not proved malicious intent.

He ran again for mayor in 2003, coming in third. Vying once again for his city’s top job remains a distinct possibility.

"I’m certainly not a quitter, and I don’t like loose ends," Turner said. "Every time I’ve run, I enjoyed it. I think the people that know me know I love the city of Houston."

Either way, Turner said, the end of his legislative career is not far off. Though he plans to run for a 14th term, he is concurrently planning his eventual exit from the Legislature.

"I want to leave the Legislature while I still enjoy it and while the people in my district still want me to stay," he said.

He has recently suggested to some who are interested in succeeding him that they begin laying the groundwork for a campaign.

"I want the people in my district to be very comfortable with the choice that will follow," Turner said. "I do want people to know that it won’t be a long wait."

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