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In the crowded race to replace outgoing Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a key figure is so far staying silent — Turner himself.
The pack of candidates looking to succeed Turner after his final term ends in 13 months includes veteran Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire, former Harris County clerk Chris Hollins and former Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards.
Turner declined to say Tuesday whether he would back any of them as he finishes his term.
“Can you believe that these people have announced that they’re running for mayor while I’m still mayor? It’s so disrespectful, they could have at least waited until next year,” Turner joked during an hourlong discussion with Texas Tribune Editor in Chief Sewell Chan.
In a wide-ranging discussion that focused on topics including the city’s boil-water notice and public safety, Turner lamented the stiffening partisan divide in the Texas Legislature, telling an anecdote from his nearly three decades serving as a Democratic lawmaker about how a Republican colleague helped get one of his bills passed by putting their name on it instead of Turner’s.
“You can be conservative, that’s fine, not a problem,” Turner said. “The question is when you become extreme, when you’re operating on the shoulder of the road, and not just in the right lane. Right now, we have too many elected officials that are operating on the shoulder. And so it makes it very, very difficult to reach a consensus or to talk through or work through problems.”
Turner, 68, revealed earlier this month that he underwent treatment for bone cancer over the summer — a fact that he largely kept to himself. Turner is now cancer-free, he told The Texas Tribune in a Nov. 15 interview.
Here are some of the highlights of the Tuesday discussion.
Houston officials are probing what exactly caused a power outage that triggered a boil-water notice for the city’s more than 2 million residents for a day and a half, Turner said Tuesday, and how the city can more quickly alert Houstonians when a similar public health emergency arises in the future.
Houstonians lambasted city officials for being too slow Sunday to tell the public to boil their water after a power outage at a city water treatment plant — prompting four school districts to cancel classes the next day, businesses to close and residents to empty stores’ supplies of bottled water. The city began notifying residents about the boil-water notice Sunday evening, though many residents said they didn’t hear from the city until late that night or the next day.
Turner asked the city’s homeland security department to tell residents about the notice, he said Tuesday, but that didn’t happen as quickly as he would have liked.
“We can always do better and will seek to do better,” Turner said Tuesday.
Turner said he has “ordered a diagnostic assessment” of what caused the power outage. Two transformers at a water treatment plant went down Sunday morning — and water pressure levels fell beneath minimum levels required by the state. Faults with the city’s equipment caused the outage, CenterPoint Energy has said.
“As much as we rely heavily on equipment, every now and then, that equipment will fail,” Turner said.
Like other major metropolitan areas in the United States, the Houston region saw an increase in violent crime over the past two years — though the number of violent crimes has slowed this year. Republican state officials have sought to blame the increase on “soft-on-crime” officials in the state’s Democratic-run major cities.
In turn, Turner sought Tuesday to blame Texas’ lax gun laws as contributors to that increase in violent crime.
“When you start allowing 18-year-olds to have automatic weapons, then you’ve created an environment that’s conducive to more crime,” Turner said. “And water flows downhill.”
Turner called on state lawmakers to plug some of the state’s $27 billion surplus into domestic violence prevention and mental health programs — chiding Republicans who in particular blame events like mass shootings on mental health issues, often without evidence and without prioritizing mental health funding.
“If you say that’s the problem, then your checkbook ought to reflect what you say is the problem and stop putting the blame on everybody else,” Turner said.
Disclosure: CenterPoint Energy has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.