Mayor Turner discusses plans for last year in office, future
Mayor Sylvester Turner laughing while recalling fond memories of getting his first haircut from Joe Thomas. KHOU video screenshot.

The Texas Tribune recently hosted a “Conversation with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner,” where Houston’s CEO discussed current city issues and his plans for his last year in office.

Here are excerpts from that Q&A which was moderated by the Tribune’s editor-in-chief Sewell Chan, with Turner sharing his goals for his last year as mayor and plans when he leaves office.

SEWELL CHAN: Mayor, you’ve got 13 months left in office. What are your priorities for the next year?

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: They’re all [city council members] pushing me to put forth this COVID ordinance that would allow us to remain in [office] for an extra two years because COVID took up some of our time <laughs>. The reality is, I’m not ready to leave. But I don’t want to be like Trump either <laughs>. When I got to go. I gotta go. I’m leaving at 11:59am. But over the next 13 months, what I would say is that I want us to finish with a bang and not a whimper.

I want us to finish. I want us to go out strong. There are a number of projects council members have, I know I have, that I want us to get done. I don’t know who the next mayor will be, but I do know we have 13 months to get a lot of stuff done. I’ve got 22 parks that we are working to revitalize across this city. I want them to get done. Almeda Multi-Service Center, Sunnyside Multi-service center. We’ll cut the ribbon on that. I want them to get done. There are a number of infrastructure projects I want us to move forward on. It is important for us to build a more resilient city. So, I want us to move forward on those fronts. There are a number of priorities and projects that I have on my board, so to speak, that I want us to be able to check the box on.

CHAN: What are some of them?

TURNER: Some I’ve mentioned already. And then even as it relates to cleaning up our city, that’s important. Illegal dumping still is a major concern. My Complete Communities initiative, that’s a major initiative. We won’t get all of that done while I am mayor over the next 13 months, because you can’t finish that. That’s a very aspirational initiative. But it is investing resources in communities that have been underserved and under-resourced. I want us to push as hard as we can to get resources in these communities and to get projects done in these communities while I am still here. So, there are a number of those projects in each one of these areas that we have identified that we want to get done.

TURNER: I want us to finish with a bang. And then in the last six months, my goal is to have the “Mayor’s Farewell to the City of Houston.” Every month we’re going to have a major event where I’m saying farewell. It’s going to be a six-month farewell party. The law. Yeah, I’ve got to connect with Houston First, because they are the on the marketing end. But look, this is an energetic, kinetic sort of city. And, the vibe is good, and it’s important. I think that we celebrate that and we keep it going. But I will say, I want us to set the bar very high, and then the next mayor that comes in, will have to build on top. That’s my goal.

CHAN: Several folks have already announced their intention to run [for mayor]. Do you intend to make an endorsement? And if so, do you have a timetable?

TURNER: Can you believe that these people have announced that they’re running for mayor while I’m still mayor? I mean, that is so disrespectful <laughs>. They could have at least waited until next year. They are already running. And then I’ll be waiting for the question, “What will you do that the mayor hadn’t done?” Or “How can you do things better?” And then I’ll be listening very carefully to what they say. Let ’em criticize me if they want to. Whoever criticizes me, I ain’t helping you at all <laughs>. But no, I mean, it is good to see people running and interested. And I’m sure that there will be more getting into the fray. Look, I’m going to let them do what they do. You all hired me for two terms: eight years. I’ve got 13 months left on my job. I intend to focus on my job and completing my job for the next 13 months. The people who are running for mayor, they’ll have an opportunity once I’m out.

CHAN: Now, mayor, if I’m not mistaken, you recently said that you might have one office left in you. I’m assuming you’re speaking about the presidency of the United States.

TURNER: Nah, nah. I don’t want that job. I don’t know what the future holds. I really thought that by now, I would be ready to say, “Been there, done that. Thank you so very much.” Look, it’s just, it’s been a joy. It continues to be a joy. It’s gratifying. I don’t know what the next step will be. So, I’ll leave that open. But I’ll continue to serve in some capacity. But in terms of whether or not there’s another elective office out there for me, I don’t know. If you ask me one week, I say, yes. You ask me another week. I say no. Do I want to return to the practice of law? Yeah, not necessarily. Do I want to go and teach some place? Mm. I don’t know. I’m waiting for Oprah to call me.

CHAN: Well, Oprah gets me to my next question, which is, you’ve said you’re working on a book.


CHAN: Tell us about them.

TURNER: The first one is more autobiographical in nature. It doesn’t talk about the mayor’s race at all. It more focuses on events, circumstances, people that have helped to shape my philosophy. It talks a lot about the legislature. What I’ve learned from the legislature. It spends a lot [of time] on relationships… the circumstance that have happened that have caused me to think the way I think. For example, I’m very pro on schools, and I’m very resistant to the closing of schools because I grew up in Acres Homes and the school district shut down my elementary and junior high school; sold the property to a cemetery. So, when you go to Paradise Cemetery, that’s my old elementary and junior high. And then they bused us 18 miles one way; 36 miles [total]. So, I graduated from Klein. So, I spent a lot of time on that and the impact that it had.

That’s the first one; more autobiographical—what makes you think, what makes you tick. I focus on, for example, a kid by the name of Antoine, whose mother called my legislative office [and said her] son was suffering with cancer. He was 14 years old, and he couldn’t get enrolled in the Children Health Insurance Program (CHIP) because it was like a six-month enrollment. And there were a lot of barriers. My legislative team ended up taking that case up, trying to help him to get enrolled. But by the time we got him with insurance, through this Children Health Insurance Program, the cancer was so advanced, and he ended up dying. I went back and spoke at the funeral, and I told his mom and his sisters and brothers, I’m heading back to the legislature. I want to change this rule.

So, I went back and championed this bill to expand CHIP to a 12-month enrollment to eliminate a lot of these barriers. Got two Republicans to author with me. And I’ll never forget, a conservative Republican speaker, but someone at that time, I built a relationship with, said, “Sylvester, you’ll never get the Republicans to pass this bill on the floor.” I told him, “If you stand down, let me do what I do.” He said, “Okay, I’ll stand down. They’re not gonna pass it.” Well, with two Republicans, three Democrats, including myself, we got it out of the committee. For five hours we stood on the floor. We had a pact that we made that if Democrats came and they wanted to broaden it, we would say, “No, you can’t sacrifice the good seeking the perfect.” If Republicans came trying to narrow the scope, the Republicans would stand and we would say, “No, you can’t sacrifice the good seeking the perfect.” And at the end of the day, 64 Democrats are 62 Republicans voted for it. It went over to the Senate, eventually passed, and then the governor at the time ended up signing it. So, it did happen, and a lot more kids got insurance. So, I focus on things like that in the book

In the second one, it deals with me as mayor, and the focus is leadership under major crisis. And we’ve had many of those. It focuses heavily on that. So, those are the two books that I’m working on. And I’m looking forward to getting them done.

CHAN: You’ve been quite outspoken, starting quite recently, about your battle with cancer. Why did it take you a while before you felt comfortable talking about it [publicly]?

TURNER: My daughter didn’t know I was going to talk about it publicly, until I did it. And quite frankly, I didn’t know. I hadn’t planned on discussing… It was just, we [Turner and daughter] were sitting down and we were talking, and we were talking about resilience. And it’s one thing to talk about storms and extreme weather events. But resilience comes in many forms. There is personal resilience. But the elements are the same whether you’re dealing with a storm or you’re dealing with a personal challenge. And in the end, I simply said to myself, leaders lead in many different areas, and sometimes what you go through is just not intended for yourself. Sometimes what you go through is intended to share with someone else, no matter how personal it may be.

But you choose your own timing. I can’t tell you when to tell your story. You can’t tell me when to tell mine. But there comes a certain moment where you say, “Okay, I’m comfortable, and let’s, let’s discuss it.” And cancer is one of those things that I think everybody in this room knows of someone who’s experienced it, gone through it. It’s something that I experienced. I thought it was a toothache at the time. It ended up being more. And quite frankly, you continue. Doctors monitor you closely. But I thought at that point in time, it was worth telling the story.

I think also people need to recognize that people in elective office are human just like you. Sometimes when people look at elected officials, it’s like we are not human and we don’t have a heart, and we don’t have pain, and we don’t have families. They just treat us as if there’s no life in us. But as elected officials, we experience oftentimes the same things that everybody else experiences. We are not immune from sickness. And in this case, we are not immune from cancer. We are not. And it is important to help people on how to deal with their personal challenges.

That’s important because there are a lot of people who are in their homes or in their cars or in their offices, and you see them and they’re smiling at you and they’re engaged in a conversation with you, but you don’t know their story. You don’t know what they’re going through. Now, they are mustering up everything to show you their best, but that takes a lot of energy. So, for me, what I decided is, let me just share my story. And you never say one and done. You deal with it one day at a time, but you also have to recognize that you’re not alone on this journey. That’s why I discussed it.

Avatar photo

Aswad Walker

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...