Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have dropped plans to hold state of the city and county addresses with the Greater Houston Partnership, in response to the commerce chamber’s silence over election bills in the Texas Legislature that they say amount to voter suppression.
The move is a rare show of public criticism for the region’s largest prominent chamber of commerce, which has often worked hand-in-hand with local government on public initiatives. It also comes as businesses and civil rights groups continue to put pressure on the state to pull the bills from consideration.
“Right now voting rights are falling like dominos in states across the country, from Georgia to Arizona to right here in Texas,” Hidalgo said. “And yet the largest chamber of commerce in the Houston area is silent.”
“We can’t in good conscience stand at the dais of the Partnership when their will to represent their members and their community so easily crumbles in a time of need,” she said.
The decision was first reported by the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday.
A number of GHP members had previously called on the group to denounce the laws, many of which are aimed squarely at innovations enacted or otherwise proposed by Harris County officials in the last election. Senate Bill 7, for example, would prohibit extended early voting hours and drive-thru voting. Those calls went unanswered, and the partnership has yet to call a vote on the matter, according to city and county officials.
Harris County estimates show 56% of voters in November who used 24-hour voting were people of color, and 53% of voters who used drive-thru voting were people of color.
“No Harris County leader, period, should stay silent as Harris County is attacked,” Hidalgo said.
Turner will hold his address with Houston First Corp., while Hidalgo said a location for the state of the county will be revealed at a later date.
The mayor called this “a defining moment,” and said that he wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking in front of the group as long as it remained silent. And as mayor of the most diverse city in the United States, Turner said he himself couldn’t in good conscience stay silent.
“Years from now, I think people will ask, ‘where were you at this defining moment? Where were you? And what did you do? What did you say?’” Turner said. “And I just want to be on the right side of history.”
Turner also referenced the history of voting rights in the U.S., pointing out that Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texas Democrat, signed the Voting Rights Act into law, and that Republican George W. Bush, another Texan, reauthorized it.
“Voting rights should not be a partisan issue,” Turner said. “But today, some in Texas are trying to turn back the clock and make it harder for people of color, the disabled, working families, to cast that ballot.”
In a statement, the Greater Houston Partnership said it regretted the cancellations.
“As Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo expressed, they are disappointed that the Partnership has not joined them in taking a formal position against the voting bills being considered in Austin,” read a statement from GHP spokesperson Maggie Martin. “We trust that Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo respect that the Partnership has its own process by which our 140 member board takes policy positions on behalf of our 1,000 member companies, a process that requires a clear board consensus which does not exist on the legislation. As in this case, this process does not always lead to alignment with our elected officials.”