Mayor's Race Begins

Let the mayor's race begin: Candidates tout Houston arts and favorite artists at first forum

Mayor candidates tout Houston arts and favorite artists at first forum

Miya Shay and candidates at Mayor Forum on Arts
Miya Shay, left, emceed the Mayoral Forum for Arts and Culture. Photo by Marc Newsome
Stephen Costello, Adrian Garcia, Ben Hall
Before the forum begins, Adrian Garcia, center, takes a photo of the crowd. Photo by Clifford Pugh
Candidates at the Mayor Forum on the Arts
From left, Chris Bell, Stephen Costello, Adrian Garcia, Ben Hall, Bill King, Marty McVey, Sylvester Turner. Photo by Marc Newsome
Sylvester Turner at Mayor Forum on the Arts
From left, Marty McVey and Sylvester Turner. Photo by Marc Newsome
Crowd at Mayor Forum on the Arts
The theater at the Asia Society Texas Center was filled for the first Mayoral Forum. Photo by Marc Newsome
Miya Shay and candidates at Mayor Forum on Arts
Stephen Costello, Adrian Garcia, Ben Hall
Candidates at the Mayor Forum on the Arts
Sylvester Turner at Mayor Forum on the Arts
Crowd at Mayor Forum on the Arts

Twenty minutes into the first gathering of all seven candidates for Houston mayor on the same stage, former congressman Chris Bell noted an audience member stifling a yawn.

"It could be a lot worse. This could be a Republican presidential debate," he said, where as many as 20 candidates are expected on stage in a few months.

 While there were not fireworks, the gathering revealed the personalities of some of the candidates and set the stage for the long campaign. 

Indeed, with each candidate taking as long as two minutes to answer a question, the Mayoral Forum on Arts and Culture at the Asia Society Center Texas at times got bogged down with politicians spouting mindless jargon. But as the first of many such forums to come before the November election (two more gatherings are planned this week), it provided the opportunity to get an early idea of what the candidates are like and what they stand for.

And it showed the importance — and clout — of Houston's arts scene as all candidates touted its impact on the area economy — even if they didn't always answer questions on how to build more affordable housing for artists or find creative ways to tout what the arts community has to offer.

While there were no fireworks (that is sure to come in later debates), the 90-minute gathering sponsored by Miller Outdoor Theatre, The Houston Museum District, The Theatre District Houston and the Houston Arts Alliance and emceed by KTRK reporter Miya Shay, revealed the personalities of some of the candidates and set the stage for the long campaign.

Best Question of the Night

While much of the evening was taken up with policy wonk questions about a cap on the Houston Hotel Occupancy Tax (aka the HOT tax), which funds arts projects around the city, the best — and most humanizing question — came from an audience member, who asked, "Who is your favorite artist and why?" You could almost see the wheels turning in each candidate's head as he scrambled to come up with an unscripted answer.

Ben Hall had the most unconventional answer— he's mad about Surrealists M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali.

First up was former Kemah mayor Bill King, who lamely listed Van Gogh, whom he first learned about from his history teacher many years ago. Businessman Marty McVey picked the 13th century poet Rumi for the "great solace" his work provides, which drew applause of one audience member.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner was the first to turn the discussion to Houston artists — John Biggers and Michelle Barnes are among his favorites, and the other candidates quickly followed his lead, with Bell listing Lamar Briggs, Houston City Council member Stephen Costello mentioning Mark Foyle, muralist Ashley Winn and Justin Garcia, and former sheriff Adrian Garcia picking his daughter along with Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe.

Attorney Ben Hall had the most unconventional answer  — he's mad about Surrealists M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali. "Read into that what you may," he said cryptically.

Burning issues

Four candidates — King, Turner, Bell and McVey — specifically said they would repeal the cap that Mayor Annise Parker has placed on the amount of HOT taxes arts group receive, while the others hedged on the issue, giving answers that left observers unsure where they stood.

 "You can't be a world cultural center with Third World streets," King said. 

On a question about whether they would implement a cultural arts plan for the next 20 years that Parker has commissioned, most candidates took a wait-and-see attitude, preferring to comment when the report is released. But a couple of candidates hinted about where they stood on the plan, which is rumored to call for a city arts commissioner in the mayor's office.

"If the arts community is vital to this city, there's no better way to demonstrate that than for the mayor to be at the table. I want to be at the table," Turner said. "That's why I applaud (the fact that) this is the first forum. You have the opportunity to shape our ideas. I don't want Houston to be lagging behind and I don't want to wait for other people to do it. I want to push this city to go beyond where it is today and not be at the end. I will push any cultural plan that achieves that objective."

King said he would not support further concentration of power in the mayor's office on such issues. "The cultural leadership of the city needs to be in the arts community," he said. "The mayor needs to support it but I don't think the mayor necessarily needs to lead it. I certainly wouldn't feel like I have the expertise to do it. The proper role of the mayor's office is to support the direction of the arts community, not try to lead it."

Arts ideas

Concrete proposals for the arts were scare, but there were a few intriguing ideas offered by candidates.

Turner listed several options, including securing more funding from the state legislature for the arts (he bragged on leading the effort to get the current legislature to pony up $10 million for arts groups), establishing an artists-in-residence program and coming up with a way for supporters to easily contribute to the arts, similar to a check-off box on a utility bill.

Turner also touted emerging arts havens in Spring Branch, Acres Homes and the East End. "East End is like the Montrose of the 1980s," he said. "We need to tell that story."

Costello brought up the idea of creating a specially-designed arts enclave with discount rates for housing for artists, while Garcia pointed out that during his time in law enforcement, he encouraged gang members with a talent for graffiti to turn to legitimate ways to make a living and some have become renowned artists.

Candidates also used the opportunity to emphasize other important issues. Noting his support for education, Bell suggested remodeling underused libraries for pre-kindergarten programs while Costello and King touted the importance of fixing Houston's streets.

"You can't be a world cultural center with Third World streets," King said.