leaving it better
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has garnered a reputation locally, regionally, and nationally as a calm, measured civic leader. But during his final State of the City address on September 27, the two-term mayor sounded more passionate preacher than politician, trading podium for pulpit.
"We are diverse, yet inclusive,” Turner fervently declared to an energetic crowd of some 1,500 at the Hilton Americas hotel ballroom downtown. “We are greener, more compassionate, more united, and more forward-moving than we ever imagined, but at the same time, we work every day to be inclusive. We are greener, more compassionate, more united, and more forward-moving than we can ever imagine.”
Turner drew several ovations, but none more rousing and zealous than his final line: “What I can say to Houstonians is that I have given you my best,” he said, his voice momentarily breaking with raw emotion, “and I am proud of the city that I shall pass forward.”
It’s not hyperbole to say Turner’s eventful time in office could fill a book; each luncheon table received a copy of A Winning Legacy, a new book chronicling his eight years as mayor.
“Not anxious to leave...”
Boasting an eight-year run that saw seven federally designated natural disasters in eight years, a Super Bowl, and two World Series championships — to say nothing of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown and the local fallout from the George Floyd murder — Turner was unapologetically proud of his record and showed no intention of departing.
“Let me just be clear: I am not anxious to leave,” he said flatly, “and if I could run again, I would,” that line also eliciting lively cheers. To the next mayor (Turner joked that he switched channels when watching the recent mayoral candidate debate), he warned: “Be careful of what you promise. Be careful on how you criticize, because you haven’t looked under the hood.” He also reassured the next mayor of Houston that it’s occasionally okay to “U-turn” on a campaign promise if the situation calls for it.
He roused the audience by reminding them of the many trials Houston faced over his two terms. Putting it in perspective, Houston First chairman David Mincberg described 2016 when Turner took office as, “pre-hurricane, pre-COVID, pre Beyoncé setting Houston aglow this past weekend,” adding that when disaster struck, Tuner was known for “calling early and often.”
A bright future
His sense of accomplishment was evident when he described the city he will leave for his successor — especially the long-disputed budget. “I will hand to — whoever the next mayor will be — instead of $160 million in the hole, we’ll give you a surplus of nearly $420 million,” he said to rousing applause.
Pension liability, another fiercely contested issue, was another proud accomplishment Turnter touted, noting that the City's pension liability is now $2.2 billion, considerably lower than $8.2 billion when he took office.
Always an advocate for expansion and development, Turner noted that Houston will receive nearly $2 billion in the coming years to transform the convention center, surrounding district, and the downtown area, a project that he says will “re-stitch neighborhoods” and serve as a “keystone” for future development. The Sunnyside Solar Farm — the only one of its kind in the U.S., will be operational in 2024, he added. A new, cutting-edge Solid Waste Northeast Transfer Station will open in 2025, and the North Canal Stormwater Project and the Lake Livingston Flood Water-gates in Kingwood are in initial design stages.
Another key city project, the I-45 Expansion Project, is moving forward as Houston’s expansion continues to boom.
A pro-business champion of innovation, Turner also harked to The Ion, a hub of innovation. “Houston is a smart city,” he said of the explosion in innovation here. In a nod to Houston’s unmatched diversity, Turner noted that the Ismaili Center, just the seventh in the world, will soon open its doors to all.
His one regret? “I would’ve loved to have the bullet train moving.”
To build a city, Turner later said during a Q&A session, leadership must “build forward, not backwards.” Turner credited his daughter, Ashley, in his future-minded approach. “Dad, don’t build a city for people your age and older,” Turner recalled his daughter advising, “build a city for people my age and younger.” The proud Dad also noted that Ashley told him that “Houston needs pop and sizzle,” though both are certainly evident. “You have to be futuristic in your thinking,” the mayor advised.
The fast-paced event saw Turner recognize a host of city employees, cut a birthday cake, and grin as Houston-born comedian Mo Amer led the crowd in a “Happy Birthday” singalong. Amer, whom Turner gifted with a recent Mo Amer Day honoring the success of his smash Netflix show, cracked to Turner that he was “the greatest mayor we’ve had the last eight years.” When Turner quipped that he’d like a guest starring spot on Mo, Amer assured him of a role: “Oh yeah, you’ll be Guy No. 4.”
Wrapping a farewell keynote address that spanned myriad emotions, Turner was reflective when asked about his next move. “That is in God’s hands,” he said, adding that “I’m going to take the time to soak it all in.”
While his term ends on December 31 this year and his future has yet to crystalize, Turner said savored each and every day of his term — and he is satisfied.
“Whatever comes next for me will be icing on the cake.”