Five of the leading Houston mayoral candidates took the stage on the campus of the University of Houston in the Houston Public Media studios for the last major debate before the start of early voting next week. The front runner, State Senator John Whitmire, faced off against four of his chief opponents, as ranked by the latest University of Houston Hobby School survey.
Whitmire used the forum to highlight his 50 years of experience in the Texas Legislature.
"I created the Sports Authority, which created so many jobs, and protected our sports venues; passed the Sandra Bland Act, which deals with mental health when you have contact with law enforcement; passed hate crimes legislation to hold people accountable," Whitmire said. "So, I have a record of accomplishment. That's why Houstonians reached out to me."
Whitmire's main rival, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, missed the debate. She remained in Washington, D.C., where Congress remains locked in a fight to pick the next Speaker of the House.
Most of the candidates on the stage refrained from attacking any of their opponents. The notable exception was former Metro chair Gilbert Garcia, who sought to turn Whitmire's long record into a liability.
"You've been at the pinnacle of power for 50 years," Garcia said. "Why haven't you worked with all these mayors all these years to have done something about these issues that have been going on, it seems, for decades?"
To view the full debate, watch the video below.
The UH Hobby School survey identified crime as the leading concern among likely voters, with the preferred solution being the hiring of an additional 600 police officers. former city council member Jack Christie pointed to his efforts while in government to push a similar solution.
"For eight years on city council (as an) at-large member, I asked for 500 more police," Christie said. "We have the same number of police that we did 13 years ago, and yet the population has increased 500,000 people."
That stood at odds with Christie's preferred solution for dealing with non-law-enforcement spending. Responding to a question about a prospective budget crisis by 2025, Christie called for a hiring freeze.
City Councilmember Robert Gallegos also endorsed hiring 500 more police officers, but he said that paying for the increase would need to go hand-in-hand with an effort to raise the tax revenues.
"We have a revenue cap. Voters voted on that back in 2004. It was implemented in 2018. Since 2018, the city has not collected $1.8 billion," Gallegos said. "As the next mayor, what I will do is work with the finance director as well as the next controller to educate the public, so that way it can go back on the ballot, and it will be up to the voters to decide if they want to repeal the revenue cap."
Whitmire defended his controversial plan to bring DPS troopers to Houston to supplement the local police, a solution that ranked dead last among preferred responses to Houston's crime problem in the UH survey.
"We need their resources," Whitmire said, noting that troopers are already assisting the Houston police with anti-gang activity. "We need to free up HPD to be in our neighborhoods. We have very little traffic enforcement. We need to get after the DWIs. We could use DPS to complement HPD under HPD's direction."
Attorney Lee Kaplan identified four areas on which he would focus if elected mayor: crime, garbage collection, drainage, and permitting. He named permitting as a major contributor to Houston's shortage of affordable housing.
"If it takes a year, and you're paying 7% interest for a bridge loan to build a house, you're in trouble," Kaplan said. "I've had developers tell me, ‘Lee, I hate dealing with the county, but I will not deal with the city.' That is nonsensical. It just creates more sprawl."
Early voting in the Houston mayoral contest begins Monday, October 23. Election Day is Tuesday, November 7.