Houston Mayor

Mayor Sylvester Turner calls John Whitmire’s diversity comment a “dog whistle” on his administration

In a recent mayoral debate, Sen. John Whitmire said though the city of Houston is the most diverse, city hall does not reflect that. Turner said the comment was “blatant misrepresentation.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner at a June 2, 2021 City Council Meeting.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
FILE: Mayor Sylvester Turner at a June 2, 2021 City Council Meeting.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Senator John Whitmire’s comments this week about the lack of diversity in the current administration were “dog whistle” comments.

In a Monday night mayoral debate, hosted by Fox 26 and held at Texas Southern University, candidates Sen. John Whitmire and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee were asked: if elected mayor, would they ensure city leadership is representative of Houston’s diverse makeup, and how would they communicate city services to traditionally underserved communities?

Whitmire responded that though the city brags about its diversity, city hall does not represent the diversity.

“Look at the department heads,” Whitmire said to the crowd. “Pull them up, Google them, look who’s running the city of Houston. It’s not the Asian community, the Hispanic community is severely underrepresented. So let’s practice what we’re so proud of. Let’s bring everyone together, let’s be in every community. Let’s take care of those that need a voice at city hall.”

Whitmire then touted staff members who have been with him for years, saying he has a record of longevity and success.

“We do significant things. We don’t just hand out proclamations and plaques; we present results,” Whitmire said.

Turner addressed the comments at Wednesday’s city council meeting. Turner, who has been mostly silent about the upcoming election, said he does have Asian people in top positions, including Sanjay Ramabhadran, chair of Metro, Priya Zachariah, who is Chief Resilience and Sustainability Officer and Tantri Emo who is a former chair of finance.

“Respect to Hispanics, you all can recall (former police chief Art) Acevedo was the head of the police department,” Turner said. “And Chief (Samuel) Pena headed the fire department; all at the same time. That was historic, my appointments.”

Turner named more members of his administration who are Hispanic and women, who head departments.

“To say that there is no diversity in the top levels of city hall is a blatant misrepresentation,” he said. “He owes me an apology, and frankly, he owes the city of Houston an apology.”

Turner said that Whitmire implied that Turner’s city hall has “only one look,” and named Police Chief Troy Finner, and head of Parks and Recreation, Kenneth Allen — both of whom are Black.

“I’ve lived 69 years, I know when you’re sending a dog whistle,” he said. “This city deserves better and I’m not going to let that slide.”

Turner said when he ran for mayor, he was heavily scrutinized, but Whitmire has gotten “a pass.”

“Now I’m not on the ballot, (he) needs to focus on people on the ballot,” he said. “But I am going to defend my record here at city hall.”

Whitmire also criticized Turner’s handling of Pappas leaving the airport. During the debate, candidates were asked how they would handle corruption at city hall. Whitmire said Pappas had a “viable family business at Hobby Airport.”

“The current administration and city government went out three times for another bid so that they could get their friends at Hobby Airport,” he said. “We’re losing revenue because the new brands have not been accepted.”

Turner said he would not just give a contract to Pappas.

“So you want us to just give them a contract because you like that person when they didn’t score?” he said rhetorically. “When it’s gone through the court systems and the judge validated what the city did? What’s your plan? Undo everything and just give stuff away when you get here?”

Turner said he worked hard to move the city in the right direction.

“You can run, but there are certain things you don’t have to do,” he said. “And you don’t have to give dog whistles in order to gain an advantage.”