Early voting in Texas municipal elections starts three weeks from today. Arguably the most important race on the ballot for Houston voters after the mayor's race is the one for city controller. The post is often described as the city's chief financial officer, but most voters appear set to base their decisions about whom they want for the job on name recognition and partisan leanings rather than on perceptions of financial or accounting expertise.
The Candidates and Their Positions
On a recent Thursday, residents of Houston's Fifth Ward gathered at the Carl Walker Jr. Multi-Purpose Center to hear from candidates running for city controller, as well as for city council member for District B. Three of the four candidates running for controller sat behind a table at the front of the room.
Chris Hollins spoke first. A consultant with a Harvard MBA, Hollins' highest profile financial office came with his work as vice chair of finance for the Texas Democratic Party. But he stressed the experience for which he was best known locally, when he stepped in as interim Harris County clerk after the elected clerk, Diane Trautman, resigned due to health concerns.
"I am a son of this city," Hollins said, "and it was the honor of my lifetime to serve as your county clerk, your chief elections officer, during the most important election of our lifetime, the presidential election of 2020."
The controller's contest is theoretically nonpartisan. But Hollins left no doubt of where he stood in Texas politics.
"Not only did we bring innovation, but we also brought the vision to transform government bureaucracy to deliver real results for Houstonians," Hollins said. "And we brought the courage to stand up to folks like (Governor) Greg Abbott to defend your rights. So that same vision, that same courage, that same innovation, we’re going to bring to the Office of City Controller."
Houston Mayor Pro-Tem Dave Martin spoke next. Martin, who is term limited as the city councilmember for District E, stressed his accounting bona fides.
"The city’s controller is the chief financial officer of the city," Martin said. "What do we do? We protect your tax dollars. If you look at my resume, I spent 40 years in the private sector, working for the two largest Big Four accounting firms. My whole career I’ve spent in accounting and finance. I’ve done audits. I’ve done financial due diligence on acquisitions. I’m the only one in this race that has that type of background."
Martin also pointed to his accomplishments as chair of the city's Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee under Mayor Sylvester Turner. Significantly, Turner has endorsed Martin for controller.
"I’m proud to sit here and say that under the Turner administration, with our help, we’ve been able to reduce our long-term pension liability from $8.2 billion to $2.2 billion," Martin said.
The third candidate for controller was the most experienced candidate in holding elective office. Orlando Sanchez previously served six years on Houston City Council, where he preceded Martin in chairing the budget committee. He lost two close races for mayor of Houston in the early 2000s. Then, he ran as a Republican for Harris County treasurer, winning three four-year terms before being swept out of office during the Democratic wave election of 2018. Most recently, Sanchez narrowly lost the 2019 election for Houston city controller to Controller Chris Brown.
"I have a large amount of experience handling billions of dollars," Sanchez said. "And so, I ask here for your vote."
Sanchez then gave a shout-out to the fourth candidate for controller, who was in the audience. "Her name is Shannan Nobles. She's the (chief) deputy city controller. She’s a candidate for this position, and I just wanted to acknowledge her," Sanchez said.
Nobles, who has been with the controller's office since 2009, had shown up for the event apparently not realizing that she had failed to register.
Chris Hollins then described his view of the role of the controller as going beyond that of chief financial officer. He said it also entails investing billions of dollars on the city's behalf and issuing billions of dollars more in debt to fund city infrastructure projects.
"In addition," Hollins said, "your city controller is the chief accountability officer, the auditor for the city. And it’s not just financial audits — although those are important, protecting your tax dollars from waste, fraud and abuse — but also performance audits, ensuring that your city government is operating as efficiently and effectively in delivering results for you and your family, as it should and as you deserve."
Dave Martin described his vision for the job of controller as more focused on the controller's role as Houston's CFO, again stressing his accounting background.
"The main thing we do is we handle the consolidated monthly financial statement and the annual statement," Martin said. "But more importantly, it’s a protector of your tax dollars. It’s making sure that the city functions and every department with financial policies and processes that save money for the residents and make sure that we’re the watchdog over your tax dollars." To that end, Martin pledged, if elected, to implement forensic accounting reports in the office.
Sanchez pointed to his work as Harris County treasurer, highlighting his efforts toward transparency in that post.
“When I became the county treasurer," Sanchez said, "one of my pledges was to put all the financial operations of Harris County and all of the operations that we all saw — including the Toll Road Authority, the Hospital District, the Port of Houston, everything including our checkbook — online, so you could go online and look at the checkbook. And that’s what I pledge to do to you is that I will put the city’s checkbook online so you see what we’re paying every day, what the balance is, and that you will be better informed.
That gave Martin an opening. "I was the one who passed a budget amendment so that everyone can have this checkbook that they can look at," Martin said. "We already have it up and going. It’s been active for a couple of years in the City of Houston."
Asked about what they thought was the most pressing problem facing the city, both Hollins and Sanchez pointed to public safety, but they had very different approaches.
"You know, if we don't have the peace of mind that we are safe, that our family members are safe, that our property is safe, not only from crime, but again from natural disaster, then the rest of it just doesn’t matter as much," Hollins said.
Going on to discuss the responsibilities of the controller's office, Hollins – the son of a Houston police officer — said he would audit the Houston Police Department.
"We are spending $1 billion-plus on our police department," Hollins said. "And we’re doing it because our policymakers care. But we have to look and say, are we being as effective in delivering safety to you and to your family and to your neighborhood as we possibly can?"
Sanchez focused on the lack of coordination between the region's multiple law enforcement agencies.
"If you take all of the law enforcement in and around the area," Sanchez said, "there are more police officers than Heinz has pickles. And so, when you call 911, and you don’t get an immediate response because our Houston police officers are tied up, all you want is a badge and a gun to show up to your house and protect your life and your property. So, we’re going to talk about creating a public safety district. When you call 911, a peace officer will respond to you immediately."
Martin took a different tack. He focused on issues of prime importance to the Fifth Ward audience, public health and flood control. He talked about his work on arranging a home buyout program in an area deemed a cancer cluster and dedicating more city funds to ditch maintenance to keep local homes from flooding.
"I’m the only one sitting up here that’s worked with an outstanding council member in Tarsha Jackson to make sure that we dedicated more money for the incomplete ditch maintenance program that floods houses in this area. I’m the only one that attacked it with more dollars in open ditch policy," Martin said.
That led into another question, regarding which city department the candidates thought needed a full audit. Martin singled out Public Works and the Houston Airport System. Hollins also named Public Works, reiterated HPD, and threw in the city's Permitting Center.
Sanchez, by contrast, went after tax increment reinvestment zones (TIRZs), which he said had been abused to steer taxpayer dollars to wealthy neighborhoods like the Galleria rather than the poorer neighborhoods for which they were intended.
"That was a complete abomination, that we created tax increment reinvestment zones for the richest neighborhoods in Houston," Sanchez said. "And that should not stand. They should be audited. They should come to an end. And that money, your tax dollars, needs to go into the general fund for your benefit, your neighborhood's benefit, and your children’s benefit."
Houston Public Media reached out to Shannan Nobles' campaign, seeking an interview to discuss her positions on the issues. No one responded.
How voters are measuring the candidates
If voters were rating the candidates based on their experience handling money, it would likely be a three-way contest between Sanchez, Martin, and Nobles. But that's not how Texas Southern University political scientist Michael O. Adams sees the race as playing out.
"Probably this election, as most for controller, will be based upon name ID and people who have run for office in the past, and who have the ability to garner votes," Adams said.
Adams said Democrats and African Americans are gravitating towards Chris Hollins, the former Harris County clerk and former Texas Democratic Party vice chair of finance. Hollins originally planned to run for mayor but dropped out in favor of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.
"He’s touting his name ID based upon the running of the 2020 elections, where he’s touted himself as being an innovator in those kinds of things," Adams said.
Adams thinks Orlando Sanchez is Hollins' most formidable opponent. "You have to remember in 2001 and 2003, he came very close to being the first Hispanic or Latino who would have been elected Mayor of the City of Houston," Adams said. "Even in the last controller's race, Orlando Sanchez, I think he garnered about 47% of the vote or more. And clearly, he would be positioned as a very strong candidate."
Rice University political scientist Bob Stein says that, while both Sanchez and Dave Martin are Republicans, Sanchez is more likely to draw the conservative vote.
"I think he probably, next to Chris Hollins, has the greatest name recognition," Stein said. "He’s supported by white Republicans. Dave Martin might not have that kind of support, for lack of anything else, in name familiarity, but Orlando has been on the ballot as a Republican and has won before. More importantly, he’s (got an) Hispanic surname."
Stein said that's likely to count for a great deal in mobilizing the Hispanic vote. So does Michael O. Adams.
"Clearly you have to understand that there has been a history in terms of Hispanics in the city voting along ethnic lines in terms of surnames, for example, so I think he has some support based on the fact that his last name is Sanchez," Adams said.
One other factor, which appears to weigh in Hollins' favor, is fundraising. As of the last reporting period, Hollins had more than $600,000 in the bank, compared to about $150,000 for Martin and less than $100,000 for Nobles. Meanwhile, Sanchez hasn't filed a campaign finance report in three years.
Why the Office of City Controller Matters
Part of the reason most Houstonians appear to be making their choice of controller based on issues other than financial expertise, Bob Stein said, is that many have little idea what the job entails.
"I don’t know this for a fact, but if you asked a voter, tell me what a controller does, they might think he brings airplanes down from the sky," Stein said.
As the candidates discussed at their forum at the Carl Walker Jr. Center, the controller performs a multitude of functions: chief financial officer, chief accountability officer, chief investment officer. And they may soon play another role, depending on the outcome of a ballot initiative to amend the city's charter, Proposition A.
Currently, getting an item on the agenda for Houston City Council requires either the mayor's support or the support of an overwhelming majority of council members. Proposition A would change that. It would lower the number of council members needed to get an item on the agenda to three.
"If you let three council members introduce agenda items, then they can start beginning to, how can I say, carve away some of the powers of the mayor," Stein said.
Mayors have another advantage over council members in being able to shape the city's agenda. They employ a large staff, which ordinary council members lack. Proposition A would give the controller considerable leverage. "If a controller sees three council members, he or she can go to those council members with a staff of accountants and budget analysts and say, maybe we should look at this, maybe we should do this," Stein said.
That could make the office of controller more important than it already is, an important consideration for men or women looking to use it as a springboard for higher office.
That's clearly on the mind of at least three of the controller candidates this time around. Hollins ran for mayor briefly this year before dropping out in favor of Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Martin considered a mayoral run before being advised by Republican Party leaders that they preferred State Senator John Whitmire – also a Democrat, but more conservative than Jackson Lee. And Sanchez lost two close races for mayor two decades ago.
"Many had thought that this is, of course, a stepping stone or launching pad to run for mayor," Stein said. "Annise Parker used it. Kathy Whitmire used it."
Ashley Brown contributed to this report.