I SEE U, Episode 101: Sylvester Turner: Mayor of Heaven, Hell and Houston [Encore]

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner sits down with I SEE U inside of his office for an unguarded chat about how he led the nation’s fourth largest city through a global pandemic, historic flooding, violent crime, homelessness and notions of racial inequities as a Black man in a blue city inside a red state. This episode is an encore of the November 18, 2023 original broadcast.

Mayor Sylvester Turner



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Four of the largest cities in the United States are currently run by African Americans. What do U think this says about our nation when four prominent, elected officials of color have been chosen and trusted to lead four of the biggest metropolitan regions of the country? And out of each of these four mayors: Eric Adams of New York City; Karen Bass of Los Angeles; Brandon Johnson of Chicago; Sylvester Turner is the only top city administrator who still resides in the same community where he grew up—Acres Homes, a sprawling working-class neighborhood in northwest Houston that’s predominantly Black. What do U think this says about him and his character? Join us as I SEE U travels to City Hall where host Eddie Robinson speaks candidly with the chief executive officer of the city of Houston – Mayor Sylvester Turner. As the former lawyer wraps up his two-term tenure in office, Turner reflects on his life, his career in politics and how his upbringing prepared him to take on persistent issues and majors challenges of a Democratic blue city that’s deeply rooted inside a Republican red state. He also candidly reveals the complexities of his relationship with Texas Governor Greg Abbott and why he hasn’t directly communicated with him for over two years.


Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Eddie Robinson: 69 year old Sylvester Turner holds on to what his parents taught him over five decades ago. To be a leader, one must work harder and run faster. Not only does he still live in the Acres Homes community where he grew up, but his background has also given him a unique perspective in addressing many of Houston’s problems.
[00:00:21] Mayor Sylvester Turner: We’ve always had to take a dollar and make it stretch. So financial management is something we’ve always had to do. When I came here. And was facing a deficit and people saying, Oh, how are we going to do it? Well, hell, I saw my mom would do it all the time.
[00:00:34] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson. Stay tuned as we chat candidly with the mayor of the fourth largest city in the United States, Sylvester Turner, the former lawyer reveals how he’s managed to leave the city of Houston and grapple with the politics of being mayor as a black man running a blue city in a red state. Oh yeah. I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U.
[00:01:03] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. He’s the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Administrator, and official representative of the City of Houston. Since taking office in 2016, Sylvester Turner has faced a plethora of challenges and weathered storms, pun intended, unlike no other city administrator on the planet.
[00:01:28] Eddie Robinson: He’s balanced eight city budgets, instituted major pension reforms. Helped land jobs for thousands of youths and students over the summer months.
[00:01:44] Mayor Sylvester Turner: I’m asking local companies and non profits to sign up on the Higher Houston Youth website. And finally, I’m asking Houston Youth to visit higherhoustonyouth. org.
[00:01:54] Eddie Robinson: Kept Houstonians safe during some of the most devastating weather related storms and severe flooding the region has ever experienced.
[00:02:09] Eddie Robinson: Improved the city’s transportation and transit network. Enhanced parks and green spaces created more bikeable and walkable corridors throughout neighborhoods inside Harris County. Plus this city has become a national model. For a housing first program that’s moved thousands upon thousands of homeless individuals into apartments and houses over the last decade. It hasn’t completely solved the homeless problem, but it’s well on its way of making progress compared to other large metropolitan cities. But his tenure as mayor has had its share of critics.
[00:02:56] Eddie Robinson: questioning the long term condition of Houston streets, infrastructure concerns, risks associated with major flooding and natural disasters.
[00:03:10] Eddie Robinson: How the mayor handled funding challenges in dealing with problems related to housing and crime. Did city officials do enough in grappling with measures related to social justice issues and racism from law enforcement? Firefighter races, union labor contract disputes. The handling of a deadly global pandemic, state school district takeovers. All this as the city of Houston continues to experience massive growth over the past decade, with hundreds of thousands of residents flocking to the region.
[00:04:00] Eddie Robinson: Despite the criticism, this lawyer turned mayor has certainly raised the standards when it comes to effective leadership when dealing with the cards you’ve been dealt. I SEE U, as we’re so grateful he’s here with us. Or should I say… We’re here with him as he’s graciously invited us all to city hall and allow our I SEE U production team inside his own office in person just weeks before he ends his second and final term of office as the city’s 62nd mayor. It’s incredible to be speaking with the honorable mayor of the fourth largest city of the United States, Sylvester Turner.
[00:04:41] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Thank you, Eddie. And I SEE U.
[00:04:44] Eddie Robinson: Yes, we’re so grateful that we see you, too.
[00:04:47] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Thanks.
[00:04:47] Eddie Robinson: Um, I met you first, uh, in 2017. I was hosting a scholarship gala for the Houston Lawyers Association. And you were delivering the keynote at that event. And I remember being extremely excited in meeting you. Because you’re like one of the big four to me. There’s Mayor Eric Adams of New York.
[00:05:04] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Good friend.
[00:05:05] Eddie Robinson: Mayor Karen Bass of Los Angeles. Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago. And then there’s you, all of you just happen to be Black and leading the nation’s four largest cities in the country, cities who’ve all had Black mayors for the first time.
[00:05:21] Eddie Robinson: And it’s truly remarkable. And it’s also kind of revealing, uh, mayor Turner, you told the New York Times. And I quote, I recognize the fact that there are many neighborhoods that have been overlooked and ignored for decades. I grew up in one of those communities. And I still live in that same community. What does this say about you as a person? What does this say about your character?
[00:05:46] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Well, you know, this is home. I will make one footnote. Mayor Lightfoot in Chicago has now been replaced by Mayor Brandon Johnson. So he’s, he’s still the Big Four. Um, the Mayor Brandon Johnson is now the Mayor, and I have had the privilege of working with one and continuing to work with the other.
[00:06:08] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Um, in terms of where I live now, and while being the Mayor of the City of Houston, yeah, I still live in that same neighborhood. And basically what I’ve said to the people in, um, This city and to the people in Acres Homes, where I grew up, is that I’m staying here, we move up together. And then, to be, I mean, very candid, it’s a commitment, uh, promise that I made to my mom.
[00:06:34] Mayor Sylvester Turner: My mom and my dad moved into that neighborhood in 1954. Neither one of them graduated from high school. I don’t say that in a negative sense. They were both hardworking. Dad died early, um, cancer, when I was 13. My mom was a maid at the Rice Hotel downtown. And raised nine kids by herself. Much, much later in life, um, when I went off to school, came back, started working with a large law firm, became a state representative, and ran for mayor several times, my mom asked of me one thing in particular.
[00:07:10] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And that was, Sylvester, I want you to stay in this neighborhood. She said it’s important for the kids that are coming through like you did to be able to see people achieve coming from this neighborhood. And then the other commitment that she had me to make was that her home, the home that my dad and the two of them purchased, that that home would never be sold.
[00:07:33] Mayor Sylvester Turner: That it would always be available for either one of her kids who may one day need it. or her grandchildren or her great great grandchildren, whoever in the Turner household, who one day may need a place to stay. Our deal was, I want this home to be available. So, this is a promise being kept to my mom. I still live in the same hood in which I was born and read, and I’m glad to be there.
[00:08:02] Eddie Robinson: Now, were you always set on becoming mayor early?
[00:08:07] Mayor Sylvester Turner: In fact, I wanted to be a lawyer. And that’s because when I was, uh, six years old, Uh, I saw some lawyers on television. No lawyers in the family. You know, first generation going to college. But I saw them on television, I was impressed. But in terms of mayor, that was not in the cards.
[00:08:25] Mayor Sylvester Turner: But as I went through college, Law school. Returned back to the city of Houston. Returned back to Acres Homes. It was down the stretch when I started getting involved in the campaign of another African American who ran for mayor, Al Green, who is now Congressman Al Green. I was one of his lieutenants.
[00:08:50] Eddie Robinson: Okay.
[00:08:51] Mayor Sylvester Turner: In his mayoral bid. Uh, he fell short. But by that time… I had run and had become a member of the Texas Legislature.
[00:09:02] Eddie Robinson: Now, I’m curious about that because you’re the sixth of nine children.
[00:09:07] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Right.
[00:09:07] Eddie Robinson: Like you mentioned, raised in Acres Home. Your father was a commercial painter.
[00:09:12] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Correct.
[00:09:12] Eddie Robinson: Mother, made at Rice Hotel. You were senior class president. Valedictorian at Klein High School.
[00:09:19] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Right.
[00:09:20] Eddie Robinson: Graduated magna cum laude with a BA in Political Science from the University of Houston, a J. D. degree from Harvard Law, and like me, you’re a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
[00:09:30] Mayor Sylvester Turner: That is right.
[00:09:32] Eddie Robinson: Who else within your family do you believe helped prepare you the most for your tenure as mayor of Houston?
[00:09:40] Mayor Sylvester Turner: As you said, I’m, I’m the sixth of nine. Now, quite frankly, I wouldn’t, I’m not the smartest of the nine.
[00:09:46] Eddie Robinson: Yeah.
[00:09:46] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Okay. But I had a couple of brothers ahead of me, and of course, and sisters. One of my brothers, when he graduated from high school, who I believe was the smartest, and he graduated salutatorian. But he didn’t go to college.
[00:10:02] Mayor Sylvester Turner: He elected to go directly into the military. And he went into the military to assist my mom in raising the rest of us. So, going to college, universities, no. He went into the military, and then he was sending financial support back to my mom. My other brothers and sisters ahead of me just started working.
[00:10:24] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And in part, again, assisting my mom in rearing the rest of us. So, I am standing on the shoulders of my brothers and sisters in front of me.
[00:10:36] Eddie Robinson: As a Black city official, did you ever let it bother you, Mayor, that you’d likely be Scrutinized a bit more as a Black elected official, uh, criticized more, your actions would be judged under a microscope a bit more, Especially knowing that not only were you black, but you were a blue city official working inside a red state. I don’t want to sound like a box of crayons here. But you had to have known in advance what you were walking into. Or if it even bothered you, being a black man running a city packed with the good old boys of the south.
[00:11:13] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Uh, look, when I grew up, my mom and dad told their kids, you have to run faster. You have to be smarter. You have to work harder. They told us that coming up. That was the life that they led. When our elementary and junior high school was closed, when busing started, I was bused 18 miles one way, 36 miles a day, to the Klein Independent School District. We integrated the KIein Independent School District, but they closed our elementary and junior high school because they didn’t want the neighborhood in which I was born and raised to grow.
[00:11:47] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And in going, The 13 Black teachers that we had at the elementary junior high in preparation for integrating with the other school told us, hey, you’re going to have to work harder. So that, you know, that was a part of the upbringing. The reality is, and the sad reality, fast forward now, I’m mayor of the city of Houston.
[00:12:12] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Those things are still true. I’m reminded, on a regular basis as mayor, of the fourth largest city in the country, most diverse. I have to perform every day. I’m under more scrutiny as an African American mayor, more so than mayors that don’t, that haven’t looked like me. Everything that we do, every business decision that I make is under scrutiny.
[00:12:40] Mayor Sylvester Turner: I’m reminded by my own newspaper in this city that the word of a white person carries more weight than what I say, they reminded me as the mayor of the city of Houston that I am a Black man and I’m 69 years old and I’ve been the mayor for almost eight years. Okay? Partner in a law firm, 27 years in the legislature.
[00:13:09] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Those are the realities, like it or not. I can’t do it with somebody else who’s white. It was in the seat. I have to cross every T. I have to dot every I. And even then, for some. It’s not enough. Because it’s easy, for example, if, if one employee does something wrong. In the city of Houston, I have 22, 000. But if one employee does something wrong, people can quickly say, Mayor, and the administration is corrupt.
[00:13:45] Mayor Sylvester Turner: One. Heaven forbid if it’s two. Okay? But those are the realities. Now, you can either get so focused on that, are distracted by that, that you lose your focus, or you recognize what your parents said some 50 years ago plus. You have to run faster. You have to work harder. And every day you must be on.
[00:14:23] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we continue our chat with Mayor Sylvester Turner. He spent nearly three decades as a state representative in the texas legislature. Back then the mantra was small government and local control. But in the years since he’s been mayor, the state has increasingly sought to limit the power of municipalities.
[00:14:44] Eddie Robinson: What’s led to this shift. And what does this dynamic look like in the future? Mayor Turner goes unguarded and talks candidly about his relationship with Texas Governor Greg Abbott. I’m Eddie Robinson.I SEE U. Returns in just a moment.
[00:15:11] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, be sure to subscribe to our podcast,I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.
[00:15:38] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. We’re speaking with Houston mayor, Sylvester Turner due to term limits. His time in office will end January 2nd, 2024. After eight years as Houston’s highest ranking official, we’ve been chatting about the lessons he’s gleaned from his parents, from his teachers.
[00:16:01] Eddie Robinson: And you know, Mayor Turner, I remember when I went to D. C. in the 11th grade with the Congressional Youth Leadership Conference. Mayor, I was so motivated with this idea that… I could do a lot for my community as a lobbyist, which was what they were training us to be by attending these summer sessions as a high schooler, you know, to fight, to make the lives of people in Mississippi better, to bring in more funds for better education, for instance, but yet.
[00:16:30] Eddie Robinson: I’d look across the spectrum of white faces in Washington and see lots of men laughing and chuckling. And then once I stepped into the circle of conversation, folks would excuse themselves. You know, the conversations and laughter would abruptly end. Or there’d be terse reactions and responses, not wanting to talk at length.
[00:16:52] Eddie Robinson: But unbeknownst to me, Mayor, uh, I didn’t realize that I had to code switch to be able to participate. You know, I had to endure comments like, Oh, you’re so articulate. Uh, you’re so intelligent. You know, these awkward silences, uneasy exchanges. And as a young black student in high school, I didn’t know how to play the game.
[00:17:12] Eddie Robinson: Uh, because my skin color prevented me access into where the game was played. Though, I did want to be a part of politics, I didn’t care for the politicking, right?
[00:17:23] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Right.
[00:17:24] Eddie Robinson: So, do you think that this kind of dynamic in politics, when it comes to people of color, deters others from running for public office or wanting to be a part of politics?
[00:17:34] Mayor Sylvester Turner: I hope not. Because you have to enjoy, you have to enjoy the game. And you have to be cognizant of how people play the game. So, I hope it doesn’t deter. I’m sure for some it may. Some may not want to be under the scrutiny. Every segment of their life scrutinized. But at the same time, you have to enjoy the game. And you have to learn how to play it.
[00:17:59] Eddie Robinson: That’s right.
[00:18:00] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And you have to understand, um, the rules by which you are operating. And it’s an obstacle course. Now, you can either scare yourself away from it, allow people to scare you away from it, and then you choose not to participate. Or you can say, I see what’s before me, and I see that the rules are subject to change, and say, but I’m up to it. Not only am I willing to embrace it, I can beat you at it.
[00:18:33] Eddie Robinson: Okay.
[00:18:34] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And so from my point of view, it’s that, um, you know, look, I grew up in the hood. It doesn’t get any harder. In the hood, we deal with this all the time. And that’s what my mom used to always say, son, it’s been hard all our lives. So when you grow up in an environment where it’s always been hard, we’ve always had to take a dollar and make it stretch.
[00:19:01] Mayor Sylvester Turner: So financial management is something we’ve always had to do. When I came here and was facing a deficit, and people were saying, oh, how are we going to do it? Well, hell, I saw my mama do it all the time. And still fed nine kids, with the little that she had. So, my mom taught me how to engage in financial management.
[00:19:24] Mayor Sylvester Turner: My dad would always take, uh, his check. And would set aside a little bit out of what he made and save. He would take his coins and put them in an empty paint can. And he had, he had literally just rows and rows of paint cans with his coins. And that’s how he saved. I saw how he saved. So, we learned, and I learned at an early age by watching them.
[00:19:56] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Nobody, you know, I didn’t know I was poor until other people told me that I was. So, you know, so you have to embrace the challenge. No one is going to give you anything. Don’t expect anybody to lay out a carpet for you. So you have to embrace it. You have to embrace the moment. And you have to recognize whether, you know, you’re prepared for that moment.
[00:20:24] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And then you deal with it. So don’t, and I tell my daughter all the time, don’t eliminate yourself because you don’t think you can do it. Okay. You have to be willing to count on yourself, but certainly don’t eliminate on a position. Don’t remove yourself because you believe you can’t do it.
[00:20:45] Eddie Robinson: That’s right.
[00:20:45] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Okay. So, you know. Even though there is no handbook, in a sense, in many ways, on how to become, how to be mayor or whatever the position is, you know, our life experiences prepare us for many of these positions because we’ve had to navigate and run the maze of life.
[00:21:07] Eddie Robinson: Speaking of a maze, you were in the state ledge for 27 years, but a lot has changed since you left in 2015.
[00:21:16] Eddie Robinson: There’s legislation here that aimed at preempting laws and ordinances passed by cities, be it the plastic bag ban, to worker protection. Mandatory water breaks, for instance, HB 2127 was the most recent bill known as the Death Star Bill, because it basically took away a lot of governing power from cities.
[00:21:37] Eddie Robinson: This law was ruled unconstitutional after Houston sued the state, but there are other laws like SB 1933. Which is targeted Harris County and Houston and how the city executes and oversees elections, right? Mayor Turner. I mean, are we experiencing some sort of an energy shift? These power grabs by the state, for instance, where there once was this notion of, you know, local power being sacred, being cherished versus now.
[00:22:06] Eddie Robinson: How can we control what’s going on in these so called liberal cities? Why do you think this is happening, Mayor Turner? What do you think what’s going on here?
[00:22:13] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Well, I mean, it’s very clear it’s the politics. When you look at the state of Texas, every statewide position for right now in the state of Texas is controlled by Republicans.
[00:22:22] Mayor Sylvester Turner: When you look at, um, most of your urban cities. Austin, San Antonio, Houston. Up until a couple of months ago, I would have put Dallas in that category. But since that mayor have flipped. But most of your urban cities are run by Democrats. And so, when I was in the legislature, it was. Government is best, that’s closest to the people.
[00:22:46] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And you defer to local control. In that day and time, many of your local leaders were Republicans. And you didn’t have the kind of dichotomy that you see today. And so now local control doesn’t mean very much. It is about control. And who’s going to control. And so you have Republicans who, let’s say, are in key leadership positions at the state level that are now trying to control everything at the local level.
[00:23:19] Mayor Sylvester Turner: It’s all about power and control. Now, I would venture to say, if you had more local leaders at the local level, and if you had, let’s say, you know, Democrats at the state level, you wouldn’t be having these issues because we hadn’t had them in a long time. But things have changed quite a bit. What I would say though, be careful what you, be careful what you ask for, okay?
[00:23:49] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Because nothing remains the same. Okay, and, and when you have your local leaders, who are in many ways, let’s say Democratic leaders, things flow up, and eventually things, you’ll see a shifting at the state level. Okay, so be very careful what you, what you ask for, and be very careful with what you’re doing.
[00:24:15] Mayor Sylvester Turner: But right now, you have state leadership that’s trying to control cities. Counties, local school districts, uh, taking over the largest school district in the state of Texas, the seventh largest in the country, the Houston Independent School District, trying to run it from the state makes it very, very difficult to do.
[00:24:37] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And it’s not about educating children. It’s about controlling the apparatus. Okay, that’s what you’re seeing right now, not just in the state of Texas, but in other states across the country, controlling the local elections. Okay, saying to Harris County, one of the largest counties in the country, we can control your apparatus simply because the people that are voting in Harris County are not voting for the people that we want them to vote for.
[00:25:05] Mayor Sylvester Turner: So it’s not about making voting more accessible. If you’re in a democratic process, you won’t. You want more people, people who are eligible to vote, irrespective of who they vote for. You just want people to vote. But that’s not the formula. I mean, that’s not the measuring tube now. If they don’t vote for who we want them to vote for, control the apparatus.
[00:25:28] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And make it more difficult then for that geographical unit to support candidates that are not of our choosing. It’s about power and control. And it’s anti democratic. And that wave is spreading, uh, throughout our country at every level, anti democratic. And what I say to many of my Republican friends, it’s not in your best interest, okay?
[00:25:56] Mayor Sylvester Turner: It’s not in your children’s best interest. For, uh, people to be supportive of measures that are anti democratic because invariably, It will work against us all, but that’s what you’re seeing right now and the state of Texas is a prime example. And that’s why I would say to people across the board, exercise your right to vote.
[00:26:23] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Don’t make it easy for people to control you and your lives by not participating. Don’t make it easy. You’re playing into their games. So that’s what we’re seeing. It’s unfortunate. We have to stay vigilant and you can’t give up in this battle.
[00:26:40] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson. This is I SEE U. We’re on location at City Hall chatting with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner as he wraps up eight years in office.
[00:26:52] Eddie Robinson: What role is gerrymandering playing through all this? Because people do say, you know, what good is it for me to go and vote?
[00:27:00] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Well, gerrymandering plays a huge part in it because what ends up happening, I can lock in my victory. I’ll give an example. I was in the legislature, Barack Obama ran, and I think it was like in 2008 is when he ran, people came to the polls and voted, and the Texas legislature in the House was like 76 Republicans, 74 Democrats.
[00:27:28] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Very very close. We easily were able to stop bad bills. Because when it was that close, it forced a consensus. And neither extreme prevailed. It forced consensus and collaboration. The next time around, Democrats didn’t show up. And in 2011, when we went back for the legislative session, it was like 101 Republicans, 49 Democrats. And it was a redistricting year.
[00:28:05] Eddie Robinson: Mm.
[00:28:07] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And what the Republicans did. Is that through the gerrymandering process, they locked in their wins. They drew districts that were highly favorable to them. They packed minorities into districts. And so, minorities could easily win whatever district that they were running for.
[00:28:30] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Because they packed minorities in. Way more than was needed. Okay? They took minorities out of Republican districts that they had gerrymandered. They eliminated the white Democrats. I mean, reduced them to hardly nothing. So, it was primarily Republicans and minority districts. So, even though minority candidates could win because their districts were very packed, their numbers fell way short. And Republicans locked in their victories, so much so that if you then came out and voted big, they had insulated themselves by locking in their gains. And that’s why I tell people all the time, you have to vote in every election. It’s not about just voting when the president is on the ballot.
[00:29:24] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Okay, because redistricting comes up every 10 years. And if you miss and don’t show up, the other party can lock in their victors. And that’s why across the country, in large part, gerrymandering has worked against the interest of so many people.
[00:29:47] Eddie Robinson: How would you describe your relationship with Texas Governor Greg Abbott? Look at that look. If we, can we get video here, where’s the camera?
[00:30:06] Mayor Sylvester Turner: I guess you could say ice cold.
[00:30:08] Eddie Robinson: Yeah. Yeah. Well, Hey, wee you know, A Phi A. 1906.
[00:30:13] Mayor Sylvester Turner: You know, and you know, what’s so interesting about my relationship with, uh, with the governor, the governor was initially, well, he’s a lawyer. Coming from the Houston area, we’ve known each other for a long time.
[00:30:25] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Interesting. When he was on the uh, justice on the Texas Supreme Court. Got along well when he became the Attorney General for the state of Texas. We got along well. I chaired the subcommittee of the entire criminal justice and judiciary on the appropriation committee. Chatted for many years, came before me all the time.
[00:30:49] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Not a problem. When he became the governor, that was just a huge shift. Now he was conservative, but he wasn’t extreme. He’s now extreme. Now I’m the mayor. Other than seeing, let’s say, the governor at an event like the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo where we exchange greetings, we probably haven’t talked in two years.
[00:31:18] Mayor Sylvester Turner: His politics is extreme. And what you see him pushing, like to take over. Of the school district, preempting local units of government, anything that’s democratically run. What he’s doing at the border, or sending folk to New York, Chicago, L. A., Denver. And in many cases, there are cities that are run by African Americans. You know, disappointing. But yeah, we’ve known each other for quite some time.
[00:32:03] Eddie Robinson: Coming up in a major city with a $6 billion annual budget, you know, it’s virtually guaranteed that there’ll be some dirty politics in any campaign For Mayor of Houston and playing up racial fears is at the top of a political strategist’s playbook. Think back to George H. W. Bush, who used attack ads with Willie Horton in 1988 to play on white voters prejudices.
[00:32:27] Eddie Robinson: But what does this look like when a popular African American candidate is on the verge of winning an important race in a majority minority city like Houston? I’m Eddie Robinson. I SEE U. Our final segment comes your way right after this.
[00:32:51] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, be sure to subscribe to our podcast, I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.
[00:33:24] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. We’ve been spending the hour at City Hall inside the office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. He’s had an impactful career as an attorney, taught law at Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, spent decades as a state representative, and most recently, of course, nearly eight years as mayor of Houston.
[00:33:49] Eddie Robinson: He’s had successes as well as challenges, like his cancer diagnosis in June of 2022 that revealed he had a tumor growing in his jaw. He managed to keep the diagnosis and treatment secret for months. While he missed city council meetings for two months that summer. He continued to conduct city business and communicate with his staffers and department directors from his hospital bed.
[00:34:17] Eddie Robinson: He’s kept his cards close to the vest about what’s next. But could it be a return to state or even national politics? There’s certainly a need for candidates at these levels. There have only been five Black governors of states in all of this country’s history. I asked Mayor Turner why it’s been so difficult for African American candidates to break through to statewide offices.
[00:34:43] Mayor Sylvester Turner: One, it takes money. You have to have fuel to run. Number two, it is about exposure. Money is a part of it, but about exposure. Third, I mean, I am the second African American mayor of the city of Houston. A. P. Brown was one. He was served from 1997 to 2003, and then I’m the second. So outta 62 mayors only two African Americans.
[00:35:14] Mayor Sylvester Turner: So it, you know, it, it takes, um, well I won’t say it takes time ’cause it’s already been too long, but it’s, it’s about increasing that pool in the pipeline and it’s the willingness to take on the challenge. You can’t win if you don’t run. Hell, I ran for mayor three times. Ninety one, when I was in my thirties.
[00:35:38] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Two thousand and three, was in my forties. And then this time. You know, candidly, on the third time, it was not necessarily the third time of my choosing. Because I told people when they asked me about it, I said, look, I’ve been there, done that. I don’t have to be mayor for my identity. I’ve offered myself twice, I choose not to do it again.
[00:36:04] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And I never forget, it was my, I was at my law firm and my pastor called me, said, what are you doing for lunch? I said, I’m at my desk. Come join me for lunch. And I left and, uh, met him at, uh, this restaurant. I walked in and there were like seven, eight other pastors with him. And I sat down and, and we started talking, and he said, um, you’re not running for the legislature anymore.
[00:36:31] Mayor Sylvester Turner: I said, no, I’m not, um, Pastor. And he said, um, we think you should run for mayor. I said, I’ve been there and done that, Pastor. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. To which he responded, you ran twice. You did what you wanted to do. Don’t you think it’s about time that you, um, see what God wants? So I said, Oh, I prayed on the first two.
[00:36:58] Mayor Sylvester Turner: I said, I prayed on the first two. But he, but he said, um, I wouldn’t rule it out.
[00:37:05] Eddie Robinson: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:37:06] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Okay. And then it was my daughter who came along and said, Dad, if you don’t do it, Will the circle have been completed, and will you have any regrets? Because I always talked about living a life of no regrets. Live a life of no regrets.
[00:37:22] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And so my daughter threw the words back at me and said, If you don’t do it, will you have any regrets? And that was the piece that stayed with me. That hit. That was the piece. So essentially, you know, what I would say to other African Americans, uh, on whatever position it may be. You know, you live a life with no regrets. But in order to win, you have to run.
[00:37:48] Eddie Robinson: That’s right.
[00:37:49] Mayor Sylvester Turner: You know, Eddie, I ran in ’91. I didn’t make it. I fell short. Made it to the runoff. Okay. I was naive, had a lot of volunteers, but they schooled me. I waited. I said, look, I’m not going to be hasty and jump back out there again. I continue to be in the legislature.
[00:38:07] Mayor Sylvester Turner: I continue to remain as a partner in my law firm. And so, uh, I ran in 2003 when financially I was solid. And had the means and I thought, okay, God, I didn’t rush back in. I’ve waited some 12 years. So. God lets you and I go and I ran in 2003. There were three candidates, and I fared worse in 2003 than I did in ’91.
[00:38:37] Mayor Sylvester Turner: I said, what’s going on here? And um, God and I had some serious conversation. Sure. Because I said to God, now look, I did not have to run. I thought you told me to run. You know, you go, you go through all that, okay? I didn’t win. Returned to my law firm as partners, but I stayed with the legislature and I was teaching at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law.
[00:39:01] Mayor Sylvester Turner: I did that for two years and I fell in love with it.
[00:39:04] Eddie Robinson: Nice.
[00:39:05] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And I stayed for another 15 years. And so, you know, when I ran the third time, third time was the right time. And to be honest with you, I’m glad I didn’t win the first two times.
[00:39:19] Eddie Robinson: This is I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re on location speaking with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner inside his office at City Hall as he looks back on his career as an attorney and politician.
[00:39:31] Eddie Robinson: In your recollection, perhaps there’s an incident that continues to stick with you that always resonates on some level. Maybe that incident has served its inspiration or motivation when it pops up. But as a politician, what’s been the most intense, racist incident that’s ever happened in your life?
[00:39:52] Mayor Sylvester Turner: You know, that first race, the campaign, there were three of us in the first time. The incumbent, an older white guy, highly affluent, and then me. And when I started the campaign, and even throughout the campaign, even the media and others would say, um, Sylvester Turner, you know, young, smart, articulate, but he can’t win. And then we’ll say the black guy, you know, but he can’t win. Smart, bright, articulate, but he can’t win.
[00:40:27] Mayor Sylvester Turner: It was always that phrase. But I had a lot of volunteers and we campaigned very hard. I was everywhere. I should say we were everywhere. And then I made it to the runoff. Got past the incumbent. And so it was just the older guy, white guy, and then myself. My story resonated with even white voters. He was this guy from the hood, valedictorian of this predominantly white high school, University of Houston, Harvard, Fulbright and Jaworski’s law firm.
[00:41:01] Mayor Sylvester Turner: People loved my story. Okay. And so then the polls started changing. And now they were saying 40 percent of the white community is in there voting for him. He got solid support of African American communities, you know, Hispanics are voting. So, I was surging. I’ll never forget this consultant that I had out of New York.
[00:41:25] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Came to me and he said, Sylvester, I have some good news and bad news. I said, okay, give me the good news. He said, the good news is for the very first time, people believe you can win. The polls say you can win. I said, okay, give me the bad news. He said, Sylvester, for the very first time, people believe you can win.
[00:41:52] Mayor Sylvester Turner: I said, no, give me the bad news. He says, Sylvester, for the very first time, people believe you can win. So he said, young man, put on your seatbelt. You’re about to be in, uh, for a ride of your life. And in the last seven days, one of the major media television stations ran a story that was so sensational. A story that was given to them with a bow around it, gave it to one of their reporters, and that stationary reporter ran the story just like it was given to them. This was a story that was handed to them by the other campaign.
[00:42:47] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And they ran it in the last seven days. And my poll numbers dropped. True story. Because I sued them. That was an eye opener in many ways. But I learned from that too. So, you know, That was something that has stayed with me. And then the other thing is that, uh, Even as, you know, we faced a lot of storms. But the city has proven to be highly resilient.
[00:43:18] Mayor Sylvester Turner: You know, so that’s on that front. But, on the positive, because I don’t want to leave with that, just on that end, but on the other end, that’s on one end, on the other, is that, uh, I was at a Boys to Men luncheon.
[00:43:31] Eddie Robinson: Okay.
[00:43:33] Mayor Sylvester Turner: That was being held on the campus of the University of Houston. And I walked in late, with the mayor’s detail.
[00:43:40] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And I didn’t want to interrupt the program, so I sat along the side of the wall. There were some chairs along the side of the wall. And I sat down, waiting for them to call me. I was a guest speaker.
[00:43:52] Eddie Robinson: Okay.
[00:43:53] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And as I walked in with the mayor’s detail, all these young boys turned around to see who walked in. And I sat down, and a few minutes later, this ten year old Black kid. Literally from the middle of the room, gets up, and he walks all the way across the room. And he stands right in front of me. And I say to him, I said, hey, what’s up man? And he said, um, you the mayor? And I said, you got me. I said, what can I do for you?
[00:44:26] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And he said, um, I came over to say hello. I said, Hey, partner, thank you very much. I appreciate that. And then they started to introduce me. So I say to him, I say, Hey, I said, Hey, man, it’s my turn. So we’re going to pick this. We’re going to pick this conversation up. Okay, so I get up. And I started walking towards the front.
[00:44:49] Mayor Sylvester Turner: This 10 year old black kid is walking with me. I walk up on the stairs. He walks up on the stairs with me. I go behind the podium. He stands right beside me. So I gave my speech for about 20 minutes. He never left my side. And I said to the people at the end, Please join me in thanking my friend for standing by my side and giving me what I needed, uh, to speak to you today.
[00:45:20] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Please thank my young friend here. And they all clap, clap, clap. When the road has gotten rough, or you face those moments that are unfair, okay, I have always been reminded of that 10 year old kid who came over, introduced himself, Walk with me up on the stage and stood there. And it’s a reminder to me, is that what we do is not just about fixing potholes, or solving pension problems, or responding to a storm.
[00:46:01] Mayor Sylvester Turner: It’s also making ourselves available. And accessible and visible for those young boys and girls who we may not see them, but they are looking at us. And to the extent we can motivate them, then our job is being well done. So you know, you have those negative moments, but there are so many other positive moments because for many of our kids.
[00:46:36] Mayor Sylvester Turner: They cannot be what they cannot see. And a part of our jobs, in the positions that we hold, is to put ourselves in a way, in a position, posture, where they can see us. And how we respond to various crises, that’s important. So there are times, for example, when the hood in me wants to stand up. And I gotta hold it.
[00:47:06] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And there are times when I may want to curse somebody out. And I have to hold it. And there are times, for example, when though life may appear to be unfair, as my mom would say, son, you have to navigate through it or around it. But you gotta get there. So if you allow them to block you, then whose fault is it?
[00:47:31] Mayor Sylvester Turner: So you see the hurdles, Sylvester. Go around it. Or you find a way, son, to get to your destination. But don’t you dare stop them from moving forward. Those are the principles that we’ve, that I’ve embraced, and those are the things I think are important for us to give, especially to this younger generation that’s looking for guidance.
[00:47:52] Eddie Robinson: That’s right. Our last, our last question here, and we ask this to all of our guests. Throughout your tenure as mayor here in the great city of Houston, what lessons have you learned about yourself thus far?
[00:48:08] Mayor Sylvester Turner: I’m, you know, I’m patient. I’m more patient than I thought I would be or could be. Resilient. And very much, um, the son of my mama and daddy.
[00:48:24] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Because, um, you know, they paved the way. And they operated with far fewer resources than what I’m operating with. And they were successful in what they did. So, um, it’s been a good ride. You know, I, you know, the storms, the social and civil unrest, the pension issues, you name it, all the ones that you’ve named.
[00:48:51] Mayor Sylvester Turner: That’s a part of the journey. And I don’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on that. Uh, I do subscribe to what I heard of a, a black pastor say years before I became mayor. And what he said is that, um, God gives his hardest exams. to his best students. And to the extent you’re not going through much, before you so quickly pat yourself on the back.
[00:49:18] Mayor Sylvester Turner: You know, he said, let me just tell you, God didn’t give you much because he knew you couldn’t stand much. But then he said, to the rest of you, who’ve been going through much. You’ve been getting one test after another, one challenge after another, before you get engaged in a self pity party. He said, let me tell you, God gives his hardest exams to his best students.
[00:49:44] Mayor Sylvester Turner: So to the extent you have been given much to handle, It’s because God trusted you much to manage it. So, as mayor of this city, the fourth largest city, we’ve gone through a lot. But, um, hey man, I smile at it because it’s good to know when you’re in an accelerated class. Oh. Ha, ha, ha, ha. So to all of the other mayors out there, and especially my brothers and sisters, you know, hey, Deal with it.
[00:50:17] Mayor Sylvester Turner: And recognize, uh, you can either be in the advanced class or you can be in the elementary class. Which one would you like? So, uh, you know, it’s always good to be in an accelerated class.
[00:50:33] Eddie Robinson: Mayor Sylvester Turner, thank you so much for being a guest on I SEE U.
[00:50:36] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Thanks for having me.
[00:51:27] Mayor Sylvester Turner: Our incredible team includes Technical Director Todd Hulslander, Producers Laura Walker and Micho Jacob. I SEE U is a prOduction of Houston Public Media. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and X we’re at I SEE U show subscribe to our podcast, wherever you listen and download your favorite shows. I’m your host and executive producer, Eddie Robinson, and I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time.


This article is part of the podcast I SEE U with Eddie Robinson

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