Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Houston controller candidates forum

It's been five long months since I blogged about the city's head beancounter race.  A few of the wannabes got together for a debate in my neck of the woods at the end of last week.

Perpetually overshadowed in Houston's strong-mayor form of government that affords the controller no policy-making power, many past city controllers were known for using the post as a bully pulpit to criticize mayoral policy, and later a launching pad for higher office.

Earlier this year, the five declared controller candidates indicated they would depart from this mold.
However, that tone shifted at a forum in Sunnyside, where three of the candidates addressed a predominantly African-American crowd gathered at a neighborhood community center.

"It's the second-highest elected official in city government, and it needs to be independent to provide a check and balance on the office in power," said former City Councilman Jew Don Boney, who went on to say the controller must not be an ally or lapdog to the mayor.

I like JD Boney because he tells it like it is.

Still, Boney stressed the controller ought not approach the role bureaucratically.

"This is not an election for the chief bookkeeper of Houston," Boney said. "We hire CPAs."

Bill Frazer, 2013 controller runner-up, who touts himself as the only certified public accountant in the race, was not in attendance. Former Houston Community College board member Carroll Robinson also missed the bulk of the forum, walking in during closing remarks.

Meanwhile, deputy controller Chris Brown edged closer to the idea of a controller at odds with the mayor, albeit more gingerly.

Brown said the relationship between mayor and controller should depend on the state of the city's fiscal affairs.

"In times of great surplus, where there's a lot of money, I think the mayor and the controller should be adversaries, because that's the time when the mayor's gonna say, 'Hey, we've got tons of money. Let's just go spend it,' " Brown said.

"But," he added, "I think in the times when we have difficult financial problems, there needs to be more of a concerted effort to work together to solve the financial problems in the city."

With the city facing a $126 million deficit, Brown's remarks suggest his approach to the job would likely be similar to that of Controller Ron Green, who has not had a combative relationship with Mayor Annise Parker.

Let's set the table before moving forward: Brown is both one of the city's #2 men in the controller's office, and the son of former city councilman and mayoral candidate Peter Brown, aka Mr. Anne Sclumberger.  So you can safely assume without even looking at one of the far-too-many blog posts about campaign finance reports that Brown the Younger will have the 'resources to compete'.  Said resources did not help Brown the Elder in 2009 attain a runoff with Annise Parker, for the record.

Robinson is part of the Bethel Nathan/Hector Carreno mafia, whose players have consistently disgraced themselves in local politics for way too long.

Frazer, the only Republican in the race, forced the corrupted incumbent controller Green into a runoff two years ago.  He didn't show up at this forum because -- as the first excerpt above pointed out -- it was held in Sunnyside, almost in my own backyard and a predominantly African American and Democratic neighborhood.  Frazer's not counting on any votes from this side of town.  It's possible that if Democrats turn out at their usual low-to-mid-teen percentages in the fall, he could win without a runoff.  Finally...

Former Metro board member Dwight Jefferson was of a similar mind.

"I think that the mayor and the controller should work as equals," said Jefferson, who previously described the controller's job as ministerial. He said city leadership should work together to "ensure the best outcome for the city."

Jefferson was appointed a state district court judge by then-Gov. George W. Bush in the mid-'90's, ran and won in 1996 as a Republican (scroll almost to the end), but since 2010 has a Democratic primary voting history (scroll all the way to the bottom and then back up just a little).  Also read this for some interesting coalitions and alliances from twenty years ago.  Despite Brown's 11-year tenure at City Hall, Jefferson might still be the best man for the job, but both men also could be too unfamiliar to voters; Brown's deputy controller post and Jefferson's Metro board job are appointed ones.

Boney likely has the strongest constituency; he needs good field work to make the runoff.  Frankly I don't see any advantage for Robinson here despite being an elected community college board official; as befits the usual tactics of his godfathers Nathan and Carreno (scroll down about halfway; fraud is this family's affair), he could be in the race only to split the black vote enough for Frazer to sneak in.  Brown is the only white Democrat in the race, and the only one who can spend whatever.

Depending on who you think the next mayor will be, and on what these men consider the relationship between the mayor's office and the controller's office is supposed to be -- amicable or adversarial -- your choices for both jobs might be influenced by that careful consideration.  For example, if you think Sylvester Turner or Adrian Garcia is most likely Houston's next mayor, then Frazer as controller will be a very predictable pain in their ass.  And if you like Republicans Stephen Costello or Bill King, then a Democrat in the controller's office with some heft behind him, like Boney, will create a similar dynamic.  Jefferson is the most likely to go along and get along with the next mayor no matter who it is.  You might prefer a check-and-balance, you might like it better if everybody plays nice.  Up to you.

As far as Houston's budgeting for the coming biennium is concerned, between the revenue cap and the price of oil, we're likely looking at some hard times and difficult decisions.  So, friends or not, the next mayor and controller have their work cut out for them.

Politically, all of these Democrats together have to hold Frazer under 50%, and then the chosen one must run hard as hell in the runoff.  No bets taken yet.

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