4 frontrunning candidates vying for Houston mayor finish final debate a week before Election Day

Monday, November 6, 2023
4 Houston mayoral candidates finish final debate at TSU
Four of Houston's top mayoral candidates debated for the final time about critical issues facing voters, such as crime, housing, and the economy.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Four of Houston's top mayoral candidates debated each other on stage at Texas Southern University, where ABC13 sponsored in partnership with TSU.

Among the topics being discussed were critical issues facing voters in the city, such as crime, housing, and the economy.

RELATED: Everything you need to know before voting for Houston's new mayor in November election

All four candidates polled at 4% or higher in a recent poll conducted by the University of Houston Hobby School.

The candidates participating in Monday's debate were Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, State Senator John Whitmire, former METRO chair Gilbert Garcia, and former Houston City Council member Jack Christie.

Here were some of the questions asked and the responses in this, at times, contentious debate.

How do you plan to recruit more officers, and get them to stay and work with improved efficiencies?

The first question was posed to Gilbert Garcia, former METRO chairman, who insisted he isn't going to "mislead" Houstonians "ever." With that, he acknowledged how difficult it would be to hire officers.

He then laid out a three-point plan he said would make policing successful:

  • Hire civilians to work HPD's civilian duties, which he says are being filled by officers
  • Bring back community policing, which he says worked under Mayor Lee Brown, with the use of local storefront offices as opposed to a central office
  • Improve lighting in high-crime areas

Is what HPD doing now truly working to drop crime rates? And are voters conflating the issue?

Former Houston councilmember Jack Christie answered this question, calling voters correct on the crime issue in the city.

He acknowledged the good work the current chief and the officers are doing by going directly to the crime trouble spots, but agreed with the hiring of 500 officers to improve a staff already "spread so thin."

"But you can't get 500 more police (officers) until you have a balanced budget," he said. "We can't put it on a credit card or a bond."

State Sen. John Whitmire followed up with a 30-second response, pointing at years of crime data as opposed to a snapshot of just one year.

He then mentioned holding criminals accountable and solving crimes, many of which, he says, aren't yet solved.

"There are so many unsolved crimes, repeat violent offenders. Help those who are non-violent who want to change their life," Whitmire said.

He then spoke directly about Garcia's solution for lighting, saying that "lighting is great, but they wouldn't go into convenience stores if light deterred them."

How would you address DPS troopers arresting a disproportionate amount of Black and Hispanic people as they work with HPD?

Whitmire fielded this question but didn't directly address the issue posed by it, arguing that the troopers' presence in Houston is nothing like that in Austin, blaming police defunding advocates for building a negative narrative in that city.

"We need a plan. Those who criticize that, where is their plan?" Whitmire asked.

He then posed ideas for sharing resources with DPS, given HPD's own deficient staffing numbers.

"We need collaboration," Whitmire said. "It has worked in Dallas."

While praising HPD's own academy, Christie offered the idea of a larger coordinated safety program between Houston police, the Harris County Sheriff's Office, and the constable's offices.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee gave her first words of the debate through a rebuttal, insisting that HPD, not DPS, is better for neighborhood policing. Still, she credited DPS for its investigative skills.

Garcia entered the conversation, invoking images of the current crisis at the border. He believes DPS would make things worse in the city based on what has been seen in the border region.

"We already know what's happening in the valley. We see terrible pictures of DPS pushing women and children back into the water, back into razor wire. That's not what we need in Houston," Garcia said.

What do you think are the drivers of crime in Houston? What programs would you implement to address crime?

Jackson Lee fielded this question, offering multiple ideas, including not cutting overtime, boosting officer numbers on the street, targeting high-risk areas and cleaning them up, and implementing violence interruption programs.

The lawmaker repeated the use of federal funds that she said she helped bring to the city to make these programs happen, though she also called for an overhaul of unnecessary city expenses.

Christie rebutted, saying you can't solve crime if you can't solve the drug and addiction problem.

Whitmire also rebutted, insisting DPS wouldn't be militarized despite Garcia's suggestion. Then, he turned to repeat offenders, claiming that of the 1,900 people waiting for a murder trial, just more than half are out committing crimes again "tonight."

To Jackson Lee: were you in the purported expletive-filled recording? And how does leadership heard in the audio inspire people you might recruit as city employees?

The congresswoman pointed at a previous statement, expressing regret if she offended anyone. But she placed blame on a "Whitmire operative" for leaking the recording, to which the state senator was seen shaking his head to the suggestion.

She went on to claim that a double standard was being made against her when men also speak in that manner.

She mentioned her prior stint on the council, claiming to be the "go-to" council member when it comes to hiring.

In response, Whitmire called it "ridiculous" to suggest that he would want anyone to hear the recording, insisting that he hasn't said anything negative about his opponents.

What is your plan to get a handle on spending in light of a report finding Houston spending up to $200 million more yearly than it brings in?

Jackson Lee insisted on looking positively at what the city already has, pointing at Houston as the seventh-largest economy in the U.S.

She then pointed to her experience with budgeting through her stint on a congressional budget committee, alluding to prioritization as a key to handling spending.

She said she would audit city expenses and assets but stopped short of cutting police, fire, and city employees.

In terms of revenue, she called for greater economic investment and offered her prior national and international experience as a fit.

Ultimately, Jackson Lee called back to gain more federal assistance as COVID-19 funds are set to expire.

Christie followed up, referencing his time as a mayor-appointed financial chair. He said his stance would be more about investment into the city without cuts.

Garcia also rebutted, speaking directly to Whitmire, alluding to candidates with special interests. Garcia asked whether the senator would stop taking money as a lawyer-lobbyist if elected.

Whitmire insisted he's not a lobbyist and he would no longer practice law if elected.

RELATED: Mayor Sylvester Turner pushes back after new budget report cites issues within Houston

How will you assist HISD Superintendent Mike Miles and the district to get out of the state takeover?

Jackson Lee answered by saying that she was against the TEA takeover, also offering a reminder of Whitmire's "yes" vote for the original legislation.

She offered HISD to partner with private corporations to invest in reading, teaching, and support staff.

She also brought up her endorsement by the Houston Federation of Teachers.

Christie offered a quick rebuttal about his prior volunteer work with inner-city schools. He insisted the ideas he had eight years ago were already in action.

Garcia said he would meet with Miles immediately once elected and ask him what success looks like to him, whether it's high enrollment or anything else. Garcia also said he would want a seat at the table to help develop that plan and achieve it as fast as possible.

Whitmire got the final rebuttal, running down the other lawmakers who voted for the takeover legislation, including Mayor Sylvester Turner when he was a state lawmaker.

Whitmire then said he marched back in April against the takeover, to which Jackson Lee said, "One march doesn't give you any credentials to be concerned about our school children."

You can view the entire survey here, which ABC13 used to determine candidate eligibility.

SEE HERE: This Week in Texas looks at what's at stake as early voting for Houston's mayoral race is underway

ABC13's program, This Week in Texas, is examining what is at stake as early voting gets underway for Houston mayor.

This was the last debate the candidates had before Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 7.

The winner will succeed Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has served eight years and has reached term limits.

Should no candidate garner more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates will face each other in a runoff on Saturday, Dec. 9.


Four of Houston's top mayoral candidates debated for the final time at Texas Southern University on Monday evening.