Houston attorney Tony Buzbee sent shockwaves around the city when he announced his intent to challenge incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner in 2019. Following the announcement, Buzbee took some time to talk with Texas Scorecard about his candidacy and what he hopes to bring to the city if elected.
If there’s one thing Buzbee wants people to know about his race, it is that his campaign isn’t about being “against” Turner; rather, it’s about what he can bring to the table as mayor.
“I’m not running against Sylvester Turner,” he said, “I am running for the mayor of Houston. I don’t care who the other opponents are. What I would ask people to do is examine the people that are going to run and see who is the best person to lead this city, and I feel quite confident that I will be the person people will choose.”
Turner may feel a little differently.
During his weekly post-council press conference on Wednesday, he tried to brush off the challenge when asked his thoughts about Buzbee running. “I don’t even know who he is. Next question,” Turner said.
Turner must have forgotten he was hosted in Buzbee’s home in the past.
According to Buzbee, his candidacy is different because he is not a politician and can entirely self-fund his campaign. He argues this will allow him to work with whoever shares the best interests for the city rather than those who would otherwise contribute to a political campaign in hopes of benefitting from that.
The pay-to-play nature of city hall seems like it will become the cornerstone of Buzbee’s campaign. Throughout the interview, he reiterated the claim that the city’s quid pro quo nature has placed special interests above taxpayer interests and his administration won’t allow that to continue.
“I’m not suggesting Houston is unique in the fact that there’s a pay-to-play mentality in city hall. But I will tell you this, I know who those people are and I bet you they won’t support me because I don’t want any of their money,” he said of campaign contributors who regularly win contracts at city hall.
“They’re going to demonstrate merit if they want to do business with the city; they don’t have to be with us going on a junket to Cuba or South Africa. What impresses me is showing me how you can advance the interests of the city of Houston, that’s all I care about.”
He says much of the change to that culture at city hall will come from electing the right person as mayor, and he believes that person is him. Too many politicians are concerned about funding their next election, so they are more concerned with pleasing donors than taxpayers, he said, which is why he is self-funding. “Anybody that wants to give money to the campaign, give it to the Houston Children’s Charity.”
When asked how much he expects the race to cost, he capped it at $5 million but expects to spend less. “I have a message; I think it’s a very strong message, I think I’ll get a lot of media coverage just because of who I am and because of the message, but I’m not going to spend more than $5 million.”
Buzbee says if he wins, he believes, in the end, Houston will be mentioned among the great cities of the world. “When there’s a conversation, when they say what are the leading international cities of the world … they’ll say of course there’s Paris, and of course there’s New York, and of course there’s London, and obviously there’s Houston.”
His message may be what voters and taxpayers want to hear; only time will tell. But the onslaught of news stories about questionable contracts at city hall, out-of-town trips, sporting event tickets to friends, and legal problems with former staff members (Darian Ward and Karun Sreerama) that have plagued Turner’s term provide an opportunity for opponents to draw a stark contrast.
While the election is still more than a year away, there is a host of non-incumbent candidates who have signaled their intention for various council seats. Buzbee is the first to announce for the top job.
As of now, Buzbee is still only a potential candidate. He confirmed he has not made any formal moves towards his candidacy. He stills serves as a regent on the Texas A&M system board, though his term is set to expire in 2019.
The last mayoral election drew 13 candidates and the one prior to that had nine, so there will be other contenders making their intentions known in the coming months. Texas Scorecard will continue highlighting and interviewing candidates throughout that time.