Two years ago this week, Hurricane Harvey churned its way ashore. The monster category four storm dumped an unbelievable 30 or more inches of rain on the city of Houston, making it the wettest hurricane ever to hit the United States.
How bad was it? The National Weather Service had to add more colors to its rainfall chart to depict the deluge accurately. That’s how bad it was.
It took weeks for the floodwaters to recede, leaving Houstonians devastated in its wake. Two years later, the city is still struggling to recover. Houston, which controls 4 percent of spending power in the United States, lost revenue of at least $1 billion from retailers and restaurants alone. That doesn’t account for the billions lost in damage to residential and commercial property, as well as infrastructure. Total damage from Hurricane Harvey is estimated to surpass the damage caused by Katrina, which devastated New Orleans more than a decade before.
It will take moxie to continue the long, hard slog to recovery, and after hearing him speak at Leadership Louisville this week, I think Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has it. Here’s how:
Moxie understands the importance of a level playing field.
In northwest Houston, Turner grew up poor in the Acres Homes, a semi-rural African-American neighborhood. His father passed away when Turner was 13, leaving his mother to raise nine children on the salary she earned as a maid in a Houston hotel.
Both of Turner’s parents placed a substantial value on education, and young Sylvester learned that lesson well. He majored in political science at the University of Houston and earned acceptance into the law school at Harvard University.
Turner was often the first or only person of color in the room and felt his race and class challenges. He and his roommate at Harvard – another black student – were stopped by police while carrying the furniture to their apartment. Two young black men toting a television across campus was suspicious, and someone had called the police. Turner and his roommate had to produce their Harvard IDs to get out of the situation.
That wasn’t the last time Turner struggled to fit in and find acceptance among his wealthier peers. While most of his classmates could afford to eat lunch at local cafes – a practice inevitably leading to networking and learning opportunities – Turner could barely afford to scrape together a sandwich at home. So when he shared his concern with his financial aid officer, she increased his stipend so he could take advantage of the opportunity to dine with his peers.
“I give her a lot of credit to this day because before that; it was difficult. She helped put me on a level playing field,” Turner recalled in a profile in Harvard Magazine.
That simple act was a lesson that Turner carried with him after graduation and through his career as an attorney and as a Texas state legislator.
During his nearly three decades of service as a Texas state legislator, he earned a reputation as the “conscience of the House” for speaking up on behalf of the neediest Texans. For example, he helped reverse cuts to the state’s health insurance program for children, bringing together 64 Democrats and 62 Republicans to save it.
“I came up in a household that was at the bottom of the economic ladder,” Turner said in his Harvard Magazine profile, “so I know what I’m talking about when I talk about income inequality. In addition, I know about the importance of education since neither of my parents graduated from high school.”
It takes moxie to be a groundbreaker, as Turner has often been. As I’ve frequently noted, moxie is a team sport. Turner was strong enough to express his need with the right person, which made all the difference in his life. He’s invested his career as a public servant in doing the same for others.
Moxie gets everyone to the table.
The biggest threat wasn’t flooding; it was the city’s pension crisis. Despite a booming economy and growth even during the recession, Houston had unmet pension obligations that tanked its credit rating and threatened to sink the city in the future. And Turner couldn’t turn to new taxes to fix the mess. In Houston, tax increases are a no-go.
Turner plunged into the problem headfirst. He started by getting a more accurate picture of the problem. But, unfortunately, it turned out to be even worse than anticipated, with the city even further in the hole than it had realized.
Turner and his team negotiated to reduce benefits incrementally, thus reducing projected shortfalls significantly. Turner then put a solid payment 30-year repayment plan in place with payments are funded by municipal bonds. The program also sets a more realistic goal for investment performance and offers the city some obligation relief if investments underperform. The state legislators blessed the plan in 2017, and bonds were issued before the end of the year. The goal is now on track and is being hailed as a model for other pension plans in crisis.
Turner successfully brought everyone to the table – pension boards, business leaders, community leaders – and helped them understand the true scope of the problem and agree on a solution that shares responsibility. But, of course, getting alignment on solving such a thorny problem takes moxie, and Turner has it.
Moxie knows how to get points on the board early in a long game.
So you’d think that with a problem as big as the pension crisis on his plate when he took office, Turner would have little time or resources to execute on anything else.
Wrong. Turner turned his attention to one of the most fundamental issues local politicians face: fixing potholes.
Houston roads were a moonscape of potholes, wreaking havoc for commuters in a city that is not known for being pedestrian-friendly. Turner recognized that if he were going to fix more significant issues such as the pension crisis, he would need to earn voters’ trust by fixing more minor issues like potholes.
Turner led a significant ramp-up of efforts, and soon the city was repairing thousands of potholes a month, often within a day of them being reported.
That commitment and those wins surely gave Turner credibility later when it came time to tackle other issues.
It takes moxie to keep your commitments – big and small – and Turner has it.
What do you wish your local leaders would learn from Turner?