Buzbee: Turner should return campaign cash from hurricane relief contractors

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Houston mayoral candidate Tony Buzbee strolled into his Midtown campaign headquarters Friday behind a wheelbarrow of manure, faced a row of TV cameras, and let it rip on Sylvester Turner, declaring the incumbent mayor’s administration reeked like a pungent heap of dung.

“Something stinks at City Hall, and it’s not this horse manure,” Buzbee said, alleging the mayor was trading city contracts for campaign contributions.

“Although that stinks pretty bad,” Buzbee added, glancing at the wheelbarrow.

For about 20 minutes, the millionaire lawyer laid the seeds for a mayoral campaign built on tackling crime, paying firefighters more and putting stricter limits on political donations to city officials.

He ticked through several crime-based challenges facing the city — sex trafficking, car theft and a gang war — and promised he would later release a detailed plan to fix each problem. He pledged to increase firefighters’ salaries to match those of police officers, as mandated by the voter-approved Proposition B, though he did not lay out a specific plan to fund the extra cost. And he accused Turner of giving hurricane relief contracts to companies based on how much money they gave to the mayor’s campaign.

“There are several different companies that have been feeding at the trough,” Buzbee said. “I used to raise hogs. And when you bring the slop, the hogs come running. And that’s what’s going on at the city of Houston. There’s a feeding frenzy.”

Turner declined to comment. He reported a $1.24 million fundraising haul during the second half of 2018, leaving him with $2.85 million cash on hand as he takes aim at a second term.

Buzbee, a Houston lawyer who has accumulated his wealth from defending high-profile clients, has pledged to entirely self-fund his campaign — up to $5 million — without accepting a single contribution. Already, Buzbee has poured in $2 million, spending about one-fourth of it.

“Did anybody look at my campaign finance report?” Buzbee said. “How many donations did I take? Zero. And that’s how many I will continue to take. I will never take a campaign donation.”

Political challengers routinely criticize incumbents for accepting campaign cash from city contractors. In cities and counties around the country, officials receive their biggest donations from firms and professionals — many of whom fail to secure government business.

To Buzbee, complacency is the problem.

“You can say, ‘Oh, Tony, that’s just the way business is done. That’s the way it’s always been,'” Buzbee said. “Well, I would respectfully submit to you that’s not the say it should be.”

Already, Buzbee and Bill King, another candidate looking to unseat Turner, have said they plan to lead separate petition drives to change Houston’s charter by blocking political donors from doing business with the city.

On Friday, Buzbee repeatedly wondered aloud why members of the media had not pressed Turner or city contractors about the perceived conflicts of interest. Buzbee also urged the media to ask the mayor about a range of other issues, such as spending waste on a terminal expansion project at Bush Intercontinental Airport. More than $50 million of the $85 million earmarked for the project has gone to consultants.

“Why are you not asking more questions about that?” Buzbee said, citing spending figures from media reports.

Buzbee and King have both drawn attention to a $36 million contract awarded to ICF International, a Virginia-based firm that will help victims access $1.17 billion in federal aid for Hurricane Harvey recovery. The aid will cover the cost of the contract.

At issue is Turner’s ties to ICF subcontractor Barry Barnes, the mayor’s former law partner. Other subcontractors also donated to Turner’s campaign.

Turner has said he stays out of the procurement process and divested himself of all his business interests upon becoming mayor.