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Thursday, December 7, 2023


Mayoral Candidate Forum discusses future of city

Candidates (left to right) attorney Lee Kaplan, U.S. Rep. Shiela Jackson Lee and former City Council member M.J. Khan in attendance at the 2023 Mayoral Forum held Friday at Student Center South, Houston room. | Raphael Fernandez/The Cougar

Friday, The Student Government Association, Hispanic Business Student Association and GenHTX hosted a mayoral candidate forum with five candidates attending. 

After a pre-mixer event filled with voter registration opportunities, raffles and complimentary food, five candidates gathered in the Houston room to respond to questions asked by members of SGA. Attending candidates include U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, City Council member Robert Gallegos, former METRO Chair Gilbert Garcia, former City Council member M.J. Khan and attorney Lee Kaplan.

“I definitely think we did accomplish our goals for the night. This was a ‘we’ project,” said SGA President Benjamin Rizk, citing SGA director of outreach Jordan Underwood as the architect of the event.

An audience of about 100 attended the forum, watching Rizk and other members of SGA ask the candidates questions on a variety of topics such as public safety, affordable housing, public transport and crime. 

One of the biggest topics the candidates discussed was their methods of preventing crime, from greater presence in the Houston police department to promoting community policing.

Candidates Jackson Lee and Gallegos both claim that the issue of crime within Houston, while milder than in previous years, requires additional support from the community and other organizations.

Jackson Lee, one of the race’s frontrunners, proposed increased cooperation with federal agencies and a stronger relationship between communities and police. 

“I think that we have a much better city than we might hear about,” Jackson Lee said. “I want to move to police-community relationships.”

Other candidates, such as Garcia, agreed with Jackson Lee’s and Gallegos’ prescription of more community policing, whereas Khan advocated for additional police presence in the city

“I will add $100 million dollars to the HPD budget, start hiring 500 more officers in my first 100 days,” Khan said. Khan also claimed that audits from other Houston departments will create the funding for them.

Kaplan criticized other Houston programs, saying that he would eliminate the ShotSpotter and gun buyback programs, both of which he claims to be a “waste of money.”

The candidates discussed other issues regarding economics, such as affordable housing and job creation.

Excluding Khan, the candidates espoused their support for additional units of affordable housing, with each explaining their methods of achieving that goal. 

Jackson Lee claimed that she would cooperate with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to create more housing. She encourages cooperation between both private and public developers.

“Everyone deserves good houses,” Jackson Lee said. “We will not have people being evicted because of high rents. We will build small developments and encourage you to buy housing with different housing projects, including public-private partnerships”

Garcia and Kaplan lamented the bureaucratic inefficiency that leads to extravagant wait times to obtain a development permit, both alleging that it takes years to get a permit from the city to build affordable housing.

The candidates also discussed the best ways of providing jobs to the city, with each candidate having different ideas on how to attract a variety of industries.

For Kaplan, tech jobs are the future of job creation in the city, and entrepreneurs will encourage the shift into the industry.

“I would always attract tech,” Kaplan said. “Tech is where we will do best. This is the thing that we need to agitate with our elected representatives in the state legislature to push so that more of that comes here which is where it belongs.”

A notable absence from the night was state Sen. John Whitmire, who did not show up despite SGA’s promise of his attendance. 

Despite his absence, Whitmire caught criticism from Garcia regarding his silence on committing to appoint pro-transit people to the metro board. In the last debate at the University, Garcia questioned Whitmire’s commitment to public transportation.

“There’s only one candidate that is threatening to take away the funding of METRO, he’s not here so I won’t use his name,” Garcia said.

The moderator of the debate, KHOU reporter Anayeli Ruiz agreed with Rizk that the mayoral candidate forum was successful in the goals that they set out.

“This is definitely a step in the right direction. You need to keep doing things like this in order to engage more and more students,” Ruiz said. “Hopefully this continues to grab more momentum and we see more and more students come every time there’s an event like this.”

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