Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner holds a copy of Chinese Enterprises in the United States, published by China Daily. May Zhou / China Daily
Mayor of 4th largest city in US has plans to visit China, as his predecessors have
Sylvester Turner would like you to know that he still enjoys being mayor of his hometown of Houston.
After 26 years in the Texas Legislature, Turner was elected mayor of the US' fourth-largest city last December.
"It has been over two months since I became the mayor of Houston, I want you know that I still like the job. It's not 9 to 5. It's not Monday to Friday. It's literally seven days a week, but it's a great city. It has been an awesome experience," Turner said at a recent luncheon hosted by the Asian Chamber of Commerce.
Born in 1954 in Houston as the sixth of nine children, Turner, 61, was raised by his father, a commercial painter, and his mother, a maid at the old Rice Hotel. He grew up with his big family in a two-bedroom house. His father had to cut grass with his sons over the weekend to make ends meet.
When Turner was 13, he lost his father to cancer and his mother became the primary breadwinner. Having not finished high school herself, Turner's mother ensured that her children got an education and inspired them to do their best.
"My mom always told me: You keep doing what you are doing; tomorrow will be a better day," Turner said.
Turner attended what at the time were segregated neighborhood public schools until integration arrived in Houston. He was transferred to Klein High School, and after a rocky start, was eventually accepted by his fellow students. Turner was later elected president of the student body and graduated as valedictorian.
Turner graduated magna cum laude with a degree in political science from the University of Houston. He continued his studies at Harvard Law School, where upon graduation he briefly worked as as an associate at a major Houston law firm before founding his own firm, Barnes & Turner, in 1983.
The next year, Turner made his first attempt at public office but did not win a seat on the Harris County Commission. Four years later, in 1988, he was elected a Texas state representative. His primary focus as a Democratic state legislator was public education, healthcare, consumer protection and criminal justice.
As Houston's new mayor, Turner said that his priorities are "to make us safe, build the infrastructure for business and people, including good streets and a good transit system, take care of the finances of the city, and go beyond the fundamentals".
Turner already had created a buzz in the city by seeing that potholes plaguing Houston streets were speedily fixed, as he promised in his mayoral campaign.
As of March 3, Turner said that the city repaired more than 12,500 potholes since Jan 11. A smartphone app and a dedicated website were created to deal with the road problems. Turner said that 95 percent of the time, the city crew fixed potholes reported by citizens by the next day, a fact verified by an independent study by Rice University.
Turner indicated that it was time to turn to more serious and address long-term infrastructure issues as well as the city budget, plan for the upcoming Super Bowl, and make appointments to various public boards.
As a native Houstonian, Turner considers diversity a major plus for the city: "Houston is a welcoming city embracing all the cultures, ethnicities and nationalities. We are a world-class international city striving to an ever-more global future. We are the most diversified city in the nation. When you come to Houston, you can travel the globe, you can go from Asia, to Latin America, to Africa, all well within the confines of Houston."
Turner said China's significance is not lost on him.
"We always say Houston is a world-class international city, and we can't really say that without including China right in the middle of the equation," Turner said.
For nearly 20 years, every mayor of Houston from Lee Brown to Bill White to Annise Parker, has led trade delegations to China to entice Chinese investors, and Turner is sure he will do the same.
"I have not been to China, but I look forward to going there," he said. "China is our second leading trading partner only after Mexico; we have a large Chinese population in the city with well over 100,000, and we have the Chinese Consulate General here, and if I am not mistaken, this was the first in the country going back to 1979. We want to explore as many business opportunities with China as possible," Turner continued.
Houston has a close economic and cultural relationship with China. According to data provided by the mayor's office, more than 900 Houston companies reported ties with China.
Houston companies have set up more than 100 subsidiaries throughout China. Conversely, dozens of Chinese companies have operations in Houston, including the three major Chinese oil companies.
Trade volume has been steadily increasing since 2010, to $16.6 billion in 2014. Houston and Shenzhen established a sister-city relationship in 1986. Under former mayor Parker, Houston formed a partnership with Shanghai.
In Turner's view, the local Chinese community can contribute much to the strengthening of ties between Houston and China. The mayor went to the Shandong Fellowship Association's Lunar New Year celebration, which was attended by more than 1,000 people in February.
"I talked to a Chinese businessman there. His company was looking to do more business in Houston and Louisiana. I encouraged them to take a look at Houston," Turner said.
Turner said the Chinese community has added a great deal to Houston. "When you look at science and technology, the Chinese community is very helpful. The city enjoys many Chinese restaurants.
"The Chinese community has a strong banking business. Houston has benefited in so many ways from the presence of the Chinese community. That's why we are a cultural city," he said.