City Controller Annise Parker and former City Attorney Gene Locke crossed swords Tuesday night in the most contentious televised mayoral debate of the 2009 campaign season.
The two candidates, who will face off in a Dec. 12 runoff, used the KTRK forum to cast each other as unfit to manage public safety resources and city finances.
Locke went on the attack early and continued through the entire hour, repeatedly accusing Parker of being “hypocritical” for questioning his record in ways he deemed inaccurate.
In one of many testy exchanges, he criticized Parker’s reluctance to commit money to beefing up Houston’s police presence.
“That’s the same rationale that keeps this city in an unsafe posture,” he said, insisting he would find available funds for police despite ongoing budget difficulties.
Parker shot back by noting that the police budget has grown more than 40 percent in the past six years without any growth in the size of the police force.
“At some time, you have to say, we can’t just put more money in the department, we have to do a better job policing,” she said.
As she has in the past several weeks, Parker put Locke on the defensive about his ties to the souring fortunes of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and his lucrative law practice.
During a heated 10 or 15 minutes in which the two were allowed to ask each other questions, Locke accused Parker of making an attack she knew to be baseless. He said he pledged to resign his partnership at the law firm Andrews Kurth at a forum in which she was present eight months ago.
“I’m going to give up my law practice,” he said.
She has repeatedly called on him to pledge that he will not return to the firm after his time as mayor, a step he has not yet taken.
At another point, Locke claimed never to have been a lobbyist, a statement that appears to be inaccurate. According to Texas Ethics Commission records, he was registered in 1999 as a lobbyist for the sports authority. Houston Chronicle archives also show that Locke was retained along with a variety of consultants to help a company win a lucrative airport concession contract.
On the defense
In several instances, the two ardently defended themselves against attacks that have been leveled by surrogates now for several weeks.
When Parker blamed Locke for the sports authority’s financial challenges, he said the stadiums are “crown jewels” for the city and said she was “hypocritical” in attacking him because she approved the plan to build them as a council member.
“Your name is actually on the plaque at one of the stadiums,” he said.
Parker claimed she never voted to approve bonds for Reliant Stadium, only the more financially sound Minute Maid Park and Toyota Center, an assertion Locke immediately challenged.
But when he tried to lay the blame for the city’s financial struggles at her feet, noting several instances in which she voted against proposed tax cuts, Parker defended the votes and said supporting them would have been irresponsible.
She also sought solace in the high approval ratings of Mayor Bill White.
“That gives you a record as someone who is not the fiscal conservative who you are holding yourself up to be to the public,” Locke said.
“Is this an attack on the city’s management by Mayor Bill White?” Parker asked.
“This is an attack on you,” Locke shot back. “You’re running for mayor.”