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Turner, Hidalgo to pull out of GHP luncheons over chamber’s silence on Texas voting bills



TX – Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo no longer plan to hold their annual state of the city and county addresses with the Greater Houston Partnership because of the chamber group’s silence on bills in the Texas Legislature that the pair say will add unacceptable obstacles to voting.

The move, which the pair announced at a Wednesday news conference, was a rare public rebuke of the region’s largest chamber of commerce, which typically has enjoyed a close relationship with Houston-area politicians. Hidalgo’s comments amounted to an accusation of cowardice, echoing comments a prominent Black member of the partnership board made a day earlier.

“We can’t in good conscience stand at the dais of the partnership when their will to represent their members and their community so easily crumbles in a time of need,” Hidalgo said. “We do not feel comfortable letting them after seeing them shrink from the civil rights fight of our time.”

Hidalgo said she would announce a new venue for her annual address at a later date. Turner said he instead would have Houston First Corp., the city’s convention arm, host his state of the city speech.

“I think it’s important this year for me to find that venue that better reflects the diversity of our city and the values we hold so dear,” Turner said.

A group of GHP board members said the partnership’s leaders stifled their attempts to get the group to speak out against parts of Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6.

Hidalgo and Turner had been urging business leaders to oppose the bills, which would limit polling hours, ban drive-thru voting, loosen restrictions on poll watchers and streamline voter roll purges.

Harris County’s elections administrator said a key provision of the Senate voting bill will result in the shifting of polling sites away from inner Houston, which has higher concentrations of Black and Latino voters, to outlying areas populated with higher numbers of white voters.

The Greater Houston Partnership, founded in 1840, boasts more than 1,000 members — including numerous Fortune 500 companies — and is one of the most influential business groups in the state. The partnership’s executive committee and board of directors are formed by a who’s-who of Houston business leaders, including Heidi Cruz, a managing director at Goldman Sachs and the wife of Sen. Ted Cruz; Scott McClelland, president of H-E-B; and Tilman Fertitta, owner of Landry’s Inc. and the Houston Rockets.

Turner in particular has established close ties with the GHP and Houston’s business community, winning the support of the partnership and other business leaders on his plan to overhaul the city’s pension systems in 2017.

The GHP and its president, Bob Harvey, also have put their weight behind Turner’s signature programs, such as his youth summer jobs program and his neighborhood revitalization program, both of which rely on help from the private sector.

The partnership regularly lobbies the Legislature and uses committees to help craft policy positions. It has waded into controversial topics in the past, such as the 2017 effort by business groups to prevent passage of the so-called bathroom bill. The GHP also publicly supported the Houston anti-discrimination ordinance that was defeated by voters in 2015, and warned of adverse affects for business after the measure failed.

The partnership issued a statement saying it regretted Hidalgo and Turner had canceled the annual luncheons, which its members “greatly enjoy.” The statement said there is no consensus among members on the voting bills, which prevents the group from taking a stance on the legislation.