Prop B supporters, opponents make closing arguments in bitter campaign
Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, promised to maintain his composure.
The union leader stood at a wooden lectern in True Light Missionary Baptist Church last Friday morning, flanked by pastors, union leaders and Mayor Sylvester Turner as he prepared to make the case against Proposition B.
Gamaldi, however, could not hide his irritation over the ballot measure that, if approved, would grant Houston firefighters pay “parity” with police officers of corresponding rank and seniority.
“We are already talking about laying off cadets and laying off police officers in order to pay for this. That is unacceptable,” Gamaldi said. “And we will not sit idly by and watch our people get laid off because the firefighters are demanding an unreasonable raise.”
With a week left in what has become a bitter and prolonged feud, both sides of the Prop B campaign are pulling out all stops ahead of Election Day, running radio and TV ads, plastering the city with yard signs and billboards, and working the lines at early voting locations. Turner, who has put personal campaign funds into opposing Prop B, held events last week with business, clergy and labor leaders intended to show broad opposition to the ballot item, which the fire union has dismissed as ploys.
“The vindictiveness of the mayor knows no bounds. He has pitted Houston police and municipal employees against firefighters with threats to their job and retirement security,” Marty Lancton, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President, said in a statement. “Now, he’s strong-arming his political patrons and pay-for-play ‘friends’ to attack firefighter families. He’s willing to destabilize public safety in Houston just to settle a political score.”
Meanwhile, dueling political action committees, boosted on one side by Turner and on the other by fire union members and fire union PACs from other cities, have raised more than $2.5 million combined for the campaign. That includes Proposition A, which would affirm a “pay-as-you-go” fund for the city’s ReBuild Houston drainage program. Turner has adopted the slogan “A is good, B is bad” to simplify his position, with two PACs — one supporting Prop A, one opposing Prop B — splitting the cost of ads that feature the dual message.
“This is about our city. It is more important than any personality, quite frankly,” Turner said Friday. “It doesn’t matter who would be the mayor this time. These two issues would be important to any mayor that’s representing the city of Houston.”
From Sept. 28 through Oct. 27 — the period covered by the latest campaign finance reports — the anti-Prop B Protect Houston PAC raised more than $930,000, with $355,000 coming from Turner’s campaign in the form of ad buys.
The pro-Prop A and anti-Prop B PACs together took in about $1.8 million and spent more than $1.1 million from the end of September to October.
Meanwhile, the pro-Prop B Support Our Firefighters PAC took in about $508,000 during the same period and spent more than $468,000.
So far, Turner has spent about $486,000 in campaign funds on Propositions A and B, while Houston Police Officers’ Union has further contributed more than $91,000 to oppose B.
About $16,000 has come in from fire unions in other cities to support Prop B, including some from California.
“We’re grateful for the support of firefighters, teachers and friends around the nation,” Lancton said. “We do not have the resources of the mayor and his cronies to run misleading negative ads, but we have the support of working people and the communities we serve.”
Spending by the three main political action committees totaled almost $1.7 million through Oct. 27, the latest day covered by campaign finance reports.
Both sides also are sending workers to polls in Houston to campaign for and against Prop B, though the firefighters have been far more visible, sporting bright yellow t-shirts and, in some cases, firefighter helmets.
During the Friday event, Gamaldi took issue with information cards being distributed by firefighters at polls, which say, “NOTE: The politicians purposefully made the ballot language long and confusing in an attempt to trick voters.” The card then instructs voters to “simply vote ‘FOR’ on Prop B at the very end of your ballot.”
If the ballot language looks cumbersome, that is because it includes exact wording from the fire union’s petitions to get the parity measure on the ballot, said Sue Davis, Turner’s consultant who is running the committees for Prop A and against Prop B. If the ballot had included shortened language, Davis said, the union would have found something else to accuse “politicians” of.
Turner urged people not to be swayed by the firefighters at polling locations.
“You’re going to have to walk through a lot, and I know it’s hard to say no to firefighters because they’re at every polling place,” Turner said. “But I’m going to ask people to vote in what is in the best interest of the city.”
Regardless of how things play out on Election Day, the result likely will not be the final word on pay parity. If the measure passes, as many observers are predicting, the city will have to figure out how to fund the raises — a scenario that Turner and his administration say will result in hundreds of city layoffs. The union has disputed that, calling it a scare tactic by the mayor.
Both Turner and City Controller Chris Brown have said Prop B will cost more than $100 million in its first full year of implementation. The union has disputed that, too, but has not provided its own figure.
The union argues firefighters remain far underpaid compared to those in other Texas cities, while Turner has said the union turned down raises that would have made their salaries competitive.
Early voting ends Friday. Election Day is Nov. 6.