The San Jacinto Republican Women held a forum for the candidates hoping for a shot at current Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia in November. As with most things this club does, it was strictly controlled and followed Ronald Reagan’s rule about not attacking fellow Republicans. The candidates were told up front not to mention the other candidates by name and there were no rebuttals allowed. The club expects candidates to talk about the issues and how they would address them if they were elected. Tammie Nielsen of TKMedia was the moderator and kept the candidates in line.
This was the first time that I have seen the candidates together on stage. I thought that they each handled themselves pretty well but I think that the format did draw out distinctions among them. They were allowed an opening and closing statement, with five questions in between. Mrs. Nielsen rotated the questions between all five candidates, with each going first on one. Rather than go blow by blow, I’ll just give you my impressions on each of the candidates, using the order in which they sat on stage, left to right.
Harold Heuszel was first up. During his opening statement, he noted that he had 23 years of law enforcement experience and that the reason he was running was because he was concerned about the citizens of Harris County. He reiterated this during his closing statement, adding that he considered the members of the HCSO “family” and he was tired of seeing his “family” trampled on “by this man” (Adrian Garcia).
I’ve met Harold several times along the trail and he was far more comfortable tonight than I’ve ever seen him. And I thought that his answers were easily the most detailed of the five men on stage. It is clear that he is well versed in the operation of the department and that he has specific ideas about the way the department should be run. His highlight of the evening was in his answer to a question about protecting the ship channel, giving a very detailed explanation of the role of the HCSO in protecting the ship channel, the interaction with Homeland Security and other area law enforcement groups, and his explanation of a $30 million federal grant which purchased equipment but did not fund employees or fuel for the equipment. I thought he had a solid performance.
Next was Carl Pittman. During his opening statement he stated that he had 19 years in law enforcement, in addition to his service as a U.S. Marine. His number one concern is public safety and he thinks that spending at the HCSO is out of control. He emphasized that he has been endorsed by 70% of the Precinct Chairs and most of the leadership of the party. During his closing, he emphasized the November election and that it would be critical to have a candidate that can reach out to the entire community if Republicans are going to defeat Sheriff Garcia.
I’ve met Carl literally dozens of times on the trail – when he says he has been “training” for this race for 34 months, I believe him. Sorta like the hardest working man in show business. He was the only candidate on the stage that said that the current funding for the HCSO was not only adequate but could be cut substantially and still protect public safety. Every other candidate spoke of the need to work with the Harris County Commissioners Court to increase the budget. He gave a specific example of the staffing of the OIG office, stating that it used to be about eight total investigators and now it has 19 Deputies, 13 Sergeants, 3 Lieutenants, and a Captain. He would also institute biennial zero based budgeting and send the Deputies now in Communications back to the streets.
Ruben Monzon was the next candidate up. He stated that he had over 30 years of law enforcement experience, most of it at the Federal level. He mentioned running the New Orleans office for the DEA, responsible for four states. Then he took over the Houston office and was responsible for South Texas and the border. After retiring in 1995 and entering the private sector, he returned to public service in 2002 when he was appointed US Marshall for South Texas by President George W. Bush.
This was the first time that I have met Mr. Monzon. He answers were broad and big-picture, I suspect that is because he is the only one of the candidates that has not worked at the HCSO, spending his career in federal law enforcement. He did mention that he had a good relationship with the Harris County Commissioners Court and would use that to increase the budget. He also said that he was an accountant and would be able to fine tune the budget. Throughout the night and in his closing statement, he emphasized his experience, stating that “we’ve seen what happens when you put a man (Adrian Garcia) in charge that has no management experience and little supervisory experience”.
The next candidate was Louis Guthrie. During his opening statement, he told us that he has 21 years in law enforcement, most of it in management at the HCSO. He was different than the other candidates because he attacked Garcia out of the gate and didn’t let up all night. During his closing, he scoffed at the idea that the Republican candidate would need to reach “across the aisle”, stating that we don’t need the Democrats because “we’re gonna get the independent votes and we’re gonna take this county back”.
He stated that Garcia doesn’t know how the Harris County Commissioners Court works and that is why he can’t get enough funding. Mr. Guthrie noted that the HCCC had enough trust in him to appoint him to a board that issued $2 billion in bonds and that trust would help him to get more funding for the HCSO. During a question about the reduced number of jail deaths under Garcia, he said that the HCSO was now using “numbers tricks” and that Garcia hasn’t stopped the deaths and that no one will because it is the nature of the business. He said that the Houston Chronicle probably loves Garcia as do some bloggers and that is why there is a perception that jail deaths have dropped. It will take money to defeat Garcia and Mr. Guthrie noted that he has a wide network and can raise money, demonstrating that by noting that he has spent three times more money than his closet competitor has raised.
The last candidate to have a go was Brian Steinocher. He stated that he is a 19 year veteran of the HCSO, currently a patrol officer. His dad was also a long time member of the HCSO. During both his opening and closing, as well as in his answers to some of the questions, he emphasized his integrity.
He agreed with Harold, Ruben, and Louis that the HCSO is underfunded but also noted that it was top heavy with executives and that he would correct that. One of the biggest problems he sees is a need to restore confidence to the employees and the need for additional training. When answering the question about raising enough money to defeat Garcia in November, he talked about grassroots efforts, social media, and the internet but said that personal interaction was the best way to get someone to vote for you.
All in all, it was a very good forum and the voters attending got a good idea of who each man is. My guess is that Guthrie sees Pittman as his most formidable challenger based on a couple of subtle shots at him. But for substance, it is hard to overlook Heuszel’s performance. Mr. Monzon will have to find enough voters that understand his big-picture approach because it will be very difficult for him to get to the level of detail the other four have. I think that Mr. Steinocher is a long shot in this race.
Remember, those are just my impressions and opinions, your mileage may vary.