HOUSTON (AP) — The top two elected officials in the Houston area on Wednesday expressed rare public criticism of the region’s largest chamber of commerce and canceled plans to hold high profile speeches before the group, citing its silence on GOP efforts to restrict voting access in Texas.
Texas lawmakers could as soon as this week vote on a bill that would reduce options to cast ballots and limit polling hours. Officials in Harris County, where Houston is located, have said the proposed legislation would target their efforts to expand voting options — including drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting — instituted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo criticized the Greater Houston Partnership for not speaking out against the GOP legislation that they say will suppress voter turnout and cause economic losses for Harris County, a Democratic hub. Republicans have rejected accusations that the legislation is partisan and would make it harder to vote.
The partnership, created in 1840, is the Houston region’s largest and most influential chamber of commerce. It has 1,000 member companies, including BP, Halliburton, ExxonMobil and JPMorgan Chase.
Hidalgo and Turner said during a news conference that they would no longer have the chamber host this year’s state of the city and county speeches. The annual events offer a chance for business leaders to mingle with the two officials and raise money for the chamber. Sponsorships for the speeches cost as much as $15,000. The Houston Chronicle first reported about the decision.
“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,” said Hidalgo, the county's top elected official. “We do not feel comfortable elevating them after seeing them shrink from the civil rights fight of our time."
Turner said it was important to hold the speeches with a group “that better reflects the diversity of our city and the values that we hold so dear.”
The public criticism is highly unusual as local officials tend to work closely with the partnership to promote the city.
The Greater Houston Partnership said it was disappointed.
“We trust that Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo respect that the partnership has its own process by which our 140 member board takes policy positions on behalf of our 1,000 member companies, a process that requires a clear board consensus which does not exist on the legislation. As in this case, this process does not always lead to alignment with our elected officials,” it said in a statement.
However, Carrin Patman, a member of the partnership’s board of directors, said the chamber prevented efforts to hold an internal vote on the legislation.
“I’d like to think if a vote had been taken, the board would have opposed the bills. What we were asking for was a vote,” said Patman, who is also the chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, the area’s public transportation agency.
Patman was part of a group of 175 local business leaders who sent a letter this week to Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan saying the proposed legislation could cost the Houston area millions of dollars in lost business and events.
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