Last year, in an interview with Harvard Magazine, Sylvester Turner’s longtime friend and former law partner Barry Barnes looked back on their decision to open a firm so early in their legal careers.
Recounting that decision, Barnes said he and Turner—now the Houston mayor—may not have fully appreciated the risk they were taking at the time. But it helped, he said, that Turner “never gives up on anything.”
“He’s a litigator by nature, and a fighter,” Barnes said of his friend.
Turner’s resiliency is being tested in ways Barnes couldn’t have envisioned a year ago. As the mayor, Turner has been the face of the city’s response to catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. The storm has crippled courts and shuttered law firms.
Turner has stood by his decision not to order a citywide evacuation—a move that could have clogged highways and left fleeing residents stranded. And he has sought to assuage concerns that immigrants who request rescues run the risk of being deported.
“There is absolutely no reason why anyone should not call [for help]. And I and others will be the first ones to stand up with you,” Turner reportedly told reporters on Monday. “If someone comes and they require help and then for some reason [someone] tries to deport them, I will represent them myself.”
Under Turner, Houston joined a federal lawsuit challenging Texas’ newly enacted anti-sanctuary city law. The law allows police to ask for the immigration status of people they detain, and it threatens local officials with punishment if they don’t cooperate with federal immigration agents.
“Regardless of what the legislation may be, the Houston Police Department is not going to profile people,” Turner told the Houston Chronicle in February. “We are not going to be ICE. Period. End of discussion.”
Here are some highlights from Turner’s time in the law.
1. After he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1980, Turner landed a corporate law job at Fulbright & Jaworski (now Norton Rose Fulbright), according to the Harvard Magazine profile last year. Three years later, he struck out on his own with two other young African-American lawyers: Barry Barnes and fellow Harvard Law graduate Rosemarie Morse. The firm, then known as Barnes & Turner, occasionally represented corporations, but according to Harvard Magazine, the clients were generally smaller, black-owned businesses. Recounted Barnes, who has run the firm since Turner resigned to become mayor: “Sylvester was just starting a family and so was I, so there were people who relied on us.”
2. Fellow 1980 graduates of Harvard Law include: U.S. Senator Mark Warner, D-Virginia, Duquesne University president and former law school dean Ken Gormley; Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen; Lindsay Conner, head of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips’ film, television and digital content practice group in Los Angeles; Harold Koh, the former dean of Yale Law School dean and legal advisor to the the State Department under President Obama; U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee; U.S. District Judge Geoffrey Crawford of Vermont. Two of Turner’s professors at the University of Houston “convinced me to attend Harvard Law School,” Sylvester once recalled. The Harvard Magazine profilesaid Turner didn’t know a single lawyer before he applied to law school—and that what he knew about the law came from watching shows such as Perry Mason.
3. Turner has long confronted issues of race. He said he was one of the first group of black students who, in seventh-grade in Houston, was bused to an all-white school, according to the Harvard Magazine profile. Turner recalled some quarrels then, the magazine reported. “You have to picture, here come these buses with these black kids pulling up to the school. The doors come open, and we were walking as a group, going into a school that was 100 percent white. We’re looking at them, and they’re looking at us, for the first time,” he told the magazine.
4. During his mayoral campaign, Turner came under scrutiny over Barnes & Turner’s ties to a controversial delinquent-tax collection firm whose Houston office had once been led by his chief challenger in the race—Bill King, an independent who had the backing of the Republican Party. The politically connected collection firm, Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, was the subject of a CNN Money investigation chronicling its alleged efforts to woo politicians and win lucrative contracts. Linebarger put Barnes & Turner on retainer in 2004 and has paid the firm more than $25,000 a year, according to Turner’s personal financial disclosures, the Houston Chronicle reported.
5. Turner, a Democrat, has defended the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. “We all recognize that with Obamacare there are some fixes that need to occur. But the answer is not to wipe it away,” Turner told Texas Medical Center in July. “The answer is not to eliminate it and then come up with something where fewer people are going to be covered. We’re talking about something that is essential to families. I think the United States is better than the discussion we’re having, and I think the United States is better than the course we have taken. My attitude has always been: You don’t destroy the good seeking the perfect, otherwise you’ll end up with nothing.
6. Turner expressed concerns about flooding in and around Houston long before Hurricane Harvey. In a February 2017 conversation with The Texas Tribune, Turner noted that he named a flooding czar when he took office and identified $130 million in needed flood control projects. “We’re waiting on the feds to send the money down,” he said. “And those projects have been stalled.” Turner outlined a program that would borrow money from the state and lend it to a regional water district to get the programs started while waiting for federal reimbursement. “Flooding is a number one priority, even if we have to step out on a limb to get the funding to get it done,” he said.