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When Sylvia Garcia talks, accomplishments in Harris County Precinct 2 are rarely just for her. She uses “our” and “we” to show it was not just her who made things happen.
The Harris County Precinct 2 commissioner will call Dec. 31 her last day in office, albeit a short one with the county closing its offices for business that day. In the November general elections, the two-time incumbent fell to political newcomer Jack Morman in perhaps one of the most startling outcomes of the night.
“It’s always in the voters’ hands,” Garcia said, “and you put it out there. We were real surprised.”
Surprised, but not bitter. That is the nature of politics.“I’m really proud of our record,” Garcia said.
Sitting in the Precinct 2 conference room – sparsely decorated with Christmas items on a credenza and a smattering of photos on the wall – at the recently opened John Phelps Courthouse Annex in north Pasadena, Garcia recalled her tenure in office for a small group of media. She was frank and direct, speaking about the accomplishments of her tenure and what limited plans she has for the future.“I can only tell you what I’m going to do the next four hours,” she said. Her immediate plans are simple: “Sit down and rest. It’s been a good eight years and a hard eight years.”
Her future is in flux right now.“I’ve not made any decisions,” she said, adding that she will “make sure it’s a good next step.”She does not rule out any run for office in the future but is not going to rush into any commitments.“I’ll wait and see what happens in the next two or three years.”One thing is for certain, she assured.“I will stay in the county,” she said. “I like my house.”
On the election
Surprise or not, Garcia was defeated by Morman in the November election.
“The main thing to remember is that this precinct is not a Democratic or Republican precinct,” she said, noting that in the last redistricting it was made that way. “In terms of voter registration, it’s 25 percent Latino voters.”She said 7,500 more people voted in 2010 than in 2002 (the last non-presidential voting year for Precinct 2 commissioner).
“More voted straight-party,” she said, pointing out the heavily Republican polling stations showed a markedly better turnout that expected. The straight-party voting, with a climate that saw a huge Republican swing nationwide, left out the Democratic Garcia. Whether that ultimately lost the election for her will never truly be known.
Budget woes
Morman won’t have much time to get settled into his seat before getting to work. His first priority will be to “deal with the budget,” Garcia said. “(It will be) more challenging that it was the last time.”Garcia said commissioners are facing 10 percent cuts in every department. Budgeting has taken new meaning in the down economy. When Garcia started eight years ago, her budget was $60 million. It has since dropped to $50 million to pay for things like infrastructure improvements and parks.
When Garcia started as commissioner in 2002 she was able to use the knowledge acquired as Houston city controller to cut down the learning curve. She had already made NASA lobbying trips and “knew the real economic power of this precinct.”“If someone has been exposed to that it could be overwhelming,” she said. “The challenge of this area is they are giving so much to the region, they have to make sure they get something back.”
Morman has no direct political experience but his current boss is former Harris County Attorney Michael P. Fleming.
“The budget is the primary concern,” she said. “Mobility, people want to get around.”
Morman will need to make sure to look at all the needs of transportation, Garcia said. A commuter rail system with Galveston County has been in the works for years and the freight rail district is also demanding attention. “I think there are still a lot of challenges remaining,” Garcia said.
Precinct 2 is uniquely situated to drive not only the economy of Harris County, but the economy of Texas and beyond its borders. The Port of Houston, the ship channel and NASA are huge economic engines in the precinct.
“We worked really hard early on,” Garcia said. “We took pride in bringing these areas together. We succeeded in getting a Park and Ride in Baytown and Pasadena. We succeeded in saving NASA jobs.”
More than a dozen mayors oversee cities in the precinct and Garcia worked with them to coordinate needs. There is no better example than during hurricane season,” Garcia said.She also cited air quality issues as an example of where joint efforts reached fruition. “He (Morman) is going to have to reach out to all those communities,” Garcia said.
Project Stars
Project Stars is a highly visible aspect of her tenure in office, and one in which she is proud. Epic art on storage tanks dot the trail leading to the San Jacinto Monument, tree lines have been established and most every community in the precinct was invited to join in the effort.
“We have a rich Texas heritage,” she said. “It’s important – not just for the precinct, but for the whole state.”She said the project needs to continue on track, including the dry-berthing of the battleship USS Texas.Part of the Parks and Recreation Department’s master plan, a memorandum of understanding with the Economic Alliance-Port Region makes Project Stars a 501(c)(3) entity.
“The county has never funded anything,” she said.In 2006, rather than build a re-election warchest while running unopposed, Garcia asked supporters to donate to Project Stars. From that effort came an endowment worth more than $200,000.
Precinct2gether began as the East Harris County Senior Citizens (EHCSC) program in 1975. Its scope was changed in 2007 under the direction of Garcia. It is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization
Precinct2gether is an effort to focus on “human capital,” she said. The focus is on youth, seniors, veterans and hunger programs, with a strong partnership with Houston-area food banks.
According to the website, the “purpose of Precinct2gether, Inc., is to plan, develop, and provide services for the general benefit of the citizens of Harris County, with a special interest to provide services that promote the development and well-being of the citizens of East Harris County and its institutions. Such services must be provided on a not-for-profit basis and must be designed and implemented so as to serve the general well-being of our citizens.”
The Precinct 2 staff
“Not too many of my staff will be negatively affected,” Garcia said.
Last Monday, Morman issued a letter to the employees in Precinct 2. It says:
“On January 1, 2011, I will be sworn in as the newly-elected Commissioner for Precinct Two. My family and I are excited about this new chapter in our lives and look forward to the challenges and rewards. I understand that employees are concerned about their jobs, but please know that during the transition, I intend to make minimal changes in staffing.
“However, I also understand there is a budget crisis in Harris County and that this crisis will require some difficult decisions for the next fiscal year, including the possibility of staff reductions. I assure you that I will not make those decisions lightly, and I will keep you informed with accurate and timely information.
“I know that there are many excellent employees in the precinct, and I will need them in order to transition into my new role. I appreciate your support throughout the coming new year and extend my best wishes for a joyous holiday season.”
What’s to be missed
“I’ll miss the people most,” she said.Running into veterans at a picnic, being thanked at a store for “building a spray park,” or thanked for establishing an afterschool program are among the small things she’ll miss the most.“It’s something small … all those things,” she said.
“It was eight great years. I wouldn’t change it.”