Traditionally, the Greater Houston Partnership (GHP) hasn’t shied away from its powerful role and significant responsibilities in Texas politics. It bills its policy team as “advocates for strong public policy at all levels of government.“ In 2017, the organization came out strongly against a vicious anti-trans bill proposed in the state legislature, helping prevent it from ever becoming law. Last summer, after the death of George Floyd, GHP launched One Houston Together, from which it designed its pledge to “lead the way in reforming systems of bias, strengthening underserved communities, advocating inclusion, and removing barriers to achievement.” Yet when it comes to the racist anti-voting bills moving through the Texas legislature, the GHP has so far fallen short of its pledge, jeopardizing its commitment to justice at a critical moment in history.
Last week, Greater Houston Partnership president Bob Harvey shared his thoughts on anti-voting bills HB6 and SB7 during Rice Design Alliance’s live public panel on resilience in infrastructure. Asked the GHP’s position by an attendee, his three-minute response placed “both sides” of the issue on equal footing and concluded: “The Partnership’s stance is that parties should attempt to negotiate around what would set a reasonable set of rules that balance access and integrity.”
Mr. Harvey’s position suggests there is a potential good faith debate between rigging the rules of elections to destroy democracy, or simply supporting a free and fair election. There is not. The same talking points used today to support this legislation were the talking points used to support all-white primaries, secret ballot provisions, the poll tax, reregistration and voter roll purges. Indicted attorney general Ken Paxton’s taxpayer-funded 22,000-hour witchhunt to investigate supposed voter fraud managed to close 16 inconsequential and minor cases. Our elections are more secure than he claims; his own investigation proved it. Extremists like Paxton—and Representative Briscoe Cain, who has pulled several legislative maneuvers to attempt to destroy legislative norms and jam HB6 through the Texas House under cover of night—want to pass legislation that would surgically suppress the votes of Black communities, Latino communities, people with disabilities, and working families throughout Harris County and the State of Texas.
This legislation also runs counter to GHP’s function as a chamber of commerce. Economists with the Perryman group recently concluded if HB6 and SB7 pass, Texas would lose billions of dollars, hemorrhage thousands of jobs, and see the earning power of hardworking families plummet. With Texas voter turnout still way behind the curve, our bureaucratic voter registration, and our tendency to purge, punish, and make public examples over insubstantial fraud allegations and suspicions, Texas’ reputation would again become an anchor on our economy, even as Texans such as the employees and customers of GHP are suppressed at the ballot box.
Mr. Harvey’s position attempts neutrality, but there is no middle ground on Jim Crow 2.0. Neutrality in this moment is to be a knowing bystander to actions that are extreme, unjust, unpopular, and harmful to democracy. There is no happy medium level of arbitrary restrictions on the number of voting machines. There’s no justification for limits on voting hours at the cost of better access for essential workers, or for provocateurs and operatives recruited from white neighborhoods to harass and intimidate Black and Brown voters, or for a raft of new criminal penalties targeting election workers for made up reasons. There is no sense in getting voters laid off from their jobs while gutting their right to vote.
Others are speaking out. A group of 175 business leaders, including ten major members of GHP have urged Mr. Harvey and Board Chair Amy Chronis to condemn Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6. Earlier today, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houton Mayor Sylvester Turner held a joint press conference to announce that they would pull out of GHP luncheons over silence on the bills. It’s not enough to put out statements supporting racial equity, benefit from their sheen, and then go back to business as usual. The only stance that honors both access and integrity is complete, unequivocal opposition to these bills.
The Greater Houston Partnership, our city’s leading business voice, must follow through.
Daniel J. Cohen is the Co-Founder of Indivisible Houston. Sarah Bronson is an Editor, Writer, and Activist. Delilah Agho-Otoghile is the Co-Founder of VoteSimple.
Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images