It has attracted far less attention than the rowdy mayoral race, but the contest for the city’s second-highest office has intensified in recent weeks as Controller Chris Brown — the independently elected financial watchdog — finds himself battling to keep his seat against a familiar name on the ballot.
Orlando Sanchez, a former city councilman, mayoral candidate and Harris County treasurer, filed to challenge Brown in August with an hour to spare before the Aug. 19 deadline. He has pledged to conduct more audits and make the controller’s office more transparent. And, Sanchez alleges, Brown is too closely aligned with Mayor Sylvester Turner to serve as a check on his power.
“While it’s nice to have a cordial relationship with the mayor, I don’t think you need to act as an employee of the mayor,” said Sanchez, 61. “You are independently and in a sovereignly elected position that should answer all and any questions that the community has — the business community, the mayor’s office, the City Council.”
Brown, who served as deputy controller before his election in 2015, scoffed at Sanchez’s critiques. The controller’s office has conducted 39 audits during his tenure and prizes large-scale audits instead of smaller, more frequent ones, Brown said, adding that he has striven to distance himself from Turner on such issues as the mayor’s push to sidestep the voter-imposed revenue cap after Hurricane Harvey and his changing cost estimates for Proposition B, the voter-approved measure to link firefighters’ pay to that of similarly ranked police officers.
“I work for the taxpayer,” said Brown, 44. “If you look at my record over the last four years, whether that’s auditing, whether that’s going to the mat when the administration tried to raise taxes on taxpayers after Harvey, I went to the mat, I fought for the taxpayer and I won. From that standpoint, it’s vitally important for the controller to be independent.”
The race also has broken down along sharply partisan lines, despite both candidates’ insistence that the office should remain nonpartisan. Conservative support has coalesced behind Sanchez, a Republican who has raised about $45,000, with contributions from Republican congressional candidate Kathaleen Wall and state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston. Democratic officials — including former city controllers Sylvia Garcia and Annise Parker — are lining up behind Brown, who last month endorsed Julián Castro for president. He had $274,000 cash on hand at last count, compared to Sanchez’s $24,000 war chest.
The Controller’s race gets less attention than the Mayor’s race for the same reason why most Council races get less attention: The office has far less power, and there’s far less spending in those elections. For what it’s worth, in the clearly partisan 2015 runoff, Brown not only defeated Republican Bill Frazer, he did so by a considerably wider margin than Mayor Turner had over Bill King. Orlando Sanchez basically coasted for a dozen years on the county’s off-year partisan lean, before running out of luck last year. I’m not too worried about this one.