The fourth largest city in America is headed for a political brawl next November. With incumbent Annise Parker term-limited, the race for Mayor is an open seat affair with a large field of announced and potential candidates.
Structural Quirks of Houston Elections
Two structural quirks directly impact elections in Houston, creating a clown car every six years or so for the top spot. The first are term limits. In the 1980s, Mayor Kathy Whitmire held the top post for ten years. As she left office in 1991, voters approved term limits that limited the mayor to three two-year terms. Given that abnormality, incumbent mayors tend not to draw strong opposition. An exception occurred in 2001, when Orlando Sanchez (R) narrowly lost to incumbent LP Brown (D), but that abnormal race took place three months after 9/11 and two months after the death of a firefighter in action. But otherwise, aspirants wait their turn for open seat elections.
The other quirk is more common to other cities. Because the mayoral race is officially nonpartisan, a jungle primary occurs with the top two vote finishers advancing to a runoff if neither candidate claims 50% in the first round. This setup works well with three or maybe four viable candidates, but with more the election becomes a game theoretic mess. Learn more about the clown car field below the fold.
The 2015 Field
- State Rep. Sylvester Turner (D)- After two previous viable campaigns (in 1991 and 2003) fell short, Turner will give the Houston mayoral race one more shot. Turner is a longtime state Representative. He is African American and represents an overwhelmingly black and Hispanic seat. Turner also has an early headstart on his opponents with an upcoming $1 million injection from his legislative account.
- Former Rep. Chris Bell (D)- Bell has bounced around Houston politics. He served as an at-large councilman in the 1990s. Bell placed third in a 2001 mayoral run. He served a term in Congress in southwest Houston, representing white Democratic voters until Tom Delay's mid-decade redistricting in 2003 packed him with a large number of minority voters (he lost a primary to Al Green). Bell also served as the Democratic standardbearer in the weird four-way 2006 gubernatorial race and ran and lost in a 2008 state Senate special election.
- Councilman Oliver Pennington (R)- Pennington is a third-term city councilman who represents western Houston in a district seat. He also happened to be raised in the Clear Lake area, another relatively Republican chunk of Houston (Republicans tend to do well in suburban communities that the city annexed decades ago, including Clear Lake and Kingwood). Representing wealthy areas, Pennington has been a solid fundraiser in the past. Pennington is clearly one of the conservative candidates in the race (despite support for the afore-mentioned drainage fee), although the city council itself is not very partisan.
- Former city attorney Ben Hall (D/R/?)- Hall, who is African American, ran for mayor in 2013 and massively underwhelmed. He probably has a low ceiling, but he could have a high floor. He also has some capability to self-fund.
- Former Kemah Mayor Bill King (R)- The mayor of the wrong town (Kemah, pop. 1900, adjoins Galveston Bay and is best known for the Kemah Boardwalk), King built a name for himself as an avowedly moderate columnist for the Houston Chronicle.
- Councilman Stephen Costello (R)- Costello is a close ally of current Mayor Annise Parker, despite the duelling party affiliations. A moderate budget wonk, one of Costello's priorities has been pension reform. A civil engineer by profession, he made his mark by pushing the Renew Houston iniative as a freshman councilman in 2009- an effort that made him many enemies on the right, who derided the resulting drainage fees assessed to property owners and potential misuse of the money. Costello was also the only Republican to vote for an equal rights ordinance, which after passage set off the chain of events leading to the subpoena of local pastors. Costello is a strong fundraiser, propelling himself to the city council in 2009 with relatively large media buys.
- Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia (D)- For months Adrian Garcia has been the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. If he announces a run, he must immediately resign his current position (which leaves a nice open seat for Republicans to contest). However, Garcia has privately told allies he plans to run, with top staff leaving the sheriff's office ahead of his resignation and a private poll previously commissioned. Garcia has a long record with the city. He was a police officer for 23 years, leading anti-gang efforts in the city. He also served six years on city council before winning his current post in 2008.
- Private equity executive Marty McVey (D)- An unknown quantity who has the ability to self-fund. McVey is a national and local Democratic donor. He has also given thousands to Hillary Clinton, including in 2008.
- Councilman Jack Christie (R)- A former State Board of Education member and second-term at-large councilman, Christie defeated a True Progressive councilwoman Jolanda Jones in 2011, even earning the support of former mayor Bill White (D) in the process. One red flag: Christie is a chiropractor who refuses to back down from an anti-vaccination stance. He has indicated he will not run if he cannot secure the financial backing, so don't expect him to enter this crowded field.
- Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez (R)-Sanchez has run for mayor twice, coming close in 2001 and sufferin g a more resounding defeat in a 2003 runoff at the hands of Bill White. Since 2007 he has served as Harris County Treasurer, winning re-election twice. He has told media that he will enter the race late if he chooses to run.
- Councilman Ed Gonzales (D)- This district councilman is supposedly interested if Garcia fails to run, but all signs point to a Garcia entry. Gonzales represents a Hispanic seat, albeit a gentrifying one is recent years.
Nine months from an election, it is impossible to fully forecast what issues will occupy voters' attention in the ballot box. But a few issues should be on the radar.
- Oil layoffs: 25,000 workers have been laid off in Houston over the last several weeks as the oil industry struggles with low prices. The layoffs are expected to get worse before they get better, and the issue may factor into vote choice.
- Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO): The LGBT non-discrimination ordinance in Houston passed by city council remains under litigation. However, a repeal of the ordinance may be on the ballot in November, forcing candidates to further narrow in on this issue.
Two prohibitive frontrunners stand out in this field: Turner and Garcia. Both have very clear bases and the ability to reach out to other coalitions. However, the crowded field complicates the situation. For Turner, Hall is poised to split African American voters with his personal wealth and early advertising.
Garcia faces issues with his base as well, as Hispanic voters in Houston are infamously low-turnout (not to mention Sanchez, who is Cuban American, potentially eroding some of that support if he runs). Garcia also cannot count on law-and-order voters who, given the option, will support a conservative candidate like Sanchez or Pennington. However, he is well-positioned in a runoff.
Both Turner and Garcia have less breathing room with Bell targeting white Democratic voters in the city. However, Bell himself is boxed in by the rest of the field. Candidates like Costello and King steal moderate voters who might otherwise build a strong coalition for Bell, who joined with conservatives to roll back property taxes as a councilman.
Bell, along with moderates like Costello and King, are well-positioned if they can make it into a runoff. Their challenge will be to secure a clear base. For example, Costello's base of voters and donors overlaps with Pennington. From an ideological vantage, it is hard to see conservatives choosing Costello over Pennington except from an electability viewpoint. The challenge for these candidates will be to win the invisible primary, collecting early endorsements and dollars to force others from the field.
Hall is something of a wildcard. He did not impress in his 2013 run, self-funding millions to take only 27.6% of the vote in the first round. His strategy was similar to that of Gene Locke in 2009- coalesce suburban and westside Republicans with African American voters to create a winning coalition (Locke took 46.4% in a runoff with Parker). But Hall's volatile campaign lacked discipline compared to Locke. This time though, Hall has taken control of a traditionally African American radio station and is already running radio ads touting his candidacy. His ceiling is low, but he probably has a measurable floor. If Hall makes a runoff, it is difficult to envision him winning.
The best scenario for Republicans takes advantage of the jungle primary. It last happened in 2013 for an at large city council seat, where two decidedly different Republicans boxed out three viable Democrats (Michael Kubosh, the populist leader against red light cameras in the city, won). For the mayoral race, this would probably occur with Pennington and Sanchez winning conservative voters. Realizing this scenario will be difficult. In 2009, a race with four candidates, the single Republican took 20%. If there were one conservative in the race, Pennington or Sanchez could probably make the runoff. However, it is harder to see a conservative winning one-on-one unless some outside force changed the race (like what happened in 2001).
Links to read
- Candidate hires: Readers will probably recognize Harris Media, who worked digital for Cruz 2012, McConnell 2014, and Paul 2016, for Pennington. Parker's advisers split between Turner, Costello, and King.
- Voter turnout: A general preview of the race also has some interesting numbers. Voter turnout has decreased over time, with an average 24.6% turnout in the general election (jungle primary) and 12.3% in the runoff. The author also projects candidates will need at least 21-23% of the vote to make the runoff.