In Test of Houston's Liberalism, Democrat Wins Mayor's Race

Last month, voters in America's fourth biggest city rejected a gay rights law. This month, they elected a new mayor dedicated to expanding government services.
by | December 9, 2015

*UPDATE: Democratic state Rep. Sylvester Turner won the election. Read more here.

The last major election of 2015 is going to be a close one.

On Saturday, Houston voters will choose a mayor to replace Annise Parker, who is term-limited. The race is nominally nonpartisan, but the parties have lined up decisively behind one candidate or the other.

The two finalists in the runoff are Democratic state Rep. Sylvester Turner and Bill King, a businessman and former mayor of the suburb of Kemah who has support of Texas Republicans from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz on down.

An independent poll released Tuesday showed the two men tied, with each supported by 38 percent of likely voters.

Democrats enjoy an edge in Houston politics, but conservatives may gain momentum due to the defeat last month of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, a broad anti-discrimination measure that attracted national attention to the debate over transgender people's bathroom usage.

Republican success in defeating HERO may cause supporters to turn out in ways that would benefit King, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. Of course, with HERO off the ballot, they might easily stay home. Turner supported HERO, while King didn't take a specific position, saying that he was against discrimination but troubled by the bathroom issue.

"Houston is a city that in some ways parallels Dallas or San Antonio or even Austin, but is much more purple than those urban areas," said Rottinghaus. "Democrats have to work hard to get their wins."

But King isn't running on a social-issues platform. Instead, his focus has been resolutely on the city's poor fiscal health. Houston, America's fourth most populous city, is facing a projected $126 million shortfall in the coming fiscal year. Its pension payments already exceed $350 million annually are likely to increase.

King's slogan is pretty basic: "Fix the streets, catch the crooks and balance the budget."

Turner, who enjoys the support of the major municipal labor unions, has a more expansive view of government. He wants to spend more on parks and libraries and has a plan to hire 540 more cops over the next five years. To pay the bills, he has talked about raising or removing the cap on property tax revenue that's been in place since 2004, limiting growth in collections to inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent -- whichever is lower.

"We've lost some jobs with the price of oil at a new low," said state Rep. Carol Alvarado, a former member of the Houston City Council and a Turner supporter. "We need somebody in the mayor's office who will work to diversify the economy, which means working with the state. That gives Sylvester the edge." (Turner has served in the legislature since 1989.)

The local media, though, has criticized Turner for being less specific about his plans than King. In response, Turner has been highly critical of King.

"Turner and his allies have accused King of being an extremist, of hiring and protecting a pedophile and making his fortune on the backs of workers," said Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. Both the Turner campaign and the firefighters union have produced attack ads saying King refused to fire the volunteer fire police chief in Kemah after it came out he had been convicted of sexual assaulting a minor.

"It was a charge that was made in the midst of a very contentious divorce, his ex-wife later recounted the allegations and all I ever did say was that I think this guy is probably innocent," King said during a debate last Saturday. Some stations have refused to air the attack ads.

For his part, Turner escaped scrutiny for much of the campaign season, according to Jones, which is why observers correctly assumed that Turner would survive the first round of voting last month and make the runoff. (In Houston, as in many southern jurisdictions, if no candidate receives a majority of the vote during the first round, the two top finishers proceed to a runoff.)

As a result, "Turner effectively received a pass both from his rivals, as well as the media during the first round," Jones said. "In some ways, Turner has run a very uninspiring campaign. He hasn't given voters much of a reason to support him, other than the fact that he's a lifelong Democrat and the best person to protect their interests."

King and his allies say that Turner would continue a fiscal course that has been harmful to the city. Many members of the city's business community are supporting King.

"We haven't let anybody define us," said Marc Campos, a consultant for King. "What he's saying today is what he said when he kicked off his campaign. It's about managing the city and doing what a city's supposed to do."

Turnout is expected to be light, with perhaps fewer than 20 percent of potential voters showing up at the polls. As in all such races, where the race is close but interest seems limited, the question comes down to which of these two well-funded campaigns does the best job of identifying and energizing supporters.

Whoever wins could end up holding power longer than Parker. The city has changed its term-limit law, allowing the next mayor to serve two four-year terms, rather than three two-year terms.