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Houston's New Mayor Will Take a More Conservative Approach

Legislative veteran John Whitmire should be able to improve Houston's relations with the state, while pledging to crack down on crime and deficit spending.

Longtime state Sen. John Whitmire cruised to an easy victory in Saturday's mayoral runoff.
In Brief:
  • State Sen. John Whitmire easily defeated Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee in Saturday’s runoff election for mayor.

  •  Whitmire authored tough-on-crime laws in Texas and then pioneered criminal justice reform.

  •  He should enjoy better relations with the state, which has frequently pre-empted Houston.

  • John Whitmire has served in the Texas Legislature for 50 years, but he’s ready for a new challenge. On Saturday, he was elected mayor of Houston, defeating Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a fellow Democrat, in a runoff.

    Whitmire scored an overwhelming victory, carrying 65 percent of the vote. On Jan. 2, he’ll succeed Sylvester Turner, who is term-limited. Whitmire, the longtime chair of the Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, made public safety central to his campaign. He’ll also face serious financial challenges. The city carries a severe structural deficit that has been masked by federal COVID-19 funds that are now running dry.

    Jackson Lee had the support of prominent Democrats at both the local and national levels, including Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, but Whitmire’s ultimate victory was never in doubt. “His focus will be on the bread-and-butter issues that tend to be in the portfolio of a mayor, such as public safety, roads and local business development,” says Mark P. Jones a political science professor at Rice University. “He’ll be less focused on pushing a progressive agenda, whether it relates to abortion rights or LGBTQ rights or drug legalization.”

    To get a sense of how Whitmire may govern the nation’s fourth-largest city, Governing spoke with Jones on Monday. Here are edited excerpts from that interview:

    Governing: Your polling indicated that Whitmire would win the runoff, but were you surprised by the margin?

    Jones: The scope of it was surprising. The last poll we did on the runoff was two months ago and we had him projected to be up by 16 points. But at the end of the day, everyone sort of treated it as a foregone conclusion, at least at the elite level. Donors gave money to Whitmire, who then was able to run a very expansive campaign. Jackson Lee's campaign was broke on Nov. 7 (after the first round of voting), and never really had much in the way of money to do anything to either change the dynamics or to even mobilize her base.

    Probably the biggest surprise was the fact that Jackson Lee's support among progressive Anglo Democrats was so weak. She had the support of the outgoing mayor, Sylvester Turner, the County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, and all of that had no impact.

    Governing: Houston has one of the strongest mayors, structurally, in the country. What is he empowered to do? Will any council opposition matter, given the power of the office?

    Jones: Well, we do have a new rule. We had a measure that passed in November, where now at least three members of council can put something on the agenda, where it was previously the mayor's prerogative completely to control the agenda.

    But Whitmire, given his track record in the Senate, is more of a consensus builder, in the sense that he is unlikely to ram things down people's throats. At the same time, there are reforms that he takes seriously, particularly in the area of public safety, and then dealing with the city's budget crisis, that he's likely to take the lead on. And I suspect given the size of his victory, the scope of his victory, council is going to go along with him.
    Whitmire enjoyed good news as the results came in on Saturday.
    Whitmire campaign/via Facebook
    Governing: Texas is a leading state when it comes to pre-empting local governments. Certainly Houston and Harris County have been targets, with the state taking over the school district and potentially election administration. Given his 50 years in the Legislature, do you think state officials will give Whitmire and Houston more of a break?

    Jones: I think we're ready to see far more collaboration with the state under Whitmire. To the extent the city has lost out on some funding, or has not obtained as much support from the state as it might have in the past, I suspect that he’ll be more successful in that realm. One area we’ll see relatively soon is a partnership with the state police for officers to patrol here.

    Whitmire has a very good working relationship with the lieutenant governor (who oversees the state Senate in Texas) and governor. Much of the state intervention in local politics happened when local leaders tried to do an end run around state laws to effectively push through a more progressive agenda at the city or county level. Whitmire is unlikely to engage in those same actions. So I don't think we're going to see near as much conflict between the state and the city as we did during Sylvester Turner's tenure.

    Governing: Whitmire was an author of the tough-on-crime laws that Texas passed back in the '90s. Then, around 2007, he became a true pioneer of corrections reform. This year, he ran as a tough-on-crime candidate. Do you think he evolved over that long period of time? And what does it say about the politics of the issue?

    Jones: Whitmire’s position on violent crime is very clear. I think we’re going to see more investment in law enforcement, and have more boots on the ground. The focus, at least at the start, is going to be on reducing crime across the board. That's most violent crime, but also home break-ins, car break-ins — things that threaten public safety and the perceptions that residents have.

    I suspect for some of the more minor offenses, we're going to see a continuation of current policies, as long as they aren't seen as leading to greater problems. Where he tends to be more compassionate is in terms of rehabilitation — once people are incarcerated, working to rehabilitate them. But that is really not part of the mayor's purview, because there's no corrections side to it.

    Governing: At 74, Whitmire will be the oldest big-city mayor in the country. Was that a concern for voters?

    Jones: He's in great health. So while he is in his 70s, I don't think there are any concerns about his health or his ability to function as mayor. The only time age came up was in terms of being of a generation that's far removed from the majority of Houston residents.

    Traditionally, most Houston mayors have run for re-election. In Whitmire’s case, if he runs for re-election, he’d be in his 80s in a second term. Normally, when a mayor’s been elected, the assumption is that it’s a virtual certainty they would run for re-elections in four years. It may be that, with Whitmire’s age, he won’t do that. But Whitmire is very vigorous.

    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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