In Close Race, Houston Elects Democratic Mayor Sylvester Turner
By Mike Morris and Rebecca Elliott
Sylvester Turner's 24-year quest for the mayor's office was realized by a narrow margin Saturday night, driven by overwhelming support from black voters and a robust effort to push supporters to the polls.
The tallies showed Houston's long trend of voting in racial blocs held in this year's runoff, by far the closest in 12 years.
Conservative businessman Bill King took 71 percent of the vote in the city's majority-white voting precincts, where residents also turned out in the highest numbers. Turner won a whopping 93 percent of the vote in majority-black precincts, however, erasing King's turnout advantage. Turner also had an edge in the city's two predominantly Latino council districts, giving him the boost he needed to secure a 4,100-vote victory.
King came closer to succeeding term-limited Mayor Annise Parker than most expected in a city that has been in Democratic hands for more than three decades, particularly since scarcely any voters knew the former Kemah mayor's name when he entered the race.
Yet by 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Turner landed on top, having overcome prior mayoral losses in 1991 and 2003.
Texas Southern University political scientist Michael Adams said the racial polarization reflected in the tallies is consistent with Houston's electoral history. Adams' research on black candidates' performance in Houston elections from 1997 to 2009 shows Turner performed slightly worse than would be expected in Anglo precincts.
"Turner's success in only a handful of majority-white precincts, all inside the 610 Loop, is interesting. He performed worse than other Democrats had in similar precincts," Adams said. "His success is almost entirely attributable to the overwhelming vote in the African-American community."
Turner lost the city's progressive urban district west of downtown, District C, by more than 10 points, but Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said the tallies are not necessarily a sign of racial polarization.
"It had more to do with the effectiveness of the Bill King campaign," Jones said. "King's message regarding the city's fiscal crisis resonated with those voters in part because District C is the most educated and arguably the most politically interested council district. If it was going to resonate with any district that was a non-core conservative district, it was District C."
In a Sunday interview at his downtown law office, Turner wasn't concerned about the apparent division suggested by such a close election. The 26-year state representative vowed to make good on his campaign pledge to bring the city together with a collaborative approach.
Red areas indicate districts won by Bill King; blue areas show those won by Sylvester Turner. The darker the shade, the larger the margin of victory for that candidate.
The vote margin and which neighborhoods the votes came from don't matter, Turner said; all residents want better streets, a safe city and sound management.
"In a competitive political race when there's so much political spin being put out there, people will gravitate to those candidates that they most identify with. I understand that," Turner said. "But now, if I govern with that in mind, I make a serious mistake."
"The question is," Turner said, "'Can I wipe the slate clean?' ... If I can't do it, I make a mistake and the division continues. If I can do it, then those who may have voted for someone else will end up being supportive. That's been my history."
There are election night vote tallies, of course, and then there are the enormous logistical efforts to produce them.
The Turner campaign mobilized an extensive get-out-the-vote operation throughout the runoff, deploying hundreds of volunteers and roughly two dozen paid field staff to block walk and phone bank citywide.
Those efforts dwarfed King's field program, which primarily relied on supporters talking about the race with their neighbors and, in the final days, organized phone banks. King also received help from the Harris County Republican Party and associated organizations.
Turner, who consolidated the Democratic establishment and was endorsed by Houston's three employee unions, was aided by Democratic groups such as the Meyerland Area Democrats Club and Battleground Texas, as well as the advocacy group Texas Organizing Project and several labor unions.
On Election Day, Parker joined the Meyerland club and its roughly 50 volunteers to block walk for Turner in Meyerland and Westbury.
"We've just been every two days, trying to push it, push it, push it," club President Art Pronin said Saturday night at Turner's watch party.
Red areas indicate precincts won by Bill King; blue areas show those won by Sylvester Turner. The darker the shade, the larger the margin of victory for that candidate.
Many local pastors supportive of Turner also helped transport congregants to the polls in an effort known as "Souls to the Polls."
"For over 35 years, mayoral candidate Turner has had a significant relationship with the church community as a whole," Bishop James Dixon of the Community of Faith Church said last week. "The pastors also understand the need for a mayor who has proven to be a bridge-builder."
The tallies made clear that Turner's ground game won him the election, University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said. The counts confounded observers by reversing the typical pattern of conservative candidates winning the early vote and liberals earning more votes on Election Day.
"It's weird. Every academic study that's looked at early voting has suggested three things: People who vote early are older, they are more white, and the likelihood of African-Americans voting is much lower because of structural factors, like the location of these early voting places," he said. "It suggests Turner really made an effort to get people to go vote as early as possible."
Making the difference
Jones agreed, and said the result is a sign of evolving campaign methods.
"What this showed was that a lot of the mobilization efforts the Turner campaign in the past would have carried out on Election Day, they carried out during the early voting process," he said. "A lot of that organized, get-out-the-vote effort, say from churches, that may have been the difference."
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