Race of Races

Who will be Houston's next mayor? Brown is a lame duck. White is a long shot. The front-runners are black and Hispanic. Got it?

September 2002By Comments

WHEN THE LATE JUDGE ROY Hofheinz brought major league baseball to Houston in 1962, he dreamed of tapping into the market of millions of Spanish-speaking baseball fans in Texas and south of the border. He wanted a broadcaster to present the exploits of the Houston Colt .45’s en español over the radio airwaves. Hofheinz’s search for a play-by-play man took him to Venezuela, where he found Orlando Sanchez-Diago, a refugee from the recent Cuban Revolution, and brought him and his family to Houston. Never had Hofheinz been so prescient about his beloved city. Forty years later Hispanics make up 37 percent of Houston’s population—the largest share of any ethnic group—and therefore hold the key to the city’s future, not only in sports attendance but also in politics. And right now the key player in Houston’s political lineup is the son of the Colt .45’s broadcaster: former city councilman Orlando Sanchez, who nearly upset Mayor Lee Brown in a close election last year. With Brown ineligible for reelection because of term limits, Sanchez may yet prove that he has inherited the family knack for hardball in the November 2003 mayor’s race.

The list of possible opponents for Sanchez starts with state representative Sylvester Turner, who rode a heavy black turnout into a runoff with Bob Lanier in 1991 only to lose the hotly contested race; he says he won’t make a decision until after next spring’s legislative session. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee might return from Washington to make the race if Turner opts out. Attorney Bill White, a former Democratic state chairman and Undersecretary of Energy in the Clinton administration, is taking a look. Council member Michael Berry has already announced his candidacy to a response that was less than enthusiastic. More names keep surfacing.

Speculation about a race that is still more than a year off may seem premature, but the political talk has focused on little else since the final votes were tallied in last December's runoff. Because Brown was classified as a lame duck in the taxonomy of the political world, the maneuvering began immediately to see who would be his successor. Local political experts disagree about the name but not about the mechanics of the race. The outcome will be determined by two factors: race and—although the mayoral contest is officially nonpartisan—party loyalty.

This represents a complete departure from the old days, when the surest way to get elected mayor was to serve on the city council (or, in the case of Kathy Whitmire, as city controller); spend years building name identification, collecting friends, and doing favors; and eventually gather sufficient chits and momentum to win the job. This career path has been rendered obsolete by term limits, which don't give city officials enough time to amass political capital.

To be viable today, a candidate must start with the prospect of support from one or more large blocs of voters—blacks, Hispanics, Republicans, or Anglo Democrats. Rob Mosbacher, a well-known Republican activist and contributor, was the first candidate to see the potential in running from a partisan base, but he was unable to make inroads into the other three constituencies and lost to Brown in 1997. Two referendum battles accelerated the trend toward partisanship. Local Republican and Democratic organizations were deeply involved on opposite sides of an effort to repeal the city's affirmative-action ordinance (it survived); in another battle, Republican leaders helped defeat a proposed sports arena but withdrew their opposition in a second election. Brown, a former Clinton drug czar, angered Republicans by having then-vice president Al Gore campaign with him and by attending the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

After careful scrutiny of recent elections, here is how political oddsmakers view the leading ethnic candidates in the 2003 mayor's race:

The case for a black mayor. Huge numbers of black voters have provided the most dependable and cohesive voting bloc in local politics for the past decade. Blacks accounted for 35 percent of the voters in the past election; almost all were Lee Brown supporters. In interview after interview, I was told that a "credible black candidate" automatically owned a spot in the runoff. By most measures, Sylvester Turner meets the requirement. A Harvard-educated attorney who grew up here in a low-income area, he has played a significant role in the Legislature on complex economic issues such as telecommunications and electric deregulation and has tried to be the conscience of the House on issues that impact African Americans. But he is haunted by ghosts from his 1991 campaign against Lanier: In the final week a now-infamous Channel 13 story by reporter Wayne Dolcefino linked Turner to a tawdry insurance-fraud plot involving a man who had been his client. Turner took a ten-point dive in the polls and lost; he later won a libel judgment against Channel 13 that was reversed on appeal.

Turner has been raising money for his House race that could also be spent in a local campaign. "Many people are doing a lot of work for me, saying, 'It is your turn. You can be of tremendous benefit to this city,'" he said in an interview. "In the elevator or walking downtown, they are stopping me, and it is not just African Americans."

But some blacks fear he won't be able to overcome the memory of the insurance-fraud story. "I think it will be an uphill climb for Sylvester to generate sufficient crossover appeal assuming there is a decent Anglo candidate in the race and someone who can rally the troops on the Republican side as well," remarked state senator Rodney Ellis. "Not impossible but an uphill climb." Richard Murray, the director of the University of Houston's Center for Public Policy, sums up Turner's problem: "Everyone in Houston who wants to be mayor wants to be in a runoff with Sylvester."

Turner believes the libel trial vindicated him in the minds of voters: "People tell me all the time I got a raw deal, only they are much more descriptive. I'm being nice when I say 'raw deal.'" That may be. But unless he can win the support of white voters, his name on the runoff ballot would only ensure the election of a more conservative candidate, like Orlando Sanchez, a Republican. This prospect worries some Houston civic leaders, who have seen Republicans oppose the kinds of big projects, from the sports arena to light-rail, that booster types see as important to the city's fragile self-image. The easiest way to avoid this, Ellis says, is for them to support a black candidate. (Ellis' name has surfaced as a candidate.)

The case for a Hispanic mayor. "Orlando came out of the mayor's race with an awful lot of support," says UH's Murray. And the presence of a Democratic Sanchez—gubernatorial candidate Tony—in the 2002 governor's race will have a positive effect on Hispanic participation, Murray predicts. "It will provide a much larger base for Hispanics to run on in the future," he says. While black voters have dominated recent elections, Murray points out that their population remains fairly constant, while the Hispanic population is rising rapidly. So is their voting strength. "We had the highest turnout in Houston history," Orlando Sanchez told me. "You saw the ethnic community energized. We almost doubled the Hispanic vote in the mayor's race. It was amazing."

A Hispanic Democrat would have a hard time getting into a runoff because the Hispanic vote is still no match for the black vote. (In recognition of the numbers, controller Sylvia Garcia, who harbored mayoral ambitions, is running for the partisan position of county commissioner instead.) A Hispanic Republican like Sanchez, however, is automatically a formidable candidate because the majority of Hispanics will vote for the surname instead of the party and Republicans will vote for the conservative. But GOP support could be splintered by the candidacy of any of several well-known candidates rumored to be considering the race: wannabe Rob Mosbacher, developer Ed Wulfe, and Harris County tax assessor-collector Paul Bettencourt. Former councilman Joe Roach has announced his candidacy.

Sanchez's weakness is a modest record of accomplishment in business and politics. Among Houston's political insiders, the suspicion lingers that he owes his strong showing in the mayor's race to his good looks (that winning combination of jet-black hair and piercing blue eyes) and a random event that gave his candidacy a boost. Sanchez had been criticizing Brown for stiff-arming firefighters' pleas for more staffing when a blaze took the life of a Houston firefighter. His popularity soared, aided by the post-September 11 sympathy for firefighters.

Some business leaders question his credentials for managing the nation's fourth-largest city under Houston's strong-mayor form of government. Before serving on the council, Sanchez served a stint in the Air Force and worked as a probation officer. "What has he managed?" asks Rodney Ellis. "He managed to get elected to council."

Sanchez, who now works with an investment banking firm, readily concedes that he isn't a corporate giant. But since the demise of Enron, Arthur Andersen, and WorldCom, he says, "People are starting to appreciate public service more." So what exactly is Sanchez's record of public service? When I asked him about his years on the council, he seemed proudest of the fact that he didn't become snared in an FBI bribery scandal that sent a council member and a port commissioner to prison: "I served with integrity during a turbulent time. There was no scandal during my six years in office."

The case for an Anglo Democrat. The theory is that such a candidate could put together a rainbow coalition of Hispanic activists, independent blacks, white moderates, and union workers. Mention this possibility and cynical Houston pundits immediately counter with two names: Chris Bell and George Greanias. Both were able, articulate, smart Anglo candidates with solid records of service to the city (Bell on the council, Greanias as controller and council member) who lost mayoral bids, in 2001 and 1997 respectively. Neither was able to generate crossover appeal to the larger voting blocs. Maybe an Anglo Democratic woman could attract Republican support, as Laura Miller did in winning the mayor's race in Dallas. But no names have come up.

Still, Bob Lanier thinks the rainbow coalition could work. Immensely popular even in retirement, he keeps his finger on the pulse of local politics. He cited a June poll in which Houstonians identified the most important factors affecting their choice for mayor as character and reputation, having a clear vision and direction for the city, and the ability to work well with different racial groups. While acknowledging the strength of racial and party voting blocs, Lanier says, "A substantial part of the electorate would simply vote for the person best qualified for the job."

Such a candidate would be coming from the smallest of the four voting blocs—"an impediment," Lanier says, "but not a deal-breaker." Not surprisingly, White agrees. "There's a disparity between the conventional wisdom of political pros and the public's deep yearning and real concern that our city not be divided by party and ethnic politics," he says. "If people thought that somebody had a plan and some capability of improving mobility, spending taxes wisely, and improving quality of life, then a coalition could be successful."

While White has the personal wealth to jump-start a campaign, he may not have the right personality; even his friends worry that he's too cerebral to have widespread appeal. He loves to talk about issues. At the end of a sweltering July day, my ears perked up when he proposed using heat-reflecting materials in construction to help reduce temperatures in Houston. "We can rebuild this city to be cooler and cut utility bills," he said. It is just possible that the promise of a cooler Houston would overcome loyalties of color and party, because, according to polls and recent election results, that is what it would take: a miracle.

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