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?

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

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