Tony Buzbee has everything a Texas trial lawyer could want: a mansion on one of Houston’s most prestigious streets, a seven-thousand-acre ranch in East Texas, a private plane, a beautiful young wife, and even a World War II–era tank. But for all his wealth and power, he says he can’t get the city to fix the broken water lines in his neighborhood. In late September, the 55-year-old attorney noticed water bubbling up from the ground on the corner of Shepherd and Kirby, a few miles from Buzbee’s home in River Oaks. He called 311, the city services line, to report the leak. He posted a video on Instagram. For nine weeks, water continued pouring out of the ground before a Houston Public Works crew finally fixed the break.
That experience has become all too common in Houston, where a winter freeze and parched earth from a recent drought has cracked countless underground water lines. From June 1 through September 30, the city received 19,170 service calls for water leaks; crews have fixed just around 4,200 of them. After losing 30 billion gallons of water last year, Houston lost another 9 billion gallons from January to April; the leaks are costing the city approximately $150 million a year in potential revenue. “We have broken water lines across the city,” Buzbee told me last week, “but nobody has sat down and said, ‘Okay, let’s figure out why the system isn’t working.’ ”
Buzbee, who recently represented Attorney General Ken Paxton at his high-profile impeachment trial and whose law firm touts more than $10 billion in settlements since 1999, might seem an unlikely candidate to solve Houston’s quotidian infrastructure problems. But fixing pipes is exactly what he promises to do if the voters of District G—an affluent slice of west Houston stretching from River Oaks to the Energy Corridor—elect him as their representative in city hall on November 7. In 2002, Buzbee, running as a Democrat, lost a bid for the state House. Four years ago he ran for Houston mayor, making the runoff before losing to Democratic state representative Sylvester Turner by twelve points. This time around, Buzbee is setting his sights a bit lower in hopes of winning his first political race.
“District G generates more than a third of the city’s revenue, despite being one of eleven districts,” Buzbee told me. “You should have the most skilled, most aggressive, most assertive, most talented person you can get on city council fighting the good fight.”
We were sitting on a patio outside King Ranch Texas Kitchen, in Houston’s Galleria area, where Buzbee was about to address a group of small-business owners. The attorney had come directly from court, where he was representing six men who were injured in a refinery accident. He wore a well-tailored blue suit accessorized with alligator-skin boots and a silver Rolex. The dark orange tan he had sported during the Paxton trial had faded to a chestnut brown. “What does a councilperson do?” Buzbee asked me. “First, you provide information. You have to do that properly. You have to know the information, understand the significance and the context. And secondly, you make arguments. And I would suggest that nobody does that better than me.”
He has a point. At Paxton’s impeachment trial, in September, Buzbee ran circles around the prosecution, which was led by legendary but perhaps past-their-prime trial lawyers Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin. While Hardin and DeGuerin presented a sober, reasoned case for Paxton’s conviction, supported by plentiful and damning evidence, Buzbee gleefully flayed prosecution witnesses, pushed a baseless conspiracy theory that the Bush family was somehow behind the impeachment, and stoked outrage about legislators overturning the will of the voters, who have elected Paxton three times despite his well-publicized ethical issues. The prosecution was playing checkers; Buzbee was playing bombardment. By the time the Senate acquitted Paxton on all counts, Buzbee had become a right-wing folk hero. He celebrated by posting a photo of himself brandishing an antique rifle on Instagram. “Thank God for attorneys like you who defend the Constitution from the swamp,” one commenter replied. Another urged him to run for president.
A presidential campaign has surely occurred to Buzbee, as it has to many wealthy celebrities in the age of Donald Trump. (Buzbee hosted a fundraiser for Trump at his River Oaks mansion in 2016, and he donated $250,000 to Trump’s presidential campaign and another half million to his inauguration fund.) But after his chastening loss in the 2019 Houston mayoral election, Buzbee appears to have rebooted his political career on a smaller scale. “City council seems like small potatoes compared to where he was and where he’s likely going,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. “That said, this is a way to be relevant in Houston. And it gives him a platform that he didn’t have before.”
A platform is one thing. Power is something else. If elected, Buzbee would be just one of sixteen members on an unusually weak city council. Houston has one of the strongest mayoral systems in the country. In addition to being able to appoint department heads and stock city commissions with hand-picked candidates, Houston’s mayor has near-total control over the council’s weekly agenda (although that may change if Houston voters approve a charter amendment enabling three or more council members to place an item on the agenda).
“One of the requirements of city council is that the mayor has to call on you if you want to speak,” said Ellen Cohen, who served on the council from 2012 to 2020. “And if you are called on, you’re given a certain amount of time to speak, and then your time is up. I don’t know that Tony has the experience of dealing with that.” Buzbee likes to tout his six-year tenure on the Texas A&M System Board of Regents, where he worked closely with Chancellor John Sharp to grow the Texas A&M–Galveston branch campus and conduct performance audits of system departments. But on the Houston City Council, his power would be considerably reduced. “You can’t just call up a department head and demand something,” Cohen told me. “You have to be able to work with them.”
First, of course, Buzbee has to win. The district is one of the wealthiest and most conservative in Houston. Although both leading candidates are Republicans, Buzbee’s main opponent, Mary Nan Huffman, touts herself as the true conservative in the race, pointing to Buzbee’s past as a Democratic Party candidate. (The race is officially nonpartisan.) Huffman, an attorney for the Houston Police Officers’ Union, is an incumbent who won a special election in January 2022 to replace Greg Travis, who stepped down to run, unsuccessfully, for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. Travis endorsed Huffman as his successor but has since soured on her. “I have seen over the past twenty months a huge degradation of the district,” he told me. “I get phone calls from people frustrated because they can’t get their council member to return their calls.” Travis is one of four former District G council members who are supporting Buzbee. (The third candidate in the race, a roofer and Uber driver named Enyinna Isiguzo, has not actively campaigned and did not respond to a request for an interview.)
In a recent interview, Huffman touted her accomplishments on the council: installing license plate–reading cameras throughout her district, providing $350,000 of discretionary funds to the Houston Police Department, rebuilding part of Westheimer Road (a major thoroughfare), and reopening a public library that flooded during Hurricane Harvey. While Buzbee says he’ll approach the job with his customary aggressiveness, Huffman says a lighter touch is needed. “Being on city council is a lot like being a mom,” she said. “You can’t fight every battle. You have things you won’t bend on, but you need to be able to work with the other council members and the mayor to make sure your district is receiving the attention and the projects it needs.”
Huffman told me that Buzbee’s confrontational style would be a liability at city hall. “Going in there and making the mayor mad is a great way to get projects taken away from your district,” she said. She also expressed skepticism about Buzbee’s availability, boasting that she has attended more than 150 homeowners’ association and civic club meetings over her nearly two years on the council. “Tony is a great trial lawyer, but I question his commitment to this job. He has a lot of big trials coming up, and I just don’t think he’s going to be as accessible as I am. He spends a lot of time outside Houston—he travels a lot. And the job of a district council member is pretty intense.” The Houston Chronicle editorial board has endorsed Huffman, writing that while Buzbee is a compelling candidate, “his long-term motivations remain relatively opaque.”
Buzbee dismissed such concerns, pointing out that as the owner of a law firm, he sets his hours—as opposed to Huffman, who is a salaried employee of the police union. He has promised that if elected, he will attend “ten to twenty” community meetings a week, as opposed to Huffman’s one- or two-per-week average. He said he would be able to work with Democratic state senator John Whitmire, the front-runner in next week’s mayoral election. Buzbee considered running for mayor again this year, he told me, but didn’t want to inadvertently help elect U.S. congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a liberal Democrat who is Whitmire’s strongest rival in the race. With no prominent Republican in the mayoral race, conservatives have rallied around Whitmire as the best alternative to Jackson Lee—despite Whitmire voting with his Democratic colleagues to convict Paxton on the majority of the corruption charges he faced in his impeachment trial.
“What I’m going to ask Whitmire, in a really assertive way, is not to forget the people that brought you to [the mayoralty],” Buzbee said. “You’re going to win the mayor’s race because there are people who wouldn’t typically vote for you, but the alternative is just so much worse.”
There is no public polling on the District G race, but Huffman seemed confident that voters would trust her over Buzbee. She reminded me that in 2019, three years after donating heavily to Trump’s presidential campaign, Buzbee served as a “White Pantsuit” donor to a 2019 Harris County Democratic Party fundraiser featuring Hillary Clinton. “Tony Buzbee is a chameleon,” Huffman said. “One day he’s a conservative and one day he’s a liberal. I don’t think he knows what he is, which is concerning for the people of District G, because how do they know who they’re going to get?”
When I repeated this criticism to Buzbee, the trial lawyer compared himself to Ronald Reagan, who likewise transitioned from Democrat to Republican, before noting that a city council spot is supposed to be a nonpartisan office. “City politics should not be Democratic or Republican,” he said. “When you want city services, all you care about is the service.”
Will voters be able to look past Buzbee’s vigorous defense of Paxton, which electrified MAGA Republicans but horrified moderates? “He’s been hurt a little bit in some parts of the community because he represented Ken Paxton,” said Travis, the former District G council member. “But it may also help him with some people.”
Only time will tell whether Buzbee’s city council run is a shrewd beginning to a political career or another electoral flop. “There’s something about these übersuccessful trial attorneys—their brain works a little differently,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “For most observers, Buzbee running for city council doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But I suspect he has a logic behind it. And it’s tough to argue with somebody whose salary dwarfs mine by one hundredfold.”