For the first time in nearly two decades, an incumbent mayor in Houston has been forced into a runoff election. Whatever the myriad underlying reasons for this rare occasion, there’s one undeniable factor at the core—Tony Buzbee.
The boisterous millionaire plaintiffs’ attorney was willing to spend anything, say anything, and do anything to get into the runoff. He flooded the airwaves with TV ads, levied allegations of a vast pay-for-play scandal at City Hall, and—in an anecdote that has become a necessary cliché for reporting on this race—brought a wheelbarrow full of manure to a press conference.
Buzbee availed himself of the sort of gimmicky, attention-getting antics that don’t usually play in municipal politics. Meanwhile, he put a spotlight on his personal life, which happened to include a DWI and a curious episode involving a woman he was dating who destroyed a couple of Andy Warhol art pieces at Buzbee’s house.
The combo of money, politics, and personality have earned Buzbee plenty of comparisons to Donald Trump, for better or worse. Regardless, it worked. On election night, November 5, Buzbee ended up with 28 percent of the vote and kept Mayor Sylvester Turner’s total below 50 percent.
With the ten other candidates vanquished, Buzbee’s campaign finally has the fight he wanted—a one-on-one with the mayor. To beat Turner, Buzbee would need to fight even harder than he did in the primary. He would need to spend a lot of cash, possibly more than the roughly $9 million he burned through in the general election. He’d have to overwhelm Turner, forcing him onto defensive footing in friendly neighborhoods. Buzbee would have to run a Trump-style campaign that trades punch for punch and plays to his strengths as an underdog with nothing to lose.
That’s not happening.
Early voting begins tomorrow, November 27, and so far the runoff has been a relatively sleepy affair. Buzbee went weeks without running new ads. The campaign actually took a break at one point to reboot its strategy—a political version of turning a malfunctioning wifi router on and off. In short, he hasn’t effectively used the short time between the general election and the runoff to shift gears from loud and brash challenger to potential citywide winner.
For a guy who once parked a tank in front of his River Oaks mansion, Buzbee’s runoff campaign feels like a dud. What happened?
The runoff started poorly for Buzbee. His election night victory speech was a rambling mishmash of personal anecdotes, shout-outs to his mom, and an as-yet unanswered reference to something important happening in 1980. Not exactly the best way to convince undecided voters who just saw their top choices lose.
Buzbee’s campaign also remains haunted by the Trump comparison. The attention may have helped him consolidate Republican voters for the general election, but he’ll need a majority to win the runoff. And a majority of Houston voters do not like Donald Trump. The photo of Buzbee alongside the president, who mocked Hurricane Harvey heroes, is enough to doom him in a citywide vote.
(Consider this overly simplistic formula for understanding Houston politics: You have three voters, a white Democrat, a black Democrat, and a Republican. You need two out of three to win.)
His campaign knows he has to scrub away that orange-hued stain, and it’s not as if that’s an impossibility. Buzbee may have been a major donor to Trump, but he’s also been a top donor to the Harris County Democratic Party and was once the head of the Galveston County Democratic Party. Sue Lovell, the former president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, is now on his campaign. Buzbee even posted a picture of his daughter with former president Barack Obama. Unlike Trump, Buzbee worked his way up from being a poor kid in a small town. He served in the Marines. He doesn’t pander to racists.
There’s also another problem with the Trump comparison. One of the things people often forget about the 2016 election is that Trump’s campaign was in many ways more moderate than his Republican opponents’. He promised to protect Medicare and Social Security, and played to people’s immediate material concerns. The headlines were all about Trump’s latest outbursts, but the hats said “make America great again.”
For Buzbee, the equivalent tactic would mean going beyond the allegations of corruption at City Hall and talking about the real concerns in Houston: trash that doesn’t get picked up, traffic, and flooding. You know, making Houston great again.
But Buzbee hasn’t been doing that.
Just look at District C. Four years ago, Turner lost the high-turnout, white, Democratic district in the runoff against Bill King even as he won the citywide election. Entire blocks of the district still remain vacant after Hurricane Harvey. It’s hard to imagine a path to victory that doesn’t involve replicating King’s success. Yet in October Buzbee skipped a critical debate in Meyerland, a core District C neighborhood that has borne the brunt of Houston’s flooding. Turner ended up winning a clear plurality of the district’s vote in the general election.
The Houston Chronicle has covered how Turner lost support from progressives, but less has been written about how Turner won over the moderates and business interests who didn’t support him four years ago, the voters Buzbee would need to win.
Last month, Turner gave a speech at a Houston Parks Board Luncheon—one of the routine rubber-chicken events that the Marriott Marquis was specifically built to accommodate—in which he happily bragged about how much money the business community had donated to the city’s parks and encouraged people to give even more.
That’s the real pay-for-play at City Hall—and how business has worked in Houston for decades. As long as the wealthy and well-connected donate to worthy civic endeavors, the city treats them as allies. Houston may not have paid sick leave or a higher minimum wage for all municipal contractors, but it does have a half-billion-dollar fine arts museum under construction and plans for a $300 million park that involves building a hill over a six-lane road. Turner understands that this quid pro quo requires constant tending-to.
“I think as famous philosopher Woody Allen said, ‘Ninety percent of life is showing up.’ Sylvester shows up,” said Charles Foster, a respected immigration attorney and longtime member of the Greater Houston Partnership board, the key business advocacy organization in the city. He also supported King four years ago but has been impressed by Turner’s tenure in office.
Buzbee, on the other hand, has barely made an attempt to win over this key constituency. Instead, last week, in the middle of the runoff campaign, Buzbee cochaired the thirty-third annual “Celebrity Paws Gala” for Citizens for Animal Protection. His girlfriend was the cochair.
The night was for dogs, but Buzbee is better known for a different animal‚ the shark. He has a great white tattooed on his forearm. It’s supposed to embody his boldness and killer instincts.
But at this point in the campaign, I can’t help think of another Woody Allen line: “A relationship is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”
Buzbee’s not dead yet, of course.
He’s bought some more television commercials just in time for the beginning of early voting. He rolled out a plan for his first hundred days in office. He even held an event at a diner in Meyerland just across the street from flood-prone Brays Bayou. Municipal runoffs are notorious for low turnout, so it’s not impossible that, like Trump, he’ll pull off an electoral miracle. But at this point it all feels like a desperate last-minute gambit. It looks like one, too—at the Meyerland event, I saw an elderly couple falling asleep in their chairs.
If he really wanted to win, however, Buzbee should have spent the election season studying another self-made millionaire. In 1991, successful developer Bob Lanier ran for mayor on a campaign full of sharp elbows and just a few fights with downtown business interests. Amid rising crime and mistrust of city officials, incumbent mayor Kathy Whitmire didn’t even make the runoff. Instead, Lanier faced a fellow challenger in a mud-slinging runoff that was so heated people still talk about it today. Eventually Lanier won, and he went on to become one of the most popular and powerful mayors in modern Houston history.
The man he defeated in the runoff? A wunderkind state representative by the name of Sylvester Turner.