These are anxious days in Houston. The locals, especially those who remember the bad old economic days, are edgy—a mood change that has come on about as quickly as, well, falling oil prices.
Just last year, life looked pretty good. Fracking and horizontal drilling had revolutionized the oil business, reaffirming Houston’s place as the energy capital of the world. The price of a barrel of oil hovered around a delirium-inducing $100. The building cranes had returned to roost, everywhere from downtown to chichi Kirby Drive to south of The Woodlands, where Exxon was building a state-of-the-art super-campus for itself. Quality of life had finally started to matter: the extreme makeovers of Buffalo Bayou and Hermann Park were nearing completion, and a new system of bike paths stretched across the inner city and beyond, saving countless cyclists from the city’s homicidal drivers. A gargantuan $450 million redevelopment of the Museum of Fine Arts was on the fast track. Even the underserved of Houston looked to be getting their due thanks to a fortuitous hospital sale by the Episcopal diocese that promised to disperse $1.2 billion to improve health care in town and throughout the state. Houston’s only problems seemed to be its pocked streets—potholes yawing wider and deeper with every thunderstorm—and the traffic, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the boom of the late seventies and early eighties. But even gridlock could be seen as good news, the result of 2,300 new people moving to the area every week.
Then, last fall, things started to get wobbly. Much of the globe was suffering from an economic slowdown, while OPEC was refusing to cut production, helping to create an all-too-familiar oil glut that sank the price below $50 a barrel. Houston may be the only city on the planet where paying $1.75 for a gallon of gas is cause for ambivalence, but that’s because we know what’s coming: cutbacks and layoffs, along with a reduction in charitable giving and in the kind of consumer spending that gilds the economy. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time: Houston is committed to its quest for world-class status while trying to accommodate a booming population, one increasingly younger and poorer, with profound health care and educational needs. Meanwhile, the city’s municipal debt load is rising to a level that has finally attracted the concern of Houston business leaders. At fancy cocktail parties and in country club locker rooms, the people who run the town are characteristically upbeat—the slowdown is generally predicted to last a year at most—but beneath that show of optimism, people are worried.
For these reasons, the November mayoral race, which traditionally starts on February 1, has this year taken on added import. The contest can’t yet tell us exactly where we are going, but the current hand-wringing, jockeying, and sniping does provide a cautionary glimpse into Houston’s future. Surveying the scene, it’s impossible not to wonder whether the city’s long-standing reputation for tolerance will survive in a place as diverse as Houston is today.
The mayor’s race here has usually been predictable. A handful of candidates typically battle it out—the race is nonpartisan—and then someone slightly to the right and someone slightly to the left go at each other in a runoff. The winner these past few decades, and consistently reelected to the maximum of 3 two-year terms, has been the candidate who at least purported to support social progressivism and fiscal conservatism. Historically, that person needed the black vote to win. Almost always, Hispanics weren’t a factor. Almost always, the wealthy white neighborhoods to the north and west were. One veteran political observer shared an interesting theory with me, that the mayors favored by the white male power structure tend to be succeeded by more “radical” ones—that is, the wealthy white developer Bob Lanier was followed by African American former police chief Lee Brown, who was followed by the wealthy white attorney and entrepreneur Bill White, who was followed by former councilwoman and controller Annise Parker, who is gay and female—and term-limited out of a job come January 2016.
This time, however, chaos is the most relevant theory. No one has emerged as anything close to a front-runner. “There’s so much more going on than I’ve ever seen in a mayor’s race in thirty-five years,” said Robert M. Stein, a longtime Houston pollster and political science professor at Rice University.
Around a dozen men—no brave or foolish woman has stepped forward yet—have either declared their intentions or are expected to. The major candidates include two black men, state representative Sylvester Turner and Ben Hall, a former city attorney who lost to Parker in 2013. The leading white-male-power-structure candidates so far are Stephen Costello, an engineer and city councilman, and Bill King, the former mayor of Kemah who later expanded his exposure by working as a Houston Chronicle columnist. The classic liberal role is going to lawyer and former congressman Chris Bell. Three Latinos are also reportedly thinking it over: Gilbert Garcia, the chairman of the Metro board; councilman and mayor pro tem Ed Gonzalez; and, the most likely to run, Sheriff Adrian Garcia. Cuban American Orlando Sanchez, the county treasurer and twice a mayoral candidate, is also rumored to be running. Those to the right of center include councilmembers Oliver Pennington and Jack Christie. There are potential fringe candidates too, of varying races, ethnicities, and political backgrounds. Given this crowded slate, maybe it isn’t surprising that rapper turned civic activist Bun B was also thought a likely candidate. He, however, has said he won’t run.
What this means is that Houston’s majority-minority status—depending on your figures, it’s either the most or second-most diverse metro area in the U.S.—is finally having an effect on the political scene, and no one knows exactly who will prevail. “What you are getting,” Stein says, “is the emergence of a new electorate.” The city has seen scandalously declining voter turnout recently, with older white folks being the most likely to show up. The central question in the mayor’s race is whether any of the candidates can energize their niche-size bases and then build a successful coalition to win a runoff. Even seasoned political operatives aren’t sure who goes where: Will the black vote fracture between the two black candidates? Will the long-awaited Latino vote finally materialize with a charismatic candidate like Garcia? Will conservative law-and-order types cross over to support a Latino who’s proved himself as sheriff?
And what about Houston’s large and well-organized LGBT population? “Bell has the money gays, Turner has the activist gays,” one observer told me. If a referendum to repeal the controversial Houston Equal Rights Ordinance—a.k.a. HERO—ends up on the November ballot (the ordinance prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, and just about anything else), it could become a litmus test for liberal and conservative candidates alike.
Then there are the white power brokers, those guys who used to call the shots. They remember nostalgically the one-call-away days of mayors Lanier and White, particularly the latter, whose Harvard degree, financial acumen, and sophistication seemed so neatly matched with their vision of a modern city on the rise. Torn now between a questionably loyal King and a foot-dragging Costello, the bigwigs are turning from disappointment to despair. Their inability to come up with a world-beater of their own is striking.
Put another way, this race has the potential to evolve into something akin to Bonfire on the Bayou, with the city’s diverse factions warring with one another and within their own ranks. For her part, Parker has generally been regarded as a decent mayor; she might have been rated higher if she hadn’t been so lacking in the flesh-pressing, vision-sharing, self-promoting gifts of some of her predecessors. It’s also safe to say that while outsiders still can’t quite believe that Houston is the first major American city to elect (and reelect) an openly gay mayor, most people in town couldn’t have cared less—a sign that our much-vaunted tolerance was ahead of the national political curve. At least, that’s how it was until Parker recently pushed a little too hard for the aforementioned HERO. Four critics, including two pastors, filed suit as part of an effort to repeal the ordinance. The city then subpoenaed copies of the sermons of ministers believed to have preached against HERO in church; city hall was “concerned” that such politicking from the pulpit was inappropriate for tax-exempt institutions. The city later withdrew the subpoenas, but the issue remains stalled in court. In such an environment, Parker’s endorsement might be of questionable value. (One day she is said to be leaning toward longtime ally Turner, another day toward Councilman Costello, whose practical, just-show-me-the-numbers approach to city government is closest to her own.)
In other courthouse news, two of the best-known candidates are already involved in litigation. Bell filed a lawsuit against the city last fall, claiming that its campaign finance rules could unfairly benefit Turner. And there has been a lot of carping over which candidate is the biggest retread; Bell even brought it up on the sunny Sunday in January when he announced his candidacy. “I know my competitors . . . might even talk about some of the political races that I have run and lost,” Bell told his supporters. “And that’s fair game—because if necessary, I’ll talk about races they’ve run and lost.” Bell has lost three elections in a row—for reelection to Congress, in 2004; for governor, in 2006; and for state Senate, in 2008—while Turner has lost two mayoral races. Maybe it’s no wonder that the as-yet-unsullied Garcia has found his niche as everybody’s second choice, as promising a spot as any so far.
All of this would be very entertaining if the stakes weren’t so high. The Houston mayor’s office is one of the strongest in the country—there’s no city manager here. Along with the usual big-city woes and the booming-and-busting-city woes, the next mayor could find himself or herself wrestling with an enormous fiscal crisis, largely because of the decades-long funding of police and firemen’s pensions instead of city services (see potholes and traffic, above). King has made the fiscal problems the centerpiece of his campaign—he’s been talking, Cassandra-like, about the pension issue for years, only recently gaining some traction.
Maybe the deeper issue for Houston remains one of identity. Will the new leadership embrace the city’s diversity? Parker, until recently at least, was an inclusive mayor. So was her predecessor. But moving forward, running the city will be less about wielding power fairly than about truly sharing it. “The principal job of a mayor in a big, diverse city is to bring the overwhelming majority of citizens together to focus on accomplishing goals for the community as a whole,” former mayor White told me. “Houston is so diverse that you could risk balkanization and loss of community with divisive leadership.”
By November, we should have a pretty good idea which way the city’s going. No matter who wins.