On May 20, Mayor Sylvester Turner delivered his fourth State of the City address at the luxurious downtown Marriott Marquis, the hotel with the Texas-shaped lazy river. His top opponent, Tony Buzbee, delivered a competing state of the city address, which happened to take place in the same building on a different floor.
Turner largely avoided discussing the coming election and instead focused on issues like preventing flooding and attracting tech jobs. Buzbee, on the other hand, gave a politically charged speech that took direct aim not just at Turner but at the 1,500 movers, shakers, fundraisers, business leaders, and local pooh-bahs who attended the mayor’s speech.
“The residents of this city are going to run this city again, not the Greater Houston Partnership,” Buzbee said.
Buzbee’s claim is an odd one, because it’s hard to think of a time when downtown business interests didn’t run this city. During Houston’s first oil boom the engaged business leaders would secretly convene at Suite 8F at the Lamar Hotel to discuss how to keep taxes low and pull political strings. Now they meet at the Greater Houston Partnership headquarters downtown to promote international trade and immigration reform.
For all of Houston’s progressive accolades—most diverse city, first major city with a lesbian mayor—the local government has long adhered to a lowercase-c conservative platform of pro-commerce and pro-growth.
Sylvester Turner has largely upheld that platform, which is perhaps the most surprising thing about his first term as mayor of Houston. The longtime Democratic state representative had run for mayor twice before, and his unabashedly progressive campaign in 2015 spoke to Houston’s economic divide and earned endorsements from the city’s three major public sector unions.
Once in office, however, he tacked to the business-friendly center and has enacted policies that should please any lowercase-c conservative. He passed pension reform through the state Legislature, blocked an affordable housing complex in the wealthy Galleria area, fought with the firefighters’ union over a $100 million pay raise approved by voters, and oversaw the recovery from Hurricane Harvey without lifting the city’s revenue cap.
Election Day is Tuesday, and given the incumbent’s adherence to the status quo there’s little reason for this race to be particularly contentious. And yet all the polls point to Turner facing a potential runoff.
So what’s going on?
First of all, times change.
Turner is the first mayor to hold office since Houston shifted its municipal term limits from three two-year terms to two four-year terms. Local politics now feels like a presidential cycle and the second term usually draws a serious challenger. The age of de facto six-year terms is over.
Buzbee deserves credit for turning something that could have been a routine recoronation into a real fight. He’s more than a son of a meat cutter and former-Marine-turned-multimillionaire plaintiff’s attorney. Tony Buzbee is also a living political science experiment. How much money does a candidate have to spend to get traction in a municipal election? So far he has self-funded $10 million to land in a tenuous second place, polling at 23.4 percent to Turner’s 43.5 percent.
Besides money, Buzbee also has a love of the fight and a flair for showmanship that’s earned him comparisons to Donald Trump. For example, Buzbee kicked off his campaign by filling a wheelbarrow with manure and promising to clean up City Hall. He has a young, blond girlfriend and a tenuous relationship with anti-LGBT extremists. And his overall strategy has been a mix of only-I-can-fix-it boasts and bare-knuckle attacks on the incumbent.
The former are the questionable promises you’d expect from any challenger: Hire two thousand police officers (a feat the police union has deemed impossible). Give the firefighters a $100 million pay increase. Fearmonger about a crime problem that doesn’t really exist. During the final mayoral debate, Buzbee even claimed he knew more about rapper Travis Scott than Mayor Turner for some reason.
The attacks, on the other hand, have landed with serious weight. Buzbee alleges a culture of pay-to-play at City Hall, and the Houston Chronicle found that Turner’s mayoral campaigns raised at least 41 percent of their funds from city vendors. Houston is a town of engineers and developers, not politicians, so the donor circles remain remarkably consistent no matter who is in office. What sets Turner apart is an appearance of impropriety that didn’t exist under his predecessors. Turner says he’s adhered to the same ethics rules as every other mayor, and apparently there’s no rule that says his former law partner can’t bid for a $6.7 million legal consulting contract.
Turner has also been dogged by questions about Marvin Agumagu, a 31-year-old former City Hall staffer who was hired for a $95,000-a-year internship in the middle of a citywide hiring freeze. As originally reported by KPRC reporter Mario Diaz, emails seem to show that the city created a special position just for Agumagu. Buzbee says there are text messages between the intern and the mayor. The scandal feels a bit like a “first as tragedy, then as farce” rehash of allegations from the 1991 mayoral race about Turner’s relationship with a former law client who faked his death. What did he know? When did he know it? Were they friends? Meanwhile, Turner’s campaign has called the whole ordeal a “Trumpian disinformation campaign.”
If Buzbee is the Trump of this race, then former Kemah Mayor Bill King is playing the role of Mitt Romney.
Once a columnist for the Houston Chronicle, King ran against Turner four years ago on a platform of pension reform, fiscal responsibility, and, to quote his campaign slogan, a “back to basics” attitude in city government. He fell just four thousand votes short of winning. Given that narrow loss, it’s easy to understand why King would want another bite at the apple. But his campaign this time has been less successful, and that’s easy to understand, too. King lost much of his political platform when Turner passed his own version of pension reform. King is a self-proclaimed nerd, Buzbee is a fighter, and both are trying to win over the same Republican-leaning voters. You don’t need to have Fox and Friends on the DVR to know which strategy will work better among folks who support Donald Trump.
The other two main candidates running for mayor are Council Member Dwight Boykins and former Councilwoman Sue Lovell. Boykins represents the Third Ward and Sunnyside, largely African American neighborhoods. Lovell was the first woman president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. Their real impact on the race may be as spoilers if they can force a runoff by diverting enough black and progressive votes from Turner.
Whether or not he’s forced into a runoff, Turner is likely to be reelected because he has the overwhelming support of Democratic voters and, business interests aside, Houston is a blue city.
It took Turner three attempts to win the mayor’s race, and yet he’s spent the last four years like the dog that caught the car. Did Turner really spend all this time aiming at City Hall because he wanted to solve a pension problem that started in 2001? Or finagle a structurally unbalanced budget? Or brag about the World Petroleum Congress coming to town next year?
Maybe it’s that lack of obvious vision, that unwillingness to deviate from the norm at a time of political upheaval, climate change, and Hurricane Harvey that’s made Turner such a target. The oil and gas industry has only a few good decades left. More storms are coming. Houston’s future is written in carbon emissions and Turner is still cozying up to the Greater Houston Partnership. People need to know the government is looking out for them, and the mayor’s reelection campaign is grappling with questions about contracting and interns.
While Turner has lost some key support among disappointed progressive groups, the polls show that dissenting liberals will eventually coalesce around the incumbent mayor. But as Democrats learned in 2016, sometimes all it takes is a little lower turnout on your side, a little higher for your opponent, and Houston could end up with Mayor Tony Buzbee just in time for the World Petroleum Congress in 2020. And he’s already well-practiced at making speeches in the Marriott Marquis.