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Why No One Seems to Care About Houston’s Mayoral Race

Dull issues. Uninspiring candidates. General political apathy. But it’s not like Houston is the fourth-largest city in America. Oh, wait . . .

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Candidates face off in one of the Houston mayoral debates.

What if they held a mayoral race and nobody came? That’s the question plaguing many people currently involved in Houston politics—even if no one else in town is asking it. This phenomenon isn’t entirely new: in 2009,* a measly 19 percent of Houston voters turned out for the general election to make a winner out of Annise Parker. That number could wind up looking downright spectacular, however, after the results of the 2015 mayoral race are tabulated on November 3. At this point—about a month out—no one can even use the traditional, if lame, “just-wait–til-Labor-Day” excuse; that holiday has come and gone, and if you ask the average person on the street who he is supporting, the answer is likely to be one big shrug followed by a puzzled squint, accompanied by “Who’s running again?”

One could say that the issues—at least the ones being discussed—aren’t all that compelling. Few people understand, or even want to understand, the pension crisis that is bleeding the city dry while keeping the bank accounts of retired firefighters and policemen safe and secure. Houstonians do know that traffic back-ups and potholes as dangerous as starving raptors now make it impossible to get from point A to point B (or C or D), but residents—especially the long-timers—also comfort themselves knowing that congestion equals growth equals prosperity. A future of potentially uneducated masses in a high-tech world? Isn’t that the school district’s cross to bear? Increased segregation between the haves and the have-nots in this oh-so-hospitable town? Come on! Once oil prices go back up, anyone will be able to buy a mansion in River Oaks.

Boredom and denial aside, six highly experienced candidates are currently vying to run Houston, and the slate is seasoned with a nice dash of diversity. There’s one Latino, former Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who resigned his post to run for mayor. Two black men hope to thwart him: long-time legislator Sylvester Turner, and former city attorney Ben Hall. Then there are two middle of the road, middle-aged white guys: Bill King, a former Chronicle columnist and mayor of Kemah, who has been a Cassandra-like campaigner for pension reform for years; Stephen Costello, who created his own successful engineering firm and has six years as an at-large city councilman under his belt, is responsible for a drainage fee that—if it isn’t overturned by the courts—will actually help pay for desperately needed infrastructure improvements. Finally, there is middle-aged white guy number three, Chris Bell, who has proudly carried the Progressive Democrat banner as a city councilman and congressman. (The race also features several stragglers whose prospects range from slim to none.)

But instead of enthusiasm there is . . . ennui. This time around, for instance, experience seems to be breeding a curious form of contempt. Take Turner as an example. He’s had a very respectable career in the state legislature, but the remnants of a smear campaign launched against him during a 1991 run for mayor against Bob Lanier—who won the tight runoff because of it—still linger. In 1996 Turner won a 5.5 million libel suit against reporter Wayne Dolcefino and his employer, television station KTRK, for airing the discomfiting set of stories about a nearly incomprehensible insurance scam that was laced with homophobic innuendo. That verdict, however, was subsequently overturned and then upheld by the Texas Supreme Court. So, yes, it was all a long time ago, but the average Houston voter is 62—not so old that dementia has erased all memory of the event, even if the details have faded.

Bell has a similar problem. He’s a smart guy with an acerbic sense of humor who was a good city councilman from 1997 to 2001, and a good Congressman from 2003 to 2005. But his political losses, most notably to Rick Perry in the 2006 governor’s race, have found Bell struggling mightily to escape the retread label.

While there are significant differences between Bill King and Stephen Costello, both are so laser-focused on the fiscal integrity issue—the city is literally going broke because of the pension crisis—that in public debates they sound like characters in Bleak House. Answering a question about pension reform during a mayoral debate Tuesday, King proudly announced that he had recently posted a 22-page white paper on the subject. No one in the audience raced to hit “download” on their laptops.

Garcia’s problem sits at the other end of the spectrum. He has a reputation as a nice guy, who managed to bring diversity to the stuck-in-the-fifties Sheriff’s department, but he is still vulnerable when it comes to how much reform he actually managed to bring about. The windowless, hermetically sealed Harris County jail remains one of the largest and most frightening mental institutions in the U.S., and Garcia’s successor’s all-white leadership team evokes the cast of Mayberry RFD. (Translation: lots of Dems think Garcia should have stayed on the job.) Then there is his perceived education problem. Former mayor Bill White has a Harvard diploma; Annise Parker has one from Rice. Garcia is not a college graduate. This may not worry some constituents, or some of Garcia’s wealthy, multiple-degreed money folks, but there is a lot of private concern that Garcia may not be sophisticated enough to tackle the problems of the nation’s fourth largest city. His campaign strategy has not been reassuring—while other candidates linger and jaw at events, Garcia has become an expert at the pass through; this week he even got up and left in the middle of a debate, claiming a scheduling conflict that really wasn’t. (He left the Wortham Theater Center at around 1:00 in the afternoon for a 2:15 meeting with the Chronicle editorial board, located just three blocks away.)

Finally, there is Ben Hall. Like King and Costello, he has become a one-issue candidate, the monotonous aria in this case being Hall’s antipathy to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which prohibits discrimination in housing and on the job on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, physical handicaps, etc. (Houston is the only major U.S. city to lack such a law, which means among other things that a person can still be fired in Houston just for being gay.) Mayor Parker made sure the rule was passed by city council in 2014, but a challenge from opponents over the wording of the law got it bounced to the courts, and then to the people of Houston, who must vote for or against it now on Election Day. Despite the city’s claim to be welcoming and progressive, HERO’s future looks dim, thanks largely to opposition from far-right conservatives and, well, Ben Hall. He is concerned that any guy could slap on some lipstick, claim to be transgender, slip into the Ladies’ Room—and then turn into Ted Bundy.

The fact that there are black pastors in Houston who live in terror of a purported LGBT conquest of civilization—and who also get their folks out to vote—has nothing whatsoever to do with Hall’s opposition to HERO. Still, it has been noted that if you happened to be a black candidate who wanted to dilute the support of the major black contender in the race, one way to do so might be to make a major stink over —yes—an ordinance that proclaims equal rights for all. In a recent debate, Hall bristled at that very suggestion, claiming that HERO is just very bad law and a great lawyer like himself, with a PhD from Duke and a law degree from Harvard, must oppose bad law. Then he brought up the bathroom threat. This inspired Chris Bell to ask Hall where the word “bathroom” appears in HERO. Hall retreated to his bad law argument. The best thing anyone could say about their exchange was that it was a lot easier to follow than the back and forth over the pension crisis.

As of today, polling is showing that Garcia and Turner—the latter being the only candidate to suggest that “vision” is a requirement for being mayor—will go at each other in the inevitable runoff, an interesting shift for a race that has historically included one conservative and one liberal candidate. (The Houston mayoral election is traditionally nonpartisan.) Mud is just now being loaded into various cannons, though, so things could always change.

In the meantime, those looking for drama in the race will have to take it where they can get it. Garcia made the evening news yesterday—and inspired a few cynics—when he dashed out of his campaign office yesterday to—literally—tackle a man who was attempting to flee the scene of an accident. In the age of viral videos, and in a Houston unwilling to confront its future, it beat the hell out of kissing babies.

*Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Annise Parker was elected in 2010. She was elected in 2009. We regret the error.

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  • M Guerrero

    Wasn’t Parker elected in 2009? Also, Mimi, I’m a longtime reader of your stories and appreciate your research, but y’all have to get a better online editor. I don’t know if it’s the software you use or who’s copying and pasting but the punctuation errors are distracting.

    • Andrea Valdez

      Thank for bringing the error to our attention. I’ll make the change. If you see other problems, please let me know.

  • Huckleberry Muckleroy

    I was on a major endorsement screening committee, and had the honor of screening five of the mayoral candidates.
    The most qualified are Garcia, Turner and Costello. The committee endorsed Garcia, but the membership voted for Turner. I have a Bell bumper sticker, but will vote for Garcia. He was such a great Sheriff that the only really bad thing you can say about him is he quit to run for Mayor.
    The main question this election is ‘Do you support HERO, or The Hate Slate?’

    • Mark Coopers

      I’m sorry but “major” endorsements in City elections are laughable. I could not care less if the River Oaks Women’s Bridge Club, Heights Harley Riders, or East End Knitting Society endorses this person or that proposition.
      The only things that matter in a City election are bread-and-butter issues: the city finances are sound, police and fire protection are adequate, libraries are open, water, sewer, and trash services are functional, and if the potholes get fixed quickly. Everything else (including social policy agendas) is noise. A rhetorical question: When was the last time a City policy really impacted your life? Now if your trash pickup was stopped, then you’d really be impacted.
      Vote common sense – vote your pocketbook issues in City elections.

      • Lauren Taylor

        That would be Steve Costello….nothing more common sense than a Businessman paired w an engineering degree. He’s seriously impressive.

    • Lauren Taylor

      Have you looked at his stats for murder and rape cases.???! Worst in the nation practically. And he staged a car wreck this week….


  • It’s be nice to get a one stop hub where people can find out where these candidates stand on the issues.

  • Localguy

    Pensions are not the reason “the city is literally going broke”. Elected leaders are not paying in the needed amounts and haven’t for over 15 years. Unlike the rest of us where if we sent in 75% of our mortgage payments each month, our lender would soon take us to task, the city uses funds intended for pensions on parks, bike trails, and tax abatement’s for multi-billion dollar companies to shuffle existing employees to new locations. Most employees have taken large pension cuts and/or pay more into the pension system but when the city doesn’t pay it’s share, of course a deficit increases.

    The total city budget is over $5.1 billion each year and yearly pension costs are about $300 million, Houston’s pensions are already less than any major city in the state and country, including Detroit post bankruptcy. King has used cost projections from just after the 2008 crash to amplify his position, Costello embellishing more than most to trick voters, and others really don’t appear to have a handle on the specifics. None of them can legally change pensions without the state legislature agreeing and they are not in session until 2017, no sweeping changes likely to occur given most in the legislature that care about the problem seem to understand it is a spending issue, not a pension issue that plagues the city. Building many miles of bike trails and expanding parks is fine until you remember there aren’t enough police to make them safe.

  • mharper42

    Regarding HERO: “public accommodations” + “gender identity” is where the No Men in Women’s Bathrooms meme comes from. The fact that bathrooms are not specifically mentioned in the ordinance does not conceal the transgender implications.

    • It also doesn’t make it legal for men who do not 100% identify as women to enter a ladies’ restroom. It also doesn’t make it any more legal for a man entering a woman’s restroom dressed like a woman to harass someone there than it is for a man to harass other men / children in men’s bathrooms. Remember George Michael?

  • Ryan

    What is it with people saying the police and fire pensions are bleeding the city dry? 1- they’re both very different, 2- the city’s poor spending decisions should not be fixed on the backs of police and firefighters, 3- the LARGEST unfunded liabilities are from police & municipal employee pensions which are (drumroll please. . .) locally controlled!
    HPD now has an average 20 minute response time because they can’t recruit anyone who will commit to working for HPD as a career. They’re offering a $12,000 sign on bonus, and still can’t fix their response times! Our tax dollars are funding a police farm for other cities: HPD cadets graduate, get field trained, get 3 – 5 years experience in the big city, then leave for a department that has better working conditions, better pay, and secure retirement.
    If people keep spitting this nonsense about HFD’s pension bleeding the city (the city’s contribution to the firefighter’s pension is 3% of the city’s total budget. Please tell me again how they’re bleeding the city dry with 3%) our tax dollars will turn HFD into a firefighter farm like HPD. THAT is truly a waste. What I wish all these “journalists” would investigate is the establishment of the TIRZ. When I moved here, people kept telling me it’s so diverse because there’s no zoning. That was a lie. The TIRZ are the only zones, and they’re designed to keep the rich tax dollars devoted only to the rich neighborhoods, while everyone else pays their share. Why even be a part of the city of Houston if your taxes only take care of you and your own?