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.