Howdy. This is Charles Kuffner from Off the Kuff, and I was asked by the fine folks at BOR to write an overview of the 2011 Houston municipal elections. What follows is my effort to summarize it all for you. For more information, please see my 2011 Election page, which contains links to interviews I have conducted with the candidates (more are to come), campaign finance reports, and endorsement lists. On to the overview…Mayor
Houston has a strong Mayor system, so this is the single most important job in city government. Mayor Annise Parker was elected in 2009, winning a runoff against former City Attorney Gene Locke; then-Council Member Peter Brown and HCDE Trustee Roy Morales also ran but did not make it to the runoff. This time around, Mayor Parker has
four five opponents, but none have any money or prior electoral success, and nobody expects her to be seriously challenged. She will be re-elected, it's just a matter of the final score.
That's the short version. Things are a little more complicated than that. The Mayor has had an eventful first term in office. Some of that is due to the city's financial situation, which is not as bad as some other big cities but which still required $100 million in budget cuts and over 750 jobs cut, and which has looming issue with pension funds and health care costs. Some of that is due to items that were not originally on her agenda but which resulted from the 2010 election, in particular Renew Houston (now known as Rebuild Houston), which added a charter amendment directing the city to create a dedicated fee for street and drainage improvements, and the red light camera referendum that resulted in the removal of said cameras from intersections around the city. Some of that is due to items that were on her agenda, such as the new Historic Preservation ordinance that was passed amid vocal opposition.
There's more, but you get the idea: It's been a busy two years, and with all that action comes a certain amount of drama. For several months this year a few people who might have been serious opponents for the Mayor talked about entering the race against her. There was speculation that the Mayor could get squeezed between an African-American Democrat and an Anglo Republican, in a similar fashion to then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire in 1991. None of that panned out, but the current line of thinking among the chattering classes is that the wannabees will jump in for real if Mayor Parker doesn't do well enough (for some value of “well enough”) against the minor opponents she does have. Ask me again in two months and I'll tell you whether I think we'll have a contested Mayoral election in 2013 or if Mayor Parker will get to serve her three terms without too much fuss.
First term City Controller Ronald Green is unopposed for re-election. Nothing to see here.
City Council At Large
There are five At Large City Council seats, four of which are held by incumbents running for re-election. Three of these incumbents – CM Stephen Costello in At Large #1, CM Melissa Noriega in At Large #2, and CM C. O. “Brad” Bradford in At Large #4 – face opponents with minimal funding, and all are expected to be elected without great difficulty. The fourth incumbent, CM Jolanda Jones, won in a runoff in 2009, narrowly defeating former SBOE member Jack Christie. Christie is running again, along with businesswoman Laurie Robinson and a fourth candidate. As was the case in 2009, CM Jones has been no stranger to controversy this year, being the target of an ethics complaint that stemmed from an Office of Inspector General report that concluded Jones had used city employees and resources to benefit her private law practice, feuding with the City Attorney, and being targeted by the police and fire departments for defeat. The good news for her is that she raised over $100,000 as of June 30, far better than she did last time, and has not lost any significant endorsements. This is one race everyone will be watching.
The other At Large race that will draw attention is the one open seat race, in At Large #2, where incumbent CM Sue Lovell is term-limited out. Ten challengers are in the mix for this seat, some with better odds than others. Among them are:
Former State Rep. Kristi Thibaut.
Former GLBT Political Caucus President Jenifer Rene Pool.
Former Planning Commission member David Robinson.
Bolivar Fraga, son of former Council member Felix Fraga.
Also in the running are two of the city's most perennial candidates, Michael “Griff” Griffin and Andrew Burks, each of whom could make it to the runoff in a low-profile election based on their own name recognition. My personal assessment of this race is that it's a crapshoot. I can make an argument for any of these people to be in the runoff. I would not bet my own money on any particular outcome, however.
City Council District races
There are now 11 Council districts thanks to the redistricting process the city went through this year. A map of the new districts can be found here. This was the result of a 1979 lawsuit that forced the creation of district Council seats – part of the agreement was that when Houston reached 2.1 million people, two new districts would be added. Despite falling inches short of that in the official Census numbers, the city went ahead with the redraw, and while there was some pushback on the original map proposed by Mayor Parker, in the end the process went about as smoothly as you could want. How smoothly? Not a single lawsuit has been filed against the new map. How often do you hear that?
Seven district Council members are running for re-election. One, Mike Sullivan in District E, is unopposed. The other six have at least one opponent each, though many are of the fringe variety, and a few only filed at the deadline. Given that only two incumbents in any city office have lost a re-election bid since the term limits law was passed in the mid-90's, it's probably a safe bet that all seven will be back next year.
Four seats are open – the two newly-created seats, plus two where incumbent members were term-limited out. The latter two are Districts B and C. B is an African-American district on the northeast side of town, currently held by CM Jarvis Johnson. Eight candidates are running to replace Johnson, including his constituent services director Alvin Byrd; community organizer Phillip Bryant; businessman Jerry Davis; 24-year-old Bryan Smart; and Katherine Daniels, who is being supported by the runnerup to Johnson from the 2005 election. District C, now held by Anne Clutterbuck, was transformed into an urban core district that fills most of the space just inside the West Loop. Five candidates are on the ballot, including former State Rep. Ellen Cohen, whose name recognition and fundraising prowess have made her the acknowledged favorite in the race; realtor Karen Derr, the 2009 runnerup for At Large #1; attorney Brian Cweren, who ran for the old District C seat in 2005; and former airline pilot Joshua Verde. Both races will likely go to a runoff, with Cohen almost certainly in the mix for C while B is more open.
Finally, there are the two new districts, J and K, both of which are in the southwest part of town. J was drawn to be a Latino opportunity district, though as Greg Wythe has argued, its current demographics make it unlikely to function as such in the short term. Nonetheless, two of the three candidates for this seat are Latino: Criselda Romero, who works as a constituent coordinator for CM Ed Gonzalez, and businessman Rodrigo Cañedo; they are joined by attorney Mike Laster, who was the runnerup in District F in 2009. Laster will probably make it to the runoff, against either opponent. District K, which was drawn to be an African-American opportunity district, has three candidates as well, but only one serious candidate, attorney Larry Green. I can't think of a scenario in which he doesn't win easily in November.
HISD and HCC Trustee
Not strictly city of Houston, but important anyway are the elections for HISD and HCC Board of Trustees. There are four HISD Trustee races for four-year terms. One incumbent, former District B Council member (and HISD Trustee before that) Carole Mims Galloway stepped aside at the last minute; her seat will be taken by Rhonda Skillern-Jones, a member of the activist HISD Parent Visionaries group. Board President Paula Harris, who is at the center of various ethics-related issues, is being challenged by retired educator Davetta Daniels, whom Harris defeated handily in 2007. Board Vice President Manuel Rodriguez is opposed by Ramiro Fonseca, who has made this race a lot more interesting by garnering an impressive array of endorsements since his late entry, including that of Mayor Parker. Newest member Juliet Stipeche, who won a special election in 2010, will run for her first full term; she is opposed by perennial candidate/Republican activist Dorothy Olmos. On the HCC side, where terms are six years, one seat is open, as trustee Michael Williams is stepping down. He was originally going to run for Council in At Large #2 but his campaign there never got off the ground. In any event, the race for his seat is a matchup between former Council members Carroll Robinson and Jew Don Boney. One trustee, Richard Schechter, is unopposed. Finally, trustee Chris Oliver drew an opponent at the last minute, Wendell Robbins; I had not heard of him until I saw an email saying that Robbins had earned the endorsement of the Harris County Tejano Democrats.
So that's my overview of the Houston elections. Barring anything earthshaking, we'll have the same Mayor and Controller, and five or six of the now-17 Council members will be new. We will have at least one new HISD trustee and one new HCC Trustee, with the possibility of more for each. Looking ahead to 2013, two At Large members (Noriega and Jones, if she wins) and three District members (Wanda Adams in D, Sullivan in E, and James Rodriguez in I) will be term-limited out. We'll see if we have a contested Mayor's race that year or not.