[Ed. Note: Thank you to Charles “Off the Kuff” Kuffner for this guest post about the state of the race for Houston’s next mayor!
Houston Mayor Annise Parker is at the end of her third term, so by our term limits law she is not able to run again. The field to succeed her is large and well-funded, and there are a myriad of issues they are talking about, plus one that they probably didn’t think they would have to talk about. This post will introduce you to the contenders and the issues they will face.
Longtime State Rep. Sylvester Turner will make his third attempt for the Mayor’s office. He lost a hotly contested runoff in 1991 to Bob Lanier and finished third behind Bill White and Orlando Sanchez in 2003. Turner, who announced his intent to retire from the Lege after 26 years, is seen as a strong candidate who had an advantage going in to the race because he could raise money for his State Rep account last year while the city’s moratorium on campaign fundraising was in effect. (Neither a lawsuit nor an ethics complaint filed to prevent Turner from transferring said funds to his Mayoral account were successful.) He has received the first major endorsement of the race by winning the support of the AFL-CIO, and he was one of two candidates at the top of the pack in a poll from last month. Like most candidates in the race, Turner has focused on infrastructure and the city’s financial challenges in his campaign. Unlike some other candidates, he has sought to engage and negotiate with the firefighters over the issue of pension costs, and helped broker a deal that provided some savings for the city in the short term.
All candidates have challenges, though Turner’s are perhaps more subtle than some other candidates’. His main challenge is broadening his base beyond African-American voters, which he struggled to do in 2003, and to keep Ben Hall from undercutting that support. His base is big enough to make him a favorite to make it to a runoff, but not big enough to be a favorite to win it. He has been a strong supporter of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, which the Supreme Court has ruled must face a repeal referendum this fall, though he has also been criticized for having anti-LGBT votes in his past. One of the more vocal opponents to HERO in the city is a pastor in his neighborhood, so like for most other candidates this ruling is not a positive for him. That pension deal he helped broker has been vigorously attacked by more hawkish elements, including the Chronicle, for being little more than another kick of the can.
Garcia, twice elected Harris County Sheriff and to City Council in District H before that, is the candidate whose announcement everyone waited for. He couldn’t even talk about running for Mayor without resigning his position, which he finally did in early May. Despite the late start and the modest campaign account he had as of January, he made his presence felt quickly by joining Turner atop that poll and posting a monster finance report this month. He likely has the best name recognition among all candidates and was the top vote-getter in Harris County each time he ran. He would be the first Hispanic Mayor of Houston, which has generated some excitement for his candidacy.
Garcia did a lot to improve the historically awful Harris County Jail during his time as Sheriff, often with little support from Commissioners Court, but there was a string of bad stories about the jail before he got in – he himself has said that one reason why his candidacy was as late in coming as it was is that he wanted to finish that business before he left office – and other campaigns were making noise about it before he even got in. The headlines have stopped, but you can be sure the noise won’t go away. Garcia was widely lauded for the non-discrimination policy he implemented in 2013 and for generally being an ally to the LGBT community and a proponent of diversity, but some of that work was undone by his Republican successor, which is exactly what a lot of people feared would happen one he stepped down. Garcia ‘s candidacy may galvanize Latino voters, who generally do not turn out at high levels in city elections, but he has had a contentious relationship with immigration activists for his support of 287(g) and Secure Communities. Of all candidates, he is likely to have the broadest appeal, but he may find it hard to actually win votes from people who like him but feel more strongly about someone else.
Bell is a familiar figure who like Turner has run for Mayor before, in 2001 when he finished third behind then-Mayor Lee Brown and fellow Council Member (now Harris County Treasurer) Orlando Sanchez. Bell served for two terms on Council in an At Large position, and was a member of Congress for two years before getting drawn out of his seat by Tom DeLay. Bell has also run for Governor in 2006 and SD17 in 2008. He’s an in-demand emcee at Democratic events and is always good for a zinger or two at a candidate event. Bell was one of the first entrants in the race and generally sounded progressive themes so far. He has touted his past record on LGBT issues to distinguish himself from other candidates, in particular Turner. As he has always been, he’s been willing to get into the weeds on issues and put out detailed proposals.
Bell’s biggest challenge is fundraising. His July report was a lot more modest than several competitors, and unlike some other candidates, he’s not in a position to write his own check. His base is mostly in the Anglo Dem/business establishment class that disproportionately votes in city elections, but nearly every other candidate is fishing in that pond as well. He may be more dependent on group endorsements than other candidates, and in a worst case scenario could get squeezed out before the filing deadline. Fair or not, he is often associated with the races he has lost.
Costello is finishing his third term as At Large #1 Council Member, his first elected office. Widely regarded as one of the stronger Council members on policy matters, Costello ran on a platform of improving infrastructure, and put his money where his mouth was by driving the successful Renew Houston referendum in 2010. As Chair of the Finance Committee, he has also been a strong advocate for getting the city’s finances in order and for dealing with the growing pension obligations, thus making him the most visible candidate on the two issues that have gotten the most attention. He voted for HERO on Council and has generally garnered endorsements from progressive and Democratic groups in his two re-election efforts. Like Garcia, he posted a huge finance report, and also has his own financial resources. He is one of two candidates to have had ads running on TV; expect to see a lot more of them.
Costello has two main challenges. The first is that he’s basically a man without a country: He’s got a Republican primary voting history and has been a sponsor of the Harris County GOP’s annual fundraiser, but his generally moderate positions and Council voting history mark him as a RINO, and there’s not much love for him on that side of the aisle. By the same token, while he has done very well with Dem voters and endorsing organizations in the past, there’s no affinity for him in a race with multiple true Democrats. He’d be formidable in an instant-runoff election, as he’d likely be a lot of people’s second or third choices, but it’s unclear how many people have him #1 on their list. He’s also been the focal point (read: primary punching bag) for every candidate’s gripes about potholes and flooding due to the nature of Renew/ReBuild Houston, which was always about paying down debt first, and the recent Supreme Court ruling that cast doubt on the 2010 referendum couldn’t come at a worse time for him. He’s spent a lot of time in the campaign on the defensive because of that, and no candidate likes to have to do that.
King is a former Mayor of Kemah and a former editorial columnist for the Chronicle, where he spent a lot of time writing about financial issues – he is the most alarmist candidate about Houston’s financial position, and the most aggressive advocate for changing municipal/police/fire pensions to a defined-contribution system – and decrying partisan polarization. Despite Costello’s Republican history, he’s basically the de facto Republican candidate in the race, and was the one helped the most when District G Council Member Oliver Pennington had to drop out due to his wife’s health. His fundraising has been decent, and he has loaned his campaign $500K with more likely to come. He has ads running on TV for weeks, and has also blanketed the Internet with ads – I can’t visit a website that doesn’t feature one of his campaign images these days. Once you get past potholes and pensions, he has less overlap with the other candidates on issues, which helps him stand out in a debate.
King and Marty McVey are the only two first-time candidates in this race, and as noted he’s the de facto R in a city that hasn’t elected a Republican Mayor in at least a couple of decades. The Supreme Court ruling that will force HERO repeal onto the ballot is not good news for him, as it will distract from issue’s he’d rather talk about and will make him take a more definitive position on something he’d rather finesse. His position has been that he wouldn’t have put HERO on the agenda, but as a business/establishment type, he’s either going to have to admit to supporting it this November or voting to repeal it, either of which will cost him some support. His July report showed the highest ratio of cash spent on overhead (consultants and salaries), which as someone who is not well known among the electorate could constrain his ability to get a message out.
As noted above, McVey is a first-time candidate who was a White House appointee in 2011 to an advisory board for the United States Agency for International Development. A private equity executive, he has the means to self-finance and has already loaned his campaign over $1M, very little of which has been spent so far. Young and personable, with a Democratic background, he could appeal to voters looking for a fresh face.
If all that sounds kind of generic, it’s because there’s not much else to say. McVey’s positions aren’t noticeably different from the experienced Democratic candidates, and his campaign has been the farthest below radar of the seven listed here. Self-financing ability is nice, but Democratic candidates of that mold – especially first-timers – have at best a mixed history, and the mood of the Democratic base in general is not terribly friendly towards candidates of that profile. It’s good that he can self-fund, because he didn’t raise any money on his July report. He’s a classic example of a candidate that might have been a lot more formidable in a down ballot race but is lost in a higher-profile one.
Hall is a former City Attorney and 2013 Mayoral candidate. Another self-funder, he’s been running ads on African-American radio stations and in African-American publications like the Forward Times. An avowed opponent of HERO, that Supreme Court ruling is a boost to his candidacy, as he’s the only candidate with any visibility who is unabashedly for repeal. He signed Dave Wilson’s latest trans-bashing petition, received $10K in contributions from the Hotze family, and is in position to damage both Sylvester Turner and Bill King by his presence and positions.
All that above are the positives for Hall. His 2013 campaign was a train wreck of epic proportions, filled with incoherent positions on issues and huge sums spent on a rotating cast of campaign managers and consultants. He was dogged in 2013 by multiple failures to pay property taxes on time, and as of the last time I checked, he still hadn’t resolved those issues. He was ethically challenged as City Attorney in the 90s. Fortunately for him, the only way those issues are likely to be raised this time around is if he is seen as actually gaining traction in the race. It’s just flat out hard to take him seriously.