The Big Question in Houston: What In The Hell Is He Thinking?

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At a Texas Tribune Houston & the Legislature: What’s Next event, held just three days after a squeaker of a municipal runoff that brought Houston a new mayor, that was the question of the hour.

Evan Smith, in his introductory remarks, noted that perhaps the biggest story about the prior Saturday was what happened the following Monday, when former City Council member, former Harris County Sheriff, and unsuccessful mayoral candidate Adrian Garcia filed to challenge Representative Gene Green in the primary for the US Congressional District 29 seat. He asked, quite bluntly:

What in the hell is he thinking?

State Senator Sylvia Garcia diplomatically refused to express a preference for either candidate, but she did give a very candid assessment of what the next few months would hold, predicting a “tough ride” for the man she identified as her “friend, neighbor, and protégé,” Adrian Garcia.

Conventional wisdom has held that Green, an Anglo who represents a majority Latinx district, would stay put until retirement, at which point a rising star from the Houston Latinx scene would be elected to keep it blue. Grumbles about Adrian Garcia jumping the line can be heard, here and there, from some who are, or see themselves as, those rising stars. So it goes.

With the Green-Garcia race, the House District 49 open contest in Austin, and the Trey Fischer Martinez challenge to José Menéndez’s senate seat, the Democratic primaries in Texas ought to be … exciting.

But hey, Houston’s election was pretty exciting, too!

The runoff in the nonpartisan city race for mayor pitted a long-time Democratic state rep, Sylvester Turner, against a moderate, then conservative, then back-to-basics Republican, Bill King. Turner won endorsements from Republicans; King, from Democrats, but for the most part, the race felt very partisan.

In Harris County, Turner won the election with only 678 votes. His margin grew to approximately 4,000 when votes from 11 City of Houston precincts in Fort Bend County (which went almost entirely for Turner) and a few more in Montgomery County (where King won almost all of the fewer than 100 votes cast) were added to the totals.

At the same Texas Tribune event, when the moderator asked what the close results meant, Senator Paul Bettencourt, a Republican and former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector, first said that the only thing that mattered was who won. Later in the program, however, he said the opposite, arguing that Turner cannot claim a mandate because of the race’s closeness, and that the two city council members who got the greatest numbers of votes were the only elected officials who could claim a mandate.

Somehow, I don’t think Mayor Turner, who will hold the position until at least 2020 thanks to a vote to change limits from three 2-year to two 4-year terms, is going to look to Bettencourt for a ruling on whether he gets to be the boss of things. Nor should he. Houston’s government is driven by a strong mayor, and Turner will take advantage of that fact to advance his agenda.

The Houston Chronicle succinctly summarizes the council races:

If the political tilt of the council shifted with Saturday’s results, analysts said, it may have been slightly to the right. Conservative former policeman Mike Knox will replace moderate Steve Costello in the At-Large 1 seat; physician Steve Le, who opposed the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance, ousted District F incumbent Richard Nguyen, who voted for it. As a counterbalance, the analysts said, municipal finance lawyer Amanda Edwards’ replacement of C.O. Bradford in the At-Large 4 race is a shift to the left.

In conservative District G, where lawyer Greg Travis replaces Oliver Pennington, and in progressive-leaning District H, where educator Karla Cisneros replaces Ed Gonzalez, observers saw little ideological change.

Amanda Edwards has great potential as part of a younger generation of progressive elected officials in Houston that also includes Chris Brown as City Controller. Brown, who served as a deputy to the former Controller, and worked closely with his his father’s city council campaigns, defeated conservative Bill Frazier.

Two disappointing outcomes for people who support LGBTQIA rights: pro-HERO Council Member Richard Nguyen lost the District F seat to anti-HERO; and Manuel Rodriguez beat José Leal for the Houston Independent School District Trustee position III. In 2011, the Houston Chronicle retracted their endorsement of Rodriguez when he attacked his opponent with an anti-gay mailer.

Most local pundits have been careful to recommend that we not draw too many conclusions about larger trends from this fall’s election and runoff. Charles Kuffner’s comments on whether the closeness of the race should encourage Republicans will, I hope, comfort Democrats, liberals, and progressives. The Houston Chronicle observed:

Bill King’s near-upset over Sylvester Turner in the Houston mayoral runoff stoked the hopes of some Republicans that the party soon could break Democrats’ 34-year hold on City Hall.

Off the Kuff responded, in agreement with the paper:

King was a decent candidate who took advantage of the opportunities he had and ran a good campaign. He was also lucky – again, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation if Oliver Pennington [another older, white Republican]had not dropped out of the race. I think we’d be talking about why Adrian Garcia fell short against Turner in the runoff.

**

Finally, however swell the GOP establishment may feel about their near-miss with Bill King, it should be noted that they also had a good chance to win the Controller’s office as well, but missed that by a wider mark. Bill Frazer was a well-qualified candidate who was much more clearly identified with the Republican Party and who was as focused on pensions and fiscal matters as King. He was also Chron-endorsed and led the field in November after running a strong race in 2013, yet he wound up more than 10,000 votes behind Chris Brown.

With the Houston city government settled, let’s hope we can start to see some trend to the blue in the 2016 races. Onward!

Photograph of outgoing Mayor Annise Parker in an art car taken by Houston.713.

 

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About Author

Andrea Greer

Andrea, an activist, fundraiser, feminist, writer, and baker, is not as tall as you think she is. She's been at this a long time, and wants to know what you are doing to make the pie higher and raise more hell. Her mother would like you to know she's got a law degree.

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