With its sprawling 665 square miles, Houston is home to more than 2.2 million people and serves as the economic engine for a region of more than 7 million. Port Houston, the nation’s largest for waterborne tonnage, and the Texas Medical Center, the world’s biggest medical complex, both call the Bayou City home. Yet, with all that the city has to offer, it finds itself at a pivotal point as term-limited mayor Sylvester Turner wraps up the last of his eight years in office and mounting problems take center stage.
After years of structurally imbalanced budgets made whole with one-time resources and federal relief aid, the city faces a growing deficit. Water-main breaks from aging infrastructure have led to a loss of 20 percent of the city’s total water supply in some months. Crime has been declining but remains the top concern for residents, while the latest of many scandals involving the outgoing administration has eroded public confidence in city hall.
State Senator John Whitmire and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, with 40 years and 28 years in office, respectively, are longtime figures in Houston’s Democratic politics. From an original field of 18, it has come down to these two in a runoff on December 9 to determine Houston’s next mayor. Whitmire won the first-round election on November 7 with 43 percent to Jackson Lee’s 34 percent. His campaign has centered on public safety, and he has touted his ability to work across the aisle to advance Democratic policies in the Republican-controlled Texas legislature.
Whitmire is the longest-serving member of the Texas State Senate and has chaired the body’s Criminal Justice Committee since 1993. He carries the endorsements of the city’s two major public-safety unions—the police and firefighters—and has vowed to hire 500 police officers, bolster “Second Chance” programs for prisoner reintegration, bring in state troopers to help fight crime, and resolve a contract dispute between the city and the firefighters union that has lasted for nearly the entire eight years the current administration has been in office.
Jackson Lee has won the support of the Houston Black Firefighters Association, but her campaign has largely focused on her role in the relationship between Houston and the federal government. She has emphasized the amount of Washington aid she has secured for Houston, claiming that she is responsible for the “bulk of federal funds” to help transition out of the city’s seven federally declared disasters in the past eight years. She vows to stand up against “MAGA Republicans.”
While Whitmire has focused on building a bipartisan coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans, the business community, and Hispanics, Jackson Lee has sought to lock up support from black voters and the progressive Left with endorsements from Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Harris County’s chief executive Lina Hidalgo, and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries.
From their respective electoral positions, the challenge both face in the runoff is low turnout.
A poll taken over the summer to assess a likely runoff between the two found Jackson Lee holding a commanding 68 percent to 19 percent lead among black voters—roughly 25 percent to 30 percent of the city’s voting population. The same poll, however, found 43 percent of voters overall saying that they would never vote for her, compared with only 19 percent feeling that way about Whitmire. At 46 percent, whites (median age about 60) make up a plurality of the electorate. About 252,000 Houstonians cast a ballot in the mayor’s race this year—10,000 fewer than the last open-seat mayor’s race in 2015. It’s expected that even fewer Houstonians will show up to vote in the runoff.
Whitmire backers hope that Republicans, who favor him by a 50-point margin, will feel motivated enough by their opposition to Jackson Lee to show up at the polls. Jackson Lee likely hopes that the city’s older black population, with whom she has deep ties, will make the difference for her.
The political future of the nation’s fourth-largest city will rest in the hands of a select few voters—and the outcome will likely turn on who those voters are.
Photos by Kirk Sides/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images (left) / Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images (right)