Houston mayors serve two year terms and the job is term limited to three terms. So, once someone gets elected, all they have to do is not commit a crime and they stand a good chance of not getting too much opposition leading to two reelections and effectively a six year term.
The current mayor is at the end of his third term so the 2009 race is an open election. The race is legally non-partisan so it makes things more complicated. This year, there are four “major” candidates vying to get into a two person run-off. Three are Democrats and one is a Republican. No one runs as an out’n’out liberal since the main issues in every campaign are always the budget, crime, and traffic. Unlike San Francisco, it is hard to be seen as a good mayor just by having city hall illegally marry gays to protest state law.
This year’s candidates represent a Mount Rushmore of identity politics. There is a white guy, a black guy, a Hispanic guy, and a white lesbian. They can be labeled as the four L’s: Limousine Liberal, Lesbian, Latino, and Locke (Gene Locke, the black guy). OK, that is actually five L’s.
It’s Like Choosing a Method of Execution
As described in this article from the Houston Chronicle, conservatives have a tough time this year. Prior to this decade, there tended to be rich white guys running as conservatives, both from the Democrats and the Republicans. But, after the disastrous Mayoral terms of Lee Brown, a liberal black Democrat who almost lost his 2001 reelection campaign to a conservative latino Republican, the liberal D’s came back in the 2003 open election and found their own rich white guy to run. They made this tactic so obvious that the guy they got to run was named Bill White. Seriously.
White originally ran as a captain-action-superhero who was going to “keep Houston moving” by synchronizing traffic lights. The syncing lasted only a few weeks and now blocks from city hall I still drive through downtown with about 25% of the lights obviously out of sync. Overall, the recession has done far more than Bill White to improve traffic. White’s other major accomplishments were to invite too many Hurricane Katrina refugees to Houston, resulting in a crime wave and budget problems… then cussing out a FEMA official for not delivering ice fast enough in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike hitting Houston.
With his mayoral career over, he has chosen his next step based on the needs of the state… which means that he is going to run for whatever job US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson does not go after. So, if Kay does as expected and resigns from the Senate to run for Governor, then White will run for the Senate. If she ends up staying in the Senate, then he will run for Governor. Apparently, the needs of the state are such that Bill White run for something, anything, as long as he feels the race is somewhat open.
But, Back to This Year's Mayoral Race
This year, the rich white guy role is played by Peter Brown, a liberal City Council Member whose pre-politics day job was as an architect and urban planner. Houstonians like individual property rights and have voted down zoning over and over again. So, using his own money, Brown has run commercials recasting himself as a businessman who will bring efficiency to the government and fight crime. Other than the obvious disingenuousness, he has the problem of looking like a funeral director. In the debate I watched, he provided the most puff answers to questions. He strikes me as an empty, but expensive suit.
The black guy role is played by Gene Locke. He was a late 60’s student activist who got adopted by the in-crowd and has been a wheeling-dealing lawyer since, part of the sports team stadium shakedowns of the taxpayer and lawyer for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. He is strongly backed by Bob Lanier, a rich white guy hugely popular conservative D mayor from the 1990’s… AKA Mayor Bob. Locke is the most charismatic of the candidates using a down-to-earth, fatherly TV persona. He opposes zoning and for a very good reason: zoning makes housing more expensive which hurts poor people the most. He’s right and this is again proof that a liberal in Houston is different than a liberal in San Francisco.
Annise Parker is the lesbian, a new role in Houston mayoral politics. We’ve had a woman mayor in the 1980’s, Kathy “Tootsie” Whitmire, who drew lots of support from the relatively large gay community here. But, Parker is the first openly gay/lesbian person elected to city wide office. She is currently being term limited out of her job as City Controller. She has a good reputation of actually trying to manage the city’s budget and has picked some fights with Bill White since he likes to “fix” the city budget deficit by raiding the rainy day fund. She is running a risky campaign in that she primarily emphasizes her competence. It’s not clear what simple idea like “synchronizing traffic lights” that she is using to get the support of people who don’t know anything.
Roy Morales is the Latino and Republican. I had never heard of this guy and after he loses badly, will probably never hear of him again. He has no money. He talks a good basic conservative game of cut spending (Bill White has run five straight deficits) and lowering property taxes. He is trying to court anti-Obama sentiment by talking about how cap and trade will hurt Houston’s economy. He does appear to be the one candidate arguing that our police officers should look into suspects’ immigration status while on the beat. The other candidates argue that they do not want the police to do this but it should be checked at the city jail after someone is arrested. This can be a touchy issue because Houston has had multiple occasions where illegal immigrants have murdered police officers in cold-blooded fashion.
Who’s Ahead in the Polls?
The perennial front-runner is “Don’t Know/Undecided.” One poll had this at 70% and one had it at 40%. Of the so-called decided, Annise Parker has the highest support with Locke second closely followed by Brown then Morales trailing a good ways back. Parker almost certainly has the highest name recognition because of her current city wide role and the fact that people can easily remember, “Oh, she’s the lesbian.” But, Brown and Locke are backed by the money in town with Brown running tons of commercials trying to follow the model of Bill White’s 2003 “you’ve never heard of me but I am going to skate to victory” campaign.
I suspect that within the Undecideds, the biggest bloc consists of the “Who Cares?” I think this would all be a lot clearer and more interesting if this was a partisan election. Then, everybody could run more based on what they really believe, targeting their party primary voters first, and the general election would already be down to two candidates.
Who Am I Voting For?
Fortunately or unfortunately, I live a mile or two outside the city limits in what is legally called “Unincorporated Harris County” but the US post office calls “Houston.” So, I can’t vote.
But, rather than wimp out and not tell you what I think, I would vote for Morales in round one. He’s not really qualified, but, hey, if Obama can be President for four years then certainly this guy can be mayor for two. After he loses, I would vote for Parker if she makes the run-off. If she didn’t and it just came down to Brown and Locke, I would probably vote for Locke.
But, like I said above, this is like picking your method of execution.