Politics

Sizing up the race for Houston mayor

Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Ben Hall, Eric Dick and Annise Parker

With less than eight weeks until the 2013 General Election in Houston, it is time to check in on that contest. Mayor Annise Parker is seeking a third two-year term  the last she can serve under our term limits. The conventional wisdom is she is a heavy favorite for reelection. I think she is the favorite, but likely faces a runoff in December, which could prove tricky.

This contest is hard to get a handle around because there have been no public polls on the mayor's race, in contrast to the New York election yesterday which featured a dozen pre-election surveys that accurately predicted the order of finish in the six-person Democratic Primary. Another factor that makes the mayoral election hard to assess is that voter turnout has dropped to extremely low levels in recent years. In 2011, for example, only about 13 percent of the registered voters in the City went to the polls. With so few people voting, surprising results can occur because of fluctuations in turnout from particular segments of our diverse electorate.

In the absence of polls, a good place to start is to look at the last mayoral contest. Mayor Parker was also seeking reelection in 2011, so there is some relevance to this year's contest. In the 2011 General Election, the mayor narrowly avoided a December Runoff, taking 50.78% of the total vote (the City Charter requires a majority for election). This very narrow margin was surprising in that none of the mayor's five opponents had much funding or support from major players at City Hall.

This time around, the mayor has even more challengers (eight) and one of them, former City Attorney Ben Hall, has backed his bid with more than a million dollars of his own money. Ben Hall not only is spending far more money than Mayor Parker's opponents two years ago, but he is also a greater threat because he is a credible Black candidate in a city where about 30 percent of the General Election vote comes from the African American community. Mayor Parker got a little less than one-half of the Black vote in 2011 by my calculations, but that percentage will almost certainly decline with Mr. Hall in the field. So, unless Mayor Parker does appreciably better with non-Black voters, a runoff is assured.

Can Mayor Parker improve on her 2011 performance with non-Blacks? There is certainly potential to do so. Last time, the Mayor got only about 40 percent of the vote in heavily Latino neighborhoods. She lost most of these precincts to Fernando Herrara, who likely benefitted from his recognizable Hispanic name on the ballot. This time around, there is no Latino on the ballot, so improvement is possible, even probable in the Hispanic community.

Besides her relatively poor performance among Hispanics in 2011, the Mayor certainly has room to grow her vote in conservative Anglo areas like Kingwood. In 2011, Annise Parker only got about 35 percent of the vote in the heavily Republican precincts in the City. Houston city elections are officially nonpartisan, but many voters are aware of the party ties of municipal candidates and Mayor Parker is a Democrat, and two of her 2011 opponents, Dave Wilson and Jack O'Connor, had Republican and Tea Party credentials. Wilson and O'Connor are not running this year, but some of the current candidates like Eric Dick will almost certainly try to garner the anti-Parker conservative vote. If Dick and others come close to pulling the vote percentages Wilson and O'Connor got in 2011, we have a runoff election.

Another factor that works against Mayor Parker this cycle is the absence of a contest in District C, where Ellen Cohen's 2013 opponent was disqualified by a lack of valid signatures. Why does that matter? In 2011, there was a vigorous contest in District C, where Ms. Cohen edged out four opponents with 53.6 percent of the vote. The hot contest in District C drew 18.1% of the total city-wide vote, far more than any other district council race, and District C was far and away the best area of the city for Mayor Parker in 2011. With Ellen Cohen unopposed, that share could drop in 2013, while a hot contests in Districts B and D -- both heavily Black -- will probably drive up Ben Hall's margins in those areas.

So, the structural factors, in my mind, make a mayoral runoff more likely than not in 2013. But campaigns matter, and the Hall effort to date has drawn very poor reviews. If he is going to capitalize on the opportunities the 2011 results suggest are available, he will have to step up his game. More on that later.

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