With Houston’s 2019 municipal election just about 10 months away, mayoral candidates are already shaping the field for what is going to be a long and expensive cycle. Announcements started to come as early as October, more than a year in advance, kicking off the cycle before Houstonians even voted in midterm elections.
As of today, three candidates have formally made their intentions known: Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, attorney and previous mayoral candidate Bill King, and current Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Buzbee, the first in the ring, made his announcement on the eve of Halloween on Fox 26’s Isiah Factor. At the time, he said Houston’s municipal elections are usually “as boring as watching paint dry,” so he vowed to spice up the race — which, so far, he has done.
Since his announcement, he has been running radio and television ads regularly, indicating that he is very serious about his pledge to self-fund his campaign to the tune of $5 million. Gilbert Garcia, former Chairman of METRO, is serving as his campaign treasurer, and it has been reported that he has retained the help of Kansas City-based Axiom Strategies, the same firm used by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R–TX). Buzbee has largely centered his campaign around the appearance of corruption at city hall and the pay-to-play nature of Houston politics, where many contractors and vendors float campaign cash to candidates in hopes of being awarded contracts.
Bill King, who was widely expected to challenge Turner again since he lost his 2015 bid by such a slim margin, made his plans known when he filed his campaign paperwork on December 12.
King has remained in the public eye over the past four years, regularly using his spot as a panelist on Fox 26’s What’s Your Point to draw attention to city hall. He also uses his blog to address budget and finance issues within the city, tackling issues such as firefighter pay, pension reform, ReBuild Houston, and road repair financing.
King’s campaign has also focused on the pay-to-play nature of city hall, an issue on which he has long sounded the alarm, as well as the current administration’s lack of focus on infrastructure, public safety, and crime.
Lastly, there’s Mayor Sylvester Turner, the most recent to make his long-anticipated announcement.
In a Sunday afternoon email simply titled “Thank You,” Turner thanked everyone for their support over his first term, looked to the future, but stopped just short of making a formal re-election announcement:
“We showed our resilience, determination and grace during and after Hurricane Harvey. We came together as Republicans and Democrats, business leaders and labor unions to fix our pension crisis. We filled the gaps in tough budgets and filled more than 300,000 potholes.”
He also seemingly took a first jab at Buzbee, who he has so far ignored, saying, “As mayor, and during my entire career, I’ve fought to lift up every voice — from the most economically challenged residents to billionaires who want to become mayor — because every voice matters in this city.”
He closed by saying, “The upcoming campaign for mayor will be an interesting one, no doubt. And there will be plenty of time for politics. In the meantime, let’s keep working together to keep Houston the greatest city on Earth.”
With a record under his belt, the race will be different for Turner this time.
While he didn’t win the last election with a large margin, he governed as though he did. The firefighters, one of his biggest support groups during his last run, have since soured on him. Last legislative session’s pension fight pitted the two against each other and carried over into failed contract negotiations and the pay parity petition and referendum fights.
His base is also less solid than it previously was.
Much of the progressive agenda he campaigned on, and which was also recommended by his transition committee, has gone unaddressed. This includes municipal ID cards and living wages, his vow to be transparent during his police chief search and hiring, and housing. He had a laundry list of housing recommendations to address affordability, most of which went ignored. In fact, he has done the opposite, contributing to higher housing costs by passing a distance requirement ordinance for boarding homes, creating new development rules for builders, and putting more resources behind single-family development over denser development to increase the housing stock.
His travel has garnered some attention, as well. Before hitting the two-year mark in office, Turner had over 65 days logged in out-of-country travel, costing nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
His first term also has been mired in corruption. Turner’s press secretary was charged and found guilty of violating public records laws, which he failed to address when first brought to his attention, and his public works and engineering director is embroiled in an FBI bribery scandal.
Turner also attempted to increase property taxes immediately following Hurricane Harvey, which sparked outrage from many and led to one of the few occurrences of council going against him. More recently, he successfully raised property taxes on Houstonians, the first time that has happened in 10 years.
Firefighter pay parity will likely be a major issue in this campaign, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the city’s other post-employment benefit unfunded liabilities (nonpension related liabilities) become an issue as well, as that debt tops $2 billion. Municipal election watchers will likely remember that prior to the 2015 election, pensions didn’t reach the same level of discourse as they did when King began to highlight the problem.
Another issue that will likely draw attention is the endless illegal dumping of garbage and waste specific to some of the poorest neighborhoods in town. Despite then-candidate Turner vowing to address the problem, residents say it remains a major issue.
Houston’s elections have a habit of taking a direction not often expected, so no one can predict what is in store for the next 10 months. With the last election drawing 13 candidates, there will undoubtedly be more who enter the field, and Texas Scorecard will be tracking all of the developments along the way.