Even though November 5th seems incredibly far away during these dog days of Houston summer, the city’s upcoming mayoral election is already well underway. If you've already found yourself wondering why there was a cart of manure at Houston City Hall this year, or why one guy seems like he's already been campaigning for years, or just generally wanting to know how this race is shaping up and who is actually a serious contender in it, here's a little primer on what's going on and who is striving to be Houston's next mayor.
The Incumbent: Sylvester Turner
After two unsuccessful mayoral races in 1991 and 2003, Sylvester Turner narrowly defeated Bill King in 2015’s runoff election by less than 2 percent of the vote. But now he's up for re-election, and he's certainly not the kind of incumbent that anyone else in this race should underestimate.
Born and raised in Houston’s Acres Homes neighborhood, Turner served as the Democratic representative for Texas House District 139 from 1989 to 2016 before becoming mayor. One major victory for his administration so far is the resolution of Houston’s public pension crisis, capped off by the Texas Legislature’s approval of Turner’s pension-reform package in 2017 and the approval of a $1 billion-plus public bond issuance by Houston voters later that year. The mayor also earned praise for coordinating Houston’s response to Hurricane Harvey, and for being front and center addressing the city throughout the storm.
But it was the deal he put together to fix the city's bloated pension fund—the one that fixed the city's credit rating by adjusting the top-heavy city pensions, upsetting Houston firefighters because they'd refused raises for years in order to keep their pensions intact—that has opened him up to criticism.
Opponents have complained about Turner's stance on the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association’s push for pay parity with city police officers, which resulted in a ballot initiative for pay parity, Proposition B, being put on the ballot in 2018. Turner publicly opposed the measure, maintaining it would cause a budget crisis and advocating for more modest firefighter pay raises to be phased in over multiple years, but despite his very public efforts, voters approved the measure last fall. Turner ended up announcing layoffs, demotions and other cost-cutting measures after months of attempts to reach an agreement with the HPFFA had come to nothing.
However, Prop B was recently declared unconstitutional by a state district court judge, and Turner responded by rescinding over 200 firefighter layoffs and hundreds of firefighter demotions, and cost-cutting measures that he argued were necessary to allow the city to afford the firefighter pay raises. In other words, right now he's going into this race as a native son, the mayor who steered the city through both the pension mess and Harvey and he doesn't have to be the guy who laid off a bunch of firefighters. There are worse positions to be in.
The Businessman: Bill King
After losing 2015’s tight runoff, it's not exactly a shock that local businessman and former Kemah mayor Bill King is challenging Turner once again, this time on a platform of bringing City Hall “back to basics.” Even though he didn’t formally announce his latest campaign until February, it seems like King’s been campaigning ever since he lost the last race. He’s never really stepped out of the public eye since then, popping up regularly over the course of Turner's four-year term to lob various accusations at Turner's administration.
A fiscal conservative and self-described moderate, King has proposed reforms like implementing zero-based budgeting, increasing the independence of the city’s Inspector General office, and placing stricter limits on contributions to municipal candidates from those who do business with the city. King often touts his private-sector experience as the longtime president of Southwest Airport Services and his multiple decades as an attorney in the Houston area, and he has written extensively about city policy issues as a columnist for the Houston Chronicle and on his personal website.
But for King, this race seems to be all about his once and future opponent, Turner. In fact, it seems like King's energies have been intently focused on Turner ever since Turner took office in January 2016. In the years since then, King has accused Turner’s administration of engaging in “pay-to-play” tactics by awarding plum city contracts to political donors and organizations with ties to City Hall, charges Turner vehemently denied.
King was also highly critical of Turner’s pension reform plan, and worked with Republican State Sen. Paul Bettencourt to drum up conservative opposition to the proposal as it was moving the state legislature two years ago. (It still passed.) Upon announcing that he was running for mayor, King once again made it about the current mayor, not mincing words when appraising Turner’s performance. “We’ve got a show pony for a mayor, said King in a Fox 26 interview, “and we need a work horse.”
The Showman: Tony Buzbee
Tony Buzbee has called past Houston mayoral elections “as boring as watching paint dry,” so maybe that's why the millionaire attorney decided to inject some energy into this one by throwing his own hat into the mayoral ring last October when he kicked off his self-funded campaign.
You may have heard of the former Marine, Texas A&M University System regent and uber-wealthy trial lawyer due to his taking on high-profile cases, including defending former Gov. Rick Perry after Perry was indicted for two felony accounts alleging abuse of power when Perry's final term in office was drawing to a close, or for going after BP following the Deepwater Horizon spill a few years before that.
Earlier this year, Buzbee highlighted his rather unconventional approach to running for office when he hosted a press conference in front of wheelbarrows full of fresh horse manure to illustrate his claim that an alleged "sweetheart" deal for former Turner colleagues “stinks.” (Buzbee and King have both made allegations along these lines for months although none of their contentions seem to be gaining traction.)
What else stinks, at least according to Buzbee? Partisan labels, the kind the Houston mayoral race doesn't officially have, and the kind that Buzbee himself gladly participated in back when he ran for the Texas House as a Democrat in 2002. But despite having once been on the Democratic side of the fence, he’s donated to both Democrats and Republicans over the years, including a $110,000 contribution to the Harris County Democratic Party before the 2018 midterms and $500,000 to President Trump’s inauguration (which, oddly, happened months after Buzbee publicly declared “I’m done with you. Completely,” to Trump after the infamous Access Hollywood bus recording went public).
The Councilman: Dwight Boykins
City Councilman Dwight Boykins officially entered the race for mayor earlier this month, but the impact of his grand entrance wasn't exactly a surprise, since his unfinished campaign website had already appeared online several days prior, before being quickly deleted.
Boykins, a lifelong Houstonian, has served as District D’s representative on City Council since 2013. So far, Boykins is hanging his hat on the idea that he’d be a better ally to firefighters as the main difference between him and the mayor. A fellow Democrat and former Turner supporter, since entering the race Boykins has strongly criticized the mayor for his response to Prop B, earning the endorsement of the firefighters union in the process.
In fact, he was already working to help out the HPFFA back in March when Boykins used procedural tactics to hold up the council agenda over a delay in firefighter cadet promotions. He later attempted to garner support for an ethics investigation into the mayor’s handling of the firefighter demotions and layoffs, but the investigation never got off the ground. Instead of rallying around him, multiple council members disputed Boykins’ claim that Turner misled them about the extent of the proposed demotions and accused Boykins of political grandstanding. But Boykins has a different interpretation of what he's been up to. "We need leadership that has the courage to stand for what's right,” Boykins stated at his campaign launch, “even if you have to stand alone, as I have.” So that's how he's spinning it.
The Lay of the Land
As to how this will all play out, it's early but Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, is thinking that there might be a runoff once again, but that only one of the three contenders will go up against Turner in that final round. King and Buzbee will be competing for the same set of conservative-leaning Houstonians who could be persuaded to vote against Turner, so one of them will likely have to knock the other out. “If Houston mayoral politics is about which lane you’re in, King and Buzbee are in the same lane,” Rottinghaus said.
He's also thinking Turner will be able to hold on to most of his support from the Democrat-leaning Houstonians, because the firefighter pay issue just isn't a big enough issue to turn Boykins into a viable alternative to Turner. “I feel like it’s unlikely that this one issue would be the thing that would make voters wholesale leave the mayor’s political coalition and join Boykins,” Rottinghaus said, “in part because I’m sure part of the mayor’s strategy will be to point out how close Boykins and the mayor have been on most issues.”
Incumbent Houston mayors have been pretty bulletproof over the past few decades—a sitting mayor hasn’t lost their re-election bid since 1991. While giving the caveat that plenty could change between now and November, Rottinghaus predicts this trend should hold true in 2019. While Turner's opponents are trying to find vulnerabilities in Prop B and the other aforementioned allegations, Rottinghaus doesn’t anticipate any of this will be enough to outweigh the goodwill Turner earned for solving the pension crisis, his generally high-marks on handling Harvey, and his baked-in incumbent advantage. “It’s a question of which narrative grabs hold of the voters,” said Rottinghaus, “and my guess is that it’s going to be the mayor’s.”