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Why was Sue Lovell’s race so close?

The City Hall blog asks Sue Lovell why she thinks she won by such an unimpressive margin against Griff Griffin.

Lovell claims that she purposely did not campaign, instead choosing to spread her “political capital” to three other council hopefuls: Jolanda Jones, Wanda Adams, and James Rodriguez. Lovell gave money to all three.

Rodriguez won outright, and Jones and Adams each made runoffs. “I won three times last night,” Lovell said.

Why did she adopt this somewhat risky tactic? It seems Lovell thought her seat was relatively safe, and she wanted to support those she believes in. And supporting those three would help her consolidate political power in the long term. She has her eye on the Harris County Clerk’s office in 2010.

But why did “Griff” do so well? Lovell has answers to that, too:

1) Early voters were driven to the polls by churchs opposed to the HISD bond, she said. And some church voters don’t like Lovell because she’s gay.

2) “Griff” has run six times before, so he has name recognition.
Unlike Johnson’s first-time challenger in District B, Kenneth Perkins, for example.

Several things:

– First, my thanks to Carolyn Feibel for asking this question. I was thinking about doing something like this myself, and she saved me the trouble.

– Besides money, what does “political capital” mean here, and why would spending it to help others prevent her from running a vigorous enough campaign on her own behalf? Looking at the eight days out report, Lovell’s financial resources were fairly modest. A more detailed accounting of what she did and gave would help better evaluate her actions.

– Also unexplored here is what kind of blowback Lovell might have gotten for taking sides as she did in these races, two of which were strictly Democrat-versus-Democrat while the third featured multiple Dems as well. I heard some grumbling about this at the election night party I attended as I expressed my surprise about Lovell’s close race, and while Carl Whitmarsh doesn’t name names in his comment at Greg’s place, it’s pretty clear who he’s referring to. It would not surprise me at all to learn that more than a few supporters of Jones’, Adams’, and Rodriguez’s Democratic opponents cast votes for Griff as payback. This is why you often see incumbent politicians stay out of contentious primaries.

– I gotta say, I always thought it was axiomatic that you always take your own re-election seriously. If you’re not unopposed, you run to win, because the streets are littered with former officeholders who took their seat for granted and woke up the day after to find themselves unemployed. See “Heflin, Talmadge” for a recent example of this. It’s one thing for a Bill White, with his infinite resources and truly irrelevant opposition, to lend a hand to a colleague or two. It’s another for someone who had won by a small margin in a low-turnout runoff after a bruising campaign to take her eye off the ball. Note too that while the Mayor may have helped out some other folks, he still ran hard for his own re-election. As someone who thinks Council Member Lovell has done a good job, and who would have been appalled to see her get ousted by the likes of Griff, I hope she takes this to heart, because I fear she may get a real opponent next time.

– Finally, I’m being a bit unfair to Griff, for whom I at least saw a few signs around town – more than I saw for Lovell, now that I think about it. He still didn’t do any actual campaigning, as far as I could tell, but I’ll concede that he had some name ID going for him, and unlike some of the other perennials that litter the ballot, he was something of a known entity before he made the transition to eternal candidate. Which just gets back to my prior point.

There is no such thing as “almost” in electoral politics. Lovell’s race may have been unexpectedly close, but the bottom line is that she won. Further, she achieved her stated goal, in that Rodriguez won, and Jones and Adams are in positions to win. She’s entitled to look at Tuesday’s results as an unqualified success if she chooses to do so. But as long as Lovell will be on future ballots, there may be a cost to her actions as well, even if it doesn’t get billed to her in this cycle. It’s worth it to keep that in mind.

So okay, maybe Feibel didn’t save me any actual work by asking the question. But I’m glad she asked it anyway.

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