I have a number of issues with the analysis presented in this Chron story about what happened in the runoffs and What It All Means.
The results illustrate a continuation of a national trend of anger and frustration toward government during the worst economic stretch since the Great Depression, political observers said.
In short: Voters want change.
“A lot of people are angry at virtually all institutions and the government is high on their list,” said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “And these are the people in a low-turnout election that are most likely to show up because they are angry. They’re agitated.”
The results show clear opposition to the status quo, particularly following a general election in which Mayor Annise Parker and several council members narrowly avoided runoff elections, said Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.
“It’s a strong repudiation of this administration – not just the mayor, but the council,” Stein said.
First of all, I believe that voters who are angry and agitated vote. I don’t see how that’s consistent with an election with six percent turnout. I refer you to the 2010 election, and the historically high Republican turnout, for a canonical example. Maybe it’s just me, but the words I use to describe an electorate that fails to show up like this are “disengaged” and “apathetic”. Your mileage may vary.
But maybe turnout was disproportionately high in District A, which is the one election out of the four where I will agree there were angry voters sending a message to someone. To see if that was the case, I checked the ratio of turnout in districts to the Harris County portion of the citywide turnout for runoffs in the past five elections. This is what I found:
Year Dist Turnout Overall Ratio =================================== 2011 A 8.28 6.08 1.36 2011 B 6.76 6.08 1.11 2009 A 18.82 16.48 1.14 2009 F 13.41 16.48 0.81 2007 D 6.29 2.70 2.33 2007 E 5.05 2.70 1.87 2005 B 4.92 4.02 1.22 2005 C 9.38 4.02 2.33 2003 F 18.98 22.71 0.84 2003 G 29.53 22.71 1.30 2003 H 20.57 22.71 0.91
I only went back as far as 2003 because that’s as far back as the County Clerk has runoff data. The ratio of District A turnout to overall is higher than average, but by no means historic. To be fair, the higher level of turnout overall compared to the 2007 and 2005 runoffs may be masking the effect. There’s just not enough data points for me to say, and we’re still talking about eight percent turnout in A. I have a hard time assigning any special meaning to that.
Further, I strongly disagree with taking the result in District A and extrapolating it to the rest of the city. With all due respect to Professor Stein, if the voters intended to repudiate the Mayor a month after re-electing her, Jolanda Jones is the last Council member they should be kicking to the curb. CM Jones was arguably the Mayor’s most vocal and visible critic on Council. I feel pretty confident that they’re not losing any sleep in the Mayor’s office over this result. We may not know exactly what we’ll get with CM-Elect Jack Christie, but we do know that he’s a supporter of Rebuild Houston and that he voted to keep the red light cameras.
Perhaps there was an anti-incumbent message in these results. For sure, CMs Jones and Stardig are the first sitting Council members to be unelected since Jean Kelly in 1999, and only the third and fourth incumbents of any kind to lose since term limits were established. I would argue that there are unique circumstances to each of their losses. To put it mildly, CM Jones had some baggage, and was very nearly ousted in 2009. I’ve been saying all along that a runoff would be a crapshoot for her, and indeed she rolled snake eyes. With the help of Gene Locke’s mayoral campaign she was able to win the turnout fight two years ago, but not this time. I suspect as well that her performance deteriorated in Anglo and Hispanic Democratic areas – I’m sure the Bill White endorsement of Christie had some effect on that – though that’s a question that will have to wait for the precinct data.
As for District A itself, those voters did mostly vote against incumbents last time around, so it’s probably not much of a surprise that they did it to their incumbent District member in the runoff. That said, CM Stardig clearly had her own set of baggage. If anyone can think of another situation offhand in which the three prior incumbents of a given Council district were supporting the opponent of the current incumbent, let me know about it, because I doubt it’s happened any time recently. Far as I can tell, she didn’t have much of a campaign going into the November election – her eight day report showed expenditures on signs, some ads in neighborhood newspapers, and a $6K ad in the Texas Conservative Review that I’m guessing wasn’t well-received; her 30 day report had practically nothing. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, but let this be Exhibit A for future incumbents: Unless you’re unopposed, run hard. You never know. Hell, run hard even if you are unopposed. Never hurts to get people into the habit of voting for you – your name ID probably isn’t as good as you think it is.
Putting this another way, Stardig was primaried, and she was not prepared for it. Redistricting did her no favors on that score, either. It will be interesting to see how CM-Elect Helena Brown reconciles her professed political beliefs with the sort of things that constituents tend to expect to get done. Maybe there is such a thing as a Republican pothole.
There’s still two other races to consider. The result in District B could be considered an anti-incumbent vote, but when you consider that the outgoing incumbent is CM Jarvis Johnson, is it really that surprising? As for Prof. Stein’s thesis, here’s what CM-Elect Jerry Davis had to say for himself:
Davis, 38, said he hoped to begin working with the administration as quickly as possible to cut down his learning curve as he gets set to start his first job as a public representative. He said his main goal as a council member would be to represent the priorities of District B constituents.
“My job is to represent the people and do what the people want me to do and that’s going to be the number one step,” Davis said.
I mentioned before that of the five candidates I interviewed, only Davis said he supported Renew Houston prior to the referendum passing. If you listen to the interview I did with him, you will also note that Davis supported the red light cameras, again being the only candidate in the district to do so. Way to repudiate the Parker Administration, District B voters!
As for Burks v Thibaut, good luck making sense out of that one. Again, I’ll wait till I see precinct data, but it seems to me that the vaunted “pincer strategy” of African-Americans plus Republicans finally worked. Why Republican voters fell into line behind an Obama delegate at the 2008 DNC convention who once ran for HCDP Chair is a bit puzzling to me, but I suppose stranger things have happened. It’s not like Burks is well-known for policy positions, so he’s a pretty blank slate onto which one can project whatever one wants, and then there is that Hotze embrace to whet the appetite. I don’t think this result would have happened in an election where the votes were distributed more proportionally. Perhaps someone will test that hypothesis in two years’ time. Like I said, we’ll see what the precinct data tells us. Oh, and for what it’s worth, the one elected official who endorsed CM-Elect Andrew Burks was CM Brad Bradford. If you want a guide for how Burks is likely to vote, I’d say to start there. Greg and Stace have more.