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Election 1991

Endorsement watch: Going for Turner

The Chronicle endorses Sylvester Turner for Mayor.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Because there is no perfect candidate on the ballot, voters should look for someone who has the talents best suited to fixing the problems that currently threaten Houston’s long-term success: Sylvester Turner.

For the past six years, Houston has been well led by Annise Parker’s competent hand. But being right on the issues only gets you part way there. Politics isn’t just about policy – it is about people. Turner, more than any other candidate, grasps this reality.

How can you defend a long-term Rebuild Houston plan if Houstonians still are hitting potholes? What’s the point of a pension solution if you can’t get it passed in Austin? How can people feel safe when police don’t respond to routine property crimes?

As Turner told the editorial board, “people want to see improvements now.”

The technically correct answer of a well-informed policy wonk is little solace if you’re dealing with a busted tire or burgled car. Houstonians need to know that their city is working for them today.

[…]

On pensions, Turner goes beyond the other candidates by calling for comprehensive reform of the city’s finances. Every time Parker hit firefighters on pensions, they seemed to push back just as hard. At this point, it is difficult to see how Steve Costello or Bill King would be more successful. Instead, Turner wants to bring everyone to the table so that folks don’t feel like they’re being turned into a target.

He attempted that strategy during the last legislative session by backing a deal that would lower the city’s payments in the short-term but raise the long-term liability. When he met with the editorial board, Turner said the failed bill was supposed to serve as a stop-gap to help bridge the city’s continuing budget crisis while getting both sides talking. We opposed the plan then and we’re still skeptical now. However, as someone with support from the city’s three key public unions, Turner is well prepared to bring consensus to a pension solution that closes annual funding gaps and pays down the city’s liabilities.

We can only guess what political machinations led the city’s three key public unions to endorse Turner before meeting with any other candidate. And time has obscured the scandals that bogged down Turner during his last two mayoral campaigns. Despite all the baggage that comes with a long-time legislator, Turner still stands as the candidate best suited for City Hall.

Former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia entered the race with high hopes. He had served on City Council, had the executive experience of the sheriff’s department and routinely demonstrated a sharp policy focus with his mental health advocacy. However, Garcia stumbled on the campaign trail, routinely answering deep questions with shallow responses. Reports of deaths, violence and ignored whistleblowers at the county jail also undermine his record as chief law enforcement officer.

Councilman Steve Costello similarly provides a balance of political service, executive experience and policy chops. His engineer’s mentality can be a welcome presence around the horseshoe, but his technocratic style, so much like Mayor Parker, will mean more of the same if he’s elected mayor. Houston needs a new operating style at City Hall and Costello can’t promise that.

Of all the other candidates, Bill King provides the sharpest critique and greatest insight into the way our city is run. He’s traveled across the city, and written dozens of Chronicle columns, arguing about how Houston’s problems stem from a failure of management. His advocacy for better organization within City Hall, and focus on measurable results, is reminiscent of former mayor Bill White’s first campaign. However, as mayor he would be the antithesis of Turner when it comes to uniting people around a cause. It isn’t enough to be right – you also have to get the votes. Nevertheless, any future mayor would be wise to give King a seat at the table.

I predicted a Costello endorsement, predicated in part on him and the Chron being in sync on pension issues, so this is all a bit surprising to me. I’m not exactly sure what caused the Chron to change their tune on the issue, but if Turner was able to persuade them that his way really is the better way, then there clearly is something to the logic that he’s better positioned to get something passed in Austin, and as such the endorsement follows. The bit about Costello’s style being too much like Mayor Parker’s is reminiscent of the discussion that often accompanies a change of coach or manager in professional sports. It’s not just about drawing up the plays or juggling the rotation, it’s about tone and approach and so on. Say what you want about Gary Kubiak and Bill O’Brien, they are very different personalities, and going from one to the other is as much a part of the process as any other consideration. We do that in politics, too, when other factors like competence and qualifications are basically equal.

Anyway. I know the Chron endorsed Bill White back in 2003, and I’d bet a dollar or two that they went with Bob Lanier in 1991, so at least on this score the third time was the charm for Turner. My interview with Turner is published today, and interviews with the rest of the field will run through next Monday, so you can hear what they have to say for themselves if you haven’t attended any of the nine million or so candidate forums. However one feels about the slate of candidates and the state of the race, there’s more than enough information out there to help one make an informed choice.

Mimi Swartz’s Mayoral campaign rant

Here it is.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

What if they held a mayoral race and nobody came? That’s the question plaguing many people currently involved in Houston politics—even if no one else in town is asking it. This phenomenon isn’t entirely new: in 2009,* a measly 19 percent of Houston voters turned out for the general election to make a winner out of Annise Parker. That number could wind up looking downright spectacular, however, after the results of the 2015 mayoral race are tabulated on November 3. At this point—about a month out—no one can even use the traditional, if lame, “just-wait–til-Labor-Day” excuse; that holiday has come and gone, and if you ask the average person on the street who he is supporting, the answer is likely to be one big shrug followed by a puzzled squint, accompanied by “Who’s running again?”

One could say that the issues—at least the ones being discussed—aren’t all that compelling. Few people understand, or even want to understand, the pension crisis that is bleeding the city dry while keeping the bank accounts of retired firefighters and policemen safe and secure. Houstonians do know that traffic back-ups and potholes as dangerous as starving raptors now make it impossible to get from point A to point B (or C or D), but residents—especially the long-timers—also comfort themselves knowing that congestion equals growth equals prosperity. A future of potentially uneducated masses in a high-tech world? Isn’t that the school district’s cross to bear? Increased segregation between the haves and the have-nots in this oh-so-hospitable town? Come on! Once oil prices go back up, anyone will be able to buy a mansion in River Oaks.

I’ve covered this before, but what did the 2009 Mayoral election not have that the three preceding high-turnout Mayoral elections (2003, 2001, and 1997*) did? A high profile referendum that helped drive that turnout. In 2003, it was the Metro referendum; in 2001, it was on a charter amendment to ban domestic partner benefits for city employees; and in 1997 it was a charter amendment to ban affirmative action. Past performance does not guarantee future results, but I’d bet the over on 2009 turnout this year. If that doesn’t happen, then we’ll need to have a heart-to-heart talk about how disengaged our local voters are.

As or the rest, like most rants it’s more descriptive than prescriptive, so there’s no argument for me to evaluate. I don’t disagree with the description, but that doesn’t get us very far. Swartz correctly notes that our city voters are old, but gives no suggestion as to what if anything could be done to change that. I figure sooner or later a candidate will invest in that kind of work, and if it pays off then others will follow. Until then, what you see is what you get.

By the way, here’s another story about that 1997 affirmative action referendum, from just before the election. See if any of this sounds familiar to you.

There has never been any dispute about what Proposition A would do if it is approved by voters here on Tuesday: It would abolish affirmative action in Houston’s contracting and hiring.

Nonetheless, there has been a tumultuous fight over just how Proposition A should be worded, one that may well head for the courts even after all the votes are in. And at the core of this battle is a question that is reverberating in other cities and states where anti-affirmative-action measures are gathering steam: should opponents of affirmative action be able to define these measures by using the language of the civil rights movement?

That is exactly what happened in California last year with the passage of Proposition 209, the measure that dismantled state-sponsored affirmative action. Similarly, the conservative group promoting the measure in Houston drew up a proposition with words taken almost directly from the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It said voters should decide whether the city “shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment” to anyone “on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.”

But by the time Mayor Bob Lanier, a staunch proponent of affirmative action, and the City Council were through, the wording on the proposition was totally revised.

So now, when voters in the nation’s fourth-largest city go to the polls on Tuesday, they will be asked whether the city charter should be amended “to end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities” in employment and contracting, “including ending the current program and any similar programs in the future.”

The measure’s proponents say the rewording by the Mayor and the Council is outrageous and heavy-handed, while those who favor the change say it is a more honest and straightforward way of describing what the proposition would do. Behind this fight over words are some striking polling statistics, which help to explain just why the fight has been so pitched and which offer a look at the voters’ complicated feelings about affirmative action.

Phrased as a nondiscrimination measure, Proposition A would likely pass with as much as 70 percent of the vote, according to joint polls conducted in recent weeks by the University of Houston and Rice University. But phrased as a measure to wipe out affirmative action, the results are starkly different: In separate polls conducted last month and earlier this week, 47.5 percent of voters described themselves as favoring that concept.

“Basically, what we found here is that the wording is incredibly important on this issue,” said Bob Stein, a political scientist and dean of the School of Social Sciences at Rice University. Like many pollsters here, he describes Tuesday’s vote as too close to call.

“The wording here defines the issue,” Professor Stein added, “and in defining the issue, you manipulate the symbols.”

In the poll this week of 831 registered voters, 47.5 percent said they would vote for Proposition A and 39.8 percent said they would vote against, with the rest undecided or of no stated opinion. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.6 percent.

Boy, the more things change, am I right? I wonder how many of the pro-Prop A people in 1997 are now anti-Prop 1 people this year. For the record, Prop A was defeated by a 55-45 margin, so consider that another example of how hard it is to get an accurate poll response in a city of Houston election. I’m trying to keep that in mind with polls about HERO, whatever they say.

(*) To be fair, the 1991 election, in which Bob Lanier defeated Sylvester Turner and ousted then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire, had turnout in excess of 300,000 as well, and there’s no report of a referendum on the results page. Maybe that year was different, or maybe there was something else going on that I don’t know about.

RIP, Bob Lanier

Houston’s iconic Mayor of the 1990s has passed away.

Bob Lanier, a 6-foot-4 cowboy boot-wearing, sports-crazy political sharpshooter who rose from modest beginnings in blue-collar Baytown to become one of Houston’s biggest developers and most influential mayors, died Saturday. He was 89.

In January 1992, Lanier began a six-year tenure as mayor that, in its successes, was hailed as a model for reducing crime and revitalizing the inner city.

At various times, for various reasons, Lanier was likened to Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The commonality was that Lanier, the son of a Methodist minister turned oilfield roustabout, invariably was measured against America’s greatest movers and shakers.

“I’d put him with (Chicago Mayor Richard) Daley and (New York City Mayor Fiorello) La Guardia as one of the great mayors in 20th century history,” University of Houston political science guru Richard Murray once said. “He has the ability to get things done.”

To former state Sen. Jon Lindsay, who entered public life as a county judge in 1975, Lanier was the most powerful person on the Houston scene in the century’s closing decades. To county Commissioner Steve Radack, he was “authoritarian with a smile.” For former city councilman and current Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, Lanier simply was “the 800-pound gorilla.”

The news of his death Saturday prompted remembrances of his fierce intelligence and confident swagger.

Mayor Annise Parker said Lanier “left a lasting mark” on Houston.

“Never one to shy away from a tough battle, he used his strength and popularity to push through affirmative action protections, rebuild the city’s wastewater system, improve neighborhoods and add hundreds of officers to the police force,” Parker said in a statement.

Lanier’s wife, Elyse, whom he married in 1984, said in a statement that his decades of public service “brought a smile to his face and a twinkle to his eye these last few years.”

“Bob wanted me to pass on a final goodbye and a hearty, ‘Thank you for making a guy like me look good!’ ” she wrote.

Lanier certainly left his mark on Houston, and his influence on Houston politics continued well past his last day in office. I confess I wasn’t his biggest fan – he was not a friend to mass transit, to say the least – but now is not the time to get into that. He was an iconic figure in Houston politics, he did a lot of good, and he will be missed. My sincere condolences to his family and friends. Rest in peace, Bob Lanier. Texpatriate has more.

More on Hall’s announcement

Here’s the full Chron story from the weekend about Ben Hall’s announcement that yes, he really is running for Mayor this year.

Ben Hall

“Hall is a formidable challenger but is a long shot to unseat the mayor,” University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said in an email.

Rottinghaus noted Hall’s funding capability, his vision and his qualifications but suggested that “with Parker’s nationalizing profile and perceptions of her doing a good job, it is a more uphill fight.”

Rottinghaus added that Parker’s most formidable challenge may not be Hall, per se, but a crowded primary field that could squeeze her out of a runoff.

“In a runoff, a well-funded candidate like Hall that can put the right coalition together could have a chance,” he said. “This may be the model – almost successful for Gene Locke – that Hall is looking to create.”

Jared Woodfill, Harris County Republican Party chairman, said he could see a squeeze play of sorts developing, with challenges coming from Hall and, potentially, at least two Republicans.

“Annise Parker could be the odd person out,” Woodfill said. “She doesn’t have the constituencies that the other three would have, plus I don’t think she has lived up to her campaign promises. She promised to stay out of party politics, but she was an outspoken supporter of Obama.”

Woodfill and others recall just such a scenario in 1990 when mayoral candidates Lanier and state Rep. Sylvester Turner, an African-American Democrat, squeezed out five-term incumbent Kathy Whitmire, who finished a distant third.

Former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said he and Woodfill discussed the possibility of him running for mayor but said his interest was predicated on the possibility that Parker may leave office early to take a position in the Obama administration, thus necessitating a special election.

“In a special election, I could see what the party chairman is pitching, because that’s a low-turnout scenario that would be favorable to Republicans,” he said.

Bettencourt also suggested that Hall’s candidacy was based, at least initially, on the possibility that the mayor would leave office early.

“The glacier’s moving,” he said. “The question is, where is it going to stop?”

I have no idea what that glacier is supposed to signify. The flow of candidates moving towards running? The flow of Mayor Parker moving towards a job in the Obama administration that’s she has already denied and which never made any sense anyway? I generally agree with the basic thesis that a special election will have lower turnout, but a special Mayoral election ought to have enough attention and money in it to be a fairly reasonable facsimile of a normal election.

Not that it really matters, because we’re not going to find out. I’ve already said what there is to say about the squeeze-play hypothesis, but I suspect I’ll have to say it again (and again) between now and November, so here are the bullet points: Kathy Whitmire was a six-term Mayor coming off a bruising political defeat at the hands of her eventual opponent (and election winner) Bob Lanier. She wasn’t squeezed in that race, she was crushed, barely topping 20% of the vote. Lanier isn’t so much a Republican as a creature of the downtown establishment, and he’s certainly not a Republican in the way we think of them today. Sylvester Turner was a young up-and-comer, which Ben Hall is not. Besides all that, sure, there’s plenty of parallels if a serious Republican gets into the race. Knock yourselves out finding them. I just don’t think they’ll matter all that much in the end.

A third try for Sly?

I find this a little hard to understand.

Rep. Sylvester Turner is thinking about running for Mayor of Houston, again. His press folks just confirmed to me that he’s “thinking it over” and will make a decision in two weeks. You’ll remember that six years ago, Turner failed to make the runoff against Bill White, coming in third behind Orlando Sanchez.

He ran for Mayor before that as well, if you remembered what happened then, you’ve truly been around for a while.

Yes, I’m old enough to remember the 1991 Mayoral race and its aftermath, of which KTRK was a key player (scroll down a bit). I can understand why Turner might be thinking about hanging up his spikes in the Lege, but I don’t honestly see how there’s room for him in this race. The Chron talks to him about this.

“There have been some people that have asked me to take a look at it,” he said, declining to provide names. “Some have been elected officials and some have been community folk … I’m not interested in trying to dangle something out in front of people, but I will take a look at it and make a firm decision fairly soon.”

Turner said he was approached about three weeks ago and promised potential supporters he would “take a look at it” after the legislative session concluded, which it did earlier this week.

“It’s no mystery to anybody my interest there in terms of the city of Houston. That’s clearly there,” he said. “I’m not trying to dance on the stage or have people speculating. I have not gone to anybody and said, ‘What do you think?’ I will take a look at how this race has unfolded, whether people are looking for another option and whether or not people think that I would be a good fit for where the city is at this time.”

Throwing his hat in the ring “is a remote possibility for me now,” he said.

Professor Murrary has an in-depth look at Turner’s motivation and chances, and suggests that while anything is possible, it all seems unlikely. I’m definitely in the same boat as he – never say never, and maybe Rep. Turner sees something I’m not, but I have my doubts about his potential candidacy. Marc Campos, who was on Turner’s 2003 campaign, sees it more positively for him. What do you think?

UPDATE: Nancy Sims has both the best blog post title on this subject and the teasing suggestion that Turner may not be the only “surprise” Mayoral candidate in the wings. Hmmm…

Locke files his treasurer’s report

Former City Attorney Gene Locke has filed his treasurer’s report for the Mayor’s race. I’ve got his press release beneath the fold. He was joined in doing so by City Controller Annise Parker and (be still my heart!) Roy Morales, who says he plans to “merely raise money with which to explore the idea of running”. And if that isn’t a vision that will have them swooning in the aisles, I don’t know what is.

There are two other hopefuls who have not yet filed their reports. One is Council Member Peter Brown, whom everyone knows is running. The other is another former City Attorney, Benjamin Hall, who apparently was about to announce his entry into the race until he got a phone call from Locke. What happened isn’t clear, but Locke has made his announcement, and Hall as yet has not. And a lot of people I know are talking about it.

Today’s Chron talks about how the Mayor’s race keeps starting earlier and earlier – in 1991, Bob Lanier and Sylvester Turner made their announcements in the summer, and that was to challenge an incumbent, Kathy Whitmire. The story also notes that former Gov. Mark White is apparently “still strongly considering entering the race”, which is the first I can recall hearing of him in awhile. I really don’t see what his path to victory is, but stranger things have happened.

And finally, a note on campaign tactics:

When the Internet was not yet in general use, Lanier and Turner used debates, news coverage and heavy advertising on TV and radio to promote their candidacies.

This year’s contenders will use those tools and go far beyond, [Rice University political scientist Bob] Stein said, following the Obama campaign’s use of on-line networking and fundraising, as well as using computerized data about voting habits and other demographics to identify and contact likely supporters.

Building word of mouth through Facebook, Twitter and other online avenues, along with the “micro-targeting” of voters, takes time that most previous mayoral campaigns never allowed, according to Stein.

I’ve got invitations to join Facebook groups for Annise Parker and Peter Brown, though I haven’t taken either of them up yet. If any other candidates have such things going for them at this time, I’ve not gotten notice of them. Both Annise Parker and Roy Morales are on Twitter, though neither has done much with it – Parker has tweeted three times total, Morales has been silent since January 15. The campaigns may be starting earlier, but that doesn’t mean all aspects of them are geared up.

At the City Council level, District H candidate Ed Gonzalez takes the early lead in the social networking race, as he’s the first of that group (that I know of) to get on Twitter. Which he used to announce his new blog. Karen Derr has had one of those for awhile, but as far as I know Ed’s the only one on Twitter. Both of them, plus Maverick Welsh and Hugo Mojica, are on Facebook. I’m sure things will get going more quickly in this race, given the much shorter time frame for it.

UPDATE: Over in Austin, mayoral hopeful Carole Keeton Strayhorn is thrilled about the grassroots twitter. I don’t think I can add anything to that.

UPDATE: And you can add Maverick Welsh to Twitter.

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