ABOVE: Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (left) and State Sen. John Whitmire (right) are vying to be Houston’s next mayor.
Early voting has officially begun in Houston. At stake are elections for mayor, city comptroller, and seven seats on Houston’s City Council. The race for Houston’s next mayor features two front-runners in State Senator John Whitmire and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. After a November 8 election in which neither candidate garnered 50% of the vote, the two advanced to a runoff. Early voting runs through Dec. 5; Election Day is Saturday, Dec. 9.
The Houston mayoral race was one of the most crowded and expensive in recent memory. There were at least 18 candidates, and some of them spent heavily to win votes. Whitmire’s final campaign report shows that he spent over $3 million on his campaign, versus $1.1 million for Jackson Lee (and $1.9 million for challenger Gilbert Garcia).
Both front-runners have substantial name recognition. And both have decades of experience: Jackson Lee has served in the House of Representatives since first winning the election in 1995, and Whitmire is the longest-tenured member of the Texas Senate, having served there since 1983. Both have devoted time to address top issues: a July poll by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs found that 83% of Houston voters felt crime is the most important local issue. Thus both candidates have outlined contrasting approaches to help lower crime rates.
But none of it seems to matter. According to the Harris County Clerk, only 17% of registered voters took part in last month’s election. That’s down from 2019, when just 22% of those registered took part. (Only 18% voted in that year’s mayoral runoff, between attorney Tony Buzbee and now-outgoing Mayor Sylvester Turner.) The mayor has tools and resources at his/her disposal that can affect Houstonians’ daily lives. So why so little interest in this key race?
The answer is unclear. Rice political science professor Bob Stein said that voter disengagement could be a consequence of the city shifting from two-year to four-year terms for officeholders. (In 2015, two-thirds of local voters approved changing term limits for city officials from three two-year terms to two four-year terms.) “I think going to a four-year term of office has changed the dynamics,” Stein told Houston Public Media.
Age may also be a factor. U.S. Census Data indicates that the median age in Houston is 34. Both Sen. Whitmire (who’s 74) and Congresswoman Lee (at 73) are more than twice that age. That may depress turnout among younger voters, especially since younger candidates like Chris Hollins and Amanda Edwards pivoted to other races. “In Houston, the culture politically has been to kind of wait your turn,” says UH political science professor Dr. Brandon Rottinghaus. “That’s not something that lends itself to seeing a lot of younger people running for office.”
But the problem may also lie in likability. The Hobby School poll found that 41% of voters had a “very unfavorable” view of Sheila Jackson Lee; 45% of those polled said they would never vote for her, contrasted with only 15% who said the same for Whitmire. (Only 13% held a “very unfavorable” view of him.) Significantly, a new poll released Nov. 27 (Monday morning) shows Whitmire with a seven-point lead. The Houston Public Media/Houston Chronicle/UH Political Science poll shows Whitmire has support from 42% of likely voters, compared to 35% for Jackson Lee. Though the congresswoman is supported by over 60% of Black voters, Whitmire has the advantage with both White and Hispanic voters, as well as voters over 35.
Whitmire and Jackson Lee will have one final chance to make their case to Houston voters at the final debate next month. The ABC13 “Your Voice, Your Vote” Houston Mayoral Debate will take place at Texas Southern University on Monday, Dec. 4 at 7 p.m.