The Christmas lights may be going up, but the campaign signs are not yet coming down in Houston, where candidates are hoping to turn out voters for a high-stakes December runoff election.
Eleven of sixteen city council seats are still pending, but the most contentious and best-known contest on the ballot is between incumbent mayor Sylvester Turner and trial attorney Tony Buzbee.
Over the past year, Buzbee and other challengers have been hammering Turner on allegations of cronyism such as alleged pay-to-play for city contract awards and creation of a $95,000 internship for a Turner friend.
The mayor’s opponents have also faulted Turner for lack of progress on much-needed drainage and street improvement projects, mismanagement of hurricane recovery funds, and neglect of public safety issues.
Most recently, Houston consultant Wayne Dolcefino broke the news that the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is investigating campaign contributions Mayor Turner received from disaster contractors.
Although the race is technically non-partisan, in recent days Turner has been touting his Democratic party credentials. Last week he released a list of endorsements from notable Democrats such as former HUD Secretary and presidential candidate Julian Castro and U.S. Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-8) and Al Green (D-TX-9).
Buzbee, a self-proclaimed political independent, is instead working to emphasize policy over party affiliations.
Earlier this month he unveiled a budget plan that prioritizes public safety issues and calls for cuts in non-essential spending. His plan would also require the city to implement “zero-based” budgeting as a means to identify waste and duplication, an approach the city council has nominally approved but not implemented.
By re-aligning budget priorities, Buzbee says the city can accelerate street repairs and drainage projects and afford to expand the police department and provide firefighters with a long-delayed pay raise.
The firefighters’ pay issue has loomed large throughout the campaign. The firefighters’ union had endorsed Turner in the 2015 campaign, but even after voters overwhelmingly approved a pay parity ballot measure last year, the mayor has opposed raises for the firefighters as unaffordable.
Consequently, the Houston Professional Firefighters Association endorsed former councilman Dwight Boykins in the general election and then unanimously voted to endorse Tony Buzbee in the runoff.
The group is also actively campaigning on Buzbee’s behalf.
In addition to the firefighters, several former mayoral candidates and their supporters are publicly supporting Buzbee over Turner. Former councilwoman and member of the influential Houston GLBT Caucus, Sue Lovell, has endorsed Buzbee, and this week another former candidate, Houston-area pastor and activist Dr. Kendall Baker also announced his endorsement.
In the run-up to the general election, most Houston-area Republicans were split between support for Buzbee and former Kemah Mayor Bill King.
Although King has not publicly stated his preference in the runoff, many King supporters such as activist Rolando Garcia, are now actively working for Buzbee.
A Republican precinct and senate district chair in Harris County, Garcia told The Texan that initially he had supported King as the candidate with “the best ideas” and best chances of winning, but that endorsing Buzbee in a runoff was an “easy and logical choice.”
“Buzbee has a message that most conservatives and independents agree with -fighting corruption, keeping the property tax cap, and focusing on core services,” said Garcia. Noting that the city does not cap sales tax revenues, Garcia added, “Houston doesn’t have a revenue problem, but a spending problem that Buzbee is willing to address.”
Buzbee and King often clashed during campaign debates and forums, but since then Buzbee has praised King as a valuable resource and asset for reforming Houston government.
Following the November 5 general election, Buzbee added several new consultants and staffers to his team, including Alex Trevino, a former spokesman for Greg Abbot’s 2018 campaign who was instrumental in Hispanic outreach for the governor’s re-election bid.
A challenge for both campaigns will be to motivate voters to go to the polls amid the holiday season, and December runoff elections are notoriously low-turnout affairs.
This week the Buzbee campaign launched a new spate of television and radio advertisements and his headquarters now also includes 60 phones to support phone banking and block walking efforts.
Likewise, the Turner campaign has engaged in aggressive voter outreach with weekend block walks and near-daily appearances at Houston community events.
Despite the non-partisan status of these contests, both political parties in Harris County are actively participating in the campaigns by organizing block walking and phone banking for preferred candidates, and the county’s Republican Executive Committee has also passed resolutions endorsing council candidates Mike Knox, Willie Davis, Michael Kubosh, Anthony Dolcefino, Eric Dick, and Amy Peck.
One unresolved contest that will not appear on the ballot is that for Houston City Council District B.
Although the race requires a runoff, a legal battle has ensued on revelations that second-place candidate Cynthia Bailey is a convicted felon and therefore ineligible to hold office under Texas law.
Adding to the controversy, Greg Groogan of Houston’s Fox 26 has reported that the Turner campaign paid Bailey $17,500 this year for “putting up signs and fieldwork” on behalf of the mayor’s re-election effort.
Early voting for ten other council seats and the mayor’s race will begin on November 27 and continue through December 10.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.