Incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner will face at least three significant opponents for the November general election, and with the August 26 filing deadline still two months away, the field could become even more crowded. As of now, the three best-known challengers are sitting city councilmember Dwight Boykins, trial attorney Tony Buzbee, and businessman and former Kemah mayor Bill King.
Since taking office in 2016, Turner has faced steep challenges and controversy. After Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on the Houston area in 2017, Turner was criticized for not ordering evacuations and for his handling of recovery funds.
Turner has also faced allegations of “pay to play” corruption in city government, continuing conflict over Houston’s three pension plans, and “Proposition B,” a voter-approved pay parity measure for the city’s firefighters.
Although a state district judge ruled Prop B unconstitutional and the Texas 14th Court of Appeals has ordered the city and the firefighters back into mediation, the ongoing conflict with the mayor resulted in the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association switching its endorsement from Turner in 2015 to Dwight Boykins in 2019.
Boykins represents District D, one of the eleven single-member districts that comprise Houston’s 16-member city council. In recent months, Boykins and Turner have clashed at city council meetings, primarily over Prop B.
Bill King narrowly lost to Turner in a 2015 runoff election by a mere 4,082 vote margin. Since then he has continued to be a vocal critic of the mayor, and he maintains a prolific blog on local policy issues and alleged corruption at city hall.
King was a tepid supporter of Prop B and is leading a petition drive to call for a ban on Houston contracts with big-dollar political donors to city elections. He has enjoyed the support of both Democrats and Republicans, and was endorsed by the Kingwood Tea Party in 2015.
Tony Buzbee, a successful trial attorney known for his charismatic and colorful personality, represented Governor Rick Perry in 2014 when the governor was indicted by a Travis County grand jury on abuse of power charges. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed the charges against Perry in 2016.
Buzbee says he is an independent and has generously contributed to both Democrats and Republicans. He initially supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections, repudiated Trump just prior to the election, and then donated $500,000 to Trump’s inaugural fund.
In 2013, Perry appointed Buzbee to the Texas A&M Board of Regents, and earlier this year Perry endorsed Buzbee for Houston mayor, although Buzbee says he seeks neither endorsements nor donations and will entirely self-finance his campaign.
Last week, the Texas Conservative Review and other outlets shared a letter purportedly written by Perry that reiterates the former governor’s support for Buzbee while harshly criticizing Turner and King. The letter refers to Turner as a “bad apple” but levies especially pointed language at King, accusing him of running a “racket” to entertain city and state elected officials and hiring Sylvester Turner as an advisor to the advantage of King’s law firm.
In an emailed statement to The Texan, Buzbee says he believes Perry’s letter was sent to the C-Club in Houston, but that he did not receive a copy. He added that Bill King is “notorious in Houston for his pay to play history.” Buzbee says, “It is known that [King] employed Sylvester Turner when Turner was attempting to reduce the monies King’s firm was receiving from the city of Houston.”
Janice Evans, spokesperson for the Bill King campaign, dismissed the letter: “We would be very surprised to learn this letter is legitimate given that Governor Perry appointed Bill to two commissions to study the aftermaths of Hurricanes Rita and Ike as well as to the TSU Board of Regents and as an admiral in the Texas Navy.”
A Buzbee campaign spokesperson told The Texan that Governor Perry personally informed Buzbee of his letter of support despite the campaign not receiving an official copy.
Patricia Harless, a former Republican state representative and wife of current Representative Sam Harless (R-Spring), voiced support for Mayor Turner earlier this month. Harless said of Turner: “He is not afraid to make the tough decisions to ensure our city’s future is bright.”
Prior to winning the 2015 mayoral election, Turner, a Democrat, had served in the Texas Legislature for 25 years as the representative for House District 139. Harless’ endorsement came as a surprise to some area Republicans, many of whom lean towards King or Buzbee.
Several observers, including Gary Polland of the Texas Conservative Review, have suggested that another possible candidate is former city council member Sue Lovell. Lovell served on the city council from 2005-2012 and has strong ties to the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.
“Lovell has a lot of support and her entry could again shake things up,” said Polland. “In this race, any of the top candidates could end up in a runoff election.”
If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, a runoff election will take place on December 14, 2019.
The 2015 mayoral race included 13 candidates in the general election.
In addition to the mayoral race, contests for all 16 city council seats and the city controller will also be on Houston’s November ballot.
Update: A previous version of this piece incorporated a line detailing that The Texan was in the midst of verifying that Perry indeed wrote the letter in support of Mr. Buzbee after the King campaign disputed its legitimacy. New information from the Buzbee campaign since publication has clarified that Governor Perry apparently contacted Mr. Buzbee personally to inform him about the letter.
Additionally, a senior source close to former Governor Perry has informed The Texan that the letter is indeed real and was written by Perry.
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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.