HOUSTON (AP) — The race for Houston mayor headed to a runoff Tuesday night between U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and state Sen. John Whitmire, two Democrats who breezed past a wide field of candidates in a race dominated by issues of crime, crumbling infrastructure and potential budget shortfalls.
If elected, Jackson Lee would be Houston’s first Black female mayor, a meaningful change for America’s fourth-largest city. Since 1995, she has represented Houston in Congress. Whitmire has lapped his rivals in fundraising after five decades in the Texas Legislature, where he has helped drive tough-on-crime policies while also casting himself as a reformer.
The runoff will be Dec. 9.
Jackson Lee told supporters Tuesday night that she’s focused on providing for the needs of families and children as well as prioritizing public safety, creating more jobs for residents and showing she can be a mayor “for all of the people.”
Whitmire told his supporters that while he’s focused on bringing attention to concerns residents have over infrastructure and public safety, the city’s “best days are in front of us.”
Jackson Lee and Whitmire — two of Houston’s main political fixtures — spent months dominating the open mayoral race that drew 17 candidates on the ballot and a write-in candidate. But neither could pass the threshold of more than 50% of the vote, which is necessary to avoid a runoff. In early tabulations, Whitmire had about 43% of the vote to Jackson-Lee’s 36%.
Jackson Lee, 73, and Whitmire, 74, have touted their experience in a race to lead one of the youngest major cities in the U.S.
Their high profiles and fundraising prowess left the other candidates scrambling to get any traction in the race.
About two weeks before the election, Jackson Lee’s campaign had to contend with the release of an unverified audio recording, which is purported to capture her berating staff members with a barrage of expletives.
Booming growth over the last decade has caused municipal headaches but has also turned the Houston area into an expanding stronghold for Texas Democrats. Although the mayoral race is nonpartisan, most of the candidates are Democrats.
Voting in the Houston area, a Democratic stronghold in GOP-led Texas, was under additional scrutiny on Tuesday following a new law signed this year by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. The law clears the way for the state to take control of voting in Harris County, which includes Houston, if it determines there is a “recurring pattern of problems” with elections. Another new state law eliminated the county’s elections administrator and transferred the responsibility to other local officials.
Harris County election officials said there were some problems at polling locations on Tuesday, including issues with voting machines, which can cause long lines, and ballot scanners. But none of the problems severely disrupted voting on Tuesday and 93% of the county’s 701 voting centers were open by 7 a.m., officials said.
One of the officials now responsible for running local elections, Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth, said her office had a plan in place to deal with Tuesday’s problems, including assigning a technician to every voting location and promptly dealing with calls for help.
“Today, I feel like it’s been fairly smooth,” Hudspeth said. “Today has been a good day.”
Houston and the state’s other large, Democratic-led cities are also challenging a new law that erodes their power to impose local rules on everything from tenant evictions to employee sick leave.
Whitmire and Jackson Lee are seeking to replace Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has served eight years and can’t run again because of term limits.
Houston’s mayor will lead what is considered one of the country’s most diverse cities. Of the city’s 2.3 million residents, 45% are Latino, 23% are Black and 24% are white. One in every four Houston residents was born outside the U.S.
Known as the energy capital of the world, Houston’s economy has long been tied mainly to the oil industry. But the city is working to become a leader in the transition to cleaner energy. Like other large U.S. cities, Houston is also dealing with a lack of affordable housing and concerns among residents over growing gaps between the rich and poor.
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