Eight takeaways from 2015 City of Houston elections

1.  HERO Was Repealed

The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) was defeated, with 61 percent of voters opposing the ordinance.  Back in the spring of 2014, Mayor Annise Parker was faced with two options: support a compromise equal rights ordinance that did not require that transgendered Houstonians be allowed access to the single-sex restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity, or support a more comprehensive option that did require this type of public accommodation.  In going with the latter option, Parker moved Houston slightly outside of the comfort zone of many Houstonians.  In a focused and disciplined campaign, the groups opposed to HERO very effectively zeroed in on this small area outside of these Houstonians’ comfort zone and magnified it 100-fold.  A result was the landslide victory for the “No” campaign in the midst of the highest turnout the City of Houston has seen for a local election in a dozen years.

In retrospect, it would appear that Parker tried to go a bridge too far with HERO.  That said, it also seems quite likely that, given the continuing evolution of public opinion in the area of LGBT rights, HERO supporters will at some point either later this decade or early in the next eventually cross their “Rhine” in this specific policy area and obtain the passage of a comprehensive equal rights ordinance with all of the rights and protections contained in HERO.

2.  HERO Will Be Back

The lopsided defeat of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) will send the next mayor and city council back to the drawing board at the start of 2016.  They would be expected to, in relatively short order, pass a new Houston Equal Rights Ordinance that is very similar to the ordinance that was just repealed, with one principal exception.  The revised version of the ordinance would modify the public accommodation component of the repealed ordinance so that it does not apply to discrimination based on biological sex in regard to access to private facilities such as restrooms, locker rooms and showers.

A relatively expeditious passage of this revised equal rights ordinance would ameliorate, though not entirely erase, the short-term negative impact of the lopsided “No” victory on Houston’s image nationwide.  The rapid adoption of this new ordinance also would largely eliminate the risk of Houston losing conventions, sporting events, corporate relocations and corporate investment as a consequence of the Nov. 3 HERO repeal.  And, since this new equal rights ordinance would address the principal public critique of the “No” campaign, it would be virtually bulletproof against any future repeal efforts.

3.  A Turner vs. King Mayoral Runoff

It was not a surprise that no candidate won 50 percent plus 1 of the vote (thus triggering a runoff) or that Sylvester Turner finished with a plurality of the vote (32 percent) on Nov. 3.  What was something of a surprise was Bill King’s margin of victory in the battle for second place in the mayoral race.  When all the votes were counted, there was an 8 percent gap between King (25 percent) and former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia (17 percent).  King’s success came at least in part from his ability to mobilize his core base and to peel away potential supporters of both Ben Hall and Steve Costello, who finished with 10 percent and 7 percent of the vote, respectively.

4.  The Next Mayor Will Serve a Four-Year Term

Proposition 2 passed by a large margin, 65 percent to 35 percent.  Houston presently limits city elected officials to three two-year terms in office.  As a consequence of the Proposition 2 victory, Houston’s term limits will be relaxed immediately, with the mayor, controller and 16 council members who assume office in January now eligible to serve for two four-year terms.  The one exception to this rule will be for council members who have already completed two terms in office (four years), who will only be allowed to serve for one additional four-year term.

5.  A Frazer vs. Brown Controller Runoff

The race for controller was very much overshadowed by the HERO proposition and the mayoral race.   With the former dispute settled and the latter narrowed down to two candidates, hopefully the runoff for this politically important post will receive more media and public attention as Bill Frazer (31 percent) squares off against Chris Brown (25 percent) in December.

6.  Three of Eleven District Council Races Will Go to a Runoff

At the district level, seven of the nine incumbents running for re-election (Brenda Stardig – District A, Jerry Davis – District B, Ellen Cohen – District C, Dwight Boykins – District D, Dave Martin – District E, Robert Gallegos – District I, and Larry Green –District K) were victorious by large margins, in three cases running unopposed.  In addition, Greg Travis won the open District G.  Two incumbents, District F’s Richard Nguyen (34 percent) and District J’s Mike Laster (44 percent), were forced into runoffs against challengers Steven Le (40 percent) and Jim Bigham (21 percent), respectively.  Bigham edged out Manny Barrera for second place by a scant 28 votes.  Nguyen was the only incumbent (district or at-large) who did not win either an absolute majority or at least a plurality of the vote.  Also going to a runoff is the open seat contest in District H, where Karla Cisneros finished first (35 percent) followed by Jason Cisneroz (23 percent).

7.  Four of Five At-Large Council Races Will Go to a Runoff

The five at-large races featured three incumbents running for re-election and two open seats.  The one at-large incumbent who will not need to worry about campaigning between now and Dec. 12 is Michael Kubosh, who in a four-candidate race garnered 60 percent of the vote.  Kubosh’s colleagues, David Robinson (33 percent) and Jack Christie (46 percent) were not so lucky, and will have to go to a second round runoff against Willie Davis (23 percent) and Sharon Moses (25 percent), respectively.  In the latter race, the major surprise was that the highly touted and well-financed Philippe Nassif (19 percent) did not make the runoff.  In the two open at-large runoffs, Amanda Edwards (35 percent) will compete against Roy Morales (17 percent), and Mike Knox (24 percent) will go head-to-head with Georgia Provost (15 percent).  Morales narrowly edged out Laurie Robinson for the second spot in the at-large Position 4 contest, while Knox and Provost bested Griff Griffin (13 percent) and Tom McCasland (12 percent) for the second spot in the at-large Position 1 race.  The at-large elections all featured a high degree of under voting, with between 28 and 33 percent of voters opting to not cast a ballot for any candidate in these contests.

8.  Nguyen Thai Hoc Finished Seventh in the Mayoral Race

Nguyen Thai Hoc was not one of the seven candidates invited to the principal mayoral forums and televised debates, nor did he receive any notable coverage in the local media.  However, on November 3 he finished in the top seven in the race for mayor, with 0.9 percent of the vote.

Mark P. Jones is the Baker Institute’s fellow in political science as well as the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University.