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Winners, Losers, and Down-ballot Intrigue in Houston

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Houston voters last night decided to keep Mayor Annise Parker and to destroy the Astrodome. While those were the headline votes, the more interesting news came further down the ballot.

Parker, the city’s first openly gay mayor, was elected to a third term with relative ease, capturing 57 percent of the vote despite a field of nine candidates. Parker had the advantage of a strong city economy and an electorate kind to incumbents; the last four Houston mayors have served at least three terms, the current limit.

Parker’s main challenger, Ben Hall, took just 28 percent. Hall brought a formidable personal fortune to his campaign, but also a history of IRS trouble, much of it recent. That probably would have been enough, but Hall wasn’t helped by a ham-fisted media strategy, such as holding a press conference about crime rates at the site of a recent murder. Then, when the Houston Chronicle refused Halls’ request to bring outside media to attend its traditional candidate screenings, Hall cancelled 15 minutes before the event and released a statement calling the Chronicle a “megaphone for the interests of Ms. Parker and her cronies.” Bad form all around.

While all the statewide propositions passed, Harris County split the vote on two hotly debated propositions of its own. Prop 2, which lost with 47 percent, sought to issue $217 million in bonds to turn the disused but iconic Astrodome into an event and exhibition center. Early results predicted the defeat, but Twitter was still abuzz for hours with locals mourning the outcome, sharing pictures and stories of the Dome, and cursing Houston’s habit of choosing destruction over renovation.

Prop 1, to spend $70 million on a new joint inmate-processing center, passed by only 456 votes out of more than 224,000 cast. The center will be built across the street from the Harris County Jail and handle all bookings for both city and county, which advocates say will speed the process for all involved and allow more systematic application of programs providing mental health, substance abuse, and housing assistance. Critics point out that it’s a jail, that overcrowding should be solved by policy changes rather than new spending, and that the only reason it’s got a long name and so many bells and whistles is that voters rejected similar proposals in 2007 and 2009.

As expected, Houston City Council District A incumbent and certified character Helena Brown was forced into a runoff with Brenda Stardig, whom she defeated in a runoff two years ago. Brown took 38 percent of the vote, while Stardig had 29. Newcomer Mike Knox, a former police officer, got an impressive 20 percent. Knox has been critical of Brown since long before he became a candidate and seems likely to throw his support behind Stardig, suggesting Brown’s days as Houston’s watchdog against U.N. power grabs are numbered. Sad, really.

Speaking of power grabs, a controversial proposition out of Pasadena, in southeast Harris County, appears to have passed by just 87 votes. Prop 1 will make two of the city’s eight single-member districts at-large, a move critics say is intended to dilute minority voting power in the increasingly Hispanic north side. The Justice Department shot down a similar scheme there last year, but without the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance requirement—scuttled by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year—it was promptly revived. And now it has passed.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.