Above: Mayor Sylvester Turner speaks as Tony Buzbee, left, listens during a candidate forum for the mayoral election in Houston.
Just over a month ago, Houston’s mayoral runoff looked like it was shaping up to be a political battle royale. It features two big political personalities—incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner and bombastic trial attorney Tony Buzbee—and is set in a booming mega-metropolis that has become one of the most politically important cities in the nation.
Turner entered his bid for reelection with a tinge of vulnerability. His close ties with Houston’s powerful business community (city contractors have funneled more than $4 million into his campaign coffers) and appeasement of moderates frustrated the progressive activists who helped elect him back in 2015, when he ran on a platform of bold promises. During his first term, he didn’t push for stronger local labor standards like paid sick leave and a higher minimum wage requirement for city contractors, and slow-walked his affordable-housing agenda. Back in 2016, he declined to back an affordable housing development in the affluent Galleria area after intense backlash from local residents. Still, a serious challenger from the left never materialized. It looked like it would be an easy win in a Democratic stronghold.
Enter Buzbee, an enigmatic millionaire, former chair of the Galveston County Democratic Party, and mega-donor for Donald Trump. He spent $9 million of his own money to mount an insurgent campaign that cast Mayor Turner as an emblem of pay-to-play corruption in city hall and pledged to improve basic municipal services, like trash pickup, drainage ditches, and local infrastructure. He and a handful of other candidates succeeded in keeping Turner from crossing the 50 percent threshold needed to win the November primary outright, with Buzbee pulling in just under 30 percent of the vote. It was the first time in two decades that an incumbent mayor in Houston was forced into a runoff.
But the momentum Buzbee gained from his attempted political coup quickly stalled out. His rambling, incoherent (and possibly inebriated) speech on the night of the primary didn’t help matters. With early voting over and Election Day coming up on Saturday, the race has turned out to be a dud. Perhaps the self-described political brawler wasn’t up for the fight. As Evan Mintz wrote for Texas Monthly: “With the ten other candidates vanquished, Buzbee’s campaign finally has the fight he wanted—a one-on-one with the mayor. To beat Turner, Buzbee would need to fight even harder than he did in the primary … [he] would have to run a Trump-style campaign that trades punch for punch and plays to his strengths as an underdog with nothing to lose. That’s not happening.”
The mayoral race isn’t the only runoff in the Bayou City. There are several closely contested district-level and citywide city council races, the outcomes of which will have a profound impact on the political makeup of the city’s governing body in 2020.
Wary of the potential for an low-turnout upset, Democrats in Houston—the epicenter for a blue-ing Texas—have hit the streets in recent weeks to get out the vote for Turner. So far, early voting turnout levels are slightly higher than the primary, a good sign for Turner. A poll released this week showed that Turner was supported by 56 percent of likely voters, compared with just 34 percent for Buzbee.
Still, runoffs in Texas are predictably unpredictable and Turner is staying on his toes. “You never assume anything. You never take anything for granted,” Turner told the Houston Chronicle. “In every election I’ve been in, and just like this one, you run a little bit nervous and you run like you’re 20 points behind.”
Buzbee has also waved away suggestions that Turner has the race in the bag. “[Houstonians’] vote is the only poll that matters to me,” Buzbee told the Chronicle.