A closely contested, potentially historic race is taking shape in Houston to replace popular three-term Mayor Bill White, who is running for U.S. Senate. But don’t feel bad if you weren’t aware of it. As the post–Labor Day political push began, Houstonians had barely started to tune into the four-way contest that could make City Controller Annise Parker the first openly gay mayor in Texas or high-powered lawyer Gene Locke just the second African-American mayor in Houston’s history.
Two other candidates are in the mix, making a runoff election a near-certainty. Peter Brown, an outspoken 72-year-old architect who’s been twice elected to the City Council, is the third Democrat in the nonpartisan race. Largely funding his campaign with his personal fortune, Brown was the first to run TV ads, but he has lagged in the polls behind Parker and Locke, who have raised the most money and snagged the most endorsements. The Republican candidate, Roy Morales, a Harris County School trustee and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, filed just hours before the deadline and isn’t seen as a serious threat; many influential Houston Republicans are casting their lots with the perceived front-runners, Locke and Parker.
The barrier-busting qualities of the leading candidates, Parker in particular, has attracted some attention from the national media. But locally, the race has been decidedly low on firepower. By mid-September, the candidates had already participated in 40 public forums, talking about issues ranging from fixing the city’s troubled animal shelters to successfully navigating through the worst economy since the Great Depression. The candidates have been “pretty low-key and non-confrontational,” says Richard Murray, political science professor at the University of Houston and longtime political prognosticator. Except for Morales, “they all move toward the same policies rather than differentiating themselves.”
Perhaps the general agreeableness of the race explains why voters have been slow to take sides. A poll released at the end of August by KHOU-TV and KUHF-FM found that two-thirds of voters were still undecided; among those who had made a choice, Parker led with just 13 percent.
Parker talks a lot about bringing alternative energy to the petroleum-based city—but, then, so do Brown and Locke; the latter told the Observer, “We need to become the alternative energy capital of the world.” The favorite of many progressive activists, Parker is also running on her record of fiscal stewardship during five years as city controller and six on the City Council. She is backed by the city employees union, Service Employees International Union, the Harris County Democrats and Annie’s List, the statewide PAC that’s been remarkably successful at electing women to office.
Locke, a former civil-rights activist who served as chief of staff for former congressman Mickey Leland and as city attorney under former Mayor Bob Lanier, will be formidable with his strong bases in Houston’s black and business communities. Locke, who has gotten nods from the firefighter and police unions as well as the Houston Association of Realtors and the Greater Houston Homebuilders Association, says he’ll work on attracting “middle-class” folks back to the city. In keeping with the lack of flashiness in the race, he describes himself as a “no-nonsense problem-solver.”
The groundbreaking news would be a win by Parker. Her sexual orientation has been mostly a non-issue thus far, partly because she’s never tried to hide it: “From my first election for city council, I printed it on my campaign materials and it is part of my resume.” At the same time, Parker doesn’t discount the significance of being a lesbian. “I see myself as a role model for my community,” she says. “I think it makes me a better public servant because people are watching what I do and say very closely.” A few people, anyway. (For more on the candidates for Houston mayor, see Q&As)