Democrat John Whitmire wins the Houston mayoral runoff against Sheila Jackson Lee

Democratic Sen. John Whitmire defeated Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee Saturday night in Houston’s closely watched mayoral race, according to the Associated Press.

As of Saturday night, Whitmire was leading by a huge margin of 65.27% to 34.73%.

As the city of Houston enters the final week before the mayoral runoff, an ad for Jackson Lee, urged the city’s residents to “vote on or before Dec. 7.” There was one problem: the runoff election was on Saturday, and the early voting period ended on December 5th.

Jackson Lee’s office quickly pulled the ad, telling Houston Public Media that it debuted Saturday and ran on local ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates, but was created by an outside ad agency, not the campaign.

Misleading advertising and even a lack of information about the election date seem to sum up everything happening so far in the mayoral race in America’s fourth-largest city — limping forward to low turnout in the last major election, 2023.

As of Saturday night, Jackson Lee, a 30-year veteran of Congress, was trailing Whitmire, who has more than 50 years in public service, in the polls. They were the top two votes in the November 7 general election, which had 17 candidates on the ballot and one write-in candidate. Whitmire, 74, received 43 percent of the vote to 36 percent for Jackson Lee, 73. About 21 percent of Houston’s 1.2 million registered voters cast ballots in the Nov. 7 election, according to the Associated Press. Current Mayor Sylvester Turner is term-limited.

In this combination of photos, U.S. Representative Shelia Jackson Lee and, right, Democratic Senator John Whitmire.

AP


“It’s been a pretty sleepy race so far,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “We’ve seen mayoral races in the past that have had a lot more fireworks, a lot more partisanship. It was a race that frankly failed to capture the attention of voters.”

The numbers haven’t changed much since the November election. A SurveyUSA Research poll on behalf of the University of Houston conducted in mid-November found Whitmire leading Jackson Lee 42 percent to 35 percent.

The race was considered nonpartisan, but both Whitmire and Jackson Lee are Democrats. Jackson Lee has drawn major endorsements, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. But, as Rottinghaus pointed out, big endorsements have failed to move the needle.

Meanwhile, Whitmire boasted strong local support, including Jim “Mattress Mac” McIngvale, former Houston City Councilman Jack Christie, who is running as a Republican in the first round, and GOP megadonor Tilman Fertitta.

Houston is considered the most diverse major city in America, so winning the mayor’s office means winning a coalition of voters.

Turner’s 2015 victory by just two points over a conservative businessman was largely due to black voters and get-out-the-vote efforts, according to the Houston Chronicle. Jackson Lee, who if elected would be the city’s first black female mayor, has failed to galvanize black voters in the same way, Rottinghaus said. In precincts with large numbers of black voters, turnout was much lower, Rottinghaus said.

Although Whitmire touted his Democratic credentials, he also courted Republican support and had numerous major GOP donors backing him. The University of Houston poll showed him with a 56-point lead among Republicans. Although Houston leans Democratic, the city is not as Democratic a stronghold as other major US cities, and the Republican vote could be crucial to victory. Republicans also have complete control of state government, with a GOP governor and majorities in both the legislature and state senate.

Whitmire, who is white, has also courted the Hispanic vote, and a University of Houston poll showed him with a 20-point lead among Hispanic voters, who make up roughly 45 percent of the city’s population.

Although Houston is a young city, the average age of voters in Houston is 62, according to Rottinghaus. The top local issue is crime, and both candidates said in Monday’s final debate that they would keep Police Chief Troy Finner.

Because the two candidates were so close on many of the issues, the race had some setbacks.

Two weeks before the general election, audio was leaked of Jackson Lee appearing to berate an official with expletives.

“I know I’m not perfect,” she said in a statement in response.

As Rottinghaus noted, they added a poll in November about the leaked audio, and while most people said it didn’t matter, a “significant percentage” said it did. These people tend to be younger and, in particular, younger women—two groups that Jackson Lee needed to win over.

In addition to the leaked audio, Jackson Lee went into the second round of the election with very unfavorable ratings. An October poll by the University of Houston’s Hobby School found 43 percent said they would never vote for her, compared with 15 percent who said they would never vote for Whitmire. In the same poll, 41% said they had a “very unfavorable” opinion of Jackson Lee, with 28% having a “very favorable” opinion, compared to 13% reporting a “very unfavorable” opinion of Whitmire, while 27% said have a “very favorable” view.

But Whitmire has been dogged by allegations of a conflict of interest as a state senator. According to the Houston Chronicle, Whitmire has been accused of blurring the line between public and private roles. Whitmire said the Legislature is part-time and has a salary of $7,200 a year, making it impossible to avoid conflicts of interest.

“The main difference is that when I am mayor, I will be a full-time mayor. I will not have a law practice,” Whitmire said during the debate earlier this week. “I could dispute a bunch of Chronicle issues, but there’s no need. This included the practice of law. Most of these accusations arrived in previous campaigns. We make $600 a month as a senator. … You have to have civilian jobs, that’s where most of that was accomplished.”

Harris County, which includes Houston, was the subject of state audits in 2022 and 2023 over the vote, and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation this year that removed Harris County’s election administrator and transferred responsibility to other local officials. This election was the first election under the new system.

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