Houston has a young population. Its next mayor, who will be elected in a runoff, will not be

HOUSTON (AP) — A mayoral runoff Saturday between state Sen. John Whitmire, 74, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, 73, has the fourth-largest U.S. city one step away from choosing a new leader which defies demographic trends in Houston. Census data shows that Houston is getting younger, with a median age of about 35 and 25% of the population under 18.

While other city halls haven’t exactly been swept by a youth movement — New York City Mayor Eric Adams is 63 and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass is 70 — the Houston election disappointed some voters in the Democratic bastion, especially younger ones. , at a time when the party is looking for new political stars in Texas who could end the GOP’s 30-year statewide dominance.

“I think the main problem is identification with politics. A lot of young people can’t,” said Julian Meza, a 19-year-old history major at Houston Community College who plans to vote. He added: “I really don’t want to vote for them, but I have no choice.”

Fellow student Amanda Estella Portillo, a 19-year-old biology major, agreed that she had a hard time connecting with older applicants.

“It seems like the older generations … they kind of dismiss it and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, kid. You are very young.’ And I feel like that’s a sense of hopelessness that a lot of us feel,” Portillo said.

Whitmire and Jackson Lee, who emerged from a crowded field of nearly 20 candidates in the November 7 general election, both touted their decades of experience in political office. But they also say the perspectives of younger voters are important to them and have pledged to make young people part of their administration.

On Sunday, Jackson Lee attended an outreach event sponsored by Houston-based Rap-A-Lot Records that featured candidate speeches and musical performances and aimed to encourage voters, including younger ones, to go to the polls.

“I want this administration to have people who say, ‘I’m fine because the mayor cares about me.’ I’m fine because City Hall is open for me,” Jackson Lee said on stage alongside local rappers including Lil Bushwick, the son of Bushwick Billa founding member of the iconic Houston rap group Geto Boys.

Whitmire, for her part, has campaigned for events with young professional organizations, telling a gathering in August that “Houston’s future needs a voice at City Hall.”

“Why don’t young people get involved in city politics?” I think a lot of them have given up on the process,” Whitmire said Sunday after a mayoral forum. “I understand their cynicism and their frustration. And that’s what I’m offering, the experience of a capable candidate.”

Von Cannon, 41, who ran a food truck at Sunday’s voter event, said getting older isn’t necessarily an issue for the candidate, but “I think authenticity is a big thing that younger voters are looking for.”

Rhonda Prince, head of operations at Rap-A-Lot Records, said experience is important, “but you just can’t ignore and ignore the concerns, the issues that young people have. If you want to reach young people, talk to young people.

Getting younger voters to the polls, especially in local elections, remains a “huge puzzle” in the city and across the country, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“Houston is changing. It’s getting a lot younger and certainly more Hispanic, and the demographics in terms of who’s running for office and who’s winning … doesn’t always reflect those changes,” Rottinghaus said.

An analysis by Rottinghaus suggests that two-thirds of voters in the November 7 election were over the age of 55. The Harris County Clerk’s Office said a review of early voting for the runoff found an average age of about 62.

Age has been an issue in other political contests – such as next year’s presidential racewhich looks likely to pit President Joe Biden, 80, against former President Donald Trump, 77. In the Texas general election last month, voters rejected proposed change to the state constitution that would raise the mandatory retirement age for judges by four years to 79.

One of the challenges in reaching younger people is making voting more convenient, according to Rottinghaus.

Officials in Democratic-led Harris County, where Houston is located, expanded access during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic with voting by car and 24-hour polling stations, two initiatives popular with younger voters. But these were later banned by the GOP-led Texas Legislature.

Rottinghaus also said some younger voters may not vote because the issues they care about are often not a factor in local elections.

While the Houston mayoral race has been dominated by discussion of crime, crumbling infrastructure and potential budget deficitsother issues that matter to voters like Meza and Portillo, such as support for reproductive and immigration rights and the LGBTQ+ community, are largely absent.

Keith Delgado, a 19-year-old art student at Houston Community College, said that while the mayor can’t have much influence on these issues, it’s important for younger voters to have someone in office who shares their values.

“If we have a mayor who supports our ideas, maybe we can get a governor who supports our ideas, and then representatives. I think this is a good reason to start voting locally, like for my age group,” Delgado said.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on X, formerly known as Twitter: twitter.com/juanlozano70

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