Sunday, December 13, 2009

Noticed this commentary about the Houston Mayor Race... you can smell the 2010 races in the air already. Who will be Governor of Texas?

Here's the bottom line, or maybe the punch line:
In Houston, it is now harder for a lawyer to be elected mayor than a lesbian.

In the last two weeks of the hard-fought campaign, several mailings — one of them funded to the tune of $40,000 by candidate Gene Locke's finance chairman and another finance committee member — urged voters to choose Locke because Annise Parker is a lesbian.

Parker hit back with two tough mailings attacking Locke for his history as a lawyer and a lobbyist.

The first on one side repeated line after line of what it called: “The three words Houston taxpayers dread most: Lawyer. Lobbyist. Locke.” The other side quotes a federal judge as critical of Locke's performance as city attorney on a high-profile case, and said his firm has billed $17 million in fees to the city, Metro and the Sports Authority at rates as high as $640 per hour.

The two candidates disagreed on few issues. Both are seen as moderate to liberal Democrats. One was a college civil rights activist, the other a college gay rights activist. Both matured into successful professional careers before entering politics as mainstream candidates who no longer focused on civil or gay rights.

No name recognition
Parker spent six years on the City Council and six as city controller, earning a reputation as a serious policy wonk who never hid her sexual orientation but who also never championed gay issues.

Locke became a successful and (despite Parker's attacks) highly regarded attorney specializing in representing local governmental agencies.

His was, however, a back-room position and he entered the race with neither name recognition nor public image. He came under criticism from some political professionals for getting off to a slow start and failing to define himself before Parker defined him.

But Locke's problem was more fundamental. He was anointed as the business establishment's candidate by old-time leaders such as Ned Holmes (Locke's finance chairman) and former Mayor Bob Lanier, who effectively discouraged conservatives such as Metro critic Bill King from making the race.

Their analysis of Locke's route to victory, however, turned out to be fundamentally flawed.

In 1997, Lee Brown became Houston's first black mayor by substantially increasing the normal turnout of the black vote because, as former police chief, he was well-known in the black community and seen as having a chance of winning. It was a historical, pent-up enthusiasm among black voters that was not available to Locke.

What's more, Brown was running against Rob Mosbacher, a popular Republican. On Election Day, the white vote split along party lines, with Brown getting just under 30 percent of it — enabling him to win the election 53 percent to 47 percent.

But with Parker, Locke was running against a white Democrat, not a Republican.

His backers had nothing against Parker but did not believe she could overcome the lesbian label.

They believed Locke could win by combining the black vote with a substantial portion of Republicans who would vote against Parker because of her sexual orientation.

That turned out to be wrong. For one thing, as the low turnout indicates, neither candidate had the star power to boost voter participation.

More important for Locke, his appeals to Republicans, particularly as a law-and-order candidate, didn't stick, and the anti-lesbian vote turned out to be smaller than expected.

An anti-gay misstep
Greg Wythe, a bright political analyst and blogger ( who has joined Mayor Bill White's gubernatorial campaign, did a precinct-by-precinct analysis of the first-round of votes.

It showed Parker coming in first or second in such Republican areas as the West Side, Kingwood and the Clear Lake area.

Locke came in a poor fourth in those areas.

I believe it was Locke's performance in those areas that led his finance team members to take the desperate step of aligning the campaign with gay-bashing Steve Hotze — thereby pushing undecided white liberals and moderates into Parker's well-run campaign without turning out enough anti-gay votes to win.

Annise Danette Parker was elected mayor of Houston on Saturday, winning her seventh consecutive city election and becoming both the first contender in a generation to defeat the hand-picked candidate of Houston's business establishment and the first openly gay person to lead a major U.S. city.

Parker, Houston's current city controller who first emerged in the public arena as a gay rights activist in the 1980s, defeated former City Attorney Gene Locke on an austere platform, convincing voters that her financial bona fides and restrained promises would be best suited in trying financial times. Parker, 53, will replace the term-limited Mayor Bill White on Jan. 1.

Her victory capped an unorthodox election season that lacked a strong conservative mayoral contender and saw her coalition of inside-the-Loop Democrats and moderate conservatives, backed by an army of ardent volunteers, win the day over Locke, a former civil rights activist who attempted to unite African-American voters and Republicans.

In complete but unofficial returns, Parker coasted to a comfortable victory with 52.8 percent of the vote to 47.2 percent for Locke. Turnout was 16.5 percent.

‘Join as one community'
When Parker finally appeared at 10:30 p.m., resplendent in a gold pantsuit and pearl necklace, the room at the George R. Brown Convention Center jammed elbow-to-elbow with supporters erupted with a deafening cheer. Some were newcomers to political waters. Some had been with her a dozen years ago when she claimed her first City Council seat.

“Tonight the voters of Houston have opened the doors to history,” she said. “I acknowledge that. I embrace that. I know what this win means to many of us who thought we could never achieve high office. I know what it means. I understand, because I feel it, too. But now, from this moment, let us join as one community. We are united in one goal in making this city the city that it can be, should be, might be, will be.”

Parker harkened back to her earliest days of involvement in civic issues, when she served as president of Neartown Association, saying that work gave her the insight she needed as she headed into public office, and especially an understanding of the human repercussion of politics.

“Hear me: The city is on your side,” she said. “I learned about the problems and the needs and hopes of our city at the neighborhood level. I understand what needs to be done to move us forward.”

After introducing her family, including her partner, Kathy Hubbard, their three children and her mother, Kay Parker, she made a post-campaign promise to those who live in Houston.

“I promise to give to citizens an administration of honesty, integrity and transparency,” she said. “The only special interest will be the public. We are in this together. We rise or fall together.”

Locke's concession
Locke conceded at the Hyatt Regency shortly after 10 p.m., celebrating the diverse coalition of ethnic groups, unions, business leaders and political heavyweights represented in his campaign.

In a short and gracious speech, he congratulated Parker and called on supporters to get behind the mayor-elect.

“Don't let past disappointments, past anger, past frustrations guide us into the future,” he said. “Let's unite and work together.”

In many ways, the race was framed by the financial anxieties voters have experienced over the past 18 months. At the polls, voter after voter cited Parker's experience watching over the city's $4 billion budget as a primary consideration in their choice.

Instead of being turned off by a politician reluctant to promise the world, voters responded to Parker's straight talk about all that might not be possible in the coming years.

Dozens of Houstonians interviewed by the Houston Chronicle said they appreciated her often blunt answers that made Locke's proposals seem vague.

She attacked his past as a general counsel to unpopular local governmental agencies and their debt problems, painting him as a “lawyer-lobbyist” in broad strokes that sought to cast doubt in the very arenas in which voters perceived Parker to have strengths.

Efforts against her
Although the general election heated up toward the end, Parker's sexuality never emerged until the field had been narrowed to two candidates. The race was also unusual for the relatively even split among four contenders in the first round of voting Nov. 3. To win, Parker and Locke had to earn the support of 70,000 voters — slightly more than 40 percent of those who cast their ballots in the general election.

Less than two weeks into the five-week runoff, social conservatives mounted a campaign to turn voters against Parker because of her sexual orientation, sending out mailers and e-mail blasts that cast the election as a referendum on gay rights.

While some voters acknowledged it was a matter of concern, many saw no problem voting for a gay candidate, especially given Parker's assurances that she did not intend to expand gay rights through her position as mayor.

Ray Hill, the dean of Houston's gay activists, saw victory in more ways than one.

“For me, it means 43 years of hard work has finally paid off,” Hill said. “For Houston, it means we have finally reached the point where being gay cannot be used as a wedge issue to divide the community and prevent us from reaching our aspirations. Annise Parker is not our mayor — she is the city's mayor.”

Chronicle reporters Moises Mendoza, Joe Holley, Mike Snyder and Mike Tolson contributed to this report.

Was it the rainy weather?
Apathy? Dislike for the candidates?
Low Turn Out at the Polls...

Whatever the reason, Houston voters shied away from the polls Saturday, leaving bored election workers reading magazines and hoping for a last-minute rush that didn't seem to materialize. The good news: most of the people who turned out were able to vote quickly and easily, officials said.

“No major issues,” said Hector de Leon, a spokesman for the Harris County Clerk's Office. The few problems reported had to do with people going to the wrong voting location or trying to vote when they don't live inside the city.

Despite the slow pace, the final day of the highly contested runoff between Annise Parker and Gene Locke had its interesting moments across the city.

• • • •

7 a.m., Precinct 541 at Fiesta Mart in the 8100 Block of Kirby

Among the voters waiting for the polls to open were some dog-tired medical students who never sleep anyway.

Chirag Patel, a 30-year-old student at University of Texas Medical School at Houston, picked up some friends at 6:45 a.m. for the short drive to the polls, continuing the tradition the buddies have had since the last election.

The goal: To be first in line on Election Day.

“This guy is weird, man,” said Rene Colorado, who Patel dragged along with him.

Though the friends were, indeed, among the first to arrive at Fiesta on Saturday morning, none of their names were on the voter rolls. They had gone to the wrong precinct.

They wouldn't be the first to vote after all.

“Too bad,” said a slightly forlorn Patel.

• • • •

8 a.m., Annise Parker's headquarters in the Heights

Annise Parker started her day with a breakfast taco, cracking jokes and cringing when her photo was snapped as she chewed.

“I wasn't expecting pictures of me shoving food into my mouth,” Parker said.

A few minutes later, a satisfied Parker expressed her optimism about the day.

“I know what races feel like and this one feels good,” Parker said.

• • • •

Noon, Precinct 439 at Bendwood Elementary

Looking slightly bored, Carolyn Tarleton passed time reading a magazine at the precinct where she worked as an election judge. She perked up when asked how voting had been that day.

Not so busy, she said. Five hours after opening she had welcomed only 150 voters.

Why so few?

“Maybe the weather,” she volunteered, also mentioning a lack of interest from voters as a possibility.

She said she hoped things would pick up later in the day. In the meantime though, there wasn't much to do. So she went back to the magazine.

• • • •

1 p.m., Community Center in east Houston

Gene Locke was ostensibly here to chat with some of Houston's older residents, but his family seemed to have come along for a little fun. They enjoyed their final day on the campaign trail in a chartered bus a staffer nicknamed the “Locke and Roll.”

The whole family barreled out, including Locke's mother, who had a campaign sticker stuck to her forehead and a Hawaiian lei around her neck.

Behind her, Locke's children excitedly shot pictures and videos with their cameras.

A confident Locke answered a few questions about the campaign, saying he was “proud.”

“I've had a lot of high fives and words of encouragement and words of support,” he said.

6:15 p.m., Precinct 483 at Thornwood Elementary

Chris Boyd finished up his first term as a poll worker at Precinct 483, where about 300 people voted.

Rather than spending his Saturday sleeping or playing on the computer, the 18-year-old woke up bright and early to help folks vote.

“I thought this would be boring, but it was kind of fun,” he said.

Next Saturday, however, the college student is voting to sleep late.

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