There is no doubt this is my favorite political season. Every two years, the Texas Legislature meets directly in front of the City of Houston elections. This time, the wide-open mayor’s race follows a complete changing of the guard in Austin. It is extraordinary to begin the Legislative Session with a new Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, and Comptroller – Speaker Straus is the only returning state official.
In the city, the beginning of the year brought a spurt of announcements for the Mayor’s race. Chris Bell announced on Sunday. The field is expected to include State Representative Sylvester Turner, City Councilmembers Oliver Pennington and Stephen Costello, Chronicle columnist and former Kemah Mayor Bill King, and Annise Parker’s last challenger, Ben Hall. The will he or won’t he category includes Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, former police chief and current city councilman C.O. Bradford, and investment banker Paul Hobby.
The pie of city voters is only so big; so, many of these candidates will attempt to draw from the same pool of voters. The sniping has already begun. Pennington and King will seek the conservative voters. Costello will, once again, pretend that he is conservative and also vie for those votes. Westside Republicans certainly put Parker in office and that fact is lost on no one.
I often tell folks that Gene Locke, Parker’s first mayoral opponent, was badly damaged and lost the election because of Republican voters in the runoff – Locke did not win one Republican precinct. A lot has happened since that election and, needless to say, Parker has proved to be a huge disappointment and most Republicans have buyer’s remorse. The Locke-Parker race highlighted the social conservatives against the city’s moderates and the socos were crushed. It is important to unite as conservatives to elect a new mayor. While I do not think that Houston can elect a conservative mayor, with influence on conservative policy, conservatives can control the election, especially in the runoff. See Parker v. Locke for reference.
Some things to watch in the upcoming city elections . . . First, Pennington will have a base in District G although he has a few drawbacks: age, liberal votes on council (think Renew Houston), and the fact that, as a bond lawyer, he has made a living by talking politicians into spending money they don’t have. Bill King is likely to go after similar voters and has hired an impressive team backed up by Sue Walden’s fundraising skills. Bill is well known in the community and it will be interesting to see if he can transfer his Chronicle column notoriety into votes. Although he is back courting the conservative community, I do not see Stephen Costello as a viable candidate in the conservative community. Costello, an engineer, was the author and chief promoter of Renew Houston (aka Prop1 or the rain tax). Six years ago, Costello led people to believe he was a conservative; but, in contrast, immediately after he was elected, orchestrated a plan to implement the Prop1 charter amendment implementing the largest tax increase in Houston history. All the while, Costello has been enriching himself through the city’s coffers. More on Costello at a later date.
The democrats will be fighting over their more traditional bases, the African American and white/Jewish voters. Jewish voters vote in all elections, including the runoffs. The City elections are on a Saturday and this can be tricky since Saturday is Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Candidates with a good plan for the Jewish voters will do well. If Adrian Garcia gets in the race, the Hispanic community will vote for him.
Based on what I have seen so far, no candidate, other than Bill King, seems to want to tackle the huge city pension obligation problem. The city has pushed the pension issue to Austin because no local politician wants to be on the wrong side of the police and fire unions.
The city has one of the best lobby teams in Austin and they have never been directed to work on or solve this problem. Obviously, this issue will be a hot topic in the coming year. The pensions are bankrupting the city and the unions are scaring the heck out of our state reps. If you don’t believe me, ask Jim Murphy why he won’t support local control of our pensions and tell me he does not look like an Iraqi jihadist that has just been informed he is to be in a gunfight with Chris Kyle later that day.
The issue is local control of pensions. The police and fire unions went flying up to Austin seeking protection for their pensions. This maneuver has often been described as seeking protection from mayors, but it is really protection for the unions themselves. Over the years, the unions have had a slow creep of protectionist legislation. Now is the time for conservative philosophy to help Houston. We need conservative approaches on the pension issues. We also need someone to actually fix our pockmarked streets. Our roads are in horrible shape, even though Costello and Parker promised a dedicated lockbox for Prop1, which has turned into a joke. Prop1 has been used to build bike trails and pay janitors. The road repair has been non-existent and City of Houston streets have never been worse. Make no mistake, our streets are in horrible condition because of lack of maintenance. The Prop1 money has been diverted to salaries and benefits. When you see that police and fire endorsement, remember that the city is already billions in debt.
The Legislature is already in full swing. Issues are dying as quick as the campaign promises were made. There is a lot of change which means more disappointment and contempt than usual. Tea Party voters have already learned by the Straus election that Austin is tough on hope. It is even tougher on reform because of a very disciplined lobby pushing back the other way, mostly unseen. The City of Houston is Texas’ largest City. We have a chance at pension reform but our politicians need to grow a spine. Understand the unions gave heavily to Dan Patrick and Abbot, hold them accountable.