Mayoral hopefuls have a 'greener' view

October 21, 2009 11:58:02 AM PDT
The nation's fourth-largest city, once dominated by Big Oil, is warming to greener options as it chooses a new mayor.Voters in sprawling Houston, a city crisscrossed by clogged freeways and freewheeling development, are to pick from a low-key field of mayoral candidates that are focusing on public transit, regulated development and environmentally friendly policies.

The Nov. 3 election "really does reflect a major consensus that is surprising for Houston, a consensus for planning, a need for light rail, a need to move beyond oil and gas," said Stephen Klineberg, director of the Urban Research Center of Houston at Rice University. "It's reflecting a real evolution of a city reinventing itself for the 21st century."

No clear favorite has emerged in the race to succeed Bill White, who served three two-year stints that included a high-profile role embracing more than 150,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in 2005. White, barred by law from another term, plans to run for the 2010 Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate if Kay Bailey Hutchison resigns to run for governor.

The candidates for mayor are former city attorney Gene Locke; three-term city controller Annise Parker; urban planner Peter Brown, an architect and two-term city councilman; and retired Air Force officer Roy Morales, a county school trustee. Early voting began Oct. 19. If no one wins a majority in November, the top two finishers will meet in a runoff, likely in December.

Locke, 61, would be Houston's second black mayor. Parker, 52, would be the city's first openly gay mayor and second woman in the job. Morales, 53, would be its first Hispanic mayor, but is considered a long shot. Brown, 72, who is white, has the most money to spend -- much of it loaned from his wife, oil-field services heiress Anne Schlumberger.

Although the ballot is nonpartisan, Locke, Parker and Brown are Democrats. Morales has tried to distinguish himself as a conservative Republican. Houston, which President Barack Obama carried in 2008, is a largely Democratic city, although the surrounding suburbs are conservative. Houston is about 25 percent black and one-third Hispanic. Its gay population is estimated at about 60,000.

The winner will lead almost 2 1/2 million residents -- up nearly 14 percent from 2000, as Houston has weathered the recession better than many cities. But Houston hasn't been totally immune to economic woes: Unemployment of 4.1 percent a year ago is almost twice that now. And declining sales and property tax revenues in a city with no income tax mean the new mayor could inherit what Parker has estimated to be a shortfall of more than $50 million in the $2 billion budget that took effect July 1.

It's been a polite campaign, partly because the four contenders have a lot in common.

"The major candidates do not disagree much on the major issues facing the city, nor have they gone after each other personally," said Richard Murray, a University of Houston political scientist.

Parker has said she'd help neighborhoods enforce their deed restrictions -- Houston's version of zoning of property for particular uses. Locke advocates expansion of the 7.5-mile light rail system and "building green" through developer incentives for environmentally friendly construction.

Brown, who has made "smart growth" the centerpiece of his campaign far more than his competitors, said 100 square miles of undeveloped Houston offer an opportunity for smart development, and that the city should emphasize creation of neighborhoods where people can live, work and shop. Morales favors reducing government and implementing a property tax cut to stimulate the economy. They've all talked about building on White's successes, promised to fight crime and guide Houston out of the recession.

"I'm the only one in this race who's conducted tough audits, identifying millions of dollars in savings, money that's not working for you in parks, in libraries, in neighborhoods, in the police department," Parker said.

She is looking to follow the path of Kathy Whitmire, who used the controller's job as a springboard to become Houston's first female mayor in 1982. Locke, the former city attorney, has attracted endorsements and financial backing from business leaders, cashing in on his three-year tenure in the 1990s during the reign of popular mayor Bob Lanier, who is supporting him. Locke has continued to cultivate city insiders since then as legal counsel to several government agencies.

"We get things done in Houston," he says in a TV commercial. Locke raised nearly $1 million over the summer and had more than $1 million on hand for the final weeks, compared to Parker's $223,000. Brown, the urban planner, was far ahead in cash, with $2 million ready to spend in the late push to Election Day. He touted his history of supporting energy conservation and environmental issues on the City Council. His plan, he said, would provide "a clear business strategy and a dedicated business-friendly approach to government."

Morales, by contrast, had roughly $4,600 on hand in his bid. Klineberg said a signature issue like mass transit, once a campaign loser in Houston, represented a "paradigm shift."

"That's a striking kind of new consensus in this city reflective in the mayor's race that would have been inconceivable years ago," he said. "I think the reason for that is (what) Houston cares about -- more than anything in the world -- is success, prosperity, money. The business community is not undergoing a religious conversion. This is enlightened self-interest."

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