Revisiting Houston mayoral race with 3 weeks to go

October 15, 2013 8:19:58 AM PDT
A few weeks ago, I wrote that the set-up for the 2013 Houston mayor election made a runoff likely between the frontrunner incumbent, Annise Parker, and her principal challenger, Ben Hall. Mayor Parker barely avoided a runoff in 2011 against a smaller and weaker field, and with Hall able to largely self-fund a two million dollar campaign, the eight challengers seemed likely to get more than 50 percent of the total vote, this forcing a December election between the Mayor and Mr. Hall. Today, that seems less likely.

Why does Annise Parker now have, in my opinion, a better shot at winning a final term on Tuesday, November 5th? Partly, the general environment has helped the incumbent. Houston is doing well economically these days, in contrast to other cities, so short-term revenue is up, layoffs and cutbacks are in the rearview mirror, and underfunded pensions are a long-term problem that most voters are ignoring. And, the Mayor has run a well-funded, professional campaign, avoiding any serious missteps and getting through the one televised debate last week without notable damage. But most important has been the poor campaign her leading challenger has run.

One would have expected Ben Hall to run a much better campaign than we have seen to date. With early voting starting next week and the General Election just three weeks away, there is little time to reverse this performance. Hall appeared to have good potential as a challenger. Former Mayor Bob Lanier selected him as his first City Attorney so he should know his way around City Hall. Hall has been a very successful attorney since he left the City in 1994, and has the personal resources to fund an expensive race against the incumbent. And, as a credible African American candidate, he had the potential to build a sizeable base in Houston's Black community, which can contribute up to 30% of the total vote in municipal elections. If Hall could then add some support of Anglo conservatives who have never warmed to Mayor Parker, there was a path to victory ? probably not in November, but possibly in a December runoff.

What went wrong? This question especially interests me as a long-time teacher of political marketing at the University of Houston? Here are my thoughts:

(1) Ben Hall failed to solidify his base vote in the Black community before reaching out to white conservatives. My guess is this reflected a common misjudgment of many successful professionals who over-estimate how well known and liked they are among a demographic group they identify with. Houston has a large Black population, but it is increasingly diverse and scattered across town. Many of the Black professionals Ben Hall might attract now live outside the City of Houston in new suburban communities. As Gene Locke found out in 2009, mobilizing the Black vote in the City is much more challenging than was the case in 1991 when State Representative Sylvester Turner lost a close election to Bob Lanier.

(2) Hall also failed badly at the necessary due diligence every candidate for major office needs to undertake before running. Mr. Hall has been thinking of running for mayor for years, so it is especially surprising that he only settled his problems with the IRS and delinquent school taxes just before entering the 2013 race. Votes are generally forgiving of these types of problems, if they happened in the past, but not just before you want them to hand you the CEO job of a five billion dollar public enterprise. Clean up your act before you run is a no-brainer in elective politics.

(3) The challenger has spent his funds ineffectively. Hall has hired and fired highly compensated consultants; made large TV buys early and while buying no time for the crucial days when early voting is underway, thus conceding the airwaves to Mayor Parker just as moveable voters start making up their minds. And, he never defined a clear reason why voters should fire the incumbent. On the latter point, with Houston's economy booming, Hall's early argument that he could get the city moving again did not resonate with voters the way an all-out focus on the dreadful condition of many city streets likely would have. Since Ben Hall is spending his own, after tax dollars, the misuse of campaign resources is especially puzzling.

The bottom line: There may still be a runoff for mayor, but that now depends mostly on he size of the anti-Parker vote that the other challengers receive. And given the weak performance of the four other candidates who participated in the televised debate last week, I would not count on that.

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