Houston's recent election got international headlines for electing the first lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city. I recently broke down the vote from the run-off into Houston's 88 super neighborhoods and compared the results to previous elections. The analysis reveals a number of startling, and in some ways disturbing, patterns which may in the long run have more significance than electing the first lesbian mayor.
How few Houstonians voted in the run-off election is stunning. Only about 160,000 of Houston's nearly one million registered voters showed up, a miserable 16% turn out. This is down by about 60,000 voters from the most recent contested mayoral run-off election in 2003 between Bill White and Orlando Sanchez. About 220,000 people voted in that election, a 23% turnout. The poor turnout is even starker when compared to the 2001 run-off election between Lee Brown and Orlando Sanchez when 321,000 voted, a 32% turnout. In that election, Brown got more votes than Parker and Locke combined and Sanchez only got a few hundred less than their combined total.
Voter participation in city elections has been gradually declining for the last three decades, but the leg down in this election is staggering. Parker received about 82,000 votes, about 8% of the registered voters and about 3.7% of the City's population. On-line records go back to 1971. Back to that date, the City has never elected a mayor with this few votes. Also, the percentage of citizens electing her was just over a third of the average since 1971.
Turnout was down pretty much across the board in the Houston's neighborhoods. As one might expect predominantly Republic boxes were down substantially more than the City average. For example, Kingwood and Briar Forest were both off 39% from the 2003 run-off compared to the citywide average of 29%. Normally anemic Hispanic turnout was almost non-existent. In Denver Harbor, a Hispanic neighborhood which normally produces 1,500-2,000 voters, only 509 people voted. Notwithstanding that the Hispanic population of the City is probably over 1 million; it appears that only 5,000-10,000 Hispanics voted in the run-off. The only areas that came close to their 2003 levels were neighborhoods with substantial GLBT populations; however, even the Neartown/Montrose super neighborhood vote was down by 8%.
Perhaps the most puzzling lack of interest in the run-off came from the African-American community. While stalwart African-American neighborhoods like Acres Homes, Sunnyside and the 5th Ward were only off 15-25% compared to the 2003 run-off; that race had been considered a low water mark for African-American turnout. African-American turnout in the 2003 run-off had already tumbled by 30-40% after Sylvester Turner was eliminated in the November general election. In a number of the predominantly African-American neighborhoods, turnout in the 2009 run-off was nearly 60% was below the 2001 run-off between Brown and Sanchez.
Not yet. Houston has long prided itself on its enlightened race relations. And after Obama swept the City in 2008, many proclaimed Houston's post-racial era. However, sadly, the single most reliable predictor of how a person voted in the 2009 mayoral run-off was race. Ironically, Parker, a liberal Democrat, got only a handful of minority votes as African Americans overwhelming voted for Locke and Hispanic took a pass on the election. Of Parker's 82,000 votes it is likely that she received less than 10,000 minority votes. Locke received a comparatively large white vote as about half the Republicans broke his way. It seems likely that these voters were the social conservatives that objected to the Parker's life style. But even so, probably only about 30% of Locke's vote was not African-American. It is somewhat ironic that it was social conservatives as opposed to white liberals that were more willing to cross the race line in casting their vote.
Can a Minority be Elected Mayor in Houston?
When Lee Brown was elected in 1997, many pundits opined that with Houston's growing diversity, it had seen its last white mayor. However, the early reports of the demise of white candidates for mayor have obviously proved to be premature with the election of White and now Parker. The most fundamental reason for the re-ascendancy of white candidates has been the declining minority participation in city elections. While the City that is about 2/3 minority by population, minorities probably only cast about 35% of the votes in the 2009 run-off. And a majority of the second largest minority voting bloc, Hispanics, voted for the white candidate. The same is true of the 2003 run-off when African-American voters chose White over Sanchez.
The only scenario that seems likely to return a minority to the Mayor's office is if a minority can get into a run-off with a highly partisan Republican and turn the race into Democrat vs. Republican contest. That is, of course, precisely how Lee Brown got elected in 1997 and re-elected in 2001. However, it is becoming increasing difficult for a minority to reach the run-off. Before 2003, it was generally assumed that a credible African-American candidate was guaranteed a place in a run-off. But with the African-American vote declining faster than any other group that is clearly no longer the case as Turner failed to make the run-off in 2003 and Locke made into the run-off in 2009 only because white voters split their votes among three other candidates.
The prospects for a Hispanic mayoral seem particularly remote. Notwithstanding Hispanic rise in a whole array of social and business settings, for some reason, the rank and file Hispanic community in Houston is simply not motivated to vote especially in City elections. Without a reliable base, the task of putting together a run-off tally for a Hispanic candidate is particularly problematic.
Why Don't Voters Care about the City Elections?
It is somewhat of a conundrum that voters care so little about the City elections. There is widespread media coverage of the City's activities and the services provided by the City more directly affect an average citizen's life than any other level of government. Many theories have been put forth, from the fact that most citizens are satisfied with the City services to term limits to the lack of quality candidates. None seem to provide a satisfactory explanation. However, we need to find one. It cannot be good for the City in the long run for only 8% of its registered voters and 3% of its citizens to be selecting our mayor.