Image of Houston's City Hall.

On November 5, the City of Houston will hold elections to choose a mayor, controller, and 16 council members to serve four-year terms from January 2020 to January 2024.

While late challengers could join a race or could switch to other positions by August 26, all signs suggest that with a handful of exceptions, the principal players are already on the campaign field. 

The marquee race is for mayor.  Houston has a strong mayor system where the mayor is endowed with considerable legal and administrative power.  This contrasts with Texas’ other large cities, which employ variants of the council-manager form of government, where the mayor’s role and power are largely symbolic, and the city's day-to-day operations are handled by a city manager appointed by the city council.

Mayor Sylvester Turner was elected in a 2015 runoff, narrowly defeating his rival, Bill King, with 51% of the vote to 49% for King.  Prior to being elected mayor, Turner served as a Democratic state representative for 17 years (City of Houston elections are non-partisan with no party labels or affiliations on the ballot).  He had previously run for mayor in 1991, when he lost to Bob Lanier in a runoff, 53% to 47%.  If re-elected, the 2019-23 term would be Turner’s last due to the two-term limit placed on City of Houston elected officials.

To date, more than a half dozen candidates have announced mayoral campaigns, though only three of these candidates have a realistic chance of victory.  In addition to Turner, Bill King and Tony Buzbee have launched serious mayoral bids.  At the present time, the race remains Turner’s to lose. 

However, both Buzbee and King have hit Turner hard over his handling of the ongoing saga related to firefighter pay parity and Proposition B.  They also have raised questions about Turner’s involvement in Houston’s endemic pay-to-play system. This is where developers, vendors and others whose economic livelihood is affected by the City of Houston government donate money to the mayor and other elected officeholders in the hope of receiving preferential treatment.

In contrast to the spirited mayoral race, it is crickets in the City Controller contest where incumbent Chris Brown has yet to draw a credible challenger.  This lack of opposition is most likely due to Brown’s image across the political spectrum as an honest broker who over the past three and a half years has earned the public’s trust as a reliable watchdog over city finances.

The City of Houston uses a mixed electoral system to select its 16 city council members.  The city is divided into 11 single-member districts (A through K) with every City of Houston resident eligible to cast a vote in only one district election.  The remaining five at-large council members are elected city-wide in five distinct contests (At-Large 1, At-Large 2, At-Large 3, At-Large 4, At-Large 5) with every City of Houston voter eligible to cast a vote in all five electoral contests.  As is the case with the mayoral and controller elections, if no candidate receives 50 percent + 1 of the vote on November 5, the top two finishers will compete in a December runoff election.

The mixed electoral system was adopted in Houston in 1979 to settle a voting-rights lawsuit against the prior system under which all city council members were elected at large.  The logic was that the use of single-member districts would allow for better representation of historically underrepresented ethnic/racial minorities.  In the case of African Americans, that has turned out to be the case, with 4 of the 16 (25 percent) current council members being African Americans in a city whose population is approximately 25 percent African American.  The same positive impact on descriptive representation has not however occurred for Latinos, as only 1 of the 16 (6 percent) is Latino in a city whose population is approximately 45 percent Latino.

Historically incumbent council members have had a strong advantage in City of Houston elections due to their superior name recognition and campaign resources, The latter is largely a product of the pay-to-play nature of campaign finance in city politics.

With one possible exception (District F where incumbent Steve Le, is running for re-election), the principal action will, therefore, occur in the races where no incumbent is running for re-election, which at the present time are At-Large 5 along with Districts A, B, C, and J.  This could change if current incumbents decide between now and August 29 to run for other offices (thus creating open seats), such as Council Member Dwight Boykins (District D) running for mayor or Council Member Amanda Edwards (At-Large 4) running for the U.S. Senate.

The open At-Large 5 race (the one highly competitive council race in which all Houstonians are eligible to vote) has a double-digit number of competitors to date, with leading contenders including Sallie Alcorn, Marvin McNeese, Letitia Plummer, Sonia Rivera, and Ashton P. Woods

Alcorn is a long-time city hall employee and insider who enjoys strong support from many members of the Houston liberal elite and is likely to enjoy a substantial advantage in campaign funds over her rivals.  McNeese is a college professor and political outsider whose campaign is focused on bringing a fresh and independent perspective to city government.  Plummer is a successful dentist and entrepreneur and a founder of the Brazoria chapter of the League of Women Voters.  Rivera is a local entrepreneur who has a compelling life story as the child of immigrant farm laborers and would be a conservative voice on the city council in areas ranging from public safety to finance.  Woods is a local civil rights activist who co-founded, and presently is the lead organizer of, Black Lives Matter Houston.

At the present time, there are very competitive races in Districts B, C, and J.

Fifth Ward-Kashmere Gardens-East Houston (District B) features a large contingent of compelling candidates to replace the term-limited Jerry Davis.  They include Robin Anderson, Cynthia Bailey, Alvin Byrd, Tarsha Jackson, and Renee Jefferson Smith.

Meyerland-River Oaks-Lazybrook/Timbergrove (District C) also has a large contingent of compelling candidates to replace the term-limited Ellen Cohen.  They include Nick Hellyar, Abbie Kamin, Greg Meyers, Bob Nowak, and Mary Jane Smith.

Gulfton-Sharpstown-Westwood (District J) possesses a slightly less crowded field of compelling candidates than Districts B and C to replace the term-limited Mike Laster.  They include Nelvin Adriatico, Jim Bigham, Freddie Cuellar, Edward Pollard, and Sandra Rodríguez.

Mark Jones is the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, where he works as a political science fellow. He is also a professor of political science and the director of the Master of Global Affairs program. He is also a Kinder Institute fellow