Mayoral Election Retrospective



In 1981, Kathy Whitmire was elected Mayor of Houston, defeating the “good ole’ boy” system for the first time. Her winning coalition of inner-loop progressives, west side women, gays, African-Americans and Hispanics was a first for the City.

She took office (prior to the adoption of term limits) and served for 10 years. She faced constant criticism and tough opponents most every election cycle. She was ultimately defeated for re-election in 1991 by members of the same coalition, particularly African-American voters (backing Sylvester Turner), inner-loop business leaders and west-side voters who chose the comforting Bob Lanier to move the city forward. Lanier was a Democrat but someone that the more conservative leadership of town trusted to do the right thing for business. Lanier was a much-loved and very popular Mayor with the voters.

As Lanier completed his six years in office, the voters looked to elect the first African-American Mayor in Lee P. Brown. Brown defeated the conservative business candidate, Rob Mosbacher. He put together much the same coalition that had elected Whitmire. Brown was plagued with unpopularity and competitive re-election campaigns during his tenure.

As Brown’s six year term came to close, the voters reflected back on the Lanier days and decided to go with another more conservative, business-oriented candidate in Bill White. White was also a Democrat but brought a sense of security and trust to the voters. Like Lanier, he was immensely popular during his tenure.

From White, we looked again to the original Whitmire coalition and elected our first openly gay candidate for Mayor with Annise Parker. Parker became Mayor during one of the City’s toughest economic times. Like Whitmire, she has had to make hard decisions to keep the city afloat. Parker narrowly won re-election in 2011 against non-competitive candidates. City politicos are in full gossip mode that Parker will face a much tougher and serious opponent in 2013 and her popularity ratings are in constant flux.

Given this 30 year retrospective, we see a pattern begin to emerge. We elect a “first” Mayor – Whitmire, first female; Brown, first African-American; Parker, first openly gay. We respond to these landmark elections by comforting ourselves with a more standard bearer type of candidate.

Some people would say that 30 years does not a trend make but the political scientist in me considers it worth analysis. The data set is measurable and we are even 20+ years into term limited elections. Do you see the pattern?

It is important to note that while Brown faced tough re-election campaigns, no incumbent Mayor has been defeated since the adoption of term-limits.

One thing is certain, a Democrat will be Mayor of Houston for the foreseeable future.