It's late October in Houston. That means, of course, the weather's nicer, the Texans are sucking, the Rockets haven't flamed out yet. Typical October.
There are some things going on this month you might not be aware of, though. One, there's a mayor's race going on. And two, it's the weirdest fricking mayor's race in years.
Houston's mayoral politics have fallen into a pretty standard pattern: Once every six years, there's an open race for mayor, full of sound and fury; then two meaningless re-election campaigns by the incumbent until term limits force him or her out.
So the only excitement generally comes every six years. Except this year.
Bill White can't run for re-election, so the chance to be mayor for (presumably) the next six years is there for anyone to take. Usually that means a spirited, high-profile campaign full of ugliness, false charges, boneheaded mistakes, all that sort of fun and hilarity.
Houston, after all, has had some colorful mayoral campaigns, term limits or not.
Who can forget Wayne Dolcefino torpedoing, via a friendly leak, the runoff campaign of Sylvester Turner with a Hollywood-esque faked-death insurance scam with dark undertones? (The libel suit tied up courts for years.) Or Louie Welch saying into an open microphone that his cure for AIDS was to "Shoot all the queers"?
This year, there's an ostensibly flammable mix of candidates: A black guy, a rich old white guy and a lesbian.
So you have to ask yourself: Why is this year's race so goddamn borrring?
"I've been watching [mayor's races] since 1981 and I've never seen anything like this," says political pro Nancy Sims. "It's a very strange mayor's race."
Marc Campos, another longtime politico, can only shake his head in disbelief at how low-key, nice and under-the-radar the campaign has been. Not only is no candidate really attacking another, he says, they're not even promoting themselves.
"There's no outreaching going on," he says. "I haven't gotten a single piece of mail from any of the campaigns, and I'm definitely the kind of person they should be targeting — I vote in every election."
(We guess, since you likely haven't been paying any attention, that you need an introduction to the key players. They are: City Controller Annise Parker, former city attorney Gene Locke, and City Councilman Peter Brown. Together they generate all the charismatic star power of Roy Morales, the über-longshot Republican who's also running, kinda.)
The strange race will likely lead to a very, very strange election night: No one will have any idea what the outcome will be. There won't be just the usual hedging about turnout and other factors, there will be widespread throwing up of hands and saying, "Me, I got no idea." No one's taking any polls — or at least no one's releasing, even by leaks, any poll info — so as voters go to the booth the majority of them might still be classified as "undecided."
Whether that means they'll go and eventually force themselves to pick someone, or stay home and at some point later discover "Oh yeah, there was a mayor's race today," no one knows.
What we do know is that 2009 will go down as one of the most remarkable open-seat mayor's races in a long, long time. And it's not exactly the "entertaining" kind of remarkable, either.
What's causing the ennui? Let's take a look at five key factors.
1. The Public Personalities of the Candidates: Dull, Duller & Dullest
Let's reflect for a minute on just what we have here: A corporate lawyer, an architect and an accountant-type.
Now, if you had Michael Clayton, Howard Roark from The Fountainhead and...and...and some heroic, dashing accountant, you'd have yourself a race. Instead you have three people who pretty much, at least in public — and that's all that counts, of course — fit the stereotype.
They've fought against it, of course. Locke's TV ads featured his Afro'd self as he fought The Man back in the '60s. (We can imagine the discussions on just how long to leave that Angry Black Man image onscreen — determining what was the magic amount of time to a) give Locke street cred but not b) scare away elderly white folk.)
Parker's TV ads featured her fraternally patting cops on the shoulder as they investigated what looked like it might be an incredibly gruesome triple murder in a Heights bungalow, perhaps offering to throw out the damn rule book and chase down the perp herself if that's what it took.
And Brown? His commercials were virtual aerobics videos, as he vigorously showed just how energetic elderly architects could be in their endless pursuit of a bold new plan for Houston.
Still, none could escape the facts: Locke sounded like a guy telling a board of directors about an exciting new court ruling that gave the go-ahead to limiting their liability in slip-and-fall tort cases; Parker had all the electricity of a CFO struggling with a PowerPoint presentation on new tax law; and Brown seemed to be in a 1950s classroom film entitled Architecture: Gateway to Excitement!
It's not like they are inherently dull people with no tales to tell: Locke did indeed fight against the establishment back when that took some balls; Parker was an out lesbian back when being so meant making yourself a target for abuse and ridicule; and Brown...raised a family in Briargrove. (Back when Briargrove was the mean streets, maybe?)
But it just so happens that the public face they all present is stolid, nose-to-the-grindstone, no-drama get-the-job-done-edness. And that doesn't make for fireworks.
Yeah, we know it's a sign of Houston's maturity that such things as gayness or blackness aren't even much of an under-the-radar issue. No one's sending out stealth mailings talking about how Locke's daughter is named Attica, or Parker is trying to impose her homosexuality on innocent schoolkids, or Brown is an out-of-touch rich guy.
But wouldn't it be more exciting if they did? Maybe not those specific kinds of stealth mailings, but if your biggest differences are biographical, exploit that stuff.
Locke ad: Yes, We Can (Too): U2's "City of Blinding Lights" plays as clips show the old Obama headquarters across from The Breakfast Klub, now festooned as it is with the "Hope" mural surrounded by Locke signs. Lovingly focus for a long time on the Obama mural. Then focus on it a bit more. Keep it there. "We are the change that guy said we could be" is your slogan. Fade to black. Black as in Obama.
Parker ad: The L Word: This ad runs exclusively on ESPN, TNT and during Jimmy Kimmel Live! Neve Campbell and Denise Richards douse their naked bodies with champagne in a clip from Wild Things as a husky female voice-over asks, "Are you ready for Houston's first lesbian mayor?" A fast crawl on the bottom of the screen lists all the financial reforms Parker has instituted as controller. For the gay guys watching, we guess.
Brown ad: I'm the White Guy: In distorted slow-motion, clips of Al Sharpton and Rosie O'Donnell, both screaming about something, fill the screen. Cut to shot of Brown sitting with his (white, straight) family listening to Clint Black and George Strait (subtle, eh?). Close-up on Brown as he ponders ruefully just what is so wrong with the kind of America we all loved watching in Leave It to Beaver, (Note: Might need to substitute another sit-com so as not to seem to be endorsing Parker.)
Do that, and you'd have a lively mayor's race. Instead we just have people running on the issues, and not making personal attacks or flagrant appeals to identity politics, and we've got dullness.
2. Policy Differences: Good Luck Finding Any
Not only are all the candidates low-key, they really don't disagree with each other all that much.
"I've moderated something like 14 forums, and there are just twitches of differences between the candidates," Sims says.
What makes it worse is that the positions they all share are basically a belief that the status quo isn't so bad in Houston. Each one has their little tweak or two they'd make, but no one is attacking the White administration for running things into the ground, or yelling that it's time for a change.
No one has found an issue that sets them apart from the others. Locke has tried to say the other two are part of the city government, but no one is seeing him as some outsider who's going to make wholesale changes.
As for the other two, they've tried to talk about Locke's work with the agency that built the city's sports facilities, but that too is not anything that's sticking.
"There's no clear-cut going after one another," Campos notes.
Debates, in fact, got so boring that the candidates agreed to cancel a whole bunch of them. When candidates get bored hearing themselves speak, you know it's a crisis of torpidity.
Media accounts of the various forums that have been held don't get very far in their attempts to make the events interesting.
Here is an actual opening from one Houston Chronicle story:
Mayoral candidate Gene Locke suggested the Houston Police Department get out of the jail business to put more officers on the street during the latest in a series of debates Monday, while one of his opponents, City Controller Annise Parker said she believes the Metropolitan Transit Authority is "cannibalizing" its public bus system for light rail.
Those comments were among the livelier statements made before a packed house at the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians' facility in southwest Houston during a two-hour face-off moderated and televised by KRIV Fox 26 News.
"Cannibalizing"?!?! Is that some secret code to appeal to the black-hating voters?!
Alas, no. And if you've ever wondered what it's like to see a reporter throw up his hands in utter despair, look no further than the "Those comments were among the livelier statements" in this story. We can only assume the note to his editor saying, "I tried, goddammit" got deleted before it hit print.
Not to mention, "Hey, you try making this stuff sound exciting."
The Houston-area blogosphere is filled, of course, with angry, passionate people screaming that the city faces a crushing slate of problems demanding immediate tax cuts, the banning of anything resembling planning, and more tax cuts, mostly to get rid of rail projects.
Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for everyone except Roy Morales, they don't live in the city. So they don't have to be appealed to.
But when every candidate is busy agreeing with each other, you're going to be enduring a pretty tedious campaign.
On the other hand, at least they agreed to stop meeting for debates.
3. There Is No Overriding Issue in Houston This Year
In a sense, you can't blame the candidates for agreeing with each other so much — there's just not that one Big Enchilada issue out there requiring a bold position.
No team owner is demanding a new palace to keep him in town; that issue won't come up for another ten or 15 years (When we will again bend over and give the relevant team owner whatever he wants, if we can possibly get to his office through all that crowded, amazing commercial development surrounding Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center or Reliant Stadium.)
Metro's light rail continues to inspire untold bandwidth meticulously describing how it's a white elephant, but again, no one is listening.
Crime is crime, pollution needs to be addressed, developers shouldn't build high-rises in rich neighborhoods but can build them anywhere else, traffic needs to get better, yadda yadda yadda.
"We need a monorail," says one observer who wants anonymity, referring to the epic Bob Lanier-Kathy Whitmire race.
No one's proposing a monorail, though. So the bickering among the candidates is at the margins. Again: Boooorrrring.
Here is Peter Brown's campaign describing his huge win at a recent debate: "Throughout, Brown returned to a clear philosophy underlying his ideas: making government more efficient and effective — doing more with less."
Here's Annise Parker's campaign: "My goal as Mayor is to make sure we have the best trained, best equipped and best paid police officers in the state...To that end: I will protect the police department budget in this economic downturn."
Gene Locke: "Transportation is about choices. Houstonians should be able to choose between driving on uncongested highways and traveling on efficient mass transit, including buses, commuter rail and light rail."
Gee, let's attack those ideas: No!! Do less with more!! Who needs police? What about my choice to travel on a congested highway?
Like it or not — and there are plenty of people who grumble endlessly that Bill White got a free pass on criticism for his administration — Houstonians are simply not worked up about anything in particular.
You could go back to the 1950s, the '40s, the '20s, and people would be bitching about crime and traffic. Those are chronic default concerns when there is no big issue.
While each candidate has a specific program addressing the various concerns, there's not really a whole lot of difference between the platforms. And if you want to insure a sleep-inducing campaign, that's a must.
4. No One Has Much Money to Spend Campaigning
The economic crunch has hit the political world, even in relatively well-off Houston. Checkbooks that once would be opened are now being held back on pleas of poverty.
The big players are still in the game, of course. But when the outcome is so uncertain, not everyone's leaping on uncertain bandwagons.
It looks like $5 million or so has been spent so far, observers say, with a lot of that coming from Brown financing himself. That's compared to $10 million or so spent during the last open-seat election in 2003.
It took a very long time for television ads to get on the air, with Locke being last of all. And even once they started, they didn't exactly blanket the airwaves. Any Houstonian with a halfway-lively clicker finger could very well have missed any of the spots.
There is a school of thought that says even more ads wouldn't make much difference if the candidates all seem the same and no one is being aggressive for fear of backlash.
As generic as the ads have been so far, it's easy to agree with that assessment.
Campos thinks the phenomenon is not limited to Houston this election cycle.
"I was just interviewed by an out-of-town reporter doing a wrap-up of off-year elections," he says, "and he told me throughout the major cities having elections it's the same. People are just worried about the [national] economy, and they're not focused on local elections. And none of the candidates has the kind of money they're used to seeing in a campaign."
More money might make for a more exciting race, but maybe not, as the next point shows.
5. None of the Candidates Think It Would Be the End of the World If Their Opponent Got Elected
Think of some of the Houston mayoral races of the past: Orlando Sanchez taking on Lee Brown in the rare re-election contest; Welch, the epitome of the old-school Houston, facing a damn modern woman like Kathy Whitmire; a hard-core Republican like Robert Mosbacher trying to win in a Democratic city.
Ain't nothing like that going on now.
"It's a very strange mayor's race. I think it's truly because of the similarity of the candidates," Sims says. "There's no one to really set themselves apart and fire passion because you don't want them to be mayor. I mean, if you look back on it, that's been the case for years — there's always been one side or the other that could get extremely passionate for one reason or another. But here you have three kind of, you know, nice, boring people."
Okay, but surely they're being told by advisers to set themselves apart, right?
"I think they are, but none of them think the other is awful enough" to attack vigorously, she says.
In blunt terms, Locke and Brown aren't going to bring up Parker being a lesbian, because of possible backlash (and, of course, because they're not homophobic).
Parker and Brown won't bring up Locke's race because of likely backlash (and, of course, because they're not racist).
And Locke and Parker won't bring up Brown's age because of possible backlash (and, of course, because they're not ageist.)
So everyone's being really nice, because a) They are nice; b) Their opponents aren't crazy, in their eyes; and c) Going negative at this point might look desperate and backfire.
That's really terrific for the idea that — even in this time of wailing about out-of-control, over-the-top political dialogue — an important election can be held without resorting to tasteless attack ads. Just don't ask us to pay attention.
But can't we be at least a little passive-aggressive? In the hope of fostering voter turnout, we again offer some potential ads:
Ads Against Locke: The former city attorney opened the door to his radical days by showing a brief shot of himself back in the day. If an opponent wanted to further explore that, who's to say it's unfair? Some shots of Huey P. Newton with a machine gun, the Rodney King riots, some reference to Camp Logan ("Who says it can't happen here?"). The rap soundtrack to the ad will have to be soft enough to keep grandma from changing the channel, but harsh enough to scare her. Rick Ross, we're thinking.
Ads Against Parker: To the strains of "It's Raining Men," a montage of kissing gay guys, happy that they're able to actually marry the person they want to spend the rest of their life with, scares the bejeezus out of everyone outside the Loop. Shots of the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco, of course, heavy on the leathermen. Cut to an innocent young kindergartner toddling into class, where an announcer tells us he will be exposed to The Gay Agenda.
Ads Against Brown: Perry Como music. A semi-coherent member of The Greatest Generation extolling "that lively youngster Peter Brown." Cut to a shot of Brown talking on an oversized cell phone, while the theme from the ads for the Jitterbug cell-phone-for-oldsters plays. Super-slow-motion, black-and-white shot of Brown getting out of a chair. Concerned voice-over: "Peter Brown has served Houston honorably. Doesn't he deserve a rest?"
That'd increase turnout, we bet.
As for what's going to happen, no one's really sure.
Usually by this point, one campaign or another has gotten poll data that it's happy about, and it surreptitiously leaks it to reporters to garner some momentum. None of that has happened so far.
Official polls show close to two-thirds of the voters having no favorite. That is pretty amazing just weeks before a high-profile race like mayor of the fourth-largest city in the country. A poll by the Houston Chronicle released this past weekend shows "I don't know" leading any of the candidates.
To political junkies, the lack of polling info is telling. If someone were separating from the pack, they'd be sure to get that news out, even in mumbled "don't tell anyone" conversation.
So there's a good chance that Election Day will come with a huge swath of Houstonians unsure of whom they want for their next mayor. If not completely unsure there was even a mayor's race going on until they were contacted by a pollster.
"I think it will come down to voters in the city council districts that are having hot races," Sims says. Those are Republican-leaning districts, though, so where are those voters going to go? (Hmmm....old white guy?)
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To some degree, the small-wattage campaign means the old mechanical laws of low-turnout elections will apply: Whoever can get their voters to the booth will survive to the runoff. But there is a very good chance no one will have any idea who that will be come the evening of November 4.
So buckle yourself in for a roller-coaster race.
Or, more likely, just ignore the whole thing and find out too late that you have a new mayor.