There are two ways to analyze the implications of last week's election on the December 1 mayoral runoff campaign for incumbent Lee P. Brown and At-Large City Councilman Orlando Sanchez.
From a statistical angle, Brown could compare the results to his tough runoff victory in 1997 against millionaire Republican Rob Mosbacher and say, "What, me worry?"
Conversely, from the measure of campaign emotion and momentum, a former member of Brown's campaign team believes Sanchez has the edge and the mayor faces a "frightening" challenge.
Almost everyone claimed surprise at Sanchez's powerful showing. He scored well in westside Republican precincts and eastside Hispanic redoubts, burying opponent Chris Bell and trailing the incumbent by fewer than 5,000 votes. At first glance, it looked like the Cuban-born challenger was forging a groundbreaking Houston political coalition of conservative whites and Hispanics, a group that might be more potent than Brown's alliance of African-Americans, liberal Anglos and a share of the Latino vote.
Before crowning Houston's new political order in the 21st century, however, consider political history. In 1997 Brown actually got a smaller percentage of the vote, 42.2 percent, in the first round against a field that included Mosbacher, then-controller George Greanias, and Gracie Saenz and Helen Huey, two councilmembers at that time. Saenz drew from the Hispanic community while Huey mined mostly Republican Anglos on her home turf in northwest Houston.
The big difference between then and now is that Brown's main opponent, Mosbacher, got only 28.8 percent going into the runoff. Third-place finisher Greanias got 17 percent, only one point more than his counterpart Bell last week.
Add the other candidates' totals to Mosbacher's, and the eerie result is an almost exact parallel between the first rounds in 1997 and 2001:
|Brown: 42.2||Brown: 42.52|
|Mosbacher, et al.: 40.8||Sanchez: 40.89|
|Greanias: 17||Bell: 16.13|
So the good news for Brown: If the past is really a prologue to the future, there's no reason yet for Brown's folks in City Hall to start packing their bags.
"One shouldn't panic," counsels Brown consultant Dan McClung of Campaign Strategies. "Sanchez is a conservative Republican Hispanic. He might have some potential for growth, but not as much as we do."
McClung sees two readily available sources for a victory margin for the incumbent. In 1997 Brown received the endorsement of Greanias and the bulk of his votes. The consultant believes that Bell's voters are cut from the same cloth.
Bell's following tended to be moderate, young, and more Democratic than not, says McClung. "There was also a bigger than average share of gay males in Bell's pool, and we think a pretty good piece of that belongs to us, and is political enough to come back to vote. Somewhere between a half and two-thirds [of Bell's voters] are real, live, interested people."
McClung also figures there are also a lot more votes to be wrung out of black precincts, where last week's turnout was well below Brown's 1997 percentages.
"There was no reason for anyone in the black community to believe that this was a critical election for Lee Brown," explains McClung. "He wasn't going to get voted out. He might have won, but there was certainly another opportunity if he didn't win."
Now that Sanchez has emerged as a viable threat, McClung predicts African-Americans will take notice and react defensively. The consultant, confident of a strong turnout among blacks, says, "I'm assuring you it's going to be there."
Austin political consultant and lobbyist Bill Miller of Hillco Partners worked in Brown's 1997 campaign and sees the current contest through very different lenses.
"In '97, really the only emotion I thought was genuine in the race was that Houston had a chance to elect its first minority mayor," recalls Miller. "The time was right and the emotion was with Lee Brown to do that."
Miller believes the political winds have swung around.
"The one emotion you can put your finger on in the city is they want to defeat him, they want him out. So you have a 180-degree turn on emotion in a runoff situation."
"Had Mosbacher gotten 41 percent of the vote in '97, it would have been frightening to be in a race like that," Miller says. "What makes it worse is that Brown's an incumbent now and that makes it really, really a big deal."
Miller also believes that Sanchez's candidate credentials rival those of Mosbacher four years ago. Mosbacher was better funded, but had lost political races, Miller says. "He didn't even live in the damn city, frankly. Sanchez has minority status and he's held citywide office and he's been a winner. Completely different situation."
At the other end of the political equation is the question of whether Sanchez can just hold on to what he's got, including that crucial 60 percent share of the Hispanic vote.
Republican consultant Allen Blakemore was one of the first analysts to declare that Sanchez's candidacy killed Bell's chances. Blakemore is certain of a solid, monolithic black turnout for Brown in the runoff. A strong westside Republican vote for Sanchez is equally predictable. According to Blakemore, the key to the election lies in the Latino community.
"Getting Hispanics to vote has been like herding cats," he quips. "They are difficult to motivate, they have very poor participation rates, and they are anything but monolithic. They scatter all over the place."
The consultant says last week's vote for Sanchez may have been the most powerful exercise yet of Hispanic ballot influence in a citywide contest, and the candidate's operatives must figure out how to make it happen again.
"This is not a well-oiled machine that we know exactly how to turn them out and what numbers and where and when," cautions Blakemore. Still, he believes Sanchez will benefit from a growing conviction among Hispanics that they can elect one of their own as mayor, just as Brown made history for the African-American community in 1997.
"Hispanics were just starting to get excited, saying, 'Hey, we might really be able to make this thing happen,' " explains Blakemore. "But how much could they really believe that on Election Day? Not really very much. How much can they believe it today? A bunch."
Marc Campos heads Brown's campaign in the Hispanic community, and predicted that Sanchez would score well in Latino precincts. He contends that ethnic solidarity cannot bridge the wide divide between the Republican candidate and the heavily Democratic Hispanic voters and their leadership. Campos argues that a new-century alliance of conservatives and Hispanics can't work.
"That coalition is going to have problems because Sanchez is not good on the issues," says the consultant. He ticks off Sanchez's opposition to affirmative action, rail and downtown redevelopment projects that have boosted Hispanic businesses.
Campos says there is a reason that no Hispanic officials endorsed Sanchez. "They can't stomach his ideology. Yeah, there's that ethnic pride that he's a Hispanic, but we're going to do a pretty good job of explaining who this guy is and we'll figure out how to do it."
Maybe so, but if the Election Night parties indicated anything about the runoff campaign, Brown is in real trouble. Sanchez's wildly exuberant ball at the Rice Lofts continued long after the returns stopped trickling in. Brown's Aerial Theater gathering had all the fizz of an opened magnum of champagne the morning after. Campaign magic is difficult to bottle, and at the moment Orlando Sanchez seems to have the distributorship.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.