What Mayor's Race?

The horse race for Houston mayor has been crawling this year.

Which is disappointing considering that at the outset it looked to be such promising political theater. The first competitive, incumbent-less mayor's race following the historic election of Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, quickly attracted a deep bench of longtime public figures, from a sitting sheriff to someone who spent a quarter-century in the statehouse and a well-known businessman and former newspaper columnist.

But we never got fireworks. The closest we got was invective spewed by the campaign to defeat the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (on the erroneous premise that transgender rights would trigger a public safety crisis in Houston's bathrooms), which sucked up all the oxygen in races across the city before Election Day. And it became pretty clear early on that this mayor's race—even with all its political stopping-power—would be about as interesting as watching paint dry.

That might be because, notwithstanding the anti-HERO conservative-baiting by Ben Hall in the general election, this race at its heart has mostly been about a decidedly un-sexy issue: pension reform. Steadily increasing pension payments are bleeding the city dry; as the Houston Chronicle recently pointed out, the $350 million the city's expected to pay out in benefits this year is more than double what city hall spends on parks, libraries and trash pickup. Unfunded and growing pension costs, if unaddressed, will only exacerbate the city's existing woes—like dilapidated streets that look like Swiss cheese.

Sylvester Turner and Bill King, who face each other in a runoff election Saturday, each say they'd address pension costs in their own way. King's plan, the more detailed and controversial of the two, involves issuing bonds to cover the immediate hole and switching new city employees over to a 401k-style defined-contribution plan instead of defined benefits. Meanwhile, the city's police and fire unions have supported Turner, whose plans for pension reform are much more vague but could include removing the voter-imposed revenue cap “for limited purposes such as improving public safety or paying down municipal debt.” On his website, Turner adds that reform “will require all stakeholders in Houston sitting at the table discussing the city’s financial challenges now and into the future.”

So it makes sense that the most vociferous attack against King—one that a handful of local radio stations for some reason won't run—comes from those most at odds with King's vision for pension reform: firefighters. And, of course, the line of attack just digs up old dirt that has nothing to do with the pension crisis facing Houston.

Quite frankly, there's very little that distinguishes one candidate from the other in this race—except maybe for Turner's outspoken support for a HERO-like equal rights ordinance. King attacks Turner as a “career politician” who wants to tax the city out of its deep financial hole; Turner, meanwhile, accuses King of wanting Houston to borrow itself out of trouble.

The kicker is that neither plan really matters all that much unless the new mayor can persuade state lawmakers to release their grip on local pensions. As it stands, changes to firefighter benefits must be approved by state lawmakers that would probably just as soon avoid a political turf-war with the public safety unions. (Read this Texas Monthly story for a good primer on how bad negotiations got between the Parker administration and the firefighters' pension board.) 

In its rather backhanded re-endorsement of Turner, the Chronicle editorial board reiterated there's not much separating the two candidates—other than Turner's willingness to sling dirt, that is. The board ultimately threw its weight behind Turner, saying his “political skill” is needed to tackle, among other things, the detente on pension reform.

Maybe Turner really can bring the unions to the table and convince the legislature to give Houston back local control over its public employee pensions; maybe, as King's camp warns, he's just too close to the unions to score anything other than token reforms that fail to address the slow-motion train wreck headed our way.

But it all just makes for an election that's very hard to get excited about. 
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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas