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Houston mayor's race goes to runoff election

Left: Houston mayoral candidate U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee during a campaign event on Oct. 27, 2023 in Houston. Right: State Sen. John Whitmire during a debate on Oct. 10, 2023 in Houston.
Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images; Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images
Left: Houston mayoral candidate U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee during a campaign event on Oct. 27, 2023 in Houston. Right: State Sen. John Whitmire during a debate on Oct. 10, 2023 in Houston.

Texas State Sen. John Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee are advancing to a runoff election for Houston mayor since neither cleared the 50% threshold.

Both stood out in a crowded field for their high levels of name recognition, decades of public service, and in Whitmire's case, a prodigious campaign war chest that enabled him to blanket the airwaves with commercials. Jackson Lee is widely considered the more progressive of the two leading candidates.

The race was one of the most crowded and expensive in recent memory. Eighteen candidates vied to succeed Mayor Sylvester Turner, who is term limited. Among the other major names in the race were former Metro chair Gilbert Garcia, Houston City Councilmember Robert Gallegos, former Houston City Councilmember Jack Christie, and Houston attorney Lee Kaplan.

The campaign was mostly quiet, but that changed in October when audio of Jackson Lee cursing and berating her staff was leaked. She then went on to say "Whitmire operatives" leaked the audio to the public, the day before early voting began. Whitmire, during their final debate, said, "It is ridiculous to suggest I would want anyone to hear those words."

Top issues for voters

Polls were done throughout the campaign that determined most Houston residents feel the next mayor should make fighting crime a priority.

Jackson Lee said she would take an approach that focuses on embracing community-police relations, and bringing more jobs to those in need.

"My plan includes analyzing the high crime areas of our city, targeting that area with our law enforcement. Of course, that will have police-community relationships, so it won't be like we're targeting our neighbors," she said in an interview with Houston Public Media. "But at the same time, I'm going to be working with the U.S. Department of Labor. I want more job training programs brought here. I want to make sure that we have a solid reentry program."

Throughout the campaign some people worried about Whitmire's pledge to bring 200 Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to assist the Houston Police Department.

"They would work under the direction of Chief Finner," he said, "who will tell you today, they're already there. They're partners with their Anti-Gang Task Force [and] their Narcotics Division."

Whitmire said in addition to manpower, the DPS has other resources that Houston police currently lack. Those include helicopters to reduce the threats posed by high-speed chases and an extra forensics lab that could cut the backlog in Houston's rape kit and ballistics analyses. It's not clear whether DPS forensics would be available for Houston police to use in cases not directly involving the DPS.

Still, Whitmire said, all that would enable HPD to focus on other tasks. "Your burglar alarm goes off, the bad guys don't even worry about it any longer because they know there's not going to be a response," Whitmire said. "Traffic enforcement is not what it ought to be. Repeat violent offenders are walking the streets of Houston with warrants for their arrest."

Copyright 2023 Houston Public Media News 88.7

Andrew Schneider / Houston Public Media