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November 30th, 2019:

The quiet runoff

Have you been enjoying this little break from the Mayor’s race? Break’s over, but then we’re now into early voting, so we don’t have much longer to go.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

After a colorful first round defined by biting attack ads, mudslinging debates and policy disputes over crime and city finances, the temperature of the Houston mayoral runoff has noticeably cooled heading into Wednesday’s start of early voting.

Since the Nov. 5 election, when Sylvester Turner and Tony Buzbee finished atop the 12-candidate field, there have been few of the day-to-day sparks that marked the final weeks of the first stage. Buzbee, who spent millions to maintain a regular presence on television, just recently began running ads after a post-election hiatus. Turner has touted support from elected Democratic allies and largely ignored Buzbee.

Nor, after partaking in scores of forums and three televised debates, do the candidates have plans to engage in any more square offs.

The sleepy tone of the runoff marks a divergence from the 2015 contest, too, when Turner and his runoff opponent, Bill King, participated in more robust policy discussions and jousted in a pair of debates leading up to a razor-thin outcome in December.

“It has definitely been more quiet,” said Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. “I don’t think we can pinpoint it to one thing, but I think there are a variety of factors going on that didn’t occur in 2015.”

For one, Cross said, the 2020 presidential election appears to be eating up far more attention than the 2016 contest was four years ago.

“I’ve said this all along, the national election has just overshadowed everything, politically speaking,” she said, adding that the House’s impeachment inquiry into President Trump has only further diverted the attention of Houstonians.

Also dampening enthusiasm for this year’s runoff, Cross and Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, is the perception among some voters that it’ll be difficult for Buzbee to overcome Turner’s first-round advantage. According to unofficial returns, Turner received 47 percent of the vote, Buzbee 28 percent.

“After Turner came so close to 50 percent and defeated Buzbee by close to a 20-point margin, the conventional wisdom is there’s no realistic way for Buzbee to catch Turner, unless Turner were to commit some type of egregious gaffe between now and Election Day,” Jones said.

I think both profs are largely right. That said, if Buzbee had been carpet-bombing the airwaves like he said he was going to, then we’d be having a very different conversation right now. I don’t know what’s going on in Buzbee’s head, but if I were on his campaign staff I’d very much want to ask him why he chose the past three weeks to stop setting his money on fire.

Buzbee of course has the harder job here. Turner just needs to make sure his people return to the polls. He’ll likely pick up some Boykins and maybe Lovell supporters as well, not that that were that many of them. Buzbee needs to not only convince his own supporters to get back out there for him, he needs to persuade King voters and anyone else who didn’t vote for Turner in round one. That’s a tall order, and he doesn’t have much room for error. Yes, he can try to turn out people who didn’t vote in November – there are always a few of them who make it out for the runoff – but that’s easier said than done. He has a lot of ground to make up, and not much time left to do it. The main question in my mind at this point is how the low-key-so-far nature of the runoff will affect the other races. As far as that goes, the members more likely to align with Turner need a boost from him, but a dud from Buzbee might help as well. I couldn’t say at this point where any of the other citywide races may stand.

Chron overview of the At Large #1 runoff

“Sharp contrasts” is a good description of this race. “Clear choice” also works.

Raj Salhotra

A runoff between a conservative incumbent and liberal challenger for one of Houston’s citywide council seats presents arguably the sharpest contrast of any race on Houston’s December ballot.

Councilman Mike Knox, an Air Force veteran and former police officer, is seeking his second four-year term but faces stiff competition from Raj Salhotra, a 29-year-old attorney and former high school math teacher making his first run for elected office.

Last month, Knox secured 36.5 percent of the vote in the five-person race, far ahead of Salhotra’s 22 percent but not enough to win the race outright.

In his bid to retain the At-Large, Position 1 seat, Knox is pitching himself as a persistent check on Mayor Sylvester Turner and a leading advocate of reining in city spending. He also has framed Salhotra as a “Beto socialist” and alleged his challenger would distract city council by pushing partisan issues.

“This is a race where we have a young person who’s aspiring to become a career politician, who believes that political agendas are the most important thing for Houstonians,” said Knox, 61. “And I disagree with that.”

Salhotra, meanwhile, is casting Knox as a tea party Republican, contending that the incumbent has served as an antagonist on council and taken positions that threaten to hinder progress on key issues. He rattles off Knox’s dissenting votes by memory: opposing Turner’s pension overhaul, voting against stricter floodplain regulations, voting not to join a lawsuit opposing Texas’ so-called sanctuary cities law, Senate Bill 4.

“This is a nonpartisan race, but I do think there are real philosophical differences between Councilmember Knox and myself, and we’re making that clear to voters through knocking on doors, phone banking, texting, mail, Facebook ads,” Salhotra said Sunday while block walking through a high-turnout precinct in the Heights. “The thinking goes, if we can explain his record to voters and my vision and core values, we feel confident they will make the choice to support me.”

My interview with Raj Salhotra is here, and my analysis of the precinct data from Round One is here. Salhotra has had the fundraising advantage, and he will need to use it to make sure people know who he is and what he stands for. As we’ve discussed before, all of the At Large runoffs are Republican versus Democrat, though some of the candidates in those races lean into that more than others. Mike Knox is all in on it, and that by itself would be enough to want to vote him out, even before you look at his record. Raj has a lot of votes to make up, but he will have a favorable environment in December. The rest is up to him.

Second mobile voting locations lawsuit filed

Same claims, different plaintiffs.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin. It is led by former Austin Assistant City Manager Terrell Blodgett, Texas Young Democrats (TYD) and Texas College Democrats.

“We are here to tear down an obstacle to the right to vote,” Mike Siegel, who is representing Blodgett, said during a press conference Tuesday.

Siegel, a civil rights attorney who is running for Congress against Republican incumbent Michael McCaul, said the law “suppresses the vote of young people, of seniors, of people with disabilities” and people without access to transportation.

Blodgett, who is 96, said he has almost never missed an election – that is until HB 1888 went into effect. Because of the law, the mobile polling site at Westminster, the senior living community he lives in, was forced to close. Blodgett said he has relied on that polling location and was unable to vote because he wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t use public transportation.

“I would have had to climb on this bus and go over from the house to the library and vote because we didn’t have the facility or the voting machines there at Westminster,” he said.

When asked, Blodgett said he thinks Republicans in the Legislature passed the law for political reasons.

“I think they did it to suppress the Democratic vote,” he said.

[…]

According to the lawsuit, many young voters were unable to vote in 2019 because they lacked access to transportation.

“For example, at three different college campuses in Austin where there are TYD constituents — Huston-Tillotson University, St. Edward’s University and Austin Community College — mobile voting locations that had been available and used by TYD voters in the 2018 elections were no longer available for use in the November 2019 election,” plaintiffs say in the lawsuit.

See here for more on the other lawsuit. A copy of this lawsuit and other information can be found here. As I said before, I agree with the motivation for HB1888 and I agree with the goals of these lawsuits, but I have little to no faith that the federal judiciary, at least once you get past the district courts, will have any sympathy. And to be honest, in reading this story, I can see what the likely defense strategy will be. Mr. Blodgett doesn’t need to worry about where any voting location is, because he is eligible to vote by mail, and if he had requested a mail ballot he would not have had this problem. As for the college students, Travis County isn’t barred from having early voting locations on those campuses. They just have to keep them open throughout the early voting period. Which costs more, sure, but they could choose to budget the funds for it. Whether any of that is actually responsive to the complaints is beside the point, because I can totally see the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS buying it. I’ll be delighted to be proven wrong. The Texas Signal has more.