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Election 1995

How many candidates are too many?

The Rivard Report brings up a point I hadn’t considered before.

Candidates or their representatives arrived at City Council chambers Monday morning to draw lots to determine the order of name placement on the ballot. As candidates waited in the audience, the room seemed to be filled with equal parts anticipation and dread. It doesn’t matter much if you are first, second or even third in a three-person race. Three our four names fit easily enough on a single screen of a voting machine.

But there are 14 people running for mayor, and in an informal street poll I conducted downtown Monday, I was unable to find a single person who could name six candidates. Quite a few people named three, several named four, a few named five and none could name six. Four of the candidates are running visible campaigns with yard signs, frequent public appearances, organized block walking events and participating in public forums.

But what about voters who won’t recognize the names of Ivy R. Taylor, Mike Villarreal, Leticia Van de Putte or Tommy Adkisson? The four frontrunners are seasoned officeholders who have run multiple campaigns and appeared on multiple ballots. But they face 10 other candidates, some of whom have filed for office before but none of whom have much name recognition or a record of holding elective office. I’m talking about Paul Martinez, Douglas Emmett, Michael “Commander” Idrogo, Raymond Zavala, Rhett Rosenquest Smith, Julie Iris “MamaBexar” Oldham, Cynthia Cavazos, Gerard Ponce, Pogo Mochello Reese, and Cynthia Brehm.

The voting machines are going to have as hard a time as the voters with the mayor’s race. There is simply no way to list all 14 names on a single computer screen, and I wonder if even two screens will prove sufficient. It’s even more of a challenge when two of the candidates feature “Commander” and “MamaBexar,” nicknames that have to be listed.

If you are a candidate listed on the second screen, you have to wonder: How many people will think the contest is only between the candidates listed on the first screen and cast their vote before they get to the next screen? The computer allows a voter to reverse a decision and also prompts a voter to review his or her choices before pressing “VOTE,” but that’s small comfort to a second page candidate.

Here’s the Bexar County Elections webapge on their voting system. The video didn’t load for me, and the ES&S Flash Demonstration links are broken, but the picture at the bottom gives some idea of what they use. Here in Houston, we’ve not had a 14-candidate race in recent years that I can recall – there were 19 candidates in the January 1995 special election for Council At Large #4 – but we did have ten for At Large #2 in 2011 and twelve for District D in 2013. I’m pretty sure that Harris County’s eSlate machines were able to list everyone on a single page. At least, I don’t recall hearing anything about the candidate list spanning multiple pages. If San Antonio is like Houston, then Mayor will be the first race on the ballot. If the voting machines in Bexar County really can’t fit 14 names onto one page, then that seems like a serious flaw with them. Is this a real concern? I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around it.

This is also an opportunity for me to bring up one of my favorite hobbyhorses, which is that the draw for ballot position is ridiculous. I still can’t understand why an electronic voting machine system can’t be programmed to randomize ballot order for each race with multiple candidates and each voter. I’m sure it would take a change to state law to allow that – or better yet, require it – and I know that there would still need to be a draw for candidate order on mail ballots, but still. This seems like such a simple fix to a problem that vexes people in every single non-partisan election. Can we please do something about it?

Where are the women?

I have several things to say about this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The slate running to replace Mayor Annise Parker features a globetrotting sailor, a triathlete grandfather, a millionaire minister and no women.

Despite the most-crowded pack of mayoral contenders in decades, no female candidates are expected to announce bids this spring, a reality that all but guarantees women will have fewer positions of power at City Hall next year than they had during the last six.

“You are sending a message,” said Kathryn McNeil, a longtime fundraiser who helped elect Parker. “My niece is now 16. For the last six years, she’s seen a strong woman running the city. There’s no question in her mind that a woman could be mayor.”

Though more than 10 candidates likely will appear on November’s ballot, few women even seriously considered the race, which some call a reminder of how much more work Houston’s women must do to achieve political equality.

Some say it creates a less compassionate and less personal, even if equally qualified, field of candidates. It also affects the strength of the democratic process, limiting the diversity of the candidates that voters can choose from when they imagine whom they would like as their next mayor.

“Regardless of who actually wins the race, not having a viable woman candidate can be a disservice for everyone,” said Dee Dee Grays, the incoming president of Women Professionals in Government in Houston.

For the record, in the eleven city elections post-Kathy Whitmire (i.e., since 1993), there has been at least one female Mayoral candidate not named Annise Parker in eight of them:

2013 – Charyl Drab, Keryl Douglas, Victoria Lane
2011 – Amanda Ulman
2009 – Amanda Ulman
2007 – Amanda Ulman
2005 – Gladys House
2003 – Veronique Gregory
2001 – None
1999 – None
1997 – Helen Huey, Gracie Saenz
1995 – Elizabeth Spates
1993 – None

Now, most of these were fringe candidacies – only term-limited Council members Helen Huey and Gracie Saenz in 1997 could have been considered viable, and they were both crushed in the wake of the Lee Brown/Rob Mosbacher/George Greanias campaigns. But for what it’s worth, history does suggest there will be at least one female name on the ballot this year.

Research shows that women nationally need to be recruited to run for office much more than men. That especially is true for executive positions, such as governor or mayor.

Amber Mostyn, the former chair of Annie’s List, a statewide organization that recruits and backs Democratic female candidates, said there is a need for local versions of the organization that would encourage qualified women to make bids for mayor.

“You’ll see men throwing their hat in the ring when they’ve never done the job before and say, ‘I’ll figure it out,’ ” said Mostyn, a Houston lawyer and prominent donor. “Women are very reluctant to do that.”

I’m well aware of the research regarding the recruitment of female candidates. It’s definitely an issue, though I wonder if it will turn out to be a generational one. Perhaps today’s girls and younger women won’t need the same kind of encouragement that their elders currently require. Be that as it may, if there was ever a bad year for that dynamic in the Mayor’s race, it’s this year. I mean, nearly the entire field, not to mention Adrian Garcia, has been known to be planning to run for a long time now. With that many candidates already at the starting line, and presumably working to collect commitments and financial support and campaign advisers, it would undoubtedly be that much harder to make a case for someone else to gear up now and thrown her hat in the ring. As I’ve said many times already, there’s only so much room for viable candidates in this race.

Cindy Clifford, a public relations executive and City Hall lobbyist, said the key to electing a female mayor is to first focus on recruiting women for lower-level elected office and to serve on boards and commissions. That requires a commitment by the city’s leaders to tapping individual women and showing them that they have support.

“If we’re not doing it, no one’s going to come and look for us,” Clifford said. “I always think the cream rises once they’re in the process.”

Council members Brenda Stardig and Ellen Cohen could be joined next year by several top-tier female candidates in council elections this fall, but some worry that the political “pipeline” of female candidates is thin, with few who conceivably could have run for mayor this year. One, Laura Murillo, the head of Houston’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, did publicly explore a mayoral bid last summer before deciding against it.

I would point out that one of the top tier candidates for Mayor this year is someone whose entire political career has been in the Legislature, and that the three main candidates currently running for Mayor in San Antonio include two former legislators and one former County Commissioner. One doesn’t have to be a city officeholder to be a viable Mayoral candidate, is what I’m saying. Hell, none of the three Mayors before Annise Parker had been elected to anything before running for the top job, let alone running for Council. The size of the “pipeline” is as much a matter of framing as anything else. Note also that several women who were once elected to city offices now hold office elsewhere – I’m thinking specifically of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Sen. Sylvia Garcia, Rep. Carol Alvarado, and HISD Trustee Wanda Adams. Pipelines can flow in both directions.

As for the four open Council slots, the seat most likely to be won by a female candidate as things stand right now is At Large #4, where two of the three announced candidates so far are women. Jenifer Pool is running in At Large #1, but if I were forced to make a prediction about it now, I’d say that a Lane Lewis/Chris Oliver runoff is the single most likely outcome. Two of the three candidates that I know of in District H are male – Roland Chavez and Jason Cisneroz – and the third candidate, former HISD Trustee Diana Davila, is ethically challenged. One’s commitment to diversity does not include supporting someone one doesn’t trust. I have no idea at this time who may be running in District G, which is the other term-limited seat. Beyond those races, any additional women will have to get there by knocking off an incumbent.

One last thing: There may not be room for another viable candidate for Mayor, but that isn’t the case for City Controller. There are three known candidates at this time, with two more thinking about it, all men. A Controller campaign would take less time and money, and would therefore likely be fairly ripe for recruitment, especially given that a female candidate in that race would have immediate prominence. As Mayor Parker, and for that matter former Mayor Whitmire, can attest, that office can be a pretty good stepping stone. Just a thought.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that HCC Trustee Sandie Mullins is planning to run in District G. That not only adds another female candidate for Council, it also indicates that an HCC seat will be open this fall.

Elections from a bygone era

All through the Early Voting period, I’ve been comparing turnout this year to elections from 2005 through 2009. It’s not like we didn’t have elections in this city before then, of course. Obviously, the city now is different than it was before, and as such I don’t know how much there is to learn from turnout levels in the 1990s. But given the concerns about poor turnout that some folks have expressed, I thought I’d take a look and see what’s there.

Year: 1993

Total votes cast: 214,306. No turnout figure is cited.

Mayoral votes cast: 186,944, or 87.2% of the citywide total. Bob Lanier, running for his first re-election against a squad of no-names, set the standard by which all future Mayors will be measured by garnering 90.10% of the vote.

Controller votes cast: 178,411, or 83.3% of the citywide total. George Greanias topped the field of four with 54.43% .

At Large votes cast: Ranged from 167,057 in the 12-candidate At Large #2 race (78.0% of citywide) to 157,974 in the 14-candidate (!) At Large #3 race (73.7%). Eleanor Tinsley led the former with 47.64%, while Lloyd Kelley at 18.26% and Cynthia Canales Gorczynski at 16.97% made it to the runoff in the latter. For those of you keeping score at home, a mere 26,822 votes were enough to make it into the finals in At Large #3. The top votegetter among all Council candidates, second only to MayorBob himself overall, was none other than Sheila Jackson Lee in At Large #4, with 103,866. How do you like that? She would defeat Craig Washington in the Democratic primary for CD18 in March, 1994, so this was her last Council election.

Familiar name: Orlando Sanchez finished fifth in a field of seven for the open District C seat, with 10.36% of the vote. He’d do better in his next election.

Special circumstances: Kids! You know that Houston is world-famous for being a city with no zoning, right? Well, did you know that we actually once voted on whether or not to impose some form of zoning on ourselves? It’s true! On the ballot in 1993 was a city proposition to allow for zoning ordinances. It failed, but by less than 7000 votes out of 168,009 ballots cast. It’s too long ago for me to remember the details, and I wasn’t paying much attention to it then. But it sure is a shame that there wasn’t an Internet back then to record everyone’s breathless utterance about it, so we could see what crazytimes it was, isn’t it? (Yes, I know there actually was an Internet back then. It was a lot smaller, and most of what was there isn’t easy to find nowadays. You know what I mean.)

Year: 1995

Total votes cast: 142,117, which is given as 13.88% turnout. It’s the only turnout figure on these result pages. This implies there were 1,023,898 registered voters in Houston at the time of this election. Let’s keep that number in mind for when the turnout figures are given for this year.

Mayoral votes cast: 126,081, or 88.7% of the citywide total. MayorBob dropped to a mere 82.66%, ahead of our old friend Dave Wilson in second place with 9.05%

Controller votes cast: 108,798, or 76.6% of the citywide total. Lloyd Kelley succeeded Greanias by winning a three-way race with 53.35% of the vote.

At Large votes cast: Ranged from 87,066 (61.3% of citywide) in At Large #1, where Gracie Saenz ran unopposed, to 114,036 (80.2%) in At Large #2, where Joe Roach easily cruised past two challengers with 73.35% of the vote. And proving that more candidates does not mean more votes, the 11-candidate pileup in At Large #3 drew only 97,961 votes. Among its other contenders were Chris Bell, who finished third with 14.17%, and Griff Griffin, who came in fourth with 10.31%. Like Orlando Sanchez, the eventual winner of this seat, Bell would do better in his next election. Unlike Orlando Sanchez, Griff would not.

Familiar name: Andrew Burks eked into a runoff in a seven-candidate District E race, finishing exactly eleven votes ahead of the third place contestant, and 20 votes ahead of fourth place. This is what they’re talking about when they say every vote matters, kids. He then got skunked in the runoff, losing to Rob Todd by a 63-37 spread.

Special circumstances: None. Total dullsville. Basically, 1995 was the 2007 of the 90s.

Year: 1997

Total votes cast: 348,680, in a wild eight-way open seat Mayoral free-for-all. Here we begin to get Harris County precinct data appended to the City Secretary reports, which includes turnout for the Houston portion of Harris County. For this election, it is given as 28.20%.

Mayoral votes cast: 313,123, or 89.8% of the citywide total. I think it’s safe to say we won’t match that total this year, though it would not shock me if the Mayoral share of total turnout is comparable. In the race, Lee Brown led the way with 132,324 votes, with Rob Mosbacher joining him in the runoff with 90,320. Round One also included former Controller George Greanias, who got squeezed between constituencies and finished third, and former Council members Gracie Saenz and Helen Huey.

Controller votes cast: 259,418, or 74.4% of the citywide total. Sylvia Garcia scored a clean win over Lloyd Kelley, 55.40% to 33.50% (there were three other candidates), becoming the first of so far only two challengers to defeat a sitting incumbent since term limits were adopted in 1994. (Jean Kelley, who inherited District G from her husband John in this election, would become the other such incumbent in 1999, losing to Bert Keller.)

At Large votes cast: Ranged from 226,382 (64.9%) in the nine-person At Large #5 race, eventually won by future HCC Trustee candidate Carroll Robinson, to 250,933 (72.0%) in At Large #2, where the late Joe Roach cruised past a single opponent and collected the high vote score for the cycle, with 190,841.

Familiar name: Annise Parker, who finished second in a seven-candidate race for At Large #1, then won in the runoff.

Special circumstances: The only open seat Mayor’s race of the 90s, as Bob Lanier had ousted incumbent Kathy Whitmire in 1991, and the genesis of the term “the Greanias line” for city election wonks. And if that wasn’t enough, a charter referendum to end affirmative action, which lost 55-45, and a bunch of bond referenda. Yeah, there were a few things pushing people to the polls that year.

Year: 1999

Total votes cast: 268,109. Turnout for the Houston portion of Harris County is given as 21.57%.

Mayoral votes cast: 206,778, or 77.1% of the citywide total. This was the infamous election in which one-term incumbent Mayor Lee Brown received only 67.29% of the vote against two no-chance opponents, Jack Terence (23.16%) and Outlaw Josey Wales, IV (9.55%, and no, I’m not kidding about the name), thus setting up the narrative that he was vulnerable to a challenge for 2001, and giving too many political pundits with too much time on their hands something to point to a decade hence.

Controller votes cast: 150,385, or 56.1% of the citywide total. Sylvia Garcia, having established herself as the first challenger to defeat an incumbent in the term limits era, established the tradiion of uncontested Controller races after that.

At Large votes cast: Two uncontested seats (#s 4 and 5, Chris Bell and Carroll Robinson), received 141,489 and 142,022 votes, respectively, each less than 53% of the citywide total. Three contested races had totals ranging from 174,774 (65.2%) in the 11-candidate At Large #2 race, in which Gordon Quan would go on to defeat Dwight Boykins in the runoff to 179,095 (66.8%) in At Large #3, where Orlando Sanchez won a 54-46 re-election against Andrew Burks, which somehow did not create a narrative that he too was electorally vulnerable.

Familiar name: Have I not given enough already? All right, Toni Lawrence made the first of two unsuccessful attempts to defeat Bruce Tatro in District A. She didn’t run in the open seat race in 1997 (Tatro defeated our old buddy Dave Wilson in the runoff), and eventually won the seat after Tatro got termed out.

Special circumstances: Four more city referenda, of which the one “relating to residency of elected officers” received the highest vote total of 194,543, which as you can see easily exceeded every city race other than the Mayoral. The other three ranged from 174,654 to 185,971 votes. As with the zoning referendum of 1993, I have no memory of what these were about, but they clearly helped drive turnout.

What do we learn from this? Well, other than the fact that certain characters have been recurring in our elections for a long time, it seems to me that a charter amendment is a pretty good way to drive turnout. Note how great the falloff is from the city vote totals to those of individual races, a factor that I have to believe is related to some people showing up only for the referenda. As such, I think that while we are correct to lament low turnout in city races, we should be careful about comparing our current elections to those of the 1990s, when turnout was superficially pretty high. Perhaps if the red light camera referendum had been on the 2009 ballot, or on this one, we’d be having a very different conversation about the turnout levels. Just something to think about. Hope you enjoyed this trip down somewhat-cloudy-memory lane.