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Mayoral Hopefuls Focus on Growth, Not Potential for Groundbreaking Win

Two minority candidates are considered front-runners in the race to be the next mayor of Midland, which has never had a non-Anglo mayor.

Mayoral candidate John James talks with Sarana Savage outside her Midland home on Sept. 15, 2013.

In the Permian Basin city of Midland, which has never had a non-Anglo mayor, two minority candidates are considered the front-runners in this year’s mayoral race. And although political observers acknowledge that the city’s demographics have shifted drastically, they say that the candidates’ rise is primarily a result of their business expertise and their ability to guide this fast-growing city.

Several city leaders have called City Council members John James and Jerry Morales the favorites to win the November race. James and Morales recognize the potential historical significance of the election, but they are focused on business-minded platforms to help Midland adjust amid an oil boom that is bringing in an influx of workers and a greater demand for services.

“I’m not running to be the first black mayor of Midland,” said James, the president and owner of an industrial coatings company, who has lived in Midland for 20 years. “I’m running to be the mayor on a lot of other fronts with a lot of other skill sets.”

Morales, who owns a Mexican restaurant and a catering company, has a similar focus.

“I’m very proud of my heritage and my culture and my roots here in Midland and in the Permian Basin,” he said. “Although it is a growing Hispanic community, I’ve just been able to represent the entire community as a whole.”

Other candidates in the November mayoral election include Keith McLelland, an oil industry worker and local pastor; Dan Anderson, a University of Texas-Permian Basin engineering student; and Kathy White, a stress management instructor.

While there has never been a non-Anglo in the mayor’s chair, Midland has seen several black and Latino officials serve in other capacities.

And the current landscape is far different from the Midland of 1984. That year, Michael L. Williams, then a chief prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, was running for county attorney. His campaign team realized it faced an uphill battle when an internal poll showed that almost 25 percent of the city, which leans conservative, said they would not vote for a black candidate in the Republican primary.

“That dictated our campaign,” Williams, now the state’s education commissioner, told Texas Monthly in 2001. “We ran a race where nobody saw me. I rarely got out. No picture — it wasn’t on anything. We just tried to tell every award I’d ever won.”

Williams lost the Republican primary race to his opponent, Mark Dettman.

James and Morales face very different  circumstances. Both are well-known figures in local politics. James has been elected twice in a conservative district. Morales was born and raised in Midland and has served as an at-large councilman for five years.

A spokesman for Williams said that Williams had declined to comment for this article because “he is very mindful that comments in this context might have an influence on the outcome” of the mayoral race.

Ernest Angelo, a former Midland mayor and a supporter of Williams during his 1984 campaign, called Midland a “broad-minded city” in respect to how the community votes in local races.

But Angelo acknowledged that the current mayoral race might not have gone this way 30 years ago, although he said that the current candidates are ideal because of their ability to run effective campaigns rather than for any demographic reason.

“I don’t know 30 years ago who the candidates would’ve been,” Angelo said, referring to the mayoral race. He said that black and Latino leaders had “come forward and increased their ability to participate and fund a campaign,” adding, “I don’t think it’s a reflection of their race.”

Angelo is among three former Midland mayors who have endorsed Morales. James has received endorsements from several local business leaders.

In Midland, unlike Texas as a whole, white residents are a majority of the population. But the Hispanic population is surging. Hispanics now make up 37.6 percent of the city’s population — a figure that matched the state’s 2010 Hispanic population breakdown, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The percentage of Hispanic residents climbed almost 10 percentage points in the last 10 years, mostly because of the oil boom, which has brought thousands of workers into the area.

In 2010, Midland was home to 119,385 residents. Since then, its 4.6 percent population increase between July 2011 and July 2012 helped it top a list of the nation’s 10 fastest-growing metropolitan areas, according to the Office of the State Demographer.

But as the city’s overall population has surged in the last 10 years, the number of black residents has decreased slightly. Blacks make up 7.9 percent of Midland’s population, almost four percentage points below the state’s black population.

Steve Murdock, director of the Rice University Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, said Midland had experienced demographic trends similar to those in the rest of the state.

“The picture that Midland is painting is no different from Texas, and it’s the same for the entire country,” Murdock said. “The Hispanic population growth is a national phenomenon. 

Henry Cisneros, who became the first Hispanic mayor of a major Texas city when he was elected to lead San Antonio in 1981, said he had seen a trend of minority candidates winning elections in areas that did not have a large minority population before.

“I’m pleased it’s at the local level where partisanship is much less intense,” Cisneros said. “There’s really no partisan way to provide emergency medical services, pick up the garbage or build parks or libraries.”

Wes Perry, the outgoing Midland mayor, said that James’ and Morales’ status as front-runners is indicative of progress that Midland had made but that their ability to become the city’s top elected official was not dependent on their race.

“From my perspective, race doesn’t really figure into it,” Perry said. “People don’t even talk about it in the leadership roles and those kinds of things. It’s not really part of the conversation. We’re dealing with traffic, you know, things much bigger than issues like that, I think.”

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