Minorities in Forefront of Big City Mayoral Races

As Texas' major cities continue their decades-long evolution to minority-majority populations, tracking minority and female ascension to mayoral firsts has almost reached the complexity of a political trivia game.

Clockwise from upper left: Former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, state Rep. Sylvester Turner, former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, interim San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor

If former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte wins the runoff for San Antonio mayor next weekend, she'll become the Alamo City's first Hispanic female mayor, though not the first Hispanic, nor the first female.

If opponent Ivy Taylor wins, she'll become the first black person elected to the position, though she's already the first black mayor by appointment, taking over when Julián Castro left for a federal job.

And when Houston voters pick their next mayor in the fall, they could make former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia the first Hispanic mayor of the state's most populous city. A win by state Rep. Sylvester Turner would give the city only its second black mayor.

As Texas' major cities continue their decades-long evolution to minority-majority populations — where there are fewer whites than blacks and Hispanics combined — tracking minority and female ascension to mayoral firsts has almost reached the complexity of a political trivia game.

But the diversity of candidates is not a mere function of census numbers, political organizers and local leaders say. It's the result of years of work in the trenches as people of color have labored to accumulate political capital.

“It’s not a magic bullet,” said Laura Barbarena, a San Antonio-based political consultant.

Though no political newcomers, Barbarena noted, Van de Putte and Taylor benefit from decades of community organizing that empowered voters of color and built fundraising and social networks to propel candidates.

 

San Antonio has long served as a launchpad for Hispanic Democrats like Van de Putte, a pharmacist who started her political career in 1991 when she was elected to the Texas House. She later won a seat in the Senate, where she rounded out her 24 years in the Legislature.

In modern times, San Antonio has been led by only three Hispanic mayors, despite the massive Hispanic share — 63.2 percent — of the population.

But the configuration of its local and legislative districts — particularly on the East Side — has also helped propel blacks into leadership positions. Taylor hails from the East Side and represented it on the City Council from 2009 until her peers appointed her interim mayor in July 2014.

Whichever way it goes, the June 13 runoff will give San Antonio its first woman of color elected to the top post at City Hall.

Still in its early stages, the Houston race has no clear front-runners in a crowded field, with at least seven candidates looking to win the Nov. 3 election. But with high name identification and wide appeal, Garcia and Turner are likely among the top contenders. The five other candidates are all also men, four white and one black. 

In a city more diverse than San Antonio — Hispanics make up 43.8 percent of the population, blacks 23.7 percent, almost double the state’s share — both candidates have been more overt with messages about bringing people together.

Making note of his family’s roots in Mexico, Garcia said in his campaign announcement that he wanted to offer leadership that “gives everyone a voice at City Hall.”

"I think the people of Houston have waited long enough for a leader that's going to bring folks together and make sure that we're working on the things that matter the most to the most," Garcia recently told KHOU.

Meanwhile, Turner, who has unsuccessfully pursued the mayor’s office twice before, has talked about transcending racial lines to connect with voters of all backgrounds.

In an interview, Turner said minorities are playing a more significant role in elections as they make their way through the "pipeline," but they are still working to overcome the "unfounded" assumption that they'll only serve their racial or ethnic group if elected.

"Whoever is going to be most effective is going to have to represent the entire community and govern with the entire community in mind," Turner said. "And you're going to have to appeal to a broad constituency and then be willing to, and gladly, serve that broad constituency."

Becoming ever more diverse, cities across the country are imprinted with a greater awareness of race relations than small towns where minority populations may be dismal, said Jeronimo Cortina, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston.

With their professional credentials and community ties, today’s minority candidates — particularly second-generation Hispanics — are more “electable,” he said. 

“As the population starts to become more assimilated and as other generations try to get into the political mainstream, we’re going to see more and more candidates,” Cortina said.

Garcia and Turner easily fit this mold. The son of immigrants, Garcia served in the Houston Police Department for more than two decades before winning a council seat. He represented a largely Hispanic district for six years, then won a countywide election to the sheriff’s office in 2008 with almost 60 percent of the vote.

In the 26 years he spent in the Texas House, Turner became one of the chamber's most prominent Democrats despite shifting political tides that left liberals in the minority. In the last 20 years, he faced only one challenger, in 2012, whom he easily defeated with 77 percent of the vote.

Though minority candidates are at the forefront of the San Antonio and Houston races, their success in diverse Texas cities is by no means guaranteed.

Last year, the Austin mayoral race saw a crowded field. The top three top vote-getters in the general election reflected the city’s demographics: a white attorney (Steve Adler), the city's first black female council member (Sheryl Cole) and a prominent Hispanic council member (Mike Martinez).

Adler and Martinez eventually faced off in a runoff election that ended in a nearly 40-point blowout in Adler’s favor, making him the third consecutive white Austin mayor.

Martinez attributed his loss in part to low voter turnout among minorities — a staple of Texas elections. Minority candidates, he said, are still working to overcome racial disparities in politics. 

“You still face an old political regime that is reluctant or hesitant to relinquish, if you will, the political stronghold that has historically been held by the largely Anglo community and more conservative voice,” Martinez said. “I don’t blame the outcome [of the election] on race, but it certainly was a factor.”

Still, the outcomes of the mayoral races in San Antonio and Houston will carry more than a historical significance for some.

Minority candidates elected to top offices often serve as “inspiration” for other minorities interested in jumping into politics, said Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert Jr., the county’s first African-American in that position.

“We have ascended on the shoulders of our ancestors,” said Calvert, who has joined other black leaders representing San Antonio’s East Side in endorsing Van de Putte. Taylor has picked up support from the city’s affluent, more conservative North Side.

James Douglas, president of the Houston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, sees the current mayoral races as a product of the last three decades during which minorities have been able to step up in local and state politics.

“For a long time, it was very difficult for minorities to even get involved,” Douglas said, but he added that the progress they’ve made is clear now. “We just have more people who are experienced in the political arena, and it was just a matter of time before some of them actually rose to the top of the heap.”

Disclosure: Steve Adler is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. The University of Houston is a corporate sponsor. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.