HOUSTON — For most of the summer, the race for the top job in the nation's fourth largest city seemed relatively static, with no dearth of candidates, cash and forums — but little drama to match. The mayoral contest, local Democratic strategist Keir Murray remarked, was "frozen in time."
The thaw has begun.
Adrian Garcia, once a solid frontrunner and potentially the city's first Hispanic mayor, has seen his support slip amid increased scrutiny of his tenure as Harris County sheriff. Former Kemah Mayor Bill King appears to be consolidating Republican support that had been splintered among a number of hopefuls. And the whole field — including Sylvester Turner, who appears guaranteed a berth in a runoff — are starting to sense a No. 2 spot on the second-round ballot that is increasingly up for grabs.
"It’s going to be Turner and," local political analyst Nancy Sims said, pausing for effect. "It's the 'and' we don't know the answer to right now."
A batch of recent polls show Garcia and King neck-and-neck, finishing second in the race to replace term-limited Annise Parker, whose 2009 election made Houston the largest U.S. city with an openly gay mayor. Yet the surveys have found at least two other candidates bunched near Garcia and King within the margins of error, and election watchers are urging caution with nearly half the respondents undecided in one poll.
Watching the battle for No. 2 unfold has been Turner, the 26-year state representative who is making his third bid for City Hall. Armed with high name recognition and a reliable African-American base, he is seen as a lock for the runoff, and analysts say such inevitability has persuaded rivals not to waste their time attacking him, letting him float above the fray — for now.
After visiting with a friendly lunchtime crowd Monday, Turner struck a confident note, saying he sees a runoff as likely but still wants to run up the score Tuesday to send a message. Early voting ends Friday.
"For me, it doesn’t matter who’s in second or third," Turner said after shaking hands at a retirement community on the city's southwest side. "My deal is on November the third, I want to make sure that we’re No. 1 and that No. 2 is so far behind that it really doesn’t matter."
For most of the summer, Turner's closest competition appeared to be Garcia, the son of poor Mexican immigrants who rose to countywide office through the Houston police department and city council. The thinking was Garcia — with his law-and-order resume, inspiring biography and ability to excite Latinos who account for 4 in 10 Houstonians — was more or less a shoo-in for a runoff against Turner. "He's fallen from that," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
"He’s definitely not as well-positioned as he was a few weeks ago, in part because Bill King has solidified some of that Republican support he’s going to need to make the runoff," Rottinghaus continued. Garcia is “performing well, but there’s a problem where he’s splitting these votes with the other Democrats in the race, and Bill King is emerging as the permanent Republican in the race."
Technically, the race is non-partisan, so there have been no party primaries to winnow the crowded field. Six candidates are considered serious contenders to lead a city that has not had a GOP mayor since 1982.
Garcia's campaign insists he's primed to make the runoff Tuesday and that its calculation to wait until mid-October to start airing TV ads — late compared to his rivals — is not fully reflected in recent polls. "That's going to account for a lot when it comes to moving the needle," said Annalee Gulley, a spokeswoman for the Garcia campaign.
The conversation has nonetheless shifted to King, whose campaign believes he has emerged as the consensus choice of fiscal conservatives at the perfect time. King, who once wrote a book about being "unapologetically moderate," is vying for the same kind of voters as City Councilman Steve Costello and, to a lesser extent, former City Attorney Ben Hall.
"You have to have a base to run on, particularly in a race as diffuse as this one is," said Jim McGrath, a spokesman for the King campaign. "Bill has done a very effective job of locking up that conservative base."
At the same time, Garcia has faced more scrutiny of his time as Harris County's top lawman. His rivals have taken aim at a drop in crime clearance rates under his leadership, as well as how he handled the 2013 mistreatment of a mentally ill inmate. Former congressman Chris Bell, a Democrat, has taken the lead in raising those questions.
Gulley admitted September was "kind of a tough month" but maintained Garcia had a target on his back as a frontrunner. People outside the campaign offer blunter assessments of how he dealt with a series of unflattering stories about his record as sheriff.
“No question, he simply failed to respond to this, and voters penalized him accordingly," said Bob Stein, a Rice University political scientist who predicted last week that Garcia would continue to be haunted by the slide through Election Day. "At this moment, I’m expecting to see a runoff between Bill King and Sylvester Turner."
Analysts say the softening of Garcia's support has made the home stretch even more critical for him, putting him in the position of having to re-galvanize a predominantly Hispanic base that has grown a bit weary after all the attacks. On a conference call Sunday, Garcia implored supporters to prove wrong the naysayers, warning that "there are people out there who are counting on the Latino community not showing up to the polls."
Adding to the Democratic handwringing is the arc of Garcia's own political star. He had to give up his job as sheriff to run for mayor, and the Harris County Commissioners Court, which has a Republican majority, found a GOP replacement for Garcia in Ron Hickman. Hickman has already taken heat for rolling back some of Garcia's reforms.
"Democrats have lost sort of their bright shining star at the county level," said Darrin Hall, who has worked for Parker and former Mayor Bill White. "Now what some were worried about may come true, which is Adrian Garcia has to resign, Democrats no longer have that seat, he doesn’t make it to a runoff and now he’s without a job."
The race has centered on a reliable set of bread-and-butter issues, perhaps most prominently the financial health of a city that faces a $126 million budget shortfall next fiscal year. King summed up the issue landscape in an early TV ad, promising to "fix the streets, catch the crooks and balance the budget." It seems few of his opponents would disagree with the platform.
Hanging over the discussion has been Houston's polarizing nondiscrimination ordinance, which is also on the ballot Tuesday. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, known as HERO, has not animated the race in a major way — only Hall has made it a centerpiece of his campaign — but campaigns are watching to see how the proposition affects turnout. So far, according to Stein and others crunching the numbers, there have been few signs of a strong correlation between a voter's position on HERO and their choice for mayor.
It nonetheless came up Monday as Turner took questions at Oak Tree Manor, the retirement community. Asked if the ordinance would let men enter women's restrooms — an argument frequently made by its critics — Turner spiritedly dismissed the prospect, drawing laughs from a crowd of about two dozen that seemed more than familiar with the plain-spoken, back-slapping frontrunner.
"I did an exam on him for his insurance. I drew his blood," said Christopher "Doc" Barney, a retired veteran who lingered around after Turner left. "I don't really know the other ones that well, but I know he's a longtime Houstonian."
Disclosure: Rice University and the University of Houston are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.