If everyone showed up at the polls, Houston — the largest city in Texas and fourth largest in the U.S. — probably would elect Democrat after Democrat, and then some. But with fewer than one-third of registered voters turning out Tuesday, Texas Democrats again watched their Republican counterparts upend the political landscape.
Though turnout was higher than usual for an off-year election, the numbers clearly did not entirely benefit the blue team. While Texas Democrats saw a longtime member — state Rep. Sylvester Turner — win the most votes for Houston mayor, they also saw the resounding defeat of the city’s polarizing nondiscrimination ordinance and the unexpected failure of a rising star, Adrian Garcia, to make the runoff for the city’s top job.
“It should be a wake-up call to Democrats in Harris County, even looking forward to 2016, in that the GOP at the local level is just a better-run, better-organized organization than their Democratic counterparts,” said Jay K. Aiyer, a Texas Southern University assistant professor of political science and public administration. “Both in terms of voter turnout, message discipline, organization, resources — they’re just better.”
To be sure, with 31 percent of the vote in a field of six serious candidates, Turner’s first-place finish was a bright spot for Texas Democrats, albeit a predictable one. Throughout the race, the 26-year lawmaker — and twice-before mayoral candidate — was seen as a lock for the second round and thus avoided the kind of scrutiny that befell Garcia.
It was the less foreseeable outcomes that stung Democrats the most Tuesday night. After polling foreshadowed a close vote, the embattled discrimination ordinance, better known as HERO, was soundly rejected by 61 percent of voters. Garcia, who entered the race as a favorite for the runoff, finished a distant third, dislodged from the No. 2 spot by Republican-leaning former Kemah Mayor Bill King.
Now Garcia, among the most popular Democrats in Harris County, is unemployed and a subject of frustration among some activists irked that he abandoned a countywide post to run for mayor. The Republican-controlled Harris County Commissioners Court replaced Garcia with Ron Hickman, who already has rolled back some of Garcia’s reforms.
“We certainly hated to give up that sheriff’s seat,” said Lane Lewis, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party. “It’s not going to be easy getting it back, but Adrian has a lot of support in the Democratic Party. He did before last night and he will after last night.”
Despite the lack of support for Garcia’s mayoral run, political observers say Garcia, a visible former countywide official, could be set up to pursue the Harris County judge’s office, the top county-level job, but only if the current officeholder, Ed Emmett, follows through on his indications that he won’t pursue another term in office.
There were signs of danger for Democrats in early voting, which was up in conservative areas that were expected to drive the opposition to the ordinance as well as momentum for King to overtake Garcia. That effect could be seen further down the ballot, where some members of the Houston City Council are now headed to runoffs with foes of the ordinance.
“We fully expected to be in a runoff,” said at-large Council Member David Robinson, who advanced to a second round with anti-HERO pastor Willie R. Davis. “There’s no question that the surge in the vote that related to both the equal rights ordinance as well as the mayor’s race — it had a lot to do with who came out.”
Texas Democrats say Tuesday’s results are no cause for concern for the party’s viability in the area. Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said vote tallies showed more Democrats casting ballots than Republicans overall while the “results of HERO speak to something else.”
“Harris County is a competitive county. It is Democratic when turnout is up and competitive when turnout is not up,” Garcia said. “But if we look at Houston, a Democrat clearly led in first place and Democratic candidates all pulled a tremendous amount of support.”
Democrats have been successful in Harris County in the Obama era, taking the county in 2008 when President Obama took 50.4 percent of the vote. In his re-election bid four years later, Obama won the county by a razor thin margin of 971 votes. But in the 2014 gubernatorial election, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott lit the county red with 51 percent of the vote.
Beyond runoff elections, HERO’s defeat could leave a more lasting mark on the legacy of outgoing Houston Mayor Annise Parker, whose 2009 election made her the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city.
Parker had publicly voiced support for a nondiscrimination ordinance in Houston as early as September 2013 when San Antonio passed its own measure extending protections against discrimination for gay and transgender residents. With Parker at the helm of a Houston push for a nondiscrimination ordinance that included the LGBT community, the Houston City Council approved HERO in May 2014 after intense public debate.
Parker spent the next year fighting off challenges to the ordinance. After city officials declared a petition for a referendum or repeal of the ordinance had failed, opponents sued and a long legal battle ended in July when the Texas Supreme Court ordered the city council to consider a valid referendum and put the ordinance on Tuesday’s ballot for a public vote.
Ahead of the election, Parker downplayed any negative effects a HERO loss would have on her legacy, saying it was not “the most important thing” she had accomplished as mayor.
“I will say I did not expect to spend my last year in office dealing with this issue, but it is a very small part of what I’ve worked on over the six years I’ve been mayor,” Parker said in an interview.
Political observers say HERO’s defeat is unlikely to derail Parker’s political future because it’s not likely to include elected office. Parker, who has already hit the campaign trail for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, has been mentioned as a possible cabinet-appointee in a Clinton administration.
“By and large, the results were not positive for the mayor, given one of her signature issue was repealed,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. But he added that the election was a “minor setback” for Parker — “always assuming Clinton wins.”
A day after the election, Parker told reporters that she planned to meet with the city council to determine the next steps for HERO, including a more piecemeal approach to implementation as long as the 15 different “protected characteristics” were part of any proposal.
The potential next mayors are not jumping at the opportunity to revisit the ordinance. King, who opposed the law as written, has promised not to bring it up again if elected mayor, maintaining he will respect the will of the courts and people. The campaign of Turner, a HERO supporter, said Wednesday he had no specific plans to revive the discussion but wants an inclusive approach to the issue if it finds its way back in the spotlight.
With HERO defeated and its opponents emboldened, Democrats are now wondering how much it could factor into runoffs for both mayor and city council. Those contests are set for Dec. 12, and with Parker vowing not to give up the fight, HERO could still be a topic of discussion.
"I suspect this isn’t the end of it," Lewis said. "I suspect the next 30 days, the anti-equality crowd will continue to ring out, and will continue to get people ginned up over candidates that are not in their best interest."
But conservative activists are already warning runoff candidates about the effect a HERO endorsement could have on the outcome of their races.
“My message to any candidate ... would be, look, the people have spoken on this issue,” said Jared Woodfill, chair of the Campaign for Houston organization that opposed HERO. “Are you listening to them or are you not?”
The HERO defeat could be a boon to Woodfill’s own political fortunes. Woodfill, a former chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, is often mentioned as a potential challenger to Texas GOP Chairman Tom Mechler at the party’s convention in May.
“I’m looking at it. I haven’t made a decision,” Woodfill said Wednesday, adding that he may still have his hands full in Houston. “This battle may not be over yet.”