Voters in Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio have marquee mayoral races on Saturday ballots

Some of Texas' biggest cities are set to reelect their mayors or pick new ones as part of this weekend's local elections. Dallas will definitely get a new mayor, but a runoff is virtually certain before that happens.

From left: Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio.
From left: Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio.  Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Voters in some of Texas' biggest cities are heading to the polls Saturday to decide who should be their mayor.

In Dallas, a crowded field is vying to succeed term-limited Mayor Mike Rawlings. In Fort Worth, Mayor Betsy Price is seeking an unprecedented fifth term. And in San Antonio, Mayor Ron Nirenberg is up for a second term.

The races are nonpartisan, though some are unfolding through a more partisan lens — like in Fort Worth, where Price's main opponent is the chairwoman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, Deborah Peoples.

The three cities are among Texas' five most populous, home to a combined 3.7 million people. The state's largest city, Houston, will hold its mayoral election in November, and a spirited contest is already underway between incumbent Sylvester Turner and two challengers.

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In the Saturday elections, early voting started April 22 and ends Tuesday.

Here's a look at the three marquee mayoral races.

A Dallas runoff is all but certain

Nine candidates are on the ballot to replace Rawlings, who is unable to seek a third four-year term. The field is filled with viable contenders, including Eric Johnson, a Democratic state representative from Dallas; Scott Griggs, a Dallas City Council member; Miguel Solis, a Dallas school board trustee; and Mike Ablon, a real estate developer.

The race is all but guaranteed to go to a runoff. What is much less certain is which two candidates will make it.

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“There is a lot up in the air, and ... no one is head and shoulders above the crowd yet," said Clayton P. Henry, a local political consultant not involved in the mayoral election. "I think by now we would’ve seen someone take more of a lead."

Henry and other political observers believe Griggs has one of the more reliable bases of support given his vote-rich Oak Cliff council district and credibility with progressive voters. But even then, few are willing to crown a frontrunner — or frontrunners — in the unpredictable race.

Fundraising has helped distinguish some candidates. Four of them reported six-figure hauls between March 26 and April 24: Ablon, Solis, Johnson and philanthropist Lynn McBee. All four have also led in fundraising since the beginning of their campaigns.

Some candidates have also stood out for who is supporting them — like Johnson, who has emerged as the candidate of some in the Dallas business establishment, a largely Republican bunch. Another candidate, civic leader Regina Montoya, has the backing of longtime friend Hillary Clinton.

Still, uncertainty reigns supreme with days until the election — so much so that The Dallas Morning News editorial board recently passed on endorsing a single candidate. Instead, it recommended three: Johnson, McBee and Solis.

Meanwhile, a former mayor's attempt to rejoin the City Council has created high interest in another race on Saturday's ballot. The ex-mayor, Laura Miller, is hoping to unseat council member Jennifer Staubach Gates for a seat representing affluent parts of North Dallas.

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Partisanship a part of Fort Worth matchup

Of the three big mayoral races, Fort Worth's offers the most direct matchup, with just Price, Peoples and two much lesser-known candidates on the ballot. It is also has the most partisan tint — Price is known as one of the few remaining Republicans who leads a major American city, and Peoples has been the head of the county Democratic Party since 2013. The state party has endorsed her mayoral bid.

Democrats are eager to continue making inroads in the area after Beto O'Rourke, the 2018 Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, flipped Tarrant County, a remarkable achievement that called into question how much longer Texas Republicans can bank on the largest reliably red county in the state. In keeping with the political moment, Peoples has embraced O'Rourke in her run while tagging Price as "Donald Trump's favorite mayor," citing the president's praise for her as a "fantastic" friend last year.

Price has campaigned on the nonpartisan nature of the job, saying that's exactly how it should be as she works to address the needs of a fast-growing city. But Peoples has countered that citizens do not feel like they are getting a nonpartisan government and embraced her potential to be a change agent. Her campaign slogan: "It's time."

While Price has had a large financial advantage, just the presence of a credible challenger is notable. She crushed her 2017 opponent and did not face opposition when she ran for reelection in 2013 and 2015.

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"This is the first real challenger that Mayor Price has had, so that’s significant on its face," said Rebecca Deen, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. "There's enough organized, perhaps concentrated, frustration with her administration that they found someone to run against her."

A historic achievement is on the line Saturday. If Price wins a fifth two-year term, she will become the longest-serving mayor Fort Worth has ever had.

Chick-fil-A dispute livens San Antonio race

Nirenberg faces eight opponents for a second two-year term. The most serious is Greg Brockhouse, a first-term member of the San Antonio City Council who has served as a voice of opposition to Nirenberg, a former councilman who unseated former Mayor Ivy Taylor in 2017.

A former labor consultant backed by the fire and police unions, Brockhouse has pushed for a back-to-basics approach to municipal government, while Nirenberg has said he needs another term to implement his vision to transform San Antonio into a "city of the future." The mayoral matchup follows a November election in which voters approved two out of three amendments to the city's charter, backed by Brockhouse and the firefighters union, that limited the city manager's salary and strengthened the union's hand in contract negotiations. Nirenberg campaigned against all three measures.

More recently, the contest has been animated by the City Council's decision in late March to ban Chick-fil-A from the San Antonio International Airport over the company's "legacy of anti-LGBT behavior." Nirenberg has defended the move from a business perspective, noting the fast food chain is closed on Sundays, while Brockhouse has joined conservatives in decrying the ban as an attack on religious freedom. Earlier this month, he unsuccessfully sought to get the council to reconsider the decision.

Brockhouse has also had to contend with domestic violence allegations that the San Antonio Express-News brought to light last month. The allegations stem from incidents in 2006 and 2009 in which police were called, but Brockhouse was never charged. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Arturo Vega, a political science professor at St. Mary's University, said the race was mostly "ho-hum" until the Chick-fil-A episode. Vega predicted Nirenberg would win but acknowledged the contest has recently become a little more competitive than the mayor probably anticipated it would be.

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"Even though the mayor has a significant financial advantage over his challenger ... between the support that Brockhouse has from the firefighters and the police officers association, between that and this issue of Chick-fil-A, he’s been able to keep it pretty visible here over the last couple of weeks and really sort of been able to turn up the heat on the mayor," said Christian Anderson, a local political strategist who managed Taylor's campaign in 2017 but is not working for any mayoral candidate this time.

Disclosure: Miguel Solis, St. Mary's University and the University of Texas at Arlington have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.