Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is heading to a runoff against high-profile attorney Tony Buzbee in his rowdy reelection race.
With all vote centers reporting Wednesday morning, Turner had 47% of the vote in unofficial returns to 28% for Buzbee. Turner was around 7,800 votes short of winning enough of the vote — over 50% — to avert an overtime round.
The runoff is set for Dec. 14.
Bill King, who narrowly lost to Turner in the 2015 mayoral runoff, came in third Tuesday with 14%, while City Councilman Dwight Boykins finished fourth with 6%. Turner faced 11 challengers, but only a few were seen as serious.
There was massive delay in results from Harris County, where the almost-complete numbers were not released until about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. Still, the overall order did not change through the night and morning, as Turner’s percentage hovered below 50% and Buzbee persisted as the clear runner-up.
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Turner is fighting for a second term leading Texas’ biggest city and the fourth most populous in the country. The race was nonpartisan, though Turner, a former longtime Democratic state representative, dogged Buzbee over his past financial support for President Donald Trump, an unpopular figure in the solidly blue city.
Turner persisted with the Trump-themed contrast Wednesday morning, saying in a statement, “The good news about this runoff is that Houstonians have a very simple and very clear choice for mayor: An experienced leader who has been delivering for Houston for more than 30 years? Or a Donald Trump imitator who has no experience, no ideas and will say anything, do anything or spend anything to get elected?”
At a post-election news conference Wednesday afternoon, Buzbee promised a “full-on slugfest” in the runoff while repeatedly arguing the second round should focus on city issues and Turner's record rather than the president.
“I’m not going to allow this mayor to make this some sort of national referendum on Donald Trump, who’s not here,” Buzbee said. “Donald Trump’s not running. I’m my own person.”
Throughout the contest, Buzbee presented himself as a political outsider determined to clean up city hall corruption. Along the way, he self-funded his campaign to the tune of $10 million, refusing donations from others to show he would not be beholden to anyone.
Asked Wednesday how much he plans to spend in the runoff, Buzbee said he has not “even considered it” and vowed to spend “whatever it takes to beat this corrupt mayor.”
The news conference was Buzbee's first public appearance since he gave a boisterous, rambling speech at his Election Night party while wearing what he said were his “Marine Corps greens.” Asked Wednesday about the perception he was drunk, Buzbee shot back: “That’s just silly. I don’t have a response to that. It’s dumb. I mean, I was tired, and it was a long day.”
Turner’s first term saw him secure a landmark overhaul of the city’s pension system and guide the city through Hurricane Harvey in 2017. But it also featured a bitter pay dispute with the city’s firefighters that ramped up as he was gearing up for reelection late last year.
The issue, however, fizzled in May when a state district judge struck down the voter-approved proposition at the center of the fight. The firefighters union endorsed Boykins after supporting Turner in 2015.
Polls taken before Tuesday showed that Turner would easily beat Buzbee in a runoff, though Buzbee can sink more of his considerable wealth into the contest. And it remains to be seen whether Buzbee has any more tricks up his sleeve after a first round in which he latched onto salacious stories like the hiring of a $95,000-a-year airport intern whom Turner initially denied knowing despite evidence to the contrary. Turner has defended the decision to hire the intern, saying his pay is consistent with his credentials and experience, among other things.
Disclosure: Tony Buzbee and the Texas Secretary of State 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.