Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
The mayors of some of Texas’ largest cities are cruising toward reelection.
The incumbents in San Antonio and Fort Worth face little opposition after the deadline to run for mayor in the May 6 election passed Friday. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson faces no challengers.
It’s a political boon for the mayors. But for nearly 3.7 million residents, there won’t be a real choice on the May mayoral ballot or high-profile debates about their cities’ future as their regions see massive growth and deal with the resulting challenges of housing, transportation and policing. Texas municipal elections often see low voter turnout — a trend that will likely worsen this year without competition at the top of the ticket.
A similar story will play out in Arlington, Texas’ seventh-most-populous city, where Mayor Jim Ross has just one challenger in May.
The blockbuster Texas mayoral race of the year will come in November, when Houston voters will elect a new leader for the state’s most populous city. The incumbent, Sylvester Turner, is term-limited, and several credible candidates have announced plans to run for the open seat, with Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire viewed as the frontrunner.
Municipal offices in Texas are nonpartisan, and mayors often try to govern that way but they can bring political backgrounds to the job that color their job performances. Johnson is a former Democratic member of the Texas House, while Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker has identified as a Republican, though she has expressed disillusionment with the current state of the GOP.
Johnson, Parker and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg have been navigating strong political crosscurrents in their backyards in recent years. Last year, Tarrant County, home to Fort Worth, elected a new leader who promised to take the county in a more conservative direction than the Republican he replaced. And in San Antonio, Nirenberg has governed amid a progressive resurgence in the city, with two members of the Democratic Socialists of America winning City Council seats in 2021.
Goodwill for Nirenberg in San Antonio
Nirenberg will likely coast to an easy win for his fourth and final two-year term, as a serious challenger failed to appear.
“Overwhelmingly, we’re seeing that people think San Antonio’s on the right track,” Nirenberg campaign manager James Aldrete said.
That’s a far cry from four years ago, when Nirenberg eked out a narrow reelection win over Greg Brockhouse, a more conservative City Council member.
But over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nirenberg built a calm and competent public profile, appearing in nightly television briefings alongside then-Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to give residents updates on the local spread of the virus as well as local officials’ efforts to deal with the virus’ ensuing fallout.
Nirenberg solidified his grip at the ballot box during the pandemic. In November 2020, three-quarters of the city’s voters approved Nirenberg’s plan to use $154 million in sales tax for job training and college degrees — a bid to unlock higher-paying jobs for the city’s low-skilled workforce.
Now, there appears to be little room for viable competition to Nirenberg's right. Two years after Brockhouse nearly took the mayor’s seat, Nirenberg beat Brockhouse again in May 2021 — this time by 30 percentage points. Last year, voters in overlapping Bexar County — a slightly more conservative jurisdiction — soundly rejected Republican candidates who thought they had a chance amid a favorable national landscape.
To an extent, Nirenberg is still living off of the goodwill he cultivated with voters during the pandemic, said local Democratic consultant Laura Barberena. Those who might have been inclined to challenge him this year likely don’t see the point in raising the vast sums of money needed to take on an incumbent — especially when he’s heading into his final term. If he’s reelected in May, Nirenberg will hit the maximum of four two-year terms a San Antonio mayor can serve.
“It doesn’t make sense that you would challenge him at this point when he really does only have two years left,” Barberena said.
Much of the drama on the May ballot in San Antonio surrounds some contentious City Council races as well as referendums on abortion, marijuana decriminalization and police reforms. Nirenberg has declined to take a position on the latter, though he told the San Antonio Report he agreed in spirit with “a lot of what’s in the petition.”
No challengers in Dallas
In Dallas, Johnson is running for a second four-year term without a single challenger. One challenger filed at the last minute Friday — Jrmar Jefferson, a former Democratic congressional candidate in East Texas — but he did not qualify for the ballot.
Johnson’s campaign said it is the first time a person has run for Dallas mayor unopposed since 1967.
“It is the greatest honor of my life to serve as the mayor of my hometown,” Johnson said in a statement. “We have achieved significant, measurable results for the residents of Dallas over the past four years, and I look forward to continuing this incredible progress in my second term.”
It was not always a given that Johnson would coast to reelection. He has clashed with some members of the City Council and openly supported their challengers in the 2021 election. He has pushed for more police funding and pointedly rejected the “defund the police” movement at a time when some of his fellow Democrats are more critical of law enforcement than ever.
Johnson left little to chance and locked down a host of early endorsements, including from the city’s police union, as well as the powerful business leaders who were key to his first election. And by the end of last year, he boasted a warchest totaling over $1.2 million, hefty for a mayoral contest.
When Michael Hinojosa announced at the start of 2022 he would step down as superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, it was widely thought he was preparing to challenge Johnson. But he announced late last year that he would not run, telling The Dallas Morning News that Johnson has “become a better mayor.”
“I think [Johnson]’s in a good position now, but one year ago, that was definitely not the story,” said Vinny Minchillo, a Republican consultant in Dallas. “He kind of reinvented himself and really turned the thing around.”
A likely win for Parker in Fort Worth
Months after Tarrant County signaled a strong conservative shift, Parker appears headed for a second two-year term without a well-funded challenger from her right — or her left.
“Fort Worth continues to be a place where we avoid partisan battles and focus on what really matters,” Parker said in a statement. “Prioritizing public safety and investing in the infrastructure to support our booming growth are the reasons why Fort Worth is a world class city. I look forward to continuing to work with our City Council and all the people of Fort Worth to build a stronger, safer Fort Worth, and to ensure that we are leaving this place better than we found it.”
Parker, the lone Republican heading Texas’ largest cities, found herself increasingly disenchanted with her party last year, going as far as to say, “I could not run in a Republican primary because I just couldn’t look myself in the mirror and do it.”
At the time, her predecessor and mentor Betsy Price — part of the county’s tradition of moderate, business-friendly Republicans — lost a GOP primary bid for Tarrant County judge to Tim O’Hare, who drew the endorsement of former President Donald Trump and garnered a reputation as a conservative firebrand.
Out of step with Republicans’ broader attacks on transgender folks, Parker defended transgender children and their families as the state pushed to label some parents of transgender youth as child abusers.
Likely, would-be challengers looking at the city’s booming job growth see a reelection fight against Parker as a steep uphill battle, said Brian Mayes, a Fort Worth consultant who has worked for Price and Parker. Voters in municipal elections also tend to be older, more educated and less concerned with partisan politics, complicating matters for any candidate who would contest Parker’s conservative bona fides.
“They don’t like the partisan bullshit that some of these candidates on the far left or far right use,” Mayes said.
Deborah Peoples, a Democrat who lost to Parker in a June 2021 runoff and to O’Hare in November, has an alternate theory.
“The far right would have to really be mad at her and she hasn’t done anything to really piss them off,” Peoples said.
Parker also didn’t attract a formidable challenger from her left. State Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., a Fort Worth Democrat, was said to launch a campaign to oust Parker but told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram he ultimately wouldn’t run against her, admitting that “she would be pretty hard to beat.”
Democrats in Tarrant County came up short in countywide elections in November, potentially dampening their enthusiasm to mount a challenge against Parker. Parker also has the backing of the Fort Worth business class, which presents a steep fundraising challenge for opponents.
“I tell people if they’re passionate, they should run,” Peoples said. “But they’re afraid because they don’t have the money.”