At least six candidates have made it clear they’re running for mayor of Houston this year: former City Council member Chris Bell, former Kemah Mayor and newspaper columnist Bill King, former Houston City Attorney Ben Hall, city council members Oliver Pennington and Stephen Costello, and state Rep. Sylvester Turner.
Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia is also a likely candidate.
Especially for the council members in the race, they’re taking the next step in a promising political career, right?
Well, not so fast.
“In the 35 years I’ve been in Houston, only one candidate — office holder, successful office holder of the Houston mayor position — has ever run for higher office,” says Bob Stein, a professor of political science at Rice University.
That candidate he refers to is Bill White, who ran for governor in 2010. But of course, he lost to incumbent Rick Perry.
Stein says there are several reasons why mayors of big cities — not just Houston — don’t often succeed when they run for higher office. One is that their popularity usually doesn’t extend past the city limits and the voters of that city aren’t enough to make a difference in a statewide race. And then there’s the politics.
“Being a big city mayor makes you take positions on issues that are clearly — in this state, at least, and for many states — much more liberal, much more progressive, that reflect a constituency that is non-Anglo, that is younger and tends to be more diverse,” Stein says.
For Bill White, a Democrat who won three elections for Houston mayor, the fact that he wasn’t willing to adjust to a different electorate may have been one reason why he lost the governor’s race.
I caught up with White in the downtown offices of Lazard Houston, a financial consulting firm White chairs.
“I don’t modify messages,” he says. “I just say what I think is right and the direction of the state and don’t tailor it for particular party or constituency.”
White says after he lost the gubernatorial election, he didn’t consider running for another office and he was happy to return to the private sector.
“I like building companies, so I’m not, let’s say, addicted to holding office like some of the career politicians seem to be,” White says.
That sounds a little like White’s predecessor, Lee Brown.
Brown says he’s not a politician and only ran for mayor because many people urged him to run. He previously was Houston’s police chief and has held other public safety positions, including director of national drug control policy under President Bill Clinton.
He says he never considered any other elected office but liked being mayor because it was hands-on.
“Every day you could do something to make a difference, whether it’s helping one individual or doing something to make the city a better place,” Brown says.
Brown, who’s 74, now runs a public safety consulting firm. Being in charge is something else he has in common with White.
That may not be a coincidence.
Stein, the political scientist, says once you’re in an executive position, it’s hard to go back. That leaves few options for mayors who aspire for higher office.
“Mayors of big cities often have enormous power and as an executive they don’t share that power,” Stein says. “There’s not many other offices, other than governor or president of the United States, that would be, how can I say, comparable. And it’s hard to become a U.S. senator, one of 100, when you’ve been one of one.”
So what about this year’s candidates for mayor?
Stein says several of them have already indicated that this will be the highest office they seek.
As for current Mayor Annise Parker, term limits keep her from running for re-election in November.
She has said she may run for another office. But for now, she’ll take a break from politics.