Houston Mayor

Houston mayoral candidates go on attack with less than two months until election

The campaigns for U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Lee Kaplan released ads last week that were critical of some of their opponents, namely state Sen. John Whitmire, whose campaign says he is keeping his messaging about himself.


Mayoral candidates (left) Texas Sen. John Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.

The battle to be mayor of Houston is technically nonpartisan, but party politics – and perceptions about party affiliations – have become part of the race as it enters its stretch run.

So has negative advertising.

The campaigns for two of the most prominent candidates on the ballot for the Nov. 7 election released attack ads last week, with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee suggesting fellow frontrunner and fellow Democrat John Whitmire, a longtime state senator, is in cahoots with Republicans and Republican supporters. Local attorney Lee Kaplan put out an ad criticizing both Jackson Lee and Whitmire as "political hacks" and "career politicians with the wrong priorities."

In the case of Jackson Lee, a polarizing figure who has represented Houston in Congress since 1995, going on the attack is likely her only path to victory, according to Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.

"Jackson Lee is not going to be able to change people's opinion of her to any great extent. It's pretty much baked in," Jones said. "So what she needs to do is raise Whitmire's negative, and especially raise Whitmire's negative among the 25-30 percent of Democrats who plan to vote for him right now in a runoff."

Jones was involved in a July poll released by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston that showed likely voters significantly favored Jackson Lee and Whitmire to the other 15 candidates vying to succeed the term-limited Sylvester Turner at City Hall. Thirty-four percent favored Whitmire and 32 percent supported Jackson Lee, with none of the other announced candidates at the time receiving more than 3 percent support in the survey.

In the event of a December runoff between the two, which is likely, the poll showed Whitmire would have an even greater advantage. A majority of Republican voters along with 28 percent of Democrats indicated they would vote for Whitmire over Jackson Lee, with nearly half of those polled saying they would not vote for Jackson Lee under any circumstance.

That makes Whitmire, who has served in the Texas Legislature for 50 years, the "de facto frontrunner," according to Jones. He said Whitmire has the luxury of keeping his pre-election messaging about himself and not about his opponents.

Sue Davis, the communications director for Whitmire's campaign, indicated in a statement to Houston Public Media that the campaign does not intend to use negative advertising. The campaign also released its first TV ad last week, with it describing a humble upbringing for Whitmire and touting his ability to work with others to solve problems.

"Our campaign will continue to tell the story of John Whitmire and what he will bring to the City of Houston as mayor," Davis said.

Jones said the second-tier candidates in the mayor's race – such as Kaplan, former METRO board chair Gilbert Garcia, Houston City Council member Robert Gallegos and former council members Jack Christie and M.J. Khan – likely need to release negative ads in order to boost their profiles as well as their chances of making a runoff or winning. So Jones said he expects at least some of them to follow Kaplan's lead in that regard.

But going on the attack can be risky, according to Jones, who said lesser-known candidates must try to strike a balance between informing voters about themselves and their stances and coming across as too combative or critical. Those candidates also cannot match the fundraising prowess that Jackson Lee and Whitmire have displayed, Jones said, and they're trying to win over many of the same voters.

"Some of them are going to have to throw some Hail Marys just to hope something somehow sticks, but it's unlikely to be successful," Jones said. "Even for those that have a decent amount of money, it's perhaps not enough to simultaneously introduce themselves to a group of voters that don't know who they are and at the same time try to bring down another candidate."

Jones said maintaining the status quo and avoiding any missteps or controversies is likely the strategy at this point for Whitmire's campaign, since he already has good name recognition and is in a leading position. Along those lines, Jones said it does not necessarily hurt Whitmire that he is currently off the campaign trail and serving in Austin for the impeachment trial of suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Missing out on mayoral candidate forums and staying somewhat in the background – beyond the political ads that are circulating – might even be beneficial to Whitmire, according to Jones.

"If you're not on the playing field, you can't commit an error," Jones said. "Once you're out there on the diamond, you could in theory commit an error."

Adam Zuvanich

Adam Zuvanich

Digital Content Producer

Adam Zuvanich writes locally relevant digital news stories for Houston Public Media. He grew up in the Houston area and earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas before working as a sportswriter in Austin, Lubbock, Odessa, St. Louis and San Antonio. Zuvanich returned home to Houston and made...

More Information