Politics

Mary Nan Huffman trying to hold off Tony Buzbee in unusually ‘high-profile’ runoff for Houston City Council

The campaigns for the incumbent and challenger for the District G seat, which represents an affluent swath of West Houston, have combined to spend upwards of $500,000 since the Nov. 7 general election and had more than $100,000 remaining as of Dec. 1.

Mary Nan Huffman Tony Buzbee
Campaigns for Mary Nan Huffman and Tony Buzbee
Incumbent Mary Nan Huffman, right, and challenger Tony Buzbee are competing in a runoff election for the District G seat on the Houston City Council.

While a pair of well-known local politicians duke it out for the privilege of becoming Houston's next mayor, there's another runoff election for a seat at City Hall that is less consequential but perhaps more compelling.

Houston City Council member Mary Nan Huffman, who represents an affluent swath of West Houston in District G, is trying to hold off a challenge by Tony Buzbee, the flashy trial attorney and River Oaks resident who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2019. Their campaigns combined to spend upwards of $500,000 during the month between the Nov. 7 general election and Saturday's runoff, according to recently filed campaign finance reports, which show they still had more than $100,000 on hand.

That makes it an "expensive" city council race, according to University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus, a District G resident who said it appears much of those funds are being dedicated to campaign mailers. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Texas Sen. John Whitmire, who are competing in the mayoral runoff, have been running a stream of television advertisements.

"We've probably gotten more mail on G than we did in the mayor's race, and I'm sure that's consistent across the district," Rottinghaus said. "It's unusual to have a high-profile city council race, period. You generally don't see these on people's radar, but Tony Buzbee's status definitely changed the dynamics of this race."

Huffman, a former prosecutor for the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office who now works as an attorney for the Houston Police Officers' Union, got on the city council in early 2022 after winning a special election to replace Greg Travis, who stepped down to pursue another office. In her first election since then, she nearly avoided a runoff by garnering 49.5% of the 35,000-plus votes cast in November's general election.

Rottinghaus said he doesn't think a candidate with a lower profile than Buzbee, who received 41.3% of the vote, would have forced Huffman into a runoff. Still, Huffman said she was encouraged by the results in the general election, saying she didn't know if there would be a "Buzbee effect."

Buzbee has represented victims of the Astroworld Festival tragedy in 2021 as well as women who filed sexual assault lawsuits against former Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. Less than two months before the general election, Buzbee also represented Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in an impeachment trial in which he was acquitted by the Texas Senate.

"I think that Nov. 7 was a good kind of report card," Huffman said. "I've been in office for over a year-and-a-half and people are happy with the job that I'm doing. I feel very confident about Saturday. I think people in District G are smart. I don't think that two months of mailers and paid block walkers beats two years of public service."

A request to interview Buzbee or a representative of his campaign was not granted before the time of publication.

He has largely self-funded his campaign, making three personal loans totaling $850,000, while reporting about $49,000 in donations during the most recent reporting period, after which he had more than $60,000 in cash on hand. Among his donors was Tilman Fertitta, the Landry's Inc. CEO who owns the Houston Rockets.

Buzbee has been endorsed by four former District G council members, including Travis. Combatting crime has been a focal point of his campaign.

Huffman said her focus during the runoff has been fundraising in an attempt to match Buzbee's campaign spending. She reported more than $158,000 in contributions during November, during which her campaign spent about $170,000, and it had about $44,000 remaining.

Huffman has touted her accomplishments on city council, including the reopening of a library that flooded during Hurricane Harvey and helping to shepherd nearly 50 infrastructure projects in District G. She also has contributed $350,000 in council district service funds to the Houston Police Department and said she has the support of local law enforcement, with endorsements from the police officers' union and other law enforcement organizations, along with three Harris County constables.

Interacting with homeowners' associations, civic groups and individual voters also has been a focus for Huffman, who said she's still acquainting herself with her constituents. It's unusual for an incumbent to have less name recognition than the challenger, she acknowledged.

"He has name recognition, but it's not all positive, and so that's kind of what I've seen in this race," Huffman said. "People have very strong feelings about my opponent, one way or another. Although he has name recognition, it's not all good."

Regarding Buzbee's recent representation of Paxton, who has been a divisive figure among Texas Republicans and faces a long-pending felony securities fraud trial in Houston in the spring, Rottinghaus said that figures to both help and hurt Buzbee. Some right-leaning voters will support Buzbee because of that, while others won't, Rottinghaus said.

Rottinghaus also said he's seen a "healthy number of yard signs for both candidates" in District G, although not many new ones since the general election. He characterized the runoff as "kind of sleepy."

"I give (Huffman) the edge because she's the incumbent, and she's had extra time to be able to deliver for voters," Rottinghaus said. "But Tony Buzbee is a known political quantity. For voters who want to see a shakeup at City Hall, he's the candidate that can accomplish that."