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In 2023, Latinos represent Houston in many elected leadership roles. There’s Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo. Harris County commissioner Lesley Briones. Harris County sheriff Ed Gonzalez. Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia.

But one place they are not, and have never been, is in the city’s top job: mayor. Houston has never had a Latino mayor, despite the fact that 44.5 percent of its residents – more than 1 million people – are Hispanic or Latino.

That juxtaposition leads to a key question: What does it take for Houston to elect a Latino mayor? 

Historically, fewer than 10 Latinos have run for Houston mayor since the 1990s. This year, three Latinos are on the mayoral ballot, making 2023 a bumper year for Latino candidacy.

But those candidates face a steep challenge in order to win the election. The two frontrunners are state Sen. John Whitmire, polling at 34 percent of the potential vote, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, with 32 percent, according to a July survey by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. Both benefit from substantial name recognition and deep pockets.

The Latinos in the running are City Councilmember Robert Gallegos, former METRO chairman Gilbert Garcia, and property management company director Roy Vasquez. On the broader question of who voters “definitely” or “might” consider voting for, 29 percent said they would consider casting a ballot for Gilbert Garcia; 27 percent said they were open to considering Robert Gallegos. However, only 3 percent of those surveyed said they intended to vote for Garcia, and 2 percent said they intended to vote for Gallegos. Vasquez joined the ballot after the UH poll was conducted.

Houston’s inability to elect a Latino mayor stands in stark contrast to nearby cities with similarly large Latino populations.

San Antonio, for example, which is 66 percent Hispanic or Latino, elected its first Latino mayor in 1981, and has elected two more since: Edward Garza and Julián Castro. In San Antonio, 40 percent of voters in the 2020 general election were Latino, compared with 20 percent in Houston.

In Austin, which is about 33 percent Hispanic or Latino, John Treviño Jr. served as acting mayor for a short time in 1983 – the city’s first Latino mayor. In 2001, Austin elected their second Latino mayor, Gus Garcia.

As for Houston, some say the milestone could come soon.

With this in mind, we spoke with experts and politicians to ask them to explain – and reflect upon – the disconnect between the number of Latinos in Houston and the absence of one in the top job.

The Interviewees

Carol Alvarado, 55, is a Democratic state senator who was elected in 2018 to represent Texas Senate District 6, which encompasses parts of Houston’s north, east, and southeast neighborhoods. Previously she served five terms in the Texas House of Representatives and two terms on Houston’s City Council.

Marc Campos, 70, has spent his career working as a political consultant at the state and local level, mostly focusing on Latino, Democratic candidates.

Adrian Garcia, 62, is running for reelection as a Harris County commissioner and ran as a Democrat for mayor in 2015. He previously served as Harris County’s first Latino sheriff from 2008 to 2015, and as a member of City Council.

Robert Jara, 67, is a Democratic political consultant who helped draw Fort Worth’s voting district lines and advocated for the creation of Houston’s City Council District J, a majority Latino district on the southwest side.

Annise Parker, 67, was the Democratic mayor of Houston from 2010 to 2016 and is the President and CEO of LGBTQ+ Victory Institute. Although not Latina, she was the second woman and first openly gay person to become Houston’s mayor.

Orlando Sanchez, 65, ran as a Republican candidate for mayor in 2001 and 2003. He is the founder of Texas Latino Conservatives. He previously served as Harris County treasurer and on City Council, and is currently campaigning for Harris County comptroller.

These experts each have a unique perspective on the Houston mayoral seat and what it takes to get there. They each agreed to talk to us separately about this topic. Below, we tap into their insight for an edited conversation.

Robert Jara, Houston campaign strategist, shows a map of Hispanic communities in Houston, Texas on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. (Joseph Bui for Abdelraoufsinno)

What do you see as the primary reason why Houston has never elected a Latino mayor?

Jara, political consultant: Latinos only represent about 20 percent or so of registered voters in Houston. So, you can talk about the [45] percent of the population. But population alone doesn’t matter in elections. And you can’t win with just 20 percent. You have to build a coalition.

Parker, former mayor: If you are a Hispanic candidate, you can’t depend on identity voting. You have to hoover up every Latino vote and a big chunk of some other community.

Alvarado, state senator: We are a majority in this city and in this state, and our voters are becoming more sophisticated, more knowledgeable. We don’t vote as much as a block as, say, the African-American community, so that makes it a big challenge.

Sanchez, former mayoral candidate: The problem [is] we are building a permanent underclass of people who cannot participate in the political process in major cities across America. Houston is an example: 40 percent Hispanic population… but no ability to participate [due to many being undocumented]. So the answer is, I'm not optimistic.

What has been the biggest obstacle for Latino candidates?

Alvarado: You have to demonstrate that you have what it takes to raise the money. I don’t know a whole lot of people that like to do this. You have to sit down and dial for dollars. That’s what it takes.

Garcia, former mayoral candidate: It was a Herculean effort. I raised about $3 million in just about five months.

Parker: If you look at the candidates this year, it's $1 million to suit up. It’s $3 to $4 million to actually run an effective, citywide campaign.

Sanchez: They have to build up … “name ID,” and that's the problem. Whoever runs either has to have deep pockets, a lot of money, or they have tremendous name ID and some money.

Parker: I know that Republican voters on the west side didn't vote for me because I'm an out lesbian. Republican voters on the west side voted for me because they watched me for six years being a watchdog on the city’s budget. You still have to have a message that strikes home, and you have to have an effective campaign that can turn people out.

Campos, political consultant: It wasn’t until Beto O’Rourke, in 2018 when he ran, that Democrats really started investing in Spanish-language TV. So that’s a medium that folks aren’t talking to. And the sad part of that is that, at least in the Houston area, they are the highest-rated newscasts – Telemundo and Univision – and they have been neglected for so long.

Marc Campos, a political adviser, points to a photo of his father, Antonio “Tony” Campos, on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Houston. (Joseph Bui for Abdelraoufsinno)

Historically, what were some pivotal milestones for Latino representation in Houston?

Jara: Back in the 70s and 80s, Texas was a conservative state, as it is now, and Houston was a conservative city. So for progressives to win, you had to put together a progressive coalition, and Latinos were part of that progressive coalition. ... Going all the way back to 1971, Leonel Castillo was elected controller citywide. Sylvia García was elected controller in [1998].

Campos: I guess that we would also have to go back to the 1979 elections, which was the first time that we had single-member districts in the city of Houston. Thirty-eight people have been elected to the five at-large positions since we went to that hybrid [at large and single-member district] system. And of the 38, only two have been Latino: Gracie Sáenz and Orlando Sanchez.

Sanchez: I was the first Hispanic immigrant ever elected citywide, and I served for six years on the City Council. In 2001, I challenged the incumbent mayor, Lee Brown. It became the most historic race in the history of Houston because more people voted in the runoff than in the general election.

Jara: What people don’t remember is that Houston’s Latino share of the population was relatively small until the mid-80s. Then it grew exponentially, but, you know, it wasn’t even close to 40 percent, it wasn’t even close to 30 percent.

Garcia: The idea of thinking I was ready to run for mayor began to emerge after I had been the first Latino to win a countywide office for sheriff. And I started thinking that the community was there, that the ability to elect someone like me, obviously was demonstrated as a possibility.

Robert Jara, Houston campaign strategist, chats about his experience and views on why a Latino mayor has yet to be elected in Houston on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. (Joseph Bui for Abdelraoufsinno)

Why San Antonio and not Houston?

Jara: You have to have the right candidate. I mean, if you look at the Latinos that have been elected mayor in San Antonio – Henry Cisneros or the Castro brothers – somebody who can bring [people] together.

Campos: What made Henry Cisneros so appealing? He was an Aggie, he was from San Antonio, bilingual, and once he got into City Council, people in San Antonio and the rest of the state [said], “Hey, this guy is going to be mayor.” [In Houston] somebody is going to have to stand up, and they are probably out there. I mentioned Carol Alvarado.

Alvarado: [Part of the challenge] is trying to reach as many Latinos as you can. Telling your story to the people who may have never voted for you and who’ve never had your name on their ballot.

Will Houston elect a Latino mayor anytime soon?

Alvarado: I think after this [election], right? I think we could see [a Latino mayor]. I don’t think it's going to happen this time but I think after this, we are well-positioned.

Sanchez: The answer would be I don’t know but I don’t think so … I’m strong on border security, but I’m pro-immigration. And what we are doing in America … is we are building a permanent underclass of Hispanics.

What do I mean by that? If you look at the city of Houston’s Hispanic population, it’s almost a little over 40 percent. That means that we should have good representation on City Council. That means of the 15, 17, 18 seats, you know, we ought to have seven seats on City Council. We are down to one.

Jara: It can happen anytime. We’ve elected a Latino and Latina city controller, so it can happen at any time.

Parker: Yes, we're gonna elect a Hispanic mayor. And that Hispanic mayor will be elected by a broad cross section of Houstonians. Because that's the way you get elected in Houston.

What would it mean to you, or the community, to have a Latino mayor?

Sanchez: Houston is made of many immigrants. And of those immigrants, a large portion are Hispanic. … When you show a little empathy and talk about issues that are important to the community, they appreciate that, they listen and they get involved.

Alvarado: When [kids] see somebody who holds these positions and they see somebody who grew up similar to them, their skin color, the last name rings a bell. … All of those things, it kind of sinks into these kids. … Because when I was growing up there was nobody like me that was in political office, and now you have so many Latino elected officials.

Jara: I think it shows that it’s a population that needs to be included, you know? That you have to give them a seat at the table. I don't think winning is necessary, but coming close, or showing that it can happen, that you need to pay attention.

Garcia: I think that to see one of the community emerge as the mayor of Houston, I think it would have allowed many, who maybe have experienced discrimination and racism in some regard, to feel like it’s finally OK to be proud of who you are.

Clarification, Sept. 11: Although in 1917 Houston elected Joseph Jay Pastoriza, a Hispanic mayor whose parents immigrated from Spain, the city has never elected a Latino whose ancestors are from Latin America.

Correction, Sept. 11: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the University of Houston poll's results. On the broader question of who voters “definitely” or “might” consider voting for, 29 percent said they would consider casting a ballot for Gilbert Garcia; 27 percent said they were open to considering Robert Gallegos. However, only 3 percent of those surveyed said they intended to vote for Garcia, and 2 percent said they intended to vote for Gallegos.

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Danya Pérez is a diverse communities reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. She returned to Houston after leaving two years ago to work for the San Antonio Express-News, where she reported on K-12 and higher...