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The election for Houston mayor will come down to two longtime Democrats with similar policy plans but important differences in style and specifics.

The Dec. 9 runoff pits state Sen. John Whitmire against U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee after a bruising home stretch of the campaign where the pair tried to draw distinctions between each other.

They advanced to this stage of the campaign by finishing in first and second place in the Nov. 7 general election without either receiving more than 50 percent of the vote. Whitmire received 42.5 percent of the more than 250,000 votes cast, leading Jackson Lee by just under seven percentage points.

Both have held elected office in Houston for decades, Whitmire as a pragmatic Democrat operating in the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature and Jackson Lee as an outspoken member of party leadership in a partisan Congress.

They promise to bring the knowledge they have gained in their respective roles to Houston to improve the city.

“I would contrast them as, Sheila Jackson Lee is big picture, looking to the future, more visionary,” said Nancy Sims, a University of Houston political analyst. “John Whitmire, as I like to call him, Mister Fix It. He gets more tactical in how he’ll run the city.”

Dec. 9 city runoff elections

Early voting runs through Dec. 5.

There are 41 early voting locations. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Other runoffs on the ballot include the race for city controller and seven City Council seats.

Both candidates promise to improve public safety, fix roads dotted with potholes and make city services more efficient, but they differ on solutions and specifics.

Jackson Lee makes large overtures, promising to fix all roads through effective government while Whitmire tends to dive into the details to offer specific solutions for particular roads, Sims said.

At forums and debates in recent months, Jackson Lee has promised to appoint a “czar” in her mayoral cabinet dedicated to issues she has been asked about. She has pledged to hire an LGBTQ+ rights czar, an affordable housing czar, a transportation czar and a homelessness czar at separate events.

“It’s kind of a dodge,” said Richard Murray, a retired UH political science professor. “‘We’ve got this problem, I’ll appoint one person to manage this.’”

Both candidates have promised to grow the Houston Police Department ranks to fight crime in the city. HPD employs roughly 5,200 officers and nearly 900 civilian support staff, but it needs at least 2,000 more officers and 600 more civilian personnel to be fully staffed, according to HPD. The city has allocated additional funding for cadet classes in hopes of closing the gap but still finds itself far from the goal due to a lack of funding for pay and an aging police force.

Jackson Lee says she hopes to attract talent to swell the ranks with a focus on community policing. That will include expanding current cadet classes and pursuing federal money for the police department and mental health crisis task forces.

Whitmire echoes much of that plan, but says there is an immediate need for more law enforcement on the streets of Houston. He has promised to invite 200 Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to patrol the city to supplement HPD’s depleted police force.

The largest policy contrast between the two is their stance on the Houston Independent School District state takeover, even though the Houston mayor does not have any direct control of the school district.

Jackson Lee has been outspoken against the takeover for months, taking a similar stance as Mayor Sylvester Turner by publicly ridiculing the takeover and state-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles’ policies.

Whitmire says he disagrees with the takeover, but has promised to work with Miles to ensure local trustees will regain control of HISD as quickly as possible. Whitmire said he met with Miles this fall and told him he disagrees with his style when interacting with the public, but the pair agreed to meet monthly going forward to discuss progress.

Otherwise, the candidates share many of the same goals as mayor, promising big improvements to the city government.

Below is a side-by-side comparison of the pair’s promises and stances on seven issues, gleaned from their remarks in campaign forums, debates and questionnaires.

Crime and public safety

With public safety the cornerstone issue of the campaign, and a top priority for Houston voters, both candidates have said they will prioritize lowering Houston's violent crime rate by hiring more police officers and directing funds toward programs intended to improve public safety. Both candidates say they will keep HPD Chief Troy Finner on the job. Jackson Lee also has said she wants to work closely with Houston’s super neighborhoods to implement and receive feedback on the community policing initiatives.

Jackson Lee: She laid out an eight-step plan to lower Houston’s crime rate by expanding cadet classes, partnering with federal law enforcement, opening police storefronts in high-crime areas, expanding mental health services and creating a new task force to combat domestic violence and human trafficking. Jackson Lee said she largely intends to fund these initiatives through federal appropriations, leaning on her position as a U.S. representative to shake money out of the federal government.

Whitmire: Public safety initiatives have been at the forefront of his campaign since its launch. Whitmire promises to hire civilians to work HPD administrative jobs, freeing officers doing that work to move to street patrols. Whitmire wants to improve community policing initiatives, provide more training on how to handle mental health crises and expand after school activities for Houston’s youth. He has said the city cannot wait for these programs to take effect, pitching a partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety to bring 200 state troopers to help patrol Houston streets.

City Budget

Houston faces a budget crisis by 2025 unless it finds a way to cut spending or increase revenue, according to Controller Chris Brown. Both candidates have provided few specifics about how they will balance the city budget.

Jackson Lee: She promises to be transparent with City Council members and work with experts to devise a “realistic budget that will still maintain city services and allow the city to grow.” She hopes to create public/private partnerships that can save the city money and fill budgetary holes left by expiring American Rescue Plan Act funds with other federal grants.

Whitmire: He says it is difficult to know exactly what the solution will be because of a lack of transparency from the current administration. He has promised to be transparent once he gets “a look under the hood” and develops a long-term strategy. Whitmire has suggested consolidating some of the city’s 25 departments and combining city services with the county on such things as parks, libraries and public health.

Affordable Housing

Polling shows improving housing affordability is a top priority for Houstonians. Evictions skyrocketed in the city after a COVID-era moratorium ended in 2020, and have remained high since. The city’s decision to end a $60 million affordable housing project funded by federal disaster recovery funds because it was going to miss the deadline for completion became a campaign issue as candidates promised to improve the Houston Housing and Community Development and city permitting departments to prevent future projects from falling through the cracks. 

Jackson Lee: She said she hopes to build multifamily housing and preserve existing affordable housing in Houston by incentivizing its construction, implementing rent control programs and providing stronger eviction protections for tenants. Jackson Lee has promised to coordinate that work by hiring an affordable housing czar dedicated to the task. She also said she would audit the city housing and permitting departments to identify wasteful spending.

Whitmire: He has vowed to audit and revamp the city housing and permitting departments, saying inefficiencies are making it more difficult to build in the city and increasing the costs for homebuyers. Whitmire says he would like to expand rental and foreclosure assistance to prevent the city’s eviction crisis from deepening.

Improving City Services

Inconsistent garbage collection, faulty water infrastructure and other city services in need of improvement have been a consistent theme on the campaign trail. Budgetary shortfalls have created a situation for candidates where opportunities to throw money at the issues will be difficult. Leading up to the general election, some candidates floated a garbage fee to further fund that service, but Jackson Lee and Whitmire have not committed to the idea.

Jackson Lee: She says she wants to root out of inefficiencies in city government to create more funding for services. She also has expressed a willingness to work with the county to pool resources for such issues as drainage, and the federal government to acquire grant money to cover further funding needs.

Whitmire: Says he will order city departments to make customer service their No. 1 priority. From there, he plans to order an accounting of city enterprise funds to locate inefficiencies. Further overhaul of the city government will be implemented by reviewing existing contracts to identify overlapping services, reviewing outsourced labor to see if it would be more cost-effective in-house and moving to a 100 percent paperless process for all city contracts to save money.

Transit and Transportation

Metro is at the center of both candidates’ plans to improve transportation in Houston. The mayor does not have direct control of Metro, but does appoint members to its board. Jackson Lee again leans on her federal government experience in hopes of acquiring grant funding to improve the service, while Whitmire has expressed a need for Metro to reassess its priorities in a post-pandemic world. Both candidates express a willingness to build more bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure while also improving city roads. Funding those infrastructure projects promises to be the most difficult hurdle for the next mayor.

Jackson Lee: Says she hopes to expand Metro and install more bike-friendly infrastructure to give residents more alternative transportation options. She cites her role in allocating previous congressional funds for Metro and says she will be aggressive in seeking out federal grants to further improve the service. Jackson Lee points to the massive pot of federal funds for infrastructure projects becoming available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021, and says her connections in Washington, D.C., will help the city when applying for those dollars.

Jackson Lee has been an opponent of efforts to expand Interstate 45, pushing the Texas Department of Transportation to negotiate with the city to include parks and green space and replace affordable housing lost by the highway’s expansion. In a recent forum, she promised to keep a close eye on the project to ensure TxDOT is following the terms of the agreement.

Whitmire: Says he supports Metro’s multimodal system, but says the public transit agency needs to reassess its plans to address decreased ridership since the pandemic began. He says he would like to see the agency explore HOV express buses due to their affordability and efficiency compared to other forms of public transportation. Whitmire also wants the agency to expand circulating bus routes around job centers to increase ridership by getting riders closer to their final destinations. He promised to appoint Metro board members who will eliminate rider fees.

Like Jackson Lee, Whitmire points to his current office, saying his position in the Texas Senate will allow him to closely work with the TxDOT and the Legislature to secure funding for roads, sidewalks and bike lanes. Whitmire is a vocal supporter of the I-45 expansion, saying it is critical to ensuring commuters have easy access to downtown Houston. He said the two-year pause while an agreement was created between TxDOT and the city was a mistake that has allowed the project’s cost to balloon by $3 billion.

Disaster Readiness

Mayor Turner frequently notes the seven federally declared disasters that have occurred in Houston since he took office in 2015. Both candidates say it is a matter of when, not if, another serious disaster will occur during the next mayor’s tenure.

Jackson Lee: Jackson Lee again emphasizes her work in Congress, noting its role in appropriating disaster response funds after each of Houston’s recent catastrophes. She says she would like to improve Houston’s disaster readiness by producing more information for residents in all of the languages spoken by the city’s residents. She also has said she would request a review of the city’s disaster response plans and rework them where needed. Jackson Lee said the city needs to strengthen partnerships with area governments and the federal government to fund flood control projects.

Whitmire: He says more attention is needed on the city’s Office of Emergency Management to ensure it is fully staffed in the event of a disaster. Whitmire says he would like the office to create plans to coordinate with nonprofits to improve disaster response at all levels. He also said the city needs to expand its messaging in languages other than English to ensure the information reaches all residents. Whitmire said the city needs to continue spending money to clear channels and ditches and coordinate with area governments on regional flood control projects.

Parks and green space

Candidates were asked about their plans to improve and expand Houston’s parks and green spaces during an October forum on the topic. Roughly $32 per resident is spent on parks and greenspace, among the lowest level of spending per resident for any big city in the country. Polling shows residents generally support efforts to increase city spending on parks, but both Jackson Lee and Whitmire were wary of committing to any dedicated fees.

Jackson Lee: She noted her work in Congress to create the National Emancipation Trail from Galveston to Houston and said there are more opportunities for partnerships across governments to bring parks and additional green space to Houston. She expressed a willingness to find additional streams of revenue for parks, but declined to commit to supporting a fee dedicated to that purpose.
Whitmire: He lamented the lack of city and county partnerships on the topic and said he would work to combine Harris County and Houston efforts to create new parks in a bid to save money. Such a program should prioritize parks near low-income neighborhoods, he said.

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Abdelraoufsinno. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...