This past Saturday night was my last weekend evening in Boston as a resident. Despite this, I could find no better activity for the night than to meticulously follow and live-blog the Houston municipal runoff elections. Albeit, most of my friends have either gone home for Christmas or are intensely studying, and it did not help anyone’s social life that a foot of snow fell upon Boston over the weekend.
Needless to say, when I began to analyze the results, the biggest question in my mind was who I should crown the winner of the evening. For those who do not remember, two City Council incumbents were defeated for re-election and a third open seat saw the clear repudiation of the longstanding incumbent political regime. Because of all this, there were some (namely, the Houston Chronicle) eager to cast the night as disastrous for incumbents. Others heralded the day for Democrats or the otherwise progressive.
However, in my opinion, Mayor Annise Parker was the biggest winner of the evening. As I predicted somewhat brashly in October, a runoff election not featuring the Mayor’s race should have seen victories up and down the ballot for more conservative contenders, namely Andrew Burks defeating David Robinson. This, of course, did not happen. The reason, I believe, lies predominantly with Mayor Parker.
Shortly after winning re-election in a surprisingly lopsided race, Mayor Parker unveiled an ambitious and progressive agenda not only for her third and final term, but for the waning few weeks of her second term. A wage theft regulation, unilaterally imposing same-sex benefits and payday lending reform were just the tip of the iceberg. The big issues transformed the rather mundane Council into a flashpoint of political debate–something that simply has not happened in recent memory.
However, the issues did not split the Council by its ostensible partisan composition; rather, the Council has taken shape as a nuanced, multifaceted body with a significant amount of overlap between partisan factions. Similarities to the old days of Congress would be somewhat veracious. Attention, inner-beltway prognosticators! I have found a place where there are Liberal Republicans and Conservative Democrats sitting side-by-side, forming diverse and eye-opening coalitions. Where is this mythical place, you might say; Oz? Well, sort of. It is Houston, bagby street to be specific.
Take, for example, the recent fight over Payday lending reform. Liberal Republicans such as Stephen Costello (and, to a much lesser extent, Jack Christie) have taken the charge to fight for these theoretically Democratic principles, while Conservative Democrats such as C.O. Bradford, Andrew Burks and James Rodriguez have been the ordinance’s biggest critics.
This ideological divide was on full display in District I, were Rodriguez’s hand-picked successor candidate, Graciana Garces, lost out to the more progressive Robert Gallegos. The fight over payday lending even entered the fray there, with Gallegos using his opponent’s obstinate position of equivocation on the matter as a campaign tactic. To a lesser extent, David Robinson also benefited from distinguishing himself as a proponent of the measure, as opposed to the more critical Andrew Burks. More importantly, both Gallegos and Robinson benefited from being seen as allies of the Mayor, supportive of her manifesto.
Mayor Parker changed the tone at City Hall to one more about issues, and less about personalities. This change in tone benefited more progressive candidates for local office, who could now use the popular positions at their disposal while campaigning. All other things being equal, Graciana Garces would have been the shoe-in favorite for District I, given her experience and wide array of support from the newspaper and interest groups. But far too many in the district simply could not get past issues on her political positions, specifically the thought of turning a blind eye to the loan-sharking so ubiquitous in her district.
The Mayor lost one friend on the Council with the retirement of Melissa Noriega, but has gained two with the introduction of both Robinson and Gallegos (arguably three with the moderate Republican Brenda Stardig replacing Helena Brown). Her agenda will have more supporters sitting on the horseshoe in the biennial to come, making her the biggest winner of the night–even though her name wasn’t even on the ballot.
Noah M. Horwitz published a weekly column, “Civil Affairs,” in a Boston newspaper from 2012-2014. He has since transferred the column’s home to Texpatriate.