As voters head to the polls this November, the face of Houston’s city government could change drastically with all 18 city offices included on the ballot for this election.
For residents of Clear Lake, this means being able to decide among 12 candidates for mayor, two candidates for District E and over 30 candidates for the council’s five at-large positions with the influence and responsibilities that the mayor of Houston has along with the geographically divided nature of the District E, Clear Lake voters will have a say in deciding the future of their local government representation.
“A lot of people have misconceptions about how government works locally or [don’t] pay any attention to it, which is a problem because so much happens that affects our lives in local government,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston.
A CONTESTED ELECTION
With 11 candidates running for mayor against incumbent Sylvester Turner, this year’s election is more contested than any Houston mayoral race featuring an incumbent candidate since the 2001 election.
Rottinghaus attributes the higher number of candidates to partisan politics trickling down to local elections, even elections that are supposedly nonpartisan such as those in Houston.
“Republicans are fearful that if they don’t compete, then they’ll never have a footing to be able to win Houston in the future, and there’s probably some risk at least in the short term of that being true,” Rottinghaus said. “Obviously on the ballot they don’t have D’s or R’s next to their names, but realistically everyone has figured out how the partisan breakdown has come about.”
Along with political party motivation to enter the mayoral contest, modern technology has made it easier for would-be candidates to promote themselves and help raise money for a potential campaign, effectively lowering the difficulty of getting one’s name on the ballot for mayor.
“Candidates have seen a new political world where the barriers for running for office are smaller. For very little money, you can put together a media plan, a website presence, be on social media and raise money all from your iPhone,” Rottinghaus said. “It’s an interesting change in politics that gives more people the chance to run.”
In District E, this will be the first race since 2009 to feature an opposing candidate, with incumbent Council Member Dave Martin having run unopposed in the previous two city elections.
With the district being geographically separated into two distinct sections with every previous representative of the district since 2001 having come from either Kingwood or Lake Houston, some residents in other areas of the district have concerns about having their interests fairly represented in city government.
“Clear Lake and Kingwood are the two major population areas in District E, and because City Council districts aren’t very politically partisan, the ‘split’ in elections can come down to Clear Lake versus Kingwood each backing their own candidates for representation,” District E resident Brian Schrock said. “If a candidate from Clear Lake wins, Kingwood may not feel represented, but if a candidate from Kingwood wins, Clear Lake may not feel represented.”
A SPLIT DISTRICT
The idea of splitting the oddly shaped District E to provide equal representation to the north and south sections of the district is not unheard of. Martin suggested taking a look at redrawing the district’s boundaries after the 2020 census.
“The council district that I represent, I’ve always thought that it was a ridiculously arranged council district, and I think everybody who’d look at the map would say it is,” Martin said during a council meeting in July. “I’ve always felt that the folks in Clear Lake do indeed deserve their own representation there because it is tough for someone to drive 60 miles on their weekend to get to a certain area that’s not contiguous.”
Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, said he does not support the idea of splitting District E due to Martin’s fair representation of both sections of the district.
“[Martin] spends as much time in the Clear Lake area as he does in the Kingwood area,” Mitchell said. “Yes, it’s a crazy-shaped district, but just simply because of his leadership and attention to detail for the entire district, I probably wouldn’t support splitting it.”
Despite the geographical distance between the northern and southern parts of District E as well as the support its residents might have for splitting it, Rottinghaus said a split would be unlikely even after the census results were released.
“They’ve talked about this before, and I think that everyone is sympathetic given how unusually shaped it is, but how to go about doing it is really the sticking point,” Rottinghaus said. “It would require [the city]to focus a lot on this issue, which is not a high priority issue for most, and it would also require them to redraw several of the districts surrounding E, and that also creates political issues for the members in those districts.”
THE CITY’S STRUCTURE
Unlike the majority of cities in Texas, the structure of Houston’s city government operates under the strong mayor-council system, with Houston’s mayor having more responsibilities and influence on the direction of the city than mayors in a manager-council structure.
Instead of serving a role similar to that of a council member, the Houston mayor is responsible for setting the agenda for council meetings, general management of the city and acting as both the city’s official representative and chief administrator.
Rottinghaus compared the role of Houston’s mayor to that of a chief executive of a legislative body that is the city council.
“The difference is that it gives the mayor the ability to set the agenda, which is unique to a strong-mayor system. In most other big cities, it’s run by a city administrator,” Rottinghaus said. “That, in general, gives the council members less power.”
The council itself is composed of a hybrid between 11 council members elected to represent their geographically defined districts and five council members elected at large, unlike many cities that instead opt to have one or the other.
Aside from having a voice and vote during council meetings to represent the interests of their constituents over agenda items brought before them, each council member is given funding to spend on projects for their district, with the amount of funding given being determined by a mixture of a district’s population and perceived need.
“Council members never think they have enough money because the number of projects they could engage in are likely endless, but the city has to balance the distribution of funds to make it more or less equitable,” Rottinghaus said.