The unpredictable and unorthodox race for Houston mayor narrowed Tuesday to a choice between a veteran City Hall insider trying to become Houston's first openly gay leader and a former civil rights activist hoping to become only the second African-American to run the nation's fourth-largest city.
City Controller Annise Parker and former City Attorney Gene Locke, the two candidates originally predicted by many to prevail at the race's outset, face each other in a Dec. 12 runoff.
Although no outcome could qualify as completely unexpected in one of the closest mayoral elections in recent memory, the big surprise of the night was the strong showing by Roy Morales, the race's only conservative. The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, who ran with virtually no money and no endorsements compared to his opponents, placed only a few percentage points behind City Councilman Peter Brown, who poured more than $3.2 million of his family fortune into his candidacy.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties, Parker led the field with 31 percent of the vote, followed by Locke at 26 percent. Brown came in third at 22 percent, trailed by Morales at 20 percent. Three other minor candidates on the mayoral ballot totaled 1 percent.
Addressing a jubilant crowd at the Hilton Americas-Houston a little after 10 p.m., Parker looked ahead to the runoff.
“This race is not over,” she said. “Join me at headquarters tomorrow. We'll get back to work, and in five weeks, we'll claim victory.”
Declaring himself an underdog who relished winning against the odds, Locke acknowledged that his path would be difficult but not impossible.
“My life has been an uphill battle. I kind of like where I am now,” he said as supporters filtered out of the Hyatt Regency ballroom late Tuesday night. “I'm on my home turf, coming from behind and pulling ahead.”
Brown conceded at 11:05 p.m. as the final totals showed no possibility for the outcome to be reversed. The results in Harris County showed a steady decline for the architect and urban planner, who was the front-runner just weeks ago. He fared best among absentee voters who cast their ballots early, taking in more than a third of the vote. In the early voting, he dropped nearly 10 percentage points and fell further on Election Day.
An “URGENT” Facebook message to supporters just before 3 p.m. offered a window into the state of mind of the Brown campaign as Election Day came to an end.
“This race is tight!” the message said. “The polls are beyond close, and it's going to be down to the wire. We need everything you've got. We need you to come by our field office. Bring your cell phone. Bring your charger. WE NEED YOU NOW.”
“This is not a speech that I wanted to give or that you wanted to hear, but the people have spoken,” Brown told a crowd of supporters at the Heights Theater that had begun to dwindle. He said that many of the ideas and policies he introduced in his campaign have been taken up by the other candidates.
“All of you need to get involved in this runoff,” Brown said. “I don't know what I'm going to do in this runoff, but my voice will be heard, I'll tell you that.”
Republican consultant Allen Blakemore predicted weeks ago that Brown could be in trouble if Morales crossed the 20 percent barrier.
“It's just a question of the constituency and where the votes are coming from,” Blakemore said. “Roy Morales is not taking votes away from Gene Locke in the African-American community, or Annise Parker in Montrose. He's taking votes from Peter among right-of-center Anglo voters. That was where Peter built his house of cards, and late, when those folks started cluing in to the race, they started to vote for Roy Morales. Peter's whole deal collapsed on him.”
Margins not that close
Morales refused to concede before all the returns had come in.
About 50 of his supporters stood in a circle and held hands while Eric Story led them in a prayer.
“Lord give us victory. We're going to fight as conservatives,” said Story. “We're going to see our city and our state and our nation turn around. God, it's not over. We can't stand by and see the lifestyle that's assuming she's going to win take office.”
The margins between the candidates were not nearly so close in 2003, the last mayoral election with no incumbent. After a hard-fought contest in which the three main candidates had been lobbing attacks for months and an unknown Bill White spent a record $6 million, the business executive and eventual winner took home 38 percent of the vote. Former City Councilman Orlando Sanchez, who ran as he had two years before on his conservative bona fides, had 32 percent and Sylvester Turner, a longtime African-American state representative, had 28 percent.
No attacks as in past
In the 1997 contest, the only other race in which there was no incumbent after the city adopted term limits, Lee Brown, a former police chief, had a commanding lead after the general election with 41 percent of the vote. Conservative Rob Mosbacher made the runoff with 29 percent of the vote.
While those campaigns were characterized by frequent attacks and occasionally testy interaction between the candidates, this year's race was tame for all but the final 10 days. From the early months of this year, the candidates focused almost exclusively on issues, policy ideas and endorsements. But many of their prescriptions for fixing the city's problems with crime, transportation and economic development differed only in nuance, leaving voters with little to distinguish one from the other.
Chronicle reporters James Pinkerton, Carolyn Feibel, Mike Tolson, Allan Turner, Joe Holley, Renee C. Lee, Dale Lezon, Lindsay Wise, Susan Carroll and Jennifer Latson contributed to this report.
Some good news from Texas at least.