If you didn’t sleep through your government classes in high school, you likely remember hearing something about the “power of incumbency.” People who hold political office – especially on the local level – have a built-in advantage to win re-election as long as term limits don’t get in the way.
There’s no better example of this power than the vaunted U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who has been elected to Congress a miraculous 13 times.
Actually, it’s not miraculous at all. Jackson Lee defines this power of incumbency better than any politician I’ve observed. Because she has held office for so long, she has steered funds and grants and goodwill to so many people across her district that she’s virtually a shoe-in to win re-election again next year. No candidate, regardless of political acumen, has a snowball’s chance of defeating her because no one has had access to the sort of government loot she’s had to pass around her constituency.
In most cases, this power of incumbency makes local politicians, namely mayors, nearly impossible to defeat. If you go back to the five mayors who preceded Sylvester Turner, you’ll see the same thing. Kathy Whitmire (who did lose in her attempt for a sixth term), served as mayor for five terms from 1982-1992. Interestingly, she lost to Bob Lanier, in large part, because she wanted to build a monorail system in Houston – oh if only.
Lanier won election in 1992 and he was the first mayor to fall under the city’s newly passed amendment that allowed three 2-year terms for elected city officials. Lee Brown served his limited three terms from 1998-2004, Bill White served three terms from 2004-2010, and Annise Parker reached her limit, thankfully, in 2016.
In other words, it’s a fairly safe bet that once you’re elected mayor of Houston, your chances of serving the full allotment of terms is about 100 percent over the past half century. Unless you’re the aforementioned Sylvester Turner.
We’ve got a long way to go to November, but if you have any interest in city politics, Turner is at real risk of being the first one-term mayor since “The Judge” Roy Hofeinz, who only served one term from 1953-1955, probably because he had too much money to make.
On the November ballot, Turner’s toughest opponents will be Bill King (slogan: Clean Up City Hall) and Tony Buzbee (slogan: It’s Time for Real Change). In reality, I don’t think King or Buzbee are actually Turner’s real challengers. Instead, I think he’s running against Bill White and Annise Parker, two former mayors who let some real city problems trickle down our dilapidated infrastructure. Parker, specifically, didn’t address the mounting pension problems, and she left a mess for whichever poor soul took her place.
In the mayoral campaign of 2015, about a billion people ran for mayor, with Turner and King forced into a run-off. The key issue for the entire campaign was how the city of Houston would address the pension issues crippling our municipal finances.
The pensions at play included municipal workers, the police department and the firefighters. Of course, the city had other big issues – rotting infrastructure, potholes galore, and a general sense that not a whole lot had been done for the past six years to improve city government.
It didn’t matter who we elected mayor in 2015, because either Turner or King would have walked into a tempest of angry employees and anxious constituents. Unfortunately for Turner, he won and began dutifully attacking each of the issues one-by-one.
You can say anything you want about Turner, and much of the criticism is fair. He’s had some bad seeds in his administration, and they’ve cost him credibility with voters. He’s also tried to pass some contracts under the table to businesses that likely weren’t properly vetted. I’m a pragmatist on things like this: All politicians try to support the people and businesses who support them.
Regardless, Turner (like most elected officials) has plenty of areas where he’s fallen short in his responsibility. However, I don’t think those things are going to matter when the November election rolls around.
Turner’s risk of serving only one term comes from the entire mess with the firefighters. Voters passed a measure, Proposition B, to pay firefighters on an equal basis, based on rank, with our police force. Turner, under the umbrella of fiscal responsibility, warned the city could go broke, supported a lawsuit reversing the voters’ decision, and his public battle with the beloved firefighters hangs around his neck like a bad letter. Last week, he said he may have to lay off 400 firefighters, and other municipal workers may lose their jobs to fund pay raises for firefighters.
Instead of giving you more reasons, I’ll share what one of our city’s most astute political observers, Dr. Robert Stein of Rice University, said about Turner’s dilemma:
“My sense is that Proposition B has the potential to undermine the mayor’s reelection on several fronts. First, he is upside down with his base. Among supporters of the Mayor nearly 70 percent voted in favor of Proposition B,” Stein told me in an email. “If we assume pay parity for firefighters is still a salient issue to his base, the mayor’s electoral fortunes might be in trouble. This possibility remains a problem for the mayor’s reelection if he and the firefighters cannot find a way to compromise on a 3- versus 5-year phase in of Prop B.
“Second, firefighters remain a major player in the November’s election for mayor and city council,” Stein continued. “They proved how effective they can be last November, and I suspect their field operations can make a significant difference in this November’s election.”
Next, Stein said that if Turner is forced to lay off workers and cut library and park budgets, he may not be able to avoid the “public’s wrath by claiming the ‘firefighters made me do it.’”
The last point Stein made is fascinating: “Firefighters remain respected, especially during the hurricane season that immediately precedes this November’s election. Another hurricane or severe weather episode would only enhance the public’s regard and support for firefighters and their endorsed candidates.”
Turner has had his share of wins and losses during his administration. If he doesn’t find a better solution to the firefighter pay issue, the power of incumbency won’t matter a bit.