Houston mayor’s race heads to runoff between US Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and state Sen. John Whitmire

Jackson Lee is vying to become the city’s first Black female mayor

HOUSTON (AP) — The race for Houston mayor headed to a runoff Tuesday night between U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and state Sen. John Whitmire, two Democrats who breezed past a wide field of candidates in a race dominated by issues of crime, crumbling infrastructure and potential budget shortfalls.

If elected, Jackson Lee would be Houston’s first Black female mayor, a meaningful change for America’s fourth-largest city. Since 1995, she has represented Houston in Congress. Whitmire has lapped his rivals in fundraising after five decades in the Texas Legislature, where he has helped drive tough-on-crime policies while also casting himself as a reformer.

Democratic Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee speaks at a Washington, D.C. press conference last year calling for the expansion of the Supreme Court. J (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Take Back the Court Action Fund)

The runoff will be Dec. 9.

Jackson Lee and Whitmire — two of Houston’s main political fixtures — spent months dominating the open mayoral race that drew 17 candidates on the ballot and a write-in candidate. But neither could pass the threshold of more than 50% of the vote, which is necessary to avoid a runoff.

Jackson Lee, 73, and Whitmire, 74, have touted their experience in a race to lead one of the youngest major cities in the U.S.

Their high profiles and fundraising prowess left the other candidates scrambling to get any traction in the race.

About two weeks before the election, Jackson Lee’s campaign had to contend with the release of an unverified audio recording, which is purported to capture her berating staff members with a barrage of expletives.

Booming growth over the last decade has caused municipal headaches but has also turned the Houston area into an expanding stronghold for Texas Democrats. Although the mayoral race is nonpartisan, most of the candidates are Democrats.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) holds a copy of the Constitution as she speaks during a House Judiciary Committee markup hearing on the Articles of Impeachment against President Donald Trump at the Longworth House Office Building on Thursday, December 12, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Andrew Harrer – Pool/Getty Images)

The next mayor will likely have to deal with challenges from the GOP-led state government over local elections and the ability to impose local regulations.

A new law signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott clears the way for the state to take control of voting in Harris County, which includes Houston, if it determines there is a “recurring pattern of problems” with elections. Problems with recent local elections have included polling locations opening late and long lines due to problems with voting machines.

Houston and the state’s other large, Democratic-led cities are also challenging a new law that erodes their power to impose local rules on everything from tenant evictions to employee sick leave.

Whitmire and Jackson Lee are seeking to replace Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has served eight years and can’t run again because of term limits.

Houston’s mayor will lead what is considered one of the country’s most diverse cities. Of the city’s 2.3 million residents, 45% are Latino, 23% are Black and 24% are white. One in every four Houston residents was born outside the U.S.

Known as the energy capital of the world, Houston’s economy has long been tied mainly to the oil industry. But the city is working to become a leader in the transition to cleaner energy. Like other large U.S. cities, Houston is also dealing with a lack of affordable housing and concerns among residents over growing gaps between the rich and poor.

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