As James Joseph enjoyed the breeze after a workout at the Pinnacle Senior Center in far southwest Houston, he still was deciding how to vote in the mayoral race.
By the time Joseph returned from the polling place inside the center on Wednesday, however, he was a man transformed. He had voted for Jackson Lee, he said, because he was repelled by Whitmire’s blunt opposition to air-conditioning state prisons.
Joseph has a son behind bars who has seen men driven to suicide by the conditions, he said.
“They’re still human beings. If it’s 110 degrees outside, it’s 140 degrees in that metal building,” Joseph said. “We air-condition the shelters for dogs, and yet we can’t air-condition the shelters for human beings?”
More than 93,000 people headed to the polls or the mailbox in Houston and Harris County during early voting last week. In Houston, the election will decide who succeeds Mayor Sylvester Turner. Some had decided long ago on one of the two well-known frontrunners, while others like Joseph made last-minute calls based on highly personal criteria.
The Houston Landing spoke with more than 100 voters at 14 polling places across the city and Harris County. Many Houston voters cited crime and infrastructure as top concerns. Some said they came out to the polls because of a state proposition to cut property taxes, a proposition to raise pension payments for teachers or a smattering of other issues.
In line with public polls of the 18-candidate race, the vast majority of voters said they backed Jackson Lee or Whitmire.
Observers said the early voting numbers so far line up with the low turnout seen in recent municipal elections. Voters in Harris County reported painless experiences despite the ongoing legal drama over last year’s balloting. Still, some noted the big test will come Nov. 7.
“It went pretty smooth today,” Walter Johnson said outside the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center Thursday morning. “No chaos. They haven’t run out of paper yet.”
Typical turnout, so far
Through Sunday night, 91,676 people had voted early in Harris County, where the vast majority of Houston voters reside. Another 9,284 mail ballots had been returned to the county.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said the biggest change from the last open mayoral election in 2015 was a drop in mail-in ballots, coinciding with a spike in in-person early voting.
“It’s not unexpected, because there’s been a lot of controversy about mail ballots, especially from the elites in the Republican Party,” he said.
Overall, the numbers appear to suggest a typical, low-turnout municipal election, he said.
“Basically, the numbers are pretty similar to where they were in 2015. This means the municipal elections are more or less on pace where they have been in history and across the country – which is to say pretty low,” he said.
Nancy Sims, a University of Houston political analyst, saw similar trends in a Friday interview.
“It just never ceases to boggle my mind, how the office that’s closest to the water coming out of your sink and the roads you drive on seems to be the least interesting election to people. But it is,” she said.
Midtown-area resident Kelsey Long said she always gets invested in local races, since those races most impact her daily life. She wishes more young people would get involved, as well.
“I mean, the general age in there was 65,” Long said, gesturing toward the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center where she had just cast her vote.
Long said she believes outreach to younger voters was lacking this election cycle.
Conversations with dozens of voters suggested this year’s contest has yet to stir up more interest than a typical municipal election, despite being Houston’s first open mayoral race since 2015.
“Of course, my group of friends were talking about it, but the city as a whole? I’m not sure,” Braeburn resident Linda Hebert said Wednesday.
Outside the polling places, residents described themselves as perennial voters. Many said they had voted because it was a civic duty.
“I vote because it’s a right and a privilege,” Sheryl Nelson, a 58-year-old Summerwood resident, said after voting at the Denver Harbor Community Center. “I try to encourage people to vote. You can’t complain if you don’t vote.”
Jackson Lee base
Since her late entry into the race, Jackson Lee has faced questions about whether she can overcome the deeply negative opinions of many white and conservative voters.
Jackson Lee’s strong support base was on display outside many of the city’s polling places over the past week, however. Voters, many of them Black, said they saw Jackson Lee as a fighter who gets results in Washington, D.C.
At the Northeast Multi-Service Center, all 17 voters who agreed to speak to a reporter were Black, and all said they had voted for Jackson Lee.
“Who else? The person I’ve been knowing all my life: Sheila. We know Sheila,” Dorris Harris, a 73-year-old northeast Houston resident, said after casting her vote.
“Anything dealing with injustices, she stands up for our people, for Blacks, and not just Black people, for everybody,” 43-year-old Sean Cooper said. “If something is wrong, she’s there for us.
One voter said she appreciated Jackson Lee’s outspokenness after natural disasters. Southwest Houston resident Mary McCarthy said she liked Jackson Lee’s vocal stance against the state takeover of the Houston Independent School District.
“I have a grandson who attends middle school here, and he notices the teachers being under more stress,” McCarthy said.
Sherry Browning, a voter at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on Friday, said Jackson Lee’s stance on the HISD takeover aligned best with her personal views when voting.
“Help the children,” Browning said, “because they cannot vote for themselves.”
Despite millions of dollars spent on advertisements, the race stayed relatively sleepy until an audio recording surfaced on Oct. 20 of Jackson Lee directing a profanity-laced tirade at one of her subordinates.
Elderly Black voters, and particularly women, still will have a big say in the election because of their long-standing support for Jackson Lee and high voter turnout compared to some other groups, said Michael Adams, a professor of public affairs at Texas Southern University.
“(The tape) dropped on the eve of early voting. I think it had the intent of trying to influence the voters,” Adams said. “Whether voters will buy into that, I’m not so sure. She has a bloc of voters that are still going to vote for her.”
Jackson Lee has apologized for the rant while asking voters to dismiss the recording as a desperate political ploy. Several voters told the Houston Landing they saw the tape as a dirty trick. One woman even said it had flipped her vote from Whitmire to Jackson Lee.
“When they did that, I thought they were trying to take my sister down,” Robin Bluitt, an attorney, said outside the Raindrop Turkish House in southwest Houston on Wednesday. “You don’t take a sister down. Print that.”
For other voters, however, the recording seemed to crystallize their worst fears about a candidate who has a reputation as a difficult boss.
Tyler Anderson, a 30-year-old resident of Magnolia Park, said she was planning to vote for Jackson Lee until she heard the recording.
“I work in government, and I have been a staffer before in low-level positions like that,” Anderson said. “That type of treatment was too much for me, and John Whitmire seemed like the other contender that has a chance.”
Whitmire also appeared to draw support from the sizable bloc of voters with an anybody-but-Jackson Lee mindset.
At the Raindrop Turkish House, two voters who declined to give their names said they had considered backing an avowedly conservative candidate, but wound up settling on Whitmire because they saw him as more electable.
One said her trip to the poll was mostly about “what I don’t want”: Jackson Lee. That sentiment was shared by Heights resident Sherri Spicer, who voted at the SPJST Lodge 88 on Wednesday. She said her vote for Whitmire was a vote against Jackson Lee.
Burwell William, a 75-year-old Montrose resident, described the mayoral race as a “tough call” after voting at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on Thursday. He considered former Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County board chair Gilbert Garcia before settling on Whitmire.
“He’s a career politician, and I don’t feel good about that,” William said of Whitmire. “But I liked what he had to say more.”
He added, “It’s sort of like 2020, where people just voted for Biden because they didn’t want Trump to win. I didn’t want Sheila Jackson Lee to win, so I knew I needed to vote for someone who could beat her.”
Whitmire has emphasized his “tough and smart” position on crime since the start. That message resonated with several voters who came out to the polls last week.
“There’s too much of it. Every day on the news,” Donald Pace, 66, said on Wednesday. “I just believe he’s going to do something.”
Infrastructure, crime top issues
Even for voters outside Whitmire’s camp, crime came up repeatedly in conversations with voters.
“Safety … That’s the main thing for me,” Alief resident Elaine Hruska said. She voted for Jackson Lee.
Tom Slack, an 82-year-old who voted at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center Thursday evening, said he voted for attorney Lee Kaplan after hearing him speak at a recent candidate forum at the community center.
Slack said he is most concerned about crime and improving Houston’s public schools, and Kaplan was “the only one with any good ideas” to address those issues.
Many voters also expressed concerns about the state of Houston’s streets, the water line breaks that accelerated over the dry summer and stormwater infrastructure.
Barbara Thompson said crime has made her fearful of going out late. She also is worried about a water main leak in her subdivision in southwest Houston that has been going on far too long.
“This city cannot continue to be a city with its flooding problems,” Kiesha Wilson, a Magnolia Park resident, said after voting at the BakerRipley Ripley House on Tuesday.
Jadeverette Mayhorn, a 32-year-old Northwood resident, said his neighborhood was in dire need of city resources.
“We want to see some change. Have you looked around?” Mayhorn said, gesturing around the Northeast Multi-Service Center. The neighborhood needs road improvements, blight reduction and general attention, he said.
“We need a transformation, through and through, no matter who gets voted in,” he said.
Nearly every voter in Houston said they saw the mayor’s race as the premiere contest this year. Some struggled to say who they had voted for in the City Council races even as they walked out of polling stations.
A handful of other issues drew noteworthy interest, however. Many senior citizens and retirees said they were eager to vote for Proposition 4, which will enshrine property tax cuts for homes and businesses in the state constitution.
The attention on the proposition is not unexpected, Adams said.
“Given the economic conditions, people are concerned about interest rates and property taxes,” Adams said. “These issues usually are a motivating factor and will continue to be a motivating factor in elections.”
Teachers and their relatives said they were happy to support Proposition 9, which will provide cost-of-living increases for members of the Teacher Retirement System.
In Harris County, voters also are deciding whether to pass Proposition A, a $2.5 billion bond for upgrades to the Harris Health System’s hospitals and clinics. A recent University of Houston survey suggests the proposition is likely to pass.
Charlene James, a former public health worker from southwest Houston who voted at the Raindrop Turkish House, said the upgrades are sorely needed.
“Houston is growing, we’re expanding, and everyone can’t go to the (Texas) Medical Center,” she said.
Staff writers Akhil Ganesh, McKenna Oxenden, Paul Cobler and Tim Carlin contributed to this report.