Houston has its first woman mayor. ''We have put together a campaign that unifies this city,'' young Kathryn Whitmire told her cheering followers Tuesday evening as soon as the early results showed she will be the next mayor of the nation's fifth largest city.
Predictions of a close run-off race between Houston City Controller Whitmire and Harris County Sheriff Jack Heard turned up the heat over the past two weeks. Sheriff Heard ended up spending $1.5 million in an attempt to cap his 25 years of law-enforcement work by becoming Houston's mayor. Mrs. Whitmire spent $650, 000 in a campaign built around an active volunteer network.
Despite being outspent, Whitmire won a clear victory with 62.4 percent of the vote, 170,000 to Heard's 102,000. Her stronget showing was among blacks, with more than 90 percent. Heard scored best among ''affluent whites'' with more than 56 percent of this vote, according to Election Central at Rice University.
The final days of the campaign included a $207,000 flood of mailgrams charging that Whitmire's election would be a victory for Houston's homosexual commnunity. Heard disassociated himself from this mudslinging attack, which many observers felt may have backfired.
Heard also may have suffered from Ku Klux Klan endorsement. He charged that his opponents were responsible for this endorsement in an attempt to discredit him. In an election eve television debate, Whitmire came out strongly in favor of increased minority recruitment for Houston's understrength police. Heard's response was that the city can't afford to ''lower standards'' to increase minority representation on the police force. For some liberals and blacks, hearing that response turned them against Sheriff Heard's plea to ''Make your vote for mayor HEARD.''
Houston newspapers and political observers congratulated voters for refusing to be stampeded by mudslinging and scare tactics. Voters seemed to have turned to Whitmire because of her calm, business-like approach and her promise to apply as mayor the same cost-cutting management techniques she has used during her four years as city controller.
Hopes are high that Whitmire will weed out inefficient and corrupt city workers and - perhaps even more important - get potholes repaired and traffic unsnarled on this spraling city's maze of superhighways.