Houston mayoral race as face of future politics

As Houston voters go to the polls Saturday to select their new mayor, some see the election as simply a matter of streets and schools and taxes.

Others see this race as the beginning of a new political era, one that foretells the look of local politics across the United States.

After last month's mayoral race led to a run-off election, Houston became the first major US city to pit an African-American against a Hispanic.

Mayor Lee Brown (D), the African-American incumbent, and challenger Orlando Sanchez, a Cuban-American Republican, received 43.5 percent and 40.3 percent of the vote, respectively, in the general election. The white candidate, Chris Bell, won 16 percent of the vote and was eliminated.

The two remaining candidates have spent the past month trying to clarify their positions while attacking their opponent. At times, they have found themselves tripping over each other in minority neighborhoods, battling over key voting blocs.

But, more important, they have had to find ways to appeal to white voters - a group that minority candidates have sometimes struggled to connect with and oftentimes overlooked.

"This is now the 21st century, and in cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, and Philadelphia - major, multiethnic cities - no one wins an election by appealing to only one ethnic community," says Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University in Houston.

"Twenty-first century elections are going to be won by those candidates who can form the broadest coalitions."

Houston is typical of major southern cities. Minorities are now the largest group, with Hispanics comprising 37 percent of the population and African-Americans comprising 25 percent.

And as these groups grow in number, they continue to make inroads into the power structure, thus broadening their political influence. But this is not simply a southern phenomenon. Across the US, minorities are taking large political steps forward.

"We are going to be seeing a lot more political energy from these groups, especially Hispanics," says Nestor Rodriguez, a sociologist at the University of Houston. "We are also seeing the emergence of a new type of candidate, one who can play on his ethnic identity, like Sanchez, and also attract a lot of white votes."

But even more significant is how minorities are expressing their political will. Hispanics, for instance, can no longer be counted on as solid Democrats. Large numbers are crossing party lines and even abandoning the Democratic Party altogether.

"There is room for Hispanics in the Republican Party if the Republican Party doesn't become the anti-immigrant party, which was the great mistake in California," says Dr. Klineberg. "That has not happened in Texas."

In Houston's nonpartisan general election, for example, more than 60 percent of registered Democrats voted for Mr. Sanchez, a conservative Republican.

And in New York's mayoral race last month, half the Hispanic vote went to Republican Michael Bloomberg, who won that election.

Needed: crossover appeal

What this means, experts agree, is that minority candidates can no longer count on traditional voting blocs.

Mayor Brown has been spending a lot of time and money in the Mexican-American neighborhoods of Houston, trying to play on the traditionally Democratic voting habits of Hispanics. Sanchez seems to have the upper hand here - in large part because of his surname.

Campaign lessons from L.A.

While Hispanics in Los Angeles turned out in droves this summer to vote for candidate Antonio Villaraigosa in that city's mayoral race, in the end, Mr. Villaraigosa couldn't form strong enough coalitions within white or the African-American communities.

And James Hahn, the white candidate, won a decisive majority of the black vote in that election, leaving L.A., where Latinos make up 47 percent of the population, still waiting for its first Hispanic mayor.

When all is said and done, an ethnic candidate's platform must be "palatable to white voters," says Dr. Rodriguez. "These new candidates have to move beyond their ethnic identity to win."

San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza, currently the only Hispanic mayor of a major city, knows that firsthand. He raised more than $800,000 - a lot for a mayoral race - for his campaign last spring and garnered the backing of established business and city leaders.

But he also learned how to appeal to white voters. He talked about quality-of-life issues such as streets, airport noise, traffic, and parks - and won the primarily white North Side outright, even though his white opponent lives there.

"For people of all ethnic groups, the rise to leadership positions lies in their ability to transcend their ethnicity and become leaders for the entire community," says Mr. Garza. "I've seen a lot of good elected officials who put a ceiling on their political growth because they weren't able to cross over into other ethnic and economic classes."

But Garza is heartened by recent events. Austin, for example, recently elected its first Hispanic mayor. And back in Houston, a minority candidate is sure to be elected on Saturday.

Herald of campaigns to come

But this won't be the last election of its kind, experts say. This is the political race of the future.

"Two minority candidates is unique, but it's going to be less and less so," says Chris Garcia, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "African-Americans have been in most large cities for a while, and Latinos are now spreading into cities all over the US. This is going to shed a whole new light on racial and ethnic voting."

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