HOUSTON (CN) — Attorney Tony Buzbee spent $10 million of his own money to run for Houston mayor — but a pile of horse manure he used as a prop defined his over-the-top campaign.
Houstonians are wondering what else he has in store as early returns indicate he got enough votes Tuesday to force incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner into a December runoff for the nonpartisan office.
Buzbee, a millionaire trial attorney, rolled out the wheelbarrow of manure at a news conference in January to drive home his tagline: “Something stinks at city hall.”
Early Wednesday morning, elections officials had counted 60,278 votes for Turner (46.42%), less than the 50%+1 needed to avoid a runoff. Buzbee garnered 39,151 votes (30.15%).
In forums and debates, Buzbee presented himself as a political outsider and displayed what seemed to be a genuine dislike of Turner, taking all his turns at the microphone to call the incumbent an ineffective career politician.
Turner is a Democrat and Harvard Law graduate who represented Acres Homes, an African-American neighborhood in northwest Houston where he grew up sharing a room with eight siblings, in the Texas House for 27 years before he took office as mayor in January 2016.
Buzbee, a former Marine, did not accept campaign contributions and pledged to donate the mayor’s $236,000 salary if he wins. He says Houston has a bad image nationally due to rising crime, flooding problems and roads in disrepair.
Buzbee too comes from humble roots. He has three siblings. His father was a butcher and his mother drove a school bus and worked at the high school cafeteria in Queen City, Texas, his small hometown near the Arkansas border, where his family raised hogs, chickens, geese and ducks.
He accused Turner of awarding $74 million in federal Hurricane Harvey recovery aid to companies that had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Turner’s campaign, and giving city contracts meant for disadvantaged minority- and women-owned businesses to firms owned by rich lobbyists.
“We’re going to have a Houston checkbook,” Buzbee said at a recent news conference. “So you can see where our money is being spent, you can see to whom it’s going, how much is being spent and why we’re spending it. We’ve got to get a handle on this. If we can’t fix this corruption, we can’t fix this city.”
Buzbee has tried to distance himself from political labels, saying in an Oct. 21 debate: “Nobody cares if it’s a Democrat or Republican filling your pothole. Nobody cares if it’s a Democrat or Republican preparing for the next storm.”
But Turner made a fundraiser Buzbee hosted at his Houston mansion in summer 2016 for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump the focus of his attacks ads. Turner says Buzbee donated more than $750,000 to Trump and his affiliated PACs.
Buzbee is a political chameleon like Trump, who was a registered Democrat in the 2000s before joining the Republican Party in 2009.
Buzbee ran as a Democrat for a Texas state House seat in 2002 and lost, and was chairman of the Galveston County Democratic Party in 2004.
In fact, Buzbee also hosted a fundraiser at his home for Turner’s 2015 mayoral campaign.
“Sylvester, it’s interesting to me, you were in my house and I raised you a lot of money during your last election cycle. … You have been an incredible disappointment to the city. We’re going to do a lot better,” Buzbee said in an Oct. 21 debate in which he criticized Turner for trying to “make this election into some kind of national referendum.”
University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said the tactic was a good move by Turner’s election team.
“National-level polarization has trickled down to Houston city politics,” he said. “Voters are less aware in low-information, off-cycle elections, so nationalizing the politics of the race informs Democratic-leaning, Trump-hating voters that the stakes are still high.”
Though Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 9 points statewide in Texas in November 2016, he was trounced in Harris County, home to Houston, losing to her by 161,511 votes.
A measure to allow the Metropolitan Transit Authority to borrow up to $3.5 billion for public transit expansion without the need to raise taxes was approved by a wide margin of Harris County voters.
The agency’s “METRONext” plan promises “500 miles of travel improvements,” including 110 miles of new two-way high-occupancy vehicle lanes, 21 new park-and-ride bus stations, 16 more miles of light rail, and an extension to Hobby Airport projected for completion in 2040.
Harris County and Houston pose a significant challenge for Metro’s expansion due to sheer size. Harris County covers more than 1,700 square miles.
New York City, including all of its boroughs and counties, is only 303 square miles.
In a city where most vehicles one sees on the highways are occupied only by the drivers, Metro’s goal is to ease traffic by providing more access to mass transit.
“Even if you ride in your car, it is more convenient if there are less cars on the road,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman told the Houston Chronicle in August.