HOUSTON (CN) – Despite an endorsement from President Donald Trump, Tony Buzbee lost to incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner in Houston’s runoff election Saturday.
According to unofficial results from the Harris County clerk’s office, Turner received a little more than 56% of the vote from the 205,499 Houston voters who turned out. Houston is the Harris County seat.
Running in a majority-Democratic city, Buzbee rejected political labels. But Turner’s campaign ads highlighted a fundraiser Buzbee hosted for Trump at his Houston mansion in summer 2016, and claimed Buzbee donated more than $750,000 to Trump and affiliated PACs.
Attempting to distance himself from Trump, Buzbee acknowledged in debates that some of the things Trump has done as president “made him cringe.” But recent polls showed a majority of Republicans supported Buzbee.
Houston voters say Trump made a last-minute bid to influence the election, sending a text on Friday that included his photo and the message: “President Trump has a message for you: Help me drain the swamp at Houston City Hall and crush the liberals. Vote for Tony Buzbee for Mayor of Houston.”
Buzbee told the Houston Chronicle his campaign had nothing to do with the message, but said, “I appreciate any support I can get.”
Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, said the Trump connection “essentially doomed any hope Buzbee had of winning more than a trivial portion of the vote of Houston Democrats.”
“Turner effectively portrayed Buzbee as a Trump Republican in a city where 55 percent of voters identify as Democrats and 33 percent as Republicans,” he said.
Turner defeated 11 candidates in the Nov. 5 election but did not secure enough votes to avoid a runoff.
Buzbee and Turner set a record for mayoral campaign spending in Houston, combining to spend about $19 million, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Most of that came out of Buzbee’s pockets. Refusing campaign donations, he spent more than $10 million of his own money on the race. Prior to his run, he built his fortune as a trial attorney and property developer.
Buzbee — who says he has “flipped” hotels and owned shopping centers, apartment and office buildings, and rental homes — played up his business expertise ahead of the runoff. He called the city’s permit department “completely broken” under Turner’s watch, claiming it takes more time to get a permit than to finish a remodeling project.
Buzbee’s strategy aimed to portray Turner as a corrupt career politician. Turner held a Democratic seat representing Houston in the Texas House for 27 years before taking office as mayor in January 2016.
Buzbee also accused Turner of bucking the will of voters by going to court to block Proposition B, a 2018 ballot measure calling for increases in firefighters’ pay so it would equal that received by police officers of similar rank and experience.
Turner insisted the city could not afford the raises, which he said would cost up to $100 million a year without layoffs. Last spring, his administration sent pink slips to 220 firefighters and 47 municipal workers and demoted more than 400 firefighters.
But Turner and the city council reversed the demotions and canceled the layoffs after a judge in May declared Prop B unconstitutional and preempted by Texas law.
The Houston Professional Firefighters Association threw its support behind Buzbee for the runoff. A Buzbee campaign mailer quoted union president Marty Lancton claiming Turner’s plan to lay off 400 firefighters to help pay for Prop B would raise the average response time to fires and medical emergencies to 11 minutes.
Still, the firefighters’ union endorsement was not enough to overcome Turner’s advantage as an incumbent, who was guaranteed donations from companies and people doing business with the city, political science professor Mark Jones said.
Jones added that firefighters and many voters mistakenly assumed the firefighters’ political clout led to the passage of Prop B, rather than Houstonians wanting them to be paid the same as police officers.
“The number of firefighters is small, and the number who are registered voters in the City of Houston is even smaller,” Jones said. “Thus, while their block walking and endorsement is not without value, it also isn’t going to influence an election outcome except at the margin in very close races.”
The Houston Chronicle also endorsed Turner, calling him “a walking testament to our city of opportunity.”
Turner grew up poor, the son of a painter and a hotel maid, sharing his room with eight siblings in Acres Homes, an African-American neighborhood in northwest Houston.
He was senior class president and valedictorian in high school and obtained degrees from the University of Houston and Harvard Law School before he opened his own law firm in Houston and served for nearly three decades in the Texas Legislature.
The mayoral race showed Houston is still a Democratic stronghold in a red state. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 808,000 votes statewide in the 2016 presidential election, but he lost to her by more than 160,000 votes in Harris County.