HOUSTON (CN) - Houston voters Saturday narrowly elected the city's second African-American mayor, a Democrat with a quarter century of experience in the Texas Legislature.
Sylvester Turner, 61, won by just under 4,100 votes in a runoff with Bill King, a Republican, a former Houston Chronicle columnist and former mayor of Kemah, a small city 30 miles south of Houston on Galveston Bay.
Just 21 percent of the city's 979,401 registered voters cast ballots in the mayor's race, according to an unofficial count by Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart.
Turner grew up in the Acres Homes neighborhood in northwest Houston, attended the University of Houston and Harvard Law School, and opened a Houston law firm in 1983. He was first elected to the Texas Legislature in 1988. He lost Houston mayoral bids in 1991 and 2003.
This time he had a long list of endorsements, topped by President Obama, Houston's incumbent term-limited Mayor Annise Parker, and the city's firefighters, police and municipal employee unions.
That union support is key because Turner's most pressing task is finding a way to rein in the city's spiraling pension obligations to police, firefighters and city employees, to help close a projected $126 million budget gap for the next fiscal year.
Houston is paying $282 million this fiscal year to its three pension funds out of its general fund. Any changes to city pension funds must go through Austin because they are controlled by state law. Parker tried unsuccessfully three times to change the laws to give the city a bigger say in money management.
Turner's tenure in the Texas House and his reputation as a politician who can work across the aisle will serve him well in tackling the pension crisis, city politics-watchers say.
Houston, pop. 2.2 million, is the nation's fourth-largest city; some demographers predict it will surpass Chicago by 2020. Known as the energy capital of the world, its economy has suffered as the price of oil has tumbled below $40 a barrel from $116 in April 2011.
Despite the thousands of layoffs from oil companies, the economy remains strong: Houston-area jobs surpassed 3 million for the first time in October, according to the Greater Houston Partnership, a business coalition.
The city's world-class hospitals, petrochemical refining and Port of Houston, which handles more containers than any other on the Gulf Coast, keep the economy humming.
Potholes were a major issue for both candidates. King called Houston streets an "embarrassment" and Turner pledged to "create a 24-hour turnaround for pothole repairs."
Turner also promised to "take a hard look at increasing" a cap on city property tax to hire more police officers.
Houston has 5,300 officers, less than half the size of Chicago's police force, for a city spread across more than 600 miles, according to a 2014 study commissioned by the Houston Police Department.
For some perspective on Houston's sprawl: "Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit and Chicago can all fit within the boundaries of Houston," according to Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
Turner's victory keeps Houston a Democratic stronghold in a Republican-controlled state. The city's last Republican mayor left office in 1982.
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