Houston elects state senator as next mayor

FILE - In this photo combination, U.S. Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas, left, speaks during a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 13, 2019, and at right, Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire answers a question during a televised candidates debate at Houston Public Media studios, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, in Houston. A mayoral runoff Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023 between state Sen. John Whitmire, 74, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, 73, has the fourth-largest city in the U.S. on the verge of picking a new leader who cuts against Houston's demographic trends. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Michael Wyke, File)
FILE - In this photo combination, U.S. Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas, left, speaks during a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 13, 2019, and at right, Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire answers a question during a televised candidates debate at Houston Public Media studios, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, in Houston. A mayoral runoff Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023 between state Sen. John Whitmire, 74, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, 73, has the fourth-largest city in the U.S. on the verge of picking a new leader who cuts against Houston's demographic trends. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Michael Wyke, File)

HOUSTON -- Houston elected Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire as its next mayor on Saturday night, elevating a Texas lawmaker who has represented the city for 50 years by giving him a victory over U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in a runoff.

Whitmire, 74, who is one of Texas' most powerful Democratic legislators, will now be at the helm of America's fourth-largest city. His campaign focused on reducing crime, improving streets and bringing people together. He heavily outspent Jackson Lee, who was running to become Houston's first Black female mayor.

The congresswoman's campaign also had to deal with fallout from the release in October of an unverified audio recording that purported to capture her profanely berating staff.

Whitmire and Jackson Lee had made it to Saturday's runoff after emerging from a crowded field of nearly 20 candidates in the Nov. 7 general election.

Both candidates -- two of Houston's biggest political fixtures -- touted their decades-long political experience as strong qualifications to lead a growing city facing challenges that include crime, crumbling infrastructure and potential budget shortfalls.

Whitmire started in the Texas Legislature in 1973, first as a state representative and the majority of his time as a state senator. Jackson Lee has represented Houston in Congress since 1995 and before that had served on Houston's City Council.

Booming growth over the past decade has caused municipal headaches but has also turned the Houston area into an expanding stronghold for Texas Democrats. Although the mayoral race is nonpartisan, Whitmire and Jackson Lee are both Democrats.

Whitmire will be the oldest big city mayor in the United States. He is set to lead a city that is becoming younger, with a median age of around 35 and with 25% of its population below 18, according to census figures.

The choice between Whitmire and Jackson Lee, who is 73, frustrated some Democratic voters, particularly younger ones, at a time when the party is searching for new political stars in Texas who might end 30 years of GOP dominance statewide.

The new mayor will have to deal with new laws from the GOP-led state government over control of local elections and the ability to impose local regulations.

Whitmire will replace Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has served eight years and can't run again because of term limits.

Both candidates struggled to energize voters in what historically has been a low-turnout race. Just under 132,000 people cast a ballot in early voting, similar to other recent mayoral races, in a city of 2.3 million residents.

Some analysts said Jackson Lee may have entered the race too late.

"I'm not sure she had the time" to get a coalition together, said Mustafa Tameez, who managed successful campaigns for former Houston Mayor Bill White. "And Whitmire ran a fairly error-free campaign."

Tameez added that voters in Houston, despite favoring Democrats in statewide and national elections, are more centrist than those in other major cities. "We are not San Francisco, we're not New York," he said. "Texas Democrats will always be different."

Whitmire will also lead what is considered one of the country's most diverse cities. Of the city's 2.3 million residents, 45% are Hispanic, with 23% Black and 24% white. One in every four Houston residents was born outside the U.S.

Information for this article was contributed by J. David Goodman of The New York Times.

photo Houston mayoral candidates state Sen. John Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee speak at a mayoral forum on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Houston. Whitmire and Jackson Lee are set to face each other in Saturday, Dec. 9, runoff election to be the next mayor of Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city. (AP Photo/Lekan Oyekanmi)