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Facing a looming budget crisis, Houston voters will choose a new mayor Saturday

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Houston voters will choose their next mayor tomorrow in a runoff election between Texas state Senator John Whitmire and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. The contest will have significant implications for how the country's fourth-largest city addresses concerns about public safety and a looming budget crisis as federal COVID relief funds run out. Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider reports.

ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: Whitmire and Jackson Lee, both Democrats, emerged as the top two vote getters during the first round of this formerly nonpartisan election. Whitmire is white and centrist, while Jackson Lee is Black and more progressive. The main issue driving voters to the polls in Houston this year is crime. Jackson Lee is a member of the House Homeland Security and Judiciary committees. Whitmire chairs the Texas Senate's Criminal Justice Committee. He says that even though crime rates are falling in Houston, public safety is still a cause for concern.

JOHN WHITMIRE: Perception means so much. You know, last fall, with the number of murders we had for about two months, we were being described as the murder capital of the U.S. That hurts our public safety, but it also hurts our economy.

SCHNEIDER: Houston isn't the murder capital of the U.S. According to data from the Houston Police Department, the city ranked fourth in the country for murders in 2022, behind Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. Still, crime is top of mind for voters and a place where the candidates are seeking to differentiate themselves. Whitmire's solution is more police. Increase hiring but also bring in 200 state troopers to aid the Houston Police Department with things like traffic enforcement. That's been controversial. Similar moves in Austin and Dallas have led to accusations of racial profiling. Jackson Lee attacked Whitmire's record during a debate on Houston's FOX 26.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEILA JACKSON LEE: Well, unfortunately, under the tenure of my good friend the senator, more African Americans and Hispanics were locked up in the state system.

SCHNEIDER: Crime is far from the only problem Houston's next mayor will need to address.

JERONIMO CORTINA: We're looking at the fiscal cliff.

SCHNEIDER: That's University of Houston political scientist Jeronimo Cortina. He says the city has been relying on federal COVID relief funds for the past few years to help balance its budgets. That money is about to run out.

CORTINA: And that has very important implications for the delivery of services for crime and safety, public safety issues but also in terms of our aging infrastructure.

SCHNEIDER: Cortina co-authored a Houston Public Media/Houston Chronicle/UH Political Science and Population Health Poll. It shows Whitmire with the support of 42% of likely voters, compared to 35% for Jackson Lee. She'll need a strong turnout among Black voters to overcome Whitmire's advantage with older white voters. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Schneider in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Schneider

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