John Whitmire, a moderate Democrat who has served in the Texas State Senate since 1983, won a runoff election on Saturday to become mayor of Houston, according to The Associated Press, defeating Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a prominent congressional Democrat, in the nonpartisan race.
Mr. Whitmire had been considered a front-runner from the moment he entered the race last year, prevailing in a city known for its diversity by creating a coalition that included Republicans and moderate white Democrats as well as Hispanic and Asian voters.
He made public safety the focus of his messaging, following a strategy that has proved successful for moderate Democrats in recent big city mayoral races around the country.
“Tonight is something to smile about,” Mr. Whitmire said in a victory address on Saturday night. “We’re not New York. We’re not L.A. We’re sure not Chicago. We fix our problems,” he said. “Great cities solve their problems. They bring people together. Our campaign united this city.”
Ms. Jackson Lee, 73, a veteran legislator first elected to Congress in the 1990s, entered the race in March with strong backing from many Democrats and Black voters but struggled to establish a message and expand her base of support.
Many Houstonians were already familiar with Ms. Jackson Lee from her years in Congress, her penchant for grabbing the spotlight and her reputation for being tough on staff. Before the initial round of voting, a University of Houston poll found that 43 percent of respondents said they would never consider voting for her, versus 15 percent for Mr. Whitmire.
Ms. Jackson Lee had endorsements from prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, who came to Houston to rally for the candidate, and local leaders, like the outgoing mayor, Sylvester Turner, and the county judge, Lina Hidalgo. Ms. Jackson Lee polled far better with Democrats than Mr. Whitmire ahead of the vote.
But he appealed more to Republicans and independents, who had nowhere else to turn in a nonpartisan runoff election without a Republican candidate.
Voters appeared to divide along starkly racial lines, with Black Houstonians supporting Ms. Jackson Lee by wide margins and white residents backing Mr. Whitmire. Race became an issue at points late in the campaign.
In one of their head-to-head debates, Mr. Whitmire said that the city needed to do more to encourage diversity in its top ranks, saying too few of the top jobs went to Hispanic or Asian people. Many of the top officials in the city, including Mr. Turner, are Black. Mr. Turner said Mr. Whitmire’s comments amounted to a racial “dog whistle.”
Mr. Whitmire focused on crime as his central message, as did outside groups that flooded mailboxes with fliers attacking Ms. Jackson Lee as insufficiently supportive of the police.
Despite police statistics showing crime declining from its post-pandemic heights, Mr. Whitmire said the crime rates were still too high and that Houstonians remained fearful. He promised to work with the administration of Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, to bring 200 state troopers into the city for patrols. A similar effort by city leaders in Austin to partner with state troopers faltered over accusations of racial profiling and aggressive police stops.
Mr. Whitmire, 74, had a significant fund-raising advantage, transferring millions from a campaign war chest amassed during his time in the State Senate, and also raising money from prominent Republican donors.
A lifelong Democrat, Mr. Whitmire courted Republican support from the beginning of the race, while also receiving the backing of groups like the AFL-CIO. He shrugged off questions about past conflicts of interest related to his work as a lawyer for a firm that also had clients lobbying state government.
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 Ms. 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 the former Houston mayor Bill White. “And Whitmire ran a fairly error-free campaign.”
Mr. 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.”