HOUSTON, TX – As Houston's mayor seeks a second term, he's hoping to use residents' antipathy toward President Donald Trump to help him beat his biggest challenger.
Crimes rates, allegations of City Hall corruption and the pace of the city's recovery after Hurricane Harvey are among the issues that have come up in the race. But with Mayor Sylvester Turner likely headed toward a runoff against Trump donor and political outsider Tony Buzbee, he's increasingly highlighted Buzbee's ties to a president who remains deeply unpopular in the mostly Democratic city.
"I think it's a very effective strategy because likening Mr. Buzbee to President Trump is easy for voters to understand," said Renee Cross, the senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.
Turner and Buzbee are among 12 people running for mayor in Tuesday's nonpartisan election. Turner needs 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff.
Buzbee says Turner is trying to distract voters from Turner's record as mayor. Buzbee has portrayed Turner as a career politician who is beholden to special interest groups and campaign donors.
Turner's campaign has noted that Buzbee held a fundraiser at his home for Trump in June 2016 and later donated $500,000 to Trump's inauguration committee. One Turner campaign ad features a video clip of Trump calling Mexican immigrants racists and criminals as he launched his 2016 campaign. It ends by saying, "The last thing we need is more noise from Trump or his copycat Tony Buzbee."
Buzbee has pushed back on the Trump comparisons, calling them "silly foolishness."
"To try to compare me to a New Yorker, when I grew up in a town of 1,300 people (in northeastern Texas), my dad was a meat cutter. There's no comparison there," he told The Associated Press after a campaign event Friday. "That's just a career politician who's trying to label people instead of running on his record."
But Buzbee, a former Marine and successful trial lawyer who has won cases against BP and successfully represented former Texas Gov. Rick Perry in an abuse-of-power case, has cast himself in a mold similar to Trump, said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
Like Trump, Buzbee has said he's an outsider who is going to shake things up. Buzbee, like Trump, is also known for having an extravagant lifestyle and he's self-financed his political campaign, having spent $10 million.
Turner, who took office in 2016 after a long career as a Texas legislator, said his first term has been marked by successes that include leading an effort that reduced the city's huge pension debt, balancing the city's budget and helping shepherd Houston through the devastating flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which inundated more than 150,000 area homes.
"Houston is the most diverse city in the country," Turner told the AP. "Leading a diverse city is not easy ... And it's about lifting up everyone in every community, not trying to tear people down.
"Too much noise on the national level," he said of Buzbee. "We don't need it here."
Turner's opponents, particularly Buzbee, have pointed to an increase of violent crime in the city, alleged Turner has promoted a culture of corruption, and said his administration has been too slow in rebuilding homes after Harvey and has not done enough to prepare for the next storm and flood. Turner has said overall crime in the city is down, he's denied the corruption allegations, and he has blamed slow recovery efforts from Harvey on state and federal bureaucracy.
And Cross said much of the criticism lobbed at Turner doesn't seem to be resonating with voters.
"On the whole, the city is doing very well," she said. "If a city or country is doing well overall, there's not that great push to change things."
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70