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Politics

Houston Has a Population that’s Young. Its Next Mayor, Set to Be Elected in a Runoff, Won’t Be

December 8, 2023

HOUSTON — A mayoral runoff Saturday 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. Census figures show Houston is becoming younger, with a median age of around 35 and 25% of the population below 18.

Although other City Halls have not exactly been swept up in a youth movement — New York Mayor Eric Adams is 63 and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass is 70 — the choices in Houston have frustrated some of voters in the Democratic stronghold, particularly younger ones, at a time when the party is searching for new political stars in Texas who might be able to end 30 years of GOP dominance statewide.

“I think the main issue is identifying with the politician. A lot of young people can’t,” said Julian Meza, a 19-year-old history student at Houston Community College who plans to cast a ballot. He added, “I don’t really want to vote for them, but I have no other choice.”

Fellow student Amanda Estela Portillo, a 19-year-old biology major, agreed that she finds it difficult to connect with older candidates.

“It seems like the older generations … they kind of just like brush it off and are just like, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about kid. You’re too young.’ And I feel like it’s a sense of hopelessness that a lot of us feel,” Portillo said.

Whitmire and Jackson Lee, who emerged from a crowded field of nearly 20 candidates in the Nov. 7 general election, have both touted their decades of experience in political office. But they also say the perspectives of younger voters are important to them and have promised to make young individuals a part of their administration.

On Sunday, Jackson Lee attended an outreach event cosponsored by Houston-based Rap-A-Lot Records that featured speeches by candidates and musical performances and aimed to encourage voters, including younger ones, to go to the polls.

“I want this administration to have people saying, ‘I’m good because the mayor cares about me. I’m good because City Hall is open to me,'” Jackson Lee said onstage alongside local rappers including Lil Bushwick, the son of Bushwick Bill, a founding member of the iconic Houston rap group the Geto Boys.

Whitmire, for his part, has held various campaign events with organizations for young professionals, telling one gathering in August that “the future of Houston needs a voice at City Hall.”

“Why do young people not get involved in city politics? I think a lot of them have given up on the process,” Whitmire said Sunday after a mayoral forum. “I understand their cynicism and their frustration. And that’s what I’m offering, experience of a can-do candidate.”

Von Cannon, 41, who operated a food truck at Sunday’s voter outreach event, said advancing age isn’t necessarily a problem for a candidate, but “I think authenticity is a big thing that younger voters look for.”

Ronda Prince, chief of operations at Rap-A-Lot Records, said experience is important “but you just cannot ignore and leave out the concerns, the issues that young people have. If you want to reach young people, talk to young people.”

Getting younger voters to the polls, particularly in local elections, remains a “huge puzzle” in the city and around the country, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“Houston is changing. It’s becoming much younger and certainly more Latino, and the demographics in terms of who runs for office and who wins … doesn’t always reflect those changes,” Rottinghaus said.

An analysis by Rottinghaus suggested that two-thirds of voters in the Nov. 7 election were over the age of 55. The Harris County Clerk’s Office said a review of early voting for the runoff has found an average age of about 62.

Age has been an issue in other political contests — such as next year’s presidential race, which seems likely to pit President Joe Biden, 80, against former President Donald Trump, 77. In Texas’ general election last month, voters rejected a proposed change to the state Constitution that would have raised the mandatory retirement age for judges by four years, to 79.

One challenge with reaching out to younger people has been making voting more convenient, according to Rottinghaus.

Officials in Democratic-led Harris County, where Houston is located, expanded access during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 with drive-thru voting and 24-hour polling locations, two initiatives popular with younger voters. But those were later banned by the GOP-led Texas Legislature.

Rottinghaus also said some younger voters might not vote because issues they care about often don’t factor into local elections.

While the Houston mayoral race has been dominated by discussion of crime, crumbling infrastructure and potential budget shortfalls, other matters that are important to voters like Meza and Portillo, such as supporting reproductive and immigration rights and the LGBTQ+ community, are largely absent.

Kit Delgado, a 19-year-old art student at Houston Community College, said that while a mayor can’t really impact those issues much, it’s important to younger voters to have someone in office who shares their values.

“If we have a mayor who supports our ideas, maybe we can get a governor who has support of our ideas and then representatives. I think that’s a good reason to start voting locally, like for my age group,” Delgado said.

 

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