Ada Rolling’s choice for mayor came down to the personal.
“Both of them are basically running the same campaign about all the same issues,” she said Tuesday of City Controller Annise Parker and former City Attorney Gene Locke, who are battling in a tight runoff election to replace the term-limited Mayor Bill White. “There’s very little difference between them, so I just voted on who they are.”
Rolling, 61, who cast her ballot early in Acres Homes on Tuesday, captured the essence of an election in which Houstonians found little to differentiate two longtime City Hall insiders in policy terms, but a wider divide in personal details, experience and how they campaigned for mayor, according to Houston Chronicle interviews with more than 50 voters.
The runoff will be decided Saturday, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Rolling said she picked Locke because he was a civil rights activist 40 years ago. Other voters chose him because of his endorsements and experience as a lawyer and dealmaker. Locke is a partner in the Andrews Kurth law firm who has been an adviser to numerous local governments and agencies.
Parker supporters preferred her financial acumen at a time of fiscal hardship or because of excitement over the prospect of electing the first lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city. The controller is a six-time elected official with 20 years experience in the oil and gas industry.
Those interviewed said they garnered data about the two candidates not only from TV, radio and mail advertising, but from reading and watching televised debates.
Several said that in those appearances, Parker stood out for her reluctance to promise voters the world, a message that resonated in challenging financial times. It also went along with her assertion, made in numerous campaign ads and mailers, that Locke had pledged too much new spending, a charge he denied.
For these voters, austerity was a successful platform.
“Gene Locke makes lots of promises, I don’t know how he can deliver on all those things,” said Michael Sanderson of the Fifth Ward area. “At least Annise Parker has the courage to say you can’t do everything.”
Others saw Locke’s promises, especially to beef up the police department — something Parker pledged to do as well — as vital. Public safety was a major concern, although even some supporters said the Houston Police Officers Union attack on Parker as “soft on crime” fell flat.
Both candidates have similar ideas about fighting crime and have promised to “put more police on the streets,” embrace a neighborhood-oriented policing strategy and strike agreements with other agencies to strengthen Houston’s law enforcement posture. They repeatedly failed to say how many more officers they want or how they would pay for their salaries in a tough budget year.
In many ways, the candidates’ policy ideas were in sync on transportation, flooding, economic development and other issues, leading voters to pay more attention to endorsements and attacks.
Although Parker criticized Locke for his connection to bad debt tied to Houston’s three sports stadiums, many saw his involvement in those issues as a positive.
“He has the spirit of Lanier,” said James Jackson, 69, citing Mayor Bob Lanier’s reputation for building projects and infrastructure. “I think he’s going to be able to do that kind of thing well.”
Others said Parker’s experience won their vote.
“She already had the experience,” said Attrell Conkrite, who voted at Ripley House. “She already knows the problems that need to be fixed. She has more of an idea where we can put the jobs.”
Several voters expressed anxiety with Parker’s sexuality and said they were swayed by mail pieces or e-mails they received raising the issue.
“I don’t believe in homosexuality,” said Lavern Tisby, a Third Ward resident. “I think that’s a sin.”
Steve Cooper, 54, said he was persuaded by an e-mail he received from conservative activist Steven Hotze that favored Locke over Parker, citing the endorsement of Houston’s Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Caucus.
Locke, a Democrat like Parker, drew criticism for seeking the endorsement of Hotze, who has a long history of ardently opposing gay causes and issues.
But the anti-gay attacks had a polarizing effect on some Houstonians. Several said they decided to go to the polls because they received “hateful” mail that questioned Parker’s fitness for the job because of her sexuality.
“I’ve lived in Houston long enough to steer clear of anything that Steve Hotze does,” said John Price, 71, an Episcopal priest.
A Rice University survey released Thursday and conducted Dec. 7-9, showed Parker leading with 49 percent of the vote compared to 36 percent for Locke. A Chronicle poll released Sunday showed her ahead by 5.5 points.