After years of losing battles with GOP leaders, some big city Texas mayors strike friendlier tone

John Whitmire, left, who was elected as Houston mayor last month, and Austin Mayor Kirk Watson are both former Texas lawmakers who have promised to mend their cities' strained relationship with the state. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Recommended Videos

After nearly a decade of high tensions between Republicans running the state and leaders of the state’s bluer urban areas, some mayors of major Texas cities are trying a new playbook: play nice with the state.

Republican lawmakers and local officials have little they haven’t fought about, sparring in recent years over matters like hurricane relief funds, local police budgets, voting access and COVID-19 response measures. After years of trying to undo local progressive policies they disagreed with, GOP legislators this year passed a sweeping law intended to block cities from enacting them in the first place.

To some, the contentiousness between city and state leaders hasn’t been productive for either side. In his successful bid for Houston mayor this year, John Whitmire, a longtime Democratic fixture in the Texas Senate, promised to mend the relationship between the state’s largest city and lawmakers in Austin.

“I just want to fix things regardless of who you have to work with,” Whitmire said at a November debate.

That echoes the more diplomatic tone struck by Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, another veteran Democratic state legislator who served as mayor in the late 1990s and returned to the seat this year. Austin has often been in the crosshairs of Republican lawmakers — and the city’s previous mayor openly feuded on social media with Gov. Greg Abbott over pandemic measures like mask mandates and occupancy restrictions.

In his first months as mayor, Watson has also sought collaboration with state officials to solve local problems, including securing $65 million from the state’s housing agency to combat homelessness.

“I'm working very hard to make sure that that relationship is a good one because it benefits my constituents,” Watson said during a panel at the Texas Tribune Festival in September.

In an unusual show of amity after Whitmire’s election, Abbott, who has long warred with cities over adopting policies he sees as hostile to businesses, congratulated the new mayor after his win in a runoff for the seat. Whitmire bested the more progressive U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, by a wide margin, in part by relying on a coalition of Republicans and independents as well as funds from well-known GOP donors.

A couple of factors have guided this shift in tone, political analysts told the Tribune. For one, after years of conflict with the state, local officials are tired of their cities being punching bags for state lawmakers.

“Mayors want to take the temperature down,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “And they don't want to be political targets.”

Voters in Texas cities have also had enough of the feud, analysts said. In big cities that have leaned blue for some time, they’re picking Democratic candidates considered to be more moderate and who have a track record of working with Republican lawmakers in the Texas Capitol.

“To actually advance the agendas of their cities, [local leaders] are going to need the support of the state,” said Steven Pedigo, who heads the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ Urban Lab, which focuses on urban policy. “Why fight with the state?”

Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based GOP strategist who chairs the Travis County Republican Party, had another explanation.

“The hard-left policy experiment in major cities has clearly failed,” he said. “So when you have candidates who recognize that those policies have failed, who are pledging to be more mainstream, there's a market for that among voters in many of these cities.”

Republicans also picked up a mayoral seat this year in the state’s third largest city. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, who served in the Texas House as a Democrat, switched to the Republican Party in September after winning an uncontested reelection bid in May. Though municipal seats are technically nonpartisan, Republicans now lead two of the state’s biggest cities; Republican Mattie Parker has been mayor of Fort Worth since 2021.

Tensions between state leaders and city officials have been high for many years as GOP lawmakers have sought to limit how cities govern themselves.

In recent years, the GOP-controlled Legislature limited how much cities’ budgets can grow each year and forbade local leaders from banning fracking or requiring landlords to accept low-income tenants with federal housing vouchers.

State lawmakers also enacted a law that blocks cities from trimming their police budgets without first asking voters — a direct response to the Austin City Council trimming its police budget in 2020 in the wake of the George Floyd protests. State officials later used that law to probe whether Harris County had cut public safety spending.

Local officials unsuccessfully turned to the courts to overturn Abbott’s pandemic-era directive barring local governments from adopting public health measures like mask mandates. The Texas Supreme Court sided with Abbott in June, but not before legislators forbade local officials from requiring masks, vaccines or business shutdowns in the event of another COVID-19 surge.

The fight between state and local leaders reached a new peak this year. Legislators passed a wide-ranging bill that attempts to significantly curtail city officials’ abilities to enact progressive policies — drawing a legal challenge spearheaded by Houston officials.

As the Houston region emerged as a Democratic stronghold in the last decade, Republican state lawmakers stepped up their scrutiny of local officials, including recently targeting Harris County over voting access issues.

Whitmire sees opportunities to work on relations between Houston and the state. During the campaign, Whitmire said he would seek to repair the city’s relationship with the General Land Office. The state agency, under then-Land Commissioner George P. Bush, shut the city out of federal relief funds to help hard-hit areas recover from Hurricane Harvey.

Whitmire cited a particular factor in his favor: his relationship with current Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, who previously served with Whitmire in the Senate.

“I can bring resources to Houston like no one else has ever served as mayor,” Whitmire said at a November debate. “Working across the aisle gets results.”

Local officials this year have looked for more opportunities to partner with the state to solve local problems. Whitmire, who takes office in January, wants to allow 200 Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to patrol Houston as the city deals with an officer shortage — an idea backed by nearly two-thirds of Houston voters, according to a recent poll from the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

Watson already did something similar this year — partnering with the state to allow state troopers to patrol the city amid Austin’s own persistent officer shortage. The idea sprung out of a conversation with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Watson said during the September TribFest panel.

While Watson has credited the DPS deployment with reductions in violent crime and traffic deaths, the enforcement efforts have fallen disproportionately on communities of color. Watson ended the formal partnership in July but Abbott later sent additional troopers to patrol the city.

“There was no benefit gained by cutting deals with state leadership, or pretending that being nice to them will give your city any additional leeway to conduct business how it sees fit or any less meddling in the city's affairs,” said Chris Harris, Austin Justice Coalition policy director.

To Watson, there will always be “some political tension” between the city and state given that “Austin does see things with a different point of view than the majority of people that are in the state Legislature,” he said at the TribFest panel.

“We're going to stand up for Austin values, and I'll always do that,” Watson said. “But one of my rules of politics is, ‘Don't make unnecessary enemies.’”

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Recommended Videos