Leonard Wickers, a 73-year-old carpenter, took a break from building a new house in South Houston to cast a ballot during early voting this week for the city’s mayoral runoff election.
Like most at the polling site in a largely Black neighborhood, Mr. Wickers, who is Black, said he backed Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a fixture of Democratic politics and the Black community in Houston who has the support of the outgoing mayor, Sylvester Turner, as well as party luminaries like Bill and Hillary Clinton.
But Mr. Wickers had little enthusiasm for his vote. And, if he was being honest, he would not mind if her opponent, John Whitmire, a white politician and another longtime Democrat, prevailed. “That’s all for show,” Mr. Wickers said of the race. “Nothing’s getting done. The streets are still raggedy.”
His sentiments appear to be broadly shared. Houstonians may have many complaints about their city — crime and traffic, housing costs and garbage collection and the difficulty of getting a permit to do anything — but in contrast to the roiling divides and bitter clashes that characterized recent municipal elections in Los Angeles and Chicago, the race to lead the nation’s fourth-largest city has produced scant fireworks or fanfare.
“What if we held a mayor election and nobody came?” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “That’s effectively where we are.”
In part that is because, for the first time in years, a nonpartisan mayoral race in Houston will end in a runoff, on Saturday, featuring two prominent politicians who are both Democrats: Ms. Jackson Lee, 73, in Congress since 1995, and Mr. Whitmire, 74, who has been in the State Senate since 1983.
It may also be because no single issue has galvanized the electorate or motivated turnout. Even crime, which voters cite as a top concern, is on the decline, according to police statistics.
“The economy is good in Houston, housing prices could be a little bit more affordable, but in a general sense, things are going well,” said Gene Wu, a state representative who endorsed Mr. Whitmire. “There are always potholes. But you know what, even the pothole situation has gotten better.”
Ms. Jackson Lee came with some baggage: decades of partisan fights, including over the Iraq War and gay rights, a reputation for being tough on staff and frequent grabs at the television spotlight. Large numbers of Houston voters already knew her, and many did not like her. In a University of Houston poll this fall, 43 percent of respondents said they would “never” vote for her, compared with just 15 percent refusing to vote for Mr. Whitmire.
In a city whose diversity is a point of civic pride, it is Mr. Whitmire who has been leading in polls. If elected, he would be the first white male mayor to lead Houston since Bill White, more than a decade ago.
“Was he the perfect candidate? No,” Michelle Naff, 56, who lives in Ms. Jackson Lee’s district, said after casting a ballot for Mr. Whitmire during the first round of voting in November. “But I do not like her as my congresswoman.”
The two Democrats have struggled to draw bright lines between each other on issues. In separate interviews with The New York Times, both stressed the need for effective management in City Hall, a desire to attract new businesses to Houston and a focus on public safety.
“If the perception is you are unsafe, that matters,” Mr. Whitmire said, adding that he no longer goes out to shop in stores at night. “It affects our economy.” Mr. Whitmire has promised to work with Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration to bring in state troopers to help patrol, even as a similar approach in Austin, a progressive university town, resulted in pushback over racial profiling concerns.
“Houston is not Austin,” he said.
Ms. Jackson Lee also stressed the need to provide public safety, but said she would do so using local officers, and in a way that addressed injustices. “I want to make sure that social justice is alongside of a wonderful, strong group of law enforcement and fire fighters,” she said.
More than Mr. Whitmire, she talked about affordable housing — a relatively new issue for Houston, a sprawling city long known for its low housing prices — and about improving the city’s image nationally.
“I think we have to give Houston a new brand,” she said. “My theme is, let’s make Houston pop.”
When Ms. Jackson Lee jumped into the race in March, she appeared to present a stark contrast to, and potentially stiff competition for, Mr. Whitmire, the presumptive front-runner, who was seen by many Democrats as too moderate and too aligned with Republicans.
Two young Black Democratic candidates dropped out of the race, leaving Ms. Jackson with a clear shot to challenge Mr. Whitmire.
But her campaign started late and has had stumbles. A recent television ad featured the wrong date for the election. She faced renewed questions about her treatment of staff members after a recording became public of a woman, said to be Ms. Jackson Lee, berating her staff. “I know that I am not perfect,” she said in a statement in response.
Mr. Whitmire has had a significant fund-raising advantage, spending millions on television advertisements and mailers. Outside groups, including one run by retired police officers, have also flooded mailboxes attacking Ms. Jackson Lee.
Mr. Whitmire has faced scrutiny over past conflicts of interest because of his role as a state legislator and his work as a lawyer for a firm whose clients had interests before the state. And he faced attacks from Mayor Turner, who cannot run again because of term limits, after Mr. Whitmire said during a debate that there was a lack of Asian and Hispanic diversity among municipal leaders, many of whom, like Mr. Turner, are Black.
“That’s a dog whistle,” Mr. Turner said at a City Council meeting.
The contest has underscored the complicated way race and ethnicity plays into a nonpartisan election in a city where no single group of voters is dominant.
While roughly 45 percent of the population is Hispanic, according to census data, the figure overestimates the community’s voting power, said Hector de León, a former local elections official. The average age of voters in a municipal election is around 60, said Mr. de León, who publishes a website analyzing election data. “The overwhelming majority of Hispanic registered voters are way below that age, and it is a challenge to get young people to vote regardless of their race or ethnicity,” he said.
The nonpartisan nature of the race also means that, even though Houston generally votes for Democrats in national and statewide races, Republican voters hold immense sway.
“To win a nonpartisan race, you have to have some bipartisan appeal,” said Odus Evbagharu, a consultant and the former head of the Democratic Party in Harris County, which includes Houston.
From the start, Mr. Whitmire has actively courted Republican support, launching his run with an event last year attended by prominent local Republican donors. He has played up his bipartisan experience while also stressing his identity as a Democrat and his endorsements from groups traditionally aligned with Democrats, like the AFL-CIO.
In his interview with The Times, Mr. Whitmire said that he opposed the Republican positions on women’s health care and on border security. At the same time, he presented himself as a moderate on municipal issues. He talked about his experience being held at gunpoint with his wife and young daughter during a robbery in the driveway of their Houston home in the 1990s, stressed his ability to work with Republicans in the State Capitol and voiced his opposition to some of Houston’s new bike lanes, which he said created traffic backups.
Ms. Jackson Lee, for her part, said she too could work with Republicans, citing her work with Senator John Cornyn of Texas creating the Juneteenth national holiday.