December 12, 2015 / 2:39 PM / 4 years ago

Houston goes to polls to elect new mayor

(Reuters) - Voters in Houston, the fourth most-populous U.S. city, went to the polls on Saturday to elect a mayor with Sylvester Turner, a veteran lawmaker seeking to expand economic opportunities, facing Bill King, a businessman pledging to fix city finances.

Texas State Representative Sylvester Turner speaks during a meeting of the state legislature to consider legislation restricting abortion rights in Austin, Texas July 9, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Stone

The race is a runoff between the two top candidates in a non-partisan election in November. It is for a two-year term in office of one of the fastest-growing major U.S. cities, whose fortunes are closely tied to an oil industry that is currently slumping due to low prices for crude.

Polls have shown the race to be a dead heat between Turner, a powerful Democrat in the Republican-dominated state legislature, and King, a Republican lawyer and businessman who calls himself “unapologetically moderate”.

Annise Parker, a Democrat who holds the office and is the first openly lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city, is prevented by term limits from seeking re-election.

The focus of the race has been on a city deficit that looks set to expand, ballooning pension costs for city employees and a lag in services for the quickly growing population of 2.5 million people.

Turner, supported by public sector unions, has backed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) that bans discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, protections not guaranteed under Texas law.

HERO was rejected by voters in November after a campaign by opponents largely focused on concerns about the use of public bathrooms by transgender people.

King has said the HERO debate created unnecessary division and is looking to put together a non-discrimination ordinance that is seen as a compromise measure.

“Turner is effectively making this a partisan election and trying to take advantage of the 2-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the city of Houston,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

The energy industry, which accounts for about 40 percent of Houston’s economy, has sent the fortunes of the city on a roller coaster ride for decades.

Since 1969, Houston has been one of the most successful major U.S. cities in terms of per capita personal income growth. Since about 2003, about 650,000 jobs have been created in the Houston area, according to the University of Houston.

Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Alison Williams

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