This week's mayoral elections in Atlanta and Houston were close enough to trigger runoffs between the top two candidates in each city, leaving voters with final choices in December that could turn on race but also on nuts-and-bolts issues of governing in a recession.
In Houston, Controller Annise Parker and former City Atty. Gene Locke were the two top vote-getters among four serious candidates. The runoff is set for Dec. 12.
If elected, Parker, who led all candidates with 30.5% of the vote Tuesday, would be the first openly gay mayor of Houston, but a number of observers have said that her sexual orientation doesn't figure to be much of a factor.
Robert Stein, a pollster and political science professor at Rice University, said Parker was a known quantity in civic Houston and hadn't pushed hard with a gay rights agenda.
"The city's comfortable with Annise Parker as a gay woman," Stein said. "She's gay, but it's more like being a Yankee [versus] a Mets fan. It's never been a centerpiece of her political image."
Stein said Parker was more likely to focus on her fiscal experience as comptroller in the runoff, giving the impression that she will move Houston in the same general direction as popular outgoing Mayor Bill White.
Locke, her opponent, received 25.9% of the vote. He left the city attorney's job in 1998 for private practice, which hurt his name recognition. Stein said Locke might have received a bump when the third-place candidate in the race, City Councilman Peter Brown, ran television ads and sent mailers with Locke's face that reminded voters that Locke is black. About 30% of registered voters in the city are African American.
In Atlanta's Dec. 1 runoff, City Councilwoman Mary Norwood -- who could become the first white mayor of the majority-black city since 1973 -- will face off against former state Sen. Kasim Reed, an African American. Norwood received 45.5% of Tuesday's vote; Reed received 36%.
In the coming days, Reed is likely to court supporters of two other African American candidates who came in third and fourth.
Norwood's central message has been the need to rectify sloppy accounting at City Hall that has added to budget woes. It's a message that has resonated in both black and white neighborhoods. Jim Galloway, a politics blogger at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, noted that Norwood's support was as high as 28% in some black precincts.
But Norwood also benefited from campaigning aggressively and early in neighborhoods across the city, said Kendra A. King, a political scientist at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. "She made her presence known on the streets," King said, "and the African American candidates were slower to do that."