As the city council headed into a regular meeting last month, more than 100 people gathered in front of Lubbock’s Citizens Tower for a rally. Maybe a dozen wore masks and kids ran around with signs and balloons.
The group is organizing to make Lubbock a “Sanctuary City for the Unborn.” The area’s state representatives have submitted an ordinance to the city council for consideration that would make abortion unlawful in Lubbock. It’s currently under legal review. A similar ordinance has been adopted in 15 Texas cities - none the size of Lubbock.
“Isn’t this, the protection of the unborn, the most important ordinance we can pass?” said Mark Lee Dickson at the rally. Dickson is with Right to Life of East Texas and has helped pass ordinances like this in other cities.
The group sprung to action in September, after Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas announced it is returning to Lubbock after closing in 2013. The agency says abortion will not immediately be offered at the clinic, which is set to open later this year.
Nathaniel Wright, a Texas Tech University political science professor who often works with local governments, said no one could have predicted that a controversial issue like abortion would have come up in this year’s mayoral election.
Municipal elections, like the mayoral one, usually happen in May. It was postponed to be included in the general election this year due to the pandemic. Wright said the months in between the original voting day and the now have been eventful.
Incumbent Dan Pope identifies as conservative and said he’s personally pro-life. But under current city orders, there is really not much the local government can do to keep Planned Parenthood out.
“I think we’ll take one step at a time and we’ll try to do it in a way that’s respectful that respects the city charter,” Pope said. “I took an oath to uphold the city charter and the Constitution of the United States of America and I’m going to do my best to act in that way.”
Pope is one of only a handful of Lubbock mayors to seek a third tenure. Before running for the office, he spent nine years on the Lubbock ISD School Board. He is a Texas Tech alumnus and a small business founder.
“There’s always work to be done. I think you can always say that,” Pope said about running for office again. “That can be a bit trite. But I do believe that there are a number of projects that we’ve begun that I would like to see through.”
Challenger Stephen Sanders is a local musician who ran as a write-in candidate for mayor in 2018. He said he is led by his Christian faith, on this issue and others.
“I’m not OK with Planned Parenthood. I’m never going to be and it’s non-negotiable,” Sanders said. “If I’m elected and we don’t get it through to make it a sanctuary city, I’m going to make sure that we get it on the agenda so that we can vote on it, you know, and let the voices be heard.”
Sanders has never held office before, but says God told him to run for mayor. If elected, he’d be the first African American in the job.
In Texas, municipal elections are traditionally nonpartisan, but Sanders is a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump.
“When it comes down to it, my religious beliefs line up with the conservative values,” Sanders said. “I have to be true to who I am.”
Professor Wright said Sanders’ alignment with the president has given this political outsider a boost. In 2016, 66% of Lubbock County voters cast their ballot for President Trump.
“Both candidates now are really kind of, like, acting as if they’re running on a national platform,” Wright said. “You have Stephen Sanders who is really pro-Trump. Mayor Pope is very much moderate.”
Wright said having local races on the same ballot as the presidential election has further politicized this race.
“I think a lot of people are associating a lot their issues, national issues, with local issues,” Wright said. “That’s another layer we’ve never seen before.”
Mayor Pope said delaying May municipal elections was the right thing to do at that point of the pandemic. And Sanders said while the pandemic is a tragedy, he appreciated the extra time to campaign.
Early voting has started and goes through Oct. 30. Election Day is Nov. 3. Full interviews with each mayoral candidate are available below.
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