It's an off-year election, to say the season is heating up is perhaps a bit strong. However, the Houston Mayor's race has at least been thawing out a bit over the last month.
Here's incumbent Mayor Annise Parker's latest TV ad, which I caught on Saturday during the Ohio State-Northwestern game. (Analysis and another Northwestern connection below the ad):
There's nothing particularly special here, though the ad does have a fairly high production value for a local race. (Both Parker and Hall have considerable resources, though). The ad is negative, which isn't surprising. Most probably voters already know who Parker is, so there's really not much of a need to define herself. In contrast, Hall has gone negative on her in several ads, so this is a response to try and define him negatively. Parker's people probably aren't overly concerned about Hall --I'll try to break out some polling numbers later this week-- but in a low-turnout election there's a lot of give in the electorate, so this is a prudent defensive move.
As for the ad itself, note how its negativity actually provides some valuable political information. In particular:
1. There's this guy named Ben Hall running for Mayor (this is kind of essential for voters to know.)
2. Houston Teachers hate him (this provides a voting cue for people who might like teachers)
3. Ben Hall had delinquent property taxes on several occasions.
4. There's also this woman named Annise Parker who is mayor (hint: maybe you should vote for her)
Four facts. Two ID candidates running. One IDs an endorsement of a well respected group in town. One relates to the financial competence of a candidate.
Many people deplore negative advertising, but I think it this case the negative advertising provides information to voters more than turning them off. This is a low-information, low-turnout election and any strand of info citizens get will lower their costs of making a decision and make it at least more marginally likely for them to turn out to vote. In contrast, if likely voters already knew the candidates well, had made up their minds and were being bombarded with additional negative ads, the tone might make them tune out and less likely to vote (think about the saturation coverage of a presidential campaign).
The argument above is stolen, er applied, from the research of assistant Professor Yanna Krupnikov of Northwestern University. You can read some of her very sharp work on the impact of negative advertising on voters here and here.
Full disclosure 1: Yanna was a year ahead of me at Michigan. I consider her a friend. She has brought the Political Science doctoral program there much more honor than I ever will.
Full disclosure 2: Yanna has an adorable dog. Just saying.