An article last Sunday said Houston is the nation's fourth-largest city. According to the 1980 census, it ranks fifth in population.

t was founded by hustlers who pitched their tents in a swamp along a steamy bayou and dreamed of a city. One hundred fifty-five years later, the dreamers and hustlers still rule, brawling and yahooing their way up into the front ranks of American cities. They turned an inland city 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico into one of America's busiest ports. They conquered heat and humidity with air conditioning and elaborate underground tunnels. They transplanted hearts, sent men to the moon, brought baseball indoors, and turned a cavernous honkytonk bar named Gilley's into the envy of the sophisticated East. They also got rich.

Today Houston, Texas, stands as the unchallenged symbol of the Sun Belt, full of infectious optimism and excitement, a city that has parlayed oil and petrochemicals and high technology into an international business center and a mecca for out-of-work Yankees, a city that not only thrives on growth but also has converted it into its dominant industry.

Growth has made Houston a statistical behemoth: the nation's fourth-largest city, with 1.6 million people, adding roughly 1,000 people and 300 cars each week, encompassing an area of 556 square miles. Yearly it constructs $2 billion worth of buildings, and this year it might top $3 billion. Its city budget has doubled in the last four years and its revenues are growing by 15 to 20 percent a year without new taxes.

But all is not rosy. Houston is, in the words of Mayor Jim McConn, "the murder capital of the world," and in August alone 80 people died violently. It has 210 miles of freeways with 195 miles on the drawing boards, and 80 percent of the existing system already exceeds its design capacity--some by 200 percent. Its freeways are violent, its streets a minefield of potholes. It has added just 26 buses to its operating fleet in the last 10 years, garbage pickup is getting worse--and the city is slowing sinking.

The mayor prefers to preach prosperity. "Houston is the envy of every city in America," McConn says. "If you hit a pothole here, at least you've got enough money in your jeans to get your car fixed."

McConn looks on the bright side and hopes the residents of Houston will do the same for him. He is running for his third two-year term as mayor, but he has been trailing in the polls all year, and despite spending almost $150,000 on television advertising in the last few months his standing has not improved. His opponents are standing in line to point out the city's deterioration. The nonpartisan election is Nov. 3, and a runoff after that is expected.

McConn's problems run deeper than potholes and traffic jams. Several weeks ago, a judge declared the city's tax system illegal and it is now in receivership. A suit brought by one of McConn's opponents showed that the tax assessor-collector had left off the tax rolls a chemical plant owned by Exxon, and had apparently undertaxed oil owned by the Atlantic Richfield Co. as well as various boats, barges and vessels owned by Brown & Root Co., a worldwide engineering-construction firm. McConn initially dismissed the suit as a gimmick.

Earlier this year, McConn was tarnished by a court case that found favoritism and cronyism in the awarding of cable television franchises in Houston. A federal judge later overturned the multimillion-dollar award to the plaintiff, but issued a scathing statement about the mayor's handling of the matter. The mayor also has developed a reputation for globetrotting, gambling and not paying much attention to his job. He says the media have been unfair and his critics off base.

"All the other candidates talk about my having no management skills, lack of leadership and all that," he says. "That's bull----." He points to Houston's triple A bond rating as evidence of his skill.

But the mayor's vulnerability--and perhaps the $81,500 salary that goes with the job--have brought out a flock of opponents, and three of them will spend between $500,000 and $1 million trying to take over.

Being mayor in Houston is an odd job. The city has a strong mayor system of government in a town that prefers weak government or none at all. City hall does little to set the tone for the town. That is done by the business community--"the downtown crowd," as it is known here.

The downtown crowd is a loose confederation of bankers and developers, and it can be argued that nearly everything that makes Houston distinctive--with the exception of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration--has been the result of such entrepreneurs. They built the Astrodome and the skyscrapers and the gleaming Galleria shopping center. In a city without zoning, it was the developers and the bankers who decided what should go where, and in their piecemeal decisions they defined how most of Houston now lives.

This downtown crowd is not a tight cabal that serves up candidates for city hall the way the business community in, say, Dallas has done for years. But its members do dominate the town, and Mayor McConn has enjoyed the support of most of this group--at least up to now--because he has allowed them to do as they wish.

The leading member is Walter Mischer, a financial patron to many politicians in Texas and the cornerstone of McConn's campaign. "If Walter were not supporting me, I would take a second look at my candidacy," the mayor says candidly. It is Mischer who makes it possible for McConn to budget $1 million for his reelection campaign.

Given the breakdown in city services and the friendly relations between McConn and the developers, it would be natural to find his opponents attacking the downtown crowd or questioning the city's policies toward growth. But that certainly isn't the case.

Deterioration of living conditions in Houston is an issue in this campaign, but not growth itself. None of the major candidates suggests that growth has been bad for Houston or that it needs to be controlled in any significant way, or even that a new relationship between city hall and the developers should exist. In a city where growth provides so many opportunities, no one is about to kill the golden goose, even if the stench of rotten eggs is in the air.

It was summed up neatly by a businessman who said, "Our problems have caught up with us, we're out of time," but admitted he and his peers were making too much money right now to find a candidate who would confront the perils of growth headon. McConn's principal opponents suggest only that they can do a better job at cleaning up the stench.

The leader in the mayoral race appears to be city controller Kathy Whitmire, 34, who was first elected in 1977. A certified public accountant, she is articulate and has earned a reputation for efficiency in office. She promises better fiscal management of the city's seemingly overflowing tax coffers. She has the support of many of the young professionals in Houston, of women and of gay activists. She has an army of volunteers, but not as much money or professional organization as other candidates.

Moving up now is Harris County Sheriff Jack Heard, 63, a big, bluff man whose father was police chief and who began his career walking a beat in Houston. He was later police chief himself and his candidacy is built around the issues of crime and leadership. He entered the race late, but has adequate money, a thoroughly professional campaign apparatus and the potential support of the downtown crowd if McConn stumbles badly in the next few weeks. Last Sunday, he won the endorsement of the Houston Chronicle, a symbol of the city establishment.

The fourth principal candidate is Louis Macey, 45, a businessman and former city councilman who lost to McConn in a runoff two years ago. The candidate of the city's Republican establishment, which counts for less in local elections than in statewide or national races, he has a good organization.

McConn's hopes of getting into the runoff may depend on how well he can maintain his past support among blacks and Hispanics. He has poured city money into the minority sections of town and has been rewarded with endorsements from prominent minority politicians. But a black justice of the peace, Al Green, is in the race and could drain crucial votes from the mayor.

The results of this election may put more buses and policemen on the streets, but they are not likely to alter the character of this city. Too many people--big and small--have too big a stake in the way it now works. The confrontation with growth is still a few years away, which is why one politically astute lawyer here calls this election "the calm before the storm."