In crowded field, Houston mayor's race centers on prominent Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee and John Whitmire

Houston mayor candidates State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston.
Houston mayoral candidates John Whitmire, currently a state senator, and Sheila Jackson Lee, a U.S. representative. Credit: The Texas Tribune | Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via REUTERS
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As Houston grapples with crime, a looming budget crisis and growing housing unaffordability, the race to lead the nation’s fourth-largest city has mostly come down to two longtime fixtures in local politics.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and state Sen. John Whitmire, both Democrats, lead a crowded field of 16 other contenders in the Nov. 7 race to succeed Mayor Sylvester Turner, who is term-limited.

With 2.3 million people, Houston is Texas’ most populous city and the most diverse city in the country. It is solidly Democratic, but the mayor’s office is nonpartisan.

Armed with endorsements from big-name Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Jackson Lee has sought to rally her party’s base, vowing to stand up to “MAGA Republicans.” Whitmire has relied on a bipartisan coalition while also defending his Democratic credentials.

“I don’t take a backseat to anyone on being a Democrat,” Whitmire said in an interview Monday. “I’ve been a Democrat my entire career — and a good one.”

Jackson Lee was not made available for an interview, but after this story's initial publication, her campaign provided a statement where she pitched her candidacy.

"The reason so many Democrats from here in Houston and across the Country are supporting me is because they know I am the only front runner who will address kitchen table issues and protect our great City from [extremists'] agendas and policies," Jackson Lee said.

Early voting started Monday, and the homestretch is already off to a dramatic start. Jackson Lee on Monday addressed a leaked audio recording of her going on an expletive-filled rant against a staffer. The same day, Jackson Lee’s campaign chair reported to police he was attacked at his office by a person the campaign called a “known conspiracy theorist.” And on Tuesday, Jackson Lee falsely claimed the endorsement of former Mayor Lee Brown, who backed Whitmire in February.

University of Houston polling identified Whitmire and Jackson Lee as the undisputed frontrunners. In the latest survey, Whitmire led Jackson Lee 34% to 31%, within the margin of error. All other candidates combined got 12%. But a considerable amount of voters — 22% — were undecided.

Whitmire has led Jackson Lee by double digits in a hypothetical runoff, and large pluralities have said they would never consider voting for her.

Jackson Lee is pushing hard to crystallize the choice for Democrats ahead of a likely runoff. She has reeled in endorsements from national Democratic stars and run TV ads tying Whitmire to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and former President Donald Trump.

Jackson Lee has done so at a large financial disadvantage. Whitmire raised nearly twice as much as Jackson Lee from July to late September and outspent her by a factor of more than five to one, according to the latest round of campaign finance reports. By the end of the period, Whitmire had $6.9 million in the bank left to spend and Jackson Lee had $902,000.

Both have served in their seats for decades, and Whitmire is the dean of the Texas Senate. He made clear as far back as 2021 that he would run for mayor, while Jackson Lee jumped in in late March and shook up the race.

They have divvied up the lion’s share of local endorsements in the race, but Jackson Lee has reeled in more big-name supporters from outside the city. She has the backing of Pelosi, Beto O’Rourke and Hillary Clinton, who is visiting Houston on Friday for a rally.

While other candidates have not broken through, there are some other well-known local names in the race. They include Gilbert Garcia, the former chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County; Robert Gallegos, a current City Council member; and Jack Christie, a former council member who once chaired the State Board of Education.

The issues

Houston’s next mayor will have to grapple with major challenges amid the region’s robust population and economic growth.

One of the most significant: a looming budget crisis. Houston is facing a sizable shortfall as federal COVID-19 relief dollars expire in the coming years and the city’s expenses grow faster than its revenue.

But for likely voters, crime remains the top priority even as Houston’s overall rate has been on the decline.

Like nearly every major U.S. city, Houston saw a considerable spike in violent crime, including homicide, during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, overall crime is down about 5%.

The overall drop in the city’s crime rate hasn’t been enough to calm voters. Some 83% of likely voters in the mayor’s race told pollsters that crime should be the next mayor’s top priority, according to a recent poll from the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

“Crime is at the forefront, even though Houston's crime numbers have come down considerably since the pandemic,” said Renée Cross, the Hobby School’s senior executive director.

Whitmire chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. If elected mayor, he plans to create a collaboration with all law enforcement agencies in Harris County, get more aggressive with recruiting police officers and speed up processing of violent offenders.

“I believe in being tough and smart on crime,” Whitmire said. “You hold people accountable that put a gun in your face. The people that are nonviolent low-level offenders, you work with them.”

Among Whitmire’s plan to tackle crime: bringing 200 Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to help Houston police officers patrol the streets amid a law enforcement shortage. The idea has been tried elsewhere, most recently in Austin. But enforcement efforts during that partnership have fallen disproportionately on people of color.

Whitmire said the DPS partnership was reducing crime in Austin — a more progressive city — until “politics got in the way.” He suggested he would not let that happen in Houston.

Other candidates have balked at Whitmire’s plan.

“I can’t think of a worse idea,” Garcia told the Houston Chronicle editorial board.

But a majority of likely Houston voters — 65% — support Whitmire’s idea, according to a recent Hobby poll.

“He comes in as mayor, on day one, there’s gonna be some changes,” said Donald Baker, spokesperson for a pro-Whitmire group, Protect and Serve PAC. “You don’t get that same feeling with Sheila Jackson Lee.”

In an Oct. 10 debate hosted by local news station KPRC, Jackson Lee said she would like to see officers “target high-crime areas using data analysis” and increase officer visibility, among other ideas.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for our families to feel unsafe,” Jackson Lee said.

Working with the state

The next Houston mayor will take the seat amid high tensions with the state’s Republican leadership.

The GOP-controlled Legislature has targeted the Houston region over issues of voting access and public safety spending as the area emerged as a Democratic stronghold over the last decade.

State lawmakers also passed a sweeping bill that reins in city officials’ abilities to make local laws — prompting Houston officials to sue. And legislators forced Harris County to transfer all election-related duties from its elections administrator to the county clerk and the county tax assessor-collector.

Whitmire has signaled a willingness to repair the fraught relationship with the state’s Republican leadership.

"The city of Houston has to work with Austin,” Whitmire said in a debate. “We have valuable state resources that we're not receiving because of the poor relationship between City Hall and the Capitol."

That willingness to work with Republicans at the state level has provided fodder for Jackson Lee.

“I will also be someone who is willing to stand up to a state that wants to overturn our elections [and] wants to ensure that our City Council can't do their job by passing laws,” Jackson Lee said at a debate.

Whitmire’s support from Republicans has prompted wariness in progressive circles.

He has often been there for the LGBTQ+ community, said Austin Davis Ruiz, president of the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus PAC. After a transgender woman was killed last year in a neighborhood in east Houston, Whitmire was the only elected official to show up to a public vigil, Ruiz said.

But Whitmire’s close relationship with Republicans — and ties with GOP donors like Houston restaurateur Tilman Fertitta — was a key concern among members of the PAC when they voted to endorse Jackson Lee, Ruiz said.

“It's no secret that the city of Houston has been under attack, that Harris County has been under attack by the Legislature,” Ruiz said. “I think for the members that were there during that meeting, it really came down to who's going to be the best candidate to help fight against the Legislature.”

The politics

While their debate appearances have been mostly cordial, Jackson Lee has gone on the attack against Whitmire on TV. She has aired an ad that groups Whitmire with Abbott, saying they both want to make access to guns easier, and asserting that Whitmire’s “backers are Trump Republicans who want to make abortion a crime.”

On guns, Jackson Lee’s ads cite Whitmire’s support for Senate Bill 16 in 2017, which significantly reduced the fee to get a license to carry a handgun. A majority of Senate Democrats joined Republicans to pass the bill at the time.

Whitmire has countered with TV ads featuring state Sen. Carol Alvarado and U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia rebutting the attacks, saying he has “always supported a woman’s right to choose and fought to keep guns off our streets.”

In the interview, Whitmire did not shy away from his bipartisan support, saying people from across the partisan spectrum are supporting him “because they know I’ve got a record of accomplishment.” As for some of the specific GOP donors, Whitmire said they are the “same people [Jackson Lee] had supporting her” years ago.

One big example is Fertitta, the local billionaire who is backing Whitmire. Fertitta is a prominent Trump supporter who is hosting a fundraiser for the former president Nov. 2 in Houston, five days before the mayoral election. But Fertitta also hosted a fundraiser for Jackson Lee’s congressional campaign in 2019, according to an invitation.

Jackson Lee has also accused Whitmire of being absent while she fought for federal relief dollars after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. It’s a line of criticism that recently got a boost from Turner, the current mayor. He has not endorsed in the race, but tweeted Monday that only Jackson Lee and two other mayoral candidates — not Whitmire — helped him during federally declared disasters.

While other candidates do not appear to have made a dent, they have trained their fire on Whitmire. Garcia has aired a TV ad that criticizes Whitmire for boasting that he has “worked with nine mayors” — saying “that’s the problem” and calling him a “career politician.”

Lane Lewis, a former Harris County Democratic Party chair who supports Whitmire, said the attacks on the candidate do not bother him because Lewis “has been in the room when [Whitmire] has stood up, particularly on social issues.”

“In a time that we are so grossly polarized on so many issues,” Lewis said, Whitmire “provides an olive branch where we can remain true to ourselves, our progressive ideals, while still attracting reasonable conservatives that want to get things done.”

Whether the partisan scuffles will register with voters remains to be seen.

“I don't know that that really resonates so much with voters who are going to the polls to vote for mayor and City Council,” said Janice Evans-Davis, who previously worked in the Turner and Annise Parker administrations. “They want their garbage picked up, they want crime numbers to look good.”

Disclosure: University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.