Political Dominoes Could Fall In Houston As 2 Longtime Democrats Campaign For Mayor

 Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

The last time there was an open seat in Texas Senate District 15, it was 1982.

The last time there was an open seat in Texas’ 18th Congressional District, it was 1989.

Now, the heavily Democratic districts in Houston could be vacant again. It all comes down to the city’s election this November as incumbents in both seats are running for mayor, raising the prospect of one or both relinquishing their long-held seats.

Neither state Sen. John Whitmire nor U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has said how they plan to handle the conundrum, fueling suspense for declared and potential candidates hoping to succeed them.

“It’s an exciting time in Houston politics, to say the least,” said Amanda Edwards, a Democrat who is already running for Jackson Lee’s seat. “Certainly there are a lot of open questions that will remain open until the mayor’s race has concluded.”

The calendar adds one of the most interesting wrinkles. While the Houston mayoral election is Nov. 7, the field is crowded enough that Whitmire and Jackson Lee could go to a runoff at a later date. That runoff could fall after the Dec. 11 deadline for candidates to file for the 2024 primary, meaning Whitmire and Jackson Lee would first have to decide whether to run for reelection to their current seats.

And regardless, if either wins the race — whether in November or December — they would automatically vacate their current seat upon being sworn in, triggering a special election to finish their term.

It is a likely scenario, given that both are considered frontrunners and the most likely to face one another if a runoff is required. A poll released Tuesday found Whitmire and Jackson Lee leading the pack with 34% and 32%, respectively, of support from likely voters. Whitmire led Jackson Lee 51% to 33% in a hypothetical runoff.

At stake are the legacies of two of the longest-serving Democrats in the country’s fourth-largest city. And if they give up their current seats, it could trigger a series of political dominoes that could usher in a new generation of Democratic leadership across Houston.

“I think both Whitmire and Jackson Lee are kind of institutions in town, so the fact that there could be two open seats — a state Senate and a congressional seat, which is rare — I think there’s going to be a lot of people lining up to get into those races,” said Michael Kolenc, a Houston-based Democratic strategist who is not working for any of the candidates. “I think candidates would be wise to look at the calendar and start early.”

The toughest scenario may be if the mayoral runoff falls after the filing deadline for the 2024 primary, meaning Whitmire and Jackson Lee could have to decide whether to seek reelection before knowing the outcome of the mayoral race. The last time there was a mayoral runoff in Houston — in 2019 — it came five days after the filing deadline for the following year’s primaries.

Under a law passed during the latest regular legislative session, House Bill 357, the runoff would have to fall on a Saturday between 30 and 45 days after the November election. That leaves two options, Dec. 9 and 16 — one date falling before the filing deadline and the other after.

Whitmire declined to comment for this story. Jackson Lee did not respond to a request for comment.

Whitmire’s seat has been occupied the longest. He was first elected in 1982, capturing an open seat after his predecessor, the late Jack Ogg, gave it up to run for attorney general.

Whitmire is the dean of the Texas Senate, or its longest-serving member. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other senators have spoken openly about Whitmire’s potential exit from the chamber, anticipating his victory in the mayoral contest.

At least two Democrats have launched campaigns for Senate District 15. The first in was Karthik Soora, a renewable energy developer, followed by Molly Cook, an emergency room nurse who challenged Whitmire in the 2022 primary, receiving 42% of the vote as Whitmire’s only opponent.

Both Cook and Soora say they are running regardless of what Whitmire decides to do.

“I’ve had this conversation with a million people, but for me it makes no difference at all,” Cook said in an interview, adding that she “never stopped running” after her 2022 campaign.

Both indicate they would bring a more progressive perspective to the seat than Whitmire.

“I think that what we see with the Texas Legislature, with the attorney general’s impeachment, is that people are sick of this establishment that’s not serving them,” Soora said in an interview, pitching himself as a “real Democrat.”

As for Jackson Lee’s seat, she has held it since first winning election in 1994, when she beat former U.S. Rep. Craig Washington in the Democratic primary. It was last open in 1989, when Washington won a special election to fill the vacancy left by the death of U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland.

Edwards is the most prominent Democrat already running for Jackson Lee’s seat. The former Houston City Council member and 2020 U.S. Senate candidate was running for mayor until she dropped out In June, switched to the congressional race and endorsed Jackson Lee for mayor.

“I do think Congresswoman Jackson Lee can win the race and certainly anticipate that her seat will be the one that becomes open,” Edwards said. Still, she added, she “will remain in the CD-18 race even if Congresswoman Jackson Lee decides to pursue CD-18 again.”

Edwards has already raised more than $600,000 for her congressional campaign and has been endorsed by Higher Heights for America PAC, a national political action committee that works to elect Black progressive women. The group has also endorsed Jackson Lee for mayor.

Asked about the uncertainty over whether the congressional seat will be open, a spokesperson for the committee, Aprill O. Turner, expressed no concern.

“We are looking forward to each candidate being successful in the race they are running in,” Turner said in an email.

Join us for conversations that matter with newly announced speakers at the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, in downtown Austin from Sept. 21-23.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/07/28/houston-mayor-whitmire-jackson-lee/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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