No One Knows Sheila Jackson Lee Like Houston Does

Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s long, inglorious history of disrespecting her staff has finally caught up with her, in the midst of her current campaign for mayor of Houston. An audio recording, its provenance still unknown, quickly went viral last Friday, with an Oscar-winning display of some of the vilest language that any manager can heap on an employee, let alone when it’s a duly elected member of Congress running to head up the country’s fourth-largest city.

Jackson Lee called a congressional office staff member everything but a child of God. His big mistake? Failing to notify her about an event. After the controversy marinated over the weekend, Jackson Lee issued a four-paragraph statement on Monday, the first day of early voting for the November 7 contest, blaming an unnamed political opponent and extreme Republicans for disseminating the recording. After admitting in paragraph two that she was “regretful,” she went on to explain that her work would not be possible without her staff’s “hard work and dedication.”

Nowhere in the statement did the words “apologize” or “apology” appear. But she offered up this quid pro quo as if it excused her rant: “Working as a public servant is demanding, but it is my calling. I expect excellence at all times and I know that it is because of their commitment that I am able to fulfill my duties as an elected official.”

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If they had leveled anything like Jackson Lee’s tirade, and it was brought to public attention, most bosses outside Capitol Hill’s rarified spaces would be looking for a new, lower-profile job—and certainly not running for mayor.

For the people in both Houston and Washington who know Jackson Lee best, the recording was not exactly an earth-shattering revelation. Over a 21-year span, Jackson Lee has had the sixth-highest turnover rate in the House. Flight attendants and restaurant servers also have been targets of her vitriol. Bob Stein is a Rice University political science professor who worked on her first congressional campaign in 1995. “She’s hard and demanding of her staff and of everyone and anyone around her,” he says. “But I don’t think it has any appreciable impact.”

Indeed, he adds, “it could have a backlash effect: Many of her core supporters will be angry [about] this audio. But bottom line: They’re with Sheila anyway. These are men and women, mostly African American women, who have been voting [for her] with such regularity that you could set your watch and clock to it.”

But as strange as this audio may be for everyone elsewhere, it merely confirmed what Houston already knew: Lee was never well positioned to move seamlessly from Congress to Houston City Hall.

Mayors are at once closest to residents—it’s not difficult to run into the mayor even in the largest cities in the country—and operate at the center of a city’s political universe. Unlike other weak-mayor Texas cities like Dallas or San Antonio, Houston has a uniquely powerful “strong mayor” form of government more akin to Chicago’s or New York’s, if not stronger. Its powers combine executive, legislative, and urban planning responsibilities. The mayor, not the city council, controls that body’s agenda and decides which items go forward for a vote.

The audio merely confirmed what Houston already knew: Lee was never well positioned to move seamlessly from Congress to Houston City Hall.

Prior to the pandemic, Houston was already on the edge of a major fiscal shortfall, but the massive injection of COVID-19 federal dollars kept the city flush. The last of that funding will run out during the next mayor’s term. Constrained by a property tax cap and a state legislature not inclined to fund anything beyond education (and which has a clear disinclination to help out blue cities, despite the state’s large budget surplus), that means that the next mayor faces tough budget cuts or coming up with creative solutions for the inevitable shortfalls. Significant new federal funding is unlikely to deliver new dollars given the current state of federal gridlock.

One consequence of the current political moment that plays into the difficulties is that Democratic cities across Texas face interference in city affairs by the Republican legislature. In June, the Texas Education Agency took over Houston’s Independent School District, which serves about 60 percent of area students. This summer, state lawmakers also passed what’s known as the “Death Star” law that threatens home rule for Houston and other Democratic cities by forbidding them from passing any regulations stronger than the state’s laissez-faire ones.

The law invalidated city ordinances on such disparate topics as employment practices, outdoor music festivals, and towing companies. After the city filed a lawsuit, a Travis County District Court judge declared the law unconstitutional. Currently, the case is under appeal and likely to end up before the state’s Republican-dominated supreme court.

The other front-runner in Houston’s mayoral contest is Democrat John Whitmire, the state’s longest-serving senator (since 1983), representing sections of Houston and Harris County. Whitmire has the advantage over Jackson Lee in having a record of being able to wheel and deal with far-right Republicans like Dan Patrick, the powerful lieutenant governor. That’s a status that Sylvester Turner, the current mayor, also enjoys, although that hasn’t precluded excesses like the Death Star law or the recent school takeover. Jackson Lee has less experience dealing with the Republicans who run state government and would be at a comparative disadvantage at that compared to Whitmire.

“One of the arguments for the Whitmire camp is he can work better at the state level even though the state is not like New York, where there’s a much closer connection between the state and the city,” says Richard Murray, a senior research fellow at University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs who has worked with both candidates. “That’s not the case generally here; the state can largely operate in punitive fashion.”

Nevertheless, it’s city-centric problems like crime that are top of mind for voters regardless of race, ethnicity, party affiliation, or gender. Under Turner, the city has hired more police officers, focused on crimes like human trafficking, and increased funding for domestic violence and mental health responses. Overall, the city’s violent crime rate dropped by 3.5 percent, but some crimes, including kidnappings and sexual assaults, have increased. Whitmire has pledged to bring in more state troopers, a popular but controversial stance, as well as hire hundreds more police officers. Jackson Lee has also identified hiring more police as one of several crime-fighting proposals.

Six years after Hurricane Harvey, one-third of likely voters also identify flooding as one of their top three issues. There is growing awareness of how Houston’s built-up sprawl and the resulting increase in impermeable surfaces led to the disastrous inundation. Since Harvey, higher-income neighborhoods have seen drainage and physical improvements, but low-income areas continue to struggle. The city has prioritized the re-establishment of ditch clearance as a municipal responsibility. Currently, the burden of maintaining open channels in roadways to move stormwater falls on property owners, and residents have not been able to keep up with clearing them. Both candidates have pledged more improvements to reduce flooding.

Even with the audio recording in the rearview mirror, the contest may hinge more on temperament than the city’s challenges of preemption, crime, or flooding. That became a given once Jackson Lee emerged in March as a late entrant in the nonpartisan contest, which features 14 candidates. Houston city races typically have low (roughly 20 percent) turnout, which probably means an eventual Whitmire–Jackson Lee runoff, especially if some voters move away from Jackson Lee to the second-tier candidates.

The electorate skews older; the average age of a Houston voter in municipal elections is 67. Most voters are also homeowners. According to Stein, about 20 percent of voters are African American; another 15 percent Hispanic; roughly 6 percent Asian, with a plurality of white voters. Houston Republicans are what Stein calls the “pivot players,” and Jackson-Lee has high negatives with this group.

“John [Whitmire] may not be the most liberal or progressive Democrat, but Sheila, though a good progressive, has her other faults,” Stein says. “Republicans are betting on Whitmire, not because he’s white or a male, which he is, and over 70; it’s because he can work with the state legislature—they know that Whitmire has cut deals.”

In an early-October University of Houston Hobby School poll of 800 voters intending to cast a ballot in a possible runoff election, Whitmire leads Jackson, 50 percent to 36 percent, with 9 percent undecided. Overall, her unfavorables are very high; his are comparatively much lower. The two are tied among women, while Black voters overwhelmingly support Jackson Lee and whites and Hispanics, Whitmire.

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