Former elections chief Chris Hollins drops bid for Houston mayor

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins at election headquarters inside the NRG Arena on Oct. 5, 2020. The former elections chief was running for Houston mayor, but dropped his bid. (Pu Ying Huang For The Texas Tribune, Pu Ying Huang For The Texas Tribune)

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Chris Hollins, the former Harris County elections chief who pushed measures to expand ballot access during the COVID-19 pandemic, announced Thursday he’s dropping his bid for Houston mayor — the latest shakeup in what’s becoming an increasingly dramatic race.

Instead, Hollins will run to be Houston city controller — the city’s chief financial officer.

“Ultimately, what we’ve decided is that the way that I can play the best role in moving Houston forward is from the controller’s office,” Hollins said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

Hollins’ decision comes more than a week after U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat who has been in Congress since 1995, announced plans to enter the crowded field for Houston mayor.

There are now six major candidates vying for the spot. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has served two four-year terms, will leave office when he hits his term limit at the end of the year.

Hollins acknowledged that Jackson Lee’s entrance into the race influenced his decision to drop his bid. Hollins said he arrived at the decision after consulting his family as well as close advisers and community leaders. He also pointed to his past at McKinsey & Company, the global management consulting firm where he spent six years advising government agencies, as qualifying experience for the controller’s office.

Hollins would not say whether he is endorsing any of the remaining mayoral candidates, but emphasized his admiration for Jackson Lee.

“Congresswoman Jackson Lee is an icon in this community,” Hollins said. “She’s someone who was a childhood hero of mine and who I continue to look up to today. … I have a ton of respect for her and I think that she’s going to run a strong race.”

During his brief tenure as Harris County clerk in 2020, Hollins backed efforts like 24-hour drive-thru voting and sending applications for mail-in ballots to the county’s more than 2 million registered voters — ideas intended to make it easier for people to vote amid the pandemic and a high-turnout election. The following year, Republicans in the Texas Legislature outlawed those measures when they enacted a sweeping voting restrictions bill.

Hollins, 36, was the second major candidate to announce a bid for Houston mayor — behind state Sen. John Whitmire, a longtime Houston Democrat who has held frontrunner status since he first declared his intent to run in 2021.

Aside from Whitmire and Jackson Lee, the ballot will include Gilbert Garcia, former chair of the city's Metropolitan Transit Authority; Houston City Council Member Robert Gallegos; and former Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards; and Houston attorney Lee Kaplan.

The Hollins campaign raised nearly $1.7 million last year — more than Whitmire — and had a little more than $1 million in the piggy bank in January. But that haul was dwarfed by Whitmire’s massive $10 million war chest, accumulated during his decadeslong career in the Texas Legislature.

Now the race appears to be shaping into a showdown between Whitmire and Jackson Lee, two Democratic titans in Houston.

But the race still could get further complicated. Tony Buzbee, a prominent Houston attorney who forced Turner into a runoff four years ago but ultimately lost the race, told the Houston Chronicle he might still throw his hat into the ring. The filing deadline is Aug. 21.

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