In Houston mayoral race, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and state Sen. John Whitmire head to a runoff

U.S. Rep. Shirly Jackson-Lee, and state Sen. John Whitmire are running for Houston mayor. (The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune)

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HOUSTON — The race for Houston mayor is headed for a runoff between two Democratic heavyweights.

State Sen. John Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, both longtime Houston Democrats, led a crowded field of 16 other candidates in the race. But neither garnered enough votes to win Tuesday’s election outright and avoid a runoff. They will face off again in a Dec. 9 overtime round.

None of the other candidates came close to the high-profile officials. Gilbert Garcia, the former chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County had the third-most votes but never cracked double digits, according to Decision Desk HQ.

Both frontrunners exuded optimism to their supporters Tuesday night.

Whitmire addressed more than 100 supporters at the Marriott Marquis.

“I’m so pumped, I’m so excited for you and for Houston, I wish that I could go to work in the morning,” he said. “Let’s leave here fired up, I’m fired up — I need you fired up.”

Earlier in the night, Jackson Lee took the stage to chants of “Shei-la” led by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

“I started this journey around the issue of people — making sure that whatever I said was to make Houston a liveable city, and to make Houston a city that responded to the needs of families and our children,” Jackson Lee said. “I hope that however the outcome is, it will reflect the people bought into a positive agenda that will take this city into the future and that future will be something for everyone.”

The race often focused on issues like Houston’s crime rate, the city’s looming budget crisis and trash pickup. It also boiled down to a personality contest between two veteran lawmakers who have served in their seats for decades. Whitmire was elected to the Texas Senate in 1982 and is its longest-serving member. Jackson Lee has served in the U.S. House since 1995.

Whitmire entered the race as the immediate frontrunner, bolstered by a massive war chest and a bipartisan coalition, while also defending his Democratic credentials.

At Whitmire’s watch party, Aaron Rollins, a 22-year-old University of Houston student who worked for the state senator during this year’s legislative session, said he saw Whitmire’s compassion firsthand.

“When he speaks on the campaign trail, he speaks the same way in private about a variety of issues,” Rollins said. “You can tell he holds everything very near to his heart and wants to do the best he can.”

Trey Owens, 36, said he supported Whitmire because of the senator’s work on the criminal justice committee he chairs and work he’s done to help Black and brown Houstonians.

“I’m very optimistic for what the results of the runoff will be,” Owens said. “And I’m excited for Sen. Whitmire to be the front runner.”

Jackson Lee sought to bite into Whitmire’s Democratic support in the solidly Democratic city by trying to tie him to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and former President Donald Trump in television ads and roping in endorsements from big-name Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. On Wednesday, she drew the endorsement of outgoing Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Jackson Lee faces major headwinds. Polling has showed a large percentage of likely voters would never consider voting for her in a direct match-up with Whitmire — and her fundraising has been no match for the senator’s financial stockpile. Before early voting began, an audio recording of Jackson Lee berating a staffer in an expletive-filled rant leaked to the public. Jackson Lee later expressed remorse about the behavior in the recording.

At Bayou Place in downtown Houston, a few dozen supporters of Jackson Lee gathered for her campaign’s watch party Tuesday night.

Among them was 30-year-old Darryl Ray Ware II, who said he was supporting Jackson Lee in part because he witnessed how she worked to help Houstonians during the COVID-19 pandemic — distributing vaccines or water, depending on the emergency or drive.

“Sheila Jackson should be elected mayor of Houston, in my opinion, because she better reflects the people in the city of Houston,” Ware said.

Campaign volunteer Jason Dawkins, 36, said he was confident Jackson Lee will prevail in a runoff.

“In many ways, she has served as some form of the mayor of Houston for all these years,” Dawkins said moments before trying to fire up the crowd. “She’s really ready to be mayor on day one.”

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