Molly Cook beats state Rep. Jarvis Johnson in special election to fill open Texas Senate seat until January

Voters cast their ballots at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center in Houston on Nov. 8, 2022. (Michael Stravato For The Texas Tribune, Michael Stravato For The Texas Tribune)

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Emergency room nurse Molly Cook will serve out the remaining months of John Whitmire’s term in the Texas Senate after defeating state Rep. Jarvis Johnson in a special election Saturday, according to unofficial returns.

With all precincts reporting, Cook led with 57% to Johnson’s 43%. She declared victory in a statement shortly after 10 p.m.

The win means Cook will represent Senate District 15 through the end of the year, making her the first person other than Whitmire to hold the seat since 1983. The post has been vacant since January, when Whitmire resigned to be sworn in as Houston mayor.

The outcome marked a sharp reversal from the March 5 primary, in which Johnson, Cook and four other Democrats squared off for a full term that will start when the Legislature reconvenes for its next regular session in January 2025.

Johnson, D-Houston, received 36% of the vote in that initial contest, easily leading the field but failing to reach the majority threshold needed for an outright win. That put him in a runoff against Cook, who finished a distant second with nearly 21%. Their overtime bout, set for May 28, will effectively decide who fills the solidly blue seat until 2029.

Cook, a community organizer who challenged Whitmire for the Senate seat in 2022, said it was “the honor of my life that the people of District 15 have chosen me as their next State Senator.”

“With the May 28th runoff election fast approaching, our work continues,” Cook said. “As we’ve done twice already, my campaign is prepared to knock on every door, talk to every voter, and reach every corner of District 15.”

Cook, who came out as bisexual in 2021, will be the first out member of the LGBTQ+ community to serve in the upper chamber, her campaign noted in a press release.

Cook outraised and outspent Johnson since the March contest, giving her a financial edge she did not have in the first round when she trailed Johnson. The candidates were also battling for a different — and much smaller — slice of the electorate on Saturday: The special election is open to all voters like a general election, and an anemic 3% of registered voters turned out.

In a statement, Johnson lamented the poor turnout and took aim at "out-of-state PACs [who] have spent six-figures against me" — a reference to a political group called Leaders We Deserve that backs young progressive candidates and has contributed some $190,000 to Cook's campaign since early April.

"The big money and big lies will continue pouring into our district leading up to the runoff election, but that doesn’t matter as long as the voters show up and make their voice heard," Johnson said. "The opposition may outspend us, but they’ll never outwork us. This seat can not be bought, it must be earned."

Cook and Johnson have expressed few ideological differences, with each promoting progressive platforms from supporting abortion access and LGBTQ+ rights to boosting public school funding.

Johnson has leaned on his experience, arguing he would be more effective in the role because he has already spent the last eight years in the Texas House. He says his relationships in Austin and knowledge of what it takes to shape and pass legislation would be critical when serving in a chamber dominated by hardline conservatives.

Cook says her regular contact with emergency room patients — from those with pregnancy complications to victims of the 2021 winter storm — and her background in grassroots organizing would bring a much-needed fresh perspective to the upper chamber. She has also sought to position herself to Johnson’s left, attacking him for supporting certain Republican-backed legislation. Johnson said he has at times voted for GOP bills he opposes because, in return for his support, Republicans allowed him and other Democrats to amend the bills to make them more palatable.

The district, home to a diverse cross-section of nearly 1 million Harris County residents, carries major political weight for Democrats. Shaped like an upside-down horseshoe, it covers some of Houston’s biggest liberal strongholds — including Montrose, The Heights and Acres Homes — and blue-trending neighborhoods that are key to Democrats’ aspirations to flipping Texas, such as Bellaire and suburban pockets of northwest and northeast Harris County.

Both Cook and Johnson say they would look to maximize the role of the Senate seat, beyond the traditional functions of a state lawmaker. Johnson, a former restaurant owner, said he would draw on his business experience, and his relationships with local officials from school boards to Congress, to pursue ambitious policies that would attract people and businesses to underserved parts of the district.

“We have to be able to all sit down at the table and call for what's the best plan for our community,” Johnson said. “That's the type of leadership that takes our district to a whole new level, is the kind of leadership that understands and embraces affordable housing, it's the type of leadership that understands how to attract more businesses to your community.”

Cook said she would look to boost the types of grassroots movements she has helped organize in recent years, such as opposing the state’s massive plan to expand Interstate 45 and passing a city ballot referendum aimed at strengthening Houston’s representation on a regional group that distributes federal funds.

“We need a leader and legislator in that seat who understands the value and importance of grassroots organizing, and is willing to use their significant platform and service to feed those movements,” Cook said. “The more and more institutional support that I have, the more support that I can lend to the folks on the ground doing this work.”

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