Heat intensifies around Houston Democrat Shawn Thierry ahead of bitter runoff

Shawn Thierry and Lauren Ashley Simmons. (Mark Felix And Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune, Mark Felix And Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune)

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With two weeks left until the primary runoff, state Rep. Shawn Thierry’s fight for political survival is intensifying, as more of her current and former legislative colleagues have lined up behind her opponent and grown increasingly vocal in their criticism of the Houston Democrat.

This past weekend, U.S. Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a Dallas Democrat who previously served in the Texas House with Thierry, spoke at a campaign event where she condemned her former colleague and restated her support for Lauren Ashley Simmons in the May 28 contest.

“I don’t show up for [just] anybody. Shawn Thierry is just that bad,” Crockett said. “She’s got to go.”

Thierry, a 54-year-old Houston attorney, has been in her own party’s crosshairs since last spring, when she voted for a measure barring gender-transitioning care for minors, and then delivered an emotional speech from the House floor explaining why she broke with her party. Thierry’s vote, and her viral remarks, prompted a spirited and well-funded challenge from Simmons, a 36-year-old labor organizer who finished ahead of Thierry in a three-way March primary.

The two are now facing off in a runoff that will effectively decide who represents the solidly blue south Houston district next year, while testing the staying power of Democrats who vote for GOP bills opposed by the LGBTQ+ community. Thierry, the only Democrat in the Texas House to be pushed into a runoff, has countered with her own slate of endorsements from Black church leaders and six of her Democratic colleagues.

Simmons, meanwhile, has picked up support from eight Democrats who currently serve with Thierry in the Texas House and two others — Crockett and former lawmaker Garnet Coleman — who previously overlapped with her in the lower chamber. Several of them, including Crockett, appeared with Simmons over the weekend for a rally and a round of block-walking.

“She ain’t never had y’all’s back,” Crockett said, after recounting a story in which Thierry allegedly asked House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, if Democrats would be allowed to retain their committee positions if they went ahead with a plan to flee the state to thwart a GOP elections bill. “They were targeting her constituents. And you know what she cared about? Her damn seat on a committee.”

Thierry wound up joining more than 50 House Democrats who flew to Washington, D.C., to temporarily deny Republicans the quorum needed to pass their bill overhauling the state’s elections. She denied the details of Crockett’s account, calling it a “made up scenario” designed to boost Simmons’ campaign.

“I will conclude that it's disappointing and beyond bizarre that these Members ever believed that holding a hyperbolic press conference solely to attack a fellow Dem colleague in a Democratic runoff was a good idea,” Thierry wrote on X.

Thierry added that she “never raised my hand in any meeting to ask [Phelan] such a dumb question,” and she suggested that some of Simmons’ legislative supporters should be blamed for helping Republicans restore the quorum they used to pass the elections bill.

Thierry, for her part, is touting support from a coalition of church leaders that she said is “the largest collective of African American Baptist ministers ever assembled in a Democratic primary runoff.” She framed it as a “major political shift” in the primary, pointing to “the pivotal role that the Black church has shaping African-American civic engagement and mobilizing communities against societal injustices.”

“I would like for this to be a sign to all legislators, and those who seek to be a legislator, that you too can enjoy this type of support when you stand for righteousness,” M.D Morrison Sr., pastor at Houston’s New Faith Baptist Church Northeast, said while flanked by Thierry and other ministers at a recent campaign event. “You too can enjoy this type of solidarity from the faith community when you stand simply for what is right.”

Thierry is seeking her fifth term representing House District 146, a heavily Democratic seat that covers parts of south and southwest Houston. The district is three-quarters nonwhite and anchored by Sunnyside, a low-income, majority-Black neighborhood that once was a thriving economic hub that is trying to revitalize.

Thierry is hoping her support from the Black faith community will be enough to overcome Simmons’ mounting support from Democratic politicians and local political groups. Since the runoff, Simmons has added endorsements from U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher and Houston state Reps. Alma Allen, Ann Johnson and Christina Morales.

Five of Thierry’s House colleagues had already gotten behind Simmons in the first round, including Houston-area Reps. Jon Rosenthal and Gene Wu. Simmons has also been endorsed by former Senate and gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke.

Asked about her fellow Democrats who had lined up behind Simmons' campaign, Thierry said that in "a political climate like we are seeing unfold on both sides, it's understandable that some individuals have made choices to support candidates based on highly charged issues."

"Ultimately, it is the voters of District 146 who will decide," she added.

Thierry has added recent endorsements from state Reps. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, and Sergio Muñoz Jr., D-Palmview. She is also backed by Democratic state Reps. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth, Harold Dutton of Houston, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins of San Antonio and Eddie Morales Jr. of Eagle Pass.

The animus toward Thierry from within her own party comes after she broke ranks on three major GOP bills that became law: the ban on gender-transitioning care for minors; a bill aimed at removing sexually explicit books from school libraries, a designation critics feared would be used to target LGBTQ+ literature; and a requirement that transgender college athletes play on teams that align their sex assigned at birth.

Critics of Thierry’s remarks on the gender-transitioning bill noted she ignored the fact that treatment decisions for minors could only be made by parents or legal guardians. A consensus of major medical groups has also argued that gender-transitioning care should be available to children and teens in the care of doctors.

A number of Republicans praised Thierry’s comments, calling it a brave rebuke of what they view as a radical stance. She has received the bulk of her campaign funding from a mix of GOP donors, PACs that advocate for charter schools and school vouchers, and the PAC affiliated with Las Vegas Sands, which is aiming to legalize casino gambling in Texas. Also among Thierry's top donors is Adam Loewy, an Austin personal injury lawyer who mostly donates to Democrats.

Thierry was not the only Democrat to support the GOP legislation — 11 others voted for the book-banning bill, including Collier, Dutton, Morales, Muñoz and Raymond— but she was by far the most outspoken. She said in another floor speech that the book bill would set up guardrails against explicit materials that have “infiltrated” schools, noting one that she said teaches children how to access dating websites.

Crockett said she decided to weigh in on the race after the Houston Chronicle editorial board quoted Thierry appearing to dismiss Simmons’ Texas House supporters as “the gay ones.” Thierry said the quote was “taken completely out of context from a larger discussion,” but in any case, Simmons’ campaign told the Chronicle that they received a major surge in fundraising after Thierry’s remarks were published.

Simmons' top donors are the Texas Organizing Project, the Texas Gulf Coast AFL-CIO and the Houston Federation of Teachers.

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