In a resounding win that defied the pre-election polls, Democratic state Senator John Whitmire has unseated 30-year incumbent Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee to become Houston’s next mayor. With all precincts reporting Saturday night, Whitmire led by over 30 points, garnering over 65% of the vote to Jackson Lee’s 35%.
The lopsided victory caps off a mostly subdued race between two Democratic heavyweights that failed to inspire voters in Texas’s largest city. Turnout was dismally low, with around 21% of Houston’s 1.2 million registered voters casting ballots in the initial round of voting on November 7. Even high-profile endorsements from national figures like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and local leaders couldn’t mobilize an energized coalition for Jackson Lee.
Ultimately, Whitmire’s strong name recognition from over 50 years in Texas state politics and an ability to build a broad bi-partisan coalition propelled him past Jackson Lee’s establishment support. His campaign also deftly leveraged a series of political faux pas by Jackson Lee in the final weeks that blunted her momentum with key voter blocs.
With Houston considered the country’s most diverse major metropolis, constructing a winning multi-ethnic alliance is crucial. But Jackson Lee struggled to match historical Black turnout levels despite the potential to become Houston’s first African-American female mayor. Whitmire aggressively courted the Latino vote, where polls showed him leading by 20 points heading into election week. He also made significant inroads expanding his support among the city’s large Republican-leaning base.
The two veteran lawmakers found themselves in the runoff after besting a crowded field of 15 candidates on November 7. As the top two vote-getters, they advanced to the final round of ranked choice voting. They debated crime reduction strategies and touted lengthy records of public service. But ultimately, the sleepy nature of the race failed to inspire passion on key issues. Voters seemed largely disengaged amid a confusing ranked-choice ballot with no marquee matchups.
“It’s been a pretty sleepy race so far,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus before polls opened Saturday. “We’ve seen mayor’s races in the past that have had a lot more fireworks, a lot more partisanship. This has been a race that frankly hasn’t really caught the voters’ attention.”
With crime seen as the number one issue facing Houstonians, both contenders vowed to retain current police chief Troy Finner if elected. Their ideological closeness on major policy questions left voters searching for contrasts in leadership style, personality and governing competence.
Jackson Lee Brought High Name Recognition But Signficant Baggage
Jackson Lee entered the race with ubiquitous name ID from serving 13 straight terms in Washington. As Dean of the Texas Congressional delegation, she boasts senior roles on the House Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Budget Committees. Her enduring visibility in the Houston area stretching over decades brought both passionate supporters and hardened opposition.
While her backers touted her effectiveness directing federal resources home and ability to leverage D.C. relationships as mayor, critics highlighted a perceieved lack of attention to constituent services and absenteeism from floor votes.
Damaging headlines have also dogged Jackson Lee throughout her congressional tenure. Earlier race controversies Podcasts Podcasts In a hot mic incident just before early voting began, she could be heard fiercely chastising an aide with expletives over a scheduling snafu. The emergence of the profanity-laced tirade on social media reinforced existing perceptions about her prickly leadership style.
Jackson Lee’s years accumulating political opponents also came back to haunt her bid. An October University of Houston survey showed a sky-high 43% of respondents saying they would never support her election compared to just 15% opposed to Whitmire under any circumstances. The poll also found significantly higher very unfavorable views toward the congresswoman relative to her opponent.
Ultimately, the accumulation of past controversies created too high a hurdle for Jackson Lee to overcome late deciding voters despite increasing her share of the vote in the runoff round.
Whitmire Offered Deep Local Connections But His Own Ethics Cloud
In contrast, Whitmire leaned heavily into his deep Lone Star State ties and familiarity from serving nearly 40 years in the Texas Legislature. As the self-proclaimed “bull of the woods,” he highlighted his senior status as Dean of the Texas Senate while crisscrossing Harris County meeting face-to-face with constituents.
He built a diverse Houston-centric coalition of supporters ranging from billionaire Tilman Fertitta to rapper Bun B. His campaign also took advantage of high name recognition crossing party lines, netting surprise endorsements from former mayoral candidate Republican Jack Christie and other local GOP leaders.
But while Whitmire attempted to parlay his extensive governing experience into proof of executive leadership, his tenure also brought increased scrutiny. Local investigative reports raised repeated ethics questions over Whitmire blurring lines between his elected office and private sector legal work.
He vigorously defended the propriety of his state legislative conduct. But in a city with its own history of mayoral misdeeds from scandal-plagued Sylvester Turner back to Bob Lanier in the 1990s, doubts emerged over fitness to hold Houston’s top executive job.
In the end, his double digit polling lead proved too much for Jackson Lee to overcome. His broader ideologically diverse coalition delivered decisive victory despite clouds surrounding his Harris county ethics.
Final Weeks Marred By Miscues Undermined Jackson Lee Momentum
In a race filled with sleepy policy debates, the final weeks provided some rare fireworks jolting awake an otherwise disengaged electorate.
A pair of down ballot errors by the Jackson Lee campaign created embarrassing unforced errors feeding into existing doubts over competence. First, a campaign ad incorrectly listed the final runoff election date as December 7 rather than the accurate voting date of December 10. The gaffe drew attention to questions over basic organization in her mayoral run.
Even more detrimental, the ad ran on local network affiliates over final pre-election weekend rather than getting pulled immediately. The outside media firm took responsibility for the mistake. But coming at the tail end of early voting, the visible misinformation risked creating voter confusion without enough time to fully correct ahead of election day.
Coming coupled with the earlier profane audio leak, the sloppiness left Jackson Lee constantly playing defense reacting to unforced errors rather than staying on offense cementing support. This distracted her campaign from delivering its closing argument highlighting marquee national endorsements.
Meanwhile, the Whitmire campaign largely stayed out of the mud, using his financial resources advantage to flood airwaves with positive ads rather than attack his opponent. Avoiding reciprocating direct attacks on Jackson Lee’s missteps allowed him to continue riding his largely controversy-free wave as the well-known local candidate above the fray headed toward election week.
Quiet Conclusion Caps Seemingly Inevitable Whitmire Rise After Years Waiting in Wings
In the end, Whitmire’s landslide win appeared almost inevitable in retrospect given the race’s underlying fundamentals and shifting electoral currents. After patiently traversing every corner of Texas politics since the early 1970s, he clearly leveraged his extensive governing connections and coalition-building skills honed from decades observing the bull pit in Austin.
Running an efficient buttoned-up operation, his campaign made few blunders while capitalizing on a wave of late support from an unusual alliance of business titans, rappers, and even former GOP rivals.
Meanwhile, Congresswoman Jackson Lee couldn’t replicate the enthusiastic broad-based Obama-era style coalition which lifted Sylvester Turner into the mayor’s office back in 2015. Despite her trailblazing national profile, she failed to inspire 2016 Hillary Clinton-level turnout from core supporters necessary to break through Whitmire’s bi-partisan bloc.
In the end, Jackson Lee’s polarizing presence on the national stage brought both passionate loyalty but also hardened opposition built up over 30 years colliding with Houston’s bare-knuckled political arena. Her propensity for verbal gaffes and high-profile dust ups ultimately reinforced doubts raised over fitness for the city’s top executive job.
After last year’s disruptive redistricting process which saw her longtime congressional seat dismantled, she now faces an uncertain political future back as a rank and file representative stripped of her powerful committee posts.
Meanwhile, the 73-year old Whitmire can now cap his lengthy Lone Star State political career finally reaching the coveted Houston mayorship after biding his time for decades. Come January, the self-proclaimed “Bull” will take the reins over America’s fourth largest metropolis armed with a strong voter mandate, governing know-how and robust rolodex of supporters.
For a mostly overlooked sleepy race failing to inspire Houstonians, the concluding act provided plenty of late fireworks before the final definitive result. Now the baton officially passes providing a new Bull an opportunity to put their unique stamps on Space City leadership.