Houstonians following the mayoral campaign may not realize it, but John Whitmire describes himself as a progressive.
Partisan labels seem unimportant in a nonpartisan municipal race, but Whitmire has found himself defending his 50-year career as a Democratic legislator throughout much of this fall.
Whitmire backed up his progressive label during an interview by pointing to his opposition in the Texas Senate to conservative legislation, including bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community, criminalizing abortion and restricting immigration.
He also, however, spoke of his willingness to work across the aisle on Houston priorities in a legislature dominated by Republicans.
“Labels just don’t mean much,” Whitmire said. “The label I’m proud of is I’m a Democrat. I’ve never voted any other way.”
His opponent, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, calls herself the “true Democrat” running to be Houston’s mayor. She contends Whitmire is supported by the Harris County and Texas Republican parties and would be a mayor beholden to the GOP.
“There is a divide between Americans who want to go forward and those who want to follow MAGA extremists,” Jackson Lee said recently. “If that’s who is going to take charge of City Hall, that is not going to be healthy for our neighborhoods, our families, our economic engine, our face to the world, our face to the nation.”
While the pair essentially ignored each other at live events for most of this year, Jackson Lee and her surrogates worked in the months leading up to the Nov. 7 election to paint Whitmire as a Republican operative portraying himself as a Democrat to voters.
Jackson Lee’s campaign claims Whitmire is a favorite of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, and in a video posted to her Twitter last week, the longtime congresswoman said Whitmire is supported by the Harris County Republican Party.
The Harris County Republican Party used the opportunity to note it is not supporting either candidate for mayor and derided Jackson Lee’s campaign.
While the county GOP is not getting involved in the race, Republican-leaning voters in Houston have a clear preference between the two candidates.
In an October University of Houston poll of a then-hypothetical runoff between Jackson Lee and Whitmire, self-declared Republican voters preferred Whitmire by 81 percentage points. Independents preferred Whitmire by 47 percentage points, according to the survey.
Democratic voters were far less likely to say they would vote for Whitmire, preferring Jackson Lee 59 percent to 29 percent, according to the survey.
That polling largely was shown to be accurate on Election Day, with Whitmire outperforming Jackson Lee in independent and Republican-leaning precincts, while Jackson Lee was stronger in more Democratic areas of town.
On the campaign trail, Whitmire is running on a message of improving public safety.
He launched his campaign last November, declaring “We have a crime issue in Houston.”
Whitmire’s cornerstone plan to invite Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to Houston to supplement the city’s police force has been roundly criticized by Jackson Lee and other Democrats, who say the department is controlled by Abbott and has a record of heavy-handed, racist policing.
The fundraiser and campaign kickoff was hosted at billionaire conservative Tilman Fertitta’s Post Oak Hotel. His fundraiser host committee was made up of other wealthy donors to conservative causes, including Gallery Furniture owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, real estate developer Richard Weekley, Fidelis Realty Partners CEO Alan Hassenflu and Houston beer distributor John Nau, and current and former Democratic officials.
“Every Democrat in Harris County, they all want the supporters I have,” Whitmire said.
Whitmire promised to work with anyone to improve the city regardless of political affiliation, arguing he’s the candidate that can bring people together.
He also employs Mammoth Marketing Group, a political consulting firm that lists the Harris County, Texas and national Republican parties as clients, a decision Whitmire said he had no involvement with.
Throughout the year campaigning for mayor, Whitmire continued to work in the state Senate, taking votes many of his conservative supporters would oppose. This year alone, Whitmire voted against a bill to strengthen the penalties for voting illegally, against bills creating a school voucher program and against a bill restricting hormone therapy and puberty blockers for transgender youth.
Whitmire’s years of advocacy against conservative legislation targeting the transgender community, in particular, has won him the praise of progressives around the state. LGBTQ+ rights advocacy group Equality Texas once declared Whitmire “exactly the type of elected official the LGBT community needs on our side.” Planned Parenthood listed Whitmire as a 2023 Texas Legislative Champion.
The biggest difference between Jackson Lee and Whitmire is not their politics, it is their style, said Richard Murray, a retired University of Houston political science professor and a longtime observer of Houston politics.
The U.S. Congress has been much more partisan in nature than the Texas Legislature for years, Murray said. Democrats in Washington often vote in a bloc on important priorities, making it difficult to differentiate the voting record between Jackson Lee and any other Texas Democrat, said Murray, who was Whitmire’s professor in the 1970s, and has worked on redistricting legislation for Jackson Lee.
Murray noted Whitmire is one of few Democratic senators who has been able to maintain a working relationship with Patrick, the president of the Senate. That relationship with conservative officials often is necessary in the Republican-controlled legislature where passing any bill requires GOP support, he said.
“I work across the aisle, and that’s what people expect us to do,” Whitmire said.
Jackson Lee also says she can be the candidate to unify the city, but she says the difference between her and Whitmire is her unwillingness to work with “extreme MAGA Republicans.” Jackson Lee has found some success in Washington with passing bipartisan legislation, including one signed by former President Donald Trump. She also filed articles of impeachment against the former president and skipped his 2018 State of the Union in protest.
“That’s the distinction with Sheila Jackson Lee. If it’s to solve a problem, if it’s to fix a problem, if it’s to help her constituents, we’ll sit down at the table,” Jackson Lee said. “I don’t throw things. I make principled points that I cannot agree with certain behavior that does not speak to what America actually stands for.”
Olivia Julianna, a Gen Z progressive activist in Houston, said she does not have a problem with Democrats working with Republicans. Julianna said she is supporting Jackson Lee over Whitmire simply because she trusts Jackson Lee to put Houston first when conducting those bipartisan negotiations.
“It’s not about negotiation and cooperation, it’s about who is not going to stand down in the midst of a fight on the crucial issues in our community,” Julianna said. “I do not trust (Whitmire) to be the person to do that.”
During the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus’ endorsement meeting in August, Julianna called Whitmire “John the Pawn” when noting his relationships with state Republican officials.
Julianna said opposition to the state takeover of Houston Independent School District is an area where Democrats should be unwilling to compromise with Republicans. Jackson Lee has been an outspoken opponent of the takeover throughout the year while Whitmire has criticized state-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles’ style of leadership but said he would be willing to work with him.
In an effort to woo liberal voters ahead of the Dec. 9 runoff, Whitmire has rolled out a series of Democratic endorsements in recent days.
On Saturday, the Black Women of Greater Houston Political Action Committee offered a dual endorsement of Jackson Lee and Whitmire. Roy Malonson, the founder of African American News and Issues, endorsed Whitmire on Sunday. And Monday morning, Whitmire’s campaign announced he had been endorsed by former Mayor Annise Parker.
State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, and U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, have been vocal supporters of Whitmire throughout the campaign.
“I can tell you, on any issue that mattered to working people, to women, to the LGBT community, to people of color, John Whitmire stood shoulder to shoulder with us,” Garcia said. “The whole criticism of John is unjust, undue and very unfortunate that it’s being done for political purposes.”
Garcia said she also opposes Democrats working with “extreme MAGA Republicans.” She calls Whitmire a “straight shooter” and a “Texas Democrat” who works behind the scenes to pass legislation.