On a recent Wednesday morning, John Whitmire’s campaign headquarters on Washington Avenue buzzed with volunteers and staffers making calls for the man leading the polls in the Houston mayor’s race.

A pair of hand-drawn signs with talking points were posted to the exposed brick wall. One was titled “public safety.” To its right was a list of “progressive legislative accomplishments.”

After five decades in the Texas Legislature, there is much to say about Whitmire’s record. And the voluble Hillsboro native is happy to expound. Where some critics see a mess of compromises in the Democrat who keeps the trust of Republicans in Austin, Whitmire sees a history of pragmatism.

In the 20th century, Whitmire oversaw sweeping changes to Texas’ prison system that ratcheted up sentences for violent crimes while easing jail overcrowding, shed an image as a legislative lightweight and brushed off digs from ethics watchdogs.

In the 21st century, Whitmire oversaw a second round of criminal justice reforms and kept his position as the sole Democratic committee chair in a GOP-dominated Senate.

Once a fresh-faced college student running a shoestring campaign, Whitmire has long since lost his hair and gained a $10 million campaign account. Exiting the friendly confines of his state Senate district, Whitmire hopes to win over Republican voters without losing too many Democrats to a political stalwart who paints herself as the progressive candidate of choice, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.

Whitmire dismisses Lee’s messaging as hollow talk and says his record backs up his own: as a voice of protest when Austin oversteps on social issues and a voice of reason when problems such as crime require state help.

“There’s some activists, young activists, that think maybe I don’t make enough noise while I’m being effective,” Whitmire said. “Sheila will make noise. So, if you want a noisemaker, she’s probably your candidate. I’m a doer.”

The crowd listens to mayoral candidate John Whitmire during a campaign kickoff event for  at Minute Maid Park on Saturday, June 10, 2023, in Houston
The crowd listens to mayoral candidate John Whitmire during a campaign kickoff event for at Minute Maid Park on Saturday, June 10, 2023, in Houston, TX. (Annie Mulligan for Houston Landing)

Knocking doors

During five decades in office, Whitmire often has told the story of his first election.

Whitmire was born in the small town of Hillsboro, a half hour drive north of Waco. After his parents divorced, he spent some of his formative years with his mother in Pasadena.

At 22, he was a University of Houston student putting himself through college by working in a state food stamp office.

The son of a county clerk, he already was predisposed to politics on the day in fall 1971 when he walked into longtime UH professor Richard Murray’s office to find him studying a map of a newly drawn Texas House district that happened to include Whitmire’s high school, house and church.

Whitmire, a senior, announced his candidacy in January 1972, and narrowly won the Democratic primary five months later on the strength of an energetic door-knocking campaign. In the general election, the Houston Post said the main difference between the “conservative student” and the 45-year-old Republican opponent he went on to defeat was their age.

These days, Planned Parenthood Texas lists Whitmire as one of its “legislative champions,” but during his first campaign, he told the now-defunct Post that he opposed legal abortion. Whitmire told the Houston Chronicle recently that he was acting in line with the views of his constituents.

In a recent interview, Murray disagreed with the idea that his former student was a conservative. Instead, Murray said, he was “an ambitious centrist.” The label still applies, he said.

Over the next decade, Whitmire combined a personal whirlwind with a backbencher’s legislative career. In 1976, his brother James died of juvenile diabetes complications. The next year, he married Rebecca Dalby, the daughter of Garza County Judge Giles Dalby. In 1981, his former sister-in-law Kathy Whitmire, who had been married to James, won victory as Houston’s mayor. The year after that. his wife gave birth to a daughter, their first of two.

Along the way, he acquired a reputation as a partier and a nickname to match: Boogie.

“Well, he wasn’t married when he ran for the Legislature,” former U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a friend and onetime legislator, said. “With a lot of the state legislators, he stayed out too late sometimes.”

Iced out by a powerful House speaker with whom he was at odds, the junior representative had few pieces of major legislation to his name when he ran for state Senate in 1982. He still won the race by a wide margin, pointing to his role organizing a protest against city property tax evaluations.

The Texas model

The second story John Whitmire often tells about his life centers on something that happened on the night of Jan. 1, 1992: He and his family were robbed at gunpoint in the garage of his Shepherd Park Plaza home.

“I thought he was definitely going to kill me, my wife, and my 9-year-old daughter,” Whitmire says in a campaign video. “It just changes your life forever.”

The story hammers home Whitmire’s personal interest in tackling crime. Even though crime is trending down, Houston voters consistently say it is their top concern, and they espouse a desire for a mix of both “tough on crime” policies and community policing.

“I thought he was definitely going to kill me, my wife, and my 9-year-old daughter. It just changes your life forever.”

State Sen. John Whitmire

While Jackson Lee also has spoken in campaign forums about the need to crack down on violent crime, Whitmire said voters should look closely at his record.

In 1993, county jails across Texas were overflowing with people who had been sentenced to hard time but could not be sent to state prisons because they were so full.

Whitmire, who recently had been appointed chair of the Senate criminal justice committee, engineered a complicated compromise that extended the effective prison terms of people convicted of violent crimes, shortened some sentences for non-violent offenders and created 15,000 beds in a new type of facility known as a state jail.

That period birthed a slogan that Whitmire has used ever since – that Texas could be “tough and smart” on crime.

Whitmire won praise at the time for what many saw as an even-handed response to historically high crime rates and overcrowded prisons.

The legislation, however, blocked release for people sentenced to long terms even after they were old or infirm, said Michele Deitch, a lecturer at the University of Texas who was involved in the study process leading up to the 1993 changes. Nor did the state jails ever live up to their promise of rehabilitation, she said.

“If we want to look at why so many people are locked up in Texas today, it is directly attributable to the failure to do certain things during that ’93 session,” Deitch said. “The ratcheting up has had an extraordinary impact, both operationally and in terms of the state budget, on our state. It has kept people in custody long after they needed to be there, long after they presented a public safety threat.”

In 2007, Whitmire oversaw another round of criminal justice reforms dubbed “the Texas model” that have drawn national praise. Faced with the prospect of another building spree to keep up with the state’s growing prison population, Whitmire teamed up with conservative lawmakers on a different tack.

Helen Chang hugs a fellow supporter of John Whitmire at a kick-off event for his mayoral campaign at Minute Maid Park on Saturday, June 10, 2023, in Houston
Helen Chang hugs a fellow supporter of John Whitmire at a kick-off event for his mayoral campaign at Minute Maid Park on Saturday, June 10, 2023, in Houston, TX. (Annie Mulligan for Houston Landing)

Rather than easing up on sentences, which could have led to claims the state was going soft on crime, the Legislature made it harder to revoke parole and invested more in re-entry and probation.

“We’ve closed 10 prisons in the last 11 years because of that,” Whitmire said proudly.

For Whitmire, the 2007 reforms embody the “smart” half of his “tough but smart” formulation. If elected mayor, he said he would bring that mindset to such issues as the Bissonnet Track, an area on Houston’s southwest side known for prostitution.

“All the discussion about the Bissonnet Street sex workers will be handled in a different fashion if I become mayor. Those are not criminal justice issues, except for the users. You’ve got to attack the users of the sex workers while you’re trying to help the sex workers get out from the control of their abusers,” he said.

Whitmire still wields enormous power over criminal justice in Texas as a Senate committee chair. In private, some criminal justice advocates fume at his opposition to a bill to “raise the age” of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18.

Longtime Whitmire friend and former Harris County justice of the peace Don Coffey, however, pointed to the law that Whitmire shepherded to passage decriminalizing student truancy.

Presiding over the criminal justice committee, Whitmire sometimes can come across as brusque.

“He and I have a similar lack of patience with stupid people,” Coffey said. “But somehow or another, he can smile and reach out and grab your hand, and then you feel like, ‘Well, he just called me stupid, but I like this guy for some reason.’ It’s a gift.”

State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said she also has seen Whitmire make sure crime victims have as much time as they need to tell their stories.

From Boogie to the Dean

Outside of criminal justice, Whitmire has a long history of votes and campaign finance reports.

Lee and other candidates already have pounced on Whitmire’s gun control record, noting that his campaign collected thousands of dollars from the National Rifle Association. Whitmire drew positive ratings from the gun lobby group in the past, but the NRA recently gave him a 0 percent score for his voting record, according to the nonpartisan organization Vote Smart.

For some Democrats with a long memory, the campaign also could dredge up Whitmire’s moment in the national spotlight.

In 2003, Whitmire broke with fellow Democrats who had decamped to Albuquerque to deny the Senate a quorum in the middle of a contentious Congressional redistricting battle. Whitmire said that after weeks in New Mexico, he simply bowed to reality.

Democrats gave Boogie a new nickname: “Quitmire.”

By the late 2000s, Whitmire shed Boogie and Quitmire for a third nickname: Dean of the Senate. Democrats and Republicans alike lionized Whitmire in 2013 during a discussion of a resolution honoring his 40 years of service.

During decades in office, Whitmire has faced only a handful of competitive races, the most recent a spirited battle with progressive primary challenger Molly Cook in March 2022.

Whitmire has spoken out against GOP positions on social issues like abortion and transgender rights, but has not been outspoken enough for Cook. She already has announced her intention to run again for state Senate, regardless of whether Whitmire wins the mayor’s race. She said Whitmire has been too collegial with Republicans in Austin.

“Substance and style are interlinked,” Cook said. “I think the way you message around an issue changes hearts and minds, and if the only way you work is behind closed doors, that’s not ideal.”

“He and I have a similar lack of patience with stupid people. But somehow or another, he can smile and reach out and grab your hand, and then you feel like, ‘Well, he just called me stupid, but I like this guy for some reason.’ It’s a gift.”

Don Coffey

Other progressives object to his positions on crime, like his call to bring hundreds of DPS troopers to Houston.

“Sending 200-plus DPS troopers into Houston sounds a little like a Governor Abbott talking point,” said Michelle Tremillo, co-executive director of the Texas Organizing Project’s political action committee, which has endorsed Jackson Lee. “We need genuine solutions to a genuine issue, and those solutions are going to be comprehensive.”

While Jackson Lee is angling for progressive votes, Whitmire dismisses the idea that she is the only progressive choice. Both candidates have support from unions; Whitmire’s backers include the AFL-CIO, firefighters and police, while Jackson Lee’s include teachers and transport workers and the Service Employees International Union.

“The interesting thing is, it doesn’t matter what we say now,” Whitmire said. “We bring records to this race. And I’m confident which one the public will choose.”

For Whitmire, crime symbolizes the idea that something is amiss at City Hall, an opinion that seems to match the pessimistic mood of residents. He promises to more aggressively recruit police officers while expanding re-entry programs for the formerly incarcerated. Whitmire also promises to end the city’s longrunning contract dispute with the firefighters union, which has endorsed him.

Other key positions include accelerating the city’s permitting process and helping prospective homeowners with down payment assistance to address the cost of housing. At a debate last week, he called for a pause on the water rate hikes meant to pay for upgrades to the city’s decrepit sewage system, citing widespread billing issues.

He generally casts himself as a fiscal conservative, suggesting there is waste that could be rooted out with an audit. Whitmire also says that his strong relationship with state Republicans will allow Houston to claim more infrastructure funds for priorities like flood control.

John Whitmire poses for a selfie with supporters during a kick-off for his mayoral campaign at Minute Maid Park on Saturday, June 10, 2023, in Houston
John Whitmire, right, poses for a selfie with supporters during a kick off for his mayoral campaign at Minute Maid Park on Saturday, June 10, 2023, in Houston, TX. (Annie Mulligan for Houston Landing)

‘A senator first?’

There is a John Whitmire campaign sign tacked to a mailbox on a country road leading to a red barn in Chappell Hill. It stands at the entrance to some of the hundreds of acres that Whitmire owns in Washington County, according to ethics disclosures.

Whitmire has done well for himself since his lean student days, but he has been the subject of allegations that his private success was fueled by his public office.

In a series of unflattering stories in the 1990s, reporters revealed Whitmire had taken a job lobbying on behalf of a pension board after sponsoring a bill on its behalf, that he got a $4,000-a-month consulting contract with the Harris County Probation Department to help it interpret the criminal justice reforms he had passed, and he was paid legal fees from a halfway house that had received funding from the state.

There were at least two formal investigations of Whitmire, which fizzled out. The other candidates in this year’s race have resurfaced the old allegations, along with new ones. Jackson Lee and former Metro chair Gilbert Garcia have alleged that his transfer of contributions from his state to his mayoral campaign account violated city ordinance.

“His ethical standards are, ‘What can I get away with?’” mayoral candidate and former city councilmember M.J. Khan said at a recent forum.

Outside of his paltry pay as a part-time legislator, Whitmire draws income as an attorney at the firm Locke Lord, which says on its website that he “practices in the public law section at the local and federal levels.”

The firm is a powerhouse on the Texas lobbying scene. Locke Lord partner Robert Miller, a Whitmire friend, is one of the state’s highest-paid lobbyists.

Whitmire declined to release a list of his clients, and said he does not know who the firm’s other clients are.

“It’s been a good opportunity for me to grow as a lawyer, but it’ll end the 1st of January if I’m elected. We have a Chinese wall. Their government relations people don’t come to me with issues. They know to stay out of my office. I’m told by the firm to be a senator first, a lawyer second,” he said.

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    At a recent TV debate, Whitmire stood silently on a University of Houston stage as other candidates tossed jibes his way.

    He was more assertive in a one-on-one interview. Jackson Lee was happy enough to endorse him in his last Senate race, he said. He also alleged that Jackson Lee was “recruited” to run for mayor by Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who served with Whitmire in the Texas Senate.

    Whitmire says he does not know why Ellis has it in for him.

    “We worked together a lot on criminal justice reform. I can’t explain it. It’s almost a mystery,” he said.

    Ellis denied convincing Lee to run.

    “I am a longtime supporter of the congresswoman and strongly feel she is the best candidate to serve as the next mayor of Houston,” he said in a statement. “To suggest that I or anyone else made this decision for her is frankly an affront to strong women everywhere.”

    As the officially nonpartisan race heads into its final weeks, the conventional political wisdom is that the race will head to a December runoff where Whitmire will start with a strong advantage.

    So far, the going has been good for a man who has never lost a race, with his poll numbers holding steady even as the other candidates draw knives. Whitmire said his biggest struggle has been slowing down.

    “How do I say no, that I can’t be in Kingwood in the morning and Meyerland in the afternoon?,” he said. “It’s a hell of a challenge.”

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    Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Houston Landing. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...