When Sheila Jackson Lee walks into a room, everyone pays attention. 

That has been the case for much of her career in Congress, and her time campaigning for Houston mayor has been no different. 

The 73-year-old congresswoman’s late decision to enter the race last March demanded immediate attention. Two candidates for mayor, former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins and former council member Amanda Edwards, dropped out of the race soon after Jackson Lee’s announcement. 

Jackson Lee is not the race’s clear frontrunner, but her presence remains a force on the campaign trail and in Houston politics. At candidate forums and debates, her well-documented charisma in front of a crowd is always on display, and her supporters often provide the loudest cheers for any candidate when she finishes speaking. 

After events, she regularly draws the longest line of supporters waiting to shake her hand, taking the time to greet everyone before her staff whisks her away. During closing remarks at a forum the evening of Oct. 2, Jackson Lee said she has been a tireless advocate for Houston in Washington, D.C., who wants to return to the city to do the same as mayor. 

“Count on me to be a mayor with passion,” Jackson Lee said over cheers from the crowd. “I will be a mayor that will serve all over this city. I will know your neighbors. You will see me, and I will see you.”

The congresswoman presents voters an inspiring, but broad vision for the city under her leadership. She promises to improve the city’s various ailments by bringing her fabled energy in Washington back to Houston, but offers few specifics. 

“Count on me to be a mayor with passion. I will be a mayor that will serve all over this city. I will know your neighbors. You will see me, and I will see you.”

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

Her opponents contend she was recruited to run by local officials, while Jackson Lee says she was invited by the people of Houston to “come home” and run for mayor. 

Despite numerous requests during the last two months, Jackson Lee’s campaign did not make her available for an interview for this story.

The longest-serving member of Houston’s congressional delegation, Jackson Lee inspires the strongest opinions among voters heading into the Nov. 7 election. 

Only 5 percent of those surveyed by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs earlier this month said they did not know enough about Jackson Lee to have an opinion on her campaign.

Her name recognition after more than three decades in Houston politics goes both ways, however: Of those polled, 52 percent said they would consider voting for her, while 43 percent said they would never cast a ballot for her. 

Congresswoman and Houston mayoral candidate Sheila Jackson Lee shakes hands with PetSet mayoral candidate forum attendees
Congresswoman and City of Houston mayoral candidate Sheila Jackson Lee shakes hands with PetSet mayoral candidate forum attendees, Monday, Sept. 25, 2023, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

That base of support appears to be enough to propel Jackson Lee into a potential runoff against another longtime Houston Democratic politician, state Sen. John. Whitmire, should neither garner more than 50 percent of the vote on Election Day. 

She has remained a frequent presence on the campaign trail while juggling her duties as a member of Congress during the home stretch of the campaign. 

In the last month, Jackson Lee has voted to avert a federal government shutdown, oust Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., from his position as speaker of the House, and now finds herself in another series of lengthy votes to elect his successor. 

Political springboard

Jackson Lee is not a Houston native, though she refers to the Bayou City as home.

Born in 1950 in Queens, New York, Jackson Lee grew up the oldest of two siblings during the Civil Rights era. Her father, Ezra Jackson, was the son of Jamaican immigrants who worked as a comic book artist for Marvel and day laborer. Her mother, Ivalita Bennett Jackson, was a nurse in the city through most of Jackson Lee’s childhood. 

After graduating from Jamaica High School, Jackson Lee attended Yale University as a member of the university’s first co-ed class and graduated with a degree in political science in 1972. During her time there, she was a deacon at the church on campus and met Elwyn Lee, a Houston native and her future husband. 

Jackson Lee earned a Juris Doctorate from the University of Virginia Law School in 1975, while Elwyn Lee attended the Yale Law School. After a brief stint in Washington, the couple settled in Houston in 1978, where Jackson Lee began working as an attorney for Fulbright & Jaworski.

Jackson Lee’s interest in Houston politics began soon afterward. She ran unsuccessfully for municipal judge three times during the 1980s before she was appointed to the municipal bench in 1987 by then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire. 

That appointment proved to be the springboard Jackson Lee needed: Two years later, she won her first election to an at-large seat on Houston City Council. 

She made a reputation for herself on council as a productive legislator and was described as a “tireless” worker and advocate for gun control, homelessness, juvenile crime, affordable housing and domestic violence, according to Houston Chronicle archives. 

One program she championed expanded the hours of city parks and recreation centers to give teens an alternative to gang activity. The Houston Chronicle’s editorial board celebrated that policy as a “pragmatic approach” to address crime.

It was during her time on council that she became known as a publicity hound and a difficult boss, criticism that would follow her to Washington and back. 

She also found political allies and friends in Houston as she became more well known in the city. 

Ahead of the 1994 federal elections, 18th Congressional District Rep. Craig Washington had gained a reputation for missing votes. Jackson Lee threw her name into the race with the backing of liberals and conservatives alike.  

Nina Hendee, who owns the Taste of Texas restaurant along with her husband Edd Hendee, said she and her husband are lifelong Republicans and hosted one of Jackson Lee’s first political fundraisers after she announced her campaign for Congress. 

“We’ve known Sheila since she first ran, and she is a tireless worker as a congresswoman for Houston,” Hendee said. “We are on complete opposite sides of the political spectrum, but she is my friend.”

Following a bitter campaign, Jackson Lee defeated Washington in the Democratic primary before coasting to victory in the general election later that year. 

Since then, she has been reelected 14 times, largely uncontested and never with less than 70 percent of the vote. 

Houston advocate

Jackson Lee’s time in Washington began with the same energy she was known for in Houston. 

The day she was sworn in, Jackson Lee gave her first speech from the House floor, railing against special interests in politics, declaring, “We are not for sale.” 

That speech was the first of a prolific streak of floor appearances. She has spent more time speaking from the House floor than any other member since taking office in 1995, according to C-SPAN. 

The new congresswoman quickly endeared herself to liberals, using those floor speeches to become an advocate for gay rights. She also voted against the authorization of force for the Iraq War. 

She kept her reputation as a relentless advocate for Houston, starting a decades-long tradition of camping out on the House floor prior to the president’s annual State of the Union address in an effort to secure some brief facetime with the commander in chief and cabinet members to plead on the city’s behalf. 

“We’ve known Sheila since she first ran, and she is a tireless worker as a congresswoman for Houston. We are on complete opposite sides of the political spectrum, but she is my friend.”

Nina Hendee

Despite sometimes intense antipathy for her in the local GOP, Jackson Lee is thought of as a willing bipartisan partner on Capitol Hill by some Republicans. On the campaign trail, she frequently touts bills she has passed with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“Obviously, we come from different political parties and have different views on a number of things, but my goal here in the Senate is to try to find things I can agree with, with people I can work with, and to try to get done things that I think need to be done. And she’s been a willing partner on those,” Cornyn told reporters last month. 

During former President Donald Trump’s campaign for president and four years in the White House, Jackson Lee was a vocal critic of Trump’s policies, labeling him a “man of fear” during a high profile speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.  

She skipped Trump’s inauguration in 2017, and ended her State of the Union tradition the next year by walking out of the chamber during Trump’s speech

The day after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, she introduced articles of impeachment. She also voted in favor of both Trump’s 2020 and 2021 impeachments. 

As relations between Texas’ Republican-controlled state government and the Democratic city of Houston continue to deteriorate, Jackson Lee promises to bring her advocacy to City Hall. 

“Houston needs a mayor who will stand up to those in state government who want to overturn our elections and take over our schools — and there’s no candidate who has been a stronger fighter for this city and its people than Sheila Jackson Lee,” her campaign website states.

Washington reputation

Her negative reputation when it comes to her staff has only grown in Washington.

She regularly appears in Washingtonian Magazine’s “Best & Worst of Congress,” an informal annual survey of Capitol Hill staffers’ opinions on their bosses. The magazine has awarded her the titles of “Biggest Windbag,” “Meanest,” “Show  Horse” and “C-SPAN Ham.” 

Jackson Lee’s office has among the highest levels of staff turnover in the House, according to LegiStorm, an organization that monitors the Capitol Hill workforce. 

A 2011 lawsuit by a former legislative director said Jackson Lee’s office required 16-hour work days and failed to make accommodations for their vision impairment. In 2019, Jackson Lee was sued by a woman who said she was fired after coming forward with a claim she was sexually assaulted by a former supervisor at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. She denied any wrongdoing, and both lawsuits were dismissed.

Jackson Lee, who was chair of the foundation at the time, was forced to resign that post under pressure from members of her own party. 

Nina Hendee said it is difficult to square the Sheila Jackson Lee she knows with the stories of her time in Washington. 

During a recent interview, Hendee recalled the 2010 funeral for her son, who died in a skiing accident. Jackson Lee attended the funeral, and waited in a long line of mourners to share her condolences. 

Once the congresswoman made it to the front of the line, Hendee told her she should have informed them she was there so she could have skipped the line.

“I didn’t come as a politician, I came as a mom,’” Jackson Lee told Hendee while hugging her. 

“I think we’re so polarized in the country that we have preconceived notions about people that are not correct,” Hendee said. “Sheila does things and I cringe, and that’s OK. It’s OK to have friends who have completely opposite views.” 

Jackson Lee also was a frequent guest on Edd Hendee’s conservative Houston radio talk show during her time in office until the show ended in 2017, she added. 

Congressional offices are known for their high rates of turnover, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. Jackson Lee may be a victim of her outspoken nature, race and sex, he added. 

“I do think there’s a racial element to this,” Rottinghaus said. “If she wasn’t Sheila Jackson Lee, and she wasn’t aggressive as she is, these stories wouldn’t have taken off the way they have.”

The decades of negative stories about Jackson Lee’s management of her Washington office, however, could pose a real concern for some Houston voters, Rottinghaus said. 

Uphill fight

Days before early voting begins, Jackson Lee’s campaign said it believes the congresswoman is gaining ground on Whitmire. 

Neither Jackson Lee or Whitmire appear likely to collect a majority of the vote needed to avoid a December runoff, according to polling. 

Thirty-one percent of those surveyed by the University of Houston earlier this month said they intend to vote for Jackson Lee, just 3 percentage points behind Whitmire and well ahead of the rest of the crowded field. 

The same poll shows Whitmire jumping to 50 percent while Jackson Lee only gains 5 percentage points should the pair head to a runoff. 

Jackson Lee also is at a significant disadvantage in fundraising and spending. 

According to the latest campaign finance reports covering July 1 through September, Jackson Lee’s campaign spent $757,000. Whitmire spent more than five times that.

During that same period, Jackson Lee raised $631,000 to end the reporting period with $902,000 in cash on hand; Whitmire raised another $1.1 million to end with $6.9 million on hand, according to the reports. 

Jackson Lee is working to overcome that fundraising deficit by calling attention to what she says are dubious legal maneuvers Whitmire made to build his war chest. 

Jackson Lee and former Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia sent a letter to the City Attorney’s office earlier this month asking it to investigate Whitmire’s decision to transfer nearly $10 million from his Senate campaign to his mayoral campaign, arguing city ordinances ban such a transfer. 

“If we’re going to have a race that is on issues and is fair, what is the city doing to allow these funds to be used, that have not been legitimate, to be used in a mayoral campaign?” Jackson Lee asked during an Oct. 10 debate.

Whitmire says the city legal department approved the transfer before he made it and labeled the attacks as “desperate.” 

In recent weeks, Jackson Lee has taken direct aim at Whitmire in advertising, but she mostly has sat back at live events while other candidates, including Garcia and Lee Kaplan, hit Whitmire over his fundraising and record.

“In politics, the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Rottinghaus said.

Targeting Whitmire is at the heart of Jackson Lee’s strategy for the closing weeks of the campaign. A document Jackson Lee’s staff said was accidentally posted to her campaign website earlier this month lays out a strategy of labeling Whitmire a Republican-funded candidate who will fail to advocate for liberal views and fight Republican policies at the state level with the same ferocity as Jackson Lee. 

Along with pointing to differences between her and Whitmire, Jackson Lee’s campaign centers around many of the issues she has focused on throughout her political career. 

Jackson Lee promises “safer neighborhoods,” “better streets” and an “economy built around our working families.” 

At forums and campaign events, she answers questions with thundering speeches that draw from her decades traveling around her district. She touts herself as a “housing mayor,” a “public safety mayor” and an “education mayor.” 

Jackson Lee frequently points to her votes in favor of recent federal legislation, such as the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law later that same year that sent trillions of dollars to municipalities across the country, including Houston. That familiarity with the federal government is at the core of Jackson Lee’s campaign: As mayor, she says she will make sure federal money finds its way to Houston. 

“It begs the question that you can not be the mayor of the fourth largest city in the nation and don’t continue your national interactions and friendships and collaborations with the heads of cabinets and the president of the United States,” Jackson Lee said during the Oct. 10 debate. 

Win or lose, Jackson Lee will continue to be near the center of the political universe in Houston. 

The Dec. 9 runoff comes just two days before the filing deadline for 2024 primary elections in Texas. With her focus on the mayor’s race, Jackson Lee has not said whether she will pursue reelection to her congressional seat in the event of a defeat. 

Amanda Edwards, who endorsed Jackson Lee’s bid for mayor when she dropped out of the race in June, is running for the congresswoman’s seat. Isaiah Martin, a former intern of Jackson Lee’s, is running as a Gen-Z candidate for the same seat. In a district Jackson Lee easily has won 15 times in a row, a return for reelection would almost certainly spell defeat for two young, progressive candidates. 

For now, Jackson Lee’s energy and passion is focused on a run to be mayor of the city she’s come to call home. 

“The people of Houston invited me to seek this office,” Jackson Lee said. “I believe in Houston, in fact, I love Houston.”

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Houston Landing. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...