The frontrunners in Houston’s mayoral race laced into each other on public safety, city finances and their qualifications for office at a debate on Monday night as campaign finance reports revealed a fire hose of spending heading into the final week before the election.

State Sen. John Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee shared the stage with former Metro chair Gilbert Garcia and former city councilmember Jack Christie at Texas Southern University, which hosted the final debate before Election Day next Tuesday.

The debate offered a preview of what is expected to be a bruising runoff between Whitmire and Jackson Lee, both Democrats who have represented the city for decades. The nonpartisan race heads to a runoff if none of the 18 candidates secures more than 50 percent of the vote on Election Day.

District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos, Attorney Lee Kaplan and former councilmember M.J. Khan did not make the debate’s cutoff based on support in recent polling, but are among the 17 candidates on the November ballot for mayor. 

Whitmire was the center of attention at the debate, forced by opponents to defend his plans for public safety, his campaign finances and his record as a longtime member of the Texas  Legislature. 

“I haven’t said one negative word this entire campaign about any of my opponents,” Whitmire said during one testy exchange. “I want to talk about my record. I want to talk about the issues Houstonians care about.” 

Jackson Lee and Garcia, in particular, have ramped up their rhetoric against Whitmire, the race’s frontrunner, at debates and forums over the past month as the race nears the finish line. 

Whitmire will start with a huge cash advantage if there is a runoff, newly filed campaign finance reports show. As of Saturday, he had $4.3 million in the bank compared to Jackon Lee’s $108,000. He also outspent her, $3.3 million to $1.1 million, between Sept. 29 and Saturday.

Those numbers mean Jackson Lee could be forced to start a runoff campaign making calls to donors. She had a harder time than Whitmire raising money in October, netting $333,000 to his $520,000.

Jackson Lee also has found herself on the defensive the last 10 days after a recording of her berating and cursing out a member of her staff was posted on social media. She released a statement last week expressing regret for her comments and was asked about the recording at Monday’s debate. 

Jackson Lee again said she regrets the comments before pinning the blame for the leak of the recording on a “Whitmire operative” and arguing she has a long record of supporting the city’s municipal workforce.  

Facing an uphill battle in funding, Jackson Lee has attempted to rally her supporters, announcing an endorsement last week from former Houston mayor Lee Brown. That backfired, however, when Whitmire’s campaign released a statement from Brown who said his endorsement remains with Whitmire and never had been offered to the congresswoman. 

During Monday’s debate, Jackson Lee continued to make a case for herself as a savvy politician who has brought billions of dollars to Houston as a member of Congress, placing the city at an advantage for future appropriations with her as mayor. That money could assist Houston with all of the issues candidates were asked about, from infrastructure to public safety, she argued. 

Whitmire also leaned on his record and attempted to stay above the fray, positioning himself as a politician that can work with people across the political spectrum to deliver solutions for Houstonians. 

Garcia continued to position himself as a candidate that can bring experience outside of politics to City Hall while joining in on attacks against Whitmire. On several occasions, he railed against “career politicians” in office for “50 years.”

Whitmire has been in elected office for 50 years, since 1973. Jackson Lee has been in office for 33 years, since 1990. 

Campaign finances 

Political action committees also have entered the mayor’s race in a major way.

The pro-Whitmire Protect and Serve Texas PAC spent $396,000, largely on mailers, advertisements and “grassroots activities” designed to boost his support. The group raised $140,000 to end with $49,000.

The pro-Jackson Lee group, Houstonians for Working Families, spent $670,000 and raised $563,000 to end the period with $4,500. Another political action committee supporting her, Houston Unites, raised $245,000 and spent all but $134.

Other mayoral candidates reporting their finances included Garcia, who said he spent $1.9 million to empty out his war chest. His campaign reported having $73,000 on hand.

Attorney Lee Kaplan spent $949,000 to end the period with $124,000.

City Councilmember Robert Gallegos, who has lagged other prominent candidates in fundraising, said he spent only $15,000 to end with $132,000. Khan spent $138,000 to end with $33,000. Christie’s report did not specify how much money he has spent.

A person passes by a row of campaign signs outside the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center as early voting gets underway, Monday, Oct. 23, 2023, in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Early voting

The debate occurred as early voting entered its second week. Through Monday night, 117,000 Harris County voters had voted early in-person or via absentee ballot. Early voting runs 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day through Friday.

Those numbers mean Harris County is fast approaching the nearly 198,000 ballots cast during early voting in 2015, the last time there was an open mayor’s race. A decline in absentee mail ballots has been more than offset by an increase of in-person early voting.

The numbers so far suggest a sizable share of votes will be set in stone before Tuesday. In 2015, nearly half of voters cast their ballots in advance of Election Day.

This year’s mayoral race has two fairly well-known candidates vying to become the city’s first Latino mayor. Their participation in the race does not appear to have translated into a surge in Latino voting as of yet, however.

According to unofficial early voting data from the Harris County Clerk’s Office, 11 percent of early voters in Houston had Spanish surnames, a measure frequently used to provide a rough estimate of Latino voters. That compares to 15 percent Spanish-surname voters during early voting in 2015, according to the Harris County Clerk’s office.

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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...

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...