As early voting looms in Houston’s mayoral race, state Sen. John Whitmire has taken the lead in public polls. He also is the leading target for attacks.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, former Metro chair Gilbert Garcia and attorney Lee Kaplan are members of the firing squad taking shots at Whitmire. Lee has called out Whtimire for taking support from abortion rights opponents, Garcia on ethics and Kaplan on flood control funding.
So far, the drumbeat of attacks has not moved poll numbers. A University of Houston survey released Tuesday showed Whitmire maintaining a narrow lead over Lee in the Nov. 7 election, with a big advantage in a hypothetical December runoff. The other candidates will have more chances to attack Whitmire in a Tuesday night debate and at future forums, however.
The attacks are classic campaign strategy for candidates hoping to boost their standing by taking down the leader, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who said Whitmire largely has kept his peace.
“He’s been very reluctant to engage in any kind of attack politics, because of the fact that he is still the pretty significant frontrunner, and he doesn’t want to hurt any members of his fairly precariously balanced coalition,” Rottinghaus said.
That coalition includes a mix of Democrats, independents and Republicans, according to the University of Houston survey. Democrats are split in the mayor’s race, with 51 percent backing Lee and 24 percent going to Whitmire. Republicans overwhelmingly back Whitmire over Lee, with 51 percent saying they intend to support him versus just 1 percent for Lee.
Whitmire had a lead over Lee in the University of Houston survey, but the race seems poised to head to a Dec. 9 runoff. At forums and in ads, Whitmire’s campaign finance reports and record of thousands of votes in the Texas Legislature, where he has served since 1973, have provided fodder for the other candidates.
Nancy Sims, a University of Houston political analyst, said the pattern of other candidates attacking Whitmire has become clear.
“Of course they are,” she said. “He’s the frontrunner. You’ve got to bring him down a notch or two.”
Lee, who is battling with Whitmire for votes from Democrats, launched one of the first attacks last month with a TV ad that accused Whitmire of receiving support from “Trump Republicans who want to make abortion a crime.”
While the ad did not name names, Whitmire has drawn well-documented support from numerous major campaign donors who also have backed Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, who oppose abortion rights. Whitmire himself is a backer of abortion rights who has been named a “legislative champion” by Planned Parenthood.
In response to Lee, Whitmire’s campaign released an ad on television and Facebook from U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia and state Sen. Carol Alvarado defending his record. Rottinghaus said Whitmire may be holding back from making a more full-throated defense himself for fear of alienating Republicans.
“He has been a pretty stalwart ally of abortion rights,” Rottinghaus said. “He could hit that pretty hard, but he doesn’t. I think the reason he doesn’t is he doesn’t want to advertise the fact that he has been so pro-choice and have that reflect badly in right-leaning circles in the city.”
Whitmire has touted his 50 years of service in the Texas Legislature as the cornerstone of his resume, but Lee and Kaplan attempted to turn that Austin tenure into a liability during a Sept. 25 mayoral debate at the University of Houston.
Lee said she had worked hard in Congress to bring home $4.3 billion in disaster mitigation funding for Texas. Whitmire did little when state leaders shunted funds to other communities, she alleged.
“My opponent was in the state Senate, and I didn’t see one iota of work,” she said.
Whitmire has promised to work with new Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, a former colleague in the state Senate, to recover some of those funds if he is elected mayor.
Kaplan said the idea that Houston could get more mitigation money now is a fantasy.
“When people say we’re going to get more Harvey money, that’s not true. It’s already dedicated to the little towns. Let’s not say that,” he said.
In an interview, Whitmire said Houston lost out on the money because of the city’s “dysfunctional” management of Harvey-related housing funding and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s antagonistic relationship with previous Land Commissioner George P. Bush.
“With all due respect, Sheila ought to be talking to the current administration instead of misrepresenting my work ethic. Nobody works harder getting state funding than I do. I make a difference, but I just don’t have a press conference,” he said.
Working together, Garcia and Lee have launched the first salvo in what could become a courtroom battle. On Oct. 2, the pair allied to ask City Attorney Arturo Michel to investigate Whitmire’s transfer of millions of dollars from his state account to his mayoral campaign fund. They allege that much of the money collected through uncapped state contributions exceeded the contribution limits for municipal races. Whitmire says he has complied with state and city laws. On Tuesday, he reported having $6.9 million in the bank.
That massive pot of money may have helped deter some potential competitors from entering the race in the first place. While Garcia and Lee warned of filing a lawsuit if the city does not take action to enforce its laws, Rottinghaus said they may have waited too long to make a meaningful impact on the race.
“Why wait until two weeks before early voting?” he said. “I think they see this as the last, best effort to stop him.”
At an Oct. 2 campaign forum, Whitmire’s campaign financing repeatedly was raised by the other candidates. Former City Councilmember M.J. Khan launched the discussion by arguing Whitmire is part of the corrupt special interests he sometimes rails against.
“If he cannot conduct the affairs of his campaign in an honorable manner, just what will he do behind closed doors if he’s the mayor?” Khan asked.
Garcia later raised the issue of Whitmire’s campaign funds, asking Whitmire if he would return the campaign funds if a judge finds he is not allowed to use them.
“You and Sheila appear to be desperate today,” Whitmire said. “People in Houston are worried about garbage pickup, public safety, illegal dumping, infrastructure, our streets, our quality of water, and now you want people to think I didn’t do my due diligence?”
Despite clapping back at times, Whitmire mostly has stopped short of launching new attacks at the other candidates, Rottinghaus said.
“In the forums and debates, he has defended his record in a very generic way,” Rottinghaus said. “He could be much sharper in his deflection, but he hasn’t been.”
In a Sept. 27 interview, Whitmire brushed off the attacks.
“I think that’s the cost of being the frontrunner,” he said. “Sheila knows that I’m same person that she asked to endorse her in her last congressional race. I’m also the same person that she endorsed in my last Senate race.”
Staff writer Paul Cobler contributed to this report.