Lee Kaplan is a storyteller.
From his childhood growing up in Bellaire and Meyerland to launching his own law firm and, more recently, volunteering with a Houston Boy Scout troop, Kaplan brings his life experiences to the campaign trail in his long-shot bid to become Houston’s next mayor.
“The human experience is illuminated by our experiences and our stories,” Kaplan said. “I think that’s the way you bring people in to what you’re like, by telling stories. Of course, I’ve been around longer than a lot of people, so I have a lot of stories.
“Sometimes people have to be patient to listen to me,” he added, before launching into a tale about moving his son out of Vanderbilt University after his graduation.
The six-foot-tall, 71-year-old attorney, who sports a bushy mustache, is leaning on his soft-spoken style and lifetime of experience in Houston to make a name for himself in a crowded field headlined by longtime local public figures.
That’s just fine with Kaplan, who is running as a political outsider to bring new ideas to a city government he says is in need of serious reform.
“Being exposed to a lot of different people is valuable — not just people who know you’re famous or a politician and will maybe give up something,” Kaplan said. “I just think there’s real value in people who have different experiences from political life being in there some of the time, not lifetime politicians.”
He describes his politics as “practical Democrat” and regularly touts his campaign’s five pillars of addressing crime, improving garbage collection, overhauling the city’s permitting process, fixing up city roads and inviting the private sector to join in improving the city.
He frequently paints in broad strokes on the issues:
- “Residents’ health and sense of well-being are enhanced by a clean neighborhood. That should be the norm throughout Houston.”
- “We need everyone to participate in a better Houston. As Mayor, I will encourage everyone to invest in our young citizens.”
- “Every resident deserves to be safe no matter where they live.”
He also offers some specific solutions, including synchronizing traffic lights and filling potholes to improve traffic, and prioritizing higher salaries and recruitment when it comes to public safety.
He leans heavily on his experience as a small business owner and said a life outside of politics will allow him to successfully bring people together to implement his agenda.
Distinguished if not famous
Kaplan was born at Methodist Hospital, the oldest of four children, and lived in Bellaire before his family moved to Meyerland when he was 6. Kaplan’s mother worked at a department store and his father owned a small business, while Kaplan briefly worked as a peanut vendor at Astros games. He credits his parents for exposing him to Houston outside of their mostly white, middle class neighborhood.
“You have to learn to be prejudiced, so if you’re raised that way that doesn’t happen,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan started at Princeton University in 1969, graduating from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1973. He wrote his senior thesis about the Houston Independent School District’s slow effort to integrate following the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision. He then returned to Texas to attend the University of Texas Law School, where he met his wife, Diana Hudson, and graduated with honors in 1976.
Kaplan then returned to Houston, launching his career as an attorney at Baker Botts L.L.P. in 1977. He and Hudson married in 1982, and live now in River Oaks.
After nearly two decades at the high-powered firm, Kaplan said he grew “restless” for an opportunity to distinguish himself as a lawyer. So, in 1995 he helped launch Smyser, Kaplan and Veselka, a civil litigation and white-collar defense firm where he still works as a partner.
Kaplan said he wanted to have more control over the culture and the cases his law firm took.
“I won’t say I had any kind of longing to be famous, but I wanted to be distinguished, where people would say ‘Lee Kaplan, he’s one heck of a lawyer,’” he said.
The firm started as only three friends — Kaplan, Larry Veselka and Craig Smyser — and since has grown to more than 50 employees, more than 20 of whom are partners.
Kaplan’s soft-spoken nature on the campaign trail is nothing new to those who work with him at Smyser, Kaplan and Veselka.
“This is the honest truth. I have never seen Lee get angry at a subordinate, not once,” said Land Murphy, a partner at the firm. “He is not the type of person that uses his power to the disadvantage to those beneath him. He is always the supportive, encouraging type of boss.”
Kaplan prides himself in being a general trial lawyer, and said he enjoys that aspect of his job the most because it gives him the opportunity to interact with juries. His cases mostly center around patent disputes and white-collar defense, according to his law firm bio.
Outside of work, Kaplan and Hudson’s only child was born in 1990 at Methodist Hospital and raised in Houston like his parents. A former Eagle Scout himself, Kaplan reengaged with Boy Scouts of America when his son joined, eventually also achieving Eagle Scout.
Kaplan wanted to remain involved in Scouts after his son finished his time with the organization, so he began volunteering with troops in the city. He is an assistant scout master for Troop 212, which he started working with in 2016. Troop 212 is based out of St. James Episcopal Church in Third Ward and is almost entirely made up of Black children from the area.
“He’s in no way shy or uncomfortable working with our African American young men, or talking and communing with the parents of these young men,” said Lionel Jellins, Troop 212’s longtime scout master prior to his retirement in July. “Everyone recognizes why he’s there: He’s there to make a difference. He’s there because he loves scouting and wants to make a difference with the kids.”
Kaplan’s involvement has been invaluable for kids in the group, Jellins said. Kaplan frequently invites scouts working to achieve Eagle Scout into his law firm office to earn merit badges.
Over the last year, Kaplan has been known to attend the troop’s Saturday morning meetings in his full scout uniform before heading off to a campaign event, Jellins said.
“He’s been the most consistent supporter of our troop for the last five or six years,” Jellins said. “Here’s a guy who is a name partner for a firm downtown and would come out and work with our kids and go camping with us once a month.”
The stories from various parts of Kaplan’s life feature prominently on the campaign trail, where he almost exclusively sports a suit and colorful tie for forums and campaign events.
When discussing how he will involve the private sector in various city projects, Kaplan talks about times he has represented major companies from the city as an attorney, experiences he says will make him a mayor the private sector wants to work with.
At a recent candidate meet-and-greet hosted by Best Friends Animal Society, Kaplan told attendees about the two rescue dalmatians he and his wife own.
“He’s a character,” said Patricia Sepulveda, an undecided voter who spoke with Kaplan at the Best Friends event. “Very funny, very personable, he took the time to talk.”
Sepulveda, a self-described cat lady, pressed Kaplan, a self-proclaimed dog guy, to say he loves cats in order to earn her vote.
“I’m not going to say I love cats just for one vote,” Kaplan joked. “For 5,000 votes, I might say I like cats.”
As Election Day nears, Kaplan has been putting his personality on full display, attending nearly every available candidate event and forum to interact with voters.
“He seems very nice, down to earth and genuine,” said Deniz Erdil, an undecided voter who spoke with Kaplan at the Best Friends event.
That push for support is necessary if he hopes to be elected mayor.
The only major poll of the race in July showed Kaplan with 18 percent of voters saying they might or definitely would consider voting for him on Nov. 7, making him the candidate with the fifth-most support, according to the University of Houston poll. When it came to those who said they intended to vote for him, Kaplan’s support dropped to just 2 percent, well behind frontrunners state Sen. John Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.
A second University of Houston Hobby School of Public Policy poll released last week showed him with the same level of support.
His campaign of late is aimed at eroding support from Whitmire, who he frequently labels a “career politician” who is “loyal to special interests.”
‘The real thing’
Kaplan has not shied away from taking shots at Jackson Lee, the other frontrunner in the race. In a recent campaign ad, Kaplan said he’s “tired of career politicians with the wrong priorities” pointing to photos of Jackson Lee and Whitmire on either side of him.
Campaign finance reports from July show Kaplan has achieved some success with donors, bringing in more than $1.9 million in contributions. In fact, his total contributions exceeded those of frontrunners Whitmire and Jackson Lee. That report also showed Kaplan with nearly 3,100 individual donations, the highest number of any candidate in the race. He also has tapped into his own wealth, lending his campaign $300,000.
Kaplan’s fundraising momentum does appear to be slowing, though. He raised $111,655 from the start of July through September, according to his campaign finance report for that period. That number is far below the more than $450,000 he raised during each of the previous two fundraising periods, although each of those periods lasted six months.
Heading into the home stretch, Kaplan’s campaign has $915,353.73 in cash on hand, according to the report.
Kaplan has gathered support from people throughout his professional and private lives.
“Lee is the real thing,” said Jellins, who donated $500 to the campaign. “I don’t think I’ve met many people who have that much heart for the community.”
Murphy, the partner at Kaplan’s law firm, is a Republican, but he said he plans to vote for Kaplan.
“He just thinks he could do a better job of getting the city where it needs to be, fixing the streets, making sure we have secure neighborhoods,” Murphy said. “On those practical issues, I think he’ll do a fantastic job. I’m going to vote for him even though, typically, I would not vote for someone of a different political persuasion.”
Kaplan often says the same, noting he would not be running for mayor if he thought there was someone who would do a better job in the race.
The partners at Kaplan’s law firm frequently eat lunch together and discuss politics and the news of the day. Kaplan said he thought he had better ideas than those who were planning to run for mayor and wanted a new challenge.
“I realized I have these talents, am I just going to quit and count my money? That’s kind of a waste, and it would be embarrassing to be like that,” Kaplan said.
Now, when speaking with potential voters, Kaplan does not promise he can fix their problems overnight if elected, but he does say he will be honest with residents about the city’s problems and focus on crime, traffic and potholes, garbage, and “the maddening difficulty of dealing with the city bureaucracy.”
The central message of Kaplan’s campaign is that his time in the private sector has given him the expertise needed to do away with inefficiencies and waste in city government, which he says are at the core of many of Houston’s issues.
His plan to improve city services is fairly simple: By improving the basic function of city government, builders will be encouraged to build in Houston and businesses will be encouraged to move to the Bayou City, boosting the tax base and bringing in funding for infrastructure projects, garbage collection and additional police officers.
While sometimes vague on specifics, Kaplan is not afraid to tell voters he doesn’t know enough about certain issues to have a ready-made solution. During an August forum on homelessness, Kaplan noted the expertise needed to assist unhoused people and simply promised to listen to advocates and experts in the field when making policy.
Kaplan said he hopes to use his ability to connect with people to galvanize city workers and make city government more efficient, if elected. He also said he wants to involve City Council in his initiatives and be open to feedback.
“I don’t think I’ve got some imperial robes when I’m mayor or a forcefield with all of the wisdom,” he said. “When you’ve got a City Council that will be as diverse and different and with diverging views as we have, then I better have that quality or I’ll come to a speedy end politically and in the eyes of the public. You’ve just got to listen to people.”
He touts his position as a political outsider and record as an accomplished lawyer to argue he can bring a culture of transparency to City Hall, tying together that message with a story from his life at a recent mayoral forum.
“I believe the next mayor should be a Boy Scout,” he said. “I was one.”