After U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee jumped into the race for Houston mayor in April, her campaign worked fast to neutralize the fundraising advantage held by competitors, including state Sen. John Whitmire.

It may have gone a little too fast, a campaign spokesperson acknowledged Tuesday. More than half a dozen people or companies gave contributions to Jackson Lee that exceed the city’s legal limit and one donation wrongly was attributed to a dead woman.

In response to questions from the Houston Landing, a spokesperson said Jackson Lee’s campaign had informed Houston City Secretary Pat Daniel it plans to refund the excessive contributions, but the problems put an asterisk on Jackson Lee’s highly anticipated first report since entering the race.

Jackson Lee’s report says she collected $1.2 million and spent $182,000 to close her first reporting period with a little more than $1 million in cash on hand. Subtracting the illegal contributions, Jackson Lee’s cash on hand would dip from seven to six figures.

That would put her well below several competitors, including Whitmire, who reported $9.9 million in the bank; former Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia, who said he had $2.9 million; and lawyer Lee Kaplan, who said he had $1.4 million.

Still, Jackson Lee had a sizable haul for a late entrant, according to Michael Adams, a professor of public affairs at Texas Southern University.

“It’s impressive, in terms of the short term that she was able to generate that amount of money,” Adams said. “I think the money will continue to come in. She certainly has a national reach.”

Jackson also has the advantage of high name recognition and the recent departure from the race of two leading Black candidates, Amanda Edwards and Chris Hollins, Adams said.

The reports filed ahead of the Monday deadline, which cover the period from the start of the year to June 30, detail millions of dollars flowing in and out of campaign accounts ahead of what promises to be a fierce race. Along with opinion polls, campaign finance contributions often are a key gauge of how effectively candidates will be able to court voters.

Whitmire’s war chest

Whitmire, who has been in the Texas Senate for four decades, is the undisputed leader when it comes to cash on hand. With some controversy, the “Dean of the Senate” is counting funds he raised in state legislative races, which do not have campaign contribution limits.

Nancy Sims, a University of Houston political analyst, said Whitmire’s campaign war chest could be vulnerable, but only if someone chooses to challenge him in court.

“The problem with all of this is there’s no enforcement. So, unless someone files a lawsuit challenging it, Whitmire can use his $10 million,” she said.

Whitmire reported only $372,000 in donations so far this year, which his campaign said was a result of the blackout period that prohibits lawmakers from fundraising when the Texas Legislature is in season. That left him with only a dozen days to shake the can.

Still, his pre-existing cash advantage allowed him to launch the ad war early. So far, his campaign has spent $472,000 on advertising, according to the report. Jackson Lee reported a single, $5,000 advertising expense.

Two of Whitmire’s biggest contributors come as no surprise: the Houston Police Officers’ Union and the Houston Fire Fighters PAC, which maxed out with $10,000 donations.

While Whitmire is a longtime labor stalwart, the firefighters have even more to be grateful for this year. During the most recent legislative session, Whitmire shepherded to passage a binding arbitration bill that will force the city to the table with rank-and-file firefighters, who have been working without a contract since 2017. Mayor Sylvester Turner slammed the legislation as a potential ticking time bomb for city finances.

“Senator Whitmire has always been a strong supporter of Houston police officers and firefighters throughout the years,” Whitmire campaign spokesperson Sue Davis said in a statement. “He wants both groups to have what they need to do their jobs. Contributions have nothing to do with it. Having the firefighters’ and police officers’ support shows how he can bring people together.”

Despite Turner’s vocal complaints, Adams said he did not see a huge political downside for Whitmire being associated with the police and fire unions.

“We love our first responders,” Adams said. “I don’t see any attacks, at least coming from the Jackson Lee campaign.”

Whitmire had plenty of other donors. Employees of billionaire Tilman Fertitta, who hosted a campaign kickoff for Whitmire last year that featured big Republican donors, lined up to give. Together, 15 employees of restaurant and entertainment company Landry’s Inc. and Fertitta Entertainment donated a combined $2,050. Fertitta himself gave $25,000 last year to Whitmire’s state senate campaign

Fertitta’s business empire includes the Golden Nugget casino chain, and he has been a vocal supporter of bringing casinos to Texas. Separately, Whitmire received $5,000 from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, which owns seven casinos across the state line and fought efforts to expand casino gambling in Texas more than a decade ago.

Davis said gambling was a state issue that would be decided in the Legislature. Fertitta’s office and the Choctaw Nation did not respond to requests for comment.

Contribution limits

As with Whitmire, Jackson Lee’s report listed donations from builders, realtors, engineers and lawyers who conceivably could have business with City Hall. Jackson Lee also attracted donations from labor unions, such as the Transport Workers of America and the Communication Workers of America. In a statement, Jackson Lee said those and other donations showed she already is building a diverse coalition.

“These people have come from all backgrounds and they share my belief in the future of our city that embraces good ideas that make our neighborhoods safer and lays the groundwork for an expanded future where all Houstonians can thrive and sit at the seat of opportunity,” she said.

The report, however, immediately raised questions about Jackson Lee’s compliance with the city’s ethics code, which limits contributions to $5,000 from individual donors and $10,000 from political action committees.

At least six individuals donated above the $5,000 individual limit, according to the report. Meanwhile, the campaign also disclosed receiving $20,000 from a company, C&W International Fabricators LLC, and $25,000 from the Border Health PAC, which is affiliated with McAllen businessman and Texas political megadonor Alonzo Cantu.

Cantu, who serves as a University of Houston regent, also gave Jackson Lee $5,000 as an individual. He has become a major player on the state’s political giving scene in recent years, according to Texas Monthly.

Jackson Lee also reported a June 30 contribution of $1,000 from Mattelia B. Grays, a former Houston Independent School District administrator who served as the president of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority from 1970 to 1974. Grays died last November at the age of 91.

Campaign spokesman James Sonneman said the contributor listing was a mistake. It should have named Grays’ daughter, who donated $250 two weeks before.

“This donation was made by her daughter who is also on the account (Mattelia is listed first on the check) and it was a mistake on our team’s end to attribute her. We will be fixing this,” Sonneman said in a statement, which echoed a separate account from the daughter.

Sims said voters will not necessarily be turned away by such errors.

“If they correct the issue, it shouldn’t be a problem,” she said. Still, she added, “they know the city limits, so it shouldn’t have been turned in that way.”

First-time candidate numbers

Two first-time political candidates reported having millions of dollars at their disposal, meanwhile. Garcia reported collecting $3.3 million and spending $400,000.

In building that warchest, Garcia relied heavily on himself and employees of his investment firm, Garcia Hamilton & Associates. He chipped in $3.1 million, much of it in the waning days before the reporting deadline. Collectively, 19 employees of his investment firm gave $73,000.

In an interview, Garcia noted that he launched his campaign in March, later than some other candidates. “I’m, frankly, building my campaign team, including my fundraising effort,” he said.

Garcia said he was proud to spend on his campaign, calling it an “investment in my city.”

His initial report did not detail his expenditures. He filed a corrected report on Tuesday listing those.

Attorney Lee Kaplan reported raising $478,000 and spending $361,000 to end the period with $1.4 million in cash on hand.

His donor rolls were packed with fellow attorneys. His campaign account includes a $100,000 loan from himself on June 29.

“The strong outpouring of support we are seeing from Houstonians is a clear sign that voters want a successful small businessman with the common-sense leadership I offer to make our city safer and make sure our government delivers for people,” Kaplan said in a statement.

Rounding out the race were candidates who reported far less in cash on hand – or did not file reports at all.

District I City Councilmember Robert Gallegos raised $60,000 and spent $43,000 to end the reporting period with $152,000 in the bank.

A Gallegos campaign spokesperson said the council member was not worried that he’s starting at a disadvantage.

“Our campaign is motivated,” James Dinkins said in a statement. “With 46.5% of the city population being Latino, the council member has the largest potential base of any other candidate.”

Former City Council member MJ Khan, who raised $59,000 and loaned his campaign $85,000, reported $108,000 in cash on hand.

Journalist and activist Derrick Broze, who placed 10th in the 2019 mayoral race, had $7,000 in his campaign account. Entrepreneur Naoufal Houjami had $294.

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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...