John Whitmire and Sheila Jackson Lee clinched spots in a runoff in the Houston mayor’s race Tuesday, guaranteeing that a veteran legislator will serve as the powerful mayor of the biggest city in Texas at a moment of voter anxiety and a looming budget deficit.

Whitmire, a state senator, and Jackson Lee, a U.S. representative, fell short of the majority needed to avert a Dec. 9 runoff in the race to replace outgoing Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Only two other candidates in the crowded field had cleared 3 percent of the vote by the time Election Day results began pouring in: Gilbert Garcia, the former Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County chair, and Jack Christie, the conservative former city councilmember.

In the race’s second stage, Whitmire and Jackson Lee will have more opportunities to appeal to voters on top issues like crime, infrastructure and the cost of housing.

Both Democrats, Whitmire has sought to broaden his appeal to Republicans while Jackson Lee claims the progressive mantle in the nonpartisan race.

With the contest taking on an increasingly negative tone, however, personalities could dominate the runoff as much as policies.

Even before the recording of a profanity-laced tirade directed at a staffer surfaced on social media, Jackson Lee faced questions about her treatment of subordinates. Whitmire has drawn attacks on his ethics and campaign finances.

Almost from the start, observers have given Whitmire the edge in a runoff given his huge cash advantage and polling of a hypothetical two-way fight. In surveys, many likely voters say they would never vote for Jackson Lee.

The race likely will hinge on which candidate is able to convince voters to return to the ballot box in the busy days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, said Mustafa Tameez, who served as campaign manager for former Mayor Bill White.

“Since Jackson Lee announced for the race, this was always a race between Whitmire and Jackson Lee. She has to turn out her base vote, as does he. The runoff is not about the other candidate – it’s about who is willing to come out and give you their vote,” he said.

  • Congresswoman and Houston mayoral candidate Sheila Jackson Lee thanks her staff and supporters as she arrived to her election watch party
  • Houston mayoral candidate State Senator John Whitmire, at right, speaks with Don Sanders, at left, during a watch party on Election Day
  • Supporters of Houston mayoral candidate State Senator John Whitmire watch coverage of the 2023 election during a watch party on Election Day
  • “Be a Voter” election button, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Houston.
  • Houston mayoral candidate State Senator John Whitmire, at center, speaks with supporters during a watch party on Election Day
  • Houston mayoral candidate State Senator John Whitmire makes his way backstage after greeting supporters during a watch party on Election Day
  • Congresswoman and Houston mayoral candidate Sheila Jackson Lee is embraced and cheered on at her election night watch party
  • Congresswoman and Houston mayoral candidate Sheila Jackson Lee is cheered on at her election night watch party

Two parties

After a warm, sunny and generally smooth day of voting, Whitmire and Jackson Lee supporters gathered at election watch parties in downtown Houston.

For hours, the crowd at Jackson Lee’s party in the Bayou Place entertainment complex had been treated to R&B songs.

Shortly before 10 p.m., Jackson Lee made her way through cheering supporters in a white suit. As her backers stood on furniture for a view and held up cell phone cameras, Jackson Lee climbed on stage and rattled off constituencies such as labor groups, the LGBTQ+ community and reproductive rights supporters.

“Sheila Jackson Lee,” she said, as the crowd began to cheer, “will affirm the whole city and welcome you all.”

At the Marriott Marquis, John Whitmire addressed an equally enthusiastic crowd in a blue suit after a live band warmed up the audience with classic rock ‘n’ roll. Whitmire said he was staring at a “beautiful crowd” that represented the diversity of Houston.

“I wish I could go to work in the morning, but we’ve got a campaign to finish,” Whitmire said.

A long campaign

Since announcing his run for mayor nearly two years ago, Whitmire has loomed as a frontrunner to replace Turner, who is term-limited and leaves office Dec. 31 after eight years.

For five decades, he has represented a swath of northwest Houston in the Texas Legislature, amassing name-recognition and donors in one of the city’s wealthiest areas.

He has wielded power as the longtime chair of the state Senate’s criminal justice committee and one of the increasingly small band of Democrats who can forge alliances across the aisle.

For a time, it seemed like one of Whitmire’s biggest headaches might come from a more conservative rival.

Then, in March of this year, Jackson Lee announced she was hoping to make the jump to the executive branch. A former city councilmember, she has represented Houston in Congress for 28 years.

Houston mayoral candidate Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee meets with voters and campaign workers at the Houston Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on Election Day,
Houston mayoral candidate Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee meets with voters and campaign workers at the Houston Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

Jackson Lee is a household name in Houston: A lion to progressive and Black voters who appreciate her floor speeches in favor of gay rights and against the Iraq War, and a lightning rod for conservative and white voters.

Over the past few months, Whitmire hit hard on his “tough but smart” stance on criminal justice, calling for an influx of state Department of Public Safety troopers and an expansion of local re-entry programs for the formerly incarcerated.

In line with recent surveys, many voters singled out crime as a top problem facing Houston on Tuesday.

“That’s always been a far-right dog whistle, but you can feel it in the Heights and around the city,” 29-year-old Ragen Doyle said after voting at the Independence Heights Community Center.

In apparent response to those concerns, Jackson Lee has adopted tougher-sounding rhetoric on public safety at recent forums.

Whitmire also has argued his relationship with Republicans in Austin will help Houston claim more state funds, a sore spot in recent years after the city missed out on federal flood control and affordable housing dollars.

In contrast to Whitmire’s talk about working with Republicans, Jackson Lee has cast herself as someone who will stand up to Austin when it targets the city on such issues as voting rights and Houston ISD. At the same time, she argues her decades of experience in Washington will help her claim federal funds for Houston.

In recent weeks, Jackson Lee had forged an alliance against Whitmire with Garcia, who poured at least $3.9 million into his campaign, much of it self-financed.

Another candidate who spent heavily while tapping personal resources, lawyer Lee Kaplan, failed to make a wave.

“Regardless of what self-funded candidates put in, they just didn’t have a base that could propel them into the runoff,” Tameez said. “Campaigns are all about distinction. None of the other candidates were able to distinguish themselves in message, in substance or style.”

Two current or former city councilmembers, Robert Gallegos and M.J. Khan, drew little support.

Houston mayoral candidate State Senator John Whitmire talks to journalists on camera at the SPJST Lodge 88 on Election Day after meeting voters there
Houston mayoral candidate State Senator John Whitmire talks to journalists on camera at the SPJST Lodge 88 on Election Day after meeting voters there, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

Mayor’s race tops ballot

At polling places across Houston on Tuesday, voters said the mayor’s race was the most important choice on a lengthy ballot stacked with propositions and City Council races.

Although there were 16 other candidates, 31-year-old William Eure said outside the polling place at the Emancipation Park Cultural Center in Third Ward that the mayor’s race was dominated by Jackson Lee and Whitmire.

“Sheila Jackson Lee and John Whitmire have the money behind them. They’re the only two I hear about,” he said.

Between those two, Eure planned to vote for Whitmire. “I just think he’s the most likely to beat Sheila Jackson Lee,” he said.

That calculation appeared to be typical. Jim Smolen, a retired Rice University administrator, made no effort to hide his distaste for Jackson Lee after he voted at the Freed-Montrose Neighborhood Library on Tuesday afternoon.

“The thought of Sheila Jackson Lee was an intolerable choice. I would have driven 150 miles to vote against her,” Smolen said.

Smolen, who said his top issues were “crime, over-expenditures, woke politics,” backed conservative former city council member Jack Christie. In a narrowed runoff, he said he would pick Whitmire.

Houston mayoral candidate State Senator John Whitmire spends time at the SPJST Lodge 88 on Election Day meeting voters, Tuesday
Houston mayoral candidate State Senator John Whitmire spends time at the SPJST Lodge 88 on Election Day meeting voters, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

David Authur, 61, said Whitmire appealed to him because of his common-sense tone as he voted Tuesday at the Houston Community College West Loop South polling place.

“He’s back to the basics, which is what we need,” he said of Whitmire. “A lot of politicians have lost track and focus of why they became politicians in the first place.”

There were plenty of Jackson Lee supporters among the more than 161,000 Election Day ballots that had been cast as of 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Mayra Gonzalez, a 73-year-old hotel housekeeper who lives in Third Ward, said she voted for Jackson Lee because of the congresswoman’s out-front approach after natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey and the February 2021 freeze.

“For the people that need someone, Sheila Jackson Lee helps,” Gonzalez said.

Michelle Kirtley, 40, voted Tuesday morning at the Houston Community College West Loop South polling place. She said coming out to cast her vote for Jackson Lee was important because she wants to keep Houston blue.

“She’s been in government for a long time and been a Democrat for a long time. I think she will be a strong candidate for Houston,” Kirtley said.

One voter said he would vote for Jackson Lee in a runoff because he saw her as the “lesser of two evils.”

“I’ve met her on multiple occasions, and I don’t really like her as a person, but I agree with her politics,” said Alexander Coco, a 37-year-old health care administrator who lives in Montrose.

Houston mayoral candidate Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee meets with voters and campaign workers at the Houston Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on Election Day, Tuesday,
Houston mayoral candidate Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee meets with voters and campaign workers at the Houston Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

One month to go

Heading into the month-long runoff, both contenders will have an opportunity to appeal to the sizable share of voters who backed other candidates.

One question is which remaining candidate will appeal more to Latino voters, who were more likely to back alternatives than any other demographic group in a University of Houston poll last month.

Armando Romero, a 53-year-old welder, declined to name his pick in the mayor’s race as he exited the Denver Harbor Park Community Center. Still, he said that he only voted for Hispanic candidates on the ballot.

“Because it seems like we’re a minority in power and we need more say,” Romero said.

Latinos often have been discounted as a force in local elections, Tameez said, but they could play a significant role in the runoff.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo endorsed Jackson Lee in June and spoke on her behalf at a Tuesday press conference outside the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center in Montrose.

Hidalgo said Jackson Lee is the type of candidate who “works hard and is in it for the right reasons.”

Whitmire has rolled up support from two Latina leaders with formidable campaign organizations. For weeks, he has been pounding the airwaves with endorsements from state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, and U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston.

“Two Hispanic candidates have been eliminated,” Tameez said, referring to Garcia and Gallegos. “He’s got two of the most well-known, credible Hispanic leaders in Carol Alvarado and Sylvia Garcia. Those are meaningful endorsements.”

Whitmire also will start with a 40-to-1 cash advantage, according to campaign finance reports filed last week.

That means Jackson Lee may need to lean on support from two outside political action committees, Houstonians for Working Families and Houston Unites, that collectively raised more than she did during the most recent reporting period.

Jackson Lee will start with high name recognition, enthusiastic support from Black voters and long experience with voter canvassing.

Jeronimo Cortina, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said her runoff strategy will hinge on “the old days of knocking on doors. Jackson Lee has a pretty solid ground game, and that is going to play a role.”

Still, polls show that many of the voters who broke for other candidates in the first round say they would not vote for her in a runoff. In a University of Houston poll last month, 43 percent of voters said they would never vote for her, compared to 15 percent who were dead-set against Whitmire.

Bill King, the former mayoral candidate who lost to Turner in a 2015 mayoral runoff, said he thinks one cohort will come out in droves to vote against Jackson Lee.

“In my case, we just had a very difficult time getting our base out to vote again, which were mostly suburban whites. In this case, I think they’re going to stand in line to go vote against Sheila,” he said.

Nancy Sims, a political analyst at the University of Houston, said the polling showed Whitmire with the advantage.

“Recent polling has shown that people either love her or hate her,” Sims said. “Sometimes hate will drive voters to the polls over love. I think there’s a prevailing attitude that she will have a hard time moving anybody that didn’t vote for her in the first round.”

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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...