I’m surprised it took this long, to be honest.
U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee and former Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia have requested the city attorney to investigate alleged campaign contribution limit violations by State Sen. John Whitmire, hinting at a potential lawsuit if the city does not act.
Whitmire jump-started his mayoral bid with a $10 million war chest, accumulated mostly from his decades-long tenure in the Texas legislature. While state law imposes no contribution limits, city rules cap donations at $5,000 from individuals and $10,000 from political groups, prompting questions about how much of his money Whitmire is allowed to use for the mayor’s race.
Past campaign finance reports indicate that around half of the funds Whitmire amassed in the legislature came from portions of donations that would have surpassed the city limits. The state senator’s campaign said they have been making internal transfers in compliance with Houston law. But some candidates said they are not ready to take Whitmire’s word for it without seeing detailed breakdowns of these transfers.
The latest campaign finance reports show that Whitmire’s hefty fund balance far eclipses his opponents’ resources. As of July, Garcia, Jackson Lee and attorney Lee Kaplan reported having only $2.9 million, $1 million and $1.4 million, respectively, in their accounts. Meanwhile, even after spending $1.9 million on his mayoral bid, Whitmire reported $9.9 million in cash on hand.
“Without action on the part of the City Attorney’s office, 2023 city candidates who have abided by campaign and contribution cycle limits are harmed and treated unequally,” Jackson Lee and Garcia wrote in a letter to City Attorney Arturo Michel on Monday.
With Election Day fast approaching, the two candidates also asked the city attorney to expedite the inquiry and provide a formal response within 10 business days. If the city fails to enforce the ordinance, Garcia said he will likely file a lawsuit against Whitmire’s campaign and possibly the city, with the details depending on developments in the coming weeks.
“If Whitmire can do this and the ordinance doesn’t get enforced, then what good are city ordinances?” said Garcia, who is running his campaign partly on an anti-corruption platform. “And if the senator is already abusing city ordinances now, what will he do when he’s mayor?”
The debate over Whitmire’s fund transfer has reignited longstanding debates on what Houston’s contribution limits permit. Gordon Quan, who led the charge in passing the ordinance in question in 2005, believes the law should only let a candidate treat any non-city account like a single political group and transfer a total of $10,000.
Both [City Attorney Arturo] Michel and former City Attorney Dave Feldman, on the other hand, have favored a more lenient reading of the law. They suggest candidates can use the capped amount from each individual donor, instead of viewing the non-city account as a single entity. This interpretation allowed Mayor Sylvester Turner to utilize $900,000 from his legislative account for his successful mayoral run in 2015.
Adding to the complexity is Whitmire’s decades-long practice of investing his campaign money. As these investments yield gains and replenish his account, Garcia noted it’s almost impossible to determine, from public information alone, how much of Whitmire’s fund balance is usable. He urged the state senator to take the initiative to clarify and share the calculations with the public.
So far, the ordinance has not yet had a chance to be thoroughly tested in court. Former City Councilmember Chris Bell, who also ran for mayor in 2015, sued the city in an attempt to prevent Turner’s $900,000 fund transfer but eventually dropped the case before a judge ruled on its merit.
We were talking about this in January, and let’s be honest, we knew it would be an issue when Whitmire first announced his intention to run in 2021. Why this complaint is just being raised now, I couldn’t say. City Attorney Arturo Michel says he will respond, but given the circumstances he will be limited in what he can do.
For what it’s worth, I think Gordon Quan’s interpretation is too strict, but I’m not sure I would sign on to the Michel/Feldman view, either. Jackson Lee and Garcia suggest that Whitmire limit himself to what he has raised in this two-year cycle, with the $10K limit applied to donors for that period. That’s not unreasonable to me, but he declared before that time, so I think the funds he raised since that time ought to be in bounds as well. I dunno. I’d be happy to let a judge decide, but I doubt we’ll get any kind of resolution in a timely fashion. Which again raises the question, why wait this long to bring it up?