The Chron endorses John Whitmire for Mayor.
Close your eyes for a moment and ask yourself: in this city of immigrants who start companies and win World Series, of silvery skyscrapers and moonshot cancer fighters, of astronauts who train for Mars, culinary stars and energy upstarts, of money that’s fast and beats that are slow and surreal, what should the mayor of Houston look like? Or talk like? Or act like?
Of all the options, chances are, you didn’t envision a 74-year-old white male career politician from Hillsboro who is partly funded by Republican megadonors and proposes to fight crime by enlisting the help of 200 Department of Public Safety troopers.
Chances are, you didn’t envision John Whitmire.
With that description, it’s easy to assume that he fits a mold, even the one in a TV attack ad lumping the lifelong Democratic state senator with Republicans, suggesting he’s buddies with Gov. Greg Abbott and that somehow he’s the darling of the NRA — even though the organization gives his voting record an F.
Whitmire fits no mold. He has charted his own course, from his meteoric rise as a college dropout who at 23 won a newly created state House seat, to to his evolution from Texas House class clown to Senate criminal justice chairman, to his transformation from prison builder to bipartisan criminal justice reformer. Whitmire earned national recognition in the mid-2000s for teaming up with a Plano Republican to show that a “tough on crime” state could be “smart on crime” as well by closing prisons and, instead, expand diversion and treatment programs. He was later heralded for ending Texas’ biased pick-a-pal grand jury system and protecting mentally ill inmates through the Sandra Bland Act. Today, Whitmire represents a majority Black and brown district and is the longest serving member in the Senate, earning him the honorary title of “dean.” He’s the only Democrat to chair a committee in the Republican-controlled chamber.
As mayor, Whitmire insists he’d be committed to diversity and equity, and the city’s 22 department heads will reflect that. What he lacks in youthful pep or pigment he makes up in connections and know-how: “You don’t have my experience when you’re 35. It’s that simple. I’ve worked with nine mayors and seven governors,” he says. “Experience matters.”
While deploying his $10 million war chest in the race was a controversial if legal move, no one can deny that he has built an impressive coalition of support including Democrats, Republicans, community groups, labor unions, law enforcement and people across Houston’s vast rainbow of racial and ethnic diversity. And yes, some supporters such as Richard Weekley and Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale have given to Republicans and Tilman Fertitta, who donated $100,000 to Trump’s reelection bid, though all have given to Democrats. Whitmire says all they can expect in return is good governance.
It’s clear that Whitmire is well-prepared to do the unglamorous work of making this city function. After we considered the ideas, experience and campaign finances of 18 Houston mayoral candidates, only Whitmire, longtime U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and businessman Gilbert Garcia made our short list.
Like Whitmire, Jackson Lee, 73, is a Houston mainstay. Also a Democrat, she served as an appointed municipal judge and was elected three times to the Houston City Council before being elected to Congress in 1995.
She is a tireless advocate for her majority-Black district, and a champion of immigrant causes. She authored the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act and fought for the passage and recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
On the other hand, she has never been able to shake her reputation as an imperious, micromanaging boss and difficult colleague. No doubt, racism and sexism make her a favorite target of the political right, but it’s hard to dismiss her persistently high staff turnover, misbehavior on airplanes and testimony from former staffers alleging abusive treatment.
She makes no apologies. “This is a tough business,” she told the editorial board, “and, yes, women are treated differently for being tough, and I am tough. There is nothing that I ask my staff to do that has not been relevant to the people of this constituency.”
Jackson Lee emphasizes her Washington connections, an advantage when the city is seeking billions in federal funds. She told us she wants to make Houston a tech city, a livable city. She will work to create jobs and ensure public safety, she said, while making sure that basic services meet Houstonians’ needs.
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We believe she has served Houston extraordinarily well, and we have endorsed her for reelection to Congress time and again. But she’s not the bridge builder Houston needs now at City Hall.
At 60, Gilbert Garcia is a relative youngster. Engaging, with a neon exuberance in discussing everything from public pension portfolios to Broadway musicals, he has given generously to Democratic candidates but has never before run for elective office. A native of Corpus Christi and a Yale graduate, the first in his family to attend college, he touts his experience building Garcia Hamilton & Associates from managing $200 million in fixed-income assets to $21 billion, as well as his stint as chair of Metro from 2010-2016 under former Mayor Annise Parker.
By all accounts he pulled off a turnaround at Metro. Though he had no background in transit, he led what had been a troubled agency to triple the size of its rail system, redesign its local bus network and stabilize finances — all while insisting on transparency. He’s a numbers man frustrated with Houston’s dysfunction. Bad roads, bad garbage pickup, boil-water notices, he fumes: “You can go on and on.” He’d act as a budget hawk while making the city work efficiently for all.
Garcia’s optimism and ambition — he imagines Houston becoming a financial capital for Latin America — are refreshing. But as evidenced by his largely self-funded campaign, he hasn’t built a coalition of community support. We fear a lack of political connections and savvy would frustrate his goals.
When my wife saw the endorsement in the Sunday paper, she asked me if this was a surprise to me, and I said no, not at all. I’m a little surprised to see that the Chron only interviewed three candidates for the endorsement – you can see some video of that conversation in the piece – if only because they appear to have reached out to every candidate in all the other races, no matter how unlikely they were to win. I get it, life is short and it’s hard to justify that much effort on candidates who will struggle to get a half a percentage point in the final tally. I don’t recall them doing it this way before, and they also didn’t send their screening questionnaire to everyone (again, and for the same reasons, I get it), so I’m just a little surprised.
All that said, if you had asked me who their three finalists would have been, these were the three I would have predicted. I figured Whitmire was a strong favorite, with Gilbert Garcia having an outside chance if Whitmire blew the interview or they were in a “let’s shake things up” mood. It never occurred to me that they would endorse Sheila Jackson Lee. Whether that’s limited imagination on my part or theirs, you can decide.
However one feels about John Whitmire, there is a substantial chance that he will be the next Mayor. I have two major reservations about his candidacy. One, which I’ve touched on before, is that I think bringing DPS troopers to Houston, even on a scope-limited basis, is a bad idea. They’re not accountable to a Houston Mayor, and so unleashing something we can’t control has all kinds of downside risk. If we had a trustworthy state government – hell, if we had a state government that wasn’t bent on our destruction – I could be talked into this. But we don’t, and as we should know from decades of horror movies, letting the vampire into your house never ends well. Ask Kirk Watson about that.
Two is a broader expression of that first point. Senator John Whitmire, with his fifty years in the Capital and personal relationships with anyone who ever was anyone in Austin, is confident that that experience and those personal relationships with the various power brokers and other People Of Influence will be to Houston’s benefit as Mayor. And again, if we had a non-malevolent state government, I would not only agree with that, I’d tout it as a unique strength that Whitmire has. It should be a strength. As recently as when Mayor Turner took office, I for one would have seen it as a strength. Mayor Turner, with a similar level of experience and personal relationships, was the right person at the right time to push pension reform through, and it was a huge win for the city. I’d like to think we could have something like that for our next set of challenges going forward.
The problem is that many of those challenges are the result of the state putting its boot on our neck. Even before the “Death Star” bill, there’s been an inexorable march towards taking away the ability of cities to govern themselves. Republicans in the Legislature and their seething primary voters, including those who live in these cities, see us as a decadent force that needs to be dominated. They’re not interested in nice bipartisan solutions to thorny problems; quite the reverse. I don’t doubt that John Whitmire could get Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Dade Phelan and whoever else on the phone and tell them what Houston’s needs are (and aren’t) and ask them to help us out. What I do doubt is that they will see any reason or incentive to do their part.
The larger concern there is that a Mayor Whitmire would see his experience and connections and overvalue them, on the understandable but (in my view) mistaken idea that they mean something to the people on the other end of those connections. I fear that he could get strung along by his colleagues, in the way that President Obama got strung along in the first debt ceiling fight by the “moderate” Republicans in Congress, and in doing so foreclose other avenues to address issues. I fear that given the chance to improve the city’s political standing by working to vote out particular members of state government, Whitmire will value his connections above that possibility and thus contribute to leaving us in a position of subservience that much longer. Yes, of course there’s a risk in campaigning against someone who has a good chance of winning. You can’t avoid risk in politics. I’m just saying that the risk of not going for it tends to be downplayed in ways that it shouldn’t be.
There’s an analog here to the value of then-State Rep. Sarah Davis, the mostly moderate (certainly by modern GOP standards) from HD134, whose presence in the Lege and on various committees was supposed to be a tempering factor against the majority’s baser and more troglodytic instincts. If you thought she was effective in that role, it made sense to support her re-elections even against strong Democratic opponents. If you didn’t – if you thought the real way to moderate our government was to have at least one part of it be under Democratic control – then it made sense to support her Democratic opponents, as hers was a rare swing seat. You know where I stood on that, and I maintain that I was correct.
I could be wrong about all of this. It may be that I am grossly underestimating Sen. Whitmire’s relationships, and in doing so I am undervaluing their potential for good in a Whitmire administration. Like I said, it was only a few years ago that Mayor Turner achieved a big result on the back of his relationships in Austin. I guess it comes down to how similar you think the state of politics and bipartisanship – specifically, the state and value of bipartisanship for Republicans – is in 2023 compared to 2015. My assessment of that is not the same as Sen. Whitmire’s, hence my concerns. Your mileage may vary. If Sen. Whitmire becomes Mayor Whitmire, I will very much hope that he’s right and I’m wrong. I’m just not feeling that hope right now.