The longest-serving and first African-American Harris County Commissioner passed away suddenly on Sunday.
El Franco Lee, Harris County’s first African-American commissioner and a popular mainstay in the political community, died Sunday morning of a heart attack. He was 66.
The Houston native served more than three decades as commissioner in Harris County’s Precinct 1, and though his official duties included the care of roads and parks, he was remembered most for his work through social programs for youth and seniors, helping extend access to health care and providing other services in traditionally poor inner-city neighborhoods.
“It’s a very sad day,” said Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack. “He made tens of thousands of people’s lives better. He was extremely interested in working with the community, and working with the poor and working with kids.”
Radack, who named a health care center in his Precinct 3 after Lee, noted his colleague “worked tirelessly” for the local hospital district. Lee was, for example, an instrumental supporter of the Baylor College of Medicine’s efforts to deploy satellite health care clinics at county-run facilities in the Fifth Ward, the Third Ward, Kashmere Gardens and other neighborhoods, said Peggy Smith, director of the Baylor College of Medicine Teen Health Clinic.
“He was a guardian angel. He would make it happen,” said Smith. “We worked side by side to make sure that not only was there a precinct business address but also that individuals who would never qualify for any health care would get the best care possible, and they would get it in his district, in his neighborhoods and in his facilities.”
In seven terms in Harris County government, Lee set up numerous partnerships between Precinct 1, nonprofits and other groups to create health and educational programs for seniors and youth in Harris County, including the county’s Street Olympics Program, which has expanded since 1986 into a myriad of programs that annually serve 10,000 in Harris County.
“Youth that might otherwise have a misspent summer break suddenly were given something to do,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “That wasn’t part of his job: He just felt it was important. He was proudest of the informal things.”
I did not know Commissioner Lee, but he was a trailblazer and a giant in the local political scene. He will be greatly missed. I received multiple statements regarding his death, from Mayor Turner, Sen. Sylvia Garcia, his former colleague on the Court, Rep. Gene Green, and District Clerk Chris Daniel. My sincere condolences to Commissioner Lee’s family.
We can’t avoid this discussion, however:
Emmett will have to decide soon who will serve the remaining 12 months of Lee’s term. After that, for the term that begins in 2017, the question of who will serve in Lee’s stead becomes more complicated.
A primary vote is scheduled for March, but Lee was the only Democrat on the ballot for his position. Emmett said it is too late to reopen filing so the Democratic precinct chairs will gather, as early as June, to select a replacement candidate who will go on the ballot in the November election.
As you may recall, Judge Emmett got to select Jack Cagle as a replacement for Jerry Eversole back in 2011. That was a different situation in several regards, including the fact that Eversole had been re-elected less than a year before, while Commissioner Lee’s term expires at the end of this year. We are too close to the March primary for their to be a reopening of filing for Democratic hopefuls, so as noted the HCDP precinct chairs get to name a new nominee, as delineated in state law. I’m not sure if the Republicans now get to pick a candidate as well, not that it matters in Precinct 1; the Greens already have a candidate, not that that matters, either. Whoever the precinct chairs pick will be the next Commissioner, quite possibly for a long time. I suspect Judge Emmett will prefer to select a true interim Commissioner, who will not put himself or herself up for the nomination, but stranger things have happened, and I suppose once Judge Emmett makes his choice, that person can and will do what they want. As I am still catching up on a bunch of stuff, I have not heard any chatter about who might put themselves out there for the job, but I feel confident saying there will be much interest in it.