Keep track of these names, or better yet get to know them.
Olivia Julianna typed “#johnnyboywhitmire” into TikTok’s search bar. To her delight, her five videos critiquing Texas state senator and Houston mayoral hopeful John Whitmire had garnered a combined 350,000 views in a matter of months.
She clicked on one of her uploads.
“If you’re new here, and you’re wondering ‘Olivia, why are you so pressed about this Houston mayoral election,’ let me tell you why,” the 20-year-old activist influencer said in the clip. She then explained that the choice between the race’s two front-runners – Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee – could help determine the future of Texas’ progressive movement.
This year’s mayoral race has thrust Houston’s emerging progressive voices into the political limelight. While both Jackson Lee and Whitmire have deep Democratic roots and boast endorsements from major liberal groups, the congresswoman is seen by many as the more progressive candidate, drawing support from young activists like Julianna.
Once on the sidelines, Houston’s progressive groups are gaining traction, experts and advocates say. However, they caution it may be years – if ever – before this segment of Houston voters can meaningfully influence city elections, where older and whiter residents traditionally dominate turnout.
“The city is definitely becoming more progressive and trending much more blue, but you haven’t seen our local politics manifest in the same way,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
“Organizing in a big city like Houston is slow, and it means years of groundwork that may or may not pay off,” he added.
In recent years, new social justice groups have sprouted up in Houston, joining the ranks of established organizations like the Texas Organizing Project and the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation.
Driven primarily by left-leaning activists, these new groups aim to tackle a range of issues – from flood protection and environmental justice to racial equity and police reform. Ben Hirsch of West Street Recovery, a nonprofit focusing on community resilience, said these initiatives emerged because traditional solutions failed.
“These groups aren’t coming out of Marxist reading circles,” Hirsch said. “They came from being frustrated with the lived experience of being in Houston.”
West Street Recovery was founded during Hurricane Harvey when a group of friends, disheartened by the official disaster response, took to their inflatable kayaks to assist neighbors.
What began as a spontaneous act six years ago has now transformed into a professional nonprofit that has worked with over 400 volunteers to carry out home repairs and help residents prepare for future disasters.
There’s a lot more to this story, so go read the rest. We have spoken before about how Houston municipal elections are dominated by older voters. We have also talked about the significant increase in registered voters in Houston and how turnout in even-year elections has taken a step function up both locally and nationally. Some amount of that is driven by younger voters, who have been a significant bloc of support for more progressive Democratic candidates. All of this is to say that while past performance will strongly inform how one views this election, one should not be closed to the factors that could result in something different happening.
So while I believe we will see greater turnout, at least in absolute terms, than what we are used to seeing, thanks to the increase in registered voters, we could also see a boost in younger voters, and we could see a shift in support for candidates based on younger voters’ preferences. Or maybe we won’t, or maybe any changes will be too small to have any effect. We’ll know more soon enough. But even if we basically get the same old same old this election, that doesn’t undermine the premise of this story. Let’s not forget, every veteran political actor was once a young hotshot. Losing campaigns inform future efforts. Not every new face mentioned in this story will be a force in our politics in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time – some will move, some will change focus, some will change profession – but some of them will, and this election will be a part of their story, however the election turns out.