Although she had not yet filed her intention to run with the Houston city secretary nor officially named a campaign treasurer, Urban Reform was first to report that during a visit to City Cathedral last Saturday Lee made her surprise announcement.
“I hope I’ve been a humble servant for you for 28 years, many of you in my district,” said Lee. “Sheila Jackson Lee wants to come home to be your mayor of the City of Houston.”
With her announcement, Lee joins a crowded race with six other announced Democrats vying to replace term-limited Mayor Sylvester Turner. Recent polling conducted by Ragnar Research earlier this month showed Texas Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) leading the pack at 22 percent but with more than half of respondents undecided.
Lee’s Congressional District 18 and Whitmire’s Texas Senate District 15 largely overlap, with both wrapping around the northern portion of Houston. Whitmire’s district is slightly larger, but Lee’s legendary ability to work her way into the spotlight makes her well-known across Houston and beyond.
First elected to Congress in 1995, Lee previously served as an at-large city council member and is well-known for garnering publicity.
At each year’s State of the Union address, Lee has successfully ordered staffers to arrive early to hold a spot for her along the main aisle so that she can personally speak to the president as he enters or exits the House chamber. Nearly ubiquitous at high-profile Houston press events, Lee even participated by phone in a recent press conference led by Mayor Turner to denounce a state takeover of the Houston Independent School District.
During her tenure in Congress, Lee has at times drawn negative publicity for high staff turnover, conflict with airlines as she traveled between Houston and Washington, and a staffer lawsuit that likely played into her resignation as chair of the House Judiciary Crime Subcommittee and Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in 2019. Despite the scandals, Lee handily won re-election in 2020 and 2022 with more than 72 percent of the vote.
Whitmire announced his candidacy last November in a launch event that included elected officials from both parties. His leadership as chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and outspoken critic of Harris County’s public safety spending priorities has garnered endorsements from the Houston Police Officer’s Union and the Harris County Deputies Organization.
Whitmire also touts endorsements from U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-TX-29) and several Houston pastors. He has thus far led in fundraising, but not all of his $10 million in Senate campaign funds will be transferred to his mayoral campaign due to the city’s contribution limits.
Lee is not required to resign from her congressional seat to run for mayor and will be able to transfer congressional campaign funds, currently just over $400,000, to her mayoral campaign. As of publication she had not established a mayoral campaign website.
While Turner has sparred with Houston firefighters in public and in court regarding pay parity issues, Whitmire has championed their cause in the Legislature. This week, his bill requiring binding arbitration between firefighters and the city passed the Texas Senate in a 29 to 0 vote.
In the Ragnar poll, former Interim Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins trailed Whitmire at just eight percent, followed by former Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards at seven percent.
Sources familiar with the matter allege that Hollins met with Lee, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1), and Bishop James Dixon last week to discuss Lee’s possible candidacy. Although Hollins has not commented on Lee’s announcement, he reportedly canceled a fundraiser scheduled for Tuesday night.
Other announced candidates include Houston City Council Member Robert Gallegos, former Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia, and attorney Lee Kaplan.
While some voters with Houston addresses will not be allowed to vote in city elections because they reside in extraterritorial jurisdictions, those in annexed areas such as Kingwood will be eligible.
City Cathedral has not issued a statement about Lee’s announcement. Churches with 501c3 non-profit status are prohibited from endorsing candidates, but they may speak about political issues and invite political candidates to speak and pastors may participate in politics in their individual capacity.
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Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.