87th LegislatureEducationElections 2022State SenateTaxes & SpendingEducation, Crime, Transportation Divide State Sen. John Whitmire, Primary Challenger Molly Cook

The incumbent Whitmire and his challenger Cook largely agreed on education. Crime and environmental issues split them more substantially.
February 2, 2022
The longest-serving member of the Texas Senate plans to leave the legislature to run for mayor of Houston in 2023.

His retirement may become an early replacement if challenger Molly Cook wins the Democratic primary for his Senate seat.

Cook is the sole Democratic opponent for state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), incumbent for the safe blue Houston seat. The two candidates participated in a virtual discussion on Tuesday night where Whitmire touted his seniority and experience while Cook billed herself as a more progressive grassroots alternative.

Education and Abbott’s Parental Bill of Rights Proposal

Whitmire and Cook mostly agreed on education policy, with both criticizing vouchers, school choice, more stringent state oversight, and efforts to ban critical race theory or “CRT” in public classrooms. Cook made up for a lack of policy disagreement by pointing out Whitmire’s plans to run for Houston mayor in 2023, an ongoing wedge issue in the race.

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When prompted to opine on Abbott’s “Parental Bill of Rightsplan, both called it a right-wing political stunt.

“Greg Abbott is trying to out-Trump Trump. You saw him in Montgomery County two nights ago. He goes as extreme as he can,” Whitmire said.

“You now see that this bill of rights he wants to put in the constitution is going to allow choice or vouchers. Vouchers would ruin public education in the state of Texas. It would certainly shut down our rural schools. In the urban areas, you do have other options, but in mid-size or small communities, if you allow students to take their vouchers and go to their church schools, Brenham for instance would just lose their ISD. It’s nothing but demagoguery. It’s hard-right to appeal to the Trump core.”

Cook echoed Whitmire’s criticisms but tacitly compared rumors of a presidential run for Abbott to Whitmire’s mayoral plans.

“I agree with much of what the Senator said. He has criticized Governor Abbott for running for president and how that has changed the way he approaches the issues. I am concerned about the Senator running for mayor and how that will change his approach to issues,” Cook said.

“The focus of the lege should be on funding public school equitably, protecting the rights of all children to play, getting kids insured — we rank last for child insurance rates — improving maternal health outcomes, protecting schoolchildren from environmental hazards like unclean air from nearby freeways, and supporting, not punishing, local ISDs.”

State law currently lists parental rights in the Texas Education Code. On the campaign trail recently, Abbott proposed cementing certain rights into the Texas Constitution to “reinforce that parents are the main decision-makers in all matters involving their minor children.” Proposals in his plan include expanding parental access to course materials and giving parents the option to decide if their children should repeat a grade. The plan does not mention vouchers.

Criminal Justice

The two candidates diverged more widely when crime entered the conversation. Cook blamed Houston crime trends on high gun ownership and an imbalanced focus on nonviolent criminals and pinned a gun-friendly record on Whitmire.

“There are people sitting in jail downtown charged with nonviolent Class B and C misdemeanors awaiting trial simply because they can’t pay bail. Meanwhile, murders go unsolved. This is about a misalignment of resources and priorities,” Cook argued.

“In 2011, Senator Whitmire voted in favor of SB 1581, which was concealed carry on college campuses. In 2013, he voted to expand firearm manufacturing in Texas. And in 2017 he voted… to reduce the application fee for the license to carry a handgun. Two important policies that I would back are limiting stranger to stranger sales, which Lt. Governor Dan Patrick himself says that he even supports, and universal background checks.”

Senate Bill (SB) 1581 dealt with public universities’ fiscal policy and Whitmire did not vote for it. He did vote to let the Senate consider a campus carry bill directly afterward on the same day, but that motion failed, meaning the Senate never actually voted on the bill itself. In 2013, Whitmire voted with 23 other senators in favor of a bill that would have incentivized the “location, expansion, and retention” of gun manufacturers to Texas.

In response, Whitmire touted his support for a red flag bill, a proposal to let courts confiscate guns from people that show signs of willingness to hurt themselves or others. He further specified that he supports crackdowns on gangs, a “zero tolerance” policy for weapons crimes, and legislation to stop bail bondsmen from financing the bond for defendants.

“We have the toughest penal code in the nation, which I sponsored in 93. We also have the best treatment program in the United States. But what we have to do is hold people accountable,” Whitmire said.

“I think we have to have a zero-tolerance for anyone that uses a weapon in the commission of a crime. I worked with Former Chief [Clarence] Bradford, I talked with Chief [Troy] Finner Saturday afternoon, and I would not hesitate to have the DFPS come in and run an anti-gang task force. The juvenile gangs are really what are perpetuating most of our crime.”

Whitmire later expanded on his focus on juvenile crime, claiming that junior high principals have told him gang activity is a top issue at schools like Francis Scott Key Middle School.

The gap between Cook and Whitmire widened as the conversation shifted to punishment. Cook accused Whitmire of taking donations from “private prisons,” a model that Whitmire defended as a success in mental health treatment for inmates. Whitmire credited his juvenile justice reform efforts for trimming the state’s incarcerated youth population, boasting closures of five juvenile facilities and 10 adult facilities since 2007. Cook claimed the closures were due to budget shortfalls.

Air Quality, Carbon Emissions, and Transport

When asked about strategies to improve Houston’s air quality and decrease greenhouse gas emissions, Whitmire cited his local efforts to improve air quality but said the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will stymie progressive environmental proposals as long as Republicans control the governorship.

“The TCEQ is a board appointed by Governor Abbott, before that, Perry, before that, Bush… It’s tough when you’re dealing with the TCEQ,” Whitmire said.

“I have a hundred percent rating by the Air Alliance. It took my seniority to stop a batch plant in the African American community of Acres Home.”

Though Whitmire has been rated one of the most liberal members of the Texas Senate, Cook positioned herself to his left in her response, accusing Whitmire of siding with conservatives on environmental issues and voicing support for policies to discourage car usage.

“We obviously need to decrease car dependence throughout the state… We have to address the root causes and assumptions of these issues that are failed and are biased toward continuing down our car-centric paradigm,” Cook said.

“The senator voted to prohibit localities like Denton from banning fracking in 2015 and has a history of vehicle emissions testing moratoriums, supported raising taxes on electric vehicles.”

According to The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index, redistricting did not lighten the strong blue hue of Whitmire’s district. 64 percent of voters in the new map voted Democrat in the statewide general elections of 2018 and 2020, the same percentage as the old map.

Whitmire enjoys a strong fundraising lead over Cook with over $11 million in cash on hand compared to Cook’s modest war chest of about $17,000.


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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.