HealthcareIssuesLocal NewsTaxes & SpendingFort Bend County COVID-19 Vaccine Outreach Contract Awarded to Democratic Strategist

Taxpayers will fund a $345,000 contract with a two-person political campaign firm with ties to local and national Democrats to conduct vaccine outreach and address “vaccine hesitancy” in Fort Bend County.
October 19, 2021
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Although Harris County commissioners voted unanimously to cancel a similar contract with a Democratic operative last month, neighboring Fort Bend County is moving forward with its own vaccine outreach program.

Last July, Fort Bend County Commissioners voted 3 to 2 along party lines to approve a $345,000 contract with Next Wave Strategies to conduct outreach in communities with low vaccination rates.

In her presentation to the court, County Health Director Dr. Jacquelyn Minter said it was important for the chosen vendor to communicate effectively with “those who want the vaccine but aren’t able to get the right information.” She also emphasized the need for multilingual communications.

As with Harris County’s vendor, Next Wave Strategies was created in 2019 by two individuals with close connections to national and local Democrats, and the firm is operating out of an apartment in Houston.

Managing member Shekira Dennis worked for the Obama presidential campaign and served as the Texas Coalitions Director for the Biden-Harris campaign. Additionally, Dennis was the deputy political director for Sylvester Turner’s mayoral campaign and community outreach director for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. 

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Next Wave Strategies’ other managing member, Erika Johnson, was the 2018 Get Out the Vote program director for the Houston Black American Democrats, and she has consulted with various political campaigns. 

Although county documents state that a qualified vendor “must have experience creating and disseminating content for marketing campaigns such as but not limited to, public health messaging,” Next Wave’s sparse website does not include public health experience, nor does Dennis list any in her publicly available profile.

According to internet archives, Next Wave previously advertised as the “next generation of political campaigns — developing and executing cutting-edge strategies to capitalize on the demographic, social, economic, and political trends of the future.”

Fort Bend County Commissioners Vincent Morales (R-Pct. 1) and Andy Meyers (R-Pct. 3) voted against the contract, and Morales stated, “I cannot support the unnecessary government intrusion into the private lives of citizens.”

Morales further emphasized that any consultant providing information on both the “pros and cons” of the COVID-19 vaccination must have some medical background or expertise.

“I do not vote to give any taxpayer funds to any political operative, it doesn’t matter which side of the political aisle they’re working on,” Meyers told The Texan.

Myers also expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the program.

“I can tell you what the reluctance is because I talk to them. They don’t want to take a vaccine that they don’t know much about and that’s experimental, and they don’t trust the government to tell them the truth.”

According to the contract obtained by The Texan, the agreement with Next Wave Strategies is for one year, with the option to extend for two more years. The firm initially bid $150,000 but requested an increase to $345,000 to support data analysis requirements, public service announcements, and field outreach activities to address vaccination resistance.”

Documentation from Next Wave Strategies states that the company will develop maps of “high resistance clusters throughout Fort Bend County, and reports that they will divert $90,000 of the award to subcontractors We-Collab, StandOut Communications, and XOMAD.

Houston-based We-Collab was founded by Niiobli Armah IV, a former policy aide for then-state senator and current county commissioner Rodney Ellis. The company touts work as a social change organization that says it trains clients to focus on equity, and the company website states, “the world should not go back to normal and neither should we.”

The county has been reluctant to answer queries about the selection of Next Wave Strategies. 

After attorney Madhu Sekharan submitted public information requests, Assistant County Attorney LaNetra Lary replied that she believed the purchasing department had complied with providing some materials, but Sekharan says he has not received requested emails, scoring evaluation sheets, or the proposals submitted by seven other entities. 

Lary also wrote that she would be appealing to the Texas Attorney General’s office to block the release of the Next Wave Strategies proposal. In her letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton, she again states that the county supplied the emails between county employees and Next Wave Strategies and other materials Sekharan requested. 

Other entities that submitted proposals include Gilbreath Communications, which has previously worked with the University of Texas Health Science Center and Houston Methodist Hospital. Proposals also came from Elevate Strategies, the one-woman firm selected and paid $539,000 by Harris County before commissioners canceled the contract. 

The Texan has also submitted requests for additional documentation from Fort Bend County.

A copy of the contract can be found below.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer 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.