Politics

As John Whitmire bids to become Houston mayor, other local Democrats vie for his Texas Senate seat

Former Whitmire opponent Molly Cook, state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, Todd Litton and Karthik Soora have announced their candidacies for the Democratic primary next March as they look to succeed the longest-tenured member of the state senate.

Whitmire HPM Mayoral Debate
AP Photo/Michael Wyke
Houston mayoral candidate Sen. John Whitmire is visible in a camera viewfinder as he talks with local media after a candidates debate held at the Houston Public Media studios Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, in Houston.

Early voting started this week in the crowded race for Houston mayor, which Texas Sen. John Whitmire is expected to ultimately win.

That would leave an open seat in Senate District 15, which serves large swaths of Texas' most populous city, for the first time since the early 1980s.

The opportunity to succeed Whitmire, the longest-tenured member of the state senate, is drawing an intriguing mix of hopefuls. Four fellow Democrats have announced their candidacies for the party primary election next March, with state Rep. Jarvis Johnson – who already serves a geographic area within Senate District 15 – entering the field this week.

"This seat is extremely special," said Molly Cook, another one of the candidates. "We have a safe Democratic seat that is in the heart of Harris County, and it's open for the first time in 40 years. So Democrats in Texas get to choose the person who represents them and the style that they prefer.

"It's not every day that Texans get a choice between good Democrats," Cook added. "I'm really excited about this primary."

The primary could still include Whitmire if he were to lose a mayoral race that also includes U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and many others. And if he wins as predicted by local political experts, a special election for the right to complete his current senate term would be held ahead of the primary.

Along with Johnson and Cook, an emergency room nurse and local activist who challenged Whitmire in the 2022 primary, the field for next year's Democratic primary also includes Todd Litton and Karthik Soora. Litton ran for a seat in Congress in 2018 and lost to U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, while Soora is a former Houston ISD teacher who now works as a clean energy developer and is running for public office for the first time.

Karthik Soora
Karthik Soora Campaign
Karthik Soora, left, is a Houston Democrat running for Texas Senate District 15 in 2024.

Soora, who like Cook is in his early 30s, said Senate District 15 is ready for a new representative with new ideas after being served since 1983 by Whitmire, who is 74. The district includes the Heights and Montrose areas as well as much of northwest Houston along with southwest, north, northeast and east parts of the city.

Demographically, Senate District 15 is about 41 percent Hispanic, 29 percent white, 21 percent Black and 9 percent Asian. The per capita income of residents in the district is about $43,000 per year, and about 15 percent of the district's residents are in poverty.

Soora, a first-generation American, said he hopes to become the first Indian American in the Texas Legislature.

"We deserve to have representation that looks like us," he said. "I think one of the big reasons I'm running as the son of immigrants is because I understand how it feels to be insulted. Just seeing the hatred that's emerging against LGBTQ folks, against immigrants, against Black folks, against Latinos, is one of the biggest reasons why I'm running. Because I want to bring all these communities together."

Houston ISD Takeover
Juan A. Lozano/AP Photo
Texas State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, left, along with other Houston-area leaders, including Mayor Sylvester Turner, on the right, speak at a news conference on Friday, March 3, 2023, in Houston while protesting a takeover of the city’s school district by the Texas Education Agency.

The 52-year-old Johnson, the only Black candidate in the field thus far, said he also can connect with a diverse constituency. And he points to his seven years of experience in the legislature – along with serving on Texas House committees for appropriations, homeland security and public safety – as the best way to ensure a smooth transition from Whitmire, who has built a reputation for working with fellow Democrats and Republicans alike.

Johnson said he also knows how to work across the political aisle but added that he won't compromise his beliefs and values.

"I think I can bring a fight to the senate that probably it needs, just simply because things are not happening. Things are not getting passed in the Senate," Johnson said. "I think we're looking at a lieutenant governor (Dan Patrick) who rules with an iron fist, who's not being held accountable for things that he does and things that he says. At this time, I think we need a lot of experience."

Molly Cook
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Molly Cook, a candidate for Texas Senate District 15, campaigns at the Metropolitan MultiService Center on March 1, 2022.

Cook points to her experience as a former candidate in Senate District 15, in which she tried to boost voter turnout and ended up receiving nearly 42 percent of the vote against Whitmire, as an advantage. She also touts her accomplishments as a community organizer, having helped lead Fair for Houston's push to get Proposition B on this year's ballot in Houston.

Cook said it's also time for a woman to represent Senate District 15, which would be a first.

"I'm the only candidate in this race who's had an abortion," she said. "And I will fight for Texans who need abortions in a way that I don't think any of the other candidates will understand."

Litton's campaign did not respond to an email requesting an interview before the time of publication.