Jackson Lee, Whitmire vie on priorities ahead of Houston mayoral runoff election

The candidates both echoed a need for transparency in city government throughout the debate.

Whitmire Jackson Lee
AP Photo/Eric Gay; AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
Pictured are Houston mayoral candidates Texas Sen. John Whitmire, left, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.

In the first debate since the start of the runoff for the Dec. 9 election, Houston mayoral candidates vied on water bills, diversity and Metro funding Monday evening.

U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee and state Sen. John Whitmire butted heads for nearly an hour during the Monday debate hosted by FOX 26 and the American Turkish Business Council. The debate gave Jackson Lee and Whitmire an opportunity to take stances on their biggest priorities heading into the election, and the discussions reiterated a stronger difference between the two candidates, who disagreed on a long path forward for the city’s financial state among other things.

Whitmire took several stabs at Mayor Sylvester Turner for what he says is inaction on affordable housing and a rapidly increasing water bill crisis. Referencing a controversial deal in a long-lasting dispute that led to the demise of the airport’s Pappas Restaurants, Whitmire accused Turner of harvesting a “get rich” scheme by awarding the project to a competing concessionaire. Whitmire referenced the dispute as a “buddy system.”

The candidates both echoed a need for transparency in city government throughout the debate, but Jackson Lee failed to address Whitmire’s accusations of the soon-to-be former Houston mayor, who recently backed Jackson Lee’s campaign as mayor. In discussions of the city’s financial state, Jackson Lee said she aims to increase the city’s funding by taking advantage of federal dollars and advancing city programs, and Whitmire vouched for financial transparency, saying he would prioritize compensating city workers.

Jackson Lee said Whitmire has plans of cutting funding to Metro, which he quickly disputed, saying Metro needs to spend more on unprotected bus shelters at stops around the city.

The pair also went head-to-head on approaches to tackle crime and public safety within the city, when tough-on-crime Whitmire said the city needs to be smart in its approach in admitting the issue.

“We have to increase our recruiting of Houston police officers,” he said. “We’ve got to collaborate with other agencies, but most importantly, we have got to let non-violent individuals know that there is a second chance for them, and we’ve got to let the violent offenders know we’re coming after you if you put a gun in somebody’s face.”

Whitmire heads the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which Jackson Lee said has failed to protect Black and brown communities.

“The real issue is how do we stand up without victimizing individuals like nonviolent criminals who now will stay longer because of his tenure as chairman of that committee,” Jackson Lee said.

A recent poll from Houston Public Media and the Houston Chronicle showed Whitmire is leading the interest of Houston voters with the support of 42 percent of likely voters, compared to 35 percent for Jackson Lee and 22 percent undecided.

Early voting for the runoff election is currently underway. The election to determine Houston’s new mayor is Dec. 9.