Whitmire, Jackson Lee meet in one of final forums before Saturday’s Houston mayoral runoff

State Senator John Whitmire and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee tackled a range of quality-of-life issues Sunday at a forum at Ripley House in Houston’s East End.

Whitmire and Jackson Lee at Ripley House, December 3, 2023.
Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media
Ruth López Turley (l.), director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, moderated a discussion between mayoral candidates State Senator John Whitmire and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee at Ripley House on December 3, 2023.

State Senator John Whitmire and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee squared off Sunday for one of the final times before Saturday's Houston mayoral runoff election.

Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia hosted the forum, which took place at BakerRipley's Ripley House in Houston's East End. Ruth López Turley, director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, moderated.

Whitmire and Jackson Lee answered questions that focused heavily on quality-of-life issues, ranging from health care and food access to the recent closure of the downtown Greyhound bus station. Whitmire, widely viewed as the more conservative candidate in the nonpartisan race, repeatedly stressed he would work to unite a divided city.

"We're going more in the directions of the haves and the have-nots, and we've got to put a stop to that and let the people that are living comfortable lives realize it's in their best interest to bring people together, provide them health care, job opportunities, and affordability," Whitmire said.

Jackson Lee argued that she had a stronger record than Whitmire when it came to addressing the concerns of lower-to-middle-income residents like those in the audience, such as food deserts in poorer neighborhoods. "I am the only candidate that has spoken about kitchen table issues of people who are trying to survive in this city and who should have a seat at the table," Jackson Lee said.

Both candidates leaned repeatedly into their experience as lawmakers to argue why they were better positioned to lead the city. Whitmire, who has served 50 years in the Texas Legislature, defended an earlier vote that enabled greater state intervention in the Houston Independent School District after Jackson Lee accused him of not standing up to protect HISD from a state takeover.

"We need to get politics out of the children’s education. We all voted, the delegation – (Houston Mayor) Sylvester Turner when he was a state rep, (Harris County Commissioner) Rodney Ellis when he was a state senator – we voted to get HISD's attention. Kids were falling behind. The FBI was coming in and out of the administration building. It was a crisis. So, yes, I made a tough vote," Whitmire said. "We were making progress. (But) I opposed the TEA to come in, in the middle of a semester. I’ve met with them. They know how I feel."

Warming to the theme, Whitmire talked about how he had opposed the push towards legislation for private school vouchers in multiple sessions over the course of the past year. "I’ve said for years, when I talk about the vitality of Houston, how HISD goes is how Houston will go. I fight vouchers in Austin that takes money away from public schools," he said.

Whitmire also blamed outgoing Mayor Turner for current tensions between the city and the state's Republican-led government.

"There's no relationship between City Hall and Austin," Whitmire said. "They don't even talk, and it's harming Houstonians. It's harming the people of Houston. The Med Center, our port, so much of it is controlled by Austin. We've got to have that working relationship, and I'm uniquely qualified to do that."

Jackson Lee, who has represented much of inner-city Houston in Congress since 1995, said that her ability to bring federal funding to the city made her – not Whitmire – better placed to help Houston tackle voter's concerns about Whitmire's signature issue, public safety.

"I believe I am the strongest in fighting crime, legitimacy in terms of working with state, federal, (and) local authorities to get more federal dollars to be able to add more (police) officers, which we did with $6 million just a few weeks ago," Jackson Lee said.

Jackson Lee used some of her final remarks to attack Whitmire's proposal to bring state troopers to Houston to assist local police in fighting crime. "It is challenging for someone to want to bring 200 DPS officers here on the streets, because they may not work well in accordance with our other officers," she said.