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Houston-area Democrats line up in competitive primary to succeed John Whitmire in the Senate

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Houston-area Democrats line up in competitive primary to succeed John Whitmire in the Senate” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The last time Senate District 15 was an open seat was 1982 — before some of the candidates currently running for it were born.

But after four decades, John Whitmire, the former Senate dean who was elected Houston mayor in December, has moved on. The rare opening is fueling a competitive, six-way Democratic primary for the solidly blue, Houston-based seat in the Legislature’s upper chamber.

The Democratic candidates to succeed him are aligned on most big issues but touting different backgrounds and coalitions of support as they approach a gauntlet of elections this year. There is the March 5 primary, a May special election to finish the rest of Whitmire’s term — and potential runoffs to go with both of those — and then the November election.

“There’s lots of layers to this race,” said Art Pronin, a longtime Democratic activist in the Meyerland area.

The field features a sitting state representative — Jarvis Johnson — plus Whitmire’s 2022 primary challenger, Molly Cook, and the Democrat who first ran against U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, six years ago, Todd Litton. There is also Karthik Soora, a renewable energy developer who was the first to declare when Whitmire was still the incumbent; Alberto “Beto” Cardenas Jr., a lawyer who has a long history in Houston civic life; and Michelle Anderson Bonton, executive director of the Anderson Center for the Arts.

The district is widely diverse — people of color are 71% of the population. Johnson and Bonton are Black, Cardenas is the only Hispanic candidate and Soora is Indian American.

The seat is solidly Democratic, though it overlaps with territory where voters have helped Democrats gain new ground in the Donald Trump era, like the 7th Congressional District.

“They want a fighter,” Pronin said of SD-15 voters, but also “you’ve got a lot of practical Democrats here.”

That dynamic is especially relevant in the current Senate, where Democrats are the minority party and must grapple with a lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, who tolerates little dissent. At a recent forum hosted by the Meyerland Area Democrats Club, candidate after candidate vowed to stand up to Patrick while also finding common ground with Republicans on issues important to the district.

“You know how you handle a bully?” Johnson said, standing up and addressing an imaginary Patrick. “You look him straight in the eye and you hit him back. He may win the fight, but he’s gonna know he was in a fight with Jarvis Johnson.”

At the forum, Litton said he was running to tell Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott to “get the hell out of” Texans’ private lives and schools. He also expressed hope that recent schisms inside the GOP — on school vouchers, for example — provided an opening for Democrats to collaborate with them on more issues.

For Johnson, who has served in the House since 2016, the pitch is straightforward.

“Experience, experience, experience,” Johnson said in an interview Wednesday, adding he is the only candidate who has “introduced a bill, worked a bill and passed a bill.”

The other candidates’ promises to be effective, he said, are “all conjecture — it’s all talk — at this point.”

Cook, meanwhile, is leaning into her background as an emergency room nurse. Her debut ad shows her heading to work in scrubs and bracing for dealing with things like complicated pregnancies under Texas’ abortion ban.

“I always tell people that businessmen and lawyers are incredibly important — [but] they’re very well-represented at the Capitol,” Cook said in an interview. “We could really use a nurse in that seat to bring expertise and experience that’s currently missing.”

The primary started taking shape long before Whitmire won the Houston mayoral runoff in December, with both Soora announcing in April and then Cook in May. Cook ran against Whitmire in the 2022 primary and got 42% of the vote.

Since the start, Soora has put himself forward as the freshest face and emphasized he would be the first member of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community to serve in the Senate. He also has not been afraid to draw contrasts.

“It’s not just about experience, it’s about the right type of experience,” said Soora, a former teacher and education nonprofit cofounder. “I don’t have experience going to the Legislature enriching myself or sitting down with lobbyists. I have experience helping students.”

Bonton is also emphasizing her background in education as a teacher and charter school founder. And she is also making an explicit demographic appeal, promising to be the first Black woman to be elected to the Texas Senate since Barbara Jordan.

Cardenas was the last candidate to enter the primary, filing minutes before the deadline in December. He has the support of U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, one of the city’s top Hispanic leaders and a former state senator.

Cardenas has a long history in law and politics that includes serving as general counsel to former Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. At the forum, he sought to distinguish himself by advocating for a fairer tax system to better fund public education.

“The difference is who is actually going to deliver — is it gonna be about just delivering a great stump speech and voting no?” Cardenas said in an interview. “Or is it also going to be somebody who can work across the aisle, effectively legislate and bring the dollars back and then crack open a wider issue” — like taxes — “particularly for the district and Democrats?”

The March 5 primary is just the start of what could be five elections this year for Senate District 15. If no candidate wins a majority of the primary vote, it will go to a runoff on May 28. But before then, Abbott has called a May 4 special election to finish Whitmire’s term, which goes until January 2025. That could also go to a runoff, which would likely fall over the summer before the general election for the full term in November.

One Republican, Joseph Trahan, is currently running for the seat.

In the Democratic primary, Litton was the fundraising leader on the latest campaign finance reports, collecting $114,000 during the first 25 days of January. Johnson was second with $56,000 raised and Cook close behind with $50,000 in receipts. Litton also led in cash on hand as of Jan. 25, holding on to $187,000..

Litton has been using his fundraising ability — both in 2018 and now — to argue he could use the seat as a platform to boost Democratic turnout statewide. He has noted that when he ran against Crenshaw in 2018, he received more votes in the district than Hillary Clinton did two years earlier.

“I think that’s the biggest difference,” Litton said. “I’m not sure my competitors understand that.”

Cook has promised to use her community organizing experience to keep Democrats engaged year round. Last year, she juggled her SD-15 campaign with getting out the vote for Proposition B, a city charter amendment to give Houston more representation on a regional council. The proposition passed easily.

“I think there’s large portions for SD-15 that are looking for some new energy in that seat,” said Ashleigh Rickertsen, whose Greater Heights Democratic Club has endorsed Cook. “She works so hard and she doesn’t even have the job yet.”

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