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After bruising loss in Houston mayoral race, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee faces her toughest reelection yet

By Sejal Govindarao, The Texas Tribune

After bruising loss in Houston mayoral race, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee faces her toughest reelection yet” 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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Editor’s note: this story includes explicit language.

In 1994, Sheila Jackson Lee, then a 44-year-old Houston city councilwoman, unseated four-term U.S. Rep. Craig Washington in the Democratic primary, securing a seat she’d come to hold for the next 30 years.

This March, former Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards, 42, is hoping to replicate that political upset as she faces off against Jackson Lee in the Democratic primary for Congressional District 18.

Jackson Lee, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has only drawn four primary challengers over her 14-term career, all of whom she defeated by landslide margins, winning 94% of the vote in 2002, 67% in 2010, 85% in 2018 and 77% in 2020. She’s a household name in her Houston-based district known for her frequent visibility at constituent graduations, funerals and baby showers.

But last year she ran for Houston mayor against then-state Sen. John Whitmire. It was a bruising primary — unfamiliar territory for Jackson Lee — and her campaign was roiled with negative media after audio of her berating her congressional staffers was leaked. She ended up losing the race by 30 points and then immediately announced she was running for reelection to the U.S. House.

Edwards, a former Jackson Lee intern, initially announced she was running for Houston mayor until the congresswoman threw her hat in the ring. At that point, Edwards pivoted — endorsing Jackson Lee as mayor and beginning her own bid for Congress.

By the time Jackson Lee announced she was running for her House seat again, Edwards had already gained momentum. In the fourth quarter of last year, Edwards outraised the congresswoman 10 to 1 — $272,000 to Jackson Lee’s $23,000.

“This could be the year that Congresswoman Jackson Lee loses. And given that as a safe, Democratic, seat whoever wins the primary will be headed to Washington in January of 2025,” said Mark Jones, Baker Institute fellow in political science at Rice University.

Jackson Lee and Edwards are also facing off against another primary Democratic candidate Robert Slater Jr., who is a chef and business owner. He has not reported raising or spending campaign money this election cycle. If no candidate gets a majority of votes in the March 5 primary, there will be a runoff election in May.

Edwards, a native Houstonian, said her commitment to public service is propelled by her father’s battle with cancer when she was a teenager, where she learned firsthand about the cracks in the health care system and how “policy could be a matter of life and death.” She served as an at-large Houston City Council member from 2016 to 2020, where she represented a constituency of more than 2 million people.

In 2020, she had her first foray into state politics when she joined a crowded Democratic primary field, vying to unseat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. Edwards came in fifth place in the statewide primary and third in Harris County.

In her race to beat Jackson Lee, Edwards has garnered some notable endorsements including Washington, who previously held the congressional seat, and former Harris County Democratic Party Chair Lilly Schechter, as well as progressive groups including the county’s Young Democrats, and its chapter of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats – both of which endorsed Jackson Lee in past races.

The Harris County Young Democrats rescinded its endorsement of Jackson Lee in the mayoral race — after dually endorsing both her and Whitmire — citing a “zero tolerance policy” for staff abuse.

Lenard Polk, Harris County chapter president of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, said Jackson Lee’s leaked audio tape controversy factored into the committee’s decision to not endorse her. On the recording Jackson Lee berates a staffer for not having a document she was looking for and calls two of her staffers “Goddamn big-ass children, fuckin’ idiots who serve no Goddamn purpose.”

He said endorsement committee members were still “quite upset” over the tape and it “wasn’t a good look” for Jackson Lee. The leaked tape fueled discourse about Jackson Lee’s reputation as an unkind boss on Capitol Hill – she regularly makes Washingtonian Magazine’s worst of Congress list and her office has high turnover rates.

Polk added that voters felt abandoned by Jackson Lee, who jumped into the mayor’s race without endorsing someone to take her place, only to file for reelection a day after losing to Whitmire.

In an interview, Edwards acknowledged that Jackson Lee may be a weaker candidate because of her bid for mayor.

“It certainly has a strong influence on how people are choosing to think about this election cycle in particular,” she said.

The runoff election for the Houston mayor’s race stretched over nine congressional districts overlapping Harris County. Jackson Lee beat Whitmire among voters in her own district but only by a narrow two-point margin. Vincent Sanders, a Harris County Democratic Party precinct chair, said that’s a signal that the congresswoman could be vulnerable.

“It did show some cracks in that solid image of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee,” he said. “That’s kind of where we are and it did show that she was somewhat vulnerable,” he said.

Jackson Lee’s battle to retain her seat is made tougher by 2021 redistricting, Sanders said. because the 18th district now inhabits more young white professionals who do not have the same level of loyalty to her as longtime district residents.

“A lot will come down, I think, to turnout and particularly the ability of Edwards to turn out younger voters and Anglo voters, because if the turnout is predominantly African American and older, that’s going to benefit Congresswoman Jackson Lee,” Jones said.

Despite any damage she may have incurred from her mayoral run, Jackson Lee remains a powerful political force in her district.

County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who is backing Jackson Lee, said he doesn’t know anyone in local politics with her “energy level,” and that Jackson Lee has secured meaningful federal grants for her district – most recently $20.5 million to Harris County Public Health Department’s Uplift Harris Guaranteed Income Pilot project. He also said she has a reputation for being a reliably progressive voice in Congress.

Jackson Lee has a long list of powerful endorsements from House Democratic leaders like House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Minority Whip Katherine Clarke. She’s backed by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and former Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and other members of Texas’ Washington delegation including Democratic Reps. Lizzie Fletcher of Houston, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Joaquin Castro of San Antonio.

Jackson Lee may not be a strong fundraiser but she will benefit from her incumbency advantage, Ellis said.

“Name ID is the only thing you can buy in an election. If you raise enough money, you can’t really buy a record,” he said.

Linda Robinson, a Houston Democratic precinct chair, said she is fighting for Jackson Lee to retain her seat because seniority in Congress is important and Edwards would be learning the ropes as a freshman if elected.

“We need fighters,” she said. “We don’t need people trying to learn how to fight on the battlefield. We need people who are already fighting and know how to fight their fight.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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