Above: State Senator and Houston mayoral candidate John Whitmireshaking hands with a supporter as he arrived for an election watch party.
On December 9, the next mayor of America’s fourth-most populous city will be decided. With the initial round of the Houston mayoral election failing to determine a clear victor among 18 contenders, candidates Sheila Jackson Lee, 73, and John Whitmire, 74, veterans who’ve racked up decades in federal and state political office respectively, are poised to go head-to-head in a runoff.
Houston is a young city and both candidates campaigned on local campuses. (Whitmire earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Houston; Jackson Lee attended Yale.) But despite the immense amount of money and power at stake, few Houstonians under 30 seem to be discussing the race. Indeed, many college students the Texas Observer recently interviewed were unaware that a major election was even happening.
“Houston is growing younger but the candidates and the voters in the Bayou city aren’t,” said University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus. “Despite significant spending from several candidates, they just haven’t moved voters to come out in big numbers.”
The University of Houston students who are politically active say that doesn’t mean youth are apathetic. Instead, they point out that Whitmire and Jackson Lee bring political baggage to the race. Both are relatively controversial (and unexciting) candidates, students say. (Whitmire has been accused of mixing personal and political business and ethical lapses; Jackson Lee has been panned as a bully, appearing in a leaked recording yelling epithets at her staff).
Campus political activists also object to barriers that seem to discourage students from voting, like a recent decision to move a voting precinct off campus.
“It’s not even really active disenfranchisement, it’s just incompetence,” said senior Ryan Camp, a political science major. “It might not be too much of a hassle for some, but every barrier [decreases] turnout to some degree.”
Camp is a member of the University of Houston Democrats, one of several groups on campus that’s been making efforts to help students get connected to local politics. Groups like UH Dems organize voter drives, bring candidates on campus, and provide voter guides on election day.
The mayoral candidates have also put a significant amount of effort into courting the student vote. Stickers touting Whitmire’s status as a UH alumnus litter the campus, and both candidates (as well as other mayoral contenders) made their presence known at student events during the fall semester.
Whitmire, a state legislator for five decades, massively oustpent Jackson Lee, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 1995. Despite a significant amount of time and money poured into influencing the youth vote, student attitudes toward the candidates remained mixed. Many students remained uninterested; some became actively frustrated with their choices.
“I feel like neither of the main candidates should’ve been chosen in the first place,” senior Sameer Abdulmajeed said. “Sheila Jackson Lee mistreats her staffers, and as for Whitmire, why are we electing another old white man to be mayor in such a diverse city?”
Abdulmajeed and other organizers said that their frustrations with candidates go beyond policy. He said that nearly every mayoral candidate in the initial crowded Houston race had alienated themselves from students during recent on-campus visits, describing interactions that ranged from simply out of touch to actively hostile.
Other students recalled how Jackson Lee arrived late to a March 2023 vigil held after one student tragically took their life on campus. By the time she arrived, the venue was nearly empty, and Lee asked staffers to pose as if they were part of a crowd for the media.
This anecdote, while bizarre, parallels an older account of Jackson Lee’s alleged history of using tragic events for political gain. In a 1997 Houston Press article, one of Lee’s former aides alleged that she staged a memorial for Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who died in a plane crash, to curry political favor. That article repeats allegations that Lee mistreats her staff. Longtime political writer Tim Fleck quoted one young Black staffer as saying, “She treats everybody like her slaves. To give you an idea of what I thought my [time] with Sheila was like, it was a slave plantation, and she was the master.”
Lee’s odd behavior seems to have contributed to her failure to get as many campaign contributions or votes as Whitmire, according to recent polls and local pundits. Interviews suggest they also made her unpopular amongst students.
But Whitmire has not fared much better. He failed to show up to a candidate forum at the University of Houston that featured Jackson Lee and four other candidates and a crowd of 100 students. Neither he nor Jackson Lee have been able to budge young voters.
Indeed, the most common complaint about both candidates amongst young voters seemed to be their age. While the median age in Houston sits at 34.2, below the national average, Whitmire and Lee more than twice that: 74 and 73, respectively.
While age doesn’t inherently decide whether someone is capable of governing, some younger voters have expressed concern about the trend of older politicians taking power despite proving unpopular with a young and growing city.
To Evan Mintz, a Houston journalist and former deputy opinion editor for the Houston Chronicle, young voters and media institutions alike should pay attention to the race. He noted that few, if any, media outlets covered Jackson Lee’s questionable leadership or Whitmire’s past corruption allegations. “There’s been extensive coverage of both these candidates in the past and contemporary media outlets have just glossed over much of it,” Mintz said. “Houston needs big picture leadership now more than ever, and young people’s views aren’t going to matter if they don’t vote.”