(Courtesy/Cook Campaign, Simmons Campaign)

Houston Underdogs Beat Established Democrats in House, Senate Runoffs

Two community organizers-turned-candidates see their wins as a progressive blueprint for taking on the establishment and mobilizing the Democratic base. 


Both Lauren Ashley Simmons, who trounced four-term incumbent Shawn Thierry to win the House District 146 race by 29 percentage points, and Molly Cook, who narrowly beat House Representative Jarvis Johnson in the Senate District 15 race by 74 votes, drew upon the community they helped organize to turn out votes leading up to yesterday’s runoff election. It paid off. 

Both Simmons and Cook see their wins as blueprints for not only how progressive upstarts can beat established Democrats, but how Democrats can energize a broader and lethargic base to flip seats across the state. 

“This is actually a movement across different coalitions. This is how we win statewide races by people like me and turn out the vote for Democrats up and down the ballot every election,” Simmons told the Texas Observer before last night’s race. 

Cook previously told the Observer that her race is “the kind of organizing that we need to see in our state to move the needle on issues, and also eventually to flip these statewide seats, which are going to be the key to expanding Medicaid, protecting public education, getting multimodal transportation, getting back the rights to abortion, getting safer gun laws, whatever it is.”

Both seats are securely Democratic, guaranteeing Simmons and Cook a likely win in the general election. 

Simmons, 36, had been working as a union organizer, organizing Black and migrant women around healthcare, living wages, and LGBTQ+ rights before deciding to run for Thierry’s seat. As a former organizer for the Houston Federation of Teachers and parent of a child in Houston ISD, she gained name recognition when a video of her taking state-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles to task went viral on social media. In the days leading up to the runoff, Simmons protested alongside parents calling for an end to the state takeover of the school district. 

Apart from Simmons’ deep ties to Houston’s communities, Thierry had already dug her own political grave when she decided to not only align with Republicans to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth, but take the House floor with a 12 minute speech and then a Fox News broadcast defending her vote. Thierry doubled down on her anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric when she told the Houston Chronicle editorial board that Simmons was supported by the “gay ones” among her House Democratic colleagues. In early May, 50 Black pastors held a press conference with Thierry praising her vote to ban gender-affirming care for youth. But it wasn’t enough for Thierry, whose own colleagues decided to support Simmons. 

Eight Democrats who currently serve with Thierry, as well as former state Representative Garnet Coleman and U.S. Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett, endorsed Simmons. “She ain’t never had y’all’s back,” Crockett said of Thierry when blockwalking for Simmons. 

At the end, Thierry turned to GOP big donors to fund her campaign. She failed to file a campaign finance report for the last quarter, but up until the March 5 primary elections, conservative public school defunding proponents like the Legacy 44 PAC, Charter Schools Now PAC, and the Family Empowerment Coalition PAC and its founders Doug and Darwin Deason largely propped up her campaign, with at least a total of $124,000, or a third of total contributions at the time Thierry last filed. 

Molly Cook defied expectations winning the Senate seat against Jarvis Johnson, who has served as state House Representative for eight years and as Houston city council member for six years years before that. In 2022, Cook had challenged Whitmire for the Senate District 15 seat and lost by 16 percentage points, but the race helped her gain name recognition. In this year’s six-way primary race, Cook trailed Johnson by 15 percentage points but beat Johnson by 14 percentage points in a special election to fill Houston Mayor John Whitmire’s old seat for the rest of his term this year. It was the boost that Cook needed to slip ahead of Johnson last night. 

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Before entering into Texas politics, Cook worked as an emergency nurse and community organizer fighting against freeway expansion. Going door to door, Cook helped organize community members to join the Stop TxDOT I-45 Coalition to protest the displacement and pollution that the state transportation department’s expansion of I-45 would bring to their neighborhoods. She is also the first openly gay state senator and had garnered significant support from LGBTQ+ activists during the race. 

“When I filed to run for office, I filed with a volunteer base that showed up for me because I had spent years already showing up for them, earning their trust, and demonstrating my values,” Cook previously told the Observer

There weren’t many differences between Cook’s and Johnson’s platform. Both had support from labor unions and other liberal organizations. But both said the differences came down to their background and how they approached lawmaking in a state Senate dominated by hardline conservatives. 

During the race, Cook and Johnson exchanged blows calling each other out for taking large checks from special interest donors and out-of-state PACs.

“The big money and big lies will continue pouring into our district leading up to the runoff election. … This seat can not be bought, it must be earned,” Johnson said in a statement after losing the special election earlier this month.

Johnson was referring to a $300,000 donation that Cook received from the Leaders We Deserve PAC, started by student survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and gun-reform activist David Hogg, who created the PAC to support young progressive leaders. Most donations that Cook received after the primary, 94 percent, were small donations under $500. 

Cook has shot back at Johnson for taking money from Republican billionaires who support school privatization. Johnson’s largest donor was the Charter Schools Now PAC, funded by the likes of the Walton family and Netflix cofounder Reed Hastings, which contributed nearly $92,000 to his campaign. Johnson also received large contributions from charter PAC Legacy 44, Houston’s business lobby, and the pro-casino Texas Sands PAC. In contrast to Cook, half of Johnson’s campaign funds came from small donors contributing less than $500. 

When Cook criticized Johnson for supporting certain GOP legislation, Johnson responded that this was necessary to pass amendments supported by Democrats. “You’ve got to learn how to be strategic and how to get things done,” Johnson previously told the Texas Tribune. 

Cook, on the other hand, told the Observer that she believes in the idea of “co-governance,” or going back to her constituents before making decisions on legislation. 

“I don’t think this is just negotiations behind closed doors between elected officials,” Cook previously told the Observer. “I think it’s very important that regular people have access to the Capitol, and that leadership and legislators do everything that they can to make that a reality—to bring the Capitol to their doorstep and also to bring the people to the Capitol.”