After Special Election Win, Molly Cook Gears Up for Senate Seat Runoff 

The ER nurse and community organizer wants to bring “the Capitol to the people and the people to the Capitol.”


Last weekend, emergency room nurse and community organizer Molly Cook won a special election for Senate District 15 to serve the remaining seven months of John Whitmire’s term, who became Houston mayor after holding the seat for over 40 years. In a very low-turnout affair with 3 percent of registered voters casting ballots, Cook beat state Representative Jarvis Johnson by 14 percentage points. The win could give her a needed boost as she faces off against Johnson, the frontrunner, in the May 28 runoff for a full four-year term. The Texas Observer met with newly elected Senator Cook to learn about her plans heading to the runoff and her vision for serving Texans. 

You trailed Johnson in the March primary, but then led him by 14 percentage points winning this special election to fill Whitmire’s seat. What do you take away as the reason for this gain? How will you use this heading into the May 28 runoff?

Every race is different. We knew that going from a six-way primary to a head-to-head special election is a completely different dynamic. It’s a huge compliment to my team, my campaign manager, and his strategy and skills that we were able to successfully navigate each one. Our plan has really been to take these races separately and together at the same time, and we’ll take the success and momentum that we’ve built from the last two races and just continue to push it over the edge for the runoff election. And we’re in a really strong position so it’s exciting to just get to hammer home the message and continue knocking on doors and making phone calls.

You come from a grassroots organizing effort, having spearheaded several efforts, including challenging the harmful environmental and community displacement from TxDOT’s I-45 expansion project. How has this figured into how you’ve run your campaign? 

My organizing background is the reason that a bedside emergency room nurse who does not necessarily have the typical resume was able to break onto the political scene and move into the electoral space with success in a brief period of time. 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, my commitment to public health and public safety. So when it was time for me to turn around and say, “Hey, can I have your vote? Would you be willing to knock on doors? Would you be willing to pull some hours to try to make this happen?”, people really stepped up and made it happen. I think that that is the reason that I’m sitting in this seat here today. 

And how will this figure into how you serve Senate District 15?

I’ve been thinking about this concept of co-governance for a long time. It’s really about not viewing myself as separate and away from people, but rather very much a piece of a puzzle for 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 which is 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. We have to change the leadership of our state. And organizing is going to be the key to that and having an organizer in that seat is what’s going to I think catalyze those efforts and make it all the more possible.

You are an emergency room nurse with a master’s degree in public health. Tell me more about your public health priorities.

I had a procedural abortion in 2014, and it was tremendously difficult and it just shouldn’t have been. It stigmatized my need for care and denied me the dignity that I deserved as an adult person making the right choice for myself and seeking health care. There were only eight clinics open at that time, and I am just shocked and saddened to my core every single day that I now count myself lucky that it was legal and safe. And I’m going to do whatever it takes with my fellow Texans to restore those rights for us again. 

I stand with every single Texan, who has felt the sting of poor health care policy, poor abortion policy, who does not have access to the care that they need to be themselves and live their fullest and best life. And I want people to know that they’ve got a nurse in that chamber who has had an abortion, and who is going to fight tooth and nail for common sense healthcare policies for all Texans. 

As Democrats, it seems like Johnson’s values and your values mostly align. What would you say the differences are? 

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Even when there were six of us in the race, I said a lot of us are going to have the same ideas or vote the same way. I told voters they were voting on who they wanted in that seat and how they wanted them to work. And I do see our work styles as being quite different. My opponent has said a few things on the record that, in my opinion, diminish the value and importance of organizing. 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.

I don’t think this is just negotiations behind closed doors between elected officials. I think this is an opportunity to shift power to the people and make real and lasting change in the structures of our government and in the policies that are being written.

Johnson has said that negotiating with hardline Republicans is “strategic to get things done.” What would be your approach in dealing with what seems like will be an even more extreme right-wing bloc in the state Senate next year? 

Sometimes it’s going to require us to dig our heels in and die on that hill. Sometimes it’s going to require compromise. If we have to make a compromise on a bill. The first call should be to the person who asked me to file that bill, to say, “Hey, this is going to be the strategy and here’s why.” And to give a heads-up to advocates acting outside the Capitol. I’ve been on that side for several years and I know how important it is to be able to trust the person who’s championing your bill and discuss the strategy with them so we’re working together in co-governance. I’m really committed to that vision. 

Johnson has accused you of “buying this seat” with outside money from the PAC Leaders We Deserve, started by gun reform activist David Hogg to support young progressive leaders. How do you respond to this? 

I am really proud to have run four campaigns in the last three years in Houston, Harris County, three of which have resulted in success. I lost my 2022 race to an incumbent of 50 years with $12 million and had an impressive margin and was able to build on that success to then run a successful charter campaign which passed the city with 65 percent of the vote to make it into the runoff for this race out of the primary and then to win the special. I work extremely hard. And it turns out I fundraise really well, too. It’s important we also had the lowest average donation in the primary and we also had the lowest average donation in the special. 

Johnson has taken money from Charter Schools Now, a PAC funded by the Walton family, and the conservative Texans for Lawsuit Reform donors. What is your position on charters and vouchers, which will be a big issue again next legislative session? 

As a nurse, I know what the privatization of healthcare has done to the health and safety of this nation. And we have to do everything we can to protect and restore fully funded public education, to take care of our teachers, students, and our support staff. I am totally against vouchers. I am willing to accept that in Texas right now, there is nuance around the conversation that charter schools are meeting the needs of some communities who need it. But ultimately, public education is a constitutional mandate and it is the only type of school that meets the needs of our most vulnerable students. So I stand firmly with public schools and oppose any further privatization. Also, I will not be taking money that is associated with anyone who is trying to dismantle public education, criminalize abortion, and basically reshape and corrupt the political landscape of the state that I call home.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.