Houstonians Force Anti-LGBTQ Democrat into Runoff with Progressive Challenger

Meanwhile, a long-term incumbent who backed a controversial state school takeover easily secures renomination.


Democratic state Representative Shawn Thierry’s list of political contributors reads like a who’s who of Republican mega-donors and Christian nationalist public school defunders. The Houstonian received $28,000 from the Charter Schools Now PAC, $25,000 from conservative Dallas billionaires Darwin and Douglas Deason, $10,000 from the pro-voucher Family Empowerment Coalition, $10,000 from the powerful pro-tort reform PAC Texans for Lawsuit Reform, backed by the Republican establishment, and $50,000 from the Texas Sands PAC, which was created to push for the legalization of casinos and bankrolled largely by Miriam Adelson, widow of Trump mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. 

It was more than enough money to buy Thierry billboards by the Houston Rodeo leading up to the election—but not enough for the four-term state representative to beat out Lauren Ashley Simmons in the District 146 Democratic primary, after Thierry alienated liberal voters by aligning with Republicans last year to ban gender-affirming care for transgender teens. Simmons fell just shy of 50 percent while Thierry received around 44 percent, so the two will head to a May 28 runoff. Community activist Ashton Woods received 6 percent of the votes. 

In comparison to Thierry’s high-rolling funders, as of March 4, Simmons received nearly $100,000 less than Thierry in total contributions and mostly in small individual donations. Leading up to the election, Simmons picked up a slew of endorsements from progressive organizations and the Houston Chronicle editorial board. 

“The results show that people in the district are ready for new representation. We deserve somebody that aligns with our values. Thierry has not shown up for us in the way that we need her to. Now it’s time for somebody else to do that job,” Simmons told the Texas Observer. 

Lauren Ashley Simmons (Courtesy/Simmons Facebook)

On the campaign trail, Simmons distinguished herself, telling the Houston Chronicle editorial board, “I’m not a politician. I’m a community advocate.” The mom and union organizer grew up in Houston’s Third Ward, becoming pregnant at age 19. After she and her baby were kicked off of welfare and evicted from their apartment, she shoplifted food and clothing for her baby until she was arrested (the charges were later dismissed). Since then, Simmons said she’s been organizing Black and immigrant women to achieve better working conditions, health care, and living wages. As a mother of two kids enrolled in the Houston Independent School District and a former organizer with the Houston Federation of Teachers, she’s publicly taken state-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles to task for his unpopular reforms in the district. 

“If you talked to me a year ago and told me I’d be running for office, I would have absolutely laughed at you, because I love my work,” Simmons said. “But the biggest reason I ran is because our community deserves a better representative than what we currently have.” 

During the last legislative session, Thierry angered her Democratic colleagues and advocates when she aligned with Republicans to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth. Even though the bill had enough votes to pass without any votes from Democrats, Thierry decided to publicly defend her vote with a 12-minute speech on the House floor and later an interview on Fox News. The move drew praise from Republicans and censure from Democrats. In response, Thierry later tweeted, “I voted my district,” claiming Black voters were more conservative on the issue. 

Simmons told the Observer: “I’m really uncomfortable with Black folks being used as an excuse in that way. We’re not a monolith. Black trans people do exist. And as a good Democrat, there is always an opportunity to educate your community, your constituents, and explain why this is not the right way.”

The fallout from Thierry’s vote to ban gender-affirming care was followed by public condemnation from her staffers who accused her of creating an abusive work environment. In one incident, Thierry reportedly threw a flowerpot across the room at a staffer after she failed to immediately inform her when the flowers arrived. Thierry dismissed the criticism saying her staffers are gay and were retaliating  against her for her vote banning transgender care. Thierry provided a similar comment when Simmons noted to the Houston Chronicle editorial board that she, Simmons, had earned the support of some of Thierry’s colleagues. Thierry retorted, “The gay ones.” Thierry did not immediately respond to the Observer’s request for comment. 

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Simmons told the Observer that Thierry abandoned voters in her district when she chose to focus on culture war issues, instead of the problems constituents faced, citing the rise in gun violence, the lack of good jobs and grocery stores—particularly in Sunnyside, the poorest neighborhood in Houston. 

“The organizer in me is going to make sure we touch folks who have been disconnected for so long from this process. The momentum and excitement is on our side,” Simmons said. 

Like Thierry, longtime Houston state Representative Harold Dutton, also a Democrat, had to turn to Republican big donors after he alienated his Democratic colleagues, voting to ban gender-affirming care, to ban books in school libraries, and to expand charter schools. During this election cycle, he received $58,000 from Charter Schools Now, $79,000 from the Texas Sands PAC, and $10,000 from the Family Empowerment Coalition. 

State Representative Harold Dutton on the House floor in 2017 (Ignacio Martinez)

Dutton drew the ire of parents, teachers, and advocates in Houston’s school district after he tripled down on his support for the unpopular state takeover of the district. In 2015, Dutton authored the bill that allowed the state to take over. In 2019 he empowered the state education commissioner with “final and unappealable power” to take over districts, clearing the way for the Texas Supreme Court to lift an injunction on the takeover. And even after the state seized control, Dutton bragged that it was him, and not Abbott, who made it happen. 

But the support of Houston’s public education community for Dutton’s opponent, Danny Norris, was not enough Tuesday night to dislodge the incumbent of 40 years. With around 60 percent of the vote, Dutton avoided a runoff against three challengers; Norris garnered less than 20 percent. Dutton had outraised Norris 10-to-1. Dutton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Norris told the Observer he intends to run again. “Win, lose, or draw, I am not going anywhere. I’m dedicated to making a difference in the district.”