Wendell Champion and Sheila Jackson Lee are both Houstonians who want to represent their city in Washington for the next two years. And both have roots in the northeast part of the United States, having lived in Queens, New York as youngsters.
Both are African-American, too, and they pride themselves on being able to relate to people of all colors and cultures, regardless of their economic status and religious beliefs and even their political persuasions.
But there also are significant differences between Champion and Jackson Lee, who are vying for the District 18 seat in the U.S. House of Representatives along with Libertarian Luke Spencer and independent Vince Duncan. Champion is a Republican and the latest in a line of challengers to Jackson Lee, a Democrat in a decidedly blue district and a Congresswoman with more than a quarter-century of incumbency.
“Look, anyone that will suggest that you go against an incumbent and not have an uphill battle is not being truthful,” Champion said. “But what we’ve done since February, we’ve continued to gain momentum.”
Champion, 56, a former U.S. Army captain who has worked as an attorney and in law enforcement, said he has made inroads with voters all across District 18, which includes Downtown Houston, the Heights, Garden Oaks and Oak Forest areas as well as the north, northeast and south parts of the city. But can he win a general election against Jackson Lee, 70, who is seeking her 14th term and has never received less than 70 percent of the vote?
Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University, said that possibility is “not even in the stars.” He said Champion’s best bet would have been “extremely low turnout among African-American voters,” who tend to vote Democrat, and instead the Houston area has seen record-breaking turnout during the extended early voting period that began Oct. 13 and ended Friday.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3, and Stein said only 25-30 percent of Harris County voters could cast ballots that day. More than 1.2 million people had voted through Tuesday, according to the Harris County Clerk’s Office.
“I don’t expect Sheila is going to win with 90 percent of the vote, but I do not think that (seat) changes, not with the turnout we’re seeing,” Stein said.
Champion is questioning the validity of a significant chunk of early votes that already have been cast. He, along with three other Republicans, are petitioning to have drive-through voting stopped in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in the Texas Supreme Court, claiming the new and popular practice violates the Texas Election Code as well as the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit requests that the more than 100,000 votes that have been cast at drive-through polling places not be counted until the state’s highest court rules on their legality.
“Unless stopped, illegal votes will be cast and counted in direct violation of the Texas Election Code and the United States Constitution and result in the integrity of elections in Harris County being compromised,” the lawsuit states.
Jackson Lee said she does not take votes or political opponents for granted. She said she has been actively campaigning along with being visible in the Houston community, attending events and rallies and addressing the public about topics such as COVID-19, social injustice and the threat of hurricanes.
Since first being elected in 1994, Jackson Lee said she has helped secure “billions of dollars” in funding for her congressional district, for services related to public transportation, affordable housing, healthcare, education and community safety. Most recently, she said she has helped set up 39 COVID-19 testing centers across the Houston area.
“I think experience counts, and I hope my constituents feel the same way,” Jackson Lee said. “… I’m hoping my constituents will feel I’m worthy as a servant leader to be re-elected.”
Champion said he’s heard from many voters in District 18 who want new leadership, particularly in the more impoverished parts of the district such as Acres Homes, Independence Heights and the Third Ward. He said access to affordable healthcare, quality education and good-paying jobs in communities such as those has not improved during Jackson Lee’s tenure in Washington.
Champion also said Jackson Lee’s response to the COVID-19, in terms of providing testing, masks, gloves and food resources to the community, has not been enough. He said lower-income neighborhoods of color have been more severely impacted by the pandemic because of a “lack of progress” beforehand.
“Can Wendell Champion provide a better path to the success of our families than what we’ve seen in the past? The answer to that question would be yes,” he said. “What we’ve gotten in 25 years, our children aren’t better educated, women don’t have better jobs and men don’t have better jobs.”
Jackson Lee said there is no “magic wand” to solve longstanding problems such as disparities facing Black citizens, which she said is an issue all across the country. She also said new problems regularly arise within her constituency, and she described herself as a “constant learner” who has been able to adapt to communities’ needs and provide services accordingly.
“When my community is in need, I find creative solutions,” she said.
Champion said he can offer better solutions for residents of District 18, such as scholarship opportunities for students and job training for the local workforce. And while he realizes that unseating Jackson Lee will be difficult, he said anything is possible during what has been an atypical year and election cycle.
The country is facing a public health crisis that also has brought about an economic crisis, and Americans seem more politically divided than ever. The same conditions apply locally, and local voters will decide who represents them in Washington.
“There’s so many different moving parts that when someone says, ‘Is it possible for a grassroots individual without that 25-year incumbency and that name brand to overtake the Queen,’ the answer is yes,” Champion said. “Because there is simply so many variables that are different from any other election that we have ever experienced.”