Robert M. Cadena and Wendell Champion both have their sights set on unseating U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the 13-term Congresswoman who is a model of the power of incumbency.
But first they must beat each other.
Cadena and Champion are squaring off in the Republican primary runoff for the District 18 seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which the Democrat Jackson Lee has occupied since 1995. Whichever Republican wins the runoff, scheduled for Tuesday, July 14, will face Jackson Lee in November.
“The question is whether Wendell Champion is a better choice than Robert Cadena,” Champion said. “And Robert Cadena’s a nice guy. However, I am the most qualified. I say this objectively and with humility. I am the most qualified candidate for this position.”
Cadena, 44, a general contractor and the president of Harris County Municipal Utility District (MUD) No. 150, acknowledged he is the underdog against Champion, a 56-year-old U.S. Army veteran, businessman and attorney who now works for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Champion was the leading Republican candidate in the March 3 primary, receiving 35.1 percent of the vote, while Cadena ran second with 20.5 percent.
Champion also has maintained a sizable advantage in fundraising, having received nearly $109,000 in contributions, according to data compiled by the Federal Election Commission. His campaign has spent money on print, broadcast and social media advertising and had more than $42,000 remaining as of the last reporting date on June 24.
Cadena’s campaign has been entirely self-funded, according to the federal data. His campaign has raised a total of $905 and had less than $435 left to spend as of the end of June.
“Money alone does not mean you’re going to win. It’s that simple,” Cadena said. “Anyone that thinks money will get you the win, it’ll help, but it’s not going to get you the win.”
Cadena’s first foray into politics came in 2012, when he said he ran for Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner and received about 7 percent of the vote while losing to Jack Cagle. He said he was elected president of MUD No. 150, which serves more than 12,000 residents in a Northwest Harris County area that he called diverse and “heavily Democratic,” in 2016.
Cadena likened running the municipal utility district to representing District 18, which includes a large swath of north and northwest Houston as well as central, southern and eastern parts of the city. As of 2016, the population of the congressional district was nearly 800,000.
“It’s two different neighborhoods, numerous apartment complexes, over 100-plus businesses,” Cadena said of MUD No. 150. “It’s a lot of infrastructure we’ve got to deal with. We deal with taxes and assessing taxes and garbage service contracts. There’s a lot of other things we have to deal with very similar to a city.”
Champion, who grew up in New York City and upstate New York before moving to Houston in 1991, said he’s lived in District 18 throughout his time in Texas and can relate to both the affluent parts of the district – including the Greater Heights area – as well as more impoverished areas such as the Third Ward, Fifth Ward and Trinity Gardens. The tagline of his campaign is “welfare to West Point,” which represents Champion’s personal journey.
He said he was born to an unwed teen mother on welfare and ended up being appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, later serving in South Korea and leaving the Army with a rank of captain. Champion said he then worked in healthcare, in the oil and gas industry and as a business litigation attorney.
He said he wants to help underprivileged and underserved residents of District 18 receive a better education and more workforce training so they can follow a similar path and realize the American dream.
“There’s no one else in this race that has the consummate ability to bridge the gaps that exist right now,” Champion said. “The needs of the people is to have a leader that can understand many different areas of life, which I can.”
Cadena described himself as a constitutionalist who prefers long-term solutions over short-term fixes and is in line with most of the political positions taken by the Republican Party. But he said he would prioritize the wishes of his constituents over his party and not be afraid to break the party line if necessary.
Champion also said he would vote “what I believe” and in the best interests of his constituents if elected to congress as opposed to always going along with his fellow Republicans.
Before they can plan to serve in Washington D.C., though, Cadena and Champion first have to settle their runoff. Then they can turn their attention to Jackson Lee, who has not been significantly challenged since first taking office 25 years ago.
“Based on folks I’ve talked to in this district, I have folks who have been voting as Democrats all their lives,” Champion said. “They say they’re looking for a change. To make it happen in November, it’s going to take a lot of courage from a lot of people to break away a little bit for that change.”