U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has never come close to losing a congressional race, let alone a Democratic primary. For the most part, those in her own political party have not even bothered to challenge her.
This year, though, the fiery Houston congresswoman appears to be in for a fight.
Jackson Lee, who has had to compete in primary elections only twice since being elected as District 18’s representative in 1994, faces six opponents in a Democratic primary scheduled for March 3. The 11-day early voting period begins Feb. 18.
“We’ve been to literally every corner of the district, and the No. 1 thing we’re hearing is people want change,” challenger Marc Flores said. “They’re ready for a new, younger vision and approach to the most important issues in our country.”
The other District 18 candidates running in the Democratic primary are Michael Allen, Donovan Boson, Jerry Ford Sr., Stevens Orozco and Dr. Bimal Patel. Candidates in the Republican primary are Robert Cadena, Wendell Champion, Nellie Heiskell, T.C. Manning, Nathan Milliron and Ava Pate, the latter of whom lost to Jackson Lee in the 2018 general election.
Before this year, Jackson Lee’s only primary opponents were Richard Johnson in 2018 and Jarvis Johnson and Sean Roberts in 2010. She beat those challengers handily and has dominated her opponents in all 13 of her general elections, receiving at least 70 percent of the vote each time.
So the district, which includes most of the area as well as Houston’s urban core, is decidedly Democratic. But Ford said support is waning for Jackson Lee, because many of her constituents continue to face “disparity and disproportionality” in social indicators such as education, health and income.
Flores said the district, despite including affluent areas such as the Heights, is the fifth-poorest out of 36 congressional districts in Texas.
“I want people to know that Sheila Jackson Lee has been their representative for nearly 30 years,” Ford said. “I’m pretty sure she’s done her best, but nothing has changed.”
Jackson Lee defended her record of service, saying she has been “right on point” in providing solutions to problems in all parts of a district that is diverse and expansive. She said she has brought more than $60 billion in government funds into the district and facilitated improvements in education, healthcare and housing.
Jackson Lee, 70, also said she still has fresh ideas. So she welcomes the competition this election cycle, saying the country needs more people who are civically engaged.
“I’m excited about it,” she said. “People are energized about the process of government, and that’s a good thing.”
The latest campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission suggest Jackson Lee is favored in the primary. She had raised nearly $283,000 as of Sept. 30 – with donations from political action committees tied to companies such as Amazon, General Motors, Google, Juul and Walmart – and had nearly $276,000 cash on hand.
Flores, a Shepherd Park Plaza resident who decided to run after managing a local campaign headquarters for Beto O’Rourke during his 2018 bid for the U.S. Senate, was second in fundraising as of Sept. 30. Flores had raised nearly $53,000 and said this week that his donation total has since ballooned to about $90,000.
Ford, 60, who retired from the Houston Fire Department as an assistant chief and has since become an insurance broker in North Houston, donated $50,000 to his own campaign and said he will not take donations from corporations or political action committees. He said he wants to stray from the typical Democratic “playbook” of selling social services to constituents, instead training them for vocations and enabling them to become entrepreneurs.
Reaching voters on Facebook has been a focal point of Ford’s campaign.
“We’ve done fundraisers. But keep in mind, this district is poor,” Ford said. “I will burn my own money to try to bring about some changes.”
Patel, an optometrist, had raised nearly $43,000 through Sept. 30 and had more than $23,000 remaining to spend.
Flores and Ford said money, and incumbency, don’t necessarily equate to political victory. Both pointed to the emergence of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young New Yorker who in 2018 won a Democratic primary against 10-year incumbent Joe Crowley, the Democratic Caucus Chair at the time.
In order to score a similar win against Jackson Lee, or at least force her into a runoff, Flores said her challengers need to focus less on her and more on themselves.
“Being in congress 25 years representing a district, by and large the voters know or have an idea of their representative. And they should,” Flores said. “So we don’t necessarily need to be out there talking about their 25-year incumbent. We just need to be out there showing who we are and why we’re running.”
Jackson Lee, despite her lengthy tenure in the district, is doing plenty of campaigning herself. She said her campaign is focused on community outreach leading up to the primary, which includes meet-and-greets with constituents and block walks.
“I’m ready, raring to go, non-stop, energized and taking it all the way to the finish line,” she said.