In her almost five years as an at-large member of Houston City Council, Sheila Jackson Lee has rarely been able to keep quiet, and her legendary oratorical windiness has caused some fellow councilmembers at times to pray for blessed silence. Now, as she prepares for a January swearing-in as a freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Lee is uncharacteristically mum on a subject a host of politicos would love to hear her expound upon at length -- namely when she plans to clear out of City Hall.
The timing of Lee's getaway will determine whether a special election to fill her position is held on January 21 or May 6. If it's the earlier date, the long line of her would-be successors that's already forming will face a manic three-week campaign. The list of declared or rumored candidates lengthens daily, and includes folks like lawyers Hap May and Saundria Chase, Houston Community College board member the Reverend Gene Moore, educator Alma Allen, recently defeated State District Court Judge John Peavy, La Politiquera publisher Alfredo Santos, departing District Clerk Katherine Tyra, former state Representative Roman Martinez and many more. The most bizarre rumor would have term-limited Councilman Ben Reyes jumping from his district seat to enter the fray in a move to challenge the legality of the city's term limitation ordinance. Reyes, like Lee, isn't talking.
Earlier, district Councilmembers Joe Roach and Martha Wong considered pursuing Lee's seat, but the departure of term limited at-large Councilwoman Eleanor Tinsley next year will open another citywide post and seems to have put their ambitions on hold.
If Lee keeps quiet on the subject until she officially joins Congress, her Washington D.C. swearing-in will automatically terminate her Council tenure. In that case, the election would have to be held in May, since it would leave no time for the needed legal notice to call a January election. And her Council seat would remain empty in the meantime.
"Essentially the issue is whether we have a January election or a May election, since we're going to have to have an election in any event," says City Attorney Benjamin Hall III, "because more than 270 days will remain in her term." Texas law requires a special election to fill vacated elected positions having more than 270 days remaining. Hall says he's been discussing the situation with Lee, who hasn't made up her mind what to do.
"Her issue is she has competing interests," he explains. "She feels obligated to represent her local constituents as long as possible because she feels they voted her into office, but she also wants to permit an election to fill her seat at the earliest possible date."
Hall says Lee could craft her resignation notice to the mayor "futuristically," which would allow her an eight-day leeway before leaving. To have the January election, Hall says, Lee must give notice by December 22.
Lee's concern for serving her constituents to the last minute is weirdly ironic in light of the fact she filed to run for Congress the same day she was sworn-in to her current Council term nearly 11 months ago.
"Let me not comment on that," chuckles Hall. "That's not a legal issue."
But political consultant Allen Blakemore, who favors a quick election, is more than willing to address the irony.
"You always wonder about officeholders who run for office while knowing they would have to resign their current office to fulfill the other one," he says. "They're so arrogant they think they can be elected to some higher office, despite the fact they're going to cost taxpayers money [with a special election]."
Blakemore says Lee will reinforce that impression if she doesn't give notice soon. "The point is, is she going to screw the people of the city of Houston by her own inaction, insuring we have a vacancy on Council for five-plus months? Or is she going to do the responsible thing and just tell the mayor?"
As long as Lee remains in the seat, there is no vacancy on Council and, technically, prospective candidates cannot raise campaign money. That hasn't stopped early birds like Gene Moore and Alma Allen from publicly campaigning.
Blakemore, who represents Hap May, offers a blunt prediction about the outcome of the special election, which, if the past is any indication, will be a low-turnout affair dominated by older, conservative voters.
"While I cannot guarantee you who will be elected," the consultant says, "I can guarantee you that person will be white and westside. That's just because of turnout dynamics. Nothing can change the reality of turnout. For all of the 'this is a black seat,' 'this is a Hispanic seat,' that's just the way it is."
Lee's seat has been held by an African-American since Anthony Hall beat Nikki Van Hightower in 1983, and other sharp political observers figure a black "consensus" candidate is likely to succeed Lee. Political consultant Marc Campos is one of them. He thinks downtown business powers will line up behind an acceptable minority contender.
"When all is said and done, if the black leadership decides on one person, I think that person is going to be looked on favorably by the downtown folks," Campos says. "They like the way it's going. They want a black they can work with."
As Campos notes, a lawsuit seeking to eliminate the at-large method of electing councilmembers is still simmering in federal court, providing another incentive for backing a minority candidate. Frumencio Reyes, one of the lawyers handling the suit, agrees.
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"If a non-minority candidate wins, that would buttress our argument that it's difficult for minorities to win at-large," Reyes says.
In the meantime, if the election is set for January, prospective candidates may want to heed the hardball advice of political scientist Richard Murray, who's discussed the race with Peavy: "I'd say, in his position, hustle around and try to get an impressive 'who's who' of the downtown establishment list together and try to cut off money to that imagined westside white conservative."
In other words, spend your time poisoning the opponent's well?
"Sure," agrees Murray. "A week of TV costs 50 grand, and not many people are willing to put up that kind of money on their own, so you try to cut off [the money flow] from the usual suspects. You tell 'em, 'I'm running, I'm gonna win and don't give to the other guys 'cause I'll remember if you do.'"
And if they all start laughing, maybe you better reconsider.