Progressive Voting Guide for the 2023 Houston City Council Elections
One Lefty's View on this Year's Election in America's 4th Largest City
The 2023 Houston City Council elections take place next month. Over the last year, candidates have chosen their race, built their platforms, shaken hands, and kissed babies all over America’s 4th largest city.
Actually, they probably haven’t kissed many babies given the era of COVID (and as a guy who finally got bit by the latest variant after dodging the pandemic for more than three full years, I encourage you to mask up and keep your babies clear of any candidates that come your way).
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But the rest of the story is true, and campaign season is in the home stretch. In a few short months, we will vote.
For progressive Houstonians who believe in a brighter future for our city, here’s a voting guide to follow. I have endorsed in the races in which I can vote; the rest, I skipped. I will include endnotes with considerations for all voters and anyone who is interested in continuing to stay involved in city politics; there’s never been a more important time to be a civically engaged Houstonian.
Prop A: Houston City Council Agenda Power - VOTE YES
Houston has a strong mayor system, which means the chief executive (the mayor) can control the agenda. And because the mayor controls the agenda, airing any grievances as a councilmember can be difficult.
I don’t offer that as an excuse for any council member to sit on their hands; any of them could use the power of the microphone to push their agenda forward, as Michael Kubosh, Greg Travis, and Letitia Plummer have done in the past (for vastly different types of policies). Yet maybe if the system made it easier for people who were not simply squeaky wheels to gain traction on their agenda, we would see more debate and a heavier check on the mayor.
Prop A makes it so that three council members can add any item to the agenda. Three members is less than most other cities allow, and we are certain to see some weird stuff if it passes. Expect City Council’s right flank to try to abolish the city’s health department or mandate a reading of the Lord’s prayer before council meetings. I’m not in love with that idea, but if past mayors and mayoral hopefuls were willing to broach this idea with a higher count, then maybe the charter amendment proposal would be more than three members.
I favor doing something good rather than demanding something perfect. If Prop A passes, it opens the door for council members like Plummer to make more noise about workers rights and housing issues in the city.
Given the possibility of a very rightwing mayoral administration with promises out to conservative groups all over Houston, I say vote yes.
Prop B: Fair for Houston - VOTE YES
The Fair for Houston initiative is perhaps the most important issue on this November’s local ballot. In a nutshell, Fair for Houston amends the city charter to give the City of Houston more voting power on the Houston Galveston Area Council (or HGAC).
What in the name of Mickey Leland is HGAC, you ask? It’s a voluntary group of cities and counties that work on inter-entity matters like highways and flooding infrastructure. HGAC was instrumental in shepherding through the I-45 expansion, a project that will negatively impact thousands of people in historically Black and Latino lower income neighborhoods.
Houston and Harris County contribute the highest amount of dollars and have the largest populations of any other city or county in HGAC. However, their voting power is approximately five times less than it should be on the board of directors, and approximately three times less than it should be on the transportation council.
In other words, we’re getting fleeced.
Fair for Houston changes the proportion of votes Houston and Harris county receive. There is no good reason for anyone in our city or county to oppose this initiative. Some wealthy candidates and companies will because their friends (ie, developers) are able to leverage this system for personal gain, but even John Whitmire, initially opposed to Prop B, has changed his tune and moved in favor of the measure.
I guess overwhelming majority support will do that to a politician.
District J - Ivan Sanchez
I live in J.
The District J race has two candidates: Sanchez, and the incumbent Edward Pollard.
Pollard stopped voting in Democratic primaries in 2020. For some reason, the year that Trump ran for reelection was the year that Pollard decided he could no longer register as a Democrat. Recently, he has been introducing himself to Republican clubs as an “independent conservative.”
I disagree with Sanchez on some issues, but he is intent to serve the district, and is willing to listen on the issues. He is also a lifelong Democrat in a clear up and down D vs. R election, and the clear, recommended pick of the screening committee and body of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. As a precinct chair in the district, I hosted a block walk for him.
This race is an easy pick. Vote for Ivan.
At-Large 1 - Leah Wolfthal
Wolfthal has an impressive record of community work as the former executive director of the Center for Urban Transformation. She’s also backed by several smaller unions. Given the massive housing and income inequality issues we face in Houston, her expertise would be beneficial on council and contribute positively to our ongoing policy dialogue.
The only major difference of opinion I have with Wolfthal is that I believe her concern about division at City Hall runs contrary to what we see in the city. She believes that Houston City Council need to “come together,” but honestly, I think City Hall is overly agreeable. Council members have been so united on issues that very little is debated. Our police policies are all rubber stamped. We have essentially one contrarian on housing issues. Our outgoing Democratic Mayor made a Republican the Mayor pro tem and is now endorsing that same person for City Controller. Everyone goes along to get along. Houston City Council is arguably the least contentious body in the state.
At Large 1 also features Melanie Miles. Miles purports to have left the Republican Party because of Trump, but voted in the Republican primary as late as 2018, nearly two years into the Trump Administration and three years after he announced his run for office. Miles ran twice as a Republican in the past. She also has taken money from Paula Harris, the disgraced former school president of HISD.
The other big money player in the race is Conchita Reyes. I like Conchita’s pro democracy message, and I think some of the Chronicle’s scrutiny of her was unfounded (which is why I won’t repeat it). We are lucky to have more than one decent candidate in a city race, especially in a city where we often have very few at all.
Still, I lean toward Wolfthal.
At-Large 2 - Obes Nwabara
Obes is the loudest pro-democracy candidate in the AL-2 race, and he has regularly shown up to put in work for candidates and causes over the last few years.
AL-2 is full of big money candidates who are running hard toward the establishment lane in the race by jockeying for big money endorsements and centrist positions. A Democrat will likely win the race, but Obes’ grassroots credentials are unimpeachable.
The only Republican in the race is Pastor Willie Davis, who was instrumental in overturning the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance through a series of anti-democratic actions. Should Davis emerge in the runoff, make sure to vote for whatever Democrat is left standing against him.
At-Large 3 - Donnell Cooper / Richard Cantu
The most functional, low profile body in all of Harris County has been the Harris County Department of Education. Once under threat of extinction by anti-ed partisans, HCDE has now become a functioning, bipartisan body that brings critical programs to local area schools, including restorative justice programs for juvenile offenders.
Richard has been part of the solution on that board. His view of policing is out of step with mine; he believes there should be more police in schools, a position I find troubling given the evidence of what that policy causes. But I think his heart is in the right place. Perhaps he can be moved on the issue.
Cooper has been amenable to the pro-democracy language of the Houston Democracy Project, which I respect.
Honorable mention goes to Ethan Michelle Ganz, a highly active advocate for underrepresented Houstonians and the first nonbinary candidate in the history of Houston municipal elections. Ethan is bringing a completely different perspective to the race and is someone to keep an eye on for future elections. I think Ethan was too late to the race, but I hope they run again.
AL-3 features a well-funded Republican, Twila Carter. Given the size of the field, I would expect a runoff, which makes voting in the December runoff absolutely critical.
At-Large 4 - Letitia Plummer
If Houston City Council has a progressive bloc, there’s a good argument that it only has one member. Councilmember Plummer is the only incumbent on my endorsement list. She has dedicated her tenure to apartment inspection reform, a worthy cause in a city where 60% of residents are renters and apartment conditions have little to no oversight.
There are issues I would push that Plummer has not, but I give her credit for sticking her neck out when she has by challenging past police budgets. Her opposition is entirely Republican.
At-Large 5 - Abstain
Sallie Alcorn will run unopposed for AL-5. Alcorn’s rhetoric follows the standard pattern of people who claim to be tough on crime, but end up pushing policies that are instead hard on people. In spite of a growing body of evidence that increased policing does not prevent crime, Alcorn continues to equate police budgets with crime prevention.
Even in the most comprehensive and thorough study to claim that police can make a positive difference in crime outcomes (performed at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service), the researchers’ perspectives on the matter undermine Alcorn's argument:
“The economists also find troubling evidence that suggests cities with the largest populations of Black people — like many of those in the South and Midwest — don't see the same policing benefits as the average cities in their study. Adding additional police officers in these cities doesn't seem to lower the homicide rate.“
For the record, “cities with the largest populations of Black people… like… those in the South” definitely includes Houston.
Alcorn’s opponent Chad Cossey has no website. He has a history of voting in the Democratic primary, but I do not know his ideology.
Controller - Chris Hollins
Hollins is best known for his time serving as Harris County Clerk, an office in which he ran the county elections in 2020. Running an election during COVID was a difficult task, but with a good plan developed with the assistance of excellent staff, Hollins did an exceptionally good job. The clerk’s office expanded voting days and hours, allowed for 24-hour voting, and experimented with drive through voting. These programs were popular with Democrats, Republicans, independents, and third party voters, but the Texas Legislature decided that they didn’t like them, so they were banned in the next legislative session.
Hollins has helped managed finances for METRO as well as the East Downtown TIRZ. I would like to see clearer issue positions on his website, and I do wonder where he will be on policing, energy, and other mainstream Houston issues… but the Comptroller doesn’t touch much of that. It is historically a stepping stone to the mayor’s office, so maybe we’ll discuss those issues down the road.
The other Democrat in the race, Shannan Nobles, has excellent experience for the position. I took a close look at her. I have some concerns about the status quo at City Hall, and would prefer a more innovative approach to governance from Hollins.
Two far right Republicans are in the race: City Council member Dave Martin, and former Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez. Martin was a typical Republican CM. Sanchez has a long history of horrible behavior. He spent his third to last day in office as treasurer holding a press conference calling for the state takeover of HISD, an anti-democratic policy perspective that had nothing to do with his elected position.
Protesters shut down his press conference. One doused him with four ounces of water, for which Sanchez sued him for $1 million in emotional damages because Orlando Sanchez is a giant, arrogant, bullying crybaby tyrant who believes he should be the king of Houston.
He’s lucky we are a welcoming city; otherwise, he would be exiled for poor character.
Mayor - Sheila Jackson Lee
A lot of folks will say that we need someone who has not been in office as Mayor of Houston. I generally agree. However, we vote for the people who we can vote for, and Sheila Jackson Lee is the best vote you can cast in this election.
Lee Kaplan is running on “basic” city issues, he says, such as crime and streamlining the permitting process. That’s nice and all, but Houston has a massive income inequality problem, not to mention the looming threat of colonization from the State of Texas, and Kaplan really doesn’t speak to any of those basic issues.
Robin Williams, to her credit, includes several specific proposals on her site, but her policy positions are fairly mainstream for a mayoral candidate. It’s hard to see how she changes the status quo, or mounts a strong campaign against some of the other heavyweights in the race.
I don’t care much about the money race, but Naoufal Houjami has raised less than $1,000. His policy positions range from surprisingly good (building housing that can be purchased for less than 100K) to bizarre (build a nuclear reactor in the city).
To put it lightly, I differ strongly from Robert Gallegos on how best to deal with moneyed interests and polluters like Valero.
Gilbert Garcia is a wealthy donor who has given himself millions of dollars. Dollars aren’t votes. I am not sure what Garcia believes. His site reads like that of a mainstream mayoral candidate. I commend him for some of his past donation choices, and raise my eyes for others, but those decisions don’t have a ton to do with his run for mayor (or at least not more than his policy positions do).
Julian Martinez is a Republican who uses standard technocratic talking points about “fixing the city.” Yet when you dig into his policy positions, it’s difficult to know what he stands for.
Gaylon Caldwell and Theudis Daniel don’t have mayoral websites. Chanel Mbala’s website tells his story, which is a good life story, but his issue section is unclear.
MJ Khan, a former city councilmember, is touting himself as the only “true conservative” in the race. Former council member Jack Christie has entered the race and will make a similar pitch. Hard pass on both of them.
That leaves the two people who are likely to end up in the mayoral runoff, Sheila Jackson Lee and John Whitmire.
I have a list of grievances about John Whitmire so long they could take up their own article, but I’ll try to be succinct:
He has taken massive funding in the past from private prisons.
He recently claimed to be endorsed by the Houston Federation of Teachers, who immediately issued a statement requesting that he delete the tweet in which he made that claim. They endorsed Sheila Jackson Lee.
He wants to bring DPS troopers into Houston. When Austin brought DPS to town, they harassed the Black and Latino populations, and pulled a gun on a 10-year-old kid. Whitmire claims it will be different here because of our police chief Troy Finner, but Troy Finner can’t tail hundreds of DPS troopers, and they don’t (and won’t) answer to him. They work for Greg Abbott, and they have a horrible culture.
Perhaps worst of all, he is catering to Houston’s most rightwing elements to win the election.
Tilman Fertitta, who laid off thousands of workers as soon as the pandemic hit and framed it as a “favor to them,” is his finance chair. At Whitmire’s launch, Fertitta took a shot at Sylvester Turner.
Mattress Mack, who has been spreading nonsensical race baiting narratives about public safety and undermining democracy on behalf of Alex Mealer, is a big Whitmire supporter.
Real estate developer Richard Weekley, who has peddled an ongoing false narrative about elections much like Mack has, was also a prominent guest at Whitmire’s launch.
These are just a few of the Republicans backing Whitmire, and Republican voters know it: the Houston Chronicle called him “the de facto choice of Republican voters and donors.”
Whitmire will let the wrong people into City Hall, compromise on the wrong things, and allow extremists to punch down on people who are just trying to get by.
Sheila Jackson Lee is not a perfect politician. She’s polarizing, and she won’t be the kind of mayor that Brandon Johnson strives to be in Chicago. Lee, like Whitmire, comes from a more traditional era of Texas politics.
Yet I know who Sheila Jackson Lee is, and I know that when Greg Abbott comes gunning for our rights, she’s going to fight him. Whitmire’s career suggests he will roll over, placate him, and turn on anyone who stands in his way, all on behalf of his wealthy buddies and donors.
Lee is an easy choice.
If you’re looking for a complete list of candidates for all seats, the most comprehensive one I have found is that of Erik Manning. Thank you Erik for your work each cycle updating your spreadsheet to include information about all candidates who run for office in the Houston area.
Municipal candidates as a group, including incumbents, have done a terrible job unpacking their policy positions on their websites. The only way to know what they stand for is to ask them and have a deep conversation about it. Even then, you will sometimes find them dodging your questions. The fact is that Houstonians are, by and large, far too busy to personally reach out to every candidate and have a sit down to learn what they stand for, and platitudes like “fix streets” and “keep Houston safe” are not a policy platform.
This is a problem for candidates at all levels of government, but particularly for City Hall, which goes largely overlooked and is little understood due to its technocratic nature.
The State of Texas has systematically undercut our elections and would gladly use the city elections as an excuse to run elections in the future. Godspeed to Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth in running a smooth election, and to the voter protection advocates who will likely have to step in at some point when Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick cook up an excuse to rob us of our democratic decision making.
Democracy is a major issue this cycle. Salute to the Houston Democracy Project, an effort to make city council candidates speak to the importance of protecting democracy in the face of rightwing attacks on our right to self determination from state and federal Republican officials. If Republicans work to overturn our elections—and all signs point to them doing so—the Houston Police Department and other local law enforcement bodies will face the choice of either enforcing the law against us with violence and brutality or looking the other way as we commit civil disobedience.
Will HPD stand with Houstonians, or enforce the law with brutality?
Democracy is a local issue, this cycle and forever.
I am horribly disappointed at City Hall’s failure to reign in police brutality and protect civil rights. In addition to recent support of the failed Shotspotter program, council members rarely speak out against the widespread abuse of the public at the hands of the Houston Police Department.
Under the police union contract, officers are granted exceptional protection from judgments related to police behavior. More than 100 people have been wounded or killed by the Houston Police Department since 2015, and every single shooting was considered “justified.” Simple view of the tape demonstrates several occasions in which that determination is absolutely absurd. Some council members have spoken out often against gun violence, but apparently their opposition to gun violence is selective.
In 2020, Houstonians were attacked by HPD with teargas and rubber bullets during the George Floyd protests. No one spoke up for us. The head of the public safety committee is a self-described “civil rights attorney,” but has been nowhere to be found.
A narrative about spikes in crime (which are now subsiding, by the way) have likely tabled policing and criminal injustice issues to the detriment of us all, but that’s not an excuse to remain silent. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: if we all go mum when something is unpopular, we kill movement on that issue forever.
Hats off to Houston’s RISE Coalition for reimagining these issues and keeping the alternative conversation alive. I also encourage Houstonians to follow their progress, and to speak up about these issues independently.
It may not make progress today, but it keeps the debate vibrant, and protects you from losing your soul, too.
Daniel J. Cohen is an advocate in Houston. As one of the most active pro-democracy Houstonians since November of 2016 and the founder of Indivisible Houston, he has grown a volunteer army of more than 2,000 democracy advocates across the Houston area; led successful grassroots communications efforts to flip federal, state, and county seats (TX-07, HD-134, County Judge); secured earned media through traditional and social media channels estimated at more than $50 million in value with an all volunteer staff and an annual budget of less than $25,000; built coalitions with organizations, independent community leaders, and media at the local, state, and national level; and organized, promoted, and led some of the largest marches in the history of Houston.
Cohen has been published or quoted by Houston Chronicle, Texas Signal, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, WAPO, and other major media.
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