The January 31, 2022 candidate forum featuring John Whitmire and Molly Cook attracted such a crowd that the organizers – South Asian American Voter Empowerment (SAAVETX) along with the West U and Bellaire Dems – had to open an overflow “room” for viewing on YouTube. Zoom was too full.
If you have time to watch the full video, or read the transcript, you should. Go to YouTube for the video. And you can download a transcript I created here.
A note on the transcript. I used an online automatic transcription tool to get it all down, but it it still a little rough. This copy I’ve linked has timestamps, so if you see something that isn’t clear and context doesn’t suggest the proper transcription, you can go to that point in the video and listen. I’m not attempting to hide anything but not fixing the whole transcript – I simply don’t have time.
Now, to the highlights. Or lowlights.
Just as in the Off the Kuff interview I wrote about, once again, the major takeaways from this forum are:
- That John Whitmire no longer has a proactive agenda or creative ideas for how to overcome gridlock in Austin, and that in the face of Dan Patrick’s autocratic style, his tenure doesn’t actually mean much other than the empty symbolism of the title Dean of the Senate.
- That Whitmire is so focused on the tactics that he fails to make connections between issues and ignores the value and importance of addressing explicitly how ongoing racist vitriol and widening economic disparities are the direct consequence of business as usual.
He is completely bogged down in the day-to-day tactics of how the right stirs up faux outrage over imagined threats to distract us from the momentum they’ve created for a sharp move toward autocracy and away from representative democracy.
He regularly says things that reveal his analysis of key issues is dated and siloed. For example, yes, the right’s Critical Race Theory tantrum is part of a strategy to undermine confidence in public schools (see transcript at approximately 10:05). But it is much bigger than that and in fact, is part of the right’s full-court press to undermine our foundational policy of free speech as written in the First Amendment, while at the same time, othering and dehumanizing Black people to attack the expansion of who counts in “We, the People” that was codified in places such as the Fourteenth Amendment.
He continues to blame other people for not doing enough to stop what’s happening in Austin. Once again, at 26:07, hs calls slams hope the point that for things to change, “the Hispanic proud population has to be more engaged.”
Once again, when asked how things can change (approx. 48:19), he falls back on stories from decades ago about one time when he said something to some other elected officials.
Whitmire: [Politics] is not a play thing. It’s not a popularity contest. We have to get young people involved. We have to get minorities involved. We have to continue to double down, fighting the Republicans and letting everyone know that elections matter. In ’98, I think it was Sheila Jackson Lee had me, Sylvester [Turner], who was a state rep, [U.S. Rep.] Gene Green, the north side elected officials. We met in ’98 and Sheila was concerned. There wasn’t a lot of energy in the African American community.
He tries to claim credit for things he’s actually taken very little leadership on. When most members of the Texas Democratic delegation fled the state to protest voter suppression bills, Whitmire notably stayed behind. In the forum (approx. 45:00), he refers to how he helped Senator Alvarado in her symbolic* filibuster against the voter suppression tactics. As Molly Cook points out (approx. 50:34), he may have supported her, but his name wasn’t on any actual legislative alternatives.
At the same time, this long-serving government official who has been signing off on regular campaign finance reports every year he’s been in office feigns ignorance over who, in fact, is giving him money. Cook points out (approx. 1:04):
Cook: I will point out that as the chair of the [Criminal Justice] committee, Senator Whitmire, between 2013 and 2016, accepted $25,000 in campaign contributions from private prisons, some which are still associated with incarcerating folks at the border. So I am fully committed to remaining transparent, to upholding ethics of campaign contributions and campaign finance so that I can actually represent the will of the people and work against for-profit prisons. I promise never to accept a dime from a for-profit prison.
Given the opportunity to respond, Senator Whitmire (approx. 1:06:41) says:
Whitmire: I haven’t, I haven’t taken [money from private prison companies] and I don’t monitor it. It, but I haven’t taken contribution from the private industry since the dates that she mentioned. I, uh, her, obviously her opposition research is <laugh> is getting her information that I haven’t kept up with. Cause it’s not relevant. We’re not taking those contributions now, nor are we taking NRA money. And when the Republican party went so far hard, right. We just said, enoughs enough. And we do not receive those contributions or ratings
Important to note that Cook was very clear in defining the date range. She wasn’t misconstruing anything.
I would submit that someone who claims he doesn’t monitor his campaign donations but does say that he knows he’s not taking those contributions is perhaps trying to have it both ways. The moderator clarifies that as far as he knows, at least, he’s not taking such contributions. This doesn’t change the fact that during his recent tenure as Dean of the Senate, and thus the highest-ranking Democratic official in the state, he saw no conflict in taking those donations.
He’s continuing to promote public-private partnerships that abdicate government responsibility while ignoring long-term, systemic issues. He makes a very cavalier observation (approx. 51:57), after talking about having Buc-ee’s, the privately-owned chain of gas station/convenience stores located primarily in rural areas along interstates agreeing in theory to add electric vehicle charging to their sites, that if we had some electric Ford trucks, the next time we have a big freeze, people could stay warm plugging their houses into their trucks for a few hours of power.
WHAT? People literally died in that freeze. Strong-arming a utility company to install a few electric car charging stations at the GOP-donor-owned Buc-ee’s stores in places like Cypress, Baytown, and Pearland won’t do a damn bit of good to anyone living inside Beltway 8 in Houston who has to rely on an hours-long bus commute just to get to a job that pays an hourly-but-not-living wage.
In her response to Whitmire’s ‘let’s let private industry take care of this’ response, Cook shows why she has impressed so many people. Her answer demonstrates a deep understanding for the complexities and interconnectedness of policy issues:
Cook at 52:51: While I am supportive of switching from fossil fuels to electric vehicles, we cannot act like EVs are the answer to our transportation problems or to our climate change problems. EVs are still single occupancy vehicles. They still will not reduce traffic and they will not necessarily make us any safer. You still have a person behind the wheel. Um, it’s really, really important to emphasize the class disparities and access to environmental and to electric vehicles as well. We have to talk about public transit. So while I am supportive of making it easier for folks to drive EVs around adding charging stations, lowering taxes on EVs and, um, providing incentives for those things, I really don’t like to talk about them without talking about public transit and first mile last mile, because that will have a real impact on climate change, a real impact on reducing emissions and also allow us to stop extracting the things that we need to create these batteries that come from other countries. So, uh, I just wanna point out that we really have to shift the paradigm around single occupancy vehicles to make and shape the kind of change we want to see in Texas in a way that’s sensitive to those who cannot afford to drive a car.
I encourage you to read the transcript, or better yet, listen to the recording of the forum, so you can capture the tone and nuance.
Given the number of text messages I got during the forum, I was not the only one who noticed that John Whitmire is starting to sound like a petulant child annoyed that the grown-ups, particularly women, are trying to hold him accountable for what his plan is for moving ahead rather than allowing him to rest on his laurels to take a victory lap before ducking out to run another race for another office.
One notable exchange exposes the nasty edge to his attitude:
Neha Madhani (00:43:36): Senator Whitmire, you’ve had 38 years in Austin.
John Whitmire (00:43:42): Yes. Ma’am
Neha Madhani (00:43:45): Tell me how we in District 15 should have faith in you in you that you will push a Democratic agenda and, um, and be our representative, even though you may be considering running for mayor. Tell us why we should put our faith in you–
[Whitmire cuts her off before she completes her sentence]
John Whitmire (00:44:08): Because I told you, I believe public service is a calling. I am dedicated to my job. I have six- and eight-year-old grandchildren. I run government for their future. That’s the test I’ll put it to. There is no reason to have my experience if you don’t use it. We have major challenges. Next session will be worse and meaner than the last one. They have not stopped. They’re emboldened, they’ll carry forward. They did control redistricting. They’ve got the courts on their side. I–
Neha Madhani (00:44:41): I, I understand understand, and you you’ve been there for 38 years. What makes it–
John Whitmire (00:44:46): Because I have a record. You can look at my record of accomplishment.
Neha Madhani (00:44:49): …what makes this next year different? Why will it be different if we vote are voting for you? What will make it different for us?
Keep reading, or listening.
I suspect you will find his response as underwhelming as I did.
And allow me to add one ore thing I heard in his response that I found singularly insidious and ugly.
Whitmire refers to his grandchildren, and suggests that his public service is on their behalf. That’s lovely and we should all be concerned about the world we are collectively leaving behind for those who follow us.
But his mention of children follows a familiar pattern in politics when one candidate is a woman who is not married, does not have children, or has spoken publicly about a decision not to have a child at a given point in time. Politicians never seem to talk about children unless they are trying to insinuate that their opponent is somehow not the “right kind” of woman if she does not have children.
I don’t know that he did this intentionally. And I know that many of his closest political allies and even long-time personal friends are women who are unmarried and not currently parents. Even the forum’s moderator had to point out her own mistake in how she was addressing the candidates. At 18:30, she apologizes for calling Molly Cook by her first name while giving John Whitmire the honor of his title.
But that just speaks to the point. Sexism is endemic, and particularly problematic in politics. We’ve all seen the stories about how women are treated at the legislature. How women staffers are preyed upon, dismissed, and undermined by men who hold positions of power over them.
It not only rings hollow for me to hear him suddenly drag the procreative capabilities of his own offspring into his case for support, but it raises my hackles as a woman angry at the long-term, systemic discrimination women in Austin have faced and his lack of leadership in doing anything to change things.
All I hear in his tone and his inability to articulate a proactive agenda for leadership is the list of reasons that Molly Cook should be the next Senator for Texas District 15.
Please vote for her, and encourage your friends to as well. If we keep sending who we’ve always sent, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting. And frankly, what that is is our asses kicked and our rights stripped away. That is unacceptable. That’s not the Texas I want, for his grandchildren or for anyone else.
*I call Sen. Alvarado’s filibuster symbolic because given the time left in the session, the GOP majorities in both houses, and the actual rules of the filibuster in the Texas Senate and the practical impossibility of any human being carrying one out for more than a day or two at the very longest, it was impossible that her effort could have stopped the bill. I do believe it was important inasumuch as it called attention to the issue, however, but it should be distinguished from times (such as the 2013 filibuster) when as a procedural tactic, it killed a bill.