Indefatigable blogger Charles Kuffner interviewed Senator John Whitmire earlier in January. More recently, Whitemire squared up against challenger Molly Cook in a forum hosted by SAAVETX West U/Bellaire Senate District 15.
Reviewing transcripts of both events, I realized that Senator Whitmire himself makes a pretty strong case for why Democrats in Senate District 15 should vote for ER nurse, policy wonk, and community organizer Molly Cook.
First, a note about the sources for the quotes I’ll highlight below.
The first is Off the Kuff, Texas’ longest-running progressive political blog, is authored by Charles Kuffner. His commitment to interviewing dozens upon dozens of Democratic candidates before primaries and elections is an incredibly valuable public service he provides for free. While he has clearly staked out the left end of the spectrum in terms of who he interviews, he pulls no punches and does not shy away from tough questions.
The forum between Whitemire and Cook was co-sponsored by the West U and Bellaire Democratic clubs and SAAVETX. SAAVE is South Asian American Voter Empowerment, a statewide advocacy organization formed to increase the political influence of Texas’ progressive South Asian-American community through education, engagement, and empowerment.
The forum was moderated by Neha Madhani, a Pharmacy Clinical Practice Specialist with UTMB Corrrectional Managed Care, working with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, represented SAAVE as the moderator. Her 16 years’ experience with the policy and reality of care that incarcerated people in Texas receive made her the ideal moderator for these two candidates: Senator Whitmire, who has chaired the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee and has deep insight into what has shaped our state’s policies; Molly Cook, with a MSN/MPH from Johns Hopkins giving her both the policy chops and on-the-ground experience as an ER nurse, most recently in the Covid-19 era when systems are on the brink of collapse.
Note – both the interview and forum were recorded live and no transcripts were provided. I used an online service to produce my own transcripts. In the quotations below, I have tried to note approximate times and reproduce exactly what was said, leaving in ums and uhs. Whenever possible, I try to use the entire sentences and paragraphs, but the interview rambled. So, it may read a bit awkwardly, but if you read while listening along, you should be able to follow it very closely.
And now, John Whitmire, in his own words from his interview with Charles Kuffner. I will walk through the candidate forum in Part II of this blog post.
Question, from Kuffner: Did anything good come out of the last legislative sessions? And if so, tell me about it.
Whitmire at roughly 0:30 of the interview: [N]othing good came outta the session, except maybe a reality check that we’ve got a lot of work to do, uh, probably as bad a session as I’ve been a part of in the last 30, 38 years in the Senate. Uh, the partisanship is at an all time high. Uh, Patrick totally controls with his gavel. Uh, Senator Democrats are outnumbered 13. They change the rules on us again, so I can spend the afternoon telling you that, uh, it’s bad. It’s really bad, but it should motivate us to organize, organize, organize, register people, to vote, turn out and put a face on the election.
My commentary: Whitmire reviews some of the frustrations he felt with the most recent session, most of which were general comments about what didn’t go well, not specific to his own actions or committees, until this part of his answer. His comment about getting the committee refers to the fact that the Lt. Governor appointed him chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Whitmire at 4:49: It, it was a frustrating session to me on criminal justice. I got the committee, but he [Lt. Gov.] pretty much diverted a lot of the hot issues or, or critical issues to [Republican Senator Joan] Huffman who got a new criminal justice, uh, the hell did she call her committee criminal justice, manage criminal justice. Hers is, uh, criminal justice.
Kuffner interjects: Ok, whatever it was called,, what was she working on?
Whitmire resumes: uh her version of criminal justice. Uh, yeah, she, she ran a hard, very tight conservative criminal justice committee. Uh, unlike mine.
My commentary: Whitmire went on for between 7 and 8 minutes and the only specific bills he mentioned were neither those he authored nor those that passed through his committee. He seemed intent upon driving home the point that Republican Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer, worked at every turn to prevent Whitmire and other Democrats from advancing any legislation.
Whitmire often points out how much his seniority matters, and is proud of his leadership on of the Criminal Justice committee. But he also explains how the Lt. Gov. essentially undermined his authority by diverting many bills to a committee chaired by Republican Joan Huffman, and overall, by changing the senate rules, created a GOP supermajority that rendered any Democrat’s seniority or past power moot.
Kuffner’s next question, at about the 9-minute mark, turned into more of an introduction to the topic of disaster response with an invitation for Whitmire to respond, which he did. His response details how the Senate operated under Covid, and how tensions rose even higher after the January 6th attack on the US Capitol. Then, on to the February 2021 freeze.
At approximately the 13th minute, Whitmire turns to a specific post-freeze hearing with the ERCOT chair.
Whitmire at 13:06: And then you had the freeze, which we lost a week or two, changes subject matter. And the first hearing we had on that was, uh, a special, uh, freeze ERCOT committee hearing. Hancock, the chairman of business in commerce who got replaced in the middle of the session, cuz he wouldn’t follow instructions. Uh, chair starts it out. We had ERCOT director. And the first question I asked him was about global warming. Had they factored that into their planning da da [sic] Hancock shut me down. He said Whitmire, we’re not taking up global warming issues and I wish it was our first meeting. Everybody’s still kind of feeling himself. I wish I, I would’ve struck back at him and said, well, not now when, because my phone started lighting up and his phone kept lighting up. So we, we joked about later, we, we should have developed that issue from our different standpoints.
My commentary: Once again, Whitmire tries to tell a story about the impact he had in the session, and the impact seems to be that he tried to raise the issue of global warming and how that factors into disaster planning, but that he was shut down by a Republican senator, and then later joked, presumably with that same senator, about how maybe they should have developed that argument “from our different standpoints.” I guess we’ll never know what would have happened had he chosen to keep pushing instead of texting with his Republican colleague.
Whitmire continues at 14:29 after circling back to Covid response after his failure to start a conversation on global warming: And of course I can remember when the Democrats were in charge. I can remember I could run anything on criminal justice I wanted pretty much through the Senate cause they would listen to me, but now your hands are tied.
My commentary: Well, I can remember when I fit into a size 8 black ultrasuede suit from Lord & Taylor, but that was during Ann Richards’ term as governor, and memories of those bad-ass times don’t do a damn thing in terms of what’s going on today.
Kuffner at 16:31: I mean, you’re talking about what the Senate is going to look like going forward. And I mean, you yourself are sort of, you know, one foot in and one foot out you’re, you’re, you’re running for reelection, but you’ve also announced that you’re gonna run for mayor in Houston in 2023.
Whitmire: Well, I’ll have, I will have both feet in the legislature. If I’m fortunate to go, we work daily on Senate issues, constituent services. I still get about 300 prison inmate letters a month, work with their family. So there there’s no way I could do my job. One foot in one foot out. I’m focused on being the best Senator I can be. And my seniority belongs to my district. I really truly really believe that I go there for them. It’s their seniority. And, uh, I should be judged on what I can get done. Sometime it’s through networking, uh, voter suppression, uh, early on, they were going to videotape allow videotaping of voters. And I got up there and did a passionate speech that you just can’t do that you haven’t thought this through. There are human traffic victims, there’s domestic violence victims. They don’t even want anybody to know where they live and you’re gonna videotape where they’re coming to vote. So they struck that down. So experience matters. Uh, there’ll be a time to run for mayor and I’ll plan to do that with the same passion that I, that I run and work in the Senate.
Kuffner: I mean, after this last year, any concern that there might be a whole bunch of special sessions getting in the way of, of running for mayor. I mean, you, you have no control over–
Whitmire: That, obviously. Yeah. But I just won’t let it get in the way, uh, you know, Sylvester [Turner] did had the same model that I have, uh, be a good, and he was very involved that session. I’ll be very involved. That’ll be my top priority. Uh, I’m a public servant. I go where the public needs me and I really, really mean that they’ll need me next session. I’ll be chairing a committee. I’ll be on finance, which is long hours. And then the mayor’s race will begin after the session in, in all earnest.
My commentary: Since Kuffner’s interview, Democrat Chris Hollins has officially launched his campaign. Whitmire doesn’t get to tell people to put everything on hold to wait for him to finish up in Austin.
The mayor’s race isn’t waiting until the end of May 2023 to get started. It has begun.
Whitmire again points out that his seniority and chairmanship will matter, but he has repeatedly up until this point in the interview talked about how the Lt. Governor is going to play an even more brutal level of partisan hardball, how he’ll have recruited even more conservative and doctrinaire senators to fill some of the seats longer-serving Republicans who at least remember the old days of moderate bipartisanship. Nothing Whitmire has said in the interview could lead any reasonable person to conclude that the 2023 session will be magically better for Democrats than 2021.
Later in the interview, Whitmire has some advice a group he refers to as “the GLBT,” by which he means the Houston GLBTQ+ Political Caucus:
Whitmire at 25:26: We’ve gotta get the democratic base fired up. We’ve got to, you know, I was talking to GLBT the other day, they were screening me. I said, you know, we were talking about how we can do a better job of organizing. They need to get a, a sustaining member effort going. I mean, there ought to be a lot of straight folks that are members of the GLBT caucus because equality affects all of us, you know? So, uh, we just gotta organize.
My commentary: I can’t speak on behalf of the GLBTQ+ Caucus – which endorsed him, by the way – and I know that anecdote isn’t the singular of data, and I don’t want to make this about me, but as a straight, white, cisgender woman who has been a sustaining member of the Caucus for a while now, I can confirm that there has, in fact, been a sustaining member program going for quite some time.
Whitmire goes on to point out some other people he feels are letting down the side when it comes to organizing Democrats:
Whitmire at 30:56: We keep waiting for the proud Hispanic population, young, to get registered and vote. Of course, now they’re beginning to vote in the valley and they’re voting the wrong way. So young people have to get involved. Everybody should become a regular voter. You shouldn’t have anybody skipping election, whether it’s young folks or working folks, labor, we talked about at lunch day. They’re just not quite the powerhouse.
My commentary: Also dropping the ball per Whitmire – “Hispanics,” especially those in the Valley, and Labor. Ahem. Ok, then. Well.
My favorite comment has to be when he points out a time when he, himself, was engaged in some rallying of the troops:
Whitmire, at 31:43: It’s been my experience. No one, no community gets fired up like when they’re trying to put a landfill or a batch plant in the neighborhood, in those instances, everybody comes out to the protest rally. So we gotta make these elections like somebody’s trying to put a landfill or a plant in her back door cause people will get fired up, but you can’t get fired up about that and you can go back and say, well, the election and
I can remember 98, Sheila, me and Gene Green, Sylvester, David Pateranella, all the north side folks in the fall of ’98, met at, uh, AAA [Diner] on Airline and Sheila had asked for it, cause she was concerned there wasn’t near the energy in the election. And I finally just spoke up and said, well, why would African Americans be fired up? We’re trying to lock up all their sons. We’re cutting them off every benefit that they need. So, you know, they’ve given up on elections as being the solution.
My commentary: Did you catch that? Hot off the presses! Whitmire met with some other northside Democratic elected officials in (triple-checks recording and transcript) 1998 to address concerns that Democrats weren’t turning out the base.
That was 24 years ago – almost a quarter of a century ago. The last millennium.
Well, I can attest to the fact that any meal at the Triple A was memorable, so should we give him the benefit of the doubt? I mean, those biscuits, amirite?
Kuffner followed up to give him the opportunity to talk about some more recent efforts.
Kuffner at 32:28: I’ve been asking everyone that I’ve interviewed as, you know, as a cause we’re all trying to appeal to a Democratic primary audience. What, what are you going to do to help get Democrats out in the fall and win elections? You, you got a lot of money in your, in your campaign, treasury. What, what are you gonna do to help get people out the vote, give recent
Whitmire: John Whitmire: What I’m gonna do, whatever it takes, I’m helping, uh, candidates says we talk, uh, I’ve actually thought about re-instituting back in the seafarers in the nineties, I founded, it is where we had our breakfast. In the fall, the democratic candidates duplicate a lot of their activities. You know, everybody’s got a sign crew. Everybody’s going to this church. So in, in about ’96, I started holding a breakfast, sponsored it, which I’ll do again.
My commentary: Given a chance to mention something more recent than 1998 that he and his massive campaign war chest have done to support area-wide Democratic candidates and organizing, Whitmire swings for the fence and lands in the 1990s again. 1996, to be exact. And speaking of fences, coordinating sign crews just might be a bit lower on the list of turnout priorities than things like hiring paid canvassers, but what do I know?
Anyway, um, sir? Are you ok?
Whitmire, still digging that hole at 34:14: We beat ourselves. Because we do outnumber the other side. If we register and vote and then number two, we to keep her eye on who the real enemy is. Who’s the problem. It’s not, it’s not factions of the Democratic party, but it’s coalition building, you know, black, brown, we got, we gotta let the black and brown community know we’re in this together. Labor’s gotta get fired up. The gay lesbian transgender in the community’s gotta get fired up. If we do that, what am I gonna do? Use my experience, my contacts and, uh, resources to, to pull that off. I just think it’s critical.
My commentary: Hey, Democratic base, did you get all that? If you get fired up, then Whitmire will use his experience, contacts, and resources to help.
Really, I encourage you to listen to the interview in its entirety.
Let me be clear. For a very long time, Senator Whitmire has worked hard on behalf of his district in Austin. He has stepped forward to lead on issues from time to time, and he is a reliable Democratic vote. That’s all great and we appreciate that.
But he is also very loud about the fact that things are different now. That he has been locked in a box and ignored. And in a legislative body where the minority party has very little power, that reliable Democratic vote can come from any Democrat, the Dean or a freshman. So why not bring in a new senator and let her start building her own power base, her own seniority?
Everyone knows Whitmire is focused on his future in Houston. The Texas Tribune reported last November that throughout the 2021 legislative session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was already referring to the Senate Democrat with the second-longest record of service, Senator Zafferini, as the Dean-in-Waiting and making references to Whitmire’s mayoral race.
Come back soon for transcription and commentary on the candidate forum, in which, in the words of one person who watched it closely in real time, Molly Cook rolled up Senator Whitmire and smoked him. And now that I’ve watched it and read the transcript several times, I have to say, that’s a charitable description of what happened.