Molly Cook, Jarvis Johnson face back-to-back elections to fill Whitmire’s old Senate seat

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson and nurse Molly Cook advanced to the May 28 Democratic primary runoff. First, they must compete in a May 4 special election.

By Paul Cobler, Houston LandingMay 3, 2024 9:45 am,

From the Houston Landing:

By the end next month, residents of state Senate District 15 will have a senator not named John Whitmire for the first time in 40 years.

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson and emergency room nurse Molly Cook are the only two candidates contesting in the May 4 special election to complete the remaining nine months of Whitmire’s term that he vacated to be sworn in as Houston mayor at the start of the year.

The pair then will square off on May 28 in the Democratic primary runoff election that, in the deep blue district, effectively serves as the general election for a four-year term in the Texas Senate.

Neither candidate said they intend to cede any ground to their opponent in the special election, despite the far shorter term it guarantees the winner.

“If you put a gun to my head and said ‘now pick,’ I’ll pick the 28th, but I’m not trying to concede anything,” Johnson said. “I want both.”

Cook echoed the sentiment.

“Obviously, one (election) puts you in for four years, one puts you in for six months, but each time is an opportunity to engage, grow as a candidate, grow as an organizer and get people to buy into the vision for this district,” she said.

Early voting in the May 4 special election begins Monday.

Multiple elections in Senate District 15

Cook and Johnson bested a crowded field with four other Democrats in the primary on March 5, but neither came close to securing the majority of votes needed to avoid a runoff. Johnson finished first in the field with 36.1 percent of the more than 49,000 votes cast, compared to Cook’s 20.6 percent.

“One way to think about the special election is a de facto survey,” said Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University.

While a win on May 4 only awards the victor a brief term in the Senate, a win does send a signal to potential donors looking to back the eventual winner ahead of the May 28 runoff election.

Johnson, as the only elected official in the race, is running on a message of experience in the Texas Legislature.

As the state representative for House District 139 since winning a 2016 special election to fill the remainder of Sylvester Turner’s term, Johnson is aiming to succeed a Houston mayor for the second time in his career. His incumbency in the house district gave Johnson a powerful voting base that helped propel him to his first place finish in March, Jones said.

As the presumptive frontrunner, Johnson is doubling down on that strategy for the May elections, continuing to emphasize his years of public service in the legislature and as a member of Houston City Council before that.

“My strategy doesn’t change,” Johnson said. “I continue to stick to the issues, I continue to stick to what’s important to the voters and what’s important for them to hear from their potential senator.”

If elected to the Senate, Johnson said he intends to “continue the work I’ve already done” on such Democratic priorities as Medicaid expansion, protecting voting access and funding public education.

The candidates’ experience is at the center of the campaign. In a Wednesday debate between the pair, Johnson criticized Cook’s lack of experience in public office.

“The Senate is not a place to learn politics,” he said. “Experience as a nurse does not translate to being an experienced lawmaker to get the job done, to get bills passed.”

Who will replace Whitmire in the Texas Senate?

The two share similar priorities, including support of abortion rights, gun control and improving the state electrical grid.

They differ in their backgrounds. While Johnson says his years in the legislature will bring him success as a senator, Cook says her years of experience outside the Capitol will allow her to be just as effective.

Cook has never held elected office and does not enjoy the same name recognition in parts of the district. She recently has been targeting Johnson with political ads that claim he is not a consistent liberal vote in the legislature.

A nurse at a Houston hospital, Cook also is a prolific grass-roots organizer for local liberal causes. She most recently led last year’s Fair For Houston Proposition B campaign and was an organizer for the Stop TxDOT Interstate 45 campaign to block the highway’s planned widening.

Douglas Sweet Jr. for Houston Landing

Rod Schultz introduces his neighbors to Molly Cook, Senate District 15 candidate during a block walk in hopes of getting more voter support, Sunday, April 14, 2024, in Houston.

“I’m used to working against the odds, staving off pestilence, plague and death with our bare hands and modern science,” Cook said. “I really can’t think of life experience that prepares you more for walking into that Capitol.”

While campaigning, Cook leans on her life experiences as a young woman and nurse in Texas. She had an abortion in 2014, has treated victims of gun violence and sees the negative impacts of the health insurance system, Cook said.

If elected, Cook said she would prioritize abortion access, gun control and Medicaid expansion.

She also previously ran in the Democratic Primary for the Senate seat in 2022, campaigning on a message that Whitmire was out of touch with the district before losing by a little under 17 percentage points.

Fundraising and attack ads in Senate District 15

Johnson has been the leading fundraiser throughout the campaign and was sitting on a little more than $75,000, as of his most recent report filed April 4.

Cook had just under $40,000 in cash on hand as of the early April filing deadline.

Despite Johnson’s cash advantage, the reports show strong support for Cook. She raised $73,000 during the month-long reporting period, just under the $80,000 Johnson raised during the same time.

Cook’s additional cash has paid for a recent round of mailers attacking Johnson’s record on liberal priorities, such as gun control, abortion rights, health care expansion and school funding, claiming he has “caved to Greg Abbott too many times.”

“Senate District 15 needs a principled fighter filled with urgency,” Cook said. “Voters deserve to know the truth before they enter the ballot box to cast a vote for their first new state senator in 40 years.”

In a statement, Johnson criticized the mailers, pointing to endorsements he has received from Democratic-aligned interest groups.

“I have been running on my record from Day One, and that’s why highly respected organizations have endorsed my campaign,” the statement read. “My opponent has resorted to misleading and misrepresenting the voters.”

Johnson has been endorsed by the Texas American Federation of Teachers, 16 Democratic legislators and a slew of local labor unions, according to his campaign website. He also pointed to a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood Texas.

Cook has her own array of endorsements, largely from more progressive groups and politicians. Cook is endorsed by the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus, Annie’s List and Texas Organizing Project, among others.

The person most experienced with representing the district, Whitmire, said he is not endorsing in the race.

The winner of the May 28 primary runoff will face investor Joseph Trahan, the lone Republican who ran in the Senate District 15 primary and did not file to run in the May 4 special election.