Sheila Jackson Lee, Amanda Edwards likely heading to photo finish in TX-18 Democratic primary

Questions of age and experience versus youth and fresh perspectives — plus the legacy of a recent loss in the Houston mayoral race — are set to make the primary Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s toughest reelection contest in decades.

By Andrew Schneider, Houston Public MediaMarch 4, 2024 10:00 am, ,

From Houston Public Media:

Voting for Texas’ party primaries is underway. In Houston and its northern suburbs, Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is fighting to keep the seat she’s held for nearly three decades. The 74-year-old’s main challenger is Amanda Edwards, a former Houston City Council member in her forties. The race in Texas’ 18th Congressional District is surprisingly close.

The view from TX-18 voters

Texas’ 18th Congressional District loops around Houston, running from Dyersdale and Mount Houston in Northeast Harris County, south and west through Downtown Houston, up through Northwest Harris County, then east again to George H.W. Bush International Airport and Humble.

Near the heart of the district, just northwest of Houston’s Inner Loop, sits the Acres Homes neighborhood.


The Texas 18th Congressional District as of 2021.

Zelma Fields recently attended a political forum at a community center in Acres Homes. Asked about her leading concerns in the congressional race, Fields didn’t hesitate.

“(My) main thing: Try to get some more jobs in the area. Maybe the younger people can find some work to do,” said Fields.

Sharon Darden had similar concerns.

“My issues are housing, affordable housing, and especially for, there are a lot of single mothers,” Darden said. “And that’s mine, housing that they can afford to raise their kids in…and still be able to buy groceries.”

Arla Hudson was also concerned about housing but with a slightly different focus.

“Housing and home repair,” Hudson said. “Even though we had the issue with the Harvey funds with the state, there are still programs that are available through HUD that can help accelerate and assist people who have problems in their homes.”

Those concerns are of little surprise in this congressional district. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the Texas 18th Congressional District’s poverty rate and its unemployment rate are nearly twice the national average.

Acres Homes, in particular, is a region facing challenges from gentrification — especially on its southern border, where long-term residents worry about being priced out of their neighborhood.

“We’re looking to figure out how our congressional representatives can help advocate for us in these spaces. So that way, we can have a better chance of keeping our families longer in the community,” said Rain Eatmon, CEO of the Acres Homes Community Advocacy Group.

But ask Hudson, Darden, and Fields how they plan to vote in the congressional primary, and they sound uncertain about their choices.

“I have an idea,” Hudson said. “But I haven’t had a chance to really talk to the other candidate.”

Darden said she hadn’t made up her mind yet. “Sheila’s been in a long time,” Darden said. “And she did a good job while she was in there. But maybe with all the confusion going on in politics, maybe Amanda will be a good person to vote for.”

Fields initially said she supported Sheila Jackson Lee, “but I’m looking at maybe new blood. I haven’t made up my mind. Not yet.”

It’s important to note, these are women who have lived in the 18th for decades. If Sheila Jackson Lee can’t automatically count on their votes, the congresswoman has a problem, because younger voters in the district have a definite preference for Edwards.

Seniority v. new ideas

Ozoemena “Ozo” Nnamadim, just turned 32. He said the district’s representative needs to focus on human rights, because of the area’s diversity. But he, too, is concerned about bread-and-butter issues.

Ozoemena “Ozo” Nnamadim. Andrew Schneider / Houston Public Media

“I would say economic development, infrastructure, health care, all of those,” Nnamadim said. “Really critical policies. Public policies that are important.”

And while Nnamadim doesn’t think Jackson Lee has done a bad job in Congress, he does think she represents the past.

“I know who I’m leaning towards. I will say that, yeah, I’m voting for Amanda,” he said.

So is Javon Blair. He’s fresh out of college and preparing to become a Certified Public Accountant. Ask Blair what he thinks are the main issues facing the district, and he’ll tell you: “Infrastructure. Health care. And also, too, affordable housing.”

Blair cast his first vote in 2020, and he voted for Sheila Jackson Lee. He’s thankful for her years of service, but, he said, “I think Craig Washington stated (it) the best: It’s time to pass the torch.”

Washington is Jackson Lee’s predecessor, and he’s endorsed Edwards.

There’s not much difference between the incumbent and her main challenger on policy matters. In previous elections, Jackson Lee has always been able to count on her record of delivering for the district.

Javon Blair. Andrew Schneider / Houston Public Media

“For many of the federal grants and the dollars that come into Texas Southern University, she always makes it known that she was instrumental in terms of bringing dollars to Texas Southern and also to the University of Houston,” said Michael Adams, executive director of the Voter and Civic Engagement Institute at Texas Southern University.

That record of delivery isn’t something voters can easily write off. Jackson Lee is one of the two longest-serving members of the Texas congressional delegation.

“I know in the House, you don’t have much power unless you’ve been there for a while. So, seniority is very, very important in the House, and so I’m going to be influenced by seniority,” said James Douglas, who teaches at TSU’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law and has lived in the district for more than 40 years.

Even when Jackson Lee hasn’t been successful, she’s always had strong messaging around her working for constituents.

“She’s in the district. She does serve the district, and there can be no gainsaying that she’s not a visible person in the district,” Michael Adams said. “In particular, she has sponsored reparations legislation, so she could argue that she has certain bona fides in terms of advocating on behalf of racial minorities.”

Andrew Schneider / Houston Public Media

James Douglas, Distinguished Professor of Law, Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University.

The changing makeup of TX-18

But, according to a new poll from the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, Jackson Lee is only leading Edwards by 43% to 38% among likely voters, with 16% saying they were undecided and 3% intending to vote for a third candidate, Robert Slater. Slater has since suspended his campaign and endorsed Jackson Lee.

“I would say that the incumbent is vulnerable,” said Renée Cross, the Hobby School’s senior executive director. “For someone that has been in office as long as the congresswoman to have an opponent come in and push it to five points, I think, is certainly noteworthy.”

Cross thinks part of the reason for the close race is how the district has changed over the last 30 years. When the 18th Congressional District was moved to Houston after the 1970 Census, it was redrawn as a majority Black district. Today, Latino residents outnumber Black residents in the district by 46% to 31%, according to the Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey data.

In last year’s mayoral contest, Latinos chose John Whitmire over Jackson Lee. The legacy of that contest may be shaping perceptions of her as she fights for another term.

“The congresswoman certainly had a considerable amount of media coverage during the recent mayoral election. And, frankly, not all of that coverage was good,” Cross said, adding, “Amanda Edwards is certainly a viable candidate.”

Edwards was a highly popular at-large member of Houston City Council who left office in 2020 in an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. She then tried to run for mayor, but dropped out when Jackson Lee entered the race, seeking to avoid splitting the Black vote. Jackson Lee, who had not lost an election in more than 30 years before 2023, lost the mayoral contest to Whitmire in the second round by 65% to 35%.

In addition, Edwards’ mayoral run left her with a huge war chest. She currently has more than $600,000 on hand — roughly three times what Jackson Lee has in her campaign coffers. Edwards is putting that advantage to work with ads on TV and social media.

“In the past, (Jackson Lee) hadn’t had to raise a lot of money because she has won the primaries by more than 70% of the vote,” TSU’s Michael Adams said. “There’s never been a real challenge like we see now.”

Correction: Congresswoman Jackson Lee has been running advertising in support of her primary bid. The story originally reported she had not run a single commercial during the campaign. Also, the latest campaign finance reports from the Federal Election Commission show Amanda Edwards with $668,927.97 in cash on hand – not more than $800,000 as previously reported – compared to $224,543.26 for Sheila Jackson Lee.

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