Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee battles on, for reelection and against cancer

Jackson Lee joins a long line of U.S. lawmakers who have sought reelection while faced with a life-threatening illness.

By Andrew Scheider, Houston Public MediaJune 25, 2024 11:22 am, ,

From Houston Public Media:

Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, one of the two longest-serving members of the Texas delegation, announced earlier this month that she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. There’s little indication she’s planning to let it interfere with her hopes of winning a 16th term in office this November.

Jackson Lee revealed her diagnosis in a written statement on June 2. The announcement came less than three months after she won renomination in a hotly contested Democratic primary and just over five months before she’s scheduled to face the voters again in the general election.

She did not specify what type of pancreatic cancer she has or how advanced the disease is.

“There are some other tumors or cancers in the pancreas that may not actually be as serious or as lethal,” said Dr. Curtis Wray, a professor of surgery at UTHealth Houston. “When we refer to pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, that is specifically the one that carries a grim prognosis, and we would say (there’s) a five-year survival rate, less than 13% for all pancreas cancer patients.”

Dr. Wray said the disease is all too common.

“The American Cancer Society estimates that, in 2024, there will be 66,000 new cases of pancreas cancer in this country. And there’s an estimated 51,000 people in the U.S. will die from pancreas cancer,” said Wray. “Specifically in Texas, they would say approximately 3,600 Texans will die from pancreas cancer this year.”

The rules for withdrawal

So, Jackson Lee faces a difficult decision. Does she still run for reelection while battling a potentially deadly illness?

It’s possible she sees no other path for herself but forward. Jackson Lee is 74 and has spent nearly half her life in elective office. She first won election to Houston City Council in 1989 and won her long-held seat in Congress in 1994.

“For many people who have been in politics, politics is their life. It’s the most important part of who they are,” said Robert Robins, a professor emeritus of political science at Tulane University.

Texas state law requires a congressional candidate to decide no later than 74 days before Election Day whether they’ll withdraw from the race. That’s just under two months away. If Jackson Lee were to take that route, her district’s Democratic precinct chairs would then select a replacement candidate.

But Jackson Lee has given no sign she’s even considering such a move. And if she were to stick out the contest, there’s a high chance the solidly blue voters of Texas’ 18th Congressional District will choose her over Lana Centonze, her Republican opponent.

“People, once they support someone, they don’t like to stop supporting them,” Robins said. “Moreover, a person would rather have their person sick in office, than some (one from) a different political party.”

The fellowship of ailing lawmakers

Jackson Lee joins a long line of U.S. lawmakers who have run for reelection while battling a serious illness. Attorney and author Roy Brownell says candidates have run — and won — with conditions worse than Jackson Lee’s.

“Gladys Spellman (D-MD), in the early 1980s, had a heart attack and was in a coma,” Brownell said. “She was reelected by her constituents. She wasn’t even able to be sworn in, and ultimately the House had to decide that the seat had been vacated and to hold a special election.”

There are also more recent examples of politicians who’ve run or continued serving while dealing with a serious illness. Democrat John Fetterman did nothing to hide having suffered a stroke after his 2022 primary and Pennsylvania voters elected him to the Senate anyway. By contrast, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, also a Democrat, was criticized for being less than forthcoming about her own health in her final years – particularly her mental fitness.

“The American voting electorate is very forgiving, very understanding of politicians’ frailties and human condition, and they just want transparency,” said David Clementson, an assistant professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Georgia. “Because when politicians are not upfront and clear about their human frailties and diagnoses, the public suspects a cover-up.”

It’s worth noting that members of Congress aren’t under any legal obligation to publicly release health information. John Rogan, a senior fellow at Fordham Law School, said lawmakers have medical privacy rights just like any other citizen, adding that it’s to Jackson Lee’s credit that she announced her diagnosis when she did.

“It really is important that candidates and members of Congress like Representative Jackson Lee be open with the public about their health because it has a direct impact in a lot of cases on their ability to represent their constituents,” Rogan said.

The ability to serve

That raises the question of how well Jackson Lee, if reelected, will be able to perform the duties of her office.

“There’s no replacing a situation when you have a healthy member who actually is in Washington when they’re supposed to be, is able to vote, is able to give direct direction to staff, is able to interact person to person with members,” Roy Brownell said.

Still, Brownell said Jackson Lee should be able to make good on the promise of her June 2 statement, which said her office will continue to deliver the constituent services TX-18 residents depend on.

“When some constituent doesn’t get their Social Security check when they’re supposed to, when there’s something that’s lost in bureaucratic miasma, and constituents aren’t getting a fair shake from the bureaucracy, quite often constituents look to lawmakers as their ombudsman with the federal government,” Brownell said, noting that’s the job of office staffers called caseworkers. “That more or less can go on on autopilot.”

Jackson Lee’s ability to be present for floor votes is another matter.

John Feerick, a professor and dean emeritus at Fordham Law School, believes it would be of benefit to constituents if the House of Representatives were to reinstate the proxy voting rules it adopted during the height of the COVID-19 epidemic. But he put the prospect of Jackson Lee’s missing votes in a larger context.

“The House of Representatives,” Feerick said, “probably very rarely has 435 members present. And my sense is that the absence rate with respect to the number 435 can be very significant, for different reasons.”

In her June 2 statement, the congresswoman said she would, “be present for votes on legislation that is critical for the prosperity and security of the American people,” but that she would occasionally be absent from Congress while pursuing treatments for her cancer.

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