Texas Congresswoman’s Credentials Rival Those Speculatively Shortlisted as Vice Presidential Prospects
If expectations hold, we’re a few weeks away from presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announcing his running mate.
During a Democratic primary debate in March, the former Vice President pledged to select a woman if he became the candidate. Biden set the additional criteria of someone younger than him who could step in as president on Day 1.
Since then, there’s been pressure for Biden to follow through on his promise and to choose a Black woman or a woman of color. This week, on the debut episode of “The ReidOut” on MSNBC with host Joy Reid, Biden said that four Black women are under consideration, but would not name them or commit to choosing one of them.
The call for him to choose a Black woman is indicative of the times, as Americans are in the streets demonstrating to elevate Black lives and those inside the Democratic Party are demanding long-overdue equity.
For decades, Democrats have depended on Black voters and women as the party’s base of organizing, registration, education and voting. If women have been the most critical to that success, Black women have been the dependable firewall.
The timing for the VP pick is tightening, too. The 2020 Democratic National Convention (DNC) is less than a month away, beginning Aug. 17, and will be largely virtual.
Though admittedly speculative, the top VP prospects include a dozen qualified women, from the relatively unknown to household names, who hail from different regions of our nation with varied political experiences across the spectrum of the Democratic Party.
One person who has not been mentioned in the veep sweepstakes, however, is a prominent name to many Texans and most Houstonians – U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18).
The longtime congresswoman checks several boxes: Black. Female. Washington legislative veteran. She turned 70 this year, which makes her among the older contenders, but still younger than Biden, 77.
Diversity in Democracy, a Houston-based survey, data analysis and policy development consulting firm, conducted recent polling for the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats. The survey asked respondents – all Black Texas Democrats – an open-ended question about their choice for vice president. Nearly half live in Houston-area ZIP codes. Of the 92 who provided an answer, 52 selected a candidate who was an African American woman or a woman of color. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California was the choice for 18% of respondents followed by Florida Congresswoman and former Orlando police chief Val Demings at 11% and Georgia-based fair elections activist Stacey Abrams at 8%. Other Black women mentioned by at least one respondent include former first lady Michelle Obama, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Ten percent of respondents said that Biden should choose a Black woman.
“Nobody mentioned Sheila Jackson Lee,” said Michael O. Adams, a professor of political science at Texas Southern University, who is founder and executive director of Diversity in Democracy. “That may be because people follow the news. You see Kamala Harris and Stacey Abrams … and people form opinions.”
Some political observers believe the idea of choosing Jackson Lee could be helpful.
“I’ll give you the old school political science way of thinking: You always want to balance the ticket. You want someone who can bring some of the opposite characteristics,” said Billy Monroe, Ph.D., an associate professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University. “Sheila Jackson Lee. The question is whether or not Texas is a battleground state. I can see the choice of Texas being helpful. You do have the negatives: Her age, her reputation for being a difficult person to work with in some regards – but people love her in Houston and especially in her district. … My next curiosity would be: How many people in California and Illinois know who Sheila Jackson Lee is?”
WHO IS SHEILA JACKSON LEE?
Jackson Lee would bring a significant amount of federal and legislative experience, as well as local judicial and City Council bonafides as vice president.
She served as a municipal judge in Houston from 1987 to 1990 and as an At-large Houston City Councilmember from 1989 to 1994.
First elected to the U.S. House in 1994, Jackson Lee won 12 re-election campaigns and has served the 18th Congressional District for the last 25 years. (She faces a Black male Republican challenger in this year’s general election.) Her district encompasses most of central Houston, and is a seat that was initially held by U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan – a Houston native and the first woman elected to Congress from the Deep South.
Jackson Lee currently sits as a senior member of three House Committees: Judiciary and Homeland Security as well as the important Budget Committee to which she was appointed by the House.
She has a proven ability to develop Democratic support in major elections. In 2016, she helped deliver Harris County in the general election for Hillary Clinton with more than 54 percent of the vote. Harris County is the most populous county in Texas and third most populous county in the U.S., in a red state inching toward becoming a political battleground.
Jackson Lee earned a speaking slot at the DNC in 2016 – a platform that has served as a springboard for others. Then-upstart Barack Obama’s electrifying keynote address in 2004 introduced him to the electorate before his 2008 presidential campaign.
The congresswoman has a solid record of service and understands the nuances of Washington. She is known as one of the hardest working members in Congress. And tough. She persevered through a 2011 breast cancer diagnosis as well as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy treatment. As a wife, mother of two grown children and grandmother of twins, she regularly discusses how she views issues through the lens of family and community.
Although Jackson Lee is a longtime Texan, she was born in New York City to Jamaican immigrant parents. She has deep connections from Houston to the Northeast, a personal understanding of the immigrant experience and a special link to Black people of Caribbean descent.
Becoming the nation’s first female vice president would not be Jackson Lee’s first time breaking the glass ceiling. She was part of the first graduating class including women at Yale University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. She earned a juris doctorate from the University of Virginia Law School.
Jackson Lee also has gained the respect of her peers, having been recommended to take on various leadership roles.
In a letter sent to then-President Barack Obama in 2013, former Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Chair Marcia Fudge of Ohio asked for Jackson Lee to be considered as a top choice for the vacated Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) position. The recommendation touted Jackson Lee’s positions on the House Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security and the Judiciary committees. In 2017 – for the first time in its four-decade history –the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) unanimously elected Jackson Lee as the first female member of Congress to lead the nonprofit as its chairperson.
Biden also has the new task of evaluating how candidates respond in unprecedented times because of the current COVID-19 crisis.
Since the first COVID-19 case was reported, Jackson Lee used her political platform to sound the alarm about the virus. She serves among three co-chairs of the Congressional Coronavirus Task Force and has supported numerous bills related to COVID-19. She was one of the first elected officials to plead for access to more testing as well as for the necessary equipment, funding and resources that hospitals, doctors, small businesses and individuals needed to deal with the virus. From February until now, she has been proactively addressing the critical issues and concerns tied to the COVID-19 virus. Jackson Lee has used her bully pulpit on the floor of the House and her relationships in the Greater Houston area community to provide access to testing, food and other essentials during the global health emergency.
On March 19, Jackson Lee announced an innovative partnership with United Memorial Medical Center (UMMC) to open the first drive-thru coronavirus testing facility in the Greater Houston area. The effort has been expanded to six additional testing sites located in communities at high risk for disproportionate illness, hospitalizations and deaths. In early March, news reports regarding the high risks for COVID-19 infections in jails and prisons provided early notice that these facilities might become hot spots posing health risks to detainees, staff and the communities where they were located. In response, Jackson Lee worked with Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office to provide COVID-19 testing for detainees and staff that started in April and continues today.
During her tenure, Jackson Lee has been highlighted by Congressional Quarterly as one of the 50 most effective members of Congress and as one of the 10 most influential legislators in the U.S. House by U.S. News and World Report. She currently serves as chief deputy whip for the Democratic Caucus and was chairperson of the Texas Congressional Democratic Delegation for the 113th Congress from 2013 to 2015. Her international leadership credentials include an appointment to the Helsinki Commission and the U.S.-Mexico Interparliamentary Group. Jackson Lee has been a forceful advocate for immigration rights including DACA and the DREAMers movement. She is also the past ranking member of the Homeland Security Subcommittee for Maritime and Border Security where she co-authored H.R. 1417, a 2013 bipartisan bill that was touted at the time as the best vehicle for accomplishing comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Most recently, as a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, she authored the George Floyd Law Enforcement and Integrity Act and the End Racial Profiling Act which are included in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 and, in 2019, sponsored and introduced H.R. 40, the bill that would create the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. (The bill has 137 co-sponsors.)
As with any elected official, there is also plenty of criticism.
In 2014 and 2017, Jackson Lee was ranked the “meanest” Democratic member of Congress in Washingtonian Magazine’s survey of Capitol Hill staffers. Most staffers in Jackson Lee’s Washington office or Houston outposts don’t last more than a year. She is widely known for requiring staff members to have speed and stamina, which is sometimes interpreted as overbearing and even abusive. In 2011, a Houston Chronicle survey found she had the highest staff turnover among members of the Houston delegation over the previous decade. The reasons why people leave vary and range from what has been referred to as a challenging work environment to educational and career advancement.
In interviews, Jackson Lee and her supporters openly acknowledge the rigor of her expectations and jam-packed calendars that require whisking from one place to another, nearly every day. A 2018 Politico analysis of LegiStorm’s data found that Jackson Lee had an annual turnover rate of senior staff officials of 62 percent — higher than any other member of the U.S. House during the 15-year period from 2001 to 2016.
Adams said he’s biased, as someone with immense admiration for Jackson Lee and as a constituent in the 18th Congressional District, but acknowledged that he also had not considered her as a VP choice.
“If Texas is considered to be in play as a battleground state, you have to look at having Sheila Jackson Lee on the ticket,” said Adams, an academic political researcher as well as a political consultant who specializes in electoral politics, campaign management and redistricting. “This is someone who understands the issues. I don’t think age should be a factor here. Everybody knows she’s a hard worker. One of the reasons she’s had such long tenure and viability is that she really speaks for the district. I don’t mean to speak in pejorative terms, but we always call her ‘Ms. Photo Op,’ but she’s there on the scene for any issue.”
MORE EXPERT ANALYSIS
A female VP pick would mark only the third time in U.S. history that a woman was chosen as the vice-presidential nominee of a major political party – Democrat or Republican – after New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro was selected by Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984 and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin became Republican John McCain’s running mate in 2008.
According to a new analysis and ranking by CNN, there are 10 top women on Biden’s speculative list for VP and the top three are Black: Kamala Harris, 55, at No. 1; Keisha Lance Bottoms, 50, at No. 2; Susan Rice, 55, at No. 3.; U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, 52, of Illinois at No. 4; New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, 60, at No. 5; Val Demings, 63, at Nov. 6; Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, 49, at No. 7; Elizabeth Warren, 71, at No. 8; CBC Chair and California Congresswoman Karen Bass, 66, at No. 9; and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, 58, of Wisconsin at No. 10.
Monroe offered commentary about several of the women on Biden’s speculative list.
“Considering Biden is talking about a return to normalcy, an Obama Administration person would be great. Susan Rice checks most of the boxes: Relatively young, African American female, relatively well known. I think she can help campaign well and she can help raise money,” he said. “I find it strange that Elizabeth Warren is a top choice because you do want a person of color, in my opinion, especially in the Democratic party. You want someone who would help win states. He’s going to win Massachusetts. … Elizabeth Warren is … the most horrendous decision that Biden can make other than a White guy. … Val Demings would be a good choice because she can help you win the South and her background is very helpful, being in the police force, being a member of Congress – she has some federal government experience – but she can help you win a true battleground state of Florida? He’s going to win California, so what is Kamala Harris bringing to the table from an electoral point of view? She was the one who went after him hardest during the debates, especially on racial issues, so it’s kind of a double-edged sword. All the Trump campaign and the Republicans have to do is play her soundbites. She also used to be a prosecutor, so she is someone who put a lot of people into prison and she also had her own missteps during her campaign, so I would argue she is not the strongest candidate for this election.”
What about Tammy Duckworth? “She’s an Iraq War veteran, she’s a U.S. senator, so she has some built-in name recognition. Tammy Duckworth would also be an excellent choice and you can tell she thinks she’s in the running based on her interviews.”
With less than four months before the general election, the Prairie View professor places a high value on developed national name recognition, which makes contenders like Demings weak among the Black women on the CNN list. Having a strong VP choice is especially important for Democrats this election, he added, because of the advantages Trump retains as an incumbent and the lack of zeal for Biden that will prompt some to cast their ballots for a third-party candidate.
“Biden isn’t Hillary-weak, but he’s weaker than they could have been,” Monroe said. “I see anti-Trump, but I don’t see Biden excitement. People have had their chance to vote for Joe Biden many of times and they said no thank you. … It makes his choice of VP much more important than it would be otherwise. He needs someone to give him some energy.”
Adams also pointed out the weaknesses of some of the contenders.
“If you look at Kamala Harris … she certainly wasn’t a liberal during her stint as Attorney General. I could go on and on and talk about some of the high negatives that would come out. Stacey Abrams has been considered, but I don’t think she would have the national appeal of a Sheila Jackson Lee. Val Demings and others are fresh to the scene,” he said.
On further thought, Adams said the fact that Jackson Lee had not being given any mentions, from whispers to full-throated consideration, “perplexes” him.
“I don’t think Sheila is the type who has been out there campaigning for it, like Bottoms from Atlanta, Susan Rice. If duty called, she would accept,” Adams said. “She’s not only a politician but also a statesman. I’ve watched her over the years. … I think, certainly, she would be a valuable addition to the ticket.”