El Franco Lee, who holds the distinction of being the first African American commissioner in Harris County, passed away on Sunday morning after suffering a fatal heart attack at his home. He was unable to be revived and was pronounced dead at 10:01 a.m. at LBJ Hospital, according to Bryan McLeod, a spokesman for Harris Health System. He was 66.
His death came as a blow to many, as most people close to him have described him as being in great physical condition, being an avid swimmer who swam at least four times a week.
A native Houstonian, Lee attended Wheatley High School and also made his home in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Commissioner Lee was a graduate of Texas Southern University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree from the School of Technology and postgraduate studies at the TSU’s School of Public Affairs, and at the University of Houston.
Known for never seeking the public spotlight and being a humble public servant, Lee was elected as a state representative in the Texas House of Representatives in 1979, and served in that capacity until becoming county commissioner in 1985. His precinct stretched from downtown through southeast Harris County, where a park and a community center is named for him.
Lee was known for having a sincere desire to help senior citizens and improve the quality of life for underserved youth and young adults in the inner city. Many of the programs he implemented have provided assistance for thousands of senior citizens, including everything from health and fitness initiatives to arts and crafts and music tutorials to holiday celebrations and other special events. Lee created an outstanding Street Olympics Program for Harris County youth, and grew it from a summer-only recreation activity into a comprehensive event that has impacted the lives of more than 10,000 young adults every year.
Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a statement and directed that all flags at City of Houston facilities be lowered to half-staff.
“My heart is deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Harris County Commissioner Franco Lee,” said Mayor Turner. “I first met El Franco more than three decades ago when he was serving in the State Legislature. In 1984, we ran against each other for Harris County Commissioner and he beat me. El Franco served Harris County well for 30 years and will be greatly missed. On behalf of the City of Houston, I send condolences and prayers to his family.”
U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee also issued a statement regarding Lee’s passing.
“County Commissioner El Franco Lee was a ‘giant of a man’ and we are in shock and saddened by his passing,” said Congresswoman Jackson Lee. He was entrenched in Historic Fifth Ward, Texas. He loved public service and his work. His leadership on the Harris County Commissioners Court was embedded with his passion for the most vulnerable. He believed in providing a better quality of life to all senior citizens in his jurisdiction. He recently provided a beautiful new facility at Hester House. Seniors loved it and loved him. He cared about improving health care for all citizens of Harris County and was a particular champion for mental health services. Children of Harris County and Harris County Precinct 1 had a champion in Commissioner El Franco Lee. Commissioner El Franco lee provided them with a wide range of extracurricular and community based activities. So many people benefited from his passionate service. We all loved him for who he was and his unending commitment to our community.”
State Senator Rodney Ellis also shared his thoughts on the passing of Commissioner Lee.
“I’m shocked and saddened by the tragic passing of Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee,” said Ellis. “El Franco was a personal friend and mentor – someone I always turned to when considering big decisions in my life, so I’ll miss him greatly. His legacy will be that of public service, as he was always a stalwart advocate for Harris County and Precinct One. He positively impacted the lives of countless residents each year, whether through the Street Olympics, public park upgrades, or senior programs. El Franco used the power of his office for the greater public good, and our community is better off thanks to his dedication and desire to serve.”
Lastly, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who must appoint a temporary successor to replace Commissioner Lee, shared his thoughts on the passing of his colleague.
“Gwen and I were shocked and truly saddened to hear of the death of Commissioner El Franco Lee,” said Emmett. “Not only has Harris County lost a tireless and devoted public servant, but many of us have lost a true friend. Our prayers go out of his family and staff.”
At the time of his death, Lee was in his seventh term in office as Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 1, and had filed for re-election, to which he was unopposed. Because the filing deadline has passed, and there is no Republican candidate, his name will be on the March primary ballot and the November election.
Emmett has go on the record as saying that several people have called to express interest in being Commissioner Lee’s replacement, even calling on the day he died.
According to Texas state law, whenever a seat is vacated for any reason, the county judge must pick a commissioner to complete the term, which in Commissioner Lee’s case is January 1, 2017. Because the filing deadline has passed for any candidates to submit their names for the March primary, and because there is no Republican running for the seat, Harris County Democratic Party officials will choose a replacement candidate to replace Lee in Precinct1, after their primary which will be sometime in June. Whoever that candidate is, will run unopposed in November. According to Harris County Democratic Party chair Lane Lewis, Commissioner Lee will win both elections posthumously as the candidate for Precinct 1, but the Commissioners Court will decide who will fill the office in the meantime. The Harris County Democratic party will take over the office by January 2017, if the appointed temporary successor has not stepped down prior to that date. Until that time, Lewis says that the focus should be on mourning the death and celebrating the life of one of Harris County’s great public servants.
“All that’s a subject for another day,” said Lewis. “For now, we’re in mourning, for a true public servant.”
The attraction that many individuals have in regards to filling the seat to replace Commissioner Lee makes sense, in that a Harris County Commissioner, as of 2014, makes an annual base salary of $165,900, and has a tremendous amount of control and power to build bridges, roads and parks with very little legislative hindrance. Another important thing that is attractive for many is that a Harris County Commissioner never has to worry about term limits.
Memorial details are being planned and the Forward Times will keep its readers aware.
Commissioner Lee is survived by his wife, Ethel Kaye and two children.