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It all started with a tweet.

On Aug. 23, state Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston and candidate for mayor, was touting an endorsement from the Houston Federation of Teachers that he has held since the beginning of the year.

That Wednesday afternoon social media post, however, sparked a swift response from the federation’s executive board, whose president, Jackie Anderson, said members of the federation had grown frustrated with a perceived lack of support from Whitmire against the state’s takeover of the Houston Independent School District. Within two hours, the federation called an emergency meeting and rescinded its earlier announcement of support for Whitmire and granted a sole endorsement for mayor to U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston.

The federation posted a statement on Facebook that evening demanding Whitmire delete his post and apologize for it.

COMING TUESDAY

The Abdelraoufsinno launches a series of stories examining the priorities Houstonians have for candidates seeking to become mayor of the fourth largest city in America.

“We stand with our post, which was correct when we released it this afternoon at 4 p.m.,” Whitmire responded in a statement. “We respect their decision rescinding the dual endorsement tonight. I have always stood with our teachers and students and will continue to do so.”

Thursday night, Jackson Lee tweeted her own acknowledgement of the federation’s endorsement, writing she is a candidate teachers can count on.

The incident highlights a growing contest between Jackson Lee and Whitmire over endorsements. The pair, who were the race’s frontrunners in a recent University of Houston poll, are trading daily blows on social media touting their latest backers.

Does it even matter?

A pair of Houston political science professors say, yes, at least for local elections.

“The bigger the race, the less likely endorsements are to matter,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Endorsements matter in low-turnout elections where coalitions drive winners.”

Houston’s local elections, including the mayoral race, are nonpartisan, and an endorsement can provide an important signal to voters who are unfamiliar with the candidates about their ideological leanings, Rottinghaus said.

Jackson Lee and Whitmire have been hard at work building their own coalitions heading into the Nov. 7 election.

The pair, both longtime Democrats, share liberal bonafides. Both are pro-choice, both publicly support the LGBTQ+ community and both tout endorsements from other liberals.

Jackson Lee appears positioned as the progressive’s choice for mayor, touting endorsements from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, former congressman and 2022 gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke and the national pro-choice political action committee Emily’s List.

Whitmire has received endorsements from multiple law enforcement groups, business organizations and financial backing from Gallery Furniture owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, positioning himself as the more moderate, tough-on-crime candidate. 

In the University of Houston poll last month, Jackson Lee and Whitmire were found to be far ahead of the rest of the field and neck-and-neck in a general election. When respondents were asked about a potential runoff between the pair, however, Jackson Lee’s support barely grew while Whitmire was by far the preferred second-choice for supporters of other candidates.

Andrea Benjamin, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma who studies endorsements, said they have a larger impact in nonpartisan municipal elections by differentiating candidates that otherwise may be closely aligned. Benjamin compared the Houston mayor’s race to a partisan primary election, where endorsements serve to highlight minor ideological differences between candidates.

“In a city as diverse as Houston, some of these group issues like crime and housing, these become the issues people are voting on instead of partisanship,” Benjamin said.

As each candidate receives more endorsements, the impact of each announcement of support by similar interest groups and ideologically aligned public figures lessens, said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.

While a high-profile endorsement, the announcement Aug. 21 by O’Rourke, a Democrat frequently vilified by Texas and national Republicans, is unlikely to change voters’ perceptions around Jackson Lee’s ideological leanings, Jones said.

The endorsements that break away from those perceptions provide greater value to candidates, Jones said.

During the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus endorsement meeting earlier this month, supporters of Jackson Lee called Whitmire “John the Pawn” and claimed he’s the preferred candidate of state Republicans in Austin. Jackson Lee ultimately won the group’s official statement of support during the meeting.

“Whitmire is getting hit by Sheila Jackson Lee’s camp and her surrogates for being the candidate of statewide Republicans,” Jones said. “Having well-respected Democrats endorsing him effectively provides a shield for those attacks and a way to rebut them. It’s tough to say he’s a Republican stooge when you have highly respected liberal Democrats like (U.S. Rep.) Sylvia Garcia and (state Sen.) Carol Alvarado endorsing him.”

Last Friday, former Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus President Noel Freeman broke away from the organization and endorsed Whitmire for mayor.

Endorsements also provide cues to voters concerned about specific issues, Jones said. A voter worried about Houston’s crime rate may value the Houston Police Officers’ Union’s endorsement of Whitmire, while a voter worried about the state’s recent takeover of Houston Independent School District may follow the Houston Federation of Teachers’ endorsement of Jackson Lee, he said.

While not every endorsement is equal, the most valuable type of endorsement a candidate can receive in a municipal election are those from interest groups and unions, Rottinghaus said.

“Endorsements from groups come with money and door-knocking power,” Rottinghaus said. “Those are things candidates need in a low turnout race that’s likely to be close.”

Sporting endorsements from a host of labor unions and the Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit that works to get out the vote among low-income and minority communities, Jackson Lee holds an advantage over Whitmire in outside support of her campaign, Jones said.

While high-profile interest groups and politicians flock to support Jackson Lee or Whitmire, buoying their campaigns, the endorsements have the opposite effect on the 15 other candidates running for mayor, Rottinghaus said.

Composite photo of Texas state Senator John Whitmire, left, and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee
State Sen. John Whitmire, left, and U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee, right, campaign in the Houston mayoral race. (Annie Mulligan and Marie D. De JesĂşs file photo / Abdelraoufsinno)

Candidates like former City Councilman Jack Christie, former Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia, District I City Councilman Robert Gallegos, attorney Lee Kaplan and former City Councilman M.J. Khan have reported raising more than $1 million or have a previous history of serving in elected office, giving them greater name recognition than most of the field. Large endorsements exclusively going to Jackson Lee or Whitmire, however, denies momentum to others who have a chance of breaking out, Rottinghaus said.

“Endorsing groups want to back a winner, and they want to back someone who agrees with them politically,” Rottinghaus said. “That means often they’re going to find the frontrunner that fits their ideological mold. In this case, you’re going to find that’s created a two-person race.”

Almost seven weeks from the start of early voting, there are few major endorsements outstanding that could shake up the race. Jones noted the Houston Firefighters Union as one important group that has yet to endorse.

Mayor Sylvester Turner also has not weighed in on who should be his successor.

Offering an endorsement to a candidate can be important to groups doing the endorsing as it is to the person campaigning, Rottinghaus said.

Getting an endorsement right can be an agonizing decision, particularly in a competitive race because interest groups offer time and money to campaigns and leadership does not want to risk alienating their membership by not endorsing the right candidate, Rottinghaus said.

The spat between Whitmire and the Houston Federation of Teachers wasn’t the first time the group had changed its endorsement. When Jackson Lee entered the race in March, the group extended a dual endorsement to Jackson Lee to go along with the endorsement of Whitmire.

Last month’s decision to revoke Whitmire’s endorsement was the third time the federation has taken action on its endorsement this year.

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Abdelraoufsinno. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...