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The first debate between U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and state Sen. John Whitmire since the pair advanced to the Dec. 9 runoff for Houston mayor was a testy affair Monday in which the pair criticized each other for their stances on issues that have defined much of the campaign.

The evening event hosted by the American Turkic Business Council at the Turkish Cultural Center in southwest Houston covered little new ground from the general election campaign, but it did provide an opportunity for Jackson Lee and Whitmire, both Democrats, to draw clear distinctions between one another on the issues.

The candidates discussed public safety, infrastructure, city services, flood mitigation and public transportation, among other issues. The debate was held on the first day of early voting, which runs through Dec. 5.

From the start of the debate, Jackson Lee cast herself as a unifier who will provide passionate leadership to solve the issues of the day by bringing Houstonians together. She accused Whitmire of unfairly criticizing the city in his campaign rhetoric.

“Houston wants to move ahead on hope,” she said. “We’re tired of hearing how bad we are, how things can’t get done, how someone is coming in riding on a white horse and changing everything.”

Whitmire said he is only speaking to the concerns of residents, who demand lower crime rates, better city services and a more efficient city government.

“If you like the status quo, then I’m not your candidate,” he said.

Whitmire made the statement when responding to a question about the protracted legal battle between the city of Houston and the firefighters’ union over its members’ contract. The contract expired more than six years ago, but the two sides have failed to come to an agreement on a new one despite charter amendments, lawsuits and court rulings.

Whitmire sponsored a bill in the legislature that was signed into law this year requiring the city to enter into arbitration with the union, but Mayor Sylvester Turner sued to block the law, arguing it violates the state constitution.

If he is elected, Whitmire said he immediately would shake up the impasse by throwing out the lawsuit and entering into negotiations with the union.

Jackson Lee said she would follow the language of the law written by Whitmire and enter into negotiations with the firefighters. She argued she was best suited to handle those talks because she would make sure the final deal does not negatively impact other city services, using the opportunity to accuse Whitmire of planning to cut city services to pay for many of his policies.

Jackson Lee used a similar line of attack throughout the debate, saying Whitmire also plans to cut funding for Metro while claiming she can fix the city’s looming budget deficit while expanding those same services.

“I don't know where she dug that up,” Whitmire said following the debate. “We’re at the bare limit of city services now. We’ve got to improve city services. … We’re short on fire, we’re short on police, you’ve got to wait to get your garbage to get picked up, so that is more political rhetoric on her part.”

Jackson Lee also accused Whitmire of having conflicts of interest as a public official, something she said would continue under a Whitmire administration.

“Vote for the person who is going to work for you,” Jackson Lee said.

The theme of divisiveness versus unification carried on throughout the debate as each candidate attempted to claim the high ground on the issue.

Jackson Lee said the state’s policies toward criminal justice, overseen by Whitmire as the longtime chair of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, have caused minority residents to be imprisoned at excessively high rates.

Whitmire responded, saying his role in the Senate has him best positioned to address crime, and he accused Jackson Lee of dividing the city racially for votes. 

He also noted that he has not run a negative campaign against Jackson Lee, instead focusing his campaign advertisements on issues important to voters.

“I want to thank Houstonians at this time for thanking me for not even mentioning my opponent in any of my commercials or my ads,” Whitmire said. “Houstonians want to talk about city issues.”

Leading in a University of Houston poll published Monday, Whitmire seemed to take a mini victory lap on the debate stage.

“I was excited when we started tonight because we’re very close to having the opportunity to elect me mayor of Houston,” he said.

Hinting at the uphill battle she faces in the final days of the campaign, Jackson Lee cast herself as an underdog facing Whitmire’s massive campaign warchest. Whitmire’s campaign funds have long been at issue in the campaign, with his opponents accusing him of illegally funneling more than $9 million from his Senate campaign to the mayoral race.

Whitmire says he followed the law and the transaction was approved by the Houston city attorney.

“My word to my worthy opponent is that I look forward, without arrogance, to the voters deciding what kind of mayor they would like to have,” Jackson Lee said. “With millions and millions of dollars against me, I’m still standing.”

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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...