There are very few competitive primaries this year within the Harris County Democratic Party, but one of them is the race for the 15th State Senate district. The incumbent, John Whitmire, has served the area for over 40 years. After just 22 years nonstop without a primary challenger, he finally drew one in Damian LaCroix, a local attorney. The LaCroix/Whitmire race looks to be about as exciting as these things go for Democratic contests this next year. Accordingly, I have now met with both LaCroix and Whitmire separately to discuss this upcoming campaign. What I found led me to believe this will be the race to watch if one enjoys watching sparks fly.
First, I met with LaCroix at his law office, which is in Montrose (SD15). He has been around practicing law for a while, and previously unsuccessfully ran for Judge in 2010’s Democratic Primary. LaCroix was not timid in immediately delineating the reasons he was running, and explained them in great detail to me. Most of his rationales went back to the idea that a new generation of leadership was needed to take the reigns throughout the State, and that he could most effectively bring about this change. In my opinion, this was the best point that LaCroix kept bringing up, given the youth of Whitmire and many others when they first took office.
However, LaCroix took this one step further a few times and began attacking the general concept of “career politicians” in general, while flirting with the idea of term limits. The astute will remember that I am no fan of term limits. When pressed upon the issue with greater emphasis, LaCroix backed away on uncertain terms. Many of the critiques leveled against Whitmire could have easily been used interchangeably against others such as Sheila Jackson Lee or Sylvester Turner, something LaCroix acknowledged.
Another one of LaCroix’s biggest criticisms of the incumbent was the lack of outreach or district development that he allegedly was complicit in. For such a large district, I have always been surprised to see that Whitmire had only one district office, especially considering its presence at the end of the long, pasta-string shaped district. Further, LaCroix blasted the incumbent for having sporadic outreach events throughout his constituency, not working diligently to make sure those he represented could be familiar with who he is or what he does.
When it came to those political issues in the campaign, LaCroix honed in on the criminal justice matter in particular. As the Chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Whitmire was allegedly responsible for the rapid escalation in the number of individuals incarcerated throughout Texas; at least, according to LaCroix. He attributed this uptick to a harsh revision of the penal code, largely the work of Whitmire he alleges, that doles out punishment –not treatment– to low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
I then tried to steer the conversation towards some other hot-button issues, and tacked down his responses to these. Immediately coming to mind were ways to reduce the prison population, such as the legalization of marijuana. LaCroix appeared open to the idea. He also mentioned that he was supportive of ways to reduce the number of individuals executed, though he stopped well short of support abolitionism. Otherwise, he fell into line behind the other major policy positions of Democrats, such as being supportive of same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
He did also brush up with the absurd in some of his complaints about Senator Whitmire. While he critiqued what some would call “grandstanding” from Whitmire, he offered up similar ideas of exerting his “influence” around town if elected. Particularly, he bemoaned Whitmire’s silence on the 2010 Bellaire shooting of an unarmed man, despite also criticizing him for raising his voice on a recent beating by the Rice police. Similarly, LaCroix berated Whitmire for not working to give disadvantaged children tickets to sporting events, despite admitting himself that the Senator works to give said tickets to first-responders. While there are many political issues that make for appropriate politics, this was not one of them.
Overall, LaCroix kept coming back to this idea of the new generation of leadership. More important than the differences on the criminal justice matters or his underlying complaints about Whitmire was the idea that 40 years in office was too long. He even had a potential-advertisement up at his office that included photos of Whitmire from every session he has served therein. Personally, all the poster did for me is paint an ultimately bleak and despondent tale of the once-lustrous head of hair on the Senator, but the point still remains. Damian LaCroix has created a real campaign that will ask voters whether or not Senator Whitmire has served long enough. From my experience with the Senator, however, I know that he believes the answer is an emphatic no.
LBJ died over 20 years before I was ever born, and many argue that his unique style of leadership and politics is all but forgotten in today’s day and age. However, for 80 minutes, in a beautiful old building in the Heights, I recently could have sworn I was speaking to Lyndon himself. The simple mix of power, zeal and intellect makes Senator Whitmire a true force to be reckoned with throughout the State, and largely explains why he has retained so much power even though Republicans now have all but a stranglehold on power in the State.
The astute will remember that the Editorial Board has cast Whitmire in the past in a less-than-favorable light. Among these critiques was a dispute over his untethered enthusiasm on ostensibly unrelated subjects, such as the SafeClear program. Other examples, whether you agree with it or not, that come to mind include the SpaceX Program, Rice police and the conflict over last meals to the condemned. What I think I newly understand about Senator Whitmire is that he does this in a never-ending pursuit of justice, and to feed an insatiable appetite to do good in the world and lessen suffering any way he can.
He told me the story of the undocumented immigrant whose husband left her, of the young woman who was charged with truancy after becoming pregnant and of extremely young juvenile inmates who definitely should not have been incarcerated. In all of these cases, he explained that he either went out into the field or these people knew where to find him because of his sole district office. Whitmire was very quick to castigate the strategy employed by some of his contemporaries with multiple offices, lamenting that one could never be sure as to their whereabouts, while one may always be somewhat confident Senator Whitmire is at his one district office. “If it is an emergency,” he said, “I’ll come to you.”
I suppose that on the flip side of LaCroix’s insinuation that a career politician is harmful is the retort that they have quite literally dedicated their time to the public service, thus becoming arguably better advocates. While term-limited systems often features officeholders who have accomplished lives before politics and after, Whitmire has dedicated his life to this pursuit. He told me that he plans to die in office, still representing his constituents. Given the pittance allotted to State Legislators, Whitmire has quite literally eschewed a life of fewer fiscal constraints in order to simply continue to serve the district well.
Whitmire was eager to bring up criminal justice, though he described a very different picture of his contribution to the equation. He told me that, because of him, two harmful private prisons had closed. Honestly, the insinuation that a Committee Chairman from the opposing party is to blame for a boom in the incarcerated population is somewhat ludicrous. When I mentioned the idea of marijuana legalization, he immediately cast if off as a silly and quixotic suggestion. “Maybe you’ll live to see it,” he remarked. Whitmire, simply put, is interested in incremental and progressive changes that can be done down in the weeds of the legislative process. He told me that nothing in Austin happens on accident, and heavily insinuated that he was specifically a major reason why.
The irony is that this LBJ-esque desire to do good with a burning passion has brought about some of his recent challenges. By becoming a little too lost in the trees, Whitmire has often lost track of the forest. For example, he sometimes neglects the other parts of the district by spending too much time in the Heights or he presents a lackluster social media presence. The social media issue in particular was the only item that, when I pressed the Senator on, he finally admitted that it was something his office needed improvement upon.
Whenever I attempted to steer the conversation towards the more specific issues, as I did with LaCroix, Whitmire called me out on promulgating such an idealistic, unrealistic agenda. Again, his method of change is progressive and incremental, and he sometimes even settles for a slight loss. For example, Whitmire prided himself as the reason that the Guns-on-Campus bill was not added to the call of the Special Session, because he had crafted a compromise bill in the regular session allowing students to leave their guns in cars parked on campus. We agreed to disagree on the effectiveness of that dispute. On other issues, Whitmire simply noted his longstanding support from just about every interest group their was under the sun, and remained absolutely confident that the would continue to support him. In fact, even LaCroix agreed with the realities of this one.
The issue of LaCroix’s campaign, whom Whitmire pointedly refused to note by name, made the Senator visibly upset. A recurring criticism was that he did not actually live in the district, instead residing at a house in Bellaire. Again, while there are many legitimate political disagreements with LaCroix, the sincerity of his residence is simply not one of them. A cursory search on HCAD will note that there is only one property owned by a “Damian LaCroix” in Harris County, and that is is within SD15.
I do not live in SD15, but my deputy Sophia does, so we hope to cover this race in somewhat extensive detail in the future. As I have observed in the future, and believe even more strongly today, LaCroix has raised a plethora of interesting and legitimate issues about Whitmire’s record that should cause primary voters to stop and think about their decision. However, Whitmire has responded with an equally –if not more– impressive reasoning for why he should stay another four years. The responsibility will ultimately be up to the voters.