The Houston Chronicle reports on a subject that has been brewing no shortage of chatter around Houston among local political types: whether or not Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis, who is also running for the Houston City Council, should resign the chairmanship. Upon some contemplation, my answer to that question is an emphatic yes.
Back in December, when Lewis first announced his candidacy, I was broadly supportive, given his track record as party chair. I have liked what Lewis has accomplished at the helm of the party, and was very supportive when he previously ran for the city council in 2009. In 2012, he was named Person of the Year by Texpatriate. It is my firm belief that if someone less competent than him were leading the party that election, every single Democratic incumbent would have been defeated.
All these qualities, all other things being equal, make Lewis a great candidate for the city council. But none of them justify him staying on as chair. Of course, I recognize that neither pertinent law or party rules compel Lewis to resign, but it is the right and ethical thing to do nonetheless.
Lewis was not the first candidate in this race, not by a long-shot. He was also not the first Democrat; the third, actually. Philippe Nassif and Jenifer Pool, both good progressives, would make fine councilmembers. Both have been outwardly campaigning for the position for many months. My biggest fear is that Lewis or his allies could — even inadvertently — coerce other Democrats out of the race because of the power he has over the party.
The party is not allowed to endorse in non-partisan elections like this one for that very reason. Likewise, salaried employees of the party may not get involved. A big player in the HCDP, Finance Chair Bill Baldwin, has resigned in order to take on a more direct role in Lewis’ campaign. It simply does not pass the ‘smell test’ that the chairman of the party need not adhere to the same standards.
In the Chronicle article, Lewis defended his decision not to run, pointing to the plethora of other politicians in elected office who simultaneously run for another office. However, this ignores the most inimitable quality of Lewis’ office: its constituents are not citizens, but political cadres, including other politicians. Lewis is in a unique position to reward or punish other municipal candidates. One that HCC Trustee Chris Oliver, for example, another candidate for At-Large Position #1, simply does not have the power to do.
As Texas Leftist and John Wright (writing for Project Q Houston) have noted, there have already been spats between Lewis and another candidate (Pool). This is to be expected; it is politics, after all. But what makes political trench-fighting like this so dangerous is that Lewis has weapons at his disposal that his opponents do not. Now, I do not think Lewis has done anything improper hitherto on his campaign, but he should proactively eliminate the possibility of it altogether and resign the chairmanship.
Lewis has been a good chairman, and would make a good councilmember if elected. I want to consider supporting him, but he needs to resign as chair in order to run a feasible campaign. If he doesn’t, there is simply no way that I could support him, all other things remaining equal.