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Book Excerpt: Draper on Sheila Jackson Lee

An excerpt on U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, from Robert Draper's new book on Congress — Do Not Ask What Good We Do — from a chapter titled "Woman of a Certain Rage."

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Robert Draper's new book on Congress — Do Not Ask What Good We Do — highlights several members of the U.S. House, including a couple from Texas. Draper, a correspondent for GQ (and a former writer for Texas Monthly) has written a number of other books, including Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. BushToday's excerpt is about U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, from a chapter titled "Woman of a Certain Rage." 


It was in 1978, during Barbara Jordan’s final year representing the 18th District, that she received an office visit from a recent law school graduate named Sheila Jackson Lee.

The younger woman was thrilled to be in the famed congresswoman’s presence. But she did not behave like a starstruck postgrad. She possessed a deep, enunciating manner of speech not unlike Jordan’s, and she used it to ask a very basic question: How do I gain a foothold in Houston the way you did?

The young woman was actually from Queens, New York. Sheila Jackson Lee’s mother was a vocational nurse and her father drew horror comics for Eerie Publications. But her husband, Elwyn Lee, had just taken a job as professor at the University of Houston, in the city of his birth, and the boomtown openness of the Bayou City was appealing to the plainly ambitious Yale and University of Virginia graduate. She lacked her role model’s ability to impress higher-ups. Yet it’s likely the congresswoman saw something of herself in this hustling, intense young woman who now sought to succeed in a southern community still dominated by white males.

“The way to become relevant,” Jordan told her visitor, “is to go meet the icons of the community. Let them tell you what needs to be done in the community. Find out what that is, and do it well.”

It was good advice that Sheila Jackson Lee took, more or less. She did in fact seek out Houston icons, beginning with Jordan’s friend, the former Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, who hired her at his law firm. And after an unsteady decade of attempting to find a toehold in local politics, Jackson Lee at last managed to parlay her seat on the Houston City Council into a primary challenge against the 18th District’s officeholder in 1994, Craig Washington, and steamrollered the incumbent Democrat. Amid the tidal wave of the Gingrich Revolution, Sheila Jackson Lee arrived in Washington in 1995 as one of the Democrats’ few success stories, much as Barbara Jordan had been twenty-two years earlier.

What she did not follow was the part of Jordan’s advice that entailed her doing one thing and doing it well. To the consternation of her Democratic colleagues, Sheila Jackson Lee set out to do everything, all the time — a study in ubiquity, a generalist on steroids.

It was widely believed on both sides of the aisle, and even by Jackson Lee herself, that no one during her sixteen-year tenure could match her sheer volume of amending. To many, this compulsion on Jackson Lee’s part was obnoxious. It bogged down and trivialized the craft of legislating. When the Democrats held the majority, they brought bills to the floor that had been fully hashed out by the relevant committee, with no need for further tweaking. To amend it was to concede the bill’s imperfection. And now that the Democrats were in the minority and striving to cast the Republicans as extremists, to participate in Republican legislation by amending it was to confer on the bill an imprimatur of bipartisanship.

Jackson Lee took a different view. Something could always be made better. A bill of national scope might often require an added nuance here or there that would benefit her constituents. (Or, in her grandiloquent phraseology: “I should not deny a corner of the world the opportunity to be heard on an amendment.”) In an institution of 435 independent contractors, the Houston congresswoman had determined her own way to stay in business as the 18th District’s officeholder. Any opportunity to speak on behalf of her constituents (75 percent of whom were black or Hispanic), on any subject, she would lunge at. Clearly they did not care whether she irritated her colleagues in the bargain: Jackson Lee’s margin of victory in each election ranged from 30 to 80 percent. She kept winning, and amending.

But her demands extended well beyond the objective of getting things right, instead suggesting a desire for omnipresence. Jackson Lee belonged to a staggering fifty-two different congressional caucuses and task forces, ranging from the obvious (CBC, Progressive Caucus) to the decidedly esoteric (Friends of Norway Caucus, Songwriters Caucus, Interstate 69 Caucus). She was a reliable presence on the cable TV political broadcasts, whose producers (if no one else) saw the virtue in a congresswoman who would happily speak on any conceivable subject of the day. On the morning of each State of the Union address, Jackson Lee could be counted on to grab a seat on the House floor and hold it all day long, so that she could be seen for a few seconds in the camera frame with whomever the president of the United States happened to be that year. She managed to materialize at nearly every high-profile event worth going to — from the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner to the final Space Shuttle liftoff at Cape Canaveral — though only through the wheedling of her desperate and bedraggled staffers. Her windy declamations during Democratic caucuses were numbing affairs. One leadership staffer memorialized in his notes a caucus in which Sheila Jackson Lee strode to the microphone and, within a minute, shrunk her audience from approximately one hundred down to twenty.

And then there were the floor statements — and the jar.

The tradition of the jar dated back to the mid-1990s, during Sheila Jackson Lee’s early days in the House. Its precise origins were long forgotten, but it began with a congressional aide who brought a jar to work and put a quarter in it once Jackson Lee made a speech on the House floor that day. The jar would then rotate the following day to an adjacent desk. If Jackson Lee spoke, the staffer was obliged to drop a quarter in the jar and move it to another staffer’s desk. On the rare day that the Houston congresswoman did not speak, the staffer who had the jar that day was rewarded with all its contents. The Jackson Lee jar concept began to spread, with multiple jars springing up in numerous offices on the Hill, both Republican and Democrat — a rare unifying ritual in a time of divided government.

The jar-passing carried over into the next decade. In John Dingell’s office, a fanciful staffer ornamented their Jackson Lee jar with felt embroidery. In Tennessee Congressman Joe Knollenberg’s office at some point in 2006, the jar’s contents became so heavy and the aides so sick of lugging it from desk to desk that they finally broke down and used all the money to pay for lunch for the entire staff. Rumors, most likely apocryphal, began to spread of hundred-dollar payouts.

It was not that her speeches were nonsensical or poorly conceived. Sheila Jackson Lee was a progressive in the mold of her iconic predecessor Jordan (and Jordan’s successor, the famed liberal Mickey Leland, who was killed in a plane crash), and she often spoke with convincing passion on behalf of her otherwise voiceless constituents. The problem was one of ubiquity. Whatever that day’s legislative consideration was — health care, energy, the wars, job creation, every single one of the bills being drafted by the twelve Appropriations subcommittees — Jackson Lee could be counted on to speak about it. If there was no legislation on the floor, she would find something else to talk about. Such as: Michael Jackson’s funeral. A Super Bowl ad she deemed racist. The ground-breaking of a new stadium for Houston’s soccer team. A tape loop of white-noise musings interrupted only by her final sentence —
“I yield back” — which implied that she still had time remaining on the clock when, invariably, she did not.

Early in her career, some of her Democratic friends spoke to the congresswoman about her excessive volubility. You’re diluting your effectiveness. You’re smart as hell, but if you want to succeed here in the House, you need to pick one thing and focus on it. Her friends reported back to the Democratic leadership that Jackson Lee thought the advice was sound. They did not know that Barbara Jordan had given her the same advice two decades prior, and that she had similarly responded with appreciation and then proceeded to ignore it.

On one very meaningful level, the criticism was unfair. Justice was her (primary) “one thing,” and the metrics for defending the defenseless were not as cut-and-dried as the acquisition of highway funds or tax loopholes or regulatory exemptions or agricultural subsidies. Whether the subject was racial profiling in a small Texas town, Arizona’s harsh immigration bill, or the spread of AIDS in Africa — a grim phenomenon she began speaking about after touring the continent with President Clinton in 1999 — Jackson Lee’s energies came early and insistently, if seldom with immediate outcome. And on occasions her orating worked to satisfying effect. In the wake of 9/11, when the Transportation Security Administration had to fill 1,200 new security-screening jobs for Houston’s two major airports, Jackson Lee browbeat the agency into holding a job fair in the 17th District, which led to the employment of two hundred constituents. And in the early summer days of 2011, when the budget-strapped city of Houston moved to close fifteen of its pools and community centers, the congresswoman hit up two of the big oil firms in her district for $350,000 in donations. The venues stayed open throughout the summer’s record-breaking heat wave.

And as for her other “one thing’s”: The veterans at Houston’s Riverside General Hospital being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, thanks to a $1 million Defense Department grant secured by Jackson Lee, were probably not complaining. The workers at the Houston Ship Channel — a beneficiary of a $99 million federal stimulus grant she helped acquire — were probably not complaining.

Though Sheila Jackson Lee had become an inviting target to right-wingers (including outright sexists and racists) and, in any event, did no particular harm to the Democratic brand, there was little sympathy for her among her colleagues. She was a tireless worker who could always be counted on when partnering on legislation or to assist at fund-raisers, but her imperious style tended to grate on others. Jackson Lee’s abusiveness toward subordinates had been reported on since her earliest days as a congresswoman; the annual poll of Capitol Hill staffers in Washingtonian consistently ranked her alongside David Obey and Bill Thomas as “meanest” boss. When she flew home to her district at the end of each workweek, a staffer would await her at the gate with a motorized cart so as to ferry her to her car, though the congresswoman suffered no infirmities — unlike her predecessor Jordan, who nonetheless walked on her own power throughout her days in office. And on a congressional delegation (or CODEL) trip overseas, the other members traveled from one stop to another in a military bus . . . while alongside them, in a black Mercedes provided by the host country, rode Sheila Jackson Lee.

Small wonder, then, that after the midterms of 2010, Jackson Lee failed in her bid to be elected chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. She would later claim that she had “stepped aside” and permitted Emanuel Cleaver to take the post. In fact, the CBC put the matter to a vote. Midway through the balloting, when it was clear that Jackson Lee was headed toward overwhelming defeat, the congresswoman suddenly stood and proclaimed, “I move that we unanimously elect Emanuel Cleaver as our next chairman.”

Cleaver was thereby elected. Several members, however, privately voiced their dismay. They wanted the voting to continue. They wanted Sheila Jackson Lee to see the final tally.

From Do Not Ask What Good We Do, by Robert Draper. Copyright 2012 by Robert Draper. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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