In Unusual Senate Race, Houston Democrats Vie to Replace Ellis

In the span of a month, a Texas Senate seat will have been vacated and effectively filled, an unconventional turn of events that has Houston Democrats scrambling to replace one of their most venerated members.

From left: Ron Green, Borris Miles, Senfronia Thompson

In the span of a month, a Texas Senate seat will have been vacated and effectively filled, an unconventional turn of events that has Houston Democrats scrambling to replace one of their most venerated legislators. 

The highly abbreviated contest is unfolding in Senate District 13, where Rodney Ellis is vacating his seat of 20-some years to serve on the Harris County Commissioners Court. His successor on the ballot will be picked July 16 by precinct chairs in the Senate district, which is spread across Harris and Fort Bend counties. 

"It's going to be a sprint," acknowledged state Rep. Borris Miles, who's vying for the seat along with House colleague Senfronia Thompson and former City Controller Ron Green.

The race was sparked by Ellis' election last month as the Democratic nominee for Harris County commissioner, a post he is all but guaranteed because no Republican is on the ballot in November. Winning the nomination virtually ensured him the job. The same is true for Senate District 13, meaning whomever can win the support of a majority of the precinct chairs later this month will likely succeed Ellis in the Senate. 

The domino effect might not stop there. If the winner is either Miles or Thompson, that would open a House seat and a spot on the November ballot, setting up another succession scramble among Houston Democrats. If either or both lose, on the other hand, they'd remain on the ballot for re-election to the House.

For those running for Ellis' seat, the race almost exclusively entails courting the 96 precinct chairs in Senate District 13 — 78 in Harris County and 18 in Fort Bend County, according to the state Democratic Party. 

"The No. 1 issue is the personal connection between the person and the precinct chair," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. "This probably advantages Miles, whose whole district resides within SD-13." 

"This is an odd race where money doesn’t matter," Rottinghaus added. "There’s not going to be any advertising. No one’s going to go door-to-door. This is all about who’s in the room and who can be persuaded."

Miles' House District 146 may lie almost entirely within Senate District 13, but his rivals are not without advantages when it comes to courting precinct chairs. Thompson's House district also shares some real estate with the Senate district, and "Ms. T" is a household name for many Houston Democrats. Green is the only one of the bunch to have won election citywide, and before that, he was a City Council member whose district was 85 percent within the Senate district. 

"For me quite frankly, it would be really hard to say who has a significant advantage," said Rodney Griffin, a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee and a precinct chair in Senate District 13. Thompson, he added, may have a "slight advantage" due to her long tenure in the House and the name recognition that comes with it.

As the field formed last week, one looming question was whether another state representative from Houston, Garnet Coleman, would throw his hat in the ring. He eventually took a pass, saying in a statement Thursday that he wants to remain in the House "as one of the most senior members of the body."

Retaining influence in the Republican-dominated Legislature appears to have been a consideration for both Green and Thompson. Green said one of the main reasons he decided to run was because he did not want to see Democrats lose their clout in Austin.

"I don’t believe it’s a zero-sum game," Green said. "I don’t believe we have to give up seniority in the House to be effective in the Senate."

Thompson has served longer in Austin than any other African-American or woman in state history. First elected in 1973, Thompson said it was not an easy decision to seek Ellis' seat, but she ultimately decided it would allow her to serve constituents "on a much larger scale in a smaller body — 31 as opposed to 150." 

Thompson believes her long experience would make her a senator in the mold of not only Ellis, who was first elected in 1990, but also Barbara Jordan, the ground-breaking African-American politician who represented Houston in the Texas Senate before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972.

"I believe I bring to this body of individuals that same kind of stature, that same kind of integrity and the same ability to work with people across the aisle," Thompson said. 

Miles brings a shorter resume to the race, having served in the Legislature for a fraction of the time Thompson has. He is positioning himself as a more forceful advocate for his constituents, promising not to go along to get along in the upper chamber.

"What's different from me and my other opponents is I'm a proven fighter for my community," Miles said in an interview, putting a finer point on the pitch he made after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down Texas' abortion restrictions. "With [Wendy] Davis gone, we need warriors in the Senate more than ever."

Miles launched his campaign as soon as it became clear Ellis would vacate his Senate seat, reportedly distributing yard signs outside the meeting where precinct chairs nominated Ellis for Harris County commissioner. He said he plans to cast a wide net in his outreach to precinct chairs and not just court those in his House district.

Green, meanwhile, is touting his ability to fill the seat without tipping the balance of power even more in favor of Republicans in Austin. 

"At the end of the day, I looked where Democrats stand and what we stand to lose as the session starts," Green said. "I don’t have to give up any sort of seniority in order to serve the district."