Around D.C., Sheila Jackson Lee's image belies her persistence

Some see U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee as a publicity hound, but according to dozens of interviews with members of Congress, House staffers and political players back home in Houston, there is a method to her madness.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaks during the news conference at the Capitol with other members of the Heroin Task Force on combating heroin abuse on  April 21, 2016.

WASHINGTON – This time of the year is when U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee typically gets her 5 seconds of fame.

That’s at least the way her critics in the past have dismissed her annual ritual of setting up camp on the House floor hours ahead of the president’s State of the Union address to Congress, all to secure an aisle seat so that the president can't avoid her as he walks by.

The widely held perception is that this was a stunt by the Houston Democrat to draw a few seconds of national television exposure while hugging the president.

It also feeds into a broader, long-held image of Jackson Lee as a publicity hound in the Texas delegation, the Congresswoman who shows up to events without an invitation, who eats up time at caucus meetings with grandiose speeches, who repeatedly flubs facts on the House floor and who frequently adds superfluous amendments to other members' bills, making the authors want to tear their hair out.

But, according to dozens of interviews with members of Congress, House staffers and political players back home in Houston, there is a method to her madness.

Take her annual cameo with the president. To Jackson Lee, it goes beyond the cameras: It's an opportunity to lobby the president and the cabinet. 

Back in 2009, her former colleague, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, made his first trip down the aisle at President Obama's first joint address to Congress. Jackson Lee pounced on LaHood. 

"As he walked down the aisle, I made the final push for Houston being in the president's budget ... and for Houston being the first city that Secretary LaHood visited, and what were the results? We got in the president's '09 budget ... and he made our city the first city to visit," she said. "I hosted him the entire day and ultimately received a billion dollars for now a light rail system."

And Jackson Lee was unrepentant about her interest in television appearances. 

"I'm there to get my position across and to work [for] those I represent," she said of her media critics. "Why aren't they interviewing my constituents, who say — with a big smile on their face — say, 'I saw you.'"

On Tuesday evening, President Donald Trump is scheduled to make his first appearance before a joint session of Congress. Would Jackson Lee continue her tradition with a president whose inauguration she refused to attend? In a brief early February interview, Jackson Lee was noncommittal.  

Her ambivalence speaks to her shifting role in Congress under Trump after spending years largely cheerleading President Obama’s policy proposals. Even going back to the George W. Bush administration, the Republican president greeted her on the aisle, calling her "my fellow Texan."

But Trump is different. Earlier this month, Jackson Lee led a bloc of Congressional Black Caucus members onto the Senate floor in protest of Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions' nomination to U.S. attorney general.

As of Monday night, she said she was "keeping [her] powder dry" on announcing whether she will spend the day reserving her seat.  

A native of Queens, New York, Jackson Lee was among the first women to graduate from Yale University, and during her time there, she was a deacon at the Yale campus church. She went on to earn a law degree at the University of Virginia.

She built her career in Houston politics, serving a memorable tenure on the city council.

In 1994, she successfully challenged Democratic U.S. Rep. Craig Washington for the 18th District of Texas, the Houston seat once held by the late Barbara Jordan.

During her tenure, Jackson Lee endeared herself to liberals as an early opponent of the Iraq War — she voted against the authorization of force there — and as an advocate for gay rights.

She regularly makes Washingtonian Magazine’s “Best and Worst of Congress” list, and not in a good way. Based on a survey of Capitol Hill staffers — her harshest critics — she was named biggest “show horse,” “biggest windbag” and “meanest.”

That reputation is rooted in tales of high staff turnover in her Washington office and multiple anecdotes of Jackson Lee ripping her staff in public.

“Jackson Lee's reputation as one of the most combative and demanding members of the House — not only in her dealings with her own aides, but also lobbyists, support staff and congressional colleagues — has followed her since shortly after her arrival on the Hill,” Roll Call columnist David Hawkings wrote after a dispute Jackson Lee had with U.S. Capitol Police in 2015.

Other profiles have been far harsher. Jackson Lee said she mostly ignores the Washington commentary around her.

"I'm a woman of a certain era," she said. "I think I've been a victim of discrimination, sexism and even racism, frankly, because I am sure there is a whole array of stories to be told, and I don't go around trying to find out about them ... I don't worry about it. I do the work in this office. I do it quietly and consistently, and I check off the boxes of who's being helped and who's in need." 

And she pointed to what even her toughest critics take care to caveat: It's hard to see a white male subjected to the kind of criticism she's sustained over the years.

"I take no issue with anyone who chooses to go out and castigate, because I'm a tough lady, and I have been in the skin of a woman and an African-American, and I understand the injustices we have to live through, and I just take it with a smile because I love the institution, I love the people I get to serve and I have wonderful colleagues that I get the chance to serve with." 

That public image of Jackson Lee frustrates many of her friends and biggest supporters, who characterize her as one of the most loyal and hardworking colleagues in Washington.

“Sheila is … a real combative advocate, in my opinion,” said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat. “When she believes in an issue or in a person she goes to bat.”

Two of her fiercest allies are, oddly, Edd and Nina Hendee, a Republican couple from outside of her district, on Houston’s west side.

Edd Hendee is a local conservative firebrand radio host who, along with his wife, cut Jackson Lee one of her first donor checks when she announced her first run for Congress in 1994. No fans of the incumbent, Washington, the Hendees had long observed her in the Houston City Council and felt like she would be a better public servant. 

“Sheila and I can’t agree politically on what day of the week it is,” Edd Hendee said. “I find her positions to be puzzling, if not aggravating or exasperating, but I call her my friend on a personal basis.” 

As an example, Nina Hendee noted the 2010 death of the couple's son in a skiing accident. At the funeral receiving line, she noticed Jackson Lee discreetly waiting for hours along with thousands of other mourners. Hendee sent a friend to grab the congresswoman and expressed disbelief that a member of Congress did not come to the front of the line. 

“I didn’t come here as a politician,” Hendee recalled Jackson Lee answering. “I came as a mama.” 

"Love is love. Neighbors are neighbors," Jackson Lee said of her friendship with the Hendees in the Monday interview.

That mix of loyalty and persistence can be a sought-after attribute in D.C. when channeled effectively: Jackson Lee is considered the best intra-party knife fighter in her caucus.  

A year ago, staffers to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign described Jackson Lee as one of the candidate’s most effective Texas allies during the bruising presidential primary. Jackson Lee was rewarded with a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention last summer. 

“We cannot choose fear," Jackson Lee said during her convention speech. "We cannot elect a president who provides no hope to the laid-off union worker, no hope for the mother of five and no hope for the researcher who might find a cure for cancer."

A month later, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida was in a world of political trouble. Wasserman Schultz had resigned as Democratic National Committee chairwoman following the release of hacked emails that suggested party officials favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the primary fight for the party’s presidential nomination. Wasserman Schultz was up for re-election in a competitive Democratic primary and enraged Sanders supporters were now pouring millions of dollars into her primary opponent’s campaign.

Unsolicited, Jackson Lee offered to campaign for Wasserman Schultz, and her years-long penchant for publicity made that offer surprisingly valuable.

In Florida, African-American churchgoers are an organized and powerful voting bloc. Jackson Lee traveled the district’s churches with Wasserman Schultz and was received as a celebrity. She leveraged that credibility to vouch for her colleague in front of congregants, citing their shared battles against breast cancer. 

“She didn’t know to what extent,” Wasserman Schultz said of the gravity of her competitive primary. “She just knew a friend of hers needed help, and she knew how she could help, and she was persistent in making sure that she could help.” 

Wasserman Schultz pulled out a double-digit victory, credited in part to African-American turnout. 

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint, Michigan, described to the Tribune his frustration with trying to get colleagues to pay attention to the deteriorating water crisis in his district last year. Jackson Lee, he said, not only showed up in his district but also took the cause to the House floor without him having to ask her for help.

And Pallone, the New Jersey Democrat, enlisted Jackson Lee in a brutal intra-party leadership fight in 2014. He had so much trust in her abilities that he named her one of his “tellers,” an ally assigned to count ballots when colleagues voted on his bid to be ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Like Wasserman Schultz, he won his political fight.

"I enjoy having the ability to sense people's pain and then relay it on the floor, committees, in our congressional activism," she said of her outreach to colleagues and their constituents. 

That Jackson Lee racks up these political alliances is no small asset. Her work ethic has translated into a lock on her district. But if she ever faced a primary threat, a deep bench of Democrats in Congress would likely return all those favors. 

"The idea is, I think if I was in need, would I not want my colleagues to be there with me? We're like family," she said. "When there is that time of need, get going. Get busy and be helpful. Just be helpful." 

Most recently, the Congressional Black Caucus voted her as the new chairwoman of the board overseeing the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the leadership development arm of the CBC.   

It was a hotly competitive race, against a poised and popular Ohio congresswoman named Joyce Beatty.

Yet despite successes on the campaign trail and in battles within her own party, Jackson Lee’s idiosyncrasies remain hard to ignore.

In the halls of the Capitol, her incessant speechifying on the House floor has led to her unwitting participation in a years-long competition in Democratic offices called the “jar game.”

Within a Congressional office, a different staffer takes possession of the jar for the day. If Jackson Lee delivers a House floor speech, the staffer puts a dollar into the jar and passes it onto the next colleague.

If, by a fluke, Jackson Lee does not make it to the House floor for her daily speech, the staffer in possession of the jar wins the money inside it. 

In one particularly absurd episode from the summer of 2009, Jackson Lee missed her daily speech to speak at Michael Jackson’s memorial service in Los Angeles. After heated deliberation within the jar's home for that day, staffers finally decided that Jackson Lee's nationally televised eulogy counted as a floor speech; they put a dollar in and passed the jar along. 

"I'm on the floor because I have something to say, and I know what I'm talking about and I enjoy the institution," she said. "The one thing I want to make sure is I'm not offending any member." 

And it is her job, after all. 

"I'm taking part in the process of the House," she said. "I'm taking part in the institution."

And so, Jackson Lee is a study in contrasts. Colleagues consider her a brilliant legal mind and tactician, albeit one who undermines herself with seemingly ridiculous choices at times. Her strengths are sometimes weaknesses, and vice versa, depending on the day and the circumstances. But there is an indisputable well of affection for her.

And she has a sense of humor about it all.

"Give them a signal I may be on the floor this evening," she said of the jar game, as her nearby staffers laughed. "It's always good to be part of the joke. That's great. Too bad — I could have really soaked up if they sent me the check. It would have been a good thing for me to get the check; I would have put a lot of kids through college."