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Sheila Jackson Lee Might Lose the Primary to Her Long-Ago Intern

Amanda Edwards is posing a serious threat to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in the March 5 primary.

Sheila Jackson
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas has been in Congress since 1995. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is facing her first serious primary threat in three decades — and a key question is whether it’s time to pass the torch to the next generation of leaders.

“It seems to me with what’s going on, particularly during these trying times in Washington, I think we need a transfusion,” former Rep. Craig Washington, Jackson Lee’s predecessor, told NOTUS.

Washington took the idea of passing the torch quite literally: He gave Amanda Edwards, who is challenging Jackson Lee in the March 5 primary, a torch pin when he endorsed her in a joint TV interview in early February. Edwards has raised $272,000 in the last three months of 2023 alone — Jackson Lee, in contrast, raised just over $23,000.

The primary between Jackson Lee and Edwards serves as a microcosm of what’s happening on the national stage with questions about President Joe Biden’s age and the need for fresher perspectives. Jackson Lee, who has faced complaints about her treatment of staff and leadership, is now up against a candidate who is younger and willing to emphasize it. In Edwards’ most recent campaign ad, several older adults address the camera and say, “It’s time,” with the candidate finishing their sentence with “for change.”

Edwards and Jackson Lee are largely aligned on policy. They also have other similarities: Both have Ivy League degrees and served on the Houston City Council. Edwards even interned for Jackson Lee 20 years ago. When Jackson Lee entered the Houston mayoral race in 2023, Edwards, who had joined the race months earlier, dropped out and endorsed Jackson Lee.

Where they differ, Edwards argued, is the change that she would bring to the community. “What we’re seeing is that people in our community feel shut out from what’s happening in Washington,” she told NOTUS. “They’re very excited about the opportunity to bring some new ideas forward from a fresh perspective.”

“We have not seen the transformative change that the residents are looking for and seeking coming out of the 18th Congressional District,” Edwards said.

The competitive primary serves as a strong contrast to what happened four hours up the road in Dallas in 2022. The late Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson announced her retirement from the House after three decades just ahead of the 2022 election and recruited then-state Rep. Jasmine Crockett to succeed her. Crockett went on to win the seat and make her own mark in Congress.

Johnson’s move “made her look like a stateswoman where she was able to effectively pass the baton to a different type of candidate, somebody who she thought embodies that district and its future,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “You don’t see that here.”

Jackson Lee’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. She recently told Semafor she is “the go-to person in the United States Congress” and in neighborhoods on issues like Medicaid. “That’s the message to my constituents,” she added. “And that’s what will bring us to victory.”

Jackson Lee has received endorsements from the Houston Chronicle and former Houston Mayor Annise Parker. Parker told NOTUS that while she didn’t endorse Jackson Lee’s mayoral bid last year, the congresswoman has been effective as a member of Congress, pointing to their work together on Houston’s light-rail program.

“There have been times when I’ve been like everybody else at times when I’ve been frustrated with her,” Parker said. “But you always know where she stands and I appreciate that.”

Jackson Lee has a mixed reputation in Washington. She’s dealt with negative reports for decades about her high staff turnover and is considered an attention-seeker; she’s among the lawmakers who go to the State of the Union address hours early to get a chance to shake the president’s hand. “I mean, it’s one of the things that we tease about, you know, we roll our eyes about, she’ll show up to the opening of an envelope,” Parker said. “But it is also the people in the district who understand that she will be there. … She respects her constituents and shows up for them.”

Edwards suggested that some of Jackson Lee’s constituents might not feel that way, and framed herself as someone who would show up consistently. She told a story about going door to door after Hurricane Harvey to check on constituents as a city council member. She said some of them asked, “Are you up for reelection already?”

“To me that represents a democracy that isn’t working well for people, if the expectation is that I only know you when it’s campaign season,” she said.

Ryan Hernández is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.