Evan Smith: You’re the most prominent African American Texan in Washington, and you have Barbara Jordan’s old congressional seat, so this must be an incredibly resonant moment for you—to see the election of the first African American president in our history. What were you thinking on Election Day?
Sheila Jackson Lee: I didn’t want it to be taken away from us. I was reminiscing about the drama of 2000 and 2004. I was intimately involved in those presidential campaigns—I was actually in Florida for the recount for a period of time.
ES: You were one of the few members of Congress who refused to certify the Ohio election results four years ago.
SJL: That is correct. This time I just kept wondering: Will it be? But with the memory not only of the Honorable Barbara Jordan but also of [her successor] the Honorable Mickey Leland as a backdrop, I also imagined a kind of celebration, shouting, and joy. Well, I could see Congresswoman Jordan in a serious celebration, because she always gave that very focused and somber expression, juxtaposed against Congressman Leland’s exuberance—either “I told you so!” or “Long overdue!”
ES: Where were you the week of Election Day?
SJL: I was in Ohio the day before the election—I had the privilege of going there for the campaign. I did street work, visiting polling sites, talking to voters, shaking the hands of early voters. It was moving to be there, late into the night, and then to look up on election night and see that margin of victory. When Ohio and Florida went into Senator Obama’s column, that was significant.
ES: The margin was so wide—eight and a half million votes—that even if there had been a recount in one state or another, there was really no way for the election to turn.
SJL: There is a gospel song, usually sung by someone with a deep baritone, that goes, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble.” That was the feeling that a lot of us had on Election Day. Even as the numbers were coming in, we were just holding our breath to see if it would really happen.
ES: You were a loyal supporter of Senator Clinton’s during the primary. Was it bittersweet for you to see this victory, thinking that it could have been her?
SJL: I think what I understood, as someone who has been engaged in the process of winning and losing over the years, is that it was meant to be. So the joyousness was not diminished—it was aided. When I agreed to support Senator Clinton, I viewed her values as welcomed by Texans, welcomed by African Americans, welcomed by Hispanics, welcomed by Asians, welcomed by the diversity of our state.
ES: I’m sure that you were asked by African Americans along the way, “Why are you not supporting Senator Obama?”
SJL: As I often said to my questioners, I knew Senator Clinton’s heart. As the resolution of the race took place in June and we hit the road and started campaigning for Senator Obama, I can say that I began to immerse myself in the significance and the singleness of electing an African American president, and the emotion overtook me. But I didn’t back away from my support of Senator Clinton.
ES: You never thought to yourself, “Maybe I’m on the wrong side of this”?
SJL: I can calmly and frankly tell you no. You know, Evan, it was a tough primary. There were moments when it wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences. But I think I was a better person for it. I felt the tradition of the people who held this seat. The one thing you could say about Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland is that they were true to their word.
ES: But your district was for Senator Obama during the primary.
SJL: Oh, absolutely. I was right out in the open—right in the bull’s-eye, if you will. But I tried to do it with courtesy and decency and respect for the challenges being waged.
ES: I remember seeing a YouTube video of you being booed at a Democratic district convention.
SJL: We won’t call it “booed”—we’ll say that people were vigorously expressing their support for their candidate. As you’ve surely heard, if you can’t stand the heat, you’ve got to get out of the kitchen.
ES: So what happens now? What will be the material effect of Obama’s election on the lives of Texans?
SJL: Over the years, I’ve used campaign slogans such as “She works and gets results” and “She works for you.” With Barack Obama we will get results—people-based results. We’ll be engaged in the fight for Medicaid and Medicare. We might actually get into a decent debate about the return of the tax dollar to the people of Texas.
ES: How do you think the president-elect’s team regards Texas, given the fact that the state went for John McCain by nearly twelve points?
SJL: When his political people run the numbers, they see a different Texas, an emerging Texas. One that includes some of our more-conservative elements—God bless them, I respect them—but younger Texans as well. A Texas that is looking for change.
ES: Do you buy the idea posited by the Los Angeles Times that Texas may flip in the next two presidential cycles the way Virginia and other red states flipped this cycle?
SJL: I believe in Legos. What we saw in the 2008 election was an amazing shift of building blocks. We were successful in moving the ball a little bit in Harris County—as you know, we elected a Hispanic sheriff. We’ve got wonderful building-block opportunities in the Valley based on the work we’ll do for Hispanics. We are a larger state than Virginia, so it’s going to take us a while, but I think once Texans see a results-oriented president and Congress, their hearts and minds are absolutely going to change.
ES: Do you believe that the Democrats will be competitive statewide as soon