When Senator John Whitmire, the longest-serving member of the Texas Senate announced he would be seeking reelection and running for Houston mayor, Molly Cook had heard enough.
Republicans had just wrapped up their most extreme legislative session yet, effectively outlawing abortion and passing a sweeping voter suppression bill whose effects are now being felt by Texas voters.
Whitmire planned to win reelection and bow out of the legislature in the middle of his next term, leaving the seat up for grabs in a special election.
Believing there was too much at stake for a lawmaker with divided priorities, and that it simply made more sense to sort things out in March, Cook filed paperwork to primary Whitmire.
“He’s supposed to be focused on getting back our voting rights,” Cook, a registered nurse and activist, told the Signal.
Houstonians in District 15 needed someone in Austin devoted to basic issues, not planning for a full-time job campaigning for another office, said Cook, herself now working only one day a week to sustain her first run for political office.
A graduate of the University of Texas and Johns Hopkins, Cook has worked as a nurse for several years, most recently in a Houston emergency room she said offered a front row seat to the multilayered challenges people face trying to live healthy, happy lives.
The job was a childhood dream of hers, spurred on by witnessing the pastor’s wife and junior high school nurse come to the rescue when a kid cracked their head on the playground. “I thought, man, I wanna do that,” Cook said. “I wanna be the person you call when an emergency happens.”
Through the emergency room, Cook has seen some of Texas’ worst disasters, from Hurricane Harvey, a pandemic that she says highlighted and worsened inequality, and Winter Storm Uri, which Cook said crowded Houston hospitals more than Harvey.
The freeze and subsequent failure of the power grid was nightmarish, said Cook, recalling her stay at a hotel near the medical center to help with the overflow of patients, many seeking unspoiled medicine that required refrigeration at specific temperatures or access to life-saving medical technology.
“People were making their way to the ERs to receive what we call compassionate dialysis, which is a couple of hours to basically keep you alive until we restore services to folks,” Cook said.
Nursing was an eye-opening experience on the flaws of America’s healthcare system, the ugliest face of the country’s inequality. The emergency room and oftentimes jail, Cook explained, were places society put people it didn’t know what to do with. “Healthcare is one of the places where you can see most clearly the haves and have nots, it’s just very, very stark — especially in the emergency department,” Cook said.
Cook saw patients struggling with chronic illness and lifelong injuries, their life spans shortened from living in communities that had been disinvested and were located in unsafe, hazardous environments; sacrifice zones that were disproportionately faced by communities of color.
Clean air for a community could not be prescribed in a bottle, and so after graduate school and returning home to Houston in 2019, Cook set out to look for volunteer opportunities to improve public health on a mass scale.
She eventually came across Stop TxDOT I-45, a grassroots group fighting a controversial highway expansion in Houston that Cook has organized with for the past three years.
From door knocking to protests, Cook said the activism with Stop TxDOT I-45 has been one of the most meaningful experiences of her life, although she admits she somewhat stumbled into the fight. “I started showing up to some meetings, and the next thing you know you’re in charge of stuff,” Cook said laughing.
The group has made preventing the expansion of the major freeway a living room issue for Houstonians, and their efforts have helped partially pause a project that opponents warn will bulldoze hundreds homes and businesses, cause more pollution and fail to alleviate congestion.
The fight over the project, which follows familiar state versus local fault lines, has even reached the desk of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. If elected, Cook plans to push for legislation that would allow TxDOT to study and fund local transportation projects, like more robust bus and cycling infrastructure.
Organizing and activism seems to have prepared Cook for her new life on the campaign trail, where she now zooms around Houston on foot and on bike, selling potential supporters on her grassroots vision: a bottom-to-top approach to lawmaking and environmental justice, resdesigning ERCOT and preventing another grid failure, and progressive public health policies like Medicare for All — all of it enshrined in the campaign’s unofficial slogan, “It’s time for something different.”
In 2003, Whitmire had famously been the first Democrat to return home from Albuquerque where Democrats were breaking quorum to stop a mid-decade redistricting plan.
At the time, the move earned him the nickname “Quitmire” from some Democrats, a nickname that resurfaced in July when the incumbent was among four lawmakers to prevent the Texas Senate from again breaking quorum to thwart a discriminatory redistricting plan.
Praising Democrats who broke quorum, Cook said that unlike her opponent, she was ready to do everything in her power and leave the state to prevent harmful legislation that attacked the dignity of transgender highschoolers or denied abortion rights.
“It really breaks my heart,” Cook said of Senate Bill 8, a new law that has set up an archaic bounty hunting system to ban abortion in Texas after six weeks of pregnancy, causing most patients seeking an abortion to flee the state. Cook said she had a surgical abortion in 2014 that was emotionally difficult. “It shouldn’t have been, it’s a basic medical procedure that needs to be available to people who feel like they need them,” Cook said, pledging to expand access.
If elected, Cook would be the first woman to represent the district in its 176-year history.
And although it never comes up in the campaign’s messaging, Cook is quite the serious harp player — something neat to know as she attempts to gracefully play out the longest-serving man in Houston politics.
Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org