Jackson Lee, Sheila 1950–
Sheila Jackson Lee 1950–
Elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1994 in the face of that year’s Republican landslide, Sheila Jackson Lee represents Texas’s Eighteenth District in the U.S. House of Representatives. A lawyer and Yale University honors graduate, she had already amassed a string of career accomplishments that well-prepared her for the position, and in Congress she became known as a staunch defender of civil rights and African American interests generally, while also spearheading initiatives connected with issues as diverse as baby-switching and sexual harassment. The recipient of a great deal of media attention when she was elected, she rose to an even higher profile in late 1998, when her seat on the House Judiciary Committee made her one of the U.S. Representatives who would conduct the impeachment inquiry into charges leveled against President Bill Clinton.
A native of the borough of Queens in New York City, the future Congresswoman was born Sheila Jackson on January 12, 1950. She grew up in New York, attending public schools and graduating from Jamaica High School, and was such a standout that she won admission to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, arguably the nation’s most competitive university. She earned a bachelor of arts degree with honors from Yale, graduating in 1972, and then moved on to the University of Virginia Law School, receiving a J.D. degree in 1975. While still a student at Virginia she married Elwyn Cornelius Lee, who later became a vice president of the University of Houston; the couple have two children.
Jackson Lee was admitted to the Texas bar in 1975 and worked as an attorney in the Houston area until her election to Congress, working her way up through a series of increasingly prestigious positions and holding such posts as chairperson of the Black Women Lawyers Association (in 1980) and president of the Houston Lawyers Association (in 1983–1984). She was also honored with numerous awards from Houston business and legal organizations. Her first exposure to the legislative arena came when she served as staff counsel to the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1977 and 1978.
After seven years as a corporate attorney with the firm
At a Glance…
Born Sheila Jackson on January 12, 1950 in New York City; married Elwyn Cornelius Lee; children: Erica Shelwyn, Jason Cornelius Bennett. Education: B.A, with honors, Yale University, 1972; J.D., University of Virginia, 1975. Political party: Democrat.
Career: United States Representative from Eighteenth District, Texas, 1995-; practicing attorney, 1975-; staff counsel, U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations, 1977–78; attorney, United Energy Resources, 1980–87; associate judge, City of Houston, 1987–90; member, Houston City Council, 1990–94; elected to Congress, 1994; named whip, Congressional Black Caucus, 1997; named to House Judiciary Committee, 1997; participated in presidential impeachment inquiry, 1998.
Awards: Numerous awards from Houston-area legal and commercial organizations, including Rising Star of Texas Award, Texas Business magazine, 1983; Fellow of Texas Bar Foundation for Outstanding Legal and Community Service, 1986.
Addresses: Office—410 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515.
of United Energy Resources, Jackson Lee became an associate judge in Houston’s court system in 1987. Elected to the Houston city council in 1990, she was a popular vote-getter and served two full terms before being forced out of office in 1994 due to the implementation of a term-limits initiative. She announced her candidacy for the Eighteenth District seat held by Representative Craig Washington, whose checkered legislative record included a roll-call absenteeism rate of 24 percent, the worst in Congress.
Jackson Lee defeated Washington in the March Democratic primary by the impressive margin of 63 to 37 percent, thanks in part to large business contributions that resulted from her support of the North American Free Trade Agreement—an unpopular stance among her liberal compatriots but one that promised to work to the benefit of Houston’s multinational economy. Despite a huge Republican swing in 1994, she coasted to victory in the November election; the Eighteenth District had been crafted by the Texas legislature in 1991 to create a district with a large African American and Democratic majority. Even after a Supreme Court-mandated 1996 redistricting, Jackson Lee easily won a court-ordered special election held in November of 1996.
Jackson Lee had stepped into a congressional seat with a rich tradition of African American activism: it had long been held by the fiery orator Barbara Jordan, who rose to national prominence as a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings of the 1970s, and later came into the hands of anti-hunger crusader Mickey Leland, who died tragically in a 1989 plane crash in Ethiopia. Jackson Lee announced her readiness to carry forward the liberal ideals of her predecessors. “The lessons that have to be learned by Democrats is that we have to stand for something,” she told Black Enterprise shortly after being elected. She succeeded in implementing several measures that would have been dear to Leland’s heart, including an amendment that directed $1.5 million in funding to the African Development Foundation and another that addressed human-rights violations in Ethiopia.
Jackson Lee was chosen president of the small freshman class of Democrats elected in 1994, and in 1997 was named whip of the Congressional Black Caucus. She has been identified with a group of firebrand Representatives on the left wing of the Democratic Party (one of whose leaders is longtime California Rep. Maxine Waters), and as such, she has sometimes found that her proposals have encountered resistance in the conservative Congressional climate of the middle 1990s. Some of her initiatives, such as a proposal to create an Army ombudswoman in the wake of the Aberdeen sexual harassment scandal, went nowhere. But she became known as an unswerving champion of civil rights, and was the only member of the entire Texas delegation who did not vote for the Defense of Marriage Act restricting state recognition of homosexual marriages.
In 1998, with her seat in Congress seemingly secure, Jackson Lee turned her attention to the crafting of innovative new legislation. In October of that year she addressed the growing problem of “baby switching”—of the abduction of infants in hospitals, often through means of tampering with the records and measures that identify similar-looking newborns in a crowded nursery. Jackson Lee’s bill would require hospitals to establish security procedures to guard against baby switching and infant abduction, and would provide a maximum sentence of ten years in prison for anyone convicted of tampering with an infant’s identification records. “It’s devastating and a nightmare for a parent to know they’ve taken home the wrong baby,” Jackson Lee’s spokesman told the Washington Post “Who knows how many of these go unreported?” She thought this is a problem that needs to be addressed.
At the end of 1998 Jackson Lee found herself following in Barbara Jordan’s footsteps once again. Named to the Judiciary Committee in her second term, she faced the onerous task of participating in the investigation of impeachment charges against a sitting President of the United States, in this case the perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges that arose out of President Bill Clinton’s dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Even before the committee’s decision to release the salacious report of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, the atmosphere of its deliberations had been stormy, with Jackson Lee and fellow committee member Maxine Waters clashing frequently with conservatives such as committee chairman Henry Hyde.
Black Democrats by and large had remained the President’s most steadfast supporters in Congress, and Jackson Lee was no exception. She defended the President with biblical language during the debate over the formal launching of the impeachment inquiry. “Yes, the President has sinned,” she was quoted as saying in the Washington Post “But those of you who want to rise and cast the first stone, my question is: Who has not sinned?” With her acute legal mind and her passion for justice, Jackson Lee promised to be a star of the impeachment hearings, and an important figure in Congresses to come.
Barone, Michael and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics, 1998, National Journal, 1998.
1997–1998 Official Congressional Directory, 105th Congress, United States Government Printing Office, 1997.
Black Enterprise, June 1995, p. 32.
Time, September 28, 1998, p. 46.
Washington Post, October 1, 1998, p. D4; October 9, 1998, p. A1.
—James M. Manheim
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