Meet Lee Kaplan, the political newcomer off to a hot fundraising start in Houston’s mayoral race

Mar 30, 2023 | News

Meet Lee Kaplan, the political newcomer off to a hot fundraising start in Houston’s mayoral race

Kaplan is a former Baker Botts partner who has raised $1.3 million for his campaign.

Article Credit: Dylan McGuinness, Staff writer
Original Article: Houston Chronicle

Attorney Lee Kaplan has kept afloat in the early fundraising blitz of Houston’s mayoral race.

Jon Shapley/Staff photographer

During the early stages of a mayoral race, polls carry little significance and every candidate says they are organizing a diverse coalition of supporters. There often is only one indicator to differentiate contenders from also-rans: money.

Fundraising enables candidates to reach out to voters and introduce themselves in campaign mail, digital ads and, perhaps, on television. That is important in city elections, which typically feature candidates less familiar to residents, and which inspire lower voter turnout and engagement.

As of their January campaign finance reports, no candidate aside from state Sen. John Whitmire — who carries a $10.1 million war chest from his decades in the Texas Legislature — has more money on hand for his or her mayoral campaign than Lee Kaplan, an attorney and political newcomer.

Kaplan had about $1.2 million in his campaign account as of January. He has raised about $1.3 million, and lent $200,000 of his own money. That fundraising haul is just shy of two other contenders, former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins and former City Councilmember Amanda Edwards. City Councilmember Robert Gallegos and former Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia entered the race after the January campaign finance report deadline.

Kaplan says he has more money that he is “legally allowed to spend” than any other candidate, an allusion to questions about how much of Whitmire’s stockpile is available for use in a city election. The rest of the field has held office or been involved in municipal politics. Kaplan has not, but his fundraising numbers have kept him apace as a contender.

“I’ve frequently thought, well, you’re just writing checks,” Kaplan said of his past contributions to candidates. “You can’t complain if you’re not willing to run.”

The 71-year-old Kaplan grew up in Bellaire and Meyerland, and he has spent nearly his entire life in Houston. His father had a family business that “occasionally struggled,” he said, and his mother worked part-time at Neiman-Marcus. Kaplan recalls working as a peanut vendor for a couple seasons at the Astrodome, and his victory in a chemistry contest while at Bellaire High School resulted in a scholarship that helped pay the way to Princeton.

He graduated in 1973 and enrolled in law school at the University of Texas at Austin, working his way up to partner at Baker Botts before launching a boutique firm with Craig Smyser and Larry Veselka, who chaired the Harris County Democratic Party in the 1980s. Kaplan’s wife, Diana, also is an attorney, and their son Will works for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Kaplan has donated mostly to Democratic candidates, but he had not entered the fray himself until last year. He considered doing so in 2018, mulling a Democratic challenge against Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the popular county executive. He decided against it when a friend, former Sysco executive Mike Nichols, launched a campaign. Nichols later dropped out, and another political newcomer, Lina Hidalgo, went on to unseat Emmett as Democrats swept county races that year.

Now, Kaplan is going for it. His campaign so far offers a focus on the basics of city government, emphasizing public safety, streets and transportation, and trash collection among his priorities. He candidly admits he does not have solutions to those challenges yet, nor will he be able to fix them overnight. The pitch is in his approach: He plans to “beaver” away at them until he makes progress.

Kaplan said he and his son often have discussed the value of shoveling away at the proverbial mountain.

“No matter how big it is, if you start shoveling away at the problem, it gets smaller,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan has proposed adding more police cadet classes, as Mayor Sylvester Turner did for several consecutive budgets, and focusing on efficiency in the department. That may include turning some officer desk jobs into civilian roles, he said. A city consultant in 2017 said that could result in “considerable cost savings” for the city.

He rails against what he calls poor planning in streets repairs and recycling collection. He points to the city’s decision to switch to one recycling plant on the northeast part of the city, which has worsened collection times in the city’s southern sectors.

Kaplan’s appeal to voters, he said, also will stem from his singular focus on the mayor’s job. He is not aiming to use the position as a launching pad to something else, he said, and he does not think he is entitled to the job, comments that appear to be not-so-veiled jabs at his opponents.

“I’m at least as capable as those people, I’m not beholden to anybody, and I’m not worried about offending people so I can get some future position,” Kaplan said. “People do want someone who they believe isn’t beholden to others and isn’t looking for the next job.”

Kaplan’s challenge will be reaching voters unfamiliar with his name or career in law.  That is a common theme for the entire mayoral field right now, save for Whitmire, the state senator.

A recent poll by Ragnar Research Partners found no major candidate aside from Whitmire (74 percent) has name recognition above 50 percent with likely city voters. Kaplan’s current figure is 30 percent, according to that survey, conducted for Protect & Serve Texas and the Houston Region Business Coalition.

It showed a majority of voters, 56 percent, were undecided when given a choice among the field of candidates.

“That’s where the money comes in — the ability to introduce yourself to likely Houston voters,” said Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University.  “Kaplan starts off with pretty much zero name recognition, but it isn’t that much lower than Amanda Edwards, or Chris Hollins, or Robert Gallegos, or Gilbert Garcia. None of them have what we would consider to be high levels of name recognition, and even John Whitmire’s name recognition isn’t nearly as high as political insiders might think it might be.”

The result, Jones said, is an open scramble for candidates to separate themselves from the pack. The struggle for Kaplan will be whether he can find a lane to do so.

“I really want to be a good mayor. I don’t want to be anything else,” Kaplan said. “This is a great city, and it deserves the best leadership and the most thoughtful, hard-working people it can get.”

Election day is Nov. 7, with runoffs likely about a month after.