Culture / Newsy

Houston Billionaire Hosts a Political Kickoff Party Like No Other — Tilman Fertitta Orchestrates the Launch of John Whitmire’s Mayoral Campaign

The State Senator Wants to Run the Nation's Fourth Largest City

BY // 11.30.22
photography F. Carter Smith

All that was missing in the Post Oak Hotel ballroom were balloons and confetti as State Senator John Whitmire officially dove into Houston’s 2023 mayoral race. The atmosphere was more victory party than campaign launch and with billionaire hospitality mogul Tilman Fertitta serving as host — as well as Whitmire’s campaign finance chair — it simply had to be a party.

Parades of waiters passed through delivering trays of wine to thirsty supporters while multiple bars around the ballroom served top shelf spirits. And the valet parking, which can be as high as $20 and as slow as molasses in January, was free. Glad handing and back slapping replaced the air kisses, reserved for more genteel celebrations.

The throng was estimated to be 500 strong. Some confirmed supporters, others curious side liners and some who preferred not to be mentioned. After all, Whitmire is a Democrat — of the moderate stripe. And as Republican Fred Zeidman quipped on his way out, “They asked all the Republicans to leave because they were up front whining.”

The other two candidates for the mayor’s race announced to date are also Democrats — Amanda Edwards and Chris Hollins. The last Republican to serve as Houston mayor was Jim McConn, from 1978 to 1982.

“This is an impressive crowd,”observed Roxann Neumann, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Silver Eagle Distributors. “It’s the most bipartisan group I’ve seen at one of these events this early in the campaign.”

In particular, it was jaw-dropping to see Republican stalwarts Penny and John Butler and Lois and Brad Wright and more in the mix. Whitmire’s Republican host committee chairs, aka the big donors, included Gallery Furniture owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, real estate developer Richard Weekley, Fidelis Realty Partners CEO Alan Hassenflu and Houston beer distributor John Nau, represented by Neumann, among others.

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Crossing party lines is nothing new for Fertitta who over the years has hosted fundraisers, some in his home, for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Attorney General Dan Patrick and Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

“I’ve hosted a lot of political events,” Fertitta told the crowd. “But I think you’ve outdone even Presidents.”

Texas Senator John Whitmire, announced his candidacy for Mayor of the City of Houston with Tillman Ferititta and the Host Committee at the Post Oak Hotel at Uptown Houston (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Riyad Abu Taha, University of Houston president Renu Khator & Professor Suresh Khator at State Senator John Whitmire’s official announcement of his candidacy for Houston mayor with Tillman Fertitta and the host committee at the Post Oak Hotel at Uptown Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

That observation was echoed by former mayoral candidate Bill King, a self-declared moderate independent, who agreed that it was one of the largest turnouts he has seen.

“What I love about this, we’ve pulled together a great coalition of people in a non-partisan race,” Fertitta tells PaperCity. “How we look at this is that we want everybody to get involved and make Houston a better place and a safer city and we think John is the right guy to do that.”

Speaking of a safer city, among the many attendees were Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, Crime Stoppers CEO Rania Mankarious and husband Ramay Mankarious. The carefully non-partisan crew in the crowd included University of Houston president Renu Khator and husband Professor Suresh Khator; Houston First CEO Michael Heckman; and City of Houston webmaster Bob Nowak, who has worked for the city since 1994.

Texas Senator John Whitmire, announced his candidacy for Mayor of the City of Houston with Tillman Ferititta and the Host Committee at the Post Oak Hotel at Uptown Houston (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Janiece Longoria, Tom & Debra Perich at State Senator John Whitmire’s official announcement of his candidacy for Houston mayor with Tillman Fertitta and the host committee at the Post Oak Hotel at Uptown Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Among the bold-faced types spotted in the throng were Tena and Tyson Faust, Don Sanders, State Senator Carol Alvarado, Susan and Michael Plank, Dr. Peggy and Ashley Smith, Roland Garcia, George Farris, Trent Slovak, Cindy Clifford, Sonia Soto, Lee Vela, Bill Baldwin, Jacquie Baly and James Craig, Erick Andell, Janiece Longoria, and Dancie and Jim Ware.

“I can tell you he (Whitmire) is something else,” Fertitta told the crowd. “He doesn’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat or whatever you are, he will disagree with you.”

Loads of laughter followed. Then Whitmire took the podium to discuss his vision for governing Houston.

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