Legendary Democratic activist Carl Edward Whitmarsh died unexpectedly of natural causes on Sunday, May 8, 2016, at his home in northwest Houston. He was 64.
A native of Brenham, he studied political science at Texas Tech University and made Houston his home “as fast as he could.” He was very active in his neighborhood civic club and was a constant resource for all his neighbors.
Whitmarsh’s political career began in the heyday of the Texas Democratic Party. He soared as an aide to Senator Lloyd Bentsen, and his activism continued until his death last month. Despite being active on the state level and contributing to many national elections, his true love and purpose was for local politics. He formerly served as the executive director of the Harris County Democratic Party and, at the time of his death, as president of the Oak Forest Area Democrats, a local grassroots group whose meetings were always crowded and routinely attended by prominent elected officials.
“Carl Whitmarsh’s passing is an incredible loss to Harris County Democrats,” says James Lee, president of the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats. “He was one of those people who was willing to listen to and encourage young people. He was always encouraging of me and the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats. We didn’t always agree on everything, but he was supportive nonetheless. I’ll miss him.”
Whitmarsh virtually invented what could be considered the art of political blogging by today’s standards through the persistent and prolific use of his deep email list. That contact list was a byproduct of his vast institutional knowledge, local Democratic activism, and a lifetime of networking that started in the days of LISTSERVs, AOL, and Yahoo Groups—all of which morphed into email and eventually social media. Safe to say, if you never received an email from Carl Whitmarsh, you were probably not a Texas Democrat.
“Carl was an unapologetic Democrat who defended the party till the end,” says Fran Watson, Houston GLBT Political Caucus president. “One of his qualities I will remember is loyalty. If he supported you, that support would be uncompromising. Carl provided words of encouragement, and it was appreciated. Rest in Power, Carl.”
“Carl was a party loyalist and always put the party first,” says Lane Lewis, Harris County Democratic Party Chairman and Whitmarsh’s best friend. “He believed and understood that the party is a living-breathing singular being that must always come before any individual or agenda.”
Carl was always a leader, whether serving in an official party role or on the sidelines; he carved out his own brand of politics that endured the shifting winds of Democratic Party dominance in Texas. The Whitmarsh trademark was brutal honesty, stitching together unlikely coalitions and relentless party loyalty. He knew his style was not for everyone, even if uniquely effective. You could have heated arguments while agreeing with him at the same time. Whether you were a local activist or powerful politician, he could scream at you one day and sing your praises the next, and intend both wholeheartedly.
“Carl left an indelible mark on Democratic politics in Houston and beyond,” says former mayor Annise Parker. “Sometimes that mark was a kiss on the cheek. At other times, it was a kick in the pants. He was fierce and fearless.”
He advertised and proudly exemplified the words of former U.S. speaker of the House Sam Rayburn: “I am a Democrat without prefix, suffix, or apology.” Carl repeatedly joked that when he died, there would be as many people ready to dance on his grave as to cry over his death. It is certain that he is delighted by the knowledge that, once again, he was right.
“Carl was a Democratic activist and made it his life’s work to elect Democrats at every level, from the presidency down to the smallest local post,” State Democratic Executive Committee member Shelley Kennedy says. “He was a gentle giant who believed at his very core that we are all equal and deserving of respect. His celebration-of-life service was an iconic snapshot of the diversity that he promoted through both his work and his personal relationships. The LGBT community may never fully know the breadth of his contribution to their fight for equality because that contribution was made every day through his lifelong commitment to electing Democrats and the Democratic Party—locally, statewide, and nationally.”
“Carl always encouraged me to continue down my path,” says LGBT activist Ashton P. Woods. “These are some of his last words to me: ‘Whether you know it or not, you are a real hero. What you are doing is what so many folks want to do and do not have the courage to do. Trust me on that one, my friend . . . trust me.’ Always cherish people who believe in you, and honor their memory when they are gone too soon.”
Carl Whitmarsh is preceded in death by his father, Vernon Gray Whitmarsh, his mother, Lucretia Mae Whitmarsh, and his brother, Chris Albert Whitmarsh. He is survived by his honorary brother, Lane Lewis, his honorary niece, Kqisha Worsham, and his dear friends and honorary siblings Mary and Floyd Schlett, with whom he lived for more than three decades and considered family.