Texas dermatologist running for Congress

If enough Houston-area residents can type "Sekula-Gibbs," there will be another doctor in the House.

By Doug Trapp — Posted Oct. 23, 2006

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Normally, voting twice for a candidate on the same day would be illegal. But the race for Tom DeLay's former seat in Congress is anything but normal.

DeLay ended his campaign for Texas' 22nd congressional district earlier this year after being indicted and publicly linked to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But DeLay withdrew too late to have his name removed from the November ballot.

Enter dermatologist Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, MD, a three-term Houston City Council member. A few years ago, Dr. Sekula-Gibbs had briefly entertained the idea of running for Congress, but DeLay had been the 22nd district's representative since 1984.

All that changed last summer when DeLay resigned. Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered a special election for DeLay's seat to be held on Nov. 7, the same day as the general election. By the end of August, Dr. Sekula-Gibbs had convinced the Republican Party she was the right choice.

Dr. Sekula-Gibbs is both a candidate to temporarily fill DeLay's seat until January and a candidate for the full 2007-08 term. Her name appears on the ballot for the special election. But because of DeLay's late withdrawal, it doesn't appear on the general election ballot, so supporters will have to write in her name.

Miracles and hard work

Dr. Sekula-Gibbs, one of several doctors running for Congress, was the first in her family to graduate from college, let alone medical school. She grew up in rural Floresville, Texas. Her father worked in the oil fields for Shell.

"They really instilled upon the kids how important education was," Dr. Sekula-Gibbs said.

When she took the SAT, she almost randomly picked three colleges to send her scores to: Rice University, the University of Texas, and Our Lady of the Lake University in nearby San Antonio. She had heard about the last option from friends.

One evening during dinner she got a call from a nun offering her a scholarship to Our Lady of the Lake.

"It was a little miracle for me," she said. "To me, that's fundamentally the American dream. You work hard, and your hard work is rewarded."

She majored in chemistry, but early on thought she wanted to be a physical education instructor. Then one day she went into a local public clinic because she had a rash. That's where she met a female doctor who eventually became her mentor and inspired her to try studying medicine.

"I didn't know what I was going to do before that," Dr. Sekula-Gibbs said.

She went to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, then did a family medicine residency at the University of Florida. She found her home as a dermatology resident at Baylor University, where she still has a faculty appointment. She opened her private practice in Clear Lake, a Houston suburb, in 1985 and has kept it running ever since.

Inspired by her husband

Dr. Sekula-Gibbs' first marriage ended tragically. Sylvan Rodriguez, a Houston news anchor, died of pancreatic cancer in 2000 at age 52.

"He was a dearly loved man in the community," Dr. Sekula-Gibbs said. An elementary school and a city park are named after him.

Before Rodriguez died, he talked about running for Congress. When he realized his time was limited, he prodded his wife to give it a shot. Being a political novice, she thought it better to start small by running for city council. Rodriguez agreed.

During her first term as an at-large Houston City Council member, she ruffled some feathers, according to local media reports, some of which characterized her as a micromanager.

In particular, Dr. Sekula-Gibbs did not always see eye-to-eye with Mary desVignes-Kendrick, MD, then the director of the Houston Health Dept., local reports state.

One key issue was the function of the city's health clinics. Dr. desVignes-Kendrick saw them as a key part of long-term, preventive care, but Dr. Sekula-Gibbs saw their potential to help Houston's uninsured residents. Sekula-Gibbs' view won out.

When contacted, Dr. desVignes-Kendrick declined to talk about Dr. Sekula-Gibbs.

Professional colleagues offered praise for Dr. Sekula-Gibbs.

"A lot of people just kind of get apathetic and don't do much. But she really gets in there and works hard to get things done," said Ronald Rapini, MD, a Houston dermatologist who first met Dr. Sekula-Gibbs when she was a resident at Baylor.

"She weighs the options and tries to come down on what's best for the region that she serves," said Scott Lillibridge, MD, who has worked with Dr. Sekula-Gibbs in recent years to bring attention to bioterrorism. Dr. Lillibridge is director of the University of Texas Center for Biosecurity and Public Health Preparedness.

AMPAC, the American Medical Association Political Action Committee, is supporting her, as is the Texas Medical Assn. PAC. "Having her in Congress would be a boon to organized medicine, and that's why we've thrown our full support behind her campaign," said David Selby, MD, AMPAC chair.

Since joining the city council, Dr. Sekula-Gibbs has worked to pass regulations on tanning beds, keep local military bases open, tighten border security and improve access to public health clinics, among other issues.

In her congressional race, Dr. Sekula-Gibbs supports maintaining America's leadership in medical research; lower-cost health insurance made available through associations, such as chambers of commerce; and tort reform.

She acknowledges that she tried to do too much during her first city council term. "Government doesn't change as quickly as you'd like it to sometimes, Dr. Sekula-Gibbs said. "There's pushback, internally, when you work in government [against] change. And I had to learn that."

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Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, MD

Age: 53

Hometown: Floresville, Texas

Residence: Houston

Education: MD, University of Texas at Galveston

Career: Private dermatology practice in Clear Lake, Texas, 1985-present; at large city council member, Houston, 2001-present; clinical assistant professor, Baylor College of Medicine; clinical instructor, University of Texas Medical Branch

Professional: Past president of the Texas Dermatological Society

Family: Husband, Robert, and two grown children

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