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On special election runoff turnout and HD125

I figured a story like this was inevitable after Round One of the HD125 special election, in which Republican Fred Rangel got 38% of the vote and four Democrats combined to take the rest, with three of them being close to each other and thus farther behind Rangel. Ray Lopez will face Rangel in the runoff, for which a date has not yet been set.

Justin Rodriguez

Democratic Party officials and Lopez’s campaign remain adamant that they are in position to win the runoff and keep the seat. The four Democrats, combined, received more than 60 percent of the vote, they point out. And District 125 hasn’t elected a Republican since it was redrawn in 1992 to include more West Side voters.

But to others, the result immediately recalled San Antonio Democrats’ not-so-sterling track record in recent special elections. Electoral history and district demographics have not protected Democrats in those runoffs over the last few years: They have lost the last three off-cycle races in San Antonio, each of which occurred in traditional party strongholds.

In early 2016, Republican John Lujan scored an upset in a South Side legislative seat over Democrats Tomás Uresti and Gabe Farias. Uresti would defeat him nine months later in the general election.

Later that year, Independent Laura Thompson won election to an East Side legislative seat after Bexar County Dean Ruth McClendon’s death, also overcoming multiple Democrats. Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins put the seat back in Democratic hands in the next general election.

And in perhaps the most painful loss for Democrats, Republican Pete Flores won a state Senate seat last year that includes much of San Antonio. Flores flipped a seat that hadn’t gone to the GOP since Reconstruction, and his victory sealed a two-thirds Republican supermajority in the Texas Senate.

That race has some conspicuous similarities to Tuesday’s election in District 125. For one, the man who engineered Flores’ upset, Matt Mackowiak, is now running Rangel’s campaign. For another, multiple Democrats split the party’s vote, allowing the Republican to plunge ahead.

[…]

“It’s a very simple game of math in a special election,” [Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer] said. “When you’re running a race in a Democratic district you’re going to have multiple Democrats running for that position, and it’s always going to be that one Republican that has a universe of voters to himself.”

The Democrats believe that will change in a mano-a-mano, Democrat vs. Republican, runoff, and Democratic members of the Legislature are now rallying around Lopez. But they had a similar conviction — ultimately to no avail — that Flores wouldn’t prevail in what had been a Democratic district for more than a century.

Their logic isn’t reflective of the political reality of special elections, according to Mackowiak. The voters who chose Democrats Rayo-Garza or Art Reyna won’t necessarily show up again for Lopez in the runoff election.

“It’s just not transferable,” Mackowiak said. “Special elections are about motivation and enthusiasm.”

That sentiment was echoed by Larry Hufford, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s University.

“These small groups are so committed to their candidates,” Hufford said. “They say, ‘Well, my candidate didn’t win, forget it.’”

Those factors give Rangel an edge, Hufford said, especially if turnout drops in the runoff. If Rangel brings out the same number of voters, it puts him in a good position to win the majority while Lopez tries to inspire voters who backed Democrats no longer in the race, the professor added.

See here for the background. There are two claims being made here, that Bexar County Dems have had a spotty recent record in legislative special elections, and that the key to winning special election runoffs is to hold onto more of your own voters from round one than the other guy (if you’re the leader, that is) because getting new voters is too hard. Let’s take these one at a time.

First, the two special elections from 2016 are basically meaningless for these purposes. The reason why is because they were basically meaningless as special elections. They were for the purpose of serving the remainder of the 2015-2016 term, at a time when the Lege was not in session and not going to be in session. Neither John Lujan nor Laura Thompson ever filed a bill or cast a vote as State Rep, because there were no opportunities for them to do so. Tomas Uresti, who lost in that January 2016 special election runoff to John Lujan, went on to win the Democratic primary in March and the November general election, ousting Lujan before he ever did anything of note. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, the November nominee in HD120, didn’t bother running in the summer special election for it. Those special elections didn’t matter.

As for the turnout question, I would remind everyone that there were three legislative special elections plus runoffs from 2015. Here’s what they looked like:

2015 Special Election, House District 123


Melissa Aguillon  DEM   1,257   17.69%
Diego Bernal      DEM   3,372   47.46%
Roger V. Gary     LIB     103    1.45%
Paul Ingmundson   GRN      81    1.14%
Walter Martinez   DEM     780   10.98%
Nunzio Previtera  REP   1,512   21.28%

Total = 7,105

Special Runoff Election State Representative, District 123


Diego Bernal      DEM   5,170   63.67%
Nunzio Previtera  REP   2,950   36.33%

Total = 8,120

Diego Bernal got 1,798 more votes in the runoff – there had been 2,037 votes that went to other Dems in the initial election. Nunzio Previtera got 1,438 more votes in the runoff even though he’d been the only Republican initially.

2015 Special Election, Senate District 26


Trey Martinez Fischer  DEM   8,232   43.28%
Alma Perez Jackson     REP   3,892   20.46%
Jose Menendez          DEM   4,824   25.36%
Joan Pedrotti          REP   1,427    7.50%
Al Suarez              DEM     644    3.39%

Total = 19,019

Special Runoff Election State Senator, District 26


Trey Martinez Fischer  DEM   9,635   40.95%
Jose Menendez          DEM  13,891   59.05%

Total = 23,526

Remember how some idiot bloggers called for Sen. Menendez to concede rather than bother going through with the runoff, so the next special election could take place more quickly? Good times. After smoking TMF in said runoff, some other people claimed he won on the strength of Republican turnout in round two. For what it’s worth, there were 5,319 Republican votes in round one, and Menendez gained 9,067 votes overall. Make of that what you will. Also, for what it’s worth, TMF boosted his total by 1,403.

2015 Special Election, House District 124


Nathan Alonzo    DEM    467   23.81%
Delicia Herrera  DEM    555   28.30%
Ina Minjarez     DEM    828   42.22%
David L. Rosa    DEM    111    5.66%

Total = 1,961

Special Runoff Election, House District 124


Delicia Herrera  DEM  1,090   45.02%
Ina Minjarez     DEM  1,331   54.98%

Total = 2,421

The two runoff candidates combined for 1,383 votes in round one, while the two also rans got 578. Assuming all 578 voted again in the runoff, there were still another 460 people participating.

My point, in case I haven’t beaten you over the head with it enough, is that in all of these elections, there were more votes in the runoff than in the first round. That means – stay with me here, I know this is tricky – it’s possible for a candidate to win the runoff with extra votes from people who didn’t vote initially. It’s even possible for the second place finisher to win, in part by bringing in new voters. See, when not that many people vote the first time, there are actually quite a few habitual voters out there to round up. Who even knew this was a thing?

Yes, the SD19 still stands out like a turd on the sidewalk. SD19 encompasses more than just Bexar County, and there was some genuine resentment from third place candidate Roland Gutierrez, which likely hindered Pete Gallego in the runoff. (There were also many questions raised about the effectiveness of Gallego’s campaign.) Here, as it happens, third place finisher Coda Rayo-Garza has conceded after the remaining mail ballots arrived and endorsed Ray Lopez, so at least that bit of history won’t repeat itself. HD125 is more Democratic than SD19, so there’s a larger pool of dependable voters that Lopez can call on. He’s got work to do and ground to make up, and he certainly could lose if he doesn’t do a good job of it. But if we look at the history of Bexar County special legislative elections going all the way back to 2015 instead of just to 2016, we can see that the picture is a bit more nuanced than Matt Mackowiak and Larry Hufford make it out to be.

There is no longer a ban on federal funds for rail on Richmond

This is about as bittersweet as it gets.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

There are no plans to build light rail on Richmond, but for the first time in a long time there is nothing stopping Metro from asking for federal funds to help pay for it.

The federal spending bill signed Friday by President Donald Trump, averting a government shutdown, lacks a provision in previous funding plans barring the Federal Transit Administration from funding any part of light rail on Richmond or Post Oak.

The provision was added at least eight years ago by former Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, a fervent opponent of rail plans in the 7th District. Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee that set up the spending bills, added language forbidding use of federal money to “advance in any way a new light or heavy rail project … if the proposed capital project is constructed on or planned to be constructed on Richmond Avenue west of South Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond Avenue.”

He was defeated in November by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who said last month she aimed to be an advocate for transit.

Friday, she said in a statement she worked with lawmakers “to remove language in the bill that created unnecessary barriers and limited federal funding from coming to Houston for much-needed transportation improvements. Removal of this language will put the power to make decisions about our transit back in the hands of Houstonians.”

This is great, and it’s quite an achievement for Rep. Fletcher to get this done in only her second month in office. It’s just that in a more fair and just universe, we’d already have the Universities line built and would maybe be talking about extending it as part of the 2019 MetroNext referendum, while eagerly looking forward to the forthcoming Uptown BRT line as the completion of the original system. I know, it’s fashionable now to say that we should be wary about investing large sums of money into fixed infrastructure projects like this because driverless cars are coming and will solve all of our problems. My point is we could be celebrating the ten-year anniversary of this line – the Main Street line just turned 15 years old, in case you forgot to send it a birthday card – with millions of passengers having ridden it over that span. People often talk about how the time to have built rail in Houston was years ago. Well, we were on the verge of doing just that following the 2003 election, but politics, shortsightedness, NIMBYism, and the incompetence and mismanagement of the Metro CEO and Board following that election killed this key part of it off. I salute and thank Rep. Fletcher for keeping her word. I just mourn that it comes too late to deliver what had once been promised to us.

The family that grifts together

I am utterly flabbergasted.

Sen. Angela Paxton

In what state Sen. Angela Paxton describes as an effort to safely expand Texas’ burgeoning financial tech industry, the freshman Republican from McKinney has filed a bill that would empower the office of her husband, Attorney General Ken Paxton, to exempt entrepreneurs from certain state regulations so they can market “innovative financial products or services.”

One of those exemptions would be working as an “investment adviser” without registering with the state board. Currently, doing so is a felony in Texas — one for which Ken Paxton was issued a civil penalty in 2014 and criminally charged in 2015.

Senate Bill 860, filed Friday, would create within the attorney general’s office an entirely new program — what the bill calls a “regulatory sandbox” — that would allow approved individuals “limited access to the market … without obtaining a license, registration, or other regulatory authorization.” The bill, based on a 2018 Arizona law hailed as the first of its kind, aims to cut red tape for the growing financial tech sector, allowing businesses to market new products for up to two years and to as many as 10,000 customers with scant regulation.

In doing so, the bill would grant broad powers to the attorney general’s consumer protection division, allowing it to accept or reject entrepreneurial applicants who seek to hawk innovative products outside of the state’s current standards and regulations.

Angela Paxton said the bill is geared toward strengthening consumer protections in the underregulated, ever-changing financial tech industry — a sector that in Texas is largely centered in Richardson, part of her North Texas district. Constituents from that district first brought the issue to her attention, her office said.

“SB 860 allows for the growth and economic benefit of the emerging Financial Technology industry while the state provides the necessary regulatory framework and consumer protection in the marketplace,” she said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “The state agencies that have regulatory oversight of financial institutions and consumer protection laws will provide appropriate regulatory support within the sandbox to ensure that consumers are protected.”

But skeptics pointed to the bill’s optics problem: Ken Paxton, a statewide official accused of violating state securities law, would be empowered to decide who can skirt state securities law. And he’d get that power from a bill authored by his wife. Currently, Texas law requires investment advisers to register with the state — failing to do so is a third-degree felony punishable by a sentence of two to 10 years.

[…]

If SB 860 moved through both chambers of the Legislature and eventually became law, it would take effect Sept. 1. The proposal does not appear to offer any retroactive legal cover for past violations and it’s not clear whether it would directly impact Ken Paxton’s pending criminal case, though a change in statute could prove persuasive to a jury.

Still, ethics experts were slack-jawed that such a proposal would come from the wife of the state’s attorney general — even if he weren’t under criminal indictment for a charge so closely related to the legislation.

Randall “Buck” Wood, a longtime ethics lawyer in Austin, said it would be “a real concern” for Angela Paxton to introduce any legislation related to the agency her husband leads. But a proposal that relates so closely to his personal criminal indictment is “beyond the pale,” he said.

“It sounds like one of the more blatantly unethical acts I’ve seen recently. That’s just ridiculous,” Wood said. “This particular situation, it seems to me, is definitely personal to her and probably to very few other people.”

The measure would “almost certainly” influence Paxton’s criminal trial, added Wood, who has worked as a trial lawyer for decades.

Sometimes I think about the crazy things we have seen in our politics over the past couple of years, and of the players who have been responsible for them, and I realize that if any of this had been the plot and characters of a fictionalized drama, no one would buy any of it. It would be too ridiculous, too over-the-top, too unbelievable. And yet here we are, soaking in it in real life. How exactly did we get here? I don’t really have a point to make here. I just know that if I had suggested before last year’s election that Angela Paxton would file a bill to make what her husband had been arrested for doing legal, a large number of sober-minded people would have accused me of being somewhere between melodramatic and paranoid. I hope someday to live in a world where those accusations would have had merit.

Once again with Booker T

On the one hand, I admire what he’s trying to do. On the other hand, I completely disagree with how he’s going about it.

Booker T

Pro wrestler Booker T. Huffman is in a real fight to actualize his run for mayor of Houston.

His announcement in 2016 might have been met with skepticism — oh, another entertainer without a background in politics says he has the answers? — but Huffman, 53, thought he could relate to underrepresented voters and approach policymaking from their perspective because he knows what it means to face the same challenges.

Part of his inspiring life story involves a turnaround after his 1987 felony conviction for armed robbery. He had pleaded guilty, earned his release after serving 19 months of a five-year sentence, and then began a decades-long career in pro wrestling that culminated with an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Huffman trains more than 40 pro wrestlers at Booker T World Gym Arena in Texas City, commands nearly 2.5 million followers on social media and is slated to be a pre-show TV host at WWE’s pay-per-view event Elimination Chamber on Sunday at Toyota Center.

Nothing about Huffman’s success suggests he feels held back by the crime and punishment he had experienced, but more than 30 years later, it is why he cannot get on the ballot. The Texas Election Code and a Houston ordinance use language that has been interpreted to mean felons are allowed to re-register to vote, but they cannot run for political office.

Huffman described his criminal record as a dirt pile no broom can clear.

“I have to be totally clean,” Huffman said.

See here and here for some background on Booker T. As the story notes, he could challenge the Houston ordinance in court to get on the ballot. A candidate for City Council in Austin in 2018 did that successfully, with the Austin City Attorney agreeing with him rather than fighting him in court. For the record, I support Booker T’s efforts on the merits. Felons who complete their sentences should be allowed full participation in all aspects of society, which very much includes voting and running for office. The Houston ordinance, as well as the state law, should be challenged and either defeated or voluntarily changed. It’s the right thing to do.

That doesn’t mean that I want to see Booker T run for Mayor. He’s not qualified for the job and he can’t win (*), though his presence on the ballot would make it easier for Bill King to win. I would strongly encourage Booker T to run instead for City Council, which would accomplish his stated goal of being an example of how someone can rise above and succeed in a system that is stacked against them just as well, while also being an office that’s far more suitable for a first-time candidate. I’m sorry, but after 2016 I have zero patience for unqualified candidates, especially unqualified celebrity candidates, running for powerful executive offices. Participating in the process is great, but it’s on all of us to take it seriously. There are many ways to be an effective and influential member of the political system that do not involve competing for an office you have no business being elected to.

(*) – Tony Buzbee is also unqualified for Mayor and can’t win. We wouldn’t pay any attention to him if he wasn’t rich enough to spend a bunch of money on his vanity project. The only good thing about him is that he will siphon votes away from Bill King. Which is still not a valid reason for him to run.

Superintendent search will continue

For the time being, at least.

Houston ISD’s pursuit of a permanent superintendent will continue after trustees rejected a motion Thursday to suspend the search amid a recently launched state investigation into potential violations of open meetings laws.

Trustees voted 5-3 to continue the search for a permanent leader to replace former superintendent Richard Carranza, who left the district in March 2018 to become chancellor of New York City public schools. Three trustees who favored suspending the effort argued the district cannot attract qualified candidates with the looming threat of sanctions tied to the state investigation, while the five opponents argued the district should push forward despite the inquiry.

“I promised my community that I would do a superintendent search, and that’s what I’m following.” said HISD Board President Diana Dávila, who voted against suspending the search.

[…]

The three trustees who supported suspending the search — Wanda Adams, Jolanda Jones and Rhonda Skillern-Jones — have all advocated for permanently retaining Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, arguing she has proven her ability to lead the district.

The trio of trustees have been highly critical of five board members who secretly communicated with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, then voted in October 2018 to replace Lathan with Saavedra. Allegations of open meetings act violations by the five trustees who spoke to Saavedra triggered a special accreditation agency investigation by the Texas Education Agency. The five trustees have denied wrongdoing.

Supporters of suspending the search argued the potential for severe sanctions tied to the investigation will limit the pool of candidates willing to jump to HISD. If state officials order the replacement of the HISD board, new trustees could immediately replace the freshly hired superintendent.

“I cannot imagine that a highly qualified candidate who is rational and sane would come here in the face of uncertainty, when they may not have a job soon,” Skillern-Jones said.

The five trustees who voted against the motion Thursday — Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — have pushed for a nationwide search. Trustee Sue Deigaard, who previously supported giving Lathan a short-term contract and simultaneously conducting a nationwide search, abstained from Thursday’s vote, telling her colleagues she is “not going to be part of this divide anymore.”

“We all need to figure this out and not continue to be divisive on this subject,” Deigaard said.

I mean, as a matter of principle it’s generally a good idea to search far and wide for the best candidate. Under normal circumstances, the HISD job is pretty plum – it’s a big district with a good financial foundation and a lot of high-performing schools, and more than one former Superintendent has gone on to bigger things. For obvious reasons, the job isn’t quite as attractive right now – the search firm says the potential of a TEA takeover has been mentioned by numerous candidates. There’s a good case to be made for Trustee Deigaard’s position of extending Superintendent Lathan for now, and resuming the search later, say in a year or so, when the immediate issues have been clarified, if not resolved. One can also reasonably argue that with so much on the line right now, it’s wiser to leave the Superintendent in place who has been doing the work to get the four schools that need to meet standards up to those standards. By all accounts, the current program for bringing the schools in need up to standard has been working well. I don’t know enough to say that I’d support making Superintendent Lathan permanent at this time, but I’d definitely support keeping her in place for the near term and revisiting the question at a later date. As I’ve said before about all things HISD, I sure hope this works out. The Press has more.

Elisa Cardnell

Meet your first official candidate for CD02.

Elisa Cardnell

A naval battle just might be on the horizon in one of Houston’s most competitive Congressional districts.

On Thursday Navy veteran and science teacher Elisa Cardnell, a Democrat, filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to challenge newly-elected U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Houston Republican who is a former Navy SEAL.

Cardnell said she has been considering running for Congress for more than a month. In January, she told her social media followers she was getting ready for the race.

“Before 2016, I tried to stay out of politics, especially since as a member of the military I viewed my role as necessarily nonpartisan — at least in public life,” Cardnell said. “But now I feel that I have to do something, and my entire career of serving my country and my community has led me to this point.”

The 32-year-old Cardnell, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rice University, spent 5 years on active duty in the Navy and nearly 6 years in the Navy reserves. While on active duty, she rose to the rank of lieutenant, serving as an anti-submarine warfare officer and an officer in charge of port operations in Yorktown.

I’ve mentioned Elisa before, after she reached out to me to tell me of her interest in running. Among other things, filing this paperwork means she can now raise money, so we’ll have a very early indicator of enthusiasm in three months, when the Q1 finance reports get filed. Quite a few of the 2018 Congressional candidates are at least in the picture for 2020 – Mike Siegel (CD10), Sri Kulkarni (CD22), Gina Ortiz Jones (CD23), and MJ Hegar (CD31) are running, thinking about running, or being wooed to run again. I’ve not heard anything about Todd Litton yet, but he’ll be part of the conversation until he says otherwise. CD02 is not currently on the national target list, but I expect it will eventually get there, and as it is wholly within Harris County, it’s the biggest target available for local Dems. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it. The Hill has more.

Back to court for Prop B

Here we go again.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Lawyers for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner filed a motion Friday afternoon seeking to declare Proposition B invalid, contending the voter-approved referendum supporting pay parity for firefighters violates Texas law.

The move is the latest in an extended legal battle between the city and firefighters over the November ballot measure requiring the city to pay firefighters the same as police of equal rank and seniority.

[…]

The city’s motion claims that Proposition B is illegal under the Texas Local Government Code and the Texas Constitution, an allegation the city previously made in December.

The filing is notable, though, because Turner has said he hopes to negotiate a plan with the fire union to phase in pay parity over a number of years, arguing the city cannot find the funds to do so immediately.

His efforts to again invalidate the charter amendment altogether appear to cast doubt on whether both sides can ultimately reach an agreement. Though Turner has said “those conversations are taking place,” neither side has indicated they have made any tangible progress since [firefighters union president Marty] Lancton and Turner met publicly in January.

The day before that meeting, the union sought a court order aiming to force the city to enact parity, a move Turner questioned at the time. Lancton, skeptical of Turner’s sincerity in offering the meeting, said the city’s inaction had forced the union’s hand, while Turner said the union should not have gone to the courthouse on the eve of the meeting.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which you can take however you want. I’m mostly noting this for the record, because as far as I can tell there’s no legal impediment at this time to proceeding with Prop B, a subject that I’m sure will continue to arise. The one thing I find surprising is that so far no individual voters have filed a lawsuit over the wording of the ballot referendum. It seems like every other one we’ve had in recent memory has faced litigation over that, some more credible than others, so it’s a little odd to me that this referendum hasn’t had that same experience. Just a though.

Weekend link dump for February 17

I don’t want a Lost reboot, but a new story set in the same universe could be cool.

“How Russia infiltrated the world of American religious-right filmmaking”.

“A few notes on [Jeff] Bezos’ security apparatus.”

“Despite what the judge in Stone’s case might argue, in other words, being charged with a crime—or, in Corsi’s case, almost charged with one—does actually turn out to be an excellent public-relations opportunity. For people in the greater Trump orbit, the publicity of a legal clash with Robert Mueller provides a chance to tap into the thriving marketplace of fringe pro-Trump media. Disinformation in America is a business. And the profit to be turned from that business is a warning sign that the alternative stories of the Mueller investigation spun by the president’s supporters will have a long shelf life.”

“Conservatives’ evolution on religious liberty, in other words, is best understood through their lack of judicial empathy.”

Great moments on Sesame Street as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

“The EGOT Club: 15 Hollywood Heavyweights Who Have Won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards”.

I sure hope you don’t use – or more accurately now, didn’t use – VFEmail as your email provider.

“A conversation with the daughter of the serial killer BTK.”

“In every case, Schultz’s solution is either what the mainstream of the Democratic Party is already proposing to do or is so vague as to be meaningless.”

“My fellow journalists, are we really going to do this again?”

RIP, Carmel “Kim” Prashker Ebb, first female clerk to a federal appeals court judge.

So Lyndon LaRouche has apparently died at the age of 96. Assuming it’s not a conspiracy, of course, or some sort of “his head has been cryogenically frozen” scenario a la Walt Disney (yes, I know that’s an urban legend; work with me here). There are a handful of LaRouchies that periodically infest the downtown tunnel system, with their insane posters and flyers. Not having to encounter them ever again is one of the very few positive things I’ve gotten from not working downtown any more. Anyway, Ed Kilgore has a good read on the life and political times of Lyndon LaRouche. May his cryogenically preserved head get freezer burn.

RIP, Rick Schmidt, Texas barbecue legend and former owner of Kreuz Market.

“For all the other more important criticisms of President Trump, what’s striking is just how bad he is at being President. The Wall is a stupid waste. But he could have had billions to build it if he wanted to. Now he’s going to seize – or rather attempt to seize – a few billions of dollars in ways that are likely to be at least slowed down for years in litigation.”

“President Trump is talking. That is, he’s stringing words together into vaguely sentence-like constructions. Let’s listen in via my carefully curated Twitter feed. I guarantee that this captures the spirit of Trump’s remarks better than any normal media story you’ll read.”

RIP, Dave Smith, historian and founder of the Walt Disney Archives.

Good for Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid. They deserve every penny and more.

More looking forward to 2020

Gonna have some more of that sweet Congressional election action.

Smelling blood after picking up two Texas congressional seats in November – along with Beto O’Rourke’s narrow loss in the U.S. Senate race – House Democrats [recently] announced six new 2020 targets in the Lone Star State.

In a wish list of 33 GOP-held or open seats targeted nationally by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Texas figures prominently as a potential battleground, particularly in the suburbs.

The targeted Texas lawmakers include Houston-area Republicans Michael McCaul and Pete Olson. Around San Antonio, the Democrats are putting two other Republicans in their sights: Freshman Chip Roy, a conservative stalwart who worked for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, and moderate Will Hurd, who represents a heavily Latino border district.

Rounding out the list are Republicans John Carter of Round Rock and Kenny Marchant of Coppell.

“All six have suburban areas experiencing population booms and an increasingly diverse electorate. These factors gave Republicans a taste of what is headed their way.” said DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat, in a memo released Monday.

“In 2020 a rapidly emerging Democratic coalition will make Texas a focal point of the House Democrats’ offensive strategy,” she continued.

Democrats noted that all six targeted Republicans in Texas won by five points or less, revealing electoral weaknesses in a state that has been dominated by Republicans for a generation.

In practical terms, the DCCC list indicates the group will be pouring money and organizational resources into those races, including recruitment efforts to help candidates who best match their districts.

It’s the shutdown target list plus Will Hurd. Not really a surprise, though I think overlooking CD02 is a bit short-sighted. There will be time to correct that. For their part, the Republicans will target freshman Reps. Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred. A priori everyone goes into 2020 as the favorite to hold their own seat, but suffice it to say there are many variables and a whole lot of potential for volatility. If Donald Trump is heading for a massive loss, who knows how many of these red seats could fall. If he’s back into the low-to-mid-40s approval ratings, there may be a lot of action but not much change. If things have gone south for the Dems – a bit hard to imagine now, but politics is weird these days – the Republicans could win back the seats they lost. Hard hitting analysis, I know, but at this point it’s all as meaningful as a split squad game during spring training. All we’re doing now it setting up the potential story lines. The Current and Mother Jones have more.

A lawsuit against bail reform

That would be a No from me.

A Harris County judge has sided with lawyers for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and a slate of new Democratic judges vying to loosen misdemeanor bail rules this weekend, rather than grant a request of three bail bond companies that would have delayed the start of the proposed revisions .

The companies argued Thursday that the court-ordered bail reform — believed to be a key step in a lengthy legal fight over the pre-trial detention of poor, low-level offenders — would jeopardize their Houston bail bonds business.

“They won’t get to write as many bail bonds as they did before and they won’t make as much money as they did before,” said Allan Van Fleet, a lawyer representing the judges.

[…]

The reform, the companies argue, violates state law because it would guarantee many defendants a specific type of bail without first providing them individual hearings before a judge, and because it would require the sheriff to reject some bonds that otherwise would be valid under state law, among other reasons.

“We have a constitutional right to make our living by bail bonds and if they want to amend the way the things are, they can do that but it still has to be by state law,” said Kevin Pennell, who represented Set ‘Em Free Bail Bonds, A Better Bail Bond and Advantage Bail Bonds in the county suit filed Thursday.

Eightieth Civil Court Judge Larry Weiman countered the argument before he denied the order.

“Doesn’t the court have to balance the constitutional right of the defendants, those who are arrested and charged with a crime,” Weiman asked, before resetting the temporary injunction hearing to March 11.

I’ll bet tobacco farmers used to make a pretty good living, too. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sorry for the societal and legal changes that led to the decline of that profession. There will still be a need for bail bonds going forward. There just won’t be as much of a need for them. That is as it should be. A hearing to review the proposed settlement in the original lawsuit will be on March 8. We’ll see where we stand then.

“How Baylor Happened”

From Deadspin:

There’s not much to recommend spending four years in Waco. Driving into town up Interstate 35 from the south, the endless stretch of Texas nothing fills out slowly. It’s flat in the way you think Texas is flat. Empty fields give way to John Deere dealerships, then fast-food chains.

On your left, you’ll see the strip mall that housed the Twin Peaks biker gang shootout of 2015. Pass through the city’s squat downtown, and you can catch a glimpse of the grain silos that Chip and Joanna Gaines, stars of the HGTV smash Fixer-Upper, converted into the retail base of their reality TV empire.

But then, rising from the banks of the Brazos River, appears Baylor’s towering McLane Stadium. The building serves to announce the home of the Baylor Bears, Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy, and a football legacy stretching back to, well, RG3 and the Heisman Trophy. But that’s the point. Baylor is here. Baylor matters, finally. The other campus buildings are tucked away in the short hills along the highway, but the stadium declares itself forcefully.

For most of its history, football barely registered at Baylor. Instead, the school cultivated its own culture, deeply rooted in the Baptist church. It banned dancing on campus until 1996. Until May 2015, its student conduct code listed “homosexual acts” and “fornication” as expressly forbidden behavior, alongside “sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault,”and other activities. Sex outside of marriage is still forbidden. The university’s mission statement says it was “founded on the belief that God’s nature is made known through both revealed and discovered truth.” Even a teenager who’s been homeschooled her entire life can walk around Baylor, see the statues of Jesus and the sidewalks emblazoned with Bible passages, and feel safe that the university that speaks her language and shares her values.

Jane’s* parents celebrated when she was offered a soccer scholarship to Baylor. She’d be among other Christians, less than two hours away from their Dallas home. Alicia* was drawn to Baylor because she wanted something to bring her back to her faith. She wanted to attend chapel with her classmates, to feel the closeness of a religious institution. “I want to feel God on campus and in class,” she knew. “I want to come here to be with God in every sense of the matter.”

Melissa* had attended a small private Baptist high school in California. She was scared to attend a party school and was looking for a more conservative university. She liked how nice everyone at Baylor was, and that dorm visiting hours ended at midnight, even on weekends. Suzanne* was the daughter of missionaries. She grew up mostly overseas and spent a lot of time in Christian boarding schools in Papua New Guinea. College wasn’t something her parents expected of her—everyone in her family did church work—but she wanted to be a missionary doctor.

They all chose Baylor because it felt safe.

What they didn’t know when they enrolled was that the combination of Baylor’s culture and a set of newly-established ambitions had created a university that was unusually safe—but not for them. It was a safe place for football coaches who could do no wrong, for players whose transfers from other teams after being accused of violence were billed as the first half of a redemption story, for young men whose potential was prioritized over that of their female classmates, and for university leaders who prized their reputation over the safety of the women who studied there.

As Jane was beginning her senior year of high school, already committed to play soccer at Baylor in 2013, the university was breaking ground on McLane Stadium. Baylor had a vision for itself—to become the Baptist answer to Notre Dame—but accomplishing that would require money, a lot more money, and fast football success was also a fast way to excite major donors. Greed is not a Christian value, but as the world would soon find out, the school’s commitment to the religion of football would serve to undermine everything else that the university was supposed to stand for.

What follows is a long and detailed look into how Baylor, a small Baptist university where football was played, became Baylor, a blossoming national football powerhouse where female students were repeatedly assaulted by football players and no one cared until it finally became a scandal. I’m oversimplifying here, but that’s close enough for these purposes. Authors Jessica Luther and Dan Solomon have been the go-to reporters for documenting how and why it all happened, and you should read what they have to say.

Beto may yet be a Senate candidate in 2020

He’s at least talking about the possibility.

Beto O’Rourke

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer met with former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke last week to discuss a possible 2020 Senate campaign against GOP Sen. John Cornyn, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

O’Rourke, a Democrat who lost narrowly against Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, is considering running for president and hasn’t publicly discussed running again for Senate in 2020. But he also hasn’t ruled it out.

[…]

If O’Rourke chooses to challenge Cornyn instead of seeking the Democratic nomination for president, he would immediately have the support of Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) — Julián Castro’s twin brother.

“Joaquin believes Beto could beat John in 2020, and if Beto decides to see this thing through and do that, then Joaquin will give him his full support, just like he did against Ted Cruz,” a source close to Castro told POLITICO. “Otherwise, Joaquin will absolutely consider jumping in and finishing the job.”

As the story notes, we should know by the end of the month if Beto is mounting a Presidential campaign, which would almost certainly take him out of the running for Senate. That doesn’t mean he’ll run for Senate again if he decides against a Presidential bid, but we’ll have a bit more clarity on where things stand. The story also notes that MJ Hegar and Wendy Davis are looking at a Senate bid, which may apply a bit of pressure to Beto to pick a direction. The possibility that Joaquin Castro might try for the Senate intrigues me. I’ve discounted the idea of Joaquin running for Senate on the grounds that he’d be giving up four terms of seniority in what is now a Democratic Congress, with a sure path to leadership opportunities, for at best a coin flip for Senate. Obviously, I could be wrong about his thinking or his risk appetite.

I don’t know how this will be sorted out. I do think in the end, either 1) Beto announces for Senate and everyone else goes and does other things, or 2) Beto makes it clear he’s not running for Senate, and it becomes open season for whoever wants in. In the end, I think we’ll wind up with a strong candidate for Senate, whether Beto or Joaquin or MJ or Wendy or someone else. Mostly, I’m glad we’re talking about this now, and working towards getting someone officially declared now, so we can start fundraising and organizing for that person. One of the lessons learned from 2018 was that an early start was a benefit in many ways. We have the advantage of learning from and building on 2018 as we prepare for 2020. We’re running against a stronger candidate who sees us coming this time, so we’ll need every advantage we can get. The Current has more.

Texas Central gets an adverse court ruling

Hard to say how much effect this will have.

The planned high-speed rail project from Houston to Dallas hit a big obstacle last week in rural Leon County when a judge there declared the project’s backers did not have authority to force landowners to sell or provide access to properties.

Opponents of the rail project on Monday cheered the ruling as a death knell for the line — albeit one that will take years to savor and finalize.

“This project cannot be finished without eminent domain and the project is completely off track,” said Blake Beckham, the Dallas lawyer who has represented opponents of the Texas Central Railway project.

Company officials said Monday many of the opponents’ claims and the significance of the ruling were exaggerated.

“Texas Central is appealing the Leon County judge’s decision and, meanwhile, it is moving forward on all aspects of the train project,” the company said in a statement.

The heart of many of the legal fights, and Monday’s decision, center on whether the company is, in fact, a railroad. Backers since 2014 have insisted the project — using Japanese bullet trains to connect Houston and Dallas via 90-minute trips as 220 mph — is a railroad and entitled to access to property to conduct surveys and acquire property via eminent domain.

“Texas has long allowed survey access by railroads like Texas Central, pipelines, electrical lines and other industries that provide for a public good and a strong economy,” the company said.

Opponents have insisted that since the company does not operate as a railroad, owns no trains and has not laid a single piece of track. it is not eligible for the access.

“Simply self-declaring that you are a railroad … does not make it so,” said Kyle Workman, one of the founders of Texans Against High-Speed Rail.

Judge Deborah Evans of the 87th District Court agreed, issuing an order Friday that found Texas Central and another company it formed “are not a railroad or interurban electric company.”

[…]

The ruling covers Freestone, Leon, and Limestone counties where the line is planned.

In previous court cases related to land access in Harris County and Ellis County, the company has been denied access or dropped its request in the face of mounting questions from the court or opponents.

“They have lost every single legal interaction,” Beckham said.

Texas Central disputed that in a statement.

“A judge in Ellis County said trials should be held on survey cases for three local property owners,” the company said. “The judge did not rule on the merits of those cases, instead only saying they should proceed to trial.”

See here and here for some background. We’re still very early in the legal process, with some procedural rulings but nothing decided on the merits yet. It will be years before the courts sort it all out, and nothing will be settled until the Supreme Court weighs in. In the meantime, there will be further attempts by members of the Lege to put roadblocks in Texas Central’s way. KUHF has more.

Here’s one solution to the SOS problem

Works for me.

Rep. Roland Gutierrez

A San Antonio state rep wants to repeal the law that let Texas Secretary of State David Whitley refer a poorly vetted list of 95,000 people’s names to the attorney general for investigation for voter fraud.

Rep. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat, this week filed HB 1450, which will strip the Secretary of State’s office of authority to demand sensitive personal information from the Department of Public Safety.

[…]

“With as many as three lawsuits filed by an array of civil rights groups, it is clear that we need to fix this now,” Gutierrez said in a press statement. “The problem with relying on the DPS information for voter registration is its failure to account for those who became naturalized U.S. citizens after applying for a Texas driver’s license.”

In the lawsuits, civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and LULAC, called Whitley’s purge unconstitutional, arguing that it sets up discriminatory road blocks for voters.

Gutierrez and 13 colleagues voted against HB 2512, the original law that allowed Whitley’s office to access the driver’s license records in the name of sniffing out voter fraud.

“As an attorney I don’t take lightly accusing 100,000 Texans of breaking the law,” Gutierrez said. “We need to ensure that no illegal votes are cast, but we must do it with precision and integrity instead of targeting based on race. Texas is better than this.”

Here’s HB1450. I mean, I can’t imagine this passing, but it’s the right idea.

Whitley’s “apology”

He can do a lot better than this. He should do a lot better than this if he wants to get confirmed.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Facing an uncertain path to confirmation after ordering a deeply flawed voter citizenship review that seemingly focused on naturalized citizens, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley is apologizing to state lawmakers for the way his office bungled its rollout of the review — but he is still holding firm behind the overall effort.

In a letter sent to state lawmakers late Wednesday, Whitley largely defended the review efforts as a legally sound exercise, and he did not admit that his office had erred when it mistakenly threw into question the eligibility of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens or when it sent counties lists of voters it knew very likely included naturalized citizens.

Instead, Whitley vaguely admitted there were some shortcomings to the data his office used to flag almost 100,000 registered voters for citizenship reviews and noted his office should have devoted more time to “additional communication” with local and state officials to “further eliminate anyone from our original list who is, in fact, eligible to vote.”

“After close consultation with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), the counties, and members of the Texas Legislature, I have discovered that additional refining of the data my office provides to county voter registrars, both in substance and in timing, is necessary to ensure a more accurate and efficient list maintenance process,” Whitley wrote in the letter obtained by The Texas Tribune.

[…]

In his letter to lawmakers, Whitley said his announcement “could have been communicated better” by including “more substance” from the advisory his office sent out to counties detailing the release of the data and “by emphasizing my goal to ensure that no qualified voters are removed from the rolls.”

“I recognize this caused some confusion about our intentions, which were at all times aimed at maintaining the accuracy and integrity of the voter rolls,” Whitley wrote. “To the extent my actions missed that mark, I apologize.”

You can click over and see the letter if you want – I see no real value in that, given the clear lack of substance. Nothing about this should inspire any confidence in David Whitley’s ability to do the job. At the very least, we deserve an explanation of how this shoddy list was constructed, why there were no controls in place to properly vet it, why it was referred to the AG’s office despite these obvious shortcomings, and what is being done to prevent anything like this from happening again. Oh, and an apology to the people who have been wrongly accused. Come back after that and then we can talk.

In the meantime:

The confusion and chaos caused by Texas’ bombastic voter fraud allegations has manifested in almost every element of the fallout.

The latest example is a voter purge notice sent out by one Texas county that lacked basic contact information or even an official letterhead.

The notice left one citizen mistakenly flagged by the stake feeling “very worried” and a “sense of fear,” according to court documents filed Monday.

[…]

In Wood County, those notices went out with the space left blank where the phone number of the local elections office should have been. The notices also lacked the response form the recipients were asked to use to reply, and there was no letterhead on the notices.

A woman in the court docs known as “Jane Doe #2” — who received the notice despite being naturalized in March 2018 and voting legally in that year — recounted in a declaration her frustration and her “sense of fear,” given that she could not tell if the letter was fake or real.

“I questioned whether I had done something wrong, or if somebody was trying to prank me.” Jane Doe #2 wrote in the declaration. “I did not know where to go or who to call to receive answers to my questions.”

She first tried to call the county clerk’s office, where the staff member who answered her call said the letter might be fake and that the person whose name was on the notice didn’t work for the county clerk, according to Jane Doe #2’s statement. She finally got in touch with the county elections administrator, Lisa Wise, who explained that the notices had been sent out without the contact information by mistake. Jane Doe #2 eventually traveled to meet Wise in person and showed Wise a copy of her naturalization certificate.

This was part of a filing by MALDEF in their lawsuit against the SOS. What would David Whitley say to Jane Doe? What he has said so far is completely inadequate.

A beer truce is declared

Well, glory be.

Beer brewers and distributors and have been battling for years over what can be bought and sold at breweries across Texas.

This week, two key groups in the fight finally signed a truce.

The Texas Craft Brewers Guild, which represents the interests of local breweries, and the Beer Alliance of Texas, which represents the interests of beer distributors, have inked an agreement proposing that Texans be allowed to buy up to two cases of beer per person, per day in places where beer is brewed.

[…]

Regulatory reforms passed in 2013 allow breweries that produce fewer than 225,000 barrels, or about 3 million cases, of beer each year to sell up to 5,000 barrels for on-site consumption. Proposed bills filed by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, would expand the law to allow the beer to be taken to-go from local taprooms.

The agreement between the two sides came in the form of a proposed new version of the Rodriguez and Buckingham bills. The added provisions include keeping the 5,000 barrel cap, limiting the amount that can be taken home and for packaged beer to have alcohol content posted clearly on its labels.

The compromise would also require breweries to report beer-to-go sales to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission on a monthly basis.

And the groups agreed to refrain from lobbying to change the fluid-ounce caps of malt beverages for 12 years.

As you may recall, I discounted the possibility of this happening as the session was starting. I’m delighted to be proven wrong, though as the story notes the bill still need to pass. The other lobbying group, the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, are not part of this agreement and thus could work to defeat it. It does feel like there’s an end in sight, which would be good news for everyone. Let’s get this done.

I still have no idea what’s going on at HCDE

Whatever it is, it’s not normal.

After fiery exchanges and confusion dominated a special meeting Monday by the Harris County Department of Education’s board trustees voted to update the composition of an ancillary board charged with issuing bonds and overseeing construction projects for Texas’ last remaining county department of education.

Board members overseeing the department’s Public Facilities Corporation will largely remain the same, with HCDE Superintendent James Colbert Jr. and CFO Jesus Amezcula earning enough votes to have their terms renewed, and HCDE’s relatively new Executive Director of Facilities Rich Vela named as a new board member. HCDE Trustee Richard Cantu was also voted onto the ancillary six-member board.

Those actions, however, came after trustees lobbed accusations of backroom deals and carelessness at each other during the contentious hour-long meeting. At one point, Trustee Eric Dick called new Board President Josh Flynn a “coward” and a “chicken” for not including public comment on the special meeting’s agenda and implored county entities to examine actions proposed and taken by HCDE’s board.

“I beg the county attorney to have an investigation – I beg them to. I beg the county commissioners to look into this and to do something about it, I beg the county judge to do something about this,” Dick said. “This is outrageous, this is unacceptable, and we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Dick’s frustrations stem from the short notice given before Monday’s special meeting. It was called by Flynn on Friday, giving other trustees and the public 72 hours of notice, the shortest amount of time legally required to notify others that a meeting will occur under Texas’ Open Meetings Act.

[…]

HCDE Superintendent James Colbert Jr., who also chairs the corporation’s board, called a corporation board meeting on Feb. 5, giving HCDE trustees 72 hours of notice before the corporation leaders convened on Feb. 8. Flynn said the move caught him flat-footed and did not give the HCDE board enough time to respond. Colbert, however, said the meeting was necessary to approve some construction business and to address the membership issues detailed in Langlois’ report.

“There was no attempt to circumvent the board’s authority or to not inform the board,” Colbert said. “I just wanted to stay in compliance with contracts that were already issued.”

Flynn said he tried to call an emergency meeting last week but was unable to due to how such meetings are defined by state statute. Instead, he called the special meeting for Monday and included proposals to change the composition of the corporation’s board and to fire and replace Board Attorney Langlois with another attorney.

Superintendent Colbert and Trustee Dick questioned why such changes needed to be pushed through and could not wait for the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 27. Others, including trustees Cantu, George Moore and Danny Norris, said they had not yet had enough time to study the PFC or potential candidates to serve on its board. Others, including Superintendent Colbert, questioned why such changes needed to be pushed through so quickly.

See here for the background. Once again I can’t believe I’m about to agree with Eric Dick, but a little scrutiny from the county would not be a bad idea. Really, the problem here is with the two rogue members, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners. If we can just keep them from burning the place down for the next two years, the 2020 elections will take care of the rest.

MJ Hegar considers a Senate run

Now we’re getting somewhere.

MJ Hegar

Military veteran MJ Hegar, a former U.S. House candidate, is seriously considering a run for the Democratic nomination to take on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in 2020.

Hegar, who served in the Air Force in Afghanistan, ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. John Carter of Round Rock last year for his Central Texas congressional seat.

“I’m not closing the door on anything,” she told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday.

“I’m considering my options and weighing what’s best for my family and how to best serve my community,” she added. “I’m aware that I have assets. … I’d like to put those assets to use for my community.”

[…]

Whom the Democrats nominate to take on Cornyn is one of the central questions in this early stage of the 2020 election cycle. That eventual nominee could affect down-ballot races at all levels across the state. Many Texas Democratic insiders hope that former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is considering a run for president, or former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who is already in the presidential fray, will instead run for U.S. Senate.

For her part, Hegar said one thing that might factor into her decision is whether former Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis jumps in the Senate primary. Davis told the Tribune on Tuesday she has not “ruled anything out.”

Davis, who ran an unsuccessful Texas gubernatorial bid against Greg Abbott in 2014, has spent much of her time since then helping Texas candidates like Hegar.

“Wendy is someone I respect a lot and I support a lot,” Hegar said. “And if she were to decide to run, I would be very hard to convince to enter a primary against her.”

As you know, Hegar is high on my list of non-Beto options versus Cornyn. Frankly, I think the fact that she’s publicly talking about it is a sign that for Beto it’s either run for President or not run for anything. (In re: Julian Castro, given that candidate filing season ends in mid-December here, he’d have to abandon his Presidential campaign before ever facing a single voter, which seems unlikely to me. Maybe Governor in 2022 if he’s not in office or a Cabinet position after 2020, but I cannot see him running for Senate this cycle.) I would be very happy with an MJ Hegar candidacy.

As for Wendy Davis, this is the first time I’ve seen her name attached to a potential 2020 campaign. I love Wendy Davis, but she’ll have a harder time getting the kind of attention she got in her first statewide run, and when she does she’ll get asked a lot about why her 2014 candidacy flopped. Which is only fair – Texas Dems will surely want to know what she learned from that experience, and why she thinks Davis-Cornyn 2020 would be different than Davis-Abbott 2014. To be sure, I think being a female candidate now is much more of an advantage than it was in 2014, and with a solid anti-Roe majority on SCOTUS I think the abortion issue will play a lot better for her. Those white suburban women who avoided her in droves in 2014 are a lot more amenable to Democrats now, after all. I will just ask that if Wendy Davis throws her hat into the ring for Senate in 2020, it means that MJ Hegar will be back to try again against John Carter.

Vote centers advance

The other big story from Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman’s plan to shift to countywide voting centers inched forward this week when Commissioners Court unanimously agreed to file an application with the secretary of state asking permission.

Trautman hopes to incrementally open voting centers, where any county resident can cast a ballot on Election Day. Harris County currently uses voting centers for early balloting, but residents are required to use their assigned precinct locations on Election Day.

Michael Winn, who helped launch voting centers in Travis County before joining Trautman’s staff in January, said the change boosted turnout by 10 to 12 percent there. The centers offer voters more flexibility to cast ballots near their school or place of employment, which may be far from their assigned polling place.

The secretary of state must sign off on Harris County’s proposal before Trautman may proceed. She plans to open several Election Day voting centers in a low turnout election, such as a May school board balloting, before moving to a large-scale deployment for a general election.

See here for the background. There have been several public meetings to get feedback about this proposal. More planning will need to be done to determine the number and location of voting centers. I presume that will vary by turnout level, as has been the case with all-precinct locations, so accurately projecting turnout will be key. I have no idea how long this process takes, but we’ll be seeing these things sooner rather than later, at least for some elections.

Paxton double-talks on that SOS advisory

Ken Paxton really can’t be trusted. Not exactly earth-shattering, I know, but always good to remember.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton assured lawmakers on Friday that his office hadn’t launched criminal investigations into nearly 100,000 voters flagged by the secretary of state’s office for citizenship review.

But email correspondence obtained by The Texas Tribune between an assistant county attorney and a Paxton deputy who cites “pending criminal investigations related to these issues” appears to contradict the attorney general’s claim.

The two opposing statements were put into writing within a week. Paxton made his assurance in a letter received by the Senate Nominations Committee, which had grilled Secretary of State David Whitley a day earlier over his decision to hand over to the attorney general’s office the list of voters whose citizenship he was questioning. Whitley’s confirmation is in doubt, in part because of questions from Democrats about whether he knew there were naturalized citizens on the list but referred the names to the state’s top prosecutor anyway.

Paxton wrote that it would “not be possible to investigate tens of thousands of [secretary of state] matters” before local voter registrars had reviewed the lists they received from the state.

“We plan to begin our investigations only once some counties have completed their list maintenance,” Paxton said.

But the Friday before, Assistant Attorney General Lauren Downey wrote the opposite in an email to Guadalupe County’s assistant county attorney: “The Office of the Attorney General has pending criminal investigations related to these issues.”

See here for the background. Never trust a word Ken Paxton says. I don’t have anything to add to this, so let me turn the microphone over to Julieta Garibay:

Finally, 26 years after I had migrated to the United States and made Austin my home. After all the trials and tribulations as an undocumented immigrant. After being a survivor of domestic violence and getting my green card because of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Justice had prevailed — I would be a U.S. citizen.

In April 2018, my family and friends joined me as I took my citizenship oath. I couldn’t help but cry in joy and excitement as I waved my American flag. A month later, I proudly cast my first vote in the United States — one of the new rights I was most excited about. At the polls, I thought of all the people in the immigrant community who were counting on my vote to ensure we are treated with dignity and respect.

But a couple weeks ago, when I saw Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton proclaim “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” my heart sank. It was clear to me that the Secretary of State’s office hadn’t thoroughly investigated the data it had released on 95,000 potential non-citizen voters. Frightened, I emailed the Travis County Voter Registrar to ask if I was on the list. A couple of days later, I received a call that confirmed my fear — my right to vote was being questioned.

She goes on to call for Secretary of State David Whitley to resign. Failing that, not confirming him would be adequate. I’m with her on this.

Texas blog roundup for the week of February 11

The Texas Progressive Alliance only spends forty percent of its day in Executive Time, which is just enough to put together this week’s roundup.

(more…)

On to the runoff in HD125

We could still have a recount, given how close the race for second place was.

Justin Rodriguez

A Republican and a Democrat are moving on to a runoff in the race to replace ex-state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, in a traditionally Democratic district.

With all precincts reporting Tuesday night, Republican Fred Rangel got 38 percent of the vote and Democrat Ray Lopez had 19 percent, according to unofficial returns. The third-place finisher, Coda Rayo-Garza, narrowly missed the runoff, coming in 22 votes behind Lopez, a former member of the San Antonio City Council.

The two other Democrats in the race, Art Reyna and Steve Huerta, netted 17 percent of the vote and 6 percent, respectively.

[…]

Rangel, a businessman and activist, was boosted in recent days by endorsements from two top Texas Republicans, first Gov. Greg Abbott and then U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. Rangel’s candidacy — and runoff berth — evokes that of Pete Flores, the Pleasanton Republican who flipped a state Senate seat last year after advancing to the overtime round of a special election.

See here for the early vote update, and here for the unofficial election night totals. Turnout was 6.05%, and a bit more than sixty percent of the vote was cast early. We’ll need to see if Coda Rayo-Garza asks for a recount, which she’d be well within her rights to do as she trails Ray Lopez by 0.36 percentage points. Assuming nothing changes – and as you know, I never expect a recount to make any difference – it will be Rangel versus Lopez in the runoff.

Let’s talk about Rangel’s significant lead over Lopez for a minute. Lopez, Rayo-Garza, and Art Reyna are all bunched together in second through fourth place, with their votes distributed very evenly. Lopez and Rayo-Garza combined to outscore Rangel; add in Reyna and the three got about 56%, with the fourth Dem getting another six and a half. On the one hand, Rangel outperformed Donald Trump in 2016 (though Hillary Clinton trails the four Dems in total by about two and a half points), and did better than Republicans other than Greg Abbott in 2018. It’s a respectable performance – better, in fact, than Pete Flores relative to the 2016 baseline. On the other hand, HD125 is more Democratic overall than SD19, so in any remotely normal turnout scenario, Lopez should win without too much difficulty. One hopes that Bexar County Dems will not want to let another winnable special election slip through their fingers. If Rayo-Garza and Reyna endorse Lopez for the runoff and no one is asleep at the wheel, Lopez should win. It’s not a slam dunk, but it’s not really any harder than a free throw. Don’t screw it up, y’all.

UPDATE: The Rivard Report has more.

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

I fully expected that Commissioners Court going from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic after the last election would signal big changes in how business was done in Harris County, but I didn’t expect this to be the first milestone on the new path.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected Kim Ogg’s request for 102 new prosecutors, a stinging public defeat for the first-term Democratic district attorney by members of her own party.

The rejection came less than 24 hours after a former assistant district attorney filed paperwork to challenge Ogg in next year’s primary, a sign criminal justice reformers may have lost patience with the self-described progressive after helping elect her in 2016.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court — commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo —supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments. Ogg had asked for a 31 percent increase, which would grow her prosecutor corps by a third and include 42 additional support staff.

“This is not the only way, and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Ogg, who did not attend the court meeting, issued a statement after the vote.

“We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant and the community,” she said. “Harris County must have a district attorney’s office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner.”

See here for the background and here for an earlier Chron story that previewed the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. Ogg had addressed the criticism of her proposal, and also answered the question about maybe hiring prosecutors on a shorter-term basis, but it wasn’t enough to get any of her fellow Dems in line. I would say her best bet right now is to take what the ACLU of Texas said in a press release following the Commissioners’ vote to heart:

“Adding more prosecutors in Harris County is not the ultimate solution for reducing mass incarceration and fighting racism in the criminal system. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has taken a more measured approach than the initial proposal, the addition of new prosecutors must come with clearly defined standards for reducing incarceration — such as expanding pretrial diversion, reducing case disposition time, and reducing existing caseloads — instead of prosecuting more cases. The commissioners were right to call for studies into how best to improve the district attorney’s office, and District Attorney Ogg should commit to specific plans for how any newly hired prosecutors will be used. That’s accountability.”

“There is no question that Harris County prosecutors have high caseloads, but the solution is not to add more prosecutors in a cycle that endlessly ratchets up the size of the criminal system. The smartest way to reduce caseloads is to dismiss more cases, identify more cases for diversion, and invest significantly in substance use disorder and mental health treatment that help people who need it and prevent them from ending up awaiting prosecution in the first place.”

Seems to me this conversation will need to include HPD, the Sheriff’s office, and all of the other law enforcement organizations in Harris County as well. If the DA needs to prioritize what cases get prosecuted, they will need to prioritize what arrests they make. Commissioners Court needs to do its part, too, by working to expand mental health offerings. The Lege could also pitch in here, though for obvious reasons I’ll keep my expectations low. Everyone has a part to play – Kim Ogg’s part is bigger than the rest, but it’s not just her. Maybe by the time next year’s budget is being discussed, we’ll have less to argue about.

And speaking of next year:

Audia Jones, the former prosecutor who on Monday filed paperwork to challenge Ogg, spoke against the proposal. Jones said she left the district attorney’s office in December in part because she said Ogg’s administration has been too reluctant to offer jail diversion to defendants of color, in contrast with their white counterparts.

She said temporary court closures caused by Hurricane Harvey are not a driver of increasing caseloads, as Ogg contends, but rather are a result of her administration’s policies.

Murray Newman, who had some earlier thoughts about the Ogg proposal, notes that Audia Jones is married to Criminal Court Judge DaSean Jones. I’m not sure how that conflict gets sorted out if she wins (one obvious remedy would be for Judge Jones to step down), but that’s a concern for another day. I would have picked County Attorney Vince Ryan as the first member of the class of 2020 to get a potential primary opponent – designating a treasurer is a necessary step to running for office, but it doesn’t commit one to running – but here we are.

HD145 runoff set for March 5

We have a date.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

The special election runoff for House District 145 will take place March 5, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday.

The contest will determine the successor to former state Rep. Carol Alvarado, who won a state Senate special election in December.

Last month, Democrats Christina Morales and Melissa Noriega came out on top in an eight-person field for HD-145, getting 36 percent and 31 percent of the vote, respectively. Morales is the president and CEO of her family’s funeral home in Houston’s East End, while Noriega is a former city council member. She temporarily represented HD-145 in 2005 while Rick Noriega, the incumbent and her husband at the time, served overseas in the military.

Here’s the proclamation. I had guessed that the runoff would be on Saturday the 2nd – close, but no cigar. Unfortunately, what that means is that early voting will only be on weekdays, running from Monday the 25th through Friday, March 1. EV info is not up yet on the County Clerk website, but I imagine it will be the same locations as for the first election, and the hours will be 7 to 7 each day. I also expect it will be busier this time around. Make a plan to vote, you won’t have that much time to do it.

January 2019 finance reports: HISD

Odd-numbered years mean three types of elections in Houston – city, HISD, and HCC. We’ve looked at the finance reports for city candidates, now let’s have a look at the reports for HISD trustees, which I’ve separated into those up for election this year and those not up till 2021.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, District II
Sergio Lira, District III
Jolanda Jones, District IV
Diana Davila, District VII

Elizabeth Santos, District I
Sue Deigaard, District V
Holly Flynn Vilaseca, District VI
Anne Sung, District VII
Wanda Adams, District IX


Name              Raised    Spent    Loan  On Hand
==================================================
Skillern-Jones         0    2,104       0      291
Lira               2,165      229       0    6,007
Jones                  0        0       0   12,259
Davila                 0        0  19,178        0

Santos                 0      452       0    4,354
Deigaard               0      848       0    6,634
Vilaseca               0      688       0    3,818
Sung                   0      308       0    5,290
Adams                  0    2,088       0      238

Pretty boring, I’m afraid. Diana Davila left her “cash on hand” field blank, so I don’t know for a fact that she has zero on hand; she may have some amount of that $19K loan available. I don’t know why Rhonda Skillern-Jones has so little on hand. That may be an indicator that she could choose to step down rather than run for a third term. I’m just speculating here, but given the constant state of turmoil on the Board and the current threat of TEA takeover, it’s not ridiculous to postulate this. I do know that Wanda Adams had put her name in for consideration for the nomination for Justice of the Peace in Precinct 7, Place 1 (to fill the vacancy left after the March primary by the resignation of Hilary Green), though she did not get it. I want to stress again, this is just me thinking out loud, I have no direct evidence of what Skillern-Jones may be contemplating.

Having said all that, as far as we know at this point these four Trustees are running for re-election, and no potential opponents had filed finance reports for this deadline. You find Trustee finance reports on their individual Trustee pages (here’s the Board index page). Later in the cycle when there are formal opponents, there’s usually a separate page with the reports for the Trustees who are running and their opponents, as well as any candidates for open seats if such exist. As we’ve discussed many times before, who even knows if we’ll have Trustee elections this November. Until we know otherwise, I’ll report on their finance reports.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s sexual abuse problems

Some excellent longform reporting from the Chron, with more to come.

Thirty-five years later, Debbie Vasquez’s voice trembled as she described her trauma to a group of Southern Baptist leaders.

She was 14, she said, when she was first molested by her pastor in Sanger, a tiny prairie town an hour north of Dallas. It was the first of many assaults that Vasquez said destroyed her teenage years and, at 18, left her pregnant by the Southern Baptist pastor, a married man more than a dozen years older.

In June 2008, she paid her way to Indianapolis, where she and others asked leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 churches to track sexual predators and take action against congregations that harbored or concealed abusers. Vasquez, by then in her 40s, implored them to consider prevention policies like those adopted by faiths that include the Catholic Church.

“Listen to what God has to say,” she said, according to audio of the meeting, which she recorded. “… All that evil needs is for good to do nothing. … Please help me and others that will be hurt.”

Days later, Southern Baptist leaders rejected nearly every proposed reform.

The abusers haven’t stopped. They’ve hurt hundreds more.

In the decade since Vasquez’s appeal for help, more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reveals.

It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

Nearly 100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, Calif., to Hillsborough County, Fla., state and federal records show. Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today.

Journalists in the two newsrooms spent more than six months reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and conducting hundreds of interviews. They built a database of former leaders in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted of sex crimes.

The investigation reveals that:

• At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.

• Several past presidents and prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are among those criticized by victims for concealing or mishandling abuse complaints within their own churches or seminaries.

• Some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit. Others remain there, including a Houston preacher who sexually assaulted a teenager and now is the principal officer of a Houston nonprofit that works with student organizations, federal records show. Its name: Touching the Future Today Inc.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Along the way, it references the Paul Pressler scandal, which continues on. Here’s the index page for this series – there are two more stories coming – where you can also search their database of offenders. If there’s one lesson we can learn from the Catholic Church’s long-running scandal, it’s that no matter how much we think we know now, there will be more to come. And it can’t be emphasized enough that both the SBC and the Catholic Church have been among the biggest power players behind all of the main “morality” crusades in recent decades, most prominently restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom and LGBT equality (Paul Pressler was a big donor to the anti-HERO campaign). Never, ever forget any of that.

RIP, Cassandra Hollemon

Sad news.

Cassandra Hollemon

Cassandra Hollemon took the bench in a sweep of Black Girl Magic, becoming part of the historic moment when 19 African-American women in Harris County won spots overseeing some of the busiest courtrooms in Texas.

In the weeks since taking over Harris County Criminal Court of Law 12, Hollemon helped make a mark on local justice reform when she joined her colleagues in efforts to settle the landmark lawsuit over the county’s cash bail system. She served on the Community Supervision and Pretrial Services Committee, and offered a keen sense of humor with friends and colleagues.

On Monday, she died after weeks of struggling with “health issues,” according to fellow misdemeanor Judge Darrell Jordan. She was 57.

“We are saddened by the passing of Judge Cassandra Y. Hollemon,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle. “She was a compassionate judge who treated one in a respectful manner.”

Now, the Harris County Commissioners Court will have to pick a replacement, according to Barbara Armstrong, a managing lawyer at County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office. Given the timing of Hollemon’s death, her replacement would take the bench through 2020, with the option to run then in an election to complete Holleman’s unexpired term ending in 2022.

I did not have the opportunity to meet Judge Hollemon during the campaign last year, so I can’t add to her eulogy. She was clearly well-liked and well-respected, and she leaves behind two children and a grandchild, to whom I send out my deepest sympathies. As she was elected to a County bench, her successor will be named by Commissioners Court; had she been a District Court judge, it would have been Greg Abbott appointing a new judge. Rest in peace, Judge Cassandra Hollemon.

Equality Texas poll on non-discrimination laws

From the inbox:

New data released by national polling organization Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows majority support from every major demographic group for laws to protect LGBTQ Texans from discrimination.

“This poll shows that Texas has turned the corner, and equality for LGBTQ Texans is solidly a mainstream Texas value. The majority of Texans of every region, religion and major ethnic group–including white evangelical Protestants–support legal protections against discrimination.

“Despite overwhelming support for these laws, most Texans don’t know that in Texas you can still legally be fired for who you are or who you love. It’s time to change that by passing comprehensive non-discrimination protections this year,” said Samantha Smoot, Interim Executive Director of Equality Texas.

Comprehensive non-discrimination bills have been filed by Senator Rodriguez (SB 151) Rep. Farrar (HB 244) and Rep. Bernal (HB 254).

The new, in-depth analysis comes from nationally recognized polling firm PRRI, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy. PRRI’s sample size includes nearly 3000 Texas interviews.

64% of all Texans oppose discrimination against LGBTQ Texans, including majority support from white evangelical Protestants, 54% of whom oppose discrimination. In a breakdown by region of the state, the numbers are highest in Austin, El Paso and the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex.

  • Austin/Round Rock 78%
  • El Paso 73%
  • Dallas/Ft. Worth/ Arlington 68%
  • Houston/Woodlands/Sugar Land 64%
  • San Antonio/New Braunfels 64%

The research shows support across a broad range of subgroups for laws to protect lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual people from discrimination in jobs, public spaces and housing. Notably, there is bipartisan and cross-denominational support among Texans for LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws, as well as majority support across five major Texas metropolitan areas.

The new analysis also finds that 57% of all Texans oppose allowing a small business owner to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people based on the owner’s religious beliefs. To date, three bills (HB 1035 by Zedler, SB 444 by Perry and SB 85 by Hall) have been filed in the Texas legislature that would create a license to discriminate against LGBTQ Texans for special groups.

You can see the poll data here. For marriage equality, the numbers are 55% favor, 34% oppose. This is a poll of adults, not registered voters and thus certainly not actual voters, a bit of skepticism on top of the usual amount given for an individual poll is called for. It also helps to have other poll results to compare to, so I went looking and found this from 2017, when the entire state was being held hostage by Dan Patrick’s desire to be the potty police.

Some voters like the [proposed “bathroom bill”] more than others. Overall, 44 percent consider it important and 47 percent do not. Among all Republicans — including those who identify with the Tea Party and those who don’t — 57 percent said such a bill is important, and among Tea Party Republicans, 70 percent said so. Democrats are on the other side of this one, with 53 percent saying the legislation is either “not very important” or “not important at all.”

[…]

That was one of several cultural questions in the June UT/TT Poll. A majority of voters — 55 percent — say gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, a view shared by 77 percent of Democrats, but rejected by 52 percent of Republicans. Across those and most other subgroups in the poll, opposition to same-sex marriage in Texas is softening and support is growing. In June 2015, 66 percent of Democrats approved of same-sex marriages and 60 percent of Republicans did not. Overall, 44 percent of Texans were supportive while 41 percent were not. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled two years ago that gay marriage bans are unconstitutional.

“It’s going to take time,” said Daron Shaw, who co-directs the poll and teaches government at UT-Austin. “But there’s a broader push to inclusivity and diversity, particularly among young people.”

Click through to the poll summary, and you see that support for marriage equality was 55% in favor, and 32% oppose. Which is to say, right in line with this EqTX poll. That’s encouraging, but also a reminder that Texas isn’t quite voting in line with those numbers yet. 2018 was a big step in that direction, and with a slate of candidates that were up front about their support for LGBT equality, but still short of winning. What we should take from these numbers is that we truly are in the majority, and we need to keep pushing. We didn’t win last time, but we’re on our way.

Time again to talk judicial elections

Here we go again, like it or not.

In the wake of a midterm election that swept some 20 Republican appellate judges out of office, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht called on the Texas Legislature to reform a system he called “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”

“When partisan politics is the driving force and the political climate is as harsh as ours has become, judicial elections make judges more political, and judicial independence is the casualty,” Hecht told both chambers of the Legislature on Wednesday morning in his biennial address, a wide-ranging speech that touched on judicial salaries, technology and bail reform. “Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind.”

In recent history, partisan judicial elections have played well for Texas’ majority party; the state’s two high courts, in which justices run statewide, comprise all Republicans, as they have for two decades. But last year, as turnout surged in urban areas and voters leaned heavily toward the straight-ticket voting option, Democratic judges were swept onto the bench on the coattails of candidates like Beto O’Rourke. All told, Hecht said, in the last election, Texas’ district and appellate courts “lost seven centuries of judicial experience at a single stroke.”

“Qualifications did not drive their election,” Hecht said. “Partisan politics did.”

It wasn’t a new criticism, nor was it the first time Hecht has made such a call. Justices on Texas’ two high courts have been among the most vocal critics of a system that requires justices to run as partisan figures but rule as impartial arbiters, and the state has been challenged in court over the practice. But the call took on new significance after a shattering judicial election for Texas Republicans, who lost control of four major state appeals courts based in Austin, Houston and Dallas. Judges and lawyers who practice before those courts have fretted not just about the startling shift in judicial philosophy, but also the abrupt loss of judicial experience.

Hecht called on lawmakers to consider shifting to a system of merit selection and retention elections — or to at least pass legislative proposals that would increase the qualification requirements for judicial candidates.

You know how I feel about this, so I won’t belabor the point. I don’t doubt that Justice Hecht is sincere But:

1. Republicans have had complete control of Texas government since 2003. That’s eight regular sessions, and however many special sessions, in which they could have addressed this but chose not to.

2. Hecht and former Justice Wallace Jefferson have spoken about this before, but if anyone was talking about it before 2008, when Democrats first started winning judicial races in Harris County, I’m not aware of it.

3. The judges who were voted out may well have been experienced, but that doesn’t mean they’d make better judges than the candidates who replaced them. And the main consideration people had was voting for change. Maybe as part of the party in power, Hecht should given that a little more consideration.

Anyway. Until someone proposes an actual system to replace the one we have, one that takes into account the inherent politics of the process and deals with it in a way that truly enables merit and produces a judiciary that reflects the population it judges, it’s all just noise to me.

(Justice Hecht also had some loud and laudable words in favor of bail reform, which I appreciate. Go read the rest of the story for that.)

From the “Elections have consequences”, Metro referendum edition

Sometimes, consequences are good things.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

METRO will get more federal support for public transportation projects if Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher has anything to say about it. The freshman lawmaker wants to use her new seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to back METRO’s Regional Transit Plan.

Fletcher says she learned during last year’s campaign just how frustrated her constituents are about their lack of transit options. “I want to be a partner with METRO,” she told Houston Matters Monday. “And looking at their plan, I know it’s undergoing input right now, community input, through all these town halls they’re doing. But I think it’s really important to be a partner and try to help in all the ways that you can in the federal government [to] implement and get funding for those plans.”

Fletcher frequently attacked Congressman John Culberson during the 2018 campaign for blocking METRO’s efforts to build a light rail line along Richmond Avenue. She stopped short of endorsing the project herself on Houston Matters, but indicated she’ll follow METRO’s lead.

The full interview with Rep. Fletcher is embedded in the story, so go give it a listen. Having her fight for funds for Metro doesn’t mean Metro will get them – we all know how challenging it is to get anything done these days. But having someone in Congress fighting for Metro instead of against it will surely help.

Weekend link dump for February 10

“With Trump, on the other hand, close to 50 percent of Americans have already said they definitely wouldn’t vote for him even though we’re still more than 600 days away from the election.”

“But in many local markets, the arrival and expansion of Airbnb is raising questions about its potential negative impacts on local housing costs, quality of life in residential neighborhoods, employment quality in the hospitality industry, and local governments’ ability to enforce municipal codes and collect appropriate taxes.”

It’s too damn cold for your phone.

“Lorena Gallo, formerly Bobbitt, is hoping that we’re ready to see her as more than a punchline about a severed penis.” I do remember the stories about how her former husband abused her, so I’m on board with this.

“Your Super Bowl Boxes [Were] Almost Certainly Illegal”.

“What replacement players did for the NFL in 1987, fights over steroids have done for MLB since 2002. You cannot separate the disparate treatment of drug-policy offenders, both internally and externally, from the labor dynamics of each league.”

RIP, Bob Friend, longtime Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher.

“Jonathan Edwards was the most influential American theologian of his day and he remains one of the most influential American theologians of our day. He was also completely and spectacularly wrong about the single most important and biggest ethical, moral, and theological question of his life. Hugely, magnificently wrong. (Spinal Tap voice: How more wrong could he have been? None. None more wrong.)”

Three words: Pringle stack mathematics. You’re welcome.

He’s an amateur in the White House. He doesn’t have a lot of experience in governing, and I don’t see a lot of learning going on. He looks hideously weak.”

I for one welcome our potential alien overlords.

The weirdest strikeout in MLB history.

Fargo news! Hooray!

The only SOTU recap you need.

Free Southside Johnny! And his co-plaintiffs, too.

Six facts reporters should know if they’re going to write about abortion”.

“Something unusual happened to me yesterday. Actually, for me it wasn’t just unusual — it was a first. I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. Or at least that’s what the top people at the National Enquirer thought. I’m glad they thought that, because it emboldened them to put it all in writing. Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten.”

“What it does show is that AMI is precisely the criminal enterprise, weaponizing pseudo-journalism and cash payoffs on behalf of wealthy associates, as we’ve come to suspect.”

RIP, Frank Robinson, Hall of Famer, MVP in both leagues, first black manager in Major League Baseball. Read this if you don’t know much about Frank Robinson.

RIP, John Dingell, longest serving member of Congress and Twitter genius.

RIP, Albert Finney, British actor and five-time Oscar nominee.

So how’s that Trump tax “cut” working for you?

How many prosecutors do we need?

Opinions differ, but it’s a big question in Harris County right now.

Kim Ogg

Hanover is one of many prosecutors Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said are overburdened — the reason she has asked Commissioners Court for a budget that would fund 102 additional assistant district attorneys and more than 40 support staff. Ogg said the surge is needed to clear a backlog in cases exacerbated by Harvey, a driver of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.

Her proposal to expand the prosecutor corps by a third, however, has evolved into a proxy battle over the future of criminal justice reform in Harris County. Ogg finds herself so far unable to persuade Democrats on Commissioners Court as well as reform groups, who have questioned her self-identification as a progressive and said her proposal would lead to more residents in jail.

“Simply adding prosecutors is the strategy that got us here in the first place, with this mentality that the only thing we can spend money on is police and prosecutors,” said Jay Jenkins, project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Ogg, a first-term district attorney who unseated a Republican in 2016 with the support of many progressive groups, said these critics fail to grasp the on-the-ground realities of her prosecutors, whose heavy workloads mean they sometimes are the reason cases are delayed and defendants languish in jail.

Ogg pledged to send the first 25 new hires to the felony trial bureau, where she said they can help achieve the reforms progressives seek, such as identifying low-risk defendants who can be sent out of the criminal justice system without a conviction.

“Who else is going to divert offenders who should re-enter society, and prosecute the people who should be incarcerated to protect the public?” she said. “This is a question of how fast do our funders really want to reform our justice system?”

Ogg laid out her argument in an interview Wednesday at the district attorney’s temporary quarters at 500 Jefferson, where a regular shuttle takes prosecutors to the criminal justice complex more than a mile away.

Ogg said since taking office, she is proud to have diverted 38,000 defendants for a variety of low-level offenses, including marijuana possession, misdemeanor theft, first time DUI and mental health-related charges such as trespassing. With an active caseload that jumped from about 15,000 when Harvey hit to 26,523 this week, she said prosecutors are not always able to give victims and defendants the attention they deserve.

Her staff noted Harris County’s 329 prosecutors are less than half the number in Illinois’ Cook County, which is only slightly more populous.

“With adequate staff, we’ll be able to offer pleas that are reasonable earlier,” Ogg said. “We’ll be able to focus on public safety to make sure we don’t let someone go who is really a risk and threat to either his family or his community.”

She sought to mollify the concerns of progressives who fear it could lead to more people in jail, saying, “There’s no data showing that more prosecutors equals more prosecutions.”

Here are the original statements put out by TOP and the TCJC. This subsequent Chron story gives some more detail.

“We would like to stop the clock and take time to consider other options, primarily looking at funding for mental health issues,” organizer Terrance Koontz said.

Koontz said TOP is looking at housing options for nonviolent offenders who may need to reset their lives.

“We’re talking about individuals who are being arrested for minor drug charges or being homeless on the street or having a mental problem, and they definitely shouldn’t be sitting in jail,” Koontz said. “We are not here to attack D.A. Ogg, we just want more time to consider our options.”

[…]

Doug Murphy, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, agrees with Ogg’s proposal.

“Having witnessed the daily reality of their lack of manpower what we’re seeing is Harris County was the fastest moving docket in the country, we called it the rocket docket, and it slowed it down to a snail’s pace,” said Murphy. “What we got is bloated dockets because they don’t have the manpower to work these cases up and marshal the evidence.”

Murphy believes more prosecutors would help pick up the pace of getting cases to trial, resolved and even dismissed. “If I weren’t witnessing daily the backlog and the frustration, I would be in total agreement with the other organization,” Murphy said.

Koontz still worries that more prosecutors would ultimately mean more arrests and more people wrongly incarcerated.

“We just want to consider other viable options outside of just hiring the prosecutors,” Koontz said. “Because although it does not seem like putting more people in jail, at the end of the day we feel like more people will end up in jail than not and at the end of the day its black and brown people who are overwhelmingly being incarcerated.”

Honestly, I think everyone is raising valid concerns. The chaos of Harvey has caused a big backlog for the DA’s office, and it doesn’t serve anyone’s interests for cases to drag out because there just isn’t the time or the bandwidth among overworked assistant DAs to get to them. On the other hand, Kim Ogg made promises about how she was going to reform the system, and a big part of that was not prosecuting a lot of low-level crimes or crimes involving people who need mental health treatment. They also worry that while Ogg might not backtrack on her stated priorities, the next DA who inherits her bigger office may not share those priorities. It’s not at all unreasonable to worry that an increase in prosecutors will be counter to Ogg’s stated goals.

So how to resolve this? Grits suggests increasing the Public Defender’s office by an equivalent amount – Commissioner Rodney Ellis has suggested something like this as well, and the PDO is seeking more funding, so that’s on the table. I like that idea, but I also think it may be possible to assuage the concerns about what happens after the backlog is cleared by putting a time limit on the hiring expansion. Is it possible to hire people on one or two year non-renewable contracts, to get the office through the backlog but then have it return to a smaller size afterward? I’m just spitballing here, but if we agree that clearing the backlog is a worthy goal, then we ought to be able to find a way to ensure that doing so doesn’t lead to mission creep. I’m open to other ideas, but I feel like this is something that needs to lead to a compromise, not one side winning and the other side losing. I hope we can get there.

Early voting ends in HD125

I have to admit, I’d totally forgotten about this special election.

Justin Rodriguez

The special election for Texas House District 125 has been on a characteristically slow roll as early voting closed Friday in the contest to fill former State Rep. Justin Rodriguez’s seat.

Out of the 103,494 voters registered in the district, 3,354 cast ballots during early voting, putting turnout just above 3 percent. Election day is Tuesday, Feb. 12, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Northwest San Antonio district.

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said she expected a low turnout during a special election.

People usually prefer to vote early rather than wait for election day, Callanen said, estimating that about 50 to 60 percent of voter turnout comes from early voting during an election. Based on that number, election day should draw another 2 percent of total registered voters in the district, she said. She predicted total turnout would be between 4 percent and 4.8 percent.

“If we can get 5 percent on this [election], that would be good,” she said.

Five candidates are up for Rodriguez’s House seat that became vacant in January when he was sworn in as Bexar County Commissioner for Precinct 2. Former HD 125 Rep. Art Reyna, former District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez, policy advocate Coda Rayo-Garza, and activist Steve Huerta are the four Democratic candidates, while businessman Fred Rangel is the only Republican in the race.

Just as a reminder, that’s right in line with the turnout for HD145, though in this case the majority of the vote would be cast early. If Tuesday in HD125 is like Election Day was in HD145, then they will exceed seven percent turnout. We’ll know soon enough. Unlike HD79, where Democrat Art Fierro was elected in one round, or HD145, where Dems Christina Morales and Melissa Noriega will face each other in the runoff, there’s a decent chance of a D-versus-R runoff here. This district just isn’t quite as blue as the other two, and the Republican here has Greg Abbott’s endorsement; the establishment largely ignored the other two races. This one could be a lot noisier in the runoff.

Speaking of runoffs, I have not yet seen a date set for HD145. However, based on my reading of the election code, I believe the deadline for the result of the January 29 election to be canvassed is Tuesday the 12th (same day as the HD125 election), and it has to occur between 12 and 25 days after that, on a Tuesday or a Saturday. Based on that, my money is on the runoff occurring on Saturday, March 2, which would mean early voting would run from Wednesday the 20th through Tuesday the 26th. I Am Not A Lawyer, but I do know these things are prescribed by law, and the options are limited. Again, we’ll know soon enough.

Let’s check in on the HCDE

How are things with the new Board?

Within an hour and 37 minutes of his first meeting as a trustee on the Harris County Department of Education’s board of trustees, Josh Flynn had a new role: President.

The former Harris County Republican Party treasurer and local accountant, who ran on a platform of bringing more transparency and accountability to Texas’ last remaining county education department, won the votes of three other trustees at the Jan. 16 meeting.

Minutes later, Flynn joined those same three in firing the department’s lobbying firm, a move that raised concerns among other trustees and Superintendent James Colbert Jr. that a lack of advocates in Austin could leave them with little recourse if lawmakers target the agency during the 2019 legislative session. Flynn did not return messages for comment.

Together, the votes signal a new majority on the seven-member board, one that Trustee Don Sumners said will provide a chance to lift the hood on HCDE’s departments and to make the agency more accountable to taxpayers. All four have questioned or criticized the department or some of its actions in the past, and one has filed motions to study closing the agency.

“We’ll probably go through the whole department one division at a time and do some evaluation,” Sumners said. “We really haven’t been able to get to the nuts and bolts very easily, and I think now that we have more interested participation, we’ll be able to realize this department for efficiency. We haven’t been able to do that before.”

Others, however, worry that actions like some of those taken at the Jan. 16 meeting could do irreparable harm to the state’s last remaining county department of education.

“I’m concerned, I’m definitely concerned,” said Trustee Danny Norris, a Texas Southern University law professor who also joined the board on January. “I think the vote to cancel our contract with (our lobbyists) specifically worried me a good bit, because we usually have a few bills to shut us down each session. This session, I’m the most worried.”

[…]

Trustee Eric Dick, a longtime Republican, noted at the meeting that other school districts, political parties and government entities also hire lobbyists. About a week after the vote, he said any government agency that is able to generate more than 70 percent of its budget from sources other than local tax dollars should be a model of good governance that conservatives should want to protect and other government agencies should look to for inspiration. About 28 percent of HCDE’s roughly $117 million budget in 2017-2018 came from property taxes, with the rest coming from state and federal grants, fees paid by local school districts and its cooperative purchasing program.

“You have an organization that actually runs at a profit, that’s actually in the black, that turns one dollar into five dollars. What should happen is ISDs should replicate and try to do something similar. So should the city of Houston,” Dick said. “I think worst thing that you could do is take something that works and cut it up.”

sigh Okay, three things here. One is that Flynn won his race by a tiny margin, 0.6 percentage points, less than 2,000 votes out of over 300K cast. Even in a dominant year for Dems in Harris County, one low-profile downballot race can make a difference by going the other way. Two, assuming the HCDE survives another legislative session, it’s very likely that it will flip back to a Democratic majority after the 2020 election, when At Large members Michael Wolfe (yeah, that guy again) and Don Sumners will almost certainly get voted out. And three, I can’t believe I’m about to say something nice about Eric Dick, but he has the right idea here, and I appreciate his vote on this matter. Let’s hope this is just a minor kerfuffle and nothing bad happens in the Lege.

(It should be noted that among other things, former County Judge Ed Emmett was not a fan of the HCDE and supported eliminating it. I hope Judge Hidalgo is up to speed on this. The HCDE may not have its own lobbyist in Austin, but the county has them. They could advocate for HCDE in a pinch if needed. Something to keep in mind.)

UPDATE: From an email sent out by Andrea Duhon, who was the Democratic candidate against Josh Flynn and who is planning to run for one of those At Large positions next year:

Community advocates, parents, and teachers plan to attend and make their perspectives known at an unexpected Special HCDE meeting this Monday, February 11th at 4:00 PM at 6300 Irvington Dr. to push back against the politically motivated distribution of legal contracts and privatization attempts by Austin politicians.

Expected on the HCDE agenda is an attempt by some trustees to fire the current unbiased education attorney and replace her with the highly partisan law firm Strahan-Cain, of which far right State Representative and education privatization proponent Briscoe Cain is a partner.

The meeting was called late Friday afternoon with little notice and comes at a time when the Texas Legislature is not only in session but is actively pursuing overhaul of state education policy. Also relevant are efforts both past and present by State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-SD7) to shutdown the department and consolidate public education resources into private buckets. The agenda also calls to replace Public Facilities Corporation board vacancies in an attempt to overturn contracts which have been approved.

Just last month, the HCDE surprisingly selected a first-term trustee as President of its board and voted to eliminate its own representation in Austin by firing HillCo Partners, leaving services vulnerable to attacks.

The community demands the department safeguard the programs and shared services it brings to Harris County and the jobs of more than 1,000 HCDE employees.

Here’s the agenda for that special Board meeting. Note that all of the action items on it were submitted by the Flynn/Wolfe/Sumners troika. Nothing good can come of this.