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No bail in

No surprise, I’m afraid.

Texas won’t have to seek federal approval when state lawmakers draw new election maps in two years, a three-judge panel in San Antonio decided Wednesday. The judges, however, cautioned Texas that its next process will “undoubtedly” be subject to judicial scrutiny.

“Texas would be well advised to conduct its redistricting process openly,” U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez wrote in the 27-page opinion.

The decision is a blow to civil rights groups that had asked for Texas to again face federal oversight, known as preclearance, following a years-long legal battle over Texas political maps drawn after the 2010 census, which federal courts have found intentionally discriminated against minority voters.

The plaintiffs have yet to decide what they will do next, said Jose Garza, lead counsel for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. Garza noted the decision’s “strong language.”

“If you read the opinion in its entirety, the state doesn’t come up smelling very well,” he said.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the ruling. This doesn’t foreclose future litigation against the sure-to-be rigged maps the 2021 Lege will come up with – and if not them thanks to Democratic control of the House, the Legislative Redistricting Board – but it’s one less tool in the bag. The simple fact remains that Dems are going to have to win some elections while fighting uphill, and then once they have sufficient control of state government taking whatever steps are necessary to fix this. And if some time during the next decade we wake up in a world where Dems do have control of both chambers and the Governor’s office, redrawing all the maps a la 2003 would be a high priority in the subsequent session. Rick Hasen, the DMN, the Trib, and ThinkProgress have more.

“Laggards”

You can do something about that, you know.

Best mugshot ever

The Maryland congressman leading an investigation into the error-filled effort to purge suspected noncitizens from Texas voter rolls referred to Texas officials as “laggards” who are taking a “minimalist approach” to satisfying demands on Capitol Hill for emails that could show the origin and motivation for the program.

Jamie Raskin, a Democrat who chairs the Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, says his panel will continue to aggressively press Texas for documents despite the resignation last week of Secretary of State David Whitley after scrutiny of the botched effort. Whitley’s five-month tenure in the job ended after state Senate Democrats blocked his appointment.

Raskin said that Georgia, another state under investigation, has sent hundreds of thousands of pages of materials to Washington. But Texas, he said, is cooperating “minimally” and treating the congressional demand as “some kind of unlawful imposition.”

“We’re going to continue to press for meaningful disclosure,” he said. “The sudden departure of the Texas secretary of state only makes us that much more determined to get all the information we sought.”

[…]

A spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office said 3,600 pages have been turned over to the panel. In a letter to Raskin and Cummings on May 29, Adam Bitter, the office general counsel, wrote that barring a ruling from Paxton “we do not anticipate producing additional documents in response to your request.”

Raskin observed that his panel has subpoena power, albeit not yet invoked. The back-and-forth suggests an impasse that could wind up in the courts – a likely destination of other disputes simmering at present between Congress and the White House.

See here, here, and here for the background. I mean, this is one of those times where I do believe what Paxton’s office has to say. The only way the committee, and by extension the public, is going to get any more information out of them is by forcing them to cough it up. That starts with a subpoena, and ends with a court order. Seems to me there’s no reason not to get that process started now.

Kulkarni reports $234K raised in Q2

From the Inbox:

Sri Kulkarni

Democratic nominee for U.S. Congress, Sri Preston Kulkarni, raised over $400,000 in receipts to date for his campaign to unseat incumbent Pete Olson (R-TX). This is the largest total ever for a Democratic candidate for the current district, with a total of $234,244 raised for the quarter from April 1 to June 30. Kulkarni has already outraised every democratic challenger for the past 8 years combined in District 22. Kulkarni’s campaign continues to push a positive and family values-based message, focused on ensuring children are healthy, educated, and safe, and investing in an economy for the future, not the past. By bringing together a strong coalition of various ethnicities and faiths in the second most diverse district in America, Kulkarni has offered a bold new vision of shared values and shared prosperity.

“This campaign has always been about the people of District 22. Because of our nearly 3,000 grassroots donors, we have increased Democratic fundraising from the previous election cycle by ten times. And we have done this all while rejecting corporate PAC money, unlike our opponent Pete Olson,” said Kulkarni. “This election is going to be won with hard work and sustained voter outreach. Our campaign has made over 120,000 direct voter contacts through multilingual digital engagement, phone calls, and blockwalking our neighborhoods with over 700 volunteers.”

The campaign is committed to a proven strategy of pulling in new voters from the immigrant community, engaging enthusiastic millennials, and offering an optimistic message that constituents across the political spectrum appreciate. By continuing to mobilize voters from every background, race, age, faith, and culture, the campaign will bring together this diverse district in November for a win.

Kulkarni had raised about $233K as of May 2, and $178K as of March 31, so as was the case with some other candidates, he really ramped things up in the last month of the quarter. If seeing the totals he announced make you think something like “oh, that’s not that much”, I will remind you that exactly one Democratic Congressional challenger raised as much as $100K for the entire 2016 election cycle, and he was a former incumbent. In this year, Kulkarni’s totals, overall and for Q2, will likely put him somewhere between seventh and tenth place; he trails the four (so far) million-dollar candidates as well as the not-yet-announced Joseph Kopser and Todd Litton, and his final ranking will depend on how the likes of Jana Sanchez, Dayna Steele, and Lorie Burch did. If you’re not amazed by this, you are not seeing the bigger picture.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Trib reporter Abby Livingston says that Todd Litton “raised nearly $300,000 in Q2 and over $400K in COH”. I don’t have a press release and I didn’t see anything on Litton’s Twitter feed, but this would put him at close to $850K raised for the cycle. Not in the million dollar club yet, but getting there.

You don’t have to attend those tax rate hearings now

They’re not a thing any more.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said he would withdraw a proposed property tax rate hike after Gov. Greg Abbott handed him a check for $50 million to help fund the city’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey.

That also likely means few public hearings on the proposed rate hike, which would have been the first from City Hall in two decades.

  • The first was held last Monday, and featured a few fireworks.
  • The second hearing remains scheduled for tonight at 6 p.m., since the governor’s check (which matched the $50 million Turner had intended to collect from raising taxes) was delivered too late to change the meeting time.
  • Council on Wednesday will consider cancelling the third hearing, which had been set for Oct. 11 at 9 a.m.

Turner initially had announced plans to enact an 8.9 percent tax rate hike, noting that a voter-imposed cap on property tax collections allowed him to propose a one-year exemption in the event of a federally declared disaster. Such a hike would produce about $113 million in additional revenue.

[…]

Some council members opposed to the increase said they believed the mayor lacked the votes to pass it. And if it had passed — days before the start of early voting — many at City Hall believe the rate hike could have angered voters enough to threaten the city’s plans to issue $495 million in general obligation bonds in November, in addition to $1 billion in bonds tied to Turner’s landmark pension reform plan.

See here for the background. I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in the claims that the proposed tax rate hike didn’t have the votes to pass. None of that would have mattered until the day Council actually voted on it. Besides, the goal wasn’t raising the rate, that was just a means to an end. The goal was paying the bills that were coming due – trash removal, insurance deductible, and the next insurance premium. Council members would have been welcome to argue against those things, or to propose alternate ways of paying for them, at the meeting when a vote was scheduled, or any time before then. Now they don’t have to. If Mayor Turner is relieved to not have to push this through now, I daresay the Council members who didn’t want to oppose him on it are relieved, too.

State files inevitable voter ID appeal to SCOTUS

As expected.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas wants to take its voter identification battle to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday asked the justices to hear his arguments about why the state’s photo ID requirements for voting do not discriminate against Hispanics and African-American voters.

“Safeguarding the integrity of our elections is essential to preserving our democracy,” the Republican said in a statement. “Texas enacted a common-sense voter ID law and I am confident that the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately reinstate it.”

Texas officials say the voter ID law bolsters the integrity of elections by preventing voter fraud, which Gov. Greg Abbott has called “rampant.” But the U.S. Department of Justice and other plaintiffs — backed by court rulings — have pointed out that in-person voter fraud is incredibly rare.

Friday’s filing is Paxton’s last-ditch attempt to salvage the requirements after a string of defeats in court.

[…]

Paxton is appealing to a Supreme Court that still has just eight members, following the February death of Justice Antonin Scalia. If the justices agree to hear the case — and if they do so without a replacement for Scalia — Paxton would need five votes to overturn the appeals court ruling. A 4-4 split would allow it to stand.

Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he did not expect the justices to accept the case, and he called the 5th Circuit’s decision “comprehensive.”

“It’s really more of a political move to satisfy the right wing of the Republican Party,” he said. “I think it’s just them taking another pile of taxpayer money and setting it on fire.”

The Supreme Court appeal will not affect the Nov. 8 elections, which will take place with relaxed requirements.

We’ve always known this was coming. The only issue that matters to Ken Paxton is his need to continually prove his wingnut bonafides to the Republican primary voters. He needs them to keep the faith in him at least until after the 2018 primaries. It doesn’t matter what SCOTUS does – if Paxton comes away from this with Justice Ginsberg’s shoeprints on his ass, I assure you he’ll be happy about it – all that matters is feeding the beast. Ken Paxton knows who his voters are, and he knows what they want. That’s all there is to this.

State finally releases abortion data

It’s exactly what you’d expect.

Right there with them

Right there with them

The Texas Department of State Health Services has released the state’s 2014 abortion data after weeks of allegationsthat the agency had been intentionally withholding the numbers.

The 2014 data is significant because it is the first year to reflect the impact of Texas’ anti-abortion law, House Bill 2, on abortion providers and patients across the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck downparts of HB 2 as unconstitutional this week, in part because the court could not find evidence for Texas’ justification for the law — that mandatory hospital admitting privileges for abortion providers and hospital-like renovations for abortion clinics would increase patient safety. In their challenge to the law, Texas abortion providers argued that HB 2 would instead reduce access to abortion and would have a disproportionately negative impact on Texas Latinas.

According to the newly released numbers, the providers were right.

One of the most striking revelations is the change in number of medical abortions — a two-pill regimen that, under HB 2, was heavily restricted and required many more clinical visits than a surgical abortion procedure. In 2013, 16,189 Texans got medical abortions; in 2014, that number dropped to almost 5,000. (Medication abortions became easier to access earlier this year, when an FDA label change enabled more providers to issue the drugs under the law.)

The 2014 DSHS data also suggest the law had a disproportionate impact on Texans of color. In 2013, over 24,000 of Texans who got abortions were Hispanic; in 2014, that number decreased by 18 percent to under 20,000. The numbers also show a 7.7 percent decrease among black Texans who got abortions.

Overall, the number of abortions in Texas decreased by 14 percent from almost 64,000 in 2013 to almost 55,000 in 2014. The data also show that the number of abortions performed in clinics dropped by 21 percent from 2013, and the number performed at ambulatory surgical centers increased by 12 percent, reflecting the closure of half the state’s non-surgical center clinics after parts of HB 2 took effect in 2013.

The new numbers also don’t show abortion was any safer post-HB 2. For both 2014 and 2013, complication rates were negligible; the complication rates were 0.04 percent and 0.05 percent, respectively.

See here for the background. On the matter of medical abortions, the Austin Chronicle explains:

While more than 16,000 women took medication to terminate their pregnancies in 2013, less than 5,000 did so in 2014 – a stunning 75% decrease. The number of women going in for surgical abortion, on the other hand, rose about 3,000. The likely reason? HB 2 included a provision that forced women to ingest abortion pills following outdated, more expensive, and potentially more harmful FDA protocol. Some providers responded by discontinuing the service and it was reported that women were less eager to opt for medication abortion, which had forced them to take the pill in the doctor’s office rather than their homes. The FDA has since updated its guidelines. Planned Parenthood Central Texas centers, including the Austin location, saw its medication abortion rates drop to less than 1% from 40% before HB 2.

See here for more on that. Since the FDA updated its guidelines, use of the abortion pill has risen sharply, which is exactly what you’d expect since taking a pill is safer, cheaper, and more convenient than going to a medical facility for an invasive procedure. Of course, women were still seeking medical abortions after HB2’s passage, they just were doing it on their own, without any assistance from a medical professional. Because HB2 was all about their safety, don’t ya know.

More women traveled out of state to obtain abortions as well.

The statistics also show a slight increase in the number of pregnant persons who traveled out of state to obtain abortion care. The number of abortions that took place “out of state” was 754 in 2014, compared to 681 in 2013.

However, data from other states suggest a much larger increase during that time period. As Rewire previously reported, statistics from Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana appear to indicate at least 1,086 patients traveled to those states from Texas to obtain an abortion in 2014.

Basically, everything is as abortion rights activists said it would be under HB2, and whatever the reasons for the delayed release of this data, there’s no question that the timing was convenient for the state. Thanks for not buying the BS, Supreme Court. The Trib and the Chron have more.

2016 primaries: Congress

Rep. Gene Green

Rep. Gene Green

The big story here is that Rep. Gene Green not only survived, but won big. He was up 65% to 32% in early voting, a margin of about 4,000 votes; in the end he won by about 58-38, for a margin of about 5,000 votes. I had a hard time getting a feel for this race. Green was on TV a lot, but I saw more people than I might have expected expressing support for Garcia on Facebook. Garcia homed in on some issues for which Green might have been vulnerable, and as I said before, he ran the campaign I’d have had him run if I’d have been running his campaign. In the end, people weren’t ready to fire Gene Green. I doubt he faces any more serious challengers between now and whenever he decides to hang ’em up. The Press has more.

The only other Democratic Congressional primary of interest was in CD15, where Rep. Ruben Hinojosa declined to run for re-election. Vicente Gonzalez and Dolly Elizondo were leading the pack, with Gonzalez over 40% and Elizondo at 25%. As noted before, Elizondo would be the first Latina elected to Congress from Texas if she won, but she has a lot of ground to make up in the runoff if she wants to get there.

On the Republican side, multiple incumbents faced challengers of varying levels of crazy. The only one who appeared to be threatened as of when I turned it was Rep. Kevin Brady in CD08, who eventually made it above the 50% mark against three challengers, the leader of whom was former State Rep. (and loony bird) Steve Toth. That would have been one butt-ugly runoff if it had come to that, but it won’t. Reps. John Culberson and Blake Farenthold were winning but with less than 60%. No one else was in a close race.

The one Republican open seat was in CD19, where the three top contenders were Jody Arrington, Glen Robertson, and Michael Bob Starr. Of the latter, John Wright noted the following for the Observer before the results began to come in (scroll down a ways to see):

Finally, in West Texas’ Congressional District 19, retired Col. Michael Bob Starr has come under fire from other GOP candidates for participating in LGBT Pride runs when he served as a commander at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene. If Starr wins, one of the nation’s most conservative districts would be represented by someone who is arguably moderate on LGBT issues, and the outcome could serve as a barometer of where the movement stands.

Starr was running third when last I checked, but he was behind the leader by fewer than 2,000 votes, so the situation was fluid. That said, as interesting as a Starr victory would be, he’d have to survive a runoff first, and I’d be mighty pessimistic about that. But we’ll see.

Democratic statewide resultsRepublican statewide results

Freedom From Religion Foundation sues Abbott over Bill of Rights display

From their press release:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit today against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over his removal of the group’s Bill of Rights display from the Capitol.

Abbott downed FFRF’s solstice display, intended to counter a Christian nativity scene in the Statehouse, only three days after the permitted display had been erected on Dec. 18.

The whimsical exhibit commemorated the “birth” of the Bill of Rights, depicting the Founding Fathers and the Statue of Liberty crowded adoringly around a manger scene containing the constitutional document.

FFRF obtained a permit last summer for the December display, and a Texas legislator sponsored it. Also approved was an explanatory Winter Solstice sign promoting state/church separation, which pointed out that the Bill of Rights was adopted on Dec. 15, 1791.

Abbott, who chairs the Texas State Preservation Board that approves Capitol displays, sent a letter Dec. 21 to co-defendant John Sneed, the board’s executive director, advising him to remove the FFRF display. Abbott lambasted the exhibit as indecent and mocking, implied it would promote public immorality, had no educational purpose and compared it to “Piss Christ,” a controversial 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano showing a plastic crucifix in a jar of urine.

FFRF’s federal lawsuit, filed in the Western District of Texas, Austin division, charges that Abbott and the other defendants violated the free speech, equal protection and due process rights of the organization.

The defendants’ action shows “unambiguous viewpoint discrimination” and was also motivated by “animus” toward FFRF and its nontheistic message, the state/church watchdog group contends. Such action violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by favoring the “stand-alone Christian nativity scene” and disfavoring FFRF’s “nontheistic content.”

The organization’s legal complaint details a “history of hostility directed against FFRF” by Abbott when he was the state attorney general. In December 2011, Abbott, on Fox News, told the group to keep out of Texas, stating: “Our message to the atheists is: Don’t mess with Texas or our nativity scenes or the Ten Commandments.”

In October 2012, Abbott again attacked FFRF during a press conference: “We will not allow atheist groups from outside of the state of Texas to come into the state to use menacing and misleading intimidation tactics to try to bully schools to bow down at the altar of secular beliefs.”

As governor, Abbott has assailed FFRF for asking the Brewster County’s Sheriff’s Office to remove crosses from patrol vehicles, and has complained when Orange, Texas, took down a nativity scene from city hall at the organization’s behest.

“Gov. Abbott has consistently advocated for displays of religion in the public sphere, while actively opposing any expression of nonreligious principles,” FFRF notes.

The group is seeking a judgment that each defendant violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and clauses protecting free speech and equal protect rights and due process rights of the plaintiffs. It is asking for damages and reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. I said at the time of Abbott’s tantrum that if it wasn’t the FFRF’s intention to file a lawsuit over this then they were wasting everyone’s time. I’m glad to see they were indeed serious about this. We already know that abbott applies religious principles arbitrarily, and I suspect he’s about to learn a lesson on that. I can’t wait. The Express News, the Current, and the Scoop Blog have more.

Hey look, a Regent Square update

Sometimes I forget this is still a thing.

In 2007, longtime urbanites said goodbye to the Allen House Apartments, a decades-old complex along Dunlavy just south of Allen Parkway. The multiblock property was a Houston institution, housing hundreds of college students, senior citizens and professionals behind brick walls and wrought-iron balconies that gave it a decidedly New Orleans feel.

The demolition of most of the units there – while marking the end of an era and eliminating scores of reasonably priced inner-city apartments – was done to make way for a more modern development covering 24 acres of prime property. The land has sat mostly dormant during the years following the initial announcement, but several new signs point to a coming revival of the project, Regent Square.

The development was the subject of a meeting Wednesday night of the North Montrose Civic Association. Scott Howard, the association’s treasurer, presented details about the project to residents. He said he had met with an official from the Boston-based development company earlier in the week.

“They’re ready to go,” Howard said, explaining how the project had been shelved during the recession. He showed off booklets the developer had passed along containing renderings and site maps. It was dated Nov. 16, 2015.

Howard told the group, which was meeting in the library of Carnegie Vanguard High School in the Montrose area, that the project would contain 400,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, 240,000 square feet of office space, 950 multifamily units and 4,200 parking spaces.

Plans for an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, an entertainment concept that combines a movie theater and dining, in Regent Square are still in the works, as well.

“Alamo is coming to Regent Square,” Neil Michaelsen of Triple Tap Ventures, owner of the Houston locations, said Thursday in an email.

See here for prior updates. The last news we heard about this was almost three years ago, when the announcement was made about the Alamo Drafthouse. The developers did recently finish off a high-end apartment complex a bit down the street on West Dallas, so they haven’t been completely inactive, but I think it’s fair to say the main event has taken a lot longer than anyone might have expected. At this point, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Day 8 EV 2015 totals: Breaking it down to districts

Day One of Week Two:


Year    Early    Mail   Total   Mailed
======================================
2015   73,903  23,560  97,553   43,279
2013   45,571  16,076  61,647   30,548

EarlyVoting

The running 2015 totals are here, the full 2013 totals are here, and for completeness the full 2009 totals are here. The second Monday in person totals for this year (12,895) are greater than for 2013 (7,643), but some of that may be leftover demand from the weekend. In addition, both this Monday and the second Monday of 2013 are just a smidge higher than the previous Fridays (11,705 this year, 7,110 in 2013). We continue to run well ahead of 2013, but I continue to wonder if we’ll peak. That remains to be seen.

I don’t get the daily rosters, but Greg does, and he provides a breakdown of the vote as of Sunday by Council district. Go look for yourself, but the takeaway is that as of the end of the first full week, the share of the vote coming from Districts B and E was higher than it was in 2013, and the share of the vote coming from District C is down. See this post of mine from 2013 to see how things shook out per district in 2013. Note that the 2013 totals Greg cites are final, end of voting numbers, whereas what we have now is just a week of early voting. It is entirely possible that C is just a little slower to get to the polls than some other districts – it’s what the numbers are at the end that counts, after all – but this is worth watching. District B overlaps HD139, so it’s fair to say this represents a bump from the Turner campaign. District E is likely to be more motivated by HERO than anything else, and not in the way I’d prefer. Note that even with these trends, the overall numbers from C and E are nearly identical, and history suggests the voters in C will show up. So we’ll see.

Endorsement watch: Houston GLBT Political Caucus 2015

Congrats to all the endorsees.

A raucous municipal endorsement meeting brought mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner the coveted backing of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus on Saturday, positioning the 26-year state representative to broaden his coalition to include the city’s progressive voting bloc.

Caucus members voted 142-85 to endorse Turner after more than an hour of insult-laden discussion in which they rejected the recommendation of the group’s screening committee to endorse former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

Turner also beat out former Congressman Chris Bell, a longtime ally of the gay community who had been considered a likely pick for the group’s endorsement.

Once-shunned, the caucus’ supprt is now highly sought-after by candidates aiming to win over left-wing voters, known for reliably showing up at the polls.

“This is a major step to the finish line,” said Turner, seen as a frontrunner in the crowded mayor’s race. “This is a race about the future of the city versus its past, and this group represents a vital component of Houston’s family.”

[…]

Of the five mayoral candidates angling for caucus support, Turner, Garcia and City Councilman Stephen Costello received the highest ratings from the group’s four-member screening committee.

Committee members said concerns about Bell’s viability landed him a lower rank.

Bell closed out the first half of the year with less money in the bank than any of the other top-tier candidates.

“He’s in a tough position, because absent resources, financial resources, he would need key endorsements like this one to bolster his candidacy,” [consultant Keir] Murray said. “It just makes what was already a tough road even tougher.”

Bell, for his part, remained optimistic after the endorsement vote.

“Obviously not everyone participates in the caucus endorsement process,” Bell said. “I still think I am going to have tremendous support in the progressive voting bloc.”

See here for some background. I followed the action on Facebook and Twitter – it was spirited and lengthy, but everyone got a chance to make their case and to be heard. Here’s the full list of endorsed candidates:

Mayor – Sylvester Turner

City Council
District B – Jerry Davis
District C – Ellen Cohen
District F – Richard A. Nguyen
District H – Roland Chavez
District I – Robert Gallegos
District J – Mike Laster
District K – Larry Green
At Large 1 – Lane Lewis
At Large 2 – David Robinson
At Large 3 – Doug Peterson
At Large 4 – Amanda K. Edwards
At Large 5 – Phillipe Nassif

Controller – Chris Brown

HISD District 2 – Rhonda Skillern Jones
HISD District 3 – Ramiro Fonseca
HISD District 4 – Jolanda Jones
HISD District 8 – Juliet Katherine Stipeche

HCCS District 3 – Adriana Tamez
HCCS District 8 – Eva Loredo

None of these come as a surprise. Several could have gone another way, thanks to the presence of multiple qualified and viable candidates. I look forward to seeing this slate – and the near-misses – do very well in November.

First call to action: Sanctuary cities

Stace sounds the alarm.

SanctuaryCitiesBillAction

Republicans have set a hearing to debate and railroad through committee SB 185, a sanctuary cities bill which will allow local and state law enforcement to participate in immigration duties through the practice of racial profiling (frankly, I can’t see how racially profiling Latinos will not happen). Here’s the committee hearing info:

SENATE

NOTICE OF PUBLIC HEARING

COMMITTEE: Veteran Affairs & Military Installations-S/C Border Security

TIME & DATE: 8:00 AM, Monday, March 09, 2015

PLACE: 2E.20 (Betty King Cmte. Rm.)

CHAIR: Senator Brian Birdwell

The Subcommittee will consider the following:

Relating to the enforcement of state and federal laws governing immigration by certain governmental entities.

One can read the bill here. And the bill analysis is here.

[…]

The law will punish local governments who do not participate in legalized racial profiling by not providing any grant funds the state may give. It all allows citizens to file complaints through the Texas AGs office to punish local governments, too. And even file frivolous lawsuits.

It’s another attack on local control, only in reverse, as this time it aims to compel cities to do something they don’t want to do. As an email from Sen. Sylvia Garcia reminded me, the same version of this bill that had been filed in 2011 was opposed by law enforcement, business groups, faith based groups, education advocates, civil rights and immigration law experts. If you can be there, please show up and register your opposition. If not, please call your Senator and ask him or her to vote against this bad bill. Thanks.

Uber and Lyft will leave San Antonio

The second time was not the charm.

Uber

The revisions to the vehicles-for-hire ordinance, approved in a 8-2 vote, eased regulations the council had originally adopted in December and were meant to persuade Lyft and Uber to continue operating in San Antonio. But after the vote, Lyft and Uber said the revised policy was still too burdensome and that they would halt operations in San Antonio before it started being enforced.

Both companies said they want to stay in San Antonio, and council members say they want the companies to stick around. But a gulf exists between the city and the companies on the details of the policy, seeming to put the situation at a standstill.

Lyft

“Without significant revisions to the ordinance before implementation, we will be forced to make the difficult decision to pause Lyft’s operations in San Antonio,” spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson said in a statement.

A key disagreement is how extensive a background check a driver needs to get a permit. The regulations adopted in December would have required drivers to pass a city-reviewed background check, including fingerprinting. The policy approved Thursday allows drivers to start operating once they pass the company’s background check, but still requires them to pass the city background check within 14 days.

Both Lyft and Uber argue that extra step is unnecessary, placing a burden on drivers who have already passed a rigorous company review.

See here for the background. I guess I’m a little surprised that it ultimately went down this way. There sure seemed like a lot of public support for allowing Uber and Lyft to operate, and as previously seen at least two of the major candidates for Mayor favored that outcome. You have to wonder if we’ve seen the last of this, or if it might come up again after the May election if there’s a new Mayor in place. The Rivard Report has more.

The state’s puppet witnesses in the HB2 lawsuit

The Austin Chronicle tells the story.

Among the state defense witnesses who took the stand on the third day of trial against Texas’ abortion-restricting House Bill 2 were two women with overt objections to abortion and one physician whose testimony in support of abortion regulations was recently discredited by a federal court.

Additionally, questions arose whether the Attorney General’s office coached and aided in witness testimony.

After two days of plaintiff testimony in U.S. Judge Lee Yeakel’s courtroom, it was the state’s turn to offer its witnesses. On Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Mayra Jimenez Thompson, a Dallas-based OB-GYN testified, and it was clear from the outset that Thompson was anti-choice; she said had not performed an abortion in 20 years because of her “religious” beliefs. In cross-examination, plaintiffs repeatedly asked Thompson if the Attorney General’s office and specifically, Dr. Vincent Rue, a representative of the office, had provided guidance or advice in her expert testimony report.

Initially, Thompson steadfastly denied any involvement from the OAG, saying she alone had drafted the document. However, in hopes of “refreshing her recollection,” plaintiffs produced several damning e-mail exchanges between her and Rue indicating constant assistance in drafting and modifying versions of the report. (Correspondence from Rue included: “I’m still drafting, will keep you posted”; “Tried to use as much of your material as I could, but time ran out”; “Just want you to review, I’ll keep working on the draft.”) Thompson defended the assistance, saying she was a medical doctor, not trained in legalese and the proper “wordage” of court testimony.

Rue isn’t just lending a hand to the Texas case; he’s a behind-the-scenes fixer for other states that are imposing anti-abortion laws, including Alabama and Wisconsin. Rue coined the term “post-abortion stress syndrome” – an alleged disorder thoroughly discredited by major medical groups, including the American Psychological Association, yet still endorsed by anti-choice activists. Rue’s testimony in previous cases, including the landmark Planned Parenthood v Casey, was rejected for lack of credibility. It’s reported that for his services in other states, Rue has received nearly $50,000.

While Thompson answered “no” when asked if she had financial/ownership interests in ambulatory surgical centers, plaintiffs recounted her deposition testimony, which showed Thompson is affiliated with the North Central Surgical Center in Dallas. Thompson countered the center was no longer an ASC and had become a full-fledged hospital in recent years. Thompson also admitted to failing to review eight of the nine studies on abortion mortality rates provided by plaintiffs before giving testimony.

Similarly, the next witness, Dr. James Anderson, an emergency room and family practice physician, also received aid from Rue, or as he phrased it, “wordsmithing.” In fact, Anderson holds a prior professional relationship with Rue, assisting him with reproductive rights and anti-abortion legislation in other state cases since 1997, including some concerning parental consent laws.

When questioned about Rue’s influence on his testimony, Anderson downplayed the degree of involvement, saying the legal draft was a “team effort” and “a collaboration.” Anderson said Rue provided sources for his testimony, including material from the Susan B. Anthony List, a national anti-choice group. When asked about the group’s ideological motivations, Anderson conceded the source “risks bias, but still validates the need for the law.” Plaintiffs pointed out that just this week a federal district judge in Alabama discredited the majority of Anderson’s testimony in support of anti-abortion legislation in a suit filed by Planned Parenthood “due to concerns about his judgment or honesty.”

The witnesses provided by the state grew even weaker as the day wore on.

Hard to imagine, I know. See here for the background, here for the AusChron’s coverage of the plaintiffs’ case, and here for the rest of the state’s case. Some recent rulings from the federal courts give hope for the good guys, but remember that we’re still ultimately dealing with the Fifth Circuit here, so don’t get too much hope just yet. See Andrea Grimescoverage in RH Reality Check for more.

Appeals court revives MBIA lawsuit against Sports Authority

Here we go again.

A lawsuit against the agency that pays the debt on Houston’s sports stadiums is back on following an appeals court ruling.

Last April, a state district court judge ruled that a bond insurer could not sue the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority or the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., saying they were immune from such legal action as government agencies.

MBIA Insurance Corp., with the National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., sued the Sports Authority in January 2013, asking that the cash-strapped agency be forced to collect more money to cover its obligations, including additional parking and admissions taxes at Reliant – now NRG – Stadium, and seeking damages for other alleged breaches of contract. The sports corporation, the county agency that manages NRG Park, also was listed as a party in the suit.

In an opinion issued last week, a three-judge panel from the First Court of Appeals ruled that the Sports Authority had waived its immunity when it entered into an agreement with MBIA – now National – that provided that the company, which insures $1 billion in bonds, would guarantee regularly scheduled principal and interest payments on them.

Upholding part of state District Court Judge Elaine Palmer’s decision, it also ruled that the sports corporation was not liable because the company had not accused it of breach of contract.

Sports Authority Chairman J. Kent Friedman said it has not yet decided whether to ask the First Court for a re-hearing, to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court or to “go ahead and try the case.” Deadlines to request a re-hearing or appeal are next month.

“I continue to be very confident in our position in the litigation,” he said. “All it really did is allow them the right to proceed with their lawsuit.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The Court’s opinion is here, and if like me your eyes glazed over after about five seconds, you can skip to the end and confirm that the bottom line is that the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority does not have immunity and thus can be sued, but the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation does have immunity as Judge Palmer ruled and thus cannot be sued. The matter is now back in the 215th Court, pending a decision by either party to appeal the part of the ruling they didn’t like. Also, I’m glad to see that we seem to be done with that “Kenny Friedman” business, and J. Kent Friedman is once again being called “J. Kent Friedman” as well he should be. So there you have it.

Saturday video break: Take Me To The River

Song #12 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Take Me To The River”, originally by Al Green and covered by the Talking Heads. Here’s the Rev. Al:

If you’ve seen The Commitments, you will recognize that this is what they were covering, not the Talking Heads version. Which makes sense given what that movie was about, but if you’re like me it’s the latter version that you’re more familiar with.

Slowing a song down is a common tactic for covering bands. Here in combination with the Talking Heads’ driving keyboards and David Byrne’s distinctive vocals, it really takes the tune in a different direction. Interestingly, the live version they did in the concert film Stop Making Sense had a faster tempo, closer to the original. Either way, great song, great cover.

Saturday video break: I Feel For You

Song #18 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “I Feel For You”, originally by Prince and covered by Chaka Khan. Typically, Prince videos are not easily available. Here then is as reasonable a facsimile that I could find:

It’s the bow ties that really sell it to me. If you like, there’s also an interpretive sign language version of the song out there, but with the audio muted due to copyright issues. Now here’s Chaka Khan Chaka Khan Chaka Khan…you get the idea:

Some months ago when we were checking out dogs for adoption, we came across one fellow by the name of Rufus. We ultimately went a different direction, but I made a solemn vow at the time that if we did adopt him, we would then have to find a second dog that we could name Chaka Khan. I get an irrational amount of amusement from that thought. Anyway, great version and great video, though I think it needs more bow ties. What do you think?

Stand up and be counted

Please participate in the Census. Nothing good happens when you don’t.

When the new, condensed census form arrives in the mail during the second week in March, each recipient’s decision about whether to toss it in the trash or fill it out and mail it back will carry important implications.

“It is very important to the city of Houston that we have a complete and accurate count for the 2010 Census,” Parker said in a message on the city’s Web site in January. “We lose an estimated $1,700 per person per year for everyone not counted.”

Experts say the figure Parker used is open to question, in part because allocation formulas for various federal programs use census data in different ways. But no one disputes that vast sums are at stake.

Karl Eschbach, the state demographer, said big cities like Houston with large populations of immigrants and poor people are particularly vulnerable to undercounts. A recent analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimated Houston was undercounted by 25,000 people, or 1.3 percent, in the 2000 Census.

And although leaders of various groups promoting participation discourage the notion that they are competing with one another, Eschbach noted the supply of federal dollars is a fixed sum.

“Undercount is a relative issue,” he said. “My undercount is good for you: Every dollar not assigned here goes somewhere else.”

I figure everyone who reads this blog is already familiar with the issue and doesn’t really need the nudge. But I figure it’s important to repeat the message as often and in as many places as possible. And as the Trib notes, it’s not just a Houston issue.

A September 2001 study commissioned by the U.S. Census Monitoring Board and conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that more than 373,000 Texans were not counted in 2000, resulting in a net loss of more than $1 billion in federal monies that would have gone to support schools, hospitals, social services, and transportation projects over the last decade. That poor showing has prompted the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to launch its own Complete Count Committee for this year’s census. The task is something the group and its supporters insist should be undertaken by state leaders. “We are asking the governor to work with the U.S. Census Bureau and to issue a directive to all state agencies to promote the census because we feel that it’s crucial,” MALDEF attorney Luis Figueroa said.

Eight Texas counties, including most of the largest, are included on the Census Bureau’s list of the top 50 hard-to-count counties in the U.S. (Areas considered “hard-to-count” include those where a large majority receives public assistance; where renters are common; households with large numbers of children; areas with high non-English proficiency, and dwellings where multiple families live.) Harris County sits at number 5, with 19.1 percent of its approximately 3.4 million residents living in these areas. It is followed by Dallas County in the number 10 spot, with 16.4 percent of its 2.22 million, and Hidalgo County at number 11, with 57 percent of its 540,000 residents living in these areas. Bexar County is in number 32 on the list, with 10.6 percent of its 1.4 million in hard-to-count areas, and Tarrant County is number 36, with 9.3 percent of its 1.45 million residents affected. Travis County sits at 38 (15.3 percent of its 812,000), El Paso County at 42 (16.7 percent of its 680,000) and Cameron County at 45 (30 percent of its 335,000).

Get counted or get overlooked, those are your choices.

Parker’s police plan in practice

I think we’re all reasonably familiar with the basics of Mayor-Elect Parker’s plan for the police force, which includes more and better coordination between the various local law enforcement agencies. This story, which perhaps ought to have been run before the election, analyzes some of the practicalities of the plan. There’s some good discussion in there, and I recommend you read the whole story, but for here I just want to note this one bit:

“It’s easy to say, but extraordinarily complicated if you try to do it. There are layers of issues,” said Professor Larry Hoover, director of the Police Resource Center at Sam Houston State University. “There are some very practical reasons why it isn’t done.”

Hoover said in addition to taking focus away from other police agencies’ core missions, the coordination of evidence when different agencies are involved in the same case could complicate prosecutions.

“Those special police agencies exist for a reason,“ he said. “They’re focused on those things for a reason, and they’re paid by another political entity to perform a special law enforcement function, and are not paid by the city of Houston.”

It may be that these other agencies’ funds do not come from the city of Houston budget, but they sure as heck do come in part from city of Houston tax dollars. And as noted before, as is the case with things like roads and parks, the city doesn’t get back nearly as much as it contributes. The good news is that it seems that once the issue of radio interoperability is resolved in 2012, there will be a lot more inter-agency coordination. As long as all the agencies in question are amenable to working with each other, which was something I discussed during the campaign, we all ought to get something out of this.

Early voting starts today

Today marks the start of early voting for all of the runoff elections, which include Houston, Bellaire, and HISD. Early voting schedule and locations can be found here; remember that EV locations outside of Houston city limits are mostly closed, as there’s no action out there. Early voting runs through December 8, so take advantage when you can.

It’s never too early to speculate about turnout. I’m not going to guess a number just yet, but I am going to guess that about half of all votes will be cast early, based on recent behavior in city runoff elections. Here’s a peek:

Runoff Pct Early ==================== 03 Mayor 36.00 03 Dist F 41.38 03 Dist G 35.53 03 Dist H 26.62 03 AL #3 35.46 03 AL #4 36.80 03 Ctrlr 36.48 05 Dist B 44.71 05 Dist C 31.97 05 AL #2 37.19 07 AL #3 51.88 07 Dist D 46.66 07 Dist E 45.47 07 AL #5 46.12 09 Dist H 47.88

Early here includes votes by mail. The 2007 At Large #3 and the 2009 District H races were both in May. I want to say that the trend is clear, but the voter universes in those non-Mayoral races were so tiny – the 35,922 ballots cast in the 2005 At Large #2 runoff were by far the most in any race – that I hesitate to draw too firm a conclusion from these samples. But my guess is that at least 40% of the votes will be cast before Election Day, perhaps as many as half of them. We’ll see how that goes.

Shapleigh’s successor

Via Greg, the El Paso Times runs down the possible contenders for the to-be-vacated Senate seat of Eliot Shapleigh.

Potential Democratic candidates include County Attorney José Rodríguez and state Reps. Joe Pickett and Norma Chávez.

Two Republicans, businessman Dee Margo and former state Rep. Pat Haggerty, also said they were interested in succeeding Shapleigh.

Margo, who lost to Shapleigh in 2006, said he may consider another run. Margo is chief executive officer of JDW Insurance.

As for Haggerty, he said he might try a political comeback by running for the Senate.

“Of course, once you hear about it, you gotta take a look at it,” Haggerty said. “(But) I’m an old man and this is a young man’s game.” He is 65.

Soon after Shapleigh’s noontime news conference in which he announced his decision to step down, Chávez said she would form an exploratory committee for the Senate seat.

“I’ve been inundated with phone calls of support to look into running,” she said. “Count me in as a contender.”

Hours later, Rodríguez announced that he was forming his own exploratory committee.

“I’m going to consider running and I’m gauging the community’s support,” Rodríguez said.

Pickett said that soon after Shapleigh’s announcement he received more than $250,000 in commitments should he decide to run for the Senate.

“I’m the chair for the House Transportation Committee, and that’s a pretty hard thing to give up for El Paso,” Pickett said.

Interestingly, Capitol Inside suggests Haggerty, who got primaried out of his State Rep seat in 2008 by Margo, who had the backing of Tom Craddick and Rick Perry, might run as a Democrat. There’s a certain logic to that, but it’s hard to see how he wins a Democratic primary against established contenders like Chavez. Had he made a declaration after the 2008 primary that he was quitting Team R, and then made a visible effort to assist Democratic candidates that November, such as State Rep. Joe Moody, the guy who ultimately beat Margo (he teased at it but never came out and said it), that would put him in a stronger position now and wouldn’t make him look like an opportunist. Too late for that, I’m afraid. So while it has a certain appeal, I just don’t see it happening.

On a related note, Burka hears that Shapleigh might be looking at Lite Guv as well. As you know, I love that idea. But I do share Greg’s concern that unless Shapleigh can collect a few million bucks for his effort in short order, he’ll be a target the Republicans will use to attack the entire ticket with glee. The best thing about Shapleigh is that he’s such a breath of fresh air on so many issues. Without the means to get him out there in front of the voters on his terms, that won’t be of much good.

Harris County voter registration issues get national coverage

Lou Dubose, onetime editor of the Texas Observer and Tom DeLay biographer has written a story for the Washington Spectator about the shenanigans in the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office with voter registration. You can read it here (PDF), thanks to the Lone Star Project. There’s some information in there I hadn’t seen before, and it’s a good overview if you’re just tuning in now. Check it out.

An early assessment of the Mayor’s race

Marc Campos writes:

H-Town’s Mayoral candidates still do not want to SHOW ME THE TV so I have to give the advantage at this time to Annise Parker. The later the ad wars get going, the better for Annise. Let’s not forget that she has been on a citywide ballot half a dozen times now. She has also served in a high profile position – City Controller – for over five and a half years. She has better name ID on August 18, 2009.

I was discussing the race with one of the best in the business yesterday and he said a lower voter turnout in November benefits Annise. I have to agree because I think she has the most passionate supporters. The way Commentary sees it today I don’t think H-Town voters will be overwhelmed by TV ads this campaign season so that could contribute to one of the lowest turnouts in a while. Stay tuned!

I agree that Parker starts out with the highest level of name recognition, and as a result would likely be the top votegetter if the election were held today. I’m not sure I agree about the level of TV ads we’re in for. It’s still not yet September, and Peter Brown at least has the capability of saturating the airwaves. I’ve no idea offhand if Parker or Gene Locke have taken in enough money to reasonably counter that, but I’m sure they will be a presence on the air. Campos has been on a “show me the TV” kick for a few weeks, and while I don’t think he’s wrong, I do think he’s jumping the gun a bit. Not everyone can run Bill White’s 2003 campaign.

It’s also worth noting that being the top votegetter won’t mean anything other than a spot in the runoff. My sense is that Locke has put himself in a strong position to win the runoff if he makes it there. He’s courted the Republican vote more heavily than the other two from what I’ve seen, which is a sound strategy in a year when the downballot runoffs will be in Districts A and G, and maybe F. He’s done well in getting endorsements – the nod from the realtors was a nice coup for him. I think there’s a chance he doesn’t make the runoff, especially if Brown goes on a media-buying blitz, but if he does I think he’ll be tough to beat. Not impossible, by any means, but tough. If Brown supports Parker in a Parker-Locke runoff, or Parker supports Brown in a Brown-Locke runoff, that would make for a very interesting race to the finish.

On a related note, filing for office has been going on since August 3, with the deadline being 5 p.m. on Wednesday, September 2, 2009; I trust every campaign has this written in blood somewhere prominent. Martha has been keeping track of who has and has not yet filed. A couple of new names in there, including yet another candidate in At Large #1 (Brad Batteau, who got about 7.5% in District I in 2007), but no surprises yet.

By the way, and for what it’s worth, both Brown and Parker got about 86,000 votes running unopposed in a very low turnout election (about 126,000 ballots; Mayor White got over 101,000) in 2007. Parker got 134,000 votes in 2005 running for re-election as Controller for the first time (Mayor White got 165,000 votes, out of 189,000 cast), also unopposed; Brown won his first term with about 78,000 votes, or 51%. She got 109,000 votes in the first round of voting in 2003, compared to Mayor White’s 113,000. I’ve no idea what the turnout models are for this year, or how many people have voted for her or for Brown multiple times – one presumes nearly all who voted for one in 2007 also voted for the other – so maybe none of this means anything. Just thought it was worth mentioning.

Kirk Watson not running for Governor

Phooey.

There’s been a lot of speculation about my plans for the next election. Well, I’ve decided what I’m going to do, and I want to announce it to you all first.

I will run for re-election to the Texas Senate in 2010.

While I consider Tom Schieffer to be an acceptable candidate for Governor, Watson became my first choice when his colleague, State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, declined to run and urged Watson to do it instead. We’ll have to see if anyone else jumps in – Ronnie Earle, anyone? – or if this is the field we get. And if so, what it means for the rest of the ticket. All I know is that we can’t afford to punt at the statewide level like we did in 2006.

Speaking of 2006, would-have-been candidate Felix Alvarado, whose check for the filing fee bounced, says he’s going to try again this year. I’m somewhat less worried than David Mauro is of Alvarado’s chances of actually winning the nomination, on the grounds that Schieffer, and Earle if he runs, will have enough money and institutional backing to prevent this from being a referendum between random unknowns, as the Lite Gov primary in 2006 between Alvarado’s sister Maria and Ben Grant was. But I admit it could happen.

Finally, here’s Schieffer’s statement on Watson’s decision. We’re waiting to hear from you, Ronnie.

At Large action

We’ve certainly got a fascinating Mayor’s race going on this year, with three viable candidates that can all plausibly claim a path to victory, but it seems to me that there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in the At Large races as well. Marc Campos writes about a development that could affect one of them.

Yesterday, Commentary’s shop sent out an email announcing the supporters for Rick Rodriguez, candidate for H-Town City Council, At Large, Position 1. We will be helping him out this election season. Rodriguez is being taken very seriously. One opposing campaign asked him to consider running in At-Large, Position 4 race – no thanks. Another major interest group asked Rodriguez to run in At-Large, Position 5 – no thanks again. It is pretty obvious to Commentary that local political players know that Rodriguez has a strong base and is a force to deal with. Stay tuned!

Stace made notes of this as well. The email Campos’ shop sent included State Sen. Mario Gallegos, who I’m told made numerous calls on Rodriguez’s behalf, State Rep. and former City Council Member Carol Alvarado, and current City Council Members Ed Gonzalez and James Rodriguez, as supporters. And according to David Ortez, who attended Gene Locke’s event at Doneraki’s on Tuesday, at which Locke announced the endorsement of Gallegos, Alvarado, and several other local Latino leaders, Locke has “informally endorsed” Rodriguez as well. I wish I’d seen that before I conducted my interview with Rodriguez, who was as non-committal about his preferred candidate for Mayor as just about everyone else has been, but oh well. That’s an impressive amount of support for Rodriguez, and established him as someone to watch in a race that already has several strong candidates.

Having said that, Rodriguez still has to establish himself. He finished fourth in the District H special election, with 9.5% of the vote. He entered this race late, and reported essentially no money raised as of July 15. He has not won any endorsements yet; the Tejano Dems went with Herman Litt. All this backing puts Rodriguez on the map, and may position him to get into a runoff, but winning it would be another matter; ask Joe Trevino about that. Let’s not forget, Steve Costello raised a ton of money in the first six months, and has won several endorsements; he announced the support of the Houston Contractors Association and the Houston Apartment Association Better Government Fund today. Herman Litt starts out as a fave among many Dems for all the work he did on things like the Johnson-Rayburn-Richards dinner last year, and he came out of the gate with a lot of endorsements from establishment Dems. Karen Derr has been running longer than anyone in this race, and has raised a pretty respectable amount, though she didn’t have much cash on hand as of July 15. She has won some group endorsements as well. Lonnie Allsbrooks trails in all of these categories, but I sure see a lot of his signs in yards around where I live. Point being, this is a crowded field, and everyone in it has a base.

So I can understand the reasons why there might have been suggestions to Rodriguez that he consider another race. I’m going to guess that one reason why he might prefer At Large #1 to #s 4 or 5 is that he might not want to wind up in a runoff against an African-American candidate when there’s a strong likelihood Gene Locke will also be in a runoff for Mayor. On the other hand, a lot of the votes in this year’s runoff are likely to come from Districts A and G, and while Locke has certainly spent time courting Republican support, it’s not at all clear to me that those folks would go on to vote for C.O. Bradford and/or Jolanda Jones as well.

And that brings me to the other At Large races. Melissa Noriega in #3 is uncontested so far, and will likely get nothing more than token opposition. Pretty much everyone likes her, and nobody likes running against an incumbent, especially one with good fundraising numbers. Sue Lovell in #2 has three opponents, first-timer Roslyn Shorter plus perennials Andrew Burks and Griff Griffin. Unlike 2007, when Lovell spent a lot of her time helping Wanda Adams, James Rodriguez, and Jolanda Jones get elected and wound up in a surprisingly close race against the do-nothing Griff, Lovell is taking her re-election very seriously this time. She’s raising money like never before. I see no reason why she won’t win easily, but I daresay she won’t take anything for granted.

At Large #4 hasn’t changed from the beginning. Bradford and Noel Freeman are fairly evenly matched. Both have won some endorsements. Neither has raised a ton of money. Bradford has more name recognition, but that’s not necessarily a positive for him. I understand the logic that would go into gaming out various runoff scenarios, as described above, but I still don’t quite understand why At Large #1 has five candidates and this race has (for all intents and purposes) two. And I say that as someone who likes both of these gentlemen.

And finally, there’s At Large #5. A month or two ago, I’d have expected Jolanda Jones to cruise to re-election. Carlos Obando, whom I interviewed recently, is a nice guy and I thought he had some good things to say, but he has no money and no obvious backing, and it’s just hard to knock off an incumbent in our system; it’s only happened once since we adopted term limits. Now Jones has two more opponents, and I daresay a larger number of people who would prefer to vote for someone else, but I don’t see any of that translating into support for any one person yet. All three of her opponents have fared poorly in previous elections – Obando lost a GOP primary for HD134 last year, Davetta Daniels lost by a 2-1 margin for HISD Trustee in 2007, and the less said about Jack Christie’s abortive attempt to win this same At Large #5 seat in 2007, the better. I can envision there being enough of a not-Jolanda vote to force a runoff, and I can envision the challenger coming out on top in that scenario, but until one of these folks shows me something, like winning an endorsement that Jones has lost or getting some establishment support on his or her side, I think the smart money stays on the incumbent. Again, while I understand the reasons for running in At Large #1, I can’t help but think there’s an opening here for someone.

Lawrence looking at Commissioners Court

Something I’d realized recently is that almost everyone in city government who is or would have been term-limited out is running or has run for another office. Mayor White is running for Senate. City Controller Annise Parker is running for Mayor. Council members Ronald Green, Pam Holm, and MJ Khan are running for City Controller. Former member Adrian Gonzalez was in his last term when he got elected Sheriff last year. The odd one out was Toni Lawrence, but that may not be the case any more.

So we hear current City Council Member Toni Lawrence is eying her next move, possibly toward County Commissioner. Multiple people have told me that Lawrence is seriously considering running for Commissioner Jerry Eversole’s seat, whenever that becomes available. She has already begun privately gauging support. Contacted last night, Lawrence said it was definitely something she is looking at. This apparently, after another formidable female elected official decided to take a pass at the seat… again, whenever it becomes available, which of course, it’s currently NOT.

Perhaps the FBI will step in and make CM Lawrence’s decision easier for her, though given that she just moved into the precinct, barely in time to be qualified for the ballot, perhaps she’s already decided. In any event, an open County Commissioners Court seat is one of the ultimate prizes in our government, and if Eversole jumps or gets pushed out of the race you can be sure it’ll be a free-for-all to replace him. I’m confident there will be some Democrats in that mix as well; I know there are recruitment efforts going on now. Certainly, as a challenge to an incumbent, even one like Eversole, it’s a steep climb. I don’t recall the exact numbers offhand, but CC Precinct 4 is redder than Precinct 3 – it’s slightly on the Republican side of 60/40, so any Dem would be a heavy underdog, even in an open seat. Still, you can’t pass something like this up, and if the stars line up and you hit the jackpot, it’s huge.

Oh, anyone have a clue who the “formidable female elected official” that declined to run might be? Leave a comment and let me know.

UPDATE: Stace has more, and his post suggests former City Council member Addie Wiseman as a potential candidate.

UPDATE: I’ve received some feedback that that the “formidable female elected official” in question is State Rep. Patricia Harless, who was in line to be appointed to the seat in the event that Eversole resigned. The word now is that Eversole will stay till the end of his term, and Harless will run for re-election to the State House.

Strip club fee appealed to Supreme Court

As expected.

The legal battles continue to spin around Texas’ so-called “pole tax,” a $5 entrance fee at strip clubs that has been ruled an unconstitutional regulation of free expression.

Lawyers for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Comptroller Susan Combs on Thursday asked the Texas Supreme Court to overturn lower courts that have said the 2-year-old law is unconstitutional.

The fee was meant to fund programs assisting victims of sexual assault. Many clubs have ignored the fee, but more than $12 million has been collected. The money is being held in an account pending the legal battle’s outcome.

The Texas Entertainment Association, which represents strip clubs across the state, sued and a state district judge struck down the law in 2008. A 2-1 ruling last week by the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals said the tax improperly singles out a form of expression, nude dancing, for regulation.

As we saw with the Third Court’s opinion, the proponents of the tax believe they have hope for a reversal by the Supremes. I just have my doubts that the matter will be resolved before the courts before the Lege gets another crack at it. Who knows, maybe it’ll be on the call for the special session.

Runoff Day in District H

Today is Runoff Day for the District H special election. Polls are open from 7 AM till 7 PM. Voting locations are here; if you’re not sure what precinct you’re in, go here. Early voting was heavier than I expected it would be, so I’m very curious to see if that carries over to today’s activity. I think I speak for everyone involved in this when I say that I’ll be glad when it’s over and we finally have a Council member for District H. Best of luck to both candidates today.

Juvenile justice in Harris County

Is rather an oxymoron, it seems. Apparently, the process for certifying juveniles to be tried as adults, which according to the DA’s office is supposed to be only done on “the worst of the worst”, is a mere formality.

In 2007 and 2008 alone, Harris County juvenile judges transferred 160 teens’ cases to the adult system — more than nine of the largest urban counties in Texas combined, according to a Chronicle analysis of statewide certifications by county.

The certifications are based on allegations they committed felonies, including robbery, murder, car theft and drug possession.

But such rulings are so common here — and so nearly identical — that they have prompted a legal attack from local attorneys and juvenile justice experts who call them “rubber-stamped” and “assembly line” injustices that violate children’s rights.

The result: “virtual destruction” of dozens of juveniles who are dumped and damaged in adult prisons and “could otherwise turn their lives around,” claims nonprofit Texas Appleseed, according to documents filed in the case. The nonprofit is part of a pending legal challenge of the 2008 certification of a Houston teen charged with murder.

Attorney Christene Wood, a family friend of that teen, said that during his hearing last year the juvenile judge surfed the Internet, laughed and never once made eye contact with the boy. “The certification process here is an absolute joke,” Wood said.

[…]

Before certifying a child, juvenile judges are supposed to hold a hearing and review evidence about the seriousness and nature of the offense, a child’s maturity and background, the likelihood of rehabilitation and the need for protection for the community, according to state law.

Historically, more than 90 percent of the DA’s recommendations for certifications were approved, county statistics indicate. The pace slowed somewhat in the first four months of 2009: 22 requests for certification; six declined.

The hearings tend to be quick — as short as 15 minutes — and based mostly on police statements and probation officers’ reports, according to a review of 2008 case files and interviews with attorneys.

Judges used fill-in-the-blank form rulings with very similar findings, the Chronicle found. In two cases, the forms were written so sloppily that girls certified as adults were referred to as “he.”

Few juvenile defense attorneys asked outside experts to evaluate their 14- to 17-year-old clients. In fact, some children get no formal psychiatric evaluation at all for potential mental health or disability issues before being transferred to adult court, according to records and interviews.

University of Houston law professor Ellen Marrus, an expert in juvenile law, said many court-appointed lawyers don’t “bother to work up the case and a lot of the orders are rubber-stamped.”

Heck of a system we’ve got there, isn’t it? I hope that this pending legal challenge leads to a lot more specific information about the judges involved and their less-than-precise behavior, since all of them are up for re-election next year. Between this and the probate courts, the case for change in the judiciary is as clear in 2010 as it was last year. Grits has more.

Shorter to challenge Lovell

Isiah Carey reports.

The Insite had a brief conversation with Houstonian Rozzy ‘Roz’ Shorter. She’s not quite given up on her political career. You may remember Shorter as the local woman chosen by the Barack Obama camp to get the Houston audience hyped when then Seantor Obama made a campaign stop in the Bayou City. Shorter now says she’s already to take on sitting Houston City Council Member Sue Lovell. Shorter says At-Large Position 2 is perfect for what she wants to do and she’s willing to do serious battle with Lovell to take the spot. Shorter says she will make an official announcement in the weeks to come.

After Council Member Lovell’s close win in 2007, I figured she might get a serious challenger this time around. I don’t know Ms. Shorter, so I can’t say for sure if she’ll qualify as such, but at the very least she isn’t Griff Griffin. I’m happy with CM Lovell and see no reason not to vote for her, but this will be worth keeping an eye on, if only to see who among the electeds sides with Shorter.

By the way, if things break just right, Houston could end up with a Mayor, a Controller, and three out of five At Large City Council members who are all African-American, and that’s without there being such a candidate running for Peter Brown’s At Large #1 seat as yet. With CMs Jarvis Johnson in District B and Wanda Adams in District D, that could mean seven or even eight of the 16 members of city government are African-American. That would really be something.

On a side note, Mike Laster has his campaign website up and running for District F. He’s still the only candidate I’ve heard anything about in that race.

Son of Speaker complaining

So yes, even in the post-Craddick era, there are still complaints about the Speaker by Democrats. Some of this is to be expected: You can’t satisfy everyone. Some of it is probably the result of over-inflated expectations. And some of it is perfectly legitimate concerns about the makeup of the committees and who did or did not get good assignments.

I continue to believe that what we’ve got now is better than we had before, and better than we would have gotten from another term of Tom Craddick. I think Burka has a point in that the extremists who ruled committees under Craddick were largely shunted aside, and that the Dems mostly got their wish to be able to pass their bills and help their districts. Obviously, there is much to be played out, and we don’t really know yet if they’ll get a fair shake in the calendar and in rulings on points of order and whatnot. That’s where the rubber will really hit the road, and in the end I do think more real work will get done. At least, I think the potential is there for that. Of course, it’s quite possible for things to be better than they were under Craddick, and still not very good. When there’s that much room for improvement, there needs to be much improvement for it to be worthwhile. We won’t know about that till much later.

Process is only part of the equation, too. Will the emphasis this session be on the real work that needs to be done, on things like higher education and rebuilding Galveston and windstorm insurance and restoring CHIP and so on and so forth, or will Speaker Straus follow Craddick’s path of elevating divisive partisan issues over substance, and get things bogged down in the distractions of voter ID and abortion politics? Will we have an honest debate over the budget, or will Straus play games like Craddick and Warren Chisum did when they separated property tax cuts from everything else? Will members be free to vote their districts, or will they be pressured to do what the Speaker wants? It’s totally up to him, and when he has to make those decisions I hope he remembers how he got to be where he is now. More importantly, he might think about how Craddick got to be where he is now, too.

Swearingen gets a stay

Thank goodness.

Accused killer Larry Swearingen has been granted a second stay of execution.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit handed down the ruling this morning.

Swearingen was set to be executed by injection on Tuesday.

“We’re glad that someone has stepped in,” said Swearingen’s attorney James Rytting. “We think this is an extraordinary case of actual innocence. We’re hopeful that the federal courts will give the evidence a fair review.”

Swearingen has been on death row in the Polunsky Unit in Livingston since 2000. He was found guilty by a Montgomery County jury of kidnapping, raping and strangling 19-year-old Melissa Trotter on Dec. 8, 1998.

Monday’s ruling is the second time Swearingen has been given a reprieve. The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals granted him a stay on Jan. 23, 2007, one day before his scheduled execution date.

[…]

In granting Swearingen another stay of execution, the federal appeals court said his due process rights were violated because his trial attorney failed to develop evidence from Trotter’s body tissue and did a poor job in cross examining [former Harris County medical examiner Dr. Joye] Carter. The panel also found that the state sponsored “false and misleading forensic testimony regarding when Trotter’s body was left in the forest.”

The same arguments were rejected by the state court.

Circuit Judge Jacques L. Wiener Jr. wrote a concurring statement, he said, “to address the elephant that I perceive in the corner of this room: actual innocence.”

Wiener said he sees a “real possibility” that the district court could view the new evidence “as clear and convincing evidence that the victim could not have been killed by the defendant.”

He noted, however, that lower federal courts dealing with actual innocence claims might have to deny relief to someone who is actually innocent because of existing Supreme Court rulings.

The appeal will now go back to a federal district judge for review.

Go read the Texas Monthly story if you haven’t already to review the details. Note how once again, a federal appeals court has slapped our morally bankrupt Court of Criminal Appeals for its indifference to due process and exculpatory evidence. What really needs to happen here is for Swearingen to get a new trial, but at least the executioner has been avoided for now. Kudos to the FIfth Circuit Court of Appeals and to Attorney Rytting.

Not so Tolerance Bridge

Remember Tolerance Bridge? When it was first announced, a lot of people expressed ambivalence (at best) about the name. Now the city has joined in on that.

“It has too many hints of negativity,” said Councilman Jarvis Johnson. “It’s like my grandmother saying ‘I will not tolerate somebody yelling.’ I don’t want to just ‘tolerate’ any other culture, I want to embrace it, if you’re really talking about unity.”

After announcing the project in early December, Mayor Bill White received some feedback about the title, and asked the Houston Arts Alliance to contact its membership for more ideas. The organization is taking suggestions through Jan. 31.

Here’s the Alliance’s website. I don’t know who is supposed to be suggesting alternate names to them, since I don’t see anything there that’s soliciting feedback, but I suppose you can use their contact page if you feel so inclined.

Neither the city nor Houston Arts Alliance could say who will make the final decision on a name, although [philanthropist Mica] Mosbacher said she is still looking for donors, so someone who gives “a major gift” could have “final input” on the name.

[Artist and blogger Bill] Davenport predicted it would all be for naught in the end.

“Inevitably, public art projects get nicknames,” he said. “They should just build it and wait to see what people nickname it. The people will win out.”

I kinda like that idea, and I say that as someone who had no objections to the original name. With the unique design this bridge will have, some wiseguy will come up with something.

More on Larry Swearingen

I’ve blogged before about Larry Swearingen, who is on death row and is scheduled for execution on January 27 even though forensic evidence clearly demonstrates his innocence of the murder of Melissa Trotter. Multiple experts, including the Harris County medical examiner who originally testified against him at his trial, now say that Trotter’s body was dumped while Swearingen was sitting in a jail cell. Yet the Court of Criminal Appeals, that bastion of injustice and illogic, has refused to order a new trial. It’s appalling, and is going to be a huge, avoidable tragedy if nothing happens to prevent it.

Now the Chron’s Lisa Falkenberg has picked up on the Texas Monthly story about Swearingen. She adds a few new details, including this:

Attorneys with the New-York based Innocence Project are also working feverishly on requests for DNA testing on the panty hose, Trotter’s clothing and more blood scrapings. They plan to appeal to Gov. Rick Perry’s office for a stay, and have unsuccessfully tried to get newly elected Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon to support a request for DNA testing.

Ligon didn’t return my call. Marc Brumberger, who handles the office’s appeals, said the new evidence doesn’t prove Swearingen didn’t kill Trotter. It only “throws in the prospect” that Swearingen may have initially refrigerated or frozen her body, then had help from an accomplice moving it into the woods while he was in jail.

[Swearingen’s attorney James] Rytting calls that far-fetched theory “guilt by imagination.” He said the DA’s office is grasping for explanations now that their case is crumbling.

“Their case is a lie and they’re going to kill him anyway,” Rytting says.

I shouldn’t be by now, but I continue to be amazed at how utterly pigheaded some DA’s offices can be about this. Have we learned nothing from Dallas’ experience? Let me put this in the simplest terms I can, simple enough that even Brett Ligon and Mark Brumberger can understand it: The actions of the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office will enable a murderer to walk free and possibly to kill again. Even if you don’t care about Larry Swearingen, you ought to care about that.