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July 1st, 2013:

What are the odds for Wendy?

After a week of Democratic energy and exhilaration like we haven’t seen in a long time here thanks to the Wendy Davis filibuster, there are a lot of people who’d like to see Sen. Davis run for Governor. No doubt if she did, she’d make a race out of it, and would have no shortage of energy or fundraising resources. Whether or not she can actually win, however, remains unclear.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

In victory and defeat alike, there were jolts of energy unlike any felt by Lone Star Democrats since the GOP took complete control of state government a decade ago.

“Texas Democrats have dug themselves a big hole over the last 20 years,” said Austin Democratic consultant Harold Cook. “In one week, Republicans have done all they can to backfill much of it.”

The high-profile social issues of immigration, abortion and civil rights play right into Democrats’ strategy with their much-publicized “Battleground Texas” comeback plan: Energize minority voters and single women who historically have voted at lower levels than social conservatives, while persuading some swing voters such as younger Anglos and suburban women to abandon the GOP.

[…]

A short-term victory for Texas Democrats: doubtless. But that obscures a more important question: Will these events dramatically hasten the day when deep red Texas is once again a politically competitive state? Or is Democratic talk of a “purple” Texas as soon as 2014 an early-summer fantasy fueled by the euphoria of the past week?

Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson warns Democrats not to be swept away by “Wendy-mania.”

“The events of the past week have certainly amped up the energy in Texas politics, but the changes required to turn Texas purple, let alone blue, will still be a decade or more in coming,” Jillson said.

Indeed, a Houston Chronicle analysis of election data from 2000 to 2012 found that demographic shifts toward an ever-increasing minority population will only take Democrats so far. The study, conducted last November, found that if current demographic and voting trends continue, Texas will become a politically competitive state in 2020 and a true toss-up in 2024.

The study assumes no spike in registration or turnout among Texas Latinos or a shift among minority voters either away from or toward the GOP. It also assumes that independent swing voters will not dramatically shift from their current Republican leanings.

“The Democratic comeback in Texas depends on two things: The will to do it and the resources to do it,” said Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic consultant and campaign manager for former Gov. Ann Richards. “Demographic changes are not enough. That is a pipe dream. We have to raise the money and do the hard work.”

The Trib had some cold water as well.

Wendy Davis is never going to see a better moment for a statewide run for office, even though the odds of a Democrat winning statewide in Texas could not be worse.

She would almost certainly lose.

There are always more reasons not to run than to run. But she has emerged as the predominant voice on an issue that pits the party in power against the party out of power. She has a sea of orange shirts behind her, and the Republicans are clearly very, very irritated by her presence on the stage. They’re also irritated that their own officeholders are largely responsible for the attention she’s getting.

[…]

Davis would probably be defeated in a statewide race. Opportunity could have picked a better time to knock. A strong party, good political infrastructure and money can cover a lot of candidate flaws. Both parties have won elections in Texas over the decades with standard-bearers possessing no discernable political skills. Likewise, lots of good candidates from both parties have fallen short because they were in the right place at the wrong time.

That might describe Davis. And it’s not clear she has what it takes to run a statewide race.

She is a local candidate suddenly, and perhaps momentarily, stuck in the spotlight.

She has no statewide network, and her political party doesn’t have the kind of infrastructure that parties are supposed to provide to candidates just coming into their own.

Money is a problem, though her ability to raise funds in Texas and, more importantly, from elsewhere in the country, rose tenfold over the last week. She has a hot hand right now and could put some money together.

The Republicans have the governor — if he decides to run again. And they have Attorney General Greg Abbott, who doesn’t have the Perry’s charisma but has that political infrastructure, lots of money ($18 million at the end of the year) and a party behind him that hasn’t lost a statewide election since 1994.

A bettor would have to go with the Republicans.

It’s hard to argue with that. The numbers are what they are. For all the talk about off-year elections being bad for Democrats, in some ways 2014 offers more hope than 2016 would because Republican turnout is lower in off-year elections as well. More to the point, Republican turnout in off-year elections can vary quite a bit. In 2006, top GOP vote-getter Kay Bailey Hutchison received about 58% of George W. Bush’s 2004 vote total; most of her fellow Republicans got a couple points less than that. In 2010, most Republicans on the ticket were at about 67% of John McCain’s 2008 total. Since McCain got about as many votes as Bush did, that was a huge swing for the GOP, from about 2,500,000 to 3,000,000 votes in all. Democrats, on the other hand, have been stuck in the 1.7 million to 1.8 million range for most candidates for three consecutive off-year elections, despite going from 2.8 million votes in 2004 to 3.5 million in 2008 and 3.4 million in 2012. (Bill White in 2010 and John Sharp in 2002 are the only two Dems to top 2 million votes in non-Presidential years since 2002.) Dems went from about 65% of John Kerry’s total vote in 2006 to only 57% of President Obama’s vote total in 2010. Getting up to a GOP 2010 level of the vote in 2014 would boost the base level to about 2.3 million. Still not enough to win, but at least in the same ZIP code. From that base, you can imagine a candidate with crossover appeal, a bit of extra turnout, a mediocre turnout year for the other guys, and maybe a little something else to get over the top. A longshot, but not a no-shot.

Of course, Democrats don’t have much control over the level of Republican turnout. The Rs have a lot less work to do to get to a a good level, and may not have to do anything in particular. I doubt they’ll have the intensity of 2010, but it’s hard to imagine them having the lethargy of 2006. Nobody knows what may happen between now and next year that could affect any of these factors – I mean, as recently as a week ago there was no reason to believe Wendy Davis was about to become a national figure. There’s a ton of national desire to see Davis take the leap, but it can’t be done without some real downside risk. Never mind Davis losing, running for Governor means giving up her Senate seat, which will be an extremely tough hold without her running for it. That’s one reason why I’ve been advocating for the likes of Rodney Ellis, who has a decent amount of cash on hand and isn’t up for election in 2014, and Cecile Richards to announce for Governor. I think either one could capture a lot of the energy Davis has helped create, without putting an incumbent on the line. For that matter, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte drew a four-year term and could run without risk in 2014 as well. She’s got less cash on hand than Ellis, but made herself almost as big a name as Davis did in the chaotic last moments of the filibuster. There are options in 2014 if Davis wants to take the less-risky path. This may be her best moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right moment. It’s a tough decision, and I don’t envy her having to make it.

What does the DOMA decision mean for Texas?

Last week, the day after the disappointing SCOTUS ruling on the Voting Rights Act, we got a much more heartening ruling on DOMA, declaring it to be unconstitutional. However, not all of DOMA was struck down.

In a landmark Supreme Court decision on Wednesday, justices ruled that Section 3 of the 1996 law, which denies federal benefits to same-sex couples, is unconstitutional. As Justice Anthony Kennedy argued, “DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code.”

But other parts of the law itself are still in effect, including Section 2. This part of the law allows states where same-sex marriage is either illegal or unrecognized not to honor the legal unions from other states around the country. Say a same-sex couple gets married in Iowa; their marriage does not have to be recognized in Alabama. This could become an issue if a couple needs to move to a different state.

That includes Texas, of course. The fact that same-sex marriage remains illegal in Texas was noted by the Chronicle:

“Individual states will continue to enforce their laws until challenged, but we see those challenges coming,” said Houston appellate lawyer Allie Levy. “We will have to go state by state, but we might have much better weapons than we had before.”

Local blogger Michael Coppens believes Wednesday’s rulings make the building momentum for full marriage equality unstoppable.

“For Texas, it doesn’t have a huge impact immediately,” said Coppens, who is gay. “We still have a long way to go. Congratulations to California – they’ve got it and we don’t. But fundamentally it turns the tide. I don’t think the national movement for same-sex marriage can be stopped. With the general public becoming more supportive, and now this ruling taking place, you have the foundation for the anti-gay marriage laws we have across the country going away.”

And by the Dallas Morning News.

“Texas still bars couples from same-sex marriage, and this decision doesn’t change that,” said Cary Franklin, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office declined to comment on the effect of the rulings.

One Democratic lawmaker, Fort Worth state Rep. Lon Burnam, immediately vowed to reintroduce legislation to legalize same-gender marriages in Texas. The state became the 19th to adopt a constitutional ban of same-sex unions in 2005.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to refile my marriage-equality bill, and that’s the first thing I will do on Monday,” said Burnam, who filed a similar bill in February that died in committee.

The bill cannot advance in the Texas Legislature’s special session unless Gov. Rick Perry, an ardent opponent of same-sex marriage, adds it to the agenda.

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that married same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits and, by declining to decide a case from California, effectively allowed same-sex marriages there.

UT’s Franklin said the high court’s rulings may inspire lawsuits, anti-discrimination policies and scrutiny of same-sex marriage bans nationwide.

“People in Texas didn’t immediately gain any rights, but the court issued a decision that talked about the importance of equality for couples,” she said.

RedEquality

I noted Rep. Burnam’s bill, which will not see the light of day in the special session but which is still laudatory, over the weekend. There’s no question that right-thinking legislators need to mount a full assault on Texas’ awful Double Secret Illegal anti-gay marriage amendment, in the 2014 campaigns and in the 2015 legislative session – and beyond, as will be necessary – but as I have said before, the fact that it is in the constitution makes this an extra heavy lift. I continue to believe that the death of this atrocity will come from a courtroom and not the Lege, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to kill it in the Lege. It’s still the right thing to do, and hey, you never know. Attitudes have shifted so quickly on the national level, I may be wrong about how long it will take to shift sufficiently here to make a legislative fix viable. Nobody would have thought we’d be where we are now after that stupid thing was ratified in 2005.

There is another avenue available to apply pressure on this, and that’s in the cities and school districts. They need to have full, up to date non-discrimination policies, and they need to offer domestic partner benefits, even if they can’t call them “domestic partner benefits”. Make as much of Texas as gay-friendly as possible within the confines of the current law, and get as many people as possible used to the idea that this is the way things are now. The entities that already have such policies are keeping them in the face of hostility from AG Abbott and some small-minded legislators; they could use some company. If that leads to lawsuits from the forces of backwardness, I say bring it. I don’t fear this being fought out in court.

What that means for those of us who support equality is that in addition to supporting like-minded candidates for state office, we need to support them for local offices, too. Where do your Mayors and Council members and school board trustees stand on this? We’re behind the curve here in Houston thanks to a 2001 charter referendum that banned the city from offering domestic partner benefits. We can’t have a charter amendment referendum until either November 2014 or May 2015 (because we passed amendments last November and can’t put any others on a ballot until two calendar years after that date), and it’s time to start working towards that. Mayor Annise Parker has applauded the SCOTUS DOMA ruling – as far as I can tell by looking at their Facebook pages, she is the only one of the four Mayoral candidates to have commented on this. That’s a good start, but she and all other candidates for Houston city offices need to be pushed to take action on undoing the ban on offering domestic partner benefits. HISD Trustee candidates need to be pushed on offering such benefits, too, if only to get the stench of the 2011 election out of everyone’s mouths. The same is true for other cities and other school boards. I mean, the Supreme Court has just unequivocally acknowledged that this kind of discrimination is wrong. What are we waiting for? BOR, CultureMap, and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Kudos to Texpatriate for getting a statement out of Eric Dick, and trying to get one out of Ben Hall.

H-GAC approves Uptown transportation funding

Good.

Houston-area transportation officials approved a plan Friday to use $61.8 million in federal funds to help build bus-only lanes along Post Oak Boulevard in the Uptown area.

[…]

The project, sponsored by the Uptown Management District, widens Post Oak to add two center lanes for buses that will shuttle riders from two Metropolitan Transit Authority transit centers into the bustling Uptown business area. The $177.5 million project is slated to start construction in 2015, said John Breeding, Uptown’s president.

Breeding and other Uptown area business leaders told the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council the project could be a game-changer in terms of how people commute into the area to work and to shop.

“We are convinced it will improve mobility well beyond its neighborhood,” said Jack Drake, president of the Greenspoint District.

See here and here for the background. The plan to install BRT as a (temporary?) replacement for light rail along the Uptown Line has gotten the bulk of the attention, but the addition of HOV lanes is likely the bigger deal. Somewhat strangely to me, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who voted No, expressed skepticism about that aspect of the plan.

“I am afraid we are going to look up in 10 years and say, ‘What did we do that for?’ ” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

Emmett, chairman of the transportation council, said the project followed the rules and on paper warranted the funding commitment from local officials.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s the right project to solve the Uptown area’s serious traffic problems, said Emmett, expressing doubts that Houston residents would get out of their cars to take a bus to work.

“I think I know Houstonians enough to know they are going to want to drive,” Emmett said.

Unlike downtown, where park-and-ride buses drop commuters off right in front of major buildings, someone leaving an office on Post Oak would have to cross wide grass medians and wait at an outdoor transit stop in the middle of the street.

“When it’s 95 degrees, is anybody going to do that?” Emmett asked.

You hear that “it gets hot in Houston” argument often for why non-car-oriented projects won’t be worth it. It’s true we have hot summers, but that’s only three months out of the year. The rest of the year is great weather for being outside. We’re still talking about a fairly short distance to walk to get from bus to building. I’m sorry, but I don’t see this as a good reason to oppose the plan, especially given how awful traffic around the Galleria is. I think plenty of people would be happy to have an alternative to that.

One argument that I can see is that once you’ve taken a bus into Uptown, you’re stranded when you want to go to lunch. Downtown there are tons of options in easy walking distance – if you drive into downtown to work, depending on how close your garage is to your office, you can likely get to numerous lunch places in the time it would take you to walk to your car. I don’t know what the situation is like Uptown. But that’s where the rest of the plan comes in – the BRT line will help you get around Uptown, perhaps someday connecting to the University line as well. Throw in a future B-Cycle expansion as I’ve been suggesting, and I think you’ve got it mostly covered. Metro and the Uptown District will need to educate businesses and employees about what their commuting options will be in the future, but I’m sure they’ll take care of that. I think this is a good idea and I think it’s going to make a positive difference in the area. What do you think?

If we need more courts, we should ask for more courts

I’m not sure why there hasn’t been more of a push to deal with this.

Harris County 1910 courthouse

As Harris County’s population continues to swell, more people means more crimes. And that results in more work for the county’s 22 felony courts.

But no court is busier right now than the 209th, which is overseen by Michael McSpadden, Harris County’s most senior felony court judge. He has a docket of pending cases that eclipses all other felony courts locally.

With a caseload of 1,159, McSpadden has 440 more pending cases than his colleagues’ average of 718, according to a report this month by the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Judges and others say the larger the docket, the more every case is slowed down. That means suspects who are lingering in jail and the victims in those cases may wait years for the case to go to trial, plead out or get dismissed.

The correlation between the size of the docket and the quality of justice, however, is a hotly debated question.

[…]

The more than 1,100 cases in his court is a surprising number that even McSpadden says needs to come down.

“This is my 31st year on the bench and when I had one of the better dockets, I was criticized that I might be rushing cases through – putting too much pressure on attorneys to plead cases, which was certainly not true,” McSpadden said last week. “In the past three years, it has built up, and I have no idea why. I don’t think my attorneys are handling cases differently.”

[…]

“The best judge in the criminal courthouse has the highest docket,” said Todd Dupont, president of Houston’s criminal defense lawyer organization. “(McSpadden) doesn’t let fear of the size of his docket dictate the quality of the proceedings, which is where a lot of judges fall short in Harris County.”

Dupont, who practices in front of McSpadden, said the problem in Harris County is that other judges worry too much about docket sizes.

“Historically we have seen judges use that reasoning to encourage people to plead guilty,” Dupont said. “Who cares about the size of the docket? Conversations about dockets are meaningless unless you use it as a tool of oppression, and that’s just mean, and probably illegal.”

[…]

“The bottom line is we haven’t had a new court since 1985, and the filings haven’t slowed down and aren’t going to slow down,” [Presiding Judge Susan] Brown said. She said there is little hope of getting more judges, more courts or more money. “We’re trying to find creative ways to resolve these issues because we’re not going to get any help.”

Although the crime rate has fallen in recent years, the county’s population continues to grow, creating a net increase in criminal cases going through the system.

Since 1985, when Houston’s last criminal district court was created by the Legislature, the number of felony filings has doubled from 22,000 a year to 44,000. Courts that used to see 1,000 cases a year are now scrambling to deal with twice that many.

Well okay then. Maybe there isn’t much hope for getting more judges, but has anyone asked? If the number of felony filings has doubled since the last time there was a new criminal court added, then isn’t that some pretty strong evidence that there’s a need? I recognize that Harris County may not want to have to pay for more judges, but if everyone is so concerned about the quality of justice being dispensed in courtrooms with such overflowing dockets, isn’t it irresponsible not to ask for more judges? Complaining about it isn’t going to change anything. There’s a fundamental disconnect here.

I should note that there is another way to deal with this, one that doesn’t involve a legislative or financial solution, and that’s to file fewer felony cases. Though there was no breakdown of that “22,000 felony filings” number, I’ll bet that a significant fraction of them are drug cases, and that a significant fraction of those are non-violent possession cases, including the infamous “trace cases” that are now being filed as felonies again. As of a few months ago at least, that had not caused an increase in the county jail population, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an effect. We could file fewer such cases as felonies, and we could push the Legislature to reform the laws that make drug possession and other non-violent crimes felonies. Again, though, complaining is not likely to bring about any changes.