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February 3rd, 2014:

Interview with Mike Fjetland

Michael Fjetland

Michael Fjetland

As the Trib recently noted, there are twenty-one candidates for US Senate this year in Texas – eight Republicans, counting incumbent John Cornyn; five Democrats, four (!) independents, three Libertarians, and a Green, who may or may not be in a pear tree. We’re interested in the Democratic hopefuls here, and I’ll have interviews with two of them this week. First up is Mike Fjetland, a business man, attorney, and international relations expert. Fjetland is the most experienced candidate among the Democrats, having run multiple campaigns against Tom DeLay in CD22, in the Republican primary and as an independent. We covered a lot of ground in the interview:

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2014 Election page.

How extreme is too extreme?

The GOP candidates for Lite Guv are doing their best to test the hypothesis that having an R next to your name is all you need to get elected statewide in Texas, regardless of your stated positions on issues.

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The Republican candidates for lieutenant governor do not seem worried about Democratic challengers and independent voters, or particularly concerned about whether their public conversations and debates fuel the Democrats’ election-year motif of a war on women.

If they were, they would not be talking like this. You would not have seen what you saw during the debate early this week as they all raced to the conservative end of the pool, hoping to win the hearts of the Republican voters they will face in the primary election in March.

Instead, you would have seen a quartet of Republicans trying to win a primary without blowing their chances of winning over the more moderate voters who will come out in November.

If this election goes the way of other recent Republican primaries, the candidates’ first encounter will be with a small and conservative bunch. Fewer than two of every 25 Texans will be voting in the primary. General elections draw larger turnouts with different voters. The Democrats will be there, of course, along with political moderates, independents and the sometimes-engaged voters who might be drawn out by a noisy race for governor.

Judging from their responses, the Republican candidates are thinking about the first cohort and not the second. All believe, with varied degrees of enthusiasm, that creationism should be taught in public schools. All four, talking about a recent case in Fort Worth that got national attention, said state law should be rewritten to override a family’s desire to remove life support from a clinically dead woman until her child can be delivered. And each underscored his position on the issues by saying that abortions should not be allowed except when the life of the mother is in danger; that is a break from a more conventional Republican position that would allow exceptions in cases of rape and incest.

Indeed, an earlier Trib story showed just how out of touch these positions on abortion are with even their own voters.

Though it’s hard to envision given the tone of the Texas Republican Party’s primary contests so far, the GOP candidates for lieutenant governor lurched even farther right in Monday night’s debate in their collective rejection of access to abortion in instances of rape.

While defenders of abortion rights might be tempted to dismiss the candidates’ support for childbirth after rape as another sign of alleged misogyny in the Texas GOP, a plurality of Republicans surveyed in the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll have consistently supported permitting abortion in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the woman’s life — 41 percent in the October 2013 poll, and this after a summer of highly partisan public conflict over abortion legislation.

In that same survey, only 16 percent of Republicans (compared with 12 percent of Texans overall) said that abortion should never be permitted. This was on the low end of the typical GOP embrace of the prohibitionist position, which has fluctuated between 14 and 27 percent over the life of the poll, with the usual reading in the low 20s.

Allowing abortion only in the case of rape, incest or threat to the woman’s life has consistently been the most common GOP position, typically supported by just over 40 percent of Republicans. Support for the most permissive position on abortion was 19 percent among Republican voters in the October 2013 poll, also in a range consistent with previous results.

Overall, 78 percent of Texas Republicans believed that there were some situations in which abortion should be accessible. Each and every candidate dismissed even the most restrictive version of this position in Monday night’s debate. (Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst seemed to suggest he would have concerns about the life of the mother if she were his wife in such a situation, though he was unclear how these feelings translate into his policy position.)

The belief that pregnant rape victims should be required to bring their pregnancies to term, evident on the debate stage, seems to be more about positioning in the Republican primary than a careful reading of public opinion. And while the Tea Party remains the easy scapegoat for the GOP’s rightward push, in this case at least, our polling shows that only 13 percent of Tea Party Republicans support a complete prohibition on the procedure.

They’re pandering to a minority of a minority within their own party. I only wish someone had asked them during the debate if they’d support the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions and women who receive them. I mean, if it’s murder and all, why wouldn’t they? Clearly, there’s still space for them to move further to the right on this.

The bigger question is whether November voters are paying attention. The Observer has video of the debate in case you have the stomach for it. Jacquielynn Floyd was watching.

Monday’s televised four-candidate debate — which I bravely tied myself to a chair to watch in its entirety — seemed less like a political forum than a tribal pageant to be crowned the Truest Conservative in All the Land.

Voters hoping to be illuminated on the issues facing Texas were surely disappointed in what they got from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and his three GOP challengers: Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and state Sen. Dan Patrick.

Their joint performance brought to mind a flock of talking myna birds — or perhaps a single monster parrot with four heads — that kept shouting out the same disjointed phrases: “Conservative leader!” “Secure the border!” “Protect life!”

All four of these candidates voiced wholehearted agreement that the corpse of a legally dead pregnant woman, Marlise Muñoz, should have been forced to continue incubating a malformed fetus — despite her own stated wishes, the pleas of her family and ultimately the decision of a state district court judge.

Each in turn agreed that creationism, an anti-science, biblical literalist explanation for the origin of life, should be routine curriculum for all Texas students — even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that teaching it in public schools violates the Constitution.

They declared in perfect four-part harmony that rape victims or girls molested by their own fathers should be forced to carry pregnancies to term.

They spoke darkly about the dire threat posed by alien hordes pouring across our undefended border — and they didn’t mean Canadians.

To a lot of people, this all transcends so-called extremism. It’s crazy talk.

Funny how respect for the Constitution only extends to things they agree with, isn’t it? Lisa Falkenberg was also watching.

As I watched that debate among four Republican lieutenant governor candidates earlier this week, I couldn’t help but wonder: How on Earth did we get here? And at this rate, where in the hell are we going?

Actually, the first question isn’t a mystery. We’re here because relatively few Texans vote, thereby surrendering the political fate of our great state to the whim of Republican primary voters who make up only 5 to 7 percent of the voting-age population.

The farther right that sliver of the electorate slides, the farther out to la-la land the candidates have to go to reach them. So you get what we had in Dallas the other night.

The candidates – Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, state Sen. Dan Patrick, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, all but the last from Houston – provided political theater at its best, policy at its worst. They seem to operate in a kind of alternate universe where pragmatism is a sin, moderation is a slur and the word “conservative,” which used to stand for fiscal responsibility, personal freedom and limited government, is farce.

It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Take the horrifying case of Erick Muñoz, the anguished father and husband who had to fight a Fort Worth hospital in court after it refused to remove his 14-week-pregnant, brain-dead wife from machines that kept her lungs and heart going.

The hospital cited a state law that denies life-sustaining treatment from a pregnant patient; the husband cited his wife’s wishes never to be kept breathing by machines.

The fetus itself had been deprived of oxygen after the mother’s collapse and family attorneys said the child suffered severe deformities, fluid on the brain and possible heart problems. So-called pro-lifers talk about fetal pain. This seemed more like fetal torture. It compounded the agony of Muñoz, his toddler son, and the rest of the family. That agony went on for two months before a mercifully sane judge finally ended it this week, ruling what had been obvious to many from the beginning: Marlise Muñoz was already dead.

That fact didn’t seem to matter to the Texas lieutenant governor candidates. Only Patterson even acknowledged it. Everybody seemed to agree the judge erred and the fetus should have been kept alive at all costs.

“If I had been in that judge’s shoes, I would have ruled differently,” Dewhurst said. Thank the Lord he wasn’t.

But he could be re-elected Lt. Governor, and if he’s not it will be at least in part because these extreme voters he’s desperately trying to please didn’t think he was extreme enough. The Texas Democratic Party cheekily congratulated Sen. Leticia Van de Putte for winning the debate by virtue of not being one of the crazy people on stage, but she can’t win if people don’t pay attention. Sen. Van de Putte won’t drive us into the ditch like these guys are promising to do. We need to do our part.

Get ready for the taxis and Uber debate

Here’s the first challenge for the new Council.

City officials, armed with a new study showing weaknesses in the local system, are inching toward regulatory changes that would open Houston’s cab industry to new players, such as Uber, which enables customers to schedule trips with a smartphone application, bypassing much of a traditional taxi company’s bureaucracy.

Such companies can’t operate now under city codes, which are focused on making sure limos and private cars do not directly compete with cabs.

“We need a pretty comprehensive restructuring of our taxicab regulations to get in line with what’s the city’s role in making sure passengers have the safest and best choice available to them,” said Chris Newport, spokesman for the Houston Administration & Regulatory Affairs Department.

The city-commissioned study, by the Tennessee Transportation and Logistics Foundation’s director, Ray Mundy, suggests Houston serves certain ride-seekers well. Getting a ride to and from the city’s airports, for example, is easy.

What’s unclear is the city’s ability to handle more intercity routes because many cabs rely solely on taxi stands and major trips. Further, the study found some Houstonians have a negative impression of cab rides because of poor service by drivers. Many riders also find the litany of cab colors and company names confusing.


City staff, based on the report, recommended elimination of a $70 base fare on all private trips and a requirement that trips must be arranged 30 minutes prior to departure.

To pave the way for companies like Uber while ensuring safe trips, Houston officials would also establish insurance liability requirements for dispatch companies that cover the drivers. Drivers in the company’s Uber Black service would be independent contractors, not employed by Uber, but part of a partnership with the company that connects them with interested riders.

Under the city staff recommendations, the insurance would apply whether the car was carrying a customer or en route to pick one up. The insurance coverage could potentially be extended to all times the vehicle is in use, according to a city memo issued Friday.

Here’s the memo to the Mayor’s office from Tina Paez, the Director of Administration & Regulatory Affairs, with a review of the study and the recommendations for Council. A brief glimpse, from the Conclusions section:

The City of Houston has an interest in strictly regulating the taxi industry because it serves a vital public interest and ordinary market forces have proven themselves incapable of delivering reliable service at reasonable prices in the absence of regulation. This framework is supported by theory, empirical fact, and both local and State law.

We recommend moving forward with a phased approach to amending the vehicle-for-hire ordinance to address new entrants and technologies in the market, as well as address the taxicab issues identified in the taxicab study. Addressing the taxicab issues will involve major changes to the existing regulatory structure; thus, we recommend the taxicab changes to the ordinance occur in the second phase of the Chapter 46 amendments, after substantial stakeholder input is solicited and incorporated.

In the interest of public safety, the new entrants and emerging technologies can and should be addressed in the shorter term, in Phase I of the Chapter 46 amendments. In this phase we can expand the existing mobile dispatch provisions in our ordinance to ensure public safety standards are explicitly outlined, and we can update those provisions in the ordinance that may have become outdated due to the emerging technologies – such as the 30-minute reservation requirement for a limousine trip. With the advent of smartphone applications that can dispatch vehicles-for-hire at the press of a button, a 30-minute waiting period is no longer reasonable. Several regulatory authorities around the country have reconsidered this requirement and have replaced it with a definition for “prearranged” that instead speaks to the intent of the passenger, i.e. in order for the passenger to request a ride he/she must download the application and agree to the service agreement with the transportation provider, including providing a credit card. This shows clear intent by the passenger to prearrange a trip. Further, these trips cannot be hailed. All passenger information must be provided in advance.

Emphasis in the original. The memo goes on to identify Uber and Lyft as the main firms poised to enter the Houston market and the changes they say they need to be made. I’ve done a bit of blogging about Uber before, and I continue to believe there’s room in the market for companies like them and the existing cab industry. I think they’re coming whether we or the cab companies like it or not, and I’d rather the city took the approach of adjusting its existing regulatory structure in a way that everyone can at least live with rather than do nothing and wait for someone to file a lawsuit or for the newcomers to enter the market as rogues. As it happens, a couple of weeks ago I was having lunch in the tunnels downtown and I ran into Joshua Sanders having a meeting with representatives from Lyft, who were preparing to make their initial pitch to Council. Like I said, it’s coming.

I believe that if done well, the potential is there for the car-for-hire industry in Houston to expand and serve a larger audience with better service and a broader array of options. Frankly, if this happens it will be a boon for those who advocate for more density and a less car-centric culture in at least the inner-urban parts of Houston. It’s a lot easier to go carless or be a one-car household if you know there’s a convenient and affordable ride readily available when you need it. Having said all this, while there’s a lot of justified focus on the customer experience here, we need to keep in mind the needs of the drivers, especially those that will be serving as “independent operators” and thus will have less clout than full-time employees of a company would have. The Roosevelt Institute has some well-timed thoughts on this subject, which I would encourage Council members to read. Let’s make sure everybody’s interests are being represented and considered as we go forward with this.

HISD schools searching for new nicknames

Good luck to them.

The process of determining new school nicknames – a task that elicits passion from generations and has triggered countless “Are you serious” suggestions and even more heartfelt recommendations – is underway at four Houston ISD campuses.

Lamar and Westbury high schools and Hamilton and Welch middle schools had their previous nicknames banned by the HISD board earlier this month, and they are expected to finalize new nicknames by March.

“We’ve already talked with the student council and the students, and they’re very serious about this,” said Lamar Principal James McSwain, who has been flooded by suggestions for the new nickname. “They understand that we were the Redskins for 76 years, and at the end of 76 years, people feel very passionately.

“What you want is – after 76 more years – people to feel as passionately about the mascot that you choose as the one that we had.”

As you know, I’ve been following this issue closely. Some people are unhappy that HISD instituted this policy, and some people will be unhappy with the new names and mascots that get chosen. That’s life, and it won’t be long till it’s all forgotten. This was the right thing for HISD to do, and I hope the students and alumni of these schools view it as an opportunity.

On a related note, I commend you to read this fascinating story of the history of the Washington NFL team’s nickname, and the ongoing fight to get them to change it. One tidbit from the story stood out to me:

Students, parents, and Native Americans alike successfully argued for name changes in school districts and states across the country. A number of state boards of education have conducted a system-wide reviews of every Native American mascot in use in their schools. Miami University in Ohio, named after the Miami tribe, changed its name from Redskins to Redhawks in 1997. High schools across the country made similar changes, dumping “Redskins” and other names in favor of new monikers. In 2005, the NCAA passed a bylaw prohibiting schools from wearing any logo it deemed “hostile” or “abusive” toward Native Americans on uniforms during postseason play. Schools with such mascots wouldn’t be allowed to bring them to postseason games. As a result, the University of Illinois, with much consternation, dropped its iconic Chief Illiniwek mascot, who for years performed faux-Native dances at basketball and football games. Other schools followed.

In 1970, more than 3,000 high school, college, and professional sports teams had Native American nicknames or mascots. Today, fewer than 1,000 remain.

That’s a lot of progress in the last 40-some years. Still a ways to go, but substantial progress. I wouldn’t want to be the last school or the last school district to sport one of these offensive nicknames or mascots. Deal with it now and let someone else earn that dubious honor.