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June 17th, 2014:

On defining success

It depends on what your goals are.

Suppose you were a Texas Democrat and a realist.

You want your candidates to win in November and to break the spirit-killing string of losses that started after the statewide elections in 1994.

But you have been scratching for reasons that this year will be different, from the two women at the top of the Democratic ticket to the Battleground Texas organizing efforts to the current Republican tilt to the right that — to Democrats, anyway — seems out of step with mainstream voters.

But the realist within is thinking about Nov. 5, and how to keep the embers going on the day after an election that — unless there is an upset — will mark another set of Republican victories.

Short of winning a statewide election, what would constitute good news for Texas Democrats in November?

Jeremy Bird, a founder of the Battleground Texas effort to build a Democratic grassroots organization in the state, has his eyes on volunteers, energized activists and the sorts of activity that could expand through 2016 and 2018. His group started a little over a year ago with talk of a six-year plan to make Democrats competitive in Texas. The somewhat unexpected rise of state Sens. Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte as political candidates could accelerate that effort, even if neither takes office. His measure of a win, short of a victory: “Better than Bill White.”

White, a former Houston mayor, was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2010. He received 42.3 percent of the vote — better than any Democratic candidate for governor since Ann Richards’ loss in 1994, when she received 45.9 percent.

“Closing the margin is important; getting back to the Ann Richards numbers in 1994,” said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “There’s not much opportunity for pickups in the Legislature, but closing the margin would help set the table for 2016.”

Glenn Smith, who managed part of Richards’ first campaign for governor in 1990, is not a fan of this kind of thinking.

“It’s my extremely strong opinion that you play every contest to win,” said Smith, who now runs the Progress Texas PAC, which supports Democratic candidates and causes. “You set everything on winning. There is nothing else. If you start even mentally thinking that we’re okay at 46, then you might end up at 42. You can’t get in that mind-set. It’s true in sports, in every competitive walk of life — you have to set a course to win. You can’t begin cutting the goal to something short of winning, or your plans will suck.”

I’ll settle this: They’re all right.

Look, there’s no question that winning is always the goal and that losing is failure. There are no consolation prizes, no moral victories, and no partial credit. Greg Abbott will govern the same way whether he wins by one vote or one million votes, just as Rick Perry did when we were all calling him “Governor 39%”. So will Dan Patrick, and so will the rest of them. Another shutout means another four years of the same old shit we’ve had since George Bush was first elected.

That doesn’t mean all losses are created equal, however. Democrats haven’t just lost every statewide election since 1996, we’ve lost them badly. Here are the top five statewide Democrats by percentage of the vote in the Rick Perry era:

Year Candidate Office Pct ===================================== 2002 Sharp Lt Gov 46.03 2002 Mirabal Sup Ct 45.90 2008 Houston Sup Ct 45.88 2008 Strawn CCA 45.53 2006 Moody Sup Ct 44.88

It’s about changing the perception almost as much as it is about winning. Winning obviously does that splendidly, and it comes with a heaping helping of other benefits, but after all this losing, coming close will mean something, too. Going from “Democrats last won a statewide election in 1994” to “Democrats came closer to winning statewide than they had in any election since 1998” matters. It will make recruiting and fundraising a lot easier, and not just for the star candidate or two at the top but for candidates up and down the ballot. It virtually guarantees that Hillary Clinton contests the state in 2016. It puts Ted Cruz squarely in the crosshairs for 2018.

As such, I respectfully disagree with Jeremy Bird. Doing better than Bill White isn’t progress. We need to do better than John Sharp. I’ve been reluctant to say stuff like this out loud – it’s not my place to set expectations – but the question was going to come up sooner or later. It’s not just about vote percentage, either, but also about turnout, since that’s what Battleground Texas’ mission is. I’ve talked at length about turnout and how Democratic levels of turnout have been flat in the last three off-year elections. I can’t say offhand what a minimally-acceptable level of improvement in that looks like to me, but I feel confident saying that if we’re achieving Sharp levels of vote percent, we’re doing fine on turnout.

Let’s also acknowledge that the original mission of Battleground Texas was to make Texas competitive in future Presidential elections, and that when they first showed up Wendy Davis was just another State Senator and we were all (okay, I was all) doing fantasy candidate recruitment for Governor. Davis’ arrival on the scene and BGTx’s integration with her campaign changed their focus, but they were never supposed to be about 2014. The whole point was that unlike traditional campaign machines, BGTx would stick around and keep working for the next election and the one after that. Obviously, having serious candidates that have generated real excitement at the top of the ticket has jumpstarted BGTx’s efforts, but it’s reasonable to expect that BGTx has their own metrics and their own timeline.

So yeah, they’re all right. And just because I’ve drawn a line somewhere doesn’t obligate anyone to recognize or respect it. We all agree that winning >>> losing, but beyond that it’s all open to interpretation.

HISD hires its defenders for the teacher evaluation lawsuit

I have to say, I’m a bit uncomfortable with this.

Earlier this year, seven teachers sued the Houston Independent School District in federal court over their evaluation system.

That system uses a statistical formula and student test scores to grade teachers.

At its meeting this week, the Houston school district decided to hire a high-profile law firm to fight that case.

The board will pay those legal fees with a grant from Houston billionaire John Arnold, who helped created that same system to grade teachers.

With a 6-2 vote, the trustees approved hiring the law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, LLP, to defend Houston’s teacher evaluation system in federal court.

“I think there’s the potential for this to be a high-profile case and I think it’s important for the district to have the best representation possible in this and any situation that we confront through the legal system,” said HISD Trustee Anna Eastman.

See here for the background. I have no issue with HISD being represented by top-notch counsel, and I can certainly see the merit in having what is likely to be an expensive legal bill covered by someone other than the taxpayers. But this raises an important and uncomfortable question: Whose interests are being represented by Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher – HISD’s, or John Arnold’s? If the HISD Board of Trustees finds itself in disagreement with John Arnold over the legal strategy employed by Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, who will the lawyers listen to? If the Board decides they want to negotiate a settlement, but John Arnold insists on pushing through to a verdict, whose opinion carries the day? What if Arnold threatens to cut off the spigot and leave HISD with the remaining bills if they don’t do things his way?

Maybe I’m being overly dramatic here, but my point is that lawyers represent clients, and this arrangement has the potential to complicate that relationship. Perhaps the Board has thought all this through and gotten an agreement in writing from all relevant parties about who gets to approve the decisions that will need to be made during this process. If they haven’t however, then all I can say is that billionaires tend to think they’re in charge, especially when it’s their money being spent. I just hope everyone went into this with their eyes open.

One more thing:

These particular outside lawyers just won a groundbreaking case in California.

There a judge ruled that California’s teacher tenure, firing and discipline procedures are unconstitutional.

That decision was controversial, to say the least, and there’s a good possibility it may not survive appeal. That doesn’t really have anything to do with the main point of this story, I just wanted to mention it.

Once again, where are the jobs Rick Perry was trying to poach?

Politico revisits a familiar subject.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

California corndogs are the best

Since as early as February of last year and as recently as April of this one, Perry has made eight trips to six different states, all of which have one very particular thing in common: They’re run by Democratic governors. Perry has used his visits to hammer on a consistent theme: Texas is a great state for business; the state he’s currently in is not; so wouldn’t it make sense then for all those companies that aren’t currently located in the Lone Star State to correct their error? Earlier this month, Perry made plain the politics behind his accumulated frequent-flier miles. “Blue-state governors need to be looking over their shoulder,” he told a Fox News panel.

Perry’s focused national tour is built around a message that’s tailor made for a presidential campaign whose central issue will likely be a lagging economy. The “Texas miracle,” the idea that Perry’s policies produced job growth in the worst climate since the Great Depression, first emerged in his initial failed campaign and has lived on ever since, buoyed by the fact that the state’s unemployment rate remains below the national average. But as any number of progressive-minded opponents will tell you, that “miracle” is most likely due in large part to the state’s wealth of fossil fuels. Hardly an advantage Perry can claim credit for. But tempting CEOs to relocate southward? For that he’ll gladly take an attaboy.

Poaching companies is nothing new. States have been bad-mouthing and out-bidding each other for decades in the hopes of luring more business, often with little to show for it. But according to Greg Leroy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, a D.C.-based non-profit devoted to exposing what it considers the folly of government subsidies often given in the name of attracting companies, Perry’s campaign stands on its own. “I’ve been covering this for 30 years and there’s no precedent for what he’s doing,” says Leroy. “Nobody’s been as aggressive. Nobody’s done it as personally. He’s really taking it to a new low.”

[…]

The ideological fuel powering Perry’s trips out of state says that, unlike the weather, that vague term known as a “business climate” can be engineered, and that no one’s done a better job of parting the clouds than Texas. But Leroy and nearly a century’s worth of data suggest otherwise. As does the most recent pelt in Perry’s poaching tour, which also happens to be the biggest such prize in his political career.

[…]

Then, in late April, Perry got the big score that seemed to justify all his travels when Toyota announced it had selected Plano, a Dallas suburb, as the home of its new North American headquarters. “Toyota understands that Texas’ employer-friendly combination of low taxes, fair courts, smart regulations and world-class workforce can help businesses of any size succeed and thrive,” a glowing Perry said the day the announcement was made.

Toyota was a coup for two specific and related reasons. It meant 3,000 new jobs for Texas and 3,000 fewer for California, the state where Perry’s trip had begun and Exhibit A in his campaign against what he sees as business-killing taxation and regulation. It seemed the epitome of a red state offering safe harbor to a beleaguered company that had finally had enough abuse at the hands of a grubby-handed blue state. Yet just a few days after the announcement, Toyota began quietly offering a counter-narrative.

In an extended interview with the Los Angeles Times, Toyota’s North American chief executive Jim Lentz gave a more nuanced explanation for why the company left California. The true reason for his company’s move, Lentz explained, came down to something much simpler: not sending the wrong signal to his employees. Toyota, Lentz said, wanted to consolidate management that was spread out over three states. Choosing California was never an option because it was already the home of Toyota’s sales and marketing and Lentz said that he didn’t want to give the impression to the rest of the company that “sales was taking over.”

“It may seem like a juicy story to have this confrontation between California and Texas,” Lentz told the Times, “But that was not the case.”

That left four candidates: Plano, Charlotte, Denver and Atlanta. In an op-ed he published a week later in the Dallas Morning News, Lentz mentioned that low taxes were part of a “wide range of criteria” that led him and his company to choose Texas, but he also made a point to mention that the decision was a matter of “simple geography.” Greater Dallas is in the Central Time Zone, has a nearby airport with direct flights to Japan and sits close to the multinational’s large American base of manufacturing. In other words, Texas was not, as Perry would have it, the most desirable choice because of taxes, regulation or the $40 million in subsidies it offered as a cherry on top. Instead, Toyota picked Texas in large part because of the one enormous advantage the state has enjoyed ever since the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo: It sits smack in the middle of the country.

Yes, the Toyota story started falling apart even before the ink was dry on Perry’s self-congratulatory press release. I’m glad Politico followed up on that angle – and there’s still more to it, which we’ll get to in a minute – but as has been the case with all of these stories, no one ever seems to ask the question: where are the jobs Perry has been so busy trying to poach? Toyota was looking like the first real coup, before it all came crashing down in a landslide of boring corporate minutiae, but what else is there? I have long been of the belief that the answer is basically “nothing”, but it would be nice to have some newsgathering organization try to figure it out for themselves.

As for the other angle on Toyota, here’s the Observer.

Rick Perry’s office refuses to release any information about the $40 million it’s offering Toyota to relocate to Texas, despite providing the Observer with similar information last year for a $12 million grant to Chevron.

The Observer and the Houston Chronicle both filed open records requests with the governor’s office after Perry announced in April the $40 million incentive grant to Toyota from the Texas Enterprise Fund. The governor’s office promotes the Enterprise Fund as a “deal-closing” program that helps bring jobs to Texas. But in some cases evidence suggests that the fund does little but line the pockets of companies planning to move to Texas anyway. For example, the Observer reported last year Chevron already had plans to develop an office tower in downtown Houston, provided scant justification that it was considering other locations in its application and told the governor’s office that it planned to use the $12 million grant to pay for employee relocation perks.

It would be interesting to know if something similar happened with the Toyota grant. Especially since company executives have said the $40 million Texas Enterprise Fund grant had little to do with the relocation from California to Plano.

I can’t be the only one who thinks that if there was something in this information that made Rick Perry look good he’d have released it by now, right?

Cheerleading is now a sport in Texas

This is a real thing.

Cheerleading will finally get its tryout from the University Interscholastic League.

After a hearty debate and a failed first vote, the UIL Legislative Council approved a one-year pilot program to hold a league-sanctioned cheerleading competition for the 2015-16 school year.

Crowning state champions in each of the state’s six classifications, the “Game Day Cheer” competition will be the first cheerleading event in the league’s history.

“As big as cheerleading is in Texas, I feel like a lot of people will gravitate to this,” Highland Park cheerleading coach Jason McMahan said. “Not only because it’s new, but also because it gives them an opportunity to showcase their athletes and their abilities vs. just their home crowd seeing them on the sidelines.”

[…]

Passage of the proposal wasn’t easy.

After squeaking through the UIL’s Standing Committee on Policy on Tuesday, the concept faced similar skepticism and criticism from many on the full council on Wednesday.

Normally, the league moves at a glacial level, with a proposal waiting six months between approval from a subcommittee to a final vote. The cheerleading concept, however, was fast-tracked — with league staff asking for its approval less than a day after moving out of committee, in an attempt to get the event launched for the upcoming school year.

Many of the 32-member council didn’t like the speed of that process, with only seven members — including Duncanville ISD Superintendent Alfred Ray and Katy ISD’s Alton Frailey — initially voting in favor of the pilot program.

“The main reason that I can support this is that we can keep our kids involved and we can keep them safe,” said Frailey, the former DeSoto superintendent.

Richardson ISD Superintendent Kay Waggoner originally voted against the proposal, concerned with the readiness of districts to pay for additional expenses and provide oversight to another activity.

Only when implementation of the pilot was pushed back to the 2015-16 school year did the program gain approval.

“I think the folks around this table were concerned on how it would affect their budget on such short notice, and how it might affect their student body because of other activities that they’ve signed up for,” Breithaupt said. “To give more detail as we move forward, so that they can share it with people they represent, I think that’s fair.”

An earlier story has some of the background on this.

“It’s a controversial topic — it just is,” UIL executive director Charles Breithaupt said. “I’m just interested in doing what’s best for an activity that’s kind of been ignored, to be honest with you. Give them a state championship for all the things that they do.”

Game Day Cheer would differ from a competitive cheerleading event, Breithaupt said. The elements of the UIL contest would mimick what cheerleaders do during a pep rally or on the sidelines, without the high-flying tosses and difficult gymnastics found in competitive cheer.

In a 2012-13 National Federation of State High School Associations survey, 32 states held girls’ “competitive spirit squad” competitions, with 116,508 students participating nationwide, the ninth-most popular girls’ athletic activity.

[…]

Bringing cheerleading under the umbrella of the UIL has gained momentum over the last 18 months. In a letter to the UIL in January 2012, the Texas Medical Association asked the league for oversight of cheerleading, saying it would “be a bold move to ensure we have a state system focused on injury prevention under consistent, evidence-based safety guidelines.” As a result, the league’s medical advisory committee recommended in April 2013 that cheerleading be included in the list of activities that abide by the UIL’s safety and health regulations.

A former football coach and athletic director, Breithaupt said his opinion evolved from that point.

“If we are going to make them comply with all the other standards, to me it just makes sense,” Breithaupt said. “It’d be like, for example, if we said, ‘OK, we don’t sanction lacrosse, but we are going to require you to follow all of our rules.’”

You may be shaking your head about this, but the UIL is just following the official recommendation of the American Medical Association.

The American Medical Association adopted a policy declaring cheerleading a sport at its annual meetings Monday, weighing in on a long-lasting debate with a solid reason in mind: giving cheerleading “sport” status at high schools across the country would make it safer by increasing training and safety measures to protect its participants.

Cheerleading, according to the AMA and other independent researchers, is the leader in catastrophic injuries in female athletes, and considering it a sport would help increase training and awareness among coaches, parents, and cheerleaders themselves, the AMA said.

“These girls are flipping 10, 20 feet in the air,” Dr. Samantha Rosman said at the meeting, according to the Associated Press. “We need to stand up for what is right for our patients and demand they get the same protection as their football colleagues.”

[…]

The American Academy of Pediatrics designated cheerleading a sport two years ago, and 35 states and Washington D.C. have declared it a sport at the high school level. The AMA policy means that it will push remaining states and sports bodies to adopt the designation.

You can now add Texas to the list of adopters. As that article above noted, concussions are a big issue in cheerleading, and unlike in other sports, the risk is even higher in practice than at games. One of the effects of the UIL declaring it a sport is that practices can now be regulated in the same way as other sports. Hopefully, that will help reduce the injury risk.