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August 11th, 2014:

If you read just one more story about Wendy Davis’ campaign

I would recommend you read this one, by Andrea Grimes.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

In four months, Texans are guaranteed to elect a new governor for the first time in 14 years, and Davis’ battle stance is appropo: She’s been under attack from naysayers, pundits, and even members of her own party since before she announced her candidacy for Texas governor back in October. Today, she continues to fall well behind her Republican opponent, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, in statewide polls, though the most recent financial reports show that Davis out-raised Abbott in the last fundraising period, and she often boasts about a grassroots base that she says puts Abbott’s small but monied good-ole-boy network to shame.

But politicos on both sides of the aisle have worried that Davis, who took her Fort Worth, Texas, Senate seat in 2008 and held on to it in a hard-fought battle in 2012, has skyrocketed to fame too quickly, taking on the burden of running for statewide office before she, or the State of Texas, is ready. Following her filibuster of an omnibus anti-abortion bill that is expected to shutter all but a handful of abortion providers in Texas, even one of her fellow Democrats situated Davis as being unable to break away from accusations that she’s a one-issue candidate who peaked on a summer night in 2013.

And the national media has expressed a singular fascination with Davis’ footwear, cooing over the pink Mizuno sneakers she wore on the floor of the Texas Senate on June 25, 2013. That day, Davis stood for 13 hours, reading Texans’ abortion stories and unheard testimony from citizens who had, days earlier, been shut out of a committee hearing by a Republican lawmaker who called their concerns about reducing access to reproductive health care “repetitive.”

That bill eventually passed in a second special legislative session, with pro-choice Democrats and Republicans roundly outnumbered by their anti-choice colleagues. A Republican pundit quickly gave Davis the glib and sexist nickname “Abortion Barbie,” and conservatives have worked hard to try and make it stick.

But Davis’ policy bench goes deep, as does her bipartisan record: the Harvard-educated lawyer served on the Fort Worth City Council for nine years, overseeing remarkable economic development initiatives and voting in Republican primaries, even donating to Republican campaigns. When she ran for state senate as a conservative Democrat in 2008, she took the office from a Republican incumbent and later held on to the seat in a costly and combative race against Tea Partier Mark Shelton in 2012. In 2011, Davis filibustered in the state senate for the first time, opposing a $4-billion cut to education funding and forcing Gov. Rick Perry into a special legislative session. In 2013, she shepherded through a Texas version of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act with nigh-unprecedented bipartisan support, only to see it vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.

If, despite this record, Davis is considered a one-trick pony in pink sneakers, what must we make of her opponent, Greg Abbott? Abbott frequently describes, only half-jokingly, most of his 12 years on the job as attorney general thusly: “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”

[…]

Despite the fact that both parties are running very different, very big-personality candidates, Davis has almost exclusively borne the brunt of both legitimate and bad-faith criticism, and she has been the primary subject of an outsized share of the 2014 Texas statewide race coverage, perhaps because of her novelty as a viable Democrat—and a woman, at that.

And yet the strengths that make Davis a potential winner are, simultaneously, the very weaknesses that seem to bring her down. It all depends on who you ask.

To the anti-choice talk-radio crowd, Davis continues to be “Abortion Barbie,” too blonde and not nearly matronly enough to garner anything but outright misogynistic derision from Erick Erickson, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk. To the national media, Davis is the sneaker-wearing—never, never forget the pink sneakers—underdog about whom a steady stream of “Can she or can’t she?” stories must be written until election day. To Texas political wonks, she’s a charismatic leader playing a losing hand as poll after poll shows her trailing Greg Abbott by double digits. To Texas’ long-beleaguered liberal media, she’s Moses without a map.

And Davis is also under tremendous political pressure to appeal to a wide array of moderate, liberal, and progressive voters that an ever-rightward leaning Texas GOP has long left behind.

To those who would or could support her, she variously: talks too much about abortion, doesn’t talk enough about abortion, secretly wants to militarize the border, wants to give all immigrants citizenship starting tomorrow, is an out-of-touch capitol insider, needs more experience in the capitol, should focus on Medicaid expansion, should get tougher on environmental concerns, should spend more time in the Rio Grande Valley, should stop pandering to people in the Rio Grande Valley, needs to recapture that filibuster spirit, should stop relying on the filibuster to carry her through November, and so-on and so-forth, and lo, the list lengthens as November 4 grows closer.

Wendy Davis just can’t seem to do anything right, and nobody on either side of the aisle seems to mind weighing in on the nuances of why, and how, she’s setting herself—and by extension, all Texas Democrats—up to fail this November.

Meanwhile, Greg Abbott—whose Republican party just weeks ago recommended “reparative therapy” for gay people and called for easing foster parents’ ability to use corporal punishment on their wards—is taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Koch chemical companies before handing down favorable AG rulings that lessen the corporate behemoth’s public safety obligations, and all folks seem to want to know is what he’s thinking for the window treatments in that big, pretty governor’s mansion at 11th and Lavaca in downtown Austin.

If things look a little off to you, you’re not the only one who thinks so.

Grimes’ story is by far the best one I’ve read about the campaign, and it gets at a number of things I’ve thought about but haven’t been able to express nearly as well as she has done. It’s the first story I’ve seen that does more than just writes about what’s right in front of someone’s nose, or which complains about the campaign not doing the things that the writer wants the campaign to do.

I can’t begin to tell you how frustrated I’ve been at the lack of coverage and analysis on Battleground Texas and the Davis ground game. We’ve never seen anything like it before, and while I get plenty of email from BGTX telling me how awesome it’s all going, it would be nice to get an objective evaluation now and again. Yet one critic of Davis and her campaign after another, from Lisa Falkenberg to Bob Ray Sanders to Paul Burka write as if Davis is acting in a vacuum. (Forrest Wilder has been the exception to this.) Davis and BGTX clearly understand that she can’t win – hell, she can’t really compete – with the same Democratic electorate and turnout levels that we’ve seen since 2002, but no one analyze the polls beyond the headline numbers. How effective a job is BGTX, which wasn’t originally intended to be a force in 2014, doing? What are their targets, realistic and reach, for this year? How are they doing in high-growth, generally red suburban areas like Collin and Williamson, how are they doing in places Democrats have long abandoned like West Texas, and how are they doing in the critical Dem-heavy but turnout-light places in South Texas and the Valley? Do the Team Obama methods translate from Ohio and Florida, where voters are used to being harassed frequently contacted by campaigns, to a (shall we say) more laissez-faire state like Texas? How do the BGTX foot soldiers feel about the bad polls for Davis? So many questions, so little interest in the media in exploring any of them.

Actually, I’ve been saying all along that the Davis/BGTX ground game effort has never been seen before in Texas, but is that really true? The Bill White campaign had a lot going on, and Lord knows the Tony Sanchez campaign spent money like it was going out of style. What had they been doing by this point in the campaign? What is Davis/BGTX doing that they didn’t, and vice versa? I’m sure there’s a great story to be told there, if someone cared to look into it.

I honestly have no idea what to expect from the BGTX effort. I believe they’re having an effect, and I believe that effect will show up on Election Day, but I have no clue how much of an effect. One can certainly criticize the choices the Davis campaign has made in its messaging, and one can certainly believe that emphasizing various themes differently could put Davis in a better position to succeed – Grimes does so with gusto – but there’s no way to know. Nate Silver can simulate a thousand elections based on exogenous factors like the economy and various approval ratings and the accuracy of polls, but I don’t know how to predict the efficacy of a turnout operation, even one with the pedigree of Team Obama and its BGTX founders. They could be wildly successful at boosting base turnout from the recent anemic levels yet still fall well short of victory for Davis and the rest of the statewide Democratic ticket. The post mortem will have plenty of evidence to dissect, but until then we’re all talking out of our nether regions.

Anyway. Go read the whole thing and see what you think.

Redistricting II: Congressional Boogaloo

Phase Two of the redistricting lawsuit trial begins today, in which the 2011 Congressional maps go under the microscope. That’s as good a time as any for the mandatory How Much All This Redistricting Litigation Is Costing Us story.

BagOfMoney

Texans are on the hook for $3.9 million in costs for Attorney General Greg Abbott to fight for Republican-championed redistricting maps, and that number will only grow as a years-long legal fight continues Monday in federal court in San Antonio.

A big tally is expected in complicated redistricting litigation, experts say, particularly with the Abbott legal team’s aggressive defense of the congressional and legislative maps approved by the GOP-majority Legislature.

“Abbott’s attitude has been very much ‘I’m going to litigate this to the ends of the earth,'” said Michael Li, redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center at New York University School of Law.

Abbott’s staff said he simply is doing his job as the state’s top lawyer and that the responsibility for the costs lies with those who have challenged the maps. Democrats said Abbott is using taxpayer funds as an ATM to defend discriminatory maps.

[…]

The $3.9-million tab so far, provided to the San Antonio Express-News in response to a Public Information Act request, includes more than $2.2 million in costs for in-house salary and overhead at the state attorney general’s office.

Abbott spokeswoman Lauren Bean said internal costs include employee salaries that would have been incurred regardless of the cases. The state lawyers have spent 26,986 hours on redistricting litigation.

The total also includes $887,327 for high-powered outside counsel, $447,567 for expert witnesses and $339,996 for travel and other expenses.

“This litigation is fairly complex. It has a number of issues with voting rights concerns, and it has been drawn out over a long period of time. Those two things together, I think, are really what are driving the cost here of this effort,” said Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert who is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

[…]

In what Li called an example of the state’s aggressive court strategy, Abbott in 2011 filed a federal lawsuit to get a federal stamp of approval of the state’s maps from a court, rather than going through the administrative process at the U.S. Department of Justice.

He did not get that federal “pre-clearance,” required of states with a history of discrimination. But the formula used to determine whether a state is required to obtain pre-clearance to make voting changes was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in a separate case.

Li said Abbott’s aggressive strategy has worked in the state’s favor on occasion, pointing out that the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Texas in rejecting an initial set of interim maps drawn by a three-judge panel in San Antonio back in 2012.

“They’ve had some victories, though mostly they’ve come out with losses,” he said.

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. It is Abbott’s job to defend the state’s maps, and much of the cost comes from salaries his own lawyers would be earning anyway, but Michael Li is absolutely right. Abbott is all about maximal ideological (and partisan) gain, without any other consideration. It’s not like the redistricting defense is out of character for his office, after all.

Like the fight over redistricting itself, the squabble about how much it costs to defend redistricting maps tends to sort itself out along partisan lines, so let’s move on. As Phase One, which concluded a couple of weeks ago amid little scrutiny, was about the State House, Phase Two is about the 2011 Congressional maps. The Texas Election Law Blog has a summary of what to watch for.

III. For Those of You Keeping Score

If Congressional districts were apportioned based solely on race, about 13 of the old 32 seats would have been apportioned to minority-favored candidates, and 14 seats would have to be apportioned out of the new 36 seats. As it happened, only 10 of the old seats were so apportioned (3 to African-American-favored candidates, and 7 to Hispanic and Latino-favored candidates).

That’s discriminatory, but not addressable as retrogressive (10 seats was better than what voters had been given previously). A redistricting plan isn’t retrogressive if it preserves an existing level of racial discrimination. If the state’s population hadn’t increased, Texas would not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by continuing to provide the same 10 total minority districts.

But as the number of seats increased from 32 to 36, Texas at least wasn’t legally entitled to make minority voters even worse off. They would have at least not been the author of worse discrimination than before by increasing the number of minority districts from 10 (which was three seats less than what it should have been) to 11 (which would have been three seats less than the new ideal of 14 seats out of 36).

So to recap – when Texas had 32 Congressional seats, 10 of the seats were apportioned as minority districts (3 African-American districts and 7 Hispanic or Latino districts). With 36 seats, either 10 (or 9 – there’s some disagreement among the parties about CD25 being a minority district or not) seats are now minority districts, meaning that depending on how one counts the districts, minority voters are either worse off (i.e., more discriminated against than before) by one Congressional district, or two.

IV. Remember the Real Issue

The State of Texas could admit that the 2011 redistricting plan was retrogressive, and still avoid any sanction. That’s because the 2011 plan was never actually used for an election, it was replaced with a court-drawn plan that was substantially adopted by the Texas Legislature in 2013, and that will be used for the 2014 election.

The real issue is whether the State of Texas engaged in intentional racial discrimination when it enacted the 2011 redistricting plan.

To keep track of the (surprisingly spotty and inconsistent) media coverage of the trial, and to make sense of the outcome, remember that the question isn’t so much that the 2011 redistricting plan was “bad,” but that the plaintiffs allege that the people drawing the maps made the plan intentionally bad in order to discriminate against minority voters.

I will be keeping track of the coverage, such as it is. There are still the 2013 maps to litigate, and of course whatever happens this will get appealed, so don’t be too anxious for a ruling anytime soon. If you need further incentive to get out and vote this fall, do keep in mind that Attorney General Sam Houston would be considerably more likely to find a reasonable settlement for the litigation than AG Ken Paxton would be.
Harold Cook has more on the Phase One part of the trial.

Chron on One Bin

The Chronicle is ambivalent about the city’s One Bin for All proposal.

Details of the One Bin For All recycling proposal aren’t even solid yet, but groups like the Sierra Club have already started to line up against it. This gut rejection seems misguided, but people should have a healthy skepticism of this relatively untested new plan.

The premise of One Bin is that, instead of people sorting recycling at home, recyclable material can be sorted out of garbage en masse at centralized locations through a mix of manpower and mechanized processes. It isn’t as effective as sorting by hand, but it gets more recyclables in the end because it handles the entirety of the city’s garbage rather than whatever people decide to sort at home.

The problem with this method, according to some environmentalist advocates, is that it removes the responsibility of recycling and cultivates a culture of waste. Out of sight, out of mind.

[…]

In a meeting with the Chronicle Editorial Board, the city’s Sustainability Director, Laura Spanjian, said the entire plan is supposed to be cost neutral, keeping the city’s trash budget essentially the same. A private contractor will design, build and operate the One Bin plant, in exchange for a contract on the city’s garbage. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and Houston won’t be stuck with the bill – unlike when a bond-funded trash incinerator project drove the city of Harrisburg, Pa., into bankruptcy.

Still, dumping garbage is cheap in Texas, and it seems inevitable that the price the city pays on each ton will increase, despite claims otherwise. The real cost offset comes from One Bin’s one bin, meaning that the city only needs one truck instead of two for garbage and recycling. Slimming down unnecessary city operations is healthy for the long-term budget.

Conservative skepticism still leads to an arched eyebrow. Houston government shouldn’t be the testing ground for new technology, and a few more years of experience in other cities could help refine the process. The Montgomery plant does not accept items such as kitty litter and dirty diapers, which are supposed to be tossed in a separate container. Their experience should lead Houstonians to worry whether we’ll just end up with a One Bin for (Almost) All.

As we know, the city received five proposals in July. We don’t know a whole lot about them just yet, but I expect we’ll hear more soon. The Chron lists three concerns about One Bin – cost, effectiveness, and the “out of sight, out of mind” problem – but they didn’t mention the two biggest ones that opponents have harped on. One is the possibility/likelihood that some amount of waste will be incinerated, and the other is that the so-called “dirty MRFs” will have less value as recyclable material than they would as separated materials. The city strongly disputes these arguments, and I’m not sure why the Chron didn’t at least mention any of that. I’ve said before that I don’t consider myself sufficiently knowledgeable to arbitrate that. I’m still waiting on a response from Laura Spanjian to what Zero Waste Houston has been saying, some of which was in that post of mine linked to above. I would love for this to work and I hope that the latest generation of technology can make it work, but it remains to be seen what has been proposed.

More on the Abbott-Duntsch connection

The Observer advances the ball.

Dr. Christopher Duntsch

How immune are hospitals? Under the current law, for Baylor to be liable for Duntsch’s mistakes, the plaintiffs have to prove that hospital administrators let him operate because they specifically intended to harm patients.

Soon after the three plaintiffs sued, Abbott’s office announced that it would be jumping in to defend the statute that shielded Baylor. In statements at the time, the attorney general’s office was clear: Abbott wasn’t defending Baylor or Duntsch. He was simply defending state law.

Earlier this week, Wayne Slater at the Dallas Morning News suggested that Abbott may have had other incentives to intervene. In June 2013 and January 2014 Abbott received two large donations to his gubernatorial campaign—$100,000 and $250,000 respectively—from one Drayton McLane, a Temple transportation exec and Republican who is also the chairman of the the board of trustees for Baylor Scott & White, the company that owns the Baylor hospital system.

The timing is a little suspicious. The $100,000 donation came the day after the Texas Medical Board suspended Duntsch’s license, ending an 18-month surgical career that had left two dead and many more paralyzed or in chronic pain. The $250,000 donation came the week after the second of the three lawsuits.

McLane has given Abbott money before, but it’s generally been much less; the most he had given in the past, according to the campaign filings the Morning News references, was $25,000.

See here for prior posts on Dr. Duntsch, and here for the DMN story on which the Observer piece is based. By the way, I can only presume that Observer author Saul Eblein is not a baseball fan or else he might have recognized Drayton McLane as the former owner of the Houston Astros. McLane, who gave more to Abbott in that one fell swoop than he had to Rick Perry in a dozen years, insists there was nothing fishy about the donation, its size, its timing, or Abbott’s subsequent defense of Duntsch. And we should believe him because that’s how people like Drayton McLane got to be where they are in the world today, by tossing their money around indiscriminately without even a passing thought to the possible return on investment. I’m sure Greg Abbott won’t treat him or the things he values any differently than he’d treat any other rich Republican donor. They’re all equals in his eyes.