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April 4th, 2017:

Beto-mania

Rep. Beto O’Rourke made his first visit to Houston as a Senate candidate over the weekend.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

Senate hopeful and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke introduced himself to Houston on Sunday as a potential check on President Donald Trump, urging voters to send a Democrat to the upper chamber in 2018 rather than waiting to make a dent in deep red Texas.

The El Paso Democrat – best known as an ex-punk rocker who recently livestreamed a “bipartisan roadtrip” to Washington, D.C. with Texas Republican Congressman Will Hurd – announced his bid Friday to unseat hometown U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

O’Rourke, who has little name recognition across Texas, faces a steep uphill battle in a state that has not elected a Democrat statewide since 1994.

His pitch on Sunday focused more on counterbalancing Trump rhetoric and policies than it did ousting Cruz.

“If we want balance – if we want a check on this president – it runs through the Senate,” O’Rourke said, asking hundreds of attendees to picture themselves years from now, trying to answer questions from their children. “‘When you knew what was happening, and you knew what we needed, and you knew what it took, what did you do?'”

[…]

O’Rourke, who pledges to refuse contributions from political action committees, appears to have taken a page out of Cruz’s 2012 campaign playbook by announcing his bid early and taking a grass-roots approach.

“I think a people-powered, people-driven, Texas-first campaign is going to make the difference,” O’Rourke said.

He criticized Cruz for helping to shut down the government in 2013 and setting his sights on the White House.

“He shut it down because he put party over country, ideology over the interests of the people he served, and has used Texas for four years as a platform from which to pursue the presidency,” he said to a packed hall at northwest Houston’s IBEW Local Union 716.

O’Rourke named immigration reform, mental health services for veterans, military spending and health care as top campaign issues.

“It’s not a function of what you can afford or what you make or who you happen to work for or where you live or who you were born to,” he said of health care. “It’s a right.”

Here’s a Facebook Live video of the event, streamed by O’Rourke himself because that’s a thing he does. As you can see, the crowd was indeed large – I was unfortunately not able to be there, but my Facebook feed was full of pictures from people who were. Here’s a photo album O’Rourke posted – this picture gives a good view of the crowd size at the Houston event. For all that O’Rourke gets described in stories as “little known”, he’s been generating an impressive amount of coverage for himself so far, in part I’d say for being such an early candidate, in part because it’s Ted freaking Cruz he’s running against, and in part for his self-professed unorthodox approach to how he will run. This CBS News story captures some of that.

O’Rourke does have one thing in common with Cruz: He’s a social media obsessive who believes in the power of the internet to connect directly with voters.

His social media persona is part of his strategy. O’Rourke made headlines last month when he embarked on an impromptu 1,600-mile, 36-hour road trip from Texas to Washington with Republican Rep. Will Hurd after snow grounded their flights. The duo broadcast the bipartisan marathon on Facebook Live.

To follow him on social media is to become familiar with even the most mundane details of the congressman’s life. He’s an avid user of Instagram and Snapchat. On Friday, he snapped his morning run with his dog along the U.S.-Mexico border. Later, he boarded his flight and tweeted a grinning selfie from his middle seat in coach.

O’Rourke boasted that he has more Snapchat followers than any other member of Congress and says he’ll continue to be “the most accountable and transparent person in Congress,” using social media to connect with constituents and voters he would otherwise never get the chance to meet.

But O’Rourke, who once played in a rock band and lived in Brooklyn, plans to take on Cruz directly on the issue of money in politics.

It’s going to be awhile before we have any empirical data to suggest that this race is closer than expected or just another example of false Democratic hope. In the meantime, though, we will be able to use a couple of metrics to see how well O’Rourke is doing by his own standards: His fundraising, especially in terms of small-dollar donors, and his social media followers. Right now, his Facebook page has about 48,000 likes. That’s not a bad number for a third-term Congressman just getting started on a statewide run, but Ted Cruz’s candidate page has over two million likes – running for President will do that for you – and his official US Senate page has one million. O’Rourke is off to a good start, but he has a long way to go. As such, while there has been a lot of positive buzz for Beto O’Rourke, there’s a lot of skepticism as well, as Josh Kraushaar (“it would take an epic Cruz col­lapse for Demo­crats to make the race in­ter­est­ing”) and Eric Garcia (“Toppling Cruz Will be a Tall Order for O’Rourke”) demonstrate. Daily Kos and RG Ratcliffe have more.

A closer look at the Stockman saga

Chron reporter Lise Olson takes a deep dive into the charges against former Congressman and fulltime hot mess Steve Stockman.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Steve Stockman was soon to board a plane for the United Arab Emirates this month when his unorthodox life took a sudden detour. The outspoken two-time former congressman from Houston was met at the airport by federal agents holding an arrest warrant.

In his own colorful campaign literature, Stockman, 60, has portrayed himself as a gun-loving, abortion-hating activist and philanthropist who has used frequent travels abroad to deliver Christian charity and medical supplies to developing nations.

But a 28-count federal indictment handed down Wednesday describes Stockman as the head of a complex criminal conspiracy. It alleges that he and two aides collected $1.2 million from three U.S.-based foundations and individuals, laundered and misspent most of that money, spied on an unnamed opponent, accepted illegal campaign contributions, funneled money through bogus bank accounts and businesses, and failed to pay taxes on his ill-gotten gains.

Some of that money went for trips to try to “secure millions of dollars from African countries and companies operating” in Africa, the indictment says.

[…]

Jason Posey, 46, has been described as Stockman’s primary accomplice in the scheme to divert donations through companies linked by federal investigators to suburban Houston post office boxes and an array of bank accounts. He has not been arrested. Thomas Dodd, the other former staffer, pleaded guilty earlier this month to two charges related to the same conspiracy and agreed to testify as part of his plea deal.

The purpose of their conspiracy was “to unlawfully enrich themselves and to fund their political activities by fraudulently soliciting and receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the indictment says.

Prosecutors say Stockman used hundreds of thousands of pilfered funds to pay campaign and credit card debts, to cover personal expenses – and to politically attack Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Stockman’s long-shot Republican primary against Cornyn was the subject of one the scams outlined in the indictment.

In February 2014, Posey solicited and received a $450,000 charitable contribution from an Illinois-based donor that was supposed to finance 800,000 mailings to Texas voters of a campaign publication resembling a “newspaper.” The mass mailings for the Senate primary were part of what Posey later swore in an affidavit was an entirely “independent election expenditure” that was handled entirely by Posey and not by Stockman, one of the candidates.

Those mailings, made to look like real newspapers, championed Stockman’s candidacy and opposed Cornyn.

Posey received the donation through a company he controlled called the Center for the American Future, but he coordinated the mass mailings directly with Stockman in violation of federal campaign finance laws, the indictment says. Stockman and Posey also sought a partial refund of the mailing costs – $214,718.51 – without the donor’s knowledge and split the money, the indictment says.

Prosecutors allege Posey used the money to pay Stockman’s Senate campaign debts and his own personal expenses, including “airfare on a flight departing the United States.”

See here for the most recent update, and here for a large sample of my Stockman archives. A lot of people have been motivated to get involved in politics this year after the Trump debacle of 2016. It was Steve Stockman who provided my motivation to get more involved in politics, after his upset (and upsetting) Congressional victory in 1994. I’ve noted before that former Congressman Nick Lampson was the first candidate I ever donated to, and the first candidate whose fundraiser I attended, back in 1996. That was at least as much about Stockman as it was about Lampson.

The thing about Stockman is that, all politics aside, he has long acted in a shady manner. Do a search of the Houston Press’ archives for Stockman stories and peruse what they were writing about him during that 1995-96 Congressional term of office (Google on “steve stockman site:houstonpress.com”, for example) to see what I mean. In doing that myself, I came across this little nugget, which shows that the past is never truly past:

The squirrelly adventures of Congressman Steve Stockman’s frat-house band of consultants who call themselves Political Won Stop seem to know no limits. The Hill, a Congress-covering weekly in the nation’s capital, first revealed that Stockman’s re-election campaign had paid more than $126,000 to the consultancy, which is owned by 26-year-old Chris Cupit and 25-year-old Jason Posey and is listed on the congressman’s campaign disclosures as having the same Whitman Way address as Stockman’s combination home and election headquarters just outside Friendswood.

Emphasis mine. The fact that Stockman has had a long association with Jason Posey is not suggestive of anything. The fact that Stockman has been involved in at least two questionable-if-not-actually-illegal ventures with Posey is. Whatever we know now, I feel confident there’s more to be uncovered.

More on the attack on the Paxton special prosecutors’ pay

From Texas Lawyer.

Best mugshot ever

As courtroom twists go, this one is practically unheard-of: On the brink of bringing Texas’ attorney general, Ken Paxton, to trial on felony securities fraud charges, the government’s prosecutors are threatening to bail out of the case unless they get paid.

Whether one of the biggest criminal cases in Texas finally goes before a jury is now in limbo over what prosecutors contend is a deliberate effort by rich supporters of Paxton, an up-and-coming firebrand in Republican legal circles, to delay justice by challenging their paychecks. So far, the tactic is working.

[…]

Supporters of Paxton have made an issue of the $300-an-hour fees being charged by the special prosecutors, who are paid by the Dallas suburban county where the trial will be held. A three-judge panel of a Dallas appeals court agreed to halt payments on the $200,000 in legal bills while it considers a lawsuit filed by Jeff Blackard, a wealthy Dallas developer and onetime Paxton political donor, who has argued that the fees were excessive and costing taxpayers too much.

“Everyone in the courtroom is being paid except for us,” one of the appointed prosecutors, Brian Wice, has said. “No one expected us to work for free.”

Firing back, Paxton’s attorneys earlier this month accused prosecutors of being “financially self-serving” and argued they don’t have a right to be paid until the case is over. As of last year, Paxton had raised more than $300,000 from private sources to pay his own high-powered defense team.

Legal observers say they’ve never seen a case jeopardized quite like this.

“It’s outrageous that the prosecution should be derailed by the defendant somehow, or the defendant’s supporters or friends, defunding the prosecution,” said Joe Turner, a veteran Austin attorney who helped Willie Nelson and Matthew McConaughey beat drug busts years ago.

[…]

Blackard’s attorney denies that the lawsuit is a ploy to keep Paxton from facing a jury.

“It’s not about whether Paxton is or is not prosecuted. It’s about whether the taxpayers’ money is spent properly,” said attorney Eddie Greim, who is based in Kansas City, Missouri.

Prosecutors told a judge in court documents that Blackard “has already succeeded in shutting down this prosecution” and warned that having to appoint replacements will only drag the case out further.

Most of this, which was written before the decision by Judge Gallagher that delayed the trial until the prosecutor pay dispute gets resolved, is stuff we know. As a matter of law, the suit may have merit, but as a matter of common sense it’s completely ridiculous. It simply cannot be the case that a private citizen can derail a prosecution like this. I maintain that the funding for cases like these should be the state’s responsibility. Indeed, it was the state’s responsibility until the 2011 Legislature kneecapped the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County DA’s office. Whatever you think of that action, it created a problem for which there is no current solution. It won’t affect this case, but the Lege really should address this. Ken Paxton will not be the last elected official to cause this issue for a county Commissioners Court.

Get ready for lots of road construction

Because a lot of money is fixing to be spent on it.

A sweeping revision of state highway plans adds nearly $9 billion in new funds for improving Texas roadways, including a $1.32 billion infusion in the Houston area for a major overhaul of Interstate 45 and nine other projects.

Projects along Texas 36 in Fort Bend and Brazoria counties and Texas 105 in Montgomery and San Jacinto counties are also included in the unified transportation plan approved Tuesday in Austin by the Texas Transportation Commission.

“This is a major step forward,” said Commissioner Bruce Bugg.

The newly approved plan adds 230 projects and $8.9 billion in funding statewide.

[…]

Construction is expected to start in late 2020 on the first of seven separate projects that will realign I-45 along downtown’s eastern side, parallel to Interstate 69, also known as U.S. 59 in the Houston area.

The first projects will reconstruct I-69 between Spur 527, which leads into Midtown, and I-45, including the interchange with Texas 288. That will be followed by a rebuild of I-45 at its interchange with I-69.

Combined, the two interchanges – technically four projects on TxDOT’s books – are expected to cost nearly $1.7 billion. That is more than half the $3 billion cost of remaking I-45 around downtown, which includes removing the segment of I-45 along the Pierce Elevated.

[…]

Next month, TxDOT is scheduled to open bids on the next phase of widening I-45 in League City, continuing a decade-long slog toward Galveston, making the freeway four lanes in each direction with frontage roads.

Typically, construction begins about three to four months after bids are opened. If that timing holds, two months after I-45 work moves south, drivers frustrated on their way to Austin when westbound Interstate 10 drops to two lanes in Brookshire will start seeing orange cones. Crews will widen the freeway to three lanes in each direction to the Brazos River.

Just before or after the holiday season, work will begin on a third project to reconstruct some of the connections where I-69 crosses Loop 610 near Uptown, as well as rebuild Loop 610 through the intersection.

TxDOT expects all of the projects to finish in 2021, around the time downtown interchanges will start to see construction.

Note that these are approvals for new projects, so it doesn’t include works in progress such as 290. Outside of Houston, there will be continued widening of I-45 farther south, eventually reaching all the way to Galveston. Years ago, I used to hear people joke that there had never been a day when some part of I-45 wasn’t under construction. In retrospect, I don’t think they were joking. I’m going to predict that by the end date for these projects in 2021, we’re going to be talking about if not preparing for further construction on I-10 out west, which already resembles what the Katy Freeway looked like pre-widening. Basically, there’s always going to be major construction somewhere. Get used to it.