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September 11th, 2017:

Harvey and the elections

Labor Day weekend of odd-numbered years is considered to be the opening weekend of Houston election season. The filing deadline has passed, so the fields are set and people (supposedly, at least) begin to pay attention. Candidate forums are held, endorsements are made, Chronicle candidate profiles are written, that sort of thing. Sure, some candidates have been at it for weeks if not months, but by tradition this is when things are officially underway.

This was always going to be a weird year in Houston, as we were either going to have no city elections or a mad dash for candidates and campaigns to get up and running, thanks to the 2015 term limits referendum and subsequent litigation. As someone who follows these things closely, I was partly enjoying the lull and partly beginning to fret about getting candidate interviews done for the HISD and HCC races we will have.

And then Harvey came to call. In addition to the devastation and misery, as well as triumph of the spirit, it has knocked the usual campaign schedule for a huge loop. I know of at least one candidate whose house flooded, but every candidate has suspended their campaign activities, out of respect for the victims and to pitch in for the recovery. I have no idea at this point when enough of us will feel normal enough to get back to the usual business of running for office and picking candidates to vote for. Election Day is November 7, so early voting will begin October 23. I think it’s safe to say we’re going to get that mad dash to the finish line, though likely with a lot of hearts not really in it. Though I totally understand this, it is a bit of a concern. HISD has even more challenges ahead of it, and two-thirds of its Trustee seats are up for a vote. Three Trustees are stepping down. One Trustee was appointed earlier this year to fill out the term of a Trustee who resigned. Another Trustee won a special election last December for the same reason. Only one Trustee who had previously been elected to a full term is on the ballot, current Board President Wanda Adams, and she has several opponents. The HISD Board will be somewhere between “very different” and “completely remade” net year. It’s a pretty big deal. The HCC Board has three contested elections, two for Trustees who won special elections to fill out terms, and one to succeed the disgraced Chris Oliver. Again, the potential for change is big.

The good news, I suppose, is that while basically no one is paying attention to any of these races, there are at least fewer races for them to not pay attention to. Imagine if we had a full slate of city elections going on now, too. Campaigns attract money and volunteer energy, two things that are desperately needed for Harvey relief right now. I have to say, I’m not unhappy with the way events in the term limits lawsuit played out.

Two more things. Harvey’s destruction was not limited to houses. It flooded out churches, schools, community centers, government offices, and many other places. Some roads are still under water, and Metro has not yet fully restored bus service – you can’t have buses on roads that are under water, after all. Some of these places are places where voting happens. Some of them may be ready by October 22/November 7, some may not be. Some may not be ready by next March, when the 2018 primaries are currently scheduled. It would be nice to know what kind of shape our polling locations are in, and what the contingency plans are for the sites that may not be ready in time. One possible solution, as put forth by Nonsequiteuse, is to allow people to vote wherever they can/wherever they want to. For a low-turnout odd-year election like this, a bunch of precinct polling places were always going to be combined anyway. It’s a small step from there to say that all polling locations will be open to all voters, as they are during early voting.

Also, too: Remember how I said that there will not be a Rebuild Houston re-vote on the ballot this November, but we should expect one maybe next year? This leads me to wonder, what exactly is the argument at this point to put this up for another vote? More to the point, what is the argument against having a dedicated fund, paid for by a fee charged to property owners based on their impermeable cover, these days? After reading enough hot takes on how a lack of zoning and unchecked development are to blame for Harvey to make me gag, I can only imagine what kind of punditry would be getting committed if we also had a ReBuild re-vote in two months. The principle at the heart of this litigation was that the people (supposedly) didn’t know what they were voting on because the ballot language was unclear. Does anyone think we’re still unclear on this now? Just a thought.

Who will rebuild Houston?

Vox points out what should be obvious.

Unauthorized immigrants were crucial to rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And they are likely to be desperately needed as Texas rebuilds to clean streets, demolish buildings, and reconstruct homes and offices.

But it’s a hostile time to be undocumented in Texas. Even beyond the Trump administration’s harsh rhetoric and actions on immigration, Texas leaders are engaged in a crackdown on unauthorized immigrants, passing a slew of laws to make it harder for them to live and work in the state. In such an environment, these laborers might not stick around for the work that will be needed.

“This could have a chilling effect on the community,” said Laurel Fletcher, a law professor at the University of California Berkeley who studied the working conditions of laborers in New Orleans after Katrina. “A lot depends on what the climate will be like for Latinx and undocumented residents in the greater Houston area.”

[…]

The US unemployment rate, at 4.4 percent, is at its lowest level since the Great Recession started, and construction companies across the country have been struggling to find workers. In August, about 77 percent of US builders reported a shortage of framing crews and 61 percent faced a shortage of drywall installation workers, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

If the story of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is any indication, undocumented immigrants will be a crucial part of Houston’s recovery.

That assumes a federal government and a state government that aren’t hell-bent on deporting them. If we’re lucky, we might get a bit of benign neglect and some court orders holding back enforcement of SB4. If not, well, I hope no one is in any rush to get their homes repaired.

Having said all that. we should heed what Stace says:

While I appreciate Lisa Falkenberg’s article about the undocumented rebuilding Houston, I’m still irked by the assumption by others that the only reason we need them (at this time) is for cheap, uninsured labor without worker protections. Especially when builders and contractors are the ones crying the loudest as they stand to make the most during the rebuild with this source of cheap labor.

It goes back to why we need more than just a DREAM Act. We need the parents of DREAMers who make up this exploited labor force, too. They must be protected. They must be paid what they’re worth. They must be insured and have worker protections from bosses who will exploit them during these times. Because, suddenly, it seems they’re not taking someone else’s job; they are filling open jobs, if we let them.

Getting the Houston area – and now Florida – rebuilt is a big priority, but there are larger issues that need to be addressed as well. Chris Tomlinson, Stan Marek, and Lisa Falkenberg have more.

The trans community is fully engaged now

One positive thing came out of this months-long anti-transgender legislative assault.

For more than a year, [Dan] Patrick pulled out all the stops for the bathroom bills, which would have restricted restroom use based on biological sex and undone local anti-discrimination ordinances protecting the rights of transgender Texans.

But rather than pushing them farther into the shadows, Patrick’s bathroom bills have galvanized the transgender community in Texas like never before. New friends have been made, activist networks formed and some are even running for office, all spurred by an effort they feared would only vilify and dehumanize them.

Patrick’s crusade, however, succeeded in further dividing his own party, whose fissures were laid bare as big business, big oil, police and teachers pushed back. The GOP found itself at odds with benefactors it has long protected, underlining the struggle between the traditional “open for business” Republicanism of the Rick Perry years and the culture war evangelism Patrick espouses.

The bathroom bill’s defeat was stunning. Patrick is, after all, considered by many to be the most influential conservative in Texas. But more astounding than this failure was its effect on the marginalized group it targeted.

The transgender community is now a new standard bearer for the civil rights fight in Texas. And now, they have more allies than ever.

And they know who those allies are. The greater visibility for the transgender community has helped make more people realize that trans people are just that – people, who want to live their lives and get the same basic deal the rest of us get. As it was with gays and lesbians, it’s a lot harder to demonize a group when you know members of that group. The show of support for the transgender community from a broad range of stakeholders really reinforced the message. Patrick and his pals will continue doing their dirty work, but I think their path is rockier now. We still have a long way to go, but we have made progress. Do keep that in mind as we go forward.