Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

October 7th, 2017:

Saturday video break: Shout

Here’s a song called Shout you probably don’t know, from Miles Davis:

That’s from the Fluxblog 1981 list. I always thought of Miles Davis as a musician of the 60s, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that he was still making great music at that time. A song you are familiar with, also from the 80s, is by Tears for Fears:

Unlike some other 80s acts, I liked Tears for Fears back in the day, though I probably heard them a bit too much. As one critic noted at the time, they are kind of repetitive. I have a greater appreciation for them now, helped by the fact that the Sirius First Wave station plays more than this and “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” from them.

More Beto in the national news

From Splinter, part of the Gawker universe, a story that was front-paged on Deadspin and Jezebel:

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

O’Rourke sticks around to meet every single person in Burnet who wants to meet him. He doesn’t leave until the last hand has been shaken, the last selfie snapped. It wouldn’t be impressive—that’s what politicians are supposed to do—except that nobody in Burnet can remember the last time a Senate candidate stopped by to talk to them at all, let alone hung around until he’d met everybody personally.

People are enthusiastic about him—because he showed up, sure, and also because of how he comes off. His staff is protective of his time; even though I was in the truck with him for more than an hour, we were only slated for ten minutes of interview time, so he can make calls to the coast and stream the drive on Facebook Live. But he’s not particularly guarded in how he talks. He’s a legit cusser, and he talks about how he came to conclusions about policy—even ones that may seem contradictory to his party or his background—in a naturalistic way.

He’s big on working with veterans because of the community in El Paso around the army base in town. He’s for ending marijuana prohibition because he grew up across the border from Juarez, where cartel violence once made the city the world’s most dangerous. He’s in favor of term limits, even though they’re an idea mostly championed by conservatives, because he believes that Washington is inherently broken and corrupt—but he thinks that maybe limiting the amount of time people spend in office could fix it. He’s to the left of most of the Democratic Party, but he cherishes bipartisanship as an ideal and an end unto itself.

“When you look at the DNC or the RNC or national politics, it’s corporate rock and roll. It has very little soul to it. Maybe no soul at all.”

That all matters for O’Rourke in order to have a chance of defeating Ted Cruz. He’s running an innovative campaign, avoiding the pitfalls of doomed candidates like Wendy Davis. He hasn’t hired a single out-of-state consultant or pollster, and with the exception of the volunteer driving the car, everybody I’ve met from his campaign is either from El Paso or from the congressman’s D.C. office. But it’s still as uphill a battle as there is in politics right now.

Turning Texas blue, or at least purple, has been a dream of progressives for decades. It’s also one that seems, somehow, to always be at least four to six years away. So can a former punk rock guitar player from a part of Texas that’s never produced a statewide elected official be the one to break the streak?

It’s a good profile, and it has a few things I hadn’t seen before, so go check it out. The whole visiting-places-no-one-usually-goes-to thing has been the main news hook in stories about Beto O’Rourke. It’s sexy, it appeals to people who disdain consultant-driven campaigns, and it makes a lot of intuitive sense. Whether it works or not remains to be seen. Texas is a big state (I know, where else can you get this kind of cutting-edge analysis?), and something like 4.5 million people normally vote in off year elections. I don’t care how much time you spend driving around, it’s hard to speak in person to a significant fraction of that amount, and that’s a number that implies the usual low level of Democratic turnout. Beto needs a lot of Presidential-year Dems to vote to have a chance. The good news is that by doing what he’s doing, he’s building a narrative for those voters, one that tells them he’s something different, someone who isn’t following a playbook that hasn’t worked since Beyonce was in kindergarten. Again, it may not succeed – Vegas sure wouldn’t give good odds on it – but at least it’s not doing the same thing again and hoping for a different result.

And from Mother Jones, which devoted four stories this past week to Texas politics:

When O’Rourke announced his candidacy for what, on paper, could be the party’s tie-breaking 51st seat in the Senate, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was tempered in its enthusiasm. “Wild things can happen in 2018,” said Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the DSCC’s head, but he emphasized that the committee’s focus would be on protecting incumbent senators. “We’re realistic.” (Translation: Good luck!)

O’Rourke, well aware of the long odds he faces, reasons that if nothing Democrats have tried before has worked, he might as well attempt something completely different. He announced early on that he would not hire a pollster or contract with consultants, with the exception of Revolution Messaging, the firm that built Bernie Sanders’ online mint in 2016. (O’Rourke outraised Cruz in his first full quarter as a candidate.) He is his own press secretary. Many of O’Rourke’s early trips have focused on deep-red areas that see ambitious Democrats about as often as they see snow—when he visited George W. Bush’s hometown of Midland in March, the local newspaper wrote an editorial congratulating him “for being able to find Midland.”

His approach to campaigning is similar to his approach to his day job—he does things differently. O’Rourke moved quickly into the senior ranks of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he tells supporters, not just because of El Paso’s high concentration of military personnel, but because his colleagues had flocked to other committees such as finance that offered more access to donors. He is a rare politician who has actually given himself a term limit in the House, and he promises to serve no more than 12 years in the Senate. He was one of the last members of Congress to endorse Clinton during the 2016 Democratic primary, but he supported Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan’s bid for leader of the Democratic caucus in November, arguing that Rep. Nancy Pelosi had reached a dead end.

What he’s offering instead of the status quo is a post-Clinton (and for that matter, post-Obama) style of politics. The party’s leading lights have run from the idea that they’re soft on drugs and immigration, but backing a border fence and a surge of Border Patrol agents didn’t fix Democratic politics—it just made things worse for Texas. So why not run on marijuana legalization and against militarization of the border? The same goes for a hawkish foreign policy. He’s proposing to turn off the spigots for overseas interventions and instead pour money into student-loan forgiveness and Medicare-for-all—a single-­payer system, he tells voters, will save them “somewhere between a lot and a shit ton.”

O’Rourke’s independent streak is a reflection of El Paso itself, which feels a world away from the rest of the state and its political power brokers. He has met Cruz just twice in the four years they’ve served together in Congress, even as Cruz and other Texas Republicans have treated O’Rourke’s beloved borderlands as a piñata.
“Ted Cruz doesn’t have an office anywhere near El Paso. John Cornyn doesn’t have an office anywhere near El Paso. Presidential candidates don’t come to El Paso. Gubernatorial candidates don’t come to El Paso. People who are focused on power don’t come to El Paso,” he said. “And I was saying that in front of the crowd in Tex­arkana, and this lady in front of the crowd said, ‘That’s how I feel!’”

“That’s how a lot of Texas feels—they feel forgotten, left behind, unrepresented, unimportant to the centers of power and the system as it currently works,” he added. “It doesn’t work for them. A lot of the state feels like El Paso feels, and a lot of the state wants their state back and wants to be recognized and represented and served. I think this campaign is all about that.”

In its simplest form, the challenges facing candidates like O’Rourke are the same ones that have confounded Democrats everywhere since 2008, only, as Texas would have it, bigger. They have to help voters navigate a system that is designed to be difficult if not discouraging. They have to battle the kind of political disengagement that sank Clinton; in Texas, “It’s not a Republican state, it’s a nonvoting state” may as well be the official Democratic Party mantra. Obama-era progressives approached the electorate with a scientific rigor, believing they could selectively target and activate different groups as needed, but huge setbacks in three of the last four national elections—including in Texas—exposed holes in that theory. By narrowing their focus in the name of precision, Democratic campaigns left millions of votes on the table, particularly in places like Texas. Awakening that sleeping giant may require connecting with communities where they are rather than expecting them to connect to the ongoing national debate. The folks at the Texas Organizing Project believe that many of those people live in Houston. O’Rourke is betting they’re in Amarillo and Texarkana, too.

That story actually covers quite a bit of ground, so reading it will not be a rerun of the first piece. There’s also a Q&A with O’Rourke here, a story about Texas’ voter ID saga here, and a brief overview of “women who are leading the resistance” here. How much does the positive press help O’Rourke? Like chemistry on a professional sports team, it’s hard to quantify. We’ll see what his third quarter finance report looks like, that’s the closest proxy for that we’re going to get.

Now is not a good time for HHSC to be dysfunctional

And yet here we are.

Under Charles Smith, the longtime ally of Gov. Greg Abbott picked to lead the state’s Health and Human Services Commission, Texas’ government health care infrastructure is hemorrhaging veteran employees and facing criticism for its response to the humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Harvey.

Dozens of experienced senior staff members have left the agency since Smith took over last year. Current and former employees attribute the exodus to widespread dissatisfaction with the executive commissioner, who they say lacks technical knowledge of the agency and pushes a political agenda backed by the governor.

Interviews with 11 current and former long-serving health commission staff, ranging from senior executives to mid-level managers, paint a picture of a state agency in disarray, with veteran staff clashing regularly with Smith and his supporters in the governor’s office. The internal conflict has spurred a wave of resignations, leaving the agency with a void of talent that critics say is hampering the state’s ability to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey.

“It’s hard to watch,” said one former high-ranking health commission official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of an ongoing professional relationship with the health commission. “Anybody with any knowledge or experience is not going to stay.”

[…]

Critics point to the agency’s actions in the month after Hurricane Harvey as evidence of its dysfunction.

Specifically, sources inside and outside of the commission told the Tribune that the agency was slow to act in providing guidance and assistance to Texans affected by Harvey who qualify for public programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Doctors have complained that basic information, such as whether displaced Medicaid patients could seek care outside of their insurance network or get prescription medications refilled, was slow to emerge from the agency, and advocates for low-income Texans were frustrated to see a flurry of revisions to information posted on the agency’s website as victims sought government assistance.

Others pointed to the delay in rolling out disaster food stamps benefits. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, and the health commission began rolling out disaster food stamps on Sept. 13, nearly three weeks later, but only in some counties. Houston, Corpus Christi and other areas that suffered some of the most extensive damage from the storm were not included in the initial rollout.

By comparison, when Hurricane Ike struck Galveston in 2008, then-Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins announced the agency would provide emergency food stamps five days after the storm made landfall.

“When I see the response to Harvey, I am quite concerned about the level of expertise in the agency,” said one former commission official who has closely followed the hurricane response. “This stuff is not rocket science. We’ve had disasters before. There are templates for this.”

The Texas State Employees Union said this week that falling employee morale and a shortage of workers has hampered the state’s ability to provide recovery after Hurricane Harvey. Union officials say the health commission has lost nearly 11 percent of its eligibility operations staff — the workers who help connect Texans with public benefits.

In a statement for the union, Rashel Richardson, a caseworker in Houston, asked, “How are we supposed to work this much forced overtime week after week while our homes have been destroyed? How are we supposed to concentrate and get people services when we need services ourselves? It’s as if the state has no sympathy for workers who lost everything.”

There’s more, so read the whole thing. Not that there’s ever a good time for such a large agency that affects so many people to be dysfunctional, but in the aftermath of a huge natural disaster that has done so much damage? That’s a really bad time. Of course, HHSC has been a problem child for a long time, so none of this should be a big surprise. On the other hand, the HHSC under Greg Abbott has been particularly hostile to women’s health, so it’s all good as far as he’s concerned.

MUDs and Harvey

City governments have their pros and cons, and their challenges getting things done. But at least their existence means residents of said cities have places to go when they need various services. Not everyone has that, and in times of crisis like what Harvey has wrought, that’s a big deal.

Cinco Ranch, a master-planned community 25 miles west of downtown Houston, is governed by a patchwork of municipal utility districts – MUDs for short – obscure entities that sell bonds and collect taxes to pay for water systems, sewage plants, roads and other infrastructure.

The closest thing to a mayor for Cinco Ranch is G. Timothy Lawrence, 74. He’s a semi-retired businessman and president of the board of the community’s main MUD. He and his four fellow board members set the property tax rate and hire lawyers, engineers and financial advisers. Yet he has never lived in Cinco Ranch and did not set foot there during the flooding. His home is a 20-mile drive away, in the Royal Oaks section of Houston.

Drawdy and many of his neighbors had never heard of him.

MUDs have proliferated in the Houston suburbs, helping to power the region’s runaway growth, because they offer developers an advantageous way to fund infrastructure. In unincorporated stretches of suburbia, they have evolved into permanent mini-governments largely invisible to the taxpayers they serve.

The devastation wrought by Harvey has stirred fresh questions about whether MUDs and similar special purpose districts are sufficiently transparent and accountable, and whether they’re capable of putting the public interest ahead of developers’ interests – particularly in protecting neighborhoods from flooding.

Typically, MUDs are created at the initiative of developers, who pick their initial board members, lawyers and other professional advisers. The districts sell bonds to reimburse developers for infrastructure costs. Residents pay off the debt through property taxes.

MUDs usually do not have websites, nor any physical presence in their communities. In Cinco Ranch, which is divided into 16 separate MUDs, there is no city hall and no civil servants. Water and sewage facilities are operated by contractors hired by the main MUD. That MUD’s board members usually hold their monthly meetings not in Cinco Ranch, but in the offices of the district’s law firm near downtown Houston.

“It’s the difference between paying your monthly bills to a nameless organization with an acronym and a number versus someone you know, who could be held responsible for what happens in a crisis,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

You know how I feel about MUDs. It should be abundantly clear that MUDs are no substitute for government, which will mean different things to different people. Is this a good deal for the people of Cinco Ranch, who are dealing with the effects of Harvey without having any of the services and information dissemination capability that people who live in Houston expect? Is it the sort of thing that would make them reconsider their situation, and maybe work towards incorporating? I suppose if there’s no urge to think about those things now, there never will be. I wish the residents of Cinco Ranch and other such developments the best in getting the assistance they need, and in assessing their options going forward.