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October 5th, 2018:

Interview with Andrea Duhon

Andrea Duhon

We had a couple of contested primaries for HCDE Trustee, which gave me the chance to talk about what HCDE does as I published interviews with those candidates. I figure lots of us don’t know all that much about this entity, which does a lot of work with the ISDs in Harris County to improve and deliver more services. That’s how Andrea Duhon came to be a candidate for Trustee in Precinct 3, which is the precinct of County Commissioner Steve Radack. Seeking answers from her school district about a particular program, she was pointed to HCDE for the answer, and after that encounter she decided she could do a better job. A financial services representative and active duty military spouse, Duhon also serves as a leader for the Lone Star Veterans Association. Here’s what we talked about:

You can see all of my interviews for candidates running for County office as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2018 Harris County Election page.

The pay parity proposal debate that wasn’t

Let’s not get ready to rumble!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s firefighters union has withdrawn from a Saturday debate with Mayor Sylvester Turner on their proposal to seek pay “parity” with police officers, saying the event’s host, the Harris County Democratic Party, had given the mayor too much control over the event.

The hour-long event would have marked the first time the mayor and the union addressed the contentious issue on the same stage.

“We looked forward to the debate,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said in a Wednesday morning statement, “but we recognize that party insiders failed to stop the manipulation of the ground rules to advantage the mayor. We are disappointed in the HCDP’s acquiescence to the mayor, but are grateful for the support of HCDP precinct chairs and the many Houstonians they represent.”

Among the union’s complaints were that Houston Chronicle opinion editor Lisa Falkenberg was to serve as moderator (the editorial board expressed opposition to the parity proposal in July 2017), and that Democratic Party officials did not agree to let Lancton address precinct chairs or let them vote on whether to endorse the proposition.

Alas. Here’s the earlier story announcing the event that was the original basis of this post. I am not able to be there for this not-a-forum, but perhaps you can be.

County Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schechter said the party engaged in “extensive conversations” with both camps on the format of the discussion but respects the union’s decision to withdraw.

“The event details appeared in a Facebook announcement seen and approved by all parties last week. It is unfortunate the firefighter’s union has determined these details do not meet their needs,” she said. “We regret voters will not hear from the firefighter’s union at this time. Mayor Turner and Lisa are welcome to use the full hour we have allotted for this event.”

The party’s leadership committee, after hearing from the fire union at a recent meeting, Schechter said, voted to schedule the debate to hear from both sides. She said the gathering was never envisioned as ending in a vote, saying such votes only occur at quarterly gatherings of all precinct chairs, the last of which was held Sept. 13.

Yes, speaking as a precinct chair, that’s how our rules work. Precinct chairs vote to endorse or not endorse ballot measures like this at our quarterly meetings. We endorsed the flood bond referendum at the June meeting, for instance. There were members from the firefighters’ union at the September meeting, talking up their proposal, but no motion for an endorsement vote. Which I have to say would have been contentious, and because of that I’m glad it didn’t come up. I don’t know what may or may not have happened behind the scenes, but I do know they could have made a pretty big fuss about this at the meeting if they had wanted to.

Personally, I think an event like this, aimed at the general public, rather than an agenda item for a normally dry meeting of precinct chairs, would be a much better way to allow both sides to air their views (I’m assuming that if Lancton had been given time to address us, then Mayor Turner or a representative from his office would have been given time as well). But hey, whatever. Perhaps the Mayor and Lisa Falkenberg can discuss the cost of this referendum.

The cost of Houston firefighters’ push for pay parity with police of corresponding rank and seniority could be 14 percent cheaper than what Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration has estimated, city Controller Chris Brown said Tuesday.

Brown’s office estimates that the proposal, which will appear as Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot, will cost $85.2 million a year, lower than the $98.6 million figure Turner has used. Neither estimate includes the 7 percent raise police would receive over the next two years if the city council approves a new proposed contract this week. That would increase the cost if voters decide to link fire and police salaries.

Brown acknowledged his analysis required a series of assumptions related to how the parity proposal would be implemented, and said the estimate shows the cost of the proposal would be “unsustainable.”

“The controller’s office believes that a sustainable solution exists but can only be achieved through negotiation in the collective bargaining process,” Brown said while presenting his estimate to the city council’s budget committee. “It’s through that process that the men and women of HFD should be able to negotiate a well-deserved raise, but also a well-deserved raise the city can actually afford over the long term.”

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton viewed Brown’s analysis as vindication of his view that Turner’s estimate is inflated.

“As the city controller proved today, the mayor’s Proposition B claims cannot be trusted. His math, like his judgment, is driven by an obsession with punishing Houston firefighters,” Lancton said.

[…]

Brown and Turner’s estimates are nearly identical on the projected increase to firefighters’ base salaries and the associated increase in retirement benefits: that roughly 20 percent increase would cost about $65 million per year.

The two estimates differ mostly on various incentives and allowances known as “special pays,” some of which firefighters receive now but which parity would increase, and some of which firefighters would receive for the first time if voters approve the measure.

Not sure how a reduction in the cost estimate from $98 million to $85 million is a vindication of the firefighters’ case, especially when $85 million is still a pretty damn big number and Controller Brown calls it “unsustainable”, but maybe that’s just me. I continue to believe this thing is going to pass so I sure hope the cost estimates we are seeing are overblown, but all things being equal I’d rather not have to find out. Be that as it may, if you don’t know what to make of all this, go attend the not-a-forum and see what you think.

Why FiveThirtyEight really believes Beto has a chance

Nate Silver explains the reasoning behind the numbers.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

When building a statistical model, you ideally want to find yourself surprised by the data some of the time — just not too often. If you never come up with a result that surprises you, it generally means that you didn’t spend a lot of time actually looking at the data; instead, you just imparted your assumptions onto your analysis and engaged in a fancy form of confirmation bias. If you’re constantly surprised, on the other hand, more often than not that means your model is buggy or you don’t know the field well enough; a lot of the “surprises” are really just mistakes.

So when I build election forecasts for FiveThirtyEight, I’m usually not surprised by the outcomes they spit out — unless they’re so surprising (a Republican winning Washington, D.C.?) that they reflect a coding error I need to fix. But there are exceptions, and one of them came in the U.S. Senate race in Texas between Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke. I was pretty sure that once we introduced non-polling factors into the model — what we call the “fundamentals” — they’d shift our forecast toward Cruz, just as they did for Marsha Blackburn, the Republican candidate in Tennessee. That’s not what happened, however. Instead, although Cruz is narrowly ahead in the polls right now, the fundamentals slightly helped O’Rourke. Our model thinks that Texas “should” be a competitive race and believes the close polling there is no fluke.

[…]

It’s the other factors that push the race toward toss-up status, however. When a challenger has previously held an elected office, they tend to perform better with each level higher that office is. To run for Senate, O’Rourke is giving up his seat in the U.S. House, which is a higher office than had been held by Cruz’s 2012 opponent, Paul Sadler, a former state representative. Strong incumbents tend to deter strong challengers from entering the race, but Cruz wasn’t able to do so this time. Cruz also has a very conservative voting record, one that is perhaps “too conservative” even for Texas. The model actually penalizes O’Rourke slightly for his DUI scandal, but because the scandal has been public knowledge for a long time, the model discounts its importance.

Fundraising is another influential factor hurting Cruz. Ordinarily, you’d expect an incumbent to have a pretty healthy fundraising advantage. Instead, O’Rourke had more than doubled Cruz in dollars raised from individual contributors as of the end of the last filing period on June 30 — an advantage that will probably only increase once the campaigns file their next fundraising reports, which will cover up through Sept. 30. (Our model considers money raised from individual contributors only — not PACs, parties or self-funding.) If fundraising were even, Cruz would still lead in our fundamentals calculation by 4 percentage points, but O’Rourke’s money advantage is enough to bring the overall fundamentals forecast to a dead heat.

All models contain assumptions, and models like the ones 538 create also contain error bars, which is a fancy way of saying that they predict a likely range of outcomes, not just a single outcome. These models are also dynamic, which means they respond in what one hopes is a timely fashion to new information, so what the model says today may not be the same as what it says next week, if it perceives that conditions have changed. You can see with your own eyes the energy and visibility of the Beto campaign, and you can see that it’s different in fundamental ways from campaigns of recent years. You can also see that in the last two non-Presidential years Texas Democrats have been a million votes or more behind Republicans at a statewide level, and that’s a hell of a lot of ground to make up. 538’s model is suggesting that Beto’s campaign has done a good job closing that gap. The rest remains to be seen.