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January 3rd, 2019:

Our freshman legislators

Good luck, y’all.

Gina Calanni

When the Legislature convenes in Austin on Jan. 8, Harris County’s House delegation will include two new Democrats who flipped seats long held by Republican lawmakers.

Last month, state Rep.-elects Gina Calanni, D-Katy, and Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, knocked off two-term state Rep. Mike Schofield and 12-term veteran Rep. Gary Elkins, respectively.

Both wins demonstrated the changing political makeup of Harris County’s fast-growing west suburbs, areas that played a major role in turning the county solidly blue during the midterms. Republicans are sure to take aim at the seats in 2020 and beyond, though Calanni and Rosenthal say they recognize the conservative constituencies in their districts and plan to focus on issues that work for both sides of the political aisle.

“I won my district with 50.8 percent. The Republican guy got 47.7,” said Rosenthal, who considers himself a progressive Democrat. “So, I had a 3-point margin, which means I represent a district that’s pretty much 50-50. I feel like, no matter what I have in my heart, I have to represent the district 50-50. That’s what the job is.”

Jon Rosenthal

Both new lawmakers undoubtedly were bolstered by a combination of favorable trends for Democrats, including an unpopular Republican president and galvanizing Democrats running at the top of the ticket and in an overlapping congressional district.

Still, if the political forces of President Donald Trump, Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Rep.-elect Lizzie Pannill Fletcher helped the two Democrats get near the finish line, their campaigns helped them cross it. Calanni, for instance, personally knocked on more than 10,000 doors in the 132nd District and raised nearly $139,000 in the month or so before the election.

[…]

Calanni, 41, and Rosenthal, 55, both say they will focus on the topic that appears set to dominate the legislative session: reforming how the state funds public education. The two Democrats made it a top issue of their races, with Rosenthal putting “the focus of the campaign” on his calls for the state to kick in more funds for public education.

Calanni, a former bankruptcy and tax paralegal in the Travis County attorney’s office, considers herself a moderate and said she previously has voted for candidates from both parties. She was among the numerous candidates who joined the political fray for the first time in 2018 after growing upset over the divisiveness between the two parties.

“I definitely identify as a Democrat, but I think there are a lot of things, especially on a local level, that are not really separated into party issues,” she said.

Calanni’s campaign focused on topics that fit that description: flood control and mitigation, sex trafficking and, foremost, the need to reform education funding.

“When I’m knocking on a door and talking to people that I know are Republicans, then I talk specifically about public education and that we don’t have enough funding for it,” she said.

Already, Calanni plans to introduce legislation that would address sex trafficking, a pervasive issue in Houston and one that has drawn the attention of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike. Before she ran for office, Calanni worked for several nonprofits focused on the issue.

Calanni said she would aim to provide work programs to teach job skills to sex trafficking victims, similar to an initiative already operating in Harris County. Calanni also wants to provide counseling services for victims and to strengthen business licensing requirements to prevent businesses from operating as brothels.

[…]

Looking ahead to the session in Austin, Rosenthal intends to play a role in the effort to reform public education funding, but also hopes to introduce legislation to regulate how much interest payday lenders can charge. The measure would reverse some of the regulations lifted by Elkins, who owns several payday lending businesses and authored bills to lift interest caps on payday loans.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is as follows:

1. Serving in the Lege is a job and should be treated as one. Show up on time and every day unless you have a good reason not to (illness, family emergency, that sort of thing), prepare for the day’s agenda and know what’s on the horizon, don’t miss votes, and file all your campaign finance and financial disclosure forms accurately and on time. Basically, don’t commit the kind of stupid self-inflicted harm that will make it easy for your 2020 opponent to run against you.

2. Similarly, be as true to the things you said you wanted to do on the campaign trail as you can be. Introduce the bills you said you would introduce – and be sure they are in good shape – and work to get them a committee hearing or a place on the local and consent calendar. Support the type of bills you said you would support, and oppose the type of bills you said you would oppose. Give your supporters a reason to feel good about having backed you, and don’t give anyone else a reason to think you’re just another “say and do anything to get elected” politician.

3. Do constituent services very well. Phone calls are answered or returned promptly. Emails are acknowledged and responded to. People who ask for it can get time on your calendar. Your staffers all have answers or know how to get them, and when they’re asked about things that are not in your office’s purview, they know how to point teh asker in the right direction. Basically, make sure everyone who contacts your office feels like they were listened to and taken seriously.

You get the idea. None of this is a guarantee of anything for 2020. As we well know, the national environment has an outsized impact on all elections. Do the basics well, avoid the obvious pitfalls, be the person you said you’d be when you ran in the first place, and you’ll have done your best to be the kind of candidate who outperforms the baseline in their district. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Lina Hidalgo officially sworn in

It’s Judge Hidalgo now, thank you very much.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Ushering in a new era of Democratic rule, Lina Hidalgo took the oath of office as Harris County judge early Tuesday, becoming the first Latina and first woman to lead the nation’s third-largest county.

Her swearing in minutes past midnight by 151st Civil Court Judge Mike Engelhart capped the remarkable rise of Hidalgo, 27, who just two months ago was a graduate student making her first bid for public office against a popular incumbent.

She takes charge as chief executive overseeing thousands of employees and an annual budget of more than $5 billion. Hidalgo will also lead the county’s Office of Emergency Management, which has already responded to 23 floods this century.

Hidalgo was joined by her parents and other family members. She succeeds longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who steered a massive Hurricane Harvey bond package to passage before being swept out of office in November after 11 years.

She said the greatest challenge during her transition to office has been knowing where to start.

“There’s just so much enthusiasm in the community and in the meetings I have,” Hidalgo said. “There’s this incredible desire to bring in new ideas and breathe in new energy.”

Hidalgo was one of scores of Democrats who unseated Republicans in November in a sweep of countywide positions that brought more than 50 civil and criminal judges and other top leaders into key positions. Of the 81 officials at the swearing-in ceremony Tuesday at NRG Center, only Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and a justice of the peace were Republicans.

I just want to pause here for a moment so the full impact of that last sentence can settle in on you. The forecast is for more of the same in the foreseeable future.

Hidalgo, who campaigned on making county government more accessible to the public, announced a massive engagement effort. With support from Houston Endowment Inc. and the Ford Foundation, she said Harris County will circulate a survey asking residents how government can be improved.

The Talking Transition program will also include workshops educating residents on how county government functions and town hall forums on topics such as education, housing and transportation.

Several key positions in Hidalgo’s administration remain unfilled, including communication and policy directors. She said her staff continues to vet candidates with the help of a consulting firm that also assisted the administration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Hidalgo said she hopes to work with commissioners to quickly settle the federal lawsuit challenging Harris County’s cash bail system. The protracted legal wrangling over the suit — and its $7 million cost to taxpayers so far — has long frustrated Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who until now was the lone Democrat on Commissioners Court.

“Like many, I’m hopeful that 2019 will be the year the county settles the lawsuit and ceases its defense of an unconstitutional, unsafe cash bail system,” Ellis wrote in an email to constituents Tuesday.

I for damn sure want to see a settlement, and I want it to be a high priority. I don’t know what the court’s calendar looks like, but I see no reason why there can’t be an agreement in principle between the parties by the end of Q1 2019.

As fort the transition stuff, this is from the inbox on January 1:

Judge Hidalgo’s initiative, Talking Transition: Harris County, will provide a forum for residents to discuss the issues that matter most to them, learn about County government, and weigh in on pressing public policy matters.

The first program of its kind in Harris County, Talking Transition will allow Judge Hidalgo and her team to obtain a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the issues and ideas that most impact County residents, as they work to shape their agenda.

“Throughout my campaign, I pledged to increase transparency and accountability in Harris County government. Too few residents know how County government works and how to engage with it,” said Judge Lina Hidalgo. “For me, public service means ensuring that our most vulnerable residents have the same voice in our local government as the most powerful among us.”

Talking Transition: Harris County is expected to be the largest civic engagement program in the South. It is modeled after similar programs in New York and Washington, D.C., and made possible by the Houston Endowment and the Ford Foundation.

“Houston Endowment recognizes the value of community voice in good governance,” said Ann Stern, president and CEO of Houston Endowment. “By ensuring all voices are heard, we can continue to enhance our region’s assets, achieve equitable outcomes, and resolve issues that are important to the residents of Harris County.”

Talking Transition will address seven public policy areas – education, housing, transportation, resiliency, health, justice, and economic opportunity – through a series of public events across the County. The initiative includes a variety of ways for Harris County residents to interact with and learn more about their local government. The core components include:

Transparency Project: Announcements throughout the County will provide easily-digestible information about how County government works and eye-opening statistics intended to motivate residents to learn more.

Civic Saturdays: Offered at a seven locations around Harris County, Civic Saturdays are a series of full-day public events happening on consecutive Saturdays:

  • Civic School: Features classroom-style lessons for Harris County residents to learn about how County government works.
  • Town Halls: A large gathering organized around a specific policy area that will give residents a chance to share new ideas for improving their communities and to hear from others.
  • Action Plan Workshops: Smaller working groups for people who have devoted time to specific issues to focus on how to best realize community-driven ideas through County government.

Survey: Teams of canvassers will be spread throughout the County to ask residents about what needs to be improved among County services, what would help them engage more with County government, and what needs to be prioritized when it comes to prioritizing the County budget. The survey will also be available both online and at each Civic Saturday.

All Talking Transitions events are free and open to the public. A full schedule of activities will become available online at www.talkingtransition.us.

I’ll be very interested to see how that turns out. In the meantime, best of luck to Judge Hidalgo and all of the newly sworn-in officials.

The dino turtles of Buffalo Bayou

I love this story.

The creature didn’t growl and didn’t need to.

The alligator snapping turtle held menace enough in its massive, gaping jaws, which ended in a sharp beak poised like the fangs of an agitated rattlesnake. Its long, plump claws dug into the sand above thorny, wrinkled skin and a deeply-ridged carapace about the size of a large dinner platter.

Wildlife biologist Eric Munscher has wrangled bigger alligator snappers than the young, 42-pound male he hauled onto land Saturday with help from two assistants. But every one he finds matters, because he’s studying the species in a part of Houston so unlikely it has become the talk of the turtle world.

During the past two years, Munscher and his team have tagged 60 alligator snappers — officially Macrochelys temminckii — in an area no one expected to find them, along a nine-mile stretch of Buffalo Bayou.

Munscher, who leads the Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, does not want to reveal exact study locations, to protect what he believes may be the largest population of alligator snapping turtles in Texas, and potentially one of the largest anywhere. And he believes the turtles have survived not in spite of, but because of, their heavily populated, citified surroundings. “They lucked into the whole metro thing,” he said. “It’s a good habitat, surprisingly, with a riparian shelf where females can climb up and lay eggs.”

Buffalo Bayou’s opaque brown waters have long yielded other scary-looking predators, including prehistoric-looking alligator gars and the occasional, actual gator. And there are plenty of other reasons not to swim there, including possible bacterial pollution.

“Nobody in their right mind would think of Buffalo Bayou as a refuge,” said Jordan Gray, a former Houston zookeeper and a collaborator on the study who now works at the Turtle Survival Alliance’s headquarters in Charleston, S.C. “It’s not this pristine habitat like the Upper Trinity River, but that’s what makes it so cool, to find this gem of a population.”

[…]

Munscher discovered the bayou’s turtles almost by accident through his day job with SWCA Environmental Consultants, while he was surveying wildlife across one of the city’s large parks. He put out turtle traps near the end of the study, not expecting to find anything special, and was astonished to haul up six alligator snappers.

Those first critters ranged from a 3-pound juvenile to a 96-pound male that could be 80 years old, which suggested an active breeding population.

Munscher contacted Texas Parks & Wildlife, which had not included Harris County in a previous survey of alligator snappers across East Texas, and secured a grant to purchase equipment for a long-term population study in Buffalo Bayou and associated watersheds of Harris and Fort Bend Counties. He is trapping, tagging and releasing turtles at least once a month — a task he plans to continue for 10 years.

“It’s an unheard of study for the species,” he said. “We want to do it because it’s such an unheard of habitat … . If you find a lot of turtles, it means they’re doing pretty well. Nobody’s done anything to them yet; they don’t have a lot of predation going on. We study them over time to see how and why they’re doing so well.”

The largest turtle species in the U.S. and largest hard-shelled turtles in the world, alligator snappers are native to swamps and rivers from Florida to southern Illinois. Experts can’t say how many of them still exist, but they know numbers have declined significantly in the past century, and conservationists have petitioned to have alligator snappers added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species list.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. The last time I blogged about alligator snapping turtles, it was because of a story that painted them as in dire straits as a species. This story is a much more pleasant surprise. I hope Munscher and crew find a thriving population in the Bayou.