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February 19th, 2019:

On special election runoff turnout and HD125

I figured a story like this was inevitable after Round One of the HD125 special election, in which Republican Fred Rangel got 38% of the vote and four Democrats combined to take the rest, with three of them being close to each other and thus farther behind Rangel. Ray Lopez will face Rangel in the runoff, for which a date has not yet been set.

Justin Rodriguez

Democratic Party officials and Lopez’s campaign remain adamant that they are in position to win the runoff and keep the seat. The four Democrats, combined, received more than 60 percent of the vote, they point out. And District 125 hasn’t elected a Republican since it was redrawn in 1992 to include more West Side voters.

But to others, the result immediately recalled San Antonio Democrats’ not-so-sterling track record in recent special elections. Electoral history and district demographics have not protected Democrats in those runoffs over the last few years: They have lost the last three off-cycle races in San Antonio, each of which occurred in traditional party strongholds.

In early 2016, Republican John Lujan scored an upset in a South Side legislative seat over Democrats Tomás Uresti and Gabe Farias. Uresti would defeat him nine months later in the general election.

Later that year, Independent Laura Thompson won election to an East Side legislative seat after Bexar County Dean Ruth McClendon’s death, also overcoming multiple Democrats. Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins put the seat back in Democratic hands in the next general election.

And in perhaps the most painful loss for Democrats, Republican Pete Flores won a state Senate seat last year that includes much of San Antonio. Flores flipped a seat that hadn’t gone to the GOP since Reconstruction, and his victory sealed a two-thirds Republican supermajority in the Texas Senate.

That race has some conspicuous similarities to Tuesday’s election in District 125. For one, the man who engineered Flores’ upset, Matt Mackowiak, is now running Rangel’s campaign. For another, multiple Democrats split the party’s vote, allowing the Republican to plunge ahead.

[…]

“It’s a very simple game of math in a special election,” [Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer] said. “When you’re running a race in a Democratic district you’re going to have multiple Democrats running for that position, and it’s always going to be that one Republican that has a universe of voters to himself.”

The Democrats believe that will change in a mano-a-mano, Democrat vs. Republican, runoff, and Democratic members of the Legislature are now rallying around Lopez. But they had a similar conviction — ultimately to no avail — that Flores wouldn’t prevail in what had been a Democratic district for more than a century.

Their logic isn’t reflective of the political reality of special elections, according to Mackowiak. The voters who chose Democrats Rayo-Garza or Art Reyna won’t necessarily show up again for Lopez in the runoff election.

“It’s just not transferable,” Mackowiak said. “Special elections are about motivation and enthusiasm.”

That sentiment was echoed by Larry Hufford, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s University.

“These small groups are so committed to their candidates,” Hufford said. “They say, ‘Well, my candidate didn’t win, forget it.’”

Those factors give Rangel an edge, Hufford said, especially if turnout drops in the runoff. If Rangel brings out the same number of voters, it puts him in a good position to win the majority while Lopez tries to inspire voters who backed Democrats no longer in the race, the professor added.

See here for the background. There are two claims being made here, that Bexar County Dems have had a spotty recent record in legislative special elections, and that the key to winning special election runoffs is to hold onto more of your own voters from round one than the other guy (if you’re the leader, that is) because getting new voters is too hard. Let’s take these one at a time.

First, the two special elections from 2016 are basically meaningless for these purposes. The reason why is because they were basically meaningless as special elections. They were for the purpose of serving the remainder of the 2015-2016 term, at a time when the Lege was not in session and not going to be in session. Neither John Lujan nor Laura Thompson ever filed a bill or cast a vote as State Rep, because there were no opportunities for them to do so. Tomas Uresti, who lost in that January 2016 special election runoff to John Lujan, went on to win the Democratic primary in March and the November general election, ousting Lujan before he ever did anything of note. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, the November nominee in HD120, didn’t bother running in the summer special election for it. Those special elections didn’t matter.

As for the turnout question, I would remind everyone that there were three legislative special elections plus runoffs from 2015. Here’s what they looked like:

2015 Special Election, House District 123


Melissa Aguillon  DEM   1,257   17.69%
Diego Bernal      DEM   3,372   47.46%
Roger V. Gary     LIB     103    1.45%
Paul Ingmundson   GRN      81    1.14%
Walter Martinez   DEM     780   10.98%
Nunzio Previtera  REP   1,512   21.28%

Total = 7,105

Special Runoff Election State Representative, District 123


Diego Bernal      DEM   5,170   63.67%
Nunzio Previtera  REP   2,950   36.33%

Total = 8,120

Diego Bernal got 1,798 more votes in the runoff – there had been 2,037 votes that went to other Dems in the initial election. Nunzio Previtera got 1,438 more votes in the runoff even though he’d been the only Republican initially.

2015 Special Election, Senate District 26


Trey Martinez Fischer  DEM   8,232   43.28%
Alma Perez Jackson     REP   3,892   20.46%
Jose Menendez          DEM   4,824   25.36%
Joan Pedrotti          REP   1,427    7.50%
Al Suarez              DEM     644    3.39%

Total = 19,019

Special Runoff Election State Senator, District 26


Trey Martinez Fischer  DEM   9,635   40.95%
Jose Menendez          DEM  13,891   59.05%

Total = 23,526

Remember how some idiot bloggers called for Sen. Menendez to concede rather than bother going through with the runoff, so the next special election could take place more quickly? Good times. After smoking TMF in said runoff, some other people claimed he won on the strength of Republican turnout in round two. For what it’s worth, there were 5,319 Republican votes in round one, and Menendez gained 9,067 votes overall. Make of that what you will. Also, for what it’s worth, TMF boosted his total by 1,403.

2015 Special Election, House District 124


Nathan Alonzo    DEM    467   23.81%
Delicia Herrera  DEM    555   28.30%
Ina Minjarez     DEM    828   42.22%
David L. Rosa    DEM    111    5.66%

Total = 1,961

Special Runoff Election, House District 124


Delicia Herrera  DEM  1,090   45.02%
Ina Minjarez     DEM  1,331   54.98%

Total = 2,421

The two runoff candidates combined for 1,383 votes in round one, while the two also rans got 578. Assuming all 578 voted again in the runoff, there were still another 460 people participating.

My point, in case I haven’t beaten you over the head with it enough, is that in all of these elections, there were more votes in the runoff than in the first round. That means – stay with me here, I know this is tricky – it’s possible for a candidate to win the runoff with extra votes from people who didn’t vote initially. It’s even possible for the second place finisher to win, in part by bringing in new voters. See, when not that many people vote the first time, there are actually quite a few habitual voters out there to round up. Who even knew this was a thing?

Yes, the SD19 still stands out like a turd on the sidewalk. SD19 encompasses more than just Bexar County, and there was some genuine resentment from third place candidate Roland Gutierrez, which likely hindered Pete Gallego in the runoff. (There were also many questions raised about the effectiveness of Gallego’s campaign.) Here, as it happens, third place finisher Coda Rayo-Garza has conceded after the remaining mail ballots arrived and endorsed Ray Lopez, so at least that bit of history won’t repeat itself. HD125 is more Democratic than SD19, so there’s a larger pool of dependable voters that Lopez can call on. He’s got work to do and ground to make up, and he certainly could lose if he doesn’t do a good job of it. But if we look at the history of Bexar County special legislative elections going all the way back to 2015 instead of just to 2016, we can see that the picture is a bit more nuanced than Matt Mackowiak and Larry Hufford make it out to be.

There is no longer a ban on federal funds for rail on Richmond

This is about as bittersweet as it gets.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

There are no plans to build light rail on Richmond, but for the first time in a long time there is nothing stopping Metro from asking for federal funds to help pay for it.

The federal spending bill signed Friday by President Donald Trump, averting a government shutdown, lacks a provision in previous funding plans barring the Federal Transit Administration from funding any part of light rail on Richmond or Post Oak.

The provision was added at least eight years ago by former Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, a fervent opponent of rail plans in the 7th District. Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee that set up the spending bills, added language forbidding use of federal money to “advance in any way a new light or heavy rail project … if the proposed capital project is constructed on or planned to be constructed on Richmond Avenue west of South Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond Avenue.”

He was defeated in November by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who said last month she aimed to be an advocate for transit.

Friday, she said in a statement she worked with lawmakers “to remove language in the bill that created unnecessary barriers and limited federal funding from coming to Houston for much-needed transportation improvements. Removal of this language will put the power to make decisions about our transit back in the hands of Houstonians.”

This is great, and it’s quite an achievement for Rep. Fletcher to get this done in only her second month in office. It’s just that in a more fair and just universe, we’d already have the Universities line built and would maybe be talking about extending it as part of the 2019 MetroNext referendum, while eagerly looking forward to the forthcoming Uptown BRT line as the completion of the original system. I know, it’s fashionable now to say that we should be wary about investing large sums of money into fixed infrastructure projects like this because driverless cars are coming and will solve all of our problems. My point is we could be celebrating the ten-year anniversary of this line – the Main Street line just turned 15 years old, in case you forgot to send it a birthday card – with millions of passengers having ridden it over that span. People often talk about how the time to have built rail in Houston was years ago. Well, we were on the verge of doing just that following the 2003 election, but politics, shortsightedness, NIMBYism, and the incompetence and mismanagement of the Metro CEO and Board following that election killed this key part of it off. I salute and thank Rep. Fletcher for keeping her word. I just mourn that it comes too late to deliver what had once been promised to us.

The family that grifts together

I am utterly flabbergasted.

Sen. Angela Paxton

In what state Sen. Angela Paxton describes as an effort to safely expand Texas’ burgeoning financial tech industry, the freshman Republican from McKinney has filed a bill that would empower the office of her husband, Attorney General Ken Paxton, to exempt entrepreneurs from certain state regulations so they can market “innovative financial products or services.”

One of those exemptions would be working as an “investment adviser” without registering with the state board. Currently, doing so is a felony in Texas — one for which Ken Paxton was issued a civil penalty in 2014 and criminally charged in 2015.

Senate Bill 860, filed Friday, would create within the attorney general’s office an entirely new program — what the bill calls a “regulatory sandbox” — that would allow approved individuals “limited access to the market … without obtaining a license, registration, or other regulatory authorization.” The bill, based on a 2018 Arizona law hailed as the first of its kind, aims to cut red tape for the growing financial tech sector, allowing businesses to market new products for up to two years and to as many as 10,000 customers with scant regulation.

In doing so, the bill would grant broad powers to the attorney general’s consumer protection division, allowing it to accept or reject entrepreneurial applicants who seek to hawk innovative products outside of the state’s current standards and regulations.

Angela Paxton said the bill is geared toward strengthening consumer protections in the underregulated, ever-changing financial tech industry — a sector that in Texas is largely centered in Richardson, part of her North Texas district. Constituents from that district first brought the issue to her attention, her office said.

“SB 860 allows for the growth and economic benefit of the emerging Financial Technology industry while the state provides the necessary regulatory framework and consumer protection in the marketplace,” she said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “The state agencies that have regulatory oversight of financial institutions and consumer protection laws will provide appropriate regulatory support within the sandbox to ensure that consumers are protected.”

But skeptics pointed to the bill’s optics problem: Ken Paxton, a statewide official accused of violating state securities law, would be empowered to decide who can skirt state securities law. And he’d get that power from a bill authored by his wife. Currently, Texas law requires investment advisers to register with the state — failing to do so is a third-degree felony punishable by a sentence of two to 10 years.

[…]

If SB 860 moved through both chambers of the Legislature and eventually became law, it would take effect Sept. 1. The proposal does not appear to offer any retroactive legal cover for past violations and it’s not clear whether it would directly impact Ken Paxton’s pending criminal case, though a change in statute could prove persuasive to a jury.

Still, ethics experts were slack-jawed that such a proposal would come from the wife of the state’s attorney general — even if he weren’t under criminal indictment for a charge so closely related to the legislation.

Randall “Buck” Wood, a longtime ethics lawyer in Austin, said it would be “a real concern” for Angela Paxton to introduce any legislation related to the agency her husband leads. But a proposal that relates so closely to his personal criminal indictment is “beyond the pale,” he said.

“It sounds like one of the more blatantly unethical acts I’ve seen recently. That’s just ridiculous,” Wood said. “This particular situation, it seems to me, is definitely personal to her and probably to very few other people.”

The measure would “almost certainly” influence Paxton’s criminal trial, added Wood, who has worked as a trial lawyer for decades.

Sometimes I think about the crazy things we have seen in our politics over the past couple of years, and of the players who have been responsible for them, and I realize that if any of this had been the plot and characters of a fictionalized drama, no one would buy any of it. It would be too ridiculous, too over-the-top, too unbelievable. And yet here we are, soaking in it in real life. How exactly did we get here? I don’t really have a point to make here. I just know that if I had suggested before last year’s election that Angela Paxton would file a bill to make what her husband had been arrested for doing legal, a large number of sober-minded people would have accused me of being somewhere between melodramatic and paranoid. I hope someday to live in a world where those accusations would have had merit.