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May 1st, 2019:

Today is Joaquin Castro Decision Day

At least, that’s what we were told last week. Maybe it won’t be today but a few days later. In any event, it’s safe to say that expectations are not high right now.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

“I would say at this point, he’s not going to run,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.

One Democratic operative who spoke on condition of anonymity put the odds at 50-50 but added, “If somebody bet me $50 he’s running, I wouldn’t take it.”

Castro, who still has his admirers, has promised supporters he will announce his decision by the first week of May.

But to many observers, the signs are clear that he is already out of the running — and a lot of it has to do with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

[…]

Schumer, who sources said had been frustrated by Castro’s indecisiveness, has taken an outsized interest in defeating Cornyn, the former majority whip. Earlier this year, Schumer tried to recruit Beto O’Rourke, who nearly defeated U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2018.

When O’Rourke made it clear he was running for president, Schumer interviewed Castro and then summoned Hegar to Washington.

Hegar was bolstered by polling done by the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee and Emily’s List, a PAC that supports female pro-choice candidates, that showed her with a wide lead over Castro, according to three sources who had been briefed on the private polling.

Schumer’s stance does not prevent Castro from running, although the leader has made clear that Hegar is his preference, say Democratic sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“I don’t think Schumer was ever for Castro,” one Democratic operative who has spoken privately with the Senate leader told the American-Statesman. “He felt it was a mistake for both Castro brothers to run. Schumer never did think that (Joaquin) Castro was the right choice.”

[…]

“A lot of us wish he would decide,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic PAC. He added that many Texas Democrats were “scratching their heads” at the delay.

“This is a cold-blooded business. In Texas, it’s a $50 million proposition to run for U.S. Senate,” he said

Donors are already deciding. Aimee Cunningham, an Austin philanthropist and Democratic contributor, told the American-Statesman that she has been a longtime Castro supporter but supported Hegar, as well, in 2018, and urged the military vet to run for office again.

“I told Joaquin that if MJ ran for Senate, I would have to enthusiastically support her,” Cunningham said.

Latino lawmakers who want a Hispanic candidate near the top of the ballot in Texas, in a presidential year with anticipated high turnout, are particularly upset by Castro’s delay.

“Incredibly indecisive, and you can use that,” said U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, by text, adding that he was “exasperated” with Castro.

Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston, said, “The line between caution and indecisiveness can be hammered pretty thin, and it is pretty much see-through at this point for Castro.”

This story came out the same day as others that were asking the same questions, but I didn’t see it at the time, and this one has more details. I’m sure people won’t be thrilled with Chuck Schumer’s involvement, but at least he’s invested in beating John Cornyn. The bottom line is that the story about Castro being “all but certain” to be in for Senate was in mid-March, more than six weeks ago. Usually, when you see a story like that, it’s followed up withing a couple of days with something official. It means a decision has been made, and the announcement will happen once the last few loose ends have been tied up. It doesn’t take this long. I have no idea what was happening here, but it’s hard to escape the impression that the initial story, which I presume was the result of some authorized person giving the big-picture view so that the ground could be laid for the forthcoming announcement, came before the decision was made. Maybe we’ll find out, maybe we won’t. Whatever the case, something went wrong.

None of this means Joaquin Castro can’t or shouldn’t announce for Senate. He’s lost most of the advantage he would have had if he had followed the expected script and timetable, but he’s still an incumbent Congressman with a built-in base and some establishment support awaiting him. Give him a splashy rollout of his own, followed by strong fundraising for the rest of the quarter (and going forward), and this little episode will fade away. I would advise being quick about it, but after that there’s plenty of time to get back on track. It still fundamentally comes back to what Joaquin Castro wants to do, and when he’s prepared to tell us about it.

House votes to ease up a bit on pot

It’s a small step forward, but it’s a step forward.

Rep. Joe Moody

After a brief discussion, the Texas House gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill that would reduce the penalties for low-level possession of marijuana — a move lauded as a win by those eager for the state to take its first major step toward loosening its staunch marijuana laws.

But hopes of turning the bill into law remain slim. After the House grants final approval for the bill — usually just a formality — it will head to the Senate, where presiding officer Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has expressed opposition to the idea of loosening marijuana possession penalties.

The lower chamber voted 98-43 in favor of House Bill 63 by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, after he changed it on the chamber floor from a decriminalization measure to one that reduces the penalties for possession. The bill lowers possession of 1 ounce or less from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor, which is the same classification as a traffic ticket.

After state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who applauded Moody for spearheading the bill, asked the Democrat why his measure had been “watered down,” Moody said he did so in the hopes of getting it to the governor’s desk.

“I’m not going to sacrifice the good for the perfect. If this is what we can do, then this is what we must do,” Moody said. “We can’t keep hauling 75,000 Texans to jail every year.”

Those found to possess 2 ounces or less or marijuana but more than 1 ounce would be charged with a Class B misdemeanor — punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, jail time or both.

“When I first proposed changing our criminal penalty for personal use of marijuana to a civil penalty, there was some support and even more caution,” Moody told other representatives.

The revised version of HB 63 would make it so Texans caught with 1 ounce or less of marijuana can’t be arrested. Instead, judges would automatically put those offenders on deferred adjudication probation. If an offender successfully completes the terms of his or her probation and does not commit more than one offense in a calendar year, his or her record would be expunged, Moody said Monday. The bill would also ensure that Texans possessing 1 ounce or less of marijuana will not have their driver’s licenses suspended.

As Rep. Moody says, this is not the reform we deserve, but it’s the best we can hope to do now. Unfortunately, it’s all symbolic thanks to the implacable opposition of Dan Patrick. You want better marijuana laws in Texas, you need to vote Dan Patrick out of office. Still, just getting this vote to the floor is a first. Maybe it can be tacked onto something in the Senate as an amendment. Baby steps, baby steps. The Observer has more.

Prosecuting polluters

It really shouldn’t have to come to this, but here we are.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is calling for a tripling of the number of prosecutors dedicated to environmental crimes in the wake of a series of chemical plant fires that has raised public health concerns.

In a letter Thursday to the county judge and commissioners court, Vivian King, the chief of staff of the district attorney’s office, requested $850,000 to fund eight new positions: four prosecutors two investigators and two paralegals. The county currently has two prosecutors and one administrative assistant devoted to environmental crimes. The request is scheduled to come before the commissioners court on Tuesday.

On March 17, an Intercontinental Terminals Co. tank farm in Deer Park caught fire and burned for several days, closing the Houston Ship Channel and drawing national attention. No injuries were reported. A couple of weeks later, one person was killed and two others were critically injured when the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby caught fire. A fire also broke out at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery in mid-March but was contained hours later. The investigations are ongoing.

“With Arkema and ITC and all of the alleged criminal acts intentionally polluting our waters supply with cancer agents, we don’t have the staff to investigate and work on these cases,” King said during an interview.

The DA’s environmental crimes division handles 400 to 500 cases a year, the bulk of which are related to illegal dumping and water pollution perpetrated by smaller companies or individuals — not the big corporations, King said.

[…]

Traditionally the county has not criminally prosecuted the large petrochemical industry, King said.

She stressed that the DA’s office welcomes an industry that’s a major source of employment and an important contributor to the area’s economy.

“However,” she added, “as public servants we get a lot of complaints about the very few companies that commit criminal acts by intentionally not following laws and regulations governing hazardous waste and chemical emissions and putting cancer agents in our water supply and the air we breath.”

And they currently don’t have the staff to handle it all, even less so to take on the big cases. A private attorney is working pro bono on a case involving Arkema.

Let’s be clear, it would be best if most of this work were done by the TCEQ. If they were an agency that took their mandate seriously – and, let’s be clear again, if the mandate they were given by the state were more serious – they would be in position to reduce the risk of catastrophes like these. Better enforcement up front is always the better way to go. In the absence of that, and with constraints on civil action, what other option is there for the most egregious offenders? If and when the state does its job, entities like the Harris County DA will be able to back off. This request was part of the larger ask for more prosecutors that was rejected in February. It was unanimously approved by Commissioners Court yesterday, so that’s good. I suspect there will be no shortage of work for this team.