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June 3rd, 2019:

The repeat Congressional candidates

The Trib looks at how the key 2020 Democratic Congressional campaigns are shaping up. Short answer: There are a number of repeat candidates from 2018.

Mike Siegel

The situation in the 24th District is emblematic of a broader trend across the state. As national Democrats zero in on Texas as the linchpin of their 2020 strategy, the primaries are filling up with a mix of candidates who ran last time and new entrants encouraged by the post-2018 political landscape.

In four of the six targeted districts, the Democratic nominees from last time are already running again. In a fifth district, the runner up from the Democratic primary is pursuing a rematch.

The primary fields are still taking shape, but one of the early choices they are presenting to primary voters is crystallizing: Should voters stick with the candidate who helped move the needle last cycle or go with someone new to finish the job?

The candidates who are running again seem cognizant of the dynamic. Mike Siegel is making a second bid for the 10th District after coming within 5 percentage points of U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, last year. He said it is a “fair question” for primary voters to ask whether he is ready for the higher stakes this time around.

“I hear that potential criticism, and I’m taking action to show that this campaign is going to fulfill the requirements for a campaign that is a national battleground, that will be tightly contested, where you’re going up against a very well-funded incumbent,” Siegel said.

Siegel entered the 2020 primary in January, 11 months earlier than when he got in the race last time — and he quit his job days later. He raised more in the first quarter this year than he did during the entire 2018 primary. And he said he is working to professionalize his campaign in ways that he was unable to during the last election cycle, when he could not find a campaign manager.

The newcomers in the 10th District include Austin doctor Pritesh Gandhi and Austin lawyer Shannon Hutcheson. Both quickly proved their seriousness, with Gandhi raising about $161,000 within the first month of his candidacy and Hutcheson raking in over $165,000 after just two days as a candidate.

In Marchant’s district, the Democratic field numbered at least half a dozen candidates earlier this year — one has since dropped out. Those remaining include [2018 candidate Jan] McDowell; Kim Olson, the 2018 nominee for agriculture commissioner; John Biggan, the runner-up to McDowell in the 2018 primary for the seat; and Candace Valenzuela, a Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board member.

[…]

There is one targeted primary that bucks the trend — sort of. In the 21st District, where national Democrats are hoping to knock out U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, 2018 Democratic nominee Joseph Kopser made clear early on this cycle that he would not run again. But a 2018 candidate from another congressional district, Jennie Lou Leeder, is running for the 21st District this time, and another not-so-newcomer is considering a campaign: Davis, the 2014 gubernatorial candidate.

A lot of this we already know, but there are a few new bits. My first thought in reading this was “wait, what is that fifth district and who is the candidate?” I emailed author Patrick Svitekl and was informed that it’s CD31, where primary runnerup Christine Eady Mann has officially entered the race. We didn’t get much of an impression of Dr. Mann in 2018 as MJ Hegar kind of dominated the coverage from the beginning, but she raised a few bucks in her short campaign and has a good profile for this race. As with all the other targeted districts I can’t imagine she’ll have the primary to herself, but we’ll see how she does. Assuming MJ Hegar is at the top of the statewide ticket, whoever does run in CD31 ought to get a bit of a turnout bonus, so hopefully she can capitalize on that.

I skipped over paragraphs about CDs 22 and 23, where the former is Sri Kulkarni and Nyanza Moore, and the latter is Gina Ortiz Jones and no others that I know about at this time. I’d seen an announcement on Facebook about Shannon Hutcheson but don’t know anything more about her than what you can find there. John Biggan was the runnerup in the CD24 primary, but as Jan McDowell won it without a runoff that doesn’t mean much. He raised about as much as Christine Mann in a slightly shorter period of time. The really new name for me is Jennie Lou Leeder, who had been the Democratic candidate in CD11 in 2018. The southeast end of CD11 abuts CD21, and Leeder grew up in Llano, which is one of the adjacent counties (she now lives in Austin), so this makes some sense. For sure, CD21 is a very different district, as Beto O’Rourke got all of 21.5% in the deep red CD11. That said, Leeder, a former Chair of the Llano County Democratic Party, raised $85K in this impossible district (basically what Christine Mann and John Biggan raised in their primary races), which in context is pretty amazing. Until and unless Wendy Davis jumps in, she’s the biggest name in that race. And of course, with all these races, one or (probably) more others will enter. In 2018, some topflight challengers entered during Q3. I have a feeling that will be less likely this time, but we’ll see.

This is where I pipe up and note that while they are not currently on the DCCC target list, CDs 02, 03, 06, and 25 are all worth watching and should be competitive based on 2018 results. CD03 (Lorie Burch) and CD25 (Julie Oliver) also feature return candidates; CD02 (Elisa Cardnell) and CD06 (no one that I know of yet) will have new faces. Of the four, CD06 is most likely to slip onto a target list if 2020 is going well, but that first requires a strong candidate, and the other three won’t be far behind. In a really good year, all four will be on the radar if not on an official list. I can’t wait to see what the various models will be saying.

Who cares about new mothers?

Not the Lege.

The new mothers contracted infections. They overdosed on drugs. Their hearts failed. They committed suicide.

The women died in different ways, but all perished within a year of giving birth. Rising rates of maternal mortality spurred Texas leaders in 2017 to reauthorize a special task force to study the deaths and figure out what to do.

But at the end of this year’s legislative session, public health advocates are frustrated that lawmakers left Austin without adopting the task force’s top recommendation: giving women access to health care for a full year after they give birth.

The Legislature agreed to spend $15 million over the next two years on postpartum depression and substance abuse treatment for some low-income women. But a far more sweeping and higher cost plan to expand Medicaid coverage for all eligible new mothers failed, despite having support from Republicans and Democrats.

“We’re disappointed state leaders basically ignored the needs of uninsured moms and uninsured low wage workers this session, by not taking action on bills to extend postpartum coverage,” said Adriana Kohler, a senior health policy associate for the Austin-based advocacy group Texans Care for Children.

[…]

The funding, however, will likely cover only some of the roughly 136,000 pregnant women on Medicaid in any given month. And pregnant women who relied on Medicaid for their diabetes medication or other prescription drugs could still lose those benefits in the transition, some public health advocates said.

Other bills filed by Republicans and Democrats to expand the state’s Medicaid coverage for new mothers from two to 12 months, post delivery failed. The change would have cost the state upwards of $75 million a year, according to a fiscal note. The legislation passed the House, but died after not receiving a public hearing in the Senate.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, chalked it up to politics. “Republicans don’t want to be viewed as expanding Medicaid,” he said.

Just as a reminder, Greg Abbott made a last-minute attempt to put an extra $100 million into the budget for “border security”. The budget as adopted is spending over $5 billion to buy down property taxes. The Lege passed a tax cut on yacht sales, which won’t actually cost that much money but is still a tax cut on yacht sales. My point here is that this was not a decision based on a lack of available funds. It was a failure to act because the Republican leadership had no interest in doing it, for the reason Rep. Coleman cites. It was a choice they made, one that reflected their values. Keep that in mind when you hear the usual blather about being “pro-life”.

The timeline for driverless cars

We know they’re coming, but how long it takes them to get here really matters.

For Elon Musk, the driverless car is always right around the corner. At an investor day event last month focused on Tesla’s autonomous driving technology, the CEO predicted that his company would have a million cars on the road next year with self-driving hardware “at a reliability level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention.” That means Level 5 autonomy, per the Society of Automotive Engineers, or a vehicle that can travel on any road at any time without human intervention. It’s a level of technological advancement I once compared to the Batmobile.

Musk has made these kinds of claims before. In 2015 he predicted that Teslas would have “complete autonomy” by 2017 and a regulatory green light a year later. In 2016 he said that a Tesla would be able to drive itself from Los Angeles to New York by 2017, a feat that still hasn’t happened. In 2017 he said people would be able to safely sleep in their fully autonomous Teslas in about two years. The future is now, but napping in the driver’s seat of a moving vehicle remains extremely dangerous.

In the past, Musk’s bold predictions have been met with A-for-effort enthusiasm and a smattering of polite skepticism. But the response this time has been different. People have less patience for PR campaigns masquerading as engineering timelines. “That’s bullshit,” says Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst for Navigant, a consulting firm that ranks companies on the viability of their autonomous vehicle plans. “At best, they may be able to create a system that functions under certain limited scenarios. It will not be fully autonomous in 2020 or anytime in the next several years.”

What’s changed? Self-driving cars—and their associated building blocks such as machine learning, computer vision, and LIDAR—continue to improve, but executives other than Musk have been admitting that reports of their impending deployment were greatly exaggerated. Ford CEO Jim Hackett said last month that the industry had “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles.” Chris Urmson, the former leader of Google’s self-driving car project, once hoped that his son wouldn’t need a driver’s license because driverless cars would be so plentiful by 2020. Now the CEO of the self-driving startup Aurora, Urmson says that driverless cars will be slowly integrated onto our roads “over the next 30 to 50 years.” That’s nearly as long as it took computers to evolve from IBM’s first mainframe to Apple’s first iPhone.

I touched on this recently in the context of ridesharing companies and their existential future, which is based in part on self-driving technology. I’ll say again, the prospect of driverless cars has an effect on current policy debates. If you believe they will be in common usage in the next five to ten years, then it’s reasonable to expect that they will begin having a significant effect on driving habits and traffic patterns in the short term. In particular, this argues for a change in approach to how we invest in infrastructure and mass transit. As that link suggests, why spend on rail projects when you can build souped up HOV lanes that will accommodate autonomous buses that travel at 80 to 100 MPH?

But if we’re on a thirty to fifty year horizon, then basically nothing has changed and we should proceed as if driverless cars are no more a part of the landscape than the flying cars we were once promised. Fifty years is forever in infrastructure terms. Hell, thirty years is a very long time. All but six MLB stadia are thirty years old or less, and many of the new stadia replaced other facilities that were between 30 and 40 years old. I’ve lived in Houston for 31 years, and every single highway in this town has been substantially rebuilt during that time frame, some more than once. The same argument about whether or not to invest in light rail should apply to the planned mammoth rebuild of I-45, which last I checked isn’t geared towards high-speed robot buses. I say nothing is worth delaying or deferring for a possible future with a timeline that may be measured in decades. I guarantee this issue will come up when the Metro referendum is officially put on the ballot. I’m happy to discuss how we should integrate autonomous vehicles into our traffic and transit planning, but let’s keep this in mind.