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July 16th, 2019:

Here come the youths

There are a lot of younger candidates running for Houston City Council this year.

Raj Salhotra

Inspired by the recent electoral success of millennial and Generation Z-aged candidates, more young people are running for Houston city council than ever before, a trend local politicos attribute to the potent national surge of activism stemming largely from President Trump’s election in 2016.

In last year’s midterm election, many of those new, young activists ran for office and won. Since the election, 29-year-old U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent voices, while locally 28-year-old Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has led a dramatic political shift on Commissioners Court, which flipped to Democratic control for the first time in decades.

“I think we have to acknowledge the success in the 2018 cycle of millennials and very young candidates,” said education consultant Jay Aiyer, who served as former Mayor Lee Brown’s chief of staff at age 29.

A handful of candidates younger than 30, and at least a dozen more in their 30s, are seeking seats this year on Houston city council, the legislative body for the country’s fourth-largest city. Though council members have little formal power in Houston’s strong-mayor form of government, they approve an annual city budget north of $5 billion and handle constituent services for districts comprised of around 200,000 residents.

Among the youngest contenders are 18-year-old Marcel McClinton, a shooting survivor-turned-activist running for one of five at-large positions; 21-year-old Anthony Dolcefino, a candidate for District C; 24-year-old District D candidate Dennis Griffin; and 29-year-old Anthony Nelson, a Prairie View A&M University student running for District F.

[…]

Raj Salhotra, 28, is one of three candidates challenging At-Large 1 Councilman Mike Knox, a former police officer who is seeking a second four-year term. Also running are Michelle Bonton and Georgia Provost.

Salhotra is calling for the city to offer universal prekindergarten and more public transit, enforce more regulations on “pollutant-emitting plants” and require all new city vehicles be hybrid or electric.

Meanwhile, Knox repeatedly has pushed for the city to rein in what he calls “frivolous spending,” and to focus on core services — public safety, infrastructure, trash pickup — before thinking about anything else.

“The citizens of Houston want our government to spend money wisely and efficiently, and get the biggest bang for our buck,” Knox said. “My votes are designed to help the city stop its overspending habits and get back to focusing on our core responsibilities, and thereby staying within our means.”

Salhotra criticized Knox for, among other things, voting not to join a lawsuit challenging Texas’ anti-“sanctuary cities” law, and called Knox “really out of step with what the vast majority of Houstonians believe in.” Salhotra’s own policy views, he said, are rooted partly in his age.

“I think a lot about, how are the policies we put in place today affecting the next 30, 40, 50 years in Houston?” Salhotra said. “Because I’m going to be living here for the next 60 years of my life, God willing.”

[…]

The race for District C, which includes Montrose, Meyerland and Braeswood, has emerged as the most crowded contest: Thirteen people are running to succeed Cohen, who recently endorsed 32-year-old Abbie Kamin. Other candidates include Candelario Cervantez, 36, Nick Hellyar, 38, and the 21-year-old Dolcefino, son of former KTRK reporter Wayne Dolcefino.

“We’re living in a serious time, we’re at a critical juncture in this city, and certainly in the country, and it’s going to take everyone to be active and fighting — of all age groups,” Kamin said.

As is always the case, some of these candidates are more serious than others, and thus more likely to succeed than others. I’m starting to look through the campaign finance reports, which will give one indicator of how these and other candidates are doing. Turn your nose up however you like at the notion of fundraising being a proxy for candidate seriousness, the fact remains that it’s hard to get elected if no one knows who you are, and getting your name into the minds of voters doesn’t happen by magic or wishful thinking. It costs money to run a campaign, and that money has to come from somewhere.

Be that as it may, there’s another dynamic at play here that needs to be discussed. Historically speaking, at least, the voters in our city elections are old. How old? Here’s some research I did in 2015, which I’m just going to reprint here, as I think the numbers speak for themselves:


2013 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30     9,786   5.6%
31-40    15,209   8.7%
41-50    23,508  13.5%
51-60    40,235  23.1%
61+      85,393  49.0%


2011 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30     5,939   5.0%
31-40     9,488   8.1%
41-50    17,126  14.5%
51-60    28,601  24.3%
61+      56,664  48.1%


2009 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30    10,021   5.7%
31-40    16,798   9.6%
41-50    29,664  16.9%
51-60    43,814  25.0%
61+      74,730  42.7%


2007 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30     5,791   5.0%
31-40    10,599   9.2%
41-50    21,090  18.4%
51-60    28,633  24.9%
61+      48,728  42.4%

So yeah, when between two-thirds and three-fourths of your voters are over the age of 50 (a group that includes me now), it’s going to be that much more of a challenge for 20-something and even 30-something candidates to be taken seriously. It can be done – judging by the year of her college graduation as shown on her LinkedIn page, CM Amanda Edwards was 33 when she was elected in 2015 – but it’s a hurdle that older candidates don’t face. Let me know when someone writes a story about that.

Now of course, this calculus can be changed to some extent by simply getting more young voters to the polls. I don’t have the data for 2018, but there’s plenty of evidence nationally that younger voters were a larger part of that electorate than they were in 2016, and much more so than in 2014. That only goes so far, of course – there are only so many people between the ages of 18 and 40, let alone registered voters, let alone actual voters – and turning them out at a higher rate is much, much easier said than done. Perhaps some of the 2018 energy will carry over – I’d expect it to have some effect, though not much – but the fact remains that the regular, reliable voters are the ones who largely determine these elections. That’s the task all of these candidates, of any age, have before them. Good luck.

(Is it just me, or does everyone else always hear the word “youths” spoken in the voice of Joe Pesci?)

There’s no reason to trust the Republican study to “reform” the judicial election process

Oh, hell no.

After a punishing election for Republican judges, state leaders are set to take a long look at Texas’ often-criticized judicial selection system — a partisan election structure that Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has described as “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”

This summer, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law creating a commission to study the issue — signaling that the GOP-led Legislature could overhaul the system as soon as 2021. That move comes after Democrats killed a sweeping reform proposal that Abbott had quietly backed.

In Texas, one of just a few states that maintains a system of partisan judicial selection all the way up through its high courts, judges are at the mercy of the political winds. They are required to run as partisans but expected to rule impartially. They are forced to raise money from the same lawyers who will appear before them in court. And in their down-ballot, low-information races, their fates tend to track with the candidates at the top of the ticket.

That means political waves that sweep out of office good and bad, experienced and inexperienced judges alike. And while sweeps are perennial problems for the judiciary, 2018’s elections “set records,” said Tom Phillips, a former Texas Supreme Court chief justice.

Democrats, riding on the coattails of Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, left the election with majorities on appeals courts where they had previously held zero seats. Republicans were entirely shut out of major urban counties. Voters, largely uninformed about judicial races, differentiated very little between well-funded, experienced candidates and those who had done little but throw their hats in the ring. The judiciary lost hundreds of years of experience.

“Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind,” Hecht warned lawmakers in January, exhorting them to change the system.

But reform is similarly fraught with politics. Voters don’t like having choices taken away from them, even if vanishingly few recognize judicial candidates’ names on the ballot. And any new system has to win the approval of both parties, as a two-thirds majority in each chamber is required for the constitutional amendment needed to change the system.

[…]

Texas Republicans dominate the state’s judiciary: All nine members on each of the state’s two high courts are Republicans, as are lower-court judges across much of the state. But that dominance began to wilt after last fall’s elections, particularly on intermediate courts of appeals, where Democrats now hold majorities on 7 of 14 courts.

After scores of Republican judges lost their jobs last fall, Abbott set about appointing many of them back to the bench. He also became more vocal on the issue of judicial selection reform.

Eyebrows went up in February, when he tweeted a Houston Chronicle column criticizing the partisan judicial election system. The governor commented, “We need judges devoted to the constitution and strict application of the law, not to the political winds of the day.”

Advocates began to believe this might be the year to push the issue — or at least to tee it up for a big swing in 2021. It was around that time that a group of would-be reformers — attorneys, former judges and donors — formed a non-profit organization, Citizens for Judicial Excellence in Texas, to push the issue in Austin. One lobbyist registered to represent the group at the Capitol this spring.

With powerful supporters in his ear calling for change, Abbott was also pushing the issue more quietly. In March, he met with state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, a Republican lawyer from Lubbock. Two days later, on the Legislature’s filing deadline, Landgraf proposed a constitutional amendment that would have overhauled the system, centralizing much of the power to pick judges in the governor’s office.

The Landgraf pitch — which ultimately stalled out for a lack of bipartisan support — would have scrapped the partisan judicial election system, replacing it with a multi-step process: gubernatorial appointment, qualifications evaluation by a non-partisan commission, Texas Senate confirmation and retention elections. Since judges tend to win retention elections, barring scandal, the proposal would effectively have allowed Abbott to appoint judges likely to serve for three four-year terms — giving Republican-appointed judges a dozen years in power even as Texas creaks toward the political center.

Landgraf’s proposal carved out small, rural — conservative — counties, where voters would still have had the opportunity to elect judges on partisan ballots, unless they voted to opt into the appointment system.

Landgraf’s pitch, blessed by Abbott, didn’t sit well with Democrats, who demanded to know why the urban centers they and their colleagues represent would be treated differently from Republican strongholds. They feared overhauling the system would mean losing the new class of Democratic judges elected in last year’s sweep — a class that brought unprecedented diversity to the bench. And they questioned whether centralizing that power in Abbott’s office might effectively give the Republicans control over the judiciary for longer than the party can hold the other two branches of government.

In April, a House committee hosted a spirited debate on the bill, then left the pitch pending. Landgraf said he wouldn’t push to advance it without bipartisan support; Democrats cheered its defeat.

First of all, no way is it acceptable to put this power in the hands of the Governor. Putting aside who the governor is now, how does that take the politics out of the process? All it does is incentivize anyone who wants to be a judge to suck up to the Governor. Sure, you could redesign things so that no one person or one party has control over the process, but any way you slice it you are granting this power to a small, unelected, unrepresentative group of people. But if this does get traction, then no way do “small rural counties” get exempted from it. If this is a good system for Harris and Dallas, it’s a good system for Loving and Deaf Smith.

But the bottom line remains that this is only ever an issue when Democrats have a good year at the ballot box. The first time Republicans started talking about changing the partisan election system was in 2008. It then got mostly dropped (except for its most ardent supporters, and I will admit that the likes of Wallace Jefferson and Nathan Hecht continued to bang this drum at every opportunity) in the 2010 to 2014 period, only to be revived in 2016. First they ended straight ticket voting (though not in time for 2018, poor things), and now this. The goal is to install Republican judges, hopefully before Democrats can elect a majority to either of the statewide courts. Come back with a proposal that isn’t primarily about that, and then maybe we can talk. Until then, there’s no reason for any Democratic legislator to support this.

Of being “White” or “Other” on the Census

Here’s something I hadn’t thought about before.

When Randa Kayyali reached the race and ethnicity portion of the 2010 Census, she stared at the form for a while.

Her options were white, Hispanic and/or Latino, black/African-American, Asian, Native Hawaiian and American Indian. She didn’t see a category for herself on the survey: Arab American. So she checked “Other.”

Kayyali is among millions of Middle Easterners living in the U.S. — hundreds of thousands in Texas and Houston — who are severely undercounted because they don’t have a precise category to denote their background on census surveys, researchers and advocates say.

Currently, the bureau defines “white” as those of European, Middle Eastern or North African descent. But many people of Middle Eastern and North African origins and descent argue otherwise— saying their background, culture and overall experience in the United States makes it clear that they are not white, nor viewed as white.

The U.S. Census Bureau came close to including a “MENA” category (for Middle East and North Africa) in the 2020 Census, recommending it as an optimal addition in a 2017 study. But in 2018, the bureau announced that it would not include the category at the direction of federal budget officials.

The communities have responded in frustration, fury, and in some cases, lawsuits. Not only are they being rendered invisible, but advocates fear they are losing out on political representation and services for their unique economic, health and educational needs. According to the 2020 Census website, the survey results determine the distribution of over $675 billion in federal funding.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Hassan Jaber, who is president of the Arab American nonprofit organization ACCESS and previously served on the Census Advisory Committee for six years. “All the research for the past six years indicated that if it were available, communities from MENA backgrounds would choose MENA instead of white.”

[…]

According to the group’s estimates, there are 3.7 million Americans of Arab descent. The census had estimated just 1.9 million. Texas has the fourth-largest Arab American population in the country at over 124,000, according to the Arab American Institute.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of long form census data found that the Middle Eastern population — which includes people from Turkey, Iran and Israel — was over 281,000 in Texas for 2013, and over 98,300 in the Houston metro area. However, the limited data yielded margins of error of 24,400 and over 27,700, respectively — decreasing the data’s reliability.

“There are many segments of our community that don’t recognize themselves on the existing race/ethnicity questions, and this could provide more encouragement for them to participate,” said Helen Samhan, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “It’s extremely important because many local, state and county governments rely on census data to provide services to their immigrant and foreign-speaking populations, and one of the ways those services can be allocated appropriately is if there is official data counts from the U.S. Census.”

As the story notes, people of Middle Eastern/Arabic descent had once fought to be classified as white in the Census, as there has always been an advantage to being considered white in America. But people don’t want to deny their own heritage, and that is the more prominent concern these days. There’s no question that the Census would have more accurate data with a more accurate set of categories, and it is likely that some people who aren’t responding to the Census because they feel there’s no designation that includes them would participate if there were one. I’d like to see us have a thorough discussion over what racial and ethnic categories the Census includes – and while we’re at it, let’s have the same discussion over gender categories – because it’s in everyone’s interest to have the most accurate and representative count of who is living in the USA. This will have to wait until we have a President that cares about things like representation, accuracy, and data, but let’s not wait any longer than that.