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September 9th, 2019:

Interview with Carrin Patman

Carrin Patman

I’ve talked a lot about the METRO Next referendum on the 2019 ballot. The referendum, the first time METRO has gone to the voters to ask for bonding authority since 2003, is intended to fund a significant expansion of transit services, including light rail, BRT, HOV, and local bus. There’s a lot to take in, and while METRO will be running a campaign to inform voters about the referendum, I wanted to do a deeper dive into the details. METRO Board Chair Carrin Patman was the person to talk to about that, and I had questions for her about all aspects of the plan. We also delved into bigger picture issues of how METRO fits into the region, connecting with bicycles, future expansion, and how autonomous vehicles will affect things. Have a listen and let me know what you think:

I’ll be back to candidate interviews next week. I’ve got HISD, HCC, more from the city of Houston, and some ungodly number of HD148 contenders in the queue.

Lucio’s challengers

Will definitely want to keep an eye on this.

Sen. Eddie Lucio

This cycle, [Sen. Eddie] Lucio’s record will be dissected as two opponents—one a trial lawyer and daughter of a former Cameron County Democratic chair, and another a current State Board of Education member—take aim at this titan of Rio Grande Valley politics. Can they persuade the voters of Lucio’s district, which is 89 percent Hispanic with a 37 percent poverty rate, to reject the Texas Senate’s most conservative Democrat, or will the 73-year-old prevail again?

[…]

Lucio’s two primary challengers are Sara Stapleton-Barrera, a 35-year-old trial lawyer whose father chaired the Cameron County Dems in the ’90s, and Ruben Cortez, a sitting member of the State Board of Education who won re-election last year.

Stapleton-Barrera practices injury and constitutional law and criminal defense, but she’s politically inexperienced. Her campaign is founded on the idea the district needs new blood and on a promise to prioritize women and children. She’s been endorsed by the Cameron County Democratic Women, said Lucio’s not a “real Democrat,” and condemned his anti-equality views. “I’m 110 percent supportive of the LGBTQ community,” she told me over the phone. She’s also stressing the need for renewable energy and addressing climate change, an area where Lucio may be vulnerable: The senator voted to kill Denton’s fracking ban in 2015, and wrote a letter of support in March for one of three controversialliquefied natural gas plants proposed east of Brownsville. Stapleton-Barrera opposes the gas plants.

Seven months before writing the letter of support, Lucio accepted $5,000 from the company, Exelon, proposing the natural gas plant. Over the phone, Lucio told me he couldn’t remember who requested the letter and said his support for the gas plants depends on them operating in an environmentally “safe” way.

Stapleton-Barrera also hits Lucio for his tort reform record. “He’s taking money from the insurance companies and leaving people injured in a car wreck or by medical malpractice high and dry,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t take money from any PACs including TLR.

On abortion, Stapleton-Barrera is to Lucio’s left, but may not excite pro-choice advocates. In an email to me, she stole a line from the 1990s, saying abortion should be “legal, safe, and rare.” When pressed, she told me she would not support any further restrictions on abortion and would consider any measures loosening restrictions on a case-by-case basis. Her online platform doesn’t mention reproductive rights at all, and she told me she’s not making it a prominent part of her campaign because many in her district are anti-abortion.

Cortez has served on the state education board since 2013 and used his role to fight for Mexican-American studies; before that, he was on the Brownsville school board. In 2018 in Lucio’s senate district, Cortez got more votes than any other candidate, including Beto O’Rourke. (Lucio was not on the ballot.) Cortez, who currently represents an area larger than the state senate district, is attacking Lucio’s liberal bona fides. In a recently-posted bilingual announcement video, he slams Lucio for “consistently break[ing] his promise to carry forward the Democratic Party values” and accuses the senator of siding with “Trumpist Republicans” against Valley residents. According to the video, Cortez has endorsements from three local teachers’ unions and a letter carriers’ union.

But Cortez’s grasp of Lucio’s record appears a bit shaky. In the video and a separate post, he hits the senator for supporting a bill this year to allow more guns in schools, even linking the vote to the recent mass shooting in El Paso. Lucio, however, voted against that bill both in committee and on the floor. (Hinojosa, the McAllen-based state Senator, is the one who broke party ranks.) Cortez did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Money could be a problem for both challengers. In the first half of this year, Stapleton-Barrera raised around $4,000 and took about $20,000 in loans from her husband; as of July, Cortez had only about $1,000 on hand. Lucio couldn’t fundraise during the legislative session, but in the second half of last year he pulled in almost $350,000.

I’m a big non-fan of Sen. Lucio, so I’m happy to see him draw a couple of serious challengers, flawed though they may be. There’s a lot of attention being paid to the primary challenge in CD28, where national Democrats are funding a more progressive candidate against Congressman Henry Cuellar, whose record on many issues is as problematic as Lucio’s. I’m skeptical about that effort, in part because challenger Jessica Cisneros is flawed in her own ways, but it’s a worthwhile thing to try. Lucio is arguably a bigger impediment to progress than Cuellar, because he’s one of 31 Senators, giving him that much more influence in his chamber, whereas Cuellar is one 435 Congressfolk. The good news is that even if Lucio survives this race, every Senator will be up for election in 2022, so the next opportunity to have another go at him will be in short order.

Anyway. Stapleton-Barrera’s website is here. Cortez doesn’t appear to have any web presence, but his SBOE profile is here. Check them out, and I’ll keep an eye on this.

Will Lone Star Rail get resurrected?

Maybe!

A coalition of San Antonio and Austin state representatives has asked the House Transportation Committee chair to study the possibility of passenger rail between the two cities ahead of the 2021 legislative session.

Congestion between the two cities will only increase, the legislators wrote, costing drivers time and money.

“Improved transportation connectivity is critical for the Austin-San Antonio corridor,” 20 legislators said in an Aug. 16 letter. “We must not only look at how to utilize our current assets most effectively, but also find new and creative solutions for this corridor. As members of this region, we believe that it is imperative for the House Transportation Committee to explore new opportunities for our constituents to have frequent, safe, and dependable transportation.”

Officials from the Austin and San Antonio areas have been trying to connect the two cities by passenger rail for years. The Lone Star Rail District proposal stalled after Union Pacific pulled out of the project in 2016 over concerns about how passenger rail using its tracks would impact its freight operations. The Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) pulled its funding for the project later that year, leaving the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) few options for keeping the project alive.

The rail line proposed by the Lone Star Rail District would have had multiple stops, starting at the University of Texas A&M-San Antonio and ending in the north-of-Austin suburb Georgetown.

Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio) served on AAMPO’s board and as the city councilman for District 6 during passenger rail discussions. He said the corridor rail project took many blows but could be revived with proper action from the State.

“Texans have engaged in overviews and reviews, but what we need to do is have a strong directive from the state … and request or require or demand, indeed, that some action plan be created and presented to the Legislature for consideration and ultimately funding,” Lopez said.

[…]

San Antonians have rejected rail before, but as a local means of public transportation. Voters shot down light rail in 2000 and in 2015 approved a charter amendment requiring light rail proposals go to voters.

But if an intercity rail project starts up again, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said San Antonio would support it “if the state worked with us and we found a path forward for rail between Austin and San Antonio.”

“It has been a priority for this community for almost three decades,” he said. “And I’ve always said it will happen once the governor’s office makes it a priority.”

The last we heard about this was in 2016 when the previous plan died, in part because of a failure to come to an agreement with Union Pacific to share its tracks. On the one hand, a passenger rail line between San Antonio and Austin makes all kinds of sense and would be a fantastic alternative to the money and traffic pit that is I-35. On the other hand, well, the past couple of decades trying to get this line even to a preliminary approval stage with no success doesn’t bode well. But maybe this time it’s different. I’m rooting for it, but my expectations are firmly under control. The Current has more.