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“Pay to play” petition drive falls short

Womp womp.

The political action committee that launched a petition drive aimed at limiting the influence of contractors and vendors at Houston City Hall failed to gather enough signatures to put the measure on the November ballot, the group’s director said Wednesday.

The drive, which ended earlier this week, was for a petition authored by a group of lawyers, including Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, to amend a city ordinance to bar people who do business with the city from contributing more than $500 to candidates for municipal office.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has rejected calls from King and fellow candidate Tony Buzbee to reform Houston’s campaign finance system, suggested the effort’s failure was an indictment on the “anti-pay-to-play” message being pushed by the political action committee backing the petition. The mayor urged reporters to “focus on real issues, real needs.”

“Let me just put it this way: I have not seen any problems,” Turner said. “I think that whole movement was more political than substantive.”

[…]

Ben McPhaul, the director of the PAC, said the committee still was receiving petitions Wednesday but would fall short of the roughly 40,000 signatures it needed to gather in 30 days under city rules.

“We are grateful for the hundreds of grass-roots volunteers who helped the effort with not a single paid petitioner,” McPhaul said in a statement. “The PAC plans to continue collecting signatures to raise awareness of the issue with hopes to get it on the ballot or in front of council in the future.”

See here for the background. Just so we’re clear here, this is not City Secretary Anna Russell counting the signatures and saying they don’t have enough valid ones. This is the PAC itself saying they didn’t get enough to even submit for inspection. They fell short of their goal.

The petition drive’s failure reflects the PAC’s lack of volunteers and funds more than the public’s interest in reforming Houston’s campaign finance reform system, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

“You can’t read anything into this regarding the attitudes of Houstonians toward ‘pay to play,’” Jones said.

Still, the outcome represents a win for Turner, Jones said, because it means the topic of campaign finance reform may gain less media coverage and traction from political pundits near election time.

“I wouldn’t put it as a major failure for King, but certainly it’s a setback,” Jones said. “Once he got behind the petition, he owned the petition.”

King said state law separately allows a longer period for petition drives, so the PAC would continue to collect signatures. Though King’s campaign is not affiliated with the PAC, it has supported the drive, and King made a point of being the first person to sign the petition.

“We’ve been carrying it around on our campaign and we haven’t had a single person refuse to sign it,” he said.

He also noted Houston’s charter bases the number of required petition signatures on a mayoral election held within the last three years. Since the last election happened in 2015 — more than three years ago — King contended a petition drive now technically needs just one signature.

If that were challenged in court, however, the litigation would get resolved well after November, said King, indicating he had no interest in taking action in court.

I can accept that this isn’t a “major failure” for Bill King, but it should be clear to everyone that he didn’t put any real effort into this cynical ploy. He has plenty of his own money, and could have raised more, to fund a sufficient petition drive if he really wanted this to be on the ballot. We’ve seen plenty of successful petition drives in the last decade. Did King really not know what it was going to take, or did someone tell him and he was like “eh, whatever, we’ll just wing it with some volunteers”? If “cleaning up City Hall” is the foundation of your campaign, and you go through the motions to mount this effort in the first place, what does it say about you and your commitment to this idea that you just let it fail without a fight?

The bit about the charter language is interesting. I think as a legal argument it’s mostly sophistry, but I could see a judge buying a plain-text reading and agreeing that even one signature is now sufficient until and unless the city cleans up that part of the charter. Here again, though, if King actually believed what he was saying he would have acted differently. Why not file that lawsuit before now? Theoretically, he could have filed it on November 4, 2018, which is three years and a day after the 2015 Mayoral election. Even if I’m wrong about that, I don’t see anything in the charter section on legislating by referendum that limits when a petition effort is allowed to begin. Maybe there still wasn’t a path to getting the question resolved in time for the 2019 election – though if you win the first round, it’s the city that has to start worrying about deadlines, not you – but boy howdy was this a limp production. It’s easy for me to take potshots at Bill King, but if you like him as a candidate and believed in this proposed charter amendment, you should be upset. At every step of the way, he did the very least he could do.

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8 Comments

  1. Easter L says:

    I actually support this, most local governments in Texas are controlled by contractors who fund the candidate and that needs to change, but who was supporting this Houston drive limits my sadness. I also think there would be a constitutional challenge with recent Supreme Court cases, the $500 limit is questionable, and this should be a state or national effort, not Houston only.

  2. Paul Kubosh says:

    I told ya’ll they couldn’t do it. I told ya’ll they had inept people who couldn’t do it. It takes a real effort to get it done. Waste of time and resources.

  3. Bill Daniels says:

    Politicians run on solving problems. Actually solving problems isn’t really a big priority, it seems, because then there wouldn’t be anything to rile up the voters with. Not getting this on the ballot is good for King’s campaign, because he can continue to make it a campaign issue, and it’s a valid issue. If it actually got on the ballot separate and apart from the King campaign, King loses it as a campaign issue.

  4. brad m says:

    Bill,

    Your reasoning is certainly interesting, but certain backward.

    A ballot item would elevate the issue not diminish it.

    Nice try.

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    Brad,

    Maybe I wasn’t clear. Since it isn’t going to get on the ballot for citizen approval, like ditching the HERO or ditching red light cameras, we need a strong mayor (like Bill King) to push the issue through with the city council. If it’s going to be on the ballot for the citizens to take matters in their own hands, then they really don’t need King to push it, and King needs another issue to run on.

  6. Manny says:

    How are things in Pearland, Bill. Maybe you should be prohibited from commenting on Houston’s affairs since you don’t live here. Kinda like the citizenship question.

  7. Bill Daniels says:

    Manny,

    We’re still holding on, unlike Ft. Bend County. Thanks for asking! The problem is, what happens in Houston and Harris County effects neighboring communities. When your police chief, sheriff, D.A., and local judges unleash a crime wave on Houston, including murders, because they no longer believe in significant bail, it effects us, too. Your criminals don’t observe city limit signs.

  8. Paul Kubosh says:

    Agree with Bill on that one. Remember everyone asked for Bail reform and you got it. Capital Murder charges out on Bail. Unreal. If the Harris County Republicans were not so inept the Harris County Democrats would be toast. Oh well.

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