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About that lost evidence

Sorry about that.

Mark Herman

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office has sent notices to lawyers in 10,000 closed criminal cases that evidence, which was kept in storage, may have been lost or destroyed between 2007 and 2016.

The bulk of the emails, which were sent Wednesday to lawyers for about 7,750 defendants, caused an uproar among defense attorneys but left Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman scratching his head.

“We’ve already been through this,” Herman said Wednesday. “This all stems from a year and half ago. It’s old news.”

[…]

“Upon learning that evidence may have been lost or destroyed while in the custody of law enforcement, it was our duty to conduct a thorough review, which included manually going through thousands of records to determine which cases may have been affected,” according to a statement released Wednesday from the District Attorney’s Office. “After the recent completion of that process, it was also our duty to notify all defendants and defense lawyers involved.”

Since each of the 10,484 cases has been resolved, defense lawyers are scrambling to figure out what evidence may have been destroyed and when. If the evidence was destroyed before the case was resolved, it could be grounds for an appeal. If the case is being appealed, the destruction of evidence could hamper those proceedings.

See here, here, and here for the background. This may be old news in a sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s been resolved. I don’t see any reason why we would have considered it closed last year, without Kim Ogg getting a chance to review everything after she got elected. If this causes problems, the reason for those problems goes back a lot farther than last year. Better to make sure everything we know about what happened comes out, and then we can be done with it.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Dome bash planned

Mark your calendars.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Next year, Astrodome lovers will be able to once again take a gander at the stadium’s iconic roof before it embarks on its next adventure.

During a mixer/meeting for friends and supporters of the Astrodome Conservancy, organizers revealed that a party to honor the Astrodome’s history is tentatively set for April 9, 2018.

In a fitting touch, the mixer was held at the 8th Wonder Brewery.

The party would be much like the 50th birthday bash held for the stadium in 2015 when nostalgia for the Dome was at a fever pitch. Fans were able to walk onto the floor of the Dome and see what it currently looks like inside. Thousands of Houstonians came from all over the city to take in the view and take selfies. The party itself won’t be in the Dome, but fans can wait in line to walk inside for a few minutes.

[…]

More plans for the 2018 party are still to be solidified, with more programming and entertainment details to follow.

One presumes this will be to help generate support for the Astrodome repurposing plan, whatever that winds up being. Would you be interested in attending this party? Leave a comment and let us know.

Posted in: Local politics.

We will never stop widening our highways

Eventually, everything will be used for extra highway capacity.

For people in western Harris and Fort Bend counties, now is the time to sit down with your toddler and ask what kind of Interstate 10 they’d like to have.

Texas Department of Transportation officials, as required by federal policies, are seeking environmental clearance on the project to build two managed lanes along I-10 from Texas 6 to FM 359 in Waller County. The project is expected to begin construction in mid-2030.

That’s not a typo. TxDOT currently plans to open bids on the project in April 2030. Right around the time actor Channing Tatum turns 50.

The project will require about 45 acres of right of way in Fort Bend and Waller counties as the freeway is widened. In some cases, homes and businesses will be affected by the proposed widening.

But don’t worry, no Serious People will find anything to object about that, because it is a Road Project, and That’s Just How These Things Work. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of opportunities to give feedback going forward. If you’re lucky, this will get dragged out in roughly the same way the I-45 widening project has been. But be prepared to gird your loins anyway.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Weekend link dump for November 12

“What Happens When A Surrogate Unknowingly Gets Pregnant With Her Own Child At The Same Time She Is Pregnant With Someone Else’s Child?”

How to design streets for people in an age of driverless cars.

Using optical illusions as traffic-calming devices.

Hey, John Schnatter, don’t you wish you’d kept your big mouth shut about the NFL now?

“The Republican tax bill looks like it was written by Donald Trump’s accountants and tax lawyers, and I’m not even joking.”

“Recent research done by Everytown for Gun Safety has found that of the mass shootings in the United States between 2009 and 2015, 57 percent included victims who were a family member, spouse, or former spouse of the shooter. Sixteen percent of attackers had been previously charged with domestic violence.”

“If we profess to follow Jesus, all of our talk must be indivisibly connected to all of our deeds. If there are no deeds, then the talk is meaningless. The contrived, empty platitudes [from these politicians] are a public relations gimmick to avoid confronting this ideologically captive religion which bears no fruit.”

“I think it is becoming increasingly apparent that we have a practice of blasphemous Christianity by many so-called Christians. Jesus is the Prince of Peace in a world of war. Rather than continue to push for more instruments of death, which are unable to keep us safe, we must rather start to call for a more peaceful existence that limits the proliferations of instruments of death.”

“Federal law shields firearm purveyors from liability. Taxing gun-makers and dealers is the only way to make victims whole.”

Too much TV, too little time.

RIP, Richard Gordon, astronaut on the Gemini 11 and Apollo 12 missions.

RIP, Roy Halladay eight-time All Star pitcher for Toronto and Philadelphia.

“The microparticles that leafhopper insects sweat out not only repel water from their wings, but also alter wavelengths of light, which could make them useful to researchers working on the long-running quest to create an invisibility cloak.”

Sure, go ahead, send your nekkid pictures to Facebook. What could possibly go wrong?

RIP, John Hillerman, best known as Higgins on Magnum, PI.

“Bringing Joseph and Mary into a modern-day molestation accusation, where a 32-year-old prosecutor is accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl, is simultaneously ridiculous and blasphemous. Even those who followed ancient marriage customs, which we would not follow today, knew the difference between molesting and marriage.”

The true story of the Church of the SubGenius.

“It was common knowledge that Roy dated high school girls, everyone we knew thought it was weird…We wondered why someone his age would hang out at high school football games and the mall…”

“The allegations against Roy Moore are merely a symptom of a larger problem. It’s not a Southern problem or an Alabama problem. It’s a Christian fundamentalist problem.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Going beyond “thoughts and prayers”

There are things we could do to reduce the prevalence of gun violence, if we wanted to.

At a news conference organized by Texas Gun Sense at the state capitol on Wednesday, state Reps. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, and Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, urged state leaders to declare gun violence a public health issue and reform existing gun regulations.

Nevárez proposed limiting the ability of Texans to “walk around” with long rifles, such as the AR-15 variant used by the shooter Sunday. Texas has allowed long gun owners to openly carry their weapons for decades.

Collier urged state leaders to declare gun violence a public health issue, comparing it to other health crises such as obesity and the opioid epidemic. She also denounced those, such as President Donald Trump, who have focused on addressing mental health issues following the shooting rather than guns themselves. While acknowledging mental health plays a critical role in gun violence, she said focusing entirely on mental health is a “distraction” from the role of easy access to guns and “stigmatizes” those with mental health issues.

“If any other consumer product resulted in a fraction of the injuries and deaths [that guns do],” Collier said, “we would be scrambling to find solutions.”

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, was also at the news conference and spoke briefly about a list she authored of steps to prevent gun violence. Her suggestions include increasing public education on safe gun usage and requiring a license to carry long guns.

The press conference came a day after state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, urged state leaders to create a bipartisan commission tasked with recommending “common sense” gun reforms ahead of the next scheduled legislative session in 2019.

Like Rep. Nevárez, I don’t think we need a commission to come up with reforms. There are plenty of good ideas already out there. If you can assure me that any reforms put forward by such a commission would get the support of the leadership in the next session, then sure, go ahead, but usually the creation of task forces like that are a substitute for action, not a catalyst for it. I don’t expect even weak sauce like that to get support as thing stand today, so the path forward, as always, is to elect more legislators like Collier, Nevárez, and Hinojosa. At the end of the day it’s a numbers game, and our numbers need to be bigger.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Harvey-related good news and bad news

Good news.

An additional $90 million was approved Thursday to help expedite debris removal from Hurricane Harvey along Texas’ devastated Gulf Coast regions, including Houston.

Gov. Greg Abbott and House and Senate leaders announced that the additional “emergency funding” from the state’s General Revenue Account would go to counties to help pay for the removal of storm debris and help speed up the removal process.

They said the additional funding will lessen the burden for debris cleanup on local taxpayers , who now must pay for 10 percent of the total cost. The rest is paid for by the federal government.

“In most cases, even with federal assistance, cities and counties in the impacted areas are responsible for ten percent of costs associated with debris removal,” Abbott’s office said in a statement. “Today’s funding allocation will help alleviate that burden for communities as they continue to rebuild.”

Abbott called the additional funding ” just one more step in a long process to help our cities and counties recover.”

No detail on where the $90 million will be directed was immediately available.

I approve of debris removal, and Lord knows there’s still a lot of it to be removed. Kudos all around.

Bad news.

Houston could be ineligible for future federal housing grants, including disaster recovery funds for Hurricane Harvey, because it has not resolved a federal finding that its housing practices violate civil rights law.

The city has yet to come into compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act nearly a year after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found it in violation, making it automatically ineligible for certain federal housing programs and potentially imperiling its ability to qualify for others, an Austin housing advocacy group said in a demand letter sent to HUD last week.

The Oct. 31 letter alleges Houston’s recent certifications of compliance with civil rights laws – prerequisites for receiving federal funding – are “inaccurate and unsatisfactory,” adding that HUD must withhold funding until the city cooperates.

Such an agreement should include commitments to build more affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods, and train elected and appointed officials on handling community opposition, among other steps, attorney Michael Allen wrote on behalf of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.

“Unless and until voluntary compliance has been reached, HUD must reject any submission or certification by the city regarding compliance with Title VI because, by HUD’s own determination, the city fails to comply with Title VI,” Allen wrote. “HUD is therefore not authorized to continue funding or grant new funding to the city or mayor until the existing findings are resolved and the city is able to make accurate certifications.”

[…]

HUD faulted Mayor Sylvester Turner in January for rejecting a proposed subsidized housing complex near the Galleria, saying his decision “was motivated either in whole or in part by the race, color or national origin of the likely tenants.” HUD also criticized city procedures more broadly for perpetuating segregation, in part by giving to much weight to racially motivated opposition aimed at keeping affordable housing projects out of wealthier neighborhoods.

Turner has sharply criticized the finding, and his legal department in February went as far as asking HUD to withdraw its letter. That has not happened.

“We’re still discussing and going back and forth, but there’s been no final conclusion on it,” the mayor said Wednesday.

Turner, through a spokesman, also doubted HUD actually would pull the plug on funding.

“The mayor is confident HUD realizes the importance of supporting the housing of people displaced by the disaster,” communications director Alan Bernstein wrote in an email.

I hope that’s right, but I’d rather the matter get settled so that it’s not a question. Seems like resolving this ought to be a pretty high priority.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

TX-07 Progressive Candidate Policy Forum

An event of interest for folks who will have a tough decision to make in March.

TX-07 Progressive Candidate Policy Forum
Hosted by Indivisible to Flip Texas District 7

Saturday, December 2 at 2 PM – 4 PM
Cook Middle School
9111 Wheatland Dr, Houston, Texas 77064

The progressive candidates running for District 7 House of Representatives will attend this event to meet constituents and participate in a policy discussion.

Please fill out this opinion survey on your top policy issues: https://goo.gl/forms/MWI56Ncxu4DJRfOx2

Come make your voice heard. And learn how to get involved. Working together, indivisible, we can #FlipTX07.

RSVP and share this event with your friends: https://actionnetwork.org/events/tx-07-candidate-policy-forum

This is the third Town Hall Forum by Indivisible Texas Dist. 7 and Swing Left 7, two groups of progressive Houstonians who are working to unite the voters and residents to unseat U.S. Congressman John Culberson in the mid term election. The two previous Town Halls were held in May and July with a total of about 500 folks in attendance turn out combined. All six candidates are confirmed to attend: Joshua Butler, James Cargas, Lizzie Fletcher, Laura Moser, Alex Triantaphyllis and Jason Westin. Come see who you want to be your candidate in November.

Posted in: Election 2018.

What about Roy?

Who wants to stand with this particular predator?

Texas’ two U.S. senators found themselves under intense pressure Thursday after explosive allegations surfaced that a candidate both men have endorsed pursued underage teenage girls decades ago.

The Washington Post is reporting that Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican nominee in an upcoming Senate special election to succeed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, tried to become romantically involved with four girls between the ages of 14 and 18 while he was in his 30s.

U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz have both endorsed Moore in his bid.

[…]

Cornyn, the second-ranking GOP senator, called the allegations “deeply disturbing and troubling.”

“I think it’s up to the governor and the folks in Alabama to make that decision as far as what the next step is,” he said.

Cruz declined to answer questions as he passed reporters but said in a later statement, “These are serious and troubling allegations. If they are true, Judge Moore should immediately withdraw. However, we need to know the truth, and Judge Moore has the right to respond to these accusations.”

You should also read this. The way some of Cornyn and Cruz’s fellow Republicans have responded to this is quite astonishing, even in this day and age. Remember when the GOP branded itself as the party of virtue and values? Boy, those were the days.

It should be noted that the “if true” formulation here is basically meaningless. There’s not going to be any trial, so there won’t be a formal verdict to hold out for. Unless more women turn up with the same story – always a possibility, to be sure – this is all the evidence you’re going to get. Is that enough evidence? Only you and your conscience and your God can decide. Slate, which reminds us of Moore’s long record of gay bashing as a means of “protecting” children from predators much like himself, has more.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Second trimester abortion lawsuit hearings conclude

Now we wait.

In a five-day trial that concluded Wednesday, lawyers for the state defended part of a Texas law that bans the most common second-trimester abortion procedure unless the fetus is deceased.

Abortion rights groups sued the state in July, arguing the provision restricting the dilation and evacuation procedure imposes an undue burden on Texas women seeking second-trimester abortions. Medical professionals deem the procedure the safest way to terminate a second-trimester pregnancy.

But the state argued in court the method is inhumane and that it’s reasonable to require fetal demise before the procedure is performed.

“The state has legitimate interest … in protecting the health of a woman and life of a fetus that may become a child,” said Darren McCarty, a lawyer for the state, in closing arguments. The provision at issue, he said, “regulates the moment of death, the moment of fetal termination, and nothing more. Whether … the lethal act is going to be, for instance, grabbing the leg and pulling it off the fetus, or whether instead the lethal act is going to be a single injection or perhaps just a snip of the umbilical cord.”

The trial centered on part of Senate Bill 8, a state law passed earlier this year that bans dilation and evacuation abortions unless the fetus is deceased. The ban had an effective date of Sept. 1. But Federal District Judge Lee Yeakel blocked its implementation with a temporary restraining order in August – a month after a lawsuit was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood on behalf of several women’s health providers in the state. Whole Woman’s Health is the lead plaintiff.

During the dilation and evacuation procedure, doctors use surgical instruments to grasp and remove pieces of fetal tissue — a process proponents of the law have called “dismemberment abortion.” Doctors would face criminal charges for violating the ban; the only exception would be in cases of medical emergency.

Yeakel did not say when a ruling would come, but a temporary restraining order on enforcing the ban expires Nov. 22. The decision is likely to be appealed to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, an outcome Yeakel alluded to several times during trial.

See here for the background. We know the drill here, we’ve been down this road too many times already. All I can say is look what happened in this Tuesday’s elections, and think about what could happen here. The Center for Reproductive Rights has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

New Braunfels can ban is back

A blast from the past.

New Braunfels officials plan to resume enforcement of the “can ban” and limits on coolers on rivers on Wednesday even as opponents of the controversial municipal codes continue to pursue a legal challenge to them.

The development follows the Texas Supreme Court’s refusal this month to bar the city from enforcing the ordinances, which prohibit bringing disposable containers or coolers over 16 quarts in size onto the Guadalupe and Comal rivers inside city limits.

“Everyone is still invited to enjoy their favorite beverage on our rivers. We just ask that they do so responsibly and in consideration of the health and sustainability of these important community assets,” Mayor Barron Casteel said in announcing Friday that enforcement of the measures would resume this week.

The resumption of enforcement after a lull of more than three years was called premature Monday by attorney Jim Ewbank, who brought suit in 2012 on behalf of local river outfitters and tourism-related businesses who contend the codes are an overreach of municipal authority.

Despite rejecting plaintiffs’ request to issue an immediate stay on enforcement of the contested codes, he noted the Texas Supreme Court did request a full briefing by the parties, “which is a good sign for us.”

The city’s brief is due to be filed by late November, said Ewbank, who expects the high court to decide by January whether to hear the whole case.

[…]

State District Judge Don Burgess granted the plaintiffs a summary judgment in 2014, but that decision was overturned in May by the 3rd Court of Appeals. It held that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to challenge a penal code, therefore Burgess lacked subject matter jurisdiction on the case.

See here for my last update. I apparently missed the appellate ruling. Be that as it may, the city expects to get the ball rolling this week, with an eye on putting the ban back in place next year, assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t set them back. Adjust your tubing plans for the future accordingly.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Friday random ten: Blue bayou, part 1

Do we have the blues? We have them enough for multiple lists.

1. Blue Always Finds Me – Hotel Lights
2. Blue Baiao – Susanna Sharpe and Samba Police
3. Blue Christmas – Collective Soul
4. Blue Comet Blues – Bill Haley & The Comets
5. Blue Dream Lover – Elke
6. Blue In Green – Miles Davis
7. Blue In The Sky – Joe Purdy
8. Blue Jean Blues – Little Feat
9. Blue Jeans – Eddie From Ohio
10. Blue Light – David Gilmour

Susanna Sharpe is an Austin-based musician whom I got to see a few times at the Mucky Duck back in the day. She and her band put on an amazingly lively show, especially given that nearly all of their songs were sung in Portuguese. David Gilmour is the guitarist for Pink Floyd, and his About Face solo album – with an assist from Pete Townshend on a couple of tracks; he returned the favor on Townshend’s Deep End Live – is one of my favorite discs from the 80s. I don’t think I ever heard “Blue Christmas” until well into my adulthood, but it’s one of my favorite seasonal songs now. More blue things next week.

Posted in: Music.

The secret sexual predators of Texas politics

Come in, sit down, make yourself comfortable. Maybe a nice cup of hot tea? There now, all settled in? Good. Now steel yourselves and read this.

More than a year before the now-infamous “shitty media men” list, women in Texas’s statehouse secretly created their own online whisper network to document sexual harassment and assault in their industry.

This spreadsheet, called the “Burn Book of Bad Men,” lists 38 men, named by an unknown number of women who contributed anonymously to the document. Its accusations run the gamut from pay discrimination to creepy comments and sexual assault.

The men in the document include campaign workers, legislative staffers, and lawmakers. Some of the allegations are recent; others stretch back 20 years. Most of the women who contributed to the list and circulated it early on worked for Democrats, so most of the accused men are also Democratic officials or staffers.

More than one sexual-assault allegation on the list involves a man on a Democratic political campaign, according to women who contributed to the spreadsheet.

Excerpts of the document, but not the full list, were reviewed by The Daily Beast this week.

For years before the document existed online, this type of information “just kind of lived in whisper circles,” said Rebecca*, who started the list in the fall of 2016.

Rebecca told The Daily Beast that she worked in Texas politics for about two years before giving up and leaving the state because the political environment was “toxic and horrible.”

Sexism in the Texas state legislature is well-documented, in both vague and explicit terms.

In 2005, Republican State Sen. Craig Estes allegedly propositioned an intern at my former publication, The Texas Observer, on her first day in the Capitol. He let her know that if she needed any “adult supervision,” she was welcome to “see him in his office,” according to the magazine. The implication was clear, and it was included in the magazine’s list of notable quotes that year.

In 2013, I wrote a lengthy story about how men were—in addition to regularly making crude jokes at work—caught looking at porn on the Texas House and Senate floor. Others asked about their colleagues’ breasts during debates. Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving female state legislator in Texas history, once told me a horrifying tale about a lawmaker who nicknamed her his “black mistress.”

(Depressingly, there’s a long list of similarly toxic situations in other statehouses, including in CaliforniaMassachusettsKentuckyFloridaIllinoisOregon, and Kansas.)

My story documented the misogyny of the “good ol’ boys’ club,” but it didn’t cover even a fraction of the previously unreported accusations in Rebecca’s living document.

Now go read the rest of the story, which contains a few names and a lot more personal accounts. Then go read RG Ratcliffe for a bit of historical perspective; in short, things aren’t much better now than they were thirty years ago. Keep in mind that the list in question was put together mostly by Democratic women, so there are undoubtedly a bunch of Republican stories to tell, too.

Finished reading them? Good. Now let’s talk about what we can do about it. A few thoughts:

– First and foremost, listen to women when they tell you their stories. (Actually, even before that, be the kind of person that women will trust to tell their stories.) Know what is happening and what has been happening.

– When you see or hear about stuff like this, take action to stop it. Call out the bad behavior and the men who are committing it. It won’t be easy. I know I’ve missed plenty of opportunities in my life to do this, through obliviousness or cowardice. All of us, me very much included, have to do better.

– We really can’t give a pass to anyone, even if they have done good work and otherwise fought the good fight. That’s going to be hard and painful, but it’s the only way. Everyone has to be accountable for their actions.

– Ultimately, the way to make something less of a “boys’ club” is to improve the gender balance. There’s plenty of social science research to back that up. I’m not claiming this is some kind of panacea – among other things, I’m not nearly naive enough to think that given truly equal access and opportunity, women will be any less conniving, dishonest, or generally shitty than men are. Human nature is what it is, after all. I am saying that a legislature that is closer to fifty-fifty – right now, less than twenty percent of legislators in Texas are female – will at the very least be a better place for women to work. There’s a vicious cycle at work here – we need more women involved, not just as legislators but also as staffers, political operatives, lobbyists, reporters, and so forth, but the existing hostile climate drives them away and makes it that much harder to achieve the balance we need. Maybe, just maybe, if the men who are the biggest part of the problem come to understand that their bad behavior can and will be made public, that will make it a little easier.

(Yes, I know, I wrote this whole piece without mentioning Roy Moore. I’ll have something to say about him tomorrow. For now, let’s concentrate on that mote in our own eye.)

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

SB4 at the Fifth Circuit

Hoping for the best as always, but the Fifth Circuit has a way of stomping on that.

Tuesday’s hearing was on whether U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia’s August decision to block several of the law’s provisions should stand while the case meanders through the court system.

[…]

In late August, Garcia halted several parts of the law, including the provision that requires jail officials to honor all detainers. He also blocked sections that prohibit local entities from pursuing or endorsing “a pattern or practice that ‘materially limits’ the enforcement of immigration laws” and another that prohibits “assisting or cooperating” with federal immigration officers as reasonable or necessary.

But a separate panel in New Orleans ruled the detainer provision could stand until an ultimate determination is made. The panel also determined that law enforcement officers, including campus police, with “authority that may impact immigration” cannot be prevented from assisting federal immigration officers. That ruling is what’s on the books until a decision on Tuesday’s arguments is reached.

Judge Edith Jones, who was appointed to the post by President Ronald Reagan, asked Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller Tuesday about the “endorsement” provision and whether that section of the law was too far-reaching.

“An elected official, like a sheriff or a county judge, certainly have more latitude to speak [against state policies], don’t they?” she asked.

But Keller said the state has modified several times what the definition of “endorse” means and that it applies to actions officials take in a “governmental capacity” to prevent enforcement of immigration laws.

“It has to be a use of government power to sanction or ratify a policy,” he said. “Let’s say an official were to say they disagreed that with the policies underlying SB 4. That would not be sanctioning or ratifying a [government policy].”

Keller also pushed back against the claim that the language of the law was too vague and didn’t provide enough guidance to law enforcement officials. He said the plaintiffs’ own admissions that current practices would be upended should SB 4 go into effect proved they know what the law does and doesn’t do.

“Here plaintiffs have conceded that various policies that they have would in fact be prohibited by SB 4,” he said. “That concession alone means a facial vagueness claim cannot stand.”

But Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union representing the city of El Cenizo, a small municipality in Webb County, said the state of Texas keeps changing it’s definition of what constitutes “materially limiting” cooperation, which implies the state knows the language is flawed.

“One of the critical aspects is that Texas has never been able to settle on an interpretation of the law,” he said. “Every time Texas comes to court, they say it’s obvious what it means for a sheriff to materially limit immigration enforcement. But on the other hand, every time we get to a new court, they change their interpretation, so it’s not clear.”

The panel also raised the issue of whether SB 4 was unconstitutional because immigration enforcement is largely under the purview of the federal government. Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents several of the plaintiffs, said there is federal guidance on what local law enforcement can do but that SB 4 exceeds that.

See here for the background. The panel is all Republican appointees, with Edith Jones being the worst of the lot, so I can’t say I feel terribly optimistic. But the plaintiffs’ attorneys are as good as they come, and there are previous rulings, including from SCOTUS, to lean on. We’ll know when the Fifth Circuit is damn good and ready to tell us. The Chron has more.

Posted in: La Migra, Legal matters.

School districts affected by Harvey ask for a break on testing

One way or another we’re going to have to reckon with this.

Leaders of school districts heavily affected by Hurricane Harvey told a legislative panel on Monday that they would like to see Texas’ accountability and testing requirements relaxed in the wake of the disaster. They also said the storms have dealt a financial blow and that they weren’t optimistic about being reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or insurance anytime soon.

[…]

Although the state’s accountability system and standardized testing was not on the agenda, it was repeatedly brought up by superintendents and education leaders who testified.

Before the superintendents testified, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said his agency had polled Harvey-affected school districts and found that by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, school districts preferred to keep the current testing windows the same rather than move them later.

That stunned Port Aransas ISD Superintendent Mark Kemp, who helped reopen the district to students in mid-October.

“I’m on all the conference calls and meetings with our local superintendents, and we keep saying the same thing – just give us a one-year reprieve,” Kemp said. “The stress of testing is huge, and on top of that, we have students who have to find their next meal, who have nowhere to lay their head at night.”

Other superintendents who testified Monday said they’d rather have the state hold them harmless for their students’ results than change the testing window. None spoke in favor of leaving the state’s testing and accountability system in place, as is, for storm-affected districts this year.

Katy ISD Superintendent Lance Hindt said his district’s accountability data has been out of whack since the late-August storm. At Mayde Creek High School, for example, Hindt said they’ve seen a 14 percentage-point drop in the number of students who submitted free or reduced-price lunch applications. He said that’s because the district offered free meals through September, so many students who qualify didn’t end up submitting applications on time.

He proposed the state give every campus and district within the federal government’s disaster area an accountability ranking of “not rated – data integrity issues.” Hindt said that’s a designation that already exists and can be used under current law, and that it reflects the situation in Katy ISD and other Harvey-affected districts.

“Why hold districts accountable based on flawed data?” Hindt asked. “The state does not care that parents lost jobs or are living on the second story of their home. If you don’t think that will have impact on accountability, let me come back a year from now and show you how it did.”

I’ve been generally sympathetic to this position all along, and I like the proposed solution from Superintendent Hindt. One way or another, the TEA is going to have to come to terms with the fact that this is going to be a hugely abnormal year for many students. Why not plan to take that into account now?

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

My thoughts following the 2017 election

1. Turnout in Houston was considerably higher than anyone predicted. Adding in Fort Bend to Harris yields 101,178 voters. Harris County had 149,730. The Houston share of Harris County was 66.43%, which is lower than I expected as well.

2. Early voting in odd years is not the same as early voting in even years. In even years, a significant majority of voters are showing up before Election Day. In odd years, Election Day still reigns supreme. In Harris County, 59.49% of the total vote was cast on Election Day. For the Houston part of Harris County, that total was 58.74% of the vote. It’s not clear to me why this is the case, but if I had to guess I’d say that the presence of big well-funded campaigns is a big part of the reason people vote early, because they are being told to vote during the early process. In the absence of such campaigns, people don’t think about voting before Election Day nearly as much. Just a guess, but one that will inform how I think about the next odd year election.

3. After the 2015 election, the HISD Board of Trustees had four men and five women. After the 2017 election, it will have one man and eight women. It will also be all Democratic, as the three Republican men who served in districts V, VI, and VII have all been succeeded by Democratic women. Let that sink in for a minute.

4. A lot will be said about the national election results and what that means for Democrats and Republicans going into 2018. We haven’t really had an election that has been cast in that light – unlike the 2015/2016 cycle, for example, there have been no special legislative elections. I think you have to look at the 2017 HISD results as a piece of that puzzle, even if they weren’t run as Dem-versus-GOP referenda. The Democratic candidates won the three formerly Republican-held Trustee seats because more Democrats showed up to vote. I don’t want to over-dramatize that, but it has to mean at least a little something.

5. Of course, if one wants to be cynical, it could mean that the TEA will have more reason to drop the hammer on HISD if one or more of the Improvement Required schools fails to meet standards. Who at the state level will care about disbanding an all-Democratic Board of Trustees?

6. In the runup to Tuesday, the lower-than-usual turnout projections were cited as a reason why the city bond issues might have trouble. This was going to be a weird year with no city elections, and Harvey caused a lot of disruption, but the main piece of logic underpinning that was the assumption that lower turnout = a more Republican electorate, which in turn would be dangerous for the bonds. Remember, while no one officially opposed the pension bonds, the Harris County GOP and associated conservative groups did oppose the other bonds. It turned out there was no cause for alarm, as all the issues passed by huge margins. While I think that Republicans were more favorably inclined to the bond referenda than we may have given them credit for, this needs to be a reminder that sometimes it’s Republican voters who don’t show up in the expected numbers. The HISD results point to that. If we want to draw an inference for 2018, it’s that overall turnout doesn’t have to be huge for Democrats to have a good year. Who is motivated to vote matters.

7. There will be three runoffs on the menu for December, two in HISD (District I, Elizabeth Santos versus Gretchen Himsl, and District III, Jesse Rodriguez versus Sergio Lira) and one in HCC. One quick thought about that:

Meanwhile, Eugene “Gene” Pack and Pretta VanDible Stallworth were the top vote-getters in a three-way contest for an open seat in District IX. Pack, a retired auto broker, narrowly edged out Stallworth, a business consultant, for the top spot. But both fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. David Jaroszewski, a professor, was well behind.

Earlier Tuesday night, Pack expressed optimism that his early lead indicated voters endorsed him as an “outsider.”

“They’re tired of the direction the board has been going in,” he said.

Maybe, but with all due respect I’d suggest that Pack’s strong showing was a combination of his simple name and top spot on the ballot. My advice for the runoff to Pretta Stallworth is to make sure the voters there know that Pack is a Trump-supporting Republican. I’d guess that would outweigh any valorization of “outsider” status.

8. Finally, the Chron is in a scolding mood.

The ballot featured neither president, nor governor nor mayor, but Tuesday’s election was one of the most important to face Houstonians in decades.

So how did we respond? By not participating. Turnout – at less than 10 percent – was abysmally low.

By approving a $1 billion pension obligation bond, voters set City Hall on track to financial reforms that will cut expenses and, hopefully, usher our city out of a 16-year fiscal crisis. Months of negotiations, years of failed efforts, all came down to this vote – and the vast majority of Houstonians couldn’t be bothered to weigh in.

The immediate issues at City Hall – or Commissioner’s Court or school board – often have a greater impact on American’s everyday lives, yet the local issues have a way of getting lost in the cacophony of national politics. Blame it on media consolidation or the spread of Facebook and Twitter, but our government loses a core of its representative nature when elections that deserve all the attention of a professional sporting event pass with the fanfare of a Little League game.

Something has to change in our civic culture. Easier voting processes. Making Election Day a national holiday. Better promotion efforts. Local officials and nonprofits need to start work now on improving this atrocious turnout.

Actually, we know exactly what drives turnout in Houston municipal elections: the combination of a contested Mayor’s race and a controversial ballot proposition. This year had neither. But you know, one reason why those factors I cited generate turnout is that a lot of money gets spent by the campaigns to entice, encourage, and enrage people to go vote. Maybe what we need when faced with a low key slate like this is a dedicated source of funding to simulate a more exciting election year. How we can accomplish that is left as an exercise for the reader. Oh, and if we’re casting about for blame, I’ll just note that pre-Tuesday coverage from the Chron included one lame overview of the HISD races, and exactly nothing about the HCC ones. Maybe the lack of interest from voters was a reflection of that.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Justin Nelson to run against Paxton

About time we got an official candidate for this race.

Justin Nelson

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is getting his first Democratic opponent for re-election.

Attorney Justin Nelson is entering the race to be the state’s top lawyer with just over a month until the candidate filing deadline for the 2018 primaries.

“Justice is for all. Nobody is above the law,” Nelson said in a news release. “Texans can do better than our indicted Attorney General who is charged with criminal fraud.”

Paxton, who is seeking a second term, has been under indictment for most of his current term, fighting securities fraud charges stemming from allegations before his time as attorney general. Those legal troubles have made him a top target for Democrats in 2018, despite the void of challengers until now.

Nelson, 42, is a partner specializing in major civil litigation at the Houston law firm Susman Godfrey LLP and has been named a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters. A graduate of Yale University and Columbia Law School, he clerked for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and for Harvie Wilkinson, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Nelson lives in Austin, where he is an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

Nelson is not entirely new to politics. He is the founder and former president of One Nation One Vote, a group that is pushing to elect the president by popular vote. The issue has been a hot topic in the wake of the 2016 election, when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College but lost to her in the popular vote.

I’ve been waiting for someone to announce a candidacy. You might win the lottery and get to run against a convicted felon. I knew someone would eventually run – I’d heard about a possible candidate who in retrospect probably was Justin Nelson several months ago – it was just a matter of time. Nelson may yet have company in the primary from outgoing Travis County Democratic Party Chair Vincent Harding, and there had been another potential candidate, Lubbock attorney John Gibson, who has decided to endorse Nelson instead. Nelson’s campaign webpage is here – I don’t see a link for a Facebook page yet – though it’s pretty bare bones right now. If nothing else, the broad themes of his campaign are already pretty clear. The Chron has more.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Julian 2020?

He has raised the possibility.

Julian Castro

Texas Democrat Julian Castro confirmed Sunday he is seriously considering running for president in 2020 and former state Sen. Wendy Davis left open the possibility she will take another run at running for governor in 2018.

“I might,” Castro told more than 350 people at a political conference near the University of Texas on Sunday morning. Davis’ comments came at the same event.

Castro, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, said the country needs a very different president than what is in office now and he will spend 2018 weighing a bid. He said the country needs someone “fundamentally honest” in the White House.

“We’ve had too much lying out of the White House,” Castro said.

Well, it’s hard to argue with that. There has been talk of Julian Castro running for President in 2020 – it’s even had an effect on Joaquin Castro’s consideration of running for Governor this year. I’ve no doubt that Julian Castro has been thinking about running since approximately November 9 of last year. It’s mostly a question of how he goes about it. I’ll be happy to see Julian run and will give strong consideration to supporting him, but for now all I care about is 2018.

Speaking of 2018, from the same story:

At the same event, Davis meanwhile left open the possibility that she will be running for governor again in 2020.

The former state senator from Fort Worth said although she was defeated in 2014 by Gov. Greg Abbott, it was before voters knew how far right he would go in supporting legislation like SB 4, which she called the “show me your papers” law that threatens every citizen with brown skin. Supporters of SB 4 have said the legislation was to outlaw so-called sanctuary cities and allow local law enforcement to check the immigration status of people they pull over.

Davis made clear she’s only considering it largely because other Democrats have failed to step forward to run.

“Because no one else is stepping forward,” Davis said when asked by moderator Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune why she was not ruling it out.

I love Wendy Davis. I don’t know how many other Democrats love her at this point. It’s a hard thing, losing an election like she did. This story came out before Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez put her name out there, and I think it’s safe to say that if Valdez gets in, Davis will not. But she’s there, maybe, just in case.

One of the other brand-name candidates who is at least thinking about “stepping forward” is Andrew White, who as this Trib story about the same event notes was criticized by Davis fr being anti-choice. White has since updated his website to address some issues; he says “Roe v Wade is the law of the land, and I respect the law” in the Women’s Health section, which doesn’t tell us very much about what sort of bills he would sign or veto if he were to be elected. You can see what he has for yourself – I’m more concerned about his Border Security position, which doesn’t make any sense to me. Filing begins this weekend, so one way or another we’ll begin to get some clarity.

Posted in: Election 2018, The making of the President.

Texas blog roundup for the week of November 6

The Texas Progressive Alliance congratulates 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

2017 results: HISD and HCC

There were still precincts to be counted as I was writing this so there are a couple of races where I’ll have to equivocate, but here’s what happened in the local races that had actual candidates in them. Let’s start with the easier one, the HCC races:

– Trustees Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (73%) and Robert Glaser (58%) led from the get go and cruised to easy wins.

– In District 9, Gene Pack (42%) and Pretta VanDible Stallworth (37%) will head into a runoff for the right to succeed Chris Oliver.

In HISD, there are a couple of clear results, and a couple that I’ll have to update in the morning:

– Incumbent Trustees Wanda Adams (68%) and Anne Sung (60%) were easily re-elected.

– Jesse Rodriguez (41%) and Sergio Lira (32%) were going into overtime in Distric III, while Elizabeth Santos (45%) and Gretchen Himsl (33%) were doing the same in I. Given how the District I race has gone so far, I expect it to get a little nasty for the runoff.

– Sue Deigaard (53%) appeared to be headed for a clear win in her four-way race. As of this drafting, 37 of 56 precincts had reported, but Deigaard had 4,502 votes out of 8,446 total. If the remaining 19 precincts have a proportional amount of votes in them as the first 37, a little back-of-the-envelope math suggests she’d need about 43.4% of those votes to stay in the majority and win outright. I’d say those are pretty good odds, but we’ll see.

– The race that will have everyone up way past their bedtimes is in District VI, where with 35 of 40 precincts counted, incumbent Holly Flynn Vilaseca had 50.04% of the vote – she had 3,119 out of 6,233, which puts her five votes into a majority. Either she squeaks out a clean win – she was a pinch over 50% in early and absentee voting and a slightly smaller pinch under it on Tuesday – or she goes into a runoff with a substantial lead. Good position to be in, but boy I know what I’d prefer.

UPDATE: At 12:46 AM, the final results were posted, and Holly Flynn Vilaseca wound up with 50.38% of the vote, putting her back in office without a runoff. Here’s the Chron story.

Posted in: Election 2017.

2017 results: National

Here’s a pretty good indicator of what kind of day it was yesterday for Democrats:

Big win in the Virginia Governor’s race (and the other VA statewide races), despite a couple metric tons of pearls being clutched going into Tuesday. A minimum of 14 seats picked up in the VA House of Delegates, moving that chamber from 66-34 GOP to no more than 52-48, with chances for further gains. Oh, and the single best election result of the day:

Democrat Danica Roem will become the first openly transgender person to be elected and serve as a state legislator, after ousting one of the country’s most anti-LGBT lawmakers in a closely watched Virginia House of Delegates race Tuesday. Her opponent, GOP Delegate Bob Marshall, has served in the state legislature for 26 years. He’s known for writing Virginia’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. This year he introduced a “bathroom bill”—intended to prohibit transgender individuals from using the restroom matching their gender identity; his own party killed that proposal in committee.

Roem isn’t the first transgender candidate to win a legislative race, but she will be the first to actually take office. Her campaign focused on issues like fixing the “miserable” traffic on local highways, increasing teacher pay, and bringing jobs to the region. When I asked her last week about the historic nature of the race, Roem said that the truly historic development was that Route 28 will finally be fixed.

“Tonight voters chose a smart, solutions-oriented trans leader over a divisive anti-LGBTQ demagogue—sending a powerful message to anti-trans legislators all across the nation,” Aisha C. Moodie-Mills, President & CEO of the Victory Fund, an organization dedicated to electing LGBT lawmakers that supported Roem’s campaign, said in a statement. “Danica defeated ‘Bigot Bob’ Marshall not because she is transgender, but because she presented a positive vision for her constituents that will improve their lives.”

Virginia isn’t Texas, and that was a district that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, but I have to think that a few anti-trans Republicans, maybe even here in this state, will take a look at that result and have a second thought or two. We need a whole lot more people to lose elections over being anti-LGBT.

Meanwhile, New Jersey elected a Democratic Governor and made gains in that state’s legislature (both chambers of which Dems already controlled) as well. The state of Maine voted to expand Medicaid over the strenuous objections of their troglodyte governor. And there’s this:

Pushback against Donald Trump helped lift Democrats to governorships in the two highest-profile U.S. elections since the 2016 presidential contest. In Virginia, voters by a 2-1 margin said they were casting their ballot to show opposition to Trump rather than support for him. In New Jersey the margin was nearly 3-1. And Trump’s weak approval rating among voters in Virginia, 40 percent, was weaker still in New Jersey, a dismal 34 percent.

Relatedly, a surge in turnout by politically liberal voters boosted Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, as did a broad advantage on health care, which voters by a wide margin identified as the top issue in the vote.

So, maybe being against Trump can be a winner? Just a thought. Yes, of course, you have to stand for something, and the Democratic brand needs some work on that. But Dems are really mad about what happened last year, and that was clearly enough to help push a bunch of them to the polls. I can’t wait to see all the hot takes on this one.

Posted in: Election 2013.

2017 results: City bonds

Pension obligation bonds pass easily.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters passed a $1 billion pension bond referendum by a wide margin late Tuesday, securing Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark reform package and, the mayor hopes, marking the beginning of the end of a 16-year fiscal crisis.

The ballot item’s passage now means the city can follow through on its plan to infuse $750 million into the police pension and $250 million into the municipal workers’ pension to improve their funding levels and lower Houston’s annual payments into its pension funds.

If voters had rejected the measure, up to $1.8 billion of the $2.8 billion in hard-won benefit cuts in the reform bill would have been rescinded, adding tens of millions of dollars in costs to the city budget overnight.

“This effort has not been easy,” the mayor said at an election night party. “Tonight is not a victory for Sylvester Turner. Tonight is not a victory for the members of city council. Tonight is not just a victory for the employees. Tonight is a victory for the city of Houston.”

[…]

Many City Hall insiders and political observers had predicted voters could balk at a $1 billion bond and produce a close vote. But University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said, because the GOP-run Legislature had approved the reform package earlier this year, there was no organized opposition to shake voters from their typical habit of granting approval to city bond issues.

“Because most conservative groups and Republicans and most big players on the state level endorsed the bonds, it was unlikely that there would be much of a fight, and there wasn’t,” he said. “My honest guess is that people probably weren’t that attentive to the importance of Prop. A; it was simply the case that the city was asking for more money, as they routinely do, and the good news is that people typically vote yes.”

I gave up and went to bed before the final results came in, but Prop A had over 77% support, with absentee, early, and Election Day totals all being at about the same level. Turnout was higher than predicted, with over 87,000 votes being counted with a fifth of precincts still not having reported. I’ll have more analysis of this for tomorrow, but in the meantime, the other bonds passed, too.

Houston residents can look forward to a smattering of facility upgrades – including repaired libraries, new community centers and renovated fire stations – thanks to what appeared to be overwhelming voter support for $495 million in public improvement bonds.

Propositions B through E passed easily Tuesday despite anemic local turnout in a city lacking a marquee race.

The bonds’ passage, which will not require a property tax increase, would authorize Houston to issue $159 million in public safety debt, $104 million for parks, $109 million for improvements to general government facilities and $123 million for libraries. They are the first the city has requested since 2012.

[…]

Meanwhile, residents of Houston’s Heights neighborhood, in the northwest, were set to further loosen restrictions on area alcohol sales.

Heights voters already had lifted a 105-year-old ban on the sale of beer and wine at grocery stores last year, but customers who wanted to drink at neighborhood restaurants or bars still had to join a “private club” by submitting a driver’s license for entry into a database.

Passing Proposition F lifts that requirement, leaving the neighborhood nearly wet. Liquor sales at grocery and convenience stores still would be banned.

I don’t expect that last bit to change any time soon. Props B through E were at similar levels of support as Prop A, garnering between 72 and 76 percent; Prop F, limited to just part of the Heights, had over 62%. I should note that the other four citywide props did have official, if perhaps not organized, opposition, as the Harris County GOP and conservative groups like the C Club and the HRBC opposed them. Didn’t have much effect, I’d say.

Elsewhere, school bond issues in Spring Branch and Katy were approved, while all seven constitutional amendments were passed. As I said, I’ll have more to say on Tuesday’s results tomorrow.

UPDATE: Final turnout in the Harris County part of the city was 99,460, which is higher than anyone projected it to be.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Rep. Ted Poe to retire

We’re verging on a mass exodus here.

Rep. Ted Poe

U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, announced Tuesday evening that he will retire from Congress.

“Thanks to the good Lord, I’m in good health, but it’s time for the next step,” Poe said in a statement. “I am looking forward to spending more time in Texas, especially with my 12 grandkids who have all been born since I was first elected to Congress. I am proud of the work that my office has accomplished: giving crime victims a voice, helping to combat human trafficking, and fighting for our constitutional rights and individual liberty.”

[…]

The seat has drawn some Democratic challengers, most notably nonprofit executive Todd Litton, who has held his own against Poe in fundraising in recent months.

First elected to Congress in 2004 and a sixth-generation Texan, Poe is possibly the most personally popular Texan within the U.S. House of Representatives.

With fans on both sides of the aisle, that affection came to light in 2016, when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Colleagues like U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, reacted to the news by wearing orange “Team Poe” wristbands. Even Democrats were known to check in with concern about his health.

Sources close to the congressman said that while the his health is stabilized, the ordeal did cause the 69-year-old to consider more spending time with his family.

But there were also signs of political frustration earlier this year. Amid congressional Republicans’ troubled efforts to move a repeal of former President Obama’s 2010 health care law, Poe resigned from the House Freedom Caucus. The group is known to be a thorn in the side of House leadership.

At the time he resigned from the group in late March, he said, “It is time to lead.”

A quirky but sincere presence around the Capitol, Poe made criminal justice a signature issue. He built his career as a Harris County prosecutor and a criminal court judge. His off-beat and shame-inducing punishments in that role became known as “Poe-tic justice.”

Poe also spent a much of his time on foreign affairs and on immigration. But he is best known to his colleagues as a go-to force on issues like violence against women and human sex trafficking.

First, let me say that I wish Rep. Poe all the best with his fight against leukemia, and that he has a happy and healthy retirement. He joins three of his Republican colleagues –
Sam Johnson, Jeb Hensarling, and Lamar Smith – in calling it a career this cycle. The last election we had where this many new members got elected was 2004, thanks to the DeLay re-redistricting that helped elevate Poe.

CD02 will be favored to be held by the Republicans, but Democrats made some gains there in 2016, and the departure of this generally well-liked incumbent may make holding this district a little tougher for them. First, we have to see who will run on that side; as of last night, there were no names being mentioned as potential candidates. I suspect that the pool of hopefuls is pretty deep, and as such we could have quite the primary race next year. I figure names will start dropping soon, and as filing season opens on Saturday, the rubber will meet the road in short order. How we feel about the future disposition on this district may depend a lot on who comes out of those races. The Chron has more.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Election Day 2017

It’s time to vote if you haven’t already. Not many people have, as we know.

Harris County turnout is expected to remain feeble through Election Day, with no marquee race to draw voters to the polls and thousands still displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

Fewer than 59,000 of the county’s more than 2.2 million registered voters cast a ballot by the end of early voting Friday, a paltry showing even in a traditionally low-turnout state.

“Nobody’s voting because really nothing overly controversial is on the ballot,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, projecting total voter participation will reach of 80,000 to 100,000.

Unlike in recent off-cycle elections, Houston residents do not have mayoral or city council races to weigh in on, thanks to a recent change to term limits.

Instead, the city ballot features several propositions, as well as races for the Houston ISD and Houston Community College school boards.

What’s interesting about this is that Prof. Jones is suggesting that somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of the total votes have already been cast. That’s a higher percentage than what I estimated, and it feels a bit peculiar to me because early voting has topped out at around half of the final total in odd-year elections. Maybe this year will be different – Lord knows, it’s different in many other ways – but I would like to understand the reasoning behind that projection. In any event, going by my “Houston is 70% of Harris County in odd year vote totals”, that suggests final citywide turnout of 56,000 to 70,000, which is similar to my estimate but with a lower ceiling.

Here’s the usual press release from the County Clerk’s office:

“Regardless of where voters reside in Harris County, voters will see seven state propositions on their ballot,”said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, alerting the registered voters in the County that Tuesday’s November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections is a countywide and statewide election. In addition to the State Propositions, the ballot also features items offered by 29 political jurisdictions within the County.  Polling locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm.

“Voters can view their individual sample ballot and review the items on which they may vote by visiting the County Clerk’s election website,  www.HarrisVotes.com,Stanart specified. “This election merits the attention and participation of all voters. Aside from the State, there are five cities, 14 ISDs, and 10 utility districts with contests on the ballot.”

“Voters should know the address of their voting location and the acceptable forms of identification required at the poll before going to vote,” advised Stanart.  “The polling location in approximately 30 voting precincts in areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey, have changed.”  There will be 735 Election Day polling location available throughout Harris County.  On Election Day, voters must vote at the voting precinct where they are registered to vote.

“Voters in the City of Houston should be aware that this is the first odd-numbered year election when the Mayor, Controller and City Council races are not on the ballot,” informed Stanart.  “Don’t be surprised if you don’t see those contests on your ballot.”

Voters may find their designated Election Day polling location, view a personal sample ballot, or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at their poll at www.HarrisVotes.com. Voters may also call 713.755.6965 for election information.

Stan Stanart is the Clerk, Recorder and the Chief Elections Officer of the third largest county in the United States.

 

List of Political Entities on the Nov. 7, 2017 General & Special Elections Ballot in Harris County, TX
State of Texas Pasadena ISD
City of Baytown Spring Branch ISD
City of Bellaire Stafford Municipal SD
City of Houston Tomball ISD
City of Missouri City Crosby MUD
Houston Community College System Harris County MUD No. 61 (defined area)
Aldine ISD Harris County MUD No. 551
Alief ISD Harris County MUD No. 552
Crosby ISD Mount Houston Road MUD
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Northwest Harris County MUD No. 6
Deer Park ISD Northwest Harris County MUD No. 22
Houston ISD Cypress-Klein UD
Katy ISD Prestonwood Forest UD
Klein ISD Harris County WC & ID No. 133
New Caney ISD The Woodlands Township

Finally, if you have been displaced by Hurricane Harvey, please read this information from the Secretary of State Short version: you can still vote in your original precinct, as long as it is your intent to return there at some point. Note that state election law says you don’t actually have to return, you just have to say you intend to. You can re-register another time. So no excuses, go and vote if you haven’t already. I’ll have results tomorrow.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Lupe Valdez

Now here is some potential-candidate news of interest.

Sheriff Lupe Valdez

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez has emerged as potential Democratic challenger to Gov. Greg Abbott in 2018.

In an interview Monday, Valdez described herself as “in the exploratory process,” looking at the data for a potential run against the Republican incumbent. “I’ve been approached and I’m listening,” she said.

There are 35 days until the candidate filing deadline for the 2018 primaries, and Texas Democrats are looking for a serious contender to take on Abbott. Valdez said she believes it’s “time for a change” in GOP-dominated state government.

“Too much of one thing corrupts, and I’m a strong believer in a two-party system,” Valdez said. “I’m hoping that enough people are seeing that too much one-sided is not healthy for Texas.”

[…]

Abbott and Valdez have a history. In 2015, they clashed over her department’s policy regarding compliance with federal immigration authorities — an issue that later came up in Travis County, which includes the state capital of Austin. Those debates drove support behind the “sanctuary cities” bill that Abbott signed into law earlier this year.

Valdez has won four elections as Sheriff in Dallas County; she would not be on the ballot in 2018. She would be an exciting and trailblazing candidate, and I would expect her to generate the most buzz out of the gate among the people who have announced at least an interest in the race. She’d be my frontrunner. That said, any Sheriff in a large urban county is going to have some things on their record that will look bad – mistreated inmates, rogue guards, that sort of thing. Greg Abbott will come at her hard over “sanctuary cities”, and he has a lot of money to spend on ads. The fact that she’s a lesbian will make some people mad. She’ll need – we’ll all need – to be ready for that. I don’t know what it will take to convince her to run, but I hope someone is telling it to her. The DMN and the Chron have more.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Background checks

This should make you angry.

A mistake by U.S. Air Force officials in reporting Devin Patrick Kelley’s past conviction for domestic violence allowed him to buy four guns, including the semi-automatic rifle used in the Sunday shooting at a South Texas church that left 26 dead and 20 others wounded, state and federal officials confirmed Monday.

Pentagon officials that had Kelley’s 2012 conviction in a military court for assaulting his then-wife and stepson been reported correctly to a national database used in clearing people to buy guns, the 26-year-old New Braunfels man would have been denied permission to buy the weapons.

Retired Col. Don Christensen, who was the chief prosecutor for the Air Force at the time of Kelley’s general court-martial, said that while Kelley’s punitive discharge — a bad conduct discharge — would not have prohibited him from owning a gun, his sentence to a year’s confinement in a military prison would have.

Under federal law, anyone convicted of “a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” is prohibited from possessing a firearm, federal officials said.

“He fractured his baby stepson’s skull,” Christensen said of the crime of which Kelley was convicted.

Air Force officials are investigating the mistake, Pentagon officials confirmed to The Associated Press.

Texas Department of Public Safety and other state officials said earlier Monday that Kelley was denied a state handgun license, even though he would not have needed one to possess the Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic assault rifle reportedly used in the shooting.

We have a system in place that should have prevented this man from buying those guns. (The fact that anyone can buy assault rifles like the one he used is another matter, but let’s put that aside for now.) But a background check system relies on accurate data, and our system has a lot of holes in it, including this pretty glaring one. Back in the 90’s, after Georges Hennard killed 25 people at a Luby’s in Killeen, our legislature responded by passing the concealed carry law. Can we respond to the tragedy in Sutherland Springs by working to fix the problems with the national background check system? Can we at least try to do that much? I would like to think so, but we’ve seen this movie before and we know how it ends. Mother Jones and the Current have more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Late money in the HISD races

Here it comes.

A political action committee mostly funded by the nation’s largest teachers’ union has received $225,000 to spend on supporting four candidates for the Houston ISD school board election and a city ballot measure, campaign finance reports show.

Houston United for Strong Public Schools plans to spend in support of three incumbent candidates — Wanda Adams, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Anne Sung — and newcomer Elizabeth Santos ahead of Tuesday’s election, records show. The PAC doesn’t plan to spend on candidates in two other Houston ISD board races.

Political action committees operate independently of individual candidates’ campaigns. Houston United for Strong Public Schools has received the most donations to date among PACs supporting local school board candidates.

Records show Houston United for Strong Public Schools took in $150,000 from the political arm of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents about 1.7 million public employees, most of them working in schools.

The PAC also received $75,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union representing about 1.6 million public service employees. In addition to supporting the four board candidates, the PAC plans to spend in favor of a Houston city ballot measure to authorize the sale of $1 billion in bonds under a pension reform plan.

That’s a lot of money, but at least from my perspective in District I, it hasn’t been particularly visible to me. I’ve received mail from the Santos campaign, but no more than what I’ve received from the Himsl and Richart campaigns. I haven’t received any robocalls or been visited by any canvassers – for whatever the reason, it’s extremely rare for someone to knock on my door on behalf of a campaign – and if there are ads running on TV or the radio, I’ve not seen them. I don’t think I’ve seen any Facebook ads or ads in my Gmail, either. Maybe the bulk of this money is being earmarked for a runoff, I don’t know. Risky strategy if that’s the case.

The eight day finance reports are now available, but you won’t see any activity related to HUSPS in there. For example, here’s Santos’ 8 day report, which includes a $5K donation from Houston Federation of Teachers COPE, but HUSPS is nowhere to be seen. You have to go to the Texas Ethics Commission page and search for Houston United for Strong Public Schools there. In their TEC report, you can see that while they’ve raised $225K, they’ve only spent $115K, and $47K of that was for polling, which ought to be fascinating given the turnout context. I can’t tell from this how much they have spent in each race – there isn’t a single entry that specifies a dollar amount for Santos, for example. I don’t spend as much time with PAC reports as I have done with candidate reports, so maybe I just don’t know how to read these. Point is, this is where to look to get the details.

All of this has caused some controversy, which has played out on Facebook. The HUSPS website has no “About” page, and it took some sleuthing to figure out their origin. Not to put too fine a point on it, but large amounts of money being spent on local races by groups whose backers are not apparent is generally something that many of us find alarming. As Campos has noted, it’s hardly unusual for the HFT to get involved in HISD elections – they’re as much of a stakeholder as anyone else, after all – but this method of doing so is new. I don’t understand the rationale behind this approach, either, but it is what they have chosen to do. We’ll see how it plays out.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Freedmen’s Town may get UNESCO designation

That’s cool.

For all the years the historic bricks of Freedmen’s Town in Fourth Ward were questioned, devalued and disturbed, a new international spotlight is bringing a renewed appreciation for the strenuous efforts to validate, treasure and preserve them.

UNESCO – the Paris-based cultural arm of the United Nations – is considering Freedmen’s Town for its Slave Route Project, which is a registry created in 1994 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization of historically significant sites that tell the global story of the trade in human labor.

Jane Landers, the U.S. envoy for the Slave Route Project, spent three days last week in the Houston area learning about Freedmen’s Town and other sites that can be combined for a nomination.

“It’s a project to memorialize sites around the world where slaves had an impact. Africans that were torn from their homes and transported across the Middle Passage to sites all over the world were dispersed, but created unique communities often wherever they went. The slave route is to acknowledge that and to mark it,” Landers said. “My job is to find places like this that deserve to be preserved and memorialized and to help people make a nomination.”

[…]

Landers said she was impressed by the documentation of Freedmen’s Town, particularly the archaeology and Texas Historical Commission markers. She said the case for the proposal has been made through decades of preservation work. Now, that effort and evidence needs to be packaged.

“There is certainly enough research and history here that it should have a tremendous reception,” she said. “If it were just a place where you knew there once were slaves who became free, there are those all over the South. You have to have all the research and the investment and the community that this has to make it a viable project.”

Texas has only one World Heritage Site among two dozen in the United States. The San Antonio Missions, including The Alamo, were designated in 2015 after a decade of persistence by preservationists and officials.

It’s unclear to me how long this process might take or what the criteria are for receiving the designation. Also unclear is whether this designation would offer any form of enforceable protection for the historic site, which has been greatly threatened by gentrification. Regardless, it would be a well deserved honor if it happens.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Improving how animals are rescued

One of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina was the need to rescue pets along with their owners, and to do everything possible to keep them together afterwards. This Texas Monthly story describes how that went with Harvey.

There are a few best practices that became understood in the wake of Katrina: holding animals in the local area for much longer than in the past, ensuring that evacuees had opportunities to find their animals quickly, and sending animals that the organizations were confident were unowned to facilities where they could be adopted effectively. All of that came to bear in the wake of Harvey. “At the Montgomery County Animal Shelter, the warehouse set up as a staging area for bringing in these animals is right next to a Red Cross shelter,” explains Barbara Williamson of Best Friends Animal Society. “There are animals there that are somebody’s pets, and they can come and visit their pets. Post-Hurricane Katrina, if you were to talk to anybody in state disaster response in any state, that’s a priority. The recognition that pets are members of the family, and sometimes they’re the only thing people have left. They got out with their kids and their pets, and the last thing you want is for them to lose that four-footed family member.”

Also crucial is ensuring that families and their pets don’t get separated in the first place. Not all shelters for human evacuees are equipped to take care of pets, which is something that Austin Pets Alive—which found itself spearheading many of the animal-based relief operations around Harvey—stepped in to help with.

Mary Heerwald of Austin Pets Alive said that her organization didn’t know exactly what to expect when they got to Houston a few days after Harvey hit. They had expectations of how they’d be useful, but they quickly learned that the city’s needs were different from what they had imagined. “When we made it down to Houston, we didn’t know what we were walking into. We came with motorized canoes and boats and thought that we’d need to literally rescue animals from the water,” she says. “What we quickly found out was that no one has stepped up yet to figure out what to do with the pets who were being rescued. Once you remove a cat from the top of a car or a dog from a flooding backyard, then what do you do? They still need a chance to live and either find their family, or a safe and happy adoptive home. So we became the accidental spearheads of the pet lifesaving initiative in relation to Hurricane Harvey.”

Here’s the Austin Pets Alive! page for Harvey evacuations. The immediate need has passed, but foster homes for animals whom they hope to adopt out are always in demand. Reach out to them or to Houston Pets Alive! if you want to help.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

Sutherland Springs

I don’t even know what to say. I worry more about some random asshole with a gun more than I do about anything else that could harm me or my family. I’ll say it again, because I keep having to say it, nothing will change until we start electing different people. Continuing to do what we’ve always done is to accept these unacceptably common events as normal. I refuse to do that.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Weekend link dump for November 5

“It is rare for a new animal species to emerge in front of scientists’ eyes. But this seems to be happening in eastern North America”.

What if horror movies actually stop crime, not cause it?

It was the flu pandemic, and it swept the whole world wide/It caught soldiers and civilians, and they died died died.

Superstorm Sandy, five years later.

So why did Paul Manafort go to work for Donald Trump?

Facebook’s bigotry problem goes well before the 2016 election.

“What the U.S. Olympic Committee can — and can’t — do about sexual abuse”.

“The recent torrent of public allegations against celebrities such as Harvey Weinstein, Terry Richardson and James Toback is unprecedented. But the stories have been circulating on the industry grapevine, and on blogs and social media, and among women especially, for years. The headlines are shocking — unless you read Gawker before it was shut down, in which case this may feel like a throwback, to a time when sexual aggressors roamed the land, but had not yet occupied the presidency.”

Buffy the Middle School Vampire Slayer. I may need to pick that up for my girls and see if they like it.

“An estimated 126 million Americans, roughly one-third of the nation’s population, received Russian-backed content on Facebook during the 2016 campaign”.

There’s little evidence to suggest that corporate training about sexual harassment is effective.

“The National Braille Press has been churning out millions of pages of braille books and magazines a year. But as it turns 90 this year, advocates of the tactile writing system are wrestling with how to address record low Braille literacy.”

My high school classmate Jessica Safran is among those quoted in this Chicago Tribune story about dealing with a recurrence of cancer. She died this week, leaving behind a husband and 12-year-old daughter and about a million friends. Rest in peace, Jessica.

RIP, Rick Hader, minor league baseball entertainer known as Myron Noodleman. I saw him perform at a game in Butte, Montana (seriously) in 1996. He was a hoot, and one of the ways in which minor league baseball is awesome.

Yes, there are limits on attorney-client privilege.

Poor, pitiful Papa John’s. Make better pizza, I say. And tell your CEO to quit being an ass.

“Okay, fine, you’re allowed to propose at a stadium if you just won the World Series there”.

“There are many good reasons to criticize Sarah Huckabee Sanders. This isn’t one of them.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

2017 EV daily report: Final numbers and our attempt at projecting turnout

Here are the final numbers. Believe it or not, people did vote on Friday despite the fact that the entire metro area appeared to be at the Astros parade. Here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   46,224  12,205   58,429   19,875
2015  164,104  29,859  193,963   43,280
2011   49,669   8,676   58,345   15,264
2007   43,420   6,844   50,264   13,870

So 2017 early voting is almost identical in total to 2011 and ahead of 2007, but the source of the votes are different. 2017 trails 2011 with in person voting but makes up for that in absentee ballots, and holds a sizable lead in absentee ballots over 2007. That’s a clear change in voter behavior, and something to continue to watch as we go forward.

One other difference to point out, which requires another set of numbers. Here are the last day in person totals for the odd year elections going back to 2007:

2017 = 9,092
2015 = 35,493
2013 = 18,893
2011 = 10,559
2009 = 17,072
2007 = 10,473

Even with more people voting early, this year’s last day totals are the weakest we’ve ever seen. I’d attribute some of that to the Astros parade, and some of it to the overall lack of campaign activity compared to previous years. One possible effect of this is that more people will wind up voting on Tuesday than we would have expected. Turnout wasn’t just lower than one might have thought on Friday, after all. The whole week was lighter than it might have been, and to the extent that was a real thing and not just the way this year would have played out anyway I’ll cite the World Series as a reason. Unless the term limits referendum gets thrown out and we get put back on two year terms, we’ll next have a chance to see what a non-Mayoral election year is like in 2021. And who knows, maybe the Astros will be in the World Series again then.

So we turn our attention to final turnout. For once, I’m not going to overthink this. As we’ve already established, city turnout in odd years is roughly 70% of the county; it ranges from about 67% in years where there isn’t something that specifically drives non-city voters to the polls to 73%, and we’re splitting the difference. In odd years past, early voting has been between 40 and 50 percent of final turnout. I continue to believe that early voting will be a higher share of this year’s tally, partly because of trends we’ve seen in other years and partly out of the belief that hardcore voters are more likely to vote early, but I’m not going to put all my eggs in that basket. If we assume the range of outcomes is that early voting will be between 40 and 60 percent of the final total, then when the dust clears we should expect between 54,000 and 81,000 voters. Which, again, corresponds pretty well to my original gut-feel estimates of 50 to 75 thousand. I love it when reality seems to line up with my intuition. All that said, I could be off in any number of directions, and that guesstimated range is wide enough to cover a lot of potential error. Feel free to make your own guesses in the comments.

Posted in: Election 2017.

More on Democratic Congressional candidate fundraising

From the Statesman, with a focus on Austin-area candidates, but also with a more holistic view of what the atmosphere is like.

Joseph Kopser

“Trump’s lower than average net approval ratings for a Republican in Texas, as well as anger and dismay within the activist ranks of the Democratic Party, has resulted in more than 50 Democratic candidates launching bids to flip the state’s 25 Republican held seats in 2018,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor.

“More than a dozen of these candidates are considered to be high-quality candidates, and 12 have already raised more than $100,000 so far this cycle,” said Jones. In the 2016 election cycle only one Texas Democratic congressional challenger, former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, raised more than $100,000. (Gallego narrowly lost to U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes.)

Joseph Kopser, an Austin tech executive and 20-year Army veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq, reported raising $213,000 during the three months ending Sept. 30 — $14,000 more than incumbent U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, raised during that period.

But Smith, who was first elected to Congress in 1986, has almost $1 million cash on hand while Kopser has a little over $219,000. The 21st District, which includes staunchly liberal pockets west and south of downtown Austin, encompasses conservative Hill Country counties, and was drawn to elect a Republican. Still, Kopser and two other Democratic challengers are counting on Smith’s climate change skepticism as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to draw Democrats and independents to the polls next year.

“Lamar Smith needs to be paying close attention,” said Calvin Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor. “His district is evolving, and he has some issue positions especially on global warming he’s going to have to defend.”

“There is an energy on the Democratic side that is showing in a larger number of candidates,” said Jillson, who added that Texas being a red state made it “very difficult” to defeat Republican incumbents.

Kopser, at least, is playing to that energy.

“It’s becoming apparent that Smith is so out of touch he doesn’t even realize how fired up his district is today,” said Kopser, who co-founded a clean energy transportation company and is being supported by a pro-science group, 314 Action. Other Democratic candidates challenging Smith: Derrick Crowe, an Austin organizer and former congressional staffer, who raised $25,000, and Elliott McFadden, CEO of the nonprofit Austin B-cycle, who raised $16,000.

[…]

In Round Rock, Mary Jennings Hegar, a former Air Force helicopter pilot, reported raising $93,000 July 1-Sept. 30, in her bid to run against U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, who raised $113,000 during the same period. Carter, a former state district judge who was first elected to Congress in 2002, has $437,000 in his campaign coffers, compared with just $54,000 for Hegar.

The district, which includes a large part of Fort Hood, skews Republican, but in several Round Rock and Cedar Park precincts, Democrat Hillary Clinton outpolled Trump last November.

“I’m really pleased we out-raised him by about $10,000 in individual contributions,” said Hegar, attributing Carter’s fundraising edge to corporate and PAC contributions. “We have the grass roots on the ground.”

See here for the full roundup of Q3 finance reports. Lamar Smith has since announced his retirement, but the main point still stands. That statistic about Pete Gallego being the only Democratic challenger to raise as much as $100K in the entire 2016 cycle highlights how different this year is. I mean, we’re a year out from the election and already a dozen candidates in the Republican-held districts have reached that mark, with two more having topped $75K. We’ve literally never seen anything like this. I don’t have any broad point to make beyond that – insert the usual caveats about money not being destiny, we’re still a long way out, much of this money will be spent in primaries, etc etc etc – I just want to make sure we’re all aware of that point. It may well be that the end results in 2018 will be like any other year, but we cannot deny that the conditions going into 2018 are not like any other year. It remains very much to be seen what that means.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Save the bats

In case you needed something else to worry about.

Texas researchers have closely watched the state’s bat population for years, looking for signs of a disease that has killed millions of North American bats: the white, powder-like substance on their nose and wings, the erratic hibernation patterns, the piles of dead bats at cave openings.

And every year, those researchers breathed a sigh of relief. Their bats were safe.

That changed last year. Swabs from three different kinds of bats in the Lone Star State’s panhandle came back positive for white nose syndrome, aptly named for the white fungus that grows on the tiny winged creatures.

The discovery of the disease, which has a nearly 100 percent mortality rate, was “devastating,” said Winifred Frick, senior director of conservation science at the Austin-based Bat Conservation International (BCI), at a news conference Tuesday.

But about $600,000 in grants announced Tuesday by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation could help researchers stop the disease’s spread in Texas. That amount is part of $1.36 million being handed out in the U.S. and Canada for six projects. The money comes from public and private entities: the foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Shell Oil Co., and Southern Co., an Atlanta-based gas and electric utility business.

With these funds “we’re hoping to make a stand,” said Paul Phifer, assistant regional director for ecological services at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast region. “They show that the government working with the private sector can really turn research into action … so I’m really hopeful.”

I’m hopeful, too, because Texas is a very bat-ful state, and we need them around. Go visit Bat Conservation International if you want to learn more or get involved.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Saturday video break: Sledgehammer

Here’s Fifth Harmony:

As you may surmise, they’re one of those artists I know about thanks to my kids. They have several songs I like, this one included, so that’s a win. Those of you who aren’t millennials or proximate to kids are probably more familiar with Peter Gabriel’s song of the same name:

A true MTV classic, which I figure had to be a pain to make. Also, sex metaphors are sexy. And metaphorical.

Posted in: Music.