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At Large

A clean separation

Well done.

Richard Carranza

Former Houston ISD superintendent Richard Carranza’s resignation from the district involved no financial settlements, and the two sides agreed not to sue each other following the separation, according to documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

A written agreement between Carranza and HISD board members shows a clean break after Carranza announced in early March that he planned to become chancellor of New York City public schools. Carranza officially resigned on March 31 and started his job in New York City on April 2. HISD board members have appointed Grenita Lathan, who previously served as the district’s chief academic officer, to serve indefinitely as interim superintendent.

Carranza’s three-year contract ran through August 2019, leading to questions about whether he would face any repercussions for resigning midway through that term. His contract didn’t include any penalties for resigning before August 2019, and it did stipulate both sides could mutually agree to end the agreement.

Carranza was paid his regular salary of $345,000 and benefits through March 31. He was allowed to take accrued but unused personal days through the last week of his employment.

[…]

Trustees have given no timetable for hiring a permanent superintendent. District officials on Wednesday named an interim chief academic officer, Noelia Longoria, to fill Lathan’s position. Longoria previously served as assistant superintendent of HISD’s Office of School Choice.

No drama is fine by me, and the terms are boringly normal. May it be this easy finding the right candidate to replace Carranza.

On a side note, the Chron editorial board calls for a change in how HISD trustees are elected.

One significant change that Houston ISD should consider is changing the way it elects school board members. Currently, the nine trustees are elected from single-member districts, rather than by voters from throughout the school district.

Texas law allows a couple of alternatives. One would be a board made up of a mix of single-member and at-large trustees. This is similar to how Houston’s City Council is elected. Sixty smaller school districts across Texas use this governance system, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.

Another alternative would be to switch to cumulative voting, where voters across the school district would be allowed to cast as many votes as there are candidates. This option has been available to Texas school districts since 1995 and is used by a number of smaller school districts for at-large trustee elections.

Changing the governance model could help address one of the biggest challenges facing the school board: Members are concerned about struggling campuses in their own electoral district, but not necessarily in the districts of other trustees.

Single-member districts have played a major role in assuring more diversity on school boards. They help ensure that multiple voices are heard in the development of education policy. But they also can result in a balkanized school district, with trustees focused on their individual parts rather than the whole.

The Chron notes that this “balkanization” was one of the reasons Rep. Harold Dutton pushed through HB 1842, the bill that now has HISD under the gun for the chronically low-performing schools. I’m kind of meh on this idea. I suppose a hybrid district/at large model would be all right, though I’d like someone to try to persuade me that At Large Council members are better at looking out for the interests of the entire city than the district members are (and I say that as someone who supports having At Large council members). I’m not convinced we need to change to do a better job of achieving our goals, but I’ll listen if you want to make a pitch. Campos has more.

An unsatisfying attempt at projecting turnout

So as we all know, this in an unprecedented election, as there are no city races on the ballot. This has everyone wondering about turnout, because the usual drivers of turnout are a Mayor’s race and/or a big referendum, and we have neither of those. What can we guess from past turnout?

There are two components of interest here, overall turnout in the city and in the districts that have contested races. Those races of interest are in HISD, so my first thought was to look at some past elections to see what we could learn from the ratio of voters in each district to total voters in Houston. If that’s reasonably consistent, then we can make a projection for the districts on the ballot based on what we think the top level is.

HISD Trustee terms are four years, so our points of comparison are the years in which the same districts are up. Here are the citywide numbers from the Harris County Clerk:


Year      Turnout
=================
2001      284,748
2005      189,046
2009      178,777
2013      174,620

Yes, there are city voters outside Harris County, but none of them intersect with HISD, so we can safely ignore them. Now here are the totals for the five HISD districts that are normally on the ballot in these cycles:


Dist   2001 Share    2005 Share    2009 Share    2013 Share
===========================================================
I    12,515  4.40  10,159  5.37   9,823  5.49  10,521  6.03
V    21,761  7.64                14,550  8.14
VI
VII                                            12,394  7.10
IX   17,524  6.15  12,372  6.54  12,299  6.88  11,245  6.44

And right here you can see why I called this an “unsatisfying” attempt at this projection. The County Clerk only shows the results for contested school board races, and Districts V, VI, and VII haven’t had a lot of those in recent years. We do have good data in I and IX, and those numbers are interesting. District IX is very consistent. If you know what overall city turnout was, you can make a pretty good guess as to turnout in IX. District I, on the other hand, shows a steady upward trend. I’d say that’s the result of changes in the district, which encompasses a good chunk of the Heights and surrounding areas that have been gentrifying. As such, I’d consider the 2013 numbers to be a floor for this year.

That leaves us with the question of what citywide turnout might be. We do have a model for guessing turnout in elections with no Mayor’s race. Since 2005, there have been six At Large City Council runoffs with no corresponding Mayor’s runoff, and in 2007 there was a special May election with June runoff for At Large #3. Here are the vote totals in those races:


2005 At Large #2 runoff = 35,922
2007 At Large #3 May    = 33,853
2007 At Large #3 June   = 24,746
2007 At Large #5 runoff = 23,548
2011 At Large #2 runoff = 51,239
2011 At Large #5 runoff = 55,511
2013 At Large #2 runoff = 32,930
2013 At Large #3 runoff = 33,824

Those numbers are pretty consistent with my earlier finding that there are about 36,000 people who voted in every city election from 2003 to 2013. There won’t be a Mayor’s race this year, but the school board candidates are out there campaigning, and I expect they’ll draw a few people to the polls who aren’t in that group. Similarly, there will be a campaign for the bond issues on the ballot, and that should nudge things up a bit as well. I think a reasonable, perhaps slightly optimistic but not outrageous, estimate is about 50,000 votes total. If that’s the case, then my projections for the school board races are as follows:


District I   = 3,000 (6% of the total)
District V   = 4,000 (8%)
District VII = 3,500 (7%)
District IX  = 3,250 (6.5%)

You can adjust up or down based on your opinion of the 50K overall estimate. If these numbers represent the over/under line, I’d be inclined to put a few bucks on the over in each, just because there will be actual campaign activity in them and there won’t be elsewhere. I don’t think that will be a big difference-maker, but it ought to mean a little something. All of this is about as scientific as a SurveyMonkey poll, but it’s a starting point. I’ll be sure to follow up after the election, because we may want to do this again in four years’ time, when the next Mayor-free election could be.

Is Bill King a sign of a trend?

Probably not. Doesn’t mean that other candidates like him can’t do well, however.

Bill King

Bill King

Bill King’s near-upset over Sylvester Turner in the Houston mayoral runoff stoked the hopes of some Republicans that the party soon could break Democrats’ 34-year hold on City Hall.

Political experts, however, attributed King’s success more to his unique profile as a moderate fiscal conservative than a Republican resurgence in the Bayou City.

“King pretty skillfully positioned himself. He didn’t run as a Republican but happily accepted the support of Republicans,” University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said. “You might get elected with support from Republicans, but that’s not enough to win unless the turnout is extremely skewed.”

Murray estimated Republicans make up about 35 to 40 percent of the city electorate, just 21 percent of whom cast a ballot in last Saturday’s runoff election to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker.

[…]

Kingwood Tea Party co-founder Jim Lennon said King’s bid instilled new confidence in Houston Republicans.

“With the results of this race being so close, I think there’s a change in attitude,” Lennon said. “We know we can win. We know we can put together a coalition.”

Nonetheless, Lennon acknowledged that the former Kemah mayor’s bid may be difficult to replicate.

“I don’t think there’s a deep bench of Republican politicians that can duplicate that,” Lennon said.

As you know, I largely agree. King was a decent candidate who took advantage of the opportunities he had and ran a good campaign. He was also lucky – again, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation if Oliver Pennington had not dropped out of the race. I think we’d be talking about why Adrian Garcia fell short against Turner in the runoff. That’s the way it goes, and every successful politician, like every championship sports team, gets a bit of luck here and there.

Republicans may not be able to win a Mayor’s race in Houston, but they’ve done a lot better in At Large Council races. Steve Costello, Jack Christie, Michael Kubosh, and now Mike Knox have all won citywide since 2009. Of course, the first three all won with the support of a significant number of Democratic voters – Costello (who basically profiled and governed as a moderate Dem) and Christie have done well with Anglo Dems, while Kubosh has solid support among African-American voters stemming from his previous work on the red light camera referendum. Only Knox won based on Republican votes, and that comes with a bit of an asterisk, given how low profile his runoff election was. The real test will be in 2019, when Christie is termed out and Knox will have to run without the backdrop of a King candidacy. If the Dems could unite on a single candidate against Knox (I know, I know) then that person ought to be favored. But let’s worry about that later, like maybe after the current electeds get sworn in and figure out where their offices are.

Finally, however swell the GOP establishment may feel about their near-miss with Bill King, it should be noted that they also had a good chance to win the Controller’s office as well, but missed that by a wider mark. Bill Frazer was a well-qualified candidate who was much more clearly identified with the Republican Party and who was as focused on pensions and fiscal matters as King. He was also Chron-endorsed and led the field in November after running a strong race in 2013, yet he wound up more than 10,000 votes behind Chris Brown (remember to add in the Fort Bend votes when you tally it all up). Brown had a bit of a financial edge, he had a bunch of ads running on cable TV, and he definitely made this a D-versus-R race. At a guess, I’d say that he had the support of a lot of Anglo Dems who had gone with King. All of which is a longwinded way of saying what Jim Lennon said: It’s hard for them to duplicate what King did.

Day 12 EV 2015 totals: Final turnout projections

The last day was another big one:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2015  164,104  29,859  193,963   43,280
2013   87,944  21,426  109,370   30,572

The running 2015 totals are here, the full 2013 totals are here, and for completeness the full 2009 totals are here. Before I go on, let me note that the numbers noted in the Chron story I blogged about on Friday were completely bogus. I have no idea where Mike Morris came up with them. Here’s a more accurate rendition, which please note reflects Harris County only:


Year     Early    E-Day    Total   Early%
=========================================
2003    83,225  214,885  298,110    27.9%
2005    49,889  139,157  189,046    26.4%
2007    36,707   86,703  123,410    29.7%
2009    62,428  116,349  178,777    34.9%
2011    46,446   75,022  121,468    38.2%
2013    80,437   94,183  174,620    46.1%

2010   215,884  173,194  329,428    55.4%
2012   364,272  212,277  576,549    63.2%

I threw in 2005 and 2007 so we could see the trend. Morris’ overall totals were correct, but the way he apportioned mail, early in person, and Election Day subtotals was off the rails for some reason. I also included the two even years, both of which featured city of Houston ballot propositions, as a further point of comparison and to emphasize that there really is a lot of room for behavior shifting. My guess is that about 60% of all ballots have been cast as of now. Assuming about 140,000 of the early votes from Harris and elsewhere are Houston voters, that suggests a final city turnout of about 233,000. That’s in line with what the paid professionals are saying.

EarlyVoting

Political scientists projected between 220,000 and 250,000 city voters will head to the polls by election night’s close, up from more than 178,000 in 2009, the last time there was an open-seat mayor’s race.

Friday marked the close of two weeks of early voting in Harris County.

Early turnout was particularly strong in African American and conservative areas, political scientists said, a boon to Houston mayoral candidates Sylvester Turner and Bill King.

“I think Sylvester could get close to 30 percent of the vote,” Rice University political scientist Bob Stein said, noting that turnout by district so far “clearly advantages somebody like Bill King” for the second spot in a likely December runoff.

If those voting patterns continue through Election Day, the city’s equal rights ordinance, dubbed HERO, also is expected to face a tough road to passage.

“This may spell doom or defeat for the HERO ordinance,” TSU political scientist Michael Adams said, noting that turnout has been comparatively low among traditionally progressive inner-loop Anglo voters.

Citing a TSU analysis, Adams said about 53 percent of early city voters through Thursday were white, 28.5 percent were African American, 11.5 percent were Hispanic and 4 percent were Asian.

He also estimated that approximately 56 percent were Democrats, while 44 percent were Republicans.

As of September, more than two million Harris County residents were eligible to vote on Nov. 3, with more than 978,000 of them residing in Houston, according to the Harris County Clerk’s office.

The share of votes cast early or by mail in recent mayoral races has increased steadily, from 28 percent in 2003, to 46 percent in 2013.

These figures do not include the handful of city precincts outside of Harris County.

Though some have speculated that this year’s spike in early voting could portend low turnout on Election Day, Stein said he expects about half of those who cast a ballot will head to the polls on Tuesday.

I think it’s going to be a bit less than half, but we’ll see. I’ll spare you another discussion of the prospects for HERO, I’ll just note that the world is watching, so it would be nice for us to not look bad. I’ll also note again the overwhelming support for HERO from the business community, which 1) suggests that perhaps Republican voter support for HERO is being underestimated, and 2) suggests again that business leaders who have been supporting politicians like Dan Patrick and others who oppose so many of their interests really ought to rethink that. As for the effect on the Mayor’s race, put me donw for being slightly skeptical that robust Republican turnout necessarily benefits Bill King. Republicans are far from unanimous in their preference, and I’m not convinced that King has that much name recognition, especially with the less-frequent city voters. I’m not saying he won’t do well, just that it’s hardly a guarantee. Along these same lines, the effect of higher than usual turnout on the other citywide races, for Controller and At Large Council seats, is very much an open question. What do voters do when they don’t know the candidates, as will often be the case in these races, since it costs a lot of money to really get your name out there? I suspect that more than the usual number will skip these races – undervotes in the 30% range or higher, perhaps – and some will pick a name that sounds familiar to them. What effect that will have is anyone’s guess, but if there’s a goofy result or two, don’t be shocked.

The At Large trend

From Think Progress:

Pasadena City Council

Yakima, WA is one-third Latino, but a Latino candidate has not been elected to the city council for almost 40 years. Santa Barbara, CA is 38 percent Latino, but only one Latino has been elected to its council in the last 10 years. And Pasadena, TX is 43 percent Hispanic, but the ethnic group is not even close to being proportionately represented in the city government.

All three cities have been or are currently being sued for allegedly using discriminatory at-large voting systems, a voter dilution tactic that has been recently and frequently employed against Hispanic voters. In an at-large system, every city resident votes for each member of the governing body and the city does not divide voters into districts.

As the Latino population grows across the country, cities have employed at-large voting to dilute the Latino vote and maintain white control of local governing bodies. Instead of allowing each district to elect its own representative, an at-large system means that unless Hispanic populations reach a majority in the entire city, they will have no influence in electing their local members of government. According to Fair Vote, at-large systems allow 50 percent of voters to control 100 percent of seats, typically resulting in racially homogeneous elected bodies. The tactic used to be popular in the South to discriminate against neighborhoods with large African American communities but is now targeting a new threat: Latinos.

Recently, a court in Washington struck down the city of Yakima’s at-large voting system — whose representation is elected by the city as a whole rather than by specific districts — ruling that it was discriminatory and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Lawsuits against cities attempting to dilute the Hispanic vote are gaining traction as more and more end with court orders and settlements that favor the plaintiffs, said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

“A lawsuit like [Yakima] will clearly have a very important impact,” McDonald told ThinkProgress. “This was the first Section 2 challenge to an at-large system that was brought in Washington state and already the Hispanic population in Pasco, Washington has approached the city council there and asked them to adopt a single member district plan to replace the at-large system.”

Kathleen Taylor, the executive director of Washington’s ACLU branch, said the city of Pasco is likely to change its system before it is sued and ends up in a similar position to Yakima.

After ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in the suit against Yakima, the judge adopted the ACLU’s voting plan, which called for an elimination of the at-large system. The ACLU is also asking Yakima for more than $2.8 million in legal fees and expenses. “If you bring a lawsuit now, these jurisdictions understand that if they lose, they will be liable for a substantial amount of costs and fees,” McDonald said. “That will have an important impact on their decision to settle these cases.”

Last month, the city of Santa Barbara, CA partially settled a similar suit, alleging its voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act. The city is currently drawing six new districts with citizen input to ensure that the Hispanic population, which makes up nearly 40 percent of the city, is not discriminated against. The lead plaintiff told the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Daily Nexus that the city is saving more than $2 million by settling the litigation for around $600,000 and not allowing it to go to trial, where the plaintiffs would likely prevail.

Because California has a state voting rights law, it “facilitates this type of challenge,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As a result, he said we will see a lot of settlements and moves away from at-large systems in California.

Yeah, we don’t have that in Texas, and with the Congress we have now, we won’t have it again nationally any time soon. I don’t have a problem with At Large districts per se, but there’s no mistaking the intent here. One only need look at a city like Farmers Branch to see what the effect can be when a more inclusive Council plan is adopted. We can also look to Pasadena, where we have an opportunity this May to minimize the damage being done. Ultimately, changes will have to be made at a higher level to prevent this kind of shenanigans at the local level.

More candidate updates

Another Council hopeful tosses his hat into the ring, though we don’t know exactly which office he intends to seek just yet.

Tom McCasland

Tom McCasland, who took over the Harris County Housing Authority after it suffered in scandal, will run for an at-large city council seat this year, according to a campaign treasurer designation.

McCasland told the Chronicle Thursday that he has not yet decided which of the five at-large seats to seek, but that he plans to make a decision over the next month-and-a-half. Incumbents are term-limited in at-large positions 1 and 4, and those vacancies have drawn most of the candidates over the past six months.

“I’m taking a look at all the options,” he said.

The HCHA director designated a treasurer for a campaign committee and a separate specific-purpose political action committee to support his campaign this week. He said he currently is assembling a campaign team and raising money.

See this Chron story for some background on McCasland, and this story for a brief refresher on the mess he inherited at HCHA. The Houston Politics post also mentions that McCasland worked on Bill White’s 2010 campaign for Governor. Far as I can recall I’ve never met him and don’t know anything about him beyond what I’ve noted here. Sometimes, people who say they’re running for “something” but don’t specify what wind up not running for anything. We’ll see what happens here.

Meanwhile, two other candidates who had previously been reported to be running for something have confirmed their candidacies. The first announcement to hit my inbox this past week came from Amanda Edwards, who is now officially a candidate for At Large #4. You can read her press release here.

The other candidate to confirm what we had expected to be true is Bill Frazer, who sent out a media advisory saying that he will formally announce his candidacy for Controller on February 17. Frazer is one of three sure candidates, with two others still on the periphery. February is prime candidate-announcing time, so expect this sort of thing to continue for the next few weeks at least.

Don’t forget about Pasadena

There’s still a lawsuit in the works regarding their 2013 redistricting referendum that switched their Council from an eight-member all-district makeup to six districts and two At large seats, all at the behest of Mayor Johnny Isbell.

Pasadena City Council

Pasadena is preparing to change the makeup of its city council in a way that city fathers hope fosters new development, but that some Hispanics allege dilutes their influence. The case could become a test of the Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down most of the federal Voting Rights Act, giving cities in many Southern states new latitude to change election laws affecting minorities without first getting federal approval.

“Clearly it was racism,” said Pasadena Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra, one of two Hispanics on Pasadena’s eight-member council, about the town’s planned council changes. The campaign for a new voting system “was meant to scare Anglos, and it was effective,” he said.

In Pasadena, which is roughly 60 percent Hispanic, voters approved a referendum that replaces two city council seats representing districts with at-large seats, which Hispanic leaders say will negate their growing population numbers. The new format was proposed by the mayor, who is white, in July 2013, one month after the high court decision.

The mayor and supporters insist the new format will bring more participation by all Pasadena residents because they’ll have more to vote for. They note that other cities, including Houston, have at-large council members.

[…]

Some Hispanics fear that wealthier white candidates will have the upper hand in at-large races that demand costlier citywide campaigns.

Suing the city on behalf of five Hispanic residents is the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which also took Texas to court over the state’s new voter ID law.

Since the Supreme Court ruling last year, most attention has focused on statewide-voting changes made in some of the 15 states covered by the Voting Rights Act, which was passed during the Civil Rights era. The Pasadena case is one of the first involving a city.

The plaintiffs face the burden of proving intentional discrimination. Civil rights attorneys say they worry that the money and effort of mounting a challenge will discourage action in many cities.

See here, here, here, here, and here. I don’t see any information about when the lawsuit that was filed will be heard, but I’m sure it’s on a docket somewhere. The bit I quoted above is what interests me here, as it contains a testable proposition. The city of Pasadena, which is to say Mayor Isbell and his enablers, claim that by switching to a hybrid at large/single member district system, turnout will increase in Pasadena. I’d love to review what turnout has been in Pasadena over the past few cycles, but for the life of me I can’t find past election results from Pasadena anywhere – they are not in the Harris County Clerk election results, much to my surprise. If anyone can point me to them, I’d be grateful. In any event, there’s another avenue for investigation, and that’s turnout in the Houston district Council races versus turnout in the At Large races, since the Houston model is cited as what Pasadena aspires to. What I’m going to look at is the undervote rate in district versus At Large races, on the theory that if no one casts a vote in a particular race, it’s hard to claim that that race affected overall turnout in a positive way. Here’s the data for Houston, for the last six elections:

2013 Undervote 2011 Undervote 2009 Undervote ============================================================= Mayor 2.76% Mayor 4.18% Mayor 2.05% Dist A 10.36% Dist A 8.85% Dist A 18.24% Dist B 11.12% Dist B 9.78% Dist B 14.94% Dist D 12.53% Dist C 5.61% Dist C 13.30% Dist F 21.40% Dist D 8.91% Dist D 15.05% Dist G 22.47% Dist F 12.96% Dist E 14.98% Dist I 10.44% Dist G 14.32% Dist F 8.64% Dist I 11.73% Dist G 22.51% AL 1 27.49% Dist J 10.74% AL 2 29.76% Dist K 11.44% AL 1 28.48% AL 3 26.37% AL 2 30.65% AL 4 24.87% AL 1 22.50% AL 4 28.36% AL 5 28.03% AL 2 17.97% AL 5 25.89% AL 3 20.81% Controller 22.32% AL 4 20.05% Controller 15.39% AL 5 12.03% 2007 Undervote 2005 Undervote 2003 Undervote ============================================================= Mayor 6.73% Mayor 5.51% Mayor 1.38% Dist B 10.55% Dist A 19.01% Dist A 13.49% Dist C 11.40% Dist B 8.65% Dist B 11.97% Dist D 10.66% Dist C 12.82% Dist C 12.86% Dist E 10.29% Dist F 10.13% Dist E 12.90% Dist I 9.80% Dist H 12.10% Dist F 13.97% Dist I 9.33% Dist G 14.20% AL 1 31.53% Dist H 10.29% AL 2 24.94% AL 1 20.88% Dist I 13.13% AL 3 18.61% AL 2 26.37% AL 5 19.86% AL 3 24.62% AL 1 20.46% AL 5 22.92% AL 2 22.84% AL 3 18.05% AL 4 19.24% AL 5 17.29% Controller 14.04%

So over six cycles, covering the full tenures of two different Mayors and including high-turnout and low-turnout elections, the undervote rate in every single contested At Large race was higher, often significantly higher, than the undervote in every single district race, with the sole exception of At Large 5 and Districts F and G in 2011. That was the year Jolanda Jones was defeated in a runoff by Jack Christie, and it was the highest profile race that year, certainly the highest profile At Large race in any of these six years.

This to me is very strong evidence that At Large races don’t do anything to drive turnout. This should make intuitive sense – At Large races are as expensive to run as Mayoral races, but no one has anywhere near the funds to do that, while District races can be reasonably run with shoe leather and some mail. Candidates in At Large races are not as well known as candidates in district races, who have a far greater incentive to attend smaller neighborhood and civic club meetings. I’d bet we’ll see a similar pattern in Pasadena, with the district races having greater participation than the At Large races. I just hope I’ll be able to find their election results so I can check that.

This will be the first election in Pasadena under this new arrangement, assuming it isn’t thrown out before the election, which I would not expect to happen. I wish I could say that Mayor Isbell was on the ballot and that this was a chance to throw him out, but alas, he has a four year term and was re-elected in 2013. This is a chance to unseat a couple of his minions, however, and if there’s a good local opportunity for anyone upset with the 2014 elections to focus on, it’s here. The Texas Organizing Project did a lot of good work in trying to defeat the 2013 redistricting referendum, and with a little more help they might have succeeded. Whatever happens with the lawsuit, it would be nice to turn the tables in this election. You want to make a difference, get involved with TOP and help support some good candidates in Pasadena this year.

My overview of the 2011 election

Note: I was asked to write a guest post at BOR to summarize the 2011 Houston elections. I figure if I’m going to put all that effort into something, I may as well use it here, too. It’s mostly familiar stuff to you if you’ve been reading here, but feel free to clip and share anyway.

Mayor

Houston has a strong Mayor system, so this is the single most important job in city government. Mayor Annise Parker was elected in 2009, winning a runoff against former City Attorney Gene Locke; then-Council Member Peter Brown and HCDE Trustee Roy Morales also ran but did not make it to the runoff. This time around, Mayor Parker has five opponents, but none have any money or prior electoral success, and nobody expects her to be seriously challenged. She will be re-elected, it’s just a matter of the final score.

That’s the short version. Things are a little more complicated than that. The Mayor has had an eventful first term in office. Some of that is due to the city’s financial situation, which is not as bad as some other big cities but which still required $100 million in budget cuts and over 750 jobs cut, and which has looming issue with pension funds and health care costs. Some of that is due to items that were not originally on her agenda but which resulted from the 2010 election, in particular Renew Houston (now known as Rebuild Houston), which added a charter amendment directing the city to create a dedicated fee for street and drainage improvements, and the red light camera referendum that resulted in the removal of said cameras from intersections around the city. Some of that is due to items that were on her agenda, such as the new Historic Preservation ordinance that was passed amid vocal opposition.

There’s more, but you get the idea: It’s been a busy two years, and with all that action comes a certain amount of drama. For several months this year a few people who might have been serious opponents for the Mayor talked about entering the race against her. There was speculation that the Mayor could get squeezed between an African-American Democrat and an Anglo Republican, in a similar fashion to then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire in 1991. None of that panned out, but the current line of thinking among the chattering classes is that the wannabees will jump in for real if Mayor Parker doesn’t do well enough (for some value of “well enough”) against the minor opponents she does have. Ask me again in two months and I’ll tell you whether I think we’ll have a contested Mayoral election in 2013 or if Mayor Parker will get to serve her three terms without too much fuss.

City Controller

First term City Controller Ronald Green is unopposed for re-election. Nothing to see here.

City Council At Large

There are five At Large City Council seats, four of which are held by incumbents running for re-election. Three of these incumbents – CM Stephen Costello in At Large #1, CM Melissa Noriega in At Large #3, and CM C. O. “Brad” Bradford in At Large #4 – face opponents with minimal funding, and all are expected to be elected without great difficulty. The fourth incumbent, CM Jolanda Jones, won in a runoff in 2009, narrowly defeating former SBOE member Jack Christie. Christie is running again, along with businesswoman Laurie Robinson and a fourth candidate. As was the case in 2009, CM Jones has been no stranger to controversy this year, being the target of an ethics complaint that stemmed from an Office of Inspector General report that concluded Jones had used city employees and resources to benefit her private law practice, feuding with the City Attorney, and being targeted by the police and fire departments for defeat. The good news for her is that she raised over $100,000 as of June 30, far better than she did last time, and has not lost any significant endorsements. This is one race everyone will be watching.

The other At Large race that will draw attention is the one open seat race, in At Large #2, where incumbent CM Sue Lovell is term-limited out. Ten challengers are in the mix for this seat, some with better odds than others. Among them are:

Former State Rep. Kristi Thibaut.

Former GLBT Political Caucus President Jenifer Rene Pool.

Former Planning Commission member David Robinson.

Bolivar Fraga, son of former Council member Felix Fraga.

Eric Dick, whose ubiquitous campaign signs may make him the candidate with the most name recognition.

Also in the running are two of the city’s most perennial candidates, Michael “Griff” Griffin and Andrew Burks, each of whom could make it to the runoff in a low-profile election based on their own name recognition. My personal assessment of this race is that it’s a crapshoot. I can make an argument for any of these people to be in the runoff. I would not bet my own money on any particular outcome, however.

City Council District races

There are now 11 Council districts thanks to the redistricting process the city went through this year. A map of the new districts can be found here. This was the result of a 1979 lawsuit that forced the creation of district Council seats – part of the agreement was that when Houston reached 2.1 million people, two new districts would be added. Despite falling inches short of that in the official Census numbers, the city went ahead with the redraw, and while there was some pushback on the original map proposed by Mayor Parker, in the end the process went about as smoothly as you could want. How smoothly? Not a single lawsuit has been filed against the new map. How often do you hear that?

Seven district Council members are running for re-election. One, Mike Sullivan in District E, is unopposed. The other six have at least one opponent each, though many are of the fringe variety, and a few only filed at the deadline. Given that only two incumbents in any city office have lost a re-election bid since the term limits law was passed in the mid-90’s, it’s probably a safe bet that all seven will be back next year.

Four seats are open – the two newly-created seats, plus two where incumbent members were term-limited out. The latter two are Districts B and C. B is an African-American district on the northeast side of town, currently held by CM Jarvis Johnson. Eight candidates are running to replace Johnson, including his constituent services director Alvin Byrd; community organizer Phillip Bryant; businessman Jerry Davis; 24-year-old Bryan Smart; and Katherine Daniels, who is being supported by the runnerup to Johnson from the 2005 election. District C, now held by Anne Clutterbuck, was transformed into an urban core district that fills most of the space just inside the West Loop. Five candidates are on the ballot, including former State Rep. Ellen Cohen, whose name recognition and fundraising prowess have made her the acknowledged favorite in the race; realtor Karen Derr, the 2009 runnerup for At Large #1; attorney Brian Cweren, who ran for the old District C seat in 2005; and former airline pilot Joshua Verde. Both races will likely go to a runoff, with Cohen almost certainly in the mix for C while B is more open.

Finally, there are the two new districts, J and K, both of which are in the southwest part of town. J was drawn to be a Latino opportunity district, though as Greg Wythe has argued, its current demographics make it unlikely to function as such in the short term. Nonetheless, two of the three candidates for this seat are Latino: Criselda Romero, who works as a constituent coordinator for CM Ed Gonzalez, and businessman Rodrigo Cañedo; they are joined by attorney Mike Laster, who was the runnerup in District F in 2009. Laster will probably make it to the runoff, against either opponent. District K, which was drawn to be an African-American opportunity district, has three candidates as well, but only one serious candidate, attorney Larry Green. I can’t think of a scenario in which he doesn’t win easily in November.

HISD and HCC Trustee

Not strictly city of Houston, but important anyway are the elections for HISD and HCC Board of Trustees. There are four HISD Trustee races for four-year terms. One incumbent, former District B Council member (and HISD Trustee before that) Carole Mims Galloway stepped aside at the last minute; her seat will be taken by Rhonda Skillern-Jones, a member of the activist HISD Parent Visionaries group. Board President Paula Harris, who is at the center of various ethics-related issues, is being challenged by retired educator Davetta Daniels, whom Harris defeated handily in 2007. Board Vice President Manuel Rodriguez is opposed by Ramiro Fonseca, who has made this race a lot more interesting by garnering an impressive array of endorsements since his late entry, including that of Mayor Parker. Newest member Juliet Stipeche, who won a special election in 2010, will run for her first full term; she is opposed by perennial candidate/Republican activist Dorothy Olmos. On the HCC side, where terms are six years, one seat is open, as trustee Michael Williams is stepping down. He was originally going to run for Council in At Large #2 but his campaign there never got off the ground. In any event, the race for his seat is a matchup between former Council members Carroll Robinson and Jew Don Boney. One trustee, Richard Schechter, is unopposed. Finally, trustee Chris Oliver drew an opponent at the last minute, Wendell Robbins; I had not heard of him until I saw an email saying that Robbins had earned the endorsement of the Harris County Tejano Democrats.

So that’s my overview of the Houston elections. Barring anything earthshaking, we’ll have the same Mayor and Controller, and five or six of the now-16 Council members will be new. We will have at least one new HISD trustee and one new HCC Trustee, with the possibility of more for each. Looking ahead to 2013, two At Large members (Noriega and Jones, if she wins) and three District members (Wanda Adams in D, Sullivan in E, and James Rodriguez in I) will be term-limited out. We’ll see if we have a contested Mayor’s race that year or not.

A very early look at the 2011 elections

Texas on the Potomac lists 11 national races of interest for 2011. Well, of interest to some – outside of the Dallas Mayoral race, none of these mean much to me, and that’s only if incumbent Tom Leppart leaves to pursue the Senate or draws a real challenger. (Here’s a good overview of the Dallas races, if you want to know more about them.) What I care about is the races that will be on Houston ballots this November. Here’s an early look at what will be up and what we may have to look forward to.

Mayor

Obviously, the biggest race, if there is one. For a wide variety of reasons, Mayor Annise Parker is not in the same position that Bill White was six years ago, when he was set to cruise to a 90% total against a handful of nobodies. Still, Parker may or may not face a real challenger – while a number of names have been mentioned as possibilities, no one has named a treasurer or taken any other formal steps to take her on. The person most consistently mentioned as a possible opponent is Council Member C.O. Bradford, but I have my doubts that there’s anything to this, mostly because Bradford has not been a strong fundraiser in his prior campaigns, and because I have my doubts he would have much broad appeal. I think if someone doesn’t go on the record with at least a statement that he or she is “exploring” a Mayoral candidacy by the end of this month, we can expect Parker to have a clear path to a second term.

City Controller

The last year in which a sitting City Controller had an election opponent was 1997, when Sylvia Garcia knocked off Lloyd Kelley. I don’t expect anything different this year, so go ahead and pencil in Ronald Green for another term.

City Council At Large

Only one open At Large seat, the one currently held by CM Sue Lovell. I expect a big field for that seat – there are already two candidates that have made their ambitions known, Jenifer Pool and HCC Trustee Michael Williams, with several others known to be talking about it. Unlike 2009, when incumbent At Large members Lovell and Jolanda Jones were forced into runoffs before winning re-election, I don’t expect any current incumbents to face serious challenges. Someone may take a crack at Jones, but if they couldn’t take her out in 2009, I don’t expect them to do so in 2011. If CM Bradford is planning to run for Mayor, then of course there would be a second open At Large seat, in which case you may see some people shift races, and some more people jump in. I don’t really expect this to happen, but until it’s been ruled out anything is possible.

City Council district seats

2011 is the year that Council is increased to 11 district members, with new boundaries being drawn for all seats. Two current incumbents – Jarvis Johnson in B, and Anne Clutterbuck in C – are term-limited out, so there will be at least four open seats in play. With City Prop 2, which would have authorized a one-time change to the residency requirement to six months from the usual 12, being defeated, if you’re not already in the Council district you hope to run for, it’s too late. What that suggests to me is that every reasonable step will be taken to ensure that the remaining seven district incumbents can run again in those districts, leaving B and C to be sliced and diced freely if need be.

Questions to ponder before Census data comes in and the sausage-making process begins:

1. Will there be a third Latino district drawn, as some activists have hoped/demanded? Given the low level of Latino participation in city elections, and the wide dispersal of Latinos across the city, I think that’s a mighty tall order. The thing to watch for is if someone actually produces a map that they say would elect three Latinos to district seats. Without that, don’t expect there to be a serious attempt at achieving this.

2. Will there be a “gay-friendly” district in central Houston that (among other things) separates Montrose from District D and unites it with the Heights? Greg took a crack at drawing such a thing, and discussed some of the difficulties in doing so. As with a Latino district, I expect there will be some pressure for this to happen. You’ll note, by the way, that the map Greg drew had a Latino population of about 35%, which will likely be higher when the 2010 data is in. Not enough to get a Latino elected by itself, perhaps, but a decent starting point for a base.

3. Will the successor to the current District F be preserved as an “Asian” district? Between MJ Khan and Al Hoang, F has certainly functioned as an Asian district, however it was intended to be. This seems likely to happen, partly because it would be in incumbent Hoang’s best interests and partly because there’s already some interest in keeping it that way. And not to be tedious, but I’m willing to bet that both the current and future versions of F are also heavily Latino. I’m just saying.

4. Will Kingwood and Clear Lake remain joined? I asked CM Sullivan about this when I interviewed him in 2009, and that was his preference. He is no longer the Chair of the committee that handles redistricting, however, so he doesn’t have as much influence over that as he once did. You can make a case either way, so we’ll just see how it goes.

HISD Trustee

Four HISD Trustees will be on the ballot, assuming no one steps down. They are Carol Mims Galloway (District II), Manuel Rodriguez (III), Paula Harris (IV), and the newly-elected Juliet Stipeche (VIII). Other that perhaps Stipeche, I don’t expect anyone to be seriously challenged. If no one does step down, it will be the first time in at least a decade that there will be no open seats available; I’ve verified this through 2001, but the 1999 results aren’t available on the County Clerk webpage, and I’m too lazy to go back farther than that.

HCC Trustee

I certainly hope we won’t have a repeat of 2009, in which incumbent Trustee Abel Davila decided at the last minute to not file for re-election, leaving the field open for his brother-in-law, who dropped out two days later amid much public backlash, thus paving the way for a write-in candidate, Eva Loredo, to win. Three Trustees are up for another six-year term: Michael Williams (District 4), Richard Schechter (District 5), and Christopher Oliver (District 9). Williams, as noted above, is apparently seeking a City Council office, which would leave his seat open if he follows through. Only Schechter had an opponent in 2005, whom he dispatched easily. On the other hand, we did have a very close race in 2009, with incumbent Diane Olmos Guzman being nipped by Mary Ann Perez. For offices that have six-year terms and no resign to run requirement, these offices deserve more attention than they usually get.

City Council lineup update

Via Carl Whitmarsh, we have a third potential candidate for the to-be-open Council seat in District A, attorney Alex Wathen. Wathen joins Bob Schoelkopf and Jeffrey Downing in eyeing that seat. Wathen has been a candidate for City Council before – he ran for At Large #2 in 1999, finishing last in a field of 11 that was eventually won by Gordon Quan. He also ran for Justice of the Peace in 2002 against Justice David Patronella, garnering 33.66% of the vote and causing a bit of a stir as a local Republican wingnut put out a robocall urging other Republicans not to vote for Wathen on the grounds that Wathen is gay. (Shocking, I know.) A press release from the Log Cabin Republicans, of which Wathen was a local leader, noted the attack against him while mistakenly stating he’d won the election anyway.

Anyway. Here to the best of my recollection is an up-to-date list of declared and potential candidates for various city elections this year. Please chime in and let me know where I’ve missed something.

Mayor: The lineup is pretty stable at this point, with City Controller Annise Parker, At Large #1 City Council Member Peter Brown, and former City Attorneys Gene Locke and Benjamin Hall in the mix. Former Kemah Mayor Bill King has apparently dropped out, and former Governor Mark White was in there for a minute, but hasn’t been heard from in a few months.

City Controller: Not very much chatter about this one so far, but three of the remaining term-limited City Council members – Ronald Green in At Large #4, MJ Khan in District F, and Pam Holm in District G – have been mentioned as potential candidates.

City Council At Large: For sure, At Large #4 will be open. Noel Freeman is a declared candidate, while Terence Fontaine, the Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor Bill White, and former candidates for District C George Hittner and Brian Cweren have all expressed interest in the past. More recently, former HPD Chief and District Attorney candidate CO Bradford has said he’s considering a run.

At Large #1 will be open unless Peter Brown makes like Michael Berry in 2003 and decides to run for re-election rather than pursue his Mayoral ambitions. Former State Rep. and Harris County Democratic Party chair Sue Schecter has said she’d be interested in running here. Bill King has apparently turned his attention towards an At Large Council race and may wind up here. HCDE Trustee and former At Large Council candidate Roy Morales has also expressed some interest in another Council run.

Finally, in At Large #5, freshman Member Jolanda Jones has drawn the attention of former State Rep. candidate Carlos Obando. And though I have not heard any names recently, there was definitely talk after the 2007 election that two-term Member Sue Lovell could draw a real challenger in At Large #2 after she won a surprisingly close race against perennial gadfly Griff Griffin. As yet, no word of an opponent for At Large #3 member Melissa Noriega.

District A: Covered above. For purposes of comparison, there were five candidates for the open seat race in 2003, which Toni Lawrence won outright after two unsuccessful attempts to unseat Bruce Tatro.

District F: Mike Laster is the only name I’ve heard so far. There were four candidates for this seat in 2003.

District G: Nada. If anyone is out there looking at this one, I’ve not heard about it yet. There were seven candidates in 2003.

District H: Karen Derr, Maverick Welsh, Ed Gonzalez, and Hugo Mojica are in. Gonzalo Camacho and Rick Rodriguez are reportedly in, while Yolanda Navarro Flores and Diana Davila Martinez are reportedly mulling it over, but I don’t have direct confirmation of their interest. There were six candidates in 2003, including Martinez and Camacho.

So that’s what I know about who is or may be running for a given city office this year. Who am I missing?