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Bob Lanier

HISD finishes renaming schools

From last week:

Eight names that have adorned Houston school buildings, uniforms and yearbooks for decades will vanish next year after trustees came together Thursday to approve new ones without Confederate ties.

The renaming decisions followed months of controversy that had split the school board, heightened racial tensions, and fueled mixed reactions from parents, students and alumni. Before the votes Thursday, however, the four trustees who initially opposed the renaming process, criticizing the lack of community input, said they would back away from their resistance; in some cases, they abstained.

“Let’s come together and take this energy and really steer it toward our students,” said trustee Greg Meyers, who previously opposed the renaming items. “We’ll get past this. No matter what the name, it’s what happens inside.”

The new names will take effect in the fall. Reagan High School will become Heights High after its neighborhood. Davis High similarly will change to Northside High. Lee High will take the name of former longtime educator Margaret Long Wisdom.

Johnston Middle will become Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School. Jackson Middle will turn into Yolanda Black Navarro Middle School of Excellence, after the late East End civic leader. Dowling Middle will take the name of Audrey H. Lawson, after the late charter school founder and first lady of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church.

Lanier Middle will swap only its first name to honor former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier instead of Sidney Lanier, a poet who had served as a private in the Confederate Army.

The board voted in March to change Grady Middle School to Tanglewood.

See here and here for the background. My feelings about this haven’t changed since I wrote that second post. I feel confident that in due time, most people will forget this ever happened. It would have been a much better process if HISD had taken the time to put forth a statement of principles and standards for this process and solicited public input to make recommendations for the Board to consider; as John Nova Lomax has written on more than one occasion, the choice of schools to be renamed – or not, as in the case of Mirabeau B. Lamar High School – and the selection of substitute names has been haphazard and uneven, which is a big part of the reason this was as controversial as it was. There’s no reason why HISD can’t do this as a review process, if it wants to. I’ll understand if everyone is just happy to be done with this, but at the very least, we should make sure we know what we’re doing if we ever decide to do it again. In the meantime, I hope that the threatened legal action over these name changes does not come about. The Press has more.

Endorsement watch: Going for Turner

The Chronicle endorses Sylvester Turner for Mayor.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Because there is no perfect candidate on the ballot, voters should look for someone who has the talents best suited to fixing the problems that currently threaten Houston’s long-term success: Sylvester Turner.

For the past six years, Houston has been well led by Annise Parker’s competent hand. But being right on the issues only gets you part way there. Politics isn’t just about policy – it is about people. Turner, more than any other candidate, grasps this reality.

How can you defend a long-term Rebuild Houston plan if Houstonians still are hitting potholes? What’s the point of a pension solution if you can’t get it passed in Austin? How can people feel safe when police don’t respond to routine property crimes?

As Turner told the editorial board, “people want to see improvements now.”

The technically correct answer of a well-informed policy wonk is little solace if you’re dealing with a busted tire or burgled car. Houstonians need to know that their city is working for them today.

[…]

On pensions, Turner goes beyond the other candidates by calling for comprehensive reform of the city’s finances. Every time Parker hit firefighters on pensions, they seemed to push back just as hard. At this point, it is difficult to see how Steve Costello or Bill King would be more successful. Instead, Turner wants to bring everyone to the table so that folks don’t feel like they’re being turned into a target.

He attempted that strategy during the last legislative session by backing a deal that would lower the city’s payments in the short-term but raise the long-term liability. When he met with the editorial board, Turner said the failed bill was supposed to serve as a stop-gap to help bridge the city’s continuing budget crisis while getting both sides talking. We opposed the plan then and we’re still skeptical now. However, as someone with support from the city’s three key public unions, Turner is well prepared to bring consensus to a pension solution that closes annual funding gaps and pays down the city’s liabilities.

We can only guess what political machinations led the city’s three key public unions to endorse Turner before meeting with any other candidate. And time has obscured the scandals that bogged down Turner during his last two mayoral campaigns. Despite all the baggage that comes with a long-time legislator, Turner still stands as the candidate best suited for City Hall.

Former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia entered the race with high hopes. He had served on City Council, had the executive experience of the sheriff’s department and routinely demonstrated a sharp policy focus with his mental health advocacy. However, Garcia stumbled on the campaign trail, routinely answering deep questions with shallow responses. Reports of deaths, violence and ignored whistleblowers at the county jail also undermine his record as chief law enforcement officer.

Councilman Steve Costello similarly provides a balance of political service, executive experience and policy chops. His engineer’s mentality can be a welcome presence around the horseshoe, but his technocratic style, so much like Mayor Parker, will mean more of the same if he’s elected mayor. Houston needs a new operating style at City Hall and Costello can’t promise that.

Of all the other candidates, Bill King provides the sharpest critique and greatest insight into the way our city is run. He’s traveled across the city, and written dozens of Chronicle columns, arguing about how Houston’s problems stem from a failure of management. His advocacy for better organization within City Hall, and focus on measurable results, is reminiscent of former mayor Bill White’s first campaign. However, as mayor he would be the antithesis of Turner when it comes to uniting people around a cause. It isn’t enough to be right – you also have to get the votes. Nevertheless, any future mayor would be wise to give King a seat at the table.

I predicted a Costello endorsement, predicated in part on him and the Chron being in sync on pension issues, so this is all a bit surprising to me. I’m not exactly sure what caused the Chron to change their tune on the issue, but if Turner was able to persuade them that his way really is the better way, then there clearly is something to the logic that he’s better positioned to get something passed in Austin, and as such the endorsement follows. The bit about Costello’s style being too much like Mayor Parker’s is reminiscent of the discussion that often accompanies a change of coach or manager in professional sports. It’s not just about drawing up the plays or juggling the rotation, it’s about tone and approach and so on. Say what you want about Gary Kubiak and Bill O’Brien, they are very different personalities, and going from one to the other is as much a part of the process as any other consideration. We do that in politics, too, when other factors like competence and qualifications are basically equal.

Anyway. I know the Chron endorsed Bill White back in 2003, and I’d bet a dollar or two that they went with Bob Lanier in 1991, so at least on this score the third time was the charm for Turner. My interview with Turner is published today, and interviews with the rest of the field will run through next Monday, so you can hear what they have to say for themselves if you haven’t attended any of the nine million or so candidate forums. However one feels about the slate of candidates and the state of the race, there’s more than enough information out there to help one make an informed choice.

Mimi Swartz’s Mayoral campaign rant

Here it is.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

What if they held a mayoral race and nobody came? That’s the question plaguing many people currently involved in Houston politics—even if no one else in town is asking it. This phenomenon isn’t entirely new: in 2009,* a measly 19 percent of Houston voters turned out for the general election to make a winner out of Annise Parker. That number could wind up looking downright spectacular, however, after the results of the 2015 mayoral race are tabulated on November 3. At this point—about a month out—no one can even use the traditional, if lame, “just-wait–til-Labor-Day” excuse; that holiday has come and gone, and if you ask the average person on the street who he is supporting, the answer is likely to be one big shrug followed by a puzzled squint, accompanied by “Who’s running again?”

One could say that the issues—at least the ones being discussed—aren’t all that compelling. Few people understand, or even want to understand, the pension crisis that is bleeding the city dry while keeping the bank accounts of retired firefighters and policemen safe and secure. Houstonians do know that traffic back-ups and potholes as dangerous as starving raptors now make it impossible to get from point A to point B (or C or D), but residents—especially the long-timers—also comfort themselves knowing that congestion equals growth equals prosperity. A future of potentially uneducated masses in a high-tech world? Isn’t that the school district’s cross to bear? Increased segregation between the haves and the have-nots in this oh-so-hospitable town? Come on! Once oil prices go back up, anyone will be able to buy a mansion in River Oaks.

I’ve covered this before, but what did the 2009 Mayoral election not have that the three preceding high-turnout Mayoral elections (2003, 2001, and 1997*) did? A high profile referendum that helped drive that turnout. In 2003, it was the Metro referendum; in 2001, it was on a charter amendment to ban domestic partner benefits for city employees; and in 1997 it was a charter amendment to ban affirmative action. Past performance does not guarantee future results, but I’d bet the over on 2009 turnout this year. If that doesn’t happen, then we’ll need to have a heart-to-heart talk about how disengaged our local voters are.

As or the rest, like most rants it’s more descriptive than prescriptive, so there’s no argument for me to evaluate. I don’t disagree with the description, but that doesn’t get us very far. Swartz correctly notes that our city voters are old, but gives no suggestion as to what if anything could be done to change that. I figure sooner or later a candidate will invest in that kind of work, and if it pays off then others will follow. Until then, what you see is what you get.

By the way, here’s another story about that 1997 affirmative action referendum, from just before the election. See if any of this sounds familiar to you.

There has never been any dispute about what Proposition A would do if it is approved by voters here on Tuesday: It would abolish affirmative action in Houston’s contracting and hiring.

Nonetheless, there has been a tumultuous fight over just how Proposition A should be worded, one that may well head for the courts even after all the votes are in. And at the core of this battle is a question that is reverberating in other cities and states where anti-affirmative-action measures are gathering steam: should opponents of affirmative action be able to define these measures by using the language of the civil rights movement?

That is exactly what happened in California last year with the passage of Proposition 209, the measure that dismantled state-sponsored affirmative action. Similarly, the conservative group promoting the measure in Houston drew up a proposition with words taken almost directly from the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It said voters should decide whether the city “shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment” to anyone “on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.”

But by the time Mayor Bob Lanier, a staunch proponent of affirmative action, and the City Council were through, the wording on the proposition was totally revised.

So now, when voters in the nation’s fourth-largest city go to the polls on Tuesday, they will be asked whether the city charter should be amended “to end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities” in employment and contracting, “including ending the current program and any similar programs in the future.”

The measure’s proponents say the rewording by the Mayor and the Council is outrageous and heavy-handed, while those who favor the change say it is a more honest and straightforward way of describing what the proposition would do. Behind this fight over words are some striking polling statistics, which help to explain just why the fight has been so pitched and which offer a look at the voters’ complicated feelings about affirmative action.

Phrased as a nondiscrimination measure, Proposition A would likely pass with as much as 70 percent of the vote, according to joint polls conducted in recent weeks by the University of Houston and Rice University. But phrased as a measure to wipe out affirmative action, the results are starkly different: In separate polls conducted last month and earlier this week, 47.5 percent of voters described themselves as favoring that concept.

“Basically, what we found here is that the wording is incredibly important on this issue,” said Bob Stein, a political scientist and dean of the School of Social Sciences at Rice University. Like many pollsters here, he describes Tuesday’s vote as too close to call.

“The wording here defines the issue,” Professor Stein added, “and in defining the issue, you manipulate the symbols.”

In the poll this week of 831 registered voters, 47.5 percent said they would vote for Proposition A and 39.8 percent said they would vote against, with the rest undecided or of no stated opinion. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.6 percent.

Boy, the more things change, am I right? I wonder how many of the pro-Prop A people in 1997 are now anti-Prop 1 people this year. For the record, Prop A was defeated by a 55-45 margin, so consider that another example of how hard it is to get an accurate poll response in a city of Houston election. I’m trying to keep that in mind with polls about HERO, whatever they say.

(*) To be fair, the 1991 election, in which Bob Lanier defeated Sylvester Turner and ousted then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire, had turnout in excess of 300,000 as well, and there’s no report of a referendum on the results page. Maybe that year was different, or maybe there was something else going on that I don’t know about.

Turner’s police plan

Time to look at a major policy proposal, from Mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner unveiled a plan Thursday to expand the Houston Police Department by 540 officers by 2020, an effort he said is needed to help police better engage the communities they serve and to improve trust between some neighborhoods and the department.

Turner said he would pay for the estimated $85 million “Partners in Safety” plan by seeking, “as quickly as I can,” voter approval to alter the city’s decade-old revenue cap to allow more public safety spending.

[…]

In his announcement, Turner did not criticize Police Chief Charles McClelland or term-limited Mayor Annise Parker’s management, but he said the city’s police officers are stretched too thin to exit their patrol cars and do the sort of engagement that is needed.

“In the last several years, the enemy to community policing has been the lack of resources,” Turner said. “When you have 5,300 police officers and that number has remained stagnant over the last 10 years, more people coming into the city, the city’s even more diverse, it’s very difficult to have effective and adequate community policing.”

The department employed 5,470 officers in 1998, and is projected to operate this budget year with about 5,260, despite enormous population growth during that time.

Turner’s proposal also includes fully funding the body camera initiative, the first phase of which is scheduled to launch this year, along with enhanced cultural and de-escalation training for officers, greater public input and more youth outreach efforts. Turner also backs offering police officers, as well as firefighters and municipal workers, incentives to live inside city limits. A similar proposal to lure officers to high-crime neighborhoods is being developed by the Parker administration.

You can see the full plan here. I like the community engagement and de-escalation training aspects of it, and I support the body-cameras-for-all aspect. I’m glad that it at least acknowledges the noninvestigations report, but I still want to see my questions get addressed before I get on board with any expansion of HPD. The amount of money Turner says will be needed to achieve this expansion is $20 million less than what Chief McClelland asked for, which he says can be done by eliminating reassignments, overtime, and some other costs.

As far as amending the revenue cap to help pay for this, I’ll note that the cap hit this year is $53 million, so there’s still a gap to cover, at a time when other action will be needed to deal with forthcoming budget shortfalls. (As you know, I’d like to see the revenue cap lifted entirely, but I freely admit that amending it to pay for cops is a much easier sell.) I want to see a comprehensive review of HPD’s (and HFD’s) budget to see what savings might be achieved there before we talk about any expansions there or cuts elsewhere. We greatly increased the size of HPD in the 90s under Bob Lanier because crime rates had been increasing nationally for thirty years. Since then, crime has been on a 20-year decline, and violent crime around the country is at its lowest levels in 50 years. No one could have known that was about to happen in the 90s, but we know where we are now. How many cops do we really need? What do we really want them to focus on? I appreciate Turner’s effort – there’s a lot there that I do like – but I’m still waiting for these questions to be part of the discussion.

Where are the women?

I have several things to say about this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The slate running to replace Mayor Annise Parker features a globetrotting sailor, a triathlete grandfather, a millionaire minister and no women.

Despite the most-crowded pack of mayoral contenders in decades, no female candidates are expected to announce bids this spring, a reality that all but guarantees women will have fewer positions of power at City Hall next year than they had during the last six.

“You are sending a message,” said Kathryn McNeil, a longtime fundraiser who helped elect Parker. “My niece is now 16. For the last six years, she’s seen a strong woman running the city. There’s no question in her mind that a woman could be mayor.”

Though more than 10 candidates likely will appear on November’s ballot, few women even seriously considered the race, which some call a reminder of how much more work Houston’s women must do to achieve political equality.

Some say it creates a less compassionate and less personal, even if equally qualified, field of candidates. It also affects the strength of the democratic process, limiting the diversity of the candidates that voters can choose from when they imagine whom they would like as their next mayor.

“Regardless of who actually wins the race, not having a viable woman candidate can be a disservice for everyone,” said Dee Dee Grays, the incoming president of Women Professionals in Government in Houston.

For the record, in the eleven city elections post-Kathy Whitmire (i.e., since 1993), there has been at least one female Mayoral candidate not named Annise Parker in eight of them:

2013 – Charyl Drab, Keryl Douglas, Victoria Lane
2011 – Amanda Ulman
2009 – Amanda Ulman
2007 – Amanda Ulman
2005 – Gladys House
2003 – Veronique Gregory
2001 – None
1999 – None
1997 – Helen Huey, Gracie Saenz
1995 – Elizabeth Spates
1993 – None

Now, most of these were fringe candidacies – only term-limited Council members Helen Huey and Gracie Saenz in 1997 could have been considered viable, and they were both crushed in the wake of the Lee Brown/Rob Mosbacher/George Greanias campaigns. But for what it’s worth, history does suggest there will be at least one female name on the ballot this year.

Research shows that women nationally need to be recruited to run for office much more than men. That especially is true for executive positions, such as governor or mayor.

Amber Mostyn, the former chair of Annie’s List, a statewide organization that recruits and backs Democratic female candidates, said there is a need for local versions of the organization that would encourage qualified women to make bids for mayor.

“You’ll see men throwing their hat in the ring when they’ve never done the job before and say, ‘I’ll figure it out,’ ” said Mostyn, a Houston lawyer and prominent donor. “Women are very reluctant to do that.”

I’m well aware of the research regarding the recruitment of female candidates. It’s definitely an issue, though I wonder if it will turn out to be a generational one. Perhaps today’s girls and younger women won’t need the same kind of encouragement that their elders currently require. Be that as it may, if there was ever a bad year for that dynamic in the Mayor’s race, it’s this year. I mean, nearly the entire field, not to mention Adrian Garcia, has been known to be planning to run for a long time now. With that many candidates already at the starting line, and presumably working to collect commitments and financial support and campaign advisers, it would undoubtedly be that much harder to make a case for someone else to gear up now and thrown her hat in the ring. As I’ve said many times already, there’s only so much room for viable candidates in this race.

Cindy Clifford, a public relations executive and City Hall lobbyist, said the key to electing a female mayor is to first focus on recruiting women for lower-level elected office and to serve on boards and commissions. That requires a commitment by the city’s leaders to tapping individual women and showing them that they have support.

“If we’re not doing it, no one’s going to come and look for us,” Clifford said. “I always think the cream rises once they’re in the process.”

Council members Brenda Stardig and Ellen Cohen could be joined next year by several top-tier female candidates in council elections this fall, but some worry that the political “pipeline” of female candidates is thin, with few who conceivably could have run for mayor this year. One, Laura Murillo, the head of Houston’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, did publicly explore a mayoral bid last summer before deciding against it.

I would point out that one of the top tier candidates for Mayor this year is someone whose entire political career has been in the Legislature, and that the three main candidates currently running for Mayor in San Antonio include two former legislators and one former County Commissioner. One doesn’t have to be a city officeholder to be a viable Mayoral candidate, is what I’m saying. Hell, none of the three Mayors before Annise Parker had been elected to anything before running for the top job, let alone running for Council. The size of the “pipeline” is as much a matter of framing as anything else. Note also that several women who were once elected to city offices now hold office elsewhere – I’m thinking specifically of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Sen. Sylvia Garcia, Rep. Carol Alvarado, and HISD Trustee Wanda Adams. Pipelines can flow in both directions.

As for the four open Council slots, the seat most likely to be won by a female candidate as things stand right now is At Large #4, where two of the three announced candidates so far are women. Jenifer Pool is running in At Large #1, but if I were forced to make a prediction about it now, I’d say that a Lane Lewis/Chris Oliver runoff is the single most likely outcome. Two of the three candidates that I know of in District H are male – Roland Chavez and Jason Cisneroz – and the third candidate, former HISD Trustee Diana Davila, is ethically challenged. One’s commitment to diversity does not include supporting someone one doesn’t trust. I have no idea at this time who may be running in District G, which is the other term-limited seat. Beyond those races, any additional women will have to get there by knocking off an incumbent.

One last thing: There may not be room for another viable candidate for Mayor, but that isn’t the case for City Controller. There are three known candidates at this time, with two more thinking about it, all men. A Controller campaign would take less time and money, and would therefore likely be fairly ripe for recruitment, especially given that a female candidate in that race would have immediate prominence. As Mayor Parker, and for that matter former Mayor Whitmire, can attest, that office can be a pretty good stepping stone. Just a thought.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that HCC Trustee Sandie Mullins is planning to run in District G. That not only adds another female candidate for Council, it also indicates that an HCC seat will be open this fall.

On the seasonal return of term limits modification

Here’s a fuller version of that earlier story about Council moving forward with a modified term limits proposal.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

You can almost set your watch by it.

Mayor Annise Parker is in her third and final term, which means it is time for the cycle that has repeated roughly every six years since voters imposed term limits on City Hall in 1991: City Council is discussing asking voters to change those term limits.

This loop started with the late Bob Lanier, whom voters first elected as mayor the same year they chose to cap city officials’ tenures in office, for the first time, at six years: three terms of two years each.

Lanier started as a supporter of term limits, but as his departure approached in 1997 – and his backers pushed a bill in the Legislature to let him stay longer – his stance switched. Both local and state efforts to let him stick around came to naught, however.

Lanier was succeeded by Lee Brown, who pledged to pursue term-limit changes during his final stint in office but didn’t make much progress.

Brown’s successor, Bill White, was careful not to push term-limits reform as he eyed a run for governor, but he did form a commission to study the issue. That group’s recommendations were forwarded in 2010 to City Council. The body failed to place them before voters, concerned that the proposal, by allowing some incumbents to serve longer than six years, would appear self-serving.

These late-term mayoral pushes ignore still other times that City Council members or influential business leaders and political insiders discussed but ultimately dropped plans to push for term-limit changes – most commonly, to switch to two four-year terms – in 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2012.

Whether 2015 will be added to that list of dates when talk of reform fizzled is up to City Council, which is in the process of discussing reforms to the city charter, including term limits.

See here for the earlier story. I don’t really have much to add to this, I’d just forgotten that Mayors Lanier and Brown had taken a shot at changing the ordinance as well. And I’ll never understand the allure – from the public’s perspective, anyway – of four year terms. I’m in wait-and-see mode for now. Campos has more.

RIP, Bob Lanier

Houston’s iconic Mayor of the 1990s has passed away.

Bob Lanier, a 6-foot-4 cowboy boot-wearing, sports-crazy political sharpshooter who rose from modest beginnings in blue-collar Baytown to become one of Houston’s biggest developers and most influential mayors, died Saturday. He was 89.

In January 1992, Lanier began a six-year tenure as mayor that, in its successes, was hailed as a model for reducing crime and revitalizing the inner city.

At various times, for various reasons, Lanier was likened to Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The commonality was that Lanier, the son of a Methodist minister turned oilfield roustabout, invariably was measured against America’s greatest movers and shakers.

“I’d put him with (Chicago Mayor Richard) Daley and (New York City Mayor Fiorello) La Guardia as one of the great mayors in 20th century history,” University of Houston political science guru Richard Murray once said. “He has the ability to get things done.”

To former state Sen. Jon Lindsay, who entered public life as a county judge in 1975, Lanier was the most powerful person on the Houston scene in the century’s closing decades. To county Commissioner Steve Radack, he was “authoritarian with a smile.” For former city councilman and current Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, Lanier simply was “the 800-pound gorilla.”

The news of his death Saturday prompted remembrances of his fierce intelligence and confident swagger.

Mayor Annise Parker said Lanier “left a lasting mark” on Houston.

“Never one to shy away from a tough battle, he used his strength and popularity to push through affirmative action protections, rebuild the city’s wastewater system, improve neighborhoods and add hundreds of officers to the police force,” Parker said in a statement.

Lanier’s wife, Elyse, whom he married in 1984, said in a statement that his decades of public service “brought a smile to his face and a twinkle to his eye these last few years.”

“Bob wanted me to pass on a final goodbye and a hearty, ‘Thank you for making a guy like me look good!’ ” she wrote.

Lanier certainly left his mark on Houston, and his influence on Houston politics continued well past his last day in office. I confess I wasn’t his biggest fan – he was not a friend to mass transit, to say the least – but now is not the time to get into that. He was an iconic figure in Houston politics, he did a lot of good, and he will be missed. My sincere condolences to his family and friends. Rest in peace, Bob Lanier. Texpatriate has more.

More on Hall’s announcement

Here’s the full Chron story from the weekend about Ben Hall’s announcement that yes, he really is running for Mayor this year.

Ben Hall

“Hall is a formidable challenger but is a long shot to unseat the mayor,” University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said in an email.

Rottinghaus noted Hall’s funding capability, his vision and his qualifications but suggested that “with Parker’s nationalizing profile and perceptions of her doing a good job, it is a more uphill fight.”

Rottinghaus added that Parker’s most formidable challenge may not be Hall, per se, but a crowded primary field that could squeeze her out of a runoff.

“In a runoff, a well-funded candidate like Hall that can put the right coalition together could have a chance,” he said. “This may be the model – almost successful for Gene Locke – that Hall is looking to create.”

Jared Woodfill, Harris County Republican Party chairman, said he could see a squeeze play of sorts developing, with challenges coming from Hall and, potentially, at least two Republicans.

“Annise Parker could be the odd person out,” Woodfill said. “She doesn’t have the constituencies that the other three would have, plus I don’t think she has lived up to her campaign promises. She promised to stay out of party politics, but she was an outspoken supporter of Obama.”

Woodfill and others recall just such a scenario in 1990 when mayoral candidates Lanier and state Rep. Sylvester Turner, an African-American Democrat, squeezed out five-term incumbent Kathy Whitmire, who finished a distant third.

Former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said he and Woodfill discussed the possibility of him running for mayor but said his interest was predicated on the possibility that Parker may leave office early to take a position in the Obama administration, thus necessitating a special election.

“In a special election, I could see what the party chairman is pitching, because that’s a low-turnout scenario that would be favorable to Republicans,” he said.

Bettencourt also suggested that Hall’s candidacy was based, at least initially, on the possibility that the mayor would leave office early.

“The glacier’s moving,” he said. “The question is, where is it going to stop?”

I have no idea what that glacier is supposed to signify. The flow of candidates moving towards running? The flow of Mayor Parker moving towards a job in the Obama administration that’s she has already denied and which never made any sense anyway? I generally agree with the basic thesis that a special election will have lower turnout, but a special Mayoral election ought to have enough attention and money in it to be a fairly reasonable facsimile of a normal election.

Not that it really matters, because we’re not going to find out. I’ve already said what there is to say about the squeeze-play hypothesis, but I suspect I’ll have to say it again (and again) between now and November, so here are the bullet points: Kathy Whitmire was a six-term Mayor coming off a bruising political defeat at the hands of her eventual opponent (and election winner) Bob Lanier. She wasn’t squeezed in that race, she was crushed, barely topping 20% of the vote. Lanier isn’t so much a Republican as a creature of the downtown establishment, and he’s certainly not a Republican in the way we think of them today. Sylvester Turner was a young up-and-comer, which Ben Hall is not. Besides all that, sure, there’s plenty of parallels if a serious Republican gets into the race. Knock yourselves out finding them. I just don’t think they’ll matter all that much in the end.

The 70 Percent Solution

Where have I heard this before?

November’s election really is about 2013, said lawyer, lobbyist and blogger Robert Miller. He speculates that the mayor needs to win big against low-profile opponents in November to discourage stronger candidates from running against her as she seeks a final term in 2013.

“If she looks weak, blood attracts sharks into the water,” Miller said.

Bill White and Bob Lanier never had a close call in their re-elections. But Lee Brown’s 67 percent of the vote in 1999 against weak candidates, by Miller’s thinking, attracted strong enough opposition two years later that Brown was forced into a runoff to keep his office.

Sounds familiar, but I just can’t quite place it.

You get the point. I still believe the true consensus among the “chattering class of political insiders” won’t be truly set in stone till the election results are in, but it never hurts to get out in front of these things.

Finance reports and the Mayor’s race

Finance report updates: David Robinson has filed his corrected report, which includes the $53,095.57 cash on hand total that was omitted in the original. There were no other changes made. Mayoral candidate Kevin Simms has now filed his report. He lists $4,033.83 in contributions, $2,873.79 in expenses, and $1,160.04 on hand. Interestingly, he also lists those same contribution and expense totals in the “contribs/expenses of less than $50” spaces, even though 15 of his 45 contributions were for $100 or more, and every single one of his expenses was $60 or more. I guess the purpose of those spaces wasn’t clear to him.

At this point, the candidates of whom I am aware that have not filed finance reports yet are:

Scott Boates, At Large #1
Michael Williams, At Large #2
Griff Griffin, At Large #2
Joe Edmonds, At Large #5
Alvin Byrd, District B
Kenneth Perkins, District B
Bryan Smart, District B
Randy Locke, District C
Otis Jordan, District K

I should note that there actually is a filing listed for Byrd on the city’s CFR website. It is signed by someone named Hubert Hines, and is otherwise completely blank. (Go here, click the first Search button with all fields blank – you will then see all filings for 2011. Go to page 6 to see Byrd’s.) I will continue to monitor for late filings.

Meanwhile, the Chron writes about the Mayor’s fundraising and the status of her race.

By this time two years ago, the four major candidates in the race to succeed the termed-out Bill White were months into their campaigns and had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars each. The only announced challenger to Parker this year who filed a finance report by Friday, Deputy Fire Chief Fernando Herrera, has $3,334 in his account.

Anyone considering a run against Parker also has to reckon with a history that indicates she still can raise more money if she needs to. In 2009, without the advantage of incumbency or even perceived front-runner status for most of the campaign, Parker collected more than $3 million from contributors.

“I think everyone knows if she wants to raise more money, she can,” said political strategist Dan McClung.

[…]

About the only way a serious challenger could emerge at this point, [political consultant Marc Campos] said, is with his or her own money.

But [Craig Varoga, a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant who ran the campaigns of former mayors Bob Lanier and Lee Brown] doubted that even a self-funded challenger could gain much on Parker.

“No one can raise $2 million in the next three months. Anyone who is not a self-funder will wait two years and see how the mayor looks at that time. A self-funder would run the risk of reminding voters that he or she has buckets of dough while everyone else in the world is struggling,” Varoga said.

I agree with most of this, but I disagree that anyone who might think about challenging the Mayor will wait two years before taking action. They’ll simply wait to see how Parker does in November. Like all three of her predecessors in the term-limits era, Parker is running against non-entities for her first re-election. Two of those prior Mayors, Lanier and Bill White, cruised easily with around 90% of the vote, and had a similarly smooth ride for their second re-election. Brown, on the other hand, received only 67% of the vote against his two no-name foes, and was immediately seen as vulnerable for 2001; serious opposition, from Council Members Orlando Sanchez and Chris Bell, subsequently ensued.

So I believe that Parker’s 2013 opposition will be based, at least in part, on how she is perceived to have done this year by that standard. If the conventional wisdom says that she beat expectations, she’s less likely to face a real opponent in 2013. If not, you can expect someone, quite possibly more than one someone, to start campaigning against her fairly quickly.

What is the threshold she must achieve in order to meet or exceed expectations? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. That will be determined by the local political hive mind after the election. It’s going to be a function of gut reaction more than anything else, so there’s no point trying to assign a number to it. Assuming that nobody else does join the race – there’s still several weeks till the filing deadline, after all – Parker will be graded by a standard that won’t be determined until after she takes the test. That’s just the way it is.

Locke and Lanier endorse Parker

More support for Mayor Parker’s re-election bid.

Mayor Annise Parker on Wednesday scored the endorsements of her 2009 opponent Gene Locke and former Mayor Bob Lanier, two of Houston’s most prominent power brokers, as she prepares to ask voters for a second two-year term in November.

[…]

“She’s bringing the city together,” Locke said Wednesday. “There’s a tremendous fiscal crisis facing the city, and I think she’s addressing that head-on.”

Lanier was mayor from 1992 through 1997. As mayor he appointed Locke city attorney, and he supported Locke two years ago. Since leaving office Lanier has continued to play an influential role in local politics. Candidates regularly call him and make pilgrimages to his home in search of his support.

“Times are tough, but so is she,” Lanier said. He said his support was based more on what he considers her straightforwardness and character than on her public policy stances. He said he also thinks that having a lesbian mayor is good for the city because it projects an image of tolerance and diversity.

Parker has not yet drawn an opponent for the November election.

You never really know what the value of an endorsement is, but having these two on Parker’s side certainly won’t hurt. As noted in the story, they represent another fundraising avenue that’s now cut off for anyone who might try to take on the Mayor. Having Locke on her side would help blunt the impact of a candidate like Benjamin Hall, if he were to decide to jump in. Keeping anyone who might be a threat from jumping in is probably the main point, though. We’re almost two months into the official fundraising season for the 2011 election, and so far nobody has, though rumors of Hall and Paul Bettencourt persist. Far as I’m concerned, they’re welcome to take all the time they want to make up their minds.

Meet George Greanias

As we know, former City Controller and member of Mayor Parker’s transition team George Greanias has taken over, at least on an interim basis, as the CEO of Metro. Houston Tomorrow has a brief intro to Greanias, including a pointer to this 1997 Houston Press cover story about Greanias’ rocky relationship with then-Mayor Bob Lanier and his own ultimately unsuccessful Mayoral campaign. Of interest is this:

Over the course of [Greanias’ final two terms as Controller], his brief alliance with Lanier devolved into a running confrontation over the mayor’s short-term financial schemes, such as the annual transfer of roughly $55 million from Metro to the general fund and the restructuring of the city’s bond debt.

[…]

As controller, Greanias was vocal in his opposition to most of Lanier’s fiscal maneuvers, particularly the decimation of Metro’s $600 million reserve. If elected mayor, Greanias promises to “stop the bleeding” and allow the transit agency to once again start socking away cash for a commuter rail project.

With the approach of a new administration, rail is once again an acceptable topic of discussion, though Lanier still won’t abide the notion that some day it may not be feasible to run even more freeway lanes through Houston. Over time, each of the candidates — while careful not to make any commitments — has at least paid lip service to the notion of exploring rail as a transportation alternative.

But Greanias, for better or worse, has been unequivocal. “For 20 years we’ve been fooling around on this issue, and we’ve gotten no closer to a solution,” he says. “I’m not going to consider it, I’m not going to study it, I’m not going to explore it. I’m going to go about the business of getting it done.”

There were two proposals Greanias was touting at that time, a commuter rail line along the Katy Freeway, and what eventually became the Main Street line. I’m particularly interested in his advocacy of Metro retaining all of its funds, which was something that outgoing CEO Frank Wilson had been pushing and which may be needed to finish construction on all five planned light rail lines. The rest of the story, which mostly focuses on Greanias’s campaign, is a blast from the past and a reminder that some things (and some names) never change, and is worth reading for the history, but given Greanias’s new gig, I thought that was worth pointing out. KUHF had a conversation with Greanias on Wednesday morning as well. Check it out.

MayorBob on water rates

Former Mayor Bob Lanier has an op-ed in today’s paper in support of Mayor Parker’s proposed water rate hike.

I believe Mayor Parker will work with council members, homeowner associations and the Houston Apartment Association to develop a plan that receives broad-based support. Keep in mind, the mayor proposes that the water and sewer department be a closed, self-supporting system. The fees paid by customers are its only source of revenue. Vice versa, revenues generated by the water and sewer department will not be used to offset any budget shortfall elsewhere in city government. Simply put, you cannot balance the city’s general fund budget using water and sewer fees.

I believe the mayor is taking every step possible to identify cost savings and wring every ounce of efficiency out of the system. In excess of $10 million in savings have been identified and implemented. However, these changes are not enough to offset increased costs for unfunded regulatory mandates, chemicals, electricity, infrastructure maintenance and debt payments. Current estimates place the water and sewer department in the red to the tune of $100 million this fiscal year. Without a rate increase, that deficit will grow to more than $150 million next year. This is a situation we simply cannot afford to ignore.

Not a whole lot of new information in the piece, but that’s not what its purpose was. The point was to persuade, and to provide some political cover. If MayborBob thinks this is a good idea, then there must be something to it, right? We’ll see if it helps.

The Chron on Hotze, Welch, and Locke

The Chron editorializes today about the forthcoming hatemongering in the city election to be aimed at Annise Parker, and Gene Locke’s tepid response to being its intended beneficiary. And they fall just short of getting it right.

We’ve been here before. In 1997 a small-minded ballot initiative would have ended the city’s affirmative action program that helped minority and women contractors. Mayor Bob Lanier went on the air in an ad that bluntly stated his opposition to a proposal that would “turn back the clock to the days when guys who look like me got all the city’s business.”

Lanier couldn’t have been more clear: Discrimination is just not right.

It was a powerful moment of leadership. The referendum went down to defeat, and news outlets around the country marveled that a “wealthy white developer” had taken the lead on affirmative action.

It’s time for another such moment of leadership.

Saturday afternoon, Gene Locke issued a statement rejecting “the style of campaigning that was the subject of an article in the Houston Chronicle.” He urged the people of Houston to choose a new mayor based on the issues and avoid being “swayed by divisive rhetoric.”

The rhetoric of people like Steven Hotze and Dave Welch carries a high cost. Their support should not be purchased at the price of bigotry.

Well, they do correctly note Locke’s courting of Steven Hotze. And they seem to be saying that he ought to be more like MayorBob and take a real stand on this rather than just put out a wimpy press release that never acknowledges his own role in this crapstorm. Just one more sentence, to call on Locke to specifically disavow Hotze and his ilk, that’s all I ask. Guess I need to wait for Rick Casey to write about it next week.

Interview with Gene Locke

Gene Locke

Gene Locke

And we come to the end of the campaign interview season for 2009 with a conversation with each of the three leading contenders for Mayor. First up is Gene Locke, a native of East Texas and longtime resident of Houston who earned degrees from UH and South Texas College of Law. Locke has been in public service for many years, as Chief of Staff to the late Congressman Mickey Leland, City Attorney under Mayor Bob Lanier, the first Chair of the HCC Board of Trustees, and more. He was involved in the negotiations for all three publicly-funded sports stadiums, and has been special counsel to the Port of Houston and Metro. Locke is currently a partner at the firm of Andrews Kurth. He is married to Aubrey Sampson Locke.

Download the MP3 file.

PREVIOUSLY:

Karen Derr, At Large #1
Brad Bradford, At Large #4
Stephen Costello, At Large #1
Lane Lewis, District A
Lonnie Allsbrooks, At Large #1
Noel Freeman, At Large #4
Brenda Stardig, District A
Oliver Pennington, District G
Amy Peck, District A
Herman Litt, At Large #1
Natasha Kamrani, HISD Trustee in District I, not running for re-election
Alex Wathen, District A
Robert Kane, District F
Council Member Melissa Noriega, At Large #3
Jeff Downing, District A
Mike Laster, District F
Council Member Jolanda Jones, At Large #5
Mills Worsham, District G
Rick Rodriguez, At Large #1
Council Member Sue Lovell, At Large #2
Carlos Obando, At Large #5
Richard Sedita, District G
Jack Christie, At Large #5
Dexter Handy, District G
George Foulard, District G
Alma Lara, HISD Trustee District I
Anna Eastman, HISD Trustee District I
Linda Toyota, HISD Trustee District I
Council Member Ed Gonzalez, District H
Council Member Wanda Adams, District D
Council Member Anne Clutterbuck, District C
Progressive Coalition candidates
Council Member Mike Sullivan, District E
Council Member James Rodriguez, District I
Council Member Jarvis Johnson, District B
Mike Lunceford, HISD Trustee District V
Ray Reiner, HISD Trustee District V
Council Member Ronald Green, candidate for Controller
Council Member MJ Khan, candidate for Controller
Council Member Pam Holm, candidate for Controller

Interview with CO Bradford

C.O. "Brad" BradfordNext up in the interview series is C.O. “Brad” Bradford, who is running for At Large #4, currently held by the term-limited Ronald Green. Bradford was the Democratic candidate for Harris County District Attorney last year, and though he lost in a very close race, a number of the ideas he campaigned on have been adopted by the victor, DA Pat Lykos. Bradford is a 30-year resident of Houston who served in HPD for 24 years, including a stint as Chief of Police under former Mayors Bob Lanier and Lee Brown.

Download the MP3 file.

    PREVIOUSLY:

Karen Derr

Houston’s budget

The Chron asks if the city of Houston’s budget is balanced, then answers that question with a “Well, maybe”.

Does the city of Houston have a balanced budget?

Like so many things in politics, it depends on whom you ask.

For wealthy businessman Bill King or City Councilwoman Pam Holm, the answer is no, since Mayor Bill White’s administration is planning to spend about $50 million more from its general fund in fiscal 2010 than it will take in from taxes and other revenue streams.

To Bob Lemer, conservative tax accountant and longtime critic of City Hall, the answer is an emphatic no. Lemer said a 2008 audit of Houston’s finances over the past five years shows the city in the red to the tune of $1.5 billion if it were to do its books like a private company.

And if you see things like the mayor, Finance Director Michelle Mitchell and most City Council members do, the answer is a strong yes in the sense that the city is not spending money it does not have.

Who is right? All of them, each in their own particular way, said City Controller Annise Parker.

“We have used borrowed money to meet some of our current obligations, which is, I think, fiscally unwise,” Parker said. “But while Mr. King and Mr. Lemer are out waving the red flag, I just have the yellow flag of caution up.”

I think a lot of the criticism in this article is more about semantics than anything else. Suppose I earn $50,000 in a year. Over the course of a year, all of the money I earn is dedicated to three things: Taxes, retirement savings, and living expenses. At the end of the year, my budget is “balanced” because every penny I took in is accounted for in one of these three ways. Now I decide I want to buy a house, so over the course of the next four years I scrimp on living expenses and put a little less into retirement savings, and create a fourth category of expenditure called Down Payment, to which I dedicate $5000 a year. Then, in year five, I go back to my previous allocations, and I plunk down the $20K I’ve got in the Down Payment fund on that house I want. I’ve now spent $70,000 in Year Five, but I still took in $50,000. Am I in a deficit situation? If so, is that a bad thing?

I give that example because of the way the “problem” is described for Houston’s budget.

In the course of his administration, White said he consistently has made sure the city built up its “fund balance” — governmentspeak for reserve or savings — to pay for large expenses and to improve the city’s bond rating. The latter is a key factor in holding down the cost of borrowing.

At the end of this fiscal year on June 30, the city’s reserves are projected at $220 million. Under White’s proposed budget, fiscal 2010 will end with $171 million in unspent funds, meaning the city will have drawn down its reserves by $49 million.

White said the city built up the balance with the expectation of spending it on certain big expenditures, such as raising the pay of firefighters. That means the budget is balanced, he said, despite the fact that expenses will outpace revenues by the $49 million.

I say the situation here is analogous to the one I sketched out. Perhaps not exactly, if the extra expenses being incurred are not one-time (it’s not clear if that’s the case), but I think the question is a fair one. If you’ve saved in previous years in anticipation of a big expense in a future year, does that mean you’re in a deficit situation when you make that expenditure, and if so is that a bad thing?

That’s the crux of Council Member Holm’s complaint, and I have a hard time seeing it as anything but a bullet point in her City Controller campaign. Lemer’s issue is with bigger than that.

For Lemer, the author of a 2004 ballot proposal to limit city spending, the $49 million question is moot. He argues that the city racked up a cumulative deficit of $1.5 billion from 2004 until 2008.

“That is absolutely frightening,” he said. According to his research, the main driver of that has been borrowing to keep up with costs for the city’s pension debt.

But White said that when the city has borrowed to pay pension expenses, it has reduced other borrowing accordingly, so its overall debt levels have remained low relative to its assets.

“The ratio of debt is down from where it was in the early ’90s, and it is very competitive with other cities,” the mayor said.

Parker said the city’s spending has exceeded revenues by $1.5 billion from 2004 to 2008 because Houston has been on a building boom since the administration of Mayor Bob Lanier, borrowing to pay for new infrastructure that helps fuel growth.

“We have invested back in the city of Houston,” she said. “Our long-term debt has gone up sharply, but our infrastructure assets have gone up in valuation as well. We’re a growing city, and we’re trying to meet the needs of that growth.”

Well, I’d think that infrastructure investment would be a good thing to do, especially these days, but I’m not a longtime critic of City Hall, so what do I know? I suppose too much at once is bad, but that isn’t the argument Lemer is making, and as I can’t say I consider him to be a reliable source, we’ll just have to agree to disagree here. As for Bill King, I’m not exactly sure why his name is in this story, since there’s no quote from him that I can see. Maybe he’s required to be mentioned in stories about Houston’s governance, the way John Sharp was required to be mentioned in any story about potential statewide Democratic candidates. I can’t say I’d be surprised by that.

Locke files his treasurer’s report

Former City Attorney Gene Locke has filed his treasurer’s report for the Mayor’s race. I’ve got his press release beneath the fold. He was joined in doing so by City Controller Annise Parker and (be still my heart!) Roy Morales, who says he plans to “merely raise money with which to explore the idea of running”. And if that isn’t a vision that will have them swooning in the aisles, I don’t know what is.

There are two other hopefuls who have not yet filed their reports. One is Council Member Peter Brown, whom everyone knows is running. The other is another former City Attorney, Benjamin Hall, who apparently was about to announce his entry into the race until he got a phone call from Locke. What happened isn’t clear, but Locke has made his announcement, and Hall as yet has not. And a lot of people I know are talking about it.

Today’s Chron talks about how the Mayor’s race keeps starting earlier and earlier – in 1991, Bob Lanier and Sylvester Turner made their announcements in the summer, and that was to challenge an incumbent, Kathy Whitmire. The story also notes that former Gov. Mark White is apparently “still strongly considering entering the race”, which is the first I can recall hearing of him in awhile. I really don’t see what his path to victory is, but stranger things have happened.

And finally, a note on campaign tactics:

When the Internet was not yet in general use, Lanier and Turner used debates, news coverage and heavy advertising on TV and radio to promote their candidacies.

This year’s contenders will use those tools and go far beyond, [Rice University political scientist Bob] Stein said, following the Obama campaign’s use of on-line networking and fundraising, as well as using computerized data about voting habits and other demographics to identify and contact likely supporters.

Building word of mouth through Facebook, Twitter and other online avenues, along with the “micro-targeting” of voters, takes time that most previous mayoral campaigns never allowed, according to Stein.

I’ve got invitations to join Facebook groups for Annise Parker and Peter Brown, though I haven’t taken either of them up yet. If any other candidates have such things going for them at this time, I’ve not gotten notice of them. Both Annise Parker and Roy Morales are on Twitter, though neither has done much with it – Parker has tweeted three times total, Morales has been silent since January 15. The campaigns may be starting earlier, but that doesn’t mean all aspects of them are geared up.

At the City Council level, District H candidate Ed Gonzalez takes the early lead in the social networking race, as he’s the first of that group (that I know of) to get on Twitter. Which he used to announce his new blog. Karen Derr has had one of those for awhile, but as far as I know Ed’s the only one on Twitter. Both of them, plus Maverick Welsh and Hugo Mojica, are on Facebook. I’m sure things will get going more quickly in this race, given the much shorter time frame for it.

UPDATE: Over in Austin, mayoral hopeful Carole Keeton Strayhorn is thrilled about the grassroots twitter. I don’t think I can add anything to that.

UPDATE: And you can add Maverick Welsh to Twitter.

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