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Commissioners Court

Of course we could have done more on flood mitigation before now

From the Chron: Harris County faces challenge, opportunity managing $2.5B flood bond program. I want to focus on this bit.

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, estimates the bond program will complete a third of the flood protection measures Harris County needs. He said leadership from the incoming Commissioners Court, which now will be dominated by Democrats and include a new county judge and Precinct 2 commissioner, will be essential to getting the county the rest of the way.

“We are in a good position, but it’s not an end position,” Blackburn said. “It’s the beginning for the conversation that needs to occur, which is, ‘where are we headed?’”

[…]

The flood control district has issued bonds several times to pay for improvements, including $425 million in the 1980s, but by the 1990s was spending half its revenue on debt service. The district downsized its workforce and opted to pay for future projects up front, which significantly decreased the county’s investment in flood protection to around $15 million per year.

In 2001, after Tropical Storm Allison flooded 73,000 county homes, Harris County significantly increased the district’s funding to $120 million, split evenly between operations and capital projects. That annual sum has remained the same since then, its purchasing power diminished each year by inflation.

Blackburn said Commissioners Court and local members of Congress during this period focused too narrowly on building transportation infrastructure to keep pace with rapid population growth, at the expense of flood control.

“We were, basically, more interested in building the Grand Parkway than we were in fixing Addicks and Barker,” Blackburn said, referring to the west Houston reservoirs the Army Corps listed in 2009 among the most dangerous in the country.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett acknowledged in September that the county could have done more on flood protection in the decade before Harvey, but said he doubted the public would have supported a bond to pay for it.

“Sure, you could say the leader is supposed to get out in front,” Emmett said. “But people were not writing me saying we’ve got to raise taxes and do more for flood control.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, the longest-serving member of the court, predicted a flood bond proposal during the dry years of the 2010s would have gone down in “sizzling defeat.” He rejected the idea that commissioners erred by neglecting to increase the district’s budget in the past.

“There are people who believe we’ve underfunded indigent health care, underfunded roads, underfunded basically every single thing,” he said. “You’ll never be able to make everyone happy.”

In the nine years between Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Harvey, Commissioners Court kept the flood control district property tax rate at roughly 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, less than 5 percent of the overall county tax rate. That figure omits about 2 cents the county carries on its books in the form of debt service on old flood control bonds.

The rate devoted to flood control was two and a half times higher from 1995 through 2000; it took until this year for rising property values to let the district collect more in property taxes — its main revenue source — than it did in 2000.

It was not until Harvey, the wettest storm researchers have ever documented in the United States, that Commissioners Court members saw the urgency in funding the flood control district.

Would it have been difficult to sell a flood control bond ten or fifteen years ago, after Allison but before we started getting walloped on an annual basis? Probably, but you know, Commissioners Court could have tried. They could have engaged with the public about the need to take flood control seriously, and upgrade and improve our infrastructure to do it, and they could have done that even outside the context of a two-month political campaign for a bond. They could have supported other policies that would have boosted flood control efforts. And if they had done these things and encountered resistance, and maybe lost a flood bond referendum and even put their own political careers in jeopardy, well, that’s the nature of public service. As John Culberson can testify, there are downside risks to not taking that kind of action.

Also, too: People, such as Jim Blackburn, have been warning for decades that rampant sprawl into the western and northwestern parts of the county, and the paving over of the Katy Prairie that accommodated it, were bad for flood control. We could have made different choices, including choices that allowed for growth but prioritized growth in a more sustainable fashion. The fact that we’re getting the bill for it now doesn’t mean we couldn’t have taken action then.

Also, too, too: I’ve said this before, but maybe these stories should include reactions and quotes and whatnot from our incoming county executives? You know, the ones who are going to have to take the next steps in this process? Just a thought.

Cagle and Garcia hire Morman and Shaw

Fine by me.

Penny Shaw

Jack Morman, who was defeated for re-election as Harris County Precinct 2 commissioner in November, will remain on the county’s payroll in January as an employee of Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, a fellow Republican.

Morman, who served two terms on Commissioners Court before losing to former county sheriff Adrian Garcia, will work in Precinct 4’s capital improvements department, Cagle said.

Garcia recruited from this fall’s ballot, as well, selecting fellow Democrat Penny Shaw, who unsuccessfully challenged Cagle, as a policy adviser for Precinct 2.

[…]

Cagle said he was talking with Morman recently about an unrelated topic when they arrived at the subject of Morman’s next job. Cagle said that, given Morman’s eight years of experience as a commissioner, he would be a good fit to fill a vacancy in his capital improvements department.

“I’m working on what the exact title will be, and he and I are in beginning stages of working that out,” Cagle said. “He believes we’ll be a good fit for him.”

[…]

Garcia said he approached Shaw about working for him because he was impressed with her campaign in Precinct 4. As the two Democratic hopefuls for Commissioners Court, the pair often appeared at forums together. Shaw, an employment, family and business lawyer, campaigned on reforming the county’s criminal justice and mental health systems, said she and Garcia have yet to determine her policy portfolio.

“We don’t have a particular direction yet,” Shaw said. “Flood mitigation, which is huge, is at the top of the list.”

Jack Morman is uniquely qualified to do a job within a County Commissioner’s office, and Penny Shaw was one of the more impressive candidates on the trail this year. Both should be assets to their respective bosses.

Lina Hidalgo gets the national press treatment

You need to get past the first couple of paragraphs, but overall a decent piece.

Lina Hidalgo

Even in defeat, Beto O’Rourke did a big favor to fellow Democrats all over Texas. A couple hundred thousand young people who might otherwise have skipped the election turned out to vote for the charismatic young liberal, and when they did, they also voted for his party down the ballot. The Republicans still won the statewide races, but the margins were the narrowest they’ve been in decades, and in local races, there were a number of upsets by Democrats.

Perhaps the biggest surprise — or accident, as far as local conservatives are concerned — was in the race for the top administrator of Texas’s largest county, the one that surrounds Houston. The winner, Lina Hidalgo, was the most millennial candidate ever, a 27-year-old perma-student who relied on her parents’ financial support to launch her campaign. Her only jobs so far have been the short-term gigs she’s worked amid her schooling.

It’s safe to say she wasn’t chosen for her qualifications. Eighty-seven percent of her votes came from straight-ticket ballots. Now she’ll be overseeing a county of 5 million people — the third-largest in the U.S., larger than 26 states — along with a $5 billion budget and a payroll of nearly 17,000 people. (Only a few local hospitals and grocery stores employ more people, including Walmart, which has 34,000 Houston-area workers.) On top of that, Harris County has a vulnerable population of more than half a million undocumented immigrants, and surrounds a city that’s made entirely of concrete, as though it’s designed to encourage the maximum possible damage from floods — of which there have been two apocalyptic ones in the last decade.

Sometimes during the campaign, it didn’t look like she was even trying all that hard to win. A common refrain in news coverage was that she’d never attended a meeting of Harris County’s commissioners court, the governmental body she’d be overseeing, which is sort of like a city council. In one debate she couldn’t name the city auditor.

But the truth is that Hidalgo is more formidable than her short résumé suggests. To anyone paying closer attention, it was clear that she and the incumbent had fundamentally different ideas about what the administrative position should be. She thought, and still thinks, that there’s a way of transforming it from a mostly managerial role — someone who fills potholes, balances the budget, and cleans up after floods — to one that mobilizes the county’s resources to improve public health, expand public transportation, reform the jails, and reduce global warming.

“Any issue you choose, it’s easy to say, ‘We can’t do anything — that’s not the county’s deal,’ she said in a phone interview last week. “But fundamentally, it’s about priorities. Budgets are about priorities and they’re about values.” When she gets into the details, she’s persuasive — maybe because the transition has given her a chance to study the system up close. On criminal justice, she points out, the county has spent somewhere north of $6 million in the past year fighting a judge’s order to reform its bail system. On health, she cited an independent 2015 report that suggested the county could improve its services by coordinating better among its hospitals, clinics, schools, and public-health department. And on transit, she argued, the county can manage development in a way that discourages sprawl, and can divert some of its money for trains.

Just out of curiosity, can you name the county auditor? (County, not city – that’s an error in the article.) I’ve got the answer at the end of this post.

I feel like people haven’t really wrapped their minds around the ways in which things are likely to change, not just due to Hidalgo’s election but due to the new Democratic majority on Commissioners Court. The Court has always operated in a very clubby you-do-your-thing-and-I’ll-do-mine way, with Republicans having either a 3-2 or 4-1 majority most of the time. The late El Franco Lee, who was one of those Democrats for a thirty year period, did a lot of things for Precinct 1 in his time but was nobody’s idea of an agitator for change at the county level. It’s not just Lina, it’s Lina plus Rodney plus Adrian that will have a chance to shake things up and question things we have been doing for years, if not forever. Some of that is going to generate a ton of friction. As someone once said, elections have consequences.

By the way, later in the article Hidalgo responds to the complaint about her not having attended a Court meeting. She notes she watched them online, then makes the very good but often overlooked point that Court meetings are held during the work day for most people, and in general are not very welcoming to public input. That’s one of those things that I figure will be changed, and it will be welcome. Business is not going to be as ususal.

By the way, the county auditor is someone named Michael Post. Go ahead and do a Google News search for “harris county auditor” or “michael post harris county”, or a Chron archive search for either, I’ll wait. Maybe the reason Lina Hidalgo didn’t know the name Michael Post off the top of her head is because the man and his office have basically been invisible? Just a thought.

Use that mandate in Harris County

Jay Aiyer pens an agenda for Harris County and its Democratic government.

First and foremost, flood mitigation has to be at the top of any list. Harris County has taken good initial steps to improve flood control infrastructure, and the passage of flood control bonds was badly needed. Those steps however, are only the beginning of what needs to be done. Development changes that prohibit growth and expansion in the floodplain, and ideas from experts like Rice University’s Raj Makand to impose a moratorium on new municipal utility districts until the region has a comprehensive plan for flood mitigation should be considered. Infrastructure development in Harris County — everything from toll road expansion to affordable housing construction should be factored into flood control efforts. Flood mitigation needs to be the county’s top priority.

[…]

The need for ethics and transparency is also required at the Commissioner’s Court itself. Unlike Houston City Council or the Texas Legislature, Harris County government remains largely shrouded in secrecy. The lack of broad transparency and pro-forma meetings results in a policy process that is largely kept behind closed doors. Commissioners have wide latitude in how business is conducted within their precinct, but that should be governed by a strong ethics policy that requires lobbyists to register and places limits on campaign contributions. A strong government requires one grounded in ethics and transparency.

Access to the ballot box and the integrity of voting process remains a major concern to all voters. Harris County needs a transparent and error-free voter registration process that works to actively register voters. Texas is eliminating straight ticket voting in 2020 and Harris County needs to start preparing for the longer lines and logistical strains that surround the longest electoral ballot in the country. This means expanding the number early voting locations throughout the county, as well as extending the hours of operation. Harris County also needs to follow other Texas counties and create election day voting centers that allow voters to cast a vote at location throughout the county — not just at a precinct.

Part of the improving voting means replacing the outdated machines. The current click-wheel electronic voting system is outdated and slow in handling our long ballot. Harris County needs to invest in modern, verifiable voting machines that can provide confidence in the electoral process while allowing voters to exercise their vote quickly and efficiently. County government has historically worked to make voting more difficult and cumbersome, and these reforms would be a good first step in reversing that.

Finally, Harris County should also revisit initiatives around the expansion of early childcare. In 2013, the well-meaning pre-K training initiative “Early to Rise,” which called for a ballot initiative to expand pre-K training programs, was strongly opposed by outgoing County Judge Ed Emmett and the Republican majority of Commissioner’s Court. While that initial plan was limited in scope, the idea of a regional approach to expanding early child care is one that needs to be explored. Research indicates that investing in early education initiatives are the best way to mitigate the effects of poverty and improve long term educational outcomes. A countywide program may be the smartest long term investment that Harris County could make.

I endorse all of Jay’s idea, which he proposes as a first-100-days plan, and I’d add a few things of my own, none of which need to be done immediately. One is for Harris County to be a more active partner with Metro, and to be fully engaged in the forthcoming transit plan and referendum. There are a lot of ways the county can contribute to better transit, and with everything Metro has going on now, this is the time. Two, continue the work Ed Emmett started in consolidating services with Houston and other cities, and make non-MUD governance a part of that development reform Aiyer outlines. Three, figure out what the office of the Treasurer can and should be doing. Incoming Treasurer Dylan Osborne has his own ideas, of course, but my point is that back in the 90s Commissioners Court basically neutered the office during Don Sumners’ term. Maybe now the time has come to restore some actual power to that office. Other counties have Treasurers, perhaps we should look to them to see if there’s a good model to follow.

I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas. (The parts that I cut out for this excerpt talked about criminal justice and bail reform, some of which have been going on.) Reviving the pre-K proposal is especially something we should all get behind. The point is, there is much that can be done, and no reason to feel restrained by “we’ve always done it that way” thinking. If it’s a good idea, let’s talk about it and figure out if we can make it work. It’s a new era in Harris County.

On straight tickets and other votes

I have and will continue to have more to say about straight ticket votes. Part of me is reluctant to talk about this stuff, because I feel like we’ve reached a point where straight ticket votes are seen as less than other votes, and I don’t want to contribute in any way to that. But given all the talk we’ve already had, and the unending stream of baloney about the ridiculously outsized effect they supposedly had in this election, I feel like I need to shed what light I can on what the data actually says. So onward we go.

Today I want to look at a few districts of interest, and separate out the straight ticket votes from the other votes. Again, I hesitated to do this at first because I object so strenuously to the trope that straight ticket votes tipped an election in a particular way, to the detriment of the losing candidate. If a plethora of straight ticket votes helped propel a candidate to victory, it’s because there was a surplus of voters who supported that candidate, and not because of anything nefarious. We call that “winning the election”, and it stems from the condition of having more people vote for you than for the other person. Anyone who claims otherwise is marinating in sour grapes.

So. With that said, here’s a look at how the vote broke down in certain districts.


CD02:

Straight R = 109,529
Straight D =  87,667

Crenshaw      29,659
Litton        32,325

CD07:

Straight R =  90,933
Straight D =  86,640

Culberson     24,709
Fletcher      41,319

If you want to believe in the fiction that straight ticket votes determined the elections, and not the totality of the voters in the given political entity, then please enjoy the result in CD02, where Dan Crenshaw rode the straight ticket vote to victory. Those of us who refuse to engage in such nonsense will merely note that CD02 remained a Republican district despite two cycles of clear movement in a Democratic direction. And then there’s CD07, which stands in opposition to the claim that straight ticket votes are destiny, for if they were then John Culberson would not be shuffling off to the Former Congressman’s Home.


HD126:

Straight R =  24,093
Straight D =  19,491

Harless        6,306
Hurtado        5,544

HD132:

Straight R =  27,287
Straight D =  26,561

Schofield      5,441
Calanni        6,280

HD134:

Straight R =  27,315
Straight D =  30,634

Davis         19,962
Sawyer        11,003

HD135:

Straight R =  22,035
Straight D =  22,541

Elkins         4,666
Rosenthal      5,932

HD138:

Straight R =  18,837
Straight D =  18,746

Bohac          5,385
Milasincic     5,429

HD126 and HD135 were consistent, with straight ticket and non-straight ticket votes pointing in the same direction. Gina Calanni was able to overcome Mike Schofield’s straight ticket lead, while Adam Milasincic was not quite able to do the same. As for HD134, this is one part a testament to Sarah Davis’ crossover appeal, and one part a warning to her that this district may not be what it once was. Republicans are going to have some tough decisions to make in the 2021 redistricting if they want to hold onto this district.


CC2:

Straight R =  86,756
Straight D =  92,927

Morman        25,981
Garcia        21,887

CC3:

Straight R = 132,207
Straight D = 122,325

Flynn         32,964
Duhon         40,989

CC4:

Straight R = 144,217
Straight D = 122,999

Cagle         42,545
Shaw          34,448

Finally, a Democrat gets a boost from straight ticket voting. I had figured Adrian Garcia would run ahead of the pack in Commissioners Court Precinct 2, but that wasn’t the case. I attribute Jack Morman’s resiliency to his two terms as incumbent and his millions in campaign cash, but in the end they weren’t enough. As was the case with CD02 for Dan Crenshaw, CC2 was too Democratic for Morman. That’s a shift from 2016, where Republicans generally led the way in the precinct, and shows another aspect of the Republican decline in the county. You see that also in CC3, where many Dems did win a majority and Andrea Duhon came close, and in CC4, which is at this point the last stronghold for Republicans. Democrats are pulling their weight out west, and that had repercussions this year that will continue to be felt in 2020 and beyond.

There’s still more to the straight ticket voting data that I want to explore. I keep thinking I’m done, then I keep realizing I’m not. Hope this has been useful to you.

Precinct analysis: Beto does Harris County

He won pretty much everywhere you looked. So let’s look at the numbers:


Dist     Cruz     Beto   Dike   Cruz%   Beto%  Trump%  Clint%
=============================================================
CD02  132,390  129,160  2,047  50.22%  49.00%  52.38%  43.05%
CD07  112,078  129,781  1,843  45.99%  53.25%  47.11%  48.47%
CD08   17,552   11,299    219  60.38%  38.87%  
CD09   22,625   96,747    705  18.84%  80.57%  17.56%  79.70%
CD10   70,435   43,559    849  61.33%  37.93%  63.61%  32.36%
CD18   37,567  145,752  1,314  20.35%  78.94%  19.95%  76.46%
CD22   15,099   16,379    255  47.58%  51.62%
CD29   29,988   86,918    673  25.50%  73.92%  25.46%  71.09%
CD36   60,441   38,985    734  60.34%  38.92%
					
SBOE6 278,443  299,800  4,608  47.77%  51.44%  48.92%  46.59%
					
HD126  28,683   26,642    385  51.49%  47.82%  52.96%  42.99%
HD127  40,910   27,332    491  59.52%  39.77%  61.23%  34.90%
HD128  34,892   17,040    330  66.76%  32.60%  68.17%  28.75%
HD129  35,233   29,467    547  54.00%  45.16%  55.33%  40.06%
HD130  50,631   25,486    581  66.01%  33.23%  68.08%  27.94%
HD131   5,921   35,793    214  14.12%  85.37%  13.33%  84.31%
HD132  32,045   34,388    467  47.90%  51.40%  50.04%  45.68%
HD133  39,175   32,412    578  54.29%  44.91%  54.54%  41.11%
HD134  35,387   54,687    686  38.99%  60.25%  39.58%  55.12%
HD135  26,108   29,740    438  46.38%  52.84%  48.91%  46.80%
HD137   6,996   17,188    184  28.71%  70.54%  28.95%  66.96%
HD138  22,682   25,748    404  46.45%  52.73%  47.80%  47.83%
HD139  10,245   36,770    283  21.66%  77.74%  20.60%  76.12%
HD140   5,181   18,305    123  21.95%  77.53%  21.89%  75.07%
HD141   3,976   27,231    170  12.67%  86.79%  12.58%  85.20%
HD142   8,410   31,178    225  21.12%  78.31%  20.97%  76.20%
HD143   7,482   21,146    164  25.99%  73.44%  26.02%  71.03%
HD144   8,895   14,406    162  37.91%  61.40%  38.41%  57.72%
HD145	9,376   23,500    255  28.30%  70.93%  28.73%  66.91%
HD146	7,817   35,558    301  17.90%  81.41%  17.31%  79.44%
HD147	9,359   45,894    355  16.83%  82.53%  16.76%  79.00%
HD148  14,536   33,378    531  30.01%  68.90%  30.49%  63.83%
HD149  13,603   25,179    252  34.85%  64.51%  32.51%  64.25%
HD150  40,632   30,112    513  57.02%  42.26%  59.18%  36.62%
					
CC1    59,092  230,334  1,851  20.29%  79.08%  19.74%  76.83%
CC2   105,548  122,309  1,617  46.00%  53.30%  46.79%  49.48%
CC3   159,957  173,028  2,501  47.68%  51.58%  48.22%  47.63%
CC4   173,578  172,909  2,670  49.71%  49.52%  51.22%  44.42%

I threw in the Trump/Clinton percentages from 2016 for extra context. Note that for the Congressional districts, the numbers in question are only for the Harris County portion of the district. I apparently didn’t bother with all of the CDs in 2016, so I’ve only got some of those numbers. Anyway, a few thoughts:

– It finally occurred to me in looking at these numbers why the Trump/Clinton percentages from 2016 might be a decent predictor of 2018 performance, at least in some races. Trump’s numbers were deflated relative to other Republicans in part because of the other available candidates, from Gary Johnson to Evan McMullin and even Jill Stein. In 2018, with a similarly objectionable Republican and a much-better-liked Democrat, the vast majority of those votes would stick with the Dem instead of reverting back to the R. That, plus a bit more, is what happened in this race. We won’t see that in every race, and where we do see it we won’t necessarily see as much of it, but it’s a pattern that exists in several contests.

– Okay, fine, Beto didn’t quite win everything. He did come close in CD02, and he came really close in Commissioners Court Precinct 4, the most Republican precinct in the county. Steve Radack may be hearing some footsteps behind him in Precinct 3 for 2020. I’ll talk more about CD02 in another post.

– How about SBOE district 6, the one political entity subject to redistricting that I inhabit where the incumbent is a Republican? Trump made it look swingy in 2016, but the other Republican statewides were carrying it by 13-15 points. Mitt Romney won it by 21 points in 2012, and Greg Abbott carried it by 23 points in 2014. There aren’t that many opportunities for Dems to play offense in Harris County in 2020, but this is one of them.

– Beto was the top performer in 2018, so his numbers are the best from a Democratic perspective. As with the Trump/Clinton numbers in 2016, that means that I will be a bit of a killjoy and warn about taking these numbers as the harbinger of things to come in two years. There’s a range of possibility, as you will see, and of course all of that is before we take into account the political environment and the quality of the candidates in whatever race you’re now greedily eyeing.

– But that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate a little. Clearly, HD138 is the top target in 2020, with HD126 a bit behind. Farther out, but honestly not that far off of where HDs 132, 135, and 138 were in 2016, are HDs 129 and 133, with HD150 another step back from them. (I consider HD134 to be a unicorn, with Sarah Davis the favorite to win regardless of outside conditions.) The latter three are all unlikely, but after this year, would anyone say they’re impossible? Again, lots of things can and will happen between now and then, but there’s no harm in doing a little window shopping now.

More to come in the next couple of weeks.

Harris County certifies the 2018 vote

We have a winner:

We have another winner:

View this post on Instagram

The votes have been certified. We won by 113. Thank you to everyone that canvassed, phone banked, texted, hosted an event, invited me to meet your friends in your homes, shared my social media, registered voters, invested in the campaign, and voted! We did it! We flipped a seat that hasn’t been held by a democrat in decades. A seat that no woman has ever held. I look forward to representing the people of TXHD132 and focusing on making positive changes for all Texans. Thank you for your support. #txlege #txed #texas #katytx #cypresstx #floodcontrol #humantrafficking #enditmovement❌ #community #momlife #writersofinstagram #riseup #politics #house #congress #represent #instamoment #instalife #cantstopwontstop #letsdothis

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And we have a near miss:

Adam Milasincic

If the count is accurate, we fell short by 47 out of 48,417 votes. In the two decades since Harris County adopted computerized voting, “recounting” per se has never moved more than two or three votes. The pathway to challenge whether certain ballots were improperly rejected—and thus materially affected the outcome—would involve an election contest in the Texas House. Over the next weeks, we will complete due diligence to determine if such a contest makes sense.

Regardless, at least 49.93% of voters endorsed bold change in House District 138 this year. In 2016, no Democrat even ran for this seat. I extend heartfelt thanks to the voters and to our volunteer army who made such progress possible.

In whatever capacity, I will continue working for marginalized communities in Northwest Houston—especially immigrant families and those abused by the criminal justice system or made into scapegoats by Trump and the back-benchers who copy his playbook.

In coming months, we will have an announcement about 2020. As Ted Kennedy said, “for all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

There was a story in the print edition of the Chron about Commissioners Court certifying the vote on Friday, but I can’t find it online. These were the three closest races of interest, so there you have it. No idea at this time if Mike Schofield will pursue a recount.

The Fort Bend blue wave

Let’s not forget that what happened in Harris County happened in Fort Bend, too.

KP George

Across the state, the “blue wave” that had long been a dream of the Democratic Party faithful failed to materialize in Tuesday’s midterm elections, with Republicans sweeping every statewide office for the 20th consecutive year, albeit by closer-than-expected margins.

But in Fort Bend County — the rapidly growing suburb southwest of Houston often heralded as a beacon of diversity — Democrats had their best election day since the political power base in Texas shifted from Democrat to Republican decades ago.

Political analysts attributed the near sweep in part to the county’s growing diversity, which also was reflected in the backgrounds of some of the winners: Middleton, who defeated Republican Cliff Vacek, is African-American, and Democrat KP George, who unseated longtime County Judge Robert Hebert, was born in India.

[…]

In Fort Bend County elections Tuesday, Democrats ousted Republican incumbents for county judge, Precinct 4 commissioner and district clerk. Middleton won the open district attorney race, and all 22 Democrats who ran for judicial positions — state district courts, appeals courts and county courts-at-law — prevailed; the lone Republican victor was opposed only by a Libertarian candidate.

Fort Bend County voters favored Democrats over Republicans for every statewide office on the ballot except governor. And even in that race, Gov. Greg Abbott, who won 56 percent of the statewide vote over challenger Lupe Valdez, managed only a slim plurality in Fort Bend County, besting Valdez by a mere 720 votes out of more than 250,000 cast.

Only in legislative campaigns did the Democrats fall short. Sri Kulkarni, who failed in his bid to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Olson in the multi-county 22nd Congressional District, lost in his district’s portion of Fort Bend County by 5 percentage points, roughly the same as the district-wide margin. Republican state Reps. Rick Miller and John Zerwas defeated Democratic challengers.

I agree that Fort Bend’s diversity played a big role in the result, but Fort Bend has been very diverse for years now. Democrats have come close before – Barack Obama got 48.50% in Fort Bend in 2008 – but they were never quite able to break through. This was the year it all came together, and I’d say it was a combination of demography, voter registration, Betomania, and the same disgust with Donald Trump from college-educated voters as we saw in Harris County and pretty much everywhere else. None of this really a surprise – we saw what was happening in Commissioners Court Precinct 4 in 2016 – but it still feels a bit unreal that it actually happened. The suburbs have long been the locus of Republican strength in Texas. That’s not true any more, and I think it’s going to take us all a little time to fully absorb that. In the meantime, I know some very happy people in Fort Bend right now. KUHF has more.

Emmett’s farewell

I wish him the best with whatever comes next.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday did not rule out returning to public service after he gives up the gavel in January, but made clear he first would return to the private sector following last week’s re-election loss.

Democrat Lina Hidalgo defeated Emmett, a Republican who has helmed Harris County government since 2007. She will assume office Jan. 1. Meanwhile, Emmett said he planned to work with Hidalgo to ensure she transitions smoothly into the role.

With two Commissioners Court meetings left in his term, Emmett likely will decide on his next move in early December and told reporters he faces “numerous options.”

“You know, I had a life before I became county judge,” Emmett, 69, said after his first post-election court meeting. “As I’ve told many people, you know, I didn’t die.”

[…]

Emmett said he would remain interested in how the revamped court handles Harris County’s growing unincorporated population, and remained willing to offer “anything I can do to help that.” However, Emmett also indicated he would not hover over Hidalgo’s shoulder upon leaving office.

“I don’t intend to be one of those people that every day says something about what’s going on in the county,” he said. “I’m going to move on with my life and she’s going to move on with the county.”

Emmett, a moderate Republican, has been at odds with his party’s more conservative wing, and on Tuesday offered some criticism for those at the top of the ticket, without naming names. During the campaign, he told the Houston Chronicle editorial board that he planned to vote for Mike Collier, the Democratic challenger to Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Every statewide Republican official lost Harris County, including Patrick, who faced a 14-point deficit here. Democrat Beto O’Rourke also trounced Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at the top of the local ballot. Republicans nonetheless won their statewide elections.

“I think that people at the top of the ticket need to start looking at what they’re saying to the voters, ’cause the voters aren’t buying it,” Emmett said. “And I think voters want to pay attention to competence, and people that will address the needs of their daily lives, and get away from all this other stuff.”

I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of Ed Emmett. I expect he’ll take some time off – he’s certainly earned it – and probably down the line he’ll wind up in some other form of public service, on a commission or board or what have you. He’ll be welcome in whatever capacity he chooses. As for his fellow Republicans, I’m sure they won’t pay heed to what he’s saying. Some lessons need to be learned the hard way, and the ones in Texas who most need that have unfortunately not yet had that experience. Be that as it may, I thank Ed Emmett for his service, and wish him and his family all the best.

There better be a bail lawsuit settlement

I mean, duh.

The Democratic sweep of Harris County leadership posts in the midterm election could prompt a settlement in the protracted legal dispute over how judges handle bail for poor people arrested for petty offenses, according to statements made in federal court Tuesday.

The shift in attitudes became evident during an early morning hearing in Houston before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who has presided over the civil rights action since 2016 and ruled in 2017 that the county’s bail practices discriminated against poor people. Lawyers for both sides acknowledged the proverbial elephant in the room: that all 14 county judges who oppose the bail lawsuit are Republicans who will be replaced in the new year by Democrats who have pushed for deeper bail reform.

Rosenthal congratulated the attorneys’ willingness to “accommodate any changes that have recently occurred in a reasonable way” and set a hearing for Feb. 1 where the lawyers may begin discussing plans for a possible settlement that would avert a costly trial.

[…]

Standing with [plaintiffs’ attorney Neal] Manne and others in the courthouse hallway after the hearing was Franklin Bynum, a 36-year-old Democratic Socialist in the mold of Bernie Sanders, who was elected last week to the misdemeanor bench for County Criminal Court No. 8. Bynum said he’d read documents and sat through hearings in the historic bail case from the beginning.

“It was this lawsuit that originally inspired me to run for judge,” Bynum said.

He said he and his fellow Democratic candidates all promised residents on the campaign trail they intended to settle the bail lawsuit quickly.

“Certainly, we’re going to behave differently than the current judges did, like being obstinate …and defending the indefensible,” he said.

In April 2017, Rosenthal ruled that the county’s bail policy violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. She wrote that misdemeanor judges’ bail determinations amounted to wealth-based detention for poor defendants who could otherwise qualify for pretrial release, whereas similar defendants with money could resume their lives at home on bond.

The topic of a settlement surfaced again an hour later at the start of the first Commissioners Court meeting following the election.

A lawyer for County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench and the only judge to retain his seat in last week’s election, implored county leaders to “stop the hemorrhaging of money” and end their appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Basically, at this point there’s no one in power that wants to see this continue. County Judge-elect Hidalgo, County Commissioner-elect Garcia, and all of the incoming misdemeanor court judges ran on ending the lawsuit and implementing bail reform. We just need to do it, and we have every right to expect results after the new officials and judges are sworn in.

Hidalgo gets started

If you weren’t paying attention to County Judge-elect Lina Hidalgo before, you are now.

Lina Hidalgo

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, the lone Democrat currently on the court, said Hidalgo is a quick study who will settle into the role quickly.

“She’s smart and was very bold to make the decision to run, and to make a commitment to public service,” Ellis said.

Hidalgo said her immediate focus is recruiting a top-flight staff and pledged to announce a transition plan in coming weeks. Depending on how many Emmett holdovers Hidalgo retains, she could have as many as 30 positions to fill.

[Robert] Eckels, who served as county judge from 1995 to 2007, urged Hidalgo to focus on building relationships with the four county commissioners. Unlike the mayor of Houston, who has significantly more power — and far more leverage over — city council, the county judge can accomplish little without the support of commissioners.

“The county judge position is by nature a weak position,” Eckels said. “One vote is one vote. Three votes can change the world.”

Eckels said the mild-mannered Emmett was successful because he was able to manage the sometimes outsized personalities of commissioners.

Hidalgo said she would welcome Emmett’s advice during the transition. She said a top priority is to make county government more transparent, and suggested holding regular town halls. She also is eager to settle the federal lawsuit brought by poor criminal defendants brought two years ago, in which they argue Harris County’s cash bail system is unconstitutional.

She emphasized the importance of flood control, and said she has yet to determine whether to make changes to the projects list for the $2.5 billion flood protection bond voters approved in August.

[…]

With the election of Adrian Garcia in the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, Democrats will have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court, starting in January.

The Republican commissioners, Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, said they looked forward to working with Hidalgo. Radack, who has served under three county executives since he first was elected in 1988, said he expects court members to continue to work well together with Democrats in charge.

Cagle said he would not be bothered if Hidalgo used her new pulpit to speak out on statewide and national issues like immigration and criminal justice, so long as the county continues to serve its largely nonpartisan functions, like maintaining infrastructure and providing health services.

“When you fix a pothole, there’s no R or D that goes on it,” Cagle said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday morning he was surprised Hidalgo won. He praised Emmett, with whom he worked closely during storm events including Hurricane Harvey and the Tax Day Flood, as a treasured partner.

“The reality is that for all of us, we’re not indispensable,” Turner said. “I can be here, tomorrow I can be someplace else and the city will go forward, the city will go on.”

Indeed. The power on Commissioners Court lies mostly with the Commissioners themselves – they have the bigger budgets, after all. The Court has always operated in a collegial environment and with consensus among the commissioners. We’ll see how that changes now that Dems have the majority. For now, the priority for Hidalgo is going to be getting to know her future colleagues and everyone else who will need to get to know her.

Trautman talks new voting machines

As is usually the case, finding the funding will be the key.

Diane Trautman

The newly elected Harris County clerk plans to phase out the county’s eSlate voting machines, which have occasionally caused problems for voters.

Diane Trautman, who beat the incumbent in the countywide sweep of Democrats, also wants to improve the county’s elections technology so voters can cast ballots in any precinct on Election Day. Currently, residents are allowed to vote at any polling place during early voting, but must use a designated location on Election Day.

“We must replace the current electronic machines with an electronic machine that produces a verifiable paper trail,” Trautman said. “The problem, of course, is the funding.”

[…]

Stanart said he also had planned to phase out the eSlate voting machines if re-elected.

On average, the devices are eight years old. Most were purchased after a 2010 fire destroyed the warehouse where Harris County stored its voting machines.

Stanart’s spokesman, Hector de Leon, said the clerk’s office estimates that replacing the county’s 8,189 eSlate machines would cost about $75 million. Trautman said she would explore whether the state or federal government could cover part of the cost.

[…]

Meanwhile, Commissioners Court would need to approve the purchase of new machines, and members are supportive of the idea. Incoming Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said improving the voting experience for residents must be a priority.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle urged Trautman to prepare a detailed proposal for replacing the eSlate machines and present it to the court. He said new machines must be a technological upgrade and have a long-term life span.

“Let’s not throw out good machines just to get fancy new ones,” Cagle said. “What we buy next, let’s make sure it lasts a while, as well.”

I’m glad to hear that there is support for moving forward on this. We should write up our standards, talk to Travis County about their systems, revisit that cost estimate, and begin meeting with legislators and members of Congress to see what funding they may be able to provide. It also looks like we can begin work on moving towards a vote center system for Election Day, which ought to help alleviate some of the problems we have seen when precinct voting locations have had technical problems. I can’t wait to see how this goes.

Initial reactions: Harris County

Let’s start with the obvious.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Democrats rode a surge in voter turnout to a decisive victory on Tuesday, unseating several countywide Republican officials, including longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, and sweeping all 59 judicial races.

Emmett, who courted Democratic ticket-splitters and leaned on his reputation as a steady hand during hurricanes, conceded at 11 p.m. to 27-year-old challenger Lina Hidalgo, who was running in her first race for public office.

After defeating the Republican sheriff and district attorney two years ago, Harris County Democrats now will control all of the countywide elected posts. In addition, former sheriff Adrian Garcia defeated incumbent Republican Jack Morman in the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, giving Democrats control of Commissioners Court.

[…]

University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus attributed the Democrats’ success to changing demographics in the largest Texas county and a superb get-out-the-vote effort by Democratic groups.

“Democrats have harnessed the blue wave, at least locally,” Rottinghaus said. “Harris County is going to be trending more purple, which is going to spell difficulty for Republicans in countywide races in the future.”

The upset fulfilled the nightmare scenario Republicans feared: Democratic straight-ticket voters who have a positive opinion of Emmett failed to venture far enough down the ballot to vote for him, handing the win to Hidalgo.

Hidalgo will be the first Latina county judge, and youngest since a 23-year-old Roy Hofheinz was elected in 1936. She has lived in Harris County sporadically as an adult and has never attended a meeting of Commissioners Court.

Hidalgo was an energetic campaigner who implored voters not to settle for the status quo. She criticized Emmett for failing to push harder for flood protection measures in the decade before Hurricane Harvey, when parts of the county were flooded by several storms. Emmett had campaigned on his record, contrasting his 11 years as the county’s chief executive with Hidalgo’s lack of formal work experience.

At Emmett’s watch party at the Hotel ZaZa, his supporters stared in disbelief at monitors displaying the results. Emmett spoke briefly and compared this election to the 1974 midterms following the Watergate scandal, when a wave of incumbents were defeated.

“If this happens the way it appears, I won’t take it personally,” Emmett said. “It is a bitter pill to swallow, but Harris County will move on. I will be fine.”

Supporter Xavier Stokes chalked up the county judge race result to straight-ticket voting, rather than a referendum on Emmett himself.

“He’s done such a good job, and yet here we are,” Stokes said. “It just shows you how this type of voting distorts the outcome.”

I’m not surprised to see straight ticket voting get the blame here. Lisa Falkenberg and Judge Emmett himself are both pushing that narrative, though to Falkenberg’s credit she also recognized that some awful Republicans in Harris County had been the beneficiary of straight ticket voting in the past. Judge Emmett is a good person and he has been a very competent County Judge, but his problem wasn’t so much the straight ticket option as it was that so many more Democrats than Republicans voted. Beto O’Rourke carried Harris County by almost 200,000 votes. All of the statewides except Lupe Valdez (+66K), Joi Chevalier (+97K), and Roman McAllen (+100K) carried Harris by more than the Democratic margin in straight ticket votes. Emmett pitched his campaign at Democrats because he had no choice. He knew he was swimming in very deep waters. To assume that the straight ticket voters cost him the election is to assume that without that option, the Democratic straight ticket voters would have significantly either undervoted in the County Judge race or gone on to vote for Emmett as the (likely) only Republican they chose – which, remember, they still could have done anyway – and also that a significant number of Republican straight ticket voters would have remembered to vote all the way down the ballot as well. Maybe straight ticket voters cost Emmett this race and maybe they didn’t, but when you start out with a deficit that large you need everything to go right to have a chance at overcoming it. Not enough went right for Ed Emmett.

Two other points to note here. One is that I don’t remember anywhere near this level of mourning when straight ticket Republicans in 2010 ousted then-State Rep. Ellen Cohen and then-County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, the latter in favor of a little-known young first time candidate. Two, it was within the power of the formerly-Republican-dominated Commissioners Court to take measures to mitigate against the seemingly pernicious effects of straight ticket voting. They could have engaged in efforts to better educate everyone in Harris County about how its voting machines worked instead of leaving that mostly to the political parties. They could have invested in newer voting machines that provided voters with more information about their range of options in the booth. They did not do these things. Which, to be fair, may not have made any difference in the era of Donald Trump and a rising demographic tide that is increasingly hostile to Republicans. It’s just that when men of great power and influence claim to have been undermined by forces entirely beyond their control, I tend to be a bit skeptical.

Anyway. I understand the concerns that some people have about Lina Hidalgo. I think she’ll be fine, I think she’ll figure it out, and I think Harris County will be fine. I also think that the professional news-gathering organizations could send a reporter or two to Dallas and ask about their experience after the 2006 election when an even lesser-known and much less qualified Democrat ousted the respected longtime Republican County Judge in that year’s blue wave. That fellow – Jim Foster was his name – had a turbulent tenure and was ousted in the 2010 Democratic primary by current County Judge Clay Jenkins. I’m sure we could all benefit from a review of that bit of history.

Beyond that, the main immediate effect of the Hidalgo and Garcia wins will be (I hope) the swift conclusion of the ongoing bail practices litigation. With the defeat of all the Republican misdemeanor court judges, there’s no one outside of Steve Radack and Jack Cagle left in county government who supports continuing this thing, and they’re now outvoted. Longer term, the next round of redistricting for Commissioners Court should be more considerate of the Latino voters in the county, as Campos notes. I also have high hopes for some sweeping improvements to voting access and technology now that we have finally #FiredStanStanart. Long story short, a review and update of early voting hours and locations, an investment in new and better voting machines, and official support of online voter registration are all things I look forward to.

One more point of interest, in the race for HCDE Trustee Position 4, Precinct 3. Democrat Andrea Duhon nearly won this one, finishing with 49.58% of the vote. Precinct 3 is where County Commissioner Steve Radack hangs his hat, and it was basically 50-50 in 2018. Radack is up for election in 2020. Someone with the right blend of ambition and fundraising ability needs to be thinking about that starting now.

Metro’s post-Culberson future

You might not be aware of this, but famously anti-Metro Congressman John Culberson lost his bid for re-election on Tuesday. What might that mean for Metro?

Lizzie Fletcher

In one of the more stunning defeats of incumbent Republicans on Tuesday night, Lizzie Fletcher beat out long-time Congressman John Culberson in the Texas 7th District. It is the first time this seat has been held by a Democrat in more than 50 years.

While Fletcher campaigned primarily on inclusiveness and healthcare, one portion of the platforms on her campaign website should not go unnoticed. “We need to partner with cities, counties, and METRO to bring additional resources and improvements to our region,” she says on her website. “We need an advocate for policies that both maintain and expand our region’s mobility infrastructure. And we need to make sure that Houston receives its fair share of transportation funding to move our citizens across the region.”

This seems like a logical and rational position given Houston’s congestion issues and rapidly growing size. But, she adds one additional note. “John Culberson has failed to be a partner in this effort. Even worse, his record shows that he has actively worked against expanding transportation options in Houston.”

Some might dismiss this as campaign rhetoric, but the thing is, she isn’t wrong. In a now infamous 2014 fundraising event at Tony’s, the posh Italian eatery in Greenway Plaza, Culberson bragged about preventing light rail from expanding to a line planned for Richmond Avenue. “I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” he said. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond.”

[…]

Now that Culberson’s aversion to rail is removed from the district, it will be interesting to see if Fletcher takes up the mantle of public transportation and acts as less of a hindrance — or even an advocate — for programs that would increase rail and other public transit programs through the Houston-Galveston region.

KUHF also asked those questions.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said she thinks Lizzie Fletcher will be a huge help as the agency moves ahead with a new regional transit plan.

[…]

But what does Fletcher’s election mean for any Richmond rail plans?

Patman said for cost reasons they’re now considering bus rapid transit for the Richmond corridor, to help provide better connections between downtown and The Galleria. But she added that project would also require help from Washington, D.C.

“Just as we built two of the three rail lines with a federal match, we will need federal money to help implement our expanded transit in the region,” explained Patman.

So first and foremost, Culberson’s defeat means that when he officially opposes the Metro regional transit plan, as I expect he will, he’ll do so as just another cranky member of the general public. And not just with Lizzie Fletcher in Congress but Democrats controlling Congress, there should be a good chance to get the Culberson anti-Richmond rail budget rider removed. That’s all very much to the good, but it’s a start and not a done deal. But as Christof Spieler helpfully reminds us, there’s a lot of work still to be done, as any federal funds only exist as matches to local money. We need to put up the cash first, then we can try to get federal help. Christof has a few suggestions, and I would submit that the changeover in Harris County Commissioners Court, as well as having a potentially friendlier-to-rail representative from the county on the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council, could be game changers of equal magnitude. You want to see this gap in Metro’s transit infrastructure get filled? Start by engaging on the 2019 transit plan referendum, and tell your local officials to support Metro in this effort.

Omnibus election report

It’s after midnight, I’ve mostly posted stuff on my long-dormant Twitter account (@kuff), and I will have many, many thoughts in the coming days. For now, a brief recap.

– As you know, neither Beto nor any other Dem won statewide, thus continuing the shutout that began in 1996. However, as of this writing and 6,998 of 7,939 precincts counted, O’Rourke had 3,824,780 votes, good for 47.86% of the total. In 2016, Hillary Clinton collected 3,877,868 votes. It seems very likely that by the time all is said and done, Beto O’Rourke will be the biggest vote-getter in history for a Texas Democrat. He will have built on Hillary Clinton’s total from 2016. That’s pretty goddamn amazing, and if you’re not truly impressed by it you’re not seeing the whole picture. We’re in a different state now.

– Beto may not have won, but boy howdy did he have coattails. Colin Allred won in CD32, and Lizzie Fletcher won in CD07. Will Hurd is hanging on to a shrinking lead in CD23, up by less than 1,200 votes with about 14% of the precincts yet to report. He was leading by 6,000 votes in early voting, and it may still be possible for Gina Ortiz Jones to catch him. Todd Litton (45.30% in CD02), Lorie Burch (44.21% in CD03), Jana Lynne Sanchez (45.25% in CD06), Mike Siegel (46.71% in CD10), Joseph Kopser (47.26% in CD21), Sri Kulkarni (46.38% in CD22), Jan McDowell (46.91% in CD24), Julie Oliver (44.43% in CD25), and MJ Hegar (47.54% in CD31) all came within ten points.

– Those coattails extended further down the ballot. Dems picked up two State Senate seats, as Beverly Powell defeated Konni Burton in SD10 (Wendy Davis’ old seat) and Nathan Johnson trounced Don Huffines in SD16. Rita Lucido was at 46.69% in SD17, but she wasn’t the next-closest competitor – Mark Phariss came within three points of defeating Angela Paxton in SD08, a race that wasn’t really on the radar. Oh, and in an even less-visible race Gwenn Burud scored 45.45% in SD09, while Meg Walsh got to 41.60% against Sen. Charles Schwertner in SD05 (he was just over 55% in that race). We could make things very, very interesting in 2022.

– And down in the State House, Dems have picked up 11 seats:

HD45, Erin Zwiener
HD47, Vikki Goodwin
HD52, James Talarico
HD65, Michelle Beckley
HD102, Ana-Marie Ramos
HD105, Terry Meza
HD113, Rhetta Bowers
HD114, John Turner
HD115, Julie Johnson
HD135, Jon Rosenthal
HD136, John Bucy

Note that of those seven wins, a total of four came from Denton, Hays, and Williamson Counties. The Dems have officially gained a foothold in the suburbs. They also lost some heartbreakingly close races in the House – I’ll save that for tomorrow – and now hold 12 of 14 seats in Dallas County after starting the decade with only six seats. This is the risk of doing too precise a gerrymander – the Republicans there had no room for error in a strong Democratic year.

– Here in Harris County, it was another sweep, as Dems won all the judicial races and in the end all the countywide races. Ed Emmett lost by a point after leading most of the evening, while the other Republicans lost by wide margins. Also late in the evening, Adrian Garcia squeaked ahead of Commissioner Jack Morman in Precinct 2, leading by a 112,356 to 111,226 score. Seems fitting that Morman would lose a close race in a wave year, as that was how he won in the first place. That means Dems now have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court. Did I say we now live in a different state? We now live in a very different county.

– With 999 of 1,013 precincts in, Harris County turnout was 1,194,379, with about 346K votes happening on Election Day. That puts turnout above what we had in 2008 (in terms of total votes, not percentage of registered voters) but a hair behind 2012. It also means that about 71% of the vote was cast early, a bit less than in 2016.

– Oh, and the Dems swept Fort Bend, too, winning District Attorney, County Judge, District Clerk, all contests judicial races, and County Commissioner in Precinct 4. Maybe someone can explain to me now why they didn’t run candidates for County Clerk and County Treasurer, but whatever.

– Possibly the biggest bloodbath of the night was in the Courts of Appeals, where the Dems won every single contested race in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 13th, and 14th Courts. I count 16 incumbent Republican judges losing, with several more open Republican-held seats flipping. That is utterly amazing, and will have an impact far greater than we can imagine right now.

– Last but not least, both Houston propositions passed. Expect there to be a lawsuit over Prop B.

Harris County makes its robot brothel ban official

We can all sleep more soundly now.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously adopted new rules to prevent so-called “robot brothels” from opening and more strictly regulate sexually oriented businesses in unincorporated areas.

The county already had been revising its sexually oriented business rules, first adopted in 1996, but decided to specifically address lifelike sex dolls for rent after Toronto-based company KinkySdollsS considered opening a Houston branch where patrons could try out human-like “adult love dolls” in private rooms at the shop.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Celena Vinson said the county largely adopted language Houston’s legal department had written.

“We wanted to address the sex robot shop that was allegedly going to open in the city, and wanted to ensure our regulations were consistent with what the city of Houston was doing,” Vinson said.

The changes now clearly define sex dolls like the ones advertised by the Toronto firm as “anthropomorphic devices” and prohibit companies from renting them out to customers. Residents of the city and county remain free to purchase such devices for use in their own homes.

See here, here, and here for the background. Despite my best efforts, I still don’t have anything useful to say about this. I just can’t resist blogging about it, and Lord knows we can use the occasional respite from the real news. You’re welcome.

Endorsement watch: County time

The Chron circles back to the county races they didn’t get to the first time around, and for reasons I cannot fathom, they still love them some Orlando Sanchez.

Dylan Osborne

The race for Harris County treasurer always seems to raise the same core questions about the office, such as: What is a county treasurer? Why do we have a county treasurer? And, who is the county treasurer?

For the past 12 years, the answer to last question has been Orlando Sanchez. We believe voters should make it the answer for the next four years, too.

The county treasurer is largely a ministerial office responsible for overseeing the payment of all expenditures made by the county government. Basically, he runs the checkbook.

There isn’t too much excitement to the position, and habitually people will run for the office on the grounds that it should be eliminated and responsibilities moved elsewhere within county government. Neither candidate is calling for that in this cycle.

Sanchez, 61, is running on his record as a trustworthy steward of the office and touts his ongoing update of the internal financial system. He previously served on City Council, made a failed run for mayor and ended up here. He’s a licensed real estate agent and was born in Havana.

[…]

Challenger Dylan Osborne, who works for the city and has a master’s in public administration, told us he wants to bring a more active role to the treasurer’s office and get engaged with the public.

“I don’t think there’s 300 people who know this position,” he said during an editorial board meeting.

That’s probably true. We’re sure he’d do a fine job if elected.

The answer is always Orlando Sanchez. I got nothin’.

For the HCDE, the Chron endorsed Richard Cantu for Position 3 At Large, and Andrea Duhon in Position 4, Precinct 3. For Cantu:

Richard Cantu, 49, is running for an open, at-large seat on the board of the Harris County Department of Education. The candidate has gotten to know our city well as an executive at the city of Houston Parks and Recreation Department, Baker-Ripley and at the Mayor’s Citizens’ Assistance Office. As part of his various jobs, the native Houstonian formed partnerships with community groups as well as worked with youth.

In addition, he would bring an understanding of finance, budgeting and management to the board. In his current role, Cantu directs the day-to-day operation as deputy executive of one of the largest management districts in Harris County.

For Duhon:

Andrea Duhon is our choice for this position at the only county department of education remaining in our state. This department needs more scrutiny, and Duhon’s background in cash flow analysis is apropos.

Duhon, 33, spends her professional life helping small businesses and individuals structure their finances. In our screenings, the McNeese State University graduate showed an appreciation of the importance of the after-school and Head Start programs offered by the department while expressing an enthusiasm for ferreting out inefficiencies. The spouse to an active duty 1st class petty officer in the U.S. Navy believes that the schools operated by the department could use more oversight.

Dems have two of the seven spots on HCDE right now. The At Large position belongs to Diane Trautman, so the best position we can be in is to have three seats. The other two At Large spots are up in 2020, so the potential is there for gain.

Last but not least, the Chron endorsed Adrian Garcia over incumbent Commissioner Jack Morman in Precinct 2.

Adrian Garcia

Harris County is run by commissioners court, and no single member better reflects this dual nature of county government than Jack Morman. He’s media shy and stays out of the spotlight. Unlike other members of the court, Morman doesn’t seem to have a major personal project. He’s not building a greenbelt park system. He’s not calling for change in the criminal justice center. He hasn’t become a thought leader in resilience. He was first elected to this seat in 2010 after working as a civil attorney and since then Morman has held the seat quietly, effectively and scandal-free. He told us his big project involved better cooperation between the county and the local governments in this largely incorporated precinct.

We’re not convinced that’s enough.

County government can do more, and we believe that Adrian Garcia is the right man for the task.

The biggest difference between the candidates became clear during their joint meeting with the Houston Chronicle editorial board. Garcia presented what he saw as problems with Precinct 2, which largely covers east Harris County and a sliver of near Northside up to Beltway 8. He listed low health insurance coverage, poor educational attainment, dangerous pollution and a litany of other issues that needed addressing.

Morman, on the other hand, seemed to take offense at this description of the precinct and instead insisted it was a great place to live.

Just a reminder, Morman was this guy who came out of nowhere with a big boost from Steve Radack in the red wave year of 2010. He’s been more or less competent at the job, but no one should be surprised that he’s not exactly a visionary. As the endorsement suggests, I believe Garcia can and will get some stuff done.

My interview with Adrian Garcia is here, with Dylan Osborne is here, with Richard Cantu is here, and with Andrea Duhon is here. Danyahel Norris is also on the ballot for HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1, but he’s unopposed. My interview with him is here. The Chron also endorsed in Commissioners Court Precinct 4, going with incumbent Jack Cagle. Like Morman, Cagle has been a perfectly adequate Commissioner. He’s also got a long history with the anti-abortion industry, and as such I would never vote for him for anything. His opponent is Penny Shaw, and my interview with her is here.

Harris County to follow suit on robot brothels

If it’s good for Houston, or not good for Houston, I suppose…

Harris County commissioners are prepared to ban so-called robot brothels, just as Houston did last week.

Harris County already bans live sex acts at any place of business. Robert Soard, First Assistant County Attorney, said that, in his reading, that includes sex with “anthropomorphic devices.”

“Now, that being said, because of changing technology, it might be a good idea to amend the current sexually oriented business regulations,” Soard said.

[…]

Assistant Chief Tim Navarre said they’ll be ready to present it to Commissioners Court within two weeks. “The dialogue is…almost identical to the city’s, so, we’re way ahead of the curve,” Navarre said.

See here and here for the background. Harris County’s sexually-oriented business ordinance has generally been a mirror of Houston’s, so this is not surprising and mostly a formality. Nonetheless, if you ever had an inclination to attend a Commissioner’s Court meeting, here’s a bit of incentive for you to finally do so. Swamplot has more.

Interview with Adrian Garcia

Adrian Garcia

We finish our tour of Harris County candidates with one of the most successful Democrats in county politics, Adrian Garcia. You know his story, from HPD to Houston City Council to being the top votegetter in the county in the 2008 breakthrough year as Sheriff, replacing a corrupt longtime incumbent. Garcia is taking aim at another incumbent this year, as he seeks to oust two-time County Commissioner Jack Morman in Precinct 2. Morman snuck into office in a Republican wave year, so it would be only fitting if he were to be ushered out in a Democratic wave year. Precinct 2 leans ever so slightly Republican, at least as of 2016, but like the rest of the county as a whole it’s moving in a blue direction. Adrian Garcia was my first choice for a challenger to Morman and his bottomless campaign treasury, and I was delighted when he declared his candidacy. He easily outpaced a multi-candidate field in the primary, and now we’re here for the main event, with the balance of power at Commissioners Court at stake. Here’s the interview:

You can see all of my interviews for candidates running for County office as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2018 Harris County Election page.

Who’s ready for a new flood plain map?

It’s coming, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it.

More than a year after Hurricane Harvey showed the Houston area’s floodplain maps were outdated and inaccurate, Harris County is prepared to begin the years-long process of drawing new maps.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday agreed to accept $6.5 million in federal FEMA funds to complement $8 million in local dollars to create new maps, to be completed by 2023.

“We’re excited about that, and it’s going to be a big undertaking,” said Russ Poppe, executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District. He added the county has already begun the search for contractors.

[…]

[County Judge Ed Emmett] said the redefined floodplains will be essential to planning future development and assessing flood risk in communities. For years, he said government and private developers failed to keep track of where creeks and bayous drained, and where water flowed when waterways crested their banks.

The re-drawn maps also will allow the county to more fairly enforce its new floodplain building codes. In the year after Harvey, Houston and Harris County added new requirements for floodplain development.

The county’s flood control district hopes to hire contractors through the end of the year to begin work in January. Director of Operations Matt Zeve said engineers hope to complete the new maps, which will cover nearly 800 miles of waterways, by 2023.

As the story notes, a large number of properties that flooded during Harvey were outside the official flood plain. For obvious reasons, having an accurate map is a necessary thing. The last modification was begun in 2001 and took six years, so things have improved a bit since then.

Dallas County gets the Harris County treatment in its bail lawsuit

We have a precedent, even if everything is still a work in progress.

Taking a cue from the rulings on Harris County’s bail-setting practices, a U.S. district judge in Dallas issued a temporary order Thursday evening saying the county’s post-arrest procedures routinely violate inmates’ constitutional rights. The judge gave the county 30 days to change its ways.

U.S. District Judge David Godbey in Dallas said that the county has to stop the practice of imposing pre-set bail bond amounts, which often keep poor defendants locked up for days or weeks while letting wealthier ones go free, without individual consideration if arrestees claim they can’t afford it. He sided with the plaintiffs’ allegation that the county uses “wealth-based detention.”

“Wealthy arrestees — regardless of the crime they are accused of — who are offered secured bail can pay the requested amount and leave,” Godbey wrote. “Indigent arrestees in the same position cannot.”

[…]

Godbey relied heavily on Harris County rulings from the federal district court and the appellate court. He said the cases had the “same roots” — despite Dallas’ lawsuit also including felony defendants whereas Harris only involves those accused of misdemeanors — and concluded that doing anything other than what the appellate court ruled in Harris would “put the Court in direct conflict with binding precedent.”

“Broadly, those procedures include ‘notice, an opportunity to be heard and submit evidence within 48 hours of arrest, and a reasoned decision by an impartial decision-maker,’ he wrote, quoting the higher court’s ruling.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier story on how bail hearings have been done in Dallas. You know where I stand on this, and we both know that Dallas County has Democratic leadership, and thus I hope more than enough incentive to find a settlement. Some long overdue change is coming, and it is in everyone’s best interests to embrace it. The Chron and the Observer have more.

You know, there is a cheaper way to do this

Why are we still outsourcing inmates?

County commissioners next week will consider a proposal to outsource inmates to the Fort Bend County Jail, which would allow Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to slow — but not stop — the flow of inmates to a private prison in Louisiana.

The deal would bring as many as several hundred inmates closer to their families and attorneys, but would cost Harris County more than twice as much as shipping prisoners to Jackson Parish, La. It would also fail to address the root causes of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail, one of the nation’s largest, and prolong an elaborate game of musical chairs as the sheriff searches for jails to take his inmates.

Harris County’s 10,162 inmates are already spread across five facilities in Texas and Louisiana. It currently outsources 724 inmates, more than twice as many as any other Texas county.

[…]

“If there’s a desire to bring inmates closer to Harris County, this is the best deal we’ve been able to find so far,” said Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer. “It doesn’t fully address the outsourcing issue, but it chips away at it.”

Harris County pays $29.33 per inmate, per day at Jackson Parish Correctional Center, with transport included. Fort Bend’s per diem is $55.00, and Harris County would also have to pay for transport. Spencer said the additional costs would push the county’s total monthly inmate outsourcing bill to around $1 million.

The jail had stopped farming out inmates in 2017 but a backlog in the courts following Harvey led to a surplus of people in the jail, and so here we are today. The monthly cost of doing so now is more than $500K, which will go up to about $1 million with the more expensive Fort Bend option. That may not be a choice as defense attorneys in Harris County have asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to bar sending inmates out of state. I know you know but I’m going to say anyway that if we had fewer inmates in the jail – and remember, the lion’s share of these inmates have not been convicted of any crime – we wouldn’t need to spend this money. It’s a choice we’re making, one we’ve been making for way too many years. At least we get to make another choice this November.

How many police forces do we need?

It’s an age-old question.

Harris County could save millions of dollars a year by consolidating overlapping law enforcement agencies, from sharing technological resources to reallocating duties from constables to the sheriff’s department, according to a report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

The report, which was released Thursday, revives several decades-old ideas to combine resources between law enforcement agencies in Harris County, despite likely opposition from the agencies and county government, which would have the ultimate authority in enacting many of the proposed changes.

[…]

Kinder studied the 60 law enforcement agencies that form a patchwork of separate but sometimes overlapping patrols within Harris County, including the sheriff’s office, the Houston Police Department, constables’ offices, school district police departments and smaller municipal police departments. Those agencies spend a combined $1.6 billion per year on law enforcement, according to the report.

“We do have a system that, for all intents and purposes, is working fairly well,” Kinder researcher Kyle Shelton said. “But there are clearly places where there are overlaps and places where we could see what efficiencies would work.”

Among ideas included in the report are a merger of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s police department with the Houston Police Department, and the consolidation of smaller municipal police departments into a larger network.

One of the report’s most aggressive ideas to consolidate would be to move patrol duties from the eight Harris County constables’ offices to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Political opposition to that idea would be too difficult to overcome because agencies would have to cede governing power, [County Commissioner Steve] Radack said.

“People can study it and study it and study it, but I can assure you … the people that are really familiar with this are all going to say, no” said Radack, who was formerly the Precinct 5 constable.

You can see the report here. Two points I would add: One, this is not limited to Harris County. Two, the list above leaves out police departments associated with universities, community colleges, and medical schools. There’s a lot of law enforcement agencies out there.

I find it interesting that the main argument against any sort of consolidation is that there would be political opposition to it, as Commissioner Radack notes. I don’t doubt that he’s right, but it’s not a reason, it’s a justification. Some reforms would require legislative assistance – Constables are constitutional offices, after all – while others shouldn’t need anything more than various entities working together. I’m pretty sure that there’s a dollar figure that could be attached to each recommendation in that report. Maybe if we start talking about it, we can decide what if any of these ideas are really worth pursuing, even in the face of political opposition.

Emmett speaks post-bond

With the flood bond referendum safely passed, we now turn to what comes next.

Land and housing preservation is key to the Houston region becoming more resilient, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday, on the heels of last weekend’s vote that approved a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond.

“We need to not fight with nature, we need to live with nature and allow those areas to be green that need to be green, and frankly, allow those areas to be wet that need to be wet and not try and change that,” Emmett said during a luncheon presentation to members of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Emmett specifically called for the Katy Prairie, a vast area encompassing much of western Harris and eastern Waller counties, to be maintained and expanded.

“I think that’s a very easy one for the federal government or the state to declare as a nature preserve and just set it aside and move on,” he told the crowd of several hundred developers and real estate professionals in the ballroom of the Junior League of Houston.

[…]

The challenges brought by Harvey will give city and county leaders the opportunity to make positive changes as it recovers, he said.

One such improvement: a better system of urban governance.

If unincorporated Harris County was a city it would be the fifth largest in the U.S.

“We cannot continue to do that,” Emmett said. “We have got to find a way for city for Houston and Harris County to come up with a new structure of urban governance. “I view Harvey as kick-starting a lot of these conversations.”

Preserving the Katy Prairie and other green space was one of the topics I covered with Judge Emmett when I interviewed him about the bond referendum. I agree this is a high priority and I’m glad to hear Emmett talk that way, but let’s be clear that there’s a lot less of it to preserve now than there was 20 or 30 years ago, before Katy Mills and the Grand Parkway were built. We can’t turn back the clock, but the fact that there’s far less of that open space to preserve now means that we have to take it that much more seriously. What’s left is so much more precious to us.

As for the governance issue, I welcome that conversation as well. If there’s going to be an obstacle to the kind of intra-governmental cooperation Emmett envisions, it may well be the Lege, as any new structure to urban governance will likely require new laws, and our Lege isn’t very interested in helping out cities these days. Let’s see what Emmett and the other powers that be in the region come up with, and then we’ll figure out how to make it happen.

In the meantime, the work has begun.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday gave the green light to 16 new flood control projects, three days after voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond aimed at boosting the region’s protections against future floods.

The projects include de-silting the Addicks and Barker reservoir watersheds, drainage improvements in the San Jacinto River, Cypress Creek, Luce Bayou and Cedar Bayou watersheds, a stormwater detention basin project along Greens Bayou and conveyance improvements on Willow Creek.

“It’s a matter of starting with the low-hanging fruit, the ones that are ready to go, and move forward,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

As good a place to start as any. There’s a lot more where that came from.

Dallas County “discrimination against white voters” lawsuit dismissed

It was always a silly idea.

A federal judge Thursday dismissed a landmark lawsuit that accused Dallas County commissioners of discriminating against white voters.

The lawsuit sought to dismantle the boundaries the county uses to elect commissioners, claiming that the lines dilute the voting strength of white residents.

U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater said it’s possible for white voters to successfully claim voting rights discrimination, but he ruled that lawyers for the plaintiffs in Anne Harding vs. Dallas County didn’t prove their case.

He wrote that given the political makeup of Dallas residents of voting age, and the geographical distribution of Anglo Republicans, it isn’t possible to know if a GOP candidate could be elected in a second district.

“In other words, because plaintiffs have failed to produce any evidence at trial that the Commissioners Court could have created two performing districts for Anglo Republicans, the logical result is that [defendants] did not dilute the [Anglo Republican] vote,” Fitzwater wrote.

He continued: “In fact, if anything, the evidence shows that plaintiffs’ voting power has been strengthened, rather than diluted, by the concentration of Anglos in [Precinct 2] where they can reliably elect a Republican candidate. Accordingly, the court finds that plaintiffs have not proved their vote dilution claim.”

[…]

During the trial, the plaintiffs offered alternative boundaries that their experts contended would have resulted in two conservative Republicans on the Commissioners Court.

But Fitzwater was swayed by testimony from Democratic strategist Matt Angle, who drew the 2011 map. Angle said it wasn’t a given that voters in the two “Anglo” districts the plaintiffs sought would elect a Republican to the court.

Fitzwater’s opinion states that under the plaintiffs’ plan, white voters would be split between the existing Republican district and another one, opening the door for Democrats to control every seat on the Commissioners Court.

“There are not a sufficient number of Anglo Republicans to elect a Republican candidate in more then one commissioner district,” Fitzwater wrote.

See here and here for the background. A copy of the decision is embedded in the story. I’m dubious about the assertion that white voters could successfully claim voting rights discrimination – to say the least, I think the bar for that is going to be very, very high – but I’m not going to worry about that right now. The plaintiffs have a month to decide if they’re going to appeal. Good luck with that.

July 2018 finance reports: Harris County candidates

Let’s take a look at where we stand with the candidates for county office. January report info is here. On we go:

County Judge

Ed Emmett
Lina Hidalgo

Commissioner, Precinct 2

Jack Morman
Adrian Garcia

Commissioner, Precinct 4

Jack Cagle
Penny Shaw

District Clerk

Chris Daniel
Marilyn Burgess

County Clerk

Stan Stanart
Diane Trautman

County Treasurer

Orlando Sanchez
Dylan Osborne

HCDE, Position 3 At Large

Marcus Cowart
Richard Cantu

HCDE, Position 4, Precinct 3

Josh Flynn
Andrea Duhon


Candidate       Office    Raised      Spent     Loan    On Hand
===============================================================
Emmett    County Judge   618,590    138,209        0    934,714
Hidalgo   County Judge   183,252     67,007        0    116,263  

Morman      Comm Pct 2   612,400    178,027   30,185  2,710,005
A Garcia    Comm Pct 2   342,182    141,745        0    154,693  

Cagle       Comm Pct 4   199,800    451,189        0    658,641
Shaw        Comm Pct 4     7,838     10,591        0      1,234

Daniel  District Clerk   106,675    113,813   45,000     59,920
Burgess District Clerk     5,527      1,504        0      9,476

Stanart   County Clerk     5,820      5,836   20,000     75,389
Trautman  County Clerk     8,705      4,236        0     23,749

Sanchez      Treasurer    86,185      4,801  200,000    281,383
Osborne      Treasurer     1,645      2,441        0        491

Cowart          HCDE 3         0          0        0          0
Cantu           HCDE 3       953      1,606        0        656

Flynn           HCDE 4       200      2,134        0          0
Duhon           HCDE 4     1,476      1,149        0        977

All things considered, that’s a pretty decent amount of money raised by Lina Hidalgo, especially as a first-time candidate running against a ten-year incumbent. She has the resources to run a professional campaign, and she’s done that. I don’t know what her mass communication strategy is, but she will need more to do that effectively. We’re a big county, there are a lot of voters here, and these things ain’t cheap. She was endorsed last week by Annie’s List, so that should be a big help in this department going forward.

Ed Emmett is clearly taking her seriously. He’s stepped up his fundraising after posting a modest report in January. Greg Abbott has already reserved a bunch of TV time with his bottomless campaign treasury, and I figure that will be as much to bolster local and legislative candidates as it will be for himself. Still, those who can support themselves are going to continue to do so.

Which brings us to Commissioners Court in Precinct 2, one of the top-tier races of any kind in the region. Adrian Garcia started from scratch after his Mayoral and Congressional campaigns, and he’s done well to get prepped for the fall. That’s a challenge when the guy you’re up against has as much as Jack Morman has, but at least Garcia starts out as someone the voters know and have by and large supported. I will be interested to see just what Morman has in mind to do with all that money, but until we see something tangible I have a dumb question: Why, if you have $2.7 million in the bank, would you not just go ahead and clear up that $30K loan? Is there some subtle financial reason for it, or is it just that no one cares about campaign loans being paid back? Anyone with some insight into these burning questions is encouraged to enlighten us in the comments.

Speaking of loans, that 200K bit of debt for Orlando Sanchez keeps on keeping on. Sanchez managed to get a few people to write him four-figure (and in one case, a five-figure) checks this period. I literally have no idea why anyone would do that, but here we are. It gives me something to write about, so we can all be thankful for that.

I’ve got more of these to come. Let me know what you think.

County officially puts flood bond referendum on the ballot

Here we go.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously agreed to place a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond before voters on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. If passed, the bond would be the largest local investment in flood mitigation since the storm flooded 154,000 homes across the county.

“I think the whole nation is going to be watching us,” County Judge Ed Emmett said of the region’s approach to flooding post-Harvey. “Everyone is saying Houston, Harris County, the whole region — we have the chance to do it right.”

[…]

Emmett last month said the number of projects to be included in the bond issue would be in the hundreds. He has said he hoped to publish a complete list of projects to be funded with bond proceeds by the first week of August, when early voting begins.

Three residents spoke in favor of the bond proposal Tuesday. Belinda Taylor of the Texas Organizing Project said the nonprofit would support the bond only if it includes projects that benefit northeast Houston, around Mesa and Tidwell, in the Greens Bayou watershed.

Taylor also said residents who volunteer their homes for buyouts should be able to move to comparable housing in drier areas.

“Any buyouts … must leave people with the same kind of housing, no additional debt and in non-flooding neighborhoods,” Taylor said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said that a priority for bond funds must be communities that are less likely to benefit from federal assistance. He said that the federal government uses a formula for dispersing disaster recovery money that places a premium on increasing property value rather than assisting the most people, which Ellis says skews unfairly toward wealthy neighborhoods.

See here and here for the background. The 2018 Harris County Flood Control District Bond Program webpage is here, the proposed project list is here, and the schedule and locations for the remaining public engagement meetings is here. Don’t worry, I plan to do some interviews to help you make sense of this. I’ll need to for myself, too. I agree with Judge Emmett that the country will be watching as we vote. I’m sure the first thing they’ll say if this fails to pass will be “What the heck were you thinking, having this in August?” There doesn’t appear to be any organized opposition to this yet, but as we’ve discussed before, that doesn’t matter. Unless there’s a strong pro-referendum campaign, it’s at best a tossup. We’ll see how that goes.

Abbott approves August flood bond referendum

One more step forward.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday approved Harris County’s request to call a multi-billion-dollar bond election to pay for flood control measures on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey.

By state law, the county needed Abbott’s permission to call the “emergency special election” in spite of his oft-stated goal of reducing property taxes. The flood control bond package almost certainly will be accompanied by an increase in Harris County’s property tax rate.

Abbott granted the county’s request to put the issue to the voters, affirming his stated belief that responding to Harvey does “qualify as an emergency” and stating that he is “committed to working with Harris County to achieve its goals in the most efficient way possible.”

“As this request for an emergency special election was duly passed by a unanimous vote of the Harris County Commissioners Court, I hereby grant approval as governor of Texas for this emergency special election to be called for bonds to fund flood-related mitigation projects that respond to Hurricane Harvey,” Abbott wrote in a letter accompanying his decision.

[…]

The county plans to launch a public outreach campaign to seek input on what to include in the bond package, as well as drum up support for the measure. [County Judge Ed] Emmett said the focus would be on helping the most people possible.

“The worst thing we can do is say, ‘Just give us money and trust us,’” Emmett said. “It’s got to be a very open, transparent process.”

See here for the background. Commissioners Court still has to officially call the election, which means they have to define what the issue covers and what the wording of the referendum will be. There’s stuff in the story about that, but we’re not really any farther along than the “well, we could have this and we could have that” stage yet. That will all work itself out one way or another.

I’m more interested in the politics of this. What will the county’s strategy be to sell people on this idea and get them to come out at a weird time of year to vote for it? Who will spearhead the effort, and how much money will they spend on it? Who will be on Team Referendum, and who (if anyone) will stand in opposition? As I’ve said before, while city of Houston bonds tend to pass with room to spare, Harris County bonds tend to have less margin for error, and can’t be assumed to be favored even in the absence of organized resistance. They’re going to need to figure out what this thing is quickly so they can start selling it ASAP. Among other things, the difference between an election in August and an election in November is that people expect to vote in the latter. The first part of the sales job is going to be making sure people know that they need to vote at a different time. I’ll be keeping a close watch on this.

We’ll be voting on flood control bonds in August

Not my first choice, but it is what it is.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to seek a special election on Aug. 25 for what likely will be a multi-billion-dollar bond package that, if approved by voters, would be the largest local investment in the region’s flood control system after Hurricane Harvey.

The move comes a month before the start of the 2018 hurricane season and more than seven months after Hurricane Harvey, with the election timed to coincide with the storm’s one-year anniversary. County officials have spent months wrangling over when best to schedule the election, lest the measure fail and scuttle efforts to overhaul the area’s flood control efforts after one of the biggest rain storms in United States history.

“Why August 25?” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “It’s the one year anniversary of Harvey. I don’t think we want to go a year and not be able to say we’re doing something. People who care about mitigation, resilience, flood control, they’ll be energized and they’ll want to go out. Will there be somebody who wants to stand in the face of what we went through during Harvey and say ‘I want to be against it’? I kind of dare them to do it.”

It is not clear yet what the bond referendum will include. The court on Tuesday floated a $2.5 billion price tag — a number that could change as a priority list of flood control projects emerges. Emmett said the number of projects would be in the “hundreds” and likely would include the buy-out of all of the county’s high-priority areas at highest-risk of flooding, approximately 5,500 properties.

A huge chunk of funds, between $500 and $700 million officials estimate, could go toward local matches for federal grants and projects. A match could be required for the completion of four bayou widening and straightening projects underway with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along Hunting, White Oak, Brays Bayou and Clear Creek. Bayou engineering projects on Halls and Greens Bayou — some of the areas in the county most vulnerable to flooding — also likely would be targeted.

Emmett said all of the county’s 22 watersheds would see some sort of investment.

The bond funds also could help finance the construction of an oft-discussed third reservoir northwest of the city to contain storm water from Cypress Creek.

See here for the background. I would have preferred to have this on the November ballot, and from the article most of the Commissioners at least started out with that same preference. County Judge Ed Emmett pushed for the August date, and convinced them to go along. Again, I get the reasoning, but the county is really going to have to sell this. Recent history has shown that even non-controversial bond issues with no organized opposition don’t pass by much. This one will have a big price tag, a (minor) property tax increase, and no obvious benefit for anyone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey, all wrapped up in a weird election date. This should pass – it’s easy to scratch your head and say “how could it not?” – but do not take it for granted. The county still has to get approval from Greg Abbott, which should be straightforward, then formally call the election. I hope they start gearing up the campaign for this in the meantime.

The timing of a Harvey bond referendum

How does August grab you?

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday will consider calling a special election for August 25 — the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey — to ask voters to OK a massive bond referendum for flood control projects.

The amount of the referendum has yet to be determined as the county continues to assess its needs and as other funds, including as federal grants, become available. At least three members of Commissioners Court said Friday they envision a measure that could reach $2.5 billion.

[…]

The referendum could help finance property buyouts, as well as a range of infrastructure projects, such as the widening and deepening of bayous or the construction of a much-discussed third reservoir in northwest Harris County.

Tuesday’s vote follows months of wrangling over the logistics of holding the bond election, including the cost of holding a special election and the ideal date to ensure voters turn out to support the measure.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Friday said he supports presenting the bond referendum to voters during the November general election, when turnout is expected to be considerable as voters weigh in on mid-term congressional elections.

“Without evidence of a clear path to victory for a summer-time bond election, which is likely to have low turnout, I have serious reservations about the proposed August date,” Ellis said. “The future of Harris County hinges on the success of this flood bond.”

It also is not yet clear what the bond referendum will include. Harris County Flood Control District Director of Operations Matt Zeve said that would be determined after Tuesday’s discussion at Commissioners Court.

County officials have said the necessity for bond money grows as federal grants pour in to prepare the Houston area for future floods or to recover from Harvey, many of which require a sometimes hefty financial match from local governments.

“The risk is that they may allocate the funds elsewhere and, thus, become unavailable for our region,” Emmett states in the proposed letter to Abbott.

See here, here, and here for the background. I get the reason for wanting to do this as quickly as possible, as grant money may get grabbed up by other places before we could approve a November referendum. August is a weird time for an election – looking at the County Clerk election result archives, the only August date I see is in 2014, for a special election runoff in SD04, which is only part of the county.

The last election that wasn’t in March or May or November that included the entire county was the 2003 Constitutional Amendment special election, which included the infamous tort “reform” measure and which was done in September specifically to reduce turnout from the Houston area, since we had an open seat Mayoral race that November. Turnout for that, which was a state election and not a county election, was 238,334, or 13.38% of registered voters. We have more registered voters now, but that percentage would still put us south of 300K. Compare that to the November 2014 general election, which had 688,018 voters, which was still only 33.65% turnout. I’d bet on November this year being closer to 800K voters, and likely a lot more Democratic than either of those other two contexts.

So on the one hand, you’ve got a need to get this done, and the one year anniversary of Harvey as a rallying cry, but a smaller electorate that may be more likely to not support any kind of spending measure. You also need Greg Abbott’s approval to hold this election, which you’ll probably get but is still an unknown factor. On the other hand, you could have a November vote with a bigger and likely friendlier electorate, but you risk losing out on some grant money, and maybe that much farther away from Harvey people will feel less of a sense of urgency to do something, or at least something that may be historically big. All things considered, my preference is still November, but we’ll see what Commissioners Court decides.

Ellis puts up money for city’s bike projects

I like this plan.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Monday announced a one-year $10 million commitment to bicycling projects in Houston, in the hopes of jump-starting the city’s transformation into a bike-friendly place.

“Working together, we can better leverage scarce resources from governmental entities and the private sector and share our collective expertise to serve the people in this region,” Ellis said.

A year after Houston leaders approved an ambitious plan for hundreds of miles of protected, safe bike trails, little progress has been made, something cycling supporters said Ellis’ pledge will change. Officials estimated the money would build at least 50 miles of protected bike lanes considered crucial to providing usable bike access to neighborhoods and jobs.

“​This really gives us a boost we needed,” Houston Planning Director Patrick Walsh said.

The money, along with city funds from its capital improvement plan, will go toward repainting bike lanes, developing safer intersections and other improvements aimed at making riding a bike in Houston easier and safer.

[…]

Projects will be chosen for their ability to start soon. Ellis stressed officials have one year to spend the money he committed, and any unspent funds will return to other priorities in his precinct.

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner said the funding, along with $1.1 million the city plans to spend in each of the next five years, will act as seed money for upcoming projects, including planned bike lanes along Austin and Caroline and new space for cyclists along Hardy and Elysian on the city’s Near Northside.

See here for some background. This is about putting up some money for projects that are already in the pipeline but have been delayed for a variety of reasons. Commissioner Ellis is an avid cyclist himself, so it’s not a surprise to see him make this a priority. Much of his precinct intersects with the city, and as you know I’m delighted to see some county investment in the not-unincorporated territories. I hope the city takes full advantage of this.

Testimony ends in Dallas County “oppressed white voters” trial

It’ll be awhile before we have a verdict.

Testimony ended Thursday in the landmark redistricting case over whether Dallas County discriminates against white voters.

The four-day trial — Ann Harding vs. Dallas County — featured analysis by local and national redistricting experts and video of two raucous county Commissioners Court meetings.

U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater will wade through the evidence and issue a ruling. That could take months because the judge will receive 50-page closing arguments from lawyers on both sides and hear final oral arguments in late May or early June.

The lawsuit, filed in 2015, contends that the electoral boundaries county commissioners developed in 2011 dilute the white vote. Democrats enjoy a 4-1 advantage on the Commissioners Court. The districts are led by three Democrats — John Wiley Price, who is black; Elba Garcia, who is Hispanic; and Theresa Daniel, who is white. County Judge Clay Jenkins, also a Democrat, is white and is elected countywide. Mike Cantrell, also white, is the only Republican on the court.

See here for the background. I don’t really have anything to add to what I wrote before. I can’t imagine this will get anywhere, but we do live in strange times.

White voters sue Dallas County over claims of voter discrimination

I have four things to say about this.

Are white voters in Dallas County being discriminated against?

That question, which might cause some to chuckle, will be answered after a trial starting April 16 that could change the face of the voting rights struggle in America.

Four white residents are suing Dallas County, claiming that the current boundaries of county commissioner districts violate their voting rights. The case is believed to be one of the first in the nation where a group of whites is seeking protection under the Voting Rights Act.

The lawsuit foreshadows a potential turnabout in Texas’ and the nation’s racial politics. As Hispanics, blacks and other minorities close in on making America a country where minorities make up the majority, some whites are attempting to use civil rights laws to protect themselves from what they see as discrimination.

Dallas County, once dominated by white Republicans until demographic shifts paved the way for Democrats, is the ideal testing ground for such a case.

“There will be people who look up and say ‘oh, come on,’ but the facts are clear and it should not matter who is on the short end of the stick,” said Dallas lawyer Dan Morenoff, executive director of the Equal Voting Rights Institute. “The whole point is to assure state and local government can’t rig elections against races they don’t like.”

The white residents are backed by the Equal Voting Rights Institute. They are asking the court that the current Commissioners Court boundaries, approved in 2011, be redrawn to allow white residents to elect the commissioner of their choice.

[…]

Redistricting experts say the plaintiffs will have a hard time prevailing over the county. The Voting Rights Act, in part, protects victims of historical and systemic discrimination. White voters don’t fall in that class. A challenge to the maps on grounds that the white residents’ constitutional rights were violated has already faded.

“That’s a pretty high hurdle to overcome,” said Michael Li, an election law expert and senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program at New York University. “There hasn’t been a history of discrimination against white voters in Dallas County.”

Justin Levitt, associate dean for research at Loyola University in Los Angeles, agreed.

“You have to prove that the government intentionally took action against people because of their race. That is going to be much harder to demonstrate,” he said. “The case is going to turn on whether there is a history of discrimination against Anglos or present-day signs of discrimination.”

[…]

The lawsuit argues that the political clout of white voters has been purposefully diminished. Whites in Dallas County overwhelmingly vote for Republicans, the suit says, while blacks and Hispanics tend to vote for Democrats. The 4-to-1 Democrat-to-Republican ratio is a sign that whites have become disenfranchised, the suit says.

“The plaintiffs’ view is that a map was drawn on the basis of race to make sure a group couldn’t elect the candidate of their choice,” Morenoff said. “We think the law is pretty clear that it’s illegal. We’re making the same arguments that plaintiffs have made in Texas the past few decades. The law protects racial minorities whoever they are.”

But a white majority exists on the Commissioners Court even though Hispanics represent the largest racial group in the county. According to the U.S. Census, Hispanics make up 39 percent of the county population. The county is 33 percent white and 22 percent black.

[County Judge Clay] Jenkins, [Commissioner Theresa] Daniel and [Commissioner Mike] Cantrell are white. Daniel is a Democrat and Cantrell is a Republican. There is one black commissioner, Democrat John Wiley Price, and one Hispanic commissioner, Garcia, a Democrat.

The plaintiffs are arguing that white conservatives were not able to elect their candidate of choice.

Whites make up 48 percent of Dallas County voters, but essentially elect 25 percent (one commissioner) of the court, the lawsuit states.

Many white voters were packed into precincts controlled by Daniel, Price and Garcia. And others had their votes wasted after being packed into Cantrell’s Precinct 2, the lawsuit says.

Lawyers for the county disagreed in a court filing.

“Plaintiffs’ amended complaint fails to allege or demonstrate how the currently elected County Commissioners are not the candidate of choice of Anglo voters,” they wrote. “Even if the five commissioners are the candidates of choice of African-American and Latino voters, that fact does not preclude those Commissioners from also being the candidates of choice of Anglo voters.”

The trial is expected to take four days.

Li, the election law expert who spent 10 years in Dallas as a lawyer for Baker Botts, says redistricting cases like the one in Dallas County could evolve into referendums on partisan gerrymandering. Two such cases are before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In the future, instead of race-based claims, they may claim that there was partisan gerrymandering,” Li said.

1. Good luck with that.

2. There are only four commissioners per county, plus a County Judge, so the result of one election can have a dramatic change to the partisan ration – you can go from 50-50 to 75-25 overnight, for example. Add in the County Judge and a “balanced” Court will be 60-40 one way or the other. My point here is that there’s only so much precision one can achieve.

3. Also, too: Harris County is at least as Democratic as Dallas is Republican, and at least as non-Anglo as Dallas is. Yet Harris County Commissioners Court has four Anglo Republicans and one African-American Democrat. Commissioners precincts were also redrawn following the 2010 election in which Jack Morman ousted Sylvia Garcia to protect the most vulnerable of the Anglo commissioners. Be careful what you’re wishing for here, Republicans. And yes, there was a lawsuit filed here over that, and the plaintiffs lost. Anyone think these folks in Dallas have a better claim than the plaintiffs in Harris County did?

4. Too bad the Supreme Court kneecapped the Voting Rights Act, huh? Maybe casting this as a partisan gerrymandering claim will help, assuming SCOTUS finds a remedy for that. In which case, again I say to be careful what you ask for, Republicans.

A copy of the lawsuit is here, and the county’s response is here; they are also embedded in the story. As always, I welcome feedback from the lawyers out there.

Precinct analysis: HCDE Precinct 1

After the last precinct analysis post, I got an email from Danny Norris, one of the two candidates in the runoff for HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1, asking if I intended to look at this race. My answer at the time was no, mostly because it’s not as straightforward to do this kind of analysis on non-countywide races. There’s only a subset of the other districts within the area in question, and some of them only partially intersect. Though there are some examples that work well in this framework, it’s generally not very useful. At least, I don’t think that it is.

But I thought about it, and I thought about it in the context of what I was trying to learn from the other examples, which mostly was about how the runoffs might play out, and I thought I could get something of interest from this exercise. There are three non-countywide races in which there are runoffs – CD07, HCDE6, and JP7. They all overlap to some extent. Let’s see what their cross-section looks like:


       Miller   Bryant  Norris
==============================
CD07      709      358   1,306
JP7     6,585    8,209   6,528

Danny Norris and Prince Bryant are the candidates in the HCDE6 runoff. Norris has a big advantage in the part of HCDE6 – which is to say, Commissioners Court Precinct 1 – that overlaps with CD07. Unfortunately for him, that’s a small part of the district. Bryant has a larger absolute advantage in Justice of the Peace Precinct 7, but it’s smaller as a percentage of the total vote there, and there are a lot of voters who went with Johnathan Miller. About forty percent of the vote in HCDE6 was also cast in JP7, so turnout in one will affect turnout in the other. The money is in CD07, which will drive people to the polls there, but that’s mostly a factor for the countywide races. There’s not enough of CD07 in HCDE6 to have much effect on it.

The other perspective is for the countywide races. I didn’t include HCDE6 as a district when I did the analysis of the countywide races, for no particular reason. Let me correct that oversight here, with a look at how each of those races played out in HCDE6/CC1:


District Clerk

Howard  Burgess  Jordan  Shorter
================================
 9,466   24,089   7,598   14,566

County Clerk

  West  Mitchell  Trautman
==========================
 8,151    24,945    21,809

County Treasurer

Garcia  Copeland   Osborne
==========================
15,743    16,087    21,722

HCDE Position 3 At Large

Wallenstein   Cantu  Patton
===========================
     15,006  19,271  19,558

I don’t think this tells us anything we didn’t already know, but there you have it anyway. What I did notice that I hadn’t spotted before was that HCDE6/CC1 contributed about a third of the overall vote total. Technically, HCDE6/CC1 is one fourth of Harris County, but it’s also by far the most Democratic of the four Commissioners Court precincts. I’m not sure what ratio of the vote I’d expect, but it seems like it might normally be a bit higher than one third. The fact that it isn’t is probably one part the CD02/CD07 primaries, one part the other races, and one part the overall level of engagement this year. I’ll be interested to see what the ratio looks like from the runoff.