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Commissioners Court

We’re gonna need a bigger meeting room

Seems reasonable.

With a newfound public interest in Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, which at times have been so crowded that would-be attendees have been turned away, court members plan to build a larger chamber.

Commissioners Court [asked] County Engineer John Blount to design a new chamber on the first floor of the county administration building at 1001 Preston. The current chamber, on the ninth floor, has a capacity of 90 people. Blount said a first-floor chamber could fit as many as 220.

“We have to get a better courtroom,” Blount said. “If people had to do it again, no one would ever put the highest-occupancy facility on the highest floor of the building.”

The new chamber would occupy the west half of the first floor, which currently houses some employees of the county tax assessor-collector’s office. The office’s customer service windows on the east half of the floor, where residents can pay taxes or register a vehicle, would remain the same.

Blount said the county could design the new chamber in four to six months and complete construction about a year after that. The work would not affect in-progress renovations on the first floor, which include the replacement of exterior windows and doors. Blount said estimating a cost to build a new chamber would be a “pure guess” at this stage,

“There’s not a lot of structural work. It’s pretty straightforward,” he said.

[…]

The Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s office, which protects downtown county properties, said a first-floor courtroom would require fewer deputies, spokesman Kevin Quinn said.

Security staff have to perform extra work on the ninth floor, he said, because the metal detector checkpoint is between the court chamber and the elevators to overflow rooms.

“Every time people come back and forth, they have to be re-screened,” Quinn said.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. The existing space is overcrowded, inconvenient, and requires extra security personnel. The proposed new location will have adequate seating for everyone, will be easier for everyone to get to, will require less security presence, and will be inexpensive to construct. Go for it.

Bail lawsuit settlement outline taking shape

We should have a final version in a couple of weeks.

A proposed settlement in the landmark Harris County bail lawsuit would significantly change how the county treats poor defendants in misdemeanor cases by providing free social and transportation services and relaxing penalties for missed court dates.

The draft deal includes a number of reforms aimed at ensuring poor defendants arrive for court hearings and are not unfairly pressured into guilty pleas. They would, among other changes: require Harris County to provide free child care at courthouses, develop a two-way communication system between courts and defendants, give cell phones to poor defendants and pay for public transit or ride share services for defendants without access to transportation to court.

“I’m not aware of any county, or city the size of Houston… doing those type of innovative things,” said Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the poor defendants. “Ultimately, the county is going to save so much money by not keeping these people in jail.”

The proffered agreement would require the county to operate at least one night or weekend docket to provide a more convenient opportunity for defendants with family, work and education commitments. Courts would be barred from charging any fees to poor defendants, defined as those earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $25,000 for someone with no dependents.

The proposal also would reduce penalties for missed court dates. A defendant could not be deemed to have failed to appear if he arrived in court on the day assigned, even if he was hours late. Defendants would be allowed to reschedule court appearances for any reason at least two times without negative consequences. Judges only could issue bench warrants 30 days after a missed a court appearance, so long as the court already has attempted to contact the defendant with a rescheduled hearing date.

In addition, judges would be required to permit defendants to skip hearings where their presence is unnecessary, such as routine meetings between prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges that do not involve testimony or fact-finding.

At the heart of the 23-page proposed settlement, a copy of which was obtained by the Houston Chronicle, is the codification of a new bail schedule unveiled by the slate of newly elected of criminal judges in January, under which about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors automatically qualify for release on no-cash bonds.

“Our current goal now is to become the model misdemeanor court system in America,” said Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, a bail reform advocate and the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench when the case began. “I think the proposals in the settlement, as far as the wraparound services for misdemeanor defendants, is a great step in that direction.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement late Friday stressing that the proposal is preliminary, and could change.

“We’re working well with the plaintiffs to reach an agreement that will provide a model for bail reform around the country while also being feasible for the county to implement,” she said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he is eager to negotiate a settlement that balances the needs of defendants against those of victims and county taxpayers. He declined to speak to specific provisions in the proposed settlement, but said he has concerns that some may be too expensive or unrealistic.

“I’ll just say there’s a number of things that immediately hit me like, ‘I’m not sure how we’re going to do that,’” Garcia said.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle panned the proposal, which they said is too broad. The pair of Republicans said it should instead focus on implementing bail rules that ignore a defendant’s ability to pay.

“If my learned colleagues are going to strive for free Uber rides for the accused, I’d strongly advocate we provide the same to victims,” Cagle said.

Just a reminder, for anyone who might be fixating on the Uber rides or childcare aspects of this, the goal here is to get people to show up for their court dates. I would remind you that the alternative to paying for those relatively small things is paying to house, feed, and clothe thousands of people for weeks or months at a time, and that we have been doing exactly that for decades now. And if it’s the Uber thing that’s really sticking in your craw, then I trust you support a robust expansion of our public transit and pedestrian infrastructure so that it’s practical for anyone to take a bus to the courthouse. (Though having said that, if Commissioner Cagle was being sincere and not sarcastic, providing rides to the courthouse for victims who need them seems like a good idea to me.)

Again, just to review. Locking people up who have not been convicted of a crime is (with limited exceptions) wrong. Locking people up who have been arrested on charges that would normally not carry jail time if they were convicted is wrong. Locking people up for technical violations that have nothing to do with the crimes with which they have been charged is wrong. We spend tens of millions of dollars of our tax dollars every year doing these things. This is our chance to spend a whole lot less, and to get better results for it.

Was the McLeod replacement too hasty?

Eh, I dunno.

Judge William McLeod

Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court criticized their Democratic colleagues for quickly approving a new civil court judge at Tuesday’s meeting who had not been vetted by the full body.

The three Democrats voted to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to replace County Court at Law Judge Bill McLeod, who inadvertently resigned last week. Briones’ name was absent from the agenda, she had only spoken with the Democratic members and just 36 minutes passed between her nomination and approval.

“This is the least transparent appointment I have ever seen,” Republican Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said. “The unfairness of the process was overwhelming.”

During the meeting, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle held up Briones résumé, which he had been handed minutes earlier, and said he may have supported her if he only had the chance to review it. Instead the vote fell along party lines, 3 to 2.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who regularly pledges her administration will be more transparent than those past, defended the process.

Hidalgo said Commissioners Court faces several pressing issues, including responses to two massive chemical fires in recent weeks and a looming settlement in the county’s landmark bail lawsuit. When an assistant county attorney warned court members Tuesday that leaving Judge McLeod on the bench as a holdover judge almost certainly would force him to recuse himself from some cases, Hidalgo said the court needed to choose a replacement.

She said McLeod, not Commissioners Court, had created the predicament.

“I decided for myself it wasn’t going to go beyond this court,” Hidalgo said. She added, “This is something we needed to get done and move on from.”

See here for my initial reactions, and here for some further background. I have some sympathy for the Court here. This was a weird situation, not of their own making. I think most people would agree that inadvertent or not, McLeod did trigger the “resign to run” condition. I suspect as much as anything they just wanted to put this mess behind them, so they went ahead and named a replacement. I get it, but I have to agree that Commissioner Cagle makes a good point. They could at least have had something like a Judicial Committee hearing, to give all the Commissioners some time to know who they were voting on. I would hope this situation will never arise again, but in the unfortunate event it does, let’s take that lesson from this experience.

UPDATE: Stace sums it all up nicely.

Commissioners Court replaces Judge McLeod

Unfortunate, but understandable.

Judge William McLeod

A divided Harris County Commissioners Court declined to give County Court At Law Judge Bill McLeod a reprieve Tuesday after he inadvertently resigned last week, opting instead to appoint a replacement.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said letting McLeod remain as a holdover judge until a special election for the seat in 2020 was too risky, since he almost would certainly have to recuse himself from cases to which the county was a party, as Commissioners Court would have the power to remove him at any time.

Instead, the court voted 3 to 2 to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to hold the seat through next year, on the recommendation of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I think voters deserve a judge who can be absolutely independent, as he was elected to be,” Hidalgo said. “This would put us in the untenable position that he would no longer be an unbiased person, because he would be beholden to Commissioners Court.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle voted against the appointment. Cagle told Briones he could not support her since the nomination was made just minutes earlier and he did not have a chance to review her qualifications.

Briones, a Yale Law School graduate and general counsel to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation until December, accepted the appointment on the spot.

“I have deep respect for the law and I respect that you made a hard decision, and I respect the consternation in this room,” Briones said. “But know that I will work extremely hard for everyone.”

See here and here for the background. There were some good legal arguments in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, while Judge Hidalgo’s point is worth taking seriously as well. In the end, I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other; I think either decision was defensible. JUst a couple of thoughts to keep in mind as we go forward:

– McLeod’s point that the state constitution is incredibly long and arcane is unquestionably true. It’s also kind of disingenuous coming from a judge. More to the point, this is why potential candidates should talk to a political professional or two before making any public statements about running for office, because there are various weird rules related to candidacy that are easy to stumble over if you don’t know what you’re doing. I can think of a dozen people off the top of my head who could have pointed this out to McLeod before he filed his designation of treasurer. You gotta do your due diligence.

– Not to belabor the point, but there’s a reason why basically nobody had been felled by this problem before. As I said in my first post, nearly every story about then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s rumored candidacy for Mayor was accompanied by a discussion of how he couldn’t say anything without triggering the resign-to-run provision. Sheriff isn’t judge, but in this case they’re both county positions. One might well wonder if that provision applied to one job, would it apply to another?

– All that said, let’s not get too high and mighty at Bill McLeod’s expense. Yes, this was a dumb and avoidable mistake, but it’s not like this particular cul-de-sac of our word salad that is the state constitution was a cornerstone of our inviolable values as a state. County court judges have to resign to run for another office, but district court judges and appeals court judges don’t. All five Democrats who ran for statewide judicial positions last year were sitting on a bench while running for something else, and last I checked our state didn’t collapse. The fact that Bill McLeod had to resign is a quirk and not a principle, and it’s at least as dumb as McLeod’s unfortunate action. I’m sorry this happened to him. I’m sure we’ll all take the lesson to check and doublecheck whether “resign to run” applies to whatever office one holds before stating an intention to seek another, but maybe we should also take the lesson that these same rules are arbitrary and ought to be reviewed to see if they still make sense. Campos has more.

Revisiting El Franco Lee’s campaign finances

There’s still a lot of cash in the late Commissioner’s campaign finance account.

El Franco Lee

When 66-year-old Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee had a fatal heart attack in January 2016, his campaign account had $3.8 million. Since then, the cash has been managed by Ethel Kaye Lee, the late commissioner’s widow and campaign treasurer. Lee has invested much of the sum in securities, growing the fund at times to more than $4 million. Under Texas law, she has until 2022 to close the account.

Incumbent politicians often leave unspent campaign funds when they lose elections or die in office, but the size of Lee’s account three years after his passing presents a peculiar case. That Ethel Kaye Lee has the sole discretion to spend the fund potentially makes her one of the most powerful donors in Texas heading into the 2020 general election, University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said.

“A few hundred thousand dollars could mean the difference between a Democrat winning and losing,” Rottinghaus said. “She is in a position to exert tremendous political authority and to potentially sway a half-dozen seats all across the state.”

[…]

Under state law, dormant political campaigns must disburse their funds within six years to any of six sources: the candidate’s political party, a different candidate or political committee, the state treasury, a tax-exempt charity, a school or university for a scholarship program or as a refund to donors who gave in the final two years the candidate accepted contributions.

Ethel Lee said in a text message last week “all campaign funds have been allocated for the El Franco Lee campaign account in accordance with the guidelines from the Texas Ethics Commission. Recipients will be noted in the next compliance report.”

Lee did not respond to additional questions about the account. The next campaign reporting period, which covers the first six months of the year, ends June 30. Reports are due to the county clerk’s office two weeks later.

Lee’s campaign has made one political contribution since his death: $100,000 to Democratic attorney general candidate Justin Nelson in 2018. Nelson said he has known Ethel Lee his entire life and was grateful for the donation, which his campaign did not solicit.

Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schecter said the party would welcome donations from the Lee campaign, but has yet to receive any. Schecter said Ethel Lee does not regularly participate in party events or campaigns.

See here for the background, and here for the January 2019 report. I don’t know what will happen with all this cash, but I don’t expect much of it to be contributed to campaigns. Commissioner Lee was not known for doing that while he was alive. My guess is it will mostly go to schools and charities, which is fine. We’ll know for sure no later than 2022.

Please delete April Fools Day from your calendar

I just can’t.

Judge William McLeod

An April Fools’ Day resignation prank? One Texas civil court judge wishes it were so.

A newly elected judge in Houston accidentally resigned on Monday, according to local media and a county official, after he shared plans online to run for the state supreme court, apparently unaware that the Texas constitution considers such an announcement an automatic resignation.

The Harris County Civil Court judge, Bill McLeod, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. Local TV station KHOU 11 News on Monday reported that McLeod declined to comment on the move.

Article 16, Section 65, of the state’s constitution says that a judge’s announcement of candidacy for another office “shall constitute an automatic resignation of the office then held.”

The county attorney’s office will present the matter to county commissioners next Tuesday, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said in a phone interview on Tuesday. County commissioners, who can appoint replacements, may decide to keep McLeod in office until there is a special election, KHOU 11 reported.

The judge’s supporters have organized on social media using the hashtag #IStandWithMcLeod. They plan to attend the commissioners’ Tuesday meeting and express their wish that the judge retain his office despite his blunder.

Here’s Judge McLeod’s Facebook page, where I assume this accidental resignation happened. I tried looking for that post, but there were too many posts in support of him to scroll past, so I gave up. Judge McLeod was one of the more energetic campaigners, both in real life and on social media, in 2018 and I’m not at all surprised that people are rallying to his defense. Commissioners Court has the discretion of allowing him to stay in place until the next election, essentially serving as his own appointed interim successor. If he’s lucky, he’ll just have to run again in 2020 – he should have no trouble winning if that happens – and then can run for re-election as usual in 2022. This KHOU story doesn’t mention the April Fool angle, so I’m not really sure if this was a joke that didn’t land or just a foolishly early announcement with unexpected consequences. Either way, it wasn’t the best idea anyone ever had.

(Just so we’re all clear, the Constitutional provision cited in the story applies to the following offices: District Clerks; County Clerks; County Judges; Judges of the County Courts at Law, County Criminal Courts, County Probate Courts and County Domestic Relations Courts; County Treasurers; Criminal District Attorneys; County Surveyors; County Commissioners; Justices of the Peace; Sheriffs; Assessors and Collectors of Taxes; District Attorneys; County Attorneys; Public Weighers; and Constables. That means that among other things, it does not apply to District Court judges or appeals court judges, which is why the Democratic candidates for Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2018, all of whom were sitting District Court judges in Harris County, did not have to resign. Remember how long there was speculation about Adrian Garcia running for Mayor in 2015 before he ever said anything? That was because he had to resign as soon as he did say it. Let’s all be aware of these things going forward, OK? Thanks.)

UPDATE: Here’s a legal defense of Judge McLeod’s actions. It’s more complicated than it first appears.

Harris County sues ITC over Deer Park fire

Go get ’em.

Harris County has sued Intercontinental Terminals Co. for failing to prevent a massive chemical fire that burned for more than 60 hours last week and spewed an unknown volume of hazardous chemicals into the air and nearby waterways.

The county is seeking a temporary injunction and restraining order against the company, alleging that it violated the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, among other rules.

The lawsuit accuses ITC of violating the state’s water code, health and safety code and administrative code on multiple days, by “causing suffering or allowing the discharge of at least one air contaminant without a permit and in such concentration and or such duration as to be injurious to human health, welfare or property, or as to interfere with the normal use and enjoyment of property.”

[…]

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office will hire an in-house auditor to review ITC’s actions during and after the fire.

Soard also said Harris County will demand ITC cover the cost of the government’s response, which included frequent air and water monitoring, mobile clinics sponsored by the health department and an ongoing activation of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here in the updated version of the story. I hope the county collects on every last penny. These guys need to be held accountable for their failures. Yes, I know, there is a state lawsuit as well, but this is about reimbursing Harris County, in the same way that your insurance company collects from the other guy’s insurance company when the other driver is found to be at fault in your fender-bender. If ITC doesn’t like it, they can do a better job of fire prevention in the future.

Meanwhile, on a semi-related note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been holding continuous press conferences on the Intercontinental Terminals Co. fire in Deer Park, delivering updates in both English and Spanish.

Despite the effort to communicate with Hispanic viewers, one area commissioner publicly criticized her use of Spanish during a recent press conference.

“She is a joke,” Chambers County Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Tice said in a comment under a live feed of a press conference Monday afternoon. “English this is not Mexico.”

Tice admitted to making the comment Tuesday afternoon during a phone interview with Chron.com. He also doubled down on the message.

You know the old bit about how every New Yorker cartoon could be captioned “Christ, what an asshole!”? Well, as of today, anything Mark Tice says can be responded to by saying “Christ, what an asshole!” as well.

UPDATE: Tice has apologized following some blowback. My assessment of him has not changed.

Harris County settles ADA voting rights lawsuit

Chalk up another accomplishment for our new county overlords.

The U.S. Department of Justice will monitor Harris County elections, at county expense, for up to four years under the settlement of a federal lawsuit over inadequate access to polling places for voters with disabilities.

Commissioners Court approved the 15-page settlement during at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday. The item originally was designated for a closed-door executive session, but court members simply agreed to First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard’s recommendation they sign off on the deal.

Under the agreement, Harris County will have to make minor accessibility improvements to as many as 300 of its 750 regular voting sites, hire two outside election experts to supervise balloting and designate an in-house Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer. The county does not have to concede it has violated the ADA in past elections.

“It’s a fair settlement,” Soard said. “It’s a reasonable way to conclude this litigation.”

Toby Cole, a quadriplegic attorney who almost exclusively represents wheelchair users, said the settlement and extended federal supervision are essential because disabled voters often are reluctant to complain about problems they encounter.

“They don’t want to make a huge fuss,” Cole said. “So, you don’t vote the first time, then the second time. We cut things out of our lives already, and voting is one more thing to say is too difficult.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said after the meeting she is confident the county will be able to show the federal government much sooner than four years it is capable of running an election in which each polling place meets ADA guidelines.

“We’ve got a court, and a county clerk, and a county attorney that are committed to equitable access to elections,” Hidalgo said. “We’re all working to make sure we adhere to that settlement.”

[…]

Monica Flores-Richart, whom County Clerk Diane Trautman hired in January as the county’s ADA compliance officer, said the office will re-examine each polling place. In most cases, she said problems can be identified and addressed quickly.

“We’re not talking about permanent improvements,” Flores-Richart said. “If there’s a gap of a certain size in the sidewalk, you need to put a mat down. Those are the kind of things we’re talking about.”

The settlement requires the county to submit a new ADA compliance plan to the Justice Department within 120 days. The county also must hire at least 20 contractors, or use county employees, to monitor each countywide election.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve expressed a modicum of sympathy for the County Clerk in the past regarding this litigation, which was filed in August of 2016 following a letter of finding in 2014, but if this is all it took to settle the case, I have to wonder why it took so long. Well, okay, I know the answer to that, and it has to do with whose picture you see when you load up the harrisvotes.com website. But seriously, this should have been wrapped up long before now. Be that as it may, kudos to all for getting it done. I share Judge Hidalgo’s confidence that Harris County can complete the terms of the settlement in less than the time allotted. The Trib has more.

Vote centers approved for Harris County

From the inbox:

Diane Trautman

Today, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley approved Harris County as one of six Texas counties with a population of more than 100,000 to participate in the Countywide Polling Place Program. With over 2 million registered voters, this makes Harris County the largest county in the country to implement this program. The state program allows eligible counties to establish non-precinct based Election Day Voting Centers.

“The voters of Harris County have made it clear that a Countywide Polling Place Program would have a positive impact on elections and I am confident that the transition to a Countywide Polling Place Program will be successful”, announced Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

Voters will now be able to vote anywhere in Harris County on Election Day, beginning with the May 4, 2019 Joint Election. All elections, including general, special, joint, primaries, and runoffs will be recommended to use the Countywide Polling Place Program.

“The Countywide Polling Place Program will allow more Houstonians to exercise their most precious right, the right to vote”, stated Dr. Trautman.

Voters can find more information on the Countywide Polling Place Program by visiting www.HarrisVotes.com or by calling the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

See here and here for the background. The Vote Centers section of the County Clerk page is here, and the plan outline is here.

The Chron story has more:

Proponents of the countywide system tout it as a way to boost voter participation. Supporters also say it eventually could cut election costs because counties can replace smaller precinct sites with larger voting centers. More than 50 Texas counties successfully have implemented the countywide program, including neighboring Fort Bend and Brazoria, and some have seen an uptick in voter participation.

Trautman has said she would start by using the county’s 46 early voting locations as Election Day voting centers, in addition to traditional precinct polling sites, which she would not close before first seeking the approval of residents.

Jay Aiyer, a Texas Southern University political analyst, said Trautman should wait at least a few election cycles before removing any precinct sites to avoid disenfranchising voters.

“Harris County is basically a state,” Aiyer said. “So, what we’re talking about is a pretty fundamental change of an electoral process for an area, or at least a population base, that’s larger than 25 states.”

Some concerns, Aiyer said, include the vast length of Harris County’s ballot and the lack of straight-ticket voting in 2020, the first time Texas voters will be without that option. The change likely will create longer lines at the polls, Aiyer noted.

Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson decried the move, contending that Trautman, “in a rush to revamp Harris County voting,” is using unreliable technology that would actually depress turnout.

“Trumpeting her new system as voter-approved, Ms. Trautman, in fact, hand-picked groups to support her voting center scheme despite the risk it poses to all Harris County voters,” Simpson said in a statement. “Her unproven voting center scheme might work in a smaller county. But in the large and diverse community of Harris County, it risks vote dilution and discouraging, confusing, and disenfranchising countless voters on election day.”

Lubbock County became the first in Texas to run a countywide polling operation in 2006, under what was then a pilot program enacted by the Legislature. Since then, state lawmakers have made the program permanent, and Travis County, with about 788,000 registered voters as of the November midterms, is the largest Texas county to use the voting centers.

Trautman deliberately sought state approval before the May elections so she could roll out the program during a low-turnout election, instead of during the November 2019 city election or 2020 presidential election when turnout runs much higher. Harris County must secure approval from the secretary of state’s office after the May 4 election to continue using the countywide polling program.

Still, Simpson said he worried that voting centers would be unable to communicate electronically on Election Day to ensure no one votes more than once. County officials have said otherwise, and the state’s elections director, Keith Ingram, wrote in a letter to County Judge Lina Hidalgo Thursday that documentation provided by the county reflects that its polling devices can update the master voter database even upon losing cellular connection.

Former Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, a Republican whom Trautman defeated, said during the campaign he was open to countywide polling sites. The option is only available, Stanart said, because the county began using electronic poll books, or modified iPads, that communicate with each other to prevent people from voting more than once.

Not that there’s ever a reason to listen to Paul Simpson, but every one of his objections has been contradicted. The vote to apply for state approval was unanimous in Commissioners Court as well, so at every step of the way this has been a bipartisan process. Plus, you know, this is something Trautman explicitly campaigned on, and she won. As they say, elections have consequences.

Commissioners Court appoints a new judge

From the inbox:

Genesis Draper

Based on the motion from Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, Commissioners Court on Tuesday appointed Genesis E. Draper – an assistant public defender in the Harris County Public Defender’s Office – to fill the judicial vacancy at Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 12.

The seat was left vacant following the unexpected passing of Judge Cassandra Hollemon, who was elected to the bench in November as part of a historical judicial sweep that elected 17 Black women to the county judiciary, all of whom demonstrated a deep commitment to criminal justice reform. During her short time on the bench, Judge Hollemon was a part of the historical decision by the County Criminal Court judges to implement local rule changes for misdemeanor bail protocols, effectively ushering in long-awaited bail reform.

“We can never replace Judge Hollemon, but we can honor her legacy and the will of the voters by appointing Genesis E. Draper to the bench,” said Commissioner Ellis. “Ms. Draper has an exemplary legal career and record of public service that reflects a clear commitment to ensuring everyone receives fair treatment and equal justice in Harris County regardless of who they are or how much money they have.”

After Commissioners Court, Draper said: “This appointment is a tremendous honor. I’m committed to building on Judge Hollemon’s legacy and will continue her work, alongside other members of the Harris County judiciary, to advance the reforms that are needed to transform our justice system into one that delivers equal justice and fair treatment to all people.”

Draper is a graduate of Spelman College and received her law degree from the University of Texas Law School, where she was a member of the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society, Criminal Law Society, Board of Advocates and the mock trial team.

She began her legal career as a public defender in Tennessee and later served as a federal public defender in the Southern District Court of Texas before joining the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in 2017.

“Ms. Draper has a thorough understanding of criminal court proceedings and the Constitution. She also knows firsthand how the racial and economic disparities found throughout the system undermine justice,” Commissioner Ellis said. “I am confident that her appointment to the bench will serve the people of Harris County and help transform our criminal justice system into one that is more fair and just for all people.”

See here for the background. Judge Draper will need to run in 2020 to serve the remainder of Judge Hollemon’s term, then she will be on the off-year cycle with the other misdemeanor court judges. As the Chron notes. Judge Draper is the sixth former member of the Public Defenders Office to get elevated to the bench; the others are Justice Sara Beth Landau, 1st Court of Appeals; Justice Francis Bourliot, 14th Court of Appeals; Judge Danilo Lacayo, 182nd Criminal District Court; Judge Leah Shapiro, 315th Juvenile District Court; and Judge Franklin Bynum, County Criminal Court at Law No. 8, all of whom were elected in November. My congratulations and best wishes to Judge Genesis Draper.

January 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

One last set of finance reports I want to look at, from Harris County officials. I’m dividing them into a few groups:

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Ann Harris Bennett

Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1
Adrian Garcia, Precinct 2
Steve Radack, Precinct 3
Jack Cagle PAC, Precinct 4

George Moore, HCDE Position 1, Precinct 2
Eric Dick, HCDE Position 2, Precinct 4
Richard Cantu, HCDE Position 3, At Large
Josh Flynn, HCDE Position 4, Precinct 3
Michael Wolfe, HCDE Position 5, At Large
Danny Norris, HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1
Don Sumners, HCDE Position 7, At Large


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Hidalgo      239,834   161,503    1,400      51,836
Trautman       4,613       501        0      17,044
Osborne        1,225     2,242        0         122
Burgess        6,647     5,816        0       6,683

Ogg              600    13,936   68,489     212,875
Gonzalez      88,755    26,205        0     114,976
Ryan           6,500    14,656        0      58,464
Bennett        5,250     5,799        0      29,411

Ellis        223,000   310,395        0   2,916,307
Garcia       739,508   310,945        0     531,887
Radack       801,500   331,900        0   1,742,357
Cagle         68,045   113,143        0     171,242

Moore              0         0        0         243
Dick
Cantu          1,070       786        0       1,325
Flynn              0        10        0       1,600
Wolfe              0         0        0           0
Norris
Sumners

Remember that for those who were on the November 2018 ballot, this filing period runs from the 8 day report, which was October 27, through the end of the year. Basically, the last two months, including the last week of the campaign. For everyone else, it’s the usual six month period. HCDE candidates generally raise and spend negligible amounts, so it’s not that odd for some of them to have no activity to report.

$99K of the amount Lina Hidalgo raised was in kind, $95K of which came from the Texas Organizing Project for field work. It’s common for newly-elected candidates to get a surge in financial support right after their election – these are called “late train” donations – but in Hidalgo’s case a fair amount of the contributions reported here were before Election Day. Given her pledge to refrain from taking money from those who do business with the county, it will be interesting to see what her future reports will look like. The Commissioners have not taken a similar pledge, and they tend to be the bigger fundraisers anyway. Keep an eye on Steve Radack going forward – he’s either going to gear up for a tough election, or he’s going to decide to step down and let someone else engage in that battle. If Ed Emmett had been re-elected, it wouldn’t have shocked me if Radack ran again and then resigned after winning, in the grand tradition of Republican county officials, to let Emmett pick his successor. I feel confident saying that Steve Radack will not give Lina Hidalgo the opportunity to replace him.

With the strong Democratic trend in Harris County and the greater level of Democratic engagement – not to mention the possibility of the DNC being here and Texas being contested at the Presidential level – I don’t expect the countywide officeholders to work too hard to raise money for next November. They won’t slack, exactly, but they know they’ve got a lot of support behind them. That said, with Kim Ogg already getting a potential primary opponent, and given my belief that Vince Ryan will also draw one, they may step it up to make next March easier for them. The incentives, and the strategy, are different now in a blue county.

I am going to do one more report, on the Congressional candidates from 2018, two of whom are now incumbents and several others who will be back this cycle. As always, I hope this has been useful for you.

Ogg’s second ask

We’ll see how this goes.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is planning to head back to county leaders with another request for more prosecutors in light of the massive case review sparked by fallout from last month’s botched Houston police drug raid.

The renewed push for additional positions comes just after a failed bid to get funding for 102 new prosecutors, a hefty $21 million budget request slapped down by the Harris County Commissioners Court earlier this month. At the time, Ogg argued that her office’s overwhelming caseloads were likely among the highest in the country, and that the understaffing at all levels could prevent prosecutors from evaluating cases eligible for diversion.

But now, her new push to expand hinges on the need to review the more than 1,400 cases handled by Officer Gerald Goines, the case agent suspected of giving false information to justify the no-knock raid that left two civilians dead, officials said. In some of the cases, the 34-year officer was a witness, while in others he signed the affidavits underlying warrants, Ogg said Thursday. Of those up for review, 27 are active and at least five involve defendants currently in jail.

“These are individual cases; justice has to be meted out in every one. It takes time, we need some more investigators,” Ogg said. “We can get there with the understaffing that we have, it’s just going to take longer.”

It’s not clear how many new positions Ogg would ask for, but she stressed that the case reviews will happen regardless.

“This review is not contingent on funding, we’re going to do it,” she said. “It’ll just take a lot longer with the few people that we’ve got assigned to our Conviction Integrity Division.”

Because the jobs would go to “trusted, trained” prosecutors, Ogg said, the idea would be to promote from within and hire new positions at a lower level. The review of the 27 active cases can be handled by current staff.

See here for some background. I’ve not gotten any press releases in my inbox from groups that had opposed the previous request, as I had at that time, but that may just be a function of timing. It’s not fully clear to me from this story if what Ogg is requesting is more prosecutors or more investigators, the latter of which may perhaps be less controversial. The reason prompting this request is unimpeachable, but there may be more to it than what is apparent now. If she’s going to make this request at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, we should know pretty quickly what kind of a reaction this will get.

As for the larger issue, I have not blogged about the HPD no-knock raid mess, as there’s only so much I can keep up with. I fully support the effort to review and revise the department’s policy on no-knock raids, and will note that there has been advocacy in favor of this, here and nationally, for a long time. As is so often the case, it takes a tragedy to focus a sufficient amount of attention on the issue to make anything happen. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is making similar changes, though that will have a much smaller effect than what HPD does since the Sheriff’s office rarely conducts such raids. There are also bills in the Legislature, with Rep. Harold Dutton being one of the main authors, to impose restrictions and more stringent processes on all law enforcement agencies. As with bail reform, this is something that has been needed for a long time, and maybe, just maybe, the time is right for it to happen.

Flood tunnel study funds

Could be cool.

Japanese flood tunnel

The Harris County Flood Control District is set to receive a $320,000 federal grant to study the feasibility of constructing deep underground tunnels to move stormwater to the Houston Ship Channel without overburdening the area’s bayous.

The grant, from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, will fund a four-month investigation to determine whether such tunnels would be a practical and cost-effective addition to the county’s long-term flood protection strategy. The flood control district has begun work on scores of projects funded by the $2.5 billion flood bond approved last summer, though none to date include underground tunnels.

“The study is basically to look at our ground conditions, including our groundwater table, and compare that to existing technology in the tunnel industry to see if there’s a match,” said Russ Poppe, executive director of the flood control district. “If that’s true, then we can start looking at costs, routes and opportunities we can potentially pursue.”

[…]

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, raised no objection to studying the tunnel idea but said he worries that pursuing the proposal could become a boondoggle that siphons money from other, more urgent priorities.

“It’s one of those big dream projects that may take us away from much more reasonable short-term projects,” Blackburn said. “I doubt the feasibility of it.”

See here and here for the background. Looks like we were originally going to get that study last year, but for whatever the reason it didn’t happen. If it’s going to happen this time, it will be after the next Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, when they will vote on approving the study and ponying up $80K in matching funds. I’ll check back with it afterward.

Vote centers advance

The other big story from Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman’s plan to shift to countywide voting centers inched forward this week when Commissioners Court unanimously agreed to file an application with the secretary of state asking permission.

Trautman hopes to incrementally open voting centers, where any county resident can cast a ballot on Election Day. Harris County currently uses voting centers for early balloting, but residents are required to use their assigned precinct locations on Election Day.

Michael Winn, who helped launch voting centers in Travis County before joining Trautman’s staff in January, said the change boosted turnout by 10 to 12 percent there. The centers offer voters more flexibility to cast ballots near their school or place of employment, which may be far from their assigned polling place.

The secretary of state must sign off on Harris County’s proposal before Trautman may proceed. She plans to open several Election Day voting centers in a low turnout election, such as a May school board balloting, before moving to a large-scale deployment for a general election.

See here for the background. There have been several public meetings to get feedback about this proposal. More planning will need to be done to determine the number and location of voting centers. I presume that will vary by turnout level, as has been the case with all-precinct locations, so accurately projecting turnout will be key. I have no idea how long this process takes, but we’ll be seeing these things sooner rather than later, at least for some elections.

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

I fully expected that Commissioners Court going from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic after the last election would signal big changes in how business was done in Harris County, but I didn’t expect this to be the first milestone on the new path.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected Kim Ogg’s request for 102 new prosecutors, a stinging public defeat for the first-term Democratic district attorney by members of her own party.

The rejection came less than 24 hours after a former assistant district attorney filed paperwork to challenge Ogg in next year’s primary, a sign criminal justice reformers may have lost patience with the self-described progressive after helping elect her in 2016.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court — commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo —supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments. Ogg had asked for a 31 percent increase, which would grow her prosecutor corps by a third and include 42 additional support staff.

“This is not the only way, and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Ogg, who did not attend the court meeting, issued a statement after the vote.

“We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant and the community,” she said. “Harris County must have a district attorney’s office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner.”

See here for the background and here for an earlier Chron story that previewed the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. Ogg had addressed the criticism of her proposal, and also answered the question about maybe hiring prosecutors on a shorter-term basis, but it wasn’t enough to get any of her fellow Dems in line. I would say her best bet right now is to take what the ACLU of Texas said in a press release following the Commissioners’ vote to heart:

“Adding more prosecutors in Harris County is not the ultimate solution for reducing mass incarceration and fighting racism in the criminal system. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has taken a more measured approach than the initial proposal, the addition of new prosecutors must come with clearly defined standards for reducing incarceration — such as expanding pretrial diversion, reducing case disposition time, and reducing existing caseloads — instead of prosecuting more cases. The commissioners were right to call for studies into how best to improve the district attorney’s office, and District Attorney Ogg should commit to specific plans for how any newly hired prosecutors will be used. That’s accountability.”

“There is no question that Harris County prosecutors have high caseloads, but the solution is not to add more prosecutors in a cycle that endlessly ratchets up the size of the criminal system. The smartest way to reduce caseloads is to dismiss more cases, identify more cases for diversion, and invest significantly in substance use disorder and mental health treatment that help people who need it and prevent them from ending up awaiting prosecution in the first place.”

Seems to me this conversation will need to include HPD, the Sheriff’s office, and all of the other law enforcement organizations in Harris County as well. If the DA needs to prioritize what cases get prosecuted, they will need to prioritize what arrests they make. Commissioners Court needs to do its part, too, by working to expand mental health offerings. The Lege could also pitch in here, though for obvious reasons I’ll keep my expectations low. Everyone has a part to play – Kim Ogg’s part is bigger than the rest, but it’s not just her. Maybe by the time next year’s budget is being discussed, we’ll have less to argue about.

And speaking of next year:

Audia Jones, the former prosecutor who on Monday filed paperwork to challenge Ogg, spoke against the proposal. Jones said she left the district attorney’s office in December in part because she said Ogg’s administration has been too reluctant to offer jail diversion to defendants of color, in contrast with their white counterparts.

She said temporary court closures caused by Hurricane Harvey are not a driver of increasing caseloads, as Ogg contends, but rather are a result of her administration’s policies.

Murray Newman, who had some earlier thoughts about the Ogg proposal, notes that Audia Jones is married to Criminal Court Judge DaSean Jones. I’m not sure how that conflict gets sorted out if she wins (one obvious remedy would be for Judge Jones to step down), but that’s a concern for another day. I would have picked County Attorney Vince Ryan as the first member of the class of 2020 to get a potential primary opponent – designating a treasurer is a necessary step to running for office, but it doesn’t commit one to running – but here we are.

RIP, Cassandra Hollemon

Sad news.

Cassandra Hollemon

Cassandra Hollemon took the bench in a sweep of Black Girl Magic, becoming part of the historic moment when 19 African-American women in Harris County won spots overseeing some of the busiest courtrooms in Texas.

In the weeks since taking over Harris County Criminal Court of Law 12, Hollemon helped make a mark on local justice reform when she joined her colleagues in efforts to settle the landmark lawsuit over the county’s cash bail system. She served on the Community Supervision and Pretrial Services Committee, and offered a keen sense of humor with friends and colleagues.

On Monday, she died after weeks of struggling with “health issues,” according to fellow misdemeanor Judge Darrell Jordan. She was 57.

“We are saddened by the passing of Judge Cassandra Y. Hollemon,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle. “She was a compassionate judge who treated one in a respectful manner.”

Now, the Harris County Commissioners Court will have to pick a replacement, according to Barbara Armstrong, a managing lawyer at County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office. Given the timing of Hollemon’s death, her replacement would take the bench through 2020, with the option to run then in an election to complete Holleman’s unexpired term ending in 2022.

I did not have the opportunity to meet Judge Hollemon during the campaign last year, so I can’t add to her eulogy. She was clearly well-liked and well-respected, and she leaves behind two children and a grandchild, to whom I send out my deepest sympathies. As she was elected to a County bench, her successor will be named by Commissioners Court; had she been a District Court judge, it would have been Greg Abbott appointing a new judge. Rest in peace, Judge Cassandra Hollemon.

How many prosecutors do we need?

Opinions differ, but it’s a big question in Harris County right now.

Kim Ogg

Hanover is one of many prosecutors Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said are overburdened — the reason she has asked Commissioners Court for a budget that would fund 102 additional assistant district attorneys and more than 40 support staff. Ogg said the surge is needed to clear a backlog in cases exacerbated by Harvey, a driver of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.

Her proposal to expand the prosecutor corps by a third, however, has evolved into a proxy battle over the future of criminal justice reform in Harris County. Ogg finds herself so far unable to persuade Democrats on Commissioners Court as well as reform groups, who have questioned her self-identification as a progressive and said her proposal would lead to more residents in jail.

“Simply adding prosecutors is the strategy that got us here in the first place, with this mentality that the only thing we can spend money on is police and prosecutors,” said Jay Jenkins, project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Ogg, a first-term district attorney who unseated a Republican in 2016 with the support of many progressive groups, said these critics fail to grasp the on-the-ground realities of her prosecutors, whose heavy workloads mean they sometimes are the reason cases are delayed and defendants languish in jail.

Ogg pledged to send the first 25 new hires to the felony trial bureau, where she said they can help achieve the reforms progressives seek, such as identifying low-risk defendants who can be sent out of the criminal justice system without a conviction.

“Who else is going to divert offenders who should re-enter society, and prosecute the people who should be incarcerated to protect the public?” she said. “This is a question of how fast do our funders really want to reform our justice system?”

Ogg laid out her argument in an interview Wednesday at the district attorney’s temporary quarters at 500 Jefferson, where a regular shuttle takes prosecutors to the criminal justice complex more than a mile away.

Ogg said since taking office, she is proud to have diverted 38,000 defendants for a variety of low-level offenses, including marijuana possession, misdemeanor theft, first time DUI and mental health-related charges such as trespassing. With an active caseload that jumped from about 15,000 when Harvey hit to 26,523 this week, she said prosecutors are not always able to give victims and defendants the attention they deserve.

Her staff noted Harris County’s 329 prosecutors are less than half the number in Illinois’ Cook County, which is only slightly more populous.

“With adequate staff, we’ll be able to offer pleas that are reasonable earlier,” Ogg said. “We’ll be able to focus on public safety to make sure we don’t let someone go who is really a risk and threat to either his family or his community.”

She sought to mollify the concerns of progressives who fear it could lead to more people in jail, saying, “There’s no data showing that more prosecutors equals more prosecutions.”

Here are the original statements put out by TOP and the TCJC. This subsequent Chron story gives some more detail.

“We would like to stop the clock and take time to consider other options, primarily looking at funding for mental health issues,” organizer Terrance Koontz said.

Koontz said TOP is looking at housing options for nonviolent offenders who may need to reset their lives.

“We’re talking about individuals who are being arrested for minor drug charges or being homeless on the street or having a mental problem, and they definitely shouldn’t be sitting in jail,” Koontz said. “We are not here to attack D.A. Ogg, we just want more time to consider our options.”

[…]

Doug Murphy, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, agrees with Ogg’s proposal.

“Having witnessed the daily reality of their lack of manpower what we’re seeing is Harris County was the fastest moving docket in the country, we called it the rocket docket, and it slowed it down to a snail’s pace,” said Murphy. “What we got is bloated dockets because they don’t have the manpower to work these cases up and marshal the evidence.”

Murphy believes more prosecutors would help pick up the pace of getting cases to trial, resolved and even dismissed. “If I weren’t witnessing daily the backlog and the frustration, I would be in total agreement with the other organization,” Murphy said.

Koontz still worries that more prosecutors would ultimately mean more arrests and more people wrongly incarcerated.

“We just want to consider other viable options outside of just hiring the prosecutors,” Koontz said. “Because although it does not seem like putting more people in jail, at the end of the day we feel like more people will end up in jail than not and at the end of the day its black and brown people who are overwhelmingly being incarcerated.”

Honestly, I think everyone is raising valid concerns. The chaos of Harvey has caused a big backlog for the DA’s office, and it doesn’t serve anyone’s interests for cases to drag out because there just isn’t the time or the bandwidth among overworked assistant DAs to get to them. On the other hand, Kim Ogg made promises about how she was going to reform the system, and a big part of that was not prosecuting a lot of low-level crimes or crimes involving people who need mental health treatment. They also worry that while Ogg might not backtrack on her stated priorities, the next DA who inherits her bigger office may not share those priorities. It’s not at all unreasonable to worry that an increase in prosecutors will be counter to Ogg’s stated goals.

So how to resolve this? Grits suggests increasing the Public Defender’s office by an equivalent amount – Commissioner Rodney Ellis has suggested something like this as well, and the PDO is seeking more funding, so that’s on the table. I like that idea, but I also think it may be possible to assuage the concerns about what happens after the backlog is cleared by putting a time limit on the hiring expansion. Is it possible to hire people on one or two year non-renewable contracts, to get the office through the backlog but then have it return to a smaller size afterward? I’m just spitballing here, but if we agree that clearing the backlog is a worthy goal, then we ought to be able to find a way to ensure that doing so doesn’t lead to mission creep. I’m open to other ideas, but I feel like this is something that needs to lead to a compromise, not one side winning and the other side losing. I hope we can get there.

Does the Astrodome redevelopment need air conditioning?

I hadn’t thought about this, to be honest.

Also not air conditioned

As work continues on the initial stages of preparing the Astrodome for its new life as a parking and events venue, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised questions last week about the costs associated with redeveloping the former sports stadium.

Harris County’s new judge, who recently toured the property with officials from NRG Park, said she learned that the $105 million the county allocated to the redevelopment project did not include air conditioning.

“I’m looking to make sure the current plan is fiscally responsible and that it will get us to a point where the Astrodome is self-sustaining,” she said in an interview on Houston Public Media’s “Houston Matters.”

Hidalgo declined to comment further, but current and former county officials said the renovation costs were never meant to include traditional air conditioning. Rather, the climate inside would be maintained by a mechanical forced-air ventilation and convection-based system designed to keep the inside of the building more temperate when it is hot or cold outside.

“The thought process was that further phases would bring in air conditioning,” said County Engineer John Blount, who is managing the project.

[…]

For Ed Emmett, Hidalgo’s predecessor, the Astrodome project was never about nostalgia, but to keep the integrity of the NRG complex intact. The county has a contract with the rodeo and the Texans to maintain NRG Stadium in first-class condition.

“Those tenants are going to start coming to the county saying we need this or that upgrade. There’s no revenue source to provide those upgrades without the Dome,” Emmet said.

As far as the air conditioning, he said the idea was to make the space usable, “but not necessarily at 72 degrees.”

“My purpose from day one was to create nine acres of indoor space protected from the weather, where it would be preferable than being outside,” Emmett said.

I mean, it kind of makes sense. It just has to be cool enough, and contrary to popular belief it’s not always summer here. Seems a little weird to be talking about it now, but whatever.

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend

Did you know that Fort Bend County went blue in 2018 as well? Of course you did. Let’s take a closer look at how that happened.


Dist     Cruz   Beto Dikeman    Cruz%   Beto%    Dike%
======================================================
HD26   32,451  33,532    406   48.88%   50.51%   0.61%
HD27   17,563  47,484    348   26.86%   72.61%   0.53%
HD28   42,974  40,330    581   51.23%   48.08%   0.69%
HD85   18,435  21,053    281   46.36%   52.94%   0.71%

CC1    27,497  28,827    359   48.51%   50.86%   0.63%
CC2    11,238  40,905    263   21.44%   78.05%   0.50%
CC3    42,882  33,373    544   55.84%   43.45%   0.71%
CC4    29,806  39,294    450   42.86%   56.50%   0.65%

As a reminder, HD85 is only partially in Fort Bend. It also covers Wharton and Jackson counties, which are both red and which are the reason this district is not as competitive as it might look. The other three State Rep districts are fully within Fort Bend. The bottom four entries are for the four County Commissioner precincts.

For comparison, here are the 2016 data for the County Commissioner precincts and for the State Rep districts. Beto, as is the case pretty much everywhere we look, outperformed the 2016 baseline everywhere. In 2016, HD26 was won by Donald Trump by five points and by downballot Republicans by 15 points. In 2016, County Commissioner Precinct 1 was won by Trump by three points and downballot Republicans by ten or so, while Precinct 4 was won by Hillary Clinton by six points but by downballot Republicans also by six points. Trump won CC3 by 19 points and HD28 by ten points. All this happened while Clinton carried Fort Bend. Anyone still surprised that Dems swept FBC this year?


Dist   Abbott  Valdez Tippts  Abbott%  Valdez%   Tipp%
======================================================
HD26   36,516  28,762    898   55.18%   43.46%   1.36%
HD27   21,429  42,795    975   32.87%   65.64%   1.50%
HD28   47,549  35,016  1,213   56.76%   41.80%   1.45%
HD85   20,373  18,801    527   51.32%   47.36%   1.33%

CC1    30,249  25,584    779   53.43%   45.19%   1.38%
CC2    14,099  37,443    728   26.97%   71.63%   1.39%
CC3    47,081  28,501  1,129   61.37%   37.15%   1.47%
CC4    34,438  33,846    977   49.72%   48.87%   1.41%


Dist  Patrick Collier  McKen Patrick% Collier%  McKen%
======================================================
HD26   33,307  31,571  1,091   50.49%   47.86%   1.65%
HD27   18,455  45,617  1,018   28.35%   70.08%   1.56%
HD28   43,848  38,174  1,496   52.50%   45.71%   1.79%
HD85   18,824  20,025    685   47.61%   50.65%   1.73%

CC1    27,935  27,510    968   49.52%   48.77%   1.72%
CC2    11,979  39,438    796   22.94%   75.53%   1.52%
CC3    43,517  31,523  1,419   56.92%   41.23%   1.86%
CC4    31,003  36,916  1,107   44.91%   53.48%   1.60%


Dist   Paxton  Nelson Harris  Paxton%  Nelson% Harris%
======================================================
HD26   32,377  32,192  1,246   49.19%   48.91%   1.89%
HD27   17,454  46,307  1,249   26.85%   71.23%   1.92%
HD28   42,892  38,800  1,700   51.43%   46.53%   2.04%
HD85   18,234  20,455    775   46.20%   51.83%   1.96%
						
CC1    27,165  28,003  1,142   48.24%   49.73%   2.03%
CC2    11,271  39,983    915   21.60%   76.64%   1.75%
CC3    42,689  32,005  1,620   55.94%   41.94%   2.12%
CC4    29,832  37,763  1,293   43.31%   54.82%   1.88%


Dist    Hegar    Chev   Sand   Hegar%    Chev%   Sand%
======================================================
HD26   34,744  29,182  1,566   53.05%   44.56%   2.39%
HD27   18,579  44,486  1,690   28.69%   68.70%   2.61%
HD28   45,403  35,587  2,176   54.59%   42.79%   2.62%
HD85   19,151  19,106  1,107   48.65%   48.54%   2.81%

CC1    28,590  26,036  1,501   50.94%   46.39%   2.67%
CC2    11,842  38,830  1,361   22.76%   74.63%   2.62%
CC3    45,266  28,887  1,942   59.49%   37.96%   2.55%
CC4    32,179  34,608  1,735   46.96%   50.51%   2.53%


Dist     Bush   Suazo   Pina    Bush%   Suazo%   Pina%
======================================================
HD26   34,619  29,520  1,518   52.73%   44.96%   2.31%
HD27   19,148  44,329  1,352   29.54%   68.38%   2.09%
HD28   45,308  35,889  2,099   54.39%   43.09%   2.52%
HD85   19,175  19,251  1,001   48.63%   48.83%   2.54%

CC1    28,572  26,224  1,430   50.82%   46.64%   2.54%
CC2    12,382  38,693    995   23.78%   74.31%   1.91%
CC3    44,897  29,245  2,060   58.92%   38.38%   2.70%
CC4    32,399  34,827  1,485   47.15%   50.69%   2.16%


Dist   Miller   Olson   Carp  Miller%   Olson%   Carp%
======================================================
HD26   32,617  31,836  1,092   49.76%   48.57%   1.67%
HD27   17,346  46,414    982   26.79%   71.69%   1.52%
HD28   43,153  38,535  1,436   51.91%   46.36%   1.73%
HD85   18,190  20,465    699   46.22%   52.00%   1.78%

CC1    27,153  27,991    984   48.38%   49.87%   1.75%
CC2    11,087  40,180    739   21.32%   77.26%   1.42%
CC3    43,016  31,680  1,367   56.55%   41.65%   1.80%
CC4    30,050  37,399  1,119   43.83%   54.54%   1.63%


Dist Craddick McAllen Wright   Cradd% McAllen% Wright%
======================================================
HD26   34,651  29,418  1,446   52.89%   44.90%   2.21%
HD27   18,632  44,694  1,400   28.79%   69.05%   2.16%
HD28   45,440  35,871  1,842   54.65%   43.14%   2.22%
HD85   19,057  19,321    950   48.46%   49.13%   2.42%
						
CC1    28,489  26,271  1,321   50.80%   46.84%   2.36%
CC2    11,864  39,056  1,092   22.81%   75.09%   2.10%
CC3    45,237  29,103  1,746   59.46%   38.25%   2.29%
CC4    32,190  34,874  1,479   46.96%   50.88%   2.16%

Everyone met or exceeded the downballot baseline in the State Rep districts, while the top three Dems (Collier, Nelson, Olson) exceeded the Hillary mark in each. Dems should find a strong candidate to try to win back the County Commissioner seat in Precinct 1 in 2020, it sure looks like they’d have a decent shot at it.

Here are the countywide candidates for Fort Bend:


Dist    Vacek    Midd   Vacek%   Midd%
======================================
HD26   33,939   30,925  52.32%  47.68%
HD27   17,978   46,218  28.00%  72.00%
HD28   44,422   37,771  54.05%  45.95%
HD85   19,031   20,001  48.76%  51.24%
				
CC1    28,339   27,352  50.89%  49.11%
CC2    11,489   40,138  22.25%  77.75%
CC3    44,369   30,842  58.99%  41.01%
CC4    31,173   36,583  46.01%  53.99%


Dist   Hebert   George Hebert% George%
======================================
HD26   35,058   30,030  53.86%  46.14%
HD27   18,504   45,803  28.77%  71.23%
HD28   45,183   37,094  54.92%  45.08%
HD85   19,256   19,856  49.23%  50.77%
				
CC1    29,061   26,671  52.14%  47.86%
CC2    11,779   39,896  22.79%  77.21%
CC3    45,061   30,192  59.88%  40.12%
CC4    32,100   36,024  47.12%  52.88%

Brian Middleton met or exceeded the Hillary standard everywhere, while KP George was a point or so behind him. Both were still enough to win. Note that for whatever the reason, there were no Democratic candidates running for County Clerk or County Treasurer. One presumes that will not be the case in 2022, and one presumes there will be a full slate for the county offices next year, with Sheriff being the big prize.

We should have 2018 election data on the elected officials’ profiles and the Legislative Council’s FTP site in a couple of weeks. When that happens, I’ll be back to focus on other districts of interest. In the meantime, I hope you found this useful.

Will we address the unincorporated problem?

The Chron proposes an agenda item for the Lege.

Unincorporated Harris County

The challenges of unincorporated Harris County are nothing new. For decades neighborhoods have sprouted up in the vast prairie west of Houston without any formal municipal governmental structure. Special districts have provided basic needs, such as neighborhood streets and water. The county government picked up the rest — notably law enforcement and roads. No mayors. No city halls. No local sales taxes.

This model is becoming unsustainable. If grouped into a single city, the total population of unincorporated Harris County would be the fifth largest in the United States. Issues like infrastructure costs and upkeep, law enforcement and the basic duties of government are piling up, and commissioners court lacks both the funds and the statutory authority to deal with it all.

Meanwhile, obscure rules written in Austin prohibit these neighborhoods from forming their own cities, which could levy sales taxes and pass ordinances. Already existing cities are hesitant to annex special districts, which often have long-term debt.

So why would the Legislature finally address this big-picture issue after ignoring it for so long?

Hurricane Harvey revealed the weaknesses of these special districts to meet residents’ needs and the ongoing fight over property taxes has the county looking for another way to pay for services.

Formal studies, notably from the Kinder Institute, are being published about the problems in these areas — and potential solutions.

The status quo in the unincorporated county can’t go on forever, and only Austin can change it.

I basically agree with the premise, but I seriously doubt anything will happen this session. This wasn’t a theme that Judge Lina Hidalgo campaigned on, and I expect she’s got her hands (and the county’s lobbyists’ hands) full right now. More to the point, it’s not clear what kind of legislation would be proposed to remedy the problems. Something like this needs to have a vetting period, with opportunities for public input, since any change would affect how current residents of unincorporated Harris County would be affected.

There’s an analogy here to the oft-lamented-by-the-Chron system of partisan judicial elections. What we have now is flawed, and it’s easy to say there must be a better way, but it’s all vaporware until something specific gets proposed and advocated. My suggestion would be to lobby Commissioners Court to put together a committee to study the options and propose something that can be turned into a bill one of our legislators can author for 2021. Something concrete has a chance to be enacted, so start with that and maybe we can actually make a change happen.

Now we talk about vote centers

Good.

New Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman on Tuesday [proposed] to Commissioners Court a non-precinct based countywide polling system, where voters can cast ballots at the locations most convenient to them.

“Life gets in the way; you’ve got to pick up the kids, or go to another job,” Trautman said at her office Monday. “But if people actually had a choice of when and where to vote, I think you would see a big difference in turnout.”

Fifty-two Texas counties, including neighboring Fort Bend and Brazoria, have used voting centers.

In last November’s mid-term election, Harris County residents could vote at any of 46 county locations during the two-week early voting period. They had to cast ballots at their assigned precincts on Election Day, when the county operates more than 700 polling sites.

It is unclear how many voting centers would be needed, which could vary depending on what is on the ballot and projected turnout. Trautman said she would begin by using the county’s 46 early voting locations as Election Day voting centers, in addition to its precinct polling sites. Her office, she said, would use the resulting turnout data to make future decisions about the number of centers needed.

During her campaign, Trautman pitched voting centers as a way to increase turnout by 2 to 5 percent. She said voters are more likely to participate when they can cast ballots on Election Day near their work or school, which may be outside their precincts.

The idea first came up in Harris County back in 2015. Fort Bend adopted them that same year, as did Galveston, while Travis has used them since 2011.

The new clerk said she has studied Travis County’s voting centers model, which debuted in 2011, and hired away Michael Winn, that county’s elections director. Winn said voters needed several cycles to get used to the new system, which he said eventually boosted turnout 10 to 12 percent.

“Voters really enjoyed the fact that during lunchtime or after work, in that crunch time before polls close … vote centers make it so they can go without worry to a place within their proximity,” Winn said.

Through studying turnout patterns and consulting with neighborhood leaders, Winn said Travis County was able to close about 20 percent of its traditional polling places without hampering turnout.

Trautman said she is open to consolidating Harris County polling sites, but only after consulting with communities. She acknowledged the role polling places play in the civic fabric of neighborhoods — especially where residents once had been denied suffrage — and said she would leave open sites that hold such significance.

The Harris County Democratic Party endorsed the proposal, and a spokeswoman said County Judge Lina Hidalgo supports the idea. A spokesman for the county Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.

We may get a pilot as early as this May – as Trautman notes, it makes far more sense to test this out in a lower-turnout election, rather than debut it during a Presidential race. Commissioners Court has approved the idea. so we can move ahead with it. I look forward to the discussion and planning process, and especially to the final product.

Appeal of bail injunction dropped

Elections have consequences, and thank goodness for it.

Less than a week after the new jurists were sworn into office, Harris County’s misdemeanor judges on Monday withdrew their appeal in the landmark lawsuit over local bail practices that a federal judge said unfairly targeted poor people accused of crimes.

The historic litigation began in 2016, when attorneys and civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of defendants jailed for days because they couldn’t afford bond on low-level offenses. Though Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal said the practice was unconstitutional and amounted to wealth-based detention, so far the county has spent more than $9 million in legal fees to fight the case, according to Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

But many saw the Democratic wave in November’s elections as a sign of change ahead – and Monday’s court filings look to be one of the first indicators of that shift.

“It’s going to be a new day,” Neal Manne, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in November just after the ballot-box sweep. And now, according to Judge Darrell Jordan – the one misdemeanor judge who did not lose his bench in the last election – the parties have already begun hashing out a settlement they hope to have in place in the next few weeks.

“Our goal is have this accomplished by February 1, 2019,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle.

One of a series of documents filed in recent days, the two-page motion simply lists the names of the new judges – who automatically replaced their predecessors as defendants in the suit – and asks that the case be dismissed. The court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal by mid-day.

[…]

Mike Fields, the one outgoing judge who supported the lawsuit, lauded the move as a “great first step” toward reform.

“Quite frankly, it’s overdue,” he said. “I remain convinced that fighting against bail reform was a mistake and, I believe, part and parcel of why the citizens of Harris County voted for such a sweeping change in our political landscape. Hopefully, this issue will, finally, be put to bed and taxpayer money better spent going forward.”

[…]

Meanwhile, the Harris County Attorney’s Office issued a statement expressing confidence in the possibility of a settlement.

“The County Attorney’s Office supports the newly-elected judges in their effort to resolve this case on terms they find acceptable,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. “This is a case about judicial discretion.”

The next hearing, in Rosenthal’s court, is slated for Feb. 1.

Out-fricking-standing. The new judges are now represented by a pro bono attorney, instead of the high-priced guy that had been arguing the case in court. What this means is that the injunction will remain in place while the settlement is hashed out, with no further briefs or arguments or whatever else before the Fifth Circuit. (The last update I had on this was from August; I don’t think there was any other business on the agenda, but if there was it’s now moot.) Perhaps once we get this settlement in place we can stop outsourcing inmates once and for all. Now we need the city of Houston to get its act together and follow the county’s lead. Bottom line is that this, as much as anything, is what I wanted from the 2018 election. Well done, y’all.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez resigns to take County Commissioner job

We will need that special election.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

State Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, is leaving the Legislature to become a Bexar County commissioner.

The county’s judge, Nelson Wolff, appointed Rodriguez on Friday to replace Paul Elizondo, the longtime commissioner who died last week. The appointment creates a vacancy in Rodriguez’s House District 125, paving the way for a special election to finish his term.

Rodriguez was immediately sworn after Wolff announced the appointment at a news conference.

“I wanted someone that had the confidence of the citizens and voters of County Commissioner Precinct 2,” Wolff said, alluding to Rodriguez’s long record of public service in the area. “Justin Rodriguez has certainly exemplified that in a very important way.”

[…]

The special election for Rodriguez’s seat would be the fourth such contest since the November elections. State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, won the special election last month to replace former state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston — now a congresswoman — while Gov. Greg Abbott has set Jan. 29 special elections to fill the seats of Alvarado and state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who is resigning due to health issues.

The 86th legislative session begins Tuesday, and Rodriguez said he was confident his seat would be filled before the session kicks into high gear in March. He told reporters he did not have a preference for who should succeed him.

See here for the background. My guess is that we’ll get an election in early February, with a runoff if needed in late March. Not optimal, but it is what it is. As I said before, this district is moderately blue, not dark blue, so the eventual election is not a slam dunk for the Dems. Unity, if there is a D-versus-R runoff following an initial race with multiple Ds, and turnout will be the key to not punting this seat. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

We may soon need another legislative special election

In Bexar County.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

State Rep. Justin Rodriguez is expected to fill the vacant Commissioners Court seat of political icon Paul Elizondo, a major local power broker and a veteran of the commission for more than 30 years who died last week.

Multiple sources said Wednesday that Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff likely will appoint Rodriguez, who’s served in the Legislature since 2013.

Wolff declined to confirm that he plans to appoint Rodriguez, but he sketched out what he’s looking for in a successor, in deference to the death of his closest friend. Rodriguez declined to comment.

“I’ve had obviously a lot of time to think about this because Paul has had several challenges with his health,” Wolff said.

The county judge said he plans to appoint someone who has legislative experience and fiscal expertise and can help improve the county’s relationship with the city.

[…]

It’s unclear who might step in to run in a special election for Rodriguez’s seat, which would be called by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Rodriguez and a few other close allies of Elizondo have been seen as his potential successors. Among them: City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales and former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who’d known Elizondo for some four decades.

We should know pretty soon whether Rep. Rodriguez will be the choice to fill that County Commissioners seat. You may recall from when Jerry Eversole stepped down, it is the County Judge who names the successor, so whatever Judge Wolff decides is what will happen. The Rivard Report makes it sound like the choice is more up in the air, and includes Queta Rodriguez, a former employee of Precinct 2 who nearly ousted Elizondo in the 2018 primary, as a potential pick as well.

Rodriguez represents HD125 in Bexar County; he was elected in 2012 after Joaquin Castro decided to run for Congress. After a decade of turnover, he’s the second-most senior member of the Bexar delegation, after Rep. Roland Gutierrez. HD125 was solidly Democratic in 2016, as Hillary Clinton carried it 61-33, but it was closer in 2014 as Wendy Davis took it by a 56-43 margin. If he gets appointed and this becomes a race, I’d expect the Republicans to seriously challenge it. The Dems would be favored to hold it, but it would not be a slam dunk. Keep an eye on this.

The Harris County GOP has not hit bottom yet

I have four thing to say about this.

Never forget

Drubbed. Shellacked. Whooped. Walloped. Routed.

However you want to describe November’s midterm election, it was disastrous for Harris County Republicans. They were swept from the remaining countywide posts they held — the other shoe to drop after Democrats booted the Republican sheriff and district attorney two years ago — and lost all 55 judicial seats on the ballot. For the first time in decades, Democrats will hold a majority of Commissioners Court.

The path forward for the local GOP is unclear. The party’s statewide slate went undefeated yet rebuked by Harris County voters, raising questions about whether its pitch to rural voters alienated urban ones. In the state’s most populous county, and his home base, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz got just 41 percent of the vote.

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson, however, is optimistic. He said several local Republicans would have won, chief among them County Judge Ed Emmett, if straight-ticket voting had been eliminated before the election. Republicans in the Texas Legislature decided to retire the straight-ticket option after 2018, which traditionally benefited their party, but proved disastrous for the GOP in urban counties this cycle.

“Pendulums will swing back,” Simpson said. “I’m confident in the near future, we’ll be back.”

Scholars and Emmett, the county executive for 11 years before his upset loss, offered a less rosy assessment — that of a party catering to a largely white, graying base that is failing to adapt to changing demographics and awaiting the return of a “normal” electorate that has ceased to exist. November 2018 should be a wake-up call, they say, but they wonder if the local Republican Party is listening.

“If you look at ’18 as a turning point for Harris County, there’s nothing data-wise that would give you any indication this was an aberration and not a structural change,” said Jay Aiyer, who teaches political science at Texas Southern University. “If anything, you could see it actually swinging harder to the Democrats in ’22.”

Mark Jones, who studies Texas politics at Rice University, offered a more tepid view. He said the broad unpopularity of President Donald Trump drove some voters to the polls this fall who may not have participated otherwise.

“If you take Trump out of the equation and put in a more liberal Democrat … it’s not clear to me that Democrats have the same level of advantage,” Jones said. “The county is trending from red, to pink, to purple. But I would not say Harris County is blue.”

[…]

Republicans have not won a countywide post in a presidential election year since 2012. University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said the local GOP would be wise to lower its expectations for 2020, which likely will feature an unpopular president at the top of the ticket.

“The Republicans need to show they’ve still got a pulse after the disaster that befell them in ’18,” Rottinghaus said. “That’s about the best they can hope for in a presidential year.”

Simpson, who has led county Republicans since 2014, said the party will focus on recruiting fresh candidates who can appeal to a wide swath of voters, rather than the sliver of partisans who vote in primaries. He lauded the success of Dan Crenshaw in the 2nd Congressional District, a young, charismatic combat veteran who beat better-funded candidates in the primary.

Crenshaw’s win, Simpson said, showed candidates “can be conservative and still be cool.”

The Texas 2nd, however, is a district drawn for Republicans that has a far greater proportion of white residents than Harris County as a whole.

1. I’ve said all there is for me to say about straight ticket voting. The embedded image is a reminder that Republicans used to be big fans of straight ticket voting. Turns out that straight ticket voting works really well for the party that has more voters to begin with. There’s an awful lot of Republicans in this state who never contemplated the possibility that they would not be the majority party.

2. As noted in the title of this post, Republicans in Harris County have not hit rock bottom quite yet. One thing I discovered in doing the precinct data analyses is that Beto O’Rourke carried all eight Constable/Justice of the Peace precincts. I didn’t write about that in part because I didn’t quite believe it, but there it is. The three Republican Constables and three of the six Republican JPs are on the ballot in 2020. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that after the 2020 election, the only Republicans holding county office will be the three JPs in Place 2 (the of-year cycle), County Commissioner Jack Cagle, and the three not-at-large HCDE Trustees. Those last three JPs could then be wiped out in 2022, along with the HCDE Trustee for Precinct 2, with the Trustee for Precinct 3 (who won this year by less than a percentage point) on track for elimination in 2024. Yes, lots of things can change, and I’m assuming that Commissioner Steve Radack will either be defeated in 2020 or will step down and the Republicans will fail to hold his seat. My point is, the Republicans not only have very little left, what they have is precarious and fragile, and there are no obvious opportunities to make gains in county government.

(You may now be saying “But Adrian Garcia will have to run for re-election in 2022, and he won a close race this year under favorable circumstances, so he could lose then.” Yes, but do you know what happens between now and the 2022 elections? The County Commissioner precincts undergo redistricting. Jack Morman benefited from that process after his win in 2010; what I wrote here was premature but in the end turned out to be accurate. I guarantee you, Precinct 2 will be friendlier to Commissioner Garcia’s re-election prospects, and if a Dem wins in Precinct 3 in 2020, it will be friendlier to that Commissioner’s prospects in 2024 as well.)

Legislatively, Dems have more targets (HDs 138, 134, and 126, with longer shots in 129 and 133 and even 150) than they have seats to defend. Lizzie Fletcher will have to defend CD07, but Dan Crenshaw will have to defend CD02, and he didn’t win his seat by much more than Fletcher won hers by (7 points for Crenshaw, 5 points for Fletcher). CD10 and CD22, which cover more than Harris County, are already on the national radar for 2020 as well. We’re not watching the battleground any more, we’re in the thick of it.

3. The Republicans’ problems in Harris County run deeper than Donald Trump. Every statewide elected official, most especially Dan Patrick (here shilling for the ludicrous “wall”) and Ken Paxton, who is spending all of his energy outside his own criminal defense on destroying health care, is a surrogate for Trump. People were just as fired up to vote against Patrick, Paxton, and Sid Miller as they were to vote against Ted Cruz, and the numbers bear that out. They’ll get another chance to do that in 2022, so even in a (please, God, please) post-Trump landscape, there will still be reminders of Trump and reasons to keep doing the work that we started in 2018.

4. All that said, we know two things for sure: One is that there are more Democrats than Republicans in Harris County, which is a combination of demographic trends, Donald Trump laying waste to American values, and sustained voter registration efforts. Two, Republicans have been unable to compete in a high-turnout election in Harris County since 2008. (2010 was a relatively high turnout year, for an off year, but it was still only 41.7%, quite a bit less than this year’s 52.8%.) It is a reasonable question to ask if Dems can be dominant in a low-turnout scenario. 2014 was a terrible year for turnout, and Republicans swept the county, but with the topline Rs mostly winning by four to six points. There’s definitely a scenario under which Rs could do well in 2022 and in which the demographic and political patterns we have seen do not fundamentally change. It’s hard to see how they compete going forward without a serious effort to rebrand, and every day that Donald Trump and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and Sid Miller are in office, that rebranding becomes harder to do. Lots of things can change. The Republican Party needs to be one of them.

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.