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Dee Margo

A tale of screwed cities

That’s my unofficial title for this legislative session.

The interest group representing Texas cities used to be one of the most powerful legislative forces at the Capitol. This session, it has become the GOP’s most prominent adversary.

Its members have been harangued at hearings. Targeted by a proposed ban on “taxpayer-funded lobbying.” And seen multiple proposals sail ahead over its protests.

When, around March, one mayor inquired about the reasoning for a controversial provision in a property tax bill, he said an advisor to Gov. Greg Abbott suggested, “you reap what you sow.”

The message was clear, said McKinney Mayor George Fuller: Local officials had been obstructionists in the past.

Though the antagonistic relationship between Texas cities and the state has been building for years, this session has reached the fever pitch of all out legislative assault, said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, in April. Typically, the Texas Municipal League tracks bills it opposes that are gaining momentum in the Legislature. This session, the group had amassed more than 150.

Among them, was a cable franchise fees bill authored by state Rep. Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and chair of the powerful State Affairs Committee. After the Texas Municipal League warned its members the proposal could cut into cities’ revenue, Phelan had a concise response for the group, which represents 1,156 of Texas’ roughly 1,200 cities.

“When you are in a hole — you should stop digging,” Phelan recommended, in an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

In an interview, Phelan said he harbored no animus toward the organization, but took umbrage with its opposition to legislation his constituents want. The sentiment is widely-shared in the Legislature, Phelan said, as evidenced by the support the bills on taxpayer-funded lobbying and franchise fees have garnered.

“Those bills have never gotten out of committee before,” he said. The Texas Municipal League represents “their own interests and we are representing the taxpayers.”

“I think there’s a disconnect sometimes,” he added.

The group’s leaders see a different trend. They say model legislation with an anti-city bent has been exported from conservative think tanks and taken root at statehouses across the country. At the same time, Republican strongholds have shifted to the suburbs, making progressive city leaders convenient whipping boys for politicians from the president on down.

There’s more, so go read the rest. It really does boil down to two things. One is the Republicans’ refusal to address our tax system in a meaningful way. There are things we could do to make the property tax system more equitable. There are things we could do with sales taxes to bring in more revenue in a way that wouldn’t be so regressive. Our whole tax system is a byzantine mess, but the only thing that we’re allowed to talk about is cutting property taxes. This session that means putting the screws to cities, even though local property taxes aren’t driving the growth of property tax collections. The Republicans are looking for a political solution, and cities are a convenient target.

Which leads to point two: Cities are liberal and Democratic, so it’s a twofer for state Republicans to stick it to them. And don’t think that having a Republican mayor would change anything:

“I understand the political atmosphere to reduce taxes; there’s no one that would be more aligned with that than I am,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a former Republican state lawmaker. “But I’m also trying to deal with basics. I say I’m the mayor of public safety, potholes, and parks.”

El Paso’s property values — and so its tax base — is growing at a slower clip than other parts of the state, he said. Though the factors differ from city to city, each municipality has different needs and budgets, and local leaders say they are unaccounted for under a blanket property tax reform policy.

“The frustration is that we are grouped, coupled with across-the-board perceptions,” Margo said.

That’s because your Republican former colleagues don’t care about any of that, Mayor Margo. The only way forward here is to vote them out.

A question of how many

Yes, Democrats will pick up seats in the Lege this election. The question is how many seats.

Texas political experts expect Democrats will gain at least seven House seats.

“If the Democrats don’t get to 55 seats or more, the party has committed malpractice,” said GOP campaign consultant Eric Bearse.

Most of the competitive legislative races feature state House races. The lone state Senate seat in play involves a Fort Worth area district with Democratic incumbent Sen. Wendy Davis battling Republican state Rep. Mark Shelton. The GOP holds 19 of the Senate’s 31 seats.

Changing demographics should help Democrats narrow the gap in coming years, but GOP-directed redistricting last year created only about a dozen swing House districts this fall.

“It was not possible with the most skillful and artful redistricting effort to protect 102 seats, which includes two party switchers in South Texas and two in East Texas,” Bearse said. “It’s not 2010. The floodwaters only rise so high every once in awhile.”

[…]

Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, a member of Texas Republican Representatives Campaign Committee, estimates his party will lose between seven and nine seats.

“Some people are more optimistic than that,” he said. “It depends on who turns out, the 2008 (pro-Democrat) group or the 2010 (pro-Republican) group.”

The four toughest seats for GOP incumbents to keep, according to Larson are: Rep. Connie Scott of Corpus Christi, Rep. J.M. Lozano of Kingsville, Rep. Dee Margo of El Paso and Rep. John Garza of San Antonio. All won their seats in 2010. Scott, Lozano and Margo each face a former Democratic House member. Scott and Margo face the same opponents they defeated in 2010. Lozano flipped from Democrat to Republican last year.

[…]

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the House Mexican American Legislative Caucus, believes Democrats will gain between seven and 14 House seats next month.

He also expects more Hispanics to win House seats in the 2014 election, which will again have new boundaries.

“Artful” and “skillful” are two words that can describe the redistricting effort. “Illegal” and “discriminatory” also work. I did my own analysis on this last month. Note that I miscounted the Democratic caucus – I thought it was 47 after Rep. Lozano’s switch, not 48, so add one to my totals where appropriate. Given that the Dems have already effectively picked up three seats, I think seven is a fair minimum, and I concur with Rep. Larson’s assessment of the most vulnerable incumbents. Fourteen is a bit of a stretch, but ten is a reasonably optimistic goal. As Rep. Martinez-Fischer notes, there will be other opportunities in 2014 when the next map is in place.

There’s not much to add to this. The numbers are what they are, though as I’ve noted elsewhere, continued population growth and demographic change may result in some surprises. Two additional things to note. First, as much as the numbers can tell us, there is still the matter of issues:

Carolyn Boyle, founder and chairman of the pro-public education Texas Parent PAC, said the public education funding issue has generated considerable enthusiasm among the organization’s financial donors.

“Candidates who are canvassing (neighborhoods) are telling us it’s the top issue as they go door-to-door talking to people,” Boyle said.

Democrats would certainly like this election to be as much about education as possible. The success Democrats had in 2006 and 2008 in picking up Republican-held seats was due in large part to then-Speaker Craddick’s hostility to public education. Opposition to vouchers drove a lot of that, too, though apparently no one told Dan Patrick about that. Be that as it may, the Trib had a story a couple of weeks back about GOP freshmen touting their pro-education credentials on the campaign trail. It may not be till the 2014 election for the full effect of this to be felt, but I’m happy to be fighting on that turf in the meantime.

Second:

Democrats also hope to win back the seat of Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston. The freshman lawmaker defeated Democrat incumbent Ellen Cohen two years ago by 701 votes out of more than 51,000 ballots. Davis now faces a challenge from attorney Ann Johnson in one of the districts fairly high on the Democrats’ target list.

Bearse, who is working for Davis, is counting on her to prevail.

“She is a perfect fit for her district. She has an independent streak as wide as Texas,” Bearse said. “Those Republicans who vote their district and show some independence should win if they raise money and get their message out.”

The numbers make Rep. Davis a favorite to be re-elected, so much so that it’s rather surprising and a bit telling to see her “moderate” bona fides being touted. I’ll agree that Davis is a “moderate” in tone, by which I mean she’s too smart to say anything as obnoxiously ignorant as Debbie Riddle or Leo Berman are wont to do. But I would challenge Eric Bearse to name two bills of substance other than the sonogram bill on which Davis voted against her party. I can’t think of any. She voted for the House budget bill, which would have cut $10 billion from public education, she voted to cut family planning funding and to de-fund Planned Parenthood, and she voted for the “sanctuary cities” bill. In short, she was a loyal Republican. You’d think someone running in a 55%+ GOP district wouldn’t feel the need to talk that much about their “independence”.

Filings and un-filings

Tomorrow is the re-filing deadline, the last day that candidates have to jump into a district that now looks good to them, or to withdraw from one that no longer does. There is still a possibility of further map changes, however, which would require yet another filing period and almost certainly another delay to the primaries. The reason for this is that there are still unsettled issues with the DC court, and its ruling could make their San Antonio counterparts go back to the drawing board one more time.

I just wanted to post this picture one more time

In the ongoing redistricting saga, the Washington, D.C., court asked for briefs by March 13 on Congressional District 25, currently represented by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. The three-judge panel seems to be struggling with a contentious issue that has divided plaintiffs’ groups suing the state in a San Antonio federal court over redistricting maps drawn by the Legislature last year; the plaintiffs say the maps are racially and ethnically discriminatory.

At issue is whether District 25 is a minority district protected by the Voting Rights Act or a white district that would not require protection. Some plaintiffs in the redistricting fight argue that Hispanics and blacks join with whites in District 25 to elect a candidate of their choice, while other plaintiffs say it is a majority Anglo district that has long elected Doggett, a white Democrat.

If the D.C. court issues an opinion saying that District 25 deserves protection, it could throw Texas’ election schedule into turmoil again. That’s because the San Antonio court adopted the Legislature’s boundaries for District 25 in drawing the congressional map to be used for this year’s elections.

Assuming the D.C. court will allow enough time to produce new maps by March 31, the San Antonio court could redraw new boundaries for District 25 and the surrounding districts, said Michael Li, a redistricting expert and author of a Texas redistricting blog. But because of tight timetables, any changes would force the court to push back the primary until June 29, almost four months after the original date of March 6.

But if the D.C. court does not allow for new maps to be drawn by March 31, then the primary would have to be pushed back to July with a runoff in September — a move that would be problematic because of general election deadlines, Li said.

There is another — perhaps more likely — option if the Washington court has problems with District 25: The San Antonio judges could shrug off their colleagues in Washington and simply say that they’ll make changes to a remedial map for the 2014 elections.

Michael Li has more on that here and here. It is my non-lawyer’s opinion that the DC court is going to find substantial problems with the Lege-drawn maps, most of which have not been corrected in the interim maps. However, I don’t think their required changes will be made for this election. Still, what I’ve been telling people lately is that until we actually start voting, anything can happen.

Until then, however, one of the effects of the court-ordered maps was to convince CD10 candidate Dan Grant to drop out. Here’s his statement:

Today, Dan Grant, Congressional candidate in the 10th District of Texas, announced he will withdraw from the race citing the most recent changes to the district lines made by the San Antonio Federal Court.

“In the latest version of Congressional maps the 10th District has been redrawn to solidly protect Congressman McCaul. This latest iteration of CD-10 is the same as in the illegal map drafted by the Republican-controlled state legislature last year whose primary goal was to disenfranchise minority voters, dilute Democratic voting strength, and protect Republican incumbents,” Dan Grant said.

“I will continue to do all that I can to support the principles of our campaign: real representation for all Americans, a government that is focused on the people and not on personal politics, and working for the future of our great country. The support that our campaign received shows that all Texans are hungry for these principles, and I’ll continue to work for them,” he added.

“I cannot thank enough all the people who have made this effort possible: my family, friends, supporters and allies. This rested on their shoulders, and I’m deeply grateful for and humbled by what they’ve given.”

Here’s a comparison of CD10 as it is under the 2003 map and as it will be under the interim map:

Plan McCain Obama Wainwright Houston =========================================== Current 54.8 44.0 52.5 44.0 C235 56.2 42.6 53.1 43.2

Not that much redder, but just enough to make an already-daunting task look impossible. If the DC court doesn’t intervene for this year, there’s always 2014.

As Grant looks to the future, a fellow former Congressional candidate gets in to a different race this year. Former CD21 candidate John Courage sent out an email announcing that he had filed for the State Senate. From his email:

I am running for the Texas Senate for District 25.

I am running in opposition to everything Perry, Dewhurst and Abbott have espoused and forced on us. I am running for a stronger, better public education system for all Texans; for a healthcare system that protects our most vulnerable citizens – our children and our seniors, and for the right of every Texas woman to have access to the healthcare she needs and wants. I will fight for a real Citizens Commission for Redistricting our legislative boundaries, to take the process out of the hands of the self-serving politicians who are only interested in their own reelection. I am running to change the way we do business in the Texas Senate, to change the good old boy, back slapping, backroom deal making, that has corrupted our Legislature.

This is the tip of the iceberg I want to take to Austin, and with your help and support we will make it happen.

SD25 is currently held by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, who is frankly not that bad from a Dem perspective. He’s that nearly-extinct subspecies known as the pro-choice Republican – he actually voted against the awful sonogram bill, which would have been enough to derail it if one of Sens. Eddie Lucio, Judith Zaffirini, or Carlos Uresti had had the decency to join him. It would not be the worst thing in the world for Wentworth to return to the Senate. But he’s got opposition from the radical wing of the GOP, and could well be knocked off in the primary. Even in a district that voted 61% for McCain in 2008, you can’t let that go unchallenged.

By the way, the TDP is tracking filings that it has received here; sort it by date to see what’s new. Note that most filings take place with the respective county party office, so don’t sweat not seeing a given name. The most interesting addition to the pool of candidates on that list so far is former State Rep. Dora Olivo, who lost to Rep. Ron Reynolds in the HD27 primary in 2010 and who has thrown her hat into the ring for the new HD85.

More good news on the State House side of things as former Rep. Joe Moody will try to win back HD78. Moody defeated Rep. Dee Margo by a fairly comfortable margin in 2008, then got caught up in the 2010 wave. The redrawn district was won by all statewide Dems in 2008, so Moody should have an excellent shot at taking the tie-breaker. It was a bit of a question if he’s run in HD78, however, because the interim map drew him out of it and into HD77, which gave rise to some speculation that Moody would stay there and primary freshman Rep. Marissa Marquez. But he chose to fight it out in his old district, which I think everyone was rooting for him to do. Here’s his statement on getting back in.

Finally, here’s a little quiz for you. The following are the 2008 numbers for a couple of mystery State House districts. See if you can guess which is which:

Dist McCain Obama Wainwright Houston ======================================== "A" 51.45 47.94 42.24 54.68 "B" 51.04 47.95 43.02 54.53

Figured it out yet? District “A” is HD43, in which the turncoat Rep. JM Lozano decided he’d be better off running as a Republican. District “B” is HD144, in which two-term Rep. Ken Legler decided he couldn’t win it as a Republican.

State Rep. Ken Legler, R-Pasadena, has decided to pack it in. The two-term incumbent from District 144 in southeast Harris County announced today that he would not seek reelection in 2012. He blamed the redistricting controversy for his decision.

“Those that know me know I do not back down from a fight,” Legler said in a statement. “I seem to always enter a contest as the underdog and exit the victor. I have no reason to believe that 2012 would be any different. However, the sad fact is that the Federal Court has seen fit to give me a district that will be a constant electoral struggle every two years throughout the decade. That is a political distraction from legislative responsibilities that I choose not to accept.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide who’s the genius and who’s the chump. Burka reacts to Legler’s decision. I had said that I was hoping for former HD43 Rep. Juan Escobar to jump in against Lozano. I won’t get that, but according to the Trib, former Rep. Yvonne Gonzales Toureilles, who was another 2010 wipeout in HD35, will take up the challenge. As that Trib story notes, HDs 43 and 35 were paired, so YGT should be on familiar ground. This is obviously now a top priority for Dems, so it’s good to have an experienced candidate in place.

New map, new opportunities: Travis, Bexar, El Paso

On to the urban counties. I’m grouping these three together because there’s really only one opportunity in each, and none of them are truly “new”. But never mind that. Let’s look at some data.

Travis County

District: 47

Incumbent: Paul Workman (first elected in 2010)

County: Travis

Best 2008 Dem performance: Barack Obama, 44.75%

HD47 was the last of the Travis Republican seats from the 2001 redistricting to go blue, and by the skin of Donna Howard’s teeth the only one to fall back in the 2010 wave. Republicans might have tried to draw a 4-2 Dem map for Travis County, but that carried a significant risk of losing them both, as they did with their greedy 3-3 map in 2001. Leaving the map at 5-1 and shoring up their one incumbent was very doable, and with Obama outperforming the rest of the Dem ticket by three or more points, they did a good job of it. Assuming Workman doesn’t do anything stupid, he ought to be in decent shape for awhile. There’s a lot of growth in west and northwest Travis County, however, so there’s no guarantee the demographics or partisan mix of his district will remain the same. And as the lone Republican in the county (not counting the Congressionals, who are only using bits of Travis for their own purposes), he’ll always have a target on his back. He may make it through the decade, but he’s unlikely to have any easy races.

El Paso County

District: 78

Incumbent: Dee Margo (first elected in 2010)

County: El Paso

Best 2008 Dem performance: Sam Houston, 54.10%

Margo was another beneficiary of the 2010 wave, winning an otherwise Democratic-leaning seat in his third try for office; he lost to Eliot Shapleigh for SD29 in 2006, and to Joe Moody for this seat in 2008 to succeed the retiring Republican Pat Haggerty. Unlike Paul Workman in Travis County, there aren’t enough Republican voters in the vicinity to draw him a majority GOP district. Every Democrat carried HD78 in 2008, so barring anything unusual his tenure should be short. For sure, this is a top priority district for the Dems in 2012.

Bexar County

District: 117

Incumbent: John Garza (first elected in 2010)

County: Bexar

Best 2008 Dem performance: Linda Yanez, 54.10%

Another wave beneficiary who can’t be adequately protected. Democrat David Leibowitz won this seat in 2004, knocking off now-SBOE member Ken Mercer, who had won the seat in 2002 against an indicted opponent. He had not faced any serious challenges and this race was certainly not on my radar last year. As with HD78, every downballot Dem carried this district in 2008, and I feel confident saying that it will be viewed as a must-win seat for the Dems next year.

Shapleigh’s successor

Via Greg, the El Paso Times runs down the possible contenders for the to-be-vacated Senate seat of Eliot Shapleigh.

Potential Democratic candidates include County Attorney José Rodríguez and state Reps. Joe Pickett and Norma Chávez.

Two Republicans, businessman Dee Margo and former state Rep. Pat Haggerty, also said they were interested in succeeding Shapleigh.

Margo, who lost to Shapleigh in 2006, said he may consider another run. Margo is chief executive officer of JDW Insurance.

As for Haggerty, he said he might try a political comeback by running for the Senate.

“Of course, once you hear about it, you gotta take a look at it,” Haggerty said. “(But) I’m an old man and this is a young man’s game.” He is 65.

Soon after Shapleigh’s noontime news conference in which he announced his decision to step down, Chávez said she would form an exploratory committee for the Senate seat.

“I’ve been inundated with phone calls of support to look into running,” she said. “Count me in as a contender.”

Hours later, Rodríguez announced that he was forming his own exploratory committee.

“I’m going to consider running and I’m gauging the community’s support,” Rodríguez said.

Pickett said that soon after Shapleigh’s announcement he received more than $250,000 in commitments should he decide to run for the Senate.

“I’m the chair for the House Transportation Committee, and that’s a pretty hard thing to give up for El Paso,” Pickett said.

Interestingly, Capitol Inside suggests Haggerty, who got primaried out of his State Rep seat in 2008 by Margo, who had the backing of Tom Craddick and Rick Perry, might run as a Democrat. There’s a certain logic to that, but it’s hard to see how he wins a Democratic primary against established contenders like Chavez. Had he made a declaration after the 2008 primary that he was quitting Team R, and then made a visible effort to assist Democratic candidates that November, such as State Rep. Joe Moody, the guy who ultimately beat Margo (he teased at it but never came out and said it), that would put him in a stronger position now and wouldn’t make him look like an opportunist. Too late for that, I’m afraid. So while it has a certain appeal, I just don’t see it happening.

On a related note, Burka hears that Shapleigh might be looking at Lite Guv as well. As you know, I love that idea. But I do share Greg’s concern that unless Shapleigh can collect a few million bucks for his effort in short order, he’ll be a target the Republicans will use to attack the entire ticket with glee. The best thing about Shapleigh is that he’s such a breath of fresh air on so many issues. Without the means to get him out there in front of the voters on his terms, that won’t be of much good.