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Election 2010

Already projecting ahead to November turnout

Some in the political chattering class think the end results in Harris County this yearwon’t be all that different than what we’ve seen before.

Harris County may be awash in Democratic hopefuls for the upcoming primary elections, but don’t expect that enthusiasm to translate into another blue wave this fall.

Yes, local demographics are slowly pushing the region further left, and President Donald Trump – who dragged down the Republican ticket here two years ago – gives progressives a ready campaign talking point. Democrats also point to their nearly full primary slate as evidence of newfound strength.

It is unlikely those factors will be enough, however, to counteract Republicans’ longtime advantage in Harris County midterms, political scientists and consultants said. Not only do local conservatives turn out more consistently in non-presidential years, but Republicans also have the benefit of popular state- and countywide incumbents on the ballot, advantages made only more powerful by straight-ticket voting in November.

“There is a very slow, but steady demographic shift that will favor Democrats. I don’t know if it’s enough this year for a gubernatorial cycle,” Democratic strategist Grant Martin said.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones agreed.

“Greg Abbott represents a red seawall here in Texas that I think will in many ways blunt the anti-Trump wave, and in doing so help hundreds of down-ballot Republican candidates across the state achieve victory,” he said.

[…]

Fewer than 54,000 Harris County voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary four years ago, compared to nearly 140,000 in the Republican primary. Come November, Republicans dominated down the ballot.

Though primary turnout certainly is not predictive of November performance, it can be, as University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus put it, “a good pulse check.”

Rottinghaus said he anticipates Democrats will perform better locally than they did in 2014, but still come up short in most local races, in large part because of their turnout problem.

“You’re definitely going to find a narrowed margin for most of these offices,” Rottinghaus said. Still, he added, “it would be hard to unseat the natural advantage Republicans have in the midterm.”

I feel like there are a lot of numbers thrown around in the story but without much context to them. Take the primary turnout totals, for instance. It’s true that Republicans drew a lot more people to the polls in March than the Democrats, but their margin in November was considerably less than it was in 2010, when the primary tallies were 101K for Dems and 159K for the GOP. Will anyone revise their predictions for November if the March turnout figures don’t fit with this “pulse check” hypothesis? Put a pin in this for now and we’ll check back later if it’s relevant.

But let’s come back to the November numbers for 2010 and 2014 for a minute. Let’s look at them as a percentage of Presidential turnout from the previous election


   2008 Pres  2010 Lt Gov    Share
==================================
R    571,883      431,690    75.5%
D    590,982      329,129    55.7%

   2012 Pres  2014 Lt Gov    Share
==================================
R    586,073      340,808    58.2%
D    587,044      317,241    54.0%

I’m using the Lt. Governor race here because of the significant number of crossover votes Bill White – who you may recall won Harris County – received in the Governor’s race. He did so much better than all the other Dems on the ticket that using his results would skew things. Now 2010 was clearly off the charts. If the share of the Presidential year vote is a measure of intensity, the Republicans had that in spades. I’m pretty sure no one is expecting that to happen again, however, so let’s look at the more conventional year of 2014. The intensity gap was about four points in the Republicans’ favor, but that was enough for them to achieve separation and sweep the downballot races.

What does that have to do with this year? The key difference is that there were a lot more voters in 2016 (1,338,898) than there were in either 2008 (1,188,731) or 2012 (1,204,167), and that the Democratic advantage was also a lot bigger. I’m going to switch my metric here to the 2016 judicial average, since there were even more crossovers for Hillary Clinton than there were for Bill White. In 2016, the average Republican judicial candidate got 606,114 votes, and the average Democratic judicial candidate got 661,284. That’s a pretty big difference, and it has implications for the intensity measure. To wit:

If Democratic intensity in 2018 is at 55.7%, which is what it was in 2010, then Dems should expect a base vote of about 368,335.

If Democratic intensity in 2018 is at 54.0%, which is what it was in 2014, then Dems should expect a base vote of about 357,093.

Well guess what? If Republican intensity is at 58.2%, which is what it was in 2014, then the Rs should expect a base vote of about 352,758. Which, you might notice, is less than what the Democrats would expect. In order to match the Democratic base, Rs would need 60.8% to equal the former total, and 58.9% for the latter.

In other words, if intensity levels are exactly what they were in 2014, Democrats should expect to win most countywide races. Republicans will need to be more intense than they were in 2014 just to keep up. And if Democratic intensity is up, say at 60%? That’s a base of 396,770, and it would require a Republican intensity level of 65.5% to equal it.

Where did this apparent Democratic advantage come from? Very simply, from more registered voters. In 2016, there were 2,182,980 people registered in Harris County, compared to 1,942,566 in 2012 and 1,892,731 in 2008. I’ve noted this before, but it’s important to remember that while turnout was up in an absolute sense in 2016 over 2012 and 2008, it was actually down as a percentage of registered voters. It was just that there were so many more RVs, and that more than made up for it. And by the way, voter registration is higher today than it was in 2016.

Now none of this comes with any guarantees. Democratic intensity could be down from 2010 and 2014. Republicans could be more fired up than we think they will be, in particular more than they were in 2014. My point is that at least one of those conditions will need to hold true for Republicans to win Harris County this year. If you think that will happen, then you need to explain which of those numbers are the reason for it.

Oh, and that “red seawall” that Greg Abbott represents? Republicans may have swept the races in 2014, but they didn’t actually dominate. 2010, where they were winning the county by 12-16 points in most races, that was domination. Abbott got 51.41% in 2014 and won by a bit less than four and a half points. Which was enough, obviously, but isn’t exactly a big cushion. Like I said, the Republicans will have to improve on 2014 to stay ahead. Can they do that? Sure, it could happen, and I’d be an idiot to say otherwise. Will it happen? You tell me, and account for these numbers when you do.

A look at past primaries

I think we can all agree that the 2018 Democratic primary season is already unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory. And since I like putting expressions like that into numbers, I thought I’d try to do it here. First, let’s compare the number of contested Democratic primaries across non-Presidential years:


Year   State  Congress  Lege
============================
1994      10        11    33
1998       3         6    19
2002       6         8    26
2006       4         5    20
2010       4         5    11
2014       4         6    13
2018       3        20    37

“Lege” includes both the Senate and the House. We only have three contested statewide primaries, but we do have an eight-candidate race for Governor, so that’s something different. The number of contested primaries for Congress and the Lege are higher than we’ve ever seen, and there’s still a day left to file. Remember also that there were a lot more Democrats in the Lege in 1994 than now. We have a lot of multi-candidate races this year for the right to face a Republican opponent or fill a Republican open seat.

The number of contested races is one thing, but the most visible measure of interest in an election is how many people vote in it. Here are the turnout levels for Democratic primaries going back to 1994:


Year      Total    Pct RV
=========================
1994  1,036,907    11.47%
1998    664,532     5.95%
2002  1,003,388     8.21%
2006    508,602     3.99%
2010    680,548     5.23%
2014    560,033     4.12%

“Pct RV” is the percentage of Democratic primary voters to all registered voters. There were more RVs in 2002 than there were in 1994, so even though the total number of voters was about the same, the share of RVs is lower. We don’t know what the turnout total will be for 2018 yet, but this should give us a goal, which I’d peg at one million votes at a minimum. There were just over 15 million registered voters as of this November – that number will like increase for March – so a goal of ten percent participation would set the target at 1.5 million. This is something I’ll be keeping an eye on. A new high water mark here would further the narrative of Democratic excitement. The same old thing will not.

There’s scared and there’s strategy

What we’re seeing from the GOP is some of both.

Republicans are beginning to worry that a “blue wave” of Democratic voters angry with the Trump administration could crash into the 2018 election, even in the deep red state of Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s top campaign adviser and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are both sounding the alarm: Texas Republicans would be remiss to ignore sweeping Democratic victories on Election Day in Virginia. On Friday, The Cook Political Report, an independent nonpartisan election newsletter, weighed in, declaring Republican Congressman John Culberson’s Houston district a toss up.

Although some GOP leaders in Texas are warning that Republicans could feel the weight of a grass-roots surge by Democrats outraged by the Trump administration, many political analysts and operatives here say Republicans here have little to worry about.

“Even if the election becomes a tidal wave, Texas will remain solidly red,” said Mark McKinnon, a former media adviser to former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, both Republicans.

But McKinnon thinks it’s smart politics for Abbott and Patrick to warn of a wave. “It helps raise money. And if it doesn’t happen, nothing wrong with running up the score,” he said.

[…]

Pointing to the major Democratic wins in Virginia earlier this month, Patrick told party members in Waco on Thursday that they have a challenging election year ahead and the GOP should take nothing for granted. The Houston tea party favorite is considered a shoo-in for re-election.

“Recently in Virginia, Republicans turned out in record numbers, but it made no difference. A blue wave prevailed,” Patrick said, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald. The paper said Patrick went on to ask Republicans to each get at least 10 voters to the polls, and said Democrats are “howling” about Trump and are now “coming after us.”

Texas’ politics are different from Virginia’s, said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a politics professor who studies political behavior and teaches at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Virginia is a swing state and moderate, far from Texas as a Republican stronghold with several conservatives at the helm.

Patrick’s not actually worried, she added. It’s a strategy.

“I would tell Dan Patrick to say the same thing,” she said. “It’s number one in politics: always run scared and never feel safe, even if you’re Dan Patrick. That’s textbook. I wouldn’t expect him to say anything else.”

See here for some background. Let’s stipulate that the Republicans have legitimate reasons to worry about next year. Let’s also stipulate that they have a lot of structural advantages – favorable districts, tons of money, a 20+ year statewide winning streak, that sort of thing – that will buffer them against a lot of adversity. They could have a pretty bad year, losing Congressional and legislative and local offices, and still remain firmly in control of state government.

The X factor in all of this remains enthusiasm, and the level of turnout that results from that. I was on a panel after this election talking about what happened this year and what it may mean for next year, and one of my co-panelists noted that Democrats were pretty excited at this time in 2013, when Wendy Davis had announced her candidacy for Governor, and we know how that ended. I’ve been thinking about that, and my response is that the energy Davis had generated was largely tied to a singular event and issue, and that wound up being impossible to maintain. Reproductive freedom does animate a lot of Democrats, but not all of them, and it didn’t do much outside the party. The energy this year is all about Trump, which is more unifying since pretty much every non-Republican hates him. Could that burn itself out? Sure, and that’s one of my biggest worries, but so far it looks like this energy has been building on itself. Aren’t there still divisions among Democrats, and don’t they need to work on a coherent message? Yes and yes, but the same could easily have been said about Republicans going into 2010. This is the advantage of being the out party. Have Democrats finally figured out how to increase turnout in an off year? That remains to be seen. It’s the key to nearly everything, and maybe having a large number of viable Congressional candidates will have an effect that we haven’t seen before. Or maybe it won’t, and the lack of a viable candidate for Governor (assuming nothing unexpected happens) blunts the edge of the hoped-for wave. We’re all guessing at this point. Ask again in a few months, and again a few months after that, and we’ll see what we’re saying then.

At some point we will be able to stop talking about who may run for Governor as a Democrat

That day is December 11. I am looking forward to it.

Andrew White

With less than a month before the filing deadline, the most prominent declared candidate for Texas governor is probably Andrew White, the son of former governor Mark White. White, a self-described “very conservative Democrat,” has never run for elected office and holds views on abortion likely to alienate some Democratic primary voters. (He says he wants to “increase access to healthcare and make abortion rare.”) In a November 2 Facebook post, Davis — a major figure in the state’s reproductive justice scene — called White “anti-choice” and summarized her reaction to his candidacy: “Uhh — no. Just no.”

For lieutenant governor, mild-mannered accountant Mike Collier — who lost a run for comptroller last cycle by 21 percentage points — is challenging Dan Patrick, one of the state’s most effective and well-funded conservative firebrands. Attorney General Ken Paxton, who will be fighting his securities fraud indictment during campaign season, drew a largely unheard-of Democratic opponent last week in attorney Justin Nelson, a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Candidate filing officially opened Saturday and ends December 11, but candidates who haven’t declared are missing opportunities for fundraising, building name recognition and organizing a campaign.

“Texas Democrats have quite clearly thrown in the towel for 2018,” said Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political scientist. “People truly committed to running would already be running; [the party] may be able to cajole, coerce or convince some higher-profile candidates to run, but with every passing day that’s less likely.”

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez announced last week that she’s considering a gubernatorial run, but her staff refused further comment and Valdez has yet to file. Whoever faces off with Governor Greg Abbott will be staring down a $41 million war chest.

Democratic party officials insist more candidates are forthcoming: “We’ve taken our punches for withholding the names of who we’re talking to,” said Manny Garcia, deputy director with the Texas Democratic Party. “It’s been personally frustrating to me because I know who we’re talking to and I know they’re exciting people.”

Castro agreed with Garcia: “I do believe that before the filing deadline you’re going to see people stepping up to run,” he told the Observer.

The lone bright spot on the statewide slate, said Jones, is Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso congressman taking on Ted Cruz. Highlighting the value of announcing early, O’Rourke has raised an impressive $4 million since March off mostly individual donations.

“Like in Battlestar Galactica, O’Rourke is Battlestar Galactica and then there’s this ragtag fleet of garbage ships and transports accompanying him,” Jones said of the current Democratic lineup, noting that even O’Rourke was a second-string option to Congressman Joaquín Castro.

Look, either Manny Garcia is right and we’ll be pleasantly surprised come December 12, or he’s being irrationally exuberant and we’ll all enjoy some gallows humor at his expense. Yeah, it would be nice to have a brand-name candidate out there raising money and his or her profile right now, but how much does two or three months really matter? Bill White was still running for a Senate seat that turned out not to be available at this time in 2009; he didn’t officially shift to Governor until the first week of December. If there is a candidate out there that will broadly satisfy people we’ll know soon enough; if not, we’ll need to get to work for the candidates we do have. Such is life.

In other filing news, you can see the 2018 Harris County GOP lineup to date here. For reasons I don’t quite understand, the HCDP has no such publicly available list at this time. You can see some pictures of candidates who have filed on the HCDP Facebook page, but most of those pictures have no captions and I have no idea who some of those people are. The SOS primary filings page is useless, and the TDP webpage has nothing, too. As for the Harris County GOP, a few notes:

– State Rep. Kevin Roberts is indeed in for CD02. He’s alone in that so far, and there isn’t a candidate for HD126 yet.

– Marc Cowart is their candidate for HCDE Trustee Position 3 At Large, the seat being vacated by Diane Trautman.

– So far, Sarah Davis is the only incumbent lucky enough to have drawn a primary challenger, but I expect that will change.

That’s about it for anything interesting. There really aren’t any good targets for them beyond that At Large HCDE seat, as the second edge of the redistricting sword is really safe seats for the other party, since you have to pack them in somewhere. Feel free to leave any good speculation or innuendo in the comments.

Abbott v Davis

It’s getting real out there.

Rep. Sarah Davis

In what promises to deepen divisions in the Texas Republican Party, Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday endorsed a GOP challenger to incumbent state Rep. Sarah Davis of Houston.

Abbott gave his public thumbs-up to Susanna Dokupil, a more-conservative Republican like Abbott, who is running against the more moderate Davis, who also touts herself as “a conservative voice in Austin.”

The announcement was the first endorsement of a legislative challenger by Abbott, who had announced last summer that he would support legislative candidates who supported his positions on issues. In the past, it has been relatively rare for governors to get involved in legislative races so early — if at all.

[…]

Davis, an attorney, has challenged Abbott’s positions on a number of issues in the past year, including the bathroom bill. She has represented a district that includes West University Place for four terms in the Texas House.

“We need leaders in Austin who will join me to build a better future for Texas,” Abbott said in his endorsement statement. “I trust Susanna, and I know voters in House District 134 can trust her too to fight for their needs in Austin, Texas. Susanna is a principled conservative who will be a true champion for the people of House District 134, and I am proud to support her in the upcoming election.”

Dokupil, who is CEO of Paladin Strategies, a strategic communications firm based in Houston, worked for Abbott as assistant solicitor general while he was Texas attorney general, before becoming governor. There, she handled religious liberty issues, he said.

Abbott said he has known Dokupil for more than a decade.

Davis is a part of the House leadership team. She chairs the House General Investigating and Ethics, serves as chair for health and human services issues on the House Appropriations Committee and is a member of the influential Calendars Committee that sets the House schedule.

In a statement, Davis appeared to dismiss the Abbott endorsement of her challenger, who said she represents the views of her district.

“I have always voted my uniquely independent district, and when it comes to campaign season I have always stood on my own, which is why I outperformed Republicans up and down the ballot in the last mid-term election,” Davis said.

This ought to be fun. Davis has survived primary challenges before, though she hasn’t had to fight off the governor as well in those past battles. She is quite right that she generally outperforms the rest of her party in HD134. Not for nothing, but Hillary Clinton stomped Donald Trump in HD134, carrying the district by an even larger margin than Mitt Romney had against President Obama in 2012. If there’s one way to make HD134 a pickup opportunity for Dems in 2018, it’s by ousting Davis in favor of an Abbott/Patrick Trump-loving clone. Perhaps Greg Abbott is unaware that he himself only carried HD134 by two points in 2014, less than half the margin by which he carried Harris County. Bill White won HD134 by three points in 2010. HD134 is a Republican district, but the people there will vote for a Democrat if they sufficiently dislike the Republican in question. This could be the best thing Greg Abbott has ever done for us. The Trib and the Observer, which has more about Davis’ opponent, have more.

Framing the 2018 question

This Chron story asks the question “what might it take for a Democrat to win statewide in Texas in 2018, then never actually engages it.

At the five-top table in the corner at Russell’s Bakery, a northwest Austin restaurant and coffee bar, the conversation among the five women, all self-described as “recovering Republicans,” veered from the signature cinnamon rolls and traffic to President Donald Trump and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

“I have two questions I’d like to know the answer to: Is there any way for a Democrat to win a state office next year, and what would it take for some Republicans to lose in this state?” Chrys Langer, a 47-year-old tech consultant and mother of three, asked a reporter sitting at a nearby table. “Politics has taken a turn for the worse, in my opinion, in Austin with the bathroom bill and all kinds of other conservative-male nonsense and in the White House with – well, with Trump being Trump.”

[…]

In interviews with voters of both parties, from Houston to suburban San Antonio to Dallas to Austin, the question comes up time and time again, as does an underlying frustration with governments in both Washington and Austin.

Despite that, more than a dozen political scientists and consultants interviewed by the Chronicle said they see almost no chance that Republicans will lose hold of their 23-year grip on statewide elective offices during next year’s elections, despite the fact that Democrats made notable inroads in Dallas and Houston a year ago when Trump won Texas by just nine percentage points – down from previous double-digit support of Republican presidential candidates.

“There isn’t any way Democrats can win statewide office in Texas, short of some astounding collapse of the Republicans in Washington or Austin,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “Winning is a habit, and so is losing. The Democrats right now have no well-known candidate, no bench, their funding has evaporated, and they have no experience in their volunteer base. The Republicans have all of that.

“And at the end of the day, the Republicans who say they’re not satisfied with things will vote for a Republican because, with the polarization of the political process in recent years, Democrats are now seen as enemies of the state, and they won’t jump across and vote for them.”

Jillson’s sentiments echoed those of all the others, even with the so-called “Trump Factor” that Democrats are touting as a key to some unexpected victories in the November 2018 elections.

“Trump’s approval rating would have to drop into the teens where it might hurt Abbott and Patrick and the other Republicans on the ballot in Texas, and even then I doubt the effect would be significant,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “Even though the Democrats will try to tie Abbott and Patrick as close to Trump as they can, every time they get a chance, they can distance themselves from Trump because Texas voters in a midterm election pay more attention to state issues than Washington.”

Let me begin by saying that Rottinghaus’ statement about midterm elections is not at all in line with the results of at least the last four midterms, at least as far as Republican turnout goes. If you don’t think Texas is reflective of the national climate, I’m not sure what to tell you.

That’s the first thing to think about when considering possibilities for 2018: What will Republican turnout look like? On the one end, we have 2006, where statewide Republican vote totals ranged from 2,135,612 to 2,661,789. On the other end, there’s 2010 where the low was 2,737,481 and the high was 3,151,064 (I’m skipping races where there was no Democratic challenger, such as Comptroller in 2010). In between is 2014, with a range from 2,691,417 to 2,827,584. Which of those years will 2018 most closely resemble? Obviously, a 2006-style year makes for a more competitive environment for Democrats, but it’s not something Dems have control over. What are the factors that might lead one to expect a 2006 versus a 2014 or a 2010? Polls, fundraising, tone of rhetoric and advertising, Presidential popularity, some combination, something else? Put those PhDs to use and give me your thoughts on that.

Then there’s Democratic turnout, which as I’ve noted ad nauseum has remained stubbornly flat since 2002. The high end, with a few exceptions, has been around 1.8 million. If Dems could boost their base turnout by about 600K votes – that is, roughly the boost Republicans got from 2006 to 2010 – they’d be at 2.4 million, which would have been enough to capture the three Commissioner races and two contested judicial seats in 2006. Two point four million represents about two-thirds of the 2016 overall turnout for Dems, which again is about what Republicans achieved in 2010 over 2008. What factors might make a political science professor think such an achievement was possible? We know that the key in Harris County in 2016 was a big increase in voter registration, which in turn led to a much larger pool of Democratic-aligned voters. Dems may not have the infrastructure Republicans have enjoyed, but there are now multiple grassroots organizations – Pantsuit Nation, Indivisible, Our Revolution, the scaled-down version of Battleground Texas – that are out there engaging and registering and doing the things Dems should have been doing all along. Multiple Democratic Congressional candidates continue to excel at fundraising. Again, what do the people that the newsies reach out to for comment think of all that? What if anything might make them think there’s something happening here?

Picking the Republicans to hold serve again is very likely to be accurate, but it’s not very interesting. It doesn’t address the obvious fact that the climate is very different now, so it doesn’t give us any way to think about how that might change what could happen in 13 months – or five months, if you want to ask the same question about the primaries. It will be much harder to answer these questions than it was for me to ask them, and those answers may well change over the next year and a month, but surely we should be asking them anyway. I’d like to think I’m not the only one thinking along these lines.

We have a candidate for Treasurer

Dylan Osborne

The Democratic slate for countywide offices in 2018 is now filled out as Dylan Osborne has announced his candidacy for Harris County Treasurer. Osborne has been a City Council staffer and currently works in the Planning & Development Department for the City of Houston. He joins the following on the ticket for next November:

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Josh Wallenstein, HCDE Trustee, Position 3 At Large

All this presumes there are no other entrants into the primaries. Given how crowded some other races are I wouldn’t bet on that, but this is what we have now. As noted in the previous update, we are still awaiting candidates for County Commissioner in Precinct 2, and an HCDE Trustee for Position 4, Precinct 4, as well as some State Reps. Filing season opens in about five weeks.

Did you know that the current Treasurer, Orlando Sanchez, is the longest-tenured countywide official? He was elected in 2006, so this is his third term. County Judge Ed Emmett was appointed in 2007 and won his first election in 2008, along with County Attorney Vince Ryan. County Clerk Stan Stanart and District Clerk Chris Daniel were both elected in 2010. Everyone else, including the At Large HCDE Trustees, was elected no earlier than 2012. There are some judges who have been on the bench longer than Sanchez has been in office, there are Constables and JPs who have been around longer, and of course Commissioner Steve Radack was first elected during the Truman administration (I may be slightly exaggerating), but for countywide executive offices, it’s Orlando and then it’s everybody else. If we want to elevate somebody else to the title of most senior countywide elected official, next year will be our chance to do that.

The ReBuild Houston footnote to the November ballot

The following paragraph is buried deep in the full story about what will and will not be on the November ballot in Houston.

Voters also will not face a reconsideration of the 2010 vote that established ReBuild Houston, the program that funds streets and drainage repairs without debt by drawing on a monthly fee. Courts have ruled that the city used unclear ballot language in that election, but a last-minute flurry of filings by the plaintiffs in that case did not convince a court to order the city to hold another vote this fall.

There’s been a frustrating lack of news around ReBuild Houston and the ongoing litigation surrounding. The Supreme Court stuck its nose in back in June of 2015, and the district court judge voided the 2010 referendum in October of 2015. The last update I have is from this February, in which plaintiffs were trying to force a re-vote this year. I’ve heard scuttlebutt that suggested there would indeed be a re-vote in November, but I guess that was premature. The city’s position is that while the charter referendum was thrown out, City Council subsequently voted to approve the ReBuild program, including the fees that were levied, so all that was affected was the fact that the funds were to be dedicated to drainage and road construction. I have no inside information, but it seems to me there’s a pretty big question to be settled about just what it is we’d be re-voting on. Maybe that will happen next May, maybe it will happen next November, maybe it will happen sometime after the planned 30-year lifespan of the ReBuild project. Who knows? Not this November, that much we do know.

Mayor will take revenue cap referendum off the 2017 ballot

Not gonna lie, I’m disappointed by this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner abruptly reversed course Wednesday on his plan to ask voters to repeal Houston’s revenue cap this fall, saying it now is “unlikely” he will ask for its removal.

The politically cautious move would leave the city fiscally shackled in the hope that a lighter November ballot improves the chances voters sign off on hundreds of millions in general improvement bonds and $1 billion in pension obligation bonds, a crucial piece of the mayor’s landmark pension reform package.

“Do I believe that the needs are as much there to remove it as they were when I came into office? Absolutely,” Turner said. “Do I want to run the risk of losing the reforms that we’ve made to our pension system…? No.”

Lifting Houston’s voter-imposed cap on property tax collections had been a pillar of the mayor’s agenda, and he regularly discusses how the restriction constrains Houston’s budget, preventing the city from hiring more police officers, replacing its aging fleet and maintaining other city services, such as street repair.

Turner’s about-face came during a City Council discussion of how the cap, which has cost the city an estimated $220 million in revenue since 2014, likely will force the city to scale back the street and drainage projects budgeted in its five-year Capital Improvement Plan, or CIP.

The CIP slated for council approval later this month accounts for the revenue cap this fiscal year but was written assuming voters would remove the restriction by the start of fiscal 2019.

The finance department estimated the cap will reduce revenue for ReBuild Houston, the city’s street and drainage repair fund, by roughly $201 million in fiscal years 2019-2022, delaying roughly 16 of 90 ReBuild projects planned for the next five years.

[…]

The mayor’s new plan was met with understanding around the council table.

“It’s a strategic decision,” Councilman Larry Green said. “It probably doesn’t make sense to put (the revenue cap) on the ballot, especially when we’re trying to get pension bonds passed and we’re also putting out general revenue bonds.”

I’m not disappointed because I think Mayor Turner did anything wrong, I’m disappointed because I was chomping at the bit to get rid of the stupid and harmful revenue cap, and now I have to wait again. I understand the logic, even if the unmentioned implication of all this is that pro-revenue cap forces would be willing to sabotage both the pension reform plan and the city’s capitol improvement plan in order to keep their travesty in place, I just don’t like it. But it is what it is, and if the revenue cap has to take a back seat to these other needs, that’s politics. Nobody said I had to like it.

So, again modulo any Supreme Court interference, adjust your turnout expectations for this November downward. There will be people who will vote against the various bonds, but I doubt there will be much if any of a campaign to turn out anyone who wasn’t already going to vote. There will be a pro-bond campaign, but again I doubt it will push the numbers up by much. I’m putting the over/under for November in Houston right now at about 75,000, and I could be persuaded to go lower. What I hope is that Mayor Turner has November of 2018 in mind for the revenue cap referendum, as there will be no worries at all about turnout in that environment. Remember, over 330,000 votes were cast in the Renew Houston referendum of 2010, with over 340,000 votes for the red light camera question. He’ll need to sell the idea, which is far from a given, but at least the voters he’d like to see will be there for him in that scenario.

Another look at redistricting in Texas

We’re in the spotlight right now.

The odd shapes tell the story.

A huge Republican majority in the Houston-area 2nd congressional district represented by Ted Poe curls around the region from Lake Houston, northeast of the city, makes a meandering, snakelike loop out to the western suburbs, and ends south of downtown near Loop 610.

Nearby, the 29th congressional district has a big Democratic majority and is represented by Gene Green. It resembles a partially-eaten doughnut, forming an undulating shape from north to east to south.

Like virtually all 36 congressional districts in Texas – Republican Will Hurd’s West Texas district being the only exception – neither Poe’s nor Green’s district is particularly competitive in general elections.

The political art of drawing boundaries to protect incumbents is called gerrymandering – a word derived from salamanders, lizard-like creatures known for their slender bodies and short limbs. The whole idea behind the practice is to carve up the political map for partisan advantage.

It happens everywhere, and has been the subject of legal challenges for years.

And now the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled it may take a fresh look in a Wisconsin redistricting case that has the potential to fundamentally alter the political landscape from Texas to Washington, D.C.

[…]

“Clearly the Texas congressional map, and the state House map and state Senate map, are partisanly gerrymandered, and they are way out of balance with the political performance of the state,” said Matt Angle, head of the Lone Star Project, which seeks to make Democratic gains in Texas.

Some Republicans downplay the significance of the Wisconsin case, saying that they believe Texas’ political boundaries are already fair and, most importantly, legal.

“Unless the court does some serious overreach, we shouldn’t be facing needing to redraw those lines at all,” said James Dickey, the newly-elected chairman of the Texas Republican Party.

The problem for Texas Republicans is that the state’s congressional district boundaries already are under legal challenge over alleged racial discrimination for the way minorities were packed into a limited number of urban districts.

Some of the boundaries drawn in 2011 already have been ruled intentionally discriminatory, and a federal court is set to hear a challenge next month on a new map drawn in 2013.

Unlike the Texas challenge, which focuses in the racial makeup of political districts, the legal fight in Wisconsin is over the partisan makeup of the state’s boundaries, which also favor Republicans.

But the two criteria are closely related. “If you correct for the racial discrimination in Texas, you go a long way toward balancing the partisan makeup of these districts,” Angle said.

[…]

In Texas, Angle argues, “There’s no question what’s happened is you’ve got safe districts created, Democrats packed into as few districts as possible, and the rest of them cracked into as many safe Republican districts as possible, and what that’s done is it’s made the primaries matter the most, and primaries are driven by the most ideological people within their party.”

In the Wisconsin case, Gill v. Whitford, the court will be asked to look at the allegedly skewed results of the state’s recent elections. In 2012, Republicans won 60 of 99 legislative seats despite winning only 48.6 percent of the state’s two-party statewide vote. In 2014, Republicans won 63 seats with only 52 percent of the statewide vote.

Texas Democrats say they could make the same case. While Democratic presidential candidates won more than 40 percent of the statewide vote in the past three elections, Democratic voters were distributed in such a way that their party controls only about a third of the state’s legislative and congressional seats.

Critics call that an “efficiency gap,” which can only be explained by partisan gerrymandering. Now before the high court, they hope to find a way to close the gap.

“This is a historic opportunity to address one of the biggest problems in our electoral system,” said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning law and public policy institute at the New York University School of Law. “Gerrymandering has become so aggressive, extreme and effective that there is an urgent need for the Supreme Court to step in and set boundaries.”

Conservative groups argue that there is no way to estimate what each party “should” win in a fair election. The redistricting tests that have been proposed to close the “efficiency gap” in Wisconsin, they say, are arbitrary.

See here for more on the Wisconsin case, which will not affect the ongoing Texas litigation at this time. Poe’s district is certainly a Republican one, and for most of this decade it was deep red, but after a significant Democratic shift in 2016, it’s still very favorable to Republicans but not overwhelmingly so. Given the overall trends in Harris County, I suspect that the fate of CD02 in the 2021 redistricting cycle will be to take on a piece of Montgomery County in order to keep it sufficiently Republican, much as Pete Sessions’ CD32 needed to incorporate some of Collin County in 2011 to stay red.

It’s really hard to say what will happen going forward. Between the Texas case and the Wisconsin and North Carolina cases, the range of outcomes stretches from “no real difference” to multiple seats flipping this year with fewer ways for the Republicans to put their thumb on the scale in 2021. As I’ve noted before, Texas isn’t all that out of whack in terms of how many seats each party wins, but Republicans have gained a huge advantage in multiple swing states thanks to having gained control of those states’ legislatures in 2010. SCOTUS could put a stop to that going forward, or they could just apply a remedy to Texas for its own brand of egregious gerrymandering, or they could shrug their shoulders and decline to get involved. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Bathroom bills and business interests

Texas Monthly’s Dave Mann reviews the Republican schism over the bathroom bill and comes to the same conclusion as I have.

At the moment, the Legislature—and the Republican party, for that matter—has settled into an uneasy stalemate between Patrick’s right-leaning Senate and Straus’s more moderate coalition in the House. But, as they say, stalemates are made to be broken, and right now, Patrick’s faction seems likely to prevail eventually. It has the support of the most-devoted Republican primary voters, many of whom view moderation or compromise as surrender.

So business leaders and their Republican allies are in a precarious position. They still have a power base in the House, because Straus and his leadership team have fended off several challenges from the right, but he won’t be speaker forever. This session is his fifth leading the House, tying the record for longest-serving speaker with Pete Laney and Gib Lewis. Whenever he departs, Straus could well be replaced by a more conservative figure. So the talk among business Republicans in Austin’s bars and restaurants these days is about how they can reverse their losses and reclaim their party.

Well, good luck with that. The Republican grass roots aren’t going to moderate themselves, and it seems likely that business-friendly Republicans will continue to lose primaries, especially in statewide races. As long as that dynamic remains, the Republican party won’t be tilting back toward the middle anytime soon.

But there is another political party. Remember that one? It’s been stripped down and left to rust for the past two decades. But the Texas Democratic party is still there, waiting for someone to gas it up and take it for a spin.

That’s just what big-business interests should do. The TAB and any number of influential corporations could easily take over the party by recruiting and funding candidates to run as Democrats. It would be a homecoming of sorts; after all, years ago, before the state flipped to the GOP, business-friendly Republicans were conservative Democrats.

The problem with this idea is that Democrats can’t win in Texas at the moment. Sure, big business could take over the Democratic party, but what good would it do? Except the goal here isn’t to suddenly flip the state back to the Democrats. No, the goal would simply be to make Democrats somewhat more competitive, especially in statewide races. They don’t necessarily have to win, just get close enough to scare Republicans and perhaps nudge the GOP back toward moderation.

Republican primaries might turn out differently if there was the threat of a tight race in the general election—and that threat could be more credible in 2018 than it has been in years, with many pundits expecting the national mood to favor Democrats by then. Would Abbott strike a more moderate tone if he knew a well-funded pro-business Democrat was waiting for him in the 2018 general? Part of the business lobby’s problem with Patrick is that it has no way to threaten him. He’s untouchable in a Republican primary, and his general election campaigns have been cakewalks. But if, say, a conservative Democrat, backed by big-business money, opposed him in 2018, that might lead Patrick to moderate just a bit. Similarly, if the GOP once again nominated social conservatives with questionable credentials—like Attorney General Ken Paxton, currently under indictment, or Sid Miller, the agriculture commissioner famous for traveling out of state for his “Jesus shot”—for statewide offices, they’d at least have a challenging race in the fall. And just maybe the specter of a formidable Democratic opponent would lead to a more robust debate within the Republican party, rather than simply a mass rush to the right.

While I agree with Mann in the aggregate, there are several places where I disagree. For one thing, I don’t know what he means by a “conservative” Democrat, but I do know that Democratic primary voters aren’t going to be interested in that. Discussions like this often get bogged down in semantics and everyone’s personal definitions of words like “liberal” and “conservative”, but I think we can all agree that a Democratic candidate who is “conservative” (or just relatively “conservative” for a Democrat) in the social issues sense is going to be extremely controversial. It’s not like Democrats haven’t tried the approach of soft-pedaling such items in recent elections – see, for example, Wendy Davis’ muteness on abortion and her flipflop on open carry in 2014 – it’s just that there’s little to no evidence that it has helped them any. Maybe nothing could have helped them in those elections, but in the Trump era where everyone is fired up with the spirit of resistance, it’s really hard to see how this approach would do anything but piss people off.

I also dispute the assertion that the threat of a close race will make Republicans more likely to choose the less-extreme, more “electable” candidate in their primaries. For Exhibit A, see Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. Surely Bill White was a credible threat to them that year, but Rick Perry’s successful strategy was the exact opposite of striking a more “moderate” tone. The only thing that might convince Republican primary voters to try something different will be sustained electoral failure. To say the least, we are not there yet.

What I would recommend for Democrats like Mike Collier and Beto O’Rourke and whoever might emerge to challenge Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton is to approach the business community by reminding them that we already broadly agree on a number of core matters – quality public and higher education, better infrastructure, sanity on immigration, non-discrimination – and where we may disagree on things like taxes and regulations, the Lege will still be Republican. What you get with, say, a Democratic Lt. Governor is a hedge against self-inflicted stupidity of the SB6 and “sanctuary cities” variety. You will get someone who will listen to reason and who will be persuaded by evidence. From the business community’s perspective, this is a better deal than what they have now, and a better deal than any they’re likely to get in the near future. For there to be a chance for that to happen, it will take Democratic candidates that a fired-up base can and will support, plus the willingness of the business community to recognize the hand they’ve been dealt. The ball is in their court.

Texas Dems look to 2018

I have a few things to say about this.

Just because

A tight-knit group of Texas Democratic leaders traveled to the state capital [in late January] to begin preliminary conversations about the 2018 midterm races.

According to over a dozen interviews with Texas Democratic insiders and national Democrats with ties to the state, the meeting included some of the party’s most well-known figures from Texas including former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, his twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Texas Democratic Party Finance Chairman Mike Collier, former state Sen. Wendy Davis, state Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker and state Reps. Rafael Anchia of Dallas and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie.

Their main agenda: mapping out a strategy for the 2018 midterm elections.

The expectations in the room were not soaring but were cautiously hopeful. That optimism was mostly rooted around one person: President Donald Trump.

“I think 2018 will be the most favorable environment Texas Democrats have had in a midterm election in well over a decade,” said Turner, who declined to comment on the meeting. “I think when you look at the actions of the Trump administration just three weeks in, you’re seeing a president with historically low approval ratings in what should be a honeymoon period, and no indication that’s going to change given his divisive actions.”

Trump’s presidency brings together a confluence of several factors that Democrats hope will get candidates over the line: a stronger-than-past Texas Democratic performance last November in urban centers, the traditional backlash against a sitting president in the midterms and an increasingly expected added drag that Trump will create for Republicans.

The Democratic calculation is that in this unpredictable and angry climate, a full 2018 slate could produce a surprising win or two statewide or down-ballot.

[…]

Sources say no decisions were made on whom should run in which slot, nor was that widely discussed. Instead, the emphasis was on ensuring that state leaders would work together to present the strongest slate possible.

And also unlike past cycles, the Democratic planning this term centers on the political climate, rather than on a singularly compelling personality running for governor.

That the meeting happened at the outset of the state’s legislative session was also no coincidence. Democrats sense an opportunity to win over some of the business community, particularly as the “bathroom bill” touted by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick continues to percolate at the state Capitol and as immigration, and particularly Trump’s proposals for a border wall and Mexican tariffs, roil national politics.

Parker did emphasize to the Tribune that the conversations about 2018 are happening throughout the state.

“It’s never going to be about what a small group of people said or do in a room,” she said. “It’s about what the people of Texas tell us what they need. Many of us have committed to going out and having those conversations.”

[…]

Since the Jan. 27 meeting, Julian Castro, the most-speculated Democratic contender to take on Gov. Greg Abbott, has made clear he is unlikely to run statewide in 2018. He all but closed the door on that possibility in an early morning tweet Thursday.

Instead, the most frequently floated gubernatorial candidate is Collier, a 2014 state comptroller candidate. Collier is relatively unknown statewide but impressed several Democrats in that previous run. He has also been suggested as a possible contender to run for lieutenant governor.

It’s the U.S. Senate race that is quickly becoming the center of the Democratic world, in part because of the incumbent, Cruz, and because of the two Democratic up-and-comers mulling runs: O’Rourke and Joaquin Castro.

Both men are in the same 2012 congressional class and are considered friendly with each other.

Democrats in the state and in Congress are closely watching how the two men maneuver around a possible primary race against each other, but the betting money is that O’Rourke is more likely to follow through with a run.

My thoughts:

– Optimism tempered with reality is the way to go. Dems basically have nothing to lose – HD107 was the only Dem-won seat that was remotely close – and plenty of targets that at least appear to be closer after last year. To be sure, there was reason for optimism going into 2014 as well, and we know how that turned out. The difference is who’s in the White House.

– The “tempered by reality” part is the recognition that all the seats we are trying to win were drawn to elect Republicans, and to put it mildly there’s no track record of good Democratic turnout in off years. You have to believe, as I do, that the national political climate is a big factor in how these elections play out, and that 2018 will be different than 2014 and 2010. Different doesn’t have to mean better, but all things considered it’s the more likely possibility.

– Dan Patrick has got to be a better statewide target than Greg Abbott. Abbott has good favorability numbers, and he’s not out there leading the charge for SB6. Mike Collier is the kind of credible-to-business candidate Dems could present as a viable alternative to Patrick to the business lobby. There are many reasons why those guys may stick with the devil they know even as he works against their interests, but at least there’s a chance they could be persuaded. There’s no chance they would abandon Abbott. If I were advising Mike Collier, I’d tell him to put Lite Guv first on my list. Sure, it would be nice to have a candidate with legislative experience running for that spot, but 1) the main thing you need to know as the guy who presides over the Senate is parliamentary procedure, and 2) have you even seen the guy Dan Patrick backed for President? Don’t come at me with this “experience matters” stuff.

– As long as we’re being optimistic, let’s assume Ken Paxton gets convicted between now and next November, and he does not get primaried out. It shouldn’t be that hard to find a decent candidate willing to take that bet. Just make sure that he or she has the resources needed to win the Dem primary in the event a Grady Yarbrough/Lloyd Oliver type decides to get in. The one thing we absolutely cannot do is accidentally nominate a joke to oppose Paxton.

– Having good candidates with sufficient resources to wage active campaigns in the legislative races will have a positive effect on turnout just as having a strong slate at the top of the ticket. This is not an either-or, it’s a both-and.

– Along those lines, the next best way to check Dan Patrick’s power is to reduce the number of Republicans in the Senate. Dallas County Democrats need to find a strong candidate to run against Don Huffines. Dallas County needs to be strong in 2018.

– The story talks about Democratic performance in the urban centers, and that’s important, but the suburbs matter as well. Opportunities exist in Fort Bend, Brazoria, Collin, Denton, and Williamson, and there are also a lot of votes in these places. Part of the strategy needs to be geared towards turning the tide in the suburbs. If nothing else, winning a seat in one of these places really changes the narrative, and serves as a concrete marker of progress.

– At some point, Democrats need to figure out how to translate the message that they have won on in big urban centers to smaller but still sizeable urban centers where they have not done as well. I’m talking about Lubbock, Amarillo, Corpus Christi, places like that. Burgeoning urban centers in suburban and exurban places, like Sugar Land, Pearland, Katy, New Braunfels, Plano, etc etc etc need to be on that list as well. Some of these places already have a Democratic presence on their City Councils and school boards. All of them could use more attention from the kind of people who gathered in Austin to talk about 2018. Who do we have in these places to even present the Democratic message? If such people exist among the local elected officials, support them and help raise their profile. If they don’t, bring in the shining faces we hope to be offering for larger roles and have them deliver it, then find opportunities to grow some local success stories there. I mean, this is what the Republicans were doing in the 70s and 80s. It’s always been a good strategy.

Basically, this was a good start. It’s the right way to think about 2018. Now let’s keep it going.

ReBuild re-vote?

It could come to that, but it’s not clear to me that it has to.

The funding scheme for ReBuild Houston, the city’s street and drainage repair initiative, remains in limbo after a state appeals court agreed Thursday that the 2010 charter referendum creating the program is void.

The Texas 14th Court of Appeals ruling affirms an October 2015 trial court decision ordering the city to call a new election on creating a dedicated pay-as-you-go fund for street and drainage projects.

The case does not appear to affect the city’s ability to continue charging a drainage fee, however, since City Council authorized collection of the monthly fee in a separate ordinance in April 2011.

Instead, voiding the 2010 charter election, essentially, removes the restrictions placed on how the city uses the drainage money it takes in, such as the ban on using those dollars to issue new road bonds or other debt. The court rulings have not led the city to alter how it uses the fee.

Andy Taylor, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said he believes Thursday’s ruling could lead to another vote on what he and many conservatives call the “rain tax” as early as November.

“The request to amend the city charter and seeking voter approval to impose a rain tax,” he said, “is going back on the ballot.”

Houston is considering whether to ask the appellate court to reconsider, or appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, among other options, mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said in a statement.

See here and here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s statement. I say there will not be another vote this November, for the simple reason that there’s nothing to compel Mayor Turner to put another referendum on the ballot, and the city can continue with the legal proceedings for now. I’d also agree with Prof. Richard Murray, quoted in this KUHF story on the ruling, in that if there were another vote, a reworded Renew Houston proposition would almost certainly win again, because who at this point is going to vote against money for drainage and flood mitigation? (Also, as Prof. Murray noted, black voters were modestly against Renew Houston in 2010. I strongly suspect they’d be much more in favor of a similar proposal put forward by Mayor Turner.) But as the story notes, City Council voted to implement Renew Houston in 2011, and this lawsuit has nothing to do with that. There’s nothing to stop Mayor Turner from having Council affirm the program, or to just state that the matter was decided by Council and we’re all just arguing over semantics at this point. Honestly, what we’re really fighting about at this point is whether Andy Taylor gets to decide the wording on all our city referenda or not. That’s a fight I’m happy to keep having, but let’s be clear on what the stakes are. Campos has more.

Supreme Court hears TDP-KSP appeal

Here‘s a little blast from the past.

A meandering legal dispute between Texas Democrats and a Houston tea party group has landed before the Texas Supreme Court in a case that could overturn longtime election laws that require certain political committees to disclose donors and ban direct political contributions from corporations.

Arguing before the court Tuesday, the Democrats’ lawyer, Chad Dunn, warned that overturning the laws would open “the floodgates to the secret funding of elections.”

“If this court wants to open the political process to Uber and Lyft and Exxon and Pinterest and other corporations to use corporate profits to determine who ought to prevail in (campaigns), it should tread carefully,” Dunn said.

[…]

The case began when the Texas Democratic Party filed a 2010 lawsuit accusing King Street Patriots of making illegal contributions to the Republican Party and GOP candidates by training poll watchers who were provided to the party to monitor the 2010 general election in Harris County.

The lawsuit also accused the tea party-aligned group of failing to register as a political committee and failing to disclose its donors as required.

King Street Patriots countersued, arguing that several state election laws were unconstitutional, and both sides agreed to have the courts decide if the laws were enforceable before determining if the organization violated any of them.

A Travis County district judge and the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals have upheld the challenged election laws, leading to the Supreme Court’s review.

King Street Patriots argues that state donor-disclosure laws place onerous burdens on small organizations by requiring them to register with the state, keep records and file extensive, ongoing reports — leaving many to avoid participating in politics as “simply not worth it.”

See here and here for some background. I think the KSP’s First Amendment argument in favor of secret political donations is a load of hooey, but in a Citizens United world, I wouldn’t be too sure it isn’t a winner. I will just note for the record that there is a connection between the KSP and Gregg Phillips, the longtime grifter and procurer of that baloney “millions of illegal voters” claim, because of course there is. There’s never a bottom with these people. The story says that we should expect a ruling by June, so stay tuned.

City loses appeal of procedural argument in term limits lawsuit

Stay with me, because this is going to take a bit of explaining.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

A state appeals court on Thursday rejected the city’s procedural challenge to a lawsuit that could force Houston’s mayor and city council members to revert to three two-year terms, from the two four-year terms voters approved in November 2015.

The Texas First Court of Appeals ruling did not address the merits of the underlying case, which centers on whether the city’s ballot language was misleading.

Rather, the court’s decision marks an incremental step in what is likely to be a lengthy appeals process that plaintiffs hope could trigger municipal elections as early as this fall.

Austin election lawyer Buck Wood, however, said he considers November mayoral and city council elections improbable, given the speed with which courts typically move.

[…]

The appellate court’s ruling affirms state District Judge Randy Clapp’s decision last year to reject Houston’s procedural challenge, which sought to get the case thrown out.

Clapp was not considering the substance of the case at the time, though he tipped his hand by calling the city’s ballot language “inartful” but not “invalid.”

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said Thursday the city attorney’s office is considering whether to appeal the procedural decision to the state Supreme Court.

If the trial court’s 2016 procedural decision holds, the case likely would return to Clapp for a hearing on the substance of whether Houston’s term limits ballot language obscured the nature of the vote by asking whether voters wanted to “limit the length for all terms.”

See here for the background. Where this gets confusing is that the original story didn’t explain all of what was happening in that first hearing. There was a motion by the plaintiffs for summary judgment, which was denied. That was the win for the city, as now a trial is required to settle the question of whether the ballot language was misleading or not. The rest of it was about procedural matters: Whether plaintiff’s attorney Eric Dick properly served the city notice of his lawsuit, whether the court had jurisdiction to hear the case, and whether attorney Andy Taylor could intervene to assist Dick. District Court Judge Clapp ruled against the city’s motion to dismiss on these matters. The city appealed that ruling, and the First Court of Appeals upheld Judge Clapp.

The city can appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. If they do and they win, the lawsuit will be dismissed. If they lose, or if they choose not to appeal, the matter will be returned to Judge Clapp’s court for a trial on the merits of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are hoping to get a ruling in time for there to be city elections this November; they claim August is the deadline for that, though I’d argue that more time would be needed for real campaigns to occur. However, as the story notes, even if the plaintiffs win, there’s no guarantee that city elections would follow as a result. What might happen instead is that the city would have to put a differently-worded term limits referendum on the ballot. That maybe could happen this November, or it might happen in 2018. Or even later than that, depending on how long it takes to get a ruling and how long the appeals of that ruling take. Remember how long it took to get a Supreme Court decision in the Renew Houston lawsuit? The 2010 referendum was subsequently voided more than a year ago, and yet here we are, with no new election for it in sight. Mayor Turner has joked that it will be up to his successor to get the term limits issue straightened out because it won’t be settled till after his eight years in office. I’m not sure he’s joking about that.

Trautman announces run for Harris County Clerk in 2018

From the inbox:

Diane Trautman

Diane Trautman

As one of my long-time and best supporters, I wanted you to be one of the first to know that I have made the decision to run for Harris County Clerk in 2018!

As you know, I was elected in 2012 to the Harris County Board of Education for a six year term, and that term will be up in 2018. Rest assured, I will fulfill my six year term and be able to stay on the board while pursuing this new position.

Protecting our right to vote and ensuring a reliable, secure, and convenient voting process is not new to me. As you know, I ran for Harris County Tax Assessor and Voter Registrar in 2008 and 2010 and came very close to unseating incumbent Paul Bettencourt.

Additionally, I am honored to be serving on the transition team for Ann Harris Bennett, our new Harris County Tax Assessor and Voter Registrar, and I will also serve on her voter registration committee. Meanwhile, I will be speaking to voters at clubs and organizations all over the county to hear their ideas, suggestions, and voting experiences. I hope to hear from you as well. Look for more details on my campaign in the new year.

Thank you so much for your past support and I’m looking forward to turning Harris County completely blue in 2018!

I guess the 2018 election season has officially begun. Trautman is currently an At Large trustee on the HCDE board, and her term is up in 2018, so a run for County Clerk would be in place of a run for re-election. She will not have to resign from the HCDE board now that she has made this announcement because the constitutional resign to run provision does not apply to her. (See also: former HCDE Trustee Roy Morales, who ran for every office under the sun during his term in office.)

Trautman has the advantage of having won countywide office in the past, and being generally well liked among the Democratic base. I’m sure she announced this early in part to get out ahead of the competition, as County Clerk is now the most attractive office for a Democrat with ambitions to target in 2018 now that County Judge Ed Emmett has announced his intention to run again. I’m sure this won’t stop anyone from at least considering the race, and I’m sure there will be some people who will want to see some new blood get a chance. I’m perfectly happy for there to be contested primaries in 2018, and I hope these races draw lots of interest, from potential candidates and from voters.

Precinct analysis: Bennett v Sullivan

Ann Harris Bennett was the only countywide Democratic candidate to be trailing on Election Day as the early voting totals were posted, but as the night went on she cut into the deficit and finally took the lead around 10 PM, going on to win by a modest margin. Here’s how that broke down:


Dist  Sullivan  Bennett  Sullivan%  Bennett%
============================================
CD02   168,936  105,778     61.50%    38.50%
CD07   147,165  106,727     57.96%    42.04%
CD09    29,855  103,511     22.39%    77.61%
CD10    83,213   34,795     70.51%    29.49%
CD18    53,558  148,586     26.49%    73.51%
CD29    41,555   88,942     31.84%    68.16%
				
SBOE6  357,083  249,953     58.82%    41.18%
				
HD126   37,003   24,186     60.47%    39.53%
HD127   50,028   23,460     68.08%    31.92%
HD128   42,659   16,238     72.43%    27.57%
HD129   44,072   24,777     64.01%    35.99%
HD130   60,429   20,277     74.88%    25.12%
HD131    8,121   37,906     17.64%    82.36%
HD132   39,094   29,321     57.14%    42.86%
HD133   50,116   25,241     66.50%    33.50%
HD134   49,352   39,410     55.60%    44.40%
HD135   33,528   26,112     56.22%    43.78%
HD137    9,664   17,099     36.11%    63.89%
HD138   28,827   22,096     56.61%    43.39%
HD139   13,707   38,266     26.37%    73.63%
HD140    7,556   19,790     27.63%    72.37%
HD141    5,934   32,109     15.60%    84.40%
HD142   11,599   33,182     25.90%    74.10%
HD143   10,372   22,294     31.75%    68.25%
HD144   11,810   15,188     43.74%    56.26%
HD145   12,669   21,519     37.06%    62.94%
HD146   11,323   36,903     23.48%    76.52%
HD147   14,119   43,254     24.61%    75.39%
HD148   20,434   26,999     43.08%    56.92%
HD149   16,639   26,389     38.67%    61.33%
HD150   50,472   25,358     66.56%    33.44%
				
CC1     82,916  231,040     26.41%    73.59%
CC2    134,067  117,084     53.38%    46.62%
CC3    202,128  149,943     57.41%    42.59%
CC4    220,415  149,294     59.62%    40.38%
Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

This was Bennett’s fourth try for office. She had run for County Clerk in 2010 and 2014 against Stan Stanart, and for Tax Assessor in 2012 against now-incumbent Mike Sullivan, losing by fewer than 2,500 votes out of over 1.1 million cast. She becomes the fifth Tax Assessor since 2009, following Paul Bettencourt (who resigned shortly after being re-elected in 2008), Leo Vasquez (appointed to replace Bettencourt), Don Sumners (defeated Vasquez in the 2010 primary and won in November to complete the term), and Sullivan (defeated Sumners in the 2012 primary and then Bennett in November).

Incumbent Tax Assessors tend to do pretty well in re-election efforts. Bettencourt was the top votegetter in 2004, leading even George W. Bush by over 20,000 votes. He trailed only Ed Emmett in 2008, finishing 16K votes ahead of John McCain. Despite his loss, Sullivan was the high scorer among Republicans, beating all the judicial candidates by at least 19K votes. Only Sullivan in 2012 and Sumners in 2010, both first-timers on the November ballot, failed to make the upper echelon. Assuming she runs for re-election in 2020, it will be interesting to see if that same pattern holds for the Democrat Bennett as it has done for her Republican predecessors.

It’s instructive again to compare these results to the judicial races, as they provide a comparison to the base level of partisan support. While Sullivan finished well ahead of the Republican judicial candidates, Bennett wasn’t below the Democratic judicials; she was near the bottom, but did better than four of them. Looking at the numbers across State Rep districts, Bennett was usually a couple hundred votes below the Democratic judicial average, while Sullivan beat the Republican norm by a thousand votes or more. In HD134, he topped it by over 3,000 votes, though interestingly he wasn’t the high scorer there – Lunceford (50,193), Mayfield (49,754), and Bond (49,407) were all ahead of him, with Guiney (49,209), Halbach (49,173), and Ellis (49,081) right behind.

My general hypothesis here is that fewer Republicans skipped this race. I observed in the Sheriff’s race overview that Democratic judicial candidates had more dropoff than Republican judicial candidates did, while the non-judicial Democrats did a good job of holding onto those votes. Bennett performed more like a judicial candidate, while Sullivan overperformed that metric. I assume that the exposure Tax Assessors get, since every year everyone who owns a car and/or a home has to make at least one payment to that person, helps boost their numbers in elections. Again, we’ll see if Bennett benefits from that in her next election.

This concludes my review of Harris County races. I have one more post relating to Harris County in my queue, and I plan to take at least a cursory look at Fort Bend and Dallas Counties. Again, if you have any particular questions you want me to examine, let me know. I hope you have found this all useful.

Recount in HD105

Still not decided yet.

Terry Meza

Terry Meza

The tight Texas House District 105 race between Republican state Rep. Rodney Anderson and Democratic challenger Terry Meza is headed for a recount. Meza trails Anderson by 69 votes, according to the latest Dallas County elections office tally.

The Secretary of State’s office today approved Meza’s request for the recount, which is scheduled for Nov. 28.

“I’m cautiously optimistic and just feel like we owe it to the voters when we say, ‘Every vote counts,'” Meza said Monday.

[…]

The current vote difference is less than one-fifth of a percent of the 47,369 ballots cast. But this eastern Dallas County district that covers parts of Irving and Grand Prairie is no stranger to close contests.

Former State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown famously held on to the seat in 2008, when she beat a Democrat by a mere 19 votes. That race also went to a recount and prompted a series of lawsuits that stretched the contest into December. But the race had higher stakes eight years ago: Harper-Brown’s eventual victory gave Republicans a narrow 76-74 majority in the lower chamber. Now, Republicans hold a comfortable majority in the 150-seat chamber regardless of who wins this seat.

See here for the background. Meza actually made up about half of her initial deficit with the overseas and provisional ballots, which is impressive in and of itself. I seriously doubt the recount will change the current margin, however. Since I started blogging, there have been three legislative races closer than this one that went to a recount (and in two cases to an election contest heard in the House) without the result changing: Hubert Vo in 2004, Donna Howard in 2010, and the aforementioned Linda Harper-Brown in 2008. I strongly suspect that Rodney Anderson will prevail, and will face an even stronger challenge in 2018.

Emmett says he will run for re-election in 2018

Well, this was unexpected.

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Thursday that he plans to seek re-election when his current term is up in 2018, ending speculation that he might step aside after more than a decade at the helm of the nation’s third most-populous county.

Emmett, a Republican known for his pragmatic, steady approach, said he made the decision Wednesday night after conferring with family and friends.

“I’m in kind of a unique position to bring people together at a time when it’s needed more than any other,” the 67-year-old Emmett said. “Harris County is a big, diverse place with lots of problems. Those problems don’t have simple answers.”

[…]

Emmett’s current term expires Dec. 31, 2018.

He said part of the reason he announced his intention to run Thursday was because the March 2018 primary is less than 18 months away and campaigns would likely get underway soon.

“I’ve got some money in the bank,” Emmett said. “But if I’m going to run, I need to make it clear so that those people who support me can get behind me.”

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker said Friday that she had been considering a bid for the judgeship, but would not do so given that Emmett is seeking re-election.

“If he’s not there,” Parker said, “I’m going to be first in line.”

As is the way of all things these days, Emmett made his intentions known via Twitter. Judge Emmett himself told me he was planning to retire after his current term was up. He said that to me after an interview I did with him, saying something to the effect of “there are things you can do in your 70s that you can’t easily do in your 80s”. That was a comment made in passing, not a carved-in-stone promise, and clearly his thinking has changed. Or maybe he just likes the job too much to want to quit. Whatever the case, barring anything unusual there will not be a vacancy in this office in two years.

That obviously complicates things for Democrats who are thinking about the next election, as can be seen by Annise Parker’s comment. Judge Emmett is well-regarded and probably the most popular politician in the county. He was the top vote-getter in 2010, he ran unopposed in 2014, and was re-elected easily in 2008 despite the strong Democratic wave that year. I suspect that despite all this someone will run against him in 2018 anyway, as there are legitimate policy matters that deserve debate, and only so many opportunities available for a person of ambition. We’ll see how it goes.

A theory about third parties

Before I get to that theory, have you ever wondered about the people who vote straight ticket Libertarian or Green in Harris County? I got to wondering about them, because that’s the sort of thing that I think about at times like this. Here are the total numbers of such people, grouped by Presidential and non-Presidential years, going back to 2000:


Year  Total votes  SP Lib  SP Green   Lib%  Green%
==================================================
2000      995,631   1,935     4,503  0.19%   0.45%
2004    1,088,793   3,343            0.31%
2008    1,188,731   4,017            0.34%
2012    1,204,167   4,777     1,759  0.40%   0.15%
2016    1,336,985   8,781     4,577  0.66%   0.34%

2002      656,682   1,159     1,399  0.18%   0.21%
2006      601,186   3,052            0.51%
2010      798,995   2,506     1,110  0.31%   0.14%
2014      688,018   2,922     1,180  0.42%   0.17%

“SP Lib” is the total number of straight party Libertarian votes, and “SP Green” is the same for the Greens. “Lib%” and “Green%” are the share of these straight party votes to all votes cast in the county. If you look at the election result pages on the HarrisVotes.com website, you will see that my percentages are lower than the ones shown there. That’s because they calculate the percentage of these votes as a share of all straight-party votes cast, not a share of all votes. I did it this way to see what if any trend there was for Libertarian and Green voting overall. For comparison purposes, 30.01% of all votes in Harris county this year were straight ticket Republican, with 35.35% of all votes being straight-ticket Democratic.

As you can see, in the Presidential years the Libertarians had been slowly ticking upwards, with a bit of a jump this year, though the trend is more erratic in the off years. The spike in 2006 is odd, because the Libertarian candidate for Governor received only 0.61% of the vote that year. If you wanted to vote outside the two-party box for Governor in 2006, you had plenty of choices. The Greens weren’t officially on the ballot in 2004, 2006, or 2008, so there’s less of a trend to spot. I’d say they do better in or right after a year where they have a Presidential candidate who gets some attention. Whether any of this will hold next year is not something I’m going to speculate about at this time. My mantra for the next twelve to eighteen months is “conditions in 2018 will be different than they were in 2014 and 2010”, and leave it at that.

That brings me to my theory, which applies to low profile races – not President, not Senate, not Governor, sometimes not other races. I’m limiting myself to statewide contests here, since that’s where you get most of the third party candidates that an individual voter sees. In my case, there was a Green candidate for CD18, a Libertarian for SBOE, and nothing else below the state level. I believe that in these races, which this year would be the Railroad Commission and the two state courts, voters for third party candidates can be broadly sorted into one of three groups. The first group is the party faithful, which as we have just seen is a relatively small cohort. There are probably a few more people who vote L or G as a first choice but don’t vote straight ticket, but that’s still a small group even in the context of just third party voters. Most of the people voting third party in these races aren’t voting third party as a matter of course.

So who are they? Group Two I believe is people who normally vote for Rs or Ds but who refuse to vote for their candidate in this particular instance. That may be because the candidate of their party is too/not sufficiently liberal/conservative for them, because that candidate supports or opposes a specific thing that is of great importance to them, because the candidate has ethical baggage, or because they just don’t like that candidate for some reason. In these cases, they don’t want to vote for the candidate of the other party, so a third party it is. Gary Johnson obviously got a lot of these votes in the Presidential race, but the downballot exemplar for this one was the Railroad Commissioner race, where Libertarian Mark Miller got a bunch of newspaper endorsements for being the most qualified candidate running.

The thing is, I don’t think there are that many races like that. I think in a lot of these races, people just don’t know anything about any of the candidates. So if you’re someone who (say) generally votes Democratic but aren’t that committed to it and you’re looking at a race for the Court of Criminal Appeals, you may say to yourself “well, I know I don’t want to vote for the Republican, but I don’t know who any of these other people are, so I’ll just pick one and move on”. These people are my Group Three.

What that says to me first of all is that both Republicans and Democrats are leaving some votes on the table in these downballot races by not doing a better job of getting their candidates’ names out there. That’s not much of a concern for the Republicans, who continue to win by double-digit margins, but it could eventually matter. I see this as an extension of a problem that Democrats are increasingly having in their primaries, where candidates like RRC nominee Grady Yarbrough have won races by a combination of pseudo-name recognition and random chance because no one knows who the hell these people are. I have many wishes for Texas Democrats going forward, and high on my list is for the party and the donor class to take these downballot primaries seriously.

One possible exception to this may be for Latino candidates. Look at the top votegetters for each party: Supreme Court candidates Eva Guzman and Dori Contreras Garza. My hypothesis is that Latino voters in a Group Three situation will choose a Latino candidate, even possibly one from their non-preferred party, instead of just randomly picking someone. Again, this is in races where none of the candidates are known to the voters, and thus there could be a different outcome if people had more knowledge. If we ever get to that point, maybe we’ll see that difference.

Finally, I believe my theory is consistent with the Libertarian candidate almost always doing better than the Green candidate does in these situations, for the simple reason that the Libertarian candidate appears on the ballot above the Green candidate. If it’s true that some people just pick a name after having moved past the first two candidates, then it makes sense that the first candidate listed after those two would get a larger share.

Anyway, that’s my theory. I could be wrong, and I doubt anyone other than me had given this much thought. I’ll get back to the precinct analyses tomorrow. Let me know what you think about this.

Races I’ll be watching on Tuesday, Legislative edition

vote-button

Here are the legislative races I’ll be looking at to see what kind of a day it has been for Texas Democrats. After the 2012 general election, the Dems had 55 seats in the Lege. Thee Democrats lost in 2014, lowering that total to 52. As things stand right now, Dems are at 50 seats, with one seat being lost early this year in a special election, and another later on to an independent in a special election that basically no one paid any attention to. I’m going to group the races into four tiers with decreasing levels of likelihood and expectation, and we’ll see where we might wind up.

Group 1: Back to parity

HD117 – Obama 2008 52.5%, Obama 2012 51.8%
HD118 – Obama 2008 55.1%, Obama 2012 55.2%
HD120 – Obama 2008 62.9%, Obama 2012 64.6%
HD144 – Obama 2008 48.0%, Obama 2012 51.0%

HDs 117 and 144 were the seats lost in 2014 (along with HD23, which is in a different category). HDs 118 (Farias) and 120 (McClendon) had specials due to the early retirement of their Dem incumbents. Note that Mary Ann Perez won HD144 in 2012 by 6.5 points over a stronger Republican opponent than the accidental incumbent she faces now. Phillip Cortez, running to reclaim HD117 after losing it in 2014, defeated a 2010-wave Republican by nearly eight points in 2012. I expect all four to be won by Democrats on Tuesday, which puts the caucus at 54.

Group 2: It sure would be nice to win these in a year like this

HD43 – Obama 2008 46.9%, Obama 2012 47.9%
HD105 – Obama 2008 46.1%, Obama 2012 46.5%
HD107 – Obama 2008 46.7%, Obama 2012 46.9%
HD113 – Obama 2008 46.1%, Obama 2012 46.3%

These are the white whales for Texas Democrats in recent elections. HD43 is home of the turncoat JM Lozano, who switched parties after the 2010 wipeout after having won a Democratic primary against an ethically-challenged incumbent in March. Now-former Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, who lost a primary in HD105 in 2014 to Rep. Rodney Anderson, had two of the closest victories in recent years, hanging on in 2008 by twenty votes and in 2012 by fewer than 800 votes. Similarly, Rep. Kenneth Sheets won in 2012 by 850 votes. The map designers in 2011 did a great job of keeping eight out of 14 districts in strongly Democratic Dallas County just red enough to win so far. I have to feel like this is the year their luck runs out. I’ll be disappointed if Dems don’t win at least two of these races, so let’s put the caucus at 56.

Group 3: Pop the champagne, we’re having a great night

HD23 – Obama 2008 47.5%, Obama 2012 44.2%
HD54 – Obama 2008 47.9%, Obama 2012 45.7%
HD102 – Obama 2008 46.6%, Obama 2012 45.3%
HD112 – Obama 2008 44.0%, Obama 2012 43.5%
HD114 – Obama 2008 46.6%, Obama 2012 43.5%
HD115 – Obama 2008 43.9%, Obama 2012 43.2%
HD134 – Obama 2008 46.5%, Obama 2012 41.7%

That’s most of the rest of Dallas County, the seat held by former Rep. Craig Eiland till he retired before the 2014 election, Rep. Sarah Davis’ perennial swing seat, and the Killeen-based district now held by the retiring Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock. It’s this last one that I think is most likely to flip; there were a few maps drawn during the 2011 session that made this a fairly solid blue seat. The main hesitation I have with this one is that I don’t know what kind of Dem infrastructure exists out there to take advantage of the conditions. Aycock never faced much of a challenge though he won in 2012 by the skinny-for-this-gerrymandering margin of 57.5% to 42.5%, partly because that district is off the beaten path for Dems and partly (I suspect) out of respect for Aycock, who was a really good Public Ed committee chair. If even one of these seats flip, I’d assume all four of the ones in the level above did, so we’ll increment the county to 59.

Group 4: Holy crap, how did that happen?

HD47 – Obama 2008 44.8%, Obama 2012 39.3%
HD52 – Obama 2008 46.2%, Obama 2012 42.4%
HD65 – Obama 2008 43.0%, Obama 2012 40.8%
HD85 – Obama 2008 40.7%, Obama 2012 38.0%
HD108 – Obama 2008 44.9%, Obama 2012 39.3%
HD135 – Obama 2008 38.7%, Obama 2012 39.8%
HD136 – Obama 2008 45.9%, Obama 2012 41.2%

Now we’re starting to get into some unfamiliar territory. HD47 is the lone Republican district in Travis County. Dems captured it in the wave of 2008 then lost it in the wave of 2010, and it was shored up as a genuine Republican district in 2011, with the side effect of making HDs 48 and 50 more solidly blue. HD108 is in the Highland Park part of Dallas, so who knows, maybe Donald Trump was the last straw for some of those folks. I’ve talked a few times about how HDs 135 and 132 were the two red districts in Harris County trended bluer from 2008 to 2012; I don’t expect it to go all the way, but I’ll be shocked if there isn’t some decent progress made. HD52 was won by a Dem in 2008 but was drawn to be more Republican in 2011. HD136, like HD52 in Williamson County, was a new district in 2012 and has been represented by a crazy person since then. HD65 is in Collin County, and HD85 is primarily in Fort Bend. Winning any of these would help tamp down the narrative that Dems are only creatures of the urban counties and the border.

If somehow Dems won all of these districts – which won’t happen, but go with it for a minute – the caucus would be at 73 members, which needless to say would have a seismic effect on the 2017 session and Dan Patrick’s ambitions. Putting the number above 60 would be a very nice accomplishment given all that’s stacked against such a thing happening, though it’s hard to say how much effect that might have on the session. Note that I have not put any Senate races in here. This is not because the Senate has a more diabolical gerrymander than the House does, but because the four most purple Senate districts – SDs 09, 10, 16, and 17 – were all up in 2014, and thus not on the ballot this year. You can bet I’ll be looking at their numbers once we have them.

There are a few districts that I would have included if there had been a Dem running in them (specifically, HDs 32, 45, and 132), and there are a few with numbers similar to those in the bottom group that I didn’t go with for whatever the reason. Tell me which districts you’ll be looking out for tomorrow. I’ll have a companion piece to this on Tuesday.

Another story about the possible Trump Effect on downballot races

It’s mostly about one legislative race in particular, but that’s okay.

Marisa Yvette Garcia-Utley

Marisa Yvette Garcia-Utley

When he worked in the oil industry, Thomas Benavidez traveled to drilling sites across Texas and northern Mexico. The work was exciting, and the pay was good. He rarely paid attention to politics.

But after being laid off two years ago, the 24-year-old South Texas native moved back to the public housing complex where his parents live in Alice. He has been working as a roofer. And he’s been paying attention to the presidential election, especially to Donald Trump.

“I haven’t ever voted before, but I really don’t want him to be president,” Benavidez said. “It’s the way he acts and talks about other races. I think he’s a racist.”

Benavidez said he doesn’t know who his local representatives are but plans to vote for Democrats up and down the ballot in November.

Voters like Benavidez likely won’t make a difference for Trump, who is expected to win deep-red Texas. But they mean a lot to state Rep. J.M. Lozano, a Republican who represents Alice, Kingsville, Portland and part of Corpus Christi.

[…]

[Lozano’s] opponent, Marisa Yvette Garcia-Utley, said that Trump’s candidacy is a “perfect storm” for Democratic challengers in districts with large numbers of Hispanic and black voters.

“With Trump really ticking (Latinos) off, all I hear is they’re coming out full-swing, and they’re voting straight ticket,” said Garcia-Utley, who owns a women’s fitness center. “It’s to my advantage. I need 25,000 (votes) to win this district, and I feel like that is going to happen because of Trump — and because of my hard work, but Trump is really helping me.”

Twenty-five thousand votes is a good estimate – Lozano won with 24,074 votes in 2012. What should concern Lozano is that Democrats swept HD43 in 2008 (outside of the Presidential race, as there were a fair number of crossover votes for John McCain in heavily Latino districts that year), with every Dem except one reaching that 25,000 vote threshold, with the one who missed it falling only 39 votes short. Personally, Lozano’s party switch before the 2011 session began after he had won a contentious Democratic primary really pissed me off, and I’ve been rooting for him to lose ever since. Here’s Marisa Yvette Garcia-Utley’s Facebook page if you want to learn more about her.

The rest of the story touches on a couple of other races, including HD144, which Dems won in 2012 by a five-point margin without any help from an albatross Republican Presidential candidate, and HD134, which could end up as a district carried by Hillary Clinton but no other Democrat. There’s an embedded chart pointing out some other races, including (weirdly) two Democratic-held seats: HD78, which President Obama carried 54.3 to 44.0 in 2012, and HD149, carried by Obama 58.8 to 40.1 that year. Go figure. Mentioned in passing but deserving of more exploration is a sentence about how “local Democrats are hoping an anti-Trump wave allows David Holmes to unseat Gerald Daugherty, the only Republican on the Travis County Commissioners Court”. I figure there are quite a few more races for county offices that could be swung to Democrats this year thanks to Trump, but those are a lot less sexy and harder to report on. Maybe we’ll learn after the election how many such offices there were this year.

Endorsement watch: A Libertarian moment

The Chron thinks outside the box in endorsing for the Railroad Commission.

Mark Miller

Mark Miller

Our editorial board interviews scores of candidates for political office every election year, but seldom do we find ourselves wholeheartedly endorsing a nominee from the Libertarian Party. Then again, seldom have we met a Libertarian candidate like Mark Miller.

Ask this man anything at all about the Railroad Commission of Texas and he’ll give you a straight, smart answer informed not only by decades of working in the industry and teaching petrochemical engineering at the University of Texas, but also by a mastery of the issues facing the energy business and the state body that regulates it. He’s an affable retired oil and gas man with a doctorate from Stanford University who’s so interested in this agency he literally wrote a book on the railroad commission.

With impressive clarity and authority, Miller offers well-informed opinions on a litany of arcane issues involving the energy industry: why the Texas Legislature needs to resolve the conflict between the owners of surface rights and mineral rights, why the state should dramatically reduce the number of permits for flaring natural gas, why Texas needs to figure out how to plug oil wells left unplugged by companies that go bankrupt. This guy clearly knows what he’s talking about.

By comparison, none of the other candidates for this office have actually worked in the industry they propose to help oversee. Wayne Christian, the Republican nominee, earned a troublesome reputation as a combative bomb-thrower in the state Legislature; he helped craft a shamefully self-serving amendment exempting his own Bolivar Peninsula home from the Texas Open Beaches Act, and Texas Monthly twice rated him one of the state’s worst lawmakers. Grady Yarbrough, the Democratic nominee, is a retired school teacher whose background seems better suited to an education post. Martina Salinas, the Green Party nominee, is an earnest construction inspector from the Fort Worth area who, again, never worked in the energy business.

I don’t have any particular quarrel with the recommendation. Experience is a somewhat overrated qualification for the RRC, given that its Commissioners (those with industry experience and those without it) tend to be rubber stamps for the industry they purportedly regulate anyway. Certainly, Wayne Christian will do whatever his overlords tell him to do, so in that sense it doesn’t matter whether or not he understands anything about what he’s doing. Maybe Grady Yarbrough will take advice from other sources, who knows. At least he’ll have to be more visible if he somehow gets elected.

Endorsement aside – it would not shock me if Miller collects more than one such recommendation, given the other choices – the more interesting question is whether Miller can break the five percent barrier in this race. Libertarians and Greens have relied in recent years on statewide races in which there was no Democrat running to place a candidate who can top that mark and thus guarantee ballot access for all statewide races for their team. This year, those tricky Democrats actually ran candidates for all statewide offices, meaning the Ls and the Gs are going to have to do this the hard way if they want to be on the statewide ballot in 2020. (The hard way involves collecting a sufficient number of petition signatures, possibly with a little help from friends of convenience.) The question I want to answer is: Have any Libertarian or Green Party statewide candidates cracked the five percent mark in a statewide race that featured both an R and a D in recent years?

We go to the Secretary of State election returns for that. Here are the high statewide scorers for the Ls and the Gs in such races in Presidential years:


Year    Candidate     Party       Race    Pct
=============================================
2012      L Stott       Lib        CCA  3.26%
2012    C Kennedy       Grn        RRC  1.99%

2008      D Floyd       Lib        RRC  3.52%

2004     A Garcia       Lib        RRC  3.60%

2000     M Ruwart       Lib     Senate  1.16%
2000      R Nader       Grn  President  2.15%

(Note: There were no statewide Green candidates in 2004 or 2008.) Doesn’t look too promising. How about in the non-Presidential years?


Year    Candidate     Party       Race    Pct
=============================================
2014    M Bennett       Lib        CCA  3.61%
2014    M Salinas       Grn        RRC  2.03%

2010  J Armstrong       Lib     Sup Ct  4.04%
2010   A Browning       Grn        RRC  1.49%

2006      J Baker       Lib     Lt Gov  4.36%

2002  B Hernandez       Lib  Land Comm  4.12%
2002  O Jefferson       Grn        CCA  1.74%

(Note: There were no statewide Green candidates in 2006.) Not much better. Note that total turnout is a factor – Jack Armstrong (195K) received more votes than Judy Baker (188K) or Barbara Hernandez (180K), but he was running in a much higher turnout environment, so his percentage was lower. By the way, Mark Miller and Martina Salinas were both candidates for the RRC in 2014 as well; Miller received 3.15% of the vote, against R and D candidates who were much better qualified than the ones running this year. Make of that what you will. To get back to my original question, I’d say both Ls and Gs will be relying on their Presidential candidate for their best chance to crack the five percent mark. I’d give Gary Johnson a decent shot at it, but Jill Stein? I figure if Ralph Nader couldn’t get halfway there in 2000, Stein is unlikely to be the one. There’s always the petitions.

Endorsement watch: Stay the course

Harris County Democrats have one incumbent up for re-election: County Attorney Vince Ryan. The Chron gives their approval for another term.

Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

[Ryan] said that he actively pursues pollution enforcement lawsuits against big companies – such as Volkswagen after it lied about emissions tests, or the corporations responsible for the San Jacinto waste pits. But in a state where legislators and regulators routinely erect barriers to citizens seeking justice from the industries that poison our water and pollute our air, Ryan’s headlines over matters of public concern look more like necessary leadership than disregard for cooperation.

That’s not to say Ryan hasn’t been an important team player with other law enforcement agencies across the county. He’s harnessed the power of the county attorney’s office to go after dangerous gangs, sex traffickers and Kush merchants. He also helped the county cut through the Gordian Knot of same-sex marriage by quickly and clearly instructing judges to follow the U.S. Supreme Court after it held bans to be unconstitutionally discriminatory, yet refrained from hounding individual county employees who preferred to pass onto their coworkers the historic duty of marrying same-sex couples.

Running for his third term, the former District C councilman and longtime assistant under former County Attorney Mike Driscoll brings a steady and experienced hand to an important position that has a vast spectrum of responsibilities, including advising county officials, preparing contracts, defending the county from lawsuits and protecting communities through civil action. He’s served the county well, and voters should keep him in office.

Other than some judges, Vince Ryan is the only Democrat elected countywide in 2008 to remain in office. Loren Jackson, who won a special election to fill the remaining term of District Clerk, lost in the 2010 sweep. HCDE At Large trustees Jim Henley, who resigned in 2014, and Debra Kerner, who lost in 2014, and Adrian Garcia, who stepped down as Sheriff to run for Mayor in 2015, followed. I feel pretty good about the Dems’ chances of adding to that roster this year, but it starts with Vince Ryan.

Senate whinefest about ballot propositions

Spare me.

crybaby

Members of a state Senate committee called Monday for changes in Texas law to prevent cities from thwarting or blocking citizen petition drives, a key issue for conservative and tea party groups in Houston and other cities in recent years.

At a meeting of the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee, members made it clear they support changes to ensure that ballot language is not deceptive or misleading and to keep cities from using outside law firms already doing city business to drag out legal proceedings against citizen petitioners.

Representatives of Texas’ approximately 300 home-rule cities cautioned against making changes to the current process or tipping the laws too far in favor of citizen groups, saying that could dilute local control in favor of state mandates.

Tension between citizen activists and local officials who often are the targets of their ire has been bubbling across Texas in recent years, thanks to a boost of tea party activism. Much of the testimony at Monday’s hearing centered on contentious petition drives and ballot fights in Houston, including the city’s controversial drainage fee levied more than decade ago and the repeal of Houston’s equal rights ordinance, known as HERO, in 2015.

[…]

Austin lawyer Andy Taylor, who fought the City of Houston before the Texas Supreme Court on ballot issues such HERO and the city’s drainage fee, told the committee how citizens who have had to go to court on their petition drives have had to pay hefty legal fees even though they won the legal battles.

Taylor testified that the cost of one case alone totalled $650,000. Bruce Hotze, a Houston businessman who has fought the City of Houston in another case, said he has spent well over $350,000 and the case is not over yet, because the city will not implement a charter change approved by voters.

Witnesses testified that other issues include petition signatures being invalidated in questionable ways, and cities using outside attorneys to increase the costs to citizen petitioners, a move that could discourage them from pursuing an action the city leadership opposes.

Let’s remember three things:

1. Andy Taylor’s fight over the drainage fee has been about nullifying the petition-driven referendum that was approved by the voters. The claims about “confusing language”, which were rejected by a district and appeals court before finally being bought by a credulous and activist Supreme Court, were raised after the election, by people who didn’t like the outcome.

2. That same Supreme Court put the anti-HERO referendum on the ballot without considering a lower court ruling that the petition effort had been rife with petition sheets that did not meet state law and widespread forgery. It never even held a hearing to allow an argument from the city, but ruled solely on a motion from the plaintiffs.

3. Apparently, this entire hearing occurred without anyone mentioning the Denton fracking referendum, in which yet another petition-driven referendum that was ratified by the voters was nullified, first by a judge and then by legislators like Paul Bettencourt.

The point here is that this isn’t about process, and it sure isn’t about The Will Of The People being stifled. It’s about the voters doing things that state Republicans don’t like. It’s about cities having a different vision and priorities for themselves than Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the Legislature do. Abbott et al don’t accept the authority of the federal government, and they don’t accept the authority of local government. That’s what this is about.

What it will take to win the District Court of Appeals benches

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that one place on the local ballot where Democrats could potentially gain some real ground is with the district Courts of Appeals. There are no competitive Congressional or State Senate races, the one competitive State House race in HD144 would be Democratic-favored in any Presidential year, and the countywide races have a greater dependency on the candidates themselves than any other contest. Republicans have done well in those races even as Democrats were winning district court benches, with the GOP successfully defending the offices of District Attorney and Tax Assessor in 2008 and 2012. The stakes are higher this year with the GOP hoping to keep the Sheriff’s office as well. Those races will get a lot of attention, with the outcomes less likely to be determined by partisan turnout levels.

The judicial races are where the candidates are mostly at the mercy of the blue/red mix. The wild card in those contests are for the 1st and 14th District Courts of Appeals, which encompass more than just Harris County. Jim Sharp broke through in 2008 to become the first (and so far only) Democrat in recent years to claim a spot on these benches, but several other races that year were fairly close, as each of the Democratic candidates carried Harris County. Republicans had a much easier time holding those positions in 2012, but the overall trend as well as the dynamic of this year’s Presidential contest suggests Dems may have a good shot at these. Let’s take a look at the numbers from the last two Presidential years and see if we can take a guess at what would need to happen for that to be the case.


2008

Race         Harris D  Harris R     Diff  Others D  Others R      Diff     Total
================================================================================
14th CJ       568,713   539,696  +29,017   199,332   258,576   -59,244   -30,227
1st Pl3       585,249   526,393  +58,856   209,510   250,194   -40,684   +18,172
1st Pl5       565,338   543,216  +22,122   198,502   259,452   -60,950   -38,828
14th Pl4      561,284   544,873  +16,411   194,751   261,775   -67,024   -50,613
14th Pl6      569,641   536,050  +33,591   198,463   257,779   -59,316   -25,815
14th Pl7      571,737   533,566  +38,173   198,849   257,265   -58,416   -20,245


2012

Race         Harris D  Harris R     Diff  Others D  Others R      Diff     Total
================================================================================
1st Pl2       567,793   572,351   -4,558   194,826   297,572  -102,746  -107,304
1st Pl6       565,699   572,594   -6,895   193,294   298,479  -105,185  -112,080
1st Pl7       565,258   572,326   -7,068   191,908   299,769  -107,861  -114,929
1st Pl8       560,865   575,397  -14,532   191,293   300,076  -108,783  -123,315
1st Pl9       567,466   570,529   -3,063   192,017   299,588  -107,571  -110,634
14th Pl3      580,356   557,224  +23,132   197,511   294,162   -96,551   -73,519
14th Pl4      555,639   580,450  -24,811   188,891   302,216  -113,325  -138,136
14th Pl5      557,972   578,436  -20,464   190,155   300,711  -110,556  -131,020
14th Pl8      575,206   562,417  +13,211   196,161   295,426   -99,265   -86,476

There are a couple of things going on here. The level of Democratic turnout in each year is roughly equivalent. The average dipped from 570,327 in 2008 to 566,250 in 2012, but that’a less than one percent. The Dem totals dropped a bit more in the other counties, falling from an average of 199,901 to 192,895, with the difference being exaggerated a bit by Jim Sharp’s showing in 2008. The bottom line remains that while the average Democratic candidate in these races received about 10,000 fewer votes in 2012, those totals didn’t affect the competitiveness of these races.

What did that were the Republican turnouts, which rose considerably in Harris and in the other counties, though for slightly different reasons. Republican voters in Harris County were far more likely to skip downballot races in 2008 than they were in 2012. It was the same way in 2004, with about ten percent of their Presidential voters disappearing for races like these, while Democratic voters were far more persistent about filling out their ballots. That pattern changed in 2012, with Rs and Ds about equally likely to fill the whole thing in. Some of that is no doubt the effect of straight-ticket voting, but there were still over 400,000 voters in Harris county who didn’t vote straight ticket in 2012. Maybe it was increased partisanship, maybe it was people absorbing the local message to vote all the way down, but whatever the case, it had an effect. As for the other counties, the increases are basically the result of population growth in Fort Bend, Galveston, and Brazoria Counties. Put the two together and you can see the effect.

Obviously, that makes winning these races this year a challenge, but I believe it can be done. Republicans have little to no prospect for growth in Harris County, and having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket is more likely to be a drag than an asset. Democrats need to put up a decent margin in Harris County, and they ought to be able to, but that won’t be enough. There needs to be some help in Fort Bend, Galveston, and Brazoria for there to be a fighting chance. I don’t know what is going on in those counties to try to boost turnout, though I know Fort Bend Democrats have been pretty active in recent years. I may be the only person in the state obsessing about these races as attainable targets for this year – these are low-visibility contests that have no immediate impact – but they represent an opportunity that we don’t often get, and it’s not like there are a bunch of legitimately exciting legislative or Congressional elections to focus on. The point I’ve been trying to make is that this is a good year to be thinking about other parts of the political bench, which includes county offices and judicial races. Remember, these appellate court positions come with six-year terms, so anyone who wins this year could if they chose run for a statewide bench in 2018 or 2020. There’s no downside to any of this, but we have to be aware of it first.

Another view of Democratic goals for 2016

Sounds about right.

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Some Democrats say Clinton has a chance at winning a majority in Texas, where interest is heightened because U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has been mentioned as a possible Clinton running mate. Castro said Friday that he isn’t being vetted as one.

They’re looking for Trump’s rhetoric to help unite Democrats behind their presumptive nominee after her hard fight with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, although signs of division still exist.

“We’re going to win. It’s going to be bigger than what Obama was able to do when he ran in Texas,” said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. “Donald Trump has done one thing for us. He’s united us.”

Others simply are hoping for some progress, given the steep hill ahead of Democrats who last won a statewide election in 1994. The last time a Democratic presidential candidate lost to a Republican by only single digits in Texas was in 1996, when President Bill Clinton defeated Republican Bob Dole nationally and Reform party candidate Ross Perot got 7 percent of the vote.

“I think that the best that Democrats can hope for this cycle is that we’re getting better,” said Democratic strategist Colin Strother. “What Democrats can hope for this cycle is that everybody gets a little more engaged … that they get out there and start busting their knuckles and building our list and improving our fundamentals.”

Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones put some parameters on what “better” could look like for Democrats.

“‘Better’ is keeping Trump’s victory in the single digits, and taking back somewhere around a half-dozen state House seats, taking back Congressional District 23 and turning Harris County blue,” Jones said.

In Harris County, he said, that means reclaiming the sheriff’s office, flipping the district attorney and tax assessor-collector offices and sweeping the overwhelming majority of countywide judicial elections.

That’s basically in line with what I suggested previously. On a great day, Dems could pick up two or three more House seats, and it’s not crazy to suggest that Fort Bend County, where Barack Obama won 48.5% of the vote in 2008, could be flipped, but they got the basics. I will note again that an under-the-radar opportunity for Dems is in the district Court of Appeals races. Here’s Texas Lawyer on this possibility:

But political experts who’ve taken a closer look at judicial races in Texas believe there’s one very important set of elections where Trump and his bombastic behavior could do some serious damage to his party’s ballot mates.

If a Trump effect is going to be felt anywhere in Texas, they believe it’s most likely to occur on Republican-held intermediate courts of appeals based in large Texas cities. Those races draw a pool of a mix of voters from both urban and suburban counties. And the split between Democrat and Republican votes have grown much closer in those courts in recent years.

Two simple things have to happen for the Trump effect to upset a down-ballot races in Texas, according to Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor who had studied the state’s voting trends for years.

First, Democrats in urban counties have to come out and vote at full strength to vote against him. And second, Republican voters who are turned off by the bigoted and often offensive candidate have to stay home on Election Day in November.

“When you think about Texas’ major cities, the inner cities are blue, the inner ring suburbs are purple and the outlying suburbs are red,” Jillson said. And the biggest problem for Republicans can be found in the purple suburbs, where stalwart Republicans may be turned off by Trump, he said.

“Two thirds of Republicans didn’t vote for Trump, but most are making their peace with him. And the money people are coming back to Trump,” Jillson said. “But … for a party to be competitive, they have to pull 90 percent of their electorate. And if you’re only pulling 85 percent up to 90 percent, you’ll lose. And that will effect congressional races and some state races.”

And the best place to watch the Trump effect in action on election night might be Houston’s First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals and Dallas’ Fifth Court of Appeals. Those courts, which have six seats up for grabs, are based in solid Democratic counties but are surrounded by numerous smaller red counties that have made those courts safe seats for Republicans for more than two decades.

The Trump effect has Democrats believing they now have the best shot ever for electing a complete slate of candidates to the Houston and Dallas courts of appeals. Democrats mounted a complete sweep of trial court races in Dallas County in 2006 and nearly took all of those seats in Harris County in 2008.

Those aren’t the only ones to watch. Dems lost a seat on the 13th Court of Appeals in the 2010 debacle, for example. That bench, held by 2008 Supreme Court candidate Linda Yanez, is up for re-election this year, and Dems have an experienced candidate in a judicial district that gave over 58% of the vote to a Democrat in 2008. There are Democrats running for Republican-held benches on the 4th (anchored in Bexar County) as well. The 13th should be the easiest pickup, with perhaps the 4th being next, and the 1st, 5th, and 14th more challenging still, but those are all opportunities that should be watched. The weeds get deeper from here, but you get the idea. There are available gains and attainable goals. We need to define what we want and figure out how we want to get them.

Judicial Q&A revisited: Darrell Jordan

As you know, in addition to selecting a Democratic nominee for County Commissioners Court in Precinct 1, precinct chairs everywhere in Harris County will get to select two judicial nominees, for newly-created courts. There are three people who have expressed an interest in the new County Criminal Court at Law #16. All three have submitted judicial Q&As to me for prior candidacies. I will be revisiting these for the test of this week.

Darrell Jordan was a candidate for the 180th Criminal District Court in 2010. Here are the responses he sent to me for the March primary that year.

Darrell Jordan

1. Who are you, and what are you running for?

My name is Darrell Jordan and I am running for the 180th Criminal District Court. I am married to Dr. Rhonda Jordan and we have two children Ashley and Andrew.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court handles felony cases. Felony cases are the most serious criminal cases such as murder, aggravated robbery, and sexual assault. The sentences in these cases can range from a period of probation to life imprisonment or in some instances death.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for this bench because I want to restore justice to the Harris County Criminal Justice System. I will work to promote courtroom efficiency by ensuring swift justice for victim and offender, saving Harris county tax payer dollars and creating safer communities as well.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

As a criminal defense attorney I practice exclusively in the area of criminal law. In the past year my caseload exceeded 100 cases. In addition to that I have proudly served for the past 8 years in the United States Army Reserves, currently serving in the rank of Captain in the JAG Corps. In this role, I serve as a recorder (prosecutor) on separation boards. In addition, I serve as legal advisor providing answers to questions of law to the board (jury). I have also served in the Texas House of Representatives as a policy analyst for Rep. Hubert Vo and as legal counsel for Sen. Rodney Ellis.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because there is nothing greater than freedom. I believe in due process and my duty to ensure that it is carried out. As a judge I view my position as the last stop to ensure that justice is done in each and every case for victim and offender.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

People should vote for me because I will ensure that justice will prevail in the courtroom. I know what needs to be done to ensure justice and strongly believe in my ability to get the job done correctly. I will support the Public Defender’s Office 100%. I will also implement a morning and afternoon docket in my courtroom. This will allow defendants to get their day in court as quickly as possible and it will also save the citizens of Harris County money by reducing the jail population.

Judicial Q&A revisited: Shawn Thierry

As you know, in addition to selecting a Democratic nominee for County Commissioners Court in Precinct 1, precinct chairs everywhere in Harris County will get to select two judicial nominees, for newly-created courts. There are six people who have expressed an interest in the new 507th Family District Court. Five of them have submitted judicial Q&As to me for prior candidacies; the sixth will send in responses separately. I had considered soliciting new Q&A responses from the candidates that I knew about, but ultimately decided that there was not likely to be much difference in the responses, so I’m going with reruns from those past candidacies.

Shawn Thierry was a candidate for the 157th Civil District Court in 2010. She submitted Q&A responses for that election, but at her request I am publishing new answers for this process.

Shawn Thierry

Shawn Thierry

1. What is your name?

My name is Shawn Nicole Thierry. I am a native Texan; I grew up in the Fondren Southwest Community of Houston, and am the proud mother of a three year old daughter, Klaire Bijou.

2. Why are you seeking the nomination for this bench?

I am running for Judge of the 507th Family District Court because it has become clear to me that a change is very much needed in the family courts. Family dynamics have changed tremendously over the past decade. Divorce is more common; however our judges now also need additional skill sets to properly resolve contemporary family issues. I have witnessed, and am still seeing, a serious lack of awareness in contemporary family dynamics from both the lawyers and the judges. For example, Texas judges are hearing cases of first impression due to same sex marriages and parenting agreements, home-school vs public education battles, blended family disputes, and much more. In fact, advancements in the area of assisted reproduction technology are rapidly evolving and often the science is ahead of the law. I want to to bring balance to the bench. I will do this in two ways. First, I will handle the traditional cases with a greater empathy and more attention to the final outcome so that the results will make sense under the law and also in practical, every day life. Secondly, I will approach the more innovative cases with a modern understanding for our modern families.

Another issue I will address and correct is inefficiency. There are unnecessary delays on the dockets that result in exorbitant costs and fees for the families seeking relief from the courts. I have a plan to streamline the lengthy pre-trial process by cutting down case re-sets. I would implement a new “30 Minute Time Out Zone” policy. Often times the lawyers have not had much time to prepare before coming to family court. Instead of automatically re-setting the matter, I would instruct the attorneys to sit down together (right then and there) to work through some of the less contentious issues instead of asking for more time to go back to their offices to draft lengthy letters or exchanging back and forth voicemails. During the “Time Out Zone”, I would hear other docket matters to keep the docket moving. Afterwards, the lawyers would inform the court of the progress they have made and we would proceed accordingly. This will allow families in my courtroom to get the best use of their lawyers’ time and professionalism and cut down on the number of times a parent or spouse would have to take time off of their job and miss work. My goal in this regard is to prevent repetitive court appearance and minimize expenses for families who are already in crisis. My overall mission is to create a completely new atmosphere in the courtroom where the lawyers, the clients, and the judge will truly work together to create smart solutions for real-life problems. It’s time to change the old “one size fits all” approach to family law because it is no longer effective or realistic.

3. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have been an attorney for 20 years. During that time, I have successfully handled a large portfolio of civil cases involving victims of injuries, product liability, medical malpractice, complex business litigation, wills and estate planning, and also handled specialized cases involving municipal and family law. Over the years, my personal preference has been to recover my fees from the opposing side or the wrongdoer, but this is not always possible in family law. As such, I have been very selective and have chosen to take on special divorces or the more compelling suits affecting parent child relationship (SAPCR) or whereby a client needed a lawyer who could give their case specialized attention. I have also handled divorces involving financial disputes over community property versus separate property, suits for enforcement and access to a child, name changes and modifications, termination of parental right cases, cases involving the need for appointment of guardian ad litems, and amicus attorneys.

However, it was in 2015, that I had a life-changing experience. Specifically, I was sought out to take on a very controversial family law case which was covered by the media and it stands the chance to make case law history. The case is still active (filed in Fort Bend) and I am presently providing instruction to the judge on a complex divorce between a Texas couple. I have argued legal issues and facts including the domestic violence statutory exception to set aside a mediation settlement agreement, a termination of parental rights affidavit involving a sperm donor husband, a wife whom was unable to biologically conceive, a contractually secured egg donor, a separate surrogate married couple, an international adoption, and the legality of non-disclosure of a pregnancy and the existence of a gestational agreement in a SAPCR. I have argued for the legal rights of the intended parent and the “best interests” and constitutional rights of the child.

The legal issues surrounding my case were also taken up in the 2015 Texas legislative session. (See House Bill 1704). These are the kinds of frontier cases that I have taken on where others were either uncomfortable, or simply not enlightened enough to understand all the complexities involved. I am inspired me to do all that I can to improve the family court system. Due to my reputation as a prolific legal researcher of common and statutory family law, I have also been hired to shadow author family law motions, briefs and memorandum, and appeals for other attorneys over the years. I have expert knowledge with regard to almost every aspect of the Texas Family Code. Keep in mind, however, that the actual role of the judge is to interpret the law, listen to the evidence presented, and control how hearings and trials are conducted in their courtrooms. Most important of all, judges are to serve as impartial decision-makers in the pursuit of justice. The judge is the “trier of fact,” deciding whether the evidence is credible and whether witnesses are telling the truth. At the end of the day, a good judge should have the intelligence and aptitude to understand the law, combined with the natural instinct to understand people. These experiences and skills are my personal hallmark and make me uniquely qualified.

4. Why is this race important?

This race is important because we should no longer elect judges who merely wish to serve on the bench as a “rubber stamp”. On June 30th, over four hundred Harris County Precinct Chairs will have an opportunity to bring progress to an outdated family court system by electing a candidate who is offering a solid plan for change and improvement. Many of my opponents have attempted to turn this position for judge into a numbers game contest of who has the highest number of cases. However, if that is the standard, then why not just leave the current judges on the bench since they also have heard volumes of cases and some have board certifications? We should not allow that to be the litmus test. Democracy requires that we challenge the status quo by seeking new candidates, with fresh perspectives so that we are constantly striving for the pursuit of justice and equal access for all. Judges should not operate on “auto pilot” based only on prior experiences as a lawyer. The courthouse is a living, breathing, emotional place and the disputes and issues can change in an instant. When it comes to justice, the standard is quality, not quantity. I believe the newly created 507th Family District court is the perfect place for me to contribute my talents, my time and my vision to help ensure that families will have a better courtroom experience and better legal outcomes.

5. Why should the precinct chairs choose you to be the nominee for the 507th Family Court and not one of the other candidates?

I have a passion for justice, along with a compassion for people. I am also the only candidate who is speaking about fixing the inefficiencies in the system, and who has provided innovative ideas for improving the court after being elected. I believe that I am most diverse, well-rounded candidate who will provide a combination of valuable legal and unique life experiences to the bench. I acquired keen experience early in legal career handling large cases at two prestigious law firms, and have successfully handled complex cases while also helping clients in a smaller, more customized law firm setting. Even with experience, there are still no “cookie cutter” answers in family law. My promise is to bring an open-mind, while critically listening to the facts of every single case and then applying the law fairly. I would also ask the precinct chairs to consider that whomever the candidates are in our daily lives, is exactly who we will be when wearing the robe as judge, therefore the issue of judicial fitness is important. Character traits like integrity, patience, humility and respect for all people cannot be taught or bought. I am asking the precinct chairs to support me also due to my reputation for having a level-headed, polite temperament along with the integrity to do the right thing. I am not an unknown quantity, but am also not a perennial candidate. I believe this separates me from the pack as well. I am running for this specific bench at this specific time because I truly feel that this is my calling and my purpose. I am ready to lead and to serve the community with a new and improved approach to justice. If I become the democratic nominee, I will also continue to work hard to make the general election voters in Harris County proud. It would be my honor to become your new Judge of the 507th Family District Court. If the precinct chairs will give me that chance on June 30, 2016, I will not let them or their constituents down.

Update on the nomination selection processes

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In six days, Democratic precinct chairs in County Commissioners Court Precinct 1 will select a nominee to replace the late El Franco Lee on the November ballot. In 11 days, all Democratic precinct chairs will select nominees for the 507th Family Court and the County Criminal Court at Law #16. This is a brief update on activity related to those races.

About a week ago, I received a letter addressed to precinct chairs concerning the 507th Family Court race. It was sent by fellow precinct chair Natalie Fairbanks and it enumerated the number of Harris County family court cases that each of the six known candidates had been involved in since 2008. I did a scan of the letter, which you can see here. A couple of days later, candidate Germaine Tanner sent an email to precinct chairs arguing that the data in the Fairbanks was inaccurate and incomplete, as all the attorneys in question have been practicing since well before 2008 and the count of cases did not include those “that were filed as post-divorce proceedings between the years 2008-2015, but with a case number that preceded the year 2008”. You can see this email here. Later that same day, candidate Julia Maldonado sent her own email pointing out that there are qualifications beyond number of cases worked, such as board certification, and that some attorneys handle cases outside of Harris County as well. You can see that email here.

As for the County Criminal Court at Law #16 race, the HCDP lists three candidates who have stated an interest in that nomination. Two of them have made themselves known to precinct chairs recently. David Singer, who up till recently was the only candidate I was aware of for this position, sent a letter to precinct chairs outlining his background and qualifications. I thought he had also sent that via email, but if so I can’t find it. This is the back side of his push card from the March primary for the 177th Criminal District Court, which is from an email he did send to precinct chairs in February. It’s a succinct summary of what was in the letter. Last week, I received an email from Darrell Jordan, who was a candidate for the 180th Criminal District Court in 2010. You can see that email here. The third candidate in this race is Raul Rodriguez, who had run for the 174th Criminal District Court this March and like Singer had been a candidate for one of the County Criminal Courts in 2014. I’ve not yet heard anything from him on this race. I do have Q&As from all three from past candidacies – Singer and Rodriguez for 2016, Jordan for 2010 – and will be revisiting those this week.

Finally, on the Commissioners Court race, candidate Georgia Provost made a pair of robocalls to precinct chairs this week. It was the first contact from a candidate not named Ellis, Locke, or Boykins that I received. And I have to say, of all the ways available to reach out to voters, I have no idea why she chose the robocall route. Robocalls have their place in the firmament – they’re a pretty efficient way of reminding people that there is an election in the first place – but given that nobody listens past the first five or ten seconds and you don’t know who actually picked up the phone, why would you do that for a more detailed sales pitch like this race? I mean, there’s 125 voters total for this race. At a very leisurely pace of five contacts per day, you could reach everyone in less than a month, and ensure that you personally get to talk to them. I can’t imagine a less effective strategy for a race like this than robocalls.

Finally, a few days ago I received a letter from Rep. Harold Dutton endorsing Gene Locke for the position. To the best of my admittedly spotty recollection, it’s the only letter I’ve received from an elected official endorsing someone other than Rodney Ellis. At the very least, it’s the only one I’ve received recently from an elected official.

Six days till we pick a Commissioner. Eleven days till we pick two judicial candidates. Hang in there, y’all.

Judicial Q&A revisited: Chip Wells

As you know, in addition to selecting a Democratic nominee for County Commissioners Court in Precinct 1, precinct chairs everywhere in Harris County will get to select two judicial nominees, for newly-created courts. There are six people who have expressed an interest in the new 507th Family District Court. Five of them have submitted judicial Q&As to me for prior candidacies; the sixth will send in responses separately. I had considered soliciting new Q&A responses from the candidates that I knew about, but ultimately decided that there was not likely to be much difference in the responses, so I’m going with reruns from those past candidacies.

Chip Wells was a candidate for the 247th Family District Court in 2014 and 2010. Here are the responses he sent to me for the 2014 primary.

Chip Wells

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Clinton “Chip” Wells and I am the Democratic nominee for Judge in the 247th Family District Court of Harris County, Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This Court presides over divorces, suits affecting the parent-child relationship, adoptions and enforcement matters.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for Judge in this particular Court because in 2010 this Court had become one of the most inhospitable Court in the Family courthouse. Judge Hellums was seeking re-election in 2010 and I entered the Democratic primary for the opportunity to challenge her on that Bench. I lost that primary. I was approached again in 2014 and asked to consider running for a Family Bench again. I chose to seek election in the 247th District Court because Judge Hellums was retiring from the Bench after many years of service and I believed that I could bring my experience and willingness to serve to that Court for a positive improvement.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have been practicing law in the State of Texas for more than 37 years. I have handled cases across this State from El Paso to Beaumont and Brownsville to Dallas. I have tried many cases with and without juries in matters involving family law, plaintiff’s personal injury law, civil litigation, criminal law and probate. In addition to my legal experience I am a certified mediator having received training at the AA White Dispute Resolution Center. In addition to my mediation training I am certified in family mediation.

5. Why is this race important?

The race in the 247th Judicial District Court is important for many reasons. You are more likely to find yourself, your friends, family members or neighbors in a family law court than any other court in this State. Because these courts deal with our most precious possessions, our children and our families, these courts require a Judge who has the experience and training to render a fair and impartial judgment. Justice matters. Experience, compassion, and a common sense approach to problem resolution is required for any Judge elected to serve in our Family District Courts.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I am the choice for Judge in the 247th Family District Court. I have the training and experience that I have gained over 37 years practicing law representing individuals and families across this State. I have a reputation for compassion, equality and common sense resolution necessary to sit in Judgment of disputed matters. I have the life experiences that assure a compassionate, understanding approach to oversee the resolution of these disputed matters. If justice and experience matter then Clinton “Chip” Wells is the choice to serve as a Judge in the 247th Family District Court of Harris County, Texas.

Judicial Q&A revisited: Sandra Peake

As you know, in addition to selecting a Democratic nominee for County Commissioners Court in Precinct 1, precinct chairs everywhere in Harris County will get to select two judicial nominees, for newly-created courts. There are six people who have expressed an interest in the new 507th Family District Court. Five of them have submitted judicial Q&As to me for prior candidacies; the sixth will send in responses separately. I had considered soliciting new Q&A responses from the candidates that I knew about, but ultimately decided that there was not likely to be much difference in the responses, so I’m going with reruns from those past candidacies.

Sandra Peake was a candidate for the 246th Family District Court in 2014; she also ran for the 257th Family Court in 2010. Here are the responses she sent to me for the 2014 primary.

Sandra Peake

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Sandra Peake, and I am running for the 246th Family District Court

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This Court hears family law related cases: divorce, child custody disputes, child support establishment, enforcement and modification, adoptions, name changes, post divorce property disputes, etc.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for this particular bench because the Judge York is not seeking re-election. I wanted to have the experience of running for an open bench.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced before these Courts for the past 30 years and am sensitive to the unique issues that arise in family law cases, particularly giving consideration to the culturally and religiously diverse families who make up a significant proportion of the population in Harris County. The citizens of this county deserve consistent application of the law, courtesy and fairness. I am up to the challenge of ensuring judicial excellence by ruling decisively with impartiality; and, by respecting the time constraints of the litigants and their lawyers.

5. Why is this race important?

All of the races on the ballot are important. However, those races which are more likely to impact an average family, it is more likely than not that the average person will have occasion to have a case pending in family court because of the high rate of divorce and the number of children being raised in single parent households. Children will primarily reside with a parent or extended family member. Parents will get divorced, need post divorce changed circumstance modifications, enforcement of their existing orders. The definition of the family is constantly evolving and the statutes defining the family relationship will eventually evolve as well.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I think people should vote for me in the primary because I am an experienced family lawyer with over 30 years of experience handling the type of typically handled by family court judges. I have also mediated and number of cases and endorse alternate dispute resolution as a means of opening up the lines of communication between disputing family members. I believe I have run a principled practice with focus on not only the client being represented, but with goal toward how this particular family can be salvaged so that going forward, there is a working relationship if at all possible, for the children’s sake.

We precinct chairs will have at least one more nomination to fill

Alyssa Lemkuil

As everyone knows, Democratic precinct chairs in Commissioners Court Precinct 1 will be selecting a nominee to replace the late El Franco Lee on the November ballot. If we wind up selecting someone who is also on the November ballot for this slot – Sen. Rodney Ellis being the prime, possibly only, example of this – the precinct chairs in the affected entity (in that case, SD13) will have to then make another selection to fill his abandoned place on the ballot. We’ve been over this before, we know the drill.

What you may not know is that all Democratic precinct chairs will have the job of making a selection for another nomination elsewhere on the ballot. The reason for this is because the 2015 Legislature created a new judicial district, the 507th Family Court, here in Harris County. On December 28, Greg Abbott named Alyssa Lemkuil to be the first Judge of the 507th. Because that happened after the filing deadline was closed (*), there is no Democratic nominee for that bench. As such, by the same laws that give precinct chairs the power to replace El Franco Lee on the ballot, precinct chairs (in this case for the whole county) will pick a nominee for the 507th Family Court as well.

I bring this up because last week I started hearing from people who are interested in being that nominee. So far, Chip Wells (who ran for the 247th Family Court in 2010 and 2014), Sandra Peake (who ran for the 257th Family Court in 2010 and the 246th Family Court in 2014), and Shawn Thierry (who ran for the 157th Civil Court in 2010) have all made their interest known in one way or another. According to The Police News, Julia Maldonado (candidate for the 246th Family Court in 2014 and the 308th Family Court (for which Judge Lemhkuil had been an associate judge) in 2010) had applied to be appointed to the 507th and will presumably seek the nomination now. That site also mentioned Chip Wells and Jim Evans (candidate for the 308th Family Court in 2014) as others who would likely seek the nomination as well.

That’s what I know about this court and the candidates for it at this time. I’m sure that there are other people who have looked at this court, and I’m sure that by publishing this post, anyone who is interested and who isn’t named here will make his or her presence known to me one way or another. One more thing to note is that this court, like all the other Family courts, will be on a non-Presidential year cycle after this election, so whoever wins in November will have to run for re-election in 2018.

(*) Why was the appointment made after the filing deadline? The law that created the 507th Family Court specified that it was to begin operations on January 1, 2016, so Abbott was always going to appoint the first judge. Both the Police News site and a Greg Enos newsletter mentioned that Republican precinct chairs will also get to pick their November nominee, by the same process as us Dems. That doesn’t address the question of the timing of the appointment. Why not make it before the start of filing season in November, so that the eventual nominees could be chosen the normal way? It may be that there is some provision of the Elections code that mandates this, but I have no idea if that is the case or what it might say if so. Perhaps one of the attorneys in attendance could say something about in in the comments. Practically speaking, it doesn’t really make sense to name someone to a job more than six weeks before he or she can take the job, indeed more than six weeks before the job has even been created. Politically speaking, it would be embarrassing for the Abbott appointee to lose in a contested primary. This could still happen at the precinct chair level for Judge Lemkuil, though one would think that Abbott’s appointment would receive a fair amount of deference. Again, none of this directly answers the question, so if someone out there actually knows the answer, please do let us know.

Once again with CD29

It’s all about the turnout.

Rep. Gene Green

Rep. Gene Green

On a Gulfgate-area side street lined with union halls, Hillary Clinton’s Houston field office and U.S. Rep. Gene Green’s congressional re-election outfit sit mere doors apart, a coincidental marker of the anticipated link between their races.

Green is squaring off against former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia in the region’s marquee congressional primary, the outcome of which is expected to be swayed by the strength of the Democratic presidential fight in Texas.

The increasingly competitive contest between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders stands to boost turnout in the 77-percent Latino 29th Congressional District, political observers said, likely shifting the electorate more Hispanic.

“Typically in Democratic primaries, the vote is only about 45 percent Hispanic,” local Democratic strategist Keir Murray said of the 29th District. “However, if you have something, an external factor like a hot presidential race that increases the overall turnout … because of the makeup of the population and the list of registered voters, the percentage of Hispanic voters is going to go up. There’s almost no way it can’t.”

Adrian Garcia

Adrian Garcia

Such a boost in Hispanic voting is expected to help Garcia.

“If this were a nonpresidential cycle, the advantage would clearly be with Green because of the historical turnout in the district,” Texas Southern University political scientist Jay Aiyer said.

However, he said, “The increased turnout is disproportionately low-propensity Latino voters. … And so that benefits Garcia over Green.”

Democratic participation in the 29th District, which curls around eastern Houston, hit a high-water mark in 2008, when nearly 54,000 voters cast a primary ballot, up from 5,000 two years earlier.

Few expect this year’s turnout to be quite as high.

Green’s campaign is anticipating between 35,000 and 50,000 Democratic primary voters, while Garcia’s expects between 12,000 and 54,000, the turnouts in 2012 and 2008, respectively.

We can’t have all this talk about turnout without looking at some numbers, right? I was curious what the relationship was between turnout in CD29 and turnout overall in Harris County. Here’s what it looks like:


Year    CD29    Harris     Pct
==============================
2002  11,891    95,396  12.46%
2004  10,682    78,692  13.57%
2006   5,037    35,447  14.21%
2008  53,855   410,908  13.11%
2010  11,777   101,263  11.63%
2012  12,194    76,486  15.94%
2014   6,808    53,788  12.66%

With the exception of 2002, the “CD29” number represents total ballots cast in CD29 in that year; in 2002, the County Clerk only reported ballots cast for the candidates, so undervotes weren’t included. “Harris” is the total turnout for the Democratic primary in Harris County that year, and “Pct” is the percentage of the total vote that came from CD29. Given that Gene Green was unopposed in each of those years, it’s reasonable to assume that his share of the total vote will creep up a bit. Let’s say it’s 15% of the overall total. If so, then Green’s team is projecting countywide turnout at between 233,000 and 333,000, while Garcia’s people have the much wider spread of 80,000 to 360,000. You can fiddle around with the numbers a bit, but I’d say the range that Team Green is predicting is likely to be on the mark. The early voting returns we’re about to start seeing will tell us much more. What’s your turnout guess?