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Election 2018

There is no longer a ban on federal funds for rail on Richmond

This is about as bittersweet as it gets.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

There are no plans to build light rail on Richmond, but for the first time in a long time there is nothing stopping Metro from asking for federal funds to help pay for it.

The federal spending bill signed Friday by President Donald Trump, averting a government shutdown, lacks a provision in previous funding plans barring the Federal Transit Administration from funding any part of light rail on Richmond or Post Oak.

The provision was added at least eight years ago by former Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, a fervent opponent of rail plans in the 7th District. Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee that set up the spending bills, added language forbidding use of federal money to “advance in any way a new light or heavy rail project … if the proposed capital project is constructed on or planned to be constructed on Richmond Avenue west of South Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond Avenue.”

He was defeated in November by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who said last month she aimed to be an advocate for transit.

Friday, she said in a statement she worked with lawmakers “to remove language in the bill that created unnecessary barriers and limited federal funding from coming to Houston for much-needed transportation improvements. Removal of this language will put the power to make decisions about our transit back in the hands of Houstonians.”

This is great, and it’s quite an achievement for Rep. Fletcher to get this done in only her second month in office. It’s just that in a more fair and just universe, we’d already have the Universities line built and would maybe be talking about extending it as part of the 2019 MetroNext referendum, while eagerly looking forward to the forthcoming Uptown BRT line as the completion of the original system. I know, it’s fashionable now to say that we should be wary about investing large sums of money into fixed infrastructure projects like this because driverless cars are coming and will solve all of our problems. My point is we could be celebrating the ten-year anniversary of this line – the Main Street line just turned 15 years old, in case you forgot to send it a birthday card – with millions of passengers having ridden it over that span. People often talk about how the time to have built rail in Houston was years ago. Well, we were on the verge of doing just that following the 2003 election, but politics, shortsightedness, NIMBYism, and the incompetence and mismanagement of the Metro CEO and Board following that election killed this key part of it off. I salute and thank Rep. Fletcher for keeping her word. I just mourn that it comes too late to deliver what had once been promised to us.

Elisa Cardnell

Meet your first official candidate for CD02.

Elisa Cardnell

A naval battle just might be on the horizon in one of Houston’s most competitive Congressional districts.

On Thursday Navy veteran and science teacher Elisa Cardnell, a Democrat, filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to challenge newly-elected U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Houston Republican who is a former Navy SEAL.

Cardnell said she has been considering running for Congress for more than a month. In January, she told her social media followers she was getting ready for the race.

“Before 2016, I tried to stay out of politics, especially since as a member of the military I viewed my role as necessarily nonpartisan — at least in public life,” Cardnell said. “But now I feel that I have to do something, and my entire career of serving my country and my community has led me to this point.”

The 32-year-old Cardnell, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rice University, spent 5 years on active duty in the Navy and nearly 6 years in the Navy reserves. While on active duty, she rose to the rank of lieutenant, serving as an anti-submarine warfare officer and an officer in charge of port operations in Yorktown.

I’ve mentioned Elisa before, after she reached out to me to tell me of her interest in running. Among other things, filing this paperwork means she can now raise money, so we’ll have a very early indicator of enthusiasm in three months, when the Q1 finance reports get filed. Quite a few of the 2018 Congressional candidates are at least in the picture for 2020 – Mike Siegel (CD10), Sri Kulkarni (CD22), Gina Ortiz Jones (CD23), and MJ Hegar (CD31) are running, thinking about running, or being wooed to run again. I’ve not heard anything about Todd Litton yet, but he’ll be part of the conversation until he says otherwise. CD02 is not currently on the national target list, but I expect it will eventually get there, and as it is wholly within Harris County, it’s the biggest target available for local Dems. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it. The Hill has more.

Back to court for Prop B

Here we go again.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Lawyers for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner filed a motion Friday afternoon seeking to declare Proposition B invalid, contending the voter-approved referendum supporting pay parity for firefighters violates Texas law.

The move is the latest in an extended legal battle between the city and firefighters over the November ballot measure requiring the city to pay firefighters the same as police of equal rank and seniority.

[…]

The city’s motion claims that Proposition B is illegal under the Texas Local Government Code and the Texas Constitution, an allegation the city previously made in December.

The filing is notable, though, because Turner has said he hopes to negotiate a plan with the fire union to phase in pay parity over a number of years, arguing the city cannot find the funds to do so immediately.

His efforts to again invalidate the charter amendment altogether appear to cast doubt on whether both sides can ultimately reach an agreement. Though Turner has said “those conversations are taking place,” neither side has indicated they have made any tangible progress since [firefighters union president Marty] Lancton and Turner met publicly in January.

The day before that meeting, the union sought a court order aiming to force the city to enact parity, a move Turner questioned at the time. Lancton, skeptical of Turner’s sincerity in offering the meeting, said the city’s inaction had forced the union’s hand, while Turner said the union should not have gone to the courthouse on the eve of the meeting.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which you can take however you want. I’m mostly noting this for the record, because as far as I can tell there’s no legal impediment at this time to proceeding with Prop B, a subject that I’m sure will continue to arise. The one thing I find surprising is that so far no individual voters have filed a lawsuit over the wording of the ballot referendum. It seems like every other one we’ve had in recent memory has faced litigation over that, some more credible than others, so it’s a little odd to me that this referendum hasn’t had that same experience. Just a though.

More looking forward to 2020

Gonna have some more of that sweet Congressional election action.

Smelling blood after picking up two Texas congressional seats in November – along with Beto O’Rourke’s narrow loss in the U.S. Senate race – House Democrats [recently] announced six new 2020 targets in the Lone Star State.

In a wish list of 33 GOP-held or open seats targeted nationally by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Texas figures prominently as a potential battleground, particularly in the suburbs.

The targeted Texas lawmakers include Houston-area Republicans Michael McCaul and Pete Olson. Around San Antonio, the Democrats are putting two other Republicans in their sights: Freshman Chip Roy, a conservative stalwart who worked for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, and moderate Will Hurd, who represents a heavily Latino border district.

Rounding out the list are Republicans John Carter of Round Rock and Kenny Marchant of Coppell.

“All six have suburban areas experiencing population booms and an increasingly diverse electorate. These factors gave Republicans a taste of what is headed their way.” said DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat, in a memo released Monday.

“In 2020 a rapidly emerging Democratic coalition will make Texas a focal point of the House Democrats’ offensive strategy,” she continued.

Democrats noted that all six targeted Republicans in Texas won by five points or less, revealing electoral weaknesses in a state that has been dominated by Republicans for a generation.

In practical terms, the DCCC list indicates the group will be pouring money and organizational resources into those races, including recruitment efforts to help candidates who best match their districts.

It’s the shutdown target list plus Will Hurd. Not really a surprise, though I think overlooking CD02 is a bit short-sighted. There will be time to correct that. For their part, the Republicans will target freshman Reps. Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred. A priori everyone goes into 2020 as the favorite to hold their own seat, but suffice it to say there are many variables and a whole lot of potential for volatility. If Donald Trump is heading for a massive loss, who knows how many of these red seats could fall. If he’s back into the low-to-mid-40s approval ratings, there may be a lot of action but not much change. If things have gone south for the Dems – a bit hard to imagine now, but politics is weird these days – the Republicans could win back the seats they lost. Hard hitting analysis, I know, but at this point it’s all as meaningful as a split squad game during spring training. All we’re doing now it setting up the potential story lines. The Current and Mother Jones have more.

Beto may yet be a Senate candidate in 2020

He’s at least talking about the possibility.

Beto O’Rourke

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer met with former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke last week to discuss a possible 2020 Senate campaign against GOP Sen. John Cornyn, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

O’Rourke, a Democrat who lost narrowly against Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, is considering running for president and hasn’t publicly discussed running again for Senate in 2020. But he also hasn’t ruled it out.

[…]

If O’Rourke chooses to challenge Cornyn instead of seeking the Democratic nomination for president, he would immediately have the support of Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) — Julián Castro’s twin brother.

“Joaquin believes Beto could beat John in 2020, and if Beto decides to see this thing through and do that, then Joaquin will give him his full support, just like he did against Ted Cruz,” a source close to Castro told POLITICO. “Otherwise, Joaquin will absolutely consider jumping in and finishing the job.”

As the story notes, we should know by the end of the month if Beto is mounting a Presidential campaign, which would almost certainly take him out of the running for Senate. That doesn’t mean he’ll run for Senate again if he decides against a Presidential bid, but we’ll have a bit more clarity on where things stand. The story also notes that MJ Hegar and Wendy Davis are looking at a Senate bid, which may apply a bit of pressure to Beto to pick a direction. The possibility that Joaquin Castro might try for the Senate intrigues me. I’ve discounted the idea of Joaquin running for Senate on the grounds that he’d be giving up four terms of seniority in what is now a Democratic Congress, with a sure path to leadership opportunities, for at best a coin flip for Senate. Obviously, I could be wrong about his thinking or his risk appetite.

I don’t know how this will be sorted out. I do think in the end, either 1) Beto announces for Senate and everyone else goes and does other things, or 2) Beto makes it clear he’s not running for Senate, and it becomes open season for whoever wants in. In the end, I think we’ll wind up with a strong candidate for Senate, whether Beto or Joaquin or MJ or Wendy or someone else. Mostly, I’m glad we’re talking about this now, and working towards getting someone officially declared now, so we can start fundraising and organizing for that person. One of the lessons learned from 2018 was that an early start was a benefit in many ways. We have the advantage of learning from and building on 2018 as we prepare for 2020. We’re running against a stronger candidate who sees us coming this time, so we’ll need every advantage we can get. The Current has more.

MJ Hegar considers a Senate run

Now we’re getting somewhere.

MJ Hegar

Military veteran MJ Hegar, a former U.S. House candidate, is seriously considering a run for the Democratic nomination to take on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in 2020.

Hegar, who served in the Air Force in Afghanistan, ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. John Carter of Round Rock last year for his Central Texas congressional seat.

“I’m not closing the door on anything,” she told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday.

“I’m considering my options and weighing what’s best for my family and how to best serve my community,” she added. “I’m aware that I have assets. … I’d like to put those assets to use for my community.”

[…]

Whom the Democrats nominate to take on Cornyn is one of the central questions in this early stage of the 2020 election cycle. That eventual nominee could affect down-ballot races at all levels across the state. Many Texas Democratic insiders hope that former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is considering a run for president, or former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who is already in the presidential fray, will instead run for U.S. Senate.

For her part, Hegar said one thing that might factor into her decision is whether former Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis jumps in the Senate primary. Davis told the Tribune on Tuesday she has not “ruled anything out.”

Davis, who ran an unsuccessful Texas gubernatorial bid against Greg Abbott in 2014, has spent much of her time since then helping Texas candidates like Hegar.

“Wendy is someone I respect a lot and I support a lot,” Hegar said. “And if she were to decide to run, I would be very hard to convince to enter a primary against her.”

As you know, Hegar is high on my list of non-Beto options versus Cornyn. Frankly, I think the fact that she’s publicly talking about it is a sign that for Beto it’s either run for President or not run for anything. (In re: Julian Castro, given that candidate filing season ends in mid-December here, he’d have to abandon his Presidential campaign before ever facing a single voter, which seems unlikely to me. Maybe Governor in 2022 if he’s not in office or a Cabinet position after 2020, but I cannot see him running for Senate this cycle.) I would be very happy with an MJ Hegar candidacy.

As for Wendy Davis, this is the first time I’ve seen her name attached to a potential 2020 campaign. I love Wendy Davis, but she’ll have a harder time getting the kind of attention she got in her first statewide run, and when she does she’ll get asked a lot about why her 2014 candidacy flopped. Which is only fair – Texas Dems will surely want to know what she learned from that experience, and why she thinks Davis-Cornyn 2020 would be different than Davis-Abbott 2014. To be sure, I think being a female candidate now is much more of an advantage than it was in 2014, and with a solid anti-Roe majority on SCOTUS I think the abortion issue will play a lot better for her. Those white suburban women who avoided her in droves in 2014 are a lot more amenable to Democrats now, after all. I will just ask that if Wendy Davis throws her hat into the ring for Senate in 2020, it means that MJ Hegar will be back to try again against John Carter.

On to the runoff in HD125

We could still have a recount, given how close the race for second place was.

Justin Rodriguez

A Republican and a Democrat are moving on to a runoff in the race to replace ex-state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, in a traditionally Democratic district.

With all precincts reporting Tuesday night, Republican Fred Rangel got 38 percent of the vote and Democrat Ray Lopez had 19 percent, according to unofficial returns. The third-place finisher, Coda Rayo-Garza, narrowly missed the runoff, coming in 22 votes behind Lopez, a former member of the San Antonio City Council.

The two other Democrats in the race, Art Reyna and Steve Huerta, netted 17 percent of the vote and 6 percent, respectively.

[…]

Rangel, a businessman and activist, was boosted in recent days by endorsements from two top Texas Republicans, first Gov. Greg Abbott and then U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. Rangel’s candidacy — and runoff berth — evokes that of Pete Flores, the Pleasanton Republican who flipped a state Senate seat last year after advancing to the overtime round of a special election.

See here for the early vote update, and here for the unofficial election night totals. Turnout was 6.05%, and a bit more than sixty percent of the vote was cast early. We’ll need to see if Coda Rayo-Garza asks for a recount, which she’d be well within her rights to do as she trails Ray Lopez by 0.36 percentage points. Assuming nothing changes – and as you know, I never expect a recount to make any difference – it will be Rangel versus Lopez in the runoff.

Let’s talk about Rangel’s significant lead over Lopez for a minute. Lopez, Rayo-Garza, and Art Reyna are all bunched together in second through fourth place, with their votes distributed very evenly. Lopez and Rayo-Garza combined to outscore Rangel; add in Reyna and the three got about 56%, with the fourth Dem getting another six and a half. On the one hand, Rangel outperformed Donald Trump in 2016 (though Hillary Clinton trails the four Dems in total by about two and a half points), and did better than Republicans other than Greg Abbott in 2018. It’s a respectable performance – better, in fact, than Pete Flores relative to the 2016 baseline. On the other hand, HD125 is more Democratic overall than SD19, so in any remotely normal turnout scenario, Lopez should win without too much difficulty. One hopes that Bexar County Dems will not want to let another winnable special election slip through their fingers. If Rayo-Garza and Reyna endorse Lopez for the runoff and no one is asleep at the wheel, Lopez should win. It’s not a slam dunk, but it’s not really any harder than a free throw. Don’t screw it up, y’all.

UPDATE: The Rivard Report has more.

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

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

Kim Ogg

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

And speaking of next year:

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

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

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

January 2019 finance reports: HISD

Odd-numbered years mean three types of elections in Houston – city, HISD, and HCC. We’ve looked at the finance reports for city candidates, now let’s have a look at the reports for HISD trustees, which I’ve separated into those up for election this year and those not up till 2021.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, District II
Sergio Lira, District III
Jolanda Jones, District IV
Diana Davila, District VII

Elizabeth Santos, District I
Sue Deigaard, District V
Holly Flynn Vilaseca, District VI
Anne Sung, District VII
Wanda Adams, District IX


Name              Raised    Spent    Loan  On Hand
==================================================
Skillern-Jones         0    2,104       0      291
Lira               2,165      229       0    6,007
Jones                  0        0       0   12,259
Davila                 0        0  19,178        0

Santos                 0      452       0    4,354
Deigaard               0      848       0    6,634
Vilaseca               0      688       0    3,818
Sung                   0      308       0    5,290
Adams                  0    2,088       0      238

Pretty boring, I’m afraid. Diana Davila left her “cash on hand” field blank, so I don’t know for a fact that she has zero on hand; she may have some amount of that $19K loan available. I don’t know why Rhonda Skillern-Jones has so little on hand. That may be an indicator that she could choose to step down rather than run for a third term. I’m just speculating here, but given the constant state of turmoil on the Board and the current threat of TEA takeover, it’s not ridiculous to postulate this. I do know that Wanda Adams had put her name in for consideration for the nomination for Justice of the Peace in Precinct 7, Place 1 (to fill the vacancy left after the March primary by the resignation of Hilary Green), though she did not get it. I want to stress again, this is just me thinking out loud, I have no direct evidence of what Skillern-Jones may be contemplating.

Having said all that, as far as we know at this point these four Trustees are running for re-election, and no potential opponents had filed finance reports for this deadline. You find Trustee finance reports on their individual Trustee pages (here’s the Board index page). Later in the cycle when there are formal opponents, there’s usually a separate page with the reports for the Trustees who are running and their opponents, as well as any candidates for open seats if such exist. As we’ve discussed many times before, who even knows if we’ll have Trustee elections this November. Until we know otherwise, I’ll report on their finance reports.

RIP, Cassandra Hollemon

Sad news.

Cassandra Hollemon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time again to talk judicial elections

Here we go again, like it or not.

In the wake of a midterm election that swept some 20 Republican appellate judges out of office, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht called on the Texas Legislature to reform a system he called “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”

“When partisan politics is the driving force and the political climate is as harsh as ours has become, judicial elections make judges more political, and judicial independence is the casualty,” Hecht told both chambers of the Legislature on Wednesday morning in his biennial address, a wide-ranging speech that touched on judicial salaries, technology and bail reform. “Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind.”

In recent history, partisan judicial elections have played well for Texas’ majority party; the state’s two high courts, in which justices run statewide, comprise all Republicans, as they have for two decades. But last year, as turnout surged in urban areas and voters leaned heavily toward the straight-ticket voting option, Democratic judges were swept onto the bench on the coattails of candidates like Beto O’Rourke. All told, Hecht said, in the last election, Texas’ district and appellate courts “lost seven centuries of judicial experience at a single stroke.”

“Qualifications did not drive their election,” Hecht said. “Partisan politics did.”

It wasn’t a new criticism, nor was it the first time Hecht has made such a call. Justices on Texas’ two high courts have been among the most vocal critics of a system that requires justices to run as partisan figures but rule as impartial arbiters, and the state has been challenged in court over the practice. But the call took on new significance after a shattering judicial election for Texas Republicans, who lost control of four major state appeals courts based in Austin, Houston and Dallas. Judges and lawyers who practice before those courts have fretted not just about the startling shift in judicial philosophy, but also the abrupt loss of judicial experience.

Hecht called on lawmakers to consider shifting to a system of merit selection and retention elections — or to at least pass legislative proposals that would increase the qualification requirements for judicial candidates.

You know how I feel about this, so I won’t belabor the point. I don’t doubt that Justice Hecht is sincere But:

1. Republicans have had complete control of Texas government since 2003. That’s eight regular sessions, and however many special sessions, in which they could have addressed this but chose not to.

2. Hecht and former Justice Wallace Jefferson have spoken about this before, but if anyone was talking about it before 2008, when Democrats first started winning judicial races in Harris County, I’m not aware of it.

3. The judges who were voted out may well have been experienced, but that doesn’t mean they’d make better judges than the candidates who replaced them. And the main consideration people had was voting for change. Maybe as part of the party in power, Hecht should given that a little more consideration.

Anyway. Until someone proposes an actual system to replace the one we have, one that takes into account the inherent politics of the process and deals with it in a way that truly enables merit and produces a judiciary that reflects the population it judges, it’s all just noise to me.

(Justice Hecht also had some loud and laudable words in favor of bail reform, which I appreciate. Go read the rest of the story for that.)

From the “Elections have consequences”, Metro referendum edition

Sometimes, consequences are good things.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

METRO will get more federal support for public transportation projects if Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher has anything to say about it. The freshman lawmaker wants to use her new seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to back METRO’s Regional Transit Plan.

Fletcher says she learned during last year’s campaign just how frustrated her constituents are about their lack of transit options. “I want to be a partner with METRO,” she told Houston Matters Monday. “And looking at their plan, I know it’s undergoing input right now, community input, through all these town halls they’re doing. But I think it’s really important to be a partner and try to help in all the ways that you can in the federal government [to] implement and get funding for those plans.”

Fletcher frequently attacked Congressman John Culberson during the 2018 campaign for blocking METRO’s efforts to build a light rail line along Richmond Avenue. She stopped short of endorsing the project herself on Houston Matters, but indicated she’ll follow METRO’s lead.

The full interview with Rep. Fletcher is embedded in the story, so go give it a listen. Having her fight for funds for Metro doesn’t mean Metro will get them – we all know how challenging it is to get anything done these days. But having someone in Congress fighting for Metro instead of against it will surely help.

Let’s check in on the HCDE

How are things with the new Board?

Within an hour and 37 minutes of his first meeting as a trustee on the Harris County Department of Education’s board of trustees, Josh Flynn had a new role: President.

The former Harris County Republican Party treasurer and local accountant, who ran on a platform of bringing more transparency and accountability to Texas’ last remaining county education department, won the votes of three other trustees at the Jan. 16 meeting.

Minutes later, Flynn joined those same three in firing the department’s lobbying firm, a move that raised concerns among other trustees and Superintendent James Colbert Jr. that a lack of advocates in Austin could leave them with little recourse if lawmakers target the agency during the 2019 legislative session. Flynn did not return messages for comment.

Together, the votes signal a new majority on the seven-member board, one that Trustee Don Sumners said will provide a chance to lift the hood on HCDE’s departments and to make the agency more accountable to taxpayers. All four have questioned or criticized the department or some of its actions in the past, and one has filed motions to study closing the agency.

“We’ll probably go through the whole department one division at a time and do some evaluation,” Sumners said. “We really haven’t been able to get to the nuts and bolts very easily, and I think now that we have more interested participation, we’ll be able to realize this department for efficiency. We haven’t been able to do that before.”

Others, however, worry that actions like some of those taken at the Jan. 16 meeting could do irreparable harm to the state’s last remaining county department of education.

“I’m concerned, I’m definitely concerned,” said Trustee Danny Norris, a Texas Southern University law professor who also joined the board on January. “I think the vote to cancel our contract with (our lobbyists) specifically worried me a good bit, because we usually have a few bills to shut us down each session. This session, I’m the most worried.”

[…]

Trustee Eric Dick, a longtime Republican, noted at the meeting that other school districts, political parties and government entities also hire lobbyists. About a week after the vote, he said any government agency that is able to generate more than 70 percent of its budget from sources other than local tax dollars should be a model of good governance that conservatives should want to protect and other government agencies should look to for inspiration. About 28 percent of HCDE’s roughly $117 million budget in 2017-2018 came from property taxes, with the rest coming from state and federal grants, fees paid by local school districts and its cooperative purchasing program.

“You have an organization that actually runs at a profit, that’s actually in the black, that turns one dollar into five dollars. What should happen is ISDs should replicate and try to do something similar. So should the city of Houston,” Dick said. “I think worst thing that you could do is take something that works and cut it up.”

sigh Okay, three things here. One is that Flynn won his race by a tiny margin, 0.6 percentage points, less than 2,000 votes out of over 300K cast. Even in a dominant year for Dems in Harris County, one low-profile downballot race can make a difference by going the other way. Two, assuming the HCDE survives another legislative session, it’s very likely that it will flip back to a Democratic majority after the 2020 election, when At Large members Michael Wolfe (yeah, that guy again) and Don Sumners will almost certainly get voted out. And three, I can’t believe I’m about to say something nice about Eric Dick, but he has the right idea here, and I appreciate his vote on this matter. Let’s hope this is just a minor kerfuffle and nothing bad happens in the Lege.

(It should be noted that among other things, former County Judge Ed Emmett was not a fan of the HCDE and supported eliminating it. I hope Judge Hidalgo is up to speed on this. The HCDE may not have its own lobbyist in Austin, but the county has them. They could advocate for HCDE in a pinch if needed. Something to keep in mind.)

UPDATE: From an email sent out by Andrea Duhon, who was the Democratic candidate against Josh Flynn and who is planning to run for one of those At Large positions next year:

Community advocates, parents, and teachers plan to attend and make their perspectives known at an unexpected Special HCDE meeting this Monday, February 11th at 4:00 PM at 6300 Irvington Dr. to push back against the politically motivated distribution of legal contracts and privatization attempts by Austin politicians.

Expected on the HCDE agenda is an attempt by some trustees to fire the current unbiased education attorney and replace her with the highly partisan law firm Strahan-Cain, of which far right State Representative and education privatization proponent Briscoe Cain is a partner.

The meeting was called late Friday afternoon with little notice and comes at a time when the Texas Legislature is not only in session but is actively pursuing overhaul of state education policy. Also relevant are efforts both past and present by State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-SD7) to shutdown the department and consolidate public education resources into private buckets. The agenda also calls to replace Public Facilities Corporation board vacancies in an attempt to overturn contracts which have been approved.

Just last month, the HCDE surprisingly selected a first-term trustee as President of its board and voted to eliminate its own representation in Austin by firing HillCo Partners, leaving services vulnerable to attacks.

The community demands the department safeguard the programs and shared services it brings to Harris County and the jobs of more than 1,000 HCDE employees.

Here’s the agenda for that special Board meeting. Note that all of the action items on it were submitted by the Flynn/Wolfe/Sumners troika. Nothing good can come of this.

We’ll know soon enough if Beto is running for President

Thanks, Oprah.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke said Tuesday he will decide whether to run for president by the end of the month, signaling his closely watched deliberations over a 2020 run are entering their final stages.

The former Democratic congressman from El Paso and U.S. Senate nominee made the comment during an interview with media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who pressed him on his long-awaited decision — and whether he’s given himself a deadline.

“The serious answer is really soon,” O’Rourke replied. “Before the end of this month.”

[…]

The O’Rourke interview will air at 7 p.m. Feb. 16 on Winfrey’s OWN TV network. It will also be available on her “SuperSoul Conservations” podcast.

Winfrey tried several times to nail O’Rourke down on his 2020 decision to no avail. In a parting message, she said, “You seem like you’re getting ready to run.”

In the interview, O’Rourke also reflected on the lessons of his Senate campaign last year and the meeting he had with former President Barack Obama in the wake of the race. O’Rourke said Obama did not encourage him to run for president but that they discussed 2020 more generally — and the strain a White House bid can put on a family.

Getting a decision sooner rather than later would be nice, if only so we can sort out the who’s-running-against-Cornyn question in a reasonable fashion. Assuming the choice is between “running for President” and “running again for Senate” and not “running for something” and “not running for anything at this time”, I look at it this way: Beto’s odds of beating Donald Trump are higher than his chances of beating John Cornyn, but his odds of beating John Cornyn are higher than his chance of getting the chance to run against Trump. You need a clear assessment of how much higher those odds are in each of those comparisons if you want to make a rational, outcome-maximizing decision.

Not that these decisions are necessarily rational, of course. Beto’s gonna do what Beto thinks is best, however he arrives at that decision. I’m honestly not sure where “run for Senate” is on the list of choices for him, but I could believe it’s in third place, after “run for President” and “don’t run for anything”. If that’s the case, then where do Texas Dems stand in a no-Beto 2020?

But if O’Rourke doesn’t run against Cornyn, who will? The structural conditions that would make a Senate run in 2020 so enticing for O’Rourke would also be there for another Democratic candidate. You might think that ambitious Texas Democrats would be lining up to run, all but declaring their candidacies in the event that O’Rourke should decline to pursue the Senate seat. (If O’Rourke decides to run against Cornyn, he’ll almost certainly clear the Democratic field.) After all, O’Rourke discussed the possibility of running for Senate in 2018 in early November 2016. We’re already in February 2019. Where are the candidates?

“The conversations would be very quiet now,” said Matt Angle, the founder of the Lone Star Project, a progressive PAC. “You don’t want to say it would be really great if someone else runs and then Beto runs instead.”

[…]

When I spoke with Jason Stanford, a former Democratic strategist who is now an executive at the public relations firm Hill + Knowlton, he insisted that Democrats have a “deeper bench in Texas than people suspect.” He pointed to Dallas state representative Rafael Anchia, Dallas County judge Clay Jenkins, former gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, and Mark Strama, a former Texas state rep who is now an executive at Google Fiber. These four people might make fine candidates and senators, but aside from Davis, they have almost no statewide profile. They’re not the names you’d expect to hear bandied about if Democrats thought the 2020 Senate seat was theirs for the taking.

Maybe O’Rourke will run for Senate after all. Maybe a new face like Allred or Garcia or Hegar will gamble their political future on a Senate run. Maybe a big-city mayor like San Antonio’s Ron Nirenberg will go for the prize. Maybe a lesser-known name from the bench like Anchia or Jenkins will catch fire. Kim Olson, the Democrats’ 2018 candidate for agriculture commissioner, has suggested she’s considering a 2020 run.

But some Democrats aren’t convinced a strong option will materialize. “If Beto doesn’t run for Senate, I’m not convinced we’ll have a strong viable candidate,” Harold Cook, a Democratic political operative, told me. “I fear that a lot of the most prominent Democrats who might want to run may well conclude that Beto got so close either because Beto is a one-of-a-kind candidate or that Cruz is so intensely disliked that no other opponent would fare as badly as he did.”

I’m more optimistic than that. As for the “who”, surely none of the just-elected members of Congress would run for Senate in 2020, and it looks a lot like most if not all of the just-missed Congressional candidates from 2018 will try again, so they’re off the list. One person that I suggested as a possibility but is omitted here is Justin Nelson. Maybe he’s hoping that AG will be on the ballot in 2020 following a conviction of Ken Paxton. Or maybe Senate isn’t his thing. I continue to believe there are plenty of good candidates available, and one of them will step up if Beto doesn’t choose this path. Big John Cornyn is expecting and preparing for a fight, and he’s going to get it, one way or another.

Cornyn’s 2020 strategy

I have three things to say about this.

Big John Cornyn

As the Texas GOP Party chairman from 2010 to 2015, Steve Munisteri warned that Republicans could no longer take the Lone Star State for granted and that the party needed to reach out to the state’s burgeoning minority population.

“I’ve consistently said since I first ran for state party chair that Texas should be considered a competitive swing state,” he said. “That was my whole schtick when I ran.”

On Wednesday, as he announced he would be leaving his White House job to join U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s 2020 reelection campaign, Munisteri again sounded the alarm, joining other state GOP leaders in warning that once reliably red Texas could be in play in the next presidential election.

“Texas is not as solidly Republican as people think,” he said. “You need to treat this as a swing state.”

Munisteri cited U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s narrow win over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, as well as a history of Democratic advances in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio going back to the 2008 presidential election.

“A decade ago, we lost the urban areas,” said Munisteri, who will be returning to Texas after two years in the Trump administration, where he serves as deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison.

[…]

“The Democrats are still riding the splash of the 2018 elections in hopes that it will carry over into 2020,” Dickey told the Chronicle. “But the reality is, they have shown Texas Republicans what can happen if any Republican stays home during these crucial elections. We are engaging a massive campaign effort which started the day after the election to ensure we not only will successfully defend Republican seats, we regain the seats Democrats won from the Beto bump of 2018.”

[…]

The Cornyn campaign said Munisteri will serve as chief liaison to the state party and its “2020 Victory” effort. As party chairman, Munisteri was credited with helping encourage minority outreach, hiring Spanish speaking staffers, and increasing the number of Republican office holders in the state by nearly 70 percent.

“I gained a great deal of respect for Steve when he successfully led our party to new heights as chairman of the (Texas Republican Party) and have been proud to work with him in Washington as he’s served President Trump in the White House,” Cornyn said in a statement Wednesday.

[…]

Despite Cornyn’s seemingly clear path to a fourth term, Munisteri, like other top Republican Party officials, warns that the Texas GOP cannot glide into 2020, despite the party’s generational dominance.

“It’s a competitive state,” he said. “It’s just that we keep winning the competition.” To continue that dominance, he believes that Cornyn is committed to campaigning in the Hispanic community, the fastest-growing segment of the Texas electorate.

In a minority-majority state, Munisteri said, Republicans have little choice but to find messages that resonate with minority voters, particularly Hispanics. “If the party doesn’t look on the inside the way it looks on the outside, it means that we have work to do. I also believe in the depths of my bones this is not just about being pragmatic and trying to win votes. There’s a moral element to that.”

One challenge facing Republican outreach to Latinos in Texas in 2020 could be Trump’s aggressive rhetoric on illegal immigration and his continuing campaign for a border wall – the central sticking point in a 35-day partial government shutdown.

But Munisteri noted that despite Trump’s focus on illegal immigration, exit polls showed that he won nearly 29 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally in 2016, a slightly larger share than that of Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee. Trump did slightly better with Hispanics in Texas, though he only beat Hillary Clinton by 9 points – a margin that raised the eyebrows of strategists in both parties.

1. Everyone’s fully on board with the idea that Republicans were spooked by what happened last year, right?

2. The bit where Munisteri talks about what happens when Republicans don’t turn out is the most interesting part of the story. Turnout, at least statewide, wasn’t the Republicans’ problem last year. Greg Abbott got almost as many votes as Donald Trump did in 2016. They clearly left some votes on the table – I believe Dems did as well, despite blowing past all previous high-water marks – which leads me to wonder what Munisteri thinks the GOP’s natural level of turnout should be for a Presidential election. Eva Guzman was the high scorer in 2016, with almost 4.9 million votes (Trump got just under 4.7 million). What does Munisteri think the top of the Republican ticket – which is to say, Trump and Cornyn – will get in an “all things being equal” context? GOP Presidential candidates ranged between 4.4 million and 4.7 million from 2004 to 2016. I think Guzman’s total is a perfectly reasonable target for next year; it would mean Dems would have to exceed Beto’s total by nearly a million votes in order to win. Does Steve Munsteri think they can do better than that? I’d be interested to hear it.

The challenge Munisteri and the GOP faces is that as we saw in 2018, Dems had a majority in the most populous parts of the state, which is also where all the growth has been. They achieved that by turning out reliable voters, bringing in a ton of new voters, and getting a significant number of votes from people who had previously been voting Republican. Republicans can get some growth from new voters and irregular voters, though that pool is much shallower for them than it is for Dems. They will probably get a few of the pre-2018 voters who abandoned them last year back; surely the mainstream, establishment man Cornyn will do better with that crowd than Ted Cruz did. They might be able to woo a few disgruntled or disillusioned Dems. I don’t think any of that will amount to much, but they do start out with a lead, so they don’t need it to be too much. How much potential does Steve Munisteri think there is for growth? Again, I’d love to know.

3. This again is why I will base my vote in the primary in part on who I think will do the most to fight for Texas in 2020. We can and should build on what we did in 2018, but it’s not going to happen on its own, and it’s not going to happen without a fight from the Republicans. Republicans think Texas is a swing state now. Dems need to act accordingly. Politico has more.

The state of the state 2019

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that gets noticed.

Gov. Greg Abbott, in his biennial State of the State address Tuesday, stayed on message about schools and taxes, continuing state leaders’ so far unified focus on bread-and-butter policy reforms in a forum where he has in the past served up red meat.

Speaking in the Texas House to both chambers of the Legislature, Abbott named as emergency items the consensus priorities of school finance reform, teacher pay raises and property tax relief, the issues he and the state’s other top two Republican leaders have trumpeted almost single-mindedly in the months since the midterm elections. In doing so, he carefully avoided controversial social issues like the ones that headlined last session’s speech.

Also topping the governor’s priority list: school safety, disaster response and mental health programs. Abbott’s designation of those priorities allows lawmakers to take up such measures sooner, lifting the usual constitutional limitation that prevents the Legislature from passing bills within the first 60 days of the session.

“Our mission begins with our students,” Abbott said as he began to lay out his legislative priorities. To improve lackluster student outcomes — only 40 percent of third-graders are reading at grade level by the end of their third-grade year, he said, and less than 40 percent of students who take the ACT or SAT are prepared for college — “we must target education funding.”

[…]

Unlike in his first two State of the State addresses, Abbott did not deem ethics reform an emergency item. He tagged that issue with top priority status in 2015 and 2017, but didn’t mention it this year. Nor did he raise any proposals related to abortion. And there was hardly any other mention of health care, an expense that takes up nearly as large a share of the state’s budget as does education.

House and Senate Democrats called it “disappointing” that the governor didn’t propose expanding access to pre-K or lowering the costs of teachers’ health care.

And state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, who serves as the caucus’ second vice-chair, said that Abbott, for all his bragging on the state of Texas during his speech, failed to mention the state’s high uninsured rate for health care.

“Texas needs to expand Medicaid,” Rose said during the conference, “and we need to expand it today.”

Still, Democrats were optimistic about some of the notable absences. Two years ago, Abbott’s address was headlined by his call for an anti-“sanctuary cities” bill that Democrats would staunchly oppose. This year, the governor mostly stayed away from hot-button social issues.

“It certainly was a different speech than we heard two years ago,” state Rep. Chris Turner, the Democrat who heads his party’s caucus in the House, said after the speech. “It seems as though election results have consequences.”

Another conspicuous absence from the speech was the voter rolls debacle that has dogged state leaders in recent weeks. Last month, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley flagged for citizenship review nearly 100,000 Texas voters; in the weeks since, the list has been revealed to be deeply flawed, and civil rights groups have sued the state three times.

There’s still plenty of reason to be wary of the property tax proposals Abbott has made, and one reason why there are fewer red meat items on his agenda is that a lot of them – voter ID, “sanctuary cities”, campus carry – have already been passed. I will agree that this was much more temperate than the address from two years ago – there’s no way Abbott would admit this, but I think Rep. Turner is right in his assessment – and there are issues on Abbott’s list that will get broad bipartisan support. Let’s be glad for the small victories, and work to make them bigger. Ross Ramsey, Texas Monthly, and the Observer have more.

Bail reform settlement looks to be a go

Excellent news.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal on Friday offered initial support for new bail rules proposed by Harris County, signaling the three-year lawsuit challenging the county’s cash bond system soon may reach its conclusion.

The settlement of the case, which Harris County has spent more than $9 million defending, would seal victory for the poor misdemeanor defendants who brought the suit and allow Rosenthal and both legal teams to turn their attention to a similar lawsuit challenging the county’s felony bail system.

“We’ve actively been talking to each other,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the poor defendants. “I think we’d be ready in a month to come back to the court with a final, permanent order.”

For the first time in a federal court hearing, all the parties in the misdemeanor suit stood in agreement Friday afternoon about how the case should be settled. In an unusual scene in Rosenthal’s 11th-floor courtroom, the attorneys in the once-contentious case urged Rosenthal to sign off on new bail rules proposed by the newly elected slate of Democratic misdemeanor judges.

[…]

Rosenthal, who in 2017 agreed Harris County’s bail system was unfair to poor defendants, suggested waiting to see how well the new bail rules work in practice before issuing her approval. With the opening of the new joint processing center for inmates, the judge said minor, unforeseen problems may need to be addressed.

“The devil, in the broader issues, is in the day-to-day,” Rosenthal said. She ordered the parties to return March 8.

Allan Van Fleet, the attorney representing the misdemeanor judges, agreed that the revised bail system will require each part of Harris County’s criminal justice apparatus to cooperate.

“The judges are committed, with the sheriff, the DA, the plaintiffs, that we’re going to work together to get the best system that anybody can come with,” Van Fleet said.

See here for the previous update. We’re headed in the right direction, and we know where we’re going. It’s a new day.

There sure was a lot of money spent on Congressional races in Texas

If we’re lucky, it will be the start of a trend.

Never has Texas seen as much money spent on Congressional campaigns as it did in 2018.

New campaign finance data shows that the state didn’t just beat its old campaign spending records for Congress, it obliterated them. More than $97 million was poured into the November general election in 2018 for the U.S. House. The previous spending record was in 2004 when just under $60 million was spent by candidates running for Congress in Texas.

The record spending for the state’s 36 House seats was spurred by Texas suddenly having a half dozen competitive races that became a key part of the national battle for the control of Congress. Three of those races accounted for nearly one-third of all the spending.

[…]

Overall, the 36 Congressional districts averaged more than $2.6 million spent per contest.

That spending doesn’t count candidates who lost in the primaries like Republican Kathaleen Wall, who spent $6.2 million of mostly her own money in a failed attempt to win the 2nd Congressional District primary in Houston. Despite not making it to the general election, Wall still ended up spending more money on her race than any House candidate in Texas. Republican Dan Crenshaw, a retired Navy SEAL won the 2nd Congressional District primary and defeated Democrat Todd Litton in November. Crenshaw spent almost $1.7 million on his campaign.

The 2004 election was the one following the Tom DeLay re-redistricting of 2003, so that money was being spent in the five Democratic-held districts where Republican challengers were seeking to oust the Dem incumbents with the help of the new, friendly map. In other words, the same basic dynamic of multiple competitive races, which led to a crap-ton of money being raised. I know people have a lot of negative opinions – for good reasons! – about money in politics, but the fact remains that money gets spent when there are competitive elections. When there are no competitive elections, much less money gets spent. All things being equal, I’d rather have the competitive elections.

Here’s the FEC summary page for Texas Democratic Congressional campaigns from 2017-18, and here’s the last roundup of reports I did, at the end of Q3. The three biggest-money races were the ones you’d expect – CDs 07, 23, and 32 – but as we know there were four other Dem candidates who raised over a million bucks for the cycle, and a lot more big-money primaries, of which CD07 was definitely one.

To me, the big under-reported story is in how much money was raised by candidates in “non-competitive” races. Dayne Steele, God bless her, raised over $800K. Julie Oliver, who was actually in a reasonably competitive race that no one paid attention to, raised over $500K. Candidates Vanessa Adia (CD12), Adrienne Bell (CD14), Linsey Fagan (CD26), and Eric Holguin (CD27), none of whom cracked forty percent, combined to raise over $500K. The candidates in the highest profile races brought in staggering amounts of money – and note that we haven’t even mentioned the candidates whose name rhymes with “Schmeto” – but I cannot overstate how mind-bogglingly impressive what these candidates did is. They deserve more credit for helping to generate and sustain the enthusiasm that led to the massive turnout and major downballot Democratic wins than they will ever receive. We should be so lucky as to have a repeat of this performance in 2020.

Eh, what’s a few thousand mis-identified non-citizens among friends?

No biggie.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott downplayed concerns Thursday about the voter citizenship review initiated last week by his secretary of state, even though it has since become clear that the state’s list of flagged voters swept up thousands of U.S. citizens who should not have been scrutinized.

“This is what you would categorize as a process, a work [in progress],” Abbott said. “They’ll get it right, but I do want to be emphatic: It is essential that the secretary of state, [the Department of Public Safety], counties, anybody with any authority over this whatsoever work collaboratively and swiftly together to make sure our voter rolls are accurate, to ensure integrity in the election process.”

Last Friday, Abbott’s newly named secretary of state, David Whitley, flagged a list of about 95,000 registered voters whom his office said had provided DPS with some form of documentation that showed they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or IDs.

[…]

Reacting to Whitley’s announcement Friday, Abbott thanked him for “uncovering and investigating this illegal vote registration,” promising legislation to address it.

But when he was asked about the fiasco Thursday at an unrelated news conference, the governor recast the effort.

“They were clear that it was a weak match, and they were reaching out to counties saying, ‘Listen, this isn’t a hard-and-fast list,” Abbott said. “This is a list that we need to work on together to make sure that those who do not have the legal authority to vote are not going to be able to vote.”

Abbott’s remarks come two days after it became clear secretary of state’s office had mistakenly called into question the citizenship status of thousands of voters who were, in fact, citizens.

See here and here for the background. That is some relentless commitment to quality right there. Abbott sets a sterling example from the top.

In Bastrop County, Elections Administrator Bridgette Escobedo said she had worked her way through about one-third of a list of 145 names, finding 15 that did not belong there. She said she also found several names of people who had become naturalized citizens.

Also Wednesday, county officials said they have had little luck connecting with the secretary of state’s office to clarify the situation.

Escobedo said she asked Whitley’s office to provide a “clean” list of suspected noncitizen voters but had heard no response by early Thursday evening.

“We’re wasting a lot of resources and energy on nonissues,” she said. “Don’t make me go through all 145 people on my list if you know some shouldn’t be on there.”

In Williamson County, Davis said the secretary of state’s office had not responded to his request for written instructions on how to cull the list of suspected noncitizens — information Whitley’s office provided by telephone Tuesday.

Travis County also received no response to its request that Whitley revise his initial advisory, county spokeswoman Tiffany Seward said Wednesday.

[…]

While counties have begun removing names from their lists, the secretary of state’s website continues to promote — without revision or correction — its Friday notice claiming that 95,000 people were identified as registered voters who are possible noncitizens, a violation of state law, and that 58,000 of those people had voted in one or more elections, a potential felony.

Whitley’s office has not responded to questions posed Tuesday and Wednesday asking if there are plans to update the numbers or publicly acknowledge that the original list included U.S. citizens who were mistakenly included.

We joke, because we must in order to cope, but this is all clearly setting the stage to purge voter rolls as much as possible. Republicans saw what happened in 2018. They will do what they can to stop the same thing from happening in 2020. Texas Monthly, who quotes former SOS Carlos Cascos saying the whole list should be rescinded, and the Chron, have more.

Cornyn is not waiting on 2020

It’s what I’d do if I were Big John Cornyn.

Big John Cornyn

John Cornyn and other politicians say an incumbent should run in one of two ways: scared or unopposed.

Given that philosophy, Texas’s senior senator is having nightmares about his 2020 re-election bid.

Nothing wrong with being scared, especially if it’s early enough to stage the best campaign possible.

For Cornyn, running scared means being prepared.

He has already started his re-election bid, the earliest he’s fired up his machine since beating former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk in 2002.

[…]

After November’s election, Cornyn said he was aware that O’Rourke could challenge him in 2020. And even if the El Paso Democrat opted instead for a run for president, he certainly would receive a significant challenge.

Cornyn has called Cruz’s near loss and the Democratic Party push in the midterm elections a “confluence of events” that served as a “wake-up call.”

What’s more, from 2007 to 2011 he served as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, getting a ground view of winning and losing campaigns across the country.

“We’re thinking through this and trying to be prepared,” Cornyn told The Dallas Morning News. “I can’t predict for you what 2020 will be like, but we will be ready.”

Cornyn will not be caught by surprise like Ted Cruz was, and he will not have to scramble to build a ground game like Ted Cruz did. He also benefits from the simple fact of not being Ted Cruz. He’s also going to be running in a Presidential year, with Donald Trump actually on the ballot. As well as Dems did last year, they clearly left votes on the table in some of their stronger districts. There’s room to grow, and as things stand right now I expect them to build on what happened in 2018. Cornyn is in for a tough race. He clearly knows that.

That said, it sure would be nice to get a better idea of who his opponent will, or at least may, be. Beto O’Rourke has the right to take as much time as he feels he needs to decide what he wants to do next, but in the meantime the potential field to challenge Cornyn is frozen. No one wants to jump into this race now, not knowing if Beto will choose to run again for Senate. It will be harder for any prospective candidates to fundraise, and it will be harder to line up institutional and volunteer support. I don’t expect Beto to take too long to make up his mind – as some people have observed, it’s going to start getting difficult to hire experienced campaign staff for a Presidential race soon, as more and more Dems make their own candidacies known – but it sure would be nice if we had an answer by, say, the end of March. People were already posting finance reports for Congress by the end of Q2 in 2017, remember. That helped a lot down the line. Beto is the big piece of the puzzle for Texas that needs to fall into place first. Here’s hoping he figures out his path sooner rather than later.

The Fort Worth Mayor’s race

Worth keeping an eye on.

Deborah Peoples

Mayor Betsy Price has competition.

Democrat Deborah Peoples announced Tuesday night she is running for mayor in Fort Worth.

As Peoples addressed a crowd of several hundred people at 6 p.m., the back room of Angelo’s BBQ slowly became louder and louder. By the time Peoples arrived at the peak of her speech, the room was in an uproar.

“I believe it’s time. Time to stand up for Fort Worth, and time to stand up for each other,” she said to applause. “We have one chance to get this right. And we need a mayor who will stand up for all of us.”

The crowd started to chant, “it’s time” as Peoples continued.

“I am Deborah Peoples and I am running for Mayor of the City of Fort Worth,” she concluded.

Peoples was born in Texas and, 43 years ago, started working in Fort Worth’s Human Relations Commission. She said the work taught her the importance of keeping city government accountable to its residents.

Peoples has been the Tarrant County Democratic Party chair since 2013. Before that, she was a vice president for AT&T for 33 years.

“Many people do not feel like leadership listens to them,” Peoples said in an interview. “You have to have vision to be a leader. And I think in Fort Worth, we have been kind of lumbering from crisis to crisis.”

This is a May election, so things are already in full swing. Democrats made a lot of gains in 2018, winning in places they hadn’t won in years. In some ways, Beto O’Rourke carrying Tarrant County was the biggest psychological blow to the Republican identity, because Tarrant had long been the exception among the big urban counties. Winning the Fort Worth Mayor’s race, with the former Chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party against the four-term Republican Mayor, would be another big dent. Price has won four two-year terms, so she’s going to be tough to beat, but this sure seems like a year where it could happen. Daily Kos has more.

The first targets for 2020

We’ve already agreed that the 2020 election season has begun, so a little attack advertising over the shutdown seems like a good play

Mike Siegel

National Democrats have five Texas Republican congressmen in their crosshairs as they begin the 2020 election cycle looking to build on their gains here in November.

As part of its first digital ad campaign of the cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul of Austin, Chip Roy of Austin, Pete Olson of Sugar Land, Kenny Marchant of Coppell and John Carter of Round Rock. They are among 25 GOP House members across the country included in the ad offensive, which the DCCC announced Friday.

The ads criticize the lawmakers for voting against recent Democratic-backed legislation to end the government shutdown without funding for a border wall — a demand by President Donald Trump that prompted the closure. The ads, which come on the day that federal workers will miss their second paycheck under the shutdown, feature an image of a helicopter rescue mission over the water, accompanied by text reading, “The Coast Guard, Border Patrol, & [Transportation Security Administration] just missed another paycheck thanks to” the targeted member of Congress.

Good thing they got this out as quickly as they did, eh? I put Mike Siegel in there for the featured image because he’s already announced his candidacy for 2020. Doesn’t mean he’ll be the nominee, of course, but he’s in the running. I am of course delighted to see CD24, which some people think might wind up being an open seat, among the targets. As for CD23 and Will Hurd, he gets a pass this time around because he has been (wisely) critical of The Wall and has voted for reopening the government. He’ll be targeted another time; as the story notes, Gina Ortiz Jones is saying she wants to run again. All of this is one reason why one of my criteria for supporting a Democratic Presidential nominee is their level of commitment to competing in Texas next year. There’s more than just our plentiful electoral votes at stake.

Dick and Wolfe turn on each other

Pass the popcorn.

In this corner…

A trustee on the Harris County Department of Education board who lent money to a fellow trustee’s campaign for justice of the peace has lodged a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission accusing him of failing to report the funds or pay back the loans.

Eric Dick, who serves as vice president of the board, wrote two checks totaling $28,000 to Michael Wolfe shortly before Wolfe lost the May 2018 Republican primary runoff for justice of the peace in Harris County Precinct 5, Place 2, according to the complaint.

Wolfe did not report the loans on his campaign finance report covering the period of the loans or in any other report. He appears to have deposited at least one of the checks in an account with the Harris County Federal Credit Union, which Dick alleged is a personal account and unrelated to Wolfe’s campaign.

And in this corner…

The episode was unexpected, Dick said, because he and Wolfe have known each other since middle school. Dick said Wolfe asked him for campaign loans twice in May, around the time he held a fundraiser for Wolfe at his house. Months later, Dick said, the money seems to have disappeared.

“I’d like him to pay me back. It would be nice if he paid me back,” Dick said. “But at the bare minimum, why didn’t he report it?”

Dick said that when he wrote the checks to Wolfe, the two verbally agreed that the money was given as loans, but did not lay out repayment terms or put anything in writing. Regardless, Wolfe should have reported the funds as a contribution or campaign loans, Dick said.

[…]

“I did consider him a friend,” Dick said when asked about his relationship with Wolfe. “But I think he has some serious problems. I just don’t appreciate the things he does to people.”

I’m sorry, I know I should have something useful to say, but I’m over here giggling like a kindergartner. The only way this could get better is if they both wind up suing each other. Please, please, in the name of all that is unholy and ridiculous, let this continue to be a story through next November’s election.

(Also, too, someone might perhaps alert the HCDE webmaster that their Meet the Board of Trustees page is a tad bit out of date.)

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Here are the countywide candidates for Fort Bend:


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


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

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

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

Slow going so far in HD145 special election

Still a week of early voting to go, but so far just a handful of ballots have been cast.

Voters in Texas’ 145th House District are trickling to the polls for the first week of early voting in a sluggish special election to replace state Sen. Carol Alvarado in the lower chamber.

Four days in, a mere 359 voters have cast ballots in person or by mail, amounting to less than one percent of the district’s registered voters. Polls will remain open each day through Sunday, close Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and reopen Tuesday through Jan. 25.

[…]

The low turnout is typical for special elections, such as last month’s Senate District 6 special election won by Alvarado, D-Houston. Less than 5 percent of registered voters turned out, some of whom are being asked to return to the polls once again.

In that race, Fierro received 23 percent of the vote, bringing her close to a second-place finish but far behind Alvarado’s 50 percent showing.

Even on uniform election dates, turnout tends to run low in District 145, which runs from the Heights through downtown to parts of Pasadena and South Houston. During the 2016 midterms, about 33,500 of the district’s 71,000 registered voters cast ballots, the sixth-lowest vote total of Harris County’s 24 state House districts.

Only Morales and Noriega appear to be raising and spending significant funds on the race, according to campaign finance reports filed this week.

Through Dec. 31, Morales had raised about $20,000, lent herself $5,000 and spent $4,000. She headed into the final month of the race with about $23,000 cash on hand, her finance report showed.

Noriega maintained a similar campaign balance — $22,600 — on Dec. 31, much of which came from $21,750 in personal loans. She reported raising about $5,200 and spent $2,100.

The recent special election in SD06 had 4.69% turnout. If you project that for HD145, you would end up with 3,341 voters in HD145. We’re not exactly on track for that now, but there’s still time.

And time is the single biggest factor in play here. We knew for months there was going to be a special election in SD06 – we knew it since March, when now-Rep. Sylvia Garcia won the Democratic primary for CD29. Now-Sen. Carol Alvarado and Rep. Ana Hernandez announced their candidacies shortly after, and were campaigning all along. We only knew for sure there would be an election in HD145 after Alvarado won that race in December, and only Christina Morales announced her interest in the race in advance of the filing period. Filing ended just eleven days before early voting started. People just haven’t had much time to realize that there’s another election happening, and the candidates have had even less time to tell them.

Another factor is the lack of mail ballots. Of those 359 total votes through Thursday, only two – yes, two – were mail ballots. Only 169 ballots had been mailed out to voters as of Thursday. There were 6,706 votes cast by mail in the SD06 election, nearly 44% of the total turnout. There were 2,405 mail ballots cast in HD145 in the November election, which is only seven percent of the total votes from that election. That’s actually almost the same percentage of mail ballots as there were in SD06 in 2016, so the difference is not how many mail voters there are, it’s how many of them requested and returned ballots for the special election. I have to assume that’s a function of campaigns, and that’s a tall order when your campaigns have so little time. It’s also a factor of money, which most of these campaigns don’t have, but Alvarado and Hernandez did going into their race.

So yes, the turnout is going to be tiny, and that makes the outcome more random than it would be in a different context. The runoff will involve more time – they’re about five weeks after the first round special election – and more money as the donor class has a clearer idea of who they might want to support. That leads to higher turnout in those races. For now, we’re up to 492 total votes cast as of Friday, five of which came via mail. We’ll see where we are in a week.

We really are about to do away with the old cash bail system

I have four things to say about this.

The new slate of Democratic judges has approved a drastic revision to Harris County’s bail system that could serve as a model for a settlement in the historic lawsuit in which a federal judge found the county’s judicial rulings unjustly relegated poor people arrested on minor offenses to jail because they couldn’t afford costly bonds.

The 15 new court-at-law judges and new presiding Democrat who was not up for election voted Wednesday on the new bail protocol that will affect thousands. They have spent weeks hammering out a plan with the sheriff, the district attorney and county leadership and will ask the federal court this week to implement it as a foundation for a settlement.

County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the presiding judge, estimates that 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors will now qualify to be released after arrest on no-cash bonds, with a few exceptions for people who must await a hearing – for up to 48 hours – for bond violations, repeat drunken driving offenses and domestic violence charges. At that point, they may also qualify for personal recognizance bonds.

“What it means is that no one will be in jail because they cannot afford to get out,” Jordan said. “The only people who will be detained and have to speak to a judge are a very small subset who will be processed through the Harris County Jail and those carve outs are aligned with best practices from around the country.”

The change was widely celebrated.

“It’s a big day for Harris County,” said attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represents the judges in the federal lawsuit. “It will make Harris County safer and more equal and provide more efficient processing of people accused of misdemeanors.”

1. Elections have consequences. I almost can’t believe this is actually about to happen.

2. Just a reminder, many of the people now in the jail are there awaiting trial. They have not been convicted of anything. Many others like them in the past never were convicted of anything, and many more pled guilty to something so they could get out. This will ensure there are far, far fewer people like them in the future.

3. The question of who was in jail awaiting trial and who was not was always largely about financial wherewithal, not about risk and danger to society. Remember, Robert Durst was granted bail.

4. One hopes that having far fewer inmates, many of whom don’t need to be there, will allow us to do a better job of ensuring the safety of those inmates, and enabling the jail to meet state standards. No more inmate suicides, please. We really need to do better than that.

Firefighters go back to court

I dunno, man.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sought a court order Tuesday aiming to force the city to pay firefighters the same as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, one day before Mayor Sylvester Turner and the union are set to discuss ideas for implementing pay raises.

The move comes more than two months after voters approved Proposition B, a November ballot measure granting pay parity to Houston firefighters, which would amount to a massive raise that Turner says the city cannot afford. Since the election, firefighters have yet to see their paychecks grow fatter, a delay that has frustrated the union and sown confusion among city workers who face the threat of layoffs.

“By failing to give firefighters a date certain for implementation of voter-approved Proposition B, the City of Houston forced Houston firefighters” to seek Tuesday’s court order, fire union President Marty Lancton said in a statement. “With the election two months behind us, Prop B is now the law. It’s past time for Mayor Turner to respect the will of the voters.”

In response, Turner questioned why the firefighters would ask him to meet, then take court action on the eve of the meeting.

“Now that I’m willing to sit down, what do they do? They go to the courthouse,” Turner said. “Common sense has to prevail here.”

[…]

Since the election, Lancton has asked the mayor to negotiate a contract that would phase in pay parity instead of implementing it in one fell swoop. Until recently, Turner resisted the union’s calls, citing ongoing litigation while at times contending he could not negotiate what voters had already decided.

On Jan. 9, however, Turner invited firefighters to discuss ideas to implement Proposition B, though the mayor’s letter to Lancton did not say whether he is open to negotiating pay raises through contract talks.

“I do not want to lay off employees; and, I interpret some of the things you have said in public to acknowledge the true state of the City’s financial affairs,” Turner wrote to Lancton. “If the sacrifice of city services and city employees and their families in order to finance your pay increase can be avoided, I am open to consideration of your ideas.”

Lancton, responded by saying the union would not participate in “stage-managed, taxpayer-funded public ‘stakeholder’ forums.”

I don’t know what the way forward is. I feel like we’re here now because the firefighters are mad about the pension reform law that got passed. Which confounds me to this day, because were they not listening to what Turner and others were saying on the campaign trail? Did they think they were going to somehow be magically exempt? Anyway, I agree that there should be a date set for when this will be implemented, and a plan that outlines what that will mean. No one knows what it means because that was never part of the marketing for Prop B, but it has to mean something, so let’s get to it. And when the firefighters don’t like what it means, well, the courts will still be there.

Trying to make “pay for play” an issue

Good luck.

With more than nine months to go until Houston’s municipal elections, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s first two opponents turned their attention this week to limiting political donors’ influence at City Hall.

Both challengers, millionaire lawyer and Texas A&M University System Regent Tony Buzbee and Bill King, the businessman and former Kemah mayor who lost to Turner in a close December 2015 runoff, announced they would spearhead separate petition drives to amend the city charter by temporarily blocking political donors from doing business with the city.

The issue of “pay to play” appears likely to become a focal point in the race for Houston mayor, and could feature prominently in city Council campaigns too, all of which will take place as national Democrats vie for their party’s presidential nomination amid growing calls for politicians to reject money that allegedly comes with strings attached.

Buzbee, in a full-page ad in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle, said he intends to lead a petition drive to bar anyone who donates to a city official from doing business with the city for a year.

King on Monday morning announced a similar idea at a press conference, proposing a two-year moratorium for people who give more than $250 to a city official. His idea would extend the ban to prospective lobbyists and appointees to boards or commissions, and cover candidates for mayor, controller and city council. Buzbee has not yet specified if his proposal would cover non-incumbent candidates.

[…]

“The city has long-established rules that govern potential conflicts of interest regarding campaign contributions, including a black-out period and prohibitions on the members of certain boards and commissions,” Turner said. “As with all city policies, we continually evaluate these rules to ensure they are meeting the city’s needs. The city will always entertain ideas and proposals from anyone, especially if they’re not trying to score political points.“

Houston’s charter bars officials from taking or asking for contributions once the city publicly seeks proposals or bids for a contract. They cannot start accepting bids again until 30 days after City Council awards the contract, or decides not to award it at all.

The same section of the charter also prohibits officials from accepting or soliciting vendors’ contributions at any point they know the vendor has interest in a contract. A separate provision also restricts when candidates who are not in office can accept contributions from vendors.

King’s proposal would prevent people who contribute more than $250 to an official from entering into a contract with the city, registering as a city lobbyist or receiving appointments to city boards of commissions.

I mean, I support the idea, it’s just my experience that this particular issue is not one that gets a whole lot of traction among voters. County Judge Lina Hidalgo is being rightly held up as the model, but you may note that this wasn’t what she campaigned on. She campaigned primarily on bread-and-butter issues like flooding, criminal justice reform, quality of life, and making county government more accessible to more people. I’m not saying this can’t be an effective campaign issue. It’s definitely a meritorious issue. I am saying it’s not the sexiest thing to lead with.

One other thing. At the risk of lapsing into whataboutism, as someone whose mailbox is regularly inflicted with King’s grumpy-old-man emails, his interest in this particular aspect of good government is a tad bit limited. I mean, we just re-elected the heavyweight champion of pay for play politics in this state, but good luck finding any mention of Greg Abbott and his penchant for appointing moneybag donors to statewide positions in King’s missives. Yes, I know, King is running for Mayor and not Governor, but he also regularly complains about the national debt, and last I checked he wasn’t running for Congress or (God help us) President. I know, he’s got his own thing to worry about now, but he was emitting those emails back in 2017 when he wasn’t running for Mayor and Abbott was actively blocking a bipartisan anti-pay for play bill in the Lege. The track record is thin, is what I’m saying.

Trying again to primary Cuellar

Good luck. It’s not going to be easy.

Rep. Henry Cuellar

A grass-roots Democratic group that helped power the upset victory of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has identified a Texas Democrat as its first target ahead of the 2020 congressional primaries — but as of now, Ocasio-Cortez herself is staying neutral.

Justice Democrats, a political committee founded after the 2016 election to reshape the Democratic Party through primary challenges, is working to recruit a challenger to Rep. Henry Cuellar, a seven-term congressman from a strongly Democratic district who’s one of the few anti-abortion-rights voices in the party’s House conference.

In a statement, the group compared Texas’s 28th Congressional District, which gave the president just 38.5 percent of the vote in 2016, to other districts where left-leaning candidates have unseated incumbents. It is launching a “primary Cuellar fund” to encourage any potential candidate that there will be resources if he or she jumps into the race.

“There’s an Ocasio-Cortez and [Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna] Pressley in blue districts across America, tired of seeing long-standing incumbents serve corporate interests, work with Trump’s agenda, and work against the progressive movement,” said Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats. “These grass-roots leaders just need a little bit of encouragement and support.”

[…]

The Justice Democrats’ campaign to oust “corporate Democrats” was restarted after the 2018 elections, with Ocasio-Cortez, one of her party’s biggest stars, as its de facto spokeswoman. In a mid-November call with activists, Ocasio-Cortez said that they could “save this country” by either shaming incumbents out of accepting “money from oil and gas companies” or by ousting them at the polls.

“We’ve got to primary folks,” said Saikat Chakrabarti, who would become the congresswoman’s chief of staff.

But Ocasio-Cortez is not intervening in the “primary Cuellar” campaign right now. In her first days in office, the congresswoman has publicly criticized a House rule that required offsets for any spending increases, while privately working to get appointed to at least one committee with jurisdiction over taxes or health care.

While she was not appointed to the Ways and Means Committee after a left-wing campaign on her behalf, Ocasio-Cortez is expected to get a seat on the Financial Services Committee. She is not part of Justice Democrats’ primary recruitment push.

As the story notes, Cuellar gave Democrats in Texas another reason to be annoyed with him when he contributed to Republican Rep. John Carter’s re-election campaign. Let’s state up front that it’s hard to defeat an incumbent in a Congressional primary in Texas. Since 1992, by my count it has happened four times in a Democratic race:

1994 – Sheila Jackson Lee defeats Rep. Craig Washington
2004 – Al Green defeats Rep. Chris Bell
2004 – Henry Cuellar defeats Rep. Ciro Rodriguez
2012 – Beto O’Rourke defeats Rep. Silvestre Reyes

The two from 2004 have an asterisk next to them, as they came after the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003, which made each of those incumbents’ districts less hospitable to them. Most years most incumbents face no or token opposition. It’s no easier on the Republican side, as only two incumbents have been ousted during this time. Ron Paul knocked off Greg Laughlin in 1996 after Laughlin had switched parties following the 1994 election, and John Ratcliffe beat the 91-year-old Ralph Hall in 2014.

Anyway. Washington had some ethical issues and a high rate of missing votes at the time SJL took him out. Bell’s CD25 was taken out of Harris County and replaced with CD09, which was drawn to elect an African-American Democrat. CD28 was redrawn to include Webb County, which heavily favored the Laredo-based Cuellar. The 2012 race was the closest thing on this list to an ideological race, but Reyes also had some ethical issues that O’Rourke hit on.

The two ideology-based primary races I can think of are Ciro Rodriguez’s rematch against Cuellar in 2006 (he lost 53-40 in a three-candidate contest) and Adrian Garcia against Gene Green in 2016 (Green prevailed, 57-39, in another three-candidate race). There’s not a viable model in the state for the Justice Dems to follow, is what I’m saying. If they want my advice, I’d say find a candidate with deep ties to the Laredo area, and make your main issue Cuellar’s too-close ties to Republicans. Try to pin him to Donald Trump, if only by association. Downplay as much as you can any and all support your candidate will receive from outside the district and outside the state. And good luck. I wouldn’t advise anyone to get their hopes up, but one never knows.

A switch to cider

Some craft brewing news of note.

The taps, they are a-changin’ at Town in City Brewery, where owner Justin Engle has decided to pause beer brewing and focus instead on creating hard cider.

The folks at Town in City began building their reputation in cider about a year ago, when they launched Houston Cider Co., in a shared space with the beer-brewing operation. But this month, Engle said he decided not to renew his brewer’s permit when it expires.

“We were given legal advice that if we were to renew our brewer’s permit prior to the TABC Sunset hearings, that we may be stuck for two years in old TABC rules,” Engle said of the current fight between brewers and legislators to modernize state laws for alcohol sales. “If the new rules are passed, it would still take us two years to get to the next rules. So we decided not to take that gamble, and so we’re not going to renew right now.”

But that doesn’t mean things at the brewery on Cavalcade near the Heights are going quiet.

On Dec. 18, Houston Cider Co. took a leap that Town in City never attempted: It began canning. Now, three of the cidery’s mainstays — Dry, Cherry and Rosé — are available at Whole Foods and a few other shops across the city.

Cider production began outpacing beer production at the Heights brewery back in August, Engle said.

Still, cider isn’t exactly a sure thing — especially not when compared with the ever-growing popularity of craft beer. According to Drizly, an eCommerce marketplace for alcoholic beverages, only 7.1 percent of sales in the beer market went to cider in October, the most recent month for which data are available. At that same time, 26.7 percent of sales were for craft beer.

But there’s another way to read that: Cider isn’t as crowded a space.

See here for some background on the ongoing legislative battle, which begins again in earnest as the Lege reconvenes. I note that one of the two incumbents that CraftPAC had been supporting as of that January publication date was defeated in November (Tony Dale of HD136). Sure hope they backed some other winners, or the slog will be harder than it needs to be. As for cider, the story notes that there are only eight such breweries in the state, with Houston Cider Company being the only one in our fair city (there is another one based in Dickinson that is the nearest neighbor). Here’s a Leader News story from January about their debut.

I blogged about Lerprechaun Cider Company, the first local cider company, back in 2011; they had a product relaunch in 2015 and according to a footnote at the end of this 2017 Houstonia story were never brewing here and had stopped distributing here. Their domain has expired, which I think tells you all you need to know. That Houstonia story was about Permann’s Cider Company, which as of last July was on track to have a taproom downtown. Not sure where that stands – they have a Facebook page that’s had five posts since February and a Twitter account that hasn’t tweeted since last August. I guess this is a longwinded way of saying that I wish the Houston Cider Company good luck, and that hopefully some day they’ll be able to brew beer again, too.

2020 is starting early

Example One:

The calendar just turned to 2019, but the 2020 race for Congressional seats in Texas is already on.

A few days after Christmas, San Antonio resident Liz Wahl, 33, a former cable television news anchor, filed papers in Washington, D.C. to run in the 23rd Congressional District held now by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes. Her filing came just 37 days after Hurd was declared the winner in his re-election by just 926 votes over Air Force veteran Gina Ortiz Jones.

Jones told supporters in late December that she is also “very likely” to run again in 2020 for the seat.

That story makes Wahl seem like some boring nobody. Turns out, she’s a lot more interesting than that.

Former RT anchor Liz Wahl announced Thursday that she is planning to run as a Democrat against Texas Rep. Will Hurd (R), who won reelection in November to a third term.

[…]

Wahl made headlines in 2014 when she quit her hosting job at the Russian-owned news network on air, while denouncing Russia’s involvement in Crimea, which voted to secede from Ukraine and is currently occupied by Russian-aligned forces.

“I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth, and that is why, after this newscast, I’m resigning,” Wahl said during a March broadcast that year.

The news network, which was forced to register in 2017 as a foreign agent, denounced her resignation at the time as a PR stunt.

Definitely not what I had envisioned when I read “former cable TV new anchor”. Wahl’s Facebook page is here, and it includes a link to this Crowdpac post she wrote explaining her motivation for running. I feel confident saying that Wahl will have company in the primary if she does run. Getting an early start, and having such a distinctive background, will help her stand out if she follow through.

Closer to home, we have this post to Pantsuit Nation by Elisa Cardnell:

Happy New Year! This year, my resolution is a little bigger than usual. I’m exploring a run for the Democratic primary in Texas’ 2nd Congressional District (Houston, Texas). The primary is next spring, but fundraising is a huge hurdle, so I have to start now.

I’m a Navy veteran – I served on active duty for five years after college and then for six years in the Reserves. I just hung up my uniform for good last April due to health issues (some related to my time in the service, some not). I’m also a teacher and a single mom, and I’ve seen just how desperately we need ethical leadership in DC to serve as good role models.

Before 2016, I tried to stay out of politics, especially since as a member of the military I viewed my role as necessarily nonpartisan (at least in public life). But now I feel that I have to do something, and my entire career of serving my country and my community has led me to this point. In Houston, we have a chance to flip some more House seats in 2020, and my district will be a particularly tough race (against Dan Crenshaw) in the general election.

It’s going to be a long two years – but it starts now!

Elisa is a friend of mine and a fellow member of the Rice MOB. She had reached out to me a couple of weeks ago, so I knew she was thinking about this. Todd Litton is still out there, and CD02 will be an attractive target for others in Harris County, so don’t be surprised to hear other names along the way. But as above, and as I’ve been saying, if this is something you’re thinking about, there’s no reason not to start as soon as possible. The election may be a log way off, but the filing period begins this November, and if 2020 is anything like 2018, you’re going to see a lot of fundraising activity happen well before then. Don’t get left behind.

And just so we’re clear, incumbents are going to feel the same pressures.

Shortly after participating in the official group swearing-in for House members, [Rep. Colin] Allred got down to business and voted for Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. That’s all it took for the National Republican Congressional Committee to come after him with one of its first paid campaign ads of the 2020 election cycle.

“Immediately after the Speaker vote, voters in districts across the country received text messages, paid for by the NRCC, informing them that with their first vote as a member of Congress, their Democrat Representative has already sold them out to the radical left and voted to hand the Speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi,” the NRCC said in a press release. “Today’s vote sets the tone for what voters can expect from congressional Democrats as the party continues to follow their radical base and march to the left on everything from immigration to taxes to national security.”

The NRCC targeted 15 new House members with the ads, including Allred and fellow Texan Lizzie Fletcher, who knocked off longtime Houston-area Republican John Culberson in a district that, like Allred’s, voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump despite a long history of favoring Republicans.

I don’t expect the usual misogynistic squawking about Nancy Pelosi will be more effective than it was in 2018, though of course that depends on how well this Congress follows through on its promises. The other team is still out there making noise about every little thing, though. Keep your eye on the ball, and remember that the offseason ain’t what it used to be.

Speaker Bonnen

It’s official.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Talking about dreams, honesty and courage, the members of the Texas House unanimously elected Rep. Dennis Bonnen House speaker, making him one of the most powerful Republicans in the state.

Members of the House voted 147-0 in favor of Bonnen.

His election was expected after announcing he had secured the nomination less than a week after the November election. Bonnen, who has been a member of the House for more than 20 years, drew no opponents for the position. More than a half-dozen other candidates vying for the position dropped out in early November.

Basically, once Bonnen was in for Speaker, he went from zero to 60 in a heartbeat. The only question was whether someone would make an out-of-the-blue protest vote, or vote “Present”, for whatever the reason. Given the three current vacancies, the answer to that is a clear No. So congratulations, Speaker Bonnen. This is a good way to start.

In 2017, one of the most talked about bills in Texas would have required transgender people to use bathrooms matching the sex on their birth certificates, spurring a flood of protests at the capitol as civil rights groups and business leaders rallied against it. Though the bill did not pass, this year hardly anyone is talking about another push for it.

New Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen wants it to stay that way.

“I would be very discouraged if a distraction of that type derailed the opportunity of significant school finance reform or property tax reform,” the newly elected speaker told Hearst Newspapers.

[…]

Since [last session], [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick has said the battle over bathroom legislation is “settled.” The lawmaker who carried the bill in 2017, Republican Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, lost his re-election. And [Gov. Greg] Abbott said while running for re-election that a bathroom bill is “not on my agenda” but declined to say whether he’d sign such a bill if it reached his desk.

I mean, we should all cast a wary eye at the reform proposals, but the sentiment is appreciated nonetheless. Dan Patrick wasn’t even in Austin for Opening Day, and boy howdy is the quiet nice. The bathroom bill may be on the back burner, but it will never truly go away as long as the horrible lying liars who have been pushing it continue to do so. The Trib has more.

Now we talk about vote centers

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appeal of bail injunction dropped

Elections have consequences, and thank goodness for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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