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Gary Polland

Two unsatisfying articles about the 2016 Democratic sweep in Harris County

The Democratic sweep in Harris County has drawn some national attention, as writers from the left and right try to analyze what happened here last year and why Hillary Clinton carried the county by such a large margin. Unfortunately, as is often the case with stories about Texas by people not from Texas, the results are not quite recognizable to those of us who are here. Let’s begin with this story in Harper’s, which focuses on the efforts of the Texas Organizing Project.

Amid the happy lawyers, journalists, and other movers and shakers at the victory parties, one group of seventy-five men and women, who had arrived on a chartered bus, stood out. Most of them were Latinos, like Petra Vargas, a Mexican-born hotel worker who had spent the day walking her fellow immigrants to the polls. Others were African Americans, such as Rosie McCutcheon, who had campaigned relentlessly for the ticket while raising six grandchildren on a tiny income. All of them wore turquoise T-shirts bearing the logo top. Not only had they made a key contribution to the day’s results — they represented a new and entirely promising way of doing politics in Texas.

The Texas Organizing Project was launched in 2009 by a small group of veteran community organizers. Michelle Tremillo, a fourth-generation Tejana (a Texan of Mexican descent), grew up in public housing in San Antonio, where her single mother worked as a janitor. Making it to Stanford on a scholarship, she was quickly drawn into politics, beginning with a student walkout in protest of Proposition 187, California’s infamous anti-immigrant ballot measure. By the time she graduated, the elite university had changed her view of the world. “I always knew I was poor growing up, and I even understood that I was poorer than some of my peers that I went to school with,” Tremillo told me. What she eventually came to understand was the sheer accumulation of wealth in America and its leveling effect on the rest of the population: “We were all poor.”

Both Tremillo and her TOP cofounder Ginny Goldman, a Long Island native, had worked for ACORN, the progressive national community organization that enjoyed considerable success — registering, for example, half a million minority voters in 2008 — before becoming a target of calculated assaults by right-wing operatives. By 2009, the group was foundering, and it was dissolved a year later.

In response, the activists came up with TOP. Goldman, who was its first executive director, told me that TOP was designed to focus on specific Texan needs and realities and thereby avoid the “national cookie-cutter approach.” The organization would work on three levels: doorstep canvassing, intense research on policy and strategy, and mobilizing voter turnout among people customarily neglected by the powers that be.

[…]

The TOP founders and their colleagues, including another Stanford graduate, Crystal Zermeno, a Tejana math whiz whose mother grew up sleeping on the floor, began to ponder ways to change that. Might it be possible to mobilize enough voters to elect progressives to statewide office? For non-Republicans in Texas and elsewhere, the most galling aspect of recurrent electoral defeat has been the persistent failure of supposedly natural allies, specifically Latinos and African Americans, to show up at the polls. For years, Democratic officials and commentators had cherished the notion that natural growth in the minority population, which rose from 20 percent to nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population between 1985 and 2015, would inevitably put the party back in power. Yet these designated agents of change seemed reluctant to play their part. As I was incessantly reminded in Houston, “Demographics are not destiny.”

The problem has been especially acute in Texas, which produced the lowest overall turnout of any state in the 2010 midterm elections. Three million registered African-American and Latino voters stayed home that year, not to mention the 2 million who were unregistered. The result was a state government subservient to the demands and prejudices of Republican primary voters, and unrepresentative of the majority in a state where almost one in four children lived in poverty, 60 percent of public-school students qualified for free or subsidized lunches, and the overall poverty rate was growing faster than the national average. Following the crushing Republican victory in 2010, TOP launched an ambitious project to discover, as Zermeno put it, “who was not voting, and why.”

Digging deep into voter files and other databases, Zermeno confirmed that Texas contained a “wealth of non-voting people of color.” Most of them were registered, but seldom (if ever) turned up at the polls. The problem, she noted, was especially acute with Latinos, only 15 percent of whom were regular voters. In her detailed report, she calculated precisely how many extra voters needed to turn out to elect someone who would represent the interests of all Texans: a minimum of 1.1 million. Fortuitously, these reluctant voters were concentrated in just nine big urban counties, led by Harris.

Ever since the era of Ann Richards, Democrats had been focusing their efforts (without success) on winning back white swing voters outside the big cities. But Zermeno realized that there was no reason “to beat our heads against the wall for that group of people anymore, not when we’ve got a million-voter gap and as many as four million non-voting people of color in the big cities, who are likely Democrats.” By relentlessly appealing to that shadow electorate, and gradually turning them into habitual voters, TOP could whittle down and eliminate the Republican advantage in elections for statewide offices such as governor and lieutenant governor, not to mention the state’s thirty-eight votes in the presidential Electoral College. In other words, since the existing Texas electorate was never going to generate a satisfactory result, TOP was going to have to grow a new one.

There was, however, still another question to answer. Why were those 4 million people declining to vote? TOP embarked on a series of intensive focus groups, which were largely financed by Amber and Steve Mostyn, a pair of progressive Houston claims attorneys. (Their string of lucrative settlements included some with insurance companies who had balked at paying claims for Ike-related house damage.) Year after year, the Mostyns had loyally stumped up hefty donations to middle-of-the-road Democrats who doggedly pursued existing voters while ignoring the multitude who sat out elections all or most of the time. When TOP asked these reluctant voters about their abstention, the answer was almost always the same: “When I have voted for Democrats in the past, nothing has changed, so it’s not worth my time.” There was one telling exception: in San Antonio, voters said that the only Texas Democrat they trusted was Julián Castro, who ran for mayor in 2009 on a platform of bringing universal pre-K to the city, and delivered on his promise when he won.

“There’s this misunderstanding that people don’t care, that people are apathetic,” Goldman told me. “It’s so not true. People are mad and they want to do something about it. People want fighters that will deliver real change for them. That’s why year-round community organizing is so critical. People see that you can deliver real impact, and that you need the right candidates in office to do it, and connect it back to the importance of voting. It’s the ongoing cycle. We see winning the election as only the first step toward the real win, which is changing the policies that are going to make people’s lives better.”

Beginning with the 2012 election, TOP canvassers — volunteers and paid employees working their own neighborhoods — were trained to open a doorstep interview not with statements about a candidate but with a question: “What issue do you care about?” The answer, whether it was the minimum wage or schools or potholes, shaped the conversation as the canvasser explained that TOP had endorsed a particular candidate (after an intensive screening) because of his or her position on those very issues. These were not hit-and-run encounters. Potential voters were talked to “pretty much nonstop for about eight to ten weeks leading to the election,” according to Goldman. “They got their doors knocked three to five times. They got called five to seven times. They signed a postcard saying, ‘I pledge to vote.’ They circled which day they were going to vote on a little calendar on the postcard, and we mailed those postcards back to them. We offered them free rides to the polls. We answered all of their questions, gave them all the information they needed, until they cast a ballot. And what we saw was that the Latino vote grew by five percentage points in Harris County in 2012.”

Link via Political Animal. I love TOP and I think they do great work, but this article leaves a lot of questions unasked as well as unanswered. When Ginny Goldman says that the Latino vote grew by five percent in Harris County in 2012, I need more context for that. How does that compare to the growth of Latino registered voters in the same time period (which I presume is since 2008)? What was the growth rate in areas where TOP was doing its outreach versus areas where it was not? Do we have the same data for 2016? I want to be impressed by that number, but I need this information before I can say how impressed I am.

For all that TOP should be rightly proud of their efforts, it should be clear from the description that it’s labor intensive. If the goal is to close a 1.1 million voter gap at the state level, how well does the TOP model scale up? What’s the vision for taking this out of Harris County (and parts of Dallas; the story also includes a bit about the Democratic win in HD107, which as we know was less Dem-friendly than HD105, which remained Republican) and into other places where it can do some good?

I mean, with all due respect, the TOP model of identifying low-propensity Dem-likely voters and pushing them to the polls with frequent neighbor-driven contact sounds a lot like the model that Battleground Texas was talking about when they first showed up. One of the complaints I heard from a dedicated BGTX volunteer was that both the people doing the contact and the people being contacted grew frustrated by it over time. That gets back to my earlier question about how well this might scale, since one size seldom fits all. To the extent that it does work I say great! Let’s raise some money and put all the necessary resources into making it work. I just have a hard time believing that it’s the One Thing that will turn the tide. It’s necessary – very necessary – to be sure. I doubt that it is sufficient.

Also, too, in an article that praises the local grassroots effort of a TOP while denigrating top-down campaigns, I find it fascinating that the one political consultant quoted is a guy based in Washington, DC. Could the author not find a single local consultant to talk about TOP’s work?

Again, I love TOP and I’m glad that they’re getting some national attention. I just wish the author of this story had paid more of that attention to the details. With all that said, the TOP story is a masterpiece compared to this Weekly Standard article about how things looked from the Republican perspective.

Gary Polland, a three-time Harris County Republican party chairman, can’t remember a time the GOP has done so poorly. “It could be back to the 60’s.” Jared Woodfill, who lost the chairmanship in 2014, does remember. “This is the worst defeat for Republicans in the 71-year history of Republican party of Harris County,” he said.

But crushing Republicans in a county of 4.5 million people doesn’t mean Democrats are on the verge of capturing Texas. In fact, Democratic leaders were as surprised as Republicans by the Harris sweep. But it does show there’s a political tide running in their direction.

Democratic strategists are relying on a one-word political panacea to boost the party in overtaking Republicans: Hispanics. They’re already a plurality—42 percent—in Harris County. Whites are 31 percent, blacks 20 percent, and Asians 7 percent. And the Hispanic population continues to grow. Democrats control the big Texas cities—Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, to name three—thanks to Hispanic voters.

But in Houston, at least, Democrats have another factor in their favor: Republican incompetence. It was in full bloom in 2016. Though it was the year of a change election, GOP leaders chose a status quo slogan, “Harris County Works.” Whatever that was supposed to signal, it wasn’t change.

“It doesn’t exactly have the aspirational ring of ‘Make America Great Again’ or even Hillary’s ‘Stronger Together,'” Woodfill said. “It is very much a message of ‘everything is okay here, let’s maintain the status quo.’ People were confused and uninspired.”

A separate decision was just as ruinous. GOP leaders, led by chairman Paul Simpson, panicked at the thought of Trump at the top of the ticket. So they decided to pretend Trump was not on the ticket. They kept his name off campaign literature. They didn’t talk about him. And Trump, assured of winning Texas, didn’t spend a nickel in the Houston media market. It became an “invisible campaign,” Polland said. “There were votes to be had,” Polland told me. They were Trump votes. They weren’t sought.

This strategy defied reason and history. Disunited parties usually do poorly. GOP leaders gambled that their candidates would do better if the Trump connection were minimized. That may have eased the qualms of some about voting Republican. But it’s bound to have prompted others to stay at home on Election Day. We know one thing about the gamble: It didn’t work. Republicans were slaughtered, and it wasn’t because the candidates were bad.

“Our overall ticket was of high quality, but no casual voter would know it since the campaign focus was on ‘Harris County Works,’ and Houston doesn’t,” Polland insisted. “Did we read about any of the high-quality women running? Not much. Did we read about issues raised by Donald Trump that were resonating with voters? Nope. Did the Simpson-led party even mention Trump? Nope.”

[…]

Republican Rep. Kevin Brady, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the “holy grail” for Democrats, both in Texas and nationally, is winning the Hispanic vote. “They did that somewhat successfully” in 2016, he said in an interview. Unless Democrats attract significantly more Hispanic voters in 2018, Brady thinks Republicans should recover. His district north of Houston lies partly in Harris County.

For this to happen, they will need to attract more Hispanic voters themselves. They recruited a number of Hispanics to run in 2016, several of them impressive candidates. All were defeated in the Democratic landslide.

I have no idea what the author means by “a number of Hispanics” being recruited, because by my count of the countywide candidates, there were exactly two – Debra Ibarra Mayfield and Linda Garcia, both judges who had been appointed to the benches on which they sat. Now I agree that two is a number, but come on.

Like the first story, this one talks about the increase in Latino voting in Harris County in 2016 as well. Usually, in this kind of article, some Republican will talk about how Latinos aren’t automatically Democrats, how it’s different in Texas, and so on. In this one, the turnout increase is met with a resigned shrug and some vague assurances that things will be better for them in 2018. Maybe no one had anything more insightful than that to say – it’s not like Jared Woodfill is a deep thinker – but it sure seems to me like that might have been a worthwhile subject to explore.

As for the griping about the county GOP’s strategy of not mentioning Trump, a lot of that is the two previous GOP chairs dumping on the current chair, which is fine by me. But honestly, what was the local GOP supposed to do? Not only was their Presidential candidate singularly unappealing, their two main incumbents, Devon Anderson and Ron Hickman, weren’t exactly easy to rally behind, either. Focusing on the judges seems to me to have been the least bad of a bunch of rotten options. Be that as it may, no one in this story appeared to notice or care that some thirty thousand people who otherwise voted Republican crossed over for Hillary Clinton, with a few thousand more voting Libertarian or write-in. Does anyone think that may be a problem for them in 2018? A better writer might have examined that a bit, as well as pushed back on the assertion that more Trump was the best plan. It may be that, as suggested by the recent Trib poll, some of these non-Trumpers are warming up to the guy now that he’s been elected. That would suggest at least some return to normalcy for the GOP, but the alternate possibility is that they’re just as disgusted with him and might be open to staying home or voting against some other Republicans next year as a protest. That would be a problem, but not one that anyone in this story is thinking about.

So there you have it. At least with the first story, I learned something about TOP. In the second one, I mostly learned that Gary Polland and Jared Woodfill don’t like Paul Simpson and have him in their sights for next year. That will provide a little mindless entertainment for the rest of us, which I think we’ll all appreciate. It still would have been nice to have gotten something more of substance.

The “Everybody does it” defense

You knew it was coming.

Alicia Franklin

A prominent line of defense has emerged for a newly appointed family court judge accused this month of false billing when she was working as a court-appointed lawyer representing abused children: Everybody does it.

District Court Judge Alicia Franklin, the subject of a criminal complaint alleging she broke the law by billing for more than 24 hours of work in a single day as a court-appointed lawyer in Child Protective Services cases, has explained the high hours by saying she was billing for work done by associates and support staff.

Her supporters say the payment voucher that lawyers submit for approval to the judges who appoint them does not include a place to indicate that anyone else worked on the case, which is why it appears that Franklin did everything, from home visits to post office runs to filing court documents. They also say that billing for associates or support staff is commonplace among lawyers, including those who primarily perform court-appointed work.

See here and here for the background. There’s just one problem with this line of defense for Judge Franklin: The law says you can’t do that.

The applicable section of the Texas Family Code, which dictates what fees the attorneys can charge, says they “shall complete and submit to the court a voucher or claim for payment that lists the fees charged and hours worked by the guardian ad litem or attorney ad litem.”

An attorney ad litem is one appointed by a judge to represent the interests of a child or a person deemed legally incompetent.

“It sure does imply that it has to be hours worked by the actual ad litem and, I would think, especially for substantive work as opposed to more clerical things,” said Austin family lawyer Jimmy Vaught, chair of the family law section of the State Bar of Texas.

Vaught said he itemizes bills for private clients so they know what they are being charged for and said he would expect the same, or higher, standards for taxpayer-funded work.

His predecessor, Houston family lawyer Sherri Evans, the immediate past chair of the family law section, noted that the statute says “shall” rather than “may.”

Arlington-based family lawyer Toby Goodman, a former state representative who authored the 2003 bill that put that family code provision into place, said he has no problem with court-appointed lawyers billing for work done by associates or support staff but would expect it to be meticulously itemized and for the rates charged to be different for work done by the lawyers versus work done by their associates and staff, as it is in the private sector.

“If this particular judge is billing 24 hours out a day for her time and it’s not broken out, that’s inappropriate,” he said.

And now David Farr, the administrative judge for the nine family courts, has said he will start requiring lawyers he appoints to cases in his 312th District Court to sign a form swearing that they have billed only for time they personally incurred, unless they have permission to do otherwise. If nothing else, that ought to eliminate the wiggle room and ensure everyone is on the same page. I hope the other Family Court judges follow this lead.

Finally, while the story goes over Greg Enos’ role in all this, Enos is hardly sitting idle. His September 16 newsletter continues his investigation into the shady practices of Gary Polland, and he provides what he considers to be a better (though not sufficient) defense of Alicia Franklin. Check it out.

Greg Enos drops another bombshell

Greg Enos, the chief catalyst in getting Judge Denise Pratt ousted from the 311th Family Court, now documents bad behavior by Pratt’s successor on that bench, Alicia Franklin.

Alicia Franklin

I truly like Alicia Franklin personally and I do not want to embarrass her or cause her problems. I have even come to actually like her fiance, Doug York (outside of the courtroom). But, the facts are the facts. I would be a stinking hypocrite to go after “poor,” defenseless, little Gary Polland regarding his pay for CPS court appointments and then stay silent when I became aware of what Judge Franklin has apparently done. Luckily for Polland, I got my hands on Franklin’s pay vouchers first.

I could easily just keep quiet and let the Democrats and the Houston Chronicle work Franklin over and see what happened. In fact, I had it made in the 311th finally, since the new Judge Franklin held her position because I had been a prime mover in driving her crazy predecessor out of office. Toni and I almost never socialize without the kids and we had gone to dinner with York and Franklin and really enjoyed ourselves. Franklin is young, bright and enthusiastic and seemed so committed to doing a good job as a judge. I was truly fired up about her until the stinking facts got dumped in my lap.

I am writing this newsletter despite the fact that I know Franklin will be a judge through December and she may well win in November and then preside over the 311th for four more years (unless something bad happens that cuts her judicial career short as occurred with Judge Pratt). However, let me note that a recent survey from July shows Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott tied in Harris County and the Democrats have a ground game this year that the Republicans cannot possibly match. Do not assume that you know for sure who will win here locally in November.

I am writing this even though I contributed financially to Franklin’s campaign and I did a lot of work behind the scenes to get Franklin to switch from running for the 247th to the 311th District Court.

[…]

I have investigated and confirmed the facts set forth in this newsletter about Judge Franklin. With sadness and regret, I have concluded that these facts suggest possible criminal acts which should be investigated by a prosecutor. I am calling for an independent prosecutor and not the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit to investigate the bills submitted by Alicia Franklin and other attorneys for work they claim to have done on CPS cases.

I am not flatly accusing Judge Franklin of committing a crime. I am sadly and reluctantly pointing out 100% provable facts that create a reasonable suspicion that something very wrong has been done. I really wish Judge Franklin would provide her side of the story to convince us otherwise.

The facts described in this newsletter also show extremely poor ethical judgment by Judge Franklin and violations of the Canons of Judicial Ethics, which apply to judicial candidates as well as judges.

I am today writing the District Attorney, the State Bar of Texas and the worthless Commission on Judicial Conduct about these matters and asking for an investigation by people with resources and power far beyond me.

I am truly saddened to the core of my being to be writing this particular newsletter and I really wish you were not reading these words.

Click over and read the whole thing. Enos documents multiple infractions, the two main ones being Franklin overbilling Harris County – he has an example of her submitting claims for 23.5 hours of work on one particular day – and submitting claims for CPS work done after she had been sworn in as a judge, which is a violation of the Texas Canons of Judicial Ethics. There are other items, five in total, so again I say go read the whole thing and see what you think.

(By the way, since I’m sure you’re wondering, I have no information about the “survey from July [that] shows Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott tied in Harris County”. It’s the first I’d heard of it. I personally am pretty optimistic about Democratic prospects in Harris County this fall, but as with everything it comes down to turnout. Take nothing for granted, that’s for sure.)

One other item, which seems to me ought to be something the county addresses ASAP:

Lawyers are stealing tax payer dollars and the system in place at Harris County allows it. Here are the problems:

1. A paper based system from the 1950’s is still in use. Lawyers fill out the pay vouchers by hand, the judges sign the vouchers and then they go to the County Auditor, who pays the amounts approved by the judges, no questions asked.

2. A judge, who may approve dozens of pay vouchers a week, cannot see what an attorney is billing in other cases in that same court or in other courts.

3. No one until me ever took a mass of vouchers from one single attorney and extracted the fees charged on all cases for a particular day to see what the attorney is billing the county for on that day. This is how Alicia Franklin got busted billing 23.5 hours in one day. If I can “audit” vouchers, why can’t the County Auditor?

4. The real problem is that no one has any incentive to closely monitor the CPS pay system. The judges are picking their pals for the appointments and therefore obviously want them to make money. The attorneys do not want their vouchers audited either. They have figured out that they can make a lot of money by submitting almost any hours they can make up and no one is ever going to care or catch them.

The simple solution is to go to an all electronic reporting system, like the State makes candidates use for reporting campaign contributions. Candidates must enter their information into a database program that automatically uploads the data to the State database that we can all search. Click here to see just how searchable the Texas Ethics Commission campaign finance database is.

The county should make ALL billing and pay information for appointed attorneys viewable on line by everyone, including judges and reporters. Our family and juvenile judges should demand that all court appointments and all fees for appointed attorneys be reported. Simple transparency will eliminate a lot of the abuses.

It would also help if our County Auditor actually audited some attorney vouchers on a random basis to keep everyone honest. However, the County Auditor is hired, fired and managed by the district judges of Harris County. How gung ho will the auditor be to audit the CPS invoices her bosses have already approved?

Lastly, we need to replace every single judge involved in this dirty CPS court appointment business, which is about three judges in the family courts and at least two of the three juvenile courts.

The children and tax payers of Harris County deserve better!

An electronic filing and reporting system for vouchers submitted for legal work done on the county’s dime via judicial appointments seems like a no-brainer to me, for all the reasons Enos specifies. Honestly, I’m kind of amazed we don’t have even a rudimentary system for e-filing these vouchers in the year 2014. I know there were some attorneys that quailed at the idea of e-filing court documents, but come on. What are the best practices here? Surely there are other counties doing this. I don’t know who needs to drive this – Commissioners Court, the District Clerk, the County Auditor, someone else – but I hope we can all agree that it’s the right thing to do.

Greg Enos turns his spotlight to Gary Polland

This ought to be good.

Gary Polland

There can be no doubt: Gary Polland is a smart, successful lawyer who knows how to make a lot of money from the practice of law. Polland is politically powerful and able to influence and profit from every Republican primary election. Polland should be your hero and role model if high income and political influence are your goals in life.

I asked a bunch of attorneys with experience in CPS cases how much they guessed Gary Polland had been paid in four and a half years for court appointments. Their guesses ranged from $300,000 – $700,000. They were totally floored to hear that Polland had been paid $1.9 million by Harris County since January 1, 2010 for court appointments. Just to be very clear, that is taxpayer dollars being paid to this one man for government court appointments only. It does not count the many cases where Polland was appointed by judges but paid by private parties.

My investigation into this incredible situation has just begun, but here is what I know:

Polland has enormous political influence in Harris County Republican primaries, especially with judges, because he is one of the “Big Three” endorsers. It is virtually impossible to win a Harris County GOP judicial primary, even for an incumbent, without at least two of three endorsements from Hotze, Lowry or Polland. Unlike Hotze or Lowry, Polland is an attorney. Click here to see who Polland endorsed in the 2014 GOP primaries.

[…]

Attorneys appointed on CPS cases are paid a lower hourly rate than lawyers in private cases are paid. For example, I charge my clients $350 per hour for my work in divorce and child custody cases. Harris County pays CPS attorneys hourly rates which range from $75 to $125 per hour, depending on the specific service provided. Pay for trials is $300 to $500 per day. Young attorneys, who need experience and who want any paying case they can get, often seek CPS appointments. These young attorneys work hard to impress the judges and, because they are new, do not take CPS clients for granted. Massive amounts of appointments for just a few older, politically connected attorneys, take away from younger attorneys this opportunity to gain experience, help children and make a little money.

Most importantly, representation of abused children in CPS cases is not supposed to be an “assembly line” business to enrich the politically connected. CPS work takes time, dedication and focus on a few children at a time.

The $1.9 million paid to Polland by Harris County does not include what Polland has been paid in private cases by the parties where he was appointed a mediator or amicus attorney by a judge. In non-CPS child custody cases, the attorney appointed to represent a child is usually called an “amicus attorney.”

[…]

The $1.9 million Polland has been paid by Harris County since January 1, 2010 works out to $8,119.66 per week. Divided by $125 per hour (the minimum and usual non-trial hourly rate for CPS cases), that is 65 hours of billed legal work per week, every week, 52 weeks per year with no vacations or holidays. That would leave Mr. Polland very little time for his private appointments, mediations and civil cases where a client actually hires him. In contrast, for my clients, I work 7 – 10 hours per day but I usually bill a total of 4 – 6 hours per day. I clearly could learn a lot from Mr. Polland on how to efficiently bill for my time.

Every two years, Polland makes a lot of money from his business, Conservative Media Properties, LLC, doing business as the Texas Conservative Review, which endorses candidates in Republican primaries. Candidates give Polland money to pay for his mailers and local judicial candidates almost have to pay Polland because voters simply cannot know which of the dozens of judicial candidates are qualified. In election season, judges come to the attorneys asking for contributions, except for Polland. Unlike the rest of us, Polland is able to go to the judges and ask them for money. He is in a truly unique and powerful position.

My next issue will attempt to analyze which judges are appointing Polland and which paid his for-profit business for “advertisements” in his endorsement newspaper. For the next few months, a special feature in this newsletter will list each new appointment in family courts Polland gets and which judge appointed him. The judges who are appointing Polland are going to feel the spotlight even if they are unwilling to publicly explain why they choose him out of the hundreds of lawyers who seek appointments.

I can’t wait. Polland gets appointed to civil and criminal cases as well as to family court cases, and of course he is heavily involved in Republican primary politics, especially via his influential endorsement of judges. This year’s election is therefore particularly consequential for him, since a strong Democratic year would necessarily mean tossing out a bunch of judges that have been appointing him in favor of judges that would not have any electoral connection to him.

Enos’ calculation of Polland’s total bill to Harris County is about $300K higher than the figure he cites on his sidebar, where he lists the top 22 recipients of appointment earnings from Harris County since 2010. It’s still a lot of money either way. Keep that in mind the next time you hear Gary Polland rail against the Harris County Public Defender’s office. Its existence cuts into his bottom line.

Enos has invited Polland to reply to his reporting. I kind of doubt Polland will take him up on it, but I hope he does. It would be enlightening, if nothing else.

A new day for the Harris County GOP?

Lisa Falkenberg postmortems the changing of the guard at the Harris County GOP.

Now that [Paul] Simpson defeated [Jared] Woodfill in the Republican primary election earlier this week, [Rep. Sarah] Davis is hoping her past experience with him is prologue. She and others are looking to Simpson to provide a new kind of leadership, one that is stridently conservative, yet tolerant of other people’s definition of that word.

“I’m very hopeful that Paul will be more open and respectful to Republicans who may have followed the 80-20 rule, as we call it,” she said, referring to President Ronald Reagan’s political philosophy that someone is an ally who agrees with you 80 percent of the time.

“The difference,” Davis said, between Simpson and Woodfill, “is that Paul, to me, cares about expanding the party and making our party grow and become more inclusive so we can become more effective, than just being a party about excluding people and taking out people we don’t like, or who we think don’t belong.”

Simpson says he thinks Davis’ vote was a mistake, as were her harsh words against Republicans in an op-ed published in the Chronicle after the vote. But he says Woodfill’s decision to go after Davis was bad leadership.

“To me, it’s a family squabbling,” he told me. “You don’t discipline your children out in public.”

[…]

Those who might think Simpson’s election was a referendum on the party’s incessant march to the right would be wrong. Plenty of social conservatives and tea-partiers joined moderates such as Harris County Judge Ed Emmett in supporting Simpson out of concern over the management of the party. They were concerned about lagging outreach, poor fund-raising, lax recruitment of party chairs, and a lack of transparency in financial operations.

“The big benefit isn’t going to be philosophical,” said Emmett, who generously dipped into his own war chest to support Simpson. “It’s going to be that the county party is able to go out and generate activity to benefit all the Republicans.”

A few thoughts, and remember that I Am Not A Republican, so take them for what they’re worth.

1. As with most intra-Republican squabbles, the primary fight between Simpson and Woodfill was about tactics and strategy, not philosophy. Paul Simpson won’t publicly back an opponent to Sarah Davis for voting against an anti-abortion bill, and he wouldn’t have recruited people to be plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city of Houston and its revised policy on spousal benefits, but that doesn’t make him or his party pro-choice or pro-equality, and it certainly isn’t a leading indicator for the rest of the state. It’s because Simpson believes that de-emphasizing social issues will help Republicans win races in Harris County. It’s a perfectly reasonable approach, but in the year of Dan Patrick it’s hard to say how much effect it will have.

2. I doubt there will be any lingering effects from the Simpson-Woodfill primary this year. Democrats had no trouble getting back on the same page after the Obama-Clinton primary of 2008, and I expect the same for the Harris County GOP. Nothing unifies like a common enemy, and the nice thing about having our primaries so early in the year is that we have plenty of time to remind ourselves who our real opponents are afterward.

3. That said, factions and rivalries will not just go away. Steven Hotze and Gary Polland aren’t going to stop doing their pay-to-play endorsements because there’s a new party Chair. They just won’t have the imprimatur of the party itself. I suspect that won’t bother them too much. Don’t be surprised if they continue pushing their own slate in 2016.

4. Along those lines, there’s some danger for Simpson if this winds up being a good year for Democrats in Harris County. His campaign was based on the idea that Woodfill’s tactics were holding Republicans back. If a bunch of Republican judges and incumbents like Stan Stanart and Orlando Sanchez wind up losing this fall, his opponents are sure to be quick with the see-I-told-you-so’s.

5. Finally, I confess I have a certain amount of sympathy for Woodfill in re Sarah Davis. It’s smart politics to be tolerant of some heresy from incumbents in tight districts or parts of the state that themselves are not in sync with prevailing opinion. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it, and that doesn’t mean you can’t chide them when they reinforce the other side’s talking points. A Democratic legislator that supported the repeal of the Affordable Care Act would be roundly and rightfully criticized, and I’m sure folks will have long memories about the Democrats that voted for HB2, even if none of them suffered any consequences for it this time. Speaking as a parent, if your kid misbehaves badly enough in public you sometimes do have to discipline them, or at least admonish them, in public. It’s never a pleasant experience, and there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

Judge Pratt update

The most embattled Family Court judge in Harris County is still on the ballot, in case you were wondering.

Judge Denise Pratt

Embattled state District Court Judge Denise Pratt, accused of falsifying court records to cover up tardy rulings, intends to remain on the ballot to face the voters, her lawyer says.

In late October, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office filed a criminal complaint against Pratt, alleging she falsified court records in an effort to cover up tardy rulings. A Webster family lawyer filed a similar complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

County Republicans have said they are awaiting the outcome of a grand jury investigation before taking any action against Pratt, such as asking her to step aside.

But it may be a moot point. Today is the filing deadline for candidates, and candidates have only until Tuesday to withdraw from the ballot.

Pratt denies any wrongdoing and has no plans to withdraw from the ballot, her lawyer Terry Yates said Friday.

“She did nothing improper or illegal,” he said.

Pratt’s clerk resigned after allegations surfaced that the judge altered and backdated court records to make it appear that she issued rulings and filed documents sooner than she actually did.

Yates confirmed that the criminal complaint against Pratt is under review by a grand jury and said his client is “cooperating fully.”

If the grand jury does not come to a conclusion in time for the advisory board to act, Woodfill said voters will have their say. As of Friday, Pratt had garnered one Republican primary opponent, Donna Detamore.

That story was from Monday, so it’s up to the voters now. Thanks to a couple of late filings, they now have even more choices.

Embattled state District Court Judge Denise Pratt had garnered four challengers in next year’s GOP primary election by the filing deadline on Monday.

A complaint against the Republican freshman judge that led to the resignation of her lead clerk and an investigation by the Harris County District Attorney’s office is being reviewed by a grand jury. The complaint was filed with the DA’s office and the state Commission on Judicial Conduct by Webster family attorney Greg Enos.

As of Friday, only lawyer Donna Detamore had filed to run against Pratt. By 6 p.m. on Monday, though, lawyers Alicia Franklin, Anthony Magdaleno and Philip Placek had also joined the 311th District Court race.

Republican politico and lawyer Gary Polland, whose endorsements are considered key to GOP primary wins, said last week he would endorse Franklin if she filed. He endorsed Pratt during her first run in 2010, but said he would not do so again because he considers her a “political liability.”

Pratt, however, says she will not withdraw from the ballot and flatly denies the allegations being made against her.

“I’m sure you have heard the rumors that are being spread by the Democrats and the liberal media,” Pratt wrote in an e-mail sent Monday to GOP precinct chairs. “I wanted to take this time to let you know that the allegations brought against me by the Democratic faction are false. I am a conservative Judge and because of my principles I am being attacked. I have already filed to run for re-election as judge of the 311th Family District Court, and will not let the underhanded political tactics by the Democrats keep me from doing my job.”

And I’m sure the Commies are out to get you, too, Judge Pratt. At least until the District Attorney decides whether or not to charge you with official misconduct. For the record, Sherri Cothrun is the Democrat running for the 311th Family District Court in November. Cothrun was a candidate for the 246th Family District Court in 2010, and she is law partner to Rita Lucido, the Democratic candidate for SD17. I’d advise Judge Pratt to be more concerned about facing a quality opponent like Sherri Cothrun than anything the media might report about her.

If Judge Pratt wins the nomination and then subsequently withdraws for whatever the reason, she could not be replaced and the Democrat would be unopposed; this is the one thing for which we can be thankful to Tom DeLay, since he firmly established that fact in 2006. We’ll see what the grand jury has to say, as I presume their verdict will have a large effect on that.

See here, here, and here for the background. For what it’s worth, I recently asked a friend of mine who practices family law what he thought about Judge Pratt. My friend confirmed all of the things we have heard so far about her courtroom demeanor and management. It’s probably fair to say she’s not well liked by the lawyers that appear before her.

Speaking of the lawyers, the story adds this little tidbit:

The political situation would appear to put local Republican Party leaders, including Woodfill, in an awkward position.

Since last year, Pratt has appointed Woodfill to cases for which he has made nearly $10,000. He is not the only lawyer and Republican Party leader Pratt has appointed to cases in her court since taking the bench in 2011.

According to information obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, former party chairman Gary Polland, whose endorsements are considered key to judicial GOP primary wins, has made more than $79,000 in legal fees from appointments by Pratt. Lawyer George Clevenger, chairman of the party’s finance committee, has made more than $114,000.

Judges giving appointments to lawyers with whom they have political or other ties long has been the subject of controversy.

You could say that. It’s why Gary Polland is such a fierce opponent of the Harris County Public Defender’s office as well – he makes a ton of money from appointments, so having a public defender cuts into his bottom line. Just something to keep in mind.

Today’s the day

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

At long last, the death march known as Election 2012 will come to an end today, at which time we can begin gearing up for the next elections in 2013, 2014, and 2016, as well as dreading what the Legislature has in store for us. If you haven’t already voted, you can find your Harris County Election Day polling place here, or if you know your precinct number you can look up your location in this spreadsheet sent out by the County Clerk’s office. If all else fails, call the County Clerk’s office at 713 795 6965 for assistance.

Want more? You can get a free ride from Metro if you show your voter registration card. If you don’t have your voter registration card you can’t ride free on Metro but you can still vote as long as you have one of these other forms of identification. (Note: May not work in Williamson County.) As I expect that something like 60 to 70% of the votes have already been cast in the county for this election, I figure the lines won’t be too bad, but I still wouldn’t advise waiting till the last minute if you can help it. Remember, state law entitles you to at least two consecutive hours off on Election Day to vote, so take advantage of it as needed.

The best thing that can happen while people are voting is for nothing remarkable to happen. There will be Justice Department election monitors in Harris County to keep an eye on things in the event there is anything hinky going on. The less news there is to report about that, the better.

If you can’t bear the thought of having to wait till tomorrow morning to know what I think about what’s happened, you can tune into KPFT radio tonight from 7 to 10 to hear me blather on about it. I’ll be a guest on Mike Honig’s ThinkWing Radio show, which can be found at 90.1 FM on your dial or by going to KPFT.org and clicking on “Listen Live”, which naturally can be done from anywhere there’s an Internet connection. I may if I get ambitious dust off my badly neglected Twitter account (@kuff) and use that for quickie updates while waiting for my turn to speak. Don’t ask me about hashtags, I’m not that organized.

I will also be taping not one but two episodes of “Red, White, and Blue” on Houston PBS this week, one on national election results to run on the 9th and one on local election results to run on the 16th. By the time all this is done even I will be sick of me talking about the election. I’ll have more details on that later, in case you’ve ever wondered what I look like in a suit and tie.

Finally, an amusing tidbit to send you off to your polling or poll-watching place. Remember that story about campaign contributions made by people connected to the strip club Treasures to Republican candidates like Robert Talton? You can see all that on Talton’s eight day campaign finance report. If you look a little farther down on that report, however, you will also see a $15,000 expenditure made to the Texas Conservative Review for an advertisement. The TCR is of course owned by Talton’s law partner, Gary Polland. Guess who is also a lobbyist for Treasures? That would be Gary Polland. It’s like the circle of life, you know? I’m going to miss having these guys involved in the election.

Complaining about the public defender office

At least one judge doesn’t like the new Harris County Public Defenders office.

“In short there is no evidence that a public defender’s office can be of any benefit to the Harris County Juvenile Justice system,” state District Judge John Phillips said last month in an open letter.

Chief among Phillips’ complaints is that the public defender system in the juvenile courts costs two and half times more than the system of appointments he uses, a number denied by those connected to the office.

Phillips said the average cost per case is $649, compared to $264 for assigned lawyers.

Alex Bunin, who oversees the public defender’s office, said Phillips’ numbers are wrong. He said the judge cited a preliminary feasibility study with estimates that were not accurate.

“Those numbers are not meaningful,” he said.

Bunin said the costs are closer to actual public defender averages across the state. Established public defender offices in Texas average $406 per case against $540 for appointed attorneys.

“The point is that the numbers are fairly comparable,” Bunin said. “There’s no support for ‘two and half times the cost.’ ”

Bunin said a comprehensive review has been commissioned and is expected in about six months.

“We’ll know things about the quality of our work, as well as the cost effectiveness of it,” Bunin said. “When we get ready for midyear budget, we’ll have something on paper.”

I found Judge Phillips’ letter here. The story references an open letter in response to Judge Phillips from Lawrence Finder and George “Mac” Secrest, but I was not able to locate it. (Dear Houston Chronicle: Would it kill you to include links to stuff like this that you reference in the online version of your stories?) Not being familiar with the system, Judge Phillips’ letter and the documents he included as evidence did not make much sense to me. I do agree with Bunin that the costs cited in an initial feasibility study don’t really mean much any more, and that the actual costs that will be reflected in their midyear budget will tell a much more accurate story. Judge Phillips also cites a number of reforms that the juvenile courts have implemented to save money, to which I say Great! Good job! But I don’t see why those reforms and the Public Defender office should be mutually exclusive, and even if they were that doesn’t address the need for the Public Defender office in other courts. And finally, not to be crass, but I’d like to know what if any connections there are between Judge Phillips and Gary Polland. Judge Phillips complained that supporters of the Public Defender office have politicized the issue, but that is quite clearly a two-way street. Let’s see what their budget request looks like and we’ll go from there.

Kay the vincible

The 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers. The 1978 Boston Red Sox. The 2010 Kay Bailey Hutchison for Governor campaign.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison began this year as “Kay the Invincible.” But as she prepares to officially launch her bid for governor later this month, that aura is gone.

Hutchison entered the year with the ability to make other politicians quake. She had two re-election victories under her belt with more than 60 percent of the vote in each. Her popularity ratings in polls put her at the top among Texas politicians. And public polls showed her leading Gov. Rick Perry by anywhere from 6 to 27 percentage points.

Then Hutchison went silent — leaving the field of Texas politics to Perry for more than four months.

The senator “squandered her opportunity,” Republican political consultant Mark Sanders said. “She ceded the Republican base to Governor Perry.”

I noted the change in conventional wisdom last month. I mean, when KBH loses Paul Burka, you know it’s been bad for her.

Perhaps nothing so clearly showed Hutchison’s stumble than the fumbling series of interviews she gave last week about resigning from the Senate in October or November to run for governor. She gave mixed messages about only having to resign because it is a contested election, and she ended up urging Perry to drop out. He said no.

University of Texas political scientist James Henson said it looks like Hutchison’s advisers underestimated Perry and thought she could sit on her advantage until the campaign began.

“Kay was going to have the equivalent of a Rose Garden campaign,” Henson said, referring to the presidential election strategy of not leaving the White House except on official business.

Henson said momentum “has clearly swung in Perry’s favor,” but he said the best news for Hutchison is the vast majority of Texans still are not paying attention to the race.

Yes, but the vast majority of Texans have nothing to do with whether or not KBH will make it into next November. The only people that matter for that are the tiny slice of the electorate – some 500,000 to one million people – that will vote in the Republican primary in March. I daresay these people have been paying closer attention, if only because Perry has been talking to them every damn day for months.

Hutchison supporter Gary Polland, a former Harris County GOP chairman, said too much emphasis is placed on where Hutchison stood early in the race, as opposed to now.

“It was an aura of invincibility. I never thought it was reality,” Polland said. “The governor is an outstanding politician.”

Polland said when Hutchison officially launches her campaign she will be able to make the case that Perry is not the conservative leader he says he is and that the Texas economy is not as good as Perry claims. He said Hutchison spent the spring concentrating on her work in Washington.

“She’s not even really campaigning. Perry is always in campaign mode,” Polland said. “Once Senator Hutchison engages, the race will get close.”

Maybe. Or maybe she’s just outclassed by a politician who knows how to seize the advantage and has no qualms about getting his hands dirty. Perry has survived multiple contested races, against well-financed opponents. KBH hasn’t had to do that since 1994. We know Perry is a strong campaigner. We have no such knowledge about KBH, other than what we’ve seen so far this year, and that ain’t much. Polland’s remarks strike me as the equivalent of a football coach saying his team may be coasting now, but they’ll turn it on once the playoffs begin. How well does that usually work out?

Finally, RG Ratcliffe comes out and says what people like me have been saying for months:

Here’s some of the reasons why it makes little sense for her to resign:

1. Advice in a down economy: It’s always easier to get a job if you have a job.

2. Incumbent advantage. The biggest is that an incumbent has an easier time raising money than a non-incumbent. If you don’t believe me, just ask Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Schieffer.

3. The timing of her planned resignation coincides with Congress taking its end of the year break. So she won’t be needed in Washington until after Jan. 1 anyway. So you’re really only talking about her doing double duty in January and February.

4. A resignation gives Perry the opportunity to name Hutchison’s interim replacement. During the days it takes Perry to make that decision, the focus is on him and it shows he’s the man in charge.

5. Forget this idea that there will be a May special election to fill out her term through 2012.

Ratcliffe predicts that a fall resignation would lead to Perry declaring a January election, with a February runoff, both of which would work to his advantage in that they would keep the Republican base engaged leading up to March. As you know, I think his arguments make a lot of sense. Professor Murray, Mean Rachel, who has a great catch about KBH calling the kettle black, BOR, and Texas on the Potomac have more.

Hard times for the local GOP

Nestled into this story about a recent lecture given by Paul Burka at Rep. Ellen Cohen’s town hall meeting is this nugget about the state of the Harris County GOP:

In the words of Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who attended the town hall with his wife, Gina, the Republican Party “is a mess.” The local party office has been closed for days because the staff hasn’t been paid, Emmett said.

Oh, my. Clearly, these days were a long, long time ago. No wonder the natives are getting restless.

Red, white, blue, and hopefully back

I’m glad to see that the KUHT political program The Connection: Red, White, and Blue is on its way back to the airwaves after an unplanned hiatus followed by a bit of a kerfuffle. It fills a very useful niche in the local media landscape – as the story notes, it was the only place to see Adrian Garcia and Tommy Thomas go head-to-head last year – and is the sort of thing that public television should be doing. (And just so we’re clear, I think KUHT has been doing some excellent work, most notably with its “Houston Have Your Say” series.) It’s also the show where I made my local teevee debut, so there’s some sentimental value there as well. I look forward to its return, hopefully in time for some shows focusing on the big municipal elections we’ll be having this fall.