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Greg Abbott

Already projecting ahead to November turnout

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

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

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

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

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

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones agreed.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where are we on Harvey response?

Stuff is happening.

Local and state leaders are moving toward a major, lengthy and costly overhaul of the region’s flood defenses that includes regulating developmentmassive buyouts of flood-prone properties and flood-prevention projects that have been discussed for decades but never built.

Few of the initiatives will be complete before hurricane season starts in June, but nearly six months after Hurricane Harvey ripped through the Texas Gulf Coast and devastated the nation’s fourth-largest city, leaders are seeking to address long-ignored shortcomings laid bare by one of the most intense rainstorms in U.S. history.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he can write a check for a third reservoir to better protect areas west of Houston from inundation as well as attempt to avoid the types of releases from Addicks and Barker dams that swamped Houston downstream during Harvey.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wants to join Harris County in strengthening regulation on the region’s rapid development to protect the city’s population from floodwaters and alleviate the burden on taxpayers to repair and rebuild flood-prone properties.

Harris County leaders want a major bond issue – and a corresponding increase in property taxes – this year to pay for bayou drainage projects and, possibly, broad buyouts in flood-prone areas.

There’s also broad support for legislation that would require buyers of property in reservoir flood pools, which are dry much of the time, to be notified of flooding risks; 30,000 homes have been built in the flood pools of Addicks and Barker, and many owners say they had no idea they were living in an area designed to hold water during times of heavy rain. More than 9,000 of those homes flooded during Harvey.

Some of the local response has been slowed as officials waited to see what Congress will be willing to fund, a logjam that started to break late in the week with the approval of nearly $90 billion for victims of this year’s storms and natural disasters – much of it for recovery, not prevention. But state and local officials tell the Houston Chronicle they remain committed to broader improvements.

That was written before the Congressional budget deal was reached, so that obstacle should be removed, though it’s still not totally clear what that will mean. County Commissioners will need to figure that out for the bond referendum they’re planning. There are now more FEMA funds available for recovery, which is nice but makes you wonder why it took so long.

It’s a little hard for me as someone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey to judge if “enough” progress has been made. My friends who were flooded out are still dealing with it; one family is about to move back into their repaired home, which was damaged by the dam releases, another has made the decision to sell and live elsewhere, others are in similar places. I can’t speak for them, but we will all have the opportunity to listen to them as the elections approach. I have to assume that every elected official is going to have to answer for his or her actions and decisions during and after Harvey. I feel like this could be a point of weakness for Greg Abbott, and I think that Andrew White’s campaign ad touting his actions during Harvey is a smart move. It’s too soon to say how much of an effect Harvey will have on November – I don’t get the sense that it’s a difference maker in the primaries, but at least on the Democratic side that may be because no one disagrees with the notion that more can and should have been done to aid the recovery and mitigate against future floods – but it will be there. The time to take action to shield oneself against charges that one’s response was inadequate is rapidly running out, if it hasn’t already.

Endorsement watch: Sylvia and more

The Chron makes the obvious choice in CD29.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

The frontrunner is clearly state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, the only current elected official on the ballot, who has name identification with this area’s voters that stretches back more than 20 years. The breadth of her experience as Houston city controller, a Harris County commissioner and a state senator gives her an almost insurmountable advantage in this race. Congress could use someone who so intimately understands the problems faced by city, county and state governments. So Garcia has our endorsement, but not without some reservations.

Garcia was the only member of the state Senate willing to vote against Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s budget, which relied on a hike in property taxes. Democrats should lament losing that voice in Austin.

It’s also noteworthy that Garcia will be 68 years old on the day she hopes to be inaugurated into Congress. It’s a safe bet she won’t stay in Washington as long as her predecessor. When she retires, the Houston area will lose her seniority on Capitol Hill.

And as a number of her opponents point out, young people are dropping out of the political process, rightly realizing that gerrymandering has rendered November congressional elections all but meaningless. Millennial voters might be drawn back into this election if they had the opportunity to support a dynamic younger candidate. We’re especially impressed by Roel Garcia, a whip smart Latino lawyer who we hope to see back on the ballot running for another office.

Yes, and at the risk of being indelicate, Sylvia Garcia will be old for a Congressional first-termer. In a body that runs on seniority, that’s a non-trivial concern. Of course, if she’s won her first election for CD29 back in 1996, she’d have plenty of it. Life is like that, and it’s not her fault this is her next best chance at the seat. As for the complaint about millennials, I mean come on. For one, how is this on Sylvia? Two, there apparently is a dynamic younger candidate in this race. Millennials are free to vote for him if he’s what they’re looking for. Three, this district includes State Rep districts that are and have been represented by millennials – Armando Walle in HD140, and Ana Hernandez in HD143. Four, there are plenty of candidates from that cohort elsewhere on the ballot. You know, like the 26-year-old Democratic candidate for Harris County Judge. And I swear, if when the Chron makes an endorsement in that race for November, they say something about her “lack of experience”, I’m gonna break something.

Anyway, now that we’ve all gotten that out of our system, let’s look at some other recent endorsements of interest. The DMN, who like the Chron endorsed Andrew White for Governor over the weekend, seeks a new direction at Lite Guv.

The difference between an ideologue and a partisan can be measured in how they approach issues and policy. To that end, we recommend Scott Milder, a candidate with a conservative ideology over Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, a rank partisan.

Both candidates represent the Republican Party. But Milder, 50, a former city council member from Rockwall and senior associate at Stantec, an engineering and architectural firm, brings to the table a more nuanced and reasonable outlook on the issues facing the people of Texas.

We know how well that goes over in Republican primaries these days. Look no further than what Greg Abbott is doing for proof.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday endorsed Hollywood Park Mayor Chris Fails in his primary challenge of four-term state Rep. Lyle Larson, who became the latest of several Republican incumbents to have Abbott come out in support of a primary opponent.

Abbott posted a video on his YouTube channel Monday morning in which he praised Fails’ stance on property tax reform.

“[Fails] knows firsthand the devastating impact that rising property taxes have on families and on small businesses,” Abbott said in the video. “I know that he will work with me to advance my plans to empower Texas voters to rein in skyrocketed property taxes for the people of his district.”

Fails told the Rivard Report that the endorsement in the state House District 122 primary came because of what he called Larson’s track record of voting to block property tax reform.

“My opponent has voted to block property tax reform in the past and I have committed to support Governor Abbott’s plan to get people some control over their property taxes,” Fails said.

Larson, who chairs the House Natural Resource Committee, told the Rivard Report that he thought Abbott was “misinformed on this endorsement.”

“It’s sort of strange,” Larson said. “[Fails] was against two of the three issues that [Abbott] called in the special session, tax reform and annexation [reform].”

[…]

David Crockett, chair of the political science department at Trinity University, said Abbott’s decision to endorse the primary challengers of several incumbents would be a test of his influence.

“Greg Abbott wrote down a list of names at the last session of people who annoyed him,” Crockett said. “He is now going to use whatever influence he has to demonstrate, if he’s successful, his ability to punish people who criticize him and his agenda.”

That’s certainly one part of it. There’s also this.

Larson is the third House Republican Abbott has endorsed against following special session where he had vowed to keep track of which members embraced his agenda — and which ones didn’t. The governor backed primary challengers to state Reps. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, in November and Rep. Wayne Faircloth, R-Galveston, last month.

Both Davis and Larson were the stars of a news conference during the special session last year where they urged Abbott to add ethics reform to his 20-item agenda. The governor’s office later accused them of “showboating” and said their “constituents deserve better.”

Larson said he noticed a common theme among the three incumbents that Abbott is opposing: They all supported Larson’s proposed ban on “pay-for-play” appointments. The House passed the legislation, House Bill 3305, during the regular session, but it died in the Senate.

“To be honest … as a member of a party that prides itself on reform, we need to fix this issue before we lose control of the executive branch and the Legislature,” Larson said Monday.

That’s so 2014, Lyle. Welcome to today’s GOP.

Investigating the Karolyis

I’m fine with this, but I feel like we’re overlooking something.

Nearly a week after prominent USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison for the sexual assault of several female gymnasts, Gov. Greg Abbott has asked the Texas Rangers to investigate misconduct allegations at the famed Karolyi Ranch, the U.S. Olympic training facility in southeast Texas, north of Houston, where Nassar treated athletes.

“The public statements made by athletes who previously trained at the Karolyi Ranch are gut-wrenching,” Abbott said in a statement Tuesday. “Those athletes, as well as all Texans, deserve to know that no stone is left unturned to ensure that the allegations are thoroughly vetted and the perpetrators and enablers of any such misconduct are brought to justice. The people of Texas demand, and the victims deserve, nothing less.”

The Walker County Sheriff’s Office confirmed last week that it was looking into the ranch.

Abbott added that the Texas Rangers, the state’s top criminal investigative unit, and the Walker County Sheriff’s Office must collaborate on the case because of the far reach of the allegations, which are spread across jurisdictions and state lines.

There’s more in the Chron, where we find out that Simone Biles is ready to speak to investigators about the assaults she endured. It’s appropriate ti have the Rangers help out with this investigation, as I’m sure they have more resources and experience than the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, and of course we want all of the facts to come out so that everyone responsible can be held to that responsibility.

At the same time, though, I think we need to look past the criminal aspect of this and really ask ourselves how this was happening for nearly 20 years without anything being done about it. Among other things, maybe we need to have a good hard look at how the Karolyis operated for all these years and ask ourselves why we didn’t see the potential for problems all along. The isolation, the dictatorial methods, the extreme pressure on young girls to conform and submit to an absolute authority – is it any wonder a monster was able to flourish under those conditions? Yet as recently as 2016, in the runup to the Summer Olympics, the Karolyis were still the subject of fawning coverage; a lawsuit alleging they had a role in the Nasser scandal – he was forced out of US Gymnastics in 2015, you know – followed a couple of months later. But even before that, former gymnasts led by Dominique Moceanu had been sounding an alarm about their training methods; she was vindicated by an investigator last year. We were warned, well ahead of this recent news. We need to understand why we didn’t heed those warnings.

Endorsement watch: Chron for White

The Chron endorses Andrew White for Governor.

Andrew White

Democrats need to choose the candidate who, quite simply, will appeal to the most voters in a contest against Abbott. We believe that candidate is Andrew White.

White, 45, is a Houston entrepreneur who’s never before run for office, but he’s not exactly a political novice. He’s basically the Democratic George W. Bush of this race. Like Bush in 1994, he’s never won an election. And like Bush, his most valuable political asset is his father’s name. He’s the son of former Gov. Mark White, an education reformer who was respected by many Texas Democrats until the day he died last August.

White has cast himself as a common sense Democrat running for governor “to bring sanity and reason back to state government.” His top priority is improving public education, and he’s campaigning on a pledge to give every public school teacher a $5,000 a year raise. White proposes to fund his teacher pay hike by closing loopholes under which big businesses routinely dodge paying billions of dollars in commercial property taxes.

We’re not exactly fans of political dynasties, but White ultimately won our endorsement with his answer to one obvious question. He’s the only Democratic gubernatorial candidate who seems to have given serious thought to the state government’s role in protecting Gulf Coast residents from flooding. While the other candidates who spoke to our editorial board offered only vague thoughts about this critical issue, White specifically discussed the need for a third reservoir in west Harris County and the importance of leveraging federal funds to build a coastal barrier system.

After Hurricane Harvey, flood control should be the top concern voters in the Houston area consider when they cast their ballots. Maybe White has a grasp of the issue only because he lives here and he piloted his boat around inundated neighborhoods rescuing flood victims. But any serious candidate for governor speaking to people in Houston should have good answers for basic questions about this topic.

Yesterday was a pretty good day for the White campaign, as he garnered the Houston GLBT Political Caucus endorsement as well. (The AFL-CIO went for Lupe Valdez.) I prefer Valdez myself, but I can’t argue with the Chron’s reasoning. Frankly, flooding issues and the state’s lackadaisical response – it was worthwhile to call a special session on bathrooms, but not Harvey recovery? – as well as the uselessness of Congress ought to be a prime campaign issue for Dems up and down the ballot. If White has the best answers for these questions, that will undoubtedly make him a more appealing candidate.

From the “Nothin’ but good times ahead” department

Given the good economic conditions in Texas right now, you’d think the budget outlook would be better than it is.

The Texas economy is growing healthily, but that doesn’t mean state budget writers will have more money at their disposal next year, state officials said Tuesday.

In fact, though unemployment is low and tax revenue is on the rise, big bills coming due for the state’s highways and health care programs are giving Texas lawmakers reason for concern.

“I would like to offer a few words of caution for reading too much into the positive recent economic numbers,” Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar told lawmakers at a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

As they often do, state budget writers last year underfunded Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, which, alongside public education, makes up one of the largest shares of the state’s $217 billion two-year budget.

Then, during a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott over the summer, state lawmakers shifted another $500 million away from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to pay for public education programs.

As a result, lawmakers could face a $2.5 billion Medicaid bill shortly after they reconvene in Austin in 2019. Then there are the additional drains on Texas coffers from Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, Hegar said.

That’s bad news for lawmakers given the comptroller’s prediction that the state will only have a $94 million “beginning balance” when lawmakers convene in 2019. By comparison, lawmakers had an $880 million beginning balance in 2017, which was ultimately a tight year for the state budget. Two years before that, lawmakers enjoyed a $7.3 billion beginning balance.

[…]

Another source of heartburn for budget writers is the ravenous state highway fund. In 2015, amid complaints of a highway system in disrepair, Texans voted to amend the state Constitution to require that up to $2.5 billion in sales tax revenue be dedicated to the highway fund.

That means that even as Texas collects more money from sales taxes — Hegar testified that sales tax revenue grew by an average of 10.3 percent over the last three months — the rest of the state budget will not benefit from that revenue since it is earmarked for the highway fund.

That was also an issue for budget writers in 2017. Last year, in order to free up some of that money for other purposes, Senate lawmakers pushed for an accounting trick that delayed a payment to the state highway fund into the next two-year budget cycle. That freed up about $1.6 billion for lawmakers last year, but it means there will be another bill to pay in 2019.

“In short, despite a strong economy and positive outlook for revenue growth in this biennium, it seems likely the next budget will be much like the one crafted in 2017, having to contend with restricted revenue relative to the spending trends of the state,” Hegar said.

Just a reminder: Underfunding Medicaid was a choice. Shifting money away from HHSC was a choice. The amendment to require all that highway spending was ratified by the voters, but it was there to be ratified because the Lege chose to put it there. Deferring that payment to the highway fund was a choice. And though the story doesn’t include it in its litany, spending nearly a billion dollars on boondoggle “border security” stunts was a choice, too.

We’ll probably be fine in the 2019 session, though the potential for shenanigans is always high. But remember, winter is coming, because it always does. When it does, we’re going to have a mess to clean up, one that was caused by the Republicans in charge of our state, one that could have been mitigated in many ways. I hope we’re ready for it.

(Note: This is the inspiration for the post title.)

Supreme Court hears bag ban arguments

Hoping for the best, but not really expecting it.

In the case Laredo Merchants Association v. The City of Laredo, lawyers spent almost an hour arguing whether Laredo’s 2015 ban was illegal under state law. If the Republican-led court rules against the city, bag bans across the state could be deemed illegal.

The city of Laredo’s lawyer, former Supreme Court justice Dale Wainwright, argued single-use bags are not garbage, so they are not covered by the several lines of state law that the case hinges on. The code says local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

The arguments made Thursday mirrored those in lower courts, where the case was originally decided in favor of Laredo before an appeals court overturned the verdict by a 2-1 margin. The city then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

[…]

The oral arguments represent the last public action taken on the case, but a decision by the Supreme Court could still be a long way away. The court has discretion over the timeframe for a verdict, and previous cases have taken anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years to resolve.

See here for some background. An earlier Trib story that previewed the case had some further details.

The case hinges on only a few lines of the Texas Health and Safety Code, specifically section 361.0961, which states local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” In the lower courts, arguments focused on the specifics of the law, including the definitions of “container or package” and “solid waste management.”

Attorney Christy Drake-Adams filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Municipal League and the Texas City Attorneys Association supporting the city of Laredo and arguing that siding with the merchants would represent a swift departure from Texas’ history of supporting local governments.

“There just seems to be a trend that the state wants to consolidate power in the state’s hands,” Drake-Adams said. “They don’t want the federal government telling them what to do, and yet they want to tell local governments what to do.”

Drake-Adams also said this case could create a dangerous precedent of strict, uniform regulations on cities.

“Extreme uniformity and regulation fails to address diverse local concerns,” Drake-Adams said. “Texas is a great example of why that can’t work. A state as large and diverse geographically as Texas, that simply can’t work.”

Supporters of the merchants’ case are arguing that statewide enforcement of the law should overrule any local ordinances, and the inconsistent local laws like the plastic bag bans seen in cities across Texas cause unnecessary strain on small businesses.

“Inconsistent local ordinances harm the sales of affected retailers, force the layoff of employees, deprive retailers of their existing inventory of bags, and impose an expensive and complex requirement on multisite retailers to comply with varying ordinances across the state,” wrote Edward Burbach in a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Retailers Association in support of the merchants.

Remember, the goal here as expressed by Ken Paxton and abetted by Greg Abbott is to kill off all local bag laws, on the way to generally bringing cities to heel under the state. And yeah, we’re hoping the Supreme Court will stop them. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the law in question can – someday – be easily modified to fix the flaw that the pro-bag-litter faction is exploiting. That would require winning some elections first, of course. But at least it gives us something to aim for.

The price of disrespect

Greg Abbott makes another endorsement.

Rep. Wayne Faircloth

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday endorsed the Republican challenger to Galveston state Rep. Wayne Faircloth, a move that is expected to deepen simmering divisions within the state Republican party.

In a new video, Abbott called Mayes Middleton a “principled conservative — a conservative who will be a tireless advocate for his constituents.”

“In the next legislative session, we have an opportunity to continue to pass reforms that make Texas even better,” Abbott said. “To do this, we need leaders who will work with me to advance a conservative agenda that will benefit every Texans our great state. That is why I am endorsing Mayes Middleton for state representative.”

Middleton is an oil and gas businessman and rancher from Chambers County and is a board member of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Abbott’s endorsement of Middleton is his second of a GOP primary challenger to a Republican incumbent running for reelection to the Texas House. In November, he endorsed Houston businesswoman Susanna Dokupil, who is challenging state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place.

Like Campos, you may be wondering what’s up with that. Faircloth has no reputation as a Joe Straus/Sarah Davis “moderate”, and he hasn’t gone all maverick-y on bathroom bills or toll roads or whatever else. He’s basically a standard-issue Republican, more “conservative” than average by the Mark Jones method, at least in the last session. What does Greg Abbott have against him?

If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re not cynical enough.

Abbott started the week by endorsing Mayes Middleton, a conservative who until last year served on the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, over state Rep. Wayne Faircloth, R-Galveston, who irked the governor’s circle by supporting a ban on “pay for play” gubernatorial appointments of big political donors.

So there you have it. Don’t get between Greg Abbott and his sugar daddies. Greg Abbott will cut you.

Lupe Valdez kicks off her campaign

Let’s get moving.

Lupe Valdez

Lupe Valdez, the former Dallas County Sheriff, formally launched her Democratic bid for governor on Sunday, touting a campaign aimed at representing all Texans and listing a broad range of topics she plans to address as election season gets underway.

“Together, we need to build something new — a new Texas,” Valdez told a crowd of supporters here. “Opportunity should be as big as the Texas sky.”

[…]

In her speech, Valdez knocked state lawmakers over their 2017 legislative session — referring to them as “people who were supposed to be serving us doing more harm than good” — and mentioned the state’s overcrowded classrooms and raising the minimum wage as issues she hopes to address as governor.

“The special interests in Austin continue to cook up fake ideas behind the curtain,” she said, referring to failed legislation that would’ve regulated which public restrooms transgender Texans could use and the anti-“sanctuary cities” bill that Abbott signed into law in 2017 as measures that are “certainly destroying the Texas brand.”

She also brought up Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children by their parents and who were granted relief from deportation under an Obama-era program — who she said are facing an uncertain future in Texas as Congress works to hash out a solution.

“Dreamers and their parents must be able to achieve their goals in the land that they’ve always considered their country,” she said. “We must educate to elevate.”

Valdez is my preferred candidate for Governor, for a variety of reasons. What I want from her out of the primary can be summed up as “please pass the Media Narrative Test”. These things are always arbitrary and unknowable until someone declares a particular thing to be part of that test (though not in those words), but I’d guess that the list includes having a good grasp on issues, not making any obviously dumb statements or campaign moves, and finishing as the clear frontrunner in a race with higher-than-the-media-expected turnout. If these sound subjective and hard to quantify, you are correct. Like it or not, the Democratic track record is such that the onus is on candidates like Lupe Valdez to make the media take them seriously. Beto O’Rourke has done a capable job of that so far – robust fundraising numbers have helped with that – but that mantle can be taken away at a moment’s notice. Basically, don’t screw up, be visible, and make your numbers. Easy-peasy, right? The Chron, the DMN, and the Dallas Observer have more.

Andrew White is in

And now there are eight.

Andrew White

Andrew White, the son of late Gov. Mark White, made it official Thursday morning: He is running for governor, joining the crowded Democratic primary with four days to go before the filing deadline.

White, 45, a Houston entrepreneur who has never run for office before, pitched himself in a speech here as a “common sense Democrat” who believes the state’s GOP leaders have lurched too far to the right — and as a primary candidate who stands the best chance of triumphing in the general election.

“I’m proud to be Mark White’s son. But I’m not running because I’m his son,” White said, according to prepared remarks provided by the campaign. “I’m running because we need more leaders like Mark White. We need leaders willing to do right and risk their re-election.”

[…]

More than 100 people attended White’s announcement, including state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. Coleman said he was supporting White’s gubernatorial bid.

See here for the background, and here for video of White’s announcement. The Chron adds some details.

As a candidate, White said he will highlight how he believes Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have taken Texas politics too far to the right, and that Texans need to come together on many issues to move the state forward to future success. “I will work with both sides,” he said.

White said he supports improving public schools and opposes vouchers. He is against a so-called bathroom bill that would require people to use the rest room of their birth gender, and the recently enacted ban on sanctuary cities, as well as other legislation that he says discriminates against Texans.

He supports property tax reforms, including a change in the Texas Constitution to remove a provision that amounts to a $5 billion tax break for owners of commercial property. He said he would use those savings to give teachers a pay raise.

As an avid hunter he supports gun-ownership rights, but thinks some restrictions may be wise to improve public safety.

In a position that puts him at odds with top party officials, White has been described as pro-life, though he says abortion remains legal under current law that he is not suggesting be changed.

“If I had a label it would be that I’m a common-sense Texan who is pro-business, who will do what’s right no matter the consequences,” he told the Houston Chronicle.

[…]

First, Democratic activists said Thursday, White must explain his positions to primary voters that are contrary to party ideals.

“How does an anti-choice, conservative Democrat appeal to the thousands of progressives, women, and people of color who lobbied, rallied, and marched this year?” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas, an organization of progressive Democrats in Austin. “He needs to explain his positions: What does it mean to be a conservative in the era of Trump? If the legislature passes an anti-abortion bill, would he sign it? Conservatives actively oppose LGBTQ equality, from the bathroom bill to the recent Texas Supreme Court ruling that Houston can deny spousal benefits to same-sex couples. Where does he stand on that?”

Harold Cook, a veteran Democratic Party strategist, echoed that sentiment.

“I have to see how several of his positions fit with those of Democrats, and I’ve been unsuccessful so far,” Cook said. “I guess if you squinted your eyes just right, you might be able to imagine there are enough Democratic primary voters who will vote for the candidate they think will win the general election, even if you don’t agree with them, and I think that’s dead wrong. Primary voters vote their own values, and that won’t help him.”

White will definitely have to overcome a lot of skepticism, my own included. This is now the biggest and most interesting primary for Governor since 2002. I don’t know what it was like in the old days, but the past election records at the SOS website don’t show a gubernatorial primary with more than four candidates (that one was in 2002). I think it’s fair to say that the narrative is no longer “the Dems don’t have anyone running for Governor”.

Given all the ambient factors – the long statewide losing streak for Dems, which may or may not be offset by the political climate of 2018; Greg Abbott’s limitless campaign coffers, his decent level of popularity, and his lurch even farther to the right; the ever-increasing crowd in the race – I wonder what motivated everyone to make this effort. Some polling evidence to suggest they can win, or just a sufficient level of belief in themselves? A sense of duty? Not liking the other options in the primary? Everyone has their reasons for running, but everyone also presumably needed to be pushed over the hump. Usually, you don’t see this big a pileup of candidates unless there’s a clear reason to believe that anyone in that race can win it. A field this big for what is objectively seen as an extreme longshot is something different.

At this time, Lupe Valdez appears to be the consensus favorite to win in March (more realistically, in May), with Andrew White as her strongest challenger. Only Jeffrey Payne, who will surely write a check of some magnitude to himself, is going to be seen by the usual observers as a legitimate third contender. My one piece of advice, primarily aimed at Valdez and White, is to not take anything for granted. Start raising money to build a structure that will get out as many voters in March as possible. Payne will spend some money, too. Tom Wakely will have appeal to the Bernie Sanders aficionados. Grady Yarbrough, God help us, likely has the most name recognition of everyone, having run in many statewide Democratic primaries over the past 20 years and winning the primary for Ag Commissioner in 2016. Nobody wants to risk finishing behind Grady Yarbrough in this race, right? Don’t take anything for granted. Run hard, starting now. Make your best case, build an infrastructure that can be used after the primary, and may the best candidate win.

Filing news: Lupe Valdez is in for Governor

Here she comes.

Sheriff Lupe Valdez

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez announced Wednesday morning that she is running for governor, giving Texas Democrats a serious candidate for the top job with five days until the candidate filing deadline for the 2018 primaries.

“Like so many hardworking Texans, I know it’s tough deciding between buying food, finding a decent place to live, and setting aside money for college tuition,” Valdez said in a statement before filing at the Texas Democratic Party headquarters in Austin. “Opportunity in Texas ought to be as big as this great state, but it is out of reach for far too many, that’s why I’m running for Texas Governor. I’m a proud Texas Democrat. I believe good government can make people’s lives better, and I intend to do just that.”

Until Wednesday, six little-known Democrats had filed to challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is seeking a second term in 2018. Andrew White, the son of late Gov. Mark White, has been exploring a run for weeks and is set to announce his campaign Thursday in Houston.

Any Democrat running for governor faces a steep climb against Abbott, who easily defeated the party’s 2014 nominee, Wendy Davis, and has built a $40 million-plus war chest for re-election. Texas has not elected a Democrat to statewide office in over two decades.

Speaking with reporters after filing, Valdez said she was undaunted by the challenge, particularly when it comes to fundraising.

“I think we’re going to raise whatever money’s necessary. I don’t believe that we need 40, 60, 90, bazillion dollars,” Valdez said. “Abbott may have the money — we’re going to have the people.”

The Trib has video of Sheriff Valdez’s announcement here. As you know, she was said to be in, then confusion reigned, and after that settled down it was assumed that she was in fact in, and so here we are. I think it’s reasonable to tamp expectations down a bit about how much money one can raise – no one is going to out-money Greg Abbott unless they have their own nine-figure checkbook to play with – but people power hasn’t gotten us very far, either. Valdez, if she wins the primary (more on that in a minute), ought to draw a lot of earned media and should gin up a fair amount of excitement, both of which in turn should help her bring in some cash so she can establish name ID. Of course, all these things were also true of Wendy Davis at this time in 2013, so. We have a lot of evidence to suggest that this year is different in ways that benefit Democrats, but certain fundamental rules still apply.

Speaking of that primary:

With less than a week left in the filing period, six little-known Democrats have filed to challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott next year, with two more prominent names expected to enter the race by the Monday deadline: Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and Andrew White, the son of late Gov. Mark White. An eight-way primary could be the party’s most crowded nominating contest for governor since at least the 1980s.

While Valdez — the only current elected official among the eight candidates — would immediately secure frontrunner status if she runs, she faces no guarantee of the kind of cakewalk to her party’s nomination that former state Sen. Wendy Davis enjoyed in 2014. White, who is set to announce his campaign Thursday in Houston, has been laying the groundwork for a serious bid, while some of the other contenders have been campaigning for months.

“I think that if Sheriff Valdez runs and if Mr. White also announces, then I think that the two of them would likely be the higher-profile candidates in the primary, and I think that voters in the Democratic primary in 2018 will have a lot of choices,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, the Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs the party’s caucus in the House and served as Davis’ campaign manager. “I think that dynamic is good and hopefully makes for an interesting choice and conversations for Democrats in 2018 in the primary.”

“I expect we’ll have a competitive primary, and I think that’s a good thing — it’s healthy,” added Ed Espinoza, the executive director of Progress Texas, a liberal advocacy group.

I agree with that, and I look forward to it. I’m working on a post about the huge volume of contested primaries up and down the ballot, and I think this will help shape the narrative to start out the 2018 election. That said, Dems don’t have candidates for Comptroller and Land Commissioner as I write this, and the thought occurs to me that we could reasonably repurpose a couple of the candidates in this race for better use elsewhere. Andrew White would make a fine candidate for Comptroller, where his more conservative social views won’t really matter but his business background should be a plus. And if I could pick one person from this crop to spend the next year haranguing silver spoon lightweight George P. Bush, it would be Tom Wakely. Neither of these will happen, of course, and both gentlemen could no doubt give me many reasons why this is all wrong. Get me decent candidates for Comptroller and Land Commissioner and I promise to forget I ever brought this up. For more on the Valdez announcement, see WFAA, the Current, the Trib again, Burkablog, and the Chron.

Elsewhere, there were a couple of Congressional announcements as Chip Roy, a former chief of staff to Ted Cruz, announced his candidacy for CD21, and longtime WFAA reporter Brett Shipp entered the fray in CD32, running as a Dem, bumping the total number of candidates there to six.

There were no major announcements in Harris County, but as has been the case every day there has been a lot of activity on the Democratic side. While the HCDP has not been publishing a running list of candidates for all offices, it has been updating this list of judicial candidates. It’s a bit oddly sorted, but you can at least get a feel for who’s running for what. By my count, in the district, county, and appeals courts – i.e., everything but the JP courts – there are 19 competitive primaries so far.

In other races, Alison Sawyer officially filed in HD134, leaving HD135 as the only box that really needs to be checked. There are now contested primaries in HDs 126 (Natali Hurtado and Undrai Fizer), 133 (Martin Schexnayder, Sandra Moore, and the candidate whose name I won’t mention, for whom you most emphatically should not vote), 138 (Adam Milasincic and Jenifer Pool), 139 (Rep. Jarvis Johnson and Randy Bates), 140 (Rep. Armando Walle and Matthew Mendez), 146 (Rep. Shawn Thierry and Roy Owen), and 147 (Rep. Garnet Coleman and Daniel Espinoza). At the county level, the HCDE At Large Position 3 race is now contested as well, as Elvonte Patton joins Josh Wallenstein. Let’s just say that endorsing organizations are going to have their hands very, very full.

Filing news: The “What’s up with Lupe Valdez?” edition

On Wednesday, we were told that Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez had resigned her post in preparation for an announcement that she would be filing to run for Governor. Later that day, the story changed – she had not resigned, there was no news. As of yesterday, there’s still no news, though there are plans in place if there is news.

Sheriff Lupe Valdez

Candidates are lining up to replace Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez if she resigns to file for governor.

Valdez, who has led the department since 2005, has said she is considering the next stage — and earlier this month said she was looking at the governor’s race. Her office said Wednesday night no decision has been made.

Valdez could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

On Wednesday afternoon, media outlets, including The Dallas Morning News and WFAA (Ch. 8) reported that Valdez had resigned.

Lawyer Pete Schulte announced his candidacy Wednesday but later walked his intentions back after it became clear Valdez had not resigned.

He tweeted “Trying to find out how @dallasdemocrats Chair confirmed to some media today about @SheriffLupe retirement to run for Governor. Let me be clear: I have NO plans to run for DalCo Sheriff unless the Sheriff does retire early and will only run in 2020 IF Sheriff chooses to retire.”

At this point, I’m almost as interested in how the news got misreported as I am in actually seeing Valdez announce. Someone either said something that was true but premature, or not true for whatever the reason. I assume some level of fact-checking happened before the first story hit, so someone somewhere, perhaps several someones, has some explaining to do. I have to figure we’ll know for sure by Monday or so.

Anyway. In other news, from Glen Maxey on Facebook:

For the first time in decades, there are a full slate of candidates in the Third Court of Appeals (Austin), the Fifth Court (Dallas area) and the First and Fourteenth (Houston area). We can win control of those courts this election. This is where we start to see justice when we win back these courts! (We may have full slates in the El Paso, Corpus, San Antonio, etc courts, too. Just haven’t looked).

That’s a big deal, and it offers the potential for a lot of gains. But even just one or two pickups would be a step forward, and as these judges serve six-year terms with no resign-to-run requirements, they’re the natural farm team for the statewide benches.

From Montgomery County Democratic Party Chair Marc Meyer, in response to an earlier filing news post:

News from the frozen tundra (of Democratic politics, at least):
– Jay Stittleburg has filed to run for County Judge. This is the Montgomery County Democratic Party’s first candidate for County Judge since 1990.
– Steven David (Harris County) is running for CD08 against Kevin Brady. He has not filed for a spot on the ballot, yet, but has filed with the FEC.
– All three state house districts in the county will be contested by Democrats, but I’m not able to release names at this time.
– We have a candidate for District Clerk as well – he has filed a CTA, but is trying to get signed petitions to get on the ballot.
– We are still working on more down-ballot races, so hopefully there will be more news, soon.

It’s one thing to get Democrats to sign up in places like Harris and Fort Bend that have gone or may go blue. It’s another to get people to sign up in a dark crimson county like Montgomery. Kudos to Chair Meyer and his slate of candidates.

Speaking of Harris County, the big news is in County Commissioners Court Precinct 2, where Pasadena City Council member Sammy Casados has entered the primary. As you know, I’ve been pining for Adrian Garcia to get into this race. There’s no word on what if anything he’ll be doing next year, but that’s all right. CM Casados will be a great candidate. Go give his Facebook page a like and follow his campaign. He’ll have to win in March first, so I assume he’ll be hitting the ground running.

Adrian Garcia was known to have at least some interest in CD29 after Rep. Gene Green announced his retirement. I don’t know if that is still the case, but at this point he’s basically the last potential obstacle to Sen. Sylvia Garcia’s election. Rep. Carol Alvarado, who lost in SD06 to Sylvia Garcia following Mario Gallegos’ death, announced that she was filing for re-election in HD145; earlier in the day, Sylvia Garcia announced that Rep. Green had endorsed her to succeed him. I have to assume that Rep. Alvarado, like her fellow might-have-been contender in CD29 Rep. Armando Walle, is looking ahead to the future special election for Sen. Garcia’s seat. By the way, I keep specifying my Garcias in this post because two of Sylvia’s opponents in the primary are also named Garcia. If Adrian does jump in, there would be four of them. That has to be some kind of record.

Finally, in something other than filing news, HD138 candidate Adam Milasincic informs me that Greg Abbott has endorsed HD138 incumbent Rep. Dwayne Bohac. Abbott has pledged to be more active this cycle, as we’ve seen in HD134 and a few other districts, but Bohac has no primary opponent at this time. Bohac does have good reason to be worried about his chances next year, so it’s probably not a coincidence that Abbott stepped in this early to lend him a hand. Milasincic’s response is here, which you should at least watch to learn how to pronounce “Milasincic”.

UPDATE: I didn’t read all the way to the end of the statement I received from Rep. Alvarado concerning her decision to file for re-election. Here’s what it says at the very end:

I also look forward to following through on the encouragement that many of you have given to me about laying the groundwork for a campaign for a possible vacancy in Senate District 6.

As expected and now confirmed. Thanks to Campos for the reminder.

State of the County 2017: Ed Emmett versus state leadership

That sound you heard was a fight breaking out.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday used his annual State of the County speech to blast state leaders who he said attack local governments and seek to cut needed taxes but offer no real solutions to the myriad problems Texas’ large urban counties face.

Before a crowd of hundreds at NRG Center, Emmett called on state officials to invest roughly $500 million in a third reservoir and dam to boost area flood control efforts, fund a beleaguered indigent health care system, and revamp “broken” tax policies that force the county to rely on property taxes to serve an unincorporated area that, on its own, would be the fifth-largest city in the country.

In addition to helping with the county’s flood control efforts, Emmett called on the state to contribute more for mental health care and transportation improvements, citing the need for an Interstate 69 bypass on the east side of the county and renewed emphasis on railroads and technology to move freight from area ports.

He also reiterated his call for state leaders to accept increased Medicaid funding from Washington.

“The next time a state official makes a big deal about a fraction of a cent cut in the property tax rate, ask them why they won’t help Harris County property taxpayers fund indigent health care,” the judge said. “State leaders who are eager to seek for disaster relief should also be willing to accept federal dollars to provide health care for poor people. That would be real property tax relief.”

The state, he said, should treat the county more like a city, which by law can levy a sales tax and pass ordinances. The county is an arm of state government and relies on property taxes for most of its revenue.

“The whole point of today’s speech was to say ‘enough is enough,'” Emmett said afterward. “We need to be able to provide the services and the government that people expect in an unincorporated area.”

[…]

Emmett criticized the bills that would have forced the county to get voter approval on taxes and spending.

“Such a populist approach might sound reasonable, but the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who nobody ever accused of being a liberal, described direct referenda as ‘a device for dictators and demagogues'” he said.

He also lit into lawmakers’ attempts to limit property tax collections during the last legislative session, saying leaders “attacked counties and cities and other local governments, all the while offering no real solutions.”

“County government relies almost completely on property tax revenue, but the property tax is widely hated, and wholly inadequate as a means of financing the unique urban government that we have. Unfortunately, narrow-minded politics has pushed unfunded mandates from the state onto county government,” Emmett said.

“It is just pure ugly politics. And, by the way, the portion of county taxes paid by business is, I don’t need to tell the business community in this room, growing. We are reaching the point where tax policies are a drag on economic development.”

You can read the whole speech here. Most of the criticisms Emmett made about state leadership and recent political actions are in the story, but the whole thing is worth a read. Oh, and he was introduced by outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus, which was a further provocation. Like the useless demagogues they are, Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt responded petulantly in the story. This is another skirmish in the culture wars of the Republican Party, and Republicans who are in the Ed Emmett/Joe Straus camp – including Emmett himself – are going to have to decide next year if they really want the likes of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick dictating to them. A vote for the status quo is a vote for four more years of the things that Emmett was railing against in his speech.

Lupe Valdez appears to be in for Governor as well

Wow.

Sheriff Lupe Valdez

Lupe Valdez has resigned as Dallas County sheriff and is expected to soon file her candidacy for governor.

Valdez, who has led the department since 2005, could file in the Democratic primary as early as next week. She could not immediately be reached for comment.

Valdez, the state’s first gay female Hispanic sheriff, wrested the sheriff’s post from the GOP in 2004 and started the Democratic wave in Dallas County politics. Democrats are hoping that she could energize Texas’ largely untapped Hispanic voter base. She’s also the daughter of farm workers, an Army veteran, a former federal prison jailer and a former U.S. Customs senior agent.

She raised her profile somewhat last year with a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia that nominated Hillary Clinton for president.

If Valdez were to win the Democratic primary, she would be a heavy underdog against Gov. Greg Abbott. He beat Democrat Wendy Davis by 20 percentage points in 2014, reported a campaign fund balance of $41 million in July.
Dallas County commissioner John Wiley Price said the road to victory would be tough.

“She’ll do well at whatever she tries to do,” Price said. “It’s a rough state [for a Democrat]. But you know, hey, anything is possible. I never thought Trump would win. Shows you what I know.”

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said Valdez would be a heavy underdog against Abbott with no real chance to win.

But he said she could help attract Hispanic voters, bring credibility to the ticket and help down-ballot candidates.

“If not win, the hope is that she can do better than Wendy Davis and give a boost to Texas Democrats,” Jones said.

See here for the background. With all due respect to Andrew White, Sheriff Valdez is my first choice. She’s going to need to start raising money ASAP, and that means everyone, all of us, are going to have to give till it hurts.

Depending on what White does, we could have a pretty big field for the gubernatorial primary. There are already three candidates that have filed – Tom Wakely, Grady Yarbrough, and Adrian Ocegueda. Throw in White, Jeffrey Payne, and Lupe Valdez, and that’s a half dozen hopefuls. Some are more equal than others, of course, but this could be quite the interesting primary. If it winds up being expensive and goes to a runoff? That’s all right, as long as all the candidates are putting in an effort to get voters engaged. If there was ever a year for it, this is it.

Just a thought here, but maybe someone could suggest to Andrew White that the best use of his time and talent at this point might be to file for Comptroller instead. We don’t have anyone for that spot, his fundraising abilities would be awfully handy, and his ideological differences would be less of an issue. Put me in charge of the smoke-filled back room, and I’d make that happen in a heartbeat. Alas, I don’t have that power, and I figure once most people have their heart set on the top office, they’re unlikely to be persuaded to set their sights somewhere else. Like I said, just a thought. I eagerly await further word from Sheriff Valdez. The Trib and the Chron have more.

UPDATE: Hold on a minute.

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, a Democrat who has been exploring a run for governor, doesn’t appear ready to quit her day job for a campaign yet, despite reports she resigned ahead of a likely bid.

Multiple local news outlets in North Texas reported her resignation Wednesday evening. At least two cited Dallas County Democratic Party Chair Carol Donovan as the source of the news. But a few hours later, Valdez’s spokeswoman denied the reports.

“As she has stated in the past, the Sheriff is considering the next stage in her career,” said the spokeswoman Melinda Urbina. “A letter of resignation was not submitted today. The Sheriff will make a formal announcement when her final decision is made.”

Not sure what went wrong here. I hope this was just simply a case of overeagerness, and not getting the facts wrong. We’ll know soon enough, one way or the other.

Andrew White “on the brink” of announcing for Governor

We’ll know shortly, but it seems to me that if the answer was going to be “nah, I’m outta here” we wouldn’t be hearing pre-announcement teasers.

Andrew White

Houston entrepreneur Andrew White, a conservative Democrat and son of the late former Gov. Mark White, is close to announcing he will become a candidate for Texas governor.

Supporters and allies said Tuesday they expect White, 45, has all but decided to run against Republican Greg Abbott. They said they expect an announcement on his decision in early December.

Reached by phone, White told the Houston Chronicle he “is moving from contemplating to executing and preparing.” He said he would discuss further details in coming days.

[…]

White would be the first Democrat with at least some street cred to run in a year when Democratic officials have, so far, failed to announce a banner-carrier to run against Abbott.

Two other Democrats have announced — Dallas gay bar owner Jeffrey Payne and San Antonio businessman Tom Wakely — but they are both considered long shots with not enough name ID or funding support to win.

White would be a “next gen” candidate, younger than Abbott and most other gubernatorial candidates, with hopes that he could coalesce support from Democrats and moderate Republicans disgusted with the GOP leadership’s push to enact a bathroom bill, a ban on sanctuary cities and other controversial proposals that have drawn widespread protests — even from the business community that traditionally supports Republicans.

See here for the background. At this point, I’ll be surprised if White doesn’t file, which probably means that the other potential candidates will fade away. But maybe not – White has the name, and likely some decent fundraising chops, but he hasn’t exactly bowled over the base. He’d be a strong favorite against the candidates who are already in, but a Lupe Valdez or a Michael Sorrell or a Dwight Boykins would be a fair fight for the nomination. I wouldn’t mind that at all – let’s have a real debate about who and what we want on the ticket. Absent that, I’d advise Andrew White to take a page from Beto O’Rourke’s playbook and get out there and meet a bunch of voters. Listen to what people are saying, especially those who have been critical of his positions on reproductive choice and immigration and other issues. Otherwise, I fear we’ll go from a narrative of “Dems don’t have anyone running for Governor” to one of “Dems don’t have anyone they like running for Governor”. We could do without that.

Add Boykins to the “mulling a run for Governor” list

The line forms to the left.

CM Dwight Boykins

As Democrats look for a serious candidate to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott in 2018, another big-city official is surfacing as a potential contender: Dwight Boykins, a member of the Houston City Council.

“I have had an opportunity to travel across our great state and meet a lot of hardworking people who feel no one is listening to their concerns or fighting for their families and I am humbled and encouraged by those who have asked me if I would consider running for Governor of Texas,” Boykins said in a statement to The Texas Tribune on Tuesday. “Like most people, I have noticed that our state is deeply divided over controversial social issues, while the major problems facing our state and the people who live here continue to go unresolved.”

Boykins said he has not made “a final decision about the possibility of running for a higher office,” but the clock is ticking with less than three weeks until the candidate filing deadline for the 2018 primaries.

[…]

Boykins mentioned Abbott’s refusal to immediately tap the state’s $10 billion savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to deal with the post-Harvey recovery, saying it shows the “disconnect between the current leadership of our state and the needs of the people.” Abbott has expressed openness to using the fund in the 2019 legislative session to make up for Harvey-related costs incurred between now and then.

Add his name to the list that contains Andrew White, Michael Sorrell, and Sheriff Lupe Valdez. Because Houston now has four-year terms for City Council, Boykins would have to resign in order to run, so that’s another factor for him to consider. I should note that Campos teased this in a post a couple of weeks ago; I’d since forgotten about it. Boykins would need to explain his vote against HERO in 2015 to some folks, myself included, if he were to make this official. Beyond that, as with the others, we’ll see what he has to say for himself if this becomes a thing. The Chron has more.

There’s scared and there’s strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas v the feds, disaster recovery funding edition

This would be quite entertaining to watch, if the stakes weren’t so high.

Texas Republicans on Friday panned the White House’s latest disaster aid request, with Gov. Greg Abbott calling it “completely inadequate” for the state’s needs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

President Donald Trump’s administration was quick to respond, calling on the state to pony up its own dollars to help with the recovery.

Unveiled earlier Friday, the request seeks $44 billion from Congress to assist with the Harvey aftermath, as well as the recoveries from other recent hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While not final, the number is far less than the $61 billion proposal that Abbott had submitted for Texas alone to Congress last month.

“What was offered up by Mick Mulvaney and [his Office of Management and Budget] is completely inadequate for the needs of the state of Texas and I believe does not live up to what the president wants to achieve,” Abbott said at a Texas Capitol news conference called to unveil a $5 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The president has told me privately what he’s said publicly, and that is that he wants to be the builder president,” Abbott added. “The president has said that he wants this to be the best recovery from a disaster ever.”

In Washington, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the amount in the request — and put the onus on Texas to tap its funds for Harvey recovery.

“Up until this point, Texas has not put any state dollars into this process,” Sanders told reporters. “We feel strongly that they should step up and play a role and work with the federal government in this process. We did a thorough assessment and that was completed and this was the number that we put forward to Congress today.”

See here for the background. I would just note that the Republicans have been working hard at passing a huge tax cut for billionaires, so there hasn’t been much time for small stuff like this. Priorities, you know.

There’s one other thing to consider here, which I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere yet, and that’s that this could turn into a big political liability for the Republicans, from Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz to the various members of Congress. The campaign ads write themselves: “Your party controls the government, and you couldn’t get anything done to help with the recovery. What good are you?” Maybe Abbott can survive that, against a low-profile opponent, but I sure wouldn’t want to be John Culberson or Ted Cruz and have that hanging around my neck. Maybe Trump and Congress get their act together on this and turn this into a positive for their team. They certainly have the incentive for it. They just don’t have the track record, or the ideological impulses. Keep an eye on it, that’s all I’m saying. A statement from Mayor Turner is here, and the Chron has more.

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

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

Andrew White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abbott v Davis

It’s getting real out there.

Rep. Sarah Davis

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvey-related good news and bad news

Good news.

An additional $90 million was approved Thursday to help expedite debris removal from Hurricane Harvey along Texas’ devastated Gulf Coast regions, including Houston.

Gov. Greg Abbott and House and Senate leaders announced that the additional “emergency funding” from the state’s General Revenue Account would go to counties to help pay for the removal of storm debris and help speed up the removal process.

They said the additional funding will lessen the burden for debris cleanup on local taxpayers , who now must pay for 10 percent of the total cost. The rest is paid for by the federal government.

“In most cases, even with federal assistance, cities and counties in the impacted areas are responsible for ten percent of costs associated with debris removal,” Abbott’s office said in a statement. “Today’s funding allocation will help alleviate that burden for communities as they continue to rebuild.”

Abbott called the additional funding ” just one more step in a long process to help our cities and counties recover.”

No detail on where the $90 million will be directed was immediately available.

I approve of debris removal, and Lord knows there’s still a lot of it to be removed. Kudos all around.

Bad news.

Houston could be ineligible for future federal housing grants, including disaster recovery funds for Hurricane Harvey, because it has not resolved a federal finding that its housing practices violate civil rights law.

The city has yet to come into compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act nearly a year after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found it in violation, making it automatically ineligible for certain federal housing programs and potentially imperiling its ability to qualify for others, an Austin housing advocacy group said in a demand letter sent to HUD last week.

The Oct. 31 letter alleges Houston’s recent certifications of compliance with civil rights laws – prerequisites for receiving federal funding – are “inaccurate and unsatisfactory,” adding that HUD must withhold funding until the city cooperates.

Such an agreement should include commitments to build more affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods, and train elected and appointed officials on handling community opposition, among other steps, attorney Michael Allen wrote on behalf of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.

“Unless and until voluntary compliance has been reached, HUD must reject any submission or certification by the city regarding compliance with Title VI because, by HUD’s own determination, the city fails to comply with Title VI,” Allen wrote. “HUD is therefore not authorized to continue funding or grant new funding to the city or mayor until the existing findings are resolved and the city is able to make accurate certifications.”

[…]

HUD faulted Mayor Sylvester Turner in January for rejecting a proposed subsidized housing complex near the Galleria, saying his decision “was motivated either in whole or in part by the race, color or national origin of the likely tenants.” HUD also criticized city procedures more broadly for perpetuating segregation, in part by giving to much weight to racially motivated opposition aimed at keeping affordable housing projects out of wealthier neighborhoods.

Turner has sharply criticized the finding, and his legal department in February went as far as asking HUD to withdraw its letter. That has not happened.

“We’re still discussing and going back and forth, but there’s been no final conclusion on it,” the mayor said Wednesday.

Turner, through a spokesman, also doubted HUD actually would pull the plug on funding.

“The mayor is confident HUD realizes the importance of supporting the housing of people displaced by the disaster,” communications director Alan Bernstein wrote in an email.

I hope that’s right, but I’d rather the matter get settled so that it’s not a question. Seems like resolving this ought to be a pretty high priority.

SB4 at the Fifth Circuit

Hoping for the best as always, but the Fifth Circuit has a way of stomping on that.

Tuesday’s hearing was on whether U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia’s August decision to block several of the law’s provisions should stand while the case meanders through the court system.

[…]

In late August, Garcia halted several parts of the law, including the provision that requires jail officials to honor all detainers. He also blocked sections that prohibit local entities from pursuing or endorsing “a pattern or practice that ‘materially limits’ the enforcement of immigration laws” and another that prohibits “assisting or cooperating” with federal immigration officers as reasonable or necessary.

But a separate panel in New Orleans ruled the detainer provision could stand until an ultimate determination is made. The panel also determined that law enforcement officers, including campus police, with “authority that may impact immigration” cannot be prevented from assisting federal immigration officers. That ruling is what’s on the books until a decision on Tuesday’s arguments is reached.

Judge Edith Jones, who was appointed to the post by President Ronald Reagan, asked Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller Tuesday about the “endorsement” provision and whether that section of the law was too far-reaching.

“An elected official, like a sheriff or a county judge, certainly have more latitude to speak [against state policies], don’t they?” she asked.

But Keller said the state has modified several times what the definition of “endorse” means and that it applies to actions officials take in a “governmental capacity” to prevent enforcement of immigration laws.

“It has to be a use of government power to sanction or ratify a policy,” he said. “Let’s say an official were to say they disagreed that with the policies underlying SB 4. That would not be sanctioning or ratifying a [government policy].”

Keller also pushed back against the claim that the language of the law was too vague and didn’t provide enough guidance to law enforcement officials. He said the plaintiffs’ own admissions that current practices would be upended should SB 4 go into effect proved they know what the law does and doesn’t do.

“Here plaintiffs have conceded that various policies that they have would in fact be prohibited by SB 4,” he said. “That concession alone means a facial vagueness claim cannot stand.”

But Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union representing the city of El Cenizo, a small municipality in Webb County, said the state of Texas keeps changing it’s definition of what constitutes “materially limiting” cooperation, which implies the state knows the language is flawed.

“One of the critical aspects is that Texas has never been able to settle on an interpretation of the law,” he said. “Every time Texas comes to court, they say it’s obvious what it means for a sheriff to materially limit immigration enforcement. But on the other hand, every time we get to a new court, they change their interpretation, so it’s not clear.”

The panel also raised the issue of whether SB 4 was unconstitutional because immigration enforcement is largely under the purview of the federal government. Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents several of the plaintiffs, said there is federal guidance on what local law enforcement can do but that SB 4 exceeds that.

See here for the background. The panel is all Republican appointees, with Edith Jones being the worst of the lot, so I can’t say I feel terribly optimistic. But the plaintiffs’ attorneys are as good as they come, and there are previous rulings, including from SCOTUS, to lean on. We’ll know when the Fifth Circuit is damn good and ready to tell us. The Chron has more.

Julian 2020?

He has raised the possibility.

Julian Castro

Texas Democrat Julian Castro confirmed Sunday he is seriously considering running for president in 2020 and former state Sen. Wendy Davis left open the possibility she will take another run at running for governor in 2018.

“I might,” Castro told more than 350 people at a political conference near the University of Texas on Sunday morning. Davis’ comments came at the same event.

Castro, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, said the country needs a very different president than what is in office now and he will spend 2018 weighing a bid. He said the country needs someone “fundamentally honest” in the White House.

“We’ve had too much lying out of the White House,” Castro said.

Well, it’s hard to argue with that. There has been talk of Julian Castro running for President in 2020 – it’s even had an effect on Joaquin Castro’s consideration of running for Governor this year. I’ve no doubt that Julian Castro has been thinking about running since approximately November 9 of last year. It’s mostly a question of how he goes about it. I’ll be happy to see Julian run and will give strong consideration to supporting him, but for now all I care about is 2018.

Speaking of 2018, from the same story:

At the same event, Davis meanwhile left open the possibility that she will be running for governor again in 2020.

The former state senator from Fort Worth said although she was defeated in 2014 by Gov. Greg Abbott, it was before voters knew how far right he would go in supporting legislation like SB 4, which she called the “show me your papers” law that threatens every citizen with brown skin. Supporters of SB 4 have said the legislation was to outlaw so-called sanctuary cities and allow local law enforcement to check the immigration status of people they pull over.

Davis made clear she’s only considering it largely because other Democrats have failed to step forward to run.

“Because no one else is stepping forward,” Davis said when asked by moderator Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune why she was not ruling it out.

I love Wendy Davis. I don’t know how many other Democrats love her at this point. It’s a hard thing, losing an election like she did. This story came out before Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez put her name out there, and I think it’s safe to say that if Valdez gets in, Davis will not. But she’s there, maybe, just in case.

One of the other brand-name candidates who is at least thinking about “stepping forward” is Andrew White, who as this Trib story about the same event notes was criticized by Davis fr being anti-choice. White has since updated his website to address some issues; he says “Roe v Wade is the law of the land, and I respect the law” in the Women’s Health section, which doesn’t tell us very much about what sort of bills he would sign or veto if he were to be elected. You can see what he has for yourself – I’m more concerned about his Border Security position, which doesn’t make any sense to me. Filing begins this weekend, so one way or another we’ll begin to get some clarity.

Lupe Valdez

Now here is some potential-candidate news of interest.

Sheriff Lupe Valdez

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez has emerged as potential Democratic challenger to Gov. Greg Abbott in 2018.

In an interview Monday, Valdez described herself as “in the exploratory process,” looking at the data for a potential run against the Republican incumbent. “I’ve been approached and I’m listening,” she said.

There are 35 days until the candidate filing deadline for the 2018 primaries, and Texas Democrats are looking for a serious contender to take on Abbott. Valdez said she believes it’s “time for a change” in GOP-dominated state government.

“Too much of one thing corrupts, and I’m a strong believer in a two-party system,” Valdez said. “I’m hoping that enough people are seeing that too much one-sided is not healthy for Texas.”

[…]

Abbott and Valdez have a history. In 2015, they clashed over her department’s policy regarding compliance with federal immigration authorities — an issue that later came up in Travis County, which includes the state capital of Austin. Those debates drove support behind the “sanctuary cities” bill that Abbott signed into law earlier this year.

Valdez has won four elections as Sheriff in Dallas County; she would not be on the ballot in 2018. She would be an exciting and trailblazing candidate, and I would expect her to generate the most buzz out of the gate among the people who have announced at least an interest in the race. She’d be my frontrunner. That said, any Sheriff in a large urban county is going to have some things on their record that will look bad – mistreated inmates, rogue guards, that sort of thing. Greg Abbott will come at her hard over “sanctuary cities”, and he has a lot of money to spend on ads. The fact that she’s a lesbian will make some people mad. She’ll need – we’ll all need – to be ready for that. I don’t know what it will take to convince her to run, but I hope someone is telling it to her. The DMN and the Chron have more.

A big ask for hurricane recovery

Good luck with that. I mean that mostly sincerely.

Texas needs an additional $61 billion in federal disaster recovery money for infrastructure alone after Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, according to a report from the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas that was delivered to members of Congress Tuesday.

Compiled at Gov. Greg Abbott’s request, the report was released on the day the governor traveled to the U.S. Capitol to talk Hurricane Harvey relief with congressional leaders.

Speaking with reporters in the hallways of the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, Abbott said he’d had a “well-reasoned discussion” where he stressed that rebuilding the state’s Gulf coast was in the country’s best national security and economic interests.

“We are asking not for any handouts or for anything unusual, but we are asking for funding that will flood the entire region that was impacted so that the federal government, the state government, and the local government are not going to be facing these ongoing out-of-pocket costs,” Abbott said as he held a binder containing the 301-page report.

The $61 billion is in addition to money the state already anticipates receiving from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and from the federal housing department, which distributes disaster recovery grants aimed at long-term rebuilding.

[…]

The requests include:

  • $12 billion for the Galveston County Coastal Spine, part of the larger “Ike Dike,” a barrier aimed at protecting coastal areas from hurricane storm surge.
  • $9 billion for housing assistance in the City of Houston, which would help rebuild 85,000 single and multi-family housing units damaged by Harvey.
  • $6 billion to buy land, easements, and rights-of-way around Buffalo Bayou and the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.
  • $2 billion for “coast-wide critical infrastructure protection,” described as flood control and other mitigation projects around critical public infrastructure such as “power plants, communication networks, prison systems, etc.”
  • $466 million for the Port of Houston to “create resiliency” and harden the Houston Ship Channel.
  • $115 million to repair 113 county buildings in Harris County.

Abbott appointed [John] Sharp, who is the chancellor of Texas A&M University and a former legislator, railroad commissioner and state comptroller, to oversee the commission in early September.

So far, Congress has agreed to spend more than $51 billion on disaster relief in the past two months. But it is unclear what Texas’s share of that money will be, because it will be divided between the states and territories devastated by three deadly hurricanes and fatal wildfires.

It’s not that I disagree with any of this – in particular, I’m rooting for Ike Dike money to be appropriated – but that’s a lot of money, there are a lot of Republican Congressfolk who really don’t like spending money, there are even more Congressfolk who are still mad at some of their Texas colleagues for voting against Superstorm Sandy recovery money, and there’s a lot of money that will need to be spent in Puerto Rico, Florida, and California. Texas’ original ask for Harvey recovery money was a lot less than this, and even that caused some friction from within the Texas caucus when Greg Abbott got a little shirty with his fellow Republicans. Oh, and there’s also the Republican Congress’ track record of not being able to tie their own shoes. So, you know, don’t go using this as collateral just yet.

Speaking of the Texas caucus, their reaction to this was muted.

The initial reaction from Washington officials to the request: Surprise at its size and scope.

That could mean approval of the full amount will be a tough sell with Congress and the White House, coming at a time when hurricane damages to Puerto Rico and Florida, and losses in California to wildfires, are also in line for billions more in federal disaster funding.

But Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, was hopeful. “Just like the Astros, we’re going to get ‘er done,” Weber said in a reference to the World Series.

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, whose district was hit hard by Harvey, agreed.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of money,” he said, “but it was a lot of storm.”

[…]

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, gave little indication of the prospects for the governor’s request. As for the $61 billion figure, Cornyn said, “We’re working on a number. We don’t have a number.”

Later, Cornyn said in a statement “it’s really important for us to remember that there’s a lot of work that we need to do in responding to some of the unmet disaster needs around the country, starting with Hurricane Harvey in my state.”

Added Cornyn: “The reason I bring that up today is because Governor Abbott of Texas is up meeting with the entire Texas delegation to make sure that we continue to make the case and make sure that Texans are not forgotten as we get to work on these other important matters as well.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was also circumspect about the prospects for Abbott’s request, though he emphasized that the Texas delegation will remain united with the governor in getting the Gulf region all the aid it can from Washington.

“Repeatedly, projections have shown that Harvey is likely to prove to be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history,” he said. “The president has repeatedly made direct assurances to me that the administration will stand by the people of Texas.”

As to whether the government might raise or borrow the money, Cruz said, “those discussions will be ongoing.”

Like I said, there are some obstacles. And I have to wonder, how might this conversation be going if Hillary Clinton were President? Harvey or no Harvey, I have a hard time picturing Greg Abbott asking President Hillary Clinton for billions of dollars for our state. I’d make him sign a pledge to quit suing the feds over every damn thing now that he’s come to town with his hat in his hand. Not that any of this matters now, I just marvel at the capacity some of us have for cognitive dissonance. We’ll see how this goes.

Framing the 2018 question

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Sorrell

Gromer Jeffers of the DMN floats a name for Governor.

Michael Sorrell

On the rugged campus of Paul Quinn College, Michael Sorrell, the school’s president, could be the last hope for Democrats to field a credible candidate to face incumbent Greg Abbott in next year’s governor’s race.

Operatives in the Texas Democratic Party have been trying to persuade Sorrell to be the party’s standard-bearer against Abbott. The talks intensified Oct. 13, the Friday before the Texas-Oklahoma football showdown, when Democrats had another meeting with Sorrell in Dallas. They are hoping that he will agree to submit his paperwork for a campaign when the filing period for the 2018 election opens next month.

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Sorrell said recently, realizing that I knew about his talks with Democrats.

Sorrell, 50, is largely unknown throughout Texas and has never run for statewide office. At times, he’s been considered a potential candidate for Dallas mayor and Dallas County judge. He’s managed political campaigns and been a part of various bond efforts in the city of Dallas.

[…]

Many big-name Democrats have said “no” or given the party the “I’ll get back to you” brushoff. They include former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio (Julian’s twin), former state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio , Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas and Hill+Knowlton Strategies CEO Jack Martin.

The would-be contenders don’t believe Democrats can beat Abbott next year, and the pessimism could hurt the rest of the ticket. Democrats did get some positive news on Tuesday. Andrew White, the son of the late Gov. Mark White, is exploring a run for governor. The Houston investor told Texas Monthly that he would campaign as a Democrat, but try to appeal to moderate Republican voters.

With White on a listening tour, the only Democrats who have announced bids to challenge Abbott are Dallas businessman Jeffrey Payne, former congressional candidate Tom Wakely of San Antonio and former Balch Springs Mayor Cedric Davis. They are all candidates not recruited by party leaders and have little chance of beating Abbott.

Enter Sorrell, a native Chicagoan who has been a part of several successful underdog campaigns, including the 2008 election of former President Barack Obama.

Sorrell is not afraid of Abbott, and because he doesn’t have a political office to forfeit, he has nothing to lose but valuable time away from Paul Quinn College and his family. Education would surely be part of his platform, as Democrats want to pound Abbott and Republicans for not putting enough resources into improving public schools. Known as an innovative leader, Sorrell has improved the facilities, fundraising and curriculum at the historically black private college. Paul Quinn is accredited, and he famously turned the football field into an urban farm. Sorrell would be acceptable to the base of the Democratic Party, though it remains to be seen how much he’ll be able to fire up the electorate.

My reaction right now is that I feel the same way about Sorrell as I do about Andrew White, and for that matter Jeffrey Payne and anyone else: I’d like to hear more about who they are, what they stand for, and what they would like to do as Governor. And, you know, that they actually want to run and are committed to winning, however unlikely that is. Payne has crossed that bridge; we’ll see about Sorrell and White and the others. At first glance Sorrell looks mighty impressive, so I hope he is giving this serious consideration. HBCU Digest has more.

Andrew White

We’ll see about this.

Andrew White

Houston investor Andrew White—the son of the late Texas governor Mark White and one of the small boat heroes of Hurricane Harvey—plans to launch an exploratory bid for governor in the 2018 elections this week. Although White wants to run as a Democrat, he aims to appeal to moderate Republicans who are frustrated with the state’s leadership on issues like the bathroom bill.

“What we’re trying to do is look beyond the issues and try to figure out who are the people leading us,” White says. “What kind of people are leading us? Are they people who are politically expedient, making short-sighted decisions? Are they people who are appealing to fringe elements of their party, the 200,000 to 300,000 fringe voters in their primary who represent less than 1 percent of the population of Texas, or are they willing to stand up and do what’s right?”

White says his favorite phrase is, “Do right and risk consequences,” the motto of Sam Houston. White’s father used that as part of a speech urging the Legislature to raise taxes during a 1986 financial crisis. Lawmakers raised taxes to prevent making drastic cuts to public schools, higher education, and social services, but it cost then-governor White his re-election bid.

“It worked out for the people of Texas. It didn’t work out for his career,” White says of his dad. “That’s the problem here. We have to have politicians who are willing to lose their job to do what’s right.”

The best example of that dearth, White says, is the so-called bathroom bill. When Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick forced a special session, Governor Greg Abbott put it on the agenda. Supporters of the bill, which ultimately died in the special session, said it would keep predatory men out of women’s restrooms, but it was largely seen as an attempt to discriminate against transgender individuals and as a political swipe at the LGBTQ community. Abbott and Patrick have not ruled out resurfacing the issue in any future special session or when the Legislature reconvenes in its 2019 regular session.

“The moderate Republicans are looking at their leaders and finding out they don’t represent their beliefs,” White says. “The old Republican party was pro-business and pro-jobs and ‘keep the government off my back.’ So what’s the bathroom bill? It’s an over-reaching government program to tell you that you need to bring your birth certificate into the bathroom. It might cause us to lose every Super Bowl, every national championship game—not to mention, how could Amazon consider a second headquarters in Texas if we’re having this argument right now? How many jobs do you lose? The sacrifice we would have to make over something that has zero data to support it is bizarre.”

Like I said, we’ll see. I’m glad to see someone with a brand name express an interest in the race, and he’s already got the right message on the bathroom bill. Beyond that, I’m going to need to hear a lot more, and I’m going to need to hear some good answers. It’s not just that “conservative Democrat” doesn’t excite me, it’s that we’ve tried this strategy of wooing “moderate” Republicans before, in the last two elections, and we don’t have a whole lot to show for it. In a world where base Democratic turnout is at parity with base Republican turnout, that kind of plan makes sense. In a world where their base is a million voters bigger than ours, it’s a proven loser.

So that’s what I mean when I say I need to hear more. What message does Andrew White have for Democratic voters? “Sanctuary cities”, access to health care, voting rights, criminal justice reform, public education – I’m just getting started. White now has a Facebook page and AndrewWhite.com up, though they are both bare bones at this time. The bathroom bill stuff is a good start. I hope he builds on that. The Trib has more.

How about those price gouging complaints?

You can’t rush these things.

Best mugshot ever

Within weeks of Hurricane Harvey making landfall, Texans lodged more than 3,000 complaints against hundreds of gas stations, hotels and grocery stores, accusing them of selling such essentials as gasoline or water at exorbitant prices.

Despite promises from Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott to hold price gougers accountable, few of those complaints have resulted in prosecution, or even an initial investigation, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle show.

When a state of disaster is declared, Texas law prohibits businesses from charging highly inflated prices for necessities. The law is designed to protect consumers who may need to stock up on food, gas or water, or those who need a hotel room to escape a natural disaster.

Several consumers contacted by the Houston Chronicle said they filed complaints because they believed the state would go after the businesses aggressively. State officials say they are taking the accusations seriously, but it takes time to determine whether the complaints are legitimate.

“We are not going to frivolously or unadvisedly enter into any legal action with any company or any entity in any case, even in the instance of price gouging,” said Marc Rylander, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office. He said more legal actions, such as lawsuits, could be filed in coming days.

Paxton’s office received more than 3,340 price gouging complaints against more than 1,000 companies from Aug. 25 to Sept. 8, records show. About 790, or 24 percent, of those came from the Houston area.

At the end of September, Paxton’s office had launched investigations into 82 companies and filed three lawsuits.

Paxton’s office said there now are more than 5,000 complaints logged in its system. The increase comes from consumers reporting excessive pricing for repairs or rebuilding of flood-damaged homes.

Rick McElvaney, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said there often are not enough lawyers in the attorney general’s office to cull through all the complaints. It also can take many weeks before a lawsuit is filed.

“The attorney general filing three lawsuits within the first two weeks was pretty quick,” McElvaney said. “But I am in a wait-and-see approach to see how many more they will do.”

So it’s a little early to say whether this is A Thing or not. Fair enough. It would be nice to know how things proceeded after Ike and Rita, or how long these things normally take in other states, so we might have a better idea when to check back. I don’t want to cry wolf so I’ll be patient for now, but not for long. Paxton, like Abbott before him, has no trouble being first in line to file a lawsuit against the feds when it suits his purposes, so he deserves no benefit of the doubt on this, a core function of his office. If he doesn’t show some results in a timely fashion, we need to hammer him for it.

Another property tax rate dustup

I have four things to say about this:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask city council on Wednesday to sidestep the voter-imposed revenue cap by approving the same property tax rate as last year.

According to City Controller Chris Brown, the city would need to cut the property tax rate by about one fifth of one cent to comply with the revenue cap. The difference would mean about $7 next year to the average Houston homeowner, but the potential political damage to Turner could be much more.

Council must set the tax rate at its Wednesday meeting, but no specific rate was listed on the council agenda and no explanatory backup material was provided to council members until Monday night. Several council members, informed of Brown’s Monday afternoon memo outlining the mayor’s plan, responded with an incredulous, “What?”

The information angered the mayor’s critics and confused his allies on the council a week before voters begin heading to the polls to consider a crucial $1 billion bond that would cement Turner’s landmark pension reforms and another $495 million in city improvement bonds.

To comply with the revenue cap, Brown said, the council would need to set the tax rate at 58.421 cents per $100 of assessed value, not leave it at last year’s 58.642 cents. The difference to the city general fund, he estimated, is $7.9 million.

“I’d love to think of it as a misunderstanding,” Councilman David Robinson said. “Conspicuously on the agenda today it was not disclosed, so it certainly raised a lot of questions. Call it, what – $8 million? It sounds like a very small amount to have a standoff about.”

[…]

Turner’s spokesman Alan Bernstein said Monday afternoon that the mayor’s proposal to leave the rate flat did not rely on invoking the disaster declaration language, but hours later acknowledged that clause is the basis for keeping the same rate.

“The mayor clearly said at this meeting, the press conference with the governor and everybody, ‘We are not going to be invoking the disaster clause,'” Brown said late Monday. “So, now they’re saying they’re going to do it. OK, they can do that. My opposition is not if they do it or don’t, my opposition is that they do it and nobody knows about it.”

A Monday evening memo from interim finance director Tantri Emo said the charter not only allows the mayor to invoke the disaster clause to collect an extra $7.9 million for Harvey expenses, but also provides no process by which Brown is required to verify the tax rate. Therefore, Bernstein added, it is not relevant that Brown cannot verify the city’s estimated $1.1 billion in general fund damages from Harvey before federal and insurance reimbursements.

“Since he can’t independently validate them, he’s not counting them,” Bernstein said. “Well, we’re counting them, and we feel like he’s not interpreting this all correctly. We’re certainly not busting the tax cap. The mayor disagrees with the controller’s conclusion.”

1. Let’s get one thing straight up front: This is not in any way an “increase”. This is because leaving something the same as it was before is not an increase, in the same way that my remaining the same height does not mean that I have gotten taller even if for some reason I was supposed to shrink. One of the Council members quoted in the story referred to this as an “increase”, and you can be sure others will echo him. Don’t fall for it.

2. I don’t know what was going on in the Mayor’s office with this, in particular with the peculiar lack of communication followed by the about-face on their rationale, but this was handled badly. They should have been up front about the fact that all their calculations were based on leaving the tax rate the same. Which, let’s be clear, in a sane non-revenue-cap world is exactly what would have happened without anyone even noticing that it was a thing that was happening. Bring it up early on, during the (successful) standoff with Greg Abbott, and there would be nothing more to it by now. Like I said, I don’t know what they were thinking, but this is a mess of their own making, and they need to clean it up.

3. More to the point, this was a missed opportunity to drive home the message that the revenue cap is stupid, harmful policy. If we didn’t have a revenue cap forcing this on us, would anyone have proposed a tax rate cut right now? Can you imagine it: “Hey, let’s make a tiny little cut to the tax rate that will have no effect at all on anyone but will cost the city eight million dollars at a time when we’re up to our necks in hurricane recovery expenses”? It’s stupid policy that forces us to make stupid choices. The revenue cap needs to go.

4. All that said, I think CM Robinson has the right answer. If this were the Lege, as Mayor Turner surely knows, they’d have solved this by delaying payment of an invoice or two from this accounting cycle to the next one, thus making the “deficit” disappear in a puff of magic pixie dust. I have to believe that the city can do something similar if it comes down to it.

Abbott loses nativity lawsuit

Merry secular Christmas!

A federal judge ruled against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision two years ago to remove a mock Nativity display from the Texas Capitol that advocated the separation and church state.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled late Friday that Abbott “violated [the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s] clearly established First Amendment right to be free from viewpoint discrimination in a limited public forum.”

It all started in late 2015 when the Freedom From Religion Foundation placed a “winter solstice” display in the Capitol basement. The exhibit featured a cardboard cutout of the nation’s founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty looking down at the Bill of Rights in a manger.

Abbott ordered its removal, calling it a “juvenile parody” and writing that the “Constitution does not require Texas to allow displays in its Capitol that violate general standards of decency and intentionally disrespect the beliefs and values of many of our fellow Texans.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the decision. The FFRF press release sums up:

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks for the Western District of Texas – Austin Division, ruled that Abbott violated FFRF’s free speech rights.

FFRF had placed a duly permitted display celebrating the Winter Solstice and Bill of Rights Day, in response to a Christian nativity at the Texas Capitol. The display, depicting founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty celebrating the birth of the Bill of Rights (adopted Dec. 15, 1791), had the requisite sponsorship from a Texas legislator.

Abbott, as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board, ordered FFRF’s display taken down only three days after it was erected, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality.

“Defendants have justified removal of FFRF’s exhibit by arguing the exhibit’s satirical tone rendered it offensive to some portion of the population. That is viewpoint discrimination,” writes Sparks in a 24-page ruling. The court also held that a reasonable official in Governor Abbott’s position would have known that removing FFRF’s display based on its viewpoint would violate FFRF’s First Amendment rights, thus FFRF can sue Governor Abbott in his personal capacity.

“It is ‘beyond debate’ the law prohibits viewpoint discrimination in a limited public forum,” Sparks ruled.

Sparks did not find that Abbott’s actions violated the Establishment Clause, but also ruled in FFRF’s favor that FFRF has the right to depose the governor for one hour. Abbott had fought the request for a deposition.

I’ve read the decision and I’m a bit unclear as to what the deposition is about, but I believe it’s because there is an ongoing claim over Abbott violating FFRF’s free speech rights. I’m sure there will be appeals, so one way or another, this isn’t over. It is a reminder that if you’re going to allow religious-themed displays that you like on government property, you’re going to have to allow religious-themed displays that you don’t like. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, if you want to go digging for it. Trail Blazers has more.

Jeffrey Payne makes it official

Democrats have their first candidate for Governor.

Jeffrey Payne

The first reaction by many Texans to Saturday evening’s announcement by Jeffrey Payne as the first officially declared Democratic candidate for Texas governor is likely to be: “Who?”

But Payne, a businessman who owns a gay bar in Dallas among other ventures, is focused on the “what.”

And what Payne sees before him is the potential for a Democratic outsider to finally begin turning the tide against Republicans in Texas politics. He’s the first Democrat to officially announce for a spring primary expected to include at least three candidates.

He sees a lot of anti-incumbent sentiment among Texans fed up with what they see as dysfunction in Austin. He sees a lot of anti-Donald Trump backlash. He also sees the potential to rally the sizable LGBT community in Texas to mobilize like never before in the wake of continued efforts to pass a bathroom bill. And he sees a lot of disenchanted, disenfranchised Texans who might be attracted to an outsider promising big change.

Even so, Payne’s chances of an upset against popular Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott are a long shot at best, in a state where Democrats have not won a statewide race in two decades – and where conservatives still rail against gay men like Payne.

But in a year when the Republican party if engaged in a civil war between the tea-party conservatives in control and moderates who think they have gone way too far right for most Texans, Payne and his supporters insist a November surprise is possible.

“I am tired of politics as usual in Texas,” said Payne, 49, making his first run for public office and facing Abbott’s whopping $41 million in a race where he pledged to invest $2.5 million of his own money, without much of any likely party support.

See here and here for some background. As you know, there’s been an endless stream of articles about how Texas Dems have been looking everywhere for a top-drawer candidate for Governor. Payne has an interesting backstory, and if he were running for a legislative office he’d be considered a pretty good catch. But as a first-time candidate running against a guy with unlimited money and good poll numbers, coming off a 20-point win in 2014, Payne is not anyone’s idea of that candidate. I can’t claim to be excited about him. But at least he has the guts to run, and that’s worth more than any amount of wishcasting.

My advice to Jeffrey Payne, for what it’s worth, is to emulate what Beto O’Rourke is doing. Get out there and talk to some voters, especially in places where Dems are not often seen. It won’t get any national press, but it ought to get some local coverage, and who knows, some of that Beto grassroots mojo might rub off. It can’t hurt, and it will at least offer a counter to the inevitable campaign treasury comparison stories that will follow. Also, too, take seriously Abbott’s intent to woo Hispanic voters. Spend some time in South Texas and the Valley, listen to what people are saying, and make all of the obvious points against Abbott. Lastly, if and when you do have some company in the race, take the primary seriously, too. Aim for high turnout, and to get people excited about November. That’s advice I’ve already given to O’Rourke, and would give to any gubernatorial hopefuls. We have a pretty good idea by now of what doesn’t work. May as well try something else.

What the Harvey needs are from the state

It’s not just about recovery. The long term needs, including mitigation against future events like Harvey, is where the real money will need to be spent.

More than one month after Harvey’s deluge hit, local officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, testified at a state House of Representatives Appropriations Committee hearing that more than $370 million worth of debris removal and repair work on more than 50 government buildings has strained local coffers, necessitating quick aid and reimbursement from the federal or state government.

They also emphasized what likely will greatly exceed the costs of immediate recovery: how to prepare for the next storm. That could include billions of dollars for large-scale buyouts, a third reservoir on Houston’s west side, a reservoir on the Brazos River in Fort Bend County and hundreds of millions of dollars to jump start bayou improvement projects that have slowed in recent years without federal funding.

“There’s going to come a time where we have taken all the money from the feds, we have gotten all the money we’re going to get from the state, and we’re going to have to decide: What kind of community do we want to be?” Emmett said at the hearing.

Harvey’s record-smashing rainfall and floods damaged more than 136,000 homes and other buildings in Harris County and killed nearly 80 people across the state.

The Texas House Appropriations Committee and Urban Affairs Committee met at the University of Houston on Monday to understand public costs and where reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. Congressional appropriations were being directed in the storm’s wake.

Emmett, Turner and Fort Bend County officials testified, as did Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp, who is coordinating the state’s recovery efforts. The heads of several other state agencies also testified.

The hearing came just three days after Gov. Greg Abbott visited Houston and presented Turner with a check for $50 million. The check almost immediately was spoken for, Turner said, mostly for debris removal and insurance costs.

Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Houston, said Harvey, in theory, qualified as the “perfect reason” to use the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund,” a savings account comprised of billions in excess oil and gas taxes.

Abbott had indicated as much last week but said he would tap existing state emergency funds and reimburse them from the Rainy Day Fund when the Legislature next meets in 2019.

“Before the Legislature acts, we need to ensure what the expenses are that the state is responsible for,” Zerwas said.

Yes, that would be nice to know. There were other hearings this week as well.

The first order of business, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the House Natural Resources Committee, needs to be a flood control plan for the entire state — and the Gulf Coast in particular.

The Texas Water Development Board is already in the process of crafting a statewide flood plan, with the help of $600,000 state lawmakers gave them earlier this year. Lawmakers haven’t yet promised to back any of the projects that end up in the plan.

Emmett, a Republican and former state lawmaker, said Harris County intends to put together its own flood control plan in the meantime, add up the costs of its recommended projects, then see how much the federal and state government want to contribute. He said he’ll be the first to push for a local bond package to make up the difference.

Property taxes are “the most miserable tax created,” Emmett said. “But it’s what we’ve been given to work with so we don’t have a choice.”

Emmett said Harris County’s plan likely will include another major dam to catch runoff during storms and relieve pressure on two existing reservoirs, Addicks and Barker. Those reservoirs, which filled to historic levels during Harvey, flooded thousands of homes that may not have been inundated with additional protections.

Emmett and the city of Houston’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, suggested the state tap its savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for such a project, estimated to cost at least $300 million. (Gov. Greg Abbott has said lawmakers can tap that fund in 2019 or sooner if they need it for Harvey relief; so far, he has written Houston a $50 million out of a state disaster relief fund.)

Costello said Texas should also consider creating a multi-billion dollar fund to support flood control projects similar to one the state’s voters approved in 2013 for water supply projects.

So far all of the talk is constructive, and even Dan Patrick is doing his part. The real test will be whether we follow up on any of this when the Lege reconvenes. Also, while this doesn’t directly answer my question about the SWIFT fund, but it does clearly suggest that it’s not intended for this kind of infrastructure. Which makes sense, given when it was created, but I had wondered if there was some flexibility built in. I would hope there would be plenty of support for a similar fund for flood mitigation.

Now is not a good time for HHSC to be dysfunctional

And yet here we are.

Under Charles Smith, the longtime ally of Gov. Greg Abbott picked to lead the state’s Health and Human Services Commission, Texas’ government health care infrastructure is hemorrhaging veteran employees and facing criticism for its response to the humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Harvey.

Dozens of experienced senior staff members have left the agency since Smith took over last year. Current and former employees attribute the exodus to widespread dissatisfaction with the executive commissioner, who they say lacks technical knowledge of the agency and pushes a political agenda backed by the governor.

Interviews with 11 current and former long-serving health commission staff, ranging from senior executives to mid-level managers, paint a picture of a state agency in disarray, with veteran staff clashing regularly with Smith and his supporters in the governor’s office. The internal conflict has spurred a wave of resignations, leaving the agency with a void of talent that critics say is hampering the state’s ability to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey.

“It’s hard to watch,” said one former high-ranking health commission official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of an ongoing professional relationship with the health commission. “Anybody with any knowledge or experience is not going to stay.”

[…]

Critics point to the agency’s actions in the month after Hurricane Harvey as evidence of its dysfunction.

Specifically, sources inside and outside of the commission told the Tribune that the agency was slow to act in providing guidance and assistance to Texans affected by Harvey who qualify for public programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Doctors have complained that basic information, such as whether displaced Medicaid patients could seek care outside of their insurance network or get prescription medications refilled, was slow to emerge from the agency, and advocates for low-income Texans were frustrated to see a flurry of revisions to information posted on the agency’s website as victims sought government assistance.

Others pointed to the delay in rolling out disaster food stamps benefits. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, and the health commission began rolling out disaster food stamps on Sept. 13, nearly three weeks later, but only in some counties. Houston, Corpus Christi and other areas that suffered some of the most extensive damage from the storm were not included in the initial rollout.

By comparison, when Hurricane Ike struck Galveston in 2008, then-Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins announced the agency would provide emergency food stamps five days after the storm made landfall.

“When I see the response to Harvey, I am quite concerned about the level of expertise in the agency,” said one former commission official who has closely followed the hurricane response. “This stuff is not rocket science. We’ve had disasters before. There are templates for this.”

The Texas State Employees Union said this week that falling employee morale and a shortage of workers has hampered the state’s ability to provide recovery after Hurricane Harvey. Union officials say the health commission has lost nearly 11 percent of its eligibility operations staff — the workers who help connect Texans with public benefits.

In a statement for the union, Rashel Richardson, a caseworker in Houston, asked, “How are we supposed to work this much forced overtime week after week while our homes have been destroyed? How are we supposed to concentrate and get people services when we need services ourselves? It’s as if the state has no sympathy for workers who lost everything.”

There’s more, so read the whole thing. Not that there’s ever a good time for such a large agency that affects so many people to be dysfunctional, but in the aftermath of a huge natural disaster that has done so much damage? That’s a really bad time. Of course, HHSC has been a problem child for a long time, so none of this should be a big surprise. On the other hand, the HHSC under Greg Abbott has been particularly hostile to women’s health, so it’s all good as far as he’s concerned.