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Houston

Interview with Janaeya Carmouche

Janaeya Carmouche

Houston is a Democratic city, where the Democratic Presidential candidate has drawn 60% or more of the vote in each of the past three races. Yet we stand today with three of the five At Large Council seats being held by Republicans. One is term-limited out, and the other two have multiple challengers to their re-elections. In At Large #3, Janaeya Carmouche is one of three candidates running against CM Michael Kubosh, who was first elected in 2013. Carmouche is a community activist and communications professional who has worked for City Council and more recently for Commissioner Rodney Ellis. You can see her LinkedIn profile for more details. Here’s what we talked about:

I never did get around to creating an Election 2019 page, in part because the Erik Manning spreadsheet has it all. My roundup of July finance reports that includes At Large #3 is here, and my 2013 interview with then-candidate, now incumbent Michael Kubosh is here.

No, crime is not up in Houston

Facts are stubborn things.

Like the rest of the country, crime in Houston has plummeted over the last 30 years, as has residents’ fear of crime being the city’s most pressing problem. FBI data show that most categories of crime in Houston have fallen or remained stagnant during Turner’s term, which began in January 2016. Criminologists also scoff at the claim that Houston is among the country’s most dangerous cities.

Violent crime is down more than 10 percent from 2017, during its peak under Turner’s administration, according to preliminary FBI data. Non-violent crime has dropped about 6 percent since 2015.

From 2015 to 2018, murders dropped and robberies fell; burglaries decreased; thefts fell; and fewer vehicles were stolen. The exceptions were aggravated assaults and rapes, which rose in 2017 before declining again in 2018.

[…]

“We are at the bottom of a 30-year decline, more or less, in the crime rate,” said Scott Henson, of Just Liberty, a criminal justice reform nonprofit.

In Turner’s first year in office, for example, criminals murdered 301 Houstonians. The city saw 279 murders in 2018, a slight uptick from 269 in 2017.

The city’s murder rate is four times that of New York, the safest large city in the United States, and a sixth of St. Louis, the nation’s most deadly. A survey of the nation’s 297 largest cities (meaning they had populations of 100,000 or more) shows Houston’s ranked 75th in murders, and 31st in violent crime.

“When we talk about the murder capitals of the country, the violent crime capitals of the country, Houston is not one of the cities people put on that list,” said Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based criminologist. “At least anyone familiar with the data.”

Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, said it is misleading to compare the crime rate of a city with 2.3 million people to those of small towns, which frequently have much lower crime rates.

A more accurate measure, he said, would be to look at other large cities across the country.

Among the nation’s 30 largest cities, Houston’s murder rate “is thoroughly middle of the road,” Grawert said. “I don’t see Houston as being one of the more ‘violent’ places in the country.”

And while criminologists acknowledge the city’s overall crime rate is indeed higher than 95 percent of other American cities, towns, and villages, they say such comparisons overinflate the importance of more common but less serious crimes like thefts.

“As a major American city, Houston has some crime,” said Asher. “That’s the same as me saying Houston has more trash cans than 95 percent of cities … Houston is one of the largest cities in the country. Of course it does.”

Experts say it is not useful to measure crime on a year-to-year basis because one-year outliers do not accurately reflect trends or significant changes in crime patterns.

Since 1985, the annual number of murders has risen as high as 608 in 1991 and as low as 198 in 2011. Overall, the city’s murder rate has trended downward from about 26.5 per 100,000 to 11.5 per 100,000 in 2018.

“Houston is safer than has been for a really long time, honestly, is the truth of it,” said Henson.

This article was written because the non-Mayors in the Mayoral race were all claiming that crime is up and mayhem is rampant. I mean, what else do they have to talk about? I don’t know about some of these candidates, but I was living here in 1991, and I remember what it was like. I remember looking for rental properties with my roommates in Houston and noticing that the most prominent feature on many places in Montrose was burglar bars. I remember that the conventional wisdom was that single women should not live in the Heights because it wasn’t safe for them. Hell, when I bought my first house in the Heights in 1997, Tiffany’s parents (who live in Bellaire) were worried about its location. The Houston we live in now is so much safer.

One more thing: Insistence that the city is swamped by crime leads naturally to a demand for more aggressive policing – more traffic stops, more “broken windows”-type arrests, more zero-tolerance mindset, etc. We all know what that means for minority communities. At a time when people are recognizing the great harm that over-incarceration and the “war on drugs” have caused, this is dangerous and deeply out of step with the popular will. And pretty much what I’d expect from King and Buzbee, the two loudest voices in that story. Grits, who was quoted in the story, has more.

Interview with Raj Salhotra

Raj Salhotra

This week I will have interviews from two of the At Large races that feature challenges to sitting incumbents. First up is At Large #1, where candidate Raj Salhotra is among the four challengers to first-term incumbent Mike Knox. Salhotra is a native Houstonian, the son of immigrants, and another one of those younger candidates this year we keep reading about. A graduate of Rice University and Harvard Law School, he has taught high school math, worked on economic development policy with Mayor Turner, and co-founded a non-profit to help students get to and through college. Here’s the interview:

I never did get around to creating an Election 2019 page, in part because the Erik Manning spreadsheet has it all. My roundup of July finance reports that includes At Large #1 is here, my 2013 interview with incumbent Mike Knox, who was then a candidate for District A, is here, and my 2013 interview with candidate Georgia Provost, who was running for District D at the time, is here.

Pity the poor lion hunters

Gag me.

Houston was once the nation’s top destination for African lions killed by U.S. trophy hunters, but public backlash and new federal restrictions have all but ended the sport, according to a group of big game hunters that has launched a campaign to bring it back.

Since 2015 when a dentist from Minnesota killed Cecil, a famed lion in Zimbabwe, the U.S. government has made sport hunting of lions and elephants so difficult as to discourage most hunters from even trying to navigate all of the paperwork, said wildlife attorney and hunting advocate John Jackson III.

“It’s worse than it has ever been,” said Jackson, who is chairman of a group called Conservation Force that advocates for big game hunting. “Now it’s almost impossible to get permits.”

While animal rights groups might see that as a victory, Jackson said they are losing sight of millions of dollars that hunters — and Texans in particular — have poured into African nations to support animal conservation. Over 10 years, almost $1.1 million went from just the Dallas Safari Club to lion conservation projects around the world. The Houston Safari Club — which has about 1,200 members — has reported donating more than $3.7 million for animal conservation work worldwide.

In May the Houston Safari Club launched a federal political action committee to raise money that could be used to influence political campaigns. And the club has increased its political commentary on its website, declaring it is “ramping up its legislative and policy efforts” and vowing to “grow our voice.”

Federal records confirm that imports of lions to Houston and other U.S. destinations have plummeted.

[…]

The Humane Society of the United States, on the other hand, has argued that hunters are overstating their impact and that lions and other endangered species can be promoted by supporting wildlife tourism expeditions.

Anna Frostic, managing wildlife attorney for the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International, said trophy hunters like to claim their actions promote animal conservation, because that is what they have to prove legally in order to go on their hunts. She said on the face of it, it’s clear that killing individual animals doesn’t add to protecting the species.

“At the very least it is counter intuitive, and we would argue unethical and biologically unsubstantiated,” Frostic said.

Yeah, the whole “we must be able to kill lions in order to save them” argument doesn’t carry any weight with me. The Houston Safari Club could – stay with me here – just simply donate that same amount of money to conservation efforts without hunting lions. Maybe photograph them instead, I dunno. Beyond that, I can’t imagine a less sympathetic group right now than a bunch of rich guys whining about not being able to shoot things.

Why would you run for HISD Board of Trustees this year?

It’s a good question.

As she campaigns door-to-door to become the newest member of Houston ISD’s school board, Reagan Flowers is encountering many confused voters.

They ask whether school board elections matter this year, given the growing likelihood that state officials will strip power from HISD trustees within months. They wonder what Flowers will do if she wins but does not get any authority. They question how she would change the culture of the much-maligned board.

“There’s still a tremendous need to educate people, to inform them of the process,” said Flowers, an education nonprofit executive and one of four candidates vying to represent District IV, which covers parts of downtown and southern Houston. “I tell them I’ll be your representative, your voice, making sure the needs of the district are being met.”

As November approaches and the threat of state intervention in HISD looms, Flowers and fourteen other school board candidates find themselves in the midst of a highly unusual election season, aiming to convince voters to participate in potentially diminished races.

[…]

Some candidates said voters remain confused or apathetic about the off-year school board elections. About 25 percent of registered voters cast ballots for HISD trustee in 2015, with mayoral and city council races likely boosting turnout.

However, multiple candidates said more-engaged voters are aware of the school board’s self-admitted dysfunction, laid bare during a heated October 2018 meeting, and want trustees who will cut through the tumult. Dissension over whether to retain Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has inflamed tensions on the board in the past 12 months, creating factions that largely split across racial and ethnic lines.

“The only thing I hear about (from voters) is that they’re concerned with the in-fighting on the board and they want it to stop,” said Patricia Allen, a District IV candidate and retired HISD principal. “I’m not hearing positive things about the board takeover. But what I am hearing is, the board needs changes, that they need someone in there to focus on education.”

That sounds about right to me. The story name-checks all of the candidates, for the two open seat races (Districts II and IV, where Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Jolanda Jones will step down) and the two races against incumbents Sergio Lira (III) and Diana Davila (VIII). It’s not clear to me, or I suspect to anyone as this particular type of intervention by the TEA has never happened before, what exactly HISD Trustees will be doing once the TEA does its thing. Obviously, the goals are to improve outcomes in the schools, and to fix the problems the Board had so that it can be trusted to regain control. What that will look like in practice is something we will discover together. In the meantime and as always, please do pay attention to these races if you have one on your ballot (I don’t this time), and make good choices.

It’s not really a campaign until there are attack ads

I have three things to say about this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner launched a television ad Monday attacking Tony Buzbee for donating to President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, marking the mayor’s first major attempt to link his political opponent to the president.

Buzbee, a millionaire businessman and lawyer, is one of 11 candidates running for mayor against Turner, who is seeking a second four-year term in November.

In the summer of 2016, Buzbee hosted a fundraiser for Trump — who was then the presumptive Republican nominee — at his mansion in River Oaks.

In October 2016, after a video surfaced in which Trump is heard bragging about groping women, Buzbee disavowed Trump, posting on social media, “Sorry Donald. I’m done with you. Completely.”

He later contributed $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration committee.

Turner’s ad opens with a clip of Trump calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” at his 2015 campaign launch speech, when Trump also accused immigrants of bringing drugs and crime across the border.

“Noise, and more noise, from Donald Trump and his imitator, Tony Buzbee,” a narrator’s voice says.

1. Ideally, incumbents prefer to be able to run campaigns that don’t acknowledge their opposition. Even the most devastating negative ad still has the effect of raising the opponent’s name ID. Attacking Buzbee means there’s more value in trying to take him down than the downside of introducing him to a wider audience.

2. Buzbee is of course a target-rich environment, with his ties to Donald Trump and Rick Perry, his general douche-bro profile, his loose relationship with accurate information, and the fact that he’s basically a loudmouth know-it-all with no experience in government. You know, kind of like some other guy who was also a very bad idea to vote for.

3. The thing about running attack ads in a multi-candidate race is that it can have the side effect of improving the position of the candidate or candidates who are neither the target nor the instigator of the ad. Is Turner attacking Buzbee in hope of softening him up for the runoff, or in hope of knocking him out so he’ll face someone else in the runoff? Hard to say. If he keeps this up for weeks, or if he goes on to attack other candidates, we’ll have a better idea.

What can we really do about I-45?

Urban planner Jeff Speck is once again warning us about the negative effects of widening I-45.

TxDOT cites three principal motivations for advancing the I-45 project: reducing traffic congestion, improving driver safety, and improving air quality. These laudable goals are apparently considered important enough to outweigh the significant costs discussed above. And they might be — if they were achievable.

Sadly, each one is a false promise. Decades of similar state projects around the U.S., each with its own ample justification, teach a simple lesson: highway widenings do not reduce congestion in the long run, and make both driver safety and air quality worse.

[…]

If I-45 is widened, it will be remembered that, in the decade prior, Houston enjoyed a brief glimpse of a better future. Downtown and Midtown have been reborn, lifted on a demographic shift that favors urban living. Regional bike trails grace the Bayou Greenways, and a brilliant Beyond the Bayous plan lays out an ambitious path for sustainable growth. Transit ridership is up, thanks to investment in light rail and a redesigned bus network. The mayor, members of city council, and county commissioners all sing the praises of a more walkable Houston. Sadly, all these trends will be reversed if Houston doubles down on its nation-leading commitment to fossil-fuel infrastructure.

This need not happen. Houston has the ability to stop the I-45 expansion in its tracks, just as Dallas stopped the Trinity Parkway. That proposed roadway was called “the worst boondoggle imaginable” despite costing only one-fifth of the current I-45 plan. It took a 10-year fight, but the good people of Dallas rose up and killed it.

Meanwhile, Houston’s fatalistic response to its TxDOT incursion has been to just “make I-45 better.” The well-resourced but cautious Make I-45 Better Coalition has proposed a collection of modifications, all good, that unfortunately do not begin to question the underlying folly of fighting congestion, car crashes, and tailpipe emissions by welcoming more driving.

Here’s how to make I-45 better: first, fix the parts that need repair, without making them any wider. At the same time, introduce congestion-based pricing on the entire roadway to maximize its capacity around the clock. Invest the proceeds in transit, biking, walking, and in those poor people who truly have no choice but to keep driving.

Unlike highway widenings, congestion-based pricing reduces traffic, driving deaths, and pollution, all while earning billions rather than wasting them. It has worked wherever it’s been tried, including London, Stockholm, and Sydney, and it is about to become law in New York City. Even Dallas has been experimenting with congestion-based pricing for years.

Speck has addressed the I-45 expansion plan before, and I find him very compelling. The problem, as I’ve said before, is that there is no current mechanism in Texas to do the things he advocates. TxDOT, as the name implies, is a state agency, with leaders appointed by the Governor. Houston has no authority to impose any kind of pricing on I-45, and TxDOT also has no authority under current law to do congestion pricing, because TxDOT does not operate the toll roads and toll-based HOV lanes that do have that kind of authority. The now-dead Trinity Parkway project was not a TxDOT project but a local project under the auspices of a regional toll road authority.

What I’m saying is that the fight over I-45 isn’t in Houston, it is – or it needs to be – in Austin, in the Legislature and the Governor’s mansion. You want TxDOT to have a different mission, one that emphasizes transit over highway widening, you need a different Legislature and a different Governor. You want cities to have the authority to impose congestion pricing rules, with the revenue to be used to boost non-automobile mobility, you need to get that new Legislature to pass a law allowing for it, and a Governor to sign it. We can take one step towards those goals next year, but the Governor and the Senate aren’t up for grabs till 2022 (yes, there are Senators on the ballot in 2020, but only one Republican-held seat is a realistic target, and that won’t be enough). What do we do till then? The Make I-45 Better Coalition may be a limited response to a big problem, but at least their goals are achievable in the current time frame. If we want to think big – and we should! – we also have to play the longer game.

Interview with Carrin Patman

Carrin Patman

I’ve talked a lot about the METRO Next referendum on the 2019 ballot. The referendum, the first time METRO has gone to the voters to ask for bonding authority since 2003, is intended to fund a significant expansion of transit services, including light rail, BRT, HOV, and local bus. There’s a lot to take in, and while METRO will be running a campaign to inform voters about the referendum, I wanted to do a deeper dive into the details. METRO Board Chair Carrin Patman was the person to talk to about that, and I had questions for her about all aspects of the plan. We also delved into bigger picture issues of how METRO fits into the region, connecting with bicycles, future expansion, and how autonomous vehicles will affect things. Have a listen and let me know what you think:

I’ll be back to candidate interviews next week. I’ve got HISD, HCC, more from the city of Houston, and some ungodly number of HD148 contenders in the queue.

Campaigning for the Metro bond

Our campaign finance laws can be a bit weird.

Transit officials spent the past 18 months developing a plan to add $7.5 billion in new bus lines, rebuilt transit centers and rail expansion.

They have nine weeks to sell it to voters.

“We’re in campaign mode now,” said Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman.

With election season, however, comes some complications. Patman and other officials can stump for the plan, but cannot use Metro money or staff to directly campaign in favor it.

The agency, however, is almost guaranteed to be the biggest spender during the campaign because it is allowed to educate voters on the plan to add 75 miles of rapid bus service, 16 miles of light rail and nearly $600 million in local bus system enhancements ranging from road and bus station improvements along key routes to new or restored sidewalks to bus stops.

[…]

Metro, based on its 2020 budget, will spend $6.7 million to educate voters on the long-range plan, another $1.8 million for public engagement and $800,000 on legal expenses related to the plan.

The key distinction is Metro staff can talk about the plans for new projects and the benefits all they want: They just cannot encourage people to support them in November or spend any public money to solicit people’s vote for the ballot item in an official capacity.

“As a body, as a group, they cannot take action to in effect campaign for an issue,” Austin election lawyer Buck Wood said.

Board members, however, can campaign individually, with Patman and others already making the rounds without Metro staff in tow. Supporters started a political action committee, Moving to the Future, aimed at passing the bond. The campaign initially was led by Ed Wulfe, the Houston real estate tycoon active in local politics for the past 50 years. After Wulfe died July 28, engineer Wayne Klotz stepped in as treasurer.

I believe the same stricture exists on ISD and community college boards when they put capital bonds up for a vote. I confess, I don’t quite understand the rationale for it, but everyone seems to be able to play the game, so it’s not worth worrying about. I’ll have an interview with Carrin Patman for you to listen to next week – we talked about lots of things, from bikes to autonomous vehicles to I-45 – which I hope will help clarify the referendum a bit. As the story notes, there is no organized opposition as yet, though a couple of Mayoral candidates and one of the lesser At Large candidates are against it. Barring anything strange I expect this to pass, and the campaign for the referendum will boost overall turnout.

Good luck avoiding mosquitoes

You can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them.

Living in an area with so many mosquitoes means local officials can’t just ignore them, right? Harris County tries to lower the number of bugs both by spraying and introducing natural predators. The county can’t eradicate them entirely, but it can try to control bugs that have tested positive for diseases like the West Nile virus.

In Harris County, the mosquito problem peaks during the late summer months.

“It spikes up August and September, when it’s high time for hurricane weather that may trigger mosquito breeding to occur,” said Eddie Miranda, a Harris County Public Health spokesman.

Public health trucks rumble through the streets, spraying low-dose pesticides like pyrethrin and malathion to poison mosquitoes. It doesn’t hurt humans to the same degree, although people sensitive to pesticides should go indoors when crews come around. Crews spray one or twice a week in some parts of Midtown, downtown and the Northside.

The county has an app (iOSAndroid) that lets residents enter a ZIP code and find out where spraying is planned. It also includes a digital form to request mosquito breeding site inspection.

There are also other new, natural strategies from county teams to eliminate the pests, such as introducing carnivorous plants and predator bugs to chew them up. Which is good, considering a recent study found a species of mosquitoes found in the South are laying eggs that are better able to survive winter months.

[…]

The New York Times’s Wirecutter has good options for mosquito repellants that aren’t meant to be applied to flesh. Top among their recommendations are Thermacell products, which release a scent-free vapor into the air and rids the immediate vicinity of mosquitoes.

You can spray and kill clouds of mosquitoes in your yard with pyrethrins spray, which targets the nervous system, but it won’t do much for repelling bugs. Citronella candles are also bunk — researchers have disproven the myth that the smell turns mosquitoes off.

Eliminate any still water that’s been outside your home for more than two days. Harris County Public Health recommends replacing the water in your pet’s bowls and birdbaths frequently to avoid mosquito larvae. Check flower pots, open barrels and toys as well.

Bugs need a cozy hiding place such as leaves clogging storm drains. The county recommends sweeping up the first signs of autumn to keep larvae from having a place to feed.

The story has more info about staying skeeter-free – wear long sleeves and long pants, always a delightful prospect in the Houston summer, and slather yourself with DEET – but do mind thosen prevention steps. The big guns around here include high tech traps, dragonflies and damselflies, and mutant mosquitoes. We’re playing the long game, y’all.

The TEA delivers its terms to HISD

As expected.

The Texas Education Commissioner has put the state’s largest school district on official notice that it could lose its locally-elected school board because of failing grades at one Houston high school.

The commissioner, Mike Morath, notified Houston’s interim superintendent, Grenita Lathan, and school board president, Diana Davila, that he may have to take action to appoint outside managers to oversee the district — or order the struggling school closed. The campus, the historically black Wheatley High School in Fifth Ward, recently had its seventh failing grade in a row.

“If the preliminary unacceptable academic performance rating assigned to Wheatley High School becomes a final rating, I will be required by TEC §39A.111 to order either campus closure or the appointment of a board managers and will notify the district of my specific decision in future correspondence,” Morath concluded in the letter.

Morath has not made a final decision and the failing grade remains preliminary until Sept. 15.

You can see the letter at the link. All signs point to the board of managers option being used, but the law does allow for the schools in question to be closed, so that got mentioned as well. Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter tweeted that there was to be a discussion of appealing the Wheatley rating at yesterday’s public meeting, though it is very unlikely to succeed. There is still the lawsuit over the ethics investigation, but even if that were to succeed it would only reduce by half the number of justifications the TEA currently has for a takeover. I’m not sure what happens next, but something will happen by the 15th. The Press has more.

UPDATE: It’s official, the board has voted to appeal Wheatley’s rating.

“No confidence”

The latest from the firefighters.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña will face a “no confidence” vote by members of the city’s fire union over what nearly 100 district chiefs say has been a lack of leadership and a failure to adequately equip or pay firefighters.

The vote, which is expected to take place in the next week, would have no practical effect on Peña’s position. Mayor Sylvester Turner is the only person who can remove Peña from the post he has held since the mayor appointed him in 2016.

The union’s Tuesday announcement marks the latest development in the increasingly fraught relationship between rank-and-file firefighters and the Turner administration.

Peña and Turner separately called the criticisms unfair and said the vote was part of a broader political campaign to discredit the city’s current leadership.

You can see a copy of the letter they sent here. Some of this is about Prop B, some is about the lack of a collective bargaining agreement and the current level of firefighter pay, some of it is about proposals to move from four shifts to three shifts (which is something that has been proposed in the past as well). The vote itself is symbolic – Mayor Turner is not going to fire Chief Peña.

I’m going to make a prediction: A year from now, the firefighters are still going to be unhappy. Very likely, firefighter unhappiness will still be an issue the next time we elect a Mayor in 2023. The firefighters have been unhappy with the Mayor going back to at least Mayor Lee Brown. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Checking in on the Mayor’s race

Remember the Mayor’s race? Yeah, that.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

“The candidates have been running for months but were focused on fundraising and defining their message,” said Nancy Sims, a Houston political analyst. “Labor Day is when people tune into the election.”

The stretch-run of the race follows months of campaigning from Buzbee, a businessman and trial lawyer who announced his candidacy last October. King, also a businessman and lawyer, joined the race in February, then the field expanded in June with the candidacy of District D Councilman Dwight Boykins and, weeks later, former At-Large Councilwoman Sue Lovell.

Seven other lesser-known candidates also are running.

Despite vigorous campaigning from Turner’s opponents, the race has yet to reach its loudest pitch, in part because Turner only has appeared at campaign events without other mayoral candidates. Earlier this week, Buzbee and King criticized the mayor for not yet attending any candidate forums.

A Turner campaign spokesperson said he was not invited to the Wednesday forum or to a prior forum held in June by the Lake Houston Pachyderm Club, which Buzbee and King attended.

Even as the race heats up, mayoral candidates are battling with a bloated field of Democratic presidential candidates for the attention of Houston voters, who typically do not tune into city elections en masse until September.

“I think the challenge for the city candidates this year is that they are greatly overshadowed by the 2020 race,” Sims said. “They are struggling to get the attention they need for people to focus in on the city elections.”

Even without distractions, such as the Sept. 12 Democratic presidential debate in Houston, municipal candidates often struggle to drag voters to the polls: Just 27 percent of registered Houston voters turned out in the 2015 race, the first time since 2003 that turnout was more than 20 percent.

Still, the candidates are entering the critical part of the race with ample resources to draw out voters. Buzbee is self-funding his campaign and as of June 30 had contributed $7.5 million of his personal wealth. He had spent more than $2.3 million at the same point, and recently made a six-figure TV ad buy through the end of September.

“Tony Buzbee is a very unique candidate because of his ability to self-fund, so the normal rules and strategies regarding TV don’t really apply to him, because he effectively has a bottomless wallet,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “For other candidates who have to keep their powder dry, we’re unlikely to see major media buys until the first or second week of October.”

We’ve discussed this before, but as a reminder what drives turnout in city elections is a high profile referendum on the ballot. Contested Mayoral races are a factor too, but the addition of a referendum is the difference between 2003 (381K votes, Metro light rail referendum) or 2015 (286K votes, HERO repeal) and 2009 (181K, no referendum). Even without a contested Mayor’s race, a sufficiently hot ballot item can bring a lot of voters out – see, for example, 2005 (332K, anti-gay marriage Constitutional amendment). The Metro referendum this year isn’t nearly as controversial as the 2003 one was, and there may not be any astroturf opposition effort to it, but Metro will be pushing voters to the polls as well as the candidates are, and that should boost turnout a bit.

I would also push back against the notion that no one pays much attention to the Mayoral races before Labor Day, and I’d point to the last three open Mayoral elections as evidence. Bill White was running those white-background ads in 2003 early on in the year. Annise Parker, Gene Locke, and Peter Brown were releasing position papers and talking about ideas for traffic, crime, neighborhoods, economic development, and a whole lot of other things well before September. The pension issue, HERO, and the Adrian Garcia will-he-or-won’t-he tease dominated 2015. Maybe it was just the more engaged voters tuning in, but speaking as one of those engaged voters, there was a lot more happening in those past elections than there has been in this one.

Why might that be? Well, let me summarize the campaigns of the main Turner opponents so far.

Bill King: I’m a rich old guy who was once the Mayor of a town with fewer people than most HISD high schools, and I’m not Sylvester Turner.

Tony Buzbee: I’m a rich guy who’s buddies with Rick Perry, and I’m not Sylvester Turner.

Dwight Boykins: I’m not Sylvester Turner, and I supported Prop B.

Sue Lovell: I’m not Sylvester Turner, I supported Prop B, and unlike these other guys I also supported HERO.

I mean, you tell me why the excitement level has been set to “Meh”. I don’t see a whole lot changing from here, and it will be turned up to 11 in the runoff. Welcome to election season, y’all.

Beer to go is here

Hooray!

The highly anticipated beer-to-go legislation officially [went] into effect Sunday, and local breweries [celebrated] the occasion by offering up cans, growlers and crowlers of beer for visitors to bring home — a simple act that has been illegal in the state of Texas until now.

“We still don’t really believe it,” said John Holler, who along with his wife Kathryn, owns Holler Brewing in Houston’s Sawyer Yards district. “Without this, our beer would never be in a can, because at our size, it just wouldn’t make sense to sell cans unless we could sell them directly to the consumer.”

John Holler has been a key part of the push to help Texas become the 50th state in the nation to allow beer-to-go sales, joining the board of the Craft Brewers Guild. While Texas craft brewers spent more than a decade advocating for beer to go, it wasn’t until the run-up to this 86th Legislature that the movement reached is full force with the formation of the guild, a political action committee.

[…]

For some of the city’s larger breweries, the novelty of being able to sip their beer from cans isn’t quite as potent as it is for Holler, where beers have always been available exclusively from the tap.

At Southern Star Brewing in Conroe, brewers will celebrate by releasing some of their specialty beers, like a tequila-aged Trippel and others in can and growler-fills.

It’s been too long since I’ve visited some of these places. Time to start planning some Saturday outings, now that the heat should begin dissipating a bit. We wanted this for a long time, now let’s make it count.

Cricket in Fort Bend

The sport keeps spreading.

When Malay Vyas played cricket as a child, there were no fields near his home in western India. So he and his friends took to playing in the streets. He remembers getting grounded after hitting a ball into a house and breaking glass, and, years later, one of his own children broke a window in their home, while playing cricket inside.

Now, with the opening of the Jones Creek Cricket Park, Houston-area children will have a safe, convenient place to enjoy the world’s second most-popular sport. Vyas, the president of the Sugar Land Youth Cricket Club, said the proximity of the field will also encourage more families to get involved in cricket.

“The kids could only come practice when the parents had the time to take two hours out of their schedule,” he said. “What this will do is enable parents to bring kids to practices more frequently. “

Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers said the county acquired the Richmond park to expand recreational facilities and to attract more kids to the area. It was community members, such as Vyas, who urged them to add the cricket pitch.

As we know, there is already the Houston Cricket League, and a cricket complex being built in Waller County. There’s a large population in the region that plays and enjoys cricket, and this is just a matter of the facilities catching up to that demand. It’s cool to see.

The children will count us

Great idea for something that shouldn’t have to be the case.

Teresa Flores knows the costs of a census undercount as well as anyone.

As the executive director of the Hidalgo County Head Start Program, one of the area’s most underfunded services, she watched low funding after a 2010 undercount cap the program’s maximum enrollment around 3,600 students.

More than 14,000 other children could qualify for the program, Flores estimates, but she barely has enough money to maintain the current level of enrollment — even with additional state grants.

Many of her students come from immigrant and non-English speaking households, two groups that are among the hardest to count in Texas. Though the efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form failed, she’s spoken with families who still fear inquires into their citizenship. But as someone with a long-established role in the community, Flores said she’s been able to relieve anxieties about sending information to the government and correct misinformation. By herself though, she can’t do that for everyone.

In looking for new approaches to census engagement — ones that residents can trust — the Hidalgo County committee focused on getting a complete count of the area’s population is increasingly targeting its outreach toward an unconventional group of residents: children and teenagers.

“When parents come and sign their children in and out, we’re able to speak with them about their participation,” Flores said. “Children could be the best people to continue those conversations all night long once they get home, and ease those concerns on a long-term basis.”

[…]

Victoria Le isn’t sure whether her parents filled out census forms in 2010. But after working on a complete count campaign at her school, the 18-year-old said she’s making sure they do this time.

Le is a recent graduate of Alief Early College High School in southwest Houston, where she and 15 other students spent months researching new approaches to fighting an undercount and marketing those plans to hard to count residents. Their work was initially regarded by other students as nothing more than a minor passion project, Le said.

Then the group threw its first major event last spring, where students competed for prizes as they learned more about the census and ways to get their families engaged.

“It was just an insane success,” said Jordan Carswell, the program’s director. “When people see half the student body showing up and going completely crazy over census games, they start asking questions. They knew how to get their peers energized, and when you see how passionate they are about it, it’s hard to not to feel the same way.”

Carswell said the campaign came together when Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner asked him to get students involved with census engagement. Alief ISD is part of Houston and Harris County’s joint $4 million effort to achieve an accurate count. There’s also a coalition of more than 50 local nonprofits and organizations working with them to mobilize communities.

I think this is both great and awful. It’s great that there’s such creativity and commitment to getting as full and accurate a Census count as possible. It’s awful that our Legislature refused to offer any help to cities to achieve that. That has left cities like Houston and others to their own devices, because what else can they do? There was a time when everyone agreed that the Census was important, and getting it right was vital to all of our interests. The only way forward from here is to elect more people who still think that way.

The harder question

This story just upsets me so much.

After a man posing as a FedEx deliveryman forced his way into her family’s house and fatally shot her parents and four siblings, 15-year-old Cassidy Stay played dead until the killer fled the scene.

Bleeding from a wound on her head where a bullet grazed her, Cassidy managed to call 911.

“It was my Uncle Ronnie. He has been stalking my family for three weeks,” she told paramedics when they arrived at the Spring-area house, according to court documents. “He said he would shoot us and kill us.”

Cassidy would be the lone survivor of the July 2014 massacre, which Harris County prosecutors say unfolded in a moment of rage as Ronald Haskell hunted for his ex-wife, Melannie Lyon. Cassidy’s parents had been providing support to Lyon, the sister of Katie Stay, Cassidy’s mother. Ronald Haskell didn’t find his intended target, prosecutors said, but opened fire on the entire Stay family.

Cassidy’s phone call is believed to have prevented more violence, as Haskell was captured on the way to Lyon’s parents’ nearby home, police said.

[…]

In the case of the Stay family murders, police said Haskell had come to Texas from California in search of his ex-wife, who had recently divorced him after years of sustained domestic abuse, court filings show. They had lived together in Utah before Melannie Lyon escaped. Haskell had moved to California. where a restraining order was issued against him after he allegedly duct-taped his mother to a chair and choked her because she had spoken to Lyon.

But Lyon wasn’t at her sister’s home in the suburban Spring neighborhood that Wednesday afternoon.

Police gave the following account: Dressed as a FedEx deliveryman, Haskell knocked on the door, then went away. When he came back and knocked on the door again, Cassidy quickly realized something was not right, especially when he mentioned his name. Cassidy tried to close the door, but the burly Haskell forced his way inside, brandishing a 9mm pistol and holding Cassidy and the rest of the children hostage until their parents, Stephen and Katie Stay, returned home. Upon their return, Haskell demanded to know where his ex-wife was, but either no one knew or would say.

Initial police reports were that Haskell had tied up members of the family before shooting them, but court documents say he only threatened to do so. Katie Stay tried to stop him, and he opened fire on the entire family, killing Stephen, 39; Katie, 34; and Bryan, 13; Emily, 9; Rebecca, 7; and Zach, 4. Cassidy lay motionless until Haskell fled in the Stays’ Honda sedan, reportedly continuing his search for his ex-wife.

Katie’s 911 call saved her grandparents’ lives, officials said after the slayings. Harris County Precinct 4 deputy constables intercepted Haskell just seconds before he arrived at Lyon’s parents’ home, then chased him into a nearby cul-de-sac. After a long standoff, Haskell surrendered hours later.

“These people were seconds away from getting killed,” said Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman, then the assistant chief deputy of the agency.

There’s more in this story, and of course there’s been plenty more written about this horrible crime, which happened in 2014. Haskell’s trial is now underway, and prosecutors will seek the death penalty. Because this mass murder occurred in a private home and not a public space, it hasn’t gotten the wall-to-wall national coverage that the public massacres tend to get, but this kind of violence, often involving multiple victims, is much more prevalent. We can and should have serious conversations about how to prevent men like Ronald Haskell from getting guns, but we should also be realistic enough to admit that that’s an impossible task. As long as guns exist, men like Ronald Haskell will find them, and even if we somehow thwart them, they’ll find other ways to carry out their violent urges.

The much harder question to ask ourselves is, how do we prevent boys from growing up to become men like Ronald Haskell? The rage, the hate, the misogyny, they all come from somewhere. It’s well established that a common factor in many mass murders is a history of domestic violence on the part of the shooter, as was clearly the case here. If we want to reduce gun violence, this is what we have to address. What are we doing about that?

Interview with Nelvin Adriatico

Nelvin Adriatico

One more time in District J, where the changing of the guard has me a bit nostalgic for the time when the new 11-district map was first presented for our perusal. Nelvin Adriatico is the president and founder of brokerage firm Core Realty LLC. A native of the Phillippines , he has served as the President of the Philippine-American Chamber of Commerce Texas and Co-Chair of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for the Office of the New Americans and Immigrant Communities, among many other things. He would be the first Filipino-American to serve on Council if elected. Here’s the interview:

I never did get around to creating an Election 2019 page, in part because the Erik Manning spreadsheet has it all. My roundup of July finance reports that includes District J is here, my interview with candidate Sandra Rodriguez is here, and my 2015 interview with incumbent CM Laster is here.

Dave Wilson’s residency shuffle

There he goes again.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson, a controversial Houston Community College board member, has resigned from his position as a trustee for HCC’s District 2 and has announced that he will run for a District 1 position on HCC’s board.

Fellow board members questioned Tuesday whether Wilson’s latest move is lawful.

Wilson resigned in an email to the board around 10 a.m. Tuesday writing that his resignation will help him “focus full time” on his candidacy for HCC District 1.

“It has been a privilege representing the great citizens of District 2,” Wilson wrote. “The only regret I have is that I will not be able to cast my vote against the property tax increase at the next board meeting.”

“I’ve always had a plan to resign to run for District 1. I was planning on the right time to,” he said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

But Monica Flores Richart, an attorney and HCC District 1 [candidate], calls Wilson’s latest move a clear conflict, noting that Texas law requires candidates to live within the district they intend to serve for six months before filing for election. State law also requires an elected official who moves outside of the district in which they serve to vacate their seat.

This brings into question how Wilson, who previously served District 2, is now running for District 1.

Wilson confirmed that he no longer lives in District 2 and moved from the area in January, and he calls the state’s laws about residency “a real convoluted deal.”

“The law is vague, and I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of the law, so out of caution, I went ahead and resigned,” Wilson said.

“The one thing I do firmly believe, which is the real travesty of it all — the board can’t make a decision on residency,” said Wilson, who declined to comment further about his residency.

Richart, however, believes Wilson is attempting to take advantage of the situation.

“He’s spent six months giving the illusion that he’s living in District 2, while at the same time trying to establish residency in a completely different district in order to run for the seat,” Richart said.

See here for the background. The story gets a little convoluted from here, but the bottom line is that Wilson moved from one of his warehouses to another, in order to establish “residency” in District 1 while still serving as the trustee in District 2. He originally claimed the board couldn’t do anything about that, but in the end he resigned from his District 2 seat. The remaining members of the Board, as has been done in the past when other members have resigned, will appoint an interim member from the community, someone who is not running in November.

The bottom line is that Wilson is up to his usual shenanigans. If you live in HCC District 1 – check your voter registration if you’re not sure – you get to vote his sorry ass out of office this November. Here’s the press release Monica Flores Richart sent out about Tuesday’s hijinks:

Despite clear Texas law that requires a six month residency to run for HCC Trustee, and that establishes that an elected official vacates their seat when they move outside of the District in which they serve, Dave Wilson, who has been serving as Trustee of HCC District 2, has filed for a place on the ballot in HCC District 1 for the November 2019 election. This deceptive behavior is nothing new for Wilson, who made national news by winning his seat six years ago in a majority African American District by purposely giving voters the impression that he himself was African American.

The HCC Board today took decisive action and found that Wilson has vacated his seat as HCC District 2 Trustee. The College will be seeking a temporary replacement to serve in the seat until the conclusion of the November 2019 election. While this is good news for the voters of HCC District 2, the voters of HCC District 1 must continue to contend with a candidate whose fluid residency and antagonistic behavior bring conflict to HCC.

Since being elected to the Board, Wilson has used his combative style to publicly criticize his fellow Trustees in an attempt to erode the strong working relationship of the HCC Board. He has brought various losing lawsuits against HCC, and has also used his role, time and again, to spread his bigoted views of the LGBTQIA community.

The Houston Area and HCC District 1 deserve better than Dave Wilson.

Monica Flores Richart is an attorney and long-time education advocate in the Houston area. She and her family have resided in HCC District 1 for almost 15 years. She has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University in Public Policy and a law degree from Columbia University. More information about Monica and her campaign can be found at MonicaForHCC.com.

We have a chance to fix the travesty of Wilson’s 2013 election. Let’s not blow it.

Interview with Sandra Rodriguez

Sandra Rodriguez

We move now to District J, one of the two new Council districts drawn in 2011, part of the settlement agreement to add two districts when the city’s population hit 2.1 million. Mike Laster has been the only Council member from District J so far, but he’s termed out now, and seven people filed to succeed him. Sandra Rodriguez grew up in the Gulfton neighborhood and now serves as the President of the Gulfton Super Neighborhood Council, among other organizations and committees. She has served in the Mayor’s Anti-Gang Office and now leads the Southwest Multi-Service Center and Hiram Clarke MultiService Center. Here’s what we talked about:

I never did get around to creating an Election 2019 page, in part because the Erik Manning spreadsheet has it all. My roundup of July finance reports that includes District J is here, and my 2015 interview with incumbent CM Laster is here.

The 2019 ballot order

Time once again for this risible ceremony.

The order of the November Houston ballot was set Friday morning in a random drawing at City Hall, laying out how the candidates for mayor, controller and city council will appear when voters cast their ballots this fall.

Here is the order of the 12-candidate field for mayor, as it will appear on the ballot:

  • Demetria Smith
  • Naoufal Houjami
  • Victoria Romero
  • Roy J. Vasquez
  • Kendall Baker
  • Derrick Broze
  • Sue Lovell
  • Bill King
  • Sylvester Turner
  • Tony Buzbee
  • Dwight A. Boykins
  • Johnny “J.T.” Taylor

Though candidates listed atop the ballot traditionally receive a slight bump, the leading candidates for mayor this year are clustered together near the bottom, appearing to deny anyone a major advantage in the order.

The order for all of the Houston elections can be seen here. The ballot order for other elections, such as for HISD and HCC, are set by the entities that run those elections.

This is the time when I put on my Grumpy Old Man hat, hitch up my Grumpy Old Man pants, and complain for the umpty-umpth time about the whole “drawing for ballot position” thing. We are in the year of our Lord two thousand and nineteen. We have been using electronic doohickies to conduct our elections for almost two decades. Why in the name of Ada Lovelace have we not made it a requirement to have those electronic election doohickies randomize the order of candidates for each individual voter? The idea that there could be even a tiny advantage to the candidate who through the luck of the draw gets to have their name first on the ballot is an utter abomination, one that could be resolved by one line of code in the programming of those electronic voting doohickies. Why oh Lord why can we not do this?

(The answer to my overwrought rhetorical question is almost certainly “because state law doesn’t allow it”, and to be fair the people who have a genuine, good faith interest in conducting better and fairer elections have much bigger fish to fry than this pet issue of mine. That said, there’s nothing at all partisan in what I am once again bitching about. I would like to think that a bill that mandated random ballot order, to be implemented as each vote-conducting entity upgrades its current voting machines, or by some deadline ten or so years in the future, would not draw strong opposition. Maybe someday, someone will take up my admittedly small-bore cause. Until then, I look forward to whining about this again early next year, when the ballot order for the 2020 primary races is established.)

The Houston Roughnecks

Meet your new XFL team.

When the XFL kicks off in February, the Houston team will be known as the Houston Roughnecks.

The XFL unveiled team names and logos for all eight teams in the league Wednesday.

The Houston Roughnecks logo is a bit reminiscent of the old Houston Oilers with an oil derrick featured prominently. The team opted to go away from the Oilers’ Columbia blue though, and went with a more Texans-like red and blue.

[…]

The Roughnecks will be coached by June Jones, who was an NFL head coach with the Falcons and Chargers as well as an assistant for the Houston Oilers and Houston Gamblers. The team will play at the University of Houston’s TDECU Stadium. Season tickets are available here.

See here for the background. There are eight teams, including one in Dallas, and each city with the exception of Saint Louis has an existing NFl team. (A sore subject in St. Louis, that.) I dunno what the market for not-NFL football outside of the usual football season is – the last league to try it didn’t make it till the end of their first season – but we’ll see. I’m all about basketball and spring training by then, but your mileage may vary. Texas Monthly and the Press have more.

Is there anything Houston can do about gun violence?

Not much, unfortunately.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he wants state lawmakers to give cities and counties more flexibility to address gun violence in response to mass shootings this month that killed 31 people, including 22 in El Paso.

Turner made the remarks at City Hall while calling for a special session of the Texas Legislature on the issue of gun violence.

Current state law mostly forbids local governments from passing measures that restrict gun usage.

Among the items Turner said he would like to pursue are background checks on firearms sales at gun shows, including those that have been held at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

“If I could do it today, I would do it today,” Turner told reporters. “But the state has preempted us.”

[…]

In March, Turner announced the city was establishing a task force to combat local gun violence. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has been an outspoken advocate for stricter gun laws, telling Congress earlier this year that gun violence is “one of the greatest public health epidemics facing the nation.”

Turner also allocated $1 million for police overtime pay in April to help officers fight gun violence.

Turner’s comments Wednesday echo those made last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who floated the idea of ending the use of county property for gun shows. The county, however, has no power to enact ordinances.

Hidalgo said Wednesday she is working with Turner on a proposal to take “whatever action we can.”

“We are hamstrung by the legislature. They have passed laws specifically preventing us from making policy around gun safety,” Hidalgo said. “We’re really looking under every nook and cranny for what can be done.”

Dru Stevenson, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, said the state’s lock on local action largely is absolute.

“The state preempts municipalities from having any type of gun control regulation at all,” Stevenson said.

Even Hidalgo’s idea about ending use of county buildings for gun shows likely would not pass muster, according to Stevenson, due to how strict the state preemptions are.

“They’re more likely to get away with it informally than if they adopt a policy,” he said. “Behind the scenes pressure or incentives might work, but the gun shows are big and lucrative for the conference centers.”

There may be some other things the city could try, but the story doesn’t suggest anything interesting. As with a number of other vexing issues, the real solution lies in another level of government. Really, both state and federal for this one, but there’s probably more direct action that could be taken at the state level, if only by undoing the restrictions that have been imposed. That means the first real chance to get something done will be at the federal level, if all goes well in 2020. We’re not getting anything done in Austin until Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, at the very least, have been sent packing.

Party Boy bye-bye

Sad.

This October may be the last year the view south of I-10 across from the Heights is a giant orange pumpkin.

The property housing Party Boy at 1515 Studemont, where an inflatable pumpkin is displayed atop the building each Halloween, is up for sale.

The owner of the store, a go-to spot for spooky costumes and all manner of party supplies, is asking $10.5 million for the site, according to listing broker Jeff Trevino.

“It’s an icon and 300,000 cars drive past it every day,” said Trevino of Endurance Properties. “It has stayed high and dry through all of our high-water events.”

The store’s operations are housed in a two-story, 20,000-square-foot warehouse building and an adjacent 7,000-square-foot structure. The site is about 70,000 square feet — or 1.6 acres.

This area just west of downtown has been booming. Party Boy has become surrounded by new developments and construction.

“It is probably one of the last high-profile corners in that corridor that is open and ready to change hands,” Trevino said.

In addition to housing a haunted house that snarls up traffic on Studemont at I-10 every hear for about two months, they have a fantastic costume rental place in a separate building in the back end of the property. The story doesn’t say, but I sure hope that finds a new home.

A construction crew recently carved out what I assume is a couple of parking places in front of the lot. I don’t know if this is related to the forthcoming sale or not, but they’re there now. I’ve no doubt that the owners will make a ton on the sale, and I’m sure whatever rises in its ashes will be in high demand, but right now all I can think of is that once again the Heights is about to become a little less cool than it was before. Such is life.

One more thing:

You’re welcome.

Interview with Anthony Nelson

Anthony Nelson

One more interview in District F, which as noted will have its fourth member of Council after this election since 2013. Today’s interview is with Anthony Nelson, one of the many younger candidates running for office this year, as reported in an earlier Chron story. Nelson is a student at Prairie View A&M, where he is majoring in political science. I don’t have much else in the way of biographical info for him, but I did find this candidate Q&A by a 501(c)(3) called Houston PetSet, an organization “dedicated to ending the homelessness and suffering of companion animals and elevating their status in society”; you can find the rest of their Q&As here. They covered ground that I didn’t, so read their Q&As and then listen to the interview:

I never did get around to creating an Election 2019 page, in part because the Erik Manning spreadsheet has it all. My roundup of July finance reports that includes District F is here, my interview with candidate Tiffany Thomas is here, my 2015 interview with then-challenger, now outgoing incumbent Steve Le is here, and my 2015 interview with then-incumbent CM Richard Nguyen, who is also running for this seat, is here.

Bonus commentary on 2019 lineup

There was a lot of last minute activity at Monday’s filing deadline, as there usually is. Probably more so this year, as approximately ten percent of Houston adults are running for office this November. The point here is that the news stories and other available sources at the time had a lot to do to keep up with it all, and those of us who follow them now recognize there were things we missed the first time around. So, after another review of the Erik Manning spreadsheet and the City of Houston 2019 election page, here are some semi-random observations about things I didn’t note or comment on the first time around. I’ll run this down race by race.

Mayor: Mostly, I’m going to point out the filers and non-filers that are worth mentioning for one reason or another. The usual reason is going to be because my reaction to the late filers was along the lines of “oh, Lord, not that person again”. Exhibit A is Kendall Baker, who has cluttered up multiple ballots since the 2007 special election in At Large #3. Most recently, he ran in HD137 as a Republican in 2016, and in District F in 2015. Baker wasn’t a late filer – he had a June finance report – but as I prefer to think pleasant thoughts I’d forgotten he was in the race. He was one of the anti-HERO loudmouths who has his own problems with inappropriate behavior.

District B: Willie D did not file, so we will have a maximum of one Geto Boy on Council.

District C: Kendra Yarbrough Camarena did not file. She instead filed for the special election in HD148. Erik is tracking those filings in his spreadsheet as well. Yarbrough Camarena appears to be the first official entrant in this race. And don’t worry about District C, there are still thirteen candidates for that office.

District D: Andrew Burks rises from the ash heap to run again. Can you still be a perennial candidate if you once won something? My ruling is Yes. Burks served one action-packed two year term in At Large #2 from 2011 to 2013 before being defeated by David Robinson. I was wondering about how the term limits charter amendment would apply to him, and I found the answer, in Article V, Section 6a: “Persons who served a single term prior to 2016 who are not serving in City elective office in 2015 and thus not subject to subsection (b), shall be eligible to serve one additional four-year term in the same City elective office.” So there you have it.

District F: Adekunle “Kay” Elegbede is listed as a Write-In Candidate. Obviously, this means he will not appear on the ballot, so what does it mean? Here’s the applicable state law. Basically, this means that any write in votes for this candidate will actually count (as opposed to write-ins for, say, “Mickey Mouse” or “Ben Hall”), and there’s no filing fee.

District J: Jim Bigham, who ran against Mike Laster in 2015 did not file. He did not have a finance report, so no big surprise.

District K: Republican Gerry Vander-Lyn, who ran in the special election that Martha Castex-Tatum won, and one other person filed. Neither will provide much of a challenge to Castex-Tatum, but their presence means that no one is unopposed this cycle.

At Large #1: Ugh. Yolanda Navarro Flores, defeated by Zeph Capo in 2013 from the HCC Board, is back. In addition to her ethical issues while on the HCC Board, she was also pals with Dave Wilson. ‘Nuff said.

At Large #2: Apparently, it really isn’t an election without Griff Griffin. I had honestly thought he’d gone away, but no. The funny/scary thing is that he could easily wind up in a runoff with CM Robinson.

At Large #4: Anthony Dolcefino also jumps out of District C into this race. There are now 11 candidates in AL4, so it’s not like he landed in that much smaller a pond.

At Large #5: I guess Eric Dick isn’t having any fun on the HCDE Board, because here he is. As per the Andrew Burks Rule, which I just created, I label him a perennial candidate as well. Note that HCDE Trustees are not subject to resign to run, so Dick may continue on in his current gig, as Roy Morales had done for most of the time when he was on the HCDE Board.

HISD II: Lots of people signed up for this one after all. The one name I recognize is Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who had run for City Council in District B previously. Here’s an interview I did with her back in 2011, and another from 2013. Rodrick Davison, the one person to post a June finance report, wound up not filing for the office

HISD IV: Reagan Flowers was a candidate for HCDE in Precinct 1 in 2012. I interviewed her at the time. I feel like she ran for something else since then, but if so I can’t find it.

The 2019 lineups are set

Barring any late disqualifications or other unexpected events, we have the candidates we’re getting on our 2019 ballot.

More than 125 candidates turned in paperwork to run for city office by Monday’s filing deadline, setting up a packed November ballot likely to leave every incumbent with at least one opponent.

The unusually crowded field is driven largely by the city’s move in 2015 to extend term limits, allowing officials to serve two four-year terms instead of three two-year terms, said Rice University political science Professor Bob Stein.

“It used to be that you just wouldn’t run against an incumbent. You would wait until they term-limited out,” Stein said. “Candidates are no longer getting the two-year pass.”

Thirteen candidates have filed to run for mayor, including incumbent Sylvester Turner, who is running for a second four-year term. Turner’s challengers include his 2015 runoff opponent, Bill King, lawyer and business owner Tony Buzbee, Councilman Dwight Boykins and former councilwoman Sue Lovell.

By Friday evening, the city’s legal department had approved applications from at least 97 candidates. Another 28 candidates had filed for office and were awaiting approval from the city attorney’s office, and an unknown additional number of candidates filed just before the 5 p.m. deadline.

Ten candidates were officially on the ballot for mayor, with three others awaiting legal department approval by the close of business Monday.

Early voting begins Oct. 21 and Election Day is Nov. 5.

Late additions include retreads like Orlando Sanchez, who I guess hasn’t found steady work since being booted as Treasurer, and Eric Dick, seeking to become the next Griff Griffin, who by the way also filed. Sanchez is running for Controller, while Dick is in At Large #5, and Griff is once again running in At Large #2.

And there’s also HISD.

Two Houston ISD trustees filed paperwork Monday to seek re-election and will each face a single challenger, while several candidates will jostle to fill two other open seats on a school board that could soon be stripped of power.

HISD Board President Diana Dávila and Trustee Sergio Lira made their re-election runs official hours before Monday’s afternoon deadline, while trustees Jolanda Jones and Rhonda Skillern-Jones will not seek another term.

Thirteen newcomers will aim to unseat the two incumbents or win vacant spots on the board. The prospective trustees will square off in a November general election and, if necessary, runoff elections in December.

So much for them all resigning. You can read each of the stories in toto to see who gets name-checked, or you can peruse the Erik Manning spreadsheet, which is fortified with essential vitamins and minerals. Note also that in the HCC races, Monica Flores Richart has the task of taking out the reprehensible Dave Wilson, while Rhonda Skillern-Jones faces Brendon Singh and Kathy Lynch Gunter for the trustee slot that Wilson is abandoning in his desperate attempt to stay on the Board, and Cynthia Gary appears to have no opposition in her quest to succeed Neeta Sane. Leave a comment and let us know what you think of your 2019 Houston/HISD/HCC candidates.

HISD has a lawsuit against the TEA over that ethics investigation

I missed the first act of this story, but that’s okay because this is where it gets interesting.

Lawyers for Houston ISD’s school board are seeking to stop the Texas Education Agency from replacing the district’s elected trustees following a state investigation into alleged misconduct, arguing the agency conducted a “one-sided investigation” that reached conclusions “unsupported by any credible evidence.”

In an amended lawsuit filed Friday, lawyers for the nine-member board cite several ways in which agency leaders violated trustees’ rights and failed to fully investigate allegations of wrongdoing. The lawsuit comes two weeks after TEA investigators determined several trustees violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, improperly influenced district contracts and overstepped their governance role — allegations denied by the HISD board’s lawyers.

The 49-page complaint argues that TEA officials were determined from the outset of the inquiry to oust HISD’s school board, failed to fully investigate allegations and incorrectly applied the law to their findings. In addition, the lawsuit alleges the agency is violating federal civil rights laws by only replacing school boards in districts where a majority of residents are people of color.

“TEA intends to punish the district by replacing Houston ISD’s elected board of trustees with an unelected board of managers — a sanction that is unavailable under the law and facts of this case,” David Campbell, a lawyer hired by HISD’s school board, wrote in the complaint.

[…]

TEA officials already had appointed a conservator to oversee the district due to chronically low performance at several campuses. Appointing a state board of managers is considered the next most serious sanction at the agency’s disposal. Morath has not issued a final decision, which likely will come in the next several weeks.

The HISD board’s lawsuit, however, seeks to negate virtually all of the TEA’s findings and stop Morath from replacing the board. Trustees originally filed the suit in June, seeking to preempt possible state sanctions resulting from any finding that board members violated the open meetings law. Friday’s amended petition expands trustees’ defense in response to specific allegations by TEA investigators.

Lawyers for the trustees argue that board members did not violate the Texas Open Meetings Act because they did not meet together as a group of five or talk about replacing Lathan.

“At the time of these discussions, no board members discussed any terms of employment, or any other matters regarding the potential appointment of Dr. Saavedra as interim superintendent,” Campbell wrote.

As noted, this lawsuit is about the results of the ethics investigation. That investigation began in January and expanded to include things beyond the original open meetings complaint. The lawsuit was filed in June, and if there was a story about that I missed it. I’m not going to comment on the merits of this lawsuit or its likelihood to succeed – in addition to Not Being A Lawyer, I haven’t had a chance to read the thing yet – but as noted even if this succeeds then the HISD Board is still not out of the woods because of the accountability ratings. Oh, and yesterday was the filing deadline, and none of the four trustees up for re-election had filed as of the weekend; I don’t know yet who’s in and who’s not, but will have an update on that by tomorrow. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure.

Interview with Tiffany Thomas

Tiffany Thomas

We move now to District F, a district that will have its fourth Council member since 2013 with the departure of controversial first-term member Steve Le. Six people are lined up to compete for this open seat, many of whom had entered the race when it was still a challenge against an incumbent. One of them is Tiffany Thomas, who served from 2013 to 2017 as a Trustee on the Alief ISD school board. She has been in non-profit development management for over fifteen years, working for a variety of agencies focused on education, healthcare, and direct services, and is now an assistant professor at Prairie View A&M. She is a founding member of New Giving Collective, the first Black giving circle in Houston with the Greater Houston Community Foundation. Here’s the interview:

I never did get around to creating an Election 2019 page, in part because the Erik Manning spreadsheet has it all. My roundup of July finance reports that includes District H is here, my 2015 interview with then-challenger, now outgoing incumbent Steve Le is here, and my 2015 interview with then-incumbent CM Richard Nguyen, who is also running for this seat, is here.

We await HISD’s fate

I mean, I think we know what it’s going to be, but there are still some questions.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath came to and left the Greater Houston area Thursday without addressing one of the biggest issues on his agenda: the fate of Houston ISD’s school board.

In the coming weeks, Morath likely will be forced to decide whether to replace all trustees governing Texas’ largest school district or close one of HISD’s most historic campuses, the consequence of historic Wheatley High School failing to meet state academic standards for a seventh consecutive time. While Morath was in no mood to discuss the looming decision following the release of academic accountability ratings Thursday — he hurried out of an Aldine ISD school without answering questions or making a statement on HISD — a review of comments by the commissioner, his top deputies and state education leaders offers insight into the likely process.

Barring a successful appeal of Wheatley’s grade, which became public Thursday, Morath is widely expected to strip power from the nine HISD trustees and appoint a new board of managers comprised of Houston-area residents. The process likely would take multiple months to complete, with a replacement board seated sometime in early 2020.

“These are not going to be people that live in Austin,” Morath told the Houston Chronicle in the spring of 2018, when asked about the possibility of a state-appointed board taking control of HISD. “These are going to be well-qualified people that live in Houston that just didn’t want to run for school board before, but they wouldn’t mind being appointed.”

See here for the background, with the reminder that the Wheatley academic rating issue isn’t the only peril that the HISD Board faces. I was told by someone who teaches at Wheatley that their rating basically comes down to one student. The reason for this is that there are myriad sub-categories at each school that are also included in the accountability ratings, and not meeting standard in any one of them can cause the school to get an F even if the rest of their ratings were sufficient. It’s possible Wheatley could prevail in that appeal, and by all means they should pursue it, but as noted that would still not be the end of HISD’s troubles.

At this point it seems clear that the TEA will not close down Wheatley, which is the right call, so barring anything unexpected it’s all about how they go about replacing the Board. The Chron asks some good questions about how this may play out.

Intervention must be undertaken with respect and careful attention to community concerns. New board members must reflect the district’s diversity and its values. They must understand the communities they serve as well as grasp the importance of inclusion and best practices in their governance. The panel should include experienced educators, as well as candidates with financial expertise and civic involvement. There must be a clear plan for implementation, for measuring success — and a defined exit strategy.

Parents, educators, students and taxpayers, therefore, must step up to ask hard questions and demand that the state provide honest answers. How will members be chosen? What criteria will be used to ensure that state appointees prioritize the needs of HISD students? Will there be additional financial resources to help schools improve? Will a strong ethics policy be in place and enforced?

Above all, Morath and TEA must promise — and provide — transparency. Parents need to be confident that their children’s welfare is at the center of every decision, every discussion. Houston is done accepting any less.

As we know, and as both the story and the editorial state, the history of TEA intervention is mixed at best, so we better know going in what the goals are and what the path to achieving them is. Otherwise, we’re just wasting our time.

City moves forward on Vision Zero

Good.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday adopted a plan that aims to end traffic fatalities and serious traffic injuries in Houston by 2030.

The “Vision Zero Houston” plan is considered a significant step in the city’s mobility strategy and will change how officials design roads and sidewalks, according to a city news release. The plan, adopted as part of an executive order, will prioritize “engineering, education, enforcement, equity and evaluation,” the release said.

“Some will say this goal is unachievable,” Turner said in the release. “But I say, no loss of life is acceptable on our roadways, None, ZERO.”

Many cities that have adopted the plan reported steady declines in traffic deaths and injuries over the last few years, the release said. The mayor will establish an executive committee of leaders from city departments, surrounding counties, METRO and the Texas Department of Transportation to devise the strategy by this time next year.

See here and here for more on Vision Zero as it pertains to Houston, and here for further blogging. While Vision Zero has been adopted by San Antonio and Austin, but it’s been awhile since we’d heard much here. The Mayor’s press release is here, and if you want to do a deeper dive on what this means, see here, here, and here. This is a long-term process that’s going to involve things like lower speed limits, more and better sidewalks, and a bunch of other changes big and small that will be phased in, with new construction being done to the Vision Zero standard. You’ll be hearing plenty more as we go along.

On to the next big financial issue for the city

It’s always something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Four years ago, the main source of Houston’s deteriorating financial health — billions of dollars in unfunded pension obligations — loomed over the race for mayor, promising a massive test for the winner.

Now, Mayor Sylvester Turner, having overhauled the city’s troubled pension systems, is running for re-election and touting the reforms as his signature policy accomplishment. He faces several challengers, including Bill King, the businessman he defeated four years ago, millionaire lawyer and self-funder Tony Buzbee, City Councilman Dwight Boykins who has clashed with the mayor over firefighter pay and former Councilwoman Sue Lovell, as well as a handful of lesser known candidates.

Whoever wins will be forced to confront another simmering financial problem: Houston’s $2.4 billion unfunded liability for retiree health care costs, the result of years of deferred contributions, an aging city workforce and, experts say, growing medical costs that outpace the city’s revenue.

The total has grown in recent years by an average of $160 million a year, or more than $400,000 a day. That is less than the $8.2 billion unfunded pension liability’s $1 million-per-day growth rate, but enough to require swift and sweeping changes, experts and local officials say.

“We’re in the earlier stages in this. It’s not a crisis by any means, but it would be better to address it now,” Controller Chris Brown said. “We don’t want to let this thing grow to another $8 billion unfunded liability. … Let’s pay a little now instead of paying a lot later.”

The unfunded liability refers to the city’s obligations in the coming decades for retired employees’ medical, life and prescription drug insurance, commonly called other post-employment benefits, or OPEB. Houston has covered its OPEB expenses through a pay-as-you-go system, akin to making a minimum credit card payment while the balance grows.

[…]

“We have also been in discussions with the employee groups working toward consensus, while keeping in mind the sacrifices employees have made to help us achieve the city’s historic pension reform,” Turner said.

The proposals align with recommendations from a separate firm, Philadelphia-based PFM, which said in its 10-year Houston financial plan the city should eliminate OPEB coverage altogether for retirees or dependents who have access to other coverage.

Other cities have taken a similar approach, limiting cuts for retirees and older employees who were promised certain benefits, while requiring bigger sacrifices from younger and future employees with more time to prepare.

The good news here is that the city doesn’t need to go through the Lege to fix this, and the basic plan for a fix is already in the works. Mayor Turner will be proposing his plan later in the year, and most likely that will put the city on a path towards containing this problem. There’s still a big piece of the puzzle missing, though.

Even after reigning in the city’s OPEB liability, Brown said, the city faces numerous looming financial problems, including annual deferred maintenance and, in the recent city budget, recurring spending that outstrips recurring revenue. In addition, Houston has been operating under a voter-imposed cap on property tax revenue since 2004 and has trimmed its tax rate to avoid collecting more money than allowed.

“This is another piece of the larger problem that’s looming for the city of Houston, which is the structurally imbalanced budget,” Brown said. “Essentially, we want to be paying for all of our current expenses in the fiscal year in full. And we don’t want to defer anything out, i.e. kick the can down the road.”

Yes, the revenue cap, which costs the city many millions of dollars for no good purpose. There’s a lot the city can do to control costs, but not everything is within its power. Some things just get more expensive over time, and if the city is not allowed to reap the benefit of economic growth, it cannot deal with those expenses. If we can get past this issue, and Mayor Turner gets re-elected, then maybe, just maybe, we can get a rev cap repeal measure on the 2020 ballot. There will never be a friendlier electorate to deal with t.

A call to embrace scooters

Chron business writer Chris Tomlinson is a fan of scooters.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

After years of riding bicycles in traffic, I’m comfortable riding a scooter on the street where they belong. I find them a convenient and environmentally-friendly alternative to automobile congestion. But I’m in a distinct minority, according to new polling by Zpryme, an Austin-based research and events firm.

About 72 percent of Americans do not want electric scooters in their neighborhoods, according to the survey of 1,500 U.S. consumers. More than half of Americans believe that electric scooters are unsafe.

Only 5 percent of those polled have ever ridden one.

[…]

The scooters’ average top speed is 20 miles per hour, and the range is about 20 miles. An electric scooter performs about as well as the average bicycle commuter, but without sweating.

Zpryme’s survey of scooter users found most trips were less than a mile and cost less than $10 nationwide. But a substantial number said they routinely use scooters to travel up to 5 miles.

About 70 percent said they ride scooters for fun, according to the poll, and in San Antonio tourists use them for sightseeing. More than half said they use scooters because they are faster than walking, and a third use them for a daily commute to work. Last year, scooter users made 38.5 million trips in just a few dozen cities.

Because they are electric and consume little energy, the environmental benefits of scooters are substantial. A person on a scooter also takes up much less space on the road, which helps relieve congestion.

As long as they are banned from sidewalks and there is a plan in place to ensure that abandoned scooters do not hinder the mobility of others, especially disabled folks, then I can sign onto this. I still have my doubts about the scooter sharing industry as a business model, and I’m still not convinced that they’re safer on the roads for the rider than bikes are, but I do agree that they can play a role in various urban areas to reduce car trips. And they are coming to Houston whether we like it or not, so let’s try to make the best of it.

HISD misses on accountability ratings

There’s now a second reason for the TEA to step in and take over HISD.

Houston ISD moved a major step closer to temporarily losing local control over its school board Thursday, as long-awaited state academic accountability ratings showed one of the district’s longest-struggling campuses received its seventh consecutive failing grade, triggering a Texas law requiring harsh sanctions.

Barring a successful HISD appeal of Wheatley High School’s rating in the next several weeks, state law mandates that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath now must close the historic Fifth Ward campus or replace the district’s much-maligned school board with a state-appointed governance team. Morath and the agency’s leaders have strongly suggested they would appoint a new school board if forced to act.

The state law demands action against any district with a campus receiving five consecutive failing grades as of 2018, regardless of the district’s size. Wheatley avoided triggering sanctions last year because it received an accountability waiver due to Hurricane Harvey, but the campus narrowly fell short of meeting standards this year.

HISD received a “B” grade for districtwide performance, on par with many of the state’s largest urban districts. Its overall score of 88 marked a 4-point improvement over last year.

Twenty-one HISD schools received an “F” grade, equal to 7.5 percent of all district campuses. An identical number of HISD schools did not meet state academic standards last year, though most received a Harvey waiver.

Notably, several HISD high schools met standard after struggling in recent years. Kashmere High School received a “C” grade, the first time it has met standard in 11 years. Madison, Sterling and Washington high schools also earned “C” grades, while North Forest and Yates high schools narrowly missed a “C” rating and scored “D”s.

See here, here, and here for the background.As with the ethics investigation, in which the HISD board has a chance to respond, there’s an appeal process available for Wheatley. It should be noted, they came pretty close to making the grade, and the other three all did quite well. Which is not to say that all is wine and roses, as other schools got failing grades, and we could wind up in a similar place in a couple of years. Plus, as the Trib noted, other school districts in the same situation as HISD took advantage of the partnership provision of HB1842 to put the day of reckoning off for two more years. As we well know, that option was rejected by HISD in response to public pressure, without ever being fully explored. I thought that was a bad decision at the time, and I feel very justified in feeling that way today.

At this point, the only viable way forward that I see for anyone who wants to fight this is to explore legal action. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has been very clear in past public statements that the law does not give him any discretion in this matter. Either the failing schools (just Wheatley in this case) are closed, or a new Board of Trustees is appointed. A lawsuit could challenge that interpretation, and who knows, maybe it could succeed. I doubt it, but it’s got to be better odds than trying to put pressure on state leadership to find an alternative.

HISD Trustee Sue Deigaard wrote this op-ed about how we got here, detailing several points of failure by the Board. Perhaps if all nine Board members offered to resign on the spot, thus allowing an election of a new Board, that might satisfy the TEA. It would have to happen right now, because the filing deadline in Sunday, and we’d need to get a bunch of candidates up and running by then. This too is probably a pipe dream, but I don’t know what else there is to suggest at this time.

UPDATE: From this morning’s version of the story:

During an appearance with Morath on Thursday, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, said HISD officials did not take advantage of funding opportunities and legislative maneuvers that could have staved off intervention. He cited the school board’s refusal to surrender control of long-struggling campuses to outside entities, an arrangement that could have temporarily prevented sanctions and brought an additional $1,800 per student to those campuses.

“We’ve given them every opportunity to be successful, and they continue to choose not to,” said Huberty, who chairs the Texas House’s Public Education Committee.

I hate to keep harping on the partnership thing, but as you can see it’s going to be used against the Board. And I hadn’t even known about the extra funds for students that was available.