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Johnny Isbell

Pasadena City Council approves settlement in redistricting case

It’s over.

The Pasadena City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a $1.1 million settlement agreement of a lawsuit challenging a city voting plan that a federal judge found diluted Latino voting influence.

Councilman Cody Ray Wheeler said that after four years of litigation and $3.5 million in legal fees he was glad to see the appeal come to an end.

“It all started out as a power grab that has now run its course,” Wheeler said. “In addition to the financial hit, the lawsuit gave the city a black eye in the national spotlight. It cost us progress and it cost us time.”

Councilman Phil Cayten said he would vote to end the lawsuit to save money even though he thought the city could have prevailed on appeal.

“I think the three more conservative judges of the appeal court would rule in favor of the City of Pasadena,” said Cayten, who apologized to constituents who favored continuing the appeal. “Let me just say that I believe in my heart that the City of Pasadena did not violate the Voting Rights Act or adopt a discriminatory election system.”

The settlement, recommended by new Mayor Jeff Wagner, calls for the city to pay for the plaintiffs’ legal fees and court costs, and to drop its appeal of U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s ruling regarding the 2013 council election system.

See here for the background. One of the consequences of this is that Pasadena is will be put under preclearance for six years, meaning that any changes they make to district lines or other election procedures will have to be approved before they can be implemented. The Trib explores this aspect of the settlement.

The local voting rights squabble had caught the attention of voting rights advocates and legal observers nationwide as some looked to it as a possible test case of whether the Voting Rights Act still serves as a safeguard for voters of color. The local voting rights squabble had caught the attention of voting rights advocates and legal observers nationwide as some looked to it as a possible test case of whether the Voting Rights Act still serves as a safeguard for voters of color.

As things stand now, the dispute won’t set broader precedent across Texas or beyond state lines. But in a state embroiled in court-determined voting rights violations on several fronts, the federal guardianship of Pasadena’s elections is meaningful, particularly following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 finding that conditions for voters of color had “dramatically improved.”

“I think it’s significant that in 2017 we have a trial court finding of intentional racial discrimination by a city in Texas and that the drastic remedy of preclearance has been successfully imposed,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine’s law school who specializes in election law. “The Pasadena ruling indicates that in some places racial discrimination in voting is very much a thing of the present.”

[…]

Rosenthal’s ruling was decisive for voting rights litigation playing out after that ruling, and the city’s move to drop its appeal and let the ruling stand sets up the possibility that Pasadena’s voting rights fight could play an outsized role in other court battles.

In 2013, the Supreme Court left open the possibility that political jurisdictions could be placed back under preclearance — through the Voting Rights Act’s “bail-in” provision — if they committed new discriminatory actions. Rosenthal set a possible standard that other courts can look to in deciding whether to bail in other jurisdictions, legal experts observed.

“It’s one more black mark against Texas” that could help in other voting rights litigation, said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has studied voting rights cases for decades.

Pasadena’s vote to settle the case is likely to disappoint state leaders who had already filed an amicus brief in support of the city’s appeal that warned of “unwarranted federal intrusion.” State attorneys had deemed Rosenthal’s preclearance ruling improper because it was imposed for a single incident of discrimination instead of pervasive and rampant discrimination.

See here for more on that. I don’t know what if any precedent Pasadena will set, but I’d rather have this outcome going forward than the alternative.

Pasadena will settle voting rights case

Excellent news.

Pasadena Mayor Jeff Wagner on Friday asked the City Council to settle a voting rights lawsuit that led to national portrayals of the Houston suburb as an example of efforts to suppress Latino voting rights.

The proposed settlement with Latino residents who sued the city in 2014 over a new City Council district system calls for the city to pay $900,000 for the plaintiffs’ legal fees and $197,341 for court costs. The item will be on Tuesday’s City Council agenda.

“While I strongly believe that the city did not violate the Voting Rights Act or adopt a discriminatory election system,” Wagner said in a statement, “I think it’s in the best interest of the city to get this suit behind us.”

[…]

Approval of the settlement would end the city’s appeal of Rosenthal’s January ruling that the new council system intentionally diluted Latino voting strength. Voters approved the new system, which added two at-large council positions and removed two district seats, in a 2013 charter change election initiated by the former mayor.

Rosenthal ordered the city to use the previous system of eight district positions in the city elections last May. The city has paid more than $2 million to attorneys for the trial and appeal.

See here, here, and here for the background. This was a big decision to make – Pasadena could possibly have prevailed in the lawsuit, in which case they would not have owed the plaintiffs’ attorneys or the courts any money. That came at significant risk, as they would have had to spend a lot more on their own attorneys to see this all the way through, and would have owed a lot more if they had lost in the end. And then there was the whole matter of justice, which didn’t mean anything to the last Mayor but which thankfully seems to mean something to this one. All in all, this was very much the right thing to do. Council still has to approve it, but that should not be a problem. Well done, Mayor Wagner. Rick Hasen has more.

Still no word on what Pasadena will do with the redistricting appeal

We’re waiting.

Because the ruling went against the city, Pasadena is required to pay legal costs to attorneys for that group, the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund. In addition, the city’s fees to its legal representatives at Bickerstaff, Heath, Delgado and Acosta now total approximately $2.8 million as it pursues the appeal.

[…]

The council voted 5-3 on Aug. 1 to pay $45,585 to the Bickerstaff firm, bringing the total paid in legal fees over the last six months to the firm to more than $320,000. The city paid more than $2.5 million before the ruling.

At the Aug. 1 meeting, Councilman Don Harrison broached the topic of a settlement regarding MALDEF’s legal expenses.

“I understand through sources there are negotiations going on with MALDEF, who has requested $1.6 million to settle the lawsuit. We’ve had an executive session to discuss this, and yet we’re still continuing with the appeal,” said Harrison, who joined Sammy Casados and Cody Ray Wheeler in voting against approving the latest payment. “It’s time to settle this matter with MALDEF and get this lawsuit over.”

“We’re working everything we can, and once we get these numbers for sure we will have a council meeting to discuss this,” [Mayor Jeff] Wagner said.

See here for some background. The calculation is that if Pasadena eventually wins the appeal, they only have to pay their own lawyers and won’t owe the plaintiffs’ attorneys a dime. But if they lose, they will not only have paid their own lawyers that much more to keep on this, they’ll also owe attorneys’ fees for the plaintiffs, which will undoubtedly be a lot higher than the $1.6 million they’re apparently offering to take now. It’s almost as if that 2013 redistricting scheme pushed through by former Mayor Johnny Isbell was a really lousy idea that has served to put the city in such a terrible position today. Hindsight, y’all.

Pasadena has a decision to make

To continue the redistricting appeal, or to drop it and accept the ruling? One factor to consider is the cost involved.

Pasadena has already paid more than $2.5 million to its outside attorneys.

But there’s a complication: Under federal law, if the plaintiffs prevail, the city would be on the hook for their legal fees in addition to its own. The five Latino Pasadena residents who filed the lawsuit have been represented without charge by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“As a nonprofit, we do depend on collecting legal fees when we are entitled to them when we represent plaintiffs who have been found to have been discriminated against,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel.

The potential for additional legal fees could support an argument to continue the appeal or to end it.

If the city instructs its lawyers to drop the case now, the two sides would negotiate a payment to MALDEF based on the market rate for this type of legal work in Houston and the number of hours devoted to the case.

If the city appeals and wins, its own legal fees will increase but it will owe nothing to MALDEF. If it loses, the bill goes up even more.

“They can stop the bleeding now or take the risk that it goes even higher,” said Saenz.

First, let’s be clear that however much money Pasadena winds up spending, primary responsibility for it falls on its former Mayor, Johnny Isbell. Of course, Isbell couldn’t have done what he did without four willing Council members, one of whom was new Mayor Jeff Wagner, who gets to decide the course going forward. The state of Texas would like Pasadena to continue the fight, but it’s not like they’re going to pony up some money for the lawyers at the end of it all. Settling now give Pasadena cost certainty, and maybe they can get a good-faith discount from the plaintiffs’ attorneys. Fighting on has the chance of getting to pay less than what they owe now, but good luck calculating an expected value for that outcome. And fighting on and losing is the worst of all worlds. So how risk-averse do you feel today, Mayor Wagner?

The broader implications of the Pasadena voting rights lawsuit

Buried in this Trib story about the ongoing saga of Pasadena’s voting rights lawsuit is this nugget about the state getting involved.

The case could reverberate beyond Pasadena’s city limits. Legal experts contend that a decision by the 5th Circuit could guide other courts around the country that are considering similar voting rights cases.

The Pasadena ruling also has the potential to help build a case against the state, which faces its own voting rights challenges in court, said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has studied voting rights cases for decades.

In lifting federal electoral oversight for Texas and other jurisdictions in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that conditions for minority voters had “dramatically improved,” but the justices left open the possibility that political jurisdictions could be placed back under preclearance if they committed new discriminatory actions.

Earlier this year, Texas faced a barrage of federal court rulings that found the 2011 Legislature intentionally discriminated against voters of colors by passing a stringent voter ID law and re-drawing the state’s political maps. Those cases are still making their way through federal courts in Corpus Christi and San Antonio.

The Pasadena ruling — “particularly because it was so thoroughly stated and so strong and by a judge that has no history of favoring blacks or Latinos in redistricting cases” — could serve as “another brick in building this case that Texas has a recent history of discriminatory action,” Murray said.

In a sign that Texas leaders also see Pasadena as a potential problem for its own cases, state attorneys filed an amicus brief in support of the city’s appeal, arguing that preclearance “must be sparingly and cautiously applied” to avoid reimposing “unwarranted federal intrusion.”

Judge Rosenthal’s preclearance ruling in the Pasadena case was improper, the state contends, because it was imposed for a single incident of discrimination instead of pervasive and rampant discrimination.

Raise your hand if you’re surprised that the state got involved. I’m surprised it took them this long. It is not yet clear if the city of Pasadena will continue to pursue this appeal. New Mayor Jeff Wagner has said he will abide by the will of Pasadena City Council. He hasn’t said much about it since being elected, including when he might ask them for their opinion. The Fifth Circuit declined to overturn Judge Rosenthal’s injunction on using the 6-2 Council map, but they did not address the merits of the overall ruling, including the bail-in on Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. I don’t know what the time frame for a hearing of that appeal at the Fifth Circuit might be, but broadly speaking it’s likely to be some time in 2018. Unless Pasadena decides to drop it and accept the lower court ruling, of course. Will the state’s intervention have an effect on that? We’ll know when Mayor Wagner asks Council to vote on the appeal.

Today is Runoff Day

While I have nothing to vote for tomorrow, there are hot races in Pasadena and Pearland.

Changes in Pearland’s demographics have mirrored those in Houston, amplifying the effects of what this election will show, University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said.

“This election will tell us a lot about where the future of Houston will go and, therefore, where the future of Texas will go,” he said.

In the mayor’s race, 91-year-old incumbent Tom Reid faces a challenge from Quentin Wiltz, a 36-year-old project manager whom the mayor once recommended for a city park board position. In the council race, businessman and former city council member Woody Owens, 69, is running against 30-year-old pharmacist Dalia Kasseb, the first openly Muslim candidate for public office in Brazoria County history. She has never before run for elective office in the city, but Wiltz encouraged her run.

Owens says his past experience on council and professionally will be a benefit. He maintained that Pearland grew from a solid foundation and that the diverse city still has a united, small-town atmosphere. The campaign of the mayor, who has supported Owens, did not provide comment.

“We’re all Pearlanders,” Owens said.

Wiltz and Kasseb, who have been campaigning together, insist they have much to offer. They knocked on thousands of doors, they said, discussing with residents their ideas on mobility (HOV lanes, park and ride, a rail line), a nearby landfill that has been the subject of residents’ complaints and overall quality of life. They derided anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim social media posts that surfaced.

“Pearland has changed,” Wiltz said. “The challenges have changed.”

This one got a bit nasty, which may have helped generate some turnout. In May, there were 7,660 total votes cast. Early voting turnout for the runoff was 9,740 votes. I have no idea who that might benefit, but it’s interesting. Polling places for Pearland can be found here. I’ll report the results tomorrow.

There’s a more stark contrast in Pearland, both partisan and generational, which is less present in Pasadena.

In addition to the mayor’s race, voters will decide the District A council seat, where Felipe Villarreal and Daniel Vela are vying to represent part of the city’s north side.

The mayor’s race, however, is taking center stage as it marks a change from Isbell, who has led the city, off and on, for decades and now is term-limited.

“I want to give every candidate the benefit of the doubt,” said Cody Ray Wheeler, a councilman who frequently has butted heads with Isbell. “Whoever the next mayor is, I want to work with them.”

Wheeler ran unopposed for his District E seat during the May 6 election.

The runoff comes amid conflicts over racial tensions and access to the ballot box. Nearly two-thirds of city residents are Hispanic, up from less than one-third in 1990.

[…]

Moon, a commercial real estate agent and banker who grew up in Pasadena, is positioning himself as the candidate of change, a break from Isbell’s legacy.

“People want change,” Moon said. “They don’t want a continuation of the same, and I believe my opponent is a continuation of the same.”

Moon’s priorities include developing a multi-year capital improvement plan to spread infrastructure projects across the city, including streets and sidewalks. He wants to implement zero-based-budgeting for city departments to make them justify their spending. And he touts his credentials as chief financial officer of Moody Bank, based in Galveston, to help make shrewder financial decisions for the city.

Wagner did not respond to repeated requests for comment by email or phone. After a Pasadena city council meeting Tuesday, Wagner said he would meet a Houston Chronicle reporter outside, before exiting into a private room and reportedly leaving City Hall.

In campaign literature, Wagner touts his experience as a former Houston police officer and as a city councilman. He is widely seen as the candidate most aligned with Isbell.

Wagner and Moon also differ in their stances on the controversial voting rights lawsuit, which the city is appealing. Moon said he would stop the appeal, while Wagner said he would survey city council before making a decision.

As of Monday, according to the Harris County Clerk’s Office, 4,389 people had cast ballots during early voting. About 8,300 votes were cast during the May balloting.

You can find your polling place for Pasadena here. Wiltz and Kasseb in Pearland, and Villarreal in Pasadena are all Project LIFT candidates. One way or the other, there’s going to be some spin on these results.

Runoff endorsement watch: Moon for Mayor

The Chron picks their second choice for Mayor of Pasadena.

John “J.R.” Moon

The second-largest city in Harris County could use a good shake-up.

That’s why voters should elect John “J.R.” Moon Jr. for mayor in the city’s runoff election.

Moon, 58, would bring the outsider perspective that Pasadena needs. He has spent the past decade as a trustee for the top-rated San Jacinto College. In addition to his public service, Moon also has the business credentials to make for a fine mayor of a growing city – he is a certified CPA and former chief financial officer at Moody Bank. Moon currently works as a commercial real estate agent.

While scandal has dominated the headlines, Moon kept his focus on the core issues of education, economic growth and quality of life when he met with the editorial board. He specifically recommended updating the city’s infrastructure plans into a modern capital improvement system that’s the hallmark of transparent governance.

“It does not appear that we have had an effective plan over the last five years and you need to renew that plan on an annual basis,” Moon said.

[…]

Pasadena needs a mayor who can enter this office with eyes wide open if the city hopes to avoid further scandal.

Moon is Pasadena’s best choice to make these issues a thing of the past.

The Chron had previously endorsed Pat Van Houte, but she didn’t make the runoff. They remain steadfast in their desire to see as big a change from the Isbell era as possible. Early voting for the runoff is going on now through June 6 – you can see times and locations here. Felipe Villarreal is a Project LIFT candidate in the runoff for Pasadena City Council in District A, so if you live there please don’t forget about him, and don’t forget about Pearland if you live there. The runoff is June 10, so make a plan to make your voice heard.

Final EV report for the May 6 election

Before I get to the numbers, here’s a Chron overview of the Pasadena Mayor’s race that mentions the numbers towards the end.

“I believe it’s a pivotal time in this city’s history – that it can either draw together and continue being one city, or it can divide apart and be fractured,” said John Moon Jr., a commercial real estate agent who grew up in Pasadena and worked as a banker for more than 30 years.

In addition to Moon, the field of candidates includes Pasadena city council members Pat Van Houte and Jeff Wagner; Robert Talton, who served as a state representative from 1993 to 2009; Gilbert Peña, who represented the same district from 2015 until 2017; David Flores, a former city employee who runs a Pasadena-based construction business; and Gloria Gallegos, an assistant superintendent with the Pasadena Independent School District.

[…]

The candidates are stressing different issues.

Talton is campaigning for increased investment in the city’s police and fire departments and senior services. Moon wants a five-year capital improvement plan. Gallegos, based on her experience with the school district, is pushing workforce development programs to bring people out of the city’s growing poverty.

Peña has said he will invest in programs to grow small businesses. Flores is calling for city departments to formally justify funding requests. Flores has five misdemeanor convictions from 2001 to 2004, including for theft, assault and evading arrest, and giving a false name to a police officer. He said his trouble with the law helped spur a commitment to public service.

Van Houte, among others, calls for increased transparency among the city and touts her ability to speak English and Spanish as a means to better communicate with voters. She once was escorted from a council meeting after questioning Isbell’s redistricting plan.

Wagner emphasized boosting employee morale.

But while there are differences in the candidates’ priorities, all emphasize a strong need to break from the past, including what some have described as a “political machine” associated with Isbell.

“That machine is not alive and well right now, without a doubt,” Wagner said. “In the past, I’m sure they had it. But, this is a new day.”

It’s unclear whether the alleged disparate treatment of Latino residents will result in higher turnout by Hispanic voters. Historically, Hispanic voters have turned out at lower rates than white voters.

As of Tuesday, just more than 3,200 had cast ballots at Pasadena City Hall, which University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said was high. Rottinghaus said roughly 50 percent of voters come out to early voting, with another 50 percent on Election Day. In 2013, the number who cast ballots early was 1,327, according to city records.

Here are the final EV totals, which I saved for posterity since you never know when I may feel the need to reference them. (Like, maybe for the Pasadena Mayor’s race runoff.) There were 3,204 in person early votes cast in Pasadena, but that’s not the sum total of all votes, as of course there are also absentee ballots. I asked around and was informed that as of yesterday 1,548 mail ballots had been returned as well, for a grand total of 4,752. If Professor Rottinghaus is correct about how many votes are cast early versus on Election Day, then we are headed for either about 8,000 total votes cast or 9,500 total votes cast, depending on whether he meant to include absentee ballots in the half of votes being cast early.

That’s obviously a lot more than 2013, when Mayor Isbell was very lightly challenged by current candidate and former State Rep. Gilbert Pena. A better comparison is to 2009, when a much more contested Mayoral race drew 7,539 votes. This year seems to be on track to exceed that, possibly by a fair amount.

I’m not exactly sure how to tally up the early votes for Humble ISD, as there are two early vote locations in Humble ISD buildings plus a third location at Humble City Hall. The first two have seen a combined 2,817 votes, with another 426 at Humble City Hall. There are also some number of absentee ballots, but I have no way of knowing how many. In 2015 there were 2,150 early in person votes cast and 1,358 Election Day votes cast; in 2013 it was 2,410 early in person and 1,767 on Election Day. No matter how you slice it, this year looks busier, though it’s hard to say by how much.

Finally, in Brazoria County there have been 3,139 early in person votes cast in Pearland, which I will presume covers both the city and Pearland ISD. Just that amount, which does not include absentee ballots, is more than the grand total for the 2014 Pearland ISD election (the trustees there appear to serve three-year terms), in which 2,868 total votes were cast. The city of Pearland also appears to be on three-year terms, so they have elections each year. Turnout figures for those last three years: 2,744 in 2016, 3,559 in 2015, and 3,387 in 2014, which was the previous Mayor’s race. Again, it would seem that turnout will be higher than in any of those years, though at least some of that may be fueled just by population growth, as the number of registered voters in Pearland climbed from 58,563 in 2014 to 63,584 in 2016. Still, we appear to be three for three in terms of increased voter participation. We’ll see what if anything that means for the results.

Trib overview of the Pasadena elections

Good stuff.

Pasadena City Council

When voters head to the polls here Saturday, their city council and mayoral picks could have repercussions well beyond this working-class Houston suburb.

It will be the first election since a federal judge struck down the city’s 2013 redistricting plan as discriminatory, paving the way for a new balance of power at City Hall.

It comes as Texas Democrats redouble their efforts on the local level after a 2016 election that gave them ample reason to be optimistic about their future, especially in Harris County.

And it could offer a gauge of just how far down the ballot President Donald Trump, unpopular in even a deep-red state like Texas, is energizing Democrats.

For Pasadena, a city whose representation has long lagged its majority-Hispanic population — much like Texas writ large — it could actually be the “new day” that multiple candidates are promising.

“You have racial discord undergirding partisan politics,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “You’ve got one side trying to use the rules of the vote to change the structure of elections. And the other side is using the legal process … to fight the electoral damage that might result.”

“That,” Rottinghaus added, “sets the stage for Pasadena as an important part of the story in Texas’ transition to a new racial electorate.”

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party has endorsed five city council candidates in Pasadena — more than it has endorsed in any other municipality for the May 6 elections. Other Democratic groups are on the ground in the city, including Battleground Texas, which has been working to make the state more competitive for Democrats since the 2014 election cycle.

Much of their efforts are focused on two council races — in District A and District B — that are considered key to ushering in a new Democratic, predominantly Hispanic majority at City Hall. Battleground Texas is specifically working with District A candidate Felipe Villarreal and District B candidate Steve Halvorson, husband of Area 5 Democrats President Jennifer Halvorson, the only instances this election cycle where the group has directly partnered with candidates.

In those districts, which cover the heavily Hispanic north side of Pasadena, Democrats face a test similar to the one they face statewide: turnout.

“Those two districts — they vote overwhelmingly Democratic in November elections,” Jennifer Halvorson said. “Those voters don’t typically vote in May elections.”

See here for those endorsed candidates, among others. I’ll have one more look at early voting turnout tomorrow, though it will be limited in that I can’t tell you where the voters are coming from. Republicans are paying attention to the Pasadena elections as well, and the chair of the Harris County GOP, which as we know had such a stellar showing last year, says they are fully engaged. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on one election, but this is our first chance to vote in the Trump era, and it will tell us something one way or another. In the meantime, if you live in Pasadena or know someone who does, make sure you and they get out to vote on Saturday.

Early voting Day Five: Can we make any guesses yet?

Mike Snyder wonders about the turnout so far in the May elections.

When Pasadena last chose a mayor, in 2013, about 7 percent of its registered voters determined who would lead the industrial port city of 150,000. Mayor Johnny Isbell, who won re-election by an overwhelming margin, attributed the paltry turnout to public satisfaction with “the direction the city is headed.”

Four years later, there is ample reason to question that sanguine assessment. But history suggests that turnout will again be low as voters in Pasadena, Pearland and other Houston-area communities choose mayors, council members and school trustees. Early voting started Monday, and election day is May 6.

[…]

In Pasadena, for example, the mayor who was returned to office by 3,599 voters was the driving force behind a change in the City Council structure that a federal judge found intentionally diluted the influence of the city’s Latino majority. And reporting by some of my Houston Chronicle colleagues will provide new details about the inequitable allocation of city services on Isbell’s watch.

Low turnout in local elections is not limited to Pasadena.

A year ago, just 2,744 Pearland residents – 4.3 percent of the fast-growing city’s registered voters – cast ballots in an election that included three City Council seats and three school trustee positions, according to the Community Impact newspaper. In Friendswood, 9 percent of voters – 2,422 residents – cast ballots for two city council seats and two sales tax increases.

It’s really hard to find information about past Pasadena elections, because before this year the city conducted their own elections, and the Pasadena city website sucks eggs. You can find returns on the 2015 election in Pasadena here, but note that Mayor Isbell was not on the ballot. The only data I can find from the May 2013 election, which Snyder references in his piece, is in this Chron story, which notes that Isbell defeated Gilbert Pena by 3,599 (83 percent) to 751 (17 percent), for a total turnout (not counting undervotes) of 4,350. In that 2015 election, again without knowing how many people may have skipped the two At Large Council races, the District G At Large race received 4,150 votes. So let’s make 4,350 the mark to beat for Pasadena this year.

As you can see from the updated Harris County EV totals, after five days 1,611 in person votes have been cast in Pasadena. If the next four days are proportional to the first five, then about 2,900 in person early votes will be cast. I have no way of knowing how many mail ballots received by the Clerk are Pasadena ballots – the proportion of Pasadena votes to total votes is about 1/4, so with 4,362 mail ballots so far there may be between 1,000 and 1,100 Pasadena mail votes. Which, if true – and please note that I’m really guessing here – would put Pasadena’s total so far at roughly 2,700 cumulative votes, which is on pace to reach or exceed 4,000 before Election Day. I don’t know what the actual number of Pasadena mail ballots is, I don’t know if the next fours days will meet, exceed, or fall short of the pace of the first five, and I don’t know what the share of Pasadena’s votes are usually cast early, so I could be way off, but if I had to bet right now, I’d put my money on the over for turnout. I’ll review this projection after early voting ends, but that’s my guess at this time.

As for Pearland, you can see the daily EV totals for Brazoria County here. It is broken down by location, and I assume (though I don’t know for sure) that the Pearland East and Pearland West locations are the only ones we care about for this purpose. There were 3,387 votes cast in May of 2014, which is the better comparison for this year since there was a Mayoral race then as well. Pearland ISD had 2,868 voters that year. In each case, about two thirds of the total final vote was cast early, so when we have a cumulative early vote total for Pearland, we can take a reasonable guess at final turnout. The Brazoria elections site only has three days’ worth of data at this time, so I’m not going to go out on any limbs here, but I will venture to propose that whatever the final EV total is for Pearland and Pearland ISD, the ultimate number will be about half again that much. Feel free to mock any and all of my numbers in the comments.

Endorsement watch: Chron for Van Houte and recapture

Here are your Chronicle endorsements for the May election. First, for Mayor of Pasadena:

Pat Van Houte

Of the five candidates who met with the Chronicle editorial board – two declined – only Van Houte was willing to bluntly and accurately diagnose the challenges facing Harris County’s second-largest city. Legacies of favoritism, opacity and, yes, discrimination continue to hamper progress at Pasadena’s City Hall. A petrochemical boom is driving growth all across east Harris County, yet Pasadena remains constrained by a political leadership that, as Judge Lee H. Rosenthal wrote in her recent opinion, has denied equal opportunity to all of its citizens.

Plenty of Pasadena residents certainly won’t enjoy reading Rosenthal’s words. Every other mayoral candidate preferred to pick up the pom-poms and cheer on the city’s blue-skies future. But discrimination is like a cancer that can fester beneath the friendly surface of civil society, from a road plan that ignores Hispanic neighborhoods to a redistricting scheme intentionally designed to disenfranchise Hispanic voters. Structural discrimination won’t go away by ignoring it. Pasadena needs a mayor who is willing to confront these challenges. Chemotherapy is never pleasant.

Van Houte has a record of standing up for the hard fight during her eight years on City Council – and like so much of Pasadena politics, it all began with street construction.

Back in 2006, Van Houte was part of a successful campaign opposing a road expansion project through her neighborhood. That activism led her to represent the northeast District D at Pasadena City Hall. Van Houte, 60, eventually worked with other representatives to block an infrastructure bond that failed to properly address dilapidated northside neighborhoods. Mayor Isbell responded by shoving an unconstitutional redistricting scheme down Council’s throat and trying to silence his opponents. Nevertheless, Van Houte persisted. She was forced out of a City Council meeting and saw her seat redistricted away, but that didn’t stop Van Houte from winning her current at-large position.

Now she wants to replace the term-limited Isbell and run a city government that’s open to all of Pasadena instead of merely the well-connected. This means fairness in contracting, competitive bidding, soliciting community input and promoting transparency. Van Houte also said that she wants to reinstate a public transit circulator for senior citizens that the city had stopped funding.

My interview with Van Houte is here; I also interviewed Gloria Gallegos, who was not mentioned in the endorsement article. I’d love to know who the two no-shows were. I was chatting with someone about the Pasadena Mayoral race the other day and we observed that it was relatively low profile, which likely would be the case most years but maybe not so this year, given the court case and the sea change from the Isbell era and the large field of candidates. I think it just may be the case that with seven candidates, this race will surely go to a runoff, and that’s when the real excitement will happen.

Closer to home (for me, anyway), the Chron endorses a Yes vote on the recapture re-referendum.

In November, we urged HISD voters to cast ballots AGAINST purchasing attendance credits, and voters agreed.

Now, HISD voters are being asked to come back to the polls on May 6 to respond to the same question, and no doubt are wondering why.

The answer is dizzyingly complex, but the choice is simple. In November we urged you to hold your nose and vote AGAINST on Proposition 1. On May 6, we urge you to hold your nose and vote FOR. Early voting begins Monday and ends May 2.

As in November, May voters have to decide between two lousy choices – either authorize HISD to write a big check to the state government every year for the foreseeable future, or give away a huge chunk of Houston’s tax base forever.

[…]

If AGAINST voters prevail, the district will lose future tax collections on detached properties. This matters in particular because some of those tax revenues are used to pay back the district’s bond debt. As more and more commercial properties are detached, a larger percentage of the responsibility to fund public education would shift to homeowners and remaining business owners.

A FOR vote won’t fix school finance. But it makes the best of a bad situation.

The Chron endorsed a vote against recapture last year not once but twice. As you know, I agreed with them then, and I agree with them now. In my observation, most people and groups making endorsements on this issue are on the Yes side as well, whether they had been that way to begin with or not. That ought to help, but I think a lot of people are still confused by this whole issue, and if they are still confused and voted No last time, I’d have to think they’d vote No this time. If they do vote, of course, which maybe they won’t since we’re not used to voting in May. This is going to be a very weird election. Be that as it may, my re-interview with David Thompson on the matter is here. I hope it helps clear up any lingering questions you may have.

I don’t know if the Chron intends to do any further endorsements or not. They have not traditionally done so in May elections before, but as we know, This Time It’s Different. Plus, there are contested Mayors races in Katy and Pearland, where as in Pasadena that has not usually been the case. I’ll understand if this it, but I’ll still hold out some hope that it’s not.

Pasadena Council not happy with redistricting appeal

Or maybe they’re just not happy with soon-to-be-former Mayor Isbell. Either way, they showed it.

Pasadena City Council

In a sign of waning confidence in its legal position, the Pasadena City Council voted Tuesday to withhold payment from the law firm that’s trying to prove that the city’s redistricting plan doesn’t discriminate against Hispanics.

The 7-1 vote, with Mayor Johnny Isbell absent, exposed the degree to which the mayor has unilaterally pressed for an appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that the plan was discriminatory.

Council members complained they don’t fully understand the status of the lawsuit or of the work being done by Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP of Austin.

Councilman Sammy Casados said he and other members have asked the mayor to put an update on the agenda, but he has declined.

[…]

Even council members who previously have aligned themselves with Isbell and his redistricting plan expressed concern.

Morrison noted the absence of city staff who could address questions about the lawsuit.

“Where do we stand on this thing and what is the next step?” Morrison asked. “For that reason, I won’t support this (payment).”

Only Councilwoman Pat Van Houte voted to make the $50,000 payment, but she did so reluctantly, saying it was compensation for work already completed and pledging not to vote for future payments.

See here and here for some background. The May election is proceeding under the pre-redistricting Council map, as an appeal to the Fifth Circuit to halt the judge’s order for this election was denied. The appeal of the ruling on the merits is still in process, though several candidates for Mayor including CM Van Houte have said they will drop the appeal if elected. I’m sure the city of Pasadena will eventually pay the law firm for the work it has already done, but this vote is a mighty clear indication that they’re had enough.

We could be at the end of the road of the Pasadena redistricting case

Mike Snyder continues his reporting on the Pasadena redistricting litigation. He notes that while the whole thing was concocted and pushed forward by current Mayor Johnny Isbel, several of the candidates to succeed Isbell are not interesting in picking up where he will leave off.

Pasadena City Council

Attorneys in the case say the city’s appeal is likely to be unresolved when Pasadena voters choose a new mayor on May 6. Seven candidates are seeking to replace Isbell, who has led the city off and on over 26 years but can’t run this year because of term limits. And at least three of the candidates say they’ll drop the appeal if they win.

U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal “spent a week and a half hearing from many witnesses, looking at a lot of information, and made a decision,” Councilwoman Pat Van Houte, a candidate for mayor, told my colleague Kristi Nix. “The city has spent almost $2 million on the lawsuit already, and I don’t think it is in our best interest to spend more public money on this.”

Another candidate, former state Rep. Gilbert Peña, agreed: “If elected, I definitely would stop the appeal process,” he said. “There’s a lot of other things we could do with this money other than give it to lawyers.”

Candidate David Flores, a former city employee who runs a construction company, told Nix that the city’s money would be better spent on infrastructure than on additional legal fees.

Councilman Jeff Wagner, a retired Houston police officer, told me he would ask the City Council to vote on whether to continue the appeal if his bid for the mayor’s office is successful. Pasadena, like Houston, has a strong-mayor form of government, and Isbell has exercised his authority on this issue without consulting the council. But Wagner said he has a different leadership style.

“I’ll put this in front of the council, we’ll have a discussion and we’ll make a decision,” said Wagner, who was one of four council members who voted with Isbell to put the new council structure on the ballot in 2013. (Van Houte cast one of the four votes against the plan.)

I couldn’t reach the other three candidates: San Jacinto College trustee John Moon, former state Rep. Robert Talton, and Gloria Gallegos, a Pasadena school district administrator.

See here, here, and here for some background. If I had to guess, I’d posit that Gallegos is in the same camp as Van Houte, Pena, and Flores, while Talton is either on board with the appeal or would put it before Council, as does Wagner. It would be good if all three candidates stated their position for the record, and for all interested voters in Pasadena to know where all the candidates stand.

The 2017 lineup for Pasadena

Here are the candidates for office in Pasadena for this May:

I wish I could give that to you in a more reader-friendly format, but online news sources for this are scant. This Patch.com story is the only post-filing deadline news I’ve seen, and it bizarrely identifies my blogging colleague Gary Denton as a candidate for Mayor. (Denton is working with Council Member Pat Van Houte on her Mayoral campaign.) This Chron story from the end of January gives a bit of background on some of the Mayoral candidates, but others have since filed. I’ll be keeping my eyes open on this and will post more if and when I find something worth posting.

In the meantime, according to Gary, the three unopposed Council candidates are all Democrats, as are Felipe Villareal in A, Steve Halvorson in B, and Oscar Del Toro in G. I don’t have particulars about other candidates as yet. I plan to keep a closer watch on these local May races than I usually do, and I welcome feedback if you know about any campaigns or candidates I should be watching.

Pasadena won’t fight election order

The May election in Pasadena will proceed under the pre-redistricting eight-district Council map.

Pasadena City Council

The city of Pasadena will not fight an appellate court ruling over its election system, a decision that will allow the upcoming May council elections to proceed with eight-single member district seats, according to the lead attorney for the city in the closely watched voting rights case.

The elections will proceed under the district format and will not using six neighborhood council and two at-large seats, a system a district judge ruled was discriminatory against Latino voters.

[…]

The city will continue to appeal the judge’s ruling, which also ordered Pasadena to again obtain preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before making additional changes to its election system.

See here for the background. The filing deadline for the May election is today, so by not filing a quick appeal of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling that upheld the original order, Pasadena was basically conceding that fight. The appeal of Judge Rosenthal’s ruling on the merits will proceed at some point down the line, though I suppose depending on the outcome of the elections, the new Mayor and Council may choose to drop it. I will of course be following the election as we go forward.

Fifth Circuit upholds Pasadena election order

Good.

Pasadena City Council

The Pasadena election system that a judge ruled violated the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against Hispanics cannot be used in the upcoming May council elections, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by a lower court judge ordering the city to revert to a 2011 system using all single-member districts for the May 6 elections, when the entire city council and the mayor’s seat are on the ballot.

The expedited ruling – which came just two weeks before the deadline for candidates to file for office – is a blow to the city and its longtime mayor in a case being closely watched by voting rights advocates nationwide.

The decision Friday by a three-judge panel addresses only an attempt by Pasadena to temporarily halt the order for the May elections; the merits of the case and the judge’s ruling will be taken up later in full.

“This means all Pasadena voters will have a fair election on May 6,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed the suit on behalf of a group of Hispanic voters. “All voters of all races will have a fair opportunity to elect their preferred candidates.”

Attorney C. Robert Heath, who represents Pasadena and Mayor Johnny Isbell, said Friday he wasn’t sure if the city would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Such an appeal would have to happen quickly or could jeopardize the city elections.

See here and here for the background. As I said in that previous update, the three-judge panel was quite conservative, so a unanimous ruling upholding Judge Rosenthal’s order is a pretty strong statement. I hope this will be the end of the line for litigation affecting this election – an appeal of the ruling on its merits, which will take place mush farther down the line, is of course to be expected – but there’s still a chance Pasadena could take a shot at SCOTUS. We’ll see.

Fifth Circuit hears Pasadena redistricting appeal

This is to decide whether to lift or leave in place Judge Lee Rosenthal’s ruling that the pre-2013 all-single-member-district Council map will be in place for the May elections in Pasadena.

Pasadena City Council

The City of Pasadena asked for the expedited hearing before the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on a narrow issue – the structure of Pasadena’s City Council districts for the upcoming election.

Hearing the case for the circuit court were judges Jennifer Walker Elrod, Priscilla Owen and Gregg Costa.

At a later date, the court will address the city’s appeal of a sweeping order from a lower court judge who threw out Pasadena’s city council election format, saying it was discriminatory against Hispanic voters.

The judge ordered the city to revert to a 2011 system for electing the council, with eight single-member-district seats, instead of the 2014 system that used six single-member and two at-large districts.

Attorney C. Robert Heath, who represents longtime Mayor Johnny Isbell, asked the appellate judges to grant a stay of the judge’s order because he said he was likely to win the overall appeal on the merits. His client did not intend to discriminate against Hispanic voters, and the election results did not reflect a diluted Latino vote, he said.

[…]

Costa pressed Heath about the harm that might be caused if the appellate panel switched the election to 6-2 and then the appellate court upheld the appeal.

“That’s significant harm, isn’t it?” Costa asked.

“It is if it has a discriminatory effect,” Heath said.

Nina Perales, with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed the suit on behalf of Latino voters, stressed to the judges that the 8-0 system the lower court put in place would sufficiently eliminate questions of discrimination in Pasadena’s council race.

However, a decision by the appellate judges to temporarily lift the lower court’s 8-0 format would confuse voters and candidates who have already filed to get their names on the ballot and begun canvassing neighborhoods, she said.

“There is no reason to grant the stay based on (the city’s) likelihood of success because there is no single case supporting their contentions,” Perales said. “The case law is unified – if there is lower Hispanic registration and turnout rates it is tied to a history of past discrimination.”

See here for the background. Judges Elrod and Owen are both Dubya appointees, and are two of the more conservative members of the Fifth Circuit, so this is about as friendly a panel as Pasadena could have wanted. The city has the burden of proof here – they need to show that Judge Rosenthal erred in her ruling. We’ll see if the Fifth Circuit grades them on a curve for that. Given the time frame – the filing deadline is in two weeks, and multiple candidates have already filed for each of the eight Council seats – we should get a ruling shortly.

Pasadena appellate hearing set

Mark your calendars.

Pasadena City Council

With deadlines looming for the upcoming May elections, a federal appeals court has agreed to hear arguments Feb. 1 in a voting rights lawsuit that overturned the Pasadena election system.

The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will consider whether to temporarily halt the order from the Houston judge until after the appeals are exhausted. But that would leave in place an election system that has been found discriminatory against Latinos.

The Fifth Circuit court set an expedited hearing at the Bob Casey Courthouse in Houston for lawyers to present argument as to why the city should or should not proceed with its May elections for city council positions using a 2011 map of eight single-member district seats as directed by a federal judge in Houston.

The appellate court will focus on a request by Pasadena’s lead attorney in the high-profile voting rights case to temporarily halt the district court’s order for Pasadena to hold its May election using eight district positions, instead of a 2014 scheme that passed by a narrow margin of voters that uses six single-member and two at-large seats.

See here and here for the background. Candidates are already filing for office in Pasadena, so this really does have to be done quickly. The court would be deciding whether to use the current map, with six districts and two At Large seats, or the previous map with eight districts, which is what Judge Rosenthal ordered. We ought to know soon enough. Texas Monthly, which delves more into Judge Rosenthal’s ruling, has more.

Pat Van Houte for Pasadena Mayor

This is the local race to watch this May.

Pat Van Houte

A Pasadena councilwoman who became a key witness in a recent federal lawsuit contesting the city’s redrawn voting districts said she will run for mayor in the upcoming election.

Pat Van Houte, who holds an at-large seat, made her announcement Friday, Jan. 6, the same day a federal judge’s decision overturning the city’s 2013 redistricting measure was released.

[…]

Van Houte was in the middle of the political fray nearly four years ago when the council, led by Mayor Johnny Isbell, pushed for the redistricting and a switch to two at-large positions and six-single member districts. However, Van Houte found herself in the council’s minority opposing the changes and ultimately went on to win election to an at-large position in 2015.

“The position of mayor is not something I had considered before; but since serving as an at-large council member, I’ve been traveling and seeing many different parts of the city. Over the last year, as I’ve been out meeting with residents, many people have offered their support and asked me to run for mayor,” Van Houte said. “I’m not running because of this ruling. However, serving as an at-large council member has put me in contact with a lot more people and has made me think more about stepping to the next level as far as leadership and the direction of the city.”

All eight single-member districts, based on the May 2013 election map and plan, will be on the ballot in the upcoming election. Filing for candidates runs from Jan. 18 through Feb. 17.

Van Houte, who was first elected to serve as the District D council member in 2009, said she anticipated the ruling.

“I was hoping for this outcome. From some of the questions that the judge asked during my testimony and a few things I heard after that point, I wasn’t surprised. I could not assume this would be the decision but I was certainly hopeful and I’m pleased with the decision,” said Van Houte, who testified during the trial.

It’s not been easy finding news about the Pasadena elections so far, though Chron columnist Mike Snyder continues to do a fine job writing about the redistricting case and its related effects. Van Houte doesn’t have a website or Facebook page yet, but she was the Council member that Mayor Johnny Isbell threw out of the meeting where the redistricting plan was adopted for exceeding the three-minute speaking time he had imposed on everyone. I’m pretty sure her willingness to take a stand like that will be a campaign theme.

Other candidates that have filed or will file, according to my Pasadena-base blogging colleague Gary Denton, include Jeff Wagner, JR Moon, Robert Talton, and Gilbert Pena. All are Republicans, with the latter two being former State Reps in HD144. I will be keeping an eye on this race going forward.

Judge affirms Pasadena redistricting order

Back to the previous map, pending appeal.

Pasadena City Council

Hours after candidates began filing paperwork to run for city office, a federal judge Wednesday denied a request by Pasadena officials to delay her order that the city election be run under an 2011 election scheme to protect the rights of Latino voters.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in Houston said Pasadena should conduct its upcoming May elections based on eight single-member districts, throwing out the six single-member and two at-large districts that the judge ruled had diluted the clout of Hispanics.

The focus now shifts to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where Pasadena officials are challenging the judge’s ruling in a landmark voting rights case that has drawn nationwide attention.

[…]

Pasadena officials filed a request Tuesday to stay Rosenthal’s judgment, which was issued Monday during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. City lawyers also appealed the ruling, challenging the judge’s conclusion that the new voting scheme was put in place with the aim of intentionally stopping Hispanics from gaining a majority of candidates of their choice on council.

See here, here, and here for the background. I have no idea if the Fifth Circuit will overrule Judge Rosenthal and order the 2013 map to be put back in place, but as candidate filing has begun, they would need to be quick about it if they do. I’ll keep an eye on it.

Pasadena will appeal redistricting ruling

Not a surprise.

Pasadena City Council

An attorney representing the city of Pasadena said Tuesday the city will appeal a ruling that found Pasadena deliberately violated the voting rights of its Hispanic population, a move that could have immediate consequences for the city’s upcoming May elections.

The attorney, C. Robert Heath, said the city disagreed with Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s ruling earlier this month that a redistricting scheme adopted in 2014 violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act by diluting the Hispanic vote.

“I think we’re right on the law and ultimately we’ll prevail,” Heath said.

[…]

Heath said the city will seek court approval to temporarily halt execution of Rosenthal’s order, meaning that upcoming elections could be conducted using the redistricting scheme Rosenthal found to be discriminatory. The 2015 elections were also conducted using that scheme.

“I don’t think they were trying to prevent Hispanic success,” Heath said.

City Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra, who supported the goals of the lawsuit that led to Rosenthal’s ruling, called the appeal a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“The legal bill has already surpassed $2 million, but I guess since it’s not the mayor’s money, he doesn’t mind spending it,” Ybarra said, adding that “this council is told nothing” by the administration about the legal process.

See here and here for the background. Candidate filing begins today, so one way or the other we’re going to need a quick ruling on any motions for an injunction. I’ll be keeping an eye on it. The NYT, Rick Hasen, and the Texas Standard have more.

UPDATE: From the longer version of the story:

Timing in the case, now, is critical. Rosenthal must first weigh in on whether to stand firm in her decision to keep the single-member system in place for the May elections – or whether to grant a stay on her own ruling.

The city’s appeal of the full ruling, meanwhile, moves on to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if Judge Rosenthal made a ruling on the stay right away. … It will be a yes or no, probably,” said Elaine Wiant, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas.

She said if Rosenthal denies Pasadena a stay, it is unlikely the city’s lawyers would be able to derail the May election.

Chad Dunn, a lawyer who has represented voters and governmental entities in voting rights cases, agreed.

“It would be out of the ordinary for the court to stop her ruling and let the election go forward under a plan that’s been found to be discriminatory,” said Dunn, who represents council members Ybarra and Cody Ray Wheeler, who vocally opposed changes to the city election system. “It’s more likely than not that Judge Rosenthal’s judgment will carry the day on this election.”

The circuit court can affirm the district judge’s decision, reverse it or remand it back to Rosenthal for additional fact-finding, said Austin attorney Roger B. Borgelt, who specializes in election and campaign law.

We ought to know pretty quickly what the election situation will be for Pasadena.

Final ruling in Pasadena redistricting lawsuit

It’s official – back to the original map.

Pasadena City Council

With candidate registration set to begin Tuesday, a federal judge Monday prohibited the city of Pasadena from using an unconstitutional redistricting scheme in the upcoming May elections, stating that the scheme violated the voting rights of Latino and Hispanic residents.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal in Houston wrote in the final judgment that the city must use a map the city generated in 2011 that featured eight single-member districts and gave “Latino voters an equal opportunity to elect their preferred candidates.”

Rosenthal also ordered the city to face preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice for 6.5 years before changing the election system again.

[…]

Rosenthals’ order Monday – on a federal holiday recognizing the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., whose civil rights crusade led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – came two days before candidate registration opens for Pasadena’s municipal elections. All city council seats and the mayor’s office are up for contention.

See here for the background. There is no word as yet whether the city will appeal or not. The filing period opens tomorrow and runs through February 17, so if there is going to be an appeal and an injunction against using the previous map, the city will need to get its act together quickly. Not that I want them to, mind you, just stating a fact. We’ll see what they do.

UPDATE: Here’s a longer version of the story.

Judge rules for Pasadena plaintiffs

Wow.

Pasadena City Council

A federal judge in Houston dealt a major blow Friday to the city of Pasadena in a closely watched voting rights case, ruling that officials deliberately diluted the clout of Hispanic voters by revising the system for electing City Council members.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered Pasadena to revert to its previous use of single-member districts for the upcoming May elections and ruled the city would need preclearance from the Department of Justice for any future changes.

“In Pasadena, Texas, Latino voters … do not have the same right to vote as their Anglo neighbors,” Rosenthal concluded in the 113-page decision released late Friday.

Patricia Gonzales, one of the plaintiffs who filed the federal lawsuit, said fairness can be restored to the city election system.

“All right,” she said, when informed of the ruling. “Now each section will be able to vote on who they want and their voices will be heard. I’m very pleased with the outcome.”

The ruling could provide a key test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 that gutted portions of the Voting Rights Act, legal experts said.

“It is a great win,” said Michael Li, senior redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “This case shows that there is something you can do, at least if you have the facts, lawyers and resources.”

[…]

Rosenthal cited witness testimony in her opinion, noting that both Texas and Pasadena had histories of exclusionary practices and that discriminatory attitudes toward Latinos still endured among Pasadena residents.

In recent years, the political balance in Pasadena had begun to shift, the judge wrote. But just as Latino voters were poised to elect a majority of single-district representatives to the City Council, longtime Mayor Johnny Isbell and his backers proposed changes to the election system, the judge said.

“In short, Pasadena’s elections are racially polarized,” Rosenthal wrote. “The City’s 2013 racially polarized vote in favor of the 6–2 redistricting map and plan and the Council’s 2014 vote to approve the change were narrowly decided. The effect was to dilute Latino voting strength. That effect was foreseeable and foreseen.”

The city is likely to appeal the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the ruling could have a significant impact nonetheless on the May elections. All City Council seats and the mayor’s post are up for election; Isbell is facing term limits and cannot seek re-election.

See here for the last update. Rick Hasen has a copy of and some excerpts from the decision. This is a big deal, and as the city of Pasadena has now been put back under preclearance, it’s a possible preview of what could be in store for Texas when we get a final decision on voter ID. Of course, being under preclearance now means a lot less than it would have under President Hillary Clinton, but it’s still something. We’ll see if there is an appeal, and if so if the Fifth Circuit steps in to halt any reversions to the old system before the May election. For now, I say congratulations and well done to the plaintiffs. A statement from the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus is here.

A look ahead to Houston’s 2017 elections

I want to return to something in that story about Mayor Turner’s 2017 agenda, which was near the bottom but which is a very big deal for the coming year:

A lawsuit over the ballot language used last year to extend terms to a maximum of two four-year terms, from three two-year terms, hovers in the background.

A state district judge ruled in March that the language was “inartful” but legal, and the case now is under appeal.

At stake in the near term is whether Turner and members of City Council must run for re-election in 2017 or wait until 2019.

See here for the background. Usually around this time I’m writing about the upcoming election year and what we have to look forward to. Thanks to this lawsuit, we could have a year with no city elections, or a year in which nobody knows we have city elections until April or May and everyone operates on an insanely accelerated schedule from there. With that in mind, let’s look at our Year of Elections 2017 with a frame of The Elections We Will Have, The Elections We May Have, and The Elections We Could Have.

The Elections We Will Have

Whatever else happens with the term limits lawsuit, there will be elections in HISD and HCC. The following trustees for each board are up for election this year:

HISD – Anna Eastman (District I), Mike Lunceford (District V), Greg Meyers (District VI), Anne Sung (District VII), Wanda Adams (District IX)
HCC – Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District 4), Robert Glaser (District 5), Chris Oliver (District 9)

Mike Lunceford is not running for re-election, so his seat will be open. Greg Meyers has already submitted his resignation, and a replacement Trustee will be selected by the Board in January. It is not clear if the Board will prefer a caretaker who will not run for election in November or if the new member will try to stake a claim. Anne Sung of course won the special election to succeed Harvin Moore a couple of weeks ago. Whatever happens in November, the Board will have three different members in the traditionally Republican districts than it had at the start of 2016. That has some negative potential, as all three were devoted to public schools in a way that is not necessarily characteristic of modern Republicans, meaning that whoever wins in November could be more antagonistic than what we are used to seeing. We’ll have a better idea when we know who is selected to replace Meyers, and who emerges to run for these seats. As for Eastman, she is my Trustee and as far as I know she is in for another term, but I haven’t spoken to her in the last few weeks, and she has not made any formal announcements. I’m not aware of any reason why Adams would not run for another term.

In HCC, both Shabazz-Evans and Glaser won elections to complete the unexpired terms for trustees who had resigned following their 2011 campaigns. Evans-Shabazz was appointed to replace Carroll Robinson in District 4 in May of 2015, and then was unopposed for election. Glaser won a contested race to succeed Richard Schechter in 2013; appointed replacement Leila Feldman did not run for the seat. Oliver is a multi-term incumbent who easily defeated a challenger in 2011. Sometimes there are interesting things to say or look forward to in these races. This is not one of those times.

There will also be some number of constitutional amendments on the ballot in November, but we won’t know what they are until May or so when the Legislature finishes its business. If the term limits lawsuit goes down, preserving the new four-year terms for city officeholders, these referenda will be the only guaranteed items on your ballot this year.

The most interesting race in the area that is not in Houston will be in Pasadena, where Mayor Johnny Isbell is term-limited out and where the City Council lines may or may not be redrawn, pending the ruling in the voting rights lawsuit that is currently in the judge’s hands. That election will be in May. Other area cities such as Bellaire, West U, Sugar Land, and Rosenberg, also have elections in May. I hope to have some more information about some of these races in a subsequent post. Also of interest in May will be the San Antonio elections, where Mayor Ivy Taylor has some competition for a second full term. I’m sure I’ll do some writing about that as well.

The Elections We May Have

In addition to the statewide ballot propositions, there are two local ones that could be on your November eSlate machine, both of which could be quite contentious. Mayor Turner has stated his intention to put a referendum about the revenue cap on the ballot this year, though one presumes that could change if his pension reform bills do not pass. You can be sure that the opposition to this, mostly from the likes of Paul Bettencourt and no doubt with the help of the statewide Republican cabal, will be ferocious and very well-funded. Which in a way will be good for Mayor Turner, because if he can successfully cast this as a partisan issue, especially a “statewide Republicans meddling in our business AGAIN” issue, he ought to at least begin with the larger share of the vote. Getting those people to vote, whether or not there are other city elections to draw them out, will be the challenge. I suspect Mayor Turner doesn’t do anything without planning out how it will go, so I sure hope he has a plan for this one.

The other possible ballot item we might have is an updated Metro Solutions plan, which may include more rail construction projects, possibly including another shot at the Universities Line. This has been floated as an option by Metro Chair Carrin Patman, but it is not yet clear that it would be on the ballot, and if it would be there this year if so, and it is not yet clear what the scope of it would be. Needless to say, any rail component would generate some opposition, with a new Universities Line plan bringing out the usual suspects, some of whom would already be fully engaged in a revenue cap fight. It’s an interesting question whether you’d rather have this item on the ballot by itself, or in the same space as a revenue cap item. I’m glad that’s not my call to make.

The Elections We Could Have

This is the one that is entirely contingent on the Supreme Court, which as we know has not hesitated to stick its collective nose in our electoral business. If the 2015 term limits referendum is thrown out for having insufficiently clear wording, then the people who will be the most affected are the Council members who are in their last terms: Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie. Cohen’s District C and Laster’s District J represent challenges for Democrats, as Bill King carried both districts in the 2015 Mayoral runoff. The ideal District C candidate is in the Anne Clutterbuck-Ellen Cohen spectrum, while the low turnout District J will always be a bit of a wild card. Against that, Dems will have opportunities in both Christie’s At Large #5 and first-term CM Mike Knox’s AL #1, though as we have discussed before, cattle call races with lots of similarly-profiled Democrats have benefited Republican citywide candidates in the recent past. The ideal here is for a candidate who begins with a lot of backing to get in and largely hoover up all the support – think Melissa Noriega in 2007, or Amanda Edwards in 2015.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it’s even more speculative than usual, but I do want to at least put a marker on it, since if these elections do happen they may happen all at once, with little warning and not much time to prepare. I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will be ready for either a busier or more relaxed interview season this fall.

Pasadena voting rights case in the judge’s hands now

We await a ruling.

Pasadena City Council

Armed officers guarded a closed-door committee meeting. Discriminatory comments surfaced at City Hall. Latino-backed council members were hustled from chambers by police.

The accounts of perceived intimidation and back-door dealings were detailed during testimony in a closely watched seven-day trial of a federal voting rights lawsuit that wrapped up Friday in a Houston courtroom.

Now, U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal will decide if Pasadena violated the federal Voting Rights Act by reconfiguring its city election system, a ruling that is expected in time for February filing deadlines for May elections in which city council seats and the mayor’s job are up for grabs.

A group of Latino voters filed the federal lawsuit, saying city leaders changed the structure of council elections in a deliberate attempt to quell the Hispanic vote.

“The city moved to dilute voting strength just as Latinos were starting to exercise it,” said Nina Perales, lead attorney in the suit for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in her closing arguments to the court.

City attorneys argued that leaders did not set out to diminish Hispanic representation by presenting an option to voters to change the city election systems. The growing Latino population has an equal chance to participate in the political process to elect their candidate of choice, said C. Robert Heath, a veteran attorney who specializes in voting rights and election law.

“No one said, ‘Vote yes (on the ballot measure) to diminish Hispanic representation,’ ” he said.

See here and here for the background. There were a couple of other stories related to this case published last week. From Monday, when Mayor Isbell took the stand:

The mayor of Pasadena chuckled and shook his head Monday when his defense lawyer asked if he had ever been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, which had its headquarters in the city for many years.

“No. It’s a despicable organization as far as I’m concerned,” Mayor Johnny Isbell, who is white, testified.

He is not racist, nor is Pasadena a racist city, he testified.

[…]

Isbell said he had appointed African-Americans and Hispanics to top jobs in his administration and actively backed a few Hispanic candidates’ campaigns. He said he supported redistricting and switching from eight single-member districts to six single-member districts plus two at-large seats because decades in public office taught him a mixed election system worked best.

He also contradicted testimony last week by Hispanic City Council member Ornaldo Ybarra, who said Isbell was known to have said to like-minded constituents that if they didn’t back his proposed revisions that the city government would be overpowered by “an invasion of Hispanics.”

The mayor testified that the changing demographics of Pasadena don’t bother him, and he quibbled with Ybarra’s portrayal of a north-south split in Pasadena, with Hispanics in the northern sector having to live amid urban blight, poorly maintained streets and subpar drainage.

The judge asked questions to clarify how the city divided.

Isbell said the north was mostly Hispanic and the south was majority white. But Isbell said the charter vote was not a white-versus-Hispanic issue.

“It was a Democrat and Republican issue, that’s the way it ended up,” he said.

The next day one of Isbell’s allies made an embarrassing admission during his testimony.

A top Pasadena official admitted on the witness stand that he violated state ethics laws by campaigning during work hours for the mayor’s re-election bid and for a 2013 charter amendment to change the city’s election system.

Richard Scott, the city’s director of community relations, testified in trial in a federal voting rights lawsuit before U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal that he’d used city workers and resources to do campaign work during business hours and sent campaign-related emails from his city account.

He said he regretted his actions and knew they were in violation of state law.

The statute of limitations has expired on the 2013 admission but Scott could be charged with a crime for working on the mayor’s 2015 campaign, according to Nina Perales, one of the team of attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund pursuing the lawsuit.

[…]

Scott’s testimony came during questioning by MALDEF attorney Ernest Herrera in the civil trial of a lawsuit filed by Hispanic voters.

Scott, a longtime confidante of Mayor Johnny Isbell, sat up tall and answered the questions without hesitation. Yes, he had used his work email address. Yes, he’d had city employees help him during work hours on the campaigns. Yes, he knew that was a violation of campaign law.

Okay then. Chron reporter Mike Snyder attended the trail and picked out a few key quotes to highlight from it.

“You don’t have to look at the budget to see that one side of town is clearly being treated differently than the other.” – Pasadena Councilman Cody Ray Wheeler.

The councilman, a Latino in his second term who is part of the faction that has opposed the mayor on contentious topics, was discussing the real-world consequences of the issues in the case. Residents of Pasadena’s mostly Latino north side have long complained that the quality of their streets, drainage and other essential services lags far behind conditions on the predominantly Anglo south side.

The most recently adopted council structure of six district seats and two at-large ones replaced a system of eight district positions. If, as the suit alleges, the new system makes it harder for the city’s growing Latino population to elect its preferred candidates, this under-representation is reflected in residents’ daily lives. This trial is not a theoretical exercise.

[…]

“Who are you to vote against me?” – Isbell to Wheeler, according to Wheeler’s testimony.

Wheeler said the mayor posed this question after Wheeler voted against a bond package that Isbell initially supported. Isbell has not confirmed or denied having made the statement, but it’s the kind of thing a longtime public official accustomed to having his way might say to a young, ambitious politician like Wheeler. Isbell, 78, has held elective office in Pasadena almost continuously since 1969 – 16 years before the 31-year-old Wheeler was born. A sense of entitlement can be a byproduct of all that experience.

[…]

“We’ve got to keep Pasadena Pasadena.” – unidentified Anglo precinct judge to Wheeler, explaining his support for the new council system on Nov. 5, 2013 – the day voters narrowly approved it.

I think this comment speaks for itself.

Indeed, though it’s up to Judge Rosenthal to decide if it merits legal redress. She has promised a decision in time to conduct the May elections in Pasadena, which all things considered probably means by February.

Pasadena voting rights trial update

Day One:

Pasadena City Council

The disparity in infrastructure is at the heart of a voting rights case that opened in federal court Thursday in which a group of Latino residents is challenging the city’s newly revised system of government, saying it discriminates against minority voters and intentionally dilutes their power.

By creating two at-large council seats and eliminating two of the eight district seats, the suit says, the city violated the federal Voting Rights Act, making it harder for Latino-backed candidates to get elected and leading to unfair allocation of resources.

“Filling a pothole is not a Democratic or Republican thing to do; neither is putting in a drainage ditch or a sidewalk,” said Nina Perales, one of a team of attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing voters. “The everyday business of a city – including maintaining the infrastructure – is not a partisan issue, and when a city council that operates almost exclusively in unison begins to divide over issues of resource allocation, that is not partisan.

“Here in Pasadena those divisions have everything to do with race,” she said, in an opening statement Thursday of the trial that will be decided not by jurors but by U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal.

Lawyers for the city, however, told the judge there were legitimate reasons to change the system of electing city council members.

Claude Robert Heath, a prominent defense lawyer experienced in redistricting law, said shifting two of the eight council seats to at-large positions did not diminish access or opportunity for Latinos, who make up about half the population. And he said the city would show that whites have not voted as a unified block in recent city races, but instead crossed over to back candidates Latino voters preferred.

[…]

MALDEF lawyers began their case before Rosenthal Thursday with data-heavy testimony from three expert witnesses: a demographer, a political scientist and a historian.

The demographer, David Ely, testified that Census data indicates Latinos in Pasadena have not achieved the same level of education as whites. They have a higher poverty rate and are likelier to live in overcrowded housing.

Next on the stand was Richard L. Engstrom, a visiting political science professor at Duke University, who is an expert in minority voting rights. Engstrom testified that the ballot measure changing the system of government passed because non-Latinos voted in a racially uniform block. He said 99.6 percent of Latinos voted “no” on the measure.

Under question by the city’s lawyers, Engstrom doubled down on his contention that the votes were not an aberration.

“Does racially polarized voting exist?” he asked, rhetorically. “In election after election after election after election, the choice of Latino voters is being eliminated as a result of non-Latino voters voting as a block.”

He later added, “Racially polarized voting exists and persists in Pasadena.”

Day Two:

It felt like a power grab in Pasadena, a Latino city councilman told the judge. Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated federal oversight for local elections, the mayor and a committee he’d appointed met behind closed doors to draw up a plan to reduce the voting power of Hispanics.

The testimony came on the second day in the federal trial of a closely watched voting rights case challenging how Pasadena elects its city council. The mayor took the stand for about an hour at the end of the day and is expected to testify at length after the Thanksgiving break.

But for most of Friday, Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra testified about the disparities in representation. Ybarra was not included in the closed door meeting, which had been scheduled to be open to the public. Ybarra said longtime Mayor Johnny Isbell approved of the gathering with police protecting the door. He said the mayor pushed the changes because he realized he no longer needed advance approval from the federal Justice Department to make revisions to the city charter.

[…]

Ybarra also said he heard secondhand accounts that the mayor and others were warning voters of “an invasion” of Hispanics in the city government: “It was all over Pasadena that if we didn’t adopt this 6-2 council, there was going to be too many Hispanics on council.”

A defense attorney questioned whether the four-term councilman was certain of what the mayor meant by “invasion.” The mayor had backed Ybarra’s candidacy when he first ran for council in 2009.

“Only the mayor and his creator know what his intent was, but the message and behavior were racially motivated,” he said.

Given the Thanksgiving holiday, the trial will likely wrap up next week. As noted, the plaintiffs have a tall order to prove discriminatory intent. It’s interesting that this trial is going on at the same time as the litigation over whether the voter ID law had discriminatory intent. I’d normally look at both of those as consequential cases with the potential to bring about a lot of change, but that would necessitate an Attorney General who isn’t a horrible racist. Rulings for the plaintiff in either or both cases would still be a big deal, just probably not as big as it could have been.

Pasadena voting rights trial begins

The Chron’s Mike Snyder provides an update.

Pasadena City Council

[This] week in a Houston federal courtroom, [the Voting Rights Act] will again be invoked in a challenge to an allegedly discriminatory council system, this time in a suburban city that’s undergone a dramatic demographic transformation.

The lawyers involved in the case, Patino v. Pasadena, will face off in an atmosphere of growing anxiety among activists struggling to preserve minority voting rights. Hampered by the Supreme Court’s 2013 invalidation of a key provision of the voting rights law, these advocates face uncertainty created by the election of Donald Trump as president.

“With Trump, you’re certainly not going to have a Justice Department we can go to if you see some (voting) irregularities,” said longtime Houston political consultant Marc Campos. “They’re certainly not going to be a friend we can count on in future litigation.”

[…]

Locally, even before Trump’s election, there were discouraging developments for voting rights advocates. In 2014, a federal court upheld the Pasadena school district’s system, in which all seven board members are elected district-wide.

And some witnesses at a hearing of the Texas Senate Education Committee last August suggested changing other public school district and community college system boards to at-large systems, generally seen as unfriendly to minority voting interests.

Last June, soon after the Supreme Court decision on the preclearance issue, Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell defied the advice of his advisory committee and pushed through a change to the council district system. Voters narrowly approved the change from a council of eight members, all elected from districts, to six district members and two elected at-large.

In the trial before U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, attorneys representing a group of Latino Pasadena residents will try to prove the new system was intentionally discriminatory – a power play by Isbell and his allies to preserve their long-dominant influence.

The city contends it added at-large positions to provide better representation. The new system, city officials say, provides proportionate opportunities for Latinos. Of the city’s roughly 150,000 residents, 63 percent are Latino – up from 29 percent in 1990 – and 42 percent of registered voters are Latino.

See here for the background. Pasadena’s defense is basically the argument that was made in the Evenwel case, which was unanimously rejected by SCOTUS earlier this year. Here, though, that’s not really at issue. The plaintiffs are arguing – and need to prove – that there was intentional discrimination at work, which is a high bar to clear. The city is free to make a dumb justification for their actions, they just have to fend off the claim that they deliberately discriminated. We’ll see how that goes.

Looking towards the future, if this case ever does make it to SCOTUS, assuming no one else leaves the high court it would face a panel that’s about as hostile to voting rights as it was with Scalia on it. Which is not at all reassuring, but at least it wouldn’t be any worse. I will point out that while single-member districts are generally more favorable to minority communities, this is not always the case. I’ve just started working on a draft canvass of the Harris County election returns from Tuesday, but I can tell you that Hillary Clinton carried HISD – which as you know had that district-wide recapture referendum to vote on – by a three-to-one margin. I have not yet looked at other races, and I know for a fact that she got a non-trivial number of Republican votes, but I’d say the default Democratic level in the district was about two to one. There are nine HISD Trustee districts, and they too are two-to-one Democratic. Three districts are represented by Republicans today – Greg Meyers, Mike Lunceford, and Harvin Moore. It is likely, though not guaranteed, that this will continue to be the case after Moore and Lunceford depart. How many Republican trustees do you think there would be if HISD went to an at large system? Sure, this was a much higher turnout environment than usual, but still. The best you could say is that any GOP hopeful for an HISD Trustee position in an at large world would face an uphill battle. Just something to keep in mind.

Pasadena voting rights case moves forward

Good news.

Pasadena City Council

A federal judge has denied Pasadena’s request to throw out a lawsuit challenging its controversial city council redistricting plan, which a group of Hispanic and Latino residents alleges dilutes the voting rights of the suburb’s growing minority population.

Judge Lee Rosenthal’s ruling Wednesday after a roughly two-hour court hearing means the case continues toward trial, which Rosenthal has tentatively set for November.

Wednesday’s session was one of the first significant hearings in the voting rights case, which has received national attention as emblematic of modern-day battles over the issue more than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed.

The city had asked Rosenthal to rule on a motion for summary judgment in favor of the city’s 3-year-old method of electing the council, which called for races for six single-member seats and two at-large seats, stating that the plan allows the Hispanic minority population the opportunity to elect four members.

Rosenthal rejected that argument, stating that the new method creates a majority of Hispanic citizens of voting age in three districts, compared to four in the previous election system, when there were eight single-member districts.

This lawsuit was filed in 2014 and stemmed from the redistricting plan pushed by Mayor Johnny Isbell in 2013 that switched the city from having eight district members to six district members plus two At Large members. I’m glad to see this happen, but it shows the stark difference between a world in which preclearance exists and one where it doesn’t. This redistricting plan had been previously denied by the Justice Department but went forward after the Shelby ruling from SCOTUS. Nearly three years after Mayor Isbell’s plan was narrowly approved by voters, the lawsuit over it is finally cleared for trial, with an initial ruling likely months away and ultimate resolution farther out. It wouldn’t be a surprise if it is still being litigated two years from now, or five years from initial passage of the scheme. If that redistricting plan is eventually found illegal, that’s an awful lot of time for it to have been allowed to be in place, presumably causing harm, while the lawyers fight it out. If preclearance were still in place, none of this would have happened.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that this plan will be tossed. It’s always hard to say how litigation like this will play out. In the meantime, the Chron’s Mike Snyder recently published a series of stories relating to the fight over voting rights in Pasadena that is worth your time to read if you haven’t already done so:

With changes looming, Pasadena mayor launched attack against Latino council hopeful

Mayor: New Pasadena council system would have passed federal review

Voting rights case part of long history of Pasadena ethnic strife

I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Pasadena plaintiffs get details on Mayor’s campaign spending

Good.

Pasadena City Council

A federal judge said Wednesday that a political action committee aligned with Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell must turn over hundreds of pages of internal documents in an ongoing lawsuit over the voting rights of Hispanic and Latino residents.

Attorneys representing the group of Hispanic voters that is suing Isbell and the city for allegedly diluting their voting rights had subpoenaed the documents from Citizens to Keep Pasadena Strong, which include internal emails between Isbell and a political consultant as well as draft campaign materials for the years 2013 to 2015.

They said the documents would help shed light on an alleged scheme by the city to change its election system, which they contend is discriminatory and violates the Voting Rights Act because they say it keeps Hispanic voters from electing candidates of their choice.

The PAC had argued that the documents aren’t relevant to the voting rights case and that the First Amendment protects such internal communications. Jeff Yates, a Republican political consultant hired by the PAC, testified at a hearing Monday that disclosing the internal communications would be detrimental to his business.

U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal issued the decree at a hearing in downtown Houston Wednesday to turn over the documents with some conditions. It’s the latest development in the voting rights lawsuit that has drawn national attention.

See here for the background. Some personally identifiable information may be redacted, and some documents may be withheld as attorney-client communications. Beyond that, the Pasadena activists ought to get to see what their Mayor has been up to. Which may turn out to be nothing of interest, who knows. I’m just glad to see the principle that campaign finances should be public has been upheld, at least for now.

Pasadena activists want details on their Mayor’s campaign spending

Good.

Pasadena City Council

A group of Hispanic voters that accuses the city of Pasadena of diluting its voting rights is asking that a political action committee with ties to the mayor turn over records of communications with voters.

The PAC — Committee to Keep Pasadena Strong — has received funding from Mayor Johnny Isbell’s campaign coffers. It has been subpoenaed for records of communications with voters about local elections and Hispanic voters between 2013 and 2015, among other records, court documents show.

It’s the latest development in a lawsuit and conflict that has garnered national attention for being emblematic of modern voting rights battles.

[…]

The documents being requested now, plaintiffs contend, “will shed light on the Mayor’s efforts to eliminate two single member districts from the City’s election system.”

“Documents reflecting the plans of the Mayor to elect council members who would support his effort to eliminate single member districts are central to the issue of intentional discrimination,” the plaintiffs wrote in a motion filed Monday.

The political action committee is fighting the subpoena, contending that its First Amendment rights to freedom of association shield it from having to turn over the records.

See here, here, and here for the background; that last link has details about Isbell’s PAC spending. I personally find First Amendment arguments against disclosure of PAC donor identities to be misguided. Even if you buy the “freedom of association” angle, which I think is sketchy, I say the right of the people to know who’s buying their elections outweighs it. Federal Judge Lee Rosenthal will hold a hearing on the motion today, so we’ll see if she sees it my way.

Pasadena City Council member Cody Ray Wheeler announces for HD144

From the inbox:

Cody Ray Wheeler

I am excited to announce that I have decided to seek the Democratic nomination for State Representative District 144.

As a Pasadena City Councilmember, I have worked hard to ensure that under-served communities have a voice in city government. But it is clear that now more than ever, working people need a champion at the state level.

When I was growing up, my father provided a good life for me and my family without a high school diploma because he held a good paying union job at a refinery. I was able to afford college, and eventually grad school because of my service in the Marines. Yet, I am increasingly worried that future generations will not have the same opportunities that my family had.

Working families are being neglected by the Texas Legislature. Our public schools, healthcare and workers’ rights are under attack. Politicians at the capitol today are more concerned with pleasing big corporations and scoring political points than they are with helping the middle class.

As a legislator, I will fight to protect the American Dream for every Texas family–and I won’t back down from Tea Party Republicans or lobbyists who cater to special interest groups.

Wheeler is one of the Pasadena Council members who was targeted by Mayor Johnny Isbell, so he has some experience running in and winning tough elections. HD144 should be a slightly Democratic district in 2016 – every Democratic candidate carried it in 2012, though not by a lot; Mary Ann Perez outpaced them all in winning what was then an open seat – with a bigger challenge to hold it in 2018 as Rep. Perez was unable to do; she again led the Democratic field, but the baseline dropped by about five points in 2014.

Almost as if on cue, a day later an announcement that former Rep. Perez would be making another run in HD144 hit my mailbox.

Mary Ann Perez

Mary Ann Perez

Today, Mary Ann Perez announced that she will be running for the Texas House of Representatives in District 144, which includes parts of Houston, South Houston, Baytown, Deer Park and Pasadena.

“Hard-working Texas families deserve a strong, effective voice in the Texas House. I have a proven track record for getting things done,” said Mary Ann Perez.

Perez grew up in a working class family in East Harris County. A mother of two, she worked her way through college to earn a degree in Business Administration from the University of Houston – Downtown. While building a successful insurance agency, she was never too busy for her two sons or her community. She was an active member of her local neighborhood association and volunteer at her sons’ Little League and school functions.

Elected to the Houston Community College Board of Trustees in 2009, Perez increased higher education access for local students and developed programs to connect graduates with local employers to address regional workforce needs.

The announcement goes on to make the same point I did about her performance relative to the rest of the ticket last year. That’s to her credit, and I’m sure it will be a part of the discussion in the primary, but then so will be the fact that she lost. I’d like to hear Perez talk a bit about what she learned from that experience and how she might avoid a repeat in 2018 if she gets re-elected. I’m sure that will come up in the interviews I’ll eventually do. As for Wheeler, he’s been fighting the good fight in Pasadena, and he ought to have as good a chance at holding HD144 for more than one term as anyone. Got to win in 2016 first, of course, so take a look at his website (hers appears to be the same as it was in 2014) and see what you think.

Van de Putte and Taylor in SA Mayor runoff

Here we go.

Leticia Van de Putte

Leticia Van de Putte

Former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte is set to face San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor in a runoff for the city’s top job.

With 95 percent of all precincts reporting late Saturday, Van de Putte led Taylor 31 percent to 28 percent, according to unofficial returns. Former state Rep. Mike Villarreal trailed in third at 26 percent, and former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson in fourth at 10 percent.

With 14 declared candidates — four considered runoff prospects — the chance of an outright victory seemed slim Saturday. The runoff is scheduled for June 13, with early voting taking place from June 1-9.

“Our work’s not over, because what this means is we’re doing to work even harder to convince those who may not have cast a ballot to trust Leticia, to believe in her vision in this city,” Van de Putte said shortly after 10 p.m., surrounded by her family as confetti lingered in the air at her campaign headquarters on San Antonio’s West Side.

As results came in, Taylor told supporters at her election night party she was ready for a runoff.

“We can’t rest on our laurels because we’ve got some work to do to get to June 13,” she said, shortly after Adkisson and Villarreal conceded.

The four major candidates were seen as Democrats, though the election was nonpartisan.

That much is true, though as the Rivard Report notes, Taylor was generally the preferred candidate for Republican voters. It’ll be interesting to see how the runoff plays out, as there was no love lost between Van de Putte and Villarreal in the first round. She’s going to need Democrats to turn out to win, and if Villarreal supporters carry a grudge, that could get dicey. I’m no expert on San Antonio’s politics, so take that with some salt. Runoffs are tricky things, and anything can happen.

That was the marquee race, but I was at least as interested in Pasadena and Fort Bend ISD. Here are the unofficial results from Pasadena:

DISTRICT A — Ornaldo Ybarra leads Keith Nielsen 284-45;

DISTRICT B — Celestino Perez leads Bruce Leamon 118-107;

DISTRICT C — Sammy Casados leads Emilio Carmona 108-81;

DISTRICT D — Cody Ray Wheeler (182) leads J.E. “Bear” Hebert (77) and Pat Riley (28);

DISTRICT E — Cary Bass leads Larry Peacock 144-96;

DISTRICT F — Jeff Wagner 219 (unopposed)

DISTRICT G At Large — Pat Van Houte leads Steve Cote 859-599;

DISTRICT H At Large — Oscar Del Toro leads Darrell Morrison 755-728.

If you look at the comment on that Pasadena post, you’ll see that the folks who opposed Mayor Johnny Isbell and his power grabbing did pretty well. I wish I could find a list of candidates endorsed by the Texas Organizing Project to compare to this, but I can’t. Still, it looks good. And finally, as far as FBISD goes, I’m glad to see that Addie Heyliger won her race, which will help make that board a little more diverse and a little more reflective of the community. Congrats to her and to all of yesterday’s winners.

Getting nasty in Pasadena

Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell is not on the ballot this year, but he’s definitely involved in the Council elections.

A political action committee (PAC) with ties to Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell contributed more than $20,000 to three candidates in the current city council election and funded a series of attack ads targeting Pasadena City Councilmember Cody Ray Wheeler, who is running for re-election to his second term as the District D representative.

The Citizens to Keep Pasadena Strong received only one contribution during the last reporting period, a $35,000 donation from the Johnny Isbell campaign account on March 11, according to recent campaign finance reports.

The PAC’s expenditures totaled $21,302.56 and included contributions totaling $7,153 to District E candidate Cary Bass, $7,111.46 to District D candidate J.E. “Bear” Hebert and $7,037.25 to District C candidate Emilio Carmona.

Campaign records indicate from the total, each candidate received $3,500 for “in-kind grassroots development” with the remainder spent for direct-mailers for each candidate.

Although several direct mail pieces sent by the PAC target incumbent District D candidate Cody Ray Wheeler, his opponent “Bear” Hebert said he had nothing to do with the contents of the mailers.

See here, here, and here for the background. The story neither shows the other side of this mailer, which is where whatever evidence the attackers have for their allegation would likely go, nor explores the truth value of it, so there’s not much for the casual reader to go on here. Wheeler has responded with two mailers of his own – there are others against him similar to the one shown above that have been sent as well – but he could easily be outspent; he tells me that Isbell has shelled out over $66K in this election, a huge amount for a small city like Pasadena.

In some sense the specifics of all this mail don’t matter, since this is really all about Mayor Isbell and his ongoing efforts to consolidate power by installing a more amenable Council for himself. The redistricting scheme was a part of that as well. The best antidote for that is for Isbell’s opponents to win their elections. Early voting is over in Pasadena – I have no idea how it’s going, as that information is not readily available – and Election Day is Saturday, May 9. If you’re in Pasadena and you want a Council that isn’t just a bunch of yes men for the Mayor, then CM Cody Wheeler is one of the candidates you ought to be supporting.

Don’t forget about Pasadena

There’s still a lawsuit in the works regarding their 2013 redistricting referendum that switched their Council from an eight-member all-district makeup to six districts and two At large seats, all at the behest of Mayor Johnny Isbell.

Pasadena City Council

Pasadena is preparing to change the makeup of its city council in a way that city fathers hope fosters new development, but that some Hispanics allege dilutes their influence. The case could become a test of the Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down most of the federal Voting Rights Act, giving cities in many Southern states new latitude to change election laws affecting minorities without first getting federal approval.

“Clearly it was racism,” said Pasadena Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra, one of two Hispanics on Pasadena’s eight-member council, about the town’s planned council changes. The campaign for a new voting system “was meant to scare Anglos, and it was effective,” he said.

In Pasadena, which is roughly 60 percent Hispanic, voters approved a referendum that replaces two city council seats representing districts with at-large seats, which Hispanic leaders say will negate their growing population numbers. The new format was proposed by the mayor, who is white, in July 2013, one month after the high court decision.

The mayor and supporters insist the new format will bring more participation by all Pasadena residents because they’ll have more to vote for. They note that other cities, including Houston, have at-large council members.

[…]

Some Hispanics fear that wealthier white candidates will have the upper hand in at-large races that demand costlier citywide campaigns.

Suing the city on behalf of five Hispanic residents is the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which also took Texas to court over the state’s new voter ID law.

Since the Supreme Court ruling last year, most attention has focused on statewide-voting changes made in some of the 15 states covered by the Voting Rights Act, which was passed during the Civil Rights era. The Pasadena case is one of the first involving a city.

The plaintiffs face the burden of proving intentional discrimination. Civil rights attorneys say they worry that the money and effort of mounting a challenge will discourage action in many cities.

See here, here, here, here, and here. I don’t see any information about when the lawsuit that was filed will be heard, but I’m sure it’s on a docket somewhere. The bit I quoted above is what interests me here, as it contains a testable proposition. The city of Pasadena, which is to say Mayor Isbell and his enablers, claim that by switching to a hybrid at large/single member district system, turnout will increase in Pasadena. I’d love to review what turnout has been in Pasadena over the past few cycles, but for the life of me I can’t find past election results from Pasadena anywhere – they are not in the Harris County Clerk election results, much to my surprise. If anyone can point me to them, I’d be grateful. In any event, there’s another avenue for investigation, and that’s turnout in the Houston district Council races versus turnout in the At Large races, since the Houston model is cited as what Pasadena aspires to. What I’m going to look at is the undervote rate in district versus At Large races, on the theory that if no one casts a vote in a particular race, it’s hard to claim that that race affected overall turnout in a positive way. Here’s the data for Houston, for the last six elections:

2013 Undervote 2011 Undervote 2009 Undervote ============================================================= Mayor 2.76% Mayor 4.18% Mayor 2.05% Dist A 10.36% Dist A 8.85% Dist A 18.24% Dist B 11.12% Dist B 9.78% Dist B 14.94% Dist D 12.53% Dist C 5.61% Dist C 13.30% Dist F 21.40% Dist D 8.91% Dist D 15.05% Dist G 22.47% Dist F 12.96% Dist E 14.98% Dist I 10.44% Dist G 14.32% Dist F 8.64% Dist I 11.73% Dist G 22.51% AL 1 27.49% Dist J 10.74% AL 2 29.76% Dist K 11.44% AL 1 28.48% AL 3 26.37% AL 2 30.65% AL 4 24.87% AL 1 22.50% AL 4 28.36% AL 5 28.03% AL 2 17.97% AL 5 25.89% AL 3 20.81% Controller 22.32% AL 4 20.05% Controller 15.39% AL 5 12.03% 2007 Undervote 2005 Undervote 2003 Undervote ============================================================= Mayor 6.73% Mayor 5.51% Mayor 1.38% Dist B 10.55% Dist A 19.01% Dist A 13.49% Dist C 11.40% Dist B 8.65% Dist B 11.97% Dist D 10.66% Dist C 12.82% Dist C 12.86% Dist E 10.29% Dist F 10.13% Dist E 12.90% Dist I 9.80% Dist H 12.10% Dist F 13.97% Dist I 9.33% Dist G 14.20% AL 1 31.53% Dist H 10.29% AL 2 24.94% AL 1 20.88% Dist I 13.13% AL 3 18.61% AL 2 26.37% AL 5 19.86% AL 3 24.62% AL 1 20.46% AL 5 22.92% AL 2 22.84% AL 3 18.05% AL 4 19.24% AL 5 17.29% Controller 14.04%

So over six cycles, covering the full tenures of two different Mayors and including high-turnout and low-turnout elections, the undervote rate in every single contested At Large race was higher, often significantly higher, than the undervote in every single district race, with the sole exception of At Large 5 and Districts F and G in 2011. That was the year Jolanda Jones was defeated in a runoff by Jack Christie, and it was the highest profile race that year, certainly the highest profile At Large race in any of these six years.

This to me is very strong evidence that At Large races don’t do anything to drive turnout. This should make intuitive sense – At Large races are as expensive to run as Mayoral races, but no one has anywhere near the funds to do that, while District races can be reasonably run with shoe leather and some mail. Candidates in At Large races are not as well known as candidates in district races, who have a far greater incentive to attend smaller neighborhood and civic club meetings. I’d bet we’ll see a similar pattern in Pasadena, with the district races having greater participation than the At Large races. I just hope I’ll be able to find their election results so I can check that.

This will be the first election in Pasadena under this new arrangement, assuming it isn’t thrown out before the election, which I would not expect to happen. I wish I could say that Mayor Isbell was on the ballot and that this was a chance to throw him out, but alas, he has a four year term and was re-elected in 2013. This is a chance to unseat a couple of his minions, however, and if there’s a good local opportunity for anyone upset with the 2014 elections to focus on, it’s here. The Texas Organizing Project did a lot of good work in trying to defeat the 2013 redistricting referendum, and with a little more help they might have succeeded. Whatever happens with the lawsuit, it would be nice to turn the tables in this election. You want to make a difference, get involved with TOP and help support some good candidates in Pasadena this year.