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Kim Olson

Back to the barbecue battle

Once again, Sid Miller makes us pay attention to something we shouldn’t have to.

Sid Miller

Sid Miller

Texas’ barbecue culture is sacred. But some pitmasters are catching heat from a former rodeo cowboy overseeing the state Department of Agriculture.

Commissioner Sid Miller is slapping fines on their small businesses despite a warning from the attorney general that his reasoning may be illegal. The department issued at least 13 citations to barbecue joints for failing to register their meat scales since September, despite a 2017 state law requiring the commissioner to leave such establishments alone. In a case of unlikely bedfellows, Miller’s commission issued nine scale-related fines to yogurt shops, too.

The department has no plans to stop.

The citations are part of a running feud between restaurant owners and Miller, a white-cowboy-hat-wearing commissioner who made it his mission to ensure the state register all scales that weigh food for customers. But the state’s restaurant association is warning the food fight could land the commissioner in court.

[…]

When you order a quarter-pound of brisket, Miller insists the meat-slinger should set it on a state-registered scale where you can read the weight. Restaurants must also pay a yearly $35 fee for each of their scales. But strictly enforcing the law could force some of Texas’ most storied smokehouses to completely change the layout of their kitchens, incurring huge remodeling costs.

It’s “patently absurd,” said Kenneth Besserman, general counsel for the Texas Restaurant Association. Some pitmasters scrambled to rewrite their menus to serve less specific amounts of meat but found that created confusion for customers, he said.

Besserman and the restaurant lobby quickly convinced the Legislature to rewrite the law, nicknaming their effort the “Barbecue Bill.” Lawmakers in 2017 almost unanimously agreed to exempt scales “exclusively used to weigh food sold for immediate consumption,” largely pertaining to barbecue restaurants, yogurt shops and certain salad bars. The governor was sold.

Nevertheless, Miller persisted. Once the bill became law, Miller used his authority to add three additional words: “on the premises.” That meant any establishment selling food to-go — as the vast majority of barbecue restaurants do — had to follow the scale laws and regulations, essentially undoing the new law.

See here and here for the background. AG Paxton has opined that Miller’s interpretation is out of bounds, and the TRA is threatening to sue. I have expressed my reluctant agreement with Miller on the merits of the 2017 law, but it is the law and a public official’s role is to obey and uphold the law, outside of situations where the law is obviously immoral or unjust. This doesn’t meet that standard, in which case Miller should be lobbying for the law to be changed, or to work to un-elect the legislators who passed it. It’s also fair to point out, as Miller’s Democratic opponent Kim Olson does in the story, that the AG ought to have other priorities than this, as there have been almost no complaints made in recent years about inaccurate barbecue scales. Of course, given the sorts of things Miller tends to do when he has a bit of free time, this is at least not horribly embarrassing. Silver linings, I suppose.

Lots of female candidates running this year

It’s that kind of year.

Inside a classroom at a community college in downtown Dallas, a group of two dozen women took turns sharing their names, hometowns and what they hoped would be their future titles: Congresswoman. Dallas County judge. State representative.

It was part of a training held by EMILY’s List, an organization dedicated to electing women at all levels of government who support abortion rights. During the presentation, one of the PowerPoint slides flashed a mock advertisement on the projector screen: “Help Wanted: Progressive Women Candidates.”

A record number of women appear to be answering that call, fueled largely by frustration on the Democratic side over the election of President Donald Trump and energized by Democratic women winning races in Virginia in November. Experts say 2018 is on track to be a historic year, with more women saying they are running at this point than ever before.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List. “Every day, dozens more women come to our website, come to our Facebook page and say, ‘I am mad as hell. I want to do something about it. What should I do now?’”

[…]

One hundred women, Democrats and Republicans, have filed to run for Texas legislative seats this year, compared with 76 women in 2016, according to Patsy Woods Martin, executive director of Annie’s List, whose mission is to recruit, train, support and elect progressive, pro-choice female candidates in Texas.

Woods Martin said that in 2017, 800 women participated in the organization’s candidate training programs, up from 550 in 2013.

As of now, Annie’s List has endorsed two candidates — Beverly Powell and Julie Johnson. Powell is seeking to beat state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, in Senate District 10, for the North Texas seat formerly held by Wendy Davis, who surrendered it in 2014 to run for governor. Johnson is looking to oust state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, one of the most conservative members of the House, in House District 115.

While the statewide slates of both parties will be dominated by men, Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, with a ranch in Mineral Wells, is the lone Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner, and Republican Christi Craddick is seeking to keep her spot on the Railroad Commission.

There are also quite a few Texas women running for seats in Congress, including Mary Jennings Hegar and Christine Eady Mann, two of the four candidates seeking to win the Democratic nomination to take on Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, in U.S. House District 31.

Because I’m a numbers kind of guy, I went back through the SOS candidate filings page and did a little count. Here’s what I came up with, including incumbents who are running for re-election:

For Democrats, there are 37 female candidates for Senate and Congress, in a total of 23 districts. There are 7 female candidates for State Senate, and 78 for State House. On the Republican side, there are 12 female candidates for Senate and Congress, with 7 for State Senate and 24 for State House. That adds up to 116 for state legislative office, with the proviso that I may have missed a name or two here and there.

For comparison purposes, there are currently three Texas women in Congress (Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Eddie Bernice Johnson, and Kay Granger), eight female State Senators (only half the Senate is up for election this cycle), and 29 female State Reps. Bearing in mind that some of these candidates are competing for the same office, and some of them are running against female incumbents, it seems likely that there will be more women in these offices overall next year. Gotta run to win, and this year that’s less of an issue than in other years.

The Nation on Our Revolution in Texas

Here’s a feature story in The Nation from before the holidays about Our Revolution, one of the many grassroots groups that have become prominent post-Trump to organize and get better people elected. The focus of this story is on what OR is doing in Texas.

When Jim Hightower, Nina Turner, and the Our Revolution road show rolled into Tyler, Texas, Ed Moore liked what he heard. “This is basically what we’ve all been needing,” explained the retired factory worker and union leader, who lives in a town where factories and unions have taken a lot of hits in recent years. Moore, a city councilman who represents working-class neighborhoods shaken by deindustrialization, nodded in agreement as Hightower channeled old-school Texas populism into a warning: “The powers that be…are knocking down the middle class. They are holding down the poor” and attacking “the essential ethic that holds America together—and that is the notion that we are all in this together.”

Our Revolution is the national group created by backers of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run with the goal of transforming the Democratic Party. When Turner, a former Ohio state senator who now leads the organization, finished her address by declaring, “We can change the world—one community at a time, one state at a time…. Tyler, Texas, can we do this?,” Moore joined the enthusiastic multiracial, multiethnic crowd, which was packed into an activity center on the local college campus, in answering: “Yes!”

[…]

Of the many resistance and rebuilding groups that are working on the ground to renew Democratic fortunes in the states, Our Revolution has made a notable decision: It’s betting big on Texas. As soon as the Sanders campaign gave way to the organization—with its slogan “Campaigns End, Revolutions Endure” and its promise to “transform American politics”—Hightower and a new generation of Lone Star populists vowed that they would make Texas Our Revolution’s most engaged, active, and, they hope, politically successful state branch. And after a shaky start, Our Revolution is developing into a muscular grassroots organization with nearly 500 chapters in 49 states and a burgeoning capacity to organize on behalf of issues and to help win elections. This is about the recognition of a need: Political movements that evolve out of presidential campaigns often have a hard time defining themselves as more than a reflection of a particular candidate and a particular moment in history. To get to that broader definition, groups that seek to fundamentally change parties and politics must deliver successful examples of how the politics of an insurgent presidential campaign can elect candidates in other races.

[…]

Designated by Our Revolution’s national board as the organization’s first state affiliate, the Lone Star group has hired staff; used Sanders-campaign lists to connect with grassroots activists; and begun organizing chapters at the local, county, and regional levels. It has spelled out a progressive agenda—a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, worker rights, support for immigrants, policies to address climate change, and a commitment to get big money out of politics—and it is encouraging political newcomers who came of age in the Sanders campaign, as well as the worker-rights, immigrant-rights, and Black Lives Matter movements, to start running in Democratic primaries and nonpartisan local elections.

Some of these newcomers have already won. Activist La’Shadion Shemwell, 30, was elected in June to the McKinney City Council in conservative Collin County, north of Dallas. “If I can do it,” Shemwell says, “having been arrested, being a minority, having tattoos and dreadlocks, being a poor person with all the odds against me—if I can do it, then anybody can do it.” In San Antonio, history teacher John Courage surprised nearly everyone by winning his uphill run for a City Council seat. “We can’t overstate how huge an upset this is,” said Our Revolution, which backed him. “Education activist John Courage has won his race in San Antonio’s most conservative district!”

The group plans to endorse candidates in 2018 for posts like state commissioner of agriculture—where Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel and rancher who has become a dynamic advocate for sustainable food production, seeks the Democratic nod—as well as in hundreds of down-ballot contests that have often been neglected in recent years. And it’s exploring the possibility of endorsing for governor and US Senate. There will be some primary fights, but in many parts of Texas, Our Revolution activists are working with local Democrats and stepping up as candidates supported not just by Sanders backers but by 2016 Clinton backers. “They’re bringing energy and a lot of young people into the party,” says Lorraine Broll, president of the Circle-C Area Democrats club in Central Texas. She isn’t a member of Our Revolution, but she’s pleased the group is organizing in places like Hays County, an area between Austin and San Antonio where Trump narrowly won in 2016 but where Democrats hope to make dramatic progress in 2018.

Part of the Our Revolution Texas strategy is to run in places where Democrats aren’t supposed to have a chance. To that end, it’s organizing not just frustrated Democrats but also independents and members of the largest political group in the state: nonvoters. This emphasis on expanding the voter roll and the candidate list intrigues Texans who have grown cynical after years of hearing that the demographics of this minority-majority state will soon make Democrats dominant.

It’s always interesting to get an outsider’s perspective on things in Texas. Sometimes they see things we don’t, sometimes they provide a reality check on our warped perspective. And sometimes you shake your head and say “you really should have run this past someone who knows something about Texas”. I have a few admittedly nitpicky examples of the latter to discuss.

First, a genuine question: What practical experience does Jim Hightower have in grassroots organization, and turning that into an effective means of not just communicating but actually winning elections? All due respect, but I can’t think of any prominent recent efforts he’s been involved in. He does his pundit/humorist thing, and that’s fine, but my perception here is that his main function is eminance grise and “Texas liberal person whose name non-Texan readers of The Nation will recognize”. Maybe I’m selling him short and if so I apologize, but it might have been nice to have had his recent accomplishments listed in the story.

The story does mention a couple of recent wins by OR-affiliated candidates, and that’s really where my observation about getting some input from a local applies. I mean, calling John Courage a “newcomer” is more than a little silly. Courage, who I interviewed in 2012 when he ran for State Senate, had previously run for Congress in 2006, and served on the Alamo Community College District Board of Trustees in the 1980s. I think highly of John Courage and am delighted that he won his race for San Antonio City Council, but he’s not a newcomer.

To be sure, there haven’t been that many opportunities for any group to exert influence in an election this year in Texas. The May elections were the main event – it would have been interesting to have seen what might have happened in a Houston election, but we won’t get that until 2019 – and there have been no legislative special elections as yet. The upcoming primaries will offer some opportunities. Kim Olson is unopposed in March, so that won’t tell us anything. The race to watch if you want to see what OR can do is in CD21, where OR has endorsed Derrick Crowe, who faces three opponents including one (Joseph Kopser) who has a lot of establishment support and has raised a bunch of money. I looked at the Our Revolution Texas Facebook page and didn’t see any other endorsement announcements – I don’t recall seeing any others while looking at all those Congressional candidate Facebook pages, either – but there’s still time and plenty of races to choose from. I will definitely be interested in that, and I expect there will be other players looking to leave their mark on the races in 2018 as well.

Anyway, read it and see what you think. Olson and Crowe were the only 2018 candidates mentioned by name, so I hope there will be more to be said about what OR is doing.

The Republican primary for Ag Commissioner is now about barbecue

Because of course it is.

Sid Miller

Sid Miller

“Barbecue might be America’s most political food,” wrote the New Yorker earlier this year. The claim certainly applies to the 2018 race for Texas Agriculture Commissioner. Instead of farming or ranching issues, it’s Sid Miller’s recent history on barbecue that his Republican primary opponent, Trey Blocker, is using against him.

For some brief background, the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) launched a program called Operation Maverick in 2015 to enforce, among other things, the requirement that barbecue joint scales be certified and registered, a rule that hadn’t been enforced in the past. Backlash from small business owners resulted in House Bill 2029, aka the “Barbecue Bill,” during this year’s legislative session. The bill, which exempted barbecue joints (and yogurt shops) from the regulation, easily passed the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June. The TDA then revised the wording of the bill—which had exempted “food sold for immediate consumption”—by adding “on the premises” in the rewritten regulation. Those three new words meant that any barbecue joint selling food to-go was no longer exempt. The Texas Restaurant Association cried foul, and the TDA asked Attorney General Ken Paxton for a ruling that is forthcoming. This has all become fuel in a food fight between the candidates.

The first shot came a few weeks ago from Miller, who mocked Blocker for holding a fundraiser at a restaurant that served Nutella crepes. Miller acted as if he didn’t know what Nutella was, despite only seeing the “tella” portion of the word on the blackboard sign behind Blocker in a photo from the event (which, for the record, was held at the Old German Bakery & Restaurant in Fredericksburg).

Blocker fired back with a fundraising email that described Miller’s stance as a “war on Texas BBQ.” Now, calling a Texan anti-barbecue is about on par with calling them un-Texan, but Blocker didn’t stop there. Over the weekend, he followed up with two campaign videos focused squarely on barbecue.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I don’t see anything wrong with what Miller did. I get why the TRA didn’t care for it, but I’m all for consumer protections, and that’s how I see this. All that said, this primary is already making us all stupider. Just vote for Kim Olson in November and all of this can be naught but a bad memory. The Chron and Texas Public Radio have more.

Sid Miller gets a primary opponent

But what will our village do without its idiot if ol’ Sid loses?

Sid Miller

Sid Miller

Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is getting a primary challenge from Trey Blocker, the longtime lobbyist, ethics adviser and attorney from Austin.

“I’m running because we need to bring honesty, integrity and fiscal responsibility back to the Department of Agriculture,” Blocker said in a video announcing his campaign Wednesday. “We need to restore TDA to its core mission of promoting, protecting and preserving Texas agriculture and rural Texas. And we need a commissioner who can be an articulate, intelligent defender of our core conservative values.”

Blocker’s long-rumored run against Miller sets up potentially the most serious primary challenge yet to a statewide official in 2018. Miller is seeking a second term after three years on the job marked by a number of high-profile controversies, ranging from a Texas Rangers investigation into out-of-state, taxpayer-funded trips he took — no charges were ever brought — to the time his Twitter account sent out a message using the c-word to refer to Hillary Clinton.

Miller courted controversy early in his first term, when he pushed for dramatic fee hikes for a wide range of services the department offers — a move that irked farmers, ranchers and his former colleagues in the Texas House. A state audit later found that the higher fees generated millions more dollars than those programs cost to operate in 2016.

“Over the past four years, we’ve watched a career politician, embroiled in ethical controversies, raise taxes and grow government at a level that would make Bernie Sanders proud,” Blocker says in the video. “Asking our elected officials to be ethical shouldn’t be too much to ask for.”

While Blocker is critical of Miller’s leadership of the Texas Department of Agriculture, the challenger also is looking to provide a contrast with the incumbent on one of the biggest issues in Republican primaries: immigration. “I don’t think we’re tough enough on the immigration issue,” Blocker said in another video Wednesday, calling for a “moratorium on current levels of immigration until we have true reform.”

A career lobbyist who is also an immigration hardliner? Throw in religious extremism and you’ve got the modern Republican trifecta. If you’d prefer a candidate who’s actually worth voting for, you might check out Kim Olson. We can do so much better than either of these two jokers.

Filing season has begun

Candidate filing season is now open, and it will run for a month, concluding at 6 PM on Monday, December 11. There will be a lot of activity this year – we are already aware of so many candidates – and I’m sure there will be a few surprises. You can find candidate filings on the Secretary of State webpage, though I expect that will lag a day or so behind what county parties have. Here are a few things I can say so far:

– The first candidates to file for Governor are Tom Wakely and sign Grady Yarbrough. Is it written somewhere that in every generation there must be an annoying perennial candidate? Jeffrey Payne and Garry Brown are still to file, and then we have the being wooed/thinking about it trio of Andrew White, Michael Sorrell, and Lupe Valdez. I figure when/if one of them files, the other two will step aside. I will be surprised if more than one of them jumps in.

– Michael Cooper, who has been doing some tandem campaigning with Wakely, has filed for Lt. Governor. Mike Collier has been running for months and should be filing soon.

Justin Nelson was late in announcing but prompt in filing for Attorney General.

– We have a candidate for Railroad Commissioner: Roman McAllen, who has a preference for bow ties and wordy biographies. He’s on the board of Preservation Texas, which would make him a welcome alternate perspective to the shills and know-nothings that currently serve on the RRC.

– I don’t have a link to point you to for activity in Harris County at this time. I do know from talking to people that Lina Hidalgo (County Judge), Diane Trautman (County Clerk), and Dylan Osborne (County Treasurer) have filed. I also know that we may get a contested primary for County Judge as Mike Nichols is taking the filing period to explore a candidacy. Nichols has worked with the Houston Food Bank, the Houston Long Range Financial Management Task Force, Planned Parenthood, and the Houston Parks Board. We’ll see what he decides.

– At the state level, we still need someone to run for Comptroller and Land Commissioner; Kim Olson is running for Ag Commissioner. We know of two Supreme Court candidates, but we still need one more of those plus three for the Court of Criminal Appeals. We could use someone for CD22. In Harris County, we’re still looking for a candidate for County Commissioner in Precinct 2, a candidate for HCDE Position 4, Precinct 3, and State Rep in HDs 126, 132, and 135.

– Again, I think there will be some surprises. People get in and drop out at the last minute. I think we’re going to have a lot more contested primaries than we’re used to seeing. And of course I have no idea what may happen on the Republican side. It’s going to be an exciting four weeks. What are you looking for?

Who will run statewide for the Dems?

For several statewide offices, it is unclear at this time who might run.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

Lillie Schechter, the new chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party, has watched in recent months as at least seven candidates have come through the doors of the party headquarters to introduce themselves, eager for their shot at U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston.

That’s seven candidates that she can recall, but she may be forgiven for forgetting: Texas’ 7th Congressional District is one of several that have already drawn a swarm of Democratic candidates for 2018. The bonanza is unfolding not just in districts like the 7th — one of three in Texas that national Democrats are targeting — but also in even redder districts, delighting a state party that is not used to so much so interest so early.

“When we have competitive primaries, we get to engage with more Democrats,” Schechter said. “I do not see that as a negative thing.”

Yet it’s just one part of the picture for Democrats at the outset of the 2018 election cycle. While the congressional races are overflowing with candidates, the party remains without a number of statewide contenders — a reality that is coming into focus ahead of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s anticipated announcement Friday that he’s running for re-election. Barring any last-minute surprises, Abbott will make his second-term bid official without the presence of a serious Democratic rival.

[…]

So far, Democrats have three statewide candidates they see as serious: U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso for U.S. Senate, Houston-area accountant Mike Collier for lieutenant governor and Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, for agriculture commissioner. They are without similarly credible contenders for governor, comptroller, land commissioner, railroad commissioner and attorney general — a seat considered particularly worth targeting because the GOP incumbent, Ken Paxton, is under indictment.

By far the biggest profile belongs to O’Rourke, who announced his challenge to Cruz in March. As the top of the ticket — assuming he wins his party’s primary next year — he stands a chance of being Texas Democrats’ standard-bearer in 2018, regardless of whom they ultimately put up for the other statewide jobs.

In an interview Monday, O’Rourke said he was not worried about the lack of company so far on his party’s statewide ticket.

“I can’t worry about what I can’t control, and so we’re just going to focus on our campaign,” he said.

But he also expressed optimism for the party’s prospects up and down the ballot in 2018 “as more people become aware of how significantly the dynamics have changed in Texas.”

The story notes that former State Rep. Allen Vaught is also looking at Lt. Governor, and it’s not impossible to imagine him running there with Collier shifting over to Comptroller again. I am aware of at least one person looking at the AG race, and if there’s one slot I feel confident will have a name in it, it’s that one. As for Governor, who knows. We wanted Julian Castro, but we’re not going to get Julian Castro. I had been thinking about Trey Martinez-Fischer, but he’s not interested. As with AG, I feel reasonably confident someone will run. I just don’t know how exciting that person will be.

As the story notes, there are many, many people running for Congress. At least five races, in CDs 02, 07, 21, 31, and 32, have multiple candidates, and some of those candidates have already raised a very decent amount of money. There are still plenty of races in need of candidates – CDs 22 and 24 come to mind, as well as SD16 and various State House seats – but I’m not worried about any of them yet. One way of thinking about this is to note that in the last three cycles, the number of Democratic challengers for Republican-held districts in the State House has been 38 in 2016, 37 in 2014, and 39 in 2012, with the latter being inflated by redistricting and the 2010 wipeout. Fewer than half of all Republican State House incumbents have had November opponents in each of these cycles. To be sure, one reason for that is that a large number of these districts are basically hopeless from our perspective, but there is more to it than that. If there’s ever a year to get a larger number of challengers for red districts, this is it. We won’t know the totals for certain until after the filing deadline, but this is something to keep an eye on. The DMN has more.