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Land Commissioner

UT/TT poll: Trump approval more or less the same as before

A tad bit more positive than last time, but still nothing to write home about.

With the usual disclaimers about partisan imbalance, President Donald Trump’s job approval ratings are holding steady, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Overall, equal numbers of Texas voters approve and disapprove of the job Trump is doing. Beneath that, the poll found, Republicans are highly supportive, with 83 percent saying they approve, while 84 percent of Democrats say they disapprove. The president’s numbers are remarkably similar to those in last February’s UT/TT Poll — the first survey after Trump took office. Then, as now, Republicans were solidly behind him and Democrats were solidly against him, making the blended numbers appear balanced.

[…]

The contrasting voter impressions of the state’s two Republican U.S. senators continue. John Cornyn had approving marks from 29 percent of all voters, 47 percent of Republicans and 10 percent of Democrats. Overall, 38 percent of voters disapprove of the job Cornyn’s doing as the second-highest-ranking member of the Senate majority’s leadership. That’s driven by the disapproval of 59 percent of Texas Democrats.

Ted Cruz, who is up for re-election this year, gets about the same number of good grades — 40 percent — and bad ones — 41 percent. As with other officeholders, it’s about party, but only Trump’s numbers are as strongly divided on those lines. Cruz’s high grades from 72 percent of Republicans are offset by his bad grades from 73 percent of Democrats.

In another question, voters were asked their opinion of Cruz, which yielded similar results. Overall, 40 percent said they have a favorable impression of him and 42 percent have an unfavorable one. It’s a party thing, with 71 percent of Democrats holding negative opinions and 70 percent of Republicans holding positive ones. Fewer than one in five said they had no opinion at all.

Contrast that with his likely general election opponent, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke. The El Paso Democrat has never been on a statewide ballot, and it shows, with 58 percent of all voters saying they have neither a favorable nor an unfavorable opinion of him. Among Democrats, 52 percent have a favorable opinion of O’Rourke, 4 percent have an unfavorable opinion and 44 percent have no opinion at all. Among Republicans, 8 percent were favorable, 22 percent were unfavorable and 70 percent were neither positive nor negative.

Gov. Greg Abbott remains the most popular elected state official, if job assessments are the measure. Overall, 46 percent said he’s doing a good job and 31 percent said he’s not. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s numbers almost break into three equal parts: 36 percent approval, 33 percent disapproval and 31 percent neutral. And House Speaker Joe Straus, who is not seeking another term, remains the least well-known high official in Austin: 27 percent approve of the job he’s doing, 24 percent disapprove and 48 percent remain neutral.

For comparison purposes:

UT/Trib, February 2017, 46 approve/44 disapprove
UT/Trib, June 2017, 43 approve/51 disapprove
UT/Trib, October 2017, 45 approve/49 disapprove
UT/Trib, February 2018, 46 approve/46 disapprove

There are other pollsters that have shown poorer results for Trump in the past year. For apples to apples purposes, the numbers above all come from the UT/Trib poll. This was Trump’s best showing since last February, and it may represent the passage of the tax bill, the onset of primary season and the partisan stirrings that brings, random variations, some combination of the above, or something else entirely. I think his numbers are more likely to sag a big going forward than improve, and there’s always the chance that some factor like the Mueller investigation could cause him to crater. Overall, though, I think this is more or less what we should expect.

What does it mean? Well, overall probably not much. Not because of anything having to do with this poll or any other poll, but because for November purposes I don’t think the right questions are being asked, or more to the point I don’t think the right people are being asked. We all know this election is about who will turn out, so why not focus on the voters who are the biggest variables in that? What I’d love to see are surveys of 1) Democratic voters who turned out in 2016 and 2012 and 2008 but not 2010 or 2014; 2) people who voted for someone other than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in 2016 and who have a history of voting in the off years; and 3) Republicans who voted for Clinton in 2016. Ask them what their plans are for this year, and maybe you’ll get a better idea of what to expect in 8.5 months.

And on a related note:

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are far ahead of their Republican primary opponents in the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, but the Democrats running for those two high offices face more difficult paths to their party’s nomination.

Two other statewide Republican incumbents — Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — have the support of a majority of likely primary voters, but with a caveat. When those voters had the option of saying they weren’t ready to make a choice, 44 percent listed no preference in the land race and 60 percent said the same in the agriculture race.

With high numbers of undecided voters, Bush led his primary with 36 percent of the vote, and Miller led his with 27 percent. Only when they were asked how they’d vote if they had to make a choice now did the majorities appear for the incumbents.

[…]

The Democratic primary for governor is a muddle, with two clear frontrunners and no candidate close to enough votes to win without a runoff. Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez had the support of 43 percent of likely primary voters responding to the poll, while Andrew White of Houston had 24 percent. If no candidate gets a majority, the top two finishers will go to a May runoff. Grady Yarbrough and Tom Wakely each got 7 percent in that primary poll, Adrian Ocegueda and Jeffrey Payne got 5 percent, and Cedric Davis Sr., Joe Mumbach and James Jolly Clark each got 4 percent or less.

The Democratic race for lieutenant governor won’t end in a runoff — there are only two candidates. But their names are similar — Mike Collier and Michael Cooper — and their numbers are close. Collier, whose name was on the statewide ballot four years ago when he ran for comptroller, got 55 percent in the latest UT/TT Poll. Cooper got 45 percent.

“You have two lieutenant governor candidates whose names are very similar to one another, who have received very little public attention and who are not very well known,” Henson said.

The Trib’s primary polls from 2014 were, in a word, trash. They were worse than useless, and they didn’t have a strong track record in Democratic primary polls before that. Their November polling has been good, but I emphatically advise you to take any and all of their March numbers as being strictly for entertainment purposes only. You have been warned.

Endorsement watch: A veritable plethora, part 1

Whoa, all of a sudden the Chron is chock full of endorsements. Let’s run through ’em. Actually, let’s start to run through them. So many appeared all at once that I’m going to need to break this into more than one post.

For Lite Guv: Anyone but Dan.

Lieutenant governor: Scott Milder

Scott Milder has become the tip of the spear in this statewide effort to fight back against Patrick, and we endorse his run to unseat the incumbent as the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. A former City Council member in Rockwall, a Dallas suburb, Milder, 50, is aligned with the schools, business interests and pastors who are hoping to restore the conservative values of local control and pro-growth that for decades sat at the core of Texas politics. It is a movement that wants to put an end to the potty-bill politics that have dominated our state Legislature under Patrick.

From El Paso to Texarkana, Brownsville to Canadian, local cities and counties are starting to stand together against a state government obsessed with the political minutiae that excites the partisan wings but does little to make our state a better place to live. A vote for Milder will be a vote to fix school funding and return Texas to normalcy.

Democratic Lieutenant governor: Mike Collier

In the Democratic primary for this important post, the Chronicle recommends Mike Collier, the more experienced, better qualified of the two candidates vying to face off against the Republican winner in the November general election.

A graduate of the University of Texas with a bachelor’s degree and MBA, Collier wants to see more state money directed to public schools, arguing that overtaxed homeowners cannot afford to carry what ought to be the state’s share of education funding. An accountant by training, Collier held high-level positions in auditing and finance during his career at a global accounting firm, giving weight to his proposal to close a corporate tax loophole as a means of raising revenue for public education and property tax relief.

Collier, 56, is well-versed in this region’s need for storm surge protection and Harvey recovery, and he’s ready to tap the state’s substantial rainy day fund to pay for it. “Let’s crack it open and stimulate recovery as fast as we can,” he told the editorial board.

Collier supports expanding Medicaid to improve health for poor children, and he wants to improve care for rural Texans dealing with local hospital closures and few physicians wanting to practice outside large cities.

I count myself lucky that I have not yet been subjected to Dan Patrick’s TV ad barrage. I’m all in for Mike Collier, but for sure Scott Milder would be a step away from the dystopia that Patrick is determined to drag us all to.

Land Commissioner: Not Baby Bush.

Four years ago, this editorial page enthusiastically supported Bush in his first bid for elected office. We were mightily impressed with his command of the complex issues facing the General Land Office. Anybody who thought this guy was just coasting on his family name was wrong. “George P. Bush is the real deal,” we wrote.

Now the real deal has become a real disappointment.

Bush has repeatedly stumbled during his first term in his first elected office. He directed the General Land Office to spend nearly $1 million in taxpayer money to keep at least 40 employees on the payroll for as long as five months after they’d actually quit their jobs, but only if they promised they wouldn’t sue Bush or the agency. Three days after a contractor scored a $13.5 million hurricane cleanup contract, Bush’s campaign accepted almost $30,000 in contributions from the company’s executives.

But his highest profile problem has been his plan to “reimagine” the Alamo. It’s an ongoing mess criticized not only by Texas history buffs but also by Republican lawmakers irate about the way it’s being managed. Among other problems, Bush played a cynical shell game with state employees, shifting about 60 people over to a taxpayer-funded nonprofit so he could brag that he cut his agency’s staff. As one incredulous GOP fundraiser put it, “How do you screw up the Alamo?”

To his credit, months before Hurricane Harvey, Bush wrote President Donald Trump a detailed letter requesting funding for a coastal storm surge barrier. Unfortunately, since then we haven’t seen him do much to advance the cause of this critical infrastructure project.

Losing faith in a man who once looked like a rising political star is disillusioning, but voters in the Republican primary for Texas land commissioner should bypass Bush and cast their ballots for Jerry Patterson.

I feel reasonably confident that Jerry Patterson will not buy any secret mansions with secret money. He was a perfectly decent Land Commissioner whose service I respect as you know, but just clearing that bar would have been enough to prefer him. I only wish the Chron had expressed an opinion on the Democratic side, as that’s a race where I don’t feel like I know much about the candidates. Maybe we’ll get that later.

For County Treasurer – Dylan Osborne

Dylan Osborne

Three Democrats are running in this friendly race. All seem to be self-starters, and all recognize that taxpayers need to get more for their dollar than a mere office figure head who oversees routine financial operations conducted by professional staff. All want to increase efficiencies and cost savings, and improve service through better use of technology.

Our choice, Dylan Osborne, 36, is the candidate with the background in customer relations and experience in community service needed to elevate this job from one of sinecure to public service.

Osborne, who holds a Master’s in Public Administration, currently works in the city of Houston Planning and Development Department. The University of Houston graduate got his start as the manager of a restaurant and an auto parts store and has risen his way through city ranks. While employed by two city council members, the personable Osborne organized events with civic clubs and super neighborhoods to educate citizens about local issues.

My interview with Dylan Osborne is here and with Nile Copeland is here; Cosme Garcia never replied to my email. The Chron has endorsed Orlando Sanchez in the last couple of general elections. Maybe this year they’ll break that habit.

And for HCDE: Josh Wallenstein and Danny Norris.

County School Trustee Position 3, At large: Josh Wallenstein

This Democratic primary is a coin toss between Josh Wallenstein and Richard Cantu.

The HCDE has come under political fire in recent years, and it needs to achieve two goals to stay on course. The department needs to avoid conflicts of interest and maximize its use of the public dollar. Wallenstein was chief compliance officer of a major corporation before starting his own law firm and could bring to the board the skill of contract review and analysis including, minimizing waste, fraud and abuse, conflict of interest and self-dealing and maximizing efficiencies for schools. He graduated from Stanford Law School.

The department does a good job of offering school districts services at a much reduced rate, but it does a poor of job of communicating to voters how it saves taxpayer money. Cantu, who holds a masters in public administration from St. Thomas University, would be in the best position to develop partnerships and collaborations around the city and to help the department get the word out. He’s held management positions with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, Baker Ripley, the Mayor’s Citizens Assistance Office and currently he’s deputy executive director of the East Aldine Management District.

It was a tough choice but choose we must, and we endorse Wallenstein.

County School Trustee, Position 6, Precinct 1: Danyahel (Danny) Norris

There is no Republican running for this seat vacated by Democratic incumbent Erica Lee Carter, which stretches from the portion of Friendswood in Harris County to near Galena Park in the south. The winner of this primary will become a trustee on the HCDE board. Two candidates — John F. Miller and Danyahel “Danny” Norris — stand out in this three person race. We tip our hat to the only candidate with experience in education policy: Norris.

Norris, 37, holds the distinction of being a chemical engineer, a former teacher and tutor for math students, a lawyer with a degree from Thurgood Marshall School of Law, a law professor, and a librarian with a masters of library science from the University of North Texas.

Miller, who is also a chemical engineer, demonstrated an admirable commitment to the board position, having attended all of its meetings since September. However, he didn’t convince us that his budgeting or hiring skills would fill a gap in the board’s expertise.

Interviews:

Josh Wallenstein
Richard Cantu
Elvonte Patton
Danny Norris
John Miller

Prince Bryant did reply to my email request for an interview a week ago, but then never followed up when I suggested some possible times to talk. I agree with the Chron that the choices we have in these races are good ones.

The Land Office in the news

Please enjoy this coverage of a downballot statewide race, which is not something we get all that much of.

Jerry Patterson

Incumbent George P. Bush, the 41-year-old grandson and nephew of U.S. presidents, is facing off against his outspoken predecessor Jerry Patterson, 71, who wants his old job back after leaving it to unsuccessfully run for lieutenant governor.

Despite its low profile, the land commissioner has one of the state’s most critical jobs, especially now as hundreds of communities, including Houston, continue to recover in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

“The (governor), the lieutenant governor and other statewide elected officials, including the land commissioner, are important positions because they touch so many lives,” said David Dewhurst, who served as the land commissioner from 1999 to 2003.

The Texas land commissioner is responsible for cleaning up oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, raising money for schools, preserving the state’s most iconic landmark, doling out benefits to veterans and helping communities recover from a natural disaster.

“Our land commissioner oversees extensive programs that benefit our veterans, and our oil and gas activities, which are important to provide more funding for public education, particularly when the Legislature has not been as aggressive as it has in the past to provide funding for public schools,” Dewhurst said.

[…]

Tex Morgan, who is running as a Democrat, said that if elected he’ll work to increase awareness about the land office’s duties.

“Too few Texans know the scope or depth of the GLO’s responsibilities, programs and opportunities,” Morgan, 31, said.

[…]

Miguel Suazo, a Democrat on the primary ballot, has repeatedly called out Bush for not demanding that the state tap its rainy day fund, which has about $10 billion available for budget emergencies.

In a January interview with the Bryan-College Station Eagle, Bush expressed support for calling a special session so that the state could provide more money for Harvey relief. A few days after the interview was published, Bush walked back the statement saying he “misspoke.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has said calling a special session is unnecessary.

“I agree that calling a special session is not necessary,” Bush said. “I will continue to work under Gov. Abbott’s leadership as we help Texans throughout the hurricane recovery process.”

Since recovery efforts began, Bush has said the land office is at the mercy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which determines eligibility for the recovery programs and distributes the funds.

Bush has three primary opponents, of whom his predecessor Jerry Patterson would appear to be his biggest threat. I feel like he’ll probably win, but let’s remember, Baby Bush was the top votegetter in the state among Republicans with Democratic opponents in 2014. He toyed with the idea of running for Governor before “settling” on the Land Office while he built his resume and bided his time till the old farts got out of his way and he could ascend to the throne vie for the top spot. He was a rising star, the half-Latino face of the Republican future, and now he could actually fail to win re-nomination. The fact that he has non-token opposition at all is remarkable.

(Oh, and also, too: Secret mansions financed by undisclosed loans. I mean, seriously?)

On the Democratic side, Suazo was the first candidate in, while Morgan filed at the last minute. They both look all right, though at this point I don’t know enough about them to make a choice yet. This is one of those races where I’ll probably let myself be guided by endorsements more than anything else. If you have a strong feeling about either Suazo or Morgan, leave a comment and let us know.

The statewide lineups

Here’s the statewide lineup for Democrats. I’ll add in some notes afterwards.

U. S. Senator Beto O’Rourke
U. S. Senator Edward Kimbrough
U. S. Senator Sema Hernandez
Governor Adrian Ocegueda
Governor Andrew White
Governor Cedric Davis, Sr.
Governor Demetria Smith
Governor Grady Yarbrough
Governor James Jolly Clark
Governor Jeffrey Payne
Governor Joe Mumbach
Governor Lupe Valdez
Governor Tom Wakely
Lieutenant Governor Michael Cooper
Lieutenant Governor Mike Collier
Attorney General Justin Nelson
Comptroller of Public Accounts Joi Chevalier
Comptroller of Public Accounts Tim Mahoney
Commissioner of the General Land Office Miguel Suazo
Commissioner of the General Land Office Tex Morgan
Commissioner of Agriculture Kim Olson
Railroad Commissioner Chris Spellmon
Railroad Commissioner Roman McAllen
Justice, Supreme Court, Place 2 Steven Kirkland
Justice, Supreme Court, Place 4 R.K. Sandill
Justice, Supreme Court, Place 6 Kathy Cheng
Presiding Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals Maria T. (Terri) Jackson
Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals Place 7 Ramona Franklin

Just a few tidbits about some of the later entrants into the races:

Sema Hernandez was on the SOS filing page for a day or two, then disappeared from it until deadline day. I have no idea what was up with that.

Edward Kimbrough is apparently from Houston. I can’t find anything online about him.

There were two late filers in the Governor’s race, because apparently eight was not enough. James Jolly Clark is from Austin and appears to have been involved in some interesting lawsuits. Demetria Smith is a perennial candidate from Houston.

Joi Chevalier is a culinary entrepreneur. At first glance at least, she appears to have an interesting profile. It would have been nice to have heard of her before now.

Tex Morgan is a programmer in San Antonio who serves as a VIA Metropolitan Transit trustee, and has an even more interesting profile.

Chris Spellmon was a candidate for HCDP Chair who ultimately endorsed Eartha Jean Johnson in that race.

Some of these races are perhaps a bit more interesting than I expected them to be. I’ll do a separate post looking at Congressional and legislative candidates later.

There weren’t any late entrants of interest for statewide races on the Republican side. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing is that Baby Bush got multiple challengers but no one opposed Ken Paxton. Given that there is a nonzero chance he could get convicted of a felony next year, that seems like a curious outcome. Hey, their problem, not mine.

The TDP touted its ginormous candidate tally late Monday. I’ll summarize as follows:

All 36 Congressional seats are contested, with 110 total candidates.
14 of 15 State Senate seats are contested, with 24 total candidates.
133 of 150 State House seats are contested, with 189 total candidates.

Someone with a much more in depth knowledge of Texas’ political history will have to say when the last time was that we had a similar set of Democratic primary races. I’ll try to do a similar let-me-Google-that-for-you overview of these folks in the coming days, as time allows.

Finally, one more news item of interest:

Former U.S. Congressman Nick Lampson just filed to run as a Democrat for Jefferson County judge, KFDM/Fox 4 has learned.

The deadline to file was 6 p.m. Lampson will not face an opponent in the primary, but is challenging Republican incumbent Jeff Branick in next November’s general election.

I’m a longtime fan of Nick Lampson’s, so I’m happy to see him stay involved. The incumbent switched from D to R this year, so it would be nice to send him packing. Stace and RG Ratcliffe have more.

Filing news: Jerry’s back

Former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson would like his office back, please.

Jerry Patterson

Patterson, who was first elected as the state’s land commissioner in 2003, wants to head the agency that manages state-owned lands and the Alamo. He gave up the job to run for lieutenant governor in 2014, but came in last in a four-way GOP primary race.

Patterson has long been critical of Bush, including the office’s response to Hurricane Harvey. Since 2011 the office has also overseen housing recovery efforts after natural disasters.

“If your headline is that Jerry Patterson wants his old job back, that would be wrong,” Patterson told the Houston Chronicle. “I don’t need this job and I would prefer to be praising George P. Bush.”

He decided to run himself — after looking for someone else to make the race against Bush — because he believed he was “watching this agency crater for the past three years.” That criticism comes after watching the agency refuse to disclose details about the Alamo restoration project that the Land Office is overseeing and after seeing tens of thousands of Texas homeless after Hurricane Harvey while just two homes have been rebuilt so far.

“This morning, Harvey victims who have been sleeping in tents awakened to the snow,” Patterson said.

I’ll say this about Jerry Patterson: I disagree with him on many things, but he was without a doubt one of the more honorable people serving in government while he was there. He took the job of Land Commissioner seriously, he was a stalwart defender of the Texas Open Beaches Act, and in my view he always acted with the best interests of the state at heart. He’s not going to be my first choice, but I’d take him over Baby Bush in a heartbeat.

Land Commissioner was one of two statewide offices for which there had not been a Democratic candidate, but as the story note, that is no longer the case:

[Miguel] Suazo, an attorney from Austin, announced Friday he would run for the post as a Democrat.

No stranger to politics, Suazo worked as an aid to U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, in Washington D.C. and has also worked as an energy and environment associate for Wellford Energy Advisors, a manager for regulatory affairs for the the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. He has also worked as an oil and gas attorney in Houston.

“I am running for Land Commissioner because I am qualified for the office and eager to bring new leadership to Texas,” Suazo in a statement declaring his candidacy. “I represent small and large companies and also regular folks who need a job done. I know business and I know people . . . I’m self-made, nothing’s been handed to me. I intend to bring that approach to the General Land Office.”

Suazo, a proponent of block-chain technology, said he may be the first candidate in Texas to launch his campaign using proceeds from Bitcoin investments.

Here’s his campaign Facebook page. I’m so glad there will be a choice in November.

Other news:

– The other statewide office that was lacking a Democratic candidate was Comptroller. That too is no longer the case as Tim Mahoney has filed. I don’t know anything about him as yet beyond what you can see on that website.

– Someone named Edward Kimbrough has filed in the Democratic primary for Senate. Sema Hernandez had previously shown up on the SOS candidate filings page, but hasn’t been there for several days. Not sure what’s up with that, but be that as it may, it’s a reminder that Beto O’Rourke needs to keep running hard all the way through. On the Republican side, someone named Mary Miller has filed. As yet, neither Bruce Jacobson nor Stefano de Stefano has appeared on that list. It will break my heart if Stefano de Stefano backs out on this.

– Scott Milder’s campaign sent out a press release touting an endorsement he received for his primary campaign against Dan Patrick from former Education Commissioner Dr. Shirley J. (Neeley) Richardson, but as yet he has not filed. He did have a chat with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune the other day, so there’s that.

– Believe it or not, Democrats now have at least one candidate for all 36 Congressional offices. CD04 was the last holdout. Among other things, this means that every county in Texas will have the opportunity to vote in March for at least one non-statewide candidate. Very well done, y’all. Republicans are currently skipping a couple of the bluer Congressional districts. They also have nine candidates for CD21, which is the biggest pileup so far.

– Here in Harris County, in addition to the now-contested race for County Judge, there are a couple of challenges to incumbent legislators. Damien LaCroix is once again running against Sen. John Whitmire in SD15, and Richard A. Bonton has filed in HD142 against longtime State Rep. Harold Dutton. Also, there is now a Democrat running in SD07, the district formerly held by Dan Patrick and now held by his mini-me Paul Bettencourt, David Romero, and a candidate in HD129, Alexander Karjeker. Still need someone to file in HD135.

The filing deadline is Monday, and that’s when any real surprises will happen. Enjoy the weekend and be ready for something crazy to happen on the 11th, as it usually does.

Filing news: Lupe Valdez is in for Governor

Here she comes.

Sheriff Lupe Valdez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of that primary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legislative hearing on emergency leave

Figure this will be on the legislative agenda next spring.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

At a Texas House hearing Tuesday looking into how some state agencies were able to keep some departing employees on the public payroll by granting them emergency leave, lawmakers expressed frustration that vague state rules may have allowed the practice.

“I want to know exactly … if there [were] any violations of the law or violations of the process, and I think that’s incumbent upon everybody on this committee to figure out if that transpired,” said Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio. “If the law wasn’t broken, then I want to know exactly how we can correct it.”

Lawmakers on the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics were looking into whether heads of agencies have too much discretion when it comes to awarding emergency leave.

“There’s going to be absolute certain change to this statute, but let’s work together to get it right,” said Committee Chairman Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, during the hearing.

Texas does not award severance pay to state employees, but recent news reports showed that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton paid both his first assistant attorney general and communications director for months after they left the agency by categorizing both as being on emergency leave. Other reports revealed a similar practice in the General Land Office where departing employees continued to receive compensation, though not through emergency leave.

Emergency leave is often used as a way of permitting state employees to take a leave of absence for a death in the family, but the law also allows agency heads to grant it for other unspecified situations.

In June, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, asked the Legislature to examine the issue. He had previously called for limiting the practice in order to ensure “that agencies use taxpayer dollars appropriately.”

See here and here for the background. There’s a request for an investigation by the Rangers into the severances, but I don’t know where that stands. As a philosophical matter, I don’t particularly object to severance packages for state employees. There ought to be some limit on them, but I don’t think they need to be banned completely. The use of emergency leave as a form of severance package, done as a way of keeping people quiet as they’re being shown the door, is another matter, one that deserves a close look from the Lege. I don’t know what action they’ll take, but it will be something. The Chron has more.

Abbott orders state agencies to obey the law

Better late than never.

Droppin’ dimes, droppin’ dimes

Gov. Greg Abbott and Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Wednesday ordered state agencies to stop paying departing employees by placing them on “emergency leave.”

“Pursuant to this directive, the use of emergency leave, administrative leave or other mechanisms to continue paying state employees who have ceased to work will be prohibited,” the directive from Abbott and Hegar stated. The directive will remain in place until the Legislature takes up the issue during next year’s legislative session, Abbott’s office said.

The Dallas Morning News and other media outlets have recently reported on the growing practice by agencies to keep departing employees on the payroll by placing them on “emergency leave,” often as a form of severance.

The practice first came to light after reports that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton paid his first assistant attorney and communications director for months after they left the agency. Subsequent stories revealed the General Land Office continued to pay departing employees without using the emergency leave designation.

Representatives of both agencies said they will follow the governor’s new order.

“We appreciate Governor Abbott’s leadership,” said Marc Rylander, spokesman for the attorney general’s office. “We do not disagree with the Governor’s new policy for all agencies subject to the direction of the governor, and we will concur with it moving forward.”

Brittany Eck, GLO spokeswoman, said the agency will suspend the use of separation agreements until lawmakers decide how to proceed.

“We look forward to continuing our work with the Governor, Comptroller, and members of the Texas Legislature to not only clarify the law on this issue but also discuss how state agencies should manage its workforce in an efficient and cost-effective manner,” Eck said.

See here and here for the background. The Lone Star Project requested an investigation into this a couple of days ago. I guess it had finally gotten to the point where Abbott could no longer ignore the issue. Trail Blazers and the Chron have more.

Lone Star Project requests investigation of severance packages

From the inbox:

BagOfMoney

Today, Lone Star Project Director Matt Angle sent letters to the Texas Rangers, the State Auditor and the Travis County District Attorney requesting formal investigations into a series of questionable payments made by Attorney General Ken Paxton, State Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, State Land Commissioner George P. Bush and other state officials.

Improper Payments Detailed in Investigative News Reports

Widespread abuse of state employee compensation has been detailed in a series of investigative news reports by the Houston Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News and other Texas publications over recent weeks.  The reports point to the systematic use of “emergency leave” as well as document manipulation to allow some state employees to quit or be removed from their state jobs but continue receiving thousands of dollars in state pay.   In some cases, the payments appear intended to provide special treatment to politically connected or otherwise favored employees.  In other instances, the payments may be a form of hush money to keep specific employees from criticizing state officials or disclosing information that might prove incriminating or embarrassing.

Angle’s letter to the Texas Rangers can be seen here and reads in part:

“These reports confirm that, contrary to the intent of law, multiple statewide officeholders have provided certain employees with emergency leave packages as a form of severance pay or even settlement agreements.”

“The intentional misuse of state funds violates both the spirit and the letter of the emergency leave provision of state law and could be viewed by Texas taxpayers as the equivalent of tax-payer funded hush money.”

“Specifically, the facts outlined by state news media and Texas state law merit a full investigation of the Attorney General, Agriculture Commissioner, Land Commissioner, Teacher Retirement System, Water Development Board and potentially other agencies for violations of Texas Penal Code 39.02 (Abuse of Official Capacity), Section 36.02 (Bribery), and Section 37.10 (Tampering with a Government Record).”

See here and here for the background. I had assumed someone would file a complaint over this sooner or later. The Rangers and the State Auditor can add it to their growing to-do list. The Chron has more.

More on severance pay and the Land Commissioner’s office

The law doesn’t apply here.

BagOfMoney

After reports of state agencies keeping former employees on the payroll after they stopped working, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other agency heads have taken heat for stretching the rules on paid “emergency leave” to keep the ex-workers on the books.

But when 26 employees were paid for an additional one to two months after they quit working for the General Land Office, Land Commissioner George P. Bush didn’t use emergency leave or any other type of paid leave established in law to compensate them. Instead, Bush’s agency treated the former employees as if they were still working, sending time sheets to the comptroller’s office indicating they had shown up to work.

The arrangement raises questions about whether the agency properly awarded and reported the paid leave, which amounted to at least $383,000 for the 26 employees let go during Bush’s “reboot” of the agency after he took office in January 2015.

An additional 14 employees signed separation agreements when they left the agency after Bush was elected in November 2014 but before he was sworn in. Bush’s predecessor, Jerry Patterson, said those terminations should also be included as part of Bush’s agency reorganization because Patterson allowed Bush and his interim team to decide who should be hired and fired during that period.

[…]

State law spells out several types of paid leave — for such events as illnesses, vacation and deaths in the family — and the comptroller’s office requires agencies to indicate what type of leave an absent employee is getting by selecting a time sheet code that matches a leave category established in law.

The General Land Office, however, didn’t select any type of leave for the 26 employees with separation agreements, and the agency has since said it left the leave field blank because there was no leave category that corresponded to their circumstance. “Because there was not a more accurate code, we used what was readily available to us, and we didn’t want to miscategorize it as something that is not accurate,” agency spokeswoman Brittany Eck said.

For Buck Wood, a former deputy comptroller and expert on Texas government and ethics law, that omission is proof that the leave wasn’t authorized by state law.

“There’s got to be an appropriation, and there’s also got to be a law behind an appropriation that authorizes it,” Wood said. “In this case, neither exists. There is no such thing as severance pay (in state law), and there’s no appropriation for it, so it’s just totally and completely illegal.”

Also, Wood said, any time sheets approved by the General Land Office that indicated employees were still working after they had left the agency might constitute falsification of government records, a felony offense.

Bush’s staff said such payments are standard practice in the business world because they are efficient. Noting that none of the 100 employees who left the agency under Bush have sued for discrimination, Eck said the agreements save taxpayer money by reducing potential litigation risks and legal fees.

See here for the background. You almost have to admire their tenacity with the “it’s totally legit in the private sector” defense. Who cares that this is the public sector, or that knowing how our money is spent and how our public offices are being run are things we are supposed to value? Not George P. Bush, that’s for sure. You won’t get that kind of clarity of vision from just anyone. Ross Ramsey has more.

You get a severance! And you get a severance!

Everybody gets a severance package!

BagOfMoney

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush has spent nearly $1 million in taxpayer money to entice dozens of people fired by his administration to agree not to sue him or the agency, a practice that may run afoul of a ban on severance pay for state workers.

Bush, a first-term Republican, has directed the General Land Office to keep at least 40 people on the payroll for as long as five months after ending their employment, according to an analysis of records obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The ex-staffers did not have to use vacation time, and, in fact, continued to accrue more time for as long as they were on the payroll. In return, they agreed in writing not to sue the agency or discuss the deal.

Many of the recipients were top aides to former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson who were fired during an agency “reboot” in which Bush replaced more than 100 employees.

Such separation arrangements are made frequently in the corporate world, but are not allowed in Texas government, where there is no severance and staffers generally are required to work to be paid, according to employment lawyers, union leaders and former state officials.

“I can understand the thinking of an agency head who wants to get rid of someone and thinks that this is an easy way to do it, but this is not the way to do it,” said Buck Wood, an ethics expert and former deputy state comptroller, noting the detailed rules that govern how agencies can spend money do not authorize that purpose. “Keeping someone on the payroll when they’re not coming to work so you can avoid the hassle of a lawsuit is just illegal.”

Malinda Gaul, a San Antonio employment lawyer who has represented state workers for 33 years, said she had never heard of such an arrangement.

[…]

Steve Aragon, a former general counsel for the Health and Human Services Commission, said he thinks there are justifiable reasons to pay employees for not working, including to prevent litigation in cases in which it was clear that a staffer likely would not come back. However, he said, it is not something that state agencies should do frequently.

“These situations should be exceptional and would not be expected as a matter of routine,” Aragon said.

Others objected to any use of the practice, including Seth Hutchinson, a spokesman for the Texas State Employees Union.

“It’s not an appropriate use of state funds,” Hutchinson said. “If people are being wrongfully fired, they’re being wrongfully fired, and they shouldn’t be using state funds to cover it up.”

After being told that it is not uncommon in the corporate world, Hutchinson scoffed.

“State government should be held to a higher standard of accountability,” he said.

This is getting to be quite the pattern, isn’t it? It’s almost like Baby Bush and Ken Paxton and Sid Miller have no regard for the law but only care about their own interests. I presume someone will file a complaint about this, thus providing Greg Abbott another opportunity to profess ignorance about what’s happening in his government. Keep it up, fellas.

Don’t expect Congress to pay for a Gulf Coast floodgate system

I sure don’t.

After nearly a decade of bickering and finger pointing, Texas scientists and lawmakers finally seem to agree that building some version of a “coastal spine” — a massive seawall and floodgate system — would best help protect the Houston region from a devastating hurricane.

But with a price tag sure to reach into the billions, the spine will almost certainly require a massive infusion of federal money, state officials agree. Whether Texas’ congressional delegation has the political backbone to deliver the cash remains to be seen.

While state officials say the project enjoys the full support of Texans in Congress, almost every member has been silent on the issue, including those who hold the most sway.

“Everything depends on how long it takes us to get Congress,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, a local economic development organization. “We could have a hurricane in three months.”

In March, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica published an extensive look at what Houston’s perfect storm would look like. Scientists, experts, and public officials say that such a hurricane would kill thousands and cripple the national economy.

Building some sort of coastal barrier system around Galveston and Houston would rank as one of the nation’s most ambitious public works projects and would be unlikely to succeed without champions in Washington. State leaders and Houston-area congressmen cited U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Kevin Brady of Houston as those most likely to fill the role of standard bearer.

Cornyn and Brady, both Republicans, declined repeated interview requests about the coastal project over a period of months. The state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, is busy running for president, and his staff has said he is waiting results of further studies. Of the 36 members representing Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives, only five agreed to interviews on the subject.

At the state level, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who has made coastal protection one of his top priorities, said he hopes for support from Brady, who chairs one of the most powerful committees in the U.S. House. He also mentioned Cornyn.

Congressman Randy Weber, a Republican from Friendswood, said he is already pushing the issue, but added that a senator’s support will be critical.

“John Cornyn, of course, a senior senator, majority whip over on the Senate side, would be a great one to champion the cause,” he said.

[…]

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also just started studying the issue, and Cornyn’s office emphasized that he signed a letter last October in support of that effort. But the study will take at least five years.

In another letter sent last November, 32 members of the House delegation urged the Army Corps to speed up the process even though it is at the mercy of funding from Congress.

Meanwhile, the next hurricane season is just two months away.

“Don’t just write a letter and think that you’re done with it,” said Michel Bechtel, the mayor of Morgan’s Point, an industrial town on the Houston Ship Channel that was nearly wiped out during Hurricane Ike in 2008. “Let’s get some dollars flowing down here and let’s build it.”

Republican Congressman Pete Olson said the Corps is taking too long and should have started its efforts earlier. But for years it didn’t have the money to study hurricane protection for the Houston region. The agency was able to start last fall only because the Texas General Land Office agreed to pay for half the $20 million study at the insistence of Bush.

Congress is supposed to provide the rest, but the Army Corps will have to ask for it every year until the study is complete.

Asked if he thinks Congress will commit to the $10 million, Olson said the Corps had never given him that dollar figure. “They told you that, but not me that,” he said.

[…]

Weber said he thinks the federal government should help pay for a hurricane protection barrier, but he wouldn’t comment on whether his colleagues in Congress agree with him.

“I don’t know, well, maybe,” he said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I say the odds of Congress agreeing to pony up some $10 billion or so for a coastal floodgate system are pretty damn low. I cannot imagine Randy Weber’s nihilistic teabagger caucus members going along with it. Hell, I’d bet money right now that the Texas Republican Congressional caucus is not all on board with the idea, and I’ll even exclude Ted Cruz from consideration. Look at the recent track record of Congressional Republicans not wanting to appropriate funds to places that had been hit by actual disasters (two words: Superstorm Sandy) and ask yourself why they would vote to spend money on a disaster that hasn’t happened and may never do so in their lifetime. All spending is political now, and the death of earmarks makes dealmaking a lot harder. The fact that there isn’t unanimity about the best kind of flood mitigation system doesn’t help, either. Maybe someday, in a different political climate, but not now. Don’t be surprised if you see another article like this being written a couple of years from now.

Remember the Alamo lawsuit

Release the lawyers!

Earlier this month, Texas General Land Commissioner George P. Bush fired The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, longtime managers of the Alamo, effective July 10. In a letter to the group, Bush cited 10 contract violations and said the state would be moving in a new direction. Now, the group is suing the general land office and Bush, claiming they are wrongfully trying to claim the DRT’s library.

The lawsuit, filed in Bexar County on Monday, alleges that shortly after Bush decided to terminate the DRT’s management, the land office told the organization of plans to “transition” the group’s library collection to the state. The suit says this is an “unconstitutional taking” of private property.

The land office declined to comment on the suit.

The lawsuit also says that the land office ordered the library, which is located within the Alamo complex, to be closed on the weekends except for one Saturday a month. Then, the DRT says it was warned “the San Antonio Police Department would begin making ‘special patrols’ around the DRT Library premises.”

I don’t have a dog in this fight, and I don’t really care about the outcome of the lawsuit. I’m just looking forward to the made-for-TV movie that will eventually be filmed. My only regret is that Jan Hooks won’t be around to have a part in it. The Current has more.

A Denton fracking overview

The Trib has a long piece on the Denton fracking fight, also published in Politico to help non-Texans understand what this was about. It’s a good read that goes over all the main points if you need a refresher on the details. There are two bits of interest I’d like to highlight:

Cathy McMullen taps the brakes of her Toyota Prius after driving through a neighborhood of mostly one-story homes in Denton, about an hour northwest of Dallas. “There,” she says, nodding toward a limestone wall shielding from view a pad of gas wells. McMullen, a 56-year-old ­­­­home health nurse, cruised past a stretch of yellowed grass and weeds. “They could have put that pad site on that far corner right there,” she says, pointing ahead. “The land’s all vacant.”

Instead, the wells sit on the corner of Bonnie Brae and Scripture Street. Across the way: Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. Across another street: the basketball court, picnic tables and purple playground of McKenna Park. That was where Range Resources, a company based in Fort Worth, wanted to start drilling and fracking in 2009.

McMullen, who at that time had just moved into a house about 1,500 feet away from the proposed site, joined others in raising concerns about bringing the gas industry and hydraulic fracturing — widely known as fracking — so close to where kids play. Fracking, which involves blasting apart underground rock with millions of gallons of chemical-laced water to free up oil and gas, “is a brutal, brutal process for people living around it,” McMullen says.

Their efforts in city hall failed.

If McMullen felt invisible five years ago, she doesn’t anymore. Today, state lawmakers, the oil and gas industry and national environmental groups have become acutely aware of Denton, home to two universities, 277 gas wells and now, thanks to a rag-tag group of local activists, Texas’ first ban on fracking.

Thrust into the saga is George P. Bush, who in January will take the helm of the Texas General Land Office, an otherwise obscure office that manages mineral rights on millions of acres of state-owned property. In his first political office, Jeb’s eldest son and George W.’s nephew will inherit one of two major lawsuits filed against Denton, home to a sliver of that mineral portfolio.

We don’t need a patchwork approach to drilling regulations across the state,” Bush, a former energy investment consultant, told The Texas Tribune in July as the anti-fracking campaign gained steam. It appears to be his only public statement on the issue.

Bush’s role in the dispute — however peripheral — only brightens the spotlight on Denton, and it forces him and others to choose between two interests Texans hold dear: petroleum and local control.

I’m sorry, but the idea that “local control” is a dearly-held ideal, especially by Republicans, is a complete myth. Just look at the myriad bills Republican legislators have introduced in recent sessions and/or will introduce this session to limit or eliminate the ability of cities to pass and enforce anti-discrimination ordinances and to regulate a wide variety of things, from fracking to single use plastic bags to payday lending. Throw in other top legislative priorities to require cities to enforce federal immigration laws and to limit their revenue growth via tighter appraisal caps on top of that. As I said before, Republicans are at least as interested nowadays in nullifying municipal laws as they are of nullifying federal laws. Whatever fealty there is to the idea of “local control” has long gone out the window any time some local entity has tried to do something state Republicans – or more specifically, their corporate masters – don’t like. It’s time we recognized that.

McMullen’s group — Frack Free Denton — persuaded nearly 59 percent of Denton voters to approve a fracking ban on Nov. 4, after knocking on doors, staging puppet shows and performing song-and-dance numbers. The movement had help from Earthworks, a national environmental group, but its opponents — backed by the oil and gas lobby — raised more than $700,000 to spend on mailers and television ads and a high-profile public relations and polling firm. That was more than 10 times what Frack Free Denton collected.

[…]

Trying to make sense of the Nov. 4 landslide vote, some industry officials suggest that the voting power of Denton’s roughly 51,000 university students effectively drowned out the town’s permanent residents. The gowns, the argument goes, drove the town. “If we’re looking at Denton and trying to glean some sort of national significance out of this,” says Steve Everley, the national spokesman for Energy In-Depth, which promotes the petroleum industry, “then the significance is that activists are having success in college towns and in populations with few if any wells.”

But Denton’s voting records cast doubt on that argument. It’s not clear that college students turned out in high enough numbers to single-handedly tilt the vote. Voters closer to campuses overwhelmingly supported the ban, as well as Democrat Wendy Davis in the race for governor. But plenty of conservatives also rejected fracking. Both Republican Greg Abbott, who ultimately defeated Davis, and the ban prevailed in 11 of Denton’s biggest 33 precincts. Roughly 25,000 votes were cast in the fracking question and those opposed to fracking outpaced supporters by some 4,400 votes. Denton would have still passed the measure by 412 votes even if voters younger than 30 were disregarded. Voting data also shows that the average age of a voter was 52.

I’ve mentioned before that Democratic turnout in Denton was helped by the referendum, and that’s good, but it could and should have been better. I wonder how many people in Denton voted for the fracking ban and also voted for Ryan Sitton for Railroad Commissioner and George P. Bush for Land Commissioner, perhaps without realizing that by doing so they were partially undermining their own vote. Some of that was probably force of habit – partisan affiliation is strong – some of it was probably just not making the connection. I’m sure there were missed opportunities for Dems to work with the anti-fracking folks to help make that connection. Of course, that can be a dicey proposition when you need Republican support to win and thus need for your effort to appear as non-partisan as possible so as not to turn any of those folks off, and besides I’m sure it would have been difficult to get that message through when the city is already drowning in pro- and anti-fracking ads. I don’t have a good answer here, I’m just saying this is the sort of thing we need to be thinking about.

Denton responds to fracking ban lawsuit

Game on.

One day before its first-in-Texas ban on hydraulic fracturing is set to take effect, Denton called the oil and gas extraction technique a “public nuisance” that the North Texas town has the right to regulate.

“Those activities have caused conditions that are subversive of public order and constitute an obstruction of public rights of the community as a whole,” Denton’s attorneys wrote in a legal brief filed Monday. “Such conditions include, but are not limited to, noise, increased heavy truck traffic, liquid spills, vibrations and other offensive results.”

The argument came in the city’s two-page response to a lawsuit filed by the Texas Oil and Gas Association just hours after Denton voters overwhelmingly approved a ban on hydraulic fracturing – widely known as fracking – on election night Nov. 4.

Texas’ largest petroleum group is asking a Denton County district court to declare the ban invalid and unenforceable, saying it infringes on the state’s right to regulate drilling – and mineral owners’ right to develop their resources.

[…]

In its response, Denton said the petroleum group did not identify specific state regulations that make its ban unconstitutional.

“The suit is premised on the [Railroad Commission of Texas] completely occupying the field of regulation,” said Jim Bradbury, a Fort Worth-based lawyer who focuses on environmental and energy issues. “Denton is rightly seeking to have them identify the actual regulations that supposedly occupy the field.”

See here for the background. That was written Monday – the ban went into effect yesterday, and as far as I could tell from a news search last night, has not been enjoined by a judge. Denton’s response to the TXOGA lawsuit is here. There was apparently a second suit filed by the General Land Office (GLO press release here) at the same time, alleging that the Denton ban prevents the GLO from performing its constitutional duty to maximize revenues from leasing public school lands; Denton’s response to that suit is here. I’m not a lawyer and I’m not going to try to evaluate the merits of these claims, I’m just looking forward to seeing what the courts do with them.

2014 Day 10 Early Vote totals

EarlyVoting

Here they are, and here are the full 2010 EV totals. The debate about what the turnout numbers mean continues apace. You already know what I think about that, so let me introduce a different perspective. We’ve been talking about these numbers mostly in the context of 2010. I’ve been saying that’s at least somewhat misleading since so much of the early voting explosion that year came from Republicans. I thought it might be useful to look back at previous to see how Democrats in Harris County performed in them, since as I’ve been saying it’s as much about who turns out as it is how many of them there are. To that end, here are the actual absentee plus in-person early voting numbers for the Land Commissioner race for 2002, 2006, and 2010, taken from harrisvotes.com:

Year Candidate Mail Early Total Pct RvD ======================================================== 2002 Patterson 22,114 79,879 101,993 56.1 58.0 2002 Bernsen 12,607 61,003 73,710 40.6 42.0 2002 Others 634 5,374 6,008 3.3 2006 Patterson 13,640 88,517 102,157 55.2 56.8 2006 Hathcox 7,945 69,703 77,648 42.0 43.2 2006 Others 477 4,629 5,106 2.8 2010 Patterson 36,216 221,145 257,361 59.2 60.3 2010 Uribe 16,450 152,832 169,288 39.0 39.7 2010 Others 733 7,098 7,831 1.8

“RvD” is the straight R versus D percentage. I have used the Railroad Commissioner race for similar purposes in the past; I had no specific reason for using the Land Commish race here, I figure they both recapitulate partisan participation reasonably well. Greg had the R/D number at 54.5/45.5 through Monday. However you feel about the numbers so far, they are better than what we have done in elections past. Does that mean they are as good as they could be? Is this where I thought we’d be as of today? No and no. But it is better than what we have done in past non-Presidential elections, assuming we don’t do any worse till the end of the week. We’ll see how it goes from here.

Interview index

For your convenience, here is a list of all my interviews and judicial Q&As for the November election. This includes ones I did for the primary and runoff.

Interviews

US SenateDavid Alameel

Attorney GeneralSam Houston
ComptrollerMike Collier
Land CommissionerJohn Cook
Railroad CommissionerSteve Brown

State Senate, SD15Sen. John Whitmire
State Senate, SD17Rita Lucido

State House, HD23Susan Criss
State House, HD75Rep. Mary Gonzalez
State House, HD131Rep. Alma Allen
State House, HD133Laura Nicol
State House, HD145Rep. Carol Alvarado

District AttorneyKim Ogg
County ClerkAnn Harris Bennett
District ClerkJudith Snively
TreasurerDavid Rosen
HCDE Trustee At LargeDebra Kerner
HCDE Trustee At LargeMelissa Noriega

Judicial Q&As

14th Court of AppealsKyle Carter

180th Criminal District CourtRandy Roll
185th Criminal District CourtMack McInnis
230th Criminal District CourtGreg Glass
248th Criminal District CourtShawna Reagin
263rd Criminal District CourtHerb Ritchie

55th Civil District CourtKay Morgan
113th Civil District CourtSteven Kirkland
190th Civil District CourtFarrah Martinez
234th Civil District CourtBarbara Gardner
281st Civil District CourtTanner Garth

246th Family District CourtSandra Peake
247th Family District CourtChip Wells
280th Family District CourtBarbara Stalder
308th Family District CourtJim Evans
309th Family District CourtKathy Vossler
311th Family District CourtSherri Cothrun

313th Juvenile District CourtTracy Good

Harris County Probate Court #1Kim Bohannon Hoesl
Harris County Probate Court #2Josefina Rendon
Harris County Probate Court #4James Horwitz

Harris County Criminal Court At Law No. 2Harold Landreneau
Harris County Criminal Court At Law No. 10George Barnstone
Harris County Criminal Court At Law No. 13Jason Luong

Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 2Scot Dollinger

Interview with John Cook

John Cook

John Cook

The office of Land Commissioner is often overlooked, but it has a role to play in a whole lot of aspects of state government. From state parks to beaches to mineral rights, from the Alamo to veterans issues to the Permanent School Fund, there’s a whole lot the Land Commissioner does. Outgoing Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson was and is generally well regarded for his stewardship of the office. Aiming to succeed him is former El Paso Mayor John Cook. Cook, like Patterson a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, had a long career as a Manager of Network Operations with Southwestern Bell Telephone Company followed by time as a school teacher before being elected to El Paso’s City Council. As Mayor of El Paso, he helped pass a domestic partner benefits law, and survived a subsequent recall effort over it. He’s also an accomplished musician, officially making him the most well-rounded candidate on the ballot this year. Here’s what we talked about:

Barring anything unforeseen, this is my last candidate interview (though not my last interview; there will be one more next Monday) for the 2014 cycle. As noted before, the judicial Q&As will continue through the end of the week and possibly beyond, depending on whether I get more responses or not.

Endorsement watch: Probate courts

The Chron makes its endorsements for Probate Courts, and as they have done recently stayed mostly with incumbents while having nice things to say about the challengers. The one Democrat they recommended out of the four races was as follows:

Jerry Simoneaux

Harris County Probate Court No. 3: Jerry Simoneaux

A former probate court staff attorney, Democratic challenger Jerry Simoneaux is the right choice for this bench. A certified mediator who has practiced probate law for 13 years, Simoneaux, 48, graduated from the South Texas College of Law.

Incumbent Republican Judge Rory Robert Olsen has presided over this court since 1999. With a law degree from Duke University, an LLM from Southern Methodist University and a Master of Judicial Studies from the University of Nevada, Olsen, 65, has become an expert on the bench when it comes to mental health issues in probate. A prolific writer on the topic, he has recently worked on an assisted-outpatient treatment program with the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County. However, Olsen’s energy has begun to fade, and he has developed a reputation as an inconsistent judge. Voters should thank him for his years of service and send him out on a high note.

As it happens, Simoneaux is the one candidate out of four for whom I have not yet received Q&A responses. I previously published Q&As with James Horwitz and Kim Bohannon Hoesl, and will have one with Josefina Rendon next week.

In other endorsement news, the Chron also endorsed Big John Cornyn for re-election, in decidedly non-ringing fashion. Some choice quotes:

But voters should know that Cornyn is a Republican first and a Texan second. For a man who has served in elected office since 1986, Cornyn remains unfocused on issues of importance to Houston and the Gulf Coast.

Meeting with the Chronicle editorial board, it seemed as if coastal storm surge protection was a new topic for Texas’ senior senator. When asked about his position on the Ike Dike, Cornyn responded, “I don’t even know what that is.”

Discussing the nuances of exporting crude, Cornyn admitted, “I don’t pretend to understand these things.”

Way to make our alma mater proud, John. Elsewhere, the Star-Telegram joined the Sam Houston bandwagon, while the Dallas Morning News joined the chorus of Mike Collier fans. Let me quote a bit from the FWST piece, since it’s about as succinct a case against Ken Paxton as you’ll see:

The Republican nominee, lawyer and state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney, is undeserving of consideration.

Paxton was fined $1,000 and still may face a felony investigation.

In May, state securities regulators found Paxton sent clients to an investment firm without registering or disclosing his own paid role.

It happened three times. A 2012 violation is within the five-year statute of limitations.

Paxton should know better.

No candidate to lead “the people’s law firm” should ever have misled a client, a state board or the people of Texas.

Anyone want to argue with that? By the way, there apparently was a Ken Paxton sighting the other day, in which Paxton admitted in passive-voice fashion that he had indeed committed a crime but that he stands lawyered-up and ready to fight the charges against him when they are finally filed. If that’s not a compelling campaign story, I don’t know what is.

Finally, the DMN went red in the races for Land Commissioner, Ag Commissioner, and Railroad Commissioner, in the latter case because they valued industry experience more than not being another industry insider, in the former case because they naively think Baby Bush might somehow turn out to be Not That Kind Of Republican, and in the middle case for reasons unclear. Maybe Sid Miller was the only one that showed up, I dunno.

More on the Denton fracking referendum

I think everyone agrees the Denton anti-fracking referendum will wind up in court if it passes. It’s just a question of how wired the courts will be for the plaintiffs.

Voters will decide whether the city will become the state’s first to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – the method of oil and gas extraction that has led to a domestic energy boom. But passage of a ban would probably trigger another fracking fight: a legal clash over a city’s power to regulate for health and safety and the rights of mineral owners to develop their resources. The outcome could reshape Texas law at a time when drilling is causing tension in some of its urban areas.

“It’s going to be one of those first-time tests, and I don’t think there’s a clear answer out there in Texas law,” said Jim Bradbury, a Fort Worth-based lawyer who focuses on environmental and energy issues.

The Denton measure would not prohibit drilling outright; it would apply only to fracking, which involves blasting apart rock with millions of gallons of chemical-laced water hauled in by trucks. After gathering nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition calling for a ban on fracking, opponents forced the City Council to vote on it. Council members rejected the proposal last week, leaving the decision to voters.

Denton, a city of 121,000 with more than 270 gas wells scattered among its neighborhoods, is one of several cities that has tried to ban fracking. That includes towns in New York, whose highest court last month upheld local ordinances banning the practice. The state of Colorado has sued its cities that have banned fracking and is pushing back against ballot measures that would toughen regulations. The prospect of such a ban in Texas – a leading oil and natural gas producer — has put Denton in a bright spotlight, rankling industry leaders and the state”s Republican leadership.

“If one community after another continues to say ‘Not in my backyard,’ then before long, a tsunami of exclusion will jeopardize our freedom as a country profits as a corporate entity,” said Chris Faulkner, the chief executive of Breitling Energy in Dallas, one of many industry representatives who spoke at City Hall before the Council”s vote.

I fixed your quote for you, Chris. The debasement of the word “freedom” is one of the great travesties of the 21st century so far.

Though Texas courts have occasionally considered cities’ drilling regulations, they have yet to see a case of such size and scope, legal experts say.

Texas law says the state intends its mineral resources to be “fully and effectively exploited,” but courts have said the power is not absolute. The Railroad Commission has jurisdiction over all oil and gas wells in the state, with authority to adopt “all necessary rules for governing and regulating persons and their operations.” Local governments have the right to impose reasonable health and safety restrictions, and the Legislature has granted most Texas cities, including Denton, the power to “regulate exploration and development of mineral interests.”

The state has long regulated most aspects of drilling, including well integrity, pipeline safety, and air and water impact, while cities have typically controlled noise and authorized the location of wells or related facilities like compressor stations. Now, a key question is where fracking falls in that spectrum.

Tom Phillips, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court from 1988 to 2004, said he would expect courts to side with the energy industry — by ruling that the ban unconstitutionally supersedes state law or that it makes gas beneath the city too difficult to tap and amounts to a taking.

Phillips, now a lawyer with the firm of Baker Botts, who was asked to review the proposal for the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said state law gave cities less stringent options for protecting health and safety at well sites, and that Denton “can’t just say no” to fracking.

Other legal experts acknowledge that state high courts tend to favor oil and gas interests, but say that Denton could make a compelling argument that a fracking ban would not wipe out all options to drill.

“To say that this is a slam dunk, it’s a taking, I think that’s painting with an overly broad brush,” said Terrence Welch, a lawyer who has helped write drilling ordinances in several Texas cities. “The property — the mineral estate isn’t left valueless. You can drill, but you just can’t frack.”

See here for the background. It’s hard to be optimistic about how the courts might rule if you’re a ban supporter, but I suppose anything is possible. And I’ll say again, if the Railroad Commission wasn’t such an utter lapdog for the industry and people in places like Denton had any reason to believe that true regulatory oversight with actual enforcement was in place, this referendum would not exist. There would be no need for it.

One more thing:

Jerry Patterson, Texas’ outgoing land commissioner, warned in a letter last week that the state would “pursue any available remedy to ensure the right to develop” those minerals.

George P. Bush, the Republican nominee in this year’s election to succeed Patterson, said he supported that stance. “We don’t need a patchwork approach to drilling regulations across the state,” he said. But John Cook, Bush’s Democratic opponent, disagreed, saying that “local communities need to have a say” in quality-of-life issues.

Know who you’re voting for this fall, people of Denton.

Mayor Parker discusses her possible political future again

After making a rousing speech at the TDP convention, Mayor Annise Parker talked about some possible paths she could take for a future statewide campaign.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Parker said she would be interested in running for any number of statewide positions when her third and final two-year term is up in 2016 – even Texas’ top job.

“I would absolutely consider a statewide ballot effort for the right seat,” Parker told the Houston Chronicle, adding that she doesn’t have an exact plan drawn up at this time. “And as the CEO of the 4th largest city in America, I could be the governor of Texas.”.

The 58-year-old said she would be “eminently qualified” to be comptroller of public accounts, Texas land commissioner or sit on the three-member Texas Railroad Commission.

The only jobs for which she isn’t interested? Lieutenant governor and U.S. Congress. “Respectfully to members of Congress, I’m the CEO of a $5 billion corporation, and I make decisions every day. I don’t want to go talk about things. I want to do things.”

I’ve discussed this before, and I’m mostly not surprised by Parker’s words. The one office I hadn’t foreseen as a possibility was Land Commissioner, but between veterans’ issues and the leases that the GLO manages and grants on occasionally urban land, it makes sense. And of course the Railroad Commission is all about oil and gas regulation, and Mayor Parker spent 20 years in the oil business before entering politics. Other than the RRC, which has six-year terms for its three Commissioners, the candidacy of Mayor Parker or anyone else for these offices is contingent on them not being won by a Democrat this year. As awesome as that would be, it would throw a wrench into the works for the large number of potential up-and-comers now waiting in the wings.

For her part, Parker is watching the political trajectories of two other Houston women: state Sen. Sylvia Garcia and state Rep. Carol Alvarado. A fellow former mayor who now sits in the state Senate, Kirk Watson, is also on her list of rising stars, as are Mayor Julian Castro and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro.

The twin brothers from San Antonio are widely accepted to become the default face of the party after this year’s statewide election. Speaking to the Chronicle after his speech in a packed convention hall Friday evening, the congressman would not preview where his political trajectory might lie.

“I’ll look at all opportunities where I can be most helpful,” said Joaquin Castro. He added he hasn’t yet decided whether he might run for another office, such as U.S. Senate. Some see him as a natural foil to Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

His brother, tapped by President Barack Obama to be the next housing secretary, is also considered one of the most viable statewide or national candidates from the party, although some worry whether his political standing will suffer at the hands of Republicans in Washington as so many other cabinet secretaries have in recent years.

Representing Texas in Washington, U.S. Reps. Marc Veasey and Pete Gallego repeatedly made the “best of” lists of many state party leaders this weekend.

In Dallas, state Rep. Rafael Anchia and Sen. Royce West are ones to watch, they said, while Sylvester Turner is another prominent Houstonian with political potential.

I’ve discussed the bench and the possible next step for a variety of Dems before. One person who isn’t mentioned in this story but should be is State Rep. Mike Villarreal of San Antonio, who has been previously mentioned as a candidate for Comptroller and who has announced his intent to run for Mayor of San Antonio in 2015. Winning that would move him up a notch on the “rising stars” list as he’d be a Mayor with legislative experience; you can add Rep. Sylvester Turner to that list if his third try for Mayor of Houston is the charm in 2015, too.

Besides the RRC, there is one prize that will remain on the board for 2018 regardless of what happens this year.

“It’s very different to run for statewide office unless you have statewide name recognition,” said [TCU poli sci prof James] Riddlesperger, who said the sheer amount of money statewide candidates in Texas are forced to raise to be viable pushes some out of the race before they can get started.

“It’s not like doing it in New Hampshire or South Dakota. We have six or seven major media markets and it’s enormously expensive to get statewide recognition,” said Riddlesperger. Keeping this in mind, he said the Democrats should keep a close eye on who could unseat Cruz in 2018.

“I suspect there would be a huge amount of national money that could potentially flow into that election,” he said.

Indeed. I mean, the amount spent in the 2018 re-election campaign for Ted Cruz on all sides will likely rival the GDP of several small nations. The story suggests US Rep. Joaquin Castro as the very-early-to-be-leading choice to take on Cruz, but I suspect we will hear a lot of other voices before all is said and done, whether or not there are fewer incumbent Republicans to oppose at that time. I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about this since we have some pretty damn important elections to focus on this year, but file that all away for future consideration.

Convention coverage

Wendy and Leticia and a whole host of others rally the crowd in Dallas.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte shared the spotlight at the Texas Democratic Party convention on Friday night, promising to change the direction of the state, ripping their Republican opponents and imploring Democrats to break the GOP’s two-decade grip on state government.

Davis attacked her Republican opponent, matching his attacks at the GOP convention in Fort Worth earlier this month, and talked fighting insiders in Austin.

“I’m running because there’s a moderate majority that’s being ignored — commonsense, practical, hardworking Texans whose voices are being drowned out by insiders in Greg Abbott’s party, and it needs to stop,” she said.

Davis spoke about her background, her kids and her grandmother, all as a way of establishing her Texas roots and values.

She talked about what she would do if elected, promising full-day pre-K “for every eligible child,” less testing in public schools, less state interference with teaching, more affordable and accessible college. She also implied she would end property tax exemptions for country clubs as part of property tax reform, and end a sales tax discount for big retailers who pay on time.

She took some swipes at her opponent, too.

“Unlike Greg Abbott, I’m not afraid to share the stage with my party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, my colleague, mi hermana, Leticia Van de Putte,” she said. When the audience hooted, she cautioned them: “Now you guys don’t clap too much or Greg Abbott will sue you.”

The insider slam on Abbott was woven into Davis’ nine pages of prepared remarks. “You see, Mr. Abbott cut his teeth politically as part of the good old boys network that’s had their hands on the reins for decades,” she said. “He’s been in their service and their debt since he ran for office, and as a judge and a lawyer he’s spent his career defending insiders, protecting insiders, stacking the deck for insiders and making hardworking Texans pay the price.”

Davis said Abbott accepts large contributions from payday lenders “and then clears the way for them to charge unlimited interest rates and fees.” She blasted him for taking contributions from law firms that handle bond deals approved by the office of the attorney general, and for saying state law does not require chemical companies to reveal what they are storing in Texas communities.

“He isn’t working for you; he’s just another insider, working for insiders,” she said.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Van de Putte, who spoke immediately before Davis, promised not to back down from the fight against Dan Patrick, her opponent for lieutenant governor. She said she would instead fight to “put Texas first.”

When she ran for student council president in junior high, she said, she was told she could not run because she was a girl.

“Well I did, and I won,” she said.

She said that lesson remains relevant now. “I need to run, not just because I am a girl, but because I want the responsibility. Because I know what needs to get done. And I know I’m the right person for the job.”

I love it when they talk tough. I’m not up in Dallas, though several of my blogging colleagues are. So far the reports I’ve heard are positive – lots of energy and excitement. One person even compared it to 2008, which is music to the ear. Obviously, the folks who take the time to go to a party convention aren’t the ones that need to be inspired to go vote, but they are the ones that will be doing a lot of the work to inspire others, so the more enthusiastic they are, the better.

As I said on Friday, the best thing you can do is work to help get the message out and get the voters to the polls. The next best thing you can do is pitch in financially. Democrats have done phenomenally well in grassroots small-dollar fundraising of late, which is both great and necessary since the other guys have a lot more megalomaniac billionaires on their side. Monday is the last day for this fundraising period, and while we can’t do much about the polling narrative right now, we can at least make sure that one part of the story is that our candidates will be in good shape to take the fight to their opponents this fall. So with that in mind, here’s where you can park that loose change that’s burning a hole in your pocket:

Wendy Davis

Leticia Van de Putte

Sam Houston

Mike Collier

John Cook

Steve Brown

If you can only give to one, I would advise you to donate to Leticia Van de Putte. Wendy Davis has already demonstrated that she can raise a ton of money, but Leticia needs to post a big number in July to ensure that every story written about her doesn’t contain a disclaimer about her ability to get her message out. Sam Houston and then Mike Collier are next in line. Those two plus John Cook and Steve Brown will have less effect on the ultimate outcome than the ladies will, but they are still very important.

“You just work with what you have rather than complaining that you don’t have it,” said John Cook, the land commissioner candidate. “That’s what our campaign is all about.”

Cook said he will focus less on the General Land Office and home in on the GOP’s controversial platform on social issues, which touts reparative therapy for gays and lesbians, among other measures.

“My job now is to point out the shortcomings of the Republican Party and the inclusiveness of the Democratic Party,” he said.

Brown, running for a seat on the state board that regulates oil and gas, has campaigned on increasing the Railroad Commission’s environmental stewardship and improving the agency’s fairness. He said he would work on communicating that to delegates at the convention.

Houston, vying to become the state’s chief lawyer, said he wants to depoliticize the attorney general’s office, saying that under Greg Abbott it too often has focused on fighting the federal government rather than finding solutions.

Collier said he intends to paint the tea party – and the Texas GOP, by extension – as anti-business for failing to support fully funding key state programs, such as public education, that ultimately aid business.

“If you understand business, you understand that you’ve got to invest to plan for the future,” Collier said.

The badness of the Republican statewide ticket doesn’t end with Dan Patrick. It’s rotten all the way down. Don’t forget about these guys, who will be working as hard as Wendy and Leticia with far less attention being paid to them.

John Cook mentioned the party platform, so let’s talk about that.

Roughly 7,000 delegates have converged on the Big D this weekend, two weeks after Texas Republicans met at the Fort Worth end of the Metroplex to hammer out a platform that drew national attention for its controversial planks on immigration and support for so-called “reparative therapy” to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality.

“All they did was talk about hating people,” Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said at a Thursday night reception. “This week, we’re in Dallas, Texas, talking about love, right?”

The Democratic Party platform will reflect that feeling, said Garnet Coleman, the Houston state representative in charge of leading the drafting committee for the last decade.

“Our platform is designed to include, not exclude,” Coleman said on Friday, the day before the draft document is viewed, debated and voted on by the permanent platform committee. “And I think their (the Republicans’) platform is an expression of values that are, quite frankly, outside of the mainstream.”

Coleman predicted the Democrats’ platform will not spark the heated debates of the Republican convention, where delegates fought over planks on immigration, medical marijuana and homosexuality, because of a “set of values” the party approved in 2004 and on which they have been building since.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of change,” Coleman said of the 2014 draft compared with its 2012 predecessor. The party will remain opposed to a guest worker program in favor of comprehensive immigration reform and the issue of child detainees on the border likely will not be included in the platform.

[…]

The most significant departure from previous years’ platforms likely will be the inclusion of a new plank regarding women’s issues, said Coleman. The section will focus on issues that affect women beyond family planning and abortion, such as wage disparity and other workplace challenges.

The transportation section also will see some additions, addressing what Coleman called the “non-sexy” issues of toll roads and highway building and maintenance funds.

“There’s not enough money to just maintain the highways we have, so that affects the ability for Texas to grow,” Coleman said, adding he would like to see a gas tax. “(Gov. Rick) Perry has made Texas highways into franchises for toll roads.”

As I’ve said before, no candidate is bound by their party’s platform, but I doubt you’ll find too many Democrats trying to back away or distract from the TDP platform. That especially includes the provisions on immigration.

Contrasting the GOP positions to their own, Democrats said it boils down to matters of inclusion and respect.

Like the Republicans, Democrats see immigration as a key to motivating voter turnout for the November general election.

In speech after speech Friday, Democratic Party luminaries ranging from Van de Putte to U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro to party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa bashed the GOP platform for its tough-on-immigrants, secure-the-border stance.

And when the Democrats approve their platform on Saturday, party officials said the result will feature most everything the Republicans’ did not.

“We are very supportive of a path to citizenship because there are people who are here and are very productive and have committed no crime and are adding to our economy,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, chairman of the party’s platform committee. “We are not for a guest-worker program, because that can become a form of indentured servitude.”

Throughout caucuses and forums on Friday, Democrats spent time focusing on the GOP platform that calls for tightening immigration enforcement, a position underscored in recent weeks by an unprecedented influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied apprehended after crossing the Mexican border.

“The Republicans have gone backward on immigration,” Castro told reporters. “You have a candidate in Wendy Davis that appreciates the contribution of immigrants throughout Texas history, and you have Republican candidates who use the border as a bogeyman. They use it to stoke fear. They use it to divide Texans, to turn Texans against each other and to win elections and the people of our state are tired of that.”

Stace seems to be pleased with developments so far, which makes me happy. There’s a lot more to come, but let’s stay focused on what’s important. Keep organizing, keep talking to the voters, and keep moving forward.

Who’s afraid of the Republican slate?

I was reading this story about a kerfuffle in the Republican runoff for Railroad Commissioner when a thought struck me.

A Republican candidate seeking a post that regulates the state’s oil and gas industry said he won’t cut ties to his energy business if elected to the Texas Railroad Commission – a state board that historically has had a poor track record disentangling itself from industry interests.

Ryan Sitton is co-founder and chief executive officer of PinnacleAIS, which advises companies about maintenance of equipment used in oil and gas operations.

Sitton said he will maintain an ownership stake in Pinnacle­AIS if he becomes a commission board member – a declaration that raised questions by his GOP and Democratic opponent, ethics experts and tea party Republicans.

“That is a conflict of interest and it is very frightful,” said Wayne Christian, a former state representative also seeking the post.

I’m not terribly interested in the particulars of this fight because the overly cozy relationship between the energy industry and the elected officials that regulate them is a very old story, and typically neither candidate has clean hands. What occurred to me in reading this story is how undistinguished the two candidates are, and how that seems to be the case up and down the statewide ballot for the GOP this year. Consider this: Among the leading candidates in the primaries, including the two that won outright, Wayne Christian and Sid Miller are clowns, George P. Bush is a legacy whose advisers prefer to keep under wraps, Glenn Hegar and Ken Paxton are a couple of basically undistinguished legislators, and Dan Patrick is Dan Patrick. Murderer’s Row these guys ain’t. The fact that they’ve all spent the bulk of their campaigns talking about nothing – they all hate abortion, the Obama administration, illegal immigrants, and Sharia law, and they all love guns – adds to the overall picture of ridiculousness.

The Republicans did have some substantial candidates on their ballot. Malachi Boylus and J. Allen Carnes never had a chance to get out of their primaries. Jerry Patterson and Dan Branch, who is still alive but a big underdog, had to degrade themselves in their races in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to separate themselves from their mostly solid records of public service. Those past accomplishments, and their at least occasional willingness to talk about issues and – heaven forfend – what the office they’re running for actually does were anchors for them, not assets. I get that they’re running in a primary, and they have to address what the voters in that primary want to hear. Democratic primaries are often contests of personality as well, and the winner is often who loves what the base voters love the hardest, but the spectacle of these campaigns has been on another level.

And then there’s the top of the ticket. For all his status as the heir apparent to Rick Perry, Greg Abbott hasn’t exactly been setting the terms of the debate in the Governor’s race. I would argue that Wendy Davis has driven the story of this election from the beginning. That’s not always been good for her – indeed, for about two months running it was mostly bad news about her and her campaign – but good or bad, it’s been about her. Say what you want about Rick Perry, but all of his gubernatorial campaigns have been on his terms. Since February, Abbott’s tone-deafness and Davis’ attacks have been the main event. Oh, he tried to knock her back with his ethics proposal about bond lawyering that maybe ten people in the state understood, but it’s been a steady drumbeat Ted Nugent, Lilly Ledbetter, Charles Murray, and school finance. Neither Abbott’s own words nor those of his surrogates have done anything to help him or change the narrative, and there’s still more out there. At some point you have to wonder what else there is to him beyond a ginormous campaign warchest and a long history of being a Republican on statewide ballots.

Now in the end, of course, none of this may matter. We all know what Texas’ proclivities are, we know how historically weak the state Democratic Party has been and how far behind they are in building infrastructure and a GOTV machine. However you feel about the polls we’ve seen so far, none of them have shown a shift in the fundamentals. The next poll to give Wendy Davis 44% or more of the vote will be the first such poll since John Sharp roamed the earth. These guys may be clowns and empty suits, but they’re also the favorites to win. What I know is that I don’t fear them, at least not as opponents. If they beat us, it’s not because they can run faster or jump higher or lift heavier things. It’s because they have a head start. We may not be able to overcome that this time, but if this is what we’re up against, it’s all that we have to overcome. We will get there.

The Galveston oil spill

This is just awful.

While the oil spill resulting from Saturday’s collision between a ship and barge was small by global standards – less than a third of what it would take to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool – the local impact is proving far more than a nuisance.

The heavy marine fuel oil is washing up on nearby beaches, killing or injuring waterfowl that come into contact with it, and keeping commercial traffic bound for local ports at a standstill.

The commercial ships should get relief soon as a fleet of oil-skimming vessels continues to scoop up what remains of the estimated 168,000 gallons of oil from the waters near the southern mouth of the Houston Ship Channel. Shipping operations were suspended immediately after the accident to prevent vessels from spreading the oil and getting it stuck to their hulls.

By late Monday, some of the oil could be seen floating in patches in Galveston Bay. But a large portion of the spill was driven by wind, waves and currents into the Gulf of Mexico and was headed southwest, Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer, captain of the port, said at a Monday news conference. An aerial survey will determine where and how far the oil had spread, he said.

[…]

The waterfront oil made its way from the Texas City Dike to the eastern end of Galveston Island, and a small amount reached beaches frequented by tourists on the Gulf side of the Island, said Charlie Kelly, Galveston emergency management director.

Kelly said a number of tar balls had washed ashore between 29th Street and eastern end of the island, but the amount was so small that it was easily picked up. No tar balls could be seen on the beaches Monday afternoon.

“I’m not worried about anything,” Galveston Mayor Lewis Rosen said.

Less sanguine were environmentalists who noticed oil covering a section of island beach that fronts the Ship Channel. Mort Voller, who heads the Galveston Island Tourism and Nature Council, said several oiled birds, all dead, were seen on an area near the Galveston jetty known as Big Reef.

“Big reef is hugely natural, a wonderful collection of salt water lagoons, sand flats and intertidal marsh and prairie-type uplands,” Voller said. It’s far enough away from the tourism beaches that animals are largely unmolested, he said.

The potential impact on wildlife is tremendous.

The heavy oil spilled into Galveston Bay showed signs Monday of harming one of the nation’s great natural nurseries, with biologists finding dozens of oiled birds on just one part of the Bolivar Peninsula.

Scientists found the birds on a wildlife refuge just two miles from where a partially sunken barge leaked as much as 168,000 gallons of thick bunker fuel oil after colliding with another vessel Saturday.

“We expect this to get much worse,” said Jessica Jubin, a spokeswoman for the Houston Audubon Society, which manages the Bolivar Flats preserve where the birds were found.

The concern comes as tens of thousands of birds are passing through the upper Texas coast on their annual flight north. But the worry also extends to the bay’s oyster reefs and the shrimp, crabs and fish that rely on the coastal marshes for shelter and food.

Scientists said that while the spill’s damage will be magnified by its awful timing, it could take years for a fuller picture of the ecological toll to emerge.

Galveston Bay was under stress from development, drought, pollution and storms. But its oil spills are typically small, averaging about 100 gallons per incident, according to an analysis by the Houston Advanced Research Center. The latest spill is the largest in the Ship Channel since a facility leaked 70,000 gallons of bunker fuel in 2000.

For now, the primary concern is the marshes, which have declined over decades because of sea-level rise, erosion and subsidence, a condition caused by sinking soil.

Here’s the optimistic view.

Officials believe most of the oil that spilled Saturday is drifting out of the Houston Ship Channel into the Gulf of Mexico, which should limit the impact on bird habitats around Galveston Bay as well as beaches and fisheries important to tourists.

“This spill — I think if we keep our fingers crossed — is not going to have the negative impact that it could have had,” said Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, the lead state agency on the response to the spill.

The best-case scenario is for most of the slick to remain in the Gulf for at least several days and congeal into small tar balls that wash up further south on the Texas coast, where they could be picked up and removed, Patterson said. Crews from the General Land Office are monitoring water currents and the movement of the oil, he said.

Let’s hope that it’s not as bad as it could be. There’s a great irony in this happening almost exactly 25 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the effects of which are still being felt today. I pray that isn’t the case with this spill. Statements from the Environmental Defense Fund are beneath the fold.

(more…)

January finance reports for Democratic statewide candidates

BagOfMoney

With the exception of a stray missing report here and there, all of the January campaign finance reports for state office holders and seekers are up on the Texas Ethics Commission webpage. Here’s a brief look at the reports filed by Democratic candidates for statewide offices. I already have reports for the candidates in contested primaries on my 2014 Election page, so this is a chance to look at the uncontested candidates as well.

Governor

Wendy Davis
Wendy Davis SPAC
Wendy Davis GPAC

Ray Madrigal – No report

As you’ve probably read by now, Wendy Davis filed three campaign reports – basically, the first one is her previously existing Senate account, to which people were contributing before her official announcement that she was running for Governor; the second is her special purpose PAC account for her gubernatorial campaign, similar to the “Friends Of” or “Texans For” PACs that Republicans often use; and the joint Battleground Texas PAC that has gotten every Republican’s panties in a wad. I’m not going to rehash any of that, I’m just going to note with amusement that her total must have really freaked them out to have reacted so strongly instead of just pointing to Greg Abbott’s bottom line, which is enough to make Switzerland salivate. Davis certainly answered the question about her ability to raise the funds she’ll need, but once won’t be enough. She’ll need to post similar, if not better, numbers for July. But we’ll worry about that another day.

Lt. Governor

Leticia Van de Putte
Leticia Van de Putte SPAC

As with Wendy Davis, the first account is the pre-existing Senate account, and the second is for the Lite Guv race. Here are the details from each:

Account Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Senate $154,087 $177,799 $235,084 LG SPAC $290,514 $ 21 $251,756 Total $445,601 $177,820 $486,840

I presume all of the expenditures came out of the Senate account, which makes sense. The SPAC was created on November 23, so basically it represents five weeks’ worth of fundraising, which isn’t too shabby. I didn’t go through its contributions, but I did go through the expenses for the Senate account, and I did not see any transfers from the one to the other, so that $290K figure is accurate and as far as I know doesn’t include redundant funds. For five weeks during the Thanksgiving/Christmas period, that’s a decent total, which would project to $1.5 million to $2 million at that pace for the July report. Not bad as I say, but not really enough, either. LVdP doesn’t need to be in Wendy’s league, but she does need to have enough to do some real statewide outreach. If she doesn’t raise at least $5 million for July, I’d be concerned she won’t be able to do that. On the plus side, she can hit up Wendy’s supporters, including and especially the big-dollar ones. I feel confident that she is more than up to this challenge, but if you’ve donated to Wendy and not to Leticia, you need to rectify that.

Attorney General
Comptroller

Sam Houston
Mike Collier

Account Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Houston $184,595 $ 41,216 $153,678 Collier $213,518 $170,791 $439,015

I put these two together, because they’re the only other candidates to report significant fundraising totals. Houston’s report begins in October, whereas Collier had the whole six month period in which to raise money. Both did pretty well, with Collier’s totals being boosted by $400K in loans ($250K from himself, $150K from his company; Houston reported $10K in loans as well). Collier spent $30K on video production, and $50K on “website design and video advertising”; he also spent many thousands on consultant fees, which I didn’t add up. As Van de Putte needs to kick it up by an order of magnitude this period, so do these two. I’d be happy with $2 million raised from each. We know the base is big enough to support Wendy’s campaign, and I’m confident that support will extend to LVdP. Will it reach this far? I hope so.

Ag Commissioner
Land Commissioner
Railroad Commissioner

Kinky Friedman
Hugh Fitzsimons
Jim Hogan

John Cook

Steve Brown
Dale Henry

Account Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Kinky $26,416 $ 4,256 $22,159 Fitz $27,200 $ 6,549 $74,401 Hogan $ 0 $ 3,750 $ 0 Cook $13,153 $17,010 $ 0 Brown $ 4,455 $ 5,661 $ 0 Henry $ 0 $ 0 $ 0

Not a whole lot to say here. Fitzsimons had $50K in loans, and Cook, the former Mayor of El Paso, had a bit more than $19K in loans. I’m not exactly sure why neither Cook nor Brown reported any cash on hand, but it’s not that important. With the exception of Kinky, none of these folks will have much in the way of name recognition in November, but then neither will any of their opponents other than Baby Bush. From this point on, it’s all about the top of the ticket.

Supreme Court
Court of Criminal Appeals

William Moody
Larry Meyers
Gina Benavides

John Granberg

Account Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Moody $ 7,500 $ 9,358 $ 4,037 Meyers $ 1,000 $ 3,750 $ 441 Benavides $ 2,500 $ 3,750 $ 0 Granburg $ 780 $ 5,296 $ 780

Again, not much to say here. I thought Larry Meyers might have a few bucks stashed away just due to his longevity, but apparently not. He does have about $94K in outstanding loans, presumably money he has already spent. In case you’re wondering, that $3,750 figure you see is the filing fee. Again, these races are determined by the top of the ticket more than anything else. Maybe the state party will raise some money to campaign for the slate as a whole.

That’s it for these reports. I’ll look at others as we go along.

Parker 2018

It seems pretty certain that a statewide candidacy is in Mayor Parker’s future.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

LSQ: What’s next for you after your term expires at the end of 2015? There’s been a lot of talk that you will run for statewide office as a Democrat in 2016 or 2018.

AP: I don’t intend to run for anything until I’m done as mayor. Unfortunately, in 2016, there’s not a lot out there, so I probably will need to go back into the private sector for a while, but I hope that while mayor of Houston is the best political job I would ever have, I hope it’s not my last political job. … I would certainly be interested in looking statewide. [I’m] not trying to be coy. People talked to me about running in 2014 as a Democrat for one of the statewide positions. I’ve had a lot of conversations with folks about that, but I made the commitment to serve as mayor of Houston and to do my best for the city for as long as I could. I just wasn’t in that place. I’ve also been fairly public that what I’m most interested in in terms of a future political position is something where I’m in an administrative or an executive position. [With] due respect to my members of Congress down here, I’ve been the CEO of a $5 billion corporation. I like to get things done, and the idea of, say, running for Congress, doesn’t excite me. … [It will be] a statewide executive position.

I know the inauguration was just yesterday, but hey, it’s never too early to speculate, right? So let’s consider the possibilities for Mayor Parker’s future as a statewide candidate.

US Senate: I’m sure there will be no shortage of people willing to take a shot at Ted Cruz in his first run for re-election, assuming he isn’t elected President in 2016 or named Beloved Leader For Life following a coup. However, if we are to take the Mayor at her word when she talks about preferring a “statewide executive position”, then it seems safe to say that she will not be among those queuing up for the opportunity.

Governor: The obvious choice, for all the obvious reasons. However, there are two obstacles here. One is the possibility that in 2018 Governor Wendy Davis will be running for re-election. One presumes that the Mayor would not be anxious to primary her. Two is the possibility that her mayoral colleague from San Antonio, Mayor Julian Castro, will be ready to throw his own hat in the ring for this race. That’s not the same as primarying an incumbent Governor, but while we are miles away from anyone having a claim to that nomination, it would not be ridiculous to decide that one’s odds are better in another race. Putting it another way, I can imagine one of Mayors Parker and Castro running for Governor in 2018, but I cannot imagine both of them doing so. If I were Mayor Parker and I had my hopes pinned to a Governor’s race in 2018 (assuming Wendy Davis doesn’t win or chooses to serve only one term, of course), I’d probably make a point of whispering about the prestige of the US Senate and the joy of serving in the upper chamber while his brother makes his mark in the House in Mayor Castro’s ear at any opportunity that presented itself.

Lt. Governor: At first glance, this doesn’t feel like a fit, since unlike the Governor, the Lite Guv is heavily involved in legislative activities as the presiding officer of the Senate. However, Mayor Parker presides over Council meetings and is directly involved in crafting legislation for the city, so it’s really not that much different. I doubt she has this in mind, but it’s not out of the question.

Comptroller: Probably the first office that comes to mind for some people, given the Mayor’s background in finance and her tenure as City Controller. My guess is that this is the office she was encouraged to file for in 2014. A good fit, and a good landing place if Mayor Castro doesn’t take her advice about running for the Senate.

Attorney General, Ag Commissioner, Land Commissioner: Mayor Parker is not an attorney, and is thoroughly urban, so neither of the first two are plausible. Land Commish is at least a remote possibility – former El Paso Mayor John Cook is running this year, so it’s unremarkable for an urban Mayor to compete for this post – but highly unlikely. If she’s not running for Governor, I can’t see her choosing anything other then Comptroller.

Railroad Commissioner: The one office she could run for in 2016, if she hadn’t already ruled out running in 2016. Again, this would be a good fit given the Mayor’s background in energy back in her private sector days plus the fact that if any city is associated with energy in Texas, it’s Houston, but again, at best a remote possibility. It’s Governor, Comptroller, or bust.

One last office to consider, if Mayor Parker decides that running statewide is too much trouble and she’d just rather serve in an office that allowed her to live in her own house, and that’s County Judge. This assumes that Judge Emmett decides to call it quits – assuming he is re-elected, of course – and if that happens, then given the historically good relations the city has had with Harris County during her tenure, Mayor Parker would be a logical and sensible successor. I’m just throwing this out there because crazy speculation is one of the perks of being a blogger, but you have to admit there’s something to it. If she changes her mind about running statewide, which I am not encouraging her to do. (PDiddie thinks this CultureMap story suggests ambivalence on her part, but I think she’s just saying she has no plans for 2016, as she has said all along.) What do you think Mayor Parker might do down the line? Leave your own crazy speculation in the comments.

We’ll always have Kinky

Like cicadas on a four-year cycle, he keeps coming back.

Bi-polar and tri-partisan

Kinky Friedman doesn’t know if he’s ready to jump back into Texas politics.

But the cigar-chewing humorist and musician — known for the black attire and cowboy hats he normally dons — said he may soon create an exploratory committee to help him decide whether to run for office again.

And if so, for which one.

“Maybe I should do what Rick Perry does and pray for an answer on what to do,” Friedman, 68, said with a chuckle Tuesday during a telephone interview with the Star-Telegram.

Some political observers say they wouldn’t be surprised to see Friedman throw his hat into the ring for nearly any statewide office.

“A comedian needs an audience,” said Harvey Kronberg, editor and publisher of the Austin-based Quorum Report, an online political newsletter.

Friedman said he probably will run for office as a Democrat, as he did during his unsuccessful 2010 bid for Texas agriculture commissioner, rather than as an independent, as he did in his failed 2006 gubernatorial bid.

“I’m keeping my options open,” said Friedman, a self-proclaimed Jewish Cowboy who lives in the Hill Country.

Yes, well, what else is new? If you need a reminder why Friedman is rather less than beloved among Democrats, read this blast from the recent past. Of course, he went from that to being a Wendy Davis for Governor cheerleader, which I suppose at least shows he’s capable of learning. I’m tired of bashing Friedman all the time, so let me make him a deal. If he promises to run for Railroad Commissioner, or Land Commissioner if John Cook decides against it, I’ll shut up about him through next November, assuming he doesn’t say anything too stupid. Hell, he can run for Attorney General if he wants to, on the premise that even a non-lawyer jokester like him would do a better and less detrimental job than a blinkered partisan hack like Greg Abbott, and I’ll be okay with that. Just stay the hell out of the Governor’s race, and don’t go up against a better Dem in anything else, that’s all I ask.

On Tuesday, he outlined his top two political priorities if elected to office: Legalize marijuana use and casino gambling in this state.

“Texas is going to do all this in the next ten to 15 years,” he said. “But by then, he will be the caboose on the train.”

Making his top two priorities reality, Friedman said, will provide a key boost for Texas’ economy.

Legalizing casinos in Texas would “stop the bleeding from all the billions of dollars that are walking out of the state for gambling,” he said.

And making marijuana use legal in Texas, he said, “would put a real crimp in the Mexican drug cartels — and make Willie Nelson very happy.”

I admit, Railroad Commissioners don’t have much to do with either of these things. He’d have to learn some actual policy stuff to be RR Commish, not that that was a prerequisite for the likes of David Porter or Elizabeth Ames Jones. But he could possibly get elected to the Railroad Commission, and that would give him a real platform to advocate for these things. Best I can do, sorry.

On a side note, since I mentioned the office of Attorney General, I’ll note that State Rep. Dan Branch announced his intention to run, a move that was almost as widely expected as Greg Abbott running for Governor. In doing so, Rep. Branch did his best Abbott impersonation, promising to protect the right of unborn babies to carry assault weapons so they can defend themselves from a rapacious federal government, or something like that. I might be a bit fuzzy on the details. I’m not sure if it’s more a pity or just pathetic that a generally low-key legislator who’s built a fairly solid reputation as a policy wonk has to spout such pablum – I suspect he didn’t sound much more genuine in saying it than I would have – but these are the times we live in. And as a result, and because Branch’s main competition is people like the more ludicrous and less substantive Barry Smitherman, you can see why Kinky for AG isn’t such a crazy idea after all. It’s not that hard to sound sensible opposite the likes of that. Kinky is downright statesmanlike in comparison.

We may have our first Democratic statewide candidate

And it’s John Cook, outgoing Mayor of El Paso.

Former El Paso Mayor John Cook will seek the Democratic nomination for Texas land commissioner in 2014, he told the El Paso Times Wednesday night.

“I think it’s an embarrassment to the city of El Paso, being one of the largest cities in the United States, that we’ve never had a candidate elected to a statewide office,” Cook said after attending a talk at the Wyndham Hotel by the Rev. Barry Lynn of Citizens United for Separation of Church and State.

There’s a brief video clip at the link, in which Cook adds that other than Judge Bill Moody, there have basically been no candidates for statewide office from El Paso. I’m glad he has decided to change that. Among the things Cook was known for as Mayor of El Paso was passing a domestic partner benefits ordinance, which led to a recall effort against him and two other Council members that he ultimately survived after a court threw out the petitions. The HuffPo had a great story about Mayor Cook and the fight he led for domestic partner benefits in El Paso.

John Cook

Deep in the heart of Texas, Cook has taken a stance on rights for gay and lesbian couples. And the former Catholic seminarian and Brooklyn native is arguing with his opponents in the words of a man who’s unafraid of a fight.

“To me this was always about bigotry,” Cook said. “Intolerance is bigotry.”

The path toward the recall efforts began in 2009, when the city council approved benefits for domestic couples — both gay and straight. Religious leaders quickly caught on, and in the ensuring firestorm they proposed a referendum to ban those benefits. It passed with 55 percent of the vote in 2010. But Cook wasn’t done just yet — with the help of most of the city council, he had a different partner benefits ordinance approved.

[…]

Cook said he is willing to fight — and in terms that might surprise some. He noted that “all of my education in New York City, all the way up through Saint Francis College, was in Catholic school.” He even spent a year in seminary after college.

“I read the Bible every day,” he said. “I’m challenging the argument that the other side is using, which is trying to make this a moral and spiritual issue. And if they want to argue on that basis, I’m very capable of doing that, too.”

More than 50 percent of El Pasoans do not have health coverage, he noted, and it would violate everything he stands for if the number of people who do have coverage decreased. And the government, he added, has no business enforcing an Old Testament moral code on its citizens.

“Where do I stop?” he asked. “Do I all of a sudden say … when you call 911 when you’re divorced, committing adultery, you ain’t going to get no ambulance or fire truck? And don’t expect me to pick your trash up, because that would be condoning sin?”

“It’s time for elected officials to start taking what they believe in and make it popular, not taking what’s popular and making it what they believe in,” Cook said.

I don’t know about you, but I could sure get behind that. Cook would of course be running against Republican cover boy/dynast George P. Bush. I wish Mayor Cook all the best and hope that he soon has plenty of company on the ticket. Texpatriate has more.

George P Bush is ready for his closeup

You may now give him his due.

Ending months of speculation, Fort Worth attorney George P. Bush announced he would run for the office of Texas Land Commissioner with a Twitter message, after confirming that current Commissioner Jerry Patterson would not seek re-election:

“Great visit with @Patterson4TX. Updated filing. Running for #TXLand Commissioner. Join me at http://GeorgePforTexas.org#TX 2014.”

Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush, nephew of former President of George W. Bush and son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, also launched a two-minute campaign video on Youtube. In it, he credits former First Lady Barbara Bush with his decision to seek public office. “The important lesson Ganny taught me was the importance of public service,” he said.

In January, the 36-year-old Bush filed a campaign finance report with the Texas Ethics Commission reporting he had gathered $1.3 million in campaign contributions, including $50,000 from a George Bush, whose hometown is listed as Midland, and another $50,000 from his father.

I’ll say this much – I don’t have any particular problem with legacies going into the family business, as it were. It’s a common enough occurrence in other professions, and no one finds it objectionable when a lawyer’s kid goes to law school or a chef’s kid opens a restaurant. I know, this isn’t quite the same, but it’s still basically a kid following in a parent’s footprints. Sure, he’s got a much easier path to walk than a George P. Smith would have had, but again that’s true in any profession. There are plenty of reasons to be unimpressed by George P. Bush, and I’m certainly not going to refrain from mocking him for his silver spoon life, but there’s nothing remarkable about his decision.

One more thing:

Bush’s website featured a story about his potential to lure Hispanic voters to the Republican Party. His mother, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was born in Mexico.

If George P advocates policies that Latino voters like and agree with, he’ll do well with them, for some value of “well”. If not, simply being George P. Bush will probably have little effect. This isn’t a complicated thing. BOR, Texpatriate, and Dos Centavos have more.

Baby Bush ready to claim his birthright

Perhaps we should just skip straight to the coronation once George P. Bush figures out what office he wants.

George Prescott Bush is gearing up to run for a little-known but powerful office in a state where his family already is a political dynasty and where his Hispanic roots could help extend a stranglehold on power Republicans have enjoyed for two decades.

The 36-year-old Fort Worth attorney says he is close to settling on campaigning for Texas land commissioner next year. He doesn’t expect to make up his mind until he knows what Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a fellow Republican, decides to do.

“We for sure are running, the question is the office,” Bush told The Associated Press during the first interview about his political future since filing paperwork in November to seek elected office in Texas.

Bush’s father is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his grandfather is former President George H.W. Bush and his uncle is former President and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Perry has been governor since George W. left for the White House.

Land commissioner traditionally has been a steppingstone to higher office, but Bush said little about any plans to eventually become a national political force.

His grandfather Prescott Bush was a US Senator, too. The past four years have been a rare period in American history where a member of the Bush family has not held some office. It will be interesting to see how he handles the inevitable tea party opponent he gets for Land Commissioner or whatever else he runs for. Will he adopt their positions, or will he remain blandly Bushy and presume that his name, money, and connections will suffice to handle it? The Trib has an interview with our future overlord if you want to better prepare yourself for the inevitable.

School Land Board votes to transfer $300 million to Available School Fund

From the Trib:

The School Land Board voted Tuesday to release $300 million into the Available School Fund for public schools.

The money will be released in two $150 million installments, one in February and the other on June. The funds had been caught in a standoff between the Legislature and the School Land Board, which operates out of the General Land Office and oversees the state’s public school land.

A constitutional amendment proposed in 2011 by state Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, allowed the board to put a portion of earnings from investments on real estate assets into the Available School Fund, which along with property and sales taxes helps pay for public education.

Voters passed the amendment last November, but the little-watched School Land Board decided not to distribute the money in July. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who sits on the three-member board, said it wanted to protect the funds for upcoming investment opportunities.

“It’s the age-old question of whether you save the money to send your kids to college or borrowing when they do,” he said at a House appropriations meeting in December.

Usually the proceeds from the sale and management of public school lands would go into a $26 billion trust whose revenue feeds into the Available School Fund. Proposition 6 made it so that the School Land Board, if it chose, could bypass that step and put money directly into the fund.

Background here. Given Commissioner Patterson’s previous opposition to the transfer of these funds, I was curious how he voted, since the story didn’t specify. I sent an inquiry to his office to check, and was told that he did vote no. You can read Commissioner Patterson’s statement here, the crux of which is as follows:

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, chairman of the board, cast the lone vote against the payment. He said the decision was frustrating because lawmakers passed a flawed budget last session that addressed short-term problems without providing a coherent long-term vision.

“We need to strive to do better,” Patterson said. “Spending down our kid’s trust fund to pay today’s bills is a path I don’t want to go down any further. Fortunately, the fund is healthy enough to protect Texas schools from one year of bad budgeting.”

I sympathize with that, but I don’t have a whole lot of optimism about better budgeting. Anyway, the money that the Lege assumed would be there after the constitutional amendment passed is now in fact there, so that’s one thing less to worry about.

DRT vs OAG

Nothing like a little holiday week controversy.

A blistering report released Tuesday by the Texas attorney general’s office outlines a long list of problems and dysfunctions in the past management of the Alamo by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

In a 38-page report to the Legislature, the attorney general’s office accuses the DRT of misappropriation of state funds; failure to care for the shrine; and improper claims of ownership of “historic artifacts.”

The report points out problems have been mostly with the organization’s leadership, and not the more than 7,000 DRT members who devote “countless volunteer hours” to preservation and education.

“It should be noted that the misconduct detailed in this report is largely attributable to the DRT’s leadership — and that conduct should not detract from the individual DRT members who tirelessly and selflessly served the Alamo for over a century,” the report states.

[…]

The document, posted on the attorney general’s website late Tuesday, summarizes findings from an 18-month investigation of the DRT’s Alamo operations that began in 2010. During that time, the Legislature passed a law transferring Alamo custodianship from the DRT to the Texas General Land Office.

The Daughters, who had been the shrine’s custodian since 1905, remain at the Alamo, providing daily operations under a state contract set to expire in mid-2013. Because the Legislature removed the DRT as custodian, the AG’s office “agreed to refrain from pursuing legal action against the DRT in court,” the report says.

The OAG report is here, and a statement from the DRT about the report is here. I have no dog in this fight, which has been going on since 2010 when now-former DRT member Sarah Reveley first accused the Daughters of mismanaging the Alamo. Texas Monthly had a story on it at the time that you’ll either need to be a subscriber or an owner of the print issue to read; other coverage found via Google is here, here, here, here, here, and here. I just hope that this report leads to a conclusion where everyone is satisfied with the way the Alamo is being managed and maintained.

Forget the Alamo

At least, forget about using it in a slogan.

Even if it’s possible to get too drunk to remember the Alamo, the state agency that oversees the shrine says that’s nothing to brag about on a T-shirt or frilly undergarment.

A word play on the slogan “Remember the Alamo” has set off a fight between a local businessman and the Texas General Land Office, which assumed custodianship of the shrine nearly a year ago.

Through his company, Qwercky Ltd., Christopher Erck, owner of Swig Martini Bar and The Worm Tequila and Mescal Bar downtown, is seeking a trademark from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the phrase, “I Can’t Remember the Alamo.”

The Land Office, in its first formal action to protect a state trademark on the phrase “The Alamo,” has argued the proposal is disparaging.

In a notice of opposition filed Wednesday, the Land Office argued the slogan dilutes the state’s trademark and denigrates the Alamo and men on both sides who died in the 1836 battle.

The “applicant’s mark disparages the deceased combatants of the Battle of the Alamo by communicating that their sacrifice was not worthy of memory or esteem,” the Land Office said in its opposition notice.

I don’t have a strong opinion on this. If we’re going to trademark “The Alamo”, it’s appropriate to protect that trademark. Seems a bit strange to me to have a trademark on “The Alamo”, but maybe that’s just my not-native-Texan-ness not understanding these things.

Land Board throws the Lege a curveball on school finance

Oops.

In the waning days of the 82nd Legislature, state lawmakers came up with a plan to help cushion the blow of $5.4 billion in cuts to public education.

State Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, proposed a constitutional amendment that he said could bring an additional $300 million to public schools. It unanimously cleared both the House and Senate. Orr’s measure became Proposition 6, which voters passed in November.

But that money has hit a roadblock on its way to public schools — and what looked like an easy fix for hard-pressed budget writers last May has turned into a headache that awaits their return in January.

The amendment allowed the School Land Board, which operates out of the General Land Office, to put a portion of earnings from investments on real estate assets into the Available School Fund, which along with property and sales taxes helps pay for public education. Last week, the little-watched board that oversees the state’s public school lands decided not to distribute the money. Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who sits on the three-member board, said it wanted to protect the funds for upcoming investment opportunities.

Usually the proceeds from the sale and management of public school lands would go into a $26 billion trust whose revenue feeds into what’s called the Available School Fund. Proposition 6 made it so the School Land Board, if it chose, could bypass that step and put money directly into the fund.

“We anticipated this funding for public education,” said Jason Embry, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. “We’re evaluating the impact on the budget and working with Commissioner Patterson to ensure there is no impact to public schools.”

Whether lawmakers should have expected the money is a matter of dispute. But the $300 million made it into the budget as part of general funds used to support school operations, contingent upon the constitutional amendment’s passage in November and the School Land Board’s approval of the transfer. During the special session last June, the Legislature added a provision to the appropriations bill that reduced general revenue funding to public education by $300 million if the amendment passed. It was to be replaced with the same amount from the Available School Fund with the board’s approval — but there was no provision to add that money back in if that didn’t happen.

“I was told that there would be $300 million going into the Available School Fund. Everything was put in place to allow to that to happen,” said Orr, who said the General Land Office agreed to transfer the money if the amendment passed. “I believe it needed to happen, so I’m not sure why it didn’t.”

Patterson said he did not recall committing to a transfer of the money and that his office had been unable to find “any evidence or documents or memos or testimony” that he did.

“I don’t have any control over what was written into the budget or what was made contingent. I don’t know who wrote that in there or why,” he said. “Somebody wrote a contingency rider assuming the answer would be yes.”

See here, here, and here for some background. If you look in the comments on those posts, you will see that Commissioner Patterson was never on board with this idea, so if the Lege was assuming that the School Land Board was going to go along with this idea, well, you know what they say about those who assume. I don’t think I realized till I read this story that the Lege had actually appropriated the $300 million based on that assumption; I must have been assuming that they would have made a supplemental appropriation at a later date once the Land Board signed off on it. Let that be a lesson to me. They’ll have to make a supplemental appropriation now, so you can add another $300 million to the Lege’s tab of unmet obligations from 2011. Good thing the Rainy Day Fund is full, because we’re really going to need it next year.

“Rather than trying a real solution to school finance they keep doing the little gimmicks and sleight of hands,” said David Bradley, the Beaumont Republican who chairs the Board of Education’s finance committee. “The Legislature is the problem. It’s totally improper for them to be pulling that kind of money out of these trust funds to use for general revenue funding.”

I hate having to agree with David Bradley, but he’s right. It’s on the Lege to fund school finance, and with the job they’ve been doing it’s no wonder we’re back in court a mere seven years after the last lawsuit was decided. I’m sure this seemed like free money to them – I admit, my first reaction was along those lines – and maybe that helped salve a bit of the guilt from having slashed $5.4 billion (and having voted to slash over $10 billion) from public education. But it was never a solution even if it did work.