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Mary Lou Keel

Endorsement watch: CCA

The Chron makes its recommendations for the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Judge Larry Meyers

Judge Larry Meyers

Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 2: Lawrence “Larry” Meyers

Accusing someone of having “the feels” seems more at home in a teenager’s Facebook argument than in a dissenting opinion from the Court of Criminal Appeals, but that’s what Judge Lawrence “Larry” Meyers wrote in State v. Furr, alleging that his colleagues cared more about their feelings on the case than the objective standards of law. After 24 years on this bench, the long-serving member of Texas’ highest criminal court has certainly given up on the usual collegiality.

“We’re not there to get along,” Meyers, 68, said during a meeting with the Chronicle editorial board. “We’re there to do the right thing under the law.”

Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 5: Scott Walker

Consider this race as evidence against electing judges.

Democrats are offering a candidate who was removed from the Bexar County appointed attorney list after she refused to represent defendants who wouldn’t plead guilty – Betsy Johnson.

Republicans are running a Dallas-area defense attorney with a politically famous name and no record of public service – Scott Walker.

We were ready to toss this one up or take a look at third-party candidates, but in his meeting with the Chronicle editorial board, Walker demonstrated a workman’s experience in the criminal court trenches that earned our endorsement.

Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 6: Robert Burns

It doesn’t take a deep look at the Texas judiciary to see that the prosecutor’s office is often the first step towards earning a bench. The relationship between district attorneys, police and judges is a tight one, and years of wearing the black robes can give even the most dedicated neutral arbiter an unconscious tunnel vision that undermines fairness in our criminal justice system.

Robert Burns, who was first elected to a Dallas County criminal district court in 2006, understands that problem well.

“Too many judges want to side with the state or the police and not be fair and impartial,” Burns, 52, told the Houston Chronicle editorial board. “Just call it right down the middle. Be fair, and when you do make procedural decisions, make sure they’re decisions that result in guilty people getting convicted and innocent people being set free.”

Meyers is the only statewide Democrat in office, having switched parties in 2013 to mount an unsuccessful campaign for Supreme Court. I still don’t know what to make of the guy – he’s good on some things and not on others, and while he’s given a standard “the party left me” rationale for switching from R to D, I can’t say I’ve seen any clear evolution in his judicial opinions. Burns is a Democratic challenger to another longtime incumbent, Mike Keasler, who will have to resign his position in four years if he is re-elected because he will hit the mandatory retirement age of 75. He’s the clearest choice of the three.

Republican primary runoff results

vote-button

Harris County results

Statewide results

Trib liveblog

Your new State Senators are Bryan Hughes, who defeated his former House colleague David Simpson, and Dawn Buckingham, who defeated former Rep. Susan King. Hughes is a Dan Patrick buddy, who will fit right in to the awfulness of the upper chamber. Buckingham is a first-time officeholder who needs only to be less terrible than Troy Fraser, but I don’t know if she’s capable of that. She has a Democratic opponent in November, but that’s not a competitive district.

The single best result in any race on either side is Keven Ellis defeating certifiable loon Mary Lou Bruner in SBOE9. Whether Bruner finally shot herself in the foot or it was divine intervention I couldn’t say, but either way we should all be grateful. State government has more than enough fools in it already. Here’s TFN’s statement celebrating the result.

Jodey Arrington will be the next Congressman from CD19. There were also runoffs in a couple of Democratic districts, but I don’t really care about those.

Scott Walker easily won his Court of Criminal Appeals runoff. Mary Lou Keel had a two-point lead, representing about 6,000 votes, with three-quarters of precincts reporting, while Wayne Christian had a 7,000 vote lead for Railroad Commissioner. Those results could still change, but that seems unlikely.

Two incumbent House members appear to have fallen. Rep. Doug Miller in HD73 lost to Kyle Biedermann after a nasty race. Miller is the third incumbent to be ousted in a primary since 2006. They sure are easily dissatisfied in the Hill Country. Here in Harris County, Rep. Wayne Smith has been nipped by 22 votes by Briscoe Cain. That race was nasty, too. You have to figure there’ll be a recount in that one, with such a small margin, but we’ll see. For other House runoffs, see the Trib for details.

Last but not least, in another fit of sanity Harris County Republicans chose to keep their party chair, Paul Simpson. Better luck next time, dead-enders. Final turnout was 38,276 with 927 of 1,012 precincts reporting, so well below the Stanart pre-voting estimate of 50,000. Dems were clocking in at just under 30K with about the same number or precincts out. That’s actually a tad higher than I was expecting, more or less in line with 2012 when there was a Senate runoff.

Endorsement watch: Remember the runoffs

The Chron makes their endorsements for the primary runoffs, which will happen on May 24, with early voting from the 16th to the 20th. Let me sum up:

vote-button

Republican

Member, Railroad Commissioner: Gary Gates

Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 2: Mary Lou Keel

Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 5: Scott Walker

Democrats

Member, Railroad Commission: Cody Garrett

Member, State Board of Education, District 6: R. Dakota Carter

State Representative, District 139: Kimberly Willis

Judge, 11th Civil District Court: Kristen Hawkins

Judge, 61st Civil District Court: Fredericka Phillips

Judge, 215th Civil District Court: JoAnn Storey

Sheriff: Ed Gonzalez

Justice of the Peace Precinct 1, Place 1: Eric William Carter

Justice of the Peace Precinct 7, Place 1: Cheryl Elliott Thornton

Constable, Precinct 2: Christopher (Chris) Diaz

Constable, Precinct 3: Sherman Eagleton

Some of these are reiterations of primary endorsements, but quite a few are new, with the original endorsed candidate not making it to the finals. I’ll post a roundup of interview and Q&A links for the races where I’ve done them tomorrow.

Runoff watch: Judicial races

There are three District Court race runoffs on the Democratic side, and two Court of Criminal Appeals runoffs for the Republicans. There are also a few Justice of the Peace runoffs, but I’ll deal with them in another post.

11th Civil District Court – Democratic

Kristen Hawkins

Kristen Hawkins

Kristem Hawkins led this three-candidate race by a wide margin, coming within 1000 votes of an outright win. Runnerup Rabeea Collier finished just 170 votes ahead of third-place candidate Jim Lewis. Given the narrowness of that margin, I’m actually a bit surprised there hasn’t been a call for a recount, but as far as I know there hasn’t been one.

Hawkins’ Q&A is here, and Collier’s is here. This race is fascinating because there’s no clear reason why it went the way it did. All three candidates were busy campaigners, and all three won endorsements from various groups, with Lewis getting the nod from the Chron. Hawkins was first on the ballot, but doesn’t appear to have been a major factor overall. Hawkins would seem to be a clear favorite in the runoff based on her near-win in March and commanding lead in vote total, but as we know this runoff is going to be a low-turnout affair. Anything can happen.

61st Civil District Court – Democratic

This three-way race saw a much more even split of the vote than the 11th did. Frontrunner Fredericka Phillips had 38%, with second-place finisher Julie Countiss scoring 35%. In third was Dion Ramos, who won a partial term for the 55th District Court in 2008, but lost it in the 2010 wipeout.

Countiss’ Q&A is here; Phillips did not send me a response. Countiss’ campaign was by far the most visible, at least to me, and she collected most of the group endorsements. Phillips is the Vice Chair of the Texas Democratic Party as well as a past candidate for the 387th District Court in 2012 in Fort Bend, under her maiden name of Petry. The Chron endorsed Ramos for March, so they’ll have to revisit this one; the same is true for the 11th, where Lewis was their initial choice. I see this race as a tossup.

215th Civil District Court – Democratic

Easily the most interesting of the judicial runoffs, and the one with the most backstory. In 2012, District Court Judge Steve Kirkland was the only incumbent judge to face a primary challenge, from attorney Elaine Palmer. Palmer’s campaign was lavishly funded by attorney George Fleming, who bore a grudge against Kirkland, and that animus made this an ugly, divisive race that Palmer ultimately won. Palmer went on to win in November, and now in 2016 she is the only incumbent judge facing a primary challenge. Three candidates filed against her, with JoAnn Storey leading the pack into overtime.

Judge Palmer’s Q&A is here, and Storey’s is here. Palmer led all the way but was never close to a majority, ending up with 43% to Storey’s 27%. If there’s a judicial race that will draw out voters, it will be this one, as Kirkland supporters, in particular the HGLBT Political Caucus, have a shot at avenging that 2012 race. Storey got most of the group endorsements for March, which in itself is remarkable given that she was challenging an incumbent, though the Caucus went with Josh Verde in Round One. I expect that will be handled for the runoff, and that I’ll be hearing from them as attention turns towards the vote. As for Palmer, if Fleming is still financing her it’s not apparent – the only report I can find for her is the January filing, for which she reported no contributions for the period. Again, this one could go either way, but I feel like Storey has a slight edge.

Court of Criminal Appeals – Republican

There are two Republican runoffs for the CCA. I’m just going to quote Grits for Breakfast about them.

Grits suggested before the primary that I’d “be watching the Sid Harle/Steve Smith race on the Court of Criminal Appeals to see if Texas GOP voters have flat-out lost their minds.”

Short answer: They have.

Judge Harle, who arguably was the most qualified and well-respected jurist on the ballot, didn’t even make the runoff to replace Cheryl Johnson on the court. Instead, a lawyer named Scott Walker who according to press accounts had “chosen not to campaign,” led the field with 41%. He’ll face Brent Webster, who ran on an anti-abortion platform unrelated to the activities of the Court of Criminal Appeals and garnered 20.45% of the vote.

Steve Smith ran third with 19.6%, with Harle trailing at 4th with 18.5%

Walker was popular because he shares a name with the Wisconsin governor who at one point appeared to be a presidential frontrunner before the Trump phenomenon erupted. Webster, presumably, benefited from his (irrelevant) pro-life bona fides, though so little is spent on these elections I suspect most people who voted for him knew nothing at all about him.

In the race between Mary Lou Keel, Chris Oldner, and Tea Partier Ray Wheless, Keel and Wheless made the runoff. Keel led, barely, but Wheless’ base is more likely to turn out in the runoff. Keel and Oldner have disparaged Wheless, whose background is mostly in civil law, as unqualified, although Rick Perry appointed him to a district court seat.

Voters in the GOP primary clearly didn’t have a clue about these CCA races. They may as well have drawn lots for Johnson’s seat. These races are so underfunded for a state the size of Texas that candidates can’t meaningfully get their messages out and voters have no way to know anything about them.

The Walker/Webster runoff is the strongest argument in my adult lifetime for appointing judges instead of electing them. What an embarrassment.

So there you have it. As a reminder, there are Democratic candidates in each of these races. I admit, that’s unlikely to matter, but I thought I’d put it out there anyway.

2016 primary reactions and initial impressions

First, a couple of minor notes. Rep. Byron Cook ultimately pulled out a win in his nasty and high-profile primary. That’s good news for Speaker Joe Straus and the general forces of “government that isn’t like a three-year-old coming off a sugar high”. Rep. Wayne Smith was forced into a runoff but did not lose outright. Also forced into a runoff was Rep. Doug Miller in HD73 – I missed that one on Tuesday night – and on the Democratic side, Rep. Ron Reynolds in HD27. That one apparently happened after midnight; Reynolds will face Angelique Bartholomew in May.

With all 7,963 now having reported, Democratic primary turnout statewide was 1,433,827, with over 800,000 votes coming on Election Day. To put that into some perspective, since the only point of reference any news story I’ve seen lately seems to be the off-the-charts year of 2008, here’s was turnout was for every Democratic primary through 1992, which is as far back as the SOS archives go:


Year      Turnout
=================
2016    1,433,827
2014      554,014
2012      590,164
2010      680,548
2008    2,874,986
2006      508,602
2004      839,231
2002    1,003,388
2000      786,890
1998      654,154
1996      921,256
1994    1,036,907
1992    1,483,047

In other words, 2016 will have had the second highest turnout in any Democratic primary since 1992. Yes, I know, there are a lot more voters now than there were in 1992, but still. That’s not too shabby. Republican turnout with all precincts in was 2,832,234, so while it’s obviously a record-breaker for them, it falls short of the Dem number from 2008. So there.

One thing to touch on here is that in both primaries, well more than half the vote came on Election Day, which as a result meant that the final turnout projections were low. Over 1.6 million Republicans voted on E-Day, so in both primaries about 43% of the vote was early, and 57% came on Election Day. You may recall that the early/E-Day split was similar in 2008, whereas in 2012 the early vote was about 52% of the total. The two lessons I would draw from this are 1) Final turnout projections are always a guess that should always be taken with a healthy serving of salt, and 2) The more hotly contested and high-profile a race is, the more likely that people will wait till the last minute to decide. Someone with more resources than I have should take a closer look at the makeup of the early and late voters to see what percentage of each are the hardcore and the casual voters; my guess, based on a completely unscientific survey of my Facebook friends, is that more hardcore voters than you might think waited till Tuesday. There’s an opportunity here for someone with an enterprising spirit and some number-crunching skillz.

Also on the matter of turnout, 226,825 Democrats and 329,014 Republicans cast ballots in Harris County. 61.4% of all Democratic votes and 59.1% of all Republican votes were cast on Tuesday. See my previous paragraph for what that means to me.

On the matter of the Republican primaries for Court of Criminal Appeals, here’s what Grits had to say during early voting:

Statewide, I’ll be watching the Sid Harle/Sid Smith race on the Court of Criminal Appeals to see if Texas GOP voters have flat-out lost their minds, and the Keel-Oldner-Wheless race to see if Judge Wheless’ strategy of ignoring the establishment and seeking Tea Party, pro-life and generally conservative movement support is enough to win a primary in a low spending, low-profile race.

Well, of the four candidates running in the primary for Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals Place 5, Steve Smith and Sid Harle came in third and fourth, respectively. A couple of guys named Scott Walker and Brent Webster will be in the runoff. As for Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals Place 2, Raymond Wheless came in second and will face Mary Lou Keel in the runoff, while Chris Oldner of Ken Paxton grand jury fame is on the outside looking in. I’ll leave it to Grits to tell me What It All Means.

There were a few races on the Dem side that had people shaking their heads or their fists, but there weren’t any truly bizarre results. For sure, there was nothing on the Dem side that compares to this:

The newly elected chair of the Republican Party in the county that includes the Texas Capitol spent most of election night tweeting about former Gov. Rick Perry’s sexual orientation and former President Bill Clinton’s penis, and insisting that members of the Bush family should be in jail.

He also found time to call Hillary Clinton an “angry bull dyke” and accuse his county vice chair of betraying the values of the Republican Party.

“The people have spoken,” Robert Morrow, who won the helm of the Travis County GOP with 54 percent of the vote, told The Texas Tribune. “My friends and neighbors and political supporters — they wanted Robert Morrow.”

Morrow’s election as Republican chair of the fifth-largest county in Texas left several members of the Travis County GOP, including vice chair Matt Mackowiak, apoplectic. Mackowiak, a Republican strategist, immediately announced over social media that he would do everything in his power to remove Morrow from office.

“We will explore every single option that exists, whether it be persuading him to resign, trying to force him to resign, constraining his power, removing his ability to spend money or resisting any attempt for him to access data or our social media account,” Mackowiak told the Tribune. “I’m treating this as a coup and as a hostile takeover.”

“Tell them they can go fuck themselves,” Morrow told the Tribune.

All righty then. Morrow, whose comedic stylings are collected here, was a regular inhabitant of the comment section at BurkaBlog, back when Paul Burka was still writing it. He was also Exhibit A for why one should never read the comments. I’d feel sorry for Travis County Republicans, but as the story notes Morrow is now Greg Abbott’s county party chair, and that’s just too hilarious for me to be empathetic about. Have fun with that, y’all, because there’s not much you can do to make him leave before his term expires. Trail Blazers has more.

I’ll start digging into the data tomorrow, when I hope all the precinct results will be in for the SOS website, and when I get a draft canvass from the Harris County Clerk. The Trib has a graphical view for the Presidential race if you can’t wait for me. Any other results or tidbits you want me to look at? Let me know. David Collins lists the races that will go to runoffs, and Harold Cook, Marc Campos, PDiddie, the Obserer, and the Current have more.

The most interesting statewide primary is for the Court of Criminal Appeals

Too bad no one’s paying attention.

Judge Larry Meyers

Judge Larry Meyers

When the first Republican ever elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decided in 2013 to switch parties after 20 years on the bench, the move made national news. Now as the only Democratic statewide official in Texas, Judge Larry Meyers is anticipating a losing battle.

“Oh, not real good,” the 68-year-old said this week, mulling his chances of retaining his seat. His smile-lined eyes unfocused for a second, before he laughed heartily, “Who knows? We might have some luck in the fall.”

Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, but having an “R” after your name is not enough anymore here, where the tea party continues its five-year surge of influence. Even incumbents once considered dyed-in-the-wool conservatives are now routinely accused of being “Republicans in name only.”

Infighting among Texas’ Republicans has been less pronounced in the judicial races here, however, with candidates focusing more on performance than endorsements. Not so in this year’s fight for “place 2” on the state’s highest criminal court. Like every other race in Texas this primary season, it too has derailed into a battle over the candidates’ conservative bona fides, a fight that encompasses everyone from Attorney General Ken Paxton to the candidates’ spouses.

Meyers and the three Republicans vying to unseat him all acknowledge it’s just politics. But what they can’t agree on is whether it should be for this court, which, in the most real sense, decides who lives and who dies, who spends life in prison and who walks free.

[…]

While judicial campaigns are usually more staid, the vitriol has been flying between the Republicans vying to unseat Meyers. Three will face off in the March 1 primary.

Harris County District Court Judge Mary Lou Keel, a former assistant district attorney who has served on the court for 21 years, has little negative to say about her opponent Collin County District Judge Chris Oldner. Oldner, too, acknowledged, “I don’t have anything bad to say about Mary Lou Keel, I really don’t.”

Their target? Oldner’s colleague on the Collin County District Court, Ray Wheless.

The two north Texas judges sit on either side of the Ken Paxton prosecution. Wheless, a long-time friend and donor to the first-term current attorney general, has been critical of the grand jury process that led to Paxton’s indictment last July.

Oldner, meanwhile, presided over that grand jury. While he has said he has nothing against Paxton, Oldner said the attorney general’s supporters have actively worked to try to push him out of public service. He was accused by Paxton’s lawyers of mishandling the grand jury process – an allegation dismissed by the presiding judge – and now finds himself in a race with a colleague he considers part of the dangerous politicization of the bench.

“If you want somebody who just regurgitates tea party lines, well, then, Ray’s your man,” said Oldner, who was appointed to the district court by then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2003. “But if you want somebody that’s actually living the mantra of the rule of law, personal responsibility, then you look at Mary Lou Keel and myself.”

Keel, who said she has had multiple “run-ins” with Wheless on the campaign trail, simply said, “I find him deceptive and inaccurate.”

Wheless said he’s become the target of criticisms for an obvious reason: he’s the man to beat.

“There’s a reason that the conservatives in Texas are endorsing me,” he said, before listing off nods from Texas Right to Life, the Texas Eagle Forum and Liberty Institute’s Kelly Shackelford. “I am the recognized conservative in the race, and that is why Judge Oldner and Judge Keel can’t get any conservatives.”

Read the whole thing, it’s quite well done. It gives the first real insight I’ve seen as to why Justice Meyers changed parties; given that’s he’s filed a lawsuit against the voter ID law, I can believe that was a breaking point for him. I’m glad to have him on our side, and I wish more people would do the same, but I don’t really consider him a poster child for our cause. His rulings on the CCA are all over the map, too often on what I see as the wrong side of the issue in question. It’s not worth worrying about at this point, but it’s something to keep in mind.

As for the GOP side of things, it’s the same old story where the word “conservative” has lost all meaning in the endless tribal war, and qualifications don’t count. I haven’t been around long enough to say with any authority how all of this resembles the state of the Democratic Party in Texas in the 1970s, but I have to believe that there’s a crackup coming. A party can only exclude so many people for so long before they define themselves down to a minority. As far as that goes, what we need is more people like Larry Meyers to say “enough” and bail out. How long that will take, I have no idea. I may not live long enough to see it. But I believe it’s coming. In the meantime, read the story, and root for Raymond Wheless to lose.