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Pamela Elliott

Races I’ll be watching today, non-Legislative edition

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This is my companion to yesterday’s piece.

1. SBOE district 5

I’ve discussed the SBOE races before. This particular race, between incumbent Ken Mercer and repeat challenger Rebecca Bell-Metereau, is the one that has the closest spread based on past performance, and thus is the most likely to flip. If it does flip, it would not only have a significant effect on the SBOE, which would go from 10-5 Republican to 9-6, with one of the more noxious members getting ousted, it would also cause a bit of a tremor in that this was not really on anyone’s radar going into 2016. Redistricting is supposed to be destiny, based on long-established voting patterns. If those patterns don’t hold any more, that’s a big effing deal.

2. Appeals courts

I’ve also talked about this. The five courts of interest are the First, Fourth, Fifth, 13th, and 14th Courts of Appeals, and there are multiple benches available to win. I honestly have no idea if having more Democrats on these benches will have a similar effect as having more Democrats on the various federal appellate benches, especially given that the Supreme Court and CCA will most likely remain more or less as they are – I would love to hear from the lawyers out there about this – but I do know that having more Dems on these benches means having more experienced and credible candidates available to run for the Supreme Court and CCA, and also having more such candidates available for elevation to federal benches. Building up the political bench is a big deal.

3. Edwards County Sheriff’s race

Jon Harris is an experienced Democratic lawman running for Sheriff against a wacko extremist in a very Republican county, though one with a small number of voters. This one is about sanity more than anything else.

4. Waller County Sheriff’s race

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have this one on my radar until I read this Trib story about the race, in which the recent death of Sandra Bland is a factor. Waller County went 53-46 for McCain over Obama in 2008, though the Sheriff’s race that featured a problematic Republican was a lot closer. It was 58-41 for Romney, which is close to what it was statewide. Democratic challenger Cedric Watson will have to outperfom the countywide base to defeat incumbent Glenn Smith, it’s mostly a matter of by how much he’ll have to outperform.

5. Harris County Department of Education, Precinct 2

There aren’t any at large HCDE Trustee positions up for election this year, so I haven’t paid much attention to them. This race is interesting for two reasons. One, the Democratic candidate is Sherrie Matula, who is exceptionally qualified and who ran a couple of honorable races for HD129 in 2008 and 2010. And two, this is Jack Morman’s Commissioner’s Court precinct. A win by Matula might serve as a catalyst for a strong candidate (*cough* *cough* Adrian Garcia *cough* *cough*) to run against Morman in 2018.

6. HISD District VII special election

You know this one. It’s Democrat Anne Sung versus two credible Republicans and one non-entity who hasn’t bothered to do anything other than have a few signs put up around town. One key to this race is that it’s the only one that will go to a runoff if no one reaches 50% plus one. Needless to say, the conditions for a December runoff would be very different than the conditions are today.

7. HISD recapture and Heights dry referenda

I don’t think any explanation is needed for these.

What non-legislative races are on your watch list for today?

Interview with Jon Harris

Jon Harris

Jon Harris

It is time to start the fall 2016 interview season. I don’t plan to do a whole lot of these – in particular, I don’t plan to revisit races that I had covered during primary season – but I do have a few to do, as well as the judicial Q&As (again, for candidates not covered during the primaries). For the first interview, we venture a bit outside the Houston area, over into Edwards County where Jon Harris is running for Sheriff. Why am I interviewing a Sheriff candidate in Edwards County? Well, because the incumbent Sheriff there is a dangerous loon who interprets and enforces the law as she sees fit. This particular Sheriff, Pamela Elliott, was profiled in this Observer story, which I blogged about here. You should read that story if you haven’t already – it’s hard to believe this kind of thing exists, but it does. In this case, there is something that can be done about it. Harris is a military veteran with years of law enforcement experience, in Harris and Fort Bend Counties. He’s running to restore sanity and to get that law enforcement agency back to doing what it is supposed to do. Here’s what we talked about:

Interviews and Q&As from the primaries are on my 2016 Election page. I will update it as we go along to include links to fall interviews.

The Sheriff and Lord High Executioner of Edwards County

In case you haven’t already, you really need to read this:

The first thing she noticed was Sheriff Pamela Elliott standing across the street. It was an August evening in 2014, and Rachel Gallegos had just gotten home for a meeting of the Edwards County Democratic Party. The law enforcement official was a highly unlikely candidate for a session with local Democrats. Edwards County — Rocksprings is the county seat — is solidly Republican, and Elliott is militantly conservative.

There were cars everywhere — on the street, blocking the road, even parked in Gallegos’ yard, about 30 people in all. “They were the sheriff’s staff — some in plain clothes, some in uniform,” Gallegos recalls. “There were dispatchers, jailers, friends, supporters — anyone, it seemed, that Sheriff Elliott could gather up.”

Ten minutes after the start of the meeting, all four of the executive committee members in Gallegos’ house were gabbing about the posse amassed outside. Then there was a loud knock at the door — Sheriff Elliott. “She came to the door in uniform and was about to come in, so I held the door and said, ‘May I help you?’” Gallegos says.

According to Gallegos, Elliott said she had a right to attend the meeting and that she’d received permission from the Texas attorney general to be there under the Open Meetings Act. “She held her boot in the door and I told her to have him call me — that if he said she could be there I’d let her in,” Gallegos says. “And nobody ever called me, of course.”

Caroline Ramirez, who dropped her husband off at the meeting, described the crowd outside as an “angry mob.” Later, she would state in a written complaint submitted to the attorney general, the secretary of state and the district attorney that she “was shocked that [Elliott] was in uniform but wasn’t doing anything to control the crowd, keep the peace, or protect them or us. She seemed to be encouraging the mob. I wanted to call someone, but I had no idea who I should call if the head of our law enforcement is part of the problem.”

In her own complaint, Gallegos wrote, “I can no longer assume that our Sheriff and her department will act as Peace Officers. I need some guidance as to how to protect myself.”

A month later, she received an email from Timothy Juro, an attorney in the Texas Secretary of State’s office. He confirmed that a meeting of the local party’s executive committee would not fall under the Open Meetings Act.

Gallegos believes Elliott’s sole purpose was to intimidate Democratic voters in an upcoming election for Edwards County judge. Souli Shanklin, a Republican, was Elliott’s ally, and Ricky Martinez, the Democrat, was expected to do well. Gallegos says law enforcement outside her house could have influenced the vote by making people in town think the Democrats were up to no good, or even doing something illegal. Martinez ended up losing, with 46 percent of the vote.

Andrew Barnebey, the former chair of the Edwards County Democratic Party and current county commissioner, likewise sees ulterior motives. He said it was “ridiculous” for Elliott, a Republican, and her allies to believe they had a legal right to attend a Democratic Party meeting in a private home. Equally absurd, he said, is the idea that “these folks would want to barge in to listen to this little bit of housekeeping.”

Buck Wood, an Austin attorney who has practiced election law in Texas for 45 years, says it amounts to harassment. “It’s intimidation and illegal use of the sheriff ’s office powers,” he says. “It sounds like somebody needs to bring a lawsuit, because she sounds like she’s totally out of control. It may even be abuse of office, and if so, could be a criminal offense.”

Republican Party County Chairwoman Kathy Walker told the Observer that she believed the Democrats in Edwards County had an “open door policy” for their meetings. “Why would they have it in a private home? We have our meetings at the women’s club.”

In any case, the Democrats didn’t launch any legal action against the sheriff’s office, and Elliott never apologized. Instead, the strange showdown became another in a long list of Elliott power plays that have plunged this isolated county into political turmoil. Her detractors say that since her election as sheriff in 2012, she’s waged an aggressive campaign to intimidate Democrats, voters and the Latino community.

The sheriff has arrested elected officials and gone to war with the superintendent. Her office has accused voters of electoral fraud with little evidence. And while embroiled in political combat, she’s been accused of bungling an investigation into a high profile murder case — one that’s haunted Rocksprings for 20 years. Elliott appears to be motivated in part by a growing far-right movement that exalts sheriffs as the last line of defense against a tyrannical federal government.

Elliott said she would answer questions via email, but then never responded.

Conflicts between the so-called patriot movement and the federal government have grown in recent years. High-profile incidents like the Bundy standoff in Nevada or the occupation of the Oregon wildlife refuge dominate headlines. But most anti-government activists don’t carry a badge and a gun or spend their days in local communities, ostensibly serving and protecting their neighbors.

Read the whole thing, it’s scary and amazing. A couple of days after that story was published, this happened:

A voting rights organization based in Washington, D.C., has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate possible voter intimidation in Edwards County, following the publication of an Observer investigation into a West Texas sheriff.

In a letter to the head of the DOJ’s civil rights division, the Voting Rights Institute said it had “come to our attention that minority voters in Edwards County, Texas, are allegedly being intimidated by the local sheriff. We call upon the Department of Justice to conduct a federal investigation of this matter to ensure the protection of Latino voting rights.”

No word as yet from the Justice Department. I realize that calling in the feds to investigate a local autocrat who thinks the federal government is an evil oppressor bent on contaminating her precious bodily fluids makes for a potentially dangerous situation, but you can’t let this kind of petty bullying go unchecked. Sheriff Elliott is up for re-election in a county that went 72.6% to 26.2% for Romney over Obama in 2012, so unseating her will require more than just partisan outrage. The total number of voters in the county is less than a thousand, so at least there aren’t that many people to convince. I’ll put this one on my watch list for November. Good luck, y’all.