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July 2019 campaign finance reports: Mayoral candidates

All right, now that we are past the 15th, most of the campaign finance reports are in, so let’s start reviewing them. Because there are several thousand candidates running for office in Houston, I’m going to split them into several groups. We’ll begin with the Mayoral candidates and go from there. As a reminder, my look at the January 2019 finance reports for Houston candidates is here, and all of the finance reports that I have downloaded and reviewed are in this Google folder. I’ll be going by Erik Manning’s invaluable spreadsheet, which lists the following Mayoral hopefuls:

Sylvester Turner
Kendall Baker
Derek Broze
Dwight Boykins
Tony Buzbee
Anton Dowls
Naoufal Houjami
Bill King
Sue Lovell
Demetria Smith

And here are the totals from the reports they have filed:


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner     1,698,596  1,362,879        0   3,218,268
Baker         15,810     15,650        0         260
Broze          1,379        188        0       1,190
Boykins      140,174     93,219        0      69,783
Buzbee             0  1,814,754        0   5,140,725
King         684,842    580,062  210,000     318,320

Sue Lovell didn’t enter the race until this month, so she does not have a report yet. The others are I presume typical fringe candidates who have no idea what they’re doing. Place your bets as to how many of them actually file by the deadline.

Sylvester Turner is doing what you’d expect. Given that he’s running against someone who’s willing to set large bags of his own money on fire for this race, it’s possible he’ll step it up even further for the next report, but it’s hard to complain about what he’s done so far. As for Buzbee, who made two contributions worth $5.5 million to his campaign this cycle after dropping $2 million before January, I guess this is what you do when you have more money than brains and all your toys bore you. He’s the only contributor to his campaign, by design. I almost feel sorry for Bill King, who doesn’t have Buzbee’s moolah or Turner’s base. He’s going to have a hard time keeping up.

And then there’s Dwight Boykins. I don’t know what I expected from Boykins’ July report, but here’s a fun fact for you: Boykins reported raising $150K in his July 2013 finance report, when he was running for his first term in District D. You may note that the “Office Sought” field on Boykins’ current finance report is blank. I’m not saying that Boykins may change his mind before the filing deadline and run for another term in his current office, but I’m not not saying it, either.

Finally, out of sheer curiosity, I also looked at the report of the End Pay to Play PAC, the vehicle by which Bill King failed to put a campaign finance referendum on the ballot. End Pay to Play raised $95K, of which $20K came from King, $20K came from Nijad Fares, $10K came from Hartman Advisors LLC, $5K came from JBK Family Interests Ltd, and there were five other $5K donors. Not exactly a grassroots uprising. It spent $130K, thus leaving about $41K in “unpaid incurred obligations”, with most of the spending going to an outfit called Election Day Strategies in Corpus Christi. And now it sinks from sight, a minor footnote in this busy year.

Here’s some Chron coverage on the reports so far. I’ll start looking at the Council candidates, along with other races. There’s no shortage of these posts to do. As always, let me know what you think.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, Naoufal Houjami filed his report on paper, which you can see here. Some other candidates have done this as well, and their reports are here. Houjami raised $1,080, spent $356, and has $154 on hand.

Libertarians and Greens sue over the petition process for ballot access

We’ll see about this.

Mark Miller

Ahead of the 2020 election cycle, a group of Texans, along with a number of nonmajor political parties, have sued the secretary of state’s office, alleging that Texas election law discriminates against third-party and independent candidates vying for a spot on the general election ballot.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Austin, plaintiffs argued that current state law would give nonmajor political parties in 2020 just 75 days to obtain over 80,000 valid signatures to gain ballot access — and that the cost of doing so could cost more than $600,000.

Currently, third parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party can secure a spot on the general election ballot by either having at least one candidate who wins more than 5% of the vote in a statewide race during the previous election cycle, or by collecting a certain number of required signatures. That 5% threshold will soon be lowered to 2% of the vote in one of the past five general elections once a measure that passed the Texas Legislature this year takes effect Sept. 1.

Candidates unaffiliated with a political party, meanwhile, are allowed access to the general election ballot as long as they file the required paperwork and gather a certain number of signatures, which depends on which office they’re seeking.

For both third-party and independent candidates, signatures must come from registered voters who did not vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries or participate in another party’s convention that year.

“Collecting signatures by hand is inherently time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive,” Mark Miller, a plaintiff in the case and a two-time Libertarian candidate for Texas Railroad Commission, said in a news release. “And collecting 80,000-plus valid signatures in the limited time allowed under Texas law is all but impossible without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire paid petition circulators.”

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs suggested that Texas could modernize its signature petition procedure to help alleviate the burden they say has been placed on them. Plaintiffs pointed to Arizona, which they said has a secretary of state who recently implemented an online platform to allow voters to sign nomination petitions electronically — instead of in person and on paper.

Let me start by saying that if the minor parties win the right to collect electronic petition signatures so their candidates can get on the ballot in a state where electronic voter registration is illegal, that will be infuriating. The latter is by far the bigger affront to democracy.

Before I get to the main part of my analysis, let me add some more details about this from the Statesman.

State law offers three paths for candidates to land on the general election ballot:

Political parties that received at least 20 percent of the vote in the previous election for governor nominate their candidates for state and county office and the U.S. Congress via primary elections, with the winners advancing to the general election. “Since at least 1900, only the Democratic Party and Republican Party have qualified,” the lawsuit said.

Major-party candidates pay filing fees ranging from $75 to $5,000 or by submitting petitions with 5,000 signatures for statewide office. The law does not set a time limit on when they can begin collecting those signatures, the lawsuit said. Minor parties must nominate general-election candidates at a convention where participants equal at least 1% of the number of Texans who voted for governor in the prior election, or 83,717 participants in 2020. No minor party has met the 1% requirement in at least 50 years, the lawsuit said, but Texas law allows candidates to collect voter signatures within a 75-day window to make up the difference.

The tight deadline and limits on who may sign the petitions – registered voters cannot sign if they voted in a recent primary, attended another party’s convention or signed another party’s nominating petition for the same election – put minor-party candidates at a significant disadvantage, the lawsuit said.

Independent candidates are allowed on the general election ballot if they collect petition signatures equal to 1% of the voters in the previous gubernatorial election. Petitions cannot be circulated until after the major parties hold a primary or primary runoff election, meaning candidates could have 114 days, or as little as 30 days, to collect signatures, the lawsuit said. “This uncertainty alone imposes a significant burden that chills potential candidacies,” the lawsuit said.

Having to collect about 80,000 valid signatures by hand can cost $600,000, largely to hire people to circulate petitions, the lawsuit said. The result is an election scheme that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for candidates who are not wealthy to participate in the political arena, said Oliver Hall, a lawyer with the nonprofit Center for Competitive Democracy, which worked on the lawsuit without charge along with the Shearman & Sterling law firm, which has an office in Austin. “We think the federal courts will recognize that Supreme Court precedent prohibits Texas from limiting participation in its electoral process to those with financial means,” Hall said.

So the first thing to realize is that this cycle is an especially challenging one for parties or candidates who need to go the petition route to get on the ballot. That includes the Libertarians, whose best performance in 2018 was 3.42% in the Comptroller’s race. The Libertarians and to a lesser extent the Greens have benefited in the past from the Democrats not competing in all of the statewide judicial races, leaving at least one slot with a Republican running against an L and a G, with the two of them combining for 20% or so of the vote; there were two such races in 2014. In 2018 Dems had candidates in all of the judicial races, and that left the Libertarians (the Greens were not on the ballot because none of their candidates got to five percent in 2016) out in the cold. The other thing about 2018, you might recall, is that it shattered records for off-year turnout, which is why that “one percent of the Governor’s race” (*) requirement is as high as it is. Had the Ls and Gs needed petition signatures for 2016, they’d have only needed about 47,000 of them based on gubernatorial turnout from 2014. In addition, primary turnout, especially on the Dem side, is going to be through the roof, meaning that the pool of eligible petition-signers will be that much smaller. However you feel about the plight of the minor parties and would-be independents, this is a bad year to have to collect petition signatures.

The other fact to reckon with is that this isn’t the first time a federal lawsuit (which this one is, according to the Statesman) has been filed over this requirement. Back in 2004, after Ralph Nader tried and failed to get enough signatures to be on the ballot as an independent Presidential candidate, he sued and ultimately lost; his subsequent appeal was rejected. Federal judge Lee Yeakel ruled at the time that Texas’ ballot access laws did not create an unconstitutional burden. I’m not exactly sure what is different this time, other than the number of plaintiffs, but who knows. This is the main question, at least as far as I’m concerned, that will need to be addressed. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

For what it’s worth, while I have no warmth for the third parties, I’d be all right with a petition process that gave them more time, and even that allowed them to solicit any voter, not just non-primary voters. If and when we get electronic voter registration, I’d concede on the electronic petition gathering item. Beyond that, I don’t see much of a problem. We’ll see what the judge says.

(*) There were 8,343,443 votes cast in the 2018 Governor’s race, one percent of which is 83,434. I have no idea where that 83,717 figure comes from, unless it’s some kind of weird typo.

“Pay to play” petition drive falls short

Womp womp.

The political action committee that launched a petition drive aimed at limiting the influence of contractors and vendors at Houston City Hall failed to gather enough signatures to put the measure on the November ballot, the group’s director said Wednesday.

The drive, which ended earlier this week, was for a petition authored by a group of lawyers, including Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, to amend a city ordinance to bar people who do business with the city from contributing more than $500 to candidates for municipal office.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has rejected calls from King and fellow candidate Tony Buzbee to reform Houston’s campaign finance system, suggested the effort’s failure was an indictment on the “anti-pay-to-play” message being pushed by the political action committee backing the petition. The mayor urged reporters to “focus on real issues, real needs.”

“Let me just put it this way: I have not seen any problems,” Turner said. “I think that whole movement was more political than substantive.”

[…]

Ben McPhaul, the director of the PAC, said the committee still was receiving petitions Wednesday but would fall short of the roughly 40,000 signatures it needed to gather in 30 days under city rules.

“We are grateful for the hundreds of grass-roots volunteers who helped the effort with not a single paid petitioner,” McPhaul said in a statement. “The PAC plans to continue collecting signatures to raise awareness of the issue with hopes to get it on the ballot or in front of council in the future.”

See here for the background. Just so we’re clear here, this is not City Secretary Anna Russell counting the signatures and saying they don’t have enough valid ones. This is the PAC itself saying they didn’t get enough to even submit for inspection. They fell short of their goal.

The petition drive’s failure reflects the PAC’s lack of volunteers and funds more than the public’s interest in reforming Houston’s campaign finance reform system, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

“You can’t read anything into this regarding the attitudes of Houstonians toward ‘pay to play,’” Jones said.

Still, the outcome represents a win for Turner, Jones said, because it means the topic of campaign finance reform may gain less media coverage and traction from political pundits near election time.

“I wouldn’t put it as a major failure for King, but certainly it’s a setback,” Jones said. “Once he got behind the petition, he owned the petition.”

King said state law separately allows a longer period for petition drives, so the PAC would continue to collect signatures. Though King’s campaign is not affiliated with the PAC, it has supported the drive, and King made a point of being the first person to sign the petition.

“We’ve been carrying it around on our campaign and we haven’t had a single person refuse to sign it,” he said.

He also noted Houston’s charter bases the number of required petition signatures on a mayoral election held within the last three years. Since the last election happened in 2015 — more than three years ago — King contended a petition drive now technically needs just one signature.

If that were challenged in court, however, the litigation would get resolved well after November, said King, indicating he had no interest in taking action in court.

I can accept that this isn’t a “major failure” for Bill King, but it should be clear to everyone that he didn’t put any real effort into this cynical ploy. He has plenty of his own money, and could have raised more, to fund a sufficient petition drive if he really wanted this to be on the ballot. We’ve seen plenty of successful petition drives in the last decade. Did King really not know what it was going to take, or did someone tell him and he was like “eh, whatever, we’ll just wing it with some volunteers”? If “cleaning up City Hall” is the foundation of your campaign, and you go through the motions to mount this effort in the first place, what does it say about you and your commitment to this idea that you just let it fail without a fight?

The bit about the charter language is interesting. I think as a legal argument it’s mostly sophistry, but I could see a judge buying a plain-text reading and agreeing that even one signature is now sufficient until and unless the city cleans up that part of the charter. Here again, though, if King actually believed what he was saying he would have acted differently. Why not file that lawsuit before now? Theoretically, he could have filed it on November 4, 2018, which is three years and a day after the 2015 Mayoral election. Even if I’m wrong about that, I don’t see anything in the charter section on legislating by referendum that limits when a petition effort is allowed to begin. Maybe there still wasn’t a path to getting the question resolved in time for the 2019 election – though if you win the first round, it’s the city that has to start worrying about deadlines, not you – but boy howdy was this a limp production. It’s easy for me to take potshots at Bill King, but if you like him as a candidate and believed in this proposed charter amendment, you should be upset. At every step of the way, he did the very least he could do.

Here comes another referendum no one will understand

Be careful what petitions you sign, that’s my advice.

A political action committee is launching a petition drive Sunday aimed at limiting how much city contractors and vendors can contribute to municipal candidates, marking the start of a month-long effort to gather enough signatures to put the so-called anti-pay-to-play measure on Houston’s November ballot.

The drive is for a petition authored by a group of lawyers, including Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, that would amend a city ordinance to bar people who do business with the city from contributing more than $500 to candidates for municipal office.

Houston’s campaign finance laws allow individual donors to give candidates up to $5,000 every two years. Committees can contribute a maximum of $10,000 during the same span.

The amendment would further prohibit city board and commission members, as well as sexually-oriented business owners, from giving candidates any campaign money.

[…]

To put it on the ballot, the PAC — called “End Pay to Play” — must gather about 40,000 signatures from registered Houston voters within a 30-day window ending July 8. The city secretary would then verify the signatures, prompting city council to vote on holding an election to coincide with the Nov. 5 municipal contests.

We’ll see if this thing gets enough signatures in the allotted time. Collecting a sufficient amount of valid signatures takes resources, which is to say volunteers and/or paid canvassers. I don’t know how much grassroots energy exists for something like this, but I’ll be sure to look at the “End Pay to Play” PAC finance reports to see how they’re spending their money.

I have some questions about this. First of all, it sure seems to me like there may be some constitutional issues with the prohibitions this would impose. Last I checked, the First Amendment did not exclude strip club owners from the right to express their political beliefs. In a post-Citizens United world, where money is speech and corporations are people, it’s not clear to me that this would stand up to legal scrutiny. One possible outcome here is that not only is that provision struck down, but other parts of Houston’s campaign finance laws could be endangered. It’s not that long ago that the fundraising blackout rule got tossed by a federal judge. The potential here for unintended consequences is greater than zero.

I would also note that by going through the referendum process, this proposal will not get vetted by the legislative process. There will be no public hearings, no opportunities for Council members to ask questions or put forth amendments. I would argue that this is how you get a firefighter pay parity law passed that had no mechanism to pay for it (never mind the later ruling that it violated state law). There are times when the direct approach works well, and for sure there have been referenda that I have supported, such as Renew Houston, for which this criticism would also apply. Bill King, for one, has been critical of Renew Houston for this reason, among others. Here, though, King is actually running for Mayor, and it would be well within his capability if he wins to hand an ordinance for Council to vote on to do what’s in this referendum. Maybe he’s hedging his bets, maybe he just doesn’t want to get Council involved. Or, you know, maybe he sees a political advantage in taking this approach.

(Note that Bill King has taken it upon himself to crusade against campaign contributions from strip club owners. In case you were wondering why that particular legally questionable provision is in the petition, and why I say this is King working to his own advantage.)

(I know it’s a tedious bit of whataboutism, but Greg Abbott has made a career out of rewarding his campaign supporters. He went so far as to endorse the primary opponent of the Republican legislator who authored a bill that would have restricted this practice of Abbott’s. One can engage in government as one sees fit, but if there were evidence that, say, Bill King had encouraged people to email their State Rep in support of that bill, I might be a tad bit less cynical about his motives here.)

(The story notes that King himself used to be a player in this system that he now decries, as a partner at Linebarger Goggan. For this, I have no criticism of him. People are allowed to change their minds, and no one has to have a specific road to Damascus moment to do so. If he says he now regrets what he once did, I take him at his word. There’s plenty of room for me to snipe at his actions, as you can see.)

(No, I don’t know why I put all these last paragraphs in parentheses. Once I got started, it kind of built on itself. I’ll stop now.)

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t review our campaign finance and ethics ordinances. I just think we should do it in a more deliberative and rigorous process that ensures that the final product is compliant with existing federal law. I would also note that even outside that concern, we should be careful about how we regulate campaign contributions. If we make it harder for regular candidates to raise money for their campaigns, one effect of that will be that it confers an advantage to wealthy candidates who can self-finance their campaigns. I for one don’t think that’s much of an improvement.

Anyway. If you get accosted at the Kroger parking lot to sign a petition, please do be sure to know what it’s about before you affix your autograph. I personally would not sign this, but your mileage may vary.

A strange way to improve ballot access

Hard not to see partisan motives in this.

Rep. Drew Springer

A bill on track to reach Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk appears designed to make it easier for Green Party candidates and harder for Libertarian candidates to get on the Texas ballot in 2020. Democrats say House Bill 2504 is a ploy by Republicans to boost their reelection bids while siphoning off votes from Democrats.

The bill from state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, would make two major changes to how candidates with non-major parties run for office in Texas. The bill would require those candidates to either pay filing fees or secure a certain number of signatures to get on a November ballot. It also changes the threshold for guaranteeing a party a place on the ballot. The former provision could lead to fewer Libertarians running in 2020. The latter would mean the Green Party would likely earn a spot on the November ballot that year.

The bill tentatively passed the Senate on Sunday on a party-line 19-12 vote. If the chamber gives it final approval, it will head to the governor’s desk.

Currently in Texas, Democrats and Republicans have to either pay a filing fee or secure a certain number of signatures to get on their party’s primary ballot. Texas filing fees for a candidate range from $75 for county surveyor to $5,000 for U.S. senator.

The Libertarian Party, meanwhile, has avoided those requirements while routinely gaining a spot on the general election ballot by meeting a different threshold: at least one of its candidates has managed to win more than 5% of the vote in a statewide race during the previous election cycle.

Springer’s bill would lower that ballot-access threshold for third parties to 2% of the vote in one of the last five general elections — a bar that the Green Party could also clear. In 2010, the Green Party candidate for comptroller drew 6% of the vote.

[…]

An earlier version of the bill only had the filing fee provision. When the bill reached the House floor earlier this month, Springer proposed an amendment that added the new ballot threshold language. The amendment passed after less than a minute of discussion, catching some House Democrats off guard amid an intense evening session of the House in which dozens of bills were heard.

Springer told The Texas Tribune that he added the floor amendment because the current threshold for parties to gain ballot access “protects the two-party system too much.” It isn’t specifically targeting the Green Party, he said.

“Republicans are not afraid to give Texans more choice,” he added.

Pat Dixon, former state chair of the Texas Libertarian Party, testified against the bill last week at a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing. Dixon said the bill would unfairly force Libertarians to pay filing fees in addition to the cost of their nominating convention.

When Democratic and Republican candidates pay filing fees to run for an office, the money helps pay for the election. Under HB 2504, third-party candidates would pay the same filing fees, but the money would go toward state or local funds, but not funds specifically devoted to running elections.

The obvious partisan motive here is that Green candidates are widely believed to siphon votes away from Democrats, while Libertarians are believed to do the same to Republicans. I have little use for third parties, but the basic principle that ballot access should not be needlessly burdensome is one I support. That said, if the actual Libertarian Party says that this bill will hurt them rather than help them, I think it’s a little difficult to say that the bill is a principled effort to be more inclusive to third parties. I mean, the Libertarians were doing just fine getting their candidates on the ballot under the existing system. Just leave them alone and do no harm, you know?

By the way, when I say that Ls and Gs are “widely believed” to take away votes from Rs and Ds, I mean that’s the accepted wisdom but I’m not aware of any hard research that puts a formula to it. I have my own theories about third party voters, which you can agree with or argue with as you see fit. I do think there’s room for Democrats to minimize the vote share they lose to third parties in statewide races – not just Greens – and it will take one part better candidates, one part better party branding, and one part better outreach, which is another way of saying that they’ll need to have enough resources to ensure that their intended voters have sufficient information about all the candidates on their statewide ballot. It’s possible that in the long run this could lead to fewer votes for Greens statewide, as Dems will be better positioned in the coming years to compete in the downballot races as well as at the top of the ticket. For sure, this bill should be at least as much of an incentive to work harder for the Dems as it is for any other party. And you can be sure that when the votes are all counted in 2020, I’ll look to see what if any effects of this bill I can find.

Our increasingly non-dry state

There are now only five counties in Texas where you can’t buy alcohol.

On Election Day in Stanton, just north of Midland, Ron Black was skeptical that a particular measure on the ballot would pass.

“Well, I think at first it was uh, nobody thought it would go through because they’ve tried it so many times, you know. I can’t tell you how many times it’s gone to the ballot,” Black said.

Black manages the Lawrence Brothers grocery in Stanton. The vote was whether to keep Stanton dry – that is to prohibit the sale of alcohol – or to allow the sale of beer and wine at stores like Black’s. But to his surprise, Stanton went wet after all. And it’s part of a long-term trend that’s washing over Texas.

To put it in perspective: in 1996, there were 53 dry counties in Texas. By 2011 that number dropped to 25. And as of Election Day when Stanton, the seat of Martin County went wet, there are now just five dry counties in Texas – in a state whose attitudes toward alcohol have always been complex, but tended to be more conservative than the country as a whole.

“Texas is slightly earlier than the nation and slightly later than the nation in terms of how long its Prohibition was enforced,” said Brendan Payne, a history professor at North Greenville University and an expert in Prohibition in Texas.

[…]

But the real shift toward dry county extinction came from the passage of House Bill 1199 during the Texas legislative Session in 2003.

“That is what revolutionized our alcohol laws,” said John Hatch, president of Texas Petition Strategies. To hold a wet-dry election in Texas prior to 2003, you had to get signatures from 35 percent of a jurisdiction’s registered voters, each of which had to sign their name exactly as it appeared on their voter ID card, with their voter ID number. And you only had 30 days to do it. It was more difficult to get booze on the ballot than an actual candidate. Hatch asked the legislature to change the law.

“They gave us everything we asked for,” Hatch said. “We went from needing 35 percent of all voters to 35 percent of the last election for governor. So it made it a lot more manageable. We doubled the amount of time from 30 days to 60 days. We made the signature requirement the same as any other petition: if you sign your name “Michael Marks,” that’s good enough.”

A flood of elections followed. In the 15 years preceding the law, there were about 150 wet-dry elections statewide. In the 15 years following the law, there were close to 950 elections. Nearly 80 percent of those went wet.

Fascinating. I’ve noted a few of these elections over the years – Lubbock County, whose dryness I experienced as a visitor in the 80s, was a big one – but I didn’t realize how close to extinction the notion of a dry county was. It’ll be interesting to see how much longer the last five holdouts hang on. Congratulations to the people of Martin County. Please celebrate responsibly.

Dallas lawsuit over candidate eligibility officially mooted

From the inbox:

On Thursday, September 20, 2018, the Fifth Court of Appeals issued an Order in Dallas County GOP v. Dallas County Democratic Party, stating that any relief related to the November election is moot, and that the appeal, therefore, is limited to the propriety of dismissal under Rule 91a and attorney’s fees. Chad Baruch of Johnston, Tobey Baruch Law Firm, one of the attorneys for the Dallas County Democratic Party (the “Democrats”), explained: “This means, effectively, that only the attorney’s fees issue will be considered by the Appellate Court. The case is over as to the November ballot and the eligibility of the candidates.”

During the 2018 Primary, the Dallas County Republican Party (the “Republicans”) filed suit against the Democrats, asking the trial court to remove over 100 Democratic candidates from the ballot. The Republicans claimed that the candidates’ applications were not valid because they had not been personally signed by the Dallas County Democratic Party Chair. Upon review of the pleadings, and after a hearing on the merits, the trial court found that “the Texas Election Code does not impose a manual signature requirement” as alleged by the Republicans. The Court held that the Republicans claims are “moot,” that their party “lacks standing,” and that such claims should be dismissed as “lacking a basis of law.” The trial court also held that the Democrats were entitled to recover, from the Republicans, attorney’s fees in the amount of $41,275.

Carol Donovan, Chair of Dallas County Democratic Party stated, “During this election season, the Republican Party has been filing frivolous lawsuits against Democrats to try to remove candidates from the ballot. It appears that the Republicans are afraid to let the voters decide what persons they want to represent them. Thankfully, the rulings of the courts support democracy.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I didn’t find any news coverage of this, but the case is No. 05-18-00916-CV at the Fifth Court of Appeals, and a link to the court’s order is here. The relevant bits:

Appellants and appellees filed letter briefs as directed. The parties agree that any relief sought regarding the November 6, 2018 general election, including preparation of the ballot and what candidates may or may not appear on the ballot, will be mooted by the election schedule.

Appellants affirmatively state that they “do not request relief related to the general election” and “only seek to appeal relief related to the lower Court’s decision on subject matter jurisdiction; 91(a), and the mandatory attorney’s fees.” Appellants further state that their appeal seeks this Court’s ruling on five issues that are not mooted by the election schedule and relate to the propriety of the lower court’s dismissal under Rule 91a and the award of attorney’s fees.

Appellees concede that appellants may appeal the fees award and that the fees issue is not moot. Appellees did not address, however, whether they dispute appellants’ ability to appeal the propriety of dismissal under Rule 91a.

So, even though the late-in-the-day appeal still sought to argue that DCDP Chair Carol Donovan needed to sign the candidate petitions, in the end all that was argued was whether the case was properly dismissed, and how much is owed to the DCDP in attorneys’ fees. This is what you call ending with a whimper. At least it’s one less thing to worry about before voting begins.

Appeals court allows city to post video of pay parity hearing

Probably doesn’t matter much at this point, but there it is.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A Texas appeals court on Thursday ordered a state district judge to rescind his temporary restraining order requiring the city of Houston to remove video from its website that depicted a public city council committee hearing over a proposal to grant firefighters “pay parity” with police.

District Judge Kyle Carter should not have blocked the city from posting the video of the committee hearing because it is not clear the meeting constituted illegal electioneering, as the Houston firefighters union had alleged, the 14th Court of Appeals justices ruled.

That restraining order had expired last week anyway, said Cris Feldman, an attorney for the firefighters union, adding that the decision does not preclude a court from coming to the same conclusion that Carter did after further hearings in the case.

[…]

The section of state law banning local governments from using public funds to advocate for or against ballot measures was not intended to restrain public discussion of such issues, the justices wrote Thursday.

“It was not unreasonable or unexpected that statements tending to indicate support for, or opposition to, the charter amendment might be voiced at the meeting,” the nine-page opinion states. “Public funds were not being used for political advertising by making the meeting video publicly available, even though an incidental effect of posting the video on the city’s website may be to re-publish statements supporting or opposing the charter amendment.”

See here for the background, here for the Mayor’s statement, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted, the TRO had expired on August 14, and the Chron posted their own copy of the video shortly after Judge Carter handed down his opinion, so this is all mostly academic. It may mean something after the election when the lawsuits over the wording of the referendum gets filed, but until then it’s mostly a warm-up exercise.

The firefighter pay parity referendum won’t be decided by the voters

it will be decided by the courts. Here’s a story out of Austin to illustrate.

Former Travis County judge Bill Aleshire has sued the city of Austin in the Texas Supreme Court, challenging the ballot language of a proposition up for a local vote in November.

The lawsuit filed Monday challenges ballot language related to Proposition K, which calls for an outside audit of government efficiency at City HallThe Austin City Council approved the ballot wording last week.

At that council meeting, some supporters of the proposition bristled at the language, which includes a cost estimate for the audit of between $1 million and $5 million. Proposition backers complain the inclusion of the cost estimate will bias voters against the measure because the wording does not mention any possible savings that could result from an audit.

You can follow the links and read the writ, which is embedded in that Statesman. I don’t care about any of that. My point here is that while Council has voted to put the measure on the ballot, we don’t have ballot language yet. Does anyone think for even a minute that the language that Mayor Turner will provide and Council will approve will be satisfactory to all of the stakeholders in this fight? Does anyone think it is possible for this referendum to be a) simple enough for everyone to be clear on what they’re voting on, and b) thorough enough for it to adequately cover all the relevant details? These were the points of contention in the lawsuits over the term limits referendum, and the Renew Houston referendum. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The losing side in this vote, whichever side it is, will file a lawsuit arguing that the ballot language was inadequate, inaccurate, unintelligible, whatever else. Given the lifespan of the Renew Houston battle – which as you know is still not over – we’ll be handing this fight off to the next Mayor, and that is very much assuming a second term for Mayor Turner. On top of all of the other reasons why this is a bad idea, this is why this is a bad idea.

From the “Many are called, but few are chosen” department

Here are your non-standard choices for the November election.

Independent candidates

Candidates unaffiliated with a political party are allowed access to the general election ballot as long as they file the necessary paperwork and gather a certain number of signatures — depending on the office sought — from people who didn’t attend either the Republican or Democratic party conventions this year or vote in either party’s primary.

“It’s up to their personal campaign on how they want to portray themselves [but] when you’re an independent, you haven’t attended the convention of another party,” said Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office.

Independent candidates were required to register with the appropriate office by June 21. This year, eight candidates are registered as independents — seven in congressional races and another vying for a state House seat. None are running for statewide office. Independent U.S. Senate candidate Jonathan Jenkins missed the filing deadline for the November ballot.

Here’s the full list of independent candidates:

  • Scott Cubbler in the 2nd Congressional District in the Houston area.

  • Benjamin Hernandez and Kesha Rogers in Houston’s 9th Congressional District.

  • Ben Mendoza in El Paso’s 16th Congressional District.

  • Kellen Sweny in the Houston area’s 22nd Congressional District.

  • Martin Luecke in Texas’ 25th Congressional District, which spans from Fort Worth to Austin.

  • James Duerr in Texas’ 27th Congressional District along Texas’ Gulf Coast.

  • Neal Katz, in Texas House District 6 in Tyler.

Write-in candidates

Five parties in Texas made an effort this year to get November ballot access — America’s Party of Texas, the Christian Party of Texas, the Green Party of Texas, None of the Above and the Texas Independent Party. However, none of the parties secured the nearly 50,000 valid signatures needed for ballot access this fall.

There’s a last-ditch effort these parties can utilize, however: filing a declaration of write-in candidacy. The window to file declarations opened on July 21 and will close Aug. 20, Taylor said.

As of Friday, Taylor said, only one candidate had filed a nominating petition: Samuel Lee Williams Jr. (who will appear on the ballot as Sam Williams). According to his campaign filing, Williams is running as a candidate for the Independent Party against Democrat Veronica Escobar and Republican Rick Seeberger in the race fill the U.S. House seat that’s being vacated by Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso.

But don’t be surprised if more write-ins file to get on the ballot over the next several weeks. Jan Richards, a Green Party of Texas candidate for governor, told The Texas Tribune she plans to send her paperwork to the secretary of state’s office in the final days leading up to the declaration deadline — but first she said she needs to collect the $3,750 needed to be eligible as a write-in. She said she wasn’t aware of other candidates in her party that planned on doing the same.

The Libertarians have a full slate, but that’s boring since they do that all the time. The number of official Independent candidates is a lot less than the number of people who originally expressed interest in being an independent candidate, which 1) is completely unsurprising, and 2) is another reminder that actually being a candidate requires a higher level of commitment and follow-through than talking about being a candidate. Sadly, the final list does not include Yvette “Will Rap 4 Weed” Gbahlazeh, but one presumes she has a ready way to console herself for that. The main effect any of these candidates are likely to have will be to make it that someone can win a race with less than 50% of the vote. This was a more common occurrence last decade, before the 2011/2013 redistricting, but it does still happen – Rep. Will Hurd in CD23 has won both his races with less than half the vote – but given the environment this year and the competitiveness in more districts than usual, anything is possible.

Firefighters file suit over handling of pay parity proposal

I figured we’d have to wait till after the eventual vote on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal for there to be litigation over it, but no.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The union representing Houston firefighters sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and a City Council member on Monday, alleging the officials are improperly using public resources to oppose a “pay parity” ballot initiative.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association accuses Mayor Turner and Council Member Dave Martin, who represents Kingwood, of campaigning against the ballot initiative, which would tie firefighter pay to that of Houston police officers of comparable rank and seniority.

The union argues it is a violation of the Texas Election Code and is asking for an injunction that would prohibit the officials from “continuing to post such political advertising on the City of Houston website.”

The mayor’s declined to comment Monday evening.

See here for the background. On Tuesday, they got a result.

Judge Kyle Carter agreed with the Houston fire union’s argument that the city council’s July 26 budget committee meeting constituted an act of illegal electioneering against the proposal and that public resources, essentially, had been used to present and post a political advertisement. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and Councilman Dave Martin, who chairs the budget committee, over the issue on Monday.

“There is a fair way to go about voicing your opposition and creating a campaign against a certain resolution and then there’s an unfair way,” Carter said in delivering his Tuesday morning decision. “Much of the hearing, I thought, was informative and served its purpose. However, there was a good portion of the hearing that … went beyond the pale.”

He did not elaborate on what comments he thought went too far.

Carter ordered attorneys for the city and the fire union to discuss what portions of the tape could be returned to the city website after the offending portions were redacted. The order, as issued, is valid through Aug. 14.

[…]

Buck Wood, an Austin-based public law attorney who helped pass Texas’ first open meetings and open records laws in 1973, said he had never heard of such a ruling in his 50 years of practice.

“Making your position known in a public forum is the essence of what the open meetings law is all about. Not only that, assuming it gets filmed by the city, it’s an open record and you can go get it under the public information act. That’s the whole idea,” Wood said. “The fact that they don’t like what the mayor and the council are saying doesn’t make any difference. That’s content censorship. I never heard of such a thing.”

Joe Larsen, a Houston lawyer with 25 years of experience in open meetings and open records law, agreed. Larsen said he can see such a committee discussion being problematic if its agenda was not posted properly or if the issue being discussed was irrelevant to the committee’s focus, but he said he cannot otherwise envision a way in which such a hearing could constitute electioneering.

“I don’t see how it could be,” he said. “What’s wrong about people taking a public position? How do you restrict your public officials on what they’re going to discuss? That can’t be the right result.”

“That is the equivalent of a 25 percent pay raise for firefighters which the city cannot afford,” Turner said. “The public has a right to listen to the public hearing and we will vigorously challenge the judge’s ruling.”

Not really sure what the practical effect of this ruling is. I mean, how much traffic do those committee hearing videos get? There was an earlier version of this story in which the Mayor referred to the proposal as “the equivalent of a 25 percent pay raise for firefighters which the city cannot afford”, a quote he repeated later on KUHF. The firefighters may have gotten this ruling – which the Mayor says he will appeal – but Turner get the opportunity to keep making his case against the firefighters in the news. Not sure that’s a great tradeoff for the firefighters.

Council discusses firefighter pay parity proposal

It will cost some money if it passes.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said Thursday that his firefighters deserve raises, but he would be hard-pressed to maintain his department budget without reducing his ranks if voters approve a measure granting firefighters “pay parity” with police.

“This is not a scare tactic,” Peña told a city council committee. “They’re simple numbers. In order to deliver the expected service this community wants we’re going to have to do restructuring. Even at that, I won’t be able to meet the entire gap.”

Peña’s comments were in response to questions during a city council committee meeting Thursday in regard to a proposed “pay parity” measure the Houston firefighters union wants to appear on the November ballot.

Others, including city officials, business leaders and police union members, told the committee that passage of the parity measure would force the city to cut services and lay off workers and could risk a credit downgrade for City Hall.

[…]

The firefighters union wants the referendum on the November ballot, but Turner said he will let the council choose the election date at its Aug. 8 meeting. The deadline for getting something on the November ballot is Aug. 20.

Turner this week said the committee hearing was intended to be informational.

“When you’re talking to your constituents and they ask you approximately how much this will cost, I’d like to think you’ll want to have an answer,” he told the council Wednesday.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier story about the Council meeting, which was not the very special meeting that failed to reach a quorum. The firefighters are correct that Council has a duty to out the measure on the ballot, and to do it any later than this November would justifiably be seen as another stall for time. Their complaints about Council discussing the price tag rings hollow to me, given 1) the lack of clarity of how a pay parity proposal would be implemented; 2) the experience of other cities that have done this; 3) the potential impact on pension costs; and 4) the city’s overall financial picture. You know how I feel about this, and let me note again the certainty that someone will file suit over the ballot language no matter how the vote goes. I agree with Campos that the fight over this issue will be contentious, with the police department and the Greater Houston Partnership siding with the city against the firefighters. It’s not great to contemplate, but it’s pretty much baked in at this point. We’ll see what Council does on August 8.

No quorum for very special Council meeting

Close, but no cigar.

A handful of city council members who organized a rare special meeting to push for a Houston firefighters petition seeking pay “parity” with police to appear on the November ballot fell short of a quorum Friday and broke up without a vote.

The resolution they had put forward called on Mayor Sylvester Turner to let the council vote at its meeting next week to place the parity petition on the ballot.

Turner told one council member last Friday that he planned to have that discussion at the Aug. 8 council meeting, but word of that plan had not reached the full council Monday when members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Martha Castex-Tatum and Dwight Boykins signed a memo calling the special meeting.

[…]

No more than seven members reached the council chamber Friday morning, two short of the count necessary for a quorum, so Councilwoman Brenda Stardig called off the effort after 15 minutes.

Signatories Travis, Kubosh, Stardig and Boykins were present, though Boykins grew impatient and left. Council members Mike Knox, Steve Le and Dave Martin also were present. Castex-Tatum did not attend.

Martin had said he would skip the gathering, but the New Orleans native acknowledged he showed up in Cajun mode, spoiling for a fight.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s statement. CM Martin did indeed mix it up, getting into squabbles with CMs Travis and Kubosh, which I encourage you to read. If more Council meetings had that kind of entertainment, I’m sure more people would tune in to them. There will be a Budget Committee hearing, followed by a Council vote on August 8, and we’ll have this thing on the November ballot.

A very special Council meeting

Who knew there was such a thing?

In a rare maneuver that sidesteps Mayor Sylvester Turner’s authority, five city council members have called a special meeting this week, hoping to force the issue of Houston firefighters’ push for a referendum on pay “parity” with police.

The council members aim to secure their colleagues’ support for a resolution calling on Turner to place an item on the council’s July 24 agenda to schedule a November election on the petition, which seeks to grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank.

In Houston’s strong-mayor form of government, the mayor generally has sole authority to decide what appears on the agenda for the weekly council meetings.

The lone exception allows three council members to set the agenda of a special meeting. Such gatherings — including this one — typically are organized without the mayor’s approval, and often struggle to muster a quorum, as many of the 16 council members are loathe to invite the mayor’s wrath.

Council members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Martha Castex-Tatum and Dwight Boykins signed a Monday memo calling a special council meeting for Friday at 10 a.m.

Turner is on a trade mission in South America and will not be back in time to attend the meeting.

Kubosh said he signed the memo to help ensure the issue was discussed, noting that several elections have passed since the petition was submitted.

“They were successful last year at stalling it a whole year, so, yes, I think that’s possible,” Kubosh said, referring to the Turner administration.

[…]

[CM Dave] Martin [who chairs the Council’s budget committee] said he does not intend to attend Friday’s meeting and doubts the organizers will have the quorum necessary for a formal vote.

“If they don’t show up, they don’t show up,” Kubosh said. “But I’ll show up.”

It is unclear what the impact would be if the proposed resolution reaches a vote and passes.

City Attorney Ron Lewis declined to address whether that outcome could force the mayor to act, given that the city charter gives Turner control of the council agenda.

“As a practical matter,” Lewis said, “the item will go on an agenda that’s timely, and the mayor’s committed to that.”

Insert shrug emoji here. The petitions were certified in May, and one would think the vote would be in November. According to Mayor Turner’s chief of staff and confirmed by CM Martin, this was to be discussed at the budget committee hearing on July 26, with the item for placing it on the ballot to be on Council’s August 8 agenda. I don’t know what else there is to say.

Failed indy Senate candidate accuses Cruz campaign of sabotage

I’m gonna fire up the popcorn popper.

Jonathan Jenkins

When independent U.S. Senate candidate Jonathan Jenkins missed the filing deadline for the November ballot last month, it surprised the political observers who had been keeping an eye on his Texas run.

Jenkins, a Euless tech entrepreneur, seemed to be running a credible — if unusual — campaign, and he had professed full confidence he would get the more than 47,000 signatures need to qualify for the ballot. Yet the deadline, June 21, came and went without Jenkins submitting the signatures, and he and his staff went dark for days.

Now Jenkins is speaking out, alleging that the signature-gathering firm he hired misled him about the progress of the petition drive — and that associates of the Republican incumbent, Sen. Ted Cruz, meddled in the effort to keep Jenkins off the ballot. All this occurred while Jenkins paid over $350,000 to the firm, California-based Arno Petition Consultants.

That’s according to an election complaint Jenkins has filed with the Texas Secretary of State, accusing the Cruz campaign of a “coordinated and deliberate attack” against the petition drive. The complaint does not cite a specific law that Jenkins believes the Cruz campaign broke, but it asks the secretary of state’s office to investigate the allegations and refer the matter to the state attorney general. Jenkins has said he plans to look into “all other legal remedies” available.

[…]

“The rigors of democracy aren’t cut out for everyone,” Cruz strategist Jeff Roe said. “Sounds like he proved to his petition firm the old axiom, ‘There’s a sucker born every minute.’ He should have gone out and collected signatures with volunteers like everyone else does, not hired a band of out-of-state petitioners.”

[…]

Jenkins’ complaint acknowledges a close relationship between the Indie Party and his campaign, saying the company retained Arno in April to gather more than enough signatures to make the ballot in Texas. Arno was contracted to collect the signatures at a rate of $7.50 each and submit weekly invoices reflecting how many signatures it got for the previous week, according to the complaint.

Yet as the June 21 deadline got closer, Jenkins began to have communications problems with Arno and grew concerned that the firm was not following through on its commitment, Jenkins says in the complaint. Hours before the deadline, Jenkins finally received a package of nomination petitions from Arno — and he was told it contained only 35,500 signatures, far short of the required amount, according to the complaint.

Throughout the process, Jenkins also become convinced that the Cruz campaign was improperly interfering in the petition drive. Jenkins claimed Michael Arno, the president of the firm, had told him at multiple points that the Cruz campaign had contacted him to inquire about his work for the Jenkins campaign. Things got more serious closer to the deadline, according to the complaint, which says Jenkins’ campaign “began to hear reports from the field” that Cruz associates were threatening and harassing petition circulators.

See here and here for the background. I almost don’t know where to begin, so let me get the icky bit out of the way first: Jeff Roe has a point. It’s common enough to outsource the petition-circulating process – Carole Keeton Strayhorn did that in 2006 – but how can you be so disconnected from it that you have no idea how many signatures have been collected? Bear in mind, paid circulators tend to gather a lot of ineligible signatures, so you need to make sure they’re hitting a target that will include a sufficient margin of error. Among other things, that means you need to check their work and keep your own count of where you are. I was already inclined to think that Jonathan Jenkins was a dilettante by the nature of his candidacy and the bizarre composition of the so-called “Indie Party”. Nothing about this changes my mind. Just from a project management perspective, this is an embarrassing failure.

As for the actual allegations, Jenkins’ complaint doesn’t say any laws were broken, and they didn’t provide any evidence to the Trib. I have no idea what they expect the SOS to do – maybe, like everything else with Jenkins and the “Indie Party”, this is just a publicity stunt. Be that as it may, the idea that the Cruz campaign – which apparently didn’t actually deny any of the accusations – felt the need to pull dirty tricks on them is hilarious. Feeling a little insecure in your electoral position there, Teddy? Don’t want to have a straight-up mano-a-mano race against Beto O’Rourke (okay, mano-a-mano-plus-Libertarian)? I mean seriously, don’t you have anything better to do? Just to be clear, it’s fine by me if the answer to that is No. Keep being an ass to as many people as possible. It’s your brand. I look forward to the next update in this amazingly inconsequential saga.

“Indie Party” Senate candidate misses filing deadline

That sound you hear is my heart breaking for him.

Jonathan Jenkins

Jonathan Jenkins, an independent candidate for U.S. Senate in Texas whose unconventional campaign has drawn Republican objections, has missed the deadline to submit the signatures needed to appear on the November ballot.

The deadline was 5 p.m. Thursday, and the secretary of state’s office did not receive any application from Jenkins, according to a spokesman for the office, Sam Taylor. Jenkins, a tech entrepreneur from Euless, would have had to turn in more than 47,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot, which already features the Republican incumbent, Ted Cruz, and his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso.

Jenkins, who said earlier this month he was “100 percent confident” he would turn in enough signatures by the Thursday deadline, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither did a spokesman for his campaign.

See here for the background. Every now and then I feel like I fully understand what the word “schadenfreude” means. This is one of those times. I will remind everyone here that in 2006, Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman combined to turn on nearly 400,000 signatures for their indy candidates for Governor, and they did so on a much shorter timeline. Of course, they had both been actual candidates doing actual candidate things for over a year by the time they had to start collecting signatures, and thus had an actual base of supporters from which to draw. Perhaps that could be a lesson for Jonathan Jenkins and his corporate sponsors. Not that I really want them to learn it – this is far more entertaining. But should you happen to come across someone who whines about this process on Jenkins’ and the Indie Party’s behalf, feel free to point this out to them.

Dem primary loser in CD06 files “vote fraud” lawsuit

That sound you hear is me banging my head on my desk.

Ruby Woolridge

Democrat Ruby Woolridge has filed a lawsuit challenging her 717-vote primary runoff loss for the 6th Congressional District to Jana Lynne Sanchez.

In the lawsuit, Woolridge claims that Sanchez “knowingly filed petitions with fraudulent signatures” in order to secure a spot on the March primary ballot.

Sanchez called the lawsuit “frivolous.”

“Unwarranted accusations cannot undo months of hard work spent collecting qualifying signatures on voters’ doorsteps and at public events, cross-referencing names and addresses with databases and eliminating any that raised questions,” said Sanchez, a public relations specialist. “The voters clearly chose us in the primary.”

[…]

In the lawsuit, Woolridge claims that Sanchez “knowingly concealed the fraudulent signatures from the Democratic local authorities” and that the volunteer circulators signed “the forged petitions before a notary public under duress.”

Jana Sanchez

Woolridge said she “only discovered the fraudulent conduct after the initial primary election was held for the Congressional seat for District 6,” according to the lawsuit. And she claims some people couldn’t vote in the primary election because someone else had already voted in their name through mail-in ballots.

She asks, in the lawsuit, for a special election or second runoff election to be held without Sanchez’s name on the ballot.

‘The purpose of the Election Code is to prevent fraud in our primary and general elections,” Woolridge’s lawsuit states. “The fraudulent and forged signatures submitted and filed by (Sanchez) in her petitions for a place on the Democratic ballot renders her applications null and void.”

The lawsuit was filed in Ellis County against Sanchez, as well as the Texas Democratic Party, Democratic chairmen in Tarrant, Ellis and Navarro counties and the Texas secretary of state.

Sanchez filed paperwork with the court asking that the lawsuit be dismissed.

“Ms. Sanchez denies any fraud by her campaign,” her filing states. “The small group of signatures that raised suspicions were set aside before ballot petition filing. Those signatures appear to have been collected by a person later revealed to have been helping the Woolridge Campaign while paid as a contractor for the Sanchez Campaign and who later openly moved over to the Woolridge camp. That person since admitted to signing a few names on behalf of voters (potentially a crime and so reported to appropriate authorities prior to receipt of the lawsuit).”

Sanchez said she will keep fighting the lawsuit.

The DMN has a copy of the lawsuit as well as Sanchez’s response. While I think this is highly likely to be bullshit, Woolridge has the right to challenge the result if she has reason to believe she was wronged. But as I said when now-former State Rep. Lon Burnam tried something similar after losing his primary in 2014, invoking Republican talking points about “vote fraud” will not get you any sympathy from me. Don’t let your desire to win cause you to lose your soul. I’m rooting for a swift and decisive resolution to this.

We may have reached peak independent candidate

Meet Jonathan Jenkins, who would apparently like to be on your ballot for the Senate this fall.

Jonathan Jenkins

It’s got a high-tech evangelist for a founder, $6 million in private equity investments, even its own crypto-currency.

No, it’s not a driverless car start-up or some new, life-changing app.

It’s the Indie Party — billed as a “movement” to end the “two-party duopoly” in the United States but built more like a political consulting and technology firm with profit in mind. Its first target — and at this point its only target — is the high-stakes U.S. Senate race featuring Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Beto O’Rourke.

Its candidate and founder is a self-described “successful tech entrepreneur” and fluent Mandarin speaker named Jonathan Jenkins. The Euless native has been busily gathering the 47,000 or so signatures he needs to qualify for a spot as an independent on the November ballot alongside Cruz and O’Rourke.

[…]

Jenkins is the co-founder of company known as Order With Me (or just WithMe), which helps companies develop pop-up retail outlets. A graduate of Trinity-Euless High School and Abilene Christian College, Jenkins announced the launch of the Indie Party in March and said it had raised some $6.5 million in start-up capital within 72 hours.

Slick videos on the Indie Party website promote independent candidates as the solution to politics as usual, and the party offers a high-tech innovation: a crypto-currency called Indie Tokens that volunteers can earn and sell to donors, and that can be used to buy campaign merchandise or political services from vendors, lawyers and pollsters.

It’s “a party that is owned by you, the people, not by the politicians,” declares one of several videos on the Indie Party website. “This is real transparency, instead of behind closed doors and in the shadows.”

But the Indie Party is not a political party at all. It’s a private, for-profit corporation whose finances are — despite the gauzy advertising — not entirely transparent. And it’s owned not by the voters but by private equity investors who provided the start-up funds.

Indie Party spokesman Mitch Allen identified one of the investors as Las Vegas-based Global Trust Group, and said William Attinger, a former Morgan Stanley derivatives specialist, “led the initial investment” on behalf of the group. Attinger is managing director of venture management for Global Trust Group and is on the board of Raise The Money Inc., an online platform for political fundraising, according to his online bio. Calls and emails left with the Global Trust Group were not returned.

Neither Jenkins nor the Indie Party would identify the three other investors who contributed. Nor did Jenkins or the party say how much Jenkins was paid during his stint as CEO of the Indie Party Co., although Jenkins said his compensation was considerably less than the $600,000 the Indie Party estimated in a U.S. Securities and Exchange filing it would pay officers or directors. At the time of the filing Jenkins was the only disclosed officer or director.

All that will be clarified, Allen said, when Jenkins files his required personal financial disclosure later this summer as a Senate candidate.

You know how some people complains that the Republican and Democratic parties have been taken over by big money corporate interests? With the Indie Party, you can skip the middleman and join a “party” that started out as a big money corporate interest. To once again quote the great philosopher Dogbert, sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate. They’ve got a week to turn in their petitions to the Secretary of State (Sec. 142.006. REGULAR FILING DEADLINE FOR APPLICATION. (a) An application for a place on the ballot must be filed not later than 5 p.m. of the 30th day after runoff primary election day, except as provided by Section 202.007.) For what it’s worth, Carole Keeton Strayhorn turned in 223,000 signatures and Kinky Friedman turned in 169,000, both in 2006 for their indy candidacies for Governor. We’ll see how Jenkins compares.

(Note: Strayhorn and Kinky had to turn their sigs in by May 11 that year because the 2006 primary runoffs were held on April 11. The date of the primary runoffs was moved from the second Tuesday in April to the fourth Tuesday via SB100 (see section 6) in 2011. They had less time to collect signatures, but only about 1.2 million people voted in a party primary that year while over 2.5 million did so this year; people who voted in a party primary or a party primary runoff are ineligible to sign a petition for an independent candidate.)

Mentioned in the story but not my excerpt: The Harris County Republican Party has filed a complaint against Jenkins and the Indie Party with the FEC, alleging that “Jenkins and the corporation have violated federal law by providing improper corporate contributions to the Jenkins campaign; illegally coordinating with the Jenkins campaign in getting signatures to put him on the ballot; and failing to file with the FEC as a political committee”. You can find a copy of the complaint here and the attached exhibits here, and you can read into that whatever you want.

Anyway. If you surmise that I am not impressed by Jonathan Jenkins or Indie Party, Incorporated, you would be correct. Whether I need to care about their existence beyond June 21 remains to be seen. Have you observed any of their petition-gatherers? Please leave a comment and let us know.

No Greens

Can’t honestly say I’m sorry.

Jan Richards

When Texans head to the ballot box this November, they’ll be able to vote for Republicans, Democrats or Libertarians.

If they want to choose a candidate affiliated with another political group, they might have to write in the name of their chosen candidate. That’s because five other political parties seeking to get on the ballot — America’s Party of Texas, the Christian Party of Texas, the Green Party of Texas, None of the Above and the Texas Independent Party — didn’t secure the 47,183 valid signatures needed for ballot access this fall.

“We only got like 400 or 500 signatures out of the 50,000 that we need,” said Jan Richards, a Green Party of Texas candidate who’s running for governor.

“It’s a challenge. There’s really no other way to describe it — and they definitely don’t make it easy,” said Andy Prior, the former state chairman for America’s Party of Texas who’s also the party’s nominee for land commissioner. According to its website, America’s Party supports a pro-life and pro-liberty platform. It collected less than 250 signatures.

All five of the parties that missed out filed the necessary paperwork with the Texas Secretary of State’s office in order to gain ballot access this November, spokesman Sam Taylor said. That kicked off a 75-day period that began March 13 to get the signatures needed. But the deadline passed at midnight on Wednesday, and none collected enough.

[…]

In order to get their candidates on the general election ballot without a petition, parties must have at least one candidate win more than 5 percent of the vote in a statewide race during the previous election cycle. Libertarian petroleum engineer Mark Miller barely cleared that hurdle for his party in 2016, winning 5.3 percent of the vote in the race against Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian.

The two parties other than the Democrats and Republicans that often collect enough votes in the previous election to secure ballot access for the following cycle are the Libertarians and the Greens.

But the Green Party, which runs on a liberal platform and is sometimes blamed for siphoning off votes from Democratic candidates, fell short in 2016 after Democrats fielded candidates in every statewide judicial race for the first time since 2010. The Green Party typically has relied on judicial races that lack Democratic candidates to reach the 5 percent threshold.

Yeah, darn those dirty Democrats and their dastardly tactic of running candidates in every race. The Greens were not on the ballot in 2006 and 2008 and were heading to be in the same position in 2010 when they got a bing financial boost from a Republican backer, followed by a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court. Not happening this time, I guess. Which among other things is a missed opportunity for them, as the Dems did not field a candidate in one Court of Criminal Appeals race this year. Better luck next time, y’all.

Note that this is just for statewide ballot access. The Greens and the Libertarians can still nominate candidates for Congress, the Lege, county offices, and so forth. If you want to know who they are and what they’re running for, well, the Texas Green Party website lists three would-have-been statewide contenders and one candidate for a school board, while the Harris County Green Party has bupkis. I don’t know what their plans are, and as you might surmise I don’t really care, but you may see a Greenie or two on your ballot in November anyway. Just not for a statewide race.

Firefighters have their signatures

On to the next act in this drama.

A petition Houston firefighters submitted last summer seeking pay parity with police contains enough valid signatures to trigger a referendum election, City Secretary Anna Russell reported to Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council Thursday.

Russell finished verifying the signatures a day ahead of a deadline given to the city by a state district judge last month. The judge originally set a deadline of April 27 after the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued the city last December, complaining Russell’s office had not validated its referendum petition in time for either the November 2017 or May 2018 ballots. Judge Dan Hinde agreed to give Russell another week after city lawyers said additional staff and overtime had been approved to finish the count.

Russell’s memo to the mayor and council said her office checked 26,708 signatures against Harris County’s list of qualified voters; 20,228 were verified. State law requires 20,000 qualified signatures on a petition to get a referedum on the ballot.

It is unclear when the item will appear before voters. City attorneys argued in court that the Turner administration does not intend to schedule a vote before the next regular municipal election cycle in November 2019, but the mayor, when asked about the petition count Wednesday, said the city council would have to discuss the matter.

[…]

Turner said Wednesday he presumed the petition contained enough names to trigger a vote, but suggested the proposal’s lack of clarity could undermine its validity, noting, for instance, that hundreds more firefighters than police officers carry the rank of “captain.”

“I don’t know what parity means,” Turner said. “Does it mean you scale everything down? If the voters vote on something, the voters need to know what they’re voting (on).”

See here and here for the background. You know how I feel about this, so you know I agree with the Mayor’s assessment of what this means. As to when the election should be held, I suppose there’s an argument for 2019 instead of this November. I’m sure we’ll get to hear that argument from the city when the firefighters file a motion to force the election this year. Council does need to approve putting the item on the ballot, along with the language of it, whether this year or next. We’ll see how that goes.

Count of firefighters’ pay parity petitions needs to be done by Friday

Or else. Not sure what follows the “or else”, but maybe we won’t have to find out.

City Secretary Anna Russell has one week to finish verifying a petition Houston firefighters submitted last summer seeking pay parity with police or risk being hauled into court, a state district judge said Friday.

Judge Dan Hinde had given Russell until Friday at 5 p.m. to verify whether the firefighters had reached the minimum threshold of 20,000 signatures needed for the item to appear before voters.

City attorneys asked the judge for an extension Friday morning, however, saying that, after a slow start, the count had reached 14,000 names and was proceeding briskly with the help of eight staffers who were assigned from other departments about two weeks ago and approved for overtime pay.

The judge denied the city’s request. However, he asked only that the firefighters’ attorneys submit a draft writ for him to issue by May 4, indicating that if he got word the count had finished before then, he would leave the paperwork unsigned.

“I understand the city has a variety of services and duties to its citizens. I don’t discount those,” Hinde said. “But it was not apparent that the city secretary was emphasizing enough the importance of the electoral franchise and referendum power, the legislative power, the citizens are entitled to.”

[…]

At the hearing Friday, Hinde asked why the count had not begun in earnest immediately after his March order was issued.

“Why didn’t she use the extra time I already gave her?” he asked Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

Amis said the secretary’s office began preparing the paperwork on which the formal count would be recorded on the day the judge’s order was issued, a process that includes individually numbering each signature line and stamping each page. Within a week of the order, Amis said, Russell asked Turner to approve money for overtime pay and to lend her additional staff.

Russell and her staff must verify that a sufficient number of the names on the petition are those of registered voters who live inside the city of Houston.

“With the diversion of resources from other departments, along with the expenditure of unbudgeted overtime, the city believes it can finish counting the petitions by or before next Friday,” mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said, adding it was unclear how much the effort would cost.

“We see no need for an extension,” said Troy Blakeney, an attorney for the firefighters. “We’re not standing before the court to ask that Ms. Russell be brought over here on a writ, but we think timing is really important.”

It is unclear when the petition, if validated, would appear before voters.

City attorneys have indicated that Mayor Sylvester Turner intends to schedule a vote on the petition, if it is validated, during the next municipal election cycle in November 2019. Blakeney has said, he expects to wind up in court again to accelerate the vote.

See here for the previous update. You know how I feel about this, so let me just say that if there are sufficient valid signatures to force a vote, it should happen this November. Enough is enough already, let’s get this over with so we can skip to the part that really matters, the litigation.

Judge orders firefighters’ petitions to be counted

Can’t say I’m surprised.

A state district judge on Tuesday ordered Houston’s city secretary to finish reviewing firefighters’ petition asking for pay parity with police, giving her until April 27 to validate the eight-month-old signatures.

Firefighters submitted a petition last July asking for a ballot referendum that would grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of equal rank, but City Secretary Anna Russell did not validate it in time for the November election.

Leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued in December asking the court to give Russell 30 days to review the petition signatures, and last week appeared before state District Judge Dan Hinde.

Hinde did not immediately issue a ruling, but sided with firefighters on Tuesday.

“The city secretary’s continuing failure to count signatures and verify the sufficiency of the pay parity petition constitutes a continuing failure to fulfill her ministerial duty,” Hinde wrote. “The city secretary has been and remains in default of her ministerial duty.”

See here for the background. I mean, look, the petitions were delivered to City Hall last July, which is to say eight months ago. Given that there were other petitions ahead of it, I could believe that Secretary Russell might not have been able to get them checked out in time for last November, but this is ridiculous. It didn’t take nearly this long to verify the anti-HERO petitions, for example, and as I recall her staff worked overtime to do that. I think this is a lousy proposition and I plan to vote against it, but at some point the job just needs to get done.

Now if the deadline to count the valid signatures is April 27, that means this will be ticketed for November, assuming enough of the sigs do check out. (Boy, wouldn’t that be a farcical conclusion to this saga if the verdict is “sorry, you fell short”.) From a participatory democracy perspective, having this voted on in a large November turnout context is better than a single-digit May electorate. Of course, since we know someone is going to sue to have the election overturned no matter what the outcome is – there’s literally no chance that the referendum can be written in a way that is both fully explanatory and not confusing; the ballot language lawsuit can be drafted now and ready to go as soon as the vote totals are in and a suitable plaintiff can be located – I feel like we could save ourselves the trouble by just flipping a coin to determine who “wins” and then going straight to the litigation. Eventually, the Supreme Court will tell us what their preferred result is, and we can take it from there.

UPDATE: The KUHF story, which includes a copy of Judge Hinde’s ruling, confirms that the next opportunity for this to be on a ballot at this point is November.

What are the elections of interest this May?

That’s a question I’m asking as well as one I’m trying to answer. Normally, there are no elections in May of any kind of year for Houston folks, though there are some for parts of Harris County and surrounding areas. This year for the uniform election date of May 5 we do have the special election in City Council District K to succeed the late CM Larry Green. The filing deadline for this is March 26, so we should know in very short order who is in the running.

We should also know by March 26 whether that firefighters pay parity proposal will be on the ballot or not. The firefighters would like to know about that, too.

There is one legislative special election on tap for May 5. State Rep. Leighton Schubert in HD13 stepped down earlier this year, so this race is to fill out the remainder of his term. That doesn’t really mean much unless the winner of that race also wins in November, in which case he or she will have a seniority advantage over all the other members of the class of 2018. If I’m reading this list correctly, there are three candidates – Democrat Cecil Webster, Republican Ben Leman, and Republican Jill Wolfskill. Webster is on the November ballot – he also ran in 2016, getting 21.4% against Schubert in a district that voted 76.8% to 20.4% for Donald Trump. Leman and Wolfskill are in the runoff for the GOP nomination. If Webster can somehow make it to the runoff for this, even with the low stakes, it would be quite the achievement.

Closer to home, I know there are elections in Pearland for Pearland City Council – they have three-year terms, so they have elections every year – and Pearland ISD – I don’t know offhand what their terms are, but as you can see on the election results page, they have those races every year as well. Dalia Kasseb, who ran a strong race for Pearland City Council last year, is making another run this year. She is on the list of TDP-endorsed Project LIFT slate, as is Al Lloyd for Pearland ISD.

There are other races on that slate, though none in the Houston area. I’ve seen ads on Facebook for a candidate running for Deer Park ISD, but at this time I know nothing about her. Ballotpedia says these are three-year terms but there isn’t a page for 2018 yet. These elections are apparently not conducted by the Harris County Clerk, and I’m not seeing anything on the DPISD Board of Trustees webpage, so I’m throwing this out to y’all – if you know anything about this, please leave a comment and let me know.

So there you have what I know about elections for this May. What am I missing? Please fill me in.

Firefighters sue to get their pay parity petitions certified

I’m just going to put this here.

Houston firefighters on Monday asked a judge to force the city secretary to validate signatures on an equal pay referendum petition that has been backlogged in City Hall for eight months.

The referendum would require firefighters to receive the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank. It was first submitted to the city in July but wasn’t validated before the November election. In December, leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued, asking a judge to give City Secretary Anna Russell 30 days to count and validate the petition signatures.

State District Judge Dan Hinde did not issue an immediate ruling after a three-hour trial Monday.

City attorneys argued the firefighters’ claim lacks the urgency needed to secure a court order.

State law forced Russell last year to count a petition related to alcoholic beverages in the Heights within 30 days, after which she returned to tallying a pension-related petition to amend the city charter that her office received in April, said Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

The firefighters’ petition, which also would amend the charter, was submitted in July. State law sets no deadline by which charter petitions must be validated.

When neither petition was verified in time for the November 2017 ballot, Amis said, that removed any urgency behind the count, as the next municipal election will not be held until November 2019.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a long section in the story that goes into City Secretary Anna Russell’s process for certifying petitions and how she doesn’t take direction from the Mayor or accept help from the petitioners, both of which I think are good things. I’ll say that it feels a little ridiculous to me that this hasn’t been completed by now – I mean, if it had taken this long to count the anti-HERO petitions, that one may never have gotten on the ballot. On the other hand, maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that should be decided by an oddball sure-to-be-under-ten-percent-turnout election in May. And on the other other hand, I’m hard pressed to imagine any ballot language that won’t be seriously challenged in court regardless of the outcome, which given past history makes one wonder if it wouldn’t be more expeditious to litigate first and vote later. All I know for sure is that as with the District K special election, if we don’t have this ready for the ballot by March 26 – that is, two weeks from today – it ain’t happening in May. Good luck sorting this all out.

Independent candidates’ day

Continuing with a theme, there are a lot of wannabe independent candidates for various offices, most of whom will never make it onto the ballot.

Dallas billionaire Ross Perot did it in 1992 and 1996. Satirist Kinky Friedman and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn did it in 2006. They each got on the ballot as independent candidates in the November general election—Perot twice for president, and Friedman and Strayhorn as candidates for governor. None won, but they were on the ballot and votes for them got counted. This year, “Will Rap 4 Weed” and sixty-nine other people have given notice to the Texas Secretary of State that they intend to run as independent candidates for state and federal office this November.

But getting on the ballot as an independent in Texas is no easy task. A want-to-be candidate can’t just buy a spot; they’ve got to collect signatures on a ballot petition. For governor this year, valid signatures are required from a number of people equal to one percent of the total vote in the 2014 gubernatorial election—47,183 signatures from qualified voters. To make it even more difficult, the petition drives can only occur between the end of the major party primaries for the office the independent is seeking and a deadline of 5 p.m. on June 21. And the individual signing the petition cannot have voted in a primary or signed a petition for another candidate running for the same office.

“Texas is the only state that requires independent candidates to file a declaration of candidacy virtually an entire year before the general election,” said Richard Winger, editor of a national election-focused newsletter, Ballot Access News. Federal courts struck down similar laws in South Carolina in 1990 and in West Virginia in 2016, he said, adding that the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1983 decision noted that independent candidates with substantial support usually only emerge after the voting public know the names of the Democratic and Republican nominees. But Texas required independent candidates to file their intent to run for the 2018 election by December 11, 2017. “If the federal judges in Texas were of higher caliber, the Texas December deadline would have been struck down long ago,” Winger told me.

Nevertheless, the law remains intact along with its petition requirement.

The issue of Texas’ statutory requirements for getting on the ballot as an independent have come up before, most recently in 2016, but that ship appears to have sailed. Author RG Ratcliffe kindly put together this compendium of no-label hopefuls, and believe it or not there are a couple of names I recognize. Lori Bartley, running in CD18, was the Republican candidate in my Congressional district in 2016. There must be something enticing about that prospect here, because there are two other indies seeking a spot on the ballot alongside her. Scott Cubbler, running in CD02, was one of thirteen write-in candidates for President
anyone can be written in, but one must register with the SOS to have those votes be officially counted – in 2016. A grand total of 314 people did so. He was also a classmate of mine in college, and I guess I may have to satisfy my curiosity and ask him what he thinks he’s getting out of this experience. Anyway, the list of potential indies is there if for some reason you need it. None of them are official till they turn in their petitions, and please note that if you choose to sign one of their petitions you cannot vote in a primary, lest you render your signature void. Happy trails, y’all.

Davila lawsuit over ballot access rejected

So much for that.

Diana Davila

Amidst claims of illegal signature gathering and improper mailers in an East End justice of the peace race, a visiting senior judge ruled against a Houston Independent School Board trustee in her suit against the county Democratic Party for rejecting her application to be on the primary ballot.

HISD Trustee’s Diana Davila’s lawsuit, filed last week, stated that she had submitted a petition to the Harris County Democratic Party containing 310 signatures that would qualify her to be on the ballot, but had omitted printing the name of the person circulating the petitions in an affidavit on a single line at the bottom of each petition.

The Democratic Party chairwoman rejected many of the signatures on that count. She said that she could not decipher the names registered as those collecting the signatures and said Davila could not be on the ballot.

Judge J.D. Langley conceded in a Thursday court hearing that may be a technicality, but said he was hesitant to upend the election process or reverse the Democratic Party chairwoman.

“The court should stay away from it,” Langley said.

He also cited state statute that he interpreted as Davila having passed the deadline to amend her forms.

See here for the background. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, it’s better to let candidates be on the ballot rather than disqualify them on small technical deficiencies in their applications. On the other hand, the requirements they have to meet are not onerous and the vast majority of candidates had no trouble with them. As noted in the story, Davila is not a first time candidate, and she knew what was needed. This isn’t that hard, and I can’t say I have a great deal of sympathy. Better luck next time.

Diana Davila sues over ballot rejection

There’s one of these every cycle.

Diana Davila

Diana Davila said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in state district court that her application to run for justice of the peace Precinct 6, Place 2 in the March primary election was inappropriately rejected by the Democratic Party.

The lawsuit states that Davila had submitted a petition containing 310 signatures that would qualify her to be on the ballot, but had omitted printing the name of the person circulating the petition on one line in the petition.

The name appeared elsewhere on the page and the petition was signed and notarized.

“The only thing that’s important is that this person signed their name before a notary,” said Davila’s attorney Keith Gross.

The lawsuit states that despite that omission, Davila should be allowed to run in the primary. She would face one challenger in the primary election, Angela Rodriguez.

In a statement, the Harris County Democratic Party stated that Rodriguez filed a complaint with the party about Davila’s paperwork. The party then followed up on the complaint and rejected Davila’s application because “the challenge appeared to be well founded.”

I don’t have a dog in this fight. The reason for the rejection may seem persnickety, but ballot applications have been rejected for reasons like this before. That doesn’t mean Davila won’t prevail in her lawsuit, just that the HCDP – which consulted with the Secretary of State’s office before making their decision – had a valid reason for rejecting her filing. We’ll see what the court makes of it.

No charter amendments on the fall ballot

Just bonds, school board and HCC races, and the mostly boring constitutional amendments. Oh, and Heights Alcohol 2.0, if you live there.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters will face $1.5 billion in city bonds and nine community college or school board races this November, but will not be asked whether to give firefighters a pay raise or change the pension plans given to new city employees.

Monday was the last day on which candidates could file for the November ballot, and on which local governments could call an election. That means the clock ran out on the citizen-submitted petitions seeking the change in city pensions and backing the firefighters’ push for pay “parity” with police officers of corresponding rank.

There are exceptions to Monday’s deadline. Houston ISD trustee Manuel Rodriguez’s death in July means candidates looking to fill his seat have until Sept. 6 to file for office. Candidates who meet today’s filing deadline also can withdraw from the ballot as late as Aug. 28.

In broad terms, however, the fall election campaign is set.

[…]

State law sets no deadline by which petitions seeking changes to a city charter must be tallied.

“We’ve always done first one in, first one out,” City Secretary Anna Russell said late Friday. “We are still working on the 401(k) (petition) as we do our regular work.”

The petitions, if validated by Russell’s office, could be included on a May ballot.

And I think that’s fine, and will likely allow for a more focused discussion of that issue as there won’t be anything else for Houston voters to consider; the 401(k) item no longer has anyone advocating it, so the pay parity proposal would be all there is. Given the lack of city elections on this November’s ballot, it’s not clear that a May 2018 referendum would have much less turnout, especially if both sides spend money on it. I’m sure the firefighters wanted their issue to be voted on now, but having to wait till May is hardly an abomination.

I hope to have a finalized list of candidates for HISD and HCC soon. HISD has some candidate information here, but there’s not a similar page for HCC. I’ve got a query in to find out who’s running for what and will report back later. I’m starting on the interviews for 2017, and will have an Election 2017 page up in the next week or so.

Firefighters complain about petition counting process

Oh, good Lord.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston firefighters are accusing Mayor Sylvester Turner of standing between them and a voter-approved pay raise by failing to ensure a petition they submitted last month is certified in time to appear on the November ballot.

Turner rejected any suggestion that he has involved himself in the City Secretary’s effort to verify their petition, and his office on Thursday said an offer by the fire union to cover any staffing costs needed to count their signatures is being examined as a possible attempt to improperly influence a public official.

[…]

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 president Marty Lancton accused the mayor of seeking to run out the clock, and said the speed with which firefighters gathered the required 20,000 signatures shows that voters want a say on the matter quickly.

“The mayor has the ability to provide Anna Russell with the resources with which to count this. He has not done it,” said Lancton. “I’m simply trying to find a way to get these counted. Firefighters are just asking for fair treatment and for there to be a resolution.”

The mayor dismissed the criticism.

“She’s the one who’s doing the counting, she verifies the signatures. That’s the process,” Turner said. “No one runs the city secretary’s shop but the city secretary.”

[…]

Accusations aside, Turner said that he is proceeding as if the item will reach a November vote, and has worked to get his message out by appearing on radio programs and discussing the issue publicly. The annual cost of the proposal, he said, could be “well north of $60 million.”

Russell, for her part, said neither the mayor nor anyone from his office has spoken to her about the matter. The process of verifying signatures, she said, must be completed in the spare minutes between her staff’s daily tasks of preparing ordinances, motions, contracts and the council agenda.

My head hurts. Why don’t we just assume that Anna Russell is going to do the job she’s been doing since God was in short pants and give her some room? If for some reason she can’t get it done in time for the filing deadline for November, then get it done for next May. Am I missing something here?

David Feldman, a former city attorney who is representing the fire union, said Russell should make an exception in this instance because he views the pension-related petition she now is reviewing as irrelevant.

That petition, which was submitted in April, calls for all city employees hired beginning next year to be given pensions similar to 401(k)s rather than traditional “defined benefit” pensions. Turner’s pension reform bill that passed the Legislature this year, however, specified what pension new hires would receive, Feldman said, and state law trumps local charters.

“If, in fact, they have 20,000 signatures and she certifies it, it can’t go on a ballot because it’s an unlawful measure,” Feldman said. “That’s where the tipping of the scales comes into play. That communication can be made to her. It obviously has not been made to her.”

Bernstein said Feldman’s reading is wrong. He pointed to a similar case out of Galveston in which the court ruled that a city secretary had a “ministerial duty” to validate a petition and forward it to the City Council, notwithstanding her view that its content conflicted with existing laws.

State law “does not give the City Secretary any discretionary duties,” a state appellate court held in that case. “Any complaints about the proposed amendment’s validity will be decided only if the voters approve the proposed charter amendment.”

Feldman stepped into the anti-HERO petition counting efforts in 2015, insisting that they needed to be checked for fraudulent signatures after Russell had certified that there were enough of them. Seemed like a reasonable argument at the time, but as we know the Supreme Court did not buy it, on grounds of those “magisterial duties” which dictated that she count ’em and that was that. And to answer my own question above, the one thing that could prevent the firefighters’ referendum from getting a vote in May would be having some other charter amendment on the ballot this fall. I had been wondering about that other petition effort, since the originator of it has since said the passage of the pension reform bill – the same one that has the firefighters so upset now – made her effort unnecessary. But if they still need to be counted, then I don’t know what happens next. Like I said, my head hurts.

More on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal

Here’s that full Chron story I mentioned yesterday:

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall on Monday in support of asking voters in November to mandate parity in pay between firefighter and police officer ranks, a maneuver that could threaten the city’s plans to sell $1 billion in bonds as part of its pension reform plan.

While the two measures are unrelated, both are tied to firefighters’ displeasure with the Turner administration.

As such, a unified voting bloc of firefighters during what is expected to be a low-turnout election in November could spell trouble for Mayor Sylvester Turner’s signature pension reform plan, and potentially thrust the city back into the fiscal quagmire Turner spent his first year in office trying to escape.

“If one issue is a five-alarm fire, both together are a 10-alarm fire,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

[…]

The union originally sought a 21 percent pay raise over three years, according to Turner, but lowered that request to 17 percent. The city, meanwhile, offered 9.5 percent over three years, which Turner said would stretch the city’s financial capabilities.

Houston firefighters have been without a contract for three years. The “evergreen” terms that had governed their employment during that time lapsed last month, reverting to state law and local ordinance. City Council made the terms in that local ordinance less favorable in a unanimous vote on the same morning the union filed its lawsuit.

“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston firefighters because the city refuses to do so.”

The petition seeks to amend the city’s charter to mandate equal pay and benefits between firefighters and police-officers of similar status, but not necessarily title, accounting for varied rank structures between the two departments.

See here for the background. I have a basic question to ask here: Who is going to support the firefighters in this effort? Who will their allies be in this fight? Because I’m having a hard time seeing who is on their side right now.

As noted, Council voted unanimously to impose those less favorable “evergreen” terms under which they now grudgingly labor, and Council approved the pension reform plan on a 16-1 vote, with the only No coming from CM Knox, who wanted to see a bill get filed first. Who on Council is going to endorse the pay parity effort?

If the thinking is that the firefighters might try to tank the pension obligation bonds as payback or leverage as part of this, then please note that the House passed the pension reform bill 103-43, and the Senate passed it 25-5. Of the Harris County contingent, Sen. Sylvia Garcia was a “present, not voting”, while Reps. Jessican Farrar and Briscoe Cain (a pairing I’d never expected to see) were No votes. Everyone else voted Yes. I don’t see Sen. Garcia and Rep. Farrar crossing swords with Mayor Turner on this, and Rep. Cain represents Baytown. Who in the Lege will stand with the firefighters? Maybe Sen. Paul Bettencourt, because he’s a little weasel who likes to stick it to Houston, but he was the one who put the provision in to require a vote on the bonds.

Of the establishment groups that tend to get involved in city politics, the Greater Houston Partnership is all in on pension reform and spending restraint. I can’t see the Realtors opposing the Mayor on this, nor the GLBT Political Caucus, nor any Democratic-aligned groups. The one possible exception is labor, but this proposal would be bad for the police and the city workers. It’s not about a rising tide, it’s just shifting money to the firefighters from the rest of the city employees. Maybe labor backs this, maybe they don’t. The Chronicle will surely endorse a No vote. Who among the big endorsers will be with the firefighters?

I’m sure the firefighters will have some allies. My point is that as I see it, the Mayor already has a lot more. Which brings me to the next point, which is where will the firefighters get the money to run their pro-pay parity campaign? It helps to have allies, who can not only make donations themselves but also hold fundraisers, solicit contributions from their networks, and eventually participate in campaign activities. I think we all agree that Mayor Turner is a good fundraiser, and he can assemble a pretty good get out the vote campaign. While this is certainly likely to be a low turnout election, at least compared to a normal city election, turnout is in part determined by how many people are aware there is something or someone for them to vote on. Who do you think is going to have more resources and a bigger microphone for getting out a message about the need to vote? And bear in mind, even if the firefighters are good at raising money, that in itself can be used against them. I mean, here they are claiming poverty, holding up signs saying they can’t afford to live in the city, but they can spend a bunch of money on a campaign? Yes, I know, the one doesn’t really have anything to do with the other, but do you want to have to explain that to people?

What I think it comes down to is this: Sure, people like firefighters, and they think they should be adequately compensated. In the abstract, their proposal sounds reasonable, and there are probably a lot of people who would feel good about paying our firefighters more. But this isn’t an abstract choice, and there are lots of consequences to making it. The firefighters are asking for something for themselves, something that doesn’t benefit anyone else and which potentially has a large cost attached to it that everyone will pay. They’re doing all this while at the same time spitting on an offer from the city to give them a ten percent raise. Now how positively will people feel about their proposal? That’s what we’ll find out. Campos has more.

Firefighters turn in their petitions

Good for them, but boy is this thing a train wreck.

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall Monday in support of putting a ballot initiative on the November election mandating parity in pay between firefighter and police-officer ranks.

[…]

“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday morning. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston fire fighters because the city refuses to do so.”

Former Houston City Attorney Dave Feldman, who is advising the petition effort, said a formal cost estimate of the initiative if approved in November has not been determined.

Using average figures for the cost of police and fire personnel without regard to rank, increasing fire base pay to match that of police would cost roughly $40 million in the current fiscal year. The city finance department projects annual budget deficits of more than $100 million for the next five years.

See here for the background, and a long comment thread. I mean look, this isn’t a proposal right now, it’s an idea. There are literally no details. If one were to run for office on this idea, one would expect to be questioned about basic things, like how much will this cost, and how will the city match job titles across two differently-structured departments. Anyone who provided the answers the firefighters are giving now would not be taken seriously, to put it mildly. In addition, while a candidate for office would have until November to come up with satisfying responses, the firefighters have until the end of August, at which time referendum language would have to be written and approved by City Council.

And what do you think that referendum language might say, based on what we know so far? Think of the recent history of ballot referenda and all the ensuing litigation over said language, and ask yourself if there is any possible wording that will satisfy both the proponents and opponents of this idea. The ballot language lawsuit practically writes itself – it will just be a matter of finding the right taxpayers to serve as plaintiffs. If it is written with sufficient detail to explain how it will be done it will be attacked as too complicated for anyone to understand, and if it is stated simply it will be derided as vague to the point of meaninglessness. This is a bad idea on so many levels, and you can take it to the bank that it will be tied up in court for years to come. The Press has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Firefighters petition for a raise

Whatever.

Houston firefighters are launching a campaign to place on item on the November ballot asking voters to mandate parity in pay between corresponding firefighter and police-officer ranks.

The petition drive to amend the city charter, slated to launch Saturday morning, follows the fire union’s decision last month to sue the city over stalled contract talks, alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith.

“I don’t know what else to do. We’re trying to find a fair and reasonable solution that affects 4,100 members and their families,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. “Let’s let the voters decide what’s fair and we’ll see.”

[…]

A 1975 City Council motion did set the goal of achieving parity in the base pay of equivalent ranks in the public safety departments, and the topic spurred regular fights throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Typically, firefighters and their supporters on council were in the position of working to ensure their salaries kept pace with police pay, though they were not always successful.

Parity was regularly mentioned into the mid-2000s, but the late 1998 contract negotiated by the newly recognized police union began to dismantle that system, recalled Mark Clark, executive director of the Houston Police Officers Union.

That police contract, Clark said, began adjusting HPD’s personnel structure so that the city could grant raises to, for example, 38 police captains without having to also boost the salaries of more than 120 fire personnel of corresponding rank.

“I know they’re desperate and they’re my friends, but this is a non-starter,” Clark said of the firefighters’ petition drive. “They’ve got an important job, but police and firefighters do not have the same job, and their rank structures are completely different. Just to come in and say, ‘We want what they’ve got’ – certainly I understand asking, but where in the world would the city of Houston come up with the kind of money that it would take?”

Apparently, something like $40 million per year, according to the story. This is an easy No vote for me, if it comes to one. We elect representatives to make these decisions, and it is generally my preference for that system to be allowed to do its thing. There’s a place for letting the voters decide on things, but this is not one of them. The cost, the difficulty in setting up a system to match job ranks, the fact that this is an obvious retaliatory move for the recent political setbacks the firefighters have experienced, those are also factors. I have no idea what happens from here, but if this does get on the ballot it will be interesting to see how a campaign plays out. The potential for it to get ugly is very high.

Petitions have been submitted for Heights alcohol vote 2.0

That was quick.

Voters in the Heights will likely have the opportunity to further loosen alcohol restrictions in the neighborhood this November now that activists have secured more than the 1,500 signatures required to get a measure on the ballot.

[…]

When Houston annexed what was the incorporated city of the Heights in 1918, the boundaries of the city evaporated. Because of election rules the only residents who were allowed to vote on the matter last November had to live in the same voting precincts of those who voted to go “dry” back in 1912.

A Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector & Voter Registrar spokesman said those precincts were 0053, 0057,0075,0054,0058,0086,0055,0059 and 0501.

It’s speculated by Brain Poff, with Texas Petition Strategies, the firm who helped gather the signatures needed for last year’s vote and just finished with the petition for this fall, that the same will hold true this November for the ordinance to repeal the private club model.

See here and here for the background. I feel pretty confident saying that if the original Heights booze referendum was on your ballot last year, then it will be on your ballot this year. The only real question at this point is how many other things will be on there as well. I look forward to seeing how this campaign unfolds.

More on Heights alcohol vote 2.0

From the Heights Examiner (now a section of the Wednesday Chron), the reasons why restauranteurs want in on the action.

But the possible reversal of the century-old prohibition on restaurants would mean more than just no longer having to sign a slip of a paper before being served, said Morgan Weber who owns Revival Market on Heights Boulevard, Coltivare on White Oak Drive and Eight Row Flint on Yale Street.

“When we opened Coltivare we always knew this was just going to be one of the hassles and hoops we have to jump through,” said Weber. “What we didn’t know was what a legitimate pain it would be and how much it eats into your bottom line – reality sets in and that’s a different story.”

Weber said the private club model – that exists as a nonprofit, meaning they must have a board of directors for the entity – requires his restaurants maintain a separate bank account for alcohol sales and that the money from those sales cannot be withdrawn without a meeting of the board and a vote. Due to intricacies of the rules, alcohol sales from Coltivare sat in the bank for one full year before Weber and his team were able to withdraw the funds. Further, he can’t have his alcohol inventory delivered to his business. He has to send an employee to go pick it up. And he has to pay more for that inventory than other restaurants and bars in Houston who can sell alcohol under standard Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission rules. He said he pays barely above retail for liquor, beer and wine.

Just based on buying alcohol at that rate, Weber estimates he’s losing 7 to 8 percent from his bottom line. That doesn’t take into account added labor for separate bookkeeping and trips to pick up inventory.

It’s not as easy as just charging more for cocktails, either, he said. Because patrons have an upper-limit to what they’ll pay for a martini, he can’t charge $14 at Eight Row Flint when Anvil in Montrose is charging $10.

See here for the background. I’m not in any way involved in the restaurant business, so I have no idea if Weber is reporting accurately or if he is exaggerating in some way, but if he’s telling it like it is then I can certainly understand his (and presumably others’) motivation. I have friends who live in the dry zone and I know some of them are not happy about this. I get that, but I can’t bring myself to endorse any of Texas’ antiquated and byzantine booze laws. I feel the same way about this as I do about the shamelessly rent-seeking beer distributors. These laws are anti-consumer, and they should be consigned to the scrap heap.