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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.

We could have another Heights alcohol vote

Sure, why not?

Heights voters last fall lifted a 105-year-old ban on the sale of beer and wine at grocery stores, but customers still must join a private club if they want to drink alcohol at area restaurants or bars. That means submitting a drivers license for entry into a club database.

The Houston Heights Restaurant Coalition petition would lift that requirement, leaving the historically dry portion of the Heights nearly wet. Liquor sales at grocery and convenience stores still would be banned.

“While we were doing (the petition) last year, a couple of restaurants came around and said, ‘Hey, we’re here too,'” said Bryan Poff, a project manager for Austin-based Texas Petition Strategies, which is managing the petition drive. “As soon as they saw how much support beer and wine got … that was all they needed.”

[…]

Morgan Weber, co-owner of Coltivare and Eight Row Flint, said allowing restaurants and bars to sell alcohol more freely would improve the customer experience and help streamline operations.

“It’s not ideal from our perspective, because instead of really being able to make a great first impression … the first thing out of our mouth when you order alcohol is that we need to see your drivers license,” Weber said. “It’s right out of the gate kind of negative.”

Weber also pointed to Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission rules that require restaurants and bars looking to sell alcohol in dry parts of the Heights to establish a separate non-profit or association to receive the proceeds of alcohol sales and pay for the private club’s operation.

See here for coverage of last year’s effort. I supported that effort (though I couldn’t vote for it, as I don’t live in that part of the Heights), as I generally support efforts to undo dry restrictions. This particular restriction is kind of silly – as noted in the story, restaurants can sell booze, they just have to collect your name and drivers license info for their “private club” to do it. I’m sure there will be opposition to this – I knew plenty of people who were against last year’s referendum, and I doubt they’ll be any happier with this one – though Bill Baldwin won’t be leading it. My early guess is that it will succeed if it gets to a vote, but we’ll see. Swamplot and Eater Houston have more.

On to the revenue cap

With one major accomplishment (basically) finished, Mayor Turner moves on to the next major challenge facing him.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

“This is the most consequential campaign of the mayor’s career,” University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said. “These things are more complicated and more politically fraught than either his mayoral campaign or the lobbying to get the pension bill passed to begin with, and those were both complicated.”

Turner has made his own climb steeper by pledging to ask Houstonians to repeal a voter-imposed cap that limits what the city can collect in property taxes. That rule is a lightning rod for conservatives, who spearheaded its passage 13 years ago.

[…]

Turner thanked city employees for shouldering $2.8 billion in cuts to their retirement benefits, and said it is now time for all Houstonians to join in sacrificing for the good of the city. The revenue cap, Turner said, hurts the city’s credit rating and hamstrings its ability to provide sufficient services and compete on a global scale.

Many conservatives don’t see it that way, arguing that the cap protects taxpayers and gives the city an incentive to operate more efficiently.

The Harris County Republican Party plans to campaign against Turner’s repeal effort, and is expected to have company.

Voters approved the revenue cap in 2004, limiting the annual growth of property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower. Voters tweaked the rule in 2006, allowing the city to raise an additional $90 million for public safety spending.

Houston exhausted that breathing room in 2014, and, with property values still on the rise, has had to trim back its tax rate each fall since to avoid collecting more revenue than allowed.

Despite the cap’s complexity, conservative political strategist Denis Calabrese said he doubts there will be a shortage of voter education on the issue.

“Voters will come into that election very well informed and knowledgeable and they’ll be able to express their opinion,” he said. “The predisposition going into this is that voters don’t support the repeal of the cap, and we’ll see if that changes as a result of the education efforts on both sides.”

You know that I support repealing the cap. The question is how to sell that idea. I agree that the predisposition is likely to be to keep it, though I’d argue that most people know very little about the cap. I’d approach this primarily as a plea from Mayor Turner, as part of his overall plan to get the city’s finances in order. Have him say something like “I promised you I’d get a bill passed in the Legislature to rein in pension costs, and I did that. But the work isn’t done just yet, and I need your help to finish the job. The revenue cap limits Houston’s economic growth and lowers our city’s credit rating. To really get our finances in order, we need to repeal it.” You get the idea. Basically, the Mayor has as much credibility with the voters right now as he’ll likely ever have. That’s a huge asset, and he should leverage it.

Alternately, if the local GOP is going to oppose repealing the cap, then one might keep in mind that the city is much more Democratic than it is Republican, so if this becomes a partisan fight then the Mayor has a larger pool of voters available to him. There are also a lot of potential villains to demonize in such a campaign, from the President on down. This would almost certainly be the kind of low-information, high-heat campaign that makes newspaper columnists wring their hands about civility and discourse, but it would get people to the polls. I’d take my chances with it.

One more thing:

Meanwhile, the City Secretary is reviewing a petition that calls for a vote on giving 401(k)-style retirement plans to all city workers hired after the start of next year, which employees view as insufficient.

Conservative activist Windi Grimes, an organizer of the effort, however, said her group thinks sufficient fiscal safeguards were added to the pension bill passed in Austin, and will not mount a campaign behind the petition.

See here for the background. Is there a provision to allow for submitted petitions to be withdrawn? That would be the better option if the proponents of that idea are no longer interested in advocating for it.

Dowd declines to run for Senate

Not a surprise.

Not Ted Cruz

Matthew Dowd, a political commentator and former strategist for George W. Bush, announced Wednesday that he will not challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2018.

Dowd had been considering an independent run against Cruz, who is up for a second term. Dowd said this year that he had been encouraged by prominent members of both parties to take on Cruz.

“I’ve decided the best use of my voice is not putting myself in that position and running for that office in that way,” Dowd said in an interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith. “I think the best use of my most authentic voice and where my life is and what I want to do is in a different manner rather than running for office.”

Dowd was still critical of Cruz, saying he has been focused on higher office since being elected Texas’ junior senator in 2012. “Republicans in Iowa feel more represented by Ted Cruz than people in Texas,” Dowd said.

See here for the background. With all due respect to Matthew Dowd, I never took this seriously because it takes a lot of petition signatures to get on the ballot as an independent in Texas. Specifically, you need one percent of the total vote received by all candidates for governor in the most recent gubernatorial general election, which for the 2014 election would mean over 471,000 signatures, in a fairly short period of time from people who didn’t vote in either primary or primary runoff. That takes a lot of resources – money and/or volunteers – and most people can’t do that. Maybe Dowd could have, but that was his barrier to entry. It would have been interesting to have him on the ballot, and it would have made it easier to beat Cruz had he been there, but it would have been a surprise to see him there.

(Note: this was all before the possibility of John Cornyn’s Senate seeat being vacated came up. Special elections are not the same as primaries, as they are non-partisan. I don’t think you need anything more than a filing fee to jump in, which is why the field in 1993 for the seat Kay Bailey Hutchison eventually won was so crowded. As such, Dowd could get into that race if he wanted to without any difficulty. I have no idea if that holds any interest for him, if such a race were to happen, I just wanted to note this for the record.)

Petitions submitted to force another pension vote

Oh, good grief.

Voters soon could decide whether to close Houston’s traditional pension plans to new employees after political activists submitted a petition to City Hall to force a referendum this November.

The petition further complicates Mayor Sylvester Turner’s efforts to pass a pension reform bill, which already had hit a hurdle in the state Senate this week on precisely the same issue of whether new hires should be put into “defined contribution” plans similar to 401(k)s instead of one of the city’s three employee pension systems.

The petition, which began circulating at college campuses, grocery stores and elsewhere in February, calls for a public vote to require a shift to defined contribution plans for all city workers hired after the start of 2018.

Under traditional pension plans, the city promises employees specific payments based on their years of service and salaries and makes up for market losses by putting in more money. Defined contribution plans are those in which the city and employee set money aside in an account that rises and falls with the market.

Windi Grimes, a public pension critic and donor to the Megaphone political action committee that sponsored the petition drive, said the group submitted 35,000 signatures to the city secretary’s office Thursday. That easily would clear the 20,000 signatures required by law to trigger a charter referendum, provided City Secretary Anna Russell verifies the names.

Grimes, who also works with Texans for Local Control, a political group that wants Houston, not the Texas Legislature, to control city pensions, had described the petition effort as an “insurance policy” in case the Legislature does not move to defined contribution plans for new city employees.

[…]

Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman ended weeks of negotiations with city officials, union leaders and conservatives over whether and how to incorporate defined contributions plans by releasing a new draft of the pension bill Wednesday. It said the city and workers could agree to move to a defined contribution plan, but did not require that change.

In response, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, another Houston Republican, said he would propose an amendment to ensure the result of any city charter change to defined contribution plans would be binding. That wording is necessary, he and others said, because some lawyers say amending the city charter alone would be insufficient, since Houston’s pensions are controlled by state statute.

“I’m just trying to stay on a public policy position I’ve had for over a decade,” Bettencourt said, adding that he is not working with Megaphone or Texans for Local Control and that he already had filed a separate bill mirroring the language of his amendment.

The Houston reform bill had been expected to reach a Senate vote Thursday, but Bettencourt’s amendment created an impasse: some bill supporters, led by the chamber’s Democrats, were unwilling to let the item come to a vote, fearing they lacked the votes to torpedo Bettencourt’s proposal.

“If he brings it up, (Huffman) says she won’t accept it, but she’s going to need about five or six Republicans to go with us to block it,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “That’s a tough vote for them.”

Turner accused Bettencourt of seeking to kill the pension reform proposal for political gain.

“Quite frankly, what he wants is not a pension resolution. It seems like he’s asking for a re-vote of the mayoral race in 2015, and that’s unfortunate because he’s not putting Houston first,” Turner said. Bettencourt in 2015 supported mayoral runner-up Bill King, who has spent months publicly criticizing Turner’s pension reform plan and calling for a switch to defined contribution plans for new city workers.

I found this story so annoying that I had a hard time putting my thoughts together about it. So I’m just going to say these four things for now:

1. We have already had an election on this question, in 2015 when Sylvester Turner won the Mayor’s race. A lot of people, led by Mayor Turner, have put in a ton of work, including political work, to put forth a workable solution for the city’s pension issues. You can feel however you want about the Mayor’s proposal – the firefighters are certainly not very happy about it – but it represents a Houston solution to a Houston problem, which the voters have already had a say on. These efforts to undermine it are the opposite of that, and the people pushing it are doing so because they don’t like the solution Houston and Mayor Turner have crafted for its problem. They would rather see the whole effort fail, and that is what they are working for.

2. You have to admire the shamelessness in calling this group that has come out of nowhere and is in no way complementary to the Turner plan “Texans for Local Control”. Who wants to bet that it’s funded by a bunch of rich conservative activists who are mostly not from Houston and will go to court to keep their identities secret?

3. The story quotes HPOU President Ray Hunt as saying the petition collection effort is a “sham” and that they have evidence of people signing the petitions multiple times. You’d think that would be a big deal, but then you remember that the Supreme Court ruled in the mandamus that forced the HERO vote in 2015 that the city secretary could only check that a signature belonged to a registered voter. It’s OK if it’s forged – the city secretary is not empowered to check that – as long as the forgery in question belongs to a valid voter.

4. There sure could be a lot of referenda on the ballot this November.

O’Rourke and Dowd say they want to challenge Cruz in 2018

Rep. Beto O’Rourke upgraded his chances of running for the Senate in 2018 to “very likely”.

Rep. Beto O'Rourke

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke said Thursday he is all but certain to make a run for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s seat in 2018.

“I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of people around the state of Texas over the last six weeks, and I will tell you, I’m very encouraged,” he told The Texas Tribune on Thursday in an interview. “And I am continuing to listen to and talk to folks, and I’m just becoming more and more encouraged.”

“It’s very likely that I will run for Senate in 2018,” the El Paso Democrat added.

In a previous interview with the Tribune, O’Rourke kept the door open to a run in 2018 or 2020. O’Rourke just began his third term in the U.S. House and has promised to term-limit himself in that chamber.

The comments came just hours after former George W. Bush operative Matthew Dowd told the Tribune that he, too, was considering a bid against Cruz as an independent.

O’Rourke reacted to the Dowd news positively.

“Anyone who’s willing to take something like this on deserves our respect, and so I think that would be great,” he said. “I think the more voices, perspectives, experience that can be fielded, the better for Texas.”

See here for the background. I have to assume that O’Rourke’s greater interest in a 2018 run also indicates a lesser likelihood of Rep. Joaquin Castro challenging Cruz, but this story does not mention Castro. I think O’Rourke could be an interesting opponent for Cruz, if he has the resources to make himself heard, and it’s always possible that this midterm could be a lot less friendly to Republicans than the last two have been, but he would be a longshot no matter how you slice it. Given the fundraising he’d have to do to make a Senate run viable, I’m guessing we’d need to have a final decision to run by June at the latest, but we’ll see.

And as noted in that story, Rep. O’Rourke wasn’t the only person talking about a Cruz challenge.

Matthew Dowd, an Austin-based television news commentator and former George W. Bush strategist, is mulling an independent challenge to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“I don’t know what I will do,” he told The Texas Tribune. “But I am giving it some thought, and I appreciate the interest of folks.”

Dowd said this has been a draft effort, as prominent members of both parties have approached him to run against Cruz.

[…]

The political strategist’s career tells the story of the past three decades of Texas politics. Dowd started in Democratic politics, including as a staffer to then-U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.

But Dowd eventually gravitated to then-Gov. Bush in the late 1990s, working on both of his presidential campaigns and for the Republican National Committee.

In 2007, Dowd publicly criticized Bush over the Iraq war.

More recently, Dowd used his social media and ABC News platforms to question the viability of the two-party system.

Now, he is considering a run of his own — against a man he once worked with on the 2000 Bush campaign.

“I don’t think Ted served the state well at all,” Dowd said. “He hasn’t been interested in being a U.S. senator from Texas. He’s been interested in national office since the day he got in.”

[…]

An independent run would be a heavy lift, but it would probably scramble the race far more than anyone could have anticipated a year ago. Dowd argued that an independent candidate could have a better shot than a challenge from either party.

“I think Ted is vulnerable, but I don’t think Ted’s vulnerable in the Republican primary, and I don’t think Ted is vulnerable to a Democrat in the general,” he said. “I think a Democrat can’t win in the state.”

Fundraising in an expensive state without the party apparatus would likely be a major obstacle as well.

“I actually believe money is less important now today than it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s going to take money and a lot of grassroots money, and it’s going to take people frustrated at Washington and frustrated about Ted.”

This is extremely hypothetical, so let’s not go too deep here. The first challenge is getting on the ballot as an independent, which requires collecting a sizable number of petition signatures from non-primary voters in a fairly short period of time. It can be done, as Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman demonstrated in 2006, but it takes a lot of resources. That can be money or volunteer energy, but at least one is needed. And say what you want about how important money is in today’s campaign world, the challenge remains getting your name and message out to people. If voters have no idea who you are on the ballot, they’re probably not going to vote for you. I guarantee you, if a poll were taken right now, maybe two percent of Texas voters will have any familiarity with the name “Matthew Dowd”. That’s what the money would be for, to get the voters to know who he is.

If – and it’s a big if, but we love to speculate about this sort of thing – Dowd can get the petition signatures to get on the ballot, then the actual election becomes pretty interesting. Dowd may have started life as a Democrat, but he’s much more closely identified with the Republicans, and he’s now a fairly prominent Trump critic. We could assume that his base is primarily the Republicans who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, which if you add up the Clinton crossovers and the increase in Gary Johnson’s vote total over 2012 works out to maybe a half million people. That’s not nothing, but it’s a long way from a win, and the voters who remain are the more committed partisans. On the assumption that Dowd would draw more heavily from Republicans, that would help boost Beto O’Rourke’s chances, but Ted Cruz starts out with a pretty big cushion. He can afford to lose a lot of votes before he faces any real peril. Even in the down year of 2006, Republicans were winning statewide races by 500K to a million votes. Having someone like Dowd in the race improves O’Rourke’s chances of winning, but a lot would have to happen for those chances to improve to something significant.

We’re getting way ahead of ourselves. If O’Rourke says he’s running, I believe him. If Dowd says he’s thinking about running, well, I believe he’s thinking about it. Wake me up when he does something more concrete than that.

Chron overview of Heights dry referendum

For an issue that directly affects a few thousand people, this sure had gotten a lot of attention.

[Bill] Baldwin is part of the “Keep the Heights Dry” movement, a group of individuals urging residents who live in the dry part of the Heights to vote against the city of Houston proposition that would allow the legal sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption.

If the proposition passes on Nov. 8, retailers like convenience and grocery stores would be able to sell beer and wine in a part of the Heights that has been dry since 1904. The change would not affect restaurants, which are able to sell alcohol by forming private clubs that their customers can join by providing their driver’s licenses.

Baldwin’s group is going up against the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, a political action committee formed earlier this year to push the reversal of the dry law.

Largely at stake is the proposed development of a new H-E-B on a former Fiesta site at 2300 N. Shepherd.

H-E-B wants to buy the property but said it needs to be able to sell wine and beer in order for the store to be economically feasible.

“From a business proposition, if I spend $25 or $30 million building a store I also need to make sure it can earn a fair return,” said Scott McClelland, Houston division president for H-E-B.

The San Antonio-based grocer has put more than $60,000 into the coalition, according to finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Baldwin, who lives in the Heights but outside the dry area, said the election is not about being against H-E-B but preserving the character of the neighborhood.

His group has been urging residents of the dry area to consider the issue apart from H-E-B.

He said more service stations and convenience stores could diminish property values of the homes around them.

“This election is not about H-E-B, it’s about changing the fabric about my community,” Baldwin said.

Honestly, there’s nothing here that you couldn’t learn from reading the dueling op-eds or listening to the interviews that I did with Baldwin and Reilley. The story did remind me that there used to a a tiny HEB – it was called an “HEB Pantry store” back in the day – in the Heights that no one went to because it didn’t have much in it. This whole debate is a little nuts because people in the greater Heights area have been begging to get a real HEB like the one in Montrose in the neighborhood, and if it weren’t for this oddball quirk of history, the announcement that there would be an HEB built on the site of the old Fiesta would be greeted with handsprings and huzzahs. But because we’re held hostage to the way some people viewed the demon rum a century ago, we’re stuck with this silly debate. Everyone in America is ready for the Presidential race to be over, I’m ready for this referendum to be settled.

The dry debate

The Chron hosted a mini-debate about the vote to change the Heights dry ordinance on its Monday op-ed pages. Bill Baldwin represented the status quo, for keeping the Heights (the original Heights) dry.

With the stark reality of land use as it is today, our deed restrictions are patchy, and most properties on high-traffic streets here are not restricted at all. In a city with no zoning, other typical neighborhoods have deed restrictions where the Heights does not. Undoubtedly, the dry area has successfully kept large operators such as Walmart, Target, Sprouts, Kroger and a Whole Foods concept on the way all outside of our historic borders. Eliminate that barrier and you make way for future big-box retailers, gas stations and convenience stores, along with their parking demands and high traffic.

You don’t build a fence to keep out the good neighbors; it’s for the bad ones. In this scenario, we still consider H-E-B a good neighbor, but I am concerned about operators without the reputation of H-E-B.

We don’t know exactly what will happen if we change the dry area, but we do know this: All around the city there is concern about the changing character of neighborhoods. Like the rest of the city, the Heights is wrestling with these issues of development and identity. How do we responsibly progress, increase property values and keep a sense of identity intrinsically tied to the community? In the Heights, the dry area has in many non-obvious ways functioned toward those ends. Keeping the Heights dry means also keeping it local and residential.

Steve Reilley spoke for the pro-change faction, to amend the historic dry ordinance to allow beer and wine sales for off-premise consumption, i.e., retail sales.

We need to alter this regulation in order to welcome locally oriented businesses into the community. Rest assured, this is a grassroots effort, and is not driven by businesses wanting to sell alcohol. More than 1,700 Heights voters signed the petition requesting the measure be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot. Our effort has been criticized because of H-E-B’s involvement. H-E-B didn’t sign the petition – we did. And the Texas Constitution gives us the right to have this election because we want to preserve our neighborhood, increase consumer options, raise property values and increase walkability, as Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen, the chairwoman of the Houston City Council Quality of Life Committee, recently noted that the repeal of this regulation will do.

Some have suggested that permitting the sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption will lead to the opening of convenience stores along Heights Boulevard, negatively affecting the Heights’ character. High property costs in the area would inhibit such use. In addition, much of Heights Boulevard and most of the affected area falls within the Houston Heights East and Houston Heights South Historic Districts, which prohibits existing covered structures from being torn down and replaced with nonconforming structures, such as convenience stores. Moreover, various properties along Heights Boulevard and other parts of The Heights are subject to deed restrictions that preclude commercial use.

Some opponents to the proposition have unfortunately engaged in “scare tactics” by suggesting unrealistic harm will fall upon our neighborhood if Heights-area stores are permitted to sell beer and wine for off-premise consumption. This election has nothing to do with liquor stores, bars, strip clubs or chain restaurants. It will have no impact on restaurants that operate as private clubs to serve alcoholic beverages to patrons. Residents will not be able to sell beer, wine or liquor out of their homes. This activity is already prohibited by numerous state laws, county regulations and city ordinances.

I did interviews with both gentlemen about this – here’s Baldwin and here’s Reilley. The latter was done in June after the petitions were submitted and before there was any organized opposition, so that interview was more informational, since there were still a lot of questions about what this effort was and what it meant. Baldwin doesn’t really say anything in his piece that he didn’t say in the interview he did with me, while Reilley’s article necessarily includes some rebuttals of pro-dry talking points. If you are in the affected area and somehow haven’t yet decided which way to go on this referendum, the two opinion pieces and interviews should tell you all you need to know.

I have no idea which side will win. I won’t be surprised by either result. There’s been a lot of recent discussion of it on the Heights Kids mailing list, with a fairly even split between the factions; the few recent threads I’ve seen on Nestdoor were all started by pro-dry people. I’ve seen more pro-dry yard signs than I have seen pro-amend signs, but I’d say half of those signs are in yards that are not in the affected area. (A good bit of the discussion I’ve seen in both places has been about who actually gets to vote on this issue.) I’m pretty sure there will continue to be a lot of chatter about this after the election, whichever way it goes.

Interview with Bill Baldwin of Keep Heights Dry

heightsdry1

As you know, there will be a referendum on the ballot for a very limited electorate this year, to alter the existing ordinance that enforces a dry zone in the historic Houston Heights to allow the sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption – for retailers, not for restaurants and bars, in other words. This referendum, formally known as City of Houston Proposition 1, was placed on the ballot by a petition drive led by the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which in turn was backed by HEB, which has announced its intention to open a store in the old Fiesta location on North Shepherd at 24th if this referendum passes. I did an interview with Steve Reilley of the HHBC back in June when petitions were still being circulated to clarify some questions about this. At the time, I noted that I was unaware of any organized opposition to this effort.

Well, formal opposition to this effort does exist, and it’s called Keep The Heights Dry. I’ve seen a few of their yard signs around the neighborhood in recent weeks. Their argument as you can see on that Facebook page is one part preservationist and one part neighborhood protection, and last week they reached out to me to see about doing an interview. Bill Baldwin, who has a real estate office on Heights Blvd at 16th Street, is one of the leaders of this opposition effort and the person I spoke to about it. Here’s the conversation:

Interviews and Q&As from the primaries are on my 2016 Election page. I will eventually get around to updating it to include links to fall interviews.

HEB confirms interest in Heights location

As rumored.

Residents have seen and heard speculation and rumors for months, wondering what the fate would be regarding H-E-B’s potential Heights move. Well wait no more.

After the rumor mill ran wild following the No-Dry Vote petition spearheaded by H-E-B and the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition earlier this year, president of the company’s Houston region Scott McClelland confirmed to The Leader in an interview that the company plans to open its new location at the site of the old Fiesta in the Heights, should voters elect to make that area “wet” in November. The official site announcement took place at the old Fiesta location on 23rd Street and North Shepherd Thursday morning.

A permanent move into the Heights remains predicated on the No Dry Vote passing, and it appears H-E-B as well as the Coalition are confident in its future success, as evidenced by Thursday morning’s proceedings.

Advocates such as Heights resident, local attorney and chair of the coalition Steve Reilley told The Leader in September that opening an H-E-B within the Heights would provide a boon for the economy along with the diversity in shopping options.

“There are a lot of people who would like to have a big grocery store within walking distance because they don’t have transportation or would like to have a job they can walk to in the Heights,” he said.

McClelland’s recent inboxes seem to say as much.

“Over the last five years I’ve probably gotten more requests for a store in the Heights than anywhere else in Houston,” he said.

See here for all previous blogging on this topic. The former Fiesta site has been talked about as a potential HEB ever since the original store was sold and demolished. As noted, this is all predicated on the dry law revision being passed. KUHF addresses that.

In August, the City Council voted to place a referendum on the ballot to lift the ban on the sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption.

Steve Reilley leads the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which collected more than 1,700 signatures on a petition to overturn the ban. He, together with city council members and representatives from the retail industry, kicked off the official campaign for a yes vote.

They’ll have to convince at least half of the estimated 10,500 voters who live here.

Considering there is no organized opposition, this sounds like an easy task but Reilley says they’re not taking it for granted.

“In Houston/Harris County, a November ballot in a presidential year is very, very, very long,” he says. “And so this one is literally going to be the last thing, the bottom of the ballot on that November ballot, so we have to get the word out.”

He says there’s also some misinformation about what the ordinance would do. It doesn’t repeal the original law that established the ban but merely allows for beer and wine to be sold in stores.

I don’t know about organized opposition, but I have seen one yard sign advocating a No vote, so someone is working against it. I make the referendum a favorite to pass, but it’s unusual enough – and this is a weird enough year – that I wouldn’t feel too confident about that. The Chron, Swamplot, and the Houston Business Journal have more.

Independent candidate lawsuit update

There’s already been a lawsuit filed by a wannabe independent candidate for President seeking to get on the ballot in Texas, but not by that guy you might have heard of.

Will not be on the ballot

Will not be on the ballot

It’s still up in the air whether Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent who declared his presidential candidacy this month, will make it on the ballot here.

The deadline to file to run as an independent in Texas, and turn in petitions signed by nearly 80,000 voters who didn’t vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary elections was in May. The deadline to file to run as a write-in candidate was earlier this month.

McMullin, of Salt Lake City — who has gotten his name on ballots in a handful of states including Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota and Utah — has indicated he may sue to get on the Texas ballot.

His political strategists have suggested that a legal challenge might find success in Texas, since the deadline to file as an independent this year fell before Democrats and Republicans knew who their general election candidate would be.

McMullin campaign staffers didn’t respond to requests for information about whether a court challenge in Texas is moving forward.

Texas election officials say they have not received a lawsuit from McMullin. But they did send him a letter letting him know he was not certified as a write-in candidate.

“Our office did not receive the required 38 presidential elector candidate forms from active voters,” according to the letter written by Keith Ingram, director of elections for the Texas secretary of state’s office. “Please be advised that your name will not be on the ballot.”

McMullin’s staff is still sending out emails to potential supporters saying, “It’s never too late to stand for what is right.”

Another lawsuit to get a presidential candidate on the Texas ballot is proceeding for now.

Souraya Faas of Florida sued Texas and Secretary of State Carlos Cascos in May claiming that state restrictions “on independent presidential candidacy and ballot access violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.”

“Souraya Faas seeks the presidency of the United States and to give the voters a choice to vote for her as an independent candidate in Texas,” the lawsuit states. “Since she announced her candidacy, the presidential campaigns within the major political parties have devolved into unprecedented rancor.

“The front-runners for the major party nominations are viewed as unpopular and undesirable by a not insignificant number of party partisans and independent voters.”

Now Faas is asking the court to declare unconstitutional parts of the Texas election code that “deny equal protection for independent presidential candidates.”

“Texas’ statutory scheme imposes a greater burden on the rights of voters and independent candidates than other states,” her lawsuit states.

The case could be thrown out soon if Faas doesn’t submit documents showing why the case shouldn’t be dismissed, according to court records filed in the Southern District of Texas Houston Division.

See here for more on Evan McMullin and his talk about suing to get on the ballot in Texas. I hesitate to be more definitive than that, as we are near the statutory deadline for printing overseas ballots and he still hasn’t done anything more than make vague statements about maybe doing something. As for Souraya Faas, she’s apparently been in the race for awhile. Here’s some information on her lawsuit, which was filed back in May. Why she would be successful where Ralph Nader wasn’t is unclear to me, and that’s before we contemplate her apparent lack of submitting documents for her case. My guess is that in another week or two we’ll not hear anything from or about either of these two again.

Senate whinefest about ballot propositions

Spare me.

crybaby

Members of a state Senate committee called Monday for changes in Texas law to prevent cities from thwarting or blocking citizen petition drives, a key issue for conservative and tea party groups in Houston and other cities in recent years.

At a meeting of the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee, members made it clear they support changes to ensure that ballot language is not deceptive or misleading and to keep cities from using outside law firms already doing city business to drag out legal proceedings against citizen petitioners.

Representatives of Texas’ approximately 300 home-rule cities cautioned against making changes to the current process or tipping the laws too far in favor of citizen groups, saying that could dilute local control in favor of state mandates.

Tension between citizen activists and local officials who often are the targets of their ire has been bubbling across Texas in recent years, thanks to a boost of tea party activism. Much of the testimony at Monday’s hearing centered on contentious petition drives and ballot fights in Houston, including the city’s controversial drainage fee levied more than decade ago and the repeal of Houston’s equal rights ordinance, known as HERO, in 2015.

[…]

Austin lawyer Andy Taylor, who fought the City of Houston before the Texas Supreme Court on ballot issues such HERO and the city’s drainage fee, told the committee how citizens who have had to go to court on their petition drives have had to pay hefty legal fees even though they won the legal battles.

Taylor testified that the cost of one case alone totalled $650,000. Bruce Hotze, a Houston businessman who has fought the City of Houston in another case, said he has spent well over $350,000 and the case is not over yet, because the city will not implement a charter change approved by voters.

Witnesses testified that other issues include petition signatures being invalidated in questionable ways, and cities using outside attorneys to increase the costs to citizen petitioners, a move that could discourage them from pursuing an action the city leadership opposes.

Let’s remember three things:

1. Andy Taylor’s fight over the drainage fee has been about nullifying the petition-driven referendum that was approved by the voters. The claims about “confusing language”, which were rejected by a district and appeals court before finally being bought by a credulous and activist Supreme Court, were raised after the election, by people who didn’t like the outcome.

2. That same Supreme Court put the anti-HERO referendum on the ballot without considering a lower court ruling that the petition effort had been rife with petition sheets that did not meet state law and widespread forgery. It never even held a hearing to allow an argument from the city, but ruled solely on a motion from the plaintiffs.

3. Apparently, this entire hearing occurred without anyone mentioning the Denton fracking referendum, in which yet another petition-driven referendum that was ratified by the voters was nullified, first by a judge and then by legislators like Paul Bettencourt.

The point here is that this isn’t about process, and it sure isn’t about The Will Of The People being stifled. It’s about the voters doing things that state Republicans don’t like. It’s about cities having a different vision and priorities for themselves than Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the Legislature do. Abbott et al don’t accept the authority of the federal government, and they don’t accept the authority of local government. That’s what this is about.

Evan McMullin to sue for ballot access in Texas

You know, that guy who recently turned up as the latest NeverTrump dreamboat? He wants on the ballot in Texas.

Will not be on the ballot

Will not be on the ballot

Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, an ex-CIA officer and congressional policy wonk who launched his campaign last week to offer “Never Trump” Republicans a conservative option, faces a steep political challenge gaining enough support to affect the November election.

And by jumping into the race so late, McMullin will need to clear significant legal hurdles, as well. Filing deadlines for independent candidates in more than half of the states have already passed, and several more deadlines are fast approaching.

That will mean going to court — including in Texas, where an independent had to gather nearly 80,000 signatures by May.

“Our intention in Texas is to file a legal challenge, and we think that the great people of Texas will agree with us that there shouldn’t be artificial boundaries on the kinds of people that can run for president,” said Joel Searby, the campaign’s chief strategist.

Noting that Texas’ May 9 petition deadline — by far the earliest in the country — fell long before the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions, Searby argues that prospective independent candidates were unable to take into consideration the choices of the two major parties before deciding whether to run.

“There’s just so many restrictions on ballot access in Texas, and Texas is generally a very open and independent and free-thinking kind of place,” Searby said. “So we don’t think the people of Texas are going to want to keep that law.”

A general counsel is coordinating the campaign’s ballot access efforts across multiple states, Searby said, and the campaign has also been in touch with Texas lawyers. Garland attorney Matthew Sawyer, who worked on Texas business magnate Ross Perot’s Reform Party presidential run in 1996, has reportedly been involved with the effort. Reached by phone last week, Sawyer directed all questions to the campaign.

Ballot access experts are split on McMullin’s chances of winning a federal lawsuit. To Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News and a longtime activist on the issue, McMullin’s case is a slam dunk, particularly in Texas.

“Texas is in a class by itself. The Texas deadline is impossible to defend,” Winger said. Pointing to the later deadline for independent candidates running for offices in Texas other than president, Winger contends there is “powerful evidence that the presidential deadline is unconstitutional, and that’s all he needs to show.”

But prominent Texas election attorney Buck Wood, who has represented several state-level candidates challenging independent ballot restrictions in the past, sees it exactly the other way.

“I don’t see any possibility of him getting on the ballot in Texas,” Wood said. “Just because you made your decision too late is not an excuse. You have to go back and say, even had we made the decision back then, it still would have been so onerous as to have been unconstitutional, and the chances of that are nil.”

The story recounts the process for getting on the ballot as an independent in Texas, and also notes that Ralph Nader tried and failed to sue his way onto the ballot in 2004 after coming up short in the signature-collecting process. My money’s with Buck Wood on this one, but I don’t really care one way or another. Nobody knows who Evan McMullin is – he basically got zero percent in that PPP poll – and he’s extremely unlikely to raise the kind of dough to become any better known to Texas voters. If I had to guess, I’d say that any votes he does get will come primarily at the expense of Gary Johnson, who is already an alternative for some NeverTrumpers who can’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton. McMullin could do what Nader ultimately did in Texas and file a declaration to be counted as a write-in candidate, but the deadline for that is Monday, and he doesn’t have a running mate yet as required. So, you know, tick tock tick tock. I’ll keep an eye on this because that’s what I do, but I don’t expect anything interesting to come of it. Link via Burkablog.

Heights alcohol rule change petitions verified

The item will be on the ballot, pending Council approval.

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City Secretary Anna Russell confirmed that the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition gathered 1,759 valid signatures for its petition submitted last month, 248 more than required by law.

The Houston City Council is now slated Wednesday to formally call the election for Nov. 8, as required by state law.

The ban predates Prohibition. It first went into effect in 1912 and was kept in place when the Heights was annexed into Houston in 1918.

If the ban is lifted, residents would be allowed to buy alcohol at grocery and convenience stores. The change would not affect alcohol sales at restaurants.

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for my interview with Steve Reilley, who led the petition effort for the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition. I should note that the petitions specified “off-premise beer and wine sales”, so hard liquor would still not be available for purchase within this zone. As is always the case with dry areas, there are two liquor stores right outside the zone – they’ve been there for as long as I can remember – so no big deal.

The ballot proposition has now been approved by City Council, so it will officially be there. Only people who live in the historic dry area will have this item on their ballot, so administering it ought to be interesting. There is definitely some opposition to this, and as it is an affluent area I expect a fair amount of money to be spent by both sides between now and November. I consider the change effort to be the favorite to win, but anything can happen. The Press has more.

An update on the effort to make the Heights less dry

In which we learn there is indeed some opposition to this effort.

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A petition favored by grocery giant H-E-B to partially lift a 104-year-old ban on beer and wine sales in a dry part of the Heights could be headed for a vote this fall.

The Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which was formed to push the effort to allow sales for off-premise consumption, reported it gathered more than 1,700 signatures in 21 days. By law, the coalition had 60 days to collect a minimum of 1,511 signatures. The measure now is awaiting certification by the city secretary’s office.

H-E-B, which has expressed strong interest in establishing a store in the area, gave proponents a boost by working with Austin-based political consulting firm Texas Petition Strategies for the signature drive.

[…]

Opponents say the ban – put in place shortly before Prohibition – has kept the neighborhood family-friendly and helps guard against unwanted development. A change could alter future development, local resident and real estate agent Bill Baldwin warned.

“It opens the door for waves of other commercial development that undermines the character of this historic neighborhood, when the reality is we could simply drive one extra mile to get out of the dry area, get what we need, and still be able to enjoy the amenities and quality of life that I and my neighbors love,” Baldwin said in an email. “I myself am willing to go that extra mile.”

The Houston Heights Association has not taken a position on the ban, he added.

[…]

There is a Kroger in the dry area at West 20th and Yale. By contrast, the Kroger on North Shepherd at 11th Street is in a wet area. It recently opened an in-store bar that sells draft beer and wine. Kroger is not participating in the petition effort.

Baldwin said such nearby access makes repeal unnecessary. He said the movement comes from people with commercial interests in a change.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I personally find the argument espoused by Baldwin to be specious. Even if this effort could lead to liquor stores being opened in the Heights – which as we know the Beverage Coalition denies – it strikes me as unlikely that anything but a high-end place could afford the rent. I figure the amenities that people like about the neighborhood include things like walkability and good schools, and I rather doubt that an HEB would be seen as a negative. That will be a discussion for the campaign, assuming the City Secretary validates that there were enough signatures turned in. We should know that soon enough.

Next up: Judicial nominations

vote-button

With the nomination for Commissioners Court settled, all that’s left for me to do as Precinct Chair is participate in the process to select nominees for the two new courts, the 507th Family District Court and the County Criminal Court at Law #16. As a reminder, here are the new and revisited Q&A’s I published over the last two weeks for the candidates in these races:

507th Family District Court

Jim Evans
Julia Maldonado
Sandra Peake
Chip Wells
Germaine Tanner
Shawn Thierry

County Criminal Court at Law #16

David Singer
Darrell Jordan
Raul Rodriguez

Maldonado, Wells, Thierry, Singer, and Rodriguez were all there on Saturday as candidates. Peake was there as a precinct chair. I don’t know if she voted for a Commissioners Court candidate or not; she had previously sent out an email saying she would abstain from voting, due to her status as a candidate for the 507th. That message led to an email from another chair who called on her to resign from the race in the 507th on the grounds that she had violated the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct by having been listed as one of Rodney Ellis’ supporters prior to the Saturday meeting. Her name is still on that list, so she may have some questions to answer.

There apparently remains some bad blood between Peake and Maldonado stemming from the 2014 primary in which they both competed for the nomination for the 246th Family Court (Peake eventually won the primary by a 51-49 margin). Maldonado filed a complaint against Peake prior to the election alleging that she had an insufficient number of petition signatures. Greg Enos highlighted some of the testimony from the hearing, in which Maldonado ultimately failed to receive injunctive relief. An anonymous (of course) mailer last week brought all of this up, including the same testimony that Enos flagged. I have no idea if this was intended as a hit piece on Maldonado or on Peake because it was anonymous (duh!) and because I barely glanced at it, awash as I was with Precinct 1 mail at the time.

That and the argument about statistics and qualifications have been the main points of contention in this race. Maldonado, Tanner, and Thierry have been the most active in sending email to precinct chairs, with Maldonado and Tanner being the most vocal about qualifications. Chip Wells and Sandra Peake have been much more quiet, and Jim Evans has been basically invisible. I bring this up mostly to note that the lesson everyone should have learned from Saturday is that no one is actually a candidate for any of these positions unless they know for a fact that at least one precinct chair intends to nominate them for the position. My advice to all nine candidates – the 16th Criminal Court at Law race has been far more sedate – is to make sure you have a commitment from a precinct chair for that.

Interview with Steve Reilley

By now you are aware of the effort to alter the historic regulations that keep the part of town that was once the independent city of the Houston Heights dry. The dry designation, in the area you see in the embedded picture – see here if you’d like a more modern context – was part of the annexation agreement between the Houston Heights and Houston. It could only be overturned by an election. Well, that election appears to be slated for this November, as a group called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition says it has collected enough signatures from relevant residents to put this on the November ballot. The issue has already attracted a great deal of attention, and no small amount of misinformation, from residents and folks nearby, some who want to keep things as they are and some who can’t wait to have an HEB built nearby. To try to clarify things and get some answers to my own questions about the process, I sat down for an interview with Steve Reilley, who is heading the effort for the HHBC. Reilley is an attorney and a resident of the affected area, and he was a Democratic candidate for civil court judge in 2010. Here’s what we talked about:

As I said, there is definitely some opposition to this, as well as some enthusiastic support, but as yet I am not aware of an organized effort to oppose the ballot measure. When I do learn of such a group or organization, I will reach out to them for an interview as well. What are your thoughts on this?

A brief summary of the effort to make the Heights less dry

The Heights Life provides a fact sheet:

beer

  • The petition is backed by HEB, who hired a law firm to handle the drive. Some of the canvassers, who are paid and may or may not be your neighbors or Heights residents, may not know about HEB, only the firm that hired them. Either way, it’s all about HEB.
  • The petition itself does NOT actually change anything about the existing law. The petition puts the issue on the ballot to be voted on in November.
  • You can only sign the petition and participate in the subsequent vote if you live in the dry zone.
  • The petition/future vote are for *off premise sales of beer and wine only.* This means you can buy beer or wine at the store and take it elsewhere. You will not be able to drink at the store.
  • The petition and vote will NOT ALLOW hard liquor sales.
  • Restaurants and bars will still have to get a club license to serve on-premise beer/wine/alcohol in their establishment.

There’s more, so go read the rest. The Houston Heights Beverage Coalition now has a Facebook page if you’re into that sort of thing. Note that my embedded graphic is an inaccurate representation of what’s at issue here, but I don’t feel like finding something else. As The Heights Life notes, there are already plans for an HEB on Washington Avenue, which is outside the dry zone. A Heights-based HEB would surely be in the spot of the now-shuttered Fiesta on Shepherd, just inside the northern boundary of the zone. This only happens if the vote to alter the off-premise sales restriction passes.

As Campos notes, there’s been a lot of discussion on Heights Kids and Nextdoor about the petition effort and what it means, not all of it (in my opinion) very accurate. I’m sure that is what prompted this post by THL, to help clear things up. I’m going to do my part for that shortly, as I plan to interview Steve Reilley of the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC; there are a bunch of process-related questions I’d like answered, among other things. The HHBC has reportedly collected a sufficient number of petition signatures, so assuming they are verified, some number of voters will have another item on which to vote this November. If an opposition group should form for this, I’ll do my best to interview a representative from that group as well. In the meantime, this is what we’ve got.

Still no indies

Just a reminder that no matter who or what may be the flavor of the month, the deadline for filing as an independent candidate for President in Texas was last month.

Will not be on the ballot

Will not be on the ballot

If an independent presidential candidate wanted to get on the November ballot in Texas, at this point they would face sky-high hurdles — not the least of which being that the deadline has already passed. So someone like David French, a lawyer and writer rumored to be a prospect, would have to wage a costly legal battle against Texas’ ballot procedures, considered among the most challenging in the country for independent candidates.

“I think Mr. French would have a real, real hard time of doing it and would have to spend a lot of money,” said James Linger, an Oklahoma attorney who worked for Ralph Nader when he sued to get on the ballot in Texas in 2004. “Even if the deadline were moved back, I think he would be in a hard situation in a place like Texas.”

Ballot access in the Lone Star State has gotten more attention than usual during the 2016 presidential race as Republicans dissatisfied with their presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, contemplate an independent or third-party alternative. It was reported throughout Tuesday that French, a conservative lawyer from Tennessee, is considering running as an independent at the urging of Trump opponents such as Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol.

Even those sympathetic to the anti-Trump cause acknowledge French’s success would depend on overcoming many obstacles — including his ability to challenge procedures in Texas, whose May 9 ballot deadline was by far the earliest among all 50 states.

[…]

The May 9 deadline came and went in Texas without any candidates applying to run for president as an independent. To do so would have required 79,939 signatures, or 1 percent of the total votes cast for all candidates in the previous presidential election.

The next major deadline in Texas is June 23, which is when independent non-presidential candidates must apply for the ballot. Those filing under that deadline must have submitted a statement declaring their intent to run with the secretary of state’s office by Dec. 14, 2015.

At least one ballot-access expert, Richard Winger, believes the June 23 deadline is vulnerable to a legal challenge because, in his estimation, there is no state interest in making independent presidential candidates file 52 days before their non-presidential counterparts. That was a criteria established by Anderson v. Celebrezze, a 1983 case in which the high court struck down Ohio’s March deadline for independent presidential candidates.

“They have to come up with a state interest because this does harm voting rights,” said Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News. Noting the high court “has never given any comfort at all to supporters of early deadlines,” Winger estimated someone who takes Texas to court over its independent candidates deadlines would have a “75 percent” chance of prevailing.

See here for the background. The only thing that has changed since the May 9 deadline for filing as an indy (with the accompanying petition signature requirements) is the presence of a potential candidate. If you’ve never heard of David French – and honestly, why should you? – I recommend a quick look at what Roy Edroso and Martin Longman can tell you. Beyond that, as noted in the story Ralph Nader sued to get on the ballot in 2004 after failing to collect enough signatures to qualify. A federal court judge ruled that Texas’ ballot access laws were constitutional; this ruling was subsequently affirmed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. I don’t know why the odds of success for a lawsuit would be any better this year than they were in 2004, but I Am Not A Lawyer, so pay no attention to me. Of course, first French would have to actually declare his intention to run, and then he’d have to file a lawsuit, and all of that needs to happen in a fairly short time frame, so we return to my original premise: There ain’t gonna be no independent candidates for President on the ballot in Texas. Feel free to write in whoever you want, but don’t expect any more than that.

Endorsement watch: For making the Heights less dry

The Chron is rooting for that petition effort to change the alcohol rules in the historic Heights.

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Today, sitting down in some of the restaurants in the Heights is like slipping through a wormhole into a bygone era when respectable Texas businessmen carried flasks of whiskey in their pockets. Waiters invite you to sign up for a private club – wink, wink – whose card-carrying members are allowed access to the establishment’s stash of demon rum.

Now, if a modern-day neighborhood reform movement succeeds, this quirky rule banning booze sales in the Heights may finally be amended. Something called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition has started collecting signatures on petitions calling for a referendum that could allow stores in the Heights to sell beer and wine. And it’s about time.

Nothing would change for bars or restaurants, which would still have to live with those archaic Prohibition-era restrictions. And package liquor stores would still be forbidden in the old neighborhood. The new rules would apply only to selling beer and wine that shoppers would carry out of stores and drink somewhere else.

Still, we hope this proposal for a limited rollback of Prohibition in the Heights succeeds, because this area’s booze ban has pointlessly shackled retailers and inconvenienced consumers who don’t even drink.

These antiquated restrictions on alcoholic beverage sales are a major reason why some people who live in the Heights have to drive out of their way to buy groceries. Beer and wine sales are a crucial source of income for grocers, an industry scraping by – according to data from the New York University Stern School of Business – on net profit margins of less than 2 percent. Although a comparatively small Kroger store survives in the Heights without beer and wine sales, expanding supermarket chains have conspicuously opened new stores outside the boundaries of the Heights.

See here and here for the background. If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, you know that as a rule I support efforts to repeal Prohibition-era anti-booze laws. This effort is no exception – I’d sign the petition and vote in favor of the ensuing referendum if I lived in the affected area. There’s no good argument against allowing a grocery store to sell beer and wine in this part of town. I can’t help but think that this referendum effort is going to walk through a minefield of legal technicalities just because it’s such an oddball situation, but I say take them as they come. I wish the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC good luck in their quest.

More on the effort to make the Heights less dry

From the Chron:

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With the intention of building a new store in the Heights, H-E-B said Wednesday that it has been working with a political consulting firm in Austin to help change a law precluding beer and wine sales in a dry part of the historic Houston neighborhood.

The grocer said it has contracted with Texas Petition Strategies to collect signatures needed to secure a place on the November ballot where residents can vote to make beer and wine sales – for off-premise consumption – legal.

The effort has led to a petition drive by a group called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which has been seeking some 1,500 signatures needed.

H-E-B spokeswoman Cyndy Garza Roberts said a location in the Heights has been identified, but the company is still in negotiations on the site and commenting on specific details would be premature.

“We definitely want to be in the Heights, but in order to do so we need to make sure we provide those customers with the same quality products that they’re able to find at our other stores,” she said.

[…]

The group has 60 days to gather the signatures from residents who live in the area formerly known as the City of Houston Heights. Once the signatures are gathered, they will be verified by the City Secretary with Houston City Council then calling the election for November, according to a news release.

The signatures are being collected by a door-to-door effort and they can also be signed at area establishments, including Coltivare and Revival Market, said Hatch. The coalition has secured more than half of the signatures needed.

See here for the background. The one thing I know for sure is that a lot of Heights residents have been hoping for an HEB to be built in the neighborhood. I’d recommend playing that angle up, both in the signature-gathering and the election itself. I’ll be interested to see what if any opposition arises to this as well. Given the November date, turnout won’t be an issue.

Making the Heights a little less dry

From Swamplot:

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A GROUP CALLED the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC is hoping to bring about a vote on allowing beer and wine sales in the technically dry section of the Houston Heights. The group published a notice on May 5th announcing an application to the city to start collecting the petition signaturesrequired to get the measure on a local option ballot.

[…]

The group’s immediate goal isn’t to do away with all alcohol restrictions, and the proposed ballot measure wouldn’t get rid of the current private-club workaround frequently employed by area bars and restaurants. But the proposal would lift existing barriers for stores trying to sell beer and wine to becarried away elsewhere — an issue that forced the recently closed Fiesta Mart at N. Shepherd and 24th St. to install its traditionally-in-the-parking-lot Beverage Mart a full 4 blocks away on the corner with 28th St. (across the northern boundary of the zone).

Here’s a map of the dry area, which hasn’t slowed the proliferation of places to dine and imbibe in the Heights. Many of them are east of Oxford, which puts them outside the zone. Others, like the Down House, do the “private club” dodge, while Torchy’s on 19th inherited a grandfathered license from a defunct icehouse. When I first read this story, I thought it would be about repealing the ban for eateries and drinkeries, but apparently not. The Press has since given some clarification about who and what is behind this.

The chair of the [Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC] is an attorney named Steve Reilley, a founding partner of the Thompson & Reilley law firm. He says that the main impetus for this action is that the group simply wants to have “a nice grocery store in the neighborhood.” He pointed out the recent closing of the Fiesta location in the area and says that retailers are unwilling to expand or move in owing to the inability to sell beer and wine. “They can’t make the money without the beer and wine sales. We hope we are able to bring these stores in if we are able to alter the statute,” he said. “We want the same nice stores you see in other parts of town and [to] have them be economically viable in The Heights.”

H-E-B is one of the grocery store chains that are eyeing building a store in The Heights, but nothing definitive has happened on that yet, according to Swamplot. We asked Reilley if H-E-B was one of the members of the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition. “I believe they have definitely expressed interest in it and they’re definitely going to support this,” he said. “It is my understanding that if it passes, they are going to very likely move into The Heights. To that degree, yes, they’re part of it, and I believe they will be part of it going forward.” We left a message for H-E-B’s director of public affairs in Houston to see if the grocery store chain has any comment, and will update this article if we receive a response.

Reilley said other grocery chains are part of the special interest group but said he wasn’t able to confirm that. He referred us to John Hatch of Texas Petition Strategies of Austin, a company that has been hired to oversee collecting signatures and, if the issue makes it onto the ballot, stumping for a passing vote. We left a phone message for Hatch but have not yet received a call back.

The press release says, “TPS has conducted over 300 petition efforts in 170 different Texas communities, with more than an 83% the efforts passing — including efforts in Brazoria County, Lumberton, Lubbock, Dallas and Fort Worth.”

I gather from recent activity on the Heights Kids message board that people have been out knocking on doors to gather petition signatures, with an aim of having something on the ballot this November. I also gather that some folks are not clear on the details of this issue – specifically, why part of the Heights is “dry”, what exactly that means, and why there needs to be an election to change it. That may add to their challenge. A this subsequent comment notes that there are some potentially tricky legal issues involved as well, meaning that however this shakes out someone may wind up suing over whatever the result is. Any lawyers in the crowd want to comment on that? In any event, we’ll keep an eye on this. I live outside the “dry” zone, so I (presumably) wouldn’t get to vote on this. If you’ve been asked to sign a petition, leave a comment and let us know. More here from Swamplot.

Strategizing for the next HERO fight

Good move.

Stung by setbacks related to their access to public restrooms, transgender Americans are taking steps to play a more prominent and vocal role in a nationwide campaign to curtail discrimination against them.

Two such initiatives are being launched this week — evidence of how transgender rights has supplanted same-sex marriage as the most volatile, high-profile issue for the broader movement of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists.

One initiative is a public education campaign called the Transgender Freedom Project that will share the personal stories of transgender people. The other, the Trans United Fund, is a political advocacy group that will engage in election campaigns at the federal and state level, pressing candidates to take stands on transgender rights.

“We welcome the support of our allies,” said Hayden Mora, a veteran transgender activist who’s director of Trans United. “But it’s crucial that trans people build our own political power and speak with our own voices.”

From a long-term perspective, there have been notable gains for transgender Americans in recent years — more support from major employers, better options for health care and sex-reassignment surgery, a growing number of municipalities which bar anti-transgender discrimination.

[…]

“All the people who lost the marriage equality fight, they’ve now decided that trans people are fair game,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “They’re going to claim trans people are sexual predators, but the public is quickly going to learn that’s just nonsense.”

The outcome in Houston prompted many post-mortems among LGBT activists — What went wrong? How should the bathroom-access argument be countered in the future?

“It’s been an alarming wake-up call since November,” said Dru Lavasseur, Transgender Rights Project director for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal. “We need to prioritize bringing transgender people into the movement in leadership positions, with transgender voices leading the way.”

There has been widespread agreement that a key plank of future strategy should be enlisting more transgender people to share their personal experience — a tactic that was successful for gays and lesbians during the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.

“In most parts of this country, people don’t know a trans person,” said Kasey Suffredini, a transgender attorney who’s director of the new Transgender Freedom Project. “The work in front of us is to put a face on who the trans community is. That’s the way that we win.”

The project, undertaken by an advocacy group called Freedom for All Americans, has a first-year budget of about $1 million, with plans to expand thereafter.

Nationwide success “will not happen overnight,” said Suffredini, suggesting a 10-year timeframe was plausible.

“What happened in North Carolina, as terrible as it was, has really galvanized people,” he added.

Part of the problem in last year’s HERO fight was that we were caught off guard – after winning the petition lawsuit in district court, we didn’t expect to have this issue on the ballot in the fall. The bad guys were way ahead of us in organizing and spreading lies. This is an attempt to counter that as the fight has shifted mostly to state legislatures. This can’t be all that there is, but it’s a good start.

And since we know that the fight is coming to our legislature, too, it’s vital to be out in front of it here as well. Thankfully, that is happening.

That’s in part why Lou Weaver is encouraging transgender Texans like himself to become more vocal and visible as the legislature approaches the 2017 session. “Something like 80 to 90 percent of Americans know an out gay or lesbian person now, and that’s led to a dramatically different discussion on issues like same-sex marriage,” Weaver told the Press. Surveys show only about 10 percent of Americans know an out transgender person, Weaver said.

Last week Weaver, transgender programs coordinator with Equality Texas, helped launch what the organization is calling its “Transvisible” project. The idea, Weaver says, is to reduce violence and prejudice against transgender people by introducing Houstonians to their transgender neighbors. “If you don’t know trans folks, it’s easy to be mystified and to believe the lies and stories that are spread about us,” Weaver said. “It’s much harder to do that when you realize we’re your neighbors, your co-workers, just everyday Houstonians.”

I agree completely. It’s a lot easier to fear or hate a faceless bogeyman than a neighbor or co-worker. Again, this is just a first step, but it’s a necessary one. I’m glad to see it.

I should note, this post started out as a discussion of this good report from the post-HERO referendum community forum on what happened and what happens next.

HoustonUnites

LGBT advocates plan to eventually launch a petition drive to get the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance back on the ballot.

First, however, they intend to draft a strategic plan, set up a citizens advisory committee, and conduct a robust public education campaign about the need for an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination law.

Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said those were among the recommendations that emerged from a two-and-a-half-hour community debriefing on HERO that drew around 200 people on January 12. “We agree that whatever happens next has to be citizen-led, not council-led,” said Burke, who chaired the meeting. “But everybody is in agreement—both the organizing groups and the public at large—that we can’t even think about that until we figure out how to overcome the bathroom argument. We need a multi-pronged public education campaign that’s aimed at transgender prejudice reduction.”

Houston voters overwhelmingly repealed HERO on November 3, based largely on opponents’ false, fear-mongering ads suggesting the ordinance would lead to sexual predators entering women’s restrooms and preying on young girls.

“The truth is, nobody knows how to combat the bathroom message,” Burke said. “We don’t in Houston, and they don’t anywhere else in the country. All the great minds in the country are trying to figure out how to respond to it. We have to come up with our six-word response to No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.”

That was from February. You can see why I’m glad that there’s some action on this, because at that time we really weren’t sure what to do. My response to this story was simple, only needing four words: They’re Lying To You. I know it’s more complicated than that, but it gets to the heart of the matter. Because these guys are shameless liars, if we do manage to come up with a perfect response to “no men in women’s bathrooms”, they’ll just invent some other lie to tell. I mean, they used to claim that it was the gays that were the depraved perverts and child molesters that threatened us all. The fact that people no longer believe that didn’t slow them down. I don’t want to spend too much time trying to debunk one piece of bullshit, because as soon as we do there’s plenty more where that came from, and now you’re fighting the last war. We have to attack their credibility so that people will be disinclined to believe them whatever they say. Easier said than done, I know, but that’s how I would approach the question.

That’s what I wrote in February, and I still believe it. But I’m more than happy to see another approach. As for what the future holds:

Burke said it’s unlikely any petition drive would be completed in time for HERO to appear on the November 2016 ballot. HERO supporters would need to gather 20,000 signatures for a ballot initiative to amend the city’s charter. But reviving HERO through a petition would take the political onus off of council members, who’ve said they’re in no rush to revisit the ordinance given that the public vote was so decisive.

Incoming mayor Sylvester Turner, who supported HERO, told OutSmart that his top priorities are addressing the city’s infrastructure needs and financial challenges—issues that have “universal agreement” among voters.

If he can first conquer potholes and pensions, Turner expects voters will give him permission to tackle other issues, including possibly HERO. “I think anything that’s a distraction from dealing with the infrastructure and the financial challenges really does a disservice to those particular areas,” Turner said. “So whether we’re talking about nondiscrimination, whether we’re talking about income inequality or educational initiatives, all of those things are important, but until we have met the challenges that are being presented by the infrastructure, and the financial challenges, I really don’t think at this point in time that Houstonians have an appetite for too much more than that.”

Turner is talking about building up some political capital before tackling a controversial topic like HERO, and I completely agree with his approach. That suggests to me that we’re unlikely to see any action on this until Mayor Turner’s presumed second term. Just a guess, but I do think letting some time pass is a smart idea. Not so great for the people who would benefit from HERO, unfortunately. I wish I had a better answer for that. ProjectQ Houston has more.

Supreme Court declines to intervene in Austin Uber referendum

Who knew they could do that?

Uber

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday declined to order the Austin City Council to rewrite the ballot language on the proposed ride-hailing ordinance that will go before voters May 7.

Austin music manager Samantha Phelps, working in conjunction with Uber, last week filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, asking the court to require new ballot wording because the council-approved language “is purposefully skewed to persuade the public to vote against the proposition.”

The city said the language was factual and not misleading, and that for a court to require new wording, Phelps would have to prove the City Council took an “arbitrary and unreasonable” action. Though the council approved the language in February, Phelps waited until just before Travis County was set to lock down the ballot language to file her petition, the city said.

The court issued an order denying the petition but did not release an opinion Monday.

“We made every effort to make sure the ballot language fairly represented the petition, so today the Supreme Court denied Uber’s attempt to overturn that language and affirms what we did,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said.

[…]

Austin elections attorney Buck Wood said there is no way to appeal the court’s order, as it is “purely a state law matter” and not a federal issue. Wood said he was not surprised by the decision.

“I suspect the lateness of it probably swayed some votes,” Wood said, noting that it took “three weeks” for the petition to be filed.

See here for the background. An Uber spokesperson is quoted in the story saying that the court’s order “was not a ruling on the merits of the ballot language”, which says to me that there may yet be further litigation if the referendum does no pass. Isn’t this fun? The Trib and the AusChron have more.

Supreme Court asked to weigh in on Austin rideshare referendum

Of course it is.

Uber

The Texas Supreme Court has been pulled into the ongoing battle between Uber and the City of Austin.

An Austin resident, supported by Uber, has asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on the ballot language for a new measure regulating vehicle-for-hire companies within the city, scheduled to come before voters on May 7.

“The adopted ballot language wholly fails to inform voters as to what they are voting for,” reads the request, filed by Samantha Phelps, an active Uber supported who helped collect signatures for a petition vying to overturn a stricter vehicle-for-hire ordinance approved by the city council. “The Council falsely portrayed the Proposed Ordinance as something that only takes away and does not give. That portrayal could not be further from the truth.”

[…]

The approved ballot language asks voters if the original December ordinance should be repealed and replaced with an ordinance that would, “prohibit required fingerprinting, repeal the requirement to identify the vehicles with a distinctive emblem, repeal the prohibition against loading and unloading passengers in a travel lane, and require other regulations for Transportation Network Companies?”

The writ claims this language will “mislead Austin voters” as it does not address specifics of the proposed measure.

The writ reads, “the proposed ballot language gives recognizable descriptions of the regulations repealed by the Proposed Ordinance, but only the scantest vague reference to the regulations imposed by the Proposed Ordinance.”

See here for the background. Maybe we just need to pass a law requiring the Supreme Court to write the language of all ballot referenda in the state from here on. It would just save time, and might reduce the number of lawsuits filed after the election by the losing side claiming that the voters were too stupid to know what they were voting on. The Austin Chronicle has more.