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Polk County

Rural Dems

They still exist, and they’re making some noise.

Trish Robinson was dropping off supplies for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in Liberty County, about 40 minutes from Houston, when a handful of people scowled at her left-leaning political T-shirt.

David DeLuca, head of the Fayette County Democrats, said he recently introduced himself to a Republican volunteer poll worker, but the woman declined to shake hands.

And during a Tyler County town hall hosted by Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke on a recent Friday in February, multiple people thanked the Democrat for coming to the Republican stronghold.

[…]

As a result, many of the remaining rural Democrats say they’re leery of making their political views public.

Now, as national and state party leaders talk a big game about a blue wave this November, some Democrats in rural East and Central Texas say they’re working to overcome a drag on local momentum ahead of the primary: stigma.

[…]

Something changed after Trump’s election. Through social media, Democrats in rural areas began finding each other and organizing in small but meaningful ways. County chapters have dusted off their welcome signs and other Democratic-leaning groups have emerged, both publicly and privately.

Robinson said she began the Liberty County Indivisible chapter after reading the handbook published by its national founders, which gives guidance on anti-Trump grassroots political organization.

“That sort of fed into what I believe and how I felt, and what I wanted to do,” she said. “Liberty County [Democrats] need to know there’s options for them, too. We shouldn’t always have to leave the county to feel like we belong or have a purpose or can speak up.”

She began with a Facebook post, and then held meet-ups at local restaurants. Sometimes, only one person showed up. But “if one person comes every time, I feel like that’s progress,” she said. The group has since grown to about 40.

This isn’t exactly profound, but the main thing these folks can do is believe that their votes matter, so that they actually do show up and vote in November. Dems have made big gains over the past several cycles in the big urban and suburban counties, but there are a lot more small and rural counties, and the steady degradation of the vote in those places has largely canceled those gains out. Compare the 2012 and 2012 Presidential results on a county-by-county basis sometime – it’s a thousand votes here and a thousand votes there, but in a state with 254 counties that can really add up. This is basically what the Beto strategy is all about: Narrow the margins in the unfriendly places enough so you can bridge the remaining gap in the big counties.

So having local candidates to vote for, even in uncompetitive districts, helps. Having the statewide candidates remember that these places exist helps, too. I don’t pretend to know when Dems might be able to truly contest these places, nor do I know what issues might hasten that day, but I believe the Republican Party is doing its best to marginalize itself, and the effect that has will not remain limited to the cities and the suburbs. In the meantime, let’s run candidates in races we can win – city councils and school boards and the like – and put some resources into figuring out how to make common cause and gain ground with voters in the small and medium-sized cities in these counties. I believe the opportunities are there, and we’ve taken the important first step of showing up. Let’s keep it going.

Statewide review: 2016 was like 2008, but not in a good way

vote-button

There’s no point in beating around the bush, so I’ll just come out and say it: Despite the excitement about increases in voter registration and heavy early voting turnout. statewide Democratic candidates outside of Hillary Clinton generally did not do any better than their counterparts in 2008. Republican statewide candidates, on the other hand, were generally setting new high-water marks for vote totals. Every statewide Republican other than Wayne Christian topped Donald Trump’s 4,681,590 votes, with all of them but one besting it by at least 100,000. Meanwhile, only Dori Contreras Garza’s 3,598,852 votes exceeded President Obama’s 2008 tally. Overall turnout was up in Texas (in absolute numbers, though not in percentage), but while Dem turnout was better than 2012, it didn’t hit any new heights. I fear we may be at a plateau, as we have been in the off years since 2002.

Why am I not more encouraged by Hillary Clinton’s 3.8 million-plus total? Because I estimate at least 100,000 of her votes came from people who supported Republicans in other races, and because the dropoff from her total to downballot candidates was enough to show no visible growth. For these purposes, I’m using judicial races as my metric, as I believe it is a better proxy for partisan intent. I used as a baseline for comparison between 2012 and 2016 two Court of Criminal Appeals races – the 2012 Sharon Keller/Keith Hampton race, and the 2016 Mike Keasler/Robert Burns race. I believe these contests are low enough profile to draw a relatively small number of crossovers, and in this particular case they were the only such races each year to have just a Libertarian candidate in addition, thus allowing for a more apples-to-apples comparison. I put all the county totals into a spreadsheet and then calculated the difference between the two. From a Democratic perspective, there’s good news, so-so news, and bad news.

I’ll get to the news in a second. You can see the spreadsheet here. I’ve put a list of the 62 counties in which Democrats gained votes from 2012 to 2016 beneath the fold. Take a look and then come back, and we’ll talk about what I think this means.

Ready? Democrats really killed it in the big urban counties. Harris, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, and Dallas combined for nearly 240,000 more Democratic votes in 2016, compared to 83,000 for the Republicans, a net of over 150K. Dems took such a big step forward in Harris County that HD144 might not really be a swing district any more, while HDs 132, 135, and 138 are now in the picture as pickup opportunities, with HD126 a little farther out on the horizon. I’ll have more to say about Harris County beginning tomorrow, but I feel like maybe, just maybe, we’ve finally turned a corner. I know that the off-year turnout issue is a problem until we can demonstrate that it’s not, but I believe it’s getting hard to dispute the assertion that there are just more Democrats in Harris County than there are Republicans. I also believe that national conditions will be different in 2018 than they were in 2010 and 2014. Doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be better, but they will be different, and when you’ve consistently been on the short end of the stick, having conditions change – even if you don’t know how they will change – is a risk you ought to be willing to take.

Democrats also showed a nice gain in the big Latino counties (Hidalgo, Cameron, and Webb), while netting over 9,000 votes in Fort Bend. I’ll be looking at Fort Bend data later as well, and while this wasn’t enough to push any non-Hillary Dems over the top there, it’s a step in the right direction.

The so-so news is that Dems more or less held steady in most of the big suburban counties, by which I mean they mostly lost a little ground but not that much. Other than Fort Bend, Dems posted a solid gain in Hays County and barely gained more votes in Brazoria County than the GOP did. They had modest net losses in counties like Tarrant, Collin, Denton, and Williamson, such that one might feel we are at or near an inflection point in those counties. In math terms, the second derivative is approaching zero. This is a genteel way of saying that we’re falling behind at a slower pace. Better than falling behind in huge chunks, but still not good news.

The bad news is that in several other suburban counties, and basically all the non-Latino rural ones, Democrats got crushed. Montgomery County continues to be a sucking chest wound, with 21,087 more Republican votes and 8,432 more Dems. Comal County is Montgomery’s little brother, with continued steady growth and a deep red tint that shows no signs of abating. And if you’re old enough to remember when Galveston County was reliably Democratic, well, the score here is 10,335 more votes for the GOP, and 1,521 more for the Dems. So, yeah.

It’s the rural counties where things really become dreary. I said the Dems gained votes over 2012 in 62 counties. That means they lost votes in 192 others. Now, most of these are small counties, and the losses themselves were small in most of them; the average loss was 323 votes. But Republicans gained an average of over 700 votes in each of those counties, and as they say after awhile it adds up. Plus, some of these counties are now more exurban than rural, and like the suburbs are seeing steady growth. Two examples for you are Johnson County, northwest of Travis and home of Cleburne, and Parker County, west of Tarrant where Weatherford is. Those counties saw a combined voter registration increase of about 20,000. Of that, 17,201 were Republican and 449 were Democratic. That right there is enough to negate the Democratic net gain in Dallas County.

The single most eye-catching item in here is Polk County, up US59 between Houston and Lufkin; Livingston is the county seat. Unlike Johnson and Parker, it has about the same number of voters as it did four years ago. The difference is that in 2012 fewer than half of registered voters bothered, while this year nearly everyone did. Turnout in the Presidential race in Polk County was an mind-boggling 89.48%, and nearly the entire increase came from Republicans. In this CCA comparison, Mike Keasler got 12,183 more votes than Sharon Keller did, while Robert Burns improved on Keith Hampton by only 1,845 votes. All this with only 38,530 total registered voters. OMG, to say the least.

So what should we be doing about this? Well, we should keep doing what we’re doing in the urban counties, because it definitely bore fruit this year. I’d like to think we’re starting to maybe get a little traction in the suburbs, at least some of them, but it’s going to take a lot more resources and an effort that doesn’t just gear up at campaign time to really get that going. Mostly, we need to have a way to make sure we’re being heard in these places, because I don’t think we are, not outside of the faithful who are there. If I were a fabulously wealthy person who wanted to move the needle outside the urban counties, I’d throw a bunch of money at the Texas Organizing Project and ask them to figure out (and execute) a way to do for these suburbs and exurbs what they’ve been doing in Pasadena. It’s slow and methodical and just one piece of the puzzle, but we have got to start somewhere.

Data on the counties where Dem turnout grew is beneath the fold. More to come over the next week or so.

(more…)

Another slap on the wrist for a prosecutor behaving badly

Weak. Very weak.

The Texas Bar Association has issued a public reprimand to state district Judge Kaycee Jones for her role in clandestine texting during a criminal trial while she was a prosecutor and before her election to the bench last year.

Jones, who oversees the 411th court in Polk, Trinity and San Jacinto counties, signed the agreed judgement citing her for “professional misconduct” just before she came in front of the bar’s grievance panel for a hearing this month.

Jones, 39, was an assistant Polk County prosecutor for 11 years before becoming a judge in 2013. She could not be reached for comment.

However, in a letter to the bar’s disciplinary counsel several months ago, Jones confessed to being an accomplice in a texting incident that she stated she knew was wrong, writing: “I deeply regret that I acted in this manner.”

The agreed judgment documented how Jones had received text messages from state district Judge Elizabeth Coker, while she was seated on the bench during a trial in a child injury case.

Jones, then an assistant prosecutor and observer during the trial, wrote down the message that suggested a line of questioning to bolster the prosecution’s case and relayed it to the lead prosecutor.

[…]

However, several whistle blowers in the investigation, including attorneys Cecil Berg and Richard Burroughs, said the state bar was far too lenient on Jones.

“I’m totally stunned and in disbelief,” said Burroughs of Cleveland. “I served on the state bar’s grievance committee for eight years and would have expected Jones to be suspended or disbarred when she has confessed to violating someone’s civil rights.”

He said Jones has since refused to recuse herself from overseeing his cases that come into her court and feels she is retaliating against him.

He and Berg wanted the state bar to expand its investigation to include multiple other “ex parte” texts between Jones and Coker involving other defendants which were given to the state judicial commission for review.

“We want to find a way to have the bar association look at them still,” Burroughs said.

See here and here for the background. I suppose the State Commission on Judicial Conduct can weigh in as well, since Jones is now a judge, but since all they did with her partner in crime Coker was make her resign, I don’t expect much. I still think a suspension of one year is the bare acceptable minimum punishment for what these two unethical idiots did, and disbarment would not have been too harsh. Why bother to behave if there are no consequences for breaking the rules? Grits has more.

Consequences are for suckers

They’re not for former judge Elizabeth Coker, thank you very much.

Elizabeth Coker

State District Judge Elizabeth E. Coker, who presided over Trinity, Polk and San Jacinto counties before resigning Dec. 6 under fire in a texting controversy, filed Monday to run for Polk County district attorney next year.

Coker will be challenging the incumbent prosecutor, Lee Hon, who was among the witnesses who testified about Coker this year before the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Coker was accused of unethical bias during court proceedings, including sending as many as 40 text messages from the bench to prosecutors, tampering with witnesses and slipping into a jury room to tell those deliberating how to vote.

She admitted no guilt and the commission stopped short of issuing any findings of misconduct.

In October, Coker, who served 14 years on the 258th East Texas bench, agreed to voluntarily resign. As part of a signed agreement with the commission, Coker is disqualified from sitting or serving as a judge in Texas and cannot even officiate at weddings.

But the order does not specifically ban her from other public offices, like district attorney, said commission spokesperson Seana Willing.

“The most the commission can do is remove someone from the bench,” she said.

Local attorney Laura Prigmore is mulling over whether to ask the courts if a prosecutor can be considered a “judicial” position since it is listed under the judicial branch in the Texas Constitution.

[…]

Republican chairman Lowell Crew said expects an “interesting match up” between Hon and Coker in the March Republican primary, but said he could not predict the outcome.

Prigmore, the attorney who wants a higher court to investigate Coker’s eligibility to run for district attorney, said in past elections that “Coker’s power was amazing.”

“She had a machine. But I’m not so sure it will still hold together now,” said Prigmore.

Cecil Berg, an attorney who filed complaints against Coker and who is running to replace her as district judge, described Coker’s campaign as “the most brazen thing I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m dismayed by it,” he said. “After all the improper communiqués she’s had with assistant district attorneys while a judge, now she wants to run the department. It’s beyond my comprehension.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Note that the prosecutor Coker was texting is now a judge herself, though she has a hearing with the Judicial Conduct commission pending. As I said before, I thought this punishment was too light. I’d have advocated for disbarment, though I’d have settled for a suspension of her law license for at least a year. Given that there was no stronger remedy available, I’m not at all surprised she chose to run for office again. No one has laid a glove on Elizabeth Coker yet. I saw no mention of a Democratic candidate in this race, not that it likely would have mattered, so it’s up to the GOP primary voters in these counties to decide if they’re the suckers here. Grits has more.

From the “Judges Behaving Badly” files

We’ll start with now-former Judge Elizabeth Coker:

An East Texas state district judge who had been accused of sending text messages to coach a prosecutor during a trial, being biased against some attorneys and improperly meeting with jurors has resigned as part of an agreement with a state judicial commission.

Elizabeth E. Coker did not admit to guilt or fault as part of her agreement with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The commission announced Monday that Coker had taken an immediate leave of absence and her resignation will take effect Dec. 6. The agreement also prevents her from ever being a judge again in Texas.

Coker had been a judge since 1998. She oversaw proceedings in Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity counties. Her father and grandfather had also been judges who presided over the same counties.

[…]

The commission said that during an August 2012 child abuse trial Coker presided over, the judge sent text messages to Polk County prosecutor Kaycee Jones, suggesting questions that Jones should relay to the prosecutor handling the case.

Coker was also accused of suggesting that a witness review a videotaped interview he gave to law enforcement to refresh his memory and rehabilitate his testimony and of discussing legal issues pertinent to the case “in an unsuccessful effort to assist the State (to) obtain a guilty verdict in the case.”

The defendant ended up being acquitted of a felony charge of injury to a child.

The commission also alleged Coker might have engaged in other improper communications and meetings with Jones and other prosecutors in Polk and San Jacinto counties and certain defense attorneys regarding pending cases in her courtroom.

“Judge Coker allegedly exhibited a bias in favor or certain attorneys and a prejudice against others in both her judicial rulings and her court appointment; and Judge Coker allegedly met with jurors in an inappropriate manner, outside the presence of counsel, while the jurors were deliberating in one or more criminal trials,” the commission said.

In addition, the commission alleged Coker “may not have been candid and truthful” in testimony before the panel about whether she tried to influence the testimony of a witness who spoke to the commission.

That’s quite the sorry litany of bad judicial behavior. About the only thing I can think of that she could have done to make it worse would have been to bet on the outcome of the cases before her. Personally, I think she got off too lightly – I think disbarment would have been a fitting punishment. But at least she’ll never don the robes again.

The prosecutor Coker texted is now herself a judge, and is facing her own inquiry for her role in that incident.

While the state judicial commission’s investigation into alleged improprieties by State District Judge Elizabeth Coker ended Monday with her resignation, the focus may now shift to any possible complicity by fellow judge and former prosecutor, Kaycee Jones.

Coker’s voluntary agreement to resign alludes to complaints that she “engaged in improper ex parte text communications with Jones,” who served as a Polk County assistant district attorney for 10 years until this year becoming the 411th state district judge.

On Tuesday, Jones could not be reached for comment. But in a previously written letter to the Texas Bar Association’s disciplinary counsel, Jones said that during her tenure as prosecutor she improperly utilized clandestine text messages sent from the bench by Coker.

Jones acknowledged passing along the texts, designed to bolster the prosecution’s case, to the lead prosecutor during a child abuse trial. “It was wrong and I knew better,” she wrote.

Jones’ name was prominently mentioned three times in Coker’s resignation agreement. The signed document refers to the so-called “texting and judging” incident as well as allegations of other improper communiques and meetings between Jones and Coker involving additional cases that were not specified.

Apparently, her boss at the time in the DA’s office made her promise to never do it again, but that ain’t good enough. Jones’ formal hearing is in March, but honestly, unless she has something better to say for herself, she should just save us all the time and trouble and submit her resignation. I don’t see how she can be trusted as a judge given her appallingly bad judgment.

Those two are known to be bad apples. Here in Harris County, we have an accusation of bad behavior against a Family Court judge.

State District Court Judge Denise Pratt is under investigation, accused of backdating court records to make it appear that she issued rulings and filed court documents sooner than she actually did, according to county officials.

Allegations against the 311th family court judge, raised by a Houston-area family lawyer in a criminal complaint filed with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, already have led to the resignation of Pratt’s court clerk.

Webster-based family lawyer Greg Enos, whose criminal complaint last year against a Galveston County court-at-law judge sparked an investigation by the state attorney general and multiple indictments that led to the judge’s suspension and subsequent resignation, said he delivered his complaint against Pratt to First Assistant District Attorney Belinda Hill on Monday. Enos said he believes the office has already launched an investigation.

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said he “can’t confirm or deny” whether any investigation is underway, but county and other sources say the office is looking into it and already has contacted attorneys to arrange interviews.

The concerns Enos is raising also have touched off an investigation by the Harris County District Clerk, the official keeper of all court records.

District Clerk Chris Daniel said he looked into two of the six cases Enos included in his complaint, which led to the resignation on Monday of Pratt’s lead clerk, a well-liked, 25-year employee of the District Clerk’s office.

Daniel said he found records were postdated or mis-marked in those two cases, and that he is looking into a seventh one that another family lawyer brought to his attention.

An inaccurate timestamp or missing signature on a court document not only erodes “the integrity of the record,” Daniel said, but can have an impact on appeals and other legal processes.

“If you have the wrong date on a document, then statutorily you can run out of time to appeal a case, and that’s where the most damage is,” he said.

[…]

Several lawyers involved in the cases Enos cites in his complaint said they never have experienced such problems with a judge.

Marcia Zimmerman, a 30-year veteran family lawyer based in Clear Lake, said she resorted to filing a motion after waiting for months on a ruling from Pratt. When the ruling finally came in, she was surprised to see the date listed was months before she had filed her motion.

“I don’t think any of us believed the ruling was actually made before the petition for writ of mandamus because, why would she rule and not tell anybody?” Zimmerman said, noting that Pratt also missed two scheduled hearings.

Family lawyer Robert Clark said he had a similar experience, arguing a case in January and then waiting five months for a ruling from Pratt that the official court record now says was issued on Jan. 30, the day before the two-day trial actually ended.

“The thing is, it’s had a seriously adverse affect on the child in this case and my client,” Clark said. “This is just egregious.”

The DA’s office doesn’t comment on these matters so we don’t know for sure what’s going on with Judge Pratt, but the main charges against her are serious and could lead to a felony arrest if there’s sufficient evidence to bear them out. As things stand now, she would be up for re-election in 2014, though as was the case with our old buddy Chuck Rosenthal, whose name was dropped at the end of the story, she might come under pressure from the local GOP to not file. The filing deadline in December 9, and I daresay that regardless of what is being said officially about her case, we’ll have a pretty good idea of whether or not she’s in real trouble by then.

RV voters

Really interesting story about a group of RV owners who “live” in a park in Polk County and vote there, but are seldom actually physically present.

On the one hand, Escapees Inc. is a business catering to recreational vehicle enthusiasts. Rainbow’s End, its headquarters, features a 140-acre RV park complete with a swimming pool, more than 150 RV lots, a clubhouse, a library and an adult day-care center whose services are available to all Polk County residents.

On the other, the Escapees organization is the largest and most influential voting bloc in Polk County, a group of older, mostly Republican voters that has the potential to influence elections local and statewide.

Supporters of the Escapees — and the Escapees are known throughout the county as good citizens — say the group uses its political clout wisely and responsibly. Detractors, most of them members of a diminished Democratic Party, argue the organization represents an ongoing abuse of Texas’ lax residency requirements.

The confluence of clout and community resides in a 10,000-square-foot building on Rainbow Drive in the RV park. The building houses a mail-forwarding service for more than 32,000 member-families of the RV club. The service, which handles some 2 million pieces of mail a year, allows RV enthusiasts, most of them vagabonding about the country for much of the year, to receive mail at Rainbow’s End — and to cast mail-in ballots in Polk County elections wherever they happen to be.

Only a few hundred RVers live in the park at least semi-permanently, but about 14,000 Escapees members are registered to vote in Polk County, even if they rarely, if ever, visit. All they have to do is come into Texas once — to get a driver’s license — and the state recognizes them as Polk County residents.

The Escapees, all with addresses on Rainbow Drive, make up two voting precincts and account for 40 percent of the 35,000 registered voters in the county. Those numbers give them enormous influence — if they choose to use it — over who gets elected to county and state legislative offices. Escapees Inc. mails out a voter registration certificate as part of its membership packet.

No question, Texas voter registration law is permissive. As long as you don’t vote in more than one place, you can pretty much claim residency and register to vote wherever you want. I guess the way I’d look at this is where should someone who basically lives on the road be allowed to register? It has to be somewhere, and I don’t see how any one place is going to be more or less acceptable than any other. I sympathize with the Polk County complainants, but I don’t think they’re going to win anything in court. They might try for a legislative remedy for their issue, but I doubt they’ll get anywhere there, either. I’m not really sure there is a good answer for them.