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term limits

The elections we may get in 2018

We know there are going to be a lot of contested elections up and down the ballot in 2018, both primaries and the November general, for state, county, and federal office. There are also at least four possible elections I can think of that we may get in addition to these. Let’s review.

1. Firefighters’ pay parity referendum

Remember that one? Petitions submitted, but it took a long time for them to get counted and certified, so the deadline to get on the ballot was missed? Yeah, that’s still out there, and barring a verdict that the petitions were insufficient, we’ll get to vote on it. Everyone I’ve talked to says that it would be in May, which would be the next uniform election date. After going a number of years without any May elections, we could have them two years in a row. This one would almost certainly be contentious.

2. Revenue cap repeal/modification

Another one that we thought would be on the November ballot was a revenue cap referendum. In the end, the plan was shelved so as not to endanger the pension obligation bonds. The strategy worked – the bonds passed – so now it’s time to finish off this piece of business. The main question is one of timing. If the firefighters’ pay parity proposal passes, then no further charter amendments can be voted on for two years. That presents Mayor Turner with a choice: Work to defeat the pay proposal, and thus vote on revenue cap reform in November, or put the rev cap issue on the ballot in May alongside this issue? I can make a case for either, but I’m sure the Mayor would prefer to have this up in November. We’ll see how that plays out.

Also, too, there’s the question of what exactly this referendum will do. Initially, Mayor Turner spoke about modifying it, to allow more revenue growth that would apply to public safety. More recently, he seemed to be talking full repeal, which is of course my preference. Again, we’ll see what happens.

3. Metro referendum

Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman has been talking about a new comprehensive Metro referendum, to fund further rail expansion and bus system upgrades. That was put off from last year, and appears to be on track for this year. Details and scope are yet to be determined.

4. Harris County flood mitigation bonds

In the immediate aftermath of Harvey, Commissioners Court discussed the possibility of a bond issue for flood mitigation projects. I presume this is still on the table, but as yet it isn’t more fully formed than that. If I had to bet, I’d say this happens, but it’s by far the least developed. Look to see what the Court does and we’ll know from there.

Finally, I should note that there is ongoing litigation related to the 2010 Renew Houston referendum and the 2015 term limits referendum. The former has been sent by the Supreme Court back to the lower courts, and I suppose it’s possible that there could be an order for a do-over election this year. It’s not clear to me what we might vote on if that happens, as it was City Council action that actually authorized and set the fee, but that would be among the things argued about in court, so we’ll see. For the latter there has not been a trial on the merits of the lawsuit as yet, so we are a long way from a resolution. I just wanted to touch on these since I’m sure someone was wondering about them.

Harvey and the elections

Labor Day weekend of odd-numbered years is considered to be the opening weekend of Houston election season. The filing deadline has passed, so the fields are set and people (supposedly, at least) begin to pay attention. Candidate forums are held, endorsements are made, Chronicle candidate profiles are written, that sort of thing. Sure, some candidates have been at it for weeks if not months, but by tradition this is when things are officially underway.

This was always going to be a weird year in Houston, as we were either going to have no city elections or a mad dash for candidates and campaigns to get up and running, thanks to the 2015 term limits referendum and subsequent litigation. As someone who follows these things closely, I was partly enjoying the lull and partly beginning to fret about getting candidate interviews done for the HISD and HCC races we will have.

And then Harvey came to call. In addition to the devastation and misery, as well as triumph of the spirit, it has knocked the usual campaign schedule for a huge loop. I know of at least one candidate whose house flooded, but every candidate has suspended their campaign activities, out of respect for the victims and to pitch in for the recovery. I have no idea at this point when enough of us will feel normal enough to get back to the usual business of running for office and picking candidates to vote for. Election Day is November 7, so early voting will begin October 23. I think it’s safe to say we’re going to get that mad dash to the finish line, though likely with a lot of hearts not really in it. Though I totally understand this, it is a bit of a concern. HISD has even more challenges ahead of it, and two-thirds of its Trustee seats are up for a vote. Three Trustees are stepping down. One Trustee was appointed earlier this year to fill out the term of a Trustee who resigned. Another Trustee won a special election last December for the same reason. Only one Trustee who had previously been elected to a full term is on the ballot, current Board President Wanda Adams, and she has several opponents. The HISD Board will be somewhere between “very different” and “completely remade” net year. It’s a pretty big deal. The HCC Board has three contested elections, two for Trustees who won special elections to fill out terms, and one to succeed the disgraced Chris Oliver. Again, the potential for change is big.

The good news, I suppose, is that while basically no one is paying attention to any of these races, there are at least fewer races for them to not pay attention to. Imagine if we had a full slate of city elections going on now, too. Campaigns attract money and volunteer energy, two things that are desperately needed for Harvey relief right now. I have to say, I’m not unhappy with the way events in the term limits lawsuit played out.

Two more things. Harvey’s destruction was not limited to houses. It flooded out churches, schools, community centers, government offices, and many other places. Some roads are still under water, and Metro has not yet fully restored bus service – you can’t have buses on roads that are under water, after all. Some of these places are places where voting happens. Some of them may be ready by October 22/November 7, some may not be. Some may not be ready by next March, when the 2018 primaries are currently scheduled. It would be nice to know what kind of shape our polling locations are in, and what the contingency plans are for the sites that may not be ready in time. One possible solution, as put forth by Nonsequiteuse, is to allow people to vote wherever they can/wherever they want to. For a low-turnout odd-year election like this, a bunch of precinct polling places were always going to be combined anyway. It’s a small step from there to say that all polling locations will be open to all voters, as they are during early voting.

Also, too: Remember how I said that there will not be a Rebuild Houston re-vote on the ballot this November, but we should expect one maybe next year? This leads me to wonder, what exactly is the argument at this point to put this up for another vote? More to the point, what is the argument against having a dedicated fund, paid for by a fee charged to property owners based on their impermeable cover, these days? After reading enough hot takes on how a lack of zoning and unchecked development are to blame for Harvey to make me gag, I can only imagine what kind of punditry would be getting committed if we also had a ReBuild re-vote in two months. The principle at the heart of this litigation was that the people (supposedly) didn’t know what they were voting on because the ballot language was unclear. Does anyone think we’re still unclear on this now? Just a thought.

July 2017 campaign finance reports – City of Houston

Let’s continue our survey of campaign finance reports with reports from the city of Houston.


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Turner     520,430  138,068         0  1,643,519

Stardig     59,470   36,402         0    102,289
Davis        5,500   13,231         0    147,050
Cohen        5,000    8,382         0     63,120
Boykins     93,839   40,547         0     57,358
Martin      20,092    8,221         0    106,427
Le          12,250    1,788    31,823      1,951
Travis      51,751   25,051    76,000     51,109
Cisneros    24,043    5,203         0     25,336
Gallegos    30,600    7,048         0     50,366
Laster      31,650    8,104         0    170,714
Green       17,150   39,770         0     84,627

Knox        21,185   13,373         0     23,149
Robinson    63,850   14,932         0     92,520
Kubosh      26,725   17,388   276,000     30,557
Edwards     73,843   31,295         0    144,198
Christie    33,090   20,323         0     31,458

Brown       59,220   19,494         0     79,101


HHRC        55,000   47,500         0     23,250
HTPR         3,625    1,652         0      3,624

As we now know, there will be no city elections of the non-referendum kind on the ballot this November. That would be one reason why there are no reports from anyone who has not already been a candidate. Only a couple of the reports belong to people who are not current or term-limited officeholders. These are folks like Bill Frazer, and none of them have any cash on hand worth mentioning. Actually, there is one person who may be of interest here, and that’s Helena Brown, who could run again in District A to succeed Brenda Stardig. Brown has $18,911.19 on hand, which would not be a bad start if she were so inclined.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this, but had the State Supreme Court dropped an election on us out of the blue, there was basically nobody outside of the current incumbents who have any resources for it. Usually, at this time of an odd numbered year, there are a lot of non-incumbent candidates, mostly circling around the offices that will be vacant. Whether people didn’t think the Supreme Court would take action, or if we were all just in denial about it, there were no candidates out there raising money. In a world where the Supremes had intervened, incumbents and people who can provide at least startup capital for themselves would have had a sizable advantage.

Now for those incumbents. We all knew Mayor Turner could raise money, right? All Houston Mayors can, it kind of comes with the office. Don’t underestimate the resources he could bring to a campaign over the firefighters’ pay parity proposal.

Despite the advantages for incumbents I talked about, four of the seven biggest cash on hand balances belong to those who can’t run – term-limited CMs Starding, Davis, Laster, and Green. Starding in particular makes me wonder what she was up to, raising all that cash this year. Usually, that makes one think maybe she’s looking at her next opportunity to run for something. I have no idea what that might be, but feel free to speculate wildly in the comments. Mike Laster has been mentioned as a county candidate once his time on Council ends. Maybe County Commissioner in Precinct 3 in 2020? I can speculate wildly too, you know.

I have a couple of PAC reports in there. HHRC is the Houston Heights Restaurant Coalition, gearing up for the next Heights alcohol referendum. HTPR is the Houston Taxpayers for Pension Reform, with Bill King as its Treasurer. Maybe that was for a vote on forcing a switch to defined-contribution system that is not in the works? They didn’t have much activity, and most of their expenditures went to an outfit called PinkCilantro for advertising. Other PACs of note with reports are Campaign for Houston, which I believe was an anti-HERO group from 2015 and have a $50,000 outstanding loan, and Citizens to Keep Houston Strong, which belongs to Bill White and which has $56,734.11 on hand.

Finally, two reports from former officeholders. Anne Clutterbuck, who was last a candidate in 2009, filed a final report, to dispose of the remaining funds in her account. She donated the balance – $5,094.55 – to the Hermann Park Conservancy. Last but not least is former Mayor Annise Parker, whose account still has $126,013.31 on hand. She may or may not run for County Judge next year – she has talked about it but so far has taken no action – and if she does that’s her starter’s kit. I’ll have more reports in the coming days.

There will be no city elections this November

Here’s the early version of the story. I’ll add a link to the full story in the morning.

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday denied plantiffs’ attempts to expedite their case challenging the [2015 term limits referendum] ballot language that lengthened city officials’ terms two years ago, making it unlikely the matter will be resolved before the state’s August 21 deadline to order a fall election.

Instead, the case is positioned to return to trial court for a hearing on whether the wording of the city’s proposition authorizing two four-year terms, instead of three two-year terms, was too obscure.

“There’s no way,” Austin election lawyer Buck Wood said. “I don’t see any way that they’re going to get any final order in time for the filing deadline.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Eric Dick conceded the timing makes a November mayoral election “unlikely.”

“But I don’t think it’s impossible,” Dick added, saying he plans to ask the high court to reconsider its decision.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the court’s order, which actually came down on Monday. We were getting dangerously close to what I figured would be the functional deadline for a ruling on the mandamus, in order to ensure enough time for people to file for office if they needed to. This doesn’t mean that we won’t get another election until 2019 – I’ve heard many people speculate about a special election next May, which I suppose could happen – but barring anything unexpected at this point, the case will plod on through the appeals process, which suggests that the people who were elected in 2015 will get to serve out most if not all of that four-year term.

UPDATE: Interestingly, there doesn’t appear to be a fuller version of this story on the website, and there was nothing I could find in the print edition this morning. Maybe tomorrow.

City responds to term limits mandamus

Here’s what the city had to say in response to the request that the Supreme Court vacate the district court ruling that let the 2015 term limits referendum stand and order an election for this November:

In an unusually blunt response filed last week, city attorneys accused plaintiffs’ attorney Eric Dick of an “unrelenting bum’s rush” and “near-hysterical ravings.”

“In short, (the plaintiff) cannot file a big pile of stuff, violate every rule designed to facilitate organization and efficiency, and expect other parties and the Court to try to sort through the mess and find any arguments and evidence in there on a ridiculously accelerated schedule,” lawyers from the City Attorney’s office wrote the state Supreme Court, responding to plaintiffs’ request to accelerate the case. “That is not due process. It is a tantrum.”

[…]

[The lower court ruling] positioned the case for a likely return to trial court for a hearing on the substance of whether the city’s ballot language obscured the nature of the vote by asking whether voters wanted to “limit the length for all terms.”

Dick was anxious for a faster resolution.

“Because of the crucial election timelines, there are extraordinary circumstances,” Dick wrote in a request for Supreme Court intervention.

He followed up last week with a motion to expedite after the court asked the city to reply by July 3, less than two months before the Aug. 21 deadline to call a November election.

See here for the previous update. I wish I had a copy of the full city response, but alas they didn’t send it out. The statutory deadline for having an election is the end of August as noted above, but I figure the realistic deadline is the end of July. People need to have some time to decide whether or not to run; you can’t just spring this on everyone a week before then. I don’t put anything past this Supreme Court, but I agree that every passing day reduces the odds of an election, and if we make it to August without an order it’ll be like making it to October without a hurricane – technically, there’s still time, but in real life it ain’t happening. Stay tuned.

When might the Supreme Court speak on the Houston term limits lawsuit?

So as you know there is an ongoing lawsuit over the language used in the 2015 referendum that altered the city’s term limits ordinance. It was filed shortly after the election, with the city winning the first round in district court. Appeals are ongoing, with the most recent ruling coming this past January on a procedural matter. In addition to all this, the plaintiff in the original suit filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court on June 2 that asks them to direct the district court judge to vacate his previous order allowing the 2015 result to stand and to require city elections this November. I’m on the plaintiff’s attorney’s email list (for my sins, no doubt) and as he sent out a missive last week urging his followers to contact the Supreme Court and ask them to rule on the writ in time for an election to occur, I figured I ought to bring this up.

So as we are now halfway through June, I have to think that time is rapidly running out for a non-farcical election to be conducted this November. Normally at this time, multiple candidates for a variety of offices, especially the open ones, will have been at work for months. There are always people who pop up to run in July and August, including a few at the filing deadline, but by this point you usually have a pretty good idea of who is out there. Funds have been raised, materials have been printed, websites and social media presences have been built, volunteers have been recruited, etc etc etc. Campaigns require resources, and one of those resources is time. We’re basically four months out from the start of early voting. To get a campaign up and running from scratch, especially for an At Large position, that’s not a whole lot of time. It could be done, but it would greatly favor those who already have some of the other resources, namely money and some amount of name recognition. In other words, incumbents and people who can write a check to get their campaign going quickly.

For what it’s worth, the Supreme Court issued a ruling requiring a vote on HERO on July 24, 2015, which was in response to a writ of mandamus. That was about a referendum and thus didn’t directly involve any candidates, though I’d argue that it had a negative effect on the pro-HERO side, since the antis had been gearing up for a campaign for some time by then. Let’s call that the outer bounds of when a writ mandating city elections for this year may happen, though really I’d say that’s too late. Bear in mind that Council members Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie are all in their last terms one way or the other, so if those terms wind up ending this year instead of 2019, a whole gaggle of hopefuls are going to have to get up to speed immediately. There’s no question that the Supreme Court has no qualms about meddling in the affairs of the city of Houston, but that doesn’t mean it feels compelled to do so. We ought to know soon enough.

January 2017 campaign finance reports: Houston officeholders

Normally, at this time I would be scanning through Houston candidate campaign finance reports, to see where incumbents stand at the start of the season. Of course, barring near-term court action there is no season for Houston municipal officeholders this year, and unlike past years they have been able to raise money during what had once been a blackout period. It’s still worth it to check in and see what everyone has, so let’s do that.


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Turner     681,972   177,867        0   1,312,028

Stardig *   39,361    24,088        0      79,980
Davis *      8,500    27,439        0     154,707
Cohen *      8,350    21,563        0      77,451
Boykins     26,400    23,820        0         186
Martin       4,250    17,469        0      95,896
Le          13,100    13,519   42,823       2,023
Travis           0    12,984   76,000      23,606
Cisneros     7,500    15,295      273       4,959
Gallegos    20,834    14,742        0      33,077
Laster *     3,000     6,292        0     145,071
Green *     10,000    52,652        0     107,248

Knox         6,275    20,061        0      16,737
Robinson    44,750    15,277        0      52,408
Kubosh      10,925    12,907  276,000      20,824
Edwards     42,401    18,379        0     110,660
Christie *   1,367    22,653        0      18,563

Brown       30,520    52,814        0      41,245


Parker           0    36,503        0     136,368
King             0        50  650,000           0

Asterisks indicate term-limited incumbents. I included Annise Parker and Bill King mostly out of curiosity. Parker can’t run for anything in Houston, but if she does eventually run for something else she can transfer what she has in this account to whatever other one she may need.

Clearly, Mayor Turner has been busy. Big hauls by incumbent Mayors are hardly unusual, it’s just that Turner had the benefit of more time to make that haul. A few Council members plus Controller Chris Brown were busy, though there was nothing that was truly eye-popping. I didn’t look at the individual forms beyond the totals page, so I can’t say what everyone spent their money on, but if I had to guess I’d say recurring fees for things like consultants and websites, plus the usual meals, travel, donations, and what have you. Loan amounts always fascinate me – you have to wonder if any of them will be paid back. Probably not.

It’s not too surprising that the term-limited members are among those with the largest cash on hand totals. They have had the longest to build it up, after all. I have to assume some of them – in particular, Jerry Davis, Mike Laster, and Larry Green – have a run for something else in their future. For what will be mostly a matter of opportunity. Of those who can run again in 2019, I’ll be very interested to see how their fortunes change between now and the next two Januaries. One way or another, 2019 ought to be a busy year.

City loses appeal of procedural argument in term limits lawsuit

Stay with me, because this is going to take a bit of explaining.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

A state appeals court on Thursday rejected the city’s procedural challenge to a lawsuit that could force Houston’s mayor and city council members to revert to three two-year terms, from the two four-year terms voters approved in November 2015.

The Texas First Court of Appeals ruling did not address the merits of the underlying case, which centers on whether the city’s ballot language was misleading.

Rather, the court’s decision marks an incremental step in what is likely to be a lengthy appeals process that plaintiffs hope could trigger municipal elections as early as this fall.

Austin election lawyer Buck Wood, however, said he considers November mayoral and city council elections improbable, given the speed with which courts typically move.

[…]

The appellate court’s ruling affirms state District Judge Randy Clapp’s decision last year to reject Houston’s procedural challenge, which sought to get the case thrown out.

Clapp was not considering the substance of the case at the time, though he tipped his hand by calling the city’s ballot language “inartful” but not “invalid.”

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said Thursday the city attorney’s office is considering whether to appeal the procedural decision to the state Supreme Court.

If the trial court’s 2016 procedural decision holds, the case likely would return to Clapp for a hearing on the substance of whether Houston’s term limits ballot language obscured the nature of the vote by asking whether voters wanted to “limit the length for all terms.”

See here for the background. Where this gets confusing is that the original story didn’t explain all of what was happening in that first hearing. There was a motion by the plaintiffs for summary judgment, which was denied. That was the win for the city, as now a trial is required to settle the question of whether the ballot language was misleading or not. The rest of it was about procedural matters: Whether plaintiff’s attorney Eric Dick properly served the city notice of his lawsuit, whether the court had jurisdiction to hear the case, and whether attorney Andy Taylor could intervene to assist Dick. District Court Judge Clapp ruled against the city’s motion to dismiss on these matters. The city appealed that ruling, and the First Court of Appeals upheld Judge Clapp.

The city can appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. If they do and they win, the lawsuit will be dismissed. If they lose, or if they choose not to appeal, the matter will be returned to Judge Clapp’s court for a trial on the merits of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are hoping to get a ruling in time for there to be city elections this November; they claim August is the deadline for that, though I’d argue that more time would be needed for real campaigns to occur. However, as the story notes, even if the plaintiffs win, there’s no guarantee that city elections would follow as a result. What might happen instead is that the city would have to put a differently-worded term limits referendum on the ballot. That maybe could happen this November, or it might happen in 2018. Or even later than that, depending on how long it takes to get a ruling and how long the appeals of that ruling take. Remember how long it took to get a Supreme Court decision in the Renew Houston lawsuit? The 2010 referendum was subsequently voided more than a year ago, and yet here we are, with no new election for it in sight. Mayor Turner has joked that it will be up to his successor to get the term limits issue straightened out because it won’t be settled till after his eight years in office. I’m not sure he’s joking about that.

Booker T still running for Mayor

He says he’s serious. We’ll see.

Booker T. Huffman

On Tuesday, [Booker T. Huffman] sat down with KHOU 11 News to tell us how he plans to court voters in this new year, nearly three years before Election Day.

“I want the people of Houston to know that I’m one of them,” Booker T said.

You may know him from his days in the ring, but now he wants to be Houston’s next mayor.

“More than anything, I don’t go in to this thinking I know everything, I’m not a politician,” he said.

The 51-year-old grew up in South Houston and even spent time in prison before making his name with a pro wrestling career.

“This is my little crew right here,” he said in his home surrounded by his 6-year-old twins.

Now he wants to focus on helping kids in the inner city and getting people off the streets.

“In our city, there’s a law we can’t even feed the homeless. I just feel like instead of having a law like that, we should have a law on how we are going to feed the homeless,” he said.

We asked him if he was prepared to run against Mayor Sylvester Turner.

“Actually, that’s a foregone conclusion. I know I’m going to win the election,” Booker T said.

He admits people will question if he is qualified for the job.

“Over the next three years, you are going to realize it’s not a publicity stunt…This is real. This is not about me, like I said, it’s about the young people in the city of Houston,” he said.

See here for the background. Booker T sounds earnest and sincere and I don’t want to make light of that, but at some point he’s going to need to come up with a more comprehensive answer to the question of why he wants to run for Mayor, and why he should be elected Mayor in place of Mayor Turner. More specifically, he might consider registering to vote in Houston sometime between now and whenever he takes a formal step towards becoming a candidate. I searched the voter registration databases in Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery Counties and did not find anyone by the name “Booker Huffman” or “Booker T. Huffman” in any of them. Just a friendly suggestion from someone who pays attention to this sort of thing.

A look ahead to Houston’s 2017 elections

I want to return to something in that story about Mayor Turner’s 2017 agenda, which was near the bottom but which is a very big deal for the coming year:

A lawsuit over the ballot language used last year to extend terms to a maximum of two four-year terms, from three two-year terms, hovers in the background.

A state district judge ruled in March that the language was “inartful” but legal, and the case now is under appeal.

At stake in the near term is whether Turner and members of City Council must run for re-election in 2017 or wait until 2019.

See here for the background. Usually around this time I’m writing about the upcoming election year and what we have to look forward to. Thanks to this lawsuit, we could have a year with no city elections, or a year in which nobody knows we have city elections until April or May and everyone operates on an insanely accelerated schedule from there. With that in mind, let’s look at our Year of Elections 2017 with a frame of The Elections We Will Have, The Elections We May Have, and The Elections We Could Have.

The Elections We Will Have

Whatever else happens with the term limits lawsuit, there will be elections in HISD and HCC. The following trustees for each board are up for election this year:

HISD – Anna Eastman (District I), Mike Lunceford (District V), Greg Meyers (District VI), Anne Sung (District VII), Wanda Adams (District IX)
HCC – Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District 4), Robert Glaser (District 5), Chris Oliver (District 9)

Mike Lunceford is not running for re-election, so his seat will be open. Greg Meyers has already submitted his resignation, and a replacement Trustee will be selected by the Board in January. It is not clear if the Board will prefer a caretaker who will not run for election in November or if the new member will try to stake a claim. Anne Sung of course won the special election to succeed Harvin Moore a couple of weeks ago. Whatever happens in November, the Board will have three different members in the traditionally Republican districts than it had at the start of 2016. That has some negative potential, as all three were devoted to public schools in a way that is not necessarily characteristic of modern Republicans, meaning that whoever wins in November could be more antagonistic than what we are used to seeing. We’ll have a better idea when we know who is selected to replace Meyers, and who emerges to run for these seats. As for Eastman, she is my Trustee and as far as I know she is in for another term, but I haven’t spoken to her in the last few weeks, and she has not made any formal announcements. I’m not aware of any reason why Adams would not run for another term.

In HCC, both Shabazz-Evans and Glaser won elections to complete the unexpired terms for trustees who had resigned following their 2011 campaigns. Evans-Shabazz was appointed to replace Carroll Robinson in District 4 in May of 2015, and then was unopposed for election. Glaser won a contested race to succeed Richard Schechter in 2013; appointed replacement Leila Feldman did not run for the seat. Oliver is a multi-term incumbent who easily defeated a challenger in 2011. Sometimes there are interesting things to say or look forward to in these races. This is not one of those times.

There will also be some number of constitutional amendments on the ballot in November, but we won’t know what they are until May or so when the Legislature finishes its business. If the term limits lawsuit goes down, preserving the new four-year terms for city officeholders, these referenda will be the only guaranteed items on your ballot this year.

The most interesting race in the area that is not in Houston will be in Pasadena, where Mayor Johnny Isbell is term-limited out and where the City Council lines may or may not be redrawn, pending the ruling in the voting rights lawsuit that is currently in the judge’s hands. That election will be in May. Other area cities such as Bellaire, West U, Sugar Land, and Rosenberg, also have elections in May. I hope to have some more information about some of these races in a subsequent post. Also of interest in May will be the San Antonio elections, where Mayor Ivy Taylor has some competition for a second full term. I’m sure I’ll do some writing about that as well.

The Elections We May Have

In addition to the statewide ballot propositions, there are two local ones that could be on your November eSlate machine, both of which could be quite contentious. Mayor Turner has stated his intention to put a referendum about the revenue cap on the ballot this year, though one presumes that could change if his pension reform bills do not pass. You can be sure that the opposition to this, mostly from the likes of Paul Bettencourt and no doubt with the help of the statewide Republican cabal, will be ferocious and very well-funded. Which in a way will be good for Mayor Turner, because if he can successfully cast this as a partisan issue, especially a “statewide Republicans meddling in our business AGAIN” issue, he ought to at least begin with the larger share of the vote. Getting those people to vote, whether or not there are other city elections to draw them out, will be the challenge. I suspect Mayor Turner doesn’t do anything without planning out how it will go, so I sure hope he has a plan for this one.

The other possible ballot item we might have is an updated Metro Solutions plan, which may include more rail construction projects, possibly including another shot at the Universities Line. This has been floated as an option by Metro Chair Carrin Patman, but it is not yet clear that it would be on the ballot, and if it would be there this year if so, and it is not yet clear what the scope of it would be. Needless to say, any rail component would generate some opposition, with a new Universities Line plan bringing out the usual suspects, some of whom would already be fully engaged in a revenue cap fight. It’s an interesting question whether you’d rather have this item on the ballot by itself, or in the same space as a revenue cap item. I’m glad that’s not my call to make.

The Elections We Could Have

This is the one that is entirely contingent on the Supreme Court, which as we know has not hesitated to stick its collective nose in our electoral business. If the 2015 term limits referendum is thrown out for having insufficiently clear wording, then the people who will be the most affected are the Council members who are in their last terms: Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie. Cohen’s District C and Laster’s District J represent challenges for Democrats, as Bill King carried both districts in the 2015 Mayoral runoff. The ideal District C candidate is in the Anne Clutterbuck-Ellen Cohen spectrum, while the low turnout District J will always be a bit of a wild card. Against that, Dems will have opportunities in both Christie’s At Large #5 and first-term CM Mike Knox’s AL #1, though as we have discussed before, cattle call races with lots of similarly-profiled Democrats have benefited Republican citywide candidates in the recent past. The ideal here is for a candidate who begins with a lot of backing to get in and largely hoover up all the support – think Melissa Noriega in 2007, or Amanda Edwards in 2015.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it’s even more speculative than usual, but I do want to at least put a marker on it, since if these elections do happen they may happen all at once, with little warning and not much time to prepare. I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will be ready for either a busier or more relaxed interview season this fall.

Booker T for Mayor

Well, this is different.

Booker T. Huffman

Now that a WWE Hall of Famer is preparing to take the White House, a fellow honoree wants to take over Houston.

Booker T., a wrestling legend and Houston native, said Saturday night that he’s in to challenge incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner in the 2019 election.

“You heard it, 2020 I’m preparing,” Booker said during his radio show. “I’m preparing myself to run for mayor of the city.”

Booker T. even took to Twitter to push the run, which would see a winning candidate inaugurated in 2020.

Turner took office in January. It’s unclear exactly what prompted Booker T. (real name Booker T. Huffman) to announce his intention to run.

But, the idea of breaking into politics prompted WWE superstar Rhyno (Terrance Gerin) to offer up that Booker T. would be a fantastic mayor.

“You are over qualified for the job,”said Gerin, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Michigan House of Representatives. “Wrestling not only prepares you for life but it prepares you for positions like that because you feel the emotion from the people you know what they want, you’ve built yourself from where you were to where you’re at now.”

Hard to know if he was being serious or not, but at the risk of being the guy who answers rhetorical questions, I’ll just simply point out that this job isn’t as easy as it looks. It’s also not clear whether the next election will be in 2019 or 2017 given the ongoing litigation over the term limits referendum; Lord knows the Supreme Court has had no compunctions about meddling in the city’s electoral affairs. I like Mayor Turner, but even if I didn’t, I’m exactly the wrong person to feel excitement about a potential novelty/celebrity candidate. By all means get involved, Booker T, just please do so on the basis of something other than simply being Booker T. Ken Hoffman has more.

Endorsement watch: The one man term limits debate

Here’s one of the more interesting endorsements so far.

Commissioner Steve Radack

Commissioner Steve Radack

Steve Radack is at once an argument for and against term limits.

The Precinct 3 county commissioner and former Precinct 5 constable, who will turn 67 before Election Day, has been in his seat for 28 years and wants voters to sign him up for 32. Radack’s decades of experience have made him a fount of knowledge about his sprawling west Harris County precinct and all the flooding, traffic and budgetary issues that face the 1 million-plus people who live in the mix of cities and unincorporated county. He’s earned the trust of constituents and is well positioned within the political system, allowing him to break the usual partisan bonds that unfortunately restrain other elected officials.

[…]

However, when it comes to passion or new ideas for his sprawling precinct and the county as a whole, the longtime incumbent lacks the excitement and innovation of a bright-eyed upstart trying to impress the public.

When asked about how the county should handle continuing growth in unincorporated regions, Radack’s only major recommendation was allowing the county to assess a sales tax.

Constable and Justice of the Peace precinct lines haven’t been updated in decades, but Radack opposed equalizing their populations because it would disrupt the sitting politicians.

And Radack didn’t exactly show his connection with homeowners’ immediate needs when he spent time during a public meeting on flooding to lament insurance fraud. In a particularly poor choice of words, he said that some people “enjoy floods.”

His concerns may be technically correct, but that’s not what people need to hear after they’ve lost their homes. It isn’t the sort of mistake that a newly elected commissioner would make while still trying to win over the constituency.

I’m often amused by the lack of interest in term limits for County Commissioners, given how much power they wield compared to every non-Mayoral elected official in Houston. Doing such a thing would require a constitutional amendment, so the procedural reticence is understandable, though you’d still think someone would mention it once in awhile. As it happens, there’s been some turnover on the Court recently, though for non-electoral reasons in two of the three cases. Radack is a strong favorite to win his eighth term, though perhaps his recent comments about flooding will dog him. At least he’ll always have this Chron endorsement.

Council approves proposed finance law changes

That was easy.

BagOfMoney

City Council approved changes to Houston’s campaign finance law Wednesday with no discussion, effectively doubling contribution limits per general election cycle and boosting the amount many candidates can reimburse themselves for personal loans.

The revisions, which go into effect Friday, are meant to clarify rules left unclear after the court struck down the city’s fundraising blackout last year and voters extended terms to four years from two years.

Rather than collecting a maximum of $5,000 from individuals and $10,000 from political action committees per two-year election cycle, candidates will be allowed to raise that much during the first two years of their term, and then do so again during the second two years. The contribution cycle would reset if the candidate were forced into a runoff.

The new rules also permit council and controller candidates to repay themselves tens of thousands of dollars more for personal loans they make to their campaigns.

Mayor Sylvester Turner reiterated during a news conference Wednesday that the changes are intended to reconcile the old two-year fundraising cycle with the current four-year cycle, though some viewed the modifications as a boon to incumbents and wealthy candidates.

“That was just an attempt to try to just mirror what has been the case and simply just adapt it to a four-year term,” Turner said.

See here for the background. This must not have been too controversial, because no one even tagged it. CMs Christie and Edwards were the only No votes. The Chron editorial board does not approve.

Contribution limits are supposed to serve as a check on corruption, but good government advocates aren’t the only people who support them. One of the odd little secrets of politics is that a lot of campaign donors actually like these rules. The disgraceful truth is that writing fundraising checks to elected officials is widely considered an unavoidable cost of doing business with government, so quite a few lobbyists will privately tell you they wish contribution limits were even lower.

Last year, in the same election that put Sylvester Turner in the mayor’s office, Houstonians voted to change the city’s term limits. Instead of holding municipal elections every two years and limiting elected officials to a maximum of three terms in office, voters opted for holding elections every four years and a maximum of two terms.

If you cast a ballot in that term-limits referendum, you might have reasonably assumed the new, longer terms also meant city politicians could drag the sack for campaign cash only once every four years. But if that’s what you thought, dear voter, you’ve been bamboozled.

In a cynical act of self-preservation, Houston’s mayor and City Council Wednesday adopted new campaign finance rules that essentially double the maximum contributions they can collect from each individual donor and political action committee before any election. Even though voters decided to let them stay in office four years between elections, our city’s elected leadership bestowed upon themselves the right to squeeze donors for campaign checks every two years.

I just don’t feel that strongly about it, mostly because I don’t think the amounts involved will have any effect on the outcome of elections. I agree that the way this ordinance was written it gives an advantage to incumbents. Simply doubling the amount that could be raised in a four-year period rather than allowing the same amount to be raised twice would have made it easier for challengers to keep up. I wonder if the donor class, who I agree would rather not have to write more checks if they can avoid it, will necessarily play along. As I noted before, it was already the case that very few PACs made the maximum $10K donation that had been allowed to candidates. Just because they can give more in our now-longer election cycle doesn’t mean that they will. As always, we’ll have to keep an eye on the finance reports to see what effect there is from this.

Mayor proposes raising contribution limits

Not sure how I feel about this.

BagOfMoney

Incumbents and wealthy candidates would get more of an advantage under proposed changes to Houston’s campaign finance law, which would effectively double contribution limits per general election cycle and allow many candidates who pour money into their own campaigns to recoup more of that cash.

The modifications, reviewed Thursday by the City Council’s budget and fiscal affairs committee, are designed to clear up rules left ambiguous after the city’s fundraising blackout was ruled unconstitutional last year and voters extended terms to four years from two years.

The looser regulations would allow candidates to raise twice as much from individuals and political action committees ahead of the general election, by splitting the four-year term into two two-year contribution cycles. That means that rather than collecting a maximum of $5,000 from individuals and $10,000 from political action committees per election, office seekers would be able to raise that amount during the first two years of their term, and then do so again during the second two years. The cycle would reset again if a candidate were forced into a runoff.

Mayor Sylvester Turner framed the proposed changes as an effort to maintain continuity with the city’s old two-year election cycle, though some viewed them as a way for incumbents to boost their financial advantage.

With the changes, Turner said, “any person can’t give any more in four years than they would have been able to give under two two-year terms.”

The proposed new rules – which would go into effect July 1 if approved by the council next week – also would permit council and controller candidates to reimburse themselves tens of thousands of dollars more for personal loans.

[…]

Local fundraiser James Cardona criticized the changes as “incumbent protection”.

“It’s not a win for the city in elections,” Cardona said. “Now, you have incumbents getting double (maximum contributions) going into an election. … How’s the little guy going to fight that off?”

Texas Southern University political scientist Jay Aiyer agreed the new rules would favor incumbents.

“As a practical matter, you don’t declare for office four years in advance,” he said.

Turner countered that if a challenger wants to run, he or she can start raising money immediately.

“They may look and see what I’m doing, may decide, ‘We’re not going to wait. We want to just get started right now.’ They have that right,” Turner said. “We’re not holding anybody in abeyance or holding them back.”

On the one hand, it does seem reasonable to reflect the fact that we have four-year cycles now instead of two-year cycles in our fundraising rules. Anyone who is ambitious enough to launch a campaign early in the cycle can take advantage of this, which is consistent with the earlier court ruling that tossed out the blackout period. The total amount of money in questions is probably less than you think – while there are plenty of $5K max individual donors, there are only a handful of $10K PAC donations in a given cycle as far as I can tell from looking through all the finance reports as I do. Those who do well with the usual large-check-writing suspects will likely be able to add $50K to $100K to their overall totals. That isn’t nothing, but a decent chunk of that will wind up going to overhead expenses like campaign consultants, and what’s left will likely wind up as an extra couple of mailers. No one is going to take over the airwaves with that kind of money.

That said, this absolutely will benefit incumbents. Jay Aiyer is right, in practice no one starts campaigning that early, though I suppose that could change over time as everyone gets used to the four-year terms. Continuing to limit the donations to $5K for individuals and $10K for PACs per two years seems reasonable, but it does mean that anyone who isn’t already raising money early on will still be limited to the original amounts. If we want to level the field a bit more for later entrants, get rid of two-year periods for the limits and just allow individuals to give a total of $10K and PACs a total of $20K per candidate over each four-year cycle. I’m not sure what the every-two-years aspect of this is supposed to achieve. If we are going to change the limits, this is how I’d prefer to do it. Campos has more.

Mayor Turner names new City Attorney

From the inbox:

Ronald Lewis

Mayor Sylvester Turner has announced his selection of Ronald C. Lewis as the new city attorney. Like the mayor, Lewis is Harvard educated and has run his own law firm.

“I wanted a lawyer’s lawyer, someone highly respected who can relate well to me as well as City Council and the general public,” said Mayor Turner. “Ronald certainly fits this description. He is an outstanding lawyer with excellent credentials and the experience necessary to run the law firm that is part of City government.”

Before co-founding Marshall & Lewis LLP in 2006, Lewis was a partner at Baker Botts LLP, which he joined right after graduating from Harvard with honors in 1983. He is a trial lawyer with more than 30 years of experience handling complex cases for businesses and individuals in the energy, real estate, construction, financial and manufacturing industries. He is a member of the State Bar of Texas and the Houston Bar Association as well as a Life Fellow at the Houston Bar Foundation, where he was chairman of the board in 2000. His undergraduate degree is from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

“I look forward to serving the people of Houston, their elected officials and city employees,” said Lewis.

Lewis’ professional affiliations include the Best Lawyers in America, the American Law Institute, and The International Association of Defense Lawyers. In addition, he has served as a member of the Houston Bar Association Minority Opportunities in the Legal Profession Committee, as a steering committee member for the State Bar of Texas Minority Counsel Program and on the Commission for Lawyer Discipline. He volunteers for the Center for Public Policy Priorities and has previously served as a member of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors, the South Texas College of Law Board of Trustees, Texas Appleseed, Neighborhood Centers Inc., and Junior Achievement of Southeast Texas.

Lewis was selected after a competitive search coordinated by a panel comprised of local lawyers. There were about 30 applicants who went through the selection process. Houston City Council is expected to be asked to confirm Lewis’ appointment in two weeks. He will start work May 2, 2016 and is replacing retiring City Attorney Donna Edmundson, who has agreed to stay through the end of May to help with the transition.

As the Chron story notes, Lewis has maintained a fairly low news profile, with “his selection by Harris County officials to represent disgraced former District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal in a 2008 contempt of court case related to Rosenthal’s deletion of emails that were under subpoena in a federal court case” being the only cited exception. Lewis inherits the ReBuild Houston re-litigation and the ongoing term limits ballot language lawsuit as his main action items. Beyond that, we’ll have to see what his priorities are. Welcome aboard, Ronald Lewis.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story.

City wins first round of term limits ballot language lawsuit

It’s round one, of course, but it’s still a win.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

The ballot language Houston voters used to change term limits for elected officials was “inartful” but not “invalid,” a state district judge ruled Wednesday, a move that nonetheless left the plaintiffs claiming victory ahead of an expected appellate battle.

[…]

Much of the debate before Judge Randy Clapp, a Wharton County jurist appointed to hear the case, focused on procedural matters: Whether Dick properly served the city notice of his lawsuit, whether the court had jurisdiction to hear the case, and whether attorney Andy Taylor could intervene to assist Dick.

Clapp acknowledged higher courts would not be bound to his view of whether the ballot language was misleading or omitted key facts, the tests under the law.

Still, he ruled in the city’s favor, having described his thoughts in an exchange with Taylor.

“My personal feeling at this point is, the omission part is pretty weak,” he said, noting case law says ballot items need not be comprehensive. “But the misleading part is, I think, the stronger allegation you make because of the choice of words involved.”

That Clapp ultimately did not find the ballot language unlawful was less important than his decision to rule on all motions before him on Wednesday, Taylor said, because the case will move to the appellate courts all at once. That will limit the city’s ability to, as Taylor views it, “run out the shot clock” by relying on procedural delays to push the case past November 2017, when the next city election would be held if the terms reverted to two years.

“The thing that was the most important here was that we get a ruling from the trial court so that we can go up to the appellate court where this is ultimately going to be decided,” Taylor said. “We’re confident the appellate courts will rule that this ballot language was both deceptive and misleading.”

See here, here, and here for the background. You have to admire Andy Taylor’s ability to declare that a loss is a win. Clearly, he missed his calling as the coach of a sports team. Anyway, as far as the timing goes, for Taylor and Dick to actually get a win, I think you’d need to have a final ruling by no later than a year from now, probably more like by next February. I mean, the filing deadline for a November of 2017 election would be around Labor Day, so in theory you could go as late as mid-July or so for a filing period, but that doesn’t leave people much time to fundraise. If someone wanted to run for Mayor, for example, or even for an At Large Council seat, they’d want to get started a lot sooner than that. Is next April enough time for an appeals court and the Supreme Court to rule? I guess we’ll find out.

UPDATE: KUHF has more.

Term limits plaintiffs respond to dismissal motion

It’s about what you’d expect.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

Last November Houston voters approved an amendment to the city charter that changed the length and maximum number of terms elected officials can serve.

The lawsuit by Phillip Paul Bryant alleges the language on the ballot tricked voters into thinking they were voting for limiting terms, when they really extended them.

But the city says the plaintiff missed the deadline to deliver the citation.

“And so the city’s legal department has filed a plea to the jurisdiction, essentially saying that you filed a lawsuit but you didn’t give timely and proper service,” Mayor Sylvester Turner says. “And as a result the lawsuit should be dismissed.”

The city also claims the wrong person was served because the certified mail was accepted and signed by a city employee who works in the mail room instead of then-Mayor Annise Parker.

Eric Dick, attorney for the plaintiff, dismisses both arguments. He points out the Texas Election Code only says a citation has to be returned to the court if it’s not served within 20 days.

He says if you miss the deadline, you can try again.

“There’s no case law to follow what they’re saying. They’re just making stuff up,” Dick says. “It’s sanctionable. It’s frivolous. They can’t win on the merits of the case, so they’re just lying. It’s a straight-up bold-face lie.”

Theodore Rave, professor at the University of Houston Law Center, says the problem with the plaintiff’s assertion is that election contests need to be filed within 30 days after an election.

“It’s possible that if the plaintiffs had, within that original 30 days after the election, gone back to the court and asked for a new citation, that might have reset the 20-day clock and the plaintiff could have served that new citation within 20 days,” Rave says.

The lawsuit was filed in time but the city wasn’t served until six weeks after the election.

See here for the background. You can see the original petition and the city’s motion to dismiss at the link above. Dick sent out a typically bluster-filled press release on Monday with his assertions about what the law really is. All I know is there will be a hearing on February 26, and we’ll see what a judge has to say about it.

The Scalia effect on current cases

The Trib highlights a few cases pending before the Supreme Court that could be affected by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Antonin Scalia

Texas abortion law

On March 2, the court will hear oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which challenges Texas’ 2013 abortion law. Beyond deciding the constitutionality of a law that could shut down about half of the state’s 19 remaining abortion clinics, the Texas abortion case gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to clarify how far states can go in restricting abortion.

In 1992, the court ruled that states can impose abortion restrictions as long as they do not place an undue burden on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.

Lower courts across the country have disagreed, however, on what constitutes an “undue burden.” Activists on all sides are hoping the high court will provide a clearer definition in its decision in the Texas case. That case centers on the state’s requirement that abortion clinics meet hospital-like ambulatory surgical center standards — which include minimum sizes for rooms and doorways, pipelines for anesthesia and other modifications. In June, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals largely upheld the new abortion restrictions, saying the new law does not impose an undue burden on a majority of Texas women seeking abortions.

Justice Anthony Kennedy could be the swing vote. If he sides with the conservatives on the court, the resulting 4-4 tie would affirm the lower court ruling.

The lower court also granted the relatively remote Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen an exemption to some narrow elements of the ambulatory surgical center requirements and from a separate provision of the law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic.

Barring a tied vote, a decision in the Texas case could also determine the constitutionality of restrictions in place in other areas of the country. As of November, 10 states had adopted admitting privileges requirements, but courts blocked enforcement in six of those states, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Six states had enacted ambulatory surgical center standards on abortion facilities. Those restrictions were not in effect in two of those states.

Immigration

The high court also agreed to hear the state’s case against the Obama administration’s controversial executive action on immigration that was announced in November 2014.

Known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, the action would shield more than 4 million undocumented immigrants in the country from deportation proceedings and allow them to apply for three-year work permits. Lower courts have ruled to halt the policy three separate times.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in January but has yet to schedule arguments.

[…]

UT-Austin’s affirmative action policy

The death of Scalia cast uncertainty on many important cases before the Supreme Court, but probably won’t have a major impact on the decision in Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, which is a case about the constitutionality of affirmative action.

Justice Anthony Kennedy is still the likely swing vote, just as he was before Scalia died.

Abigail Fisher, who is white, contends she was unconstitutionally denied admission into UT-Austin in 2008 because of her race. UT-Austin considers the race of a small portion of its applicants, and black and Hispanic students often get a slight advantage in that pool of admissions. If Fisher wins her case, UT-Austin might be unable to consider the race of its applicants in the future. A broad ruling against UT-Austin could even end affirmative action nationwide.

Scalia, a longtime opponent of affirmative action, was almost certain to vote against UT-Austin. He was in the dissent in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, when the Supreme Court upheld the practice of affirmative action in a limited way.

[…]

Redistricting

Finally, the justices heard arguments last year on a Texas case that questions a basic idea in American election law. In Evenwel v. Abbott, the plaintiffs argue that their voting power is diluted by the way Texas draws its state legislative districts, saying those lines should be based on the number of eligible voters in each district and not on population.

Congressional districts are based on population, as directed in the Constitution. The Evenwel case challenges Texas Senate district lines; a decision allowing states to use eligible voters as a base could shatter current lines here and in other states that want to make the change, remaking the distribution of power in state legislatures. That decision is pending.

The court has already accepted those four cases, among others, but doesn’t have to do anything this term if the justices decide to change course.

If the justices don’t want to rule on a case they’ve already accepted, they can announce it was “improvidently granted,” which means lower court ruling holds, [Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas at Austin] said. They can hold over any unheard cases they want until they have a ninth colleague, and they can rehear oral arguments with a ninth colleague if they want to wait or they think a ruling with a four-person majority would be too controversial.

“It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if they hold over some stuff where time really isn’t of the essence,” Levinson said. “You can make this argument of the election case [Evenwel]. If they hold it over, the world won’t come to an end.”

There’s a lot of good commentary out there about What This All Means, at least in the short term – see Think Progress, SCOTUSBlog, and Rick Hasen, for example. The main point to keep in mind is that in any case where SCOTUS winds up splitting 4-4, the ruling of the lower court would stand. From my perspective, that’s a good thing in some cases – Friedrichs being one example, Evenwel being another – and not so good in others, specifically Whole Woman’s Health and the DAPA case. In addition, in some cases that kind of result could also mean a split in the appeals courts. There are plenty of abortion restriction lawsuits out there, over laws similar to what Texas passed, and a number of other federal courts have struck them down. It’s not hard to imagine at least one appeals court upholding the lower court on those rulings, thus making laws like Texas’ legal in some states but not in others. Texas’ law is currently on hold thanks to SCOTUS, so one way to avoid this problem would be for the Court to delay hearing the appeal until they’re back at full strength. Or maybe the good Anthony Kennedy will show up and Texas’ law will get struck down on a 5-3 vote. Let’s just say that John Roberts has a lot to think about and leave it at that.

One other thing: Justice Scalia’s death has revived the idea of term limits for Supreme Court justices, an idea that has fairly broad support. Ted Cruz is a proponent of the idea, though as is always the case with Cruz, he has bad reasons for doing so. I’m perfectly fine with the idea of limiting Justices to 18 years on the bench. It’ll take a Constitutional amendment, so the odds of it happening are infinitesimal. but if it gains momentum that will be okay by me. For what it’s worth, prior to Scalia’s death, there were five Justices who had already served more than 18 years, and three of them were appointed by Republican Presidents: Scalia, Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas, along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Make of that what you will.

Term limits lawsuit against city could be dismissed

This was unexpected.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

Last November, Houston voters approved an amendment to the City Charter that changed the length and maximum number of terms elected officials can serve.

The lawsuit by Phillip Paul Bryant alleges the language on the ballot tricked voters into thinking they were voting for limiting terms, when they actually extended them.

But the city says the suit should be dismissed because the plaintiff missed the deadline to deliver the citation by one day.

“It sounds like the city has a good argument,” Matthew Festa, professor at the South Texas College of Law, says. “And as much as we don’t want important issues to be resolved by technicalities, those are the rules of the game.”

Kevin Fulton, one of the attorneys for the plaintiff, says they are looking at the city’s argument and possible case law in their favor.

See here for the background. This is the only story on this that I have seen, and it’s not exactly clear on what deadline was missed, when the judge may consider this argument by the city, and any other details that may be relevant. As such, I’m a wee bit hesitant to put much emphasis on what may turn out to be a minor technicality that quickly gets smoothed over. If there is something to it, we’ll find out soon enough.

All that said, I’m ambivalent at best about this change to term limits – as you know, I voted No and I have stated several times since then that I think the effect of this change will be way more extensive than we currently know – but I’m also generally opposed to lawsuits that challenge the result of elections like this, especially when the argument is that the voters were too stupid to know what they were voting on. If this lawsuit winds up getting tossed because the attorneys for the plaintiffs were too incompetent to follow the rules in submitting their paperwork, it’ll be pretty damn funny.

Resign to run has kicked in for Council members

Another change that our new term limits law has wrought.

Houston elected officials who become a candidate for another elected office are now automatically required to resign their current seat, uncharted territory for city officeholders who previously had not been subject to the so-called “resign-to-run” provision of the Texas Constitution.

The requirement that has long applied to county officials also covers officeholders in municipalities whose terms are longer than two years. Voters extended the terms of Houston elected officials to four years, from two, last November, triggering the change.

The “resign-to-run” clause pertains to those with more than one year and 30 days left in their terms who announce their candidacy or become a candidate in any general, special or primary election.

The provision does not appear immediately to affect three City Council members – Dwight Boykins, Jerry Davis and Larry Green – who have expressed interest in the late Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee’s seat, because it would not kick in until Democratic precinct chairs select someone to replace Lee on the November ballot.

[…]

Executive committee nominations aside, a memo sent Tuesday by City Attorney Donna Edmundson and obtained by the Chronicle defines “announcing candidacy for office” as “making a written or oral statement from which a reasonable person may conclude that the individual intends, without qualification, to run for an office.”

Edmundson added: “A statement made in a private conversation does not constitute an announcement of candidacy for the purposes of the ‘resign to run’ provision. Likewise, a statement indicating an interest in an office is not considered an announcement of candidacy.”

[Mark] Jones said the new rules further constrain elected city officials.

“Previously, they effectively could have their cake and eat it, too, in that they could run while keeping their City Council position,” Jones said. “Now, they’re going to have to actually make a hard choice, which in some cases may be a risky move.”

Yes, but let’s not go overboard. Not that many people that would have been affected by resign-to-run took advantage of their prior exemption from it. Going back a decade, I can think of six sitting municipal officeholders who were also candidates for other offices. Three of them were in the last year of their final term – Bill White in 2009, Wanda Adams in 2013, and Ed Gonzalez in 2015 – and thus had less than a year and a month remaining in office. Only three people would have had to resign to run – Shelley Sekula Gibbs, who ran for Congress in 2006; Adrian Garcia, who ran for Sheriff in 2008; and Mike Sullivan, who ran for Tax Assessor in 2012. Sekula Gibbs and Garcia resigned after winning their November elections, thus triggering special elections to succeed them the following May, while Sullivan resigned after winning his primary, which allowed the special election to fill his seat to happen that same November.

The rest of the story is about filling Commissioner El Franco Lee’s spot on the November ballot, and it’s mostly stuff we already know. The main thing here is that this change probably won’t have much effect, though it could alter how some incumbents view the rest of the election cycle. If anyone decides to run for something in 2018, we’ll know.

The Chron on the El Franco Lee successor selection process

First, a lamentation.

El Franco Lee

Not even a month has passed since Sylvester Turner was sworn in as Houston’s new mayor, and already the next election cycle is just around the corner. Early voting for party primaries is about a month away, running from Feb. 16 through Feb. 26. Election Day is March 1. Safely gerrymandered districts often mean that these party primaries serve as the functional election for the state Legislature, Congress and other positions. It can be frustrating to know that the November election has a predetermined outcome for all too many politicians, but this version of democracy feels practically Athenian in contrast to the process for replacing the late El Franco Lee, the longtime Democratic county commissioner for Harris County Precinct 1.

Because Lee died after the filing date to get on the ballot, his name will remain voters’ only choice. Republicans and Libertarians offered no opponent for the general election and the Green Party candidate has withdrawn. Under state law, Democratic Party precinct chairs for Lee’s precinct will select his replacement. At no point in this process will voters in Precinct 1 have a direct say about who will represent them on Commissioners Court.

This election-free appointment should be anathema to the values of our representative republic, but the problem isn’t new. County government has a history of avoiding an active electorate. In fact, Lee never faced a serious challenger throughout his 30-year career as county commissioner. If his successor has similar luck, it is possible that people could live their entire voting lives without seeing a single competitive race in Precinct 1.

I don’t disagree with any of this, but it should be noted that the process to select a party’s nominee when the filing deadline has passed is prescribed by the Legislature. You may not like the idea of having such a small group of people (myself included) picking the next Commissioner, but look at it this way – if Commissioner Lee had died in, say, October, he would have remained on the ballot and then his spot on the Court would have been filled by Judge Emmett, all by himself, as was the case when Jerry Eversole resigned. That person would have gotten to serve for two full years before having to run to serve the remainder of the four-year term, and would have been a heavy favorite to not just win but be essentially unopposed at that time. It is what it is.

We certainly could do this process differently, and now is as good a time as we’ll ever get to discuss what if any alternative methods might be better. One obvious possibility is that we just declare a special election to fill the seat for the next term – Judge Emmett can appoint an interim Commissioner as he sees fit for the rest of the year – and let whoever wants in file for the now-vacant position. Of course, given the timing that may either cause vacancies in other races, or may prevent someone who might have jumped at the opportunity had it presented itself at another time to let it pass. It also all but guarantees that the winner would be decided in a much-lower-turnout December runoff. Is that better? Is there another way that’s better than that? You tell me. It would have been nice for the Chron to offer a suggestion to go along with the complaining.

Oh, and one more thing: On the matter of people possibly living their entire voting lives without ever having the chance to vote in a real Commissioners race in Precinct 1, I have five words: “Term limits”, and “campaign finance reform”. Either of them would address the issue. As above you need to take that up with the Legislature. I don’t care for term limits, but if they’re good enough for City Council, they’re surely good enough for the much more powerful office of County Commissioner.

After some griping about the, um, flexible ethics standards for County government, the Chron gets to what they would like from the next Commissioner in Precinct 1.

Normally editorials urge voters to select good candidates, but now that duty falls upon Democratic Party officials. We encourage them to follow County Judge Ed Emmett’s example and reject the politicians who rushed at first word of Lee’s untimely death to ask for an appointment. Harris County needs commissioners who are mindful of the future. There’s nearly as many people living in the unincorporated county as there are in the city of Houston, and county governance wasn’t designed to handle that burden.

Precinct chairs should look for someone ready to tackle this issue, and that should include discussions about incorporation in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, merging city and county services, and bringing greater transparency to county business. The next commissioner of Precinct 1 also will have the responsibility of saving the Astrodome.

You know what I’m looking for. Again, I basically agree with the Chron list, though again some specifics from them would have been nice. Precinct 1 is overwhelmingly part of the city of Houston, so it’s reasonable that the Commissioner there be a leader in forging city-county relations. I’ll give this some more thought and write it up when I have something to say.

Selecting a successor for El Franco Lee: Process and questions

From the inbox, sent by Carroll Robinson.

El Franco Lee

The Issue

During the past few days, there has been a great deal of speculation about the legal process for selecting someone to replace the late Commissioner El Franco Lee on the November 2016 General Election ballot. (Texas Election Code, Subchapter C. Sections 172.057, 172.058 and 172.054 (1).)

The Primary Ballot – No Options

Under the state election code, Commissioner Lee’s name cannot be removed from the March Democratic Party Primary Election ballot, and the deadline for extending the filing deadline to allow other people to add their name to the primary ballot has passed. (Texas Election Code, Subchapter C, Section 172.058(b) and Subchapter B, Sections 145.035 and 145.036.)

General Election Ballot

Under the Texas Election Code, once the March Primary Election and Run-Off has concluded, the Democratic Precinct Judges in Commissioners Court Precinct 1 will meet to select a replacement candidate to appear on the November ballot for a full four-year term.

Under the law, there is no option of a Special Election for selecting a replacement candidate for the November General Election ballot.

Sitting Elected Officials

Under the law, a person’s name cannot appear on the ballot for two positions.  This means that currently elected officials up for re-election this year cannot be listed on the ballot for both Commissioner and re-election to their current office.

If A State Legislator Is Selected As The Replacement

In the event a state legislator is selected as the ballot replacement for the Precinct 1 position, his/her legislative office position on the November ballot would become available. To fill that position, a separate appointment process would occur, with the precinct judges of that specific jurisdiction selecting a replacement in the event no other candidate is on the primary ballot for that position. There is some confusion over the eligibility of current officeholders whose existing term would overlap in part or totally. Specifically, the eligibility of a municipal elected official to be appointed to a state legislative position.  Under current law, any potential replacement would have to resign from office prior to selection to be considered because of the State holdover provision based on an existing Texas Supreme Court decision to possibly be eligible to succeed the legislator. (Wentworth v. Meyer, 839 S.W. 2nd 766 (Tex. 1992) and Texas Attorney General Letter Opinion No. 95-069 (November 7, 1995).)

The Court’s decision raises a number of questions and does not give full clarity on a state constitutional provision that had historically prohibited sitting elected officials from being elected to the legislature if their term of office would overlap with the term of office of the legislative seat they were planning to seek.  (Texas Attorney General Letter Opinion No.95-069 (November 7, 1995).)

Questions Still To Be Answered
We are still researching answers to the following questions.

  • How will the meeting of the Precinct Judges to select the replacement be conducted?
  • Who will Chair the meeting and how will the Chair be selected?
  • What will be the process for individuals to be considered to be the replacement?
  • Can the Precinct Judges retain counsel to advise them on the questions involved in selecting the replacement?

 
Summary

1. Commissioner Lee’s name will be the only one on the Democratic Party Primary Ballot.

2. In June, the Democratic Party Precinct Judges, residing in Commissioner Precinct 1, elected in the March primary, will select a replacement candidate to appear on the November General Election ballot. The replacement candidate cannot be selected by Special Election.

We’ve covered some of this before, but it’s nice to have it in a concise summary like this. I would add the question of which precinct judges get to select a replacement if we wind up naming a sitting legislator to be the November nominee. My guess is that it would be simply the precinct judges from that legislative district, but it would be nice for that to be clarified. Note as well that there could be a third step involved if the legislator in question is 1) a Senator or Congressperson, and 2) the nominee chosen for that office is also a legislator, presumably a State Rep. I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole here, so let’s just say that this could get involved, and could wind up being a long meeting.

If the new nominee is someone who currently holds office but is not on the ballot this November – a Houston City Council member or HISD/HCC Trustee, for instance – that person would clearly have to resign once sworn in as Commissioner, but not necessarily before then, unless they held an office that required them to resign to run for something else. I would prefer such a person to resign anyway, as there would be enough time for a special election, to be held in November along with everything else, to fill that person’s unexpired term. Which leads to another question I can’t answer: How many full terms in office would a Council member who won a November 2016 special election get to serve? Under the old system, they’d still get three full two-year terms, as folks like Ed Gonzalez and Melissa Noriega did; Dave Martin will get the full two-year term he won in 2013 plus the two four-year terms (if he runs and wins again in 2019) that others elected in 2013 can get. My guess is such a person could run twice more, in 2019 and 2023, giving them up to 11 years in total. Maybe we ought to have the City Attorney standing by, just in case.

Anyway. This is the process, and these are the questions that occur to me. I’m sure there will be more. I plan to lay out my criteria for what I am looking for in a new Commissioner in a separate post, as this one is long enough. What questions do you have about the process that I haven’t addressed here?

Interview with Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

We are in the last few days of the administration of Mayor Annise Parker. Having served three terms each as Council member and Controller, she is finishing up eighteen years as an elected official in the city of Houston. I wanted to take the opportunity to talk to her one last time before she heads out into the private sector about her tenure as Mayor. What is she most proud of, what does she regret, what would she have done differently, what would her agenda be if she were still in office? There was much to talk about.

I hadn’t done one of these “exit interviews” before. I might have with then-Mayor Bill White, but by this time in his last term he was already a candidate for Governor and busy with a contested primary (for which I interviewed him) so there wasn’t much point. I’ll note here that Mayor Parker’s eighteen years in office is easily a record for the term limits era. With the change to two four-year terms, someone could beat her record by equaling her achievement of being elected to Council, Controller, and Mayor, and a Council member currently in his second term (e.g., Michael Kubosh or David Robinson) who could wind up with ten years on Council could match her by being elected either Controller or Mayor afterwards. I suspect it will be awhile before we see anything like that again, however.

The Chron did an exit interview chat with Mayor Parker, and there is some overlap with the questions she fielded there. She was able to give longer and more detailed answers in this interview, however:

Next week I will begin publishing interviews and judicial Q&As for contested Democratic primaries. You can see the races that are in scope on my 2016 Election page.

The incumbents’ advantage

Is it about to become that much harder to vote incumbent city officials out of office?

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

The already difficult task of ousting incumbent Houston officeholders likely has become even tougher.

City elected officials now have an extended runway to accumulate cash before returning to the campaign trail, thanks to a voter-approved extension of term limits and the elimination of Houston’s fundraising blackout during non-election seasons.

Experts agreed the changes could be a boon to incumbents, though were split over the magnitude of that boost.

“It’s huge, hugely significant,” Texas Southern University political scientist Jay Aiyer said. “We’re, basically, giving people an eight-year term.”

Local government finance lawyer Neil Thomas, however, characterized the shift as marginal.

“It certainly gives candidates and officeholders a longer period of time to raise funds, but incumbents always have an advantage,” Thomas said.

[…]

Under the new regulations, candidates will be allowed to solicit donations year-round, though the city’s $5,000 individual contribution limit and $10,000 cap for political action committees per election cycle remain. Thomas said that cap mitigates the impact of abolishing the blackout.

“I would think that any additional amounts that they might raise would really affect any advantage an incumbent might have only marginally, because the base limits still remain in effect,” Thomas said. “Yes, there may be some events that wouldn’t otherwise occur, but I don’t see any big change.”

Thomas and local fundraiser Pat Strong also noted that elected officials regularly draw down campaign funds for officeholder expenses, so not all of the money raised over four years necessarily will accumulate in the form of a campaign war chest.

“Now that they can raise money year-round, they can actually enhance their outreach by reaching into their campaign funds rather than relying on taxpayer funds to cover their officeholder expenses,” said Strong, who raised money for mayor-elect Sylvester Turner.

I think the individual and PAC contribution limit is a key mitigating factor here. Incumbents can hit up all the usual suspects for max contributions, but they can only do it once. I can tell you from my experience looking through finance reports that many PACs don’t come close to maxing out on most candidates. They may not care to, or they may not have the resources to be able to. That may actually change, since under the old system they were getting hit up twice as often in a four-year period. The point is, there’s only so much you can wring out of the frequent donors. Any candidate will still need a network of friends and associates and other like-minded folks to be able to raise the kind of cash that is needed to make oneself known in a city this size. You could argue that having four years to develop and exploit one’s network, with no restrictions on when you can ask for money, will benefit candidates who get out there and do the hard work of meeting and talking to people, especially if they can operate on a shoestring during the inactive time between elections.

But the truth is that we don’t know yet how this will play out. Hell, we haven’t even sworn in the first class of candidates elected under these new rules yet. Bear in mind that for a long time, it was virtually impossible to lose an election under the old term limits rules. From 1993 to 2009 – nine elections – only two incumbent candidates ever lost a re-election bid. In the next three elections, the last three of the two-year terms era, six incumbents lost. I guarantee you, nobody saw that coming. I suspect that with four year terms, the days of incumbents skating by with at most minimal opposition are over, because there are now fewer opportunities to run and less reason to wait till someone is termed out. I could be wrong about that – like I said, nobody really knows. Ask me again in 2019 and 2023 and we’ll see what we think then.

Looking back and looking ahead for Mayor-elect Turner

Here’s a Q&A with our new Mayor that looks back on the campaign that just wrapped up.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Q: Economically, electorally, this is a divided city. You campaigned on a platform of bringing people together. How do you overcome that split now that you’ve been elected mayor?

A: When I woke up this morning, the campaign was over. So it doesn’t matter how people voted or who voted where, for whom. The point is, as I look forward to January, I’m the mayor for the city of Houston. And for me, it doesn’t matter whether it was 75/25 margin, 51/49. People want better streets. People want a safe city. Those things are kind of universal. People want a city where you’re operating within your means. And that’s neither Democrat nor Republican, rich or poor. At this point in time, I don’t see division.

Q: You won City Council districts B, D, H, I and K, all of which are majority-minority and largely economically disadvantaged. In the context of trying to bring people together, which was a pillar of your campaign, is that a concern?

A: No, not at all. It was a campaign. Oftentimes people make their decision based on a multiplicity of factors. I respect people’s right to make their decisions. It doesn’t matter that in a competitive political race when there’s so much political spin being put out there that people will gravitate to those candidates that they most identify with. I got that. I understand that. I’ve been in this business for a while. But now, if I govern with that in mind, I make a serious mistake. But if I wipe the slate clean, and the question is, ‘Sylvester, can I wipe the slate clean? Do I not see the numbers or where people voted, and govern with the best interest of the city of Houston in mind?’ If I can’t do it, I make a mistake and the division continues. If I can do it, then those who may have voted for someone else will end up being supportive.

Q: You have about three weeks before you take office. What’s on your agenda between now and then?

A: To assemble a pretty good transition team. There are lot of smart, talented individuals in the city who can help in making the transition from one administration to another, and I’m in the process of doing that right now. It may take a few days to a week to fully put that together.

Q: What are your first steps once you do take office? Roads and pensions were big components of the campaign, among other concerns. What’s top of the agenda?

A: What’s important is to make sure, for example, that people in Houston when they turn on the light switch, the lights come on, the buses run on time, you’re operating within your financial means. Infrastructure, streets, roads, making sure that we have a balanced budget at the end of June, public safety. Those are the fundamentals. We get the fundamentals right, then I think in large part people will give me a high mark.

Just a reminder, those divisions would still be there if the vote had gone the other way. Elections are like that. Putting that aside, I’ll be very interested in seeing who is on Mayor-elect Turner’s transition team. I suspect this transition will be a bit smoother than the other one we could have had would have been.

The Chron would also like to remind us that the road ahead will be bumpy.

Houston’s new mayor, Sylvester Turner, will have plenty of opportunities to leave his mark on the city. It just won’t be easy, and it certainly will not be immediate.

The city’s new chief executive will face crumbling roads, shaky finances and a shorthanded police department, with no quick fix, and some of those problems will require help from the Texas Legislature or a two-year wait to amend the city charter. With those policy problems looming, the next mayor will have to acclimate to the culture of City Hall, learning to lead a City Council with at least four rookie members and still respond to day-to-day demands from residents.

“A new mayor is going to arrive in office wanting to have a positive effect,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist. “But instead of providing services, they may need to cut spending on police and other services. Even the status quo is going to be difficult to maintain in the current budget climate.”

Houston faces deficits as far as the projections reach, starting with a $126 million gap between revenues and expenses that must be closed in the budget to be adopted in June. A slump in oil prices and falling sales tax revenues won’t help that.

Cut hours at the library, quit mowing the park or close the pool in the wrong civic leader’s neighborhood, and the new boss barely will have figured out how to work the council chamber microphone before making potentially lasting enemies.

I’m sure you know the drill by now. We went through something like it six years ago. Whatever one’s opinion of the new term limits law is, not having to run again until 2019 gives Turner more room to get things going the way he wants them to go – and to hope for the local economy to turn around – than Mayor Parker had. She might well have been in trouble if she’d faced a serious challenger in 2011. Sylvester Turner may or may not face a serious challenger in his next race, but at least he has four years to prepare for it, not just two.

Turner’s Council

So what kind of City Council will Mayor-elect Sylvester Turner have to work with?

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

In addition to Turner replacing term-limited Mayor Annise Parker, the council also will gain five new faces, four thanks to term limits and one who defeated an incumbent. Political analysts, however, sensed little ideological shift among the 16-member body.

How city government will function or fail to do so, observers say, thus circles back to Turner. With a looming $126 million budget deficit to close by June, the 26-year Texas House veteran will be tested quickly.

“Having a career legislator lead the council is likely to have a significant change in how the city operates,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Houston political consultant. “He’s likely to lean on his experience and run the council as a legislative chamber versus, in the past, other mayors saw it as an executive office and the council may have been a nuisance.”

[…]

If the political tilt of the council shifted with Saturday’s results, analysts said, it may have been slightly to the right. Conservative former policeman Mike Knox will replace moderate Steve Costello in the At-Large 1 seat; physician Steve Le, who opposed the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance, ousted District F incumbent Richard Nguyen, who voted for it. As a counterbalance, the analysts said, municipal finance lawyer Amanda Edwards’ replacement of C.O. Bradford in the At-Large 4 race is a shift to the left.

In conservative District G, where lawyer Greg Travis replaces Oliver Pennington, and in progressive-leaning District H, where educator Karla Cisneros replaces Ed Gonzalez, observers saw little ideological change.

Observers guessed the general split to be roughly 10 to 11 progressive votes and six to seven conservative ones, depending on the issue, though council members are known to invoke the adage that there is no Republican or Democratic way to fill a pothole.

The new council will have four years to work out the kinks, thanks to voters, who approved a move from a maximum of three two-year terms of office to two four-year terms on Nov. 3.

That change, coupled with the loss of rules banning campaign fundraising during certain months – known as a blackout period – will bring the biggest changes to City Hall, Tameez said.

Let me start by saying I completely agree with Tameez here. I believe the change to four-year terms is going to have a big effect on how our municipal government operates and how our elections are conducted. I have no idea what those changes will look like, and neither does anyone else. It’s just going to be different, and we won’t begin to understand how until four years from now.

As for the makeup of Council, again I basically agree with what’s being said here. Mike Knox is to the right of Steve Costello, but I’d argue Amanda Edwards is to the left of C.O. Bradford. Losing Richard Nguyen hurts, but District F has always operated as a Republican-friendly district. Nguyen only declared himself to be a Democrat in 2014 – he was a political enigma when he was elected. It’s a loss, but we were playing with house money.

And to a large extent, none of that matters very much anyway. The Mayor still sets the agenda, and as long as the Mayor can get nine votes for whatever is on that agenda, it gets enacted. It will be interesting to see if Turner, a master of dealmaking and getting things done in a hostile environment, adopts a collaborative Lege-like approach to Mayoring (*), as that would be a great departure from every other Mayor in my memory, or if he exercises the power of the office like all his predecessors have done. Usually there’s at least one Council member who acts as a foil to the Mayor; of the holdover Members, Michael Kubosh and Dave Martin were the main antagonists to Mayor Parker. Will one or both of them maintain that role with Mayor Turner, or will someone else pick up the baton? The next budget gets adopted in June, so we ought to have some idea soon enough. Feel free to speculate on these topics in the comments.

(*) If “Presidenting” can be a word, then so can “Mayoring”.

Senate committee whines about ballot language

Give me a break.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, cited the wording of recent Houston referendums to lengthen term limits and on a controversial equal-rights ordinance as two examples, both of which he said could have been more clear.

The committee is studying whether state law needs to be changed to ensure that local and state ballots more accurately describe what voters are being asked to decide.

“We should all want a common-sense law or a common-sense standard,” said Bettencourt, who like other members of the committee usually argue for less state regulation. “Ballots should be clear for voters to understand what it is they’re voting on.”

[…]

James Quintero, director of the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation a conservative group that carries clout with the Republican-dominated Legislature, said “muddy ballot language” and missing information pose problems. He said the wording of ballot language has been at issue in Houston last month, on a term-limits change that was approved and the Equal Rights Ordinance that was voted down.

Let’s be clear about two things here. One is that for all the fuss, there has been exactly one ballot initiative for which an unfavorable ruling on its language has been given, that being ReNew Houston. The final HERO ballot language was approved by the Supreme Court, and the term limits lawsuit has yet to see the inside of a courtroom. Maybe someday it will provide a second such example, but if so that day is probably several years off.

And two, this is of a piece with the recent Greg Abbott-led Republican obsession with the state meddling in the affairs of Texas cities. The cities tend to have more Democratic leadership, and they tend to be pretty activist about tackling problems that affect them. Both of those things are now officially annoying to Abbott and an increasing number of legislators. I have no particular interest in the term limits bill – remember, I voted against it – but I can smell the BS from here. The state has plenty of its own issues to deal with. Get back to me when the rest of the house is in order.

Precinct analysis: Age ranges

Let us one more time ask the question: Just how old were the voters in our 2015 election?


Range       All    Pct
======================
18-30    21,998   8.2%
31-40    32,359  12.1%
41-50    39,074  14.6%
51-60    58,610  21.9%
61+     115,755  43.2%

vote-button

The short answer is “not as old as we’ve seen in previous elections“. That’s a high-water mark for the 30-and-under crowd, by a considerable amount, as well as a high score for the 31-to-40 consort. The 61+ group is smaller than it was in the last few elections, though of course that is relative. It’s smaller as a proportion to this electorate, but this electorate was quite large, so the over-60 share is much bigger in absolute terms than before – there were nearly as many over-60s this year as there were total voters in 2011 – even if it’s a smaller piece of the pie.

I can’t easily tell you what the average age of a Houston voter in 2015 was. I’ve heard several people cite a figure of 69 years old, which I believe comes from the KUHF/KHOU poll in October. Based on the ranges I’ve shown above, I’d guess that 69 is a little high to be the average age, but it’s probably not too far off from that. The point I’m trying to make here is that this election wasn’t driven by a frenzied turnout of senior citizens. Turnout was up across the board, and while this electorate was hardly young – less than 35% were under 50 – there was more age diversity than we have seen in the past.

Where you will legitimately find a younger electorate is in the new voters than showed up this year. Here’s that table, with the accompanying one for the set of folks who voted in all elections since 2009 following it:


Range       New    Pct
======================
18-30    17,106  16.8%
31-40    19,522  19.2%
41-50    17,889  17.6%
51-60    20,528  20.2%
61+      26,557  26.1%


Range       Old    Pct
======================
18-30       351   0.6%
31-40     2,009   3.4%
41-50     5,279   8.9%
51-60    12,233  20.5%
61+      39,766  66.7%

A majority of the new voters this year were 50 and under, with 36% being 40 and under. That’s not too shabby. As for the old reliables, here “old” is an appropriate word. If you told me the average age of this group was 69, I’d believe it. I will say, if the revised term limits ordinance stands, it’s going to be more challenging to talk about new and experienced voters in our every-four-years elections, simply because there will be so much turnover in the voting population. Under the new system – again, if it stands – the last three elections would be 2011, 2007, and 2003. Three elections from now would be 2027. Of course, with incumbents limited to two terms, maybe there will be that much more emphasis on the last election, and less on others except for open seats. Who knows? One way or another, we are headed into uncharted waters.

I hope you enjoyed this trip through the data. I may take a look at recent runoff rosters to see if there’s anything there worth writing about. Happy Thanksgiving!

Lawsuit filed over term limits referendum

As if on cue, the following hit my inbox on Wednesday afternoon, from Eric Dick:

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

Phillip Paul Bryant is filing a lawsuit to invalidate Proposition 2 because the ballot language misled Houston voters.

Annise Parker and the City of Houston have a history with misleading voters when it comes to ballot language. Indeed in 2015 alone, Texas Supreme Court has found that Annise Parker and the City of Houston have used inappropriate ballot language at least twice.[1][2]

On November 3, 2015, registered voters of the City of Houston were asked to vote on several propositions, including a proposition extending term limits. (“Proposition 2”). The ballot language for Proposition 2 reads as follows:

“(Relating to Term Limits for City Elective Office) Shall the City Charter of the City of Houston be amended to reduce the number of terms of elective offices to no more than two terms in the same office and limit the length for all terms of elective office to four years, beginning in January 2016; and provide for transition?”

The voters of the City of Houston passed Proposition 2 on November 3, 2015.

The language of Proposition 2 was misleading in one of more of the following ways:

  • The ballot language suggested that it would “limit” term length instead of expanding them from two-year terms to four-year terms;
  • The ballot language suggested that the “limit the length for all terms” to be four years instead of allowing elected municipal officials to serve a total of up to eight or ten years;
  • As admitted by Annise D. Parker in an interview with Houston Public Media, voters thought they were limiting the amount of time for municipal elected officials to serve in office.

See here for the background. Phillip Paul Bryant was a candidate for District B in 2011, and was engaged in the opposition to HERO. A copy of the petition is here; as always, I welcome feedback from the lawyers out there. On the one hand, I voted against the term limits change and feel that two-year terms are the better idea. On the other hand, I’m not particularly awed by Eric Dick’s legal prowess. On the other other hand, Lord only knows what the Supreme Court will do; the two footnotes in that press release refer to the decisions on Renew Houston and the wording of the HERO referendum. So who knows? If history is any guide, we won’t know for several years. The Chron and KUHF have more.

Precinct analysis: At Large #3

Only one candidate running for citywide office won outright in November. That candidate was first term CM Michael Kubosh in At Large #3. Here’s how he won:


Dist  Kubosh   LaRue  McElligott  Peterson
==========================================
A      8,782   1,042         835     3,152
B      8,988   1,526       1,251     3,541
C     16,414   2,314       1,409    10,138
D     12,074   1,599       1,367     4,385
E     15,033   1,249       1,217     5,314
F      4,192     973         819     2,274
G     19,632   1,463       1,069     5,433
H      6,149   1,284         925     3,055
I      5,121   1,057         953     2,567
J      3,230     600         492     1,566
K      8,524   1,271         989     4,283
				
A     63.59%   7.54%       6.05%    22.82%
B     58.72%   9.97%       8.17%    23.13%
C     54.22%   7.64%       4.65%    33.49%
D     62.16%   8.23%       7.04%    22.57%
E     65.90%   5.47%       5.33%    23.29%
F     50.76%  11.78%       9.92%    27.54%
G     71.14%   5.30%       3.87%    19.69%
H     53.88%  11.25%       8.10%    26.77%
I     52.80%  10.90%       9.83%    26.47%
J     54.86%  10.19%       8.36%    26.60%
K     56.57%   8.44%       6.56%    28.43%
CM Michael Kubosh

CM Michael Kubosh

There’s not a whole lot to say here. Kubosh won a majority in every Council district, only coming close to not having a majority in District F. Some of this is a perk of high name ID, but said name ID was earned through work on the red light camera referendum and by being visible on Council. There have been a lot more people running for At Large seats in recent elections, challenging incumbents as well as piling up in open seat races. Since 2009, when CM Melissa Noriega ran unopposed, two At Large members have been dislodged, and every At Large incumbent save Steve Costello and Brad Bradford in 2013 have had at least two opponents. Sue Lovell and Jolanda Jones survived runoffs in 2009, while David Robinson and Jack Christie face them this year. In that context, Kubosh’s achievement as one of only two At Large incumbents to clear 60% against multiple opponents in this time frame (Bradford in 2011 is the other) is even more impressive. Give the man his due.

With all this recent interest in At Large races, and with the next election being four long years away (barring any further intervention from the Supreme Court), one wonders what the landscape will look like the next time these seats are up. As noted once before, CM Christie is the only At Large member whose term would be up in 2019, meaning that if he loses then every citywide officeholder as of January 2, 2016, can be on the ballot in 2019. (Like CM Kubosh, CM Robinson is in his first term, so regardless of the outcome in At Large #2, the incumbent in that seat can run for re-election.) With four years between races, one would think that there will be a lot of pent-up demand for Council offices, which may attract another truckload of citywide hopefuls. On the other hand, districts A, B, C, J (if CM Laster wins), and K will all be open then, so perhaps that will siphon off some of that demand. I really have no idea what it will be like, but barring anything strange, it seems reasonable to say that CM Kubosh will be a favorite to win a third term. Check back with me in January of 2019 and we’ll see how good that statement looks at that time.

Will someone sue over the term limits referendum?

Maybe.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

Pre-election polling showed voters slightly favored the change, but not if they were told that it benefits sitting council members.

Rice University political scientist Bob Stein conducted the News 88.7/KHOU 11 News election poll.

“When we informed voters that the adoption of the two four-year (terms) would take place immediately in 2016 and advantage incumbent council members, support swung the other way and it was a deficit of 17 points against,” Stein said.

But that information was not in the ballot language.

In fact, it didn’t even mention that it would actually extend term limits.

Even Houston Mayor Annise Parker acknowledged that this week.

“I don’t know that they realized that they were giving council members more time in office,” she said.

Considering that a judge only a week ago ruled that Houston has to hold a new election on its drainage fund because of misleading ballot language, Stein said theoretically, the same could happen with this vote.

“I wouldn’t be shocked to see somebody complain about it and say, let’s go back and petition and have another referendum, which clearly explains what’s happening,” he said.

We’ve been over this a couple of times already. I honestly don’t remember the exact wording of the proposition, but I knew it meant two four year terms (even if I’d forgotten that it would be enacted immediately), and I knew I was voting against it. I think people likely didn’t fully understand what they were voting on, but that’s almost certainly because they had paid no attention to it. No one ran a campaign for it or against it, and Lord knows only a few of us read the news about what happens at City Hall. For better or worse, people need to do a little homework before they enter the polling place, and if they come out of there not knowing what they did, is that a litigation-worthy offense? If someone could convince the Supreme Court that the voters were too dumb to understand the Renew Houston referendum, who am I to say that they couldn’t do the same with this?

Precinct analysis: City propositions

Not really much to see here, but here’s what things look like for Prop 1.


Dist      Yes       No    Yes%      No%
=======================================
A       6,271   13,110  32.36%   67.64%
B       6,265   14,435  30.27%   69.73%
C      26,781   19,544  57.81%   42.19%
D       9,871   16,775  37.04%   62.96%
E       8,211   24,713  24.94%   75.06%
F       4,553    7,074  39.16%   60.84%
G      13,358   26,555  33.47%   66.53%
H       7,131    9,062  44.04%   55.96%
I       5,438    8,165  39.98%   60.02%
J       3,388    4,817  41.29%   58.71%
K       9,136   12,583  42.06%   57.94%

Elections that aren’t close yield precinct analyses that aren’t terribly interesting. District C supported HERO as expected, though for this thing to pass it probably needed to be at 65% or higher. I’ve said my piece about what I think heeds to happen next. It wasn’t about turnout, it’s about doing better outreach, all over the city. If these numbers don’t convince you of that, I don’t know what would. Lies can’t be sustained forever, but they don’t usually get dispelled without a lot of effort.

Prop 2 is more of (mostly) the same:


Dist      Yes       No    Yes%      No%
=======================================
A      11,452    7,078  61.80%   38.20%
B      12,659    5,984  67.90%   32.10%
C      29,490   14,524  67.00%   33.00%
D      17,085    8,011  68.08%   31.92%
E      18,816   12,859  59.40%   40.60%
F       7,636    3,270  70.02%   29.98%
G      22,952   15,496  59.70%   40.30%
H      10,446    4,479  69.99%   30.01%
I       8,774    3,994  68.72%   31.28%
J       5,298    2,500  67.94%   32.06%
K      14,267    6,370  69.13%   30.87%

Like I said, boring precinct data in non-close elections. It would have been truly remarkable if there had been big variations in different districts. I don’t care for the change to the term limits ordinance (which I also didn’t care for and didn’t vote for back in 1991), but it is what it is and I’m finding my way towards acceptance on it. I have said that people probably didn’t know what they were voting on here, but that’s the way it goes. If the people always understood fully what they’re voting on, Prop 1 would have passed in as much comfort as Prop 2 did.

As before, see here for pretty colored maps. I’ll be back on city races tomorrow.

What the passage of the term limits referendum means

It’s a little unclear from this story.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

The passage of Proposition 2 also means some current officeholders will be able to serve longer than the six years they originally signed up for.

Current freshman council members will now be able to serve two more 4-year terms, for a total of 10 years. Those serving their second terms will be permitted a final term of four years, for a total of eight years. Those finishing their third terms this year, including Mayor Annise Parker, are not permitted to run again.

[…]

Polls did show voters were more likely to oppose the measure when told incumbents could benefit, but there was no organized campaign on either side – aside from some radio ads and phone calls funded by GOP state Sen. Paul Bettencourt – and the ballot language did not detail the impact on incumbents. Ultimately, it passed by a wide margin.

Barry Klein, who was involved in the original fight to pass Houston’s term limits in 1991, lamented that his small-government colleagues were too occupied with other issues to mount a campaign.

“The citizens of Houston used to get four elections over eight years and now will get only two, and I think we’re all worse off for that. I really do think it weakens accountability,” Klein said. “The special interests will find it easier now because when they get their man in place they won’t have to worry about him getting replaced because of term limits.”

I don’t often agree with Barry Klein, but on this matter I do. I voted against Prop 2 because I think two-year terms for city officeholders are the better idea. Increasing the number of terms they could serve is to me the much better idea, but that’s not what was on the ballot. We can argue all we want about how much voters understood Prop 2, but first let’s be clear on what this does mean, because the wording of this story is confusing. Searching my archives, I found this story from August, when the term limits item was put on the ballot. Here’s the key paragraph:

The change, if passed, would take effect for officials elected this fall. Current freshman council members could pick up two four-year terms and those serving their second term would be permitted one four-year term. Elected officials who are already term-limited would not be affected by the change.

So the next municipal election will be in 2019, and at this point all terms have become four years. Anyone elected for the first time this year – Greg Travis, for example – can run again in 2019 and serve a total of eight years. Council members elected to their third term this year, like Jerry Davis and Ellen Cohen, can serve until 2019, also for a total of eight years. This is why the original idea was to not put the change into effect until 2020, so no current members would get extra time. And the real lucky duckies, the people who were first elected in 2013, like Michael Kubosh, can run again in 2019, and if he wins he will get to serve a total of 10 years.

So. Did you know this going in? I admit, I didn’t, but then I was always a No vote on Prop 2, so this particular detail more or less didn’t matter to me. If you voted for Prop 2, does seeing this change your mind?

One side effect of this change, which I doubt has received any consideration, is that the turnout level in HISD and HCC elections will vary dramatically in years with and without city elections. How many voters do you think will show up for Trustee races in 2017 if there are no Mayor or Council races on the ballot? I mentioned this as a potential problem for the idea of moving city elections to even years, and it’s as true here. I suppose that’s not the city’s problem, and if anyone in HISD thought about it they didn’t think loudly enough for the rest of us to hear, but there it is. What effect might this have in the off-year odd-numbered elections? Other than lower turnout, hard to say. Maybe it makes it easier for upstarts to get traction, maybe it helps incumbents stay entrenched. We’ll just have to see.

Endorsement watch: Changing term limits

The Chron endorses City Proposition 2, which would change the current system of term limits from three two-year terms to two four-year terms.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

If our leaders know they’ll be judged by a six-year timeline, there’s little incentive to plan for the future. If politicians are replaced every six years, we’ll keep repeating the same debates.

That’s why Houstonians should vote “yes” on the city’s proposition 2, which will change term limits to two, four-year terms for mayor and City Council. This isn’t the only modification that our City Charter needs, but the additional two years will be a step in the right direction.

However, even if the proposition passes, the debate should not end with this vote. Changing term limits will also change other dynamics at City Hall. New rules will likely be needed to prevent unintended consequences.

For example, today’s two-year terms work hand-in-hand with our strong mayor system, in which the mayor has near total control over executive and legislative duties. So while the mayor wields immense power, he also has to face regular elections. Longer terms threatens to weaken that important check.

That’s their springboard to endorsing the idea of modifying the charter to allow Council members to put items on the agenda. I continue to be indifferent to that, and I continue to be against the idea of four year terms. I don’t think they’re a good idea for municipal offices. The KHOU/KUHF poll suggests a slight lead for Prop 2, but I don’t buy it. Previous polling suggested that there was no appetite to change term limits; this is one reason why previous attempts to put a term limits referendum on the ballot didn’t go anywhere. There’s no campaign for Prop 2, and little evidence I can see of a clamor for this change. Much as I dislike our term limits ordinance, we’ve had it for 24 years, which means that politically it’s The Way Things Have Always Been Done, and stuff like that doesn’t change without an effort, and a fight. I will be more than a little surprise if Prop 2 is the exception to that.