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Texas

The battle for the Lege is gonna be lit

Fasten your seat belts.

While the Texas Senate appears safe for Republicans, Clinton’s comments underscored the emphasis that some Democrats — both in Texas and outside it — are already putting on the fight for the majority in the state House, where their party is nine seats away from control of the chamber. Views vary on just how within reach the majority is for Democrats, but few disagree that 2020 will be a frenzied cycle for House races as Democrats work to protect — and potentially build on — their recent gains. Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing to take back seats and head off the worst-case scenario: a Democratic-led House heading into the 2021 redistricting process.

The early contours of the fight are taking shape in the wake of a legislative session that saw Republicans largely eschew divisive social issues for a bread-and-butter agenda following a humbling election cycle in which they lost a dozen seats in the lower chamber. There is also a new speaker, Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen, who appears intent on keeping the GOP in power by minimizing the kind of internecine conflict that has previously bedeviled the party.

“Everything is focused on redistricting,” state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said at a recent tea party meeting as he fielded questions about the demise of some controversial legislation this session. “There is nothing more important — not only to Texas, but literally the nation — than to make sure that we maintain the Texas House … going into redistricting because if you look at the nation — we lose Texas, we lose the nation. And there’s no other place to go.”

[…]

As Republicans have sought to get their own in order for 2020, state and national Democrats have been drawing up preliminary battle plans to take the House. Their path runs through a group of 18 districts — 17 where Republicans won by single digits last year as well as House District 32. That’s where Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, ran unopposed while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won by just 5 points.

Of course, Democrats have to simultaneously defend the 12 seats they picked up last year, some of which have already drawn serious GOP opposition.

The path is “tough but possible to flip the chamber,” said Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. “We feel like there are enough potential targets out there that nine is doable, but it is gonna take a lot of work and resources.”

The NDRC spent $560,000 in Texas last cycle, and Rodenbush called Texas “one of our top priorities for 2020.” It recently hired an Austin-based Democratic consultant, Genevieve Van Cleve, to oversee its advocacy and political efforts here as Texas state director.

Other national groups are zeroing in on Texas this cycle as a state House battleground. They include the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Forward Majority, a super PAC that injected $2.2 million into Texas House races in the closing days of the 2018 election.

The state Democratic Party is expanding its campaign and candidate services as part of what will ultimately be a seven-figure effort in House races. Over the past weekend in Austin, the party held a training for 55 people to become campaign managers in state House races.

[…]

Abbott’s political operation plans to go after Democratic freshmen, as do well-funded organizations such as the Associated Republicans of Texas.

“ART is focused on candidate recruitment earlier than ever this cycle,” ART’s president, Jamie McWright, said in a statement. “We are identifying qualified, knowledgeable candidates who are willing to tackle the state’s biggest issues in order to win back the seats Republicans lost in 2018.”

Republicans are particularly focused on the seven seats they lost last cycle that Abbott carried.

You can see the potential targets here. There’s really only one competitive seat in the Senate this cycle, and that’s SD19, which Dems ought to be able to win back. On the House side, the top GOP targets based on the given criteria are going to be HDs 45, 47, 52, 65, 114, 132, and 135. I’ll be surprised if they don’t expand their list beyond that, but those are the seats I’d go after first if I were them. On the Dem side, there are the nine seats Beto carried but that Republicans won, plus however many others where he came close. It’s very likely that a seat no one is worried too much about becomes more competitive than expected, thanks to changing conditions and candidate quality and other unforeseen factors. So far, no one other than Mayor-elect Eric Johnson has announced a departure, which is unusual; normally at this point in time we’ve had a couple of people say they’re not running again. Open seats are more likely to be a problem for Republicans than they will be for Democrats, but Dems don’t want to have to play defense when there are gains to be made.

At this point, the name of the game is one part candidate recruitment and one part raising money, which will be the job of the various PACs until the candidates get settled. In Harris County, we have two good candidates each for the main targets: Akilah Bacy and Josh Wallenstein (who ran for HCDE in 2018 and was the runnerup in the primary to Richard Cantu) in HD138, and Ann Johnson and Ruby Powers in HD134. In Fort Bend, Sarah DeMerchant appears to be running again in HD26, while Eliz Markowitz (candidate for SBOE7 in 2018) is aiming for HD28. We still need (or I need to do a better job searching for) candidates in HDs 29, 85, and 126, for starters. If you’re in one of those competitive Republican-held State Rep districts, find out who is or may be running for the Dems. If you’re in one of those targeted-by-the-GOP districts, be sure to help out your incumbent. Kelly Hancock is absolutely right: This is super-duper important.

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

It’s an awful lot of money that comes with a ton of negative effects and which, if the I-10 expansion is any guide, will have short-lived positive effects. So maybe we should just, like, not do it?

A massive remake of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to the Sam Houston Tollway that would be among the largest road projects in the region’s history also is one of the nation’s biggest highway boondoggles, according to an updated list released Tuesday.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project — the umbrella term for the entire $7 billion-plus plan to remake Interstate 45 — is listed in the latest installment of unnecessary projects compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group. Nine projects across the country made the 2019 list, the fifth annual report from the two groups that have argued for greater transit investment.

“We believe that to fix congestion problems we need to take cars off the road,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the TexPIRG Education Fund, a subset of the national group. “We could do far better investing $7 billion in public transit.”

The dubious distinction on the list comes days before two city-sponsored public meetings to gauge ongoing fears about the project. In the past six months, concerns have ramped up against the project as the Texas Department of Transportation and engineers seek federal approvals, following years of discussions.

The report is here, and you can see a very concise breakdown of the issues with this project here. If you want a bit more detail, Streetsblog read what TxDOT itself has to say about the project.

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. “Potential impacts to community resources include displacement of residences and businesses, loss of community facilities, isolation of neighborhoods, changes in mobility and access, and increased noise and visual impacts. . . All alternatives would require new right-of-way which would displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.”
  • “All [build] alternatives would result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion… Proposed alternatives that include elevated structures may create physical barriers between neighborhoods or affect the existing visual conditions of the communities.”
  • The project’s “[c]onversion of taxable property to roadway right-of-way and displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue would have a negative impact on the local economy.” And while at present the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods “are experiencing various degrees of redevelopment,” the state notes that “growth trends indicate redevelopment would continue independent of the proposed improvements to project facilities.”
  • The project will “cause disproportionate high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” And the project’s “[d]isplacement of bus stops could affect people who do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

Doesn’t sound good, does it? Here’s a thought to consider. What if we took that $7 billion that this project is estimated to cost, and spent it all on transit? That would be more than enough to fully build the Universities and Inner Katy light rail lines, plus the Green/Purple extension to Hobby Airport and the Red Line extension out US 90 all the way into Sugar Land. I’d estimate all that would cost three billion or so, which means there would be between three and four billion left over. We could then take that money and buy more buses and hire more drivers so that we could upgrade most if not all of the existing bus system to rapid bus service, we could create some new lines to fill in any existing gaps, we could add more commuter bus lines from outlying suburbs into the central business district and other job centers, we could build a ton more bus shelters, we could fix up a bunch of sidewalks around bus stops, and we could pilot some more autonomous shuttles to help solve last-mile problems and gaps in connectivity in the existing network. I mean, seven billion dollars is a lot of money. This would greatly improve mobility all around the greater Houston area, and it would improve many people’s lives, all without condemning hundreds of properties and displacing thousands of people. But we can’t do that, because TDOT doesn’t do that, and we haven’t gotten approval from the voters, and many other Reasons that I’m sure are Very Important. So get ready to enjoy all those years of highway construction, Houston, because that’s what we’re gonna get.

“I’m haunted by their eyes”

We should all be haunted, and outraged, by this.

Immigrants held in a McAllen-area U.S. Customs and Border Patrol processing center for migrants — the largest such center in America — are living in overcrowded spaces and sometimes are forced to sleep outside a building where the water “tastes like bleach,” according to an attorney who recently interviewed some of the migrants.

“It was so bad that the mothers would save any bottled water they could get and use that to mix the baby formula,” attorney Toby Gialluca told The Texas Tribune on Saturday.

But when she recalls the conditions described to her by the immigrants she interviewed at McAllen’s Centralized Processing Center, Gialluca said she goes back to one thing.

“Their eyes. I’m haunted by their eyes,” Gialluca said.

Gialluca and a slew of other lawyers have been meeting with children and young mothers at facilities across the state this month as pro bono attorneys. At the McAllen Center, Gialluca said everyone she spoke with said they sought out Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande so they could request asylum.

Gialluca said the migrants, all from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, told her they aren’t receiving proper medical care and children don’t have enough clean clothes. Unable to clean themselves, young mothers reported wiping their children’s runny noses or vomit with their own clothing, Gialluca said. There aren’t sufficient cups or baby bottles, so many are reused or shared.

“Basic hygiene just doesn’t exist there,” Gialluca said. “It’s a health crisis … a manufactured health crisis,” she said.

[…]

On Saturday, state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, issued a letter to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission inquiring about the reportedly inhumane conditions at a Clint facility where another group of lawyers told the Associated Press about a group of 250 infants, children and teens who spent nearly a month without adequate food, water and sanitation.

Attorneys who visited the El Paso-area station said they found at least 15 children sick with the flu and described a sick and diaperless 2-year-old boy, whose “shirt was smeared in mucus,” being taken care of by three girls all under 15.

“HHSC has a responsibility to these children and individuals to ensure they are receiving, at a minimum, basic care,” Alvarado wrote, acknowledging that the facilities are managed at a federal level, but still imploring the state to do more. “As these facilities are in our state, the conditions under which they operate is a reflection of our values and commitment to the humane treatment of all within our borders.”

There are a lot of elected officials in this state who support passing laws greatly restricting access to abortion because they say they believe in the sanctity of life. Most of those same officials oppose laws that grant equal treatment under the law to LGBTQ people, and support laws that allow “sincerely held religious beliefs” to be a legal reason to not do business with LGBTQ people, because they believe that LGBTQ people are engaged in immoral behavior. These same elected officials, who care so much about life and morality, don’t have so much as an unkind word to say about the appalling, inhumane treatment of thousands of people, many of them children and babies, right here in Texas. I don’t know why any moral authority is granted to these officials, whose names include Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, John Cornyn, Ted Cruz, Chip Roy, Dan Crenshaw, Ron Wright, Lois “Bathroom Bill” Kolkhorst, Jonathan “Former Fetus” Stickland, Tony “Death Penalty For Abortion” Tinderholt, and many many more. They have clearly shown that they don’t deserve it.

UPDATE: In addition to voting all of these useless assholes out of office, you can donate to or volunteer for any of these organizations if you want to help do something about this.

Royce again

The “Royce West for Senate” thing is officially a thing.

Sen. Royce West

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, met this week with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as he nears a decision on whether to run for U.S. Senate — a decision that West now says will come sometime next month.

West had a positive meeting with Schumer and staff at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a Democratic source familiar with the meeting said. West, the source added, signaled that he is likely to run.

Asked for comment Friday, West said in a text message, “I’ll make a decision whether to run next month.”

West has been viewed as a potential candidate for months but has not said much publicly about his deliberations over whether to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. If West enters the U.S. Senate race, he would have to contend with a Democratic field that already includes MJ Hegar, the former U.S. House candidate. Schumer met with Hegar in March.

See here for the background. As it happens, this story appeared on the same day that I received another fundraising email from the Chris Bell exploratory campaign; I wonder if Bell has met with Chuck Schumer. I’ll say this much: If Royce West is our nominee in 2020, I will be happy to vote for him and to advocate for him. I’m going to need to be convinced to vote for him over MJ Hegar in the primary, because right now she’d still be my preference. I doubt polling will tell us anything about who might have a better chance of winning next year, as I doubt either West or Hegar has enough name ID to be more than a generic Democrat in a horserace question. Hegar is the more exciting candidate, but that’s not enough to project a significant difference at this time. We’ll see what he – and Chris Bell, and Amanda Edwards, and anyone else who might be lurking out there – decides to do.

Appeals court rejects firefighters pension reform lawsuit

This is not related to Prop B. I know, it’s hard to keep all of this straight.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals on Thursday sided with the city of Houston in a lawsuit over Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pension reform plan, which the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund alleged violates the state constitution.

The firefighters’ pension fund sued Turner and other city officials in May 2017, shortly after the Legislature passed — and Gov. Greg Abbott signed — Senate Bill 2190, the legislation overhauling Houston’s pension systems. Firefighters opposed the measure, while Turner and other officials said it resolved a fiscal crisis that could threaten the city’s fiscal solvency.

In the lawsuit, the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund argued the pension reform law strips its right under the Texas Constitution to “select legal counsel and an actuary and adopt sound actuarial assumptions.”

The pension fund contended the reform plan’s 7 percent assumed rate of return on investment, now codified in state law, gives the city and its actuaries a role in determining the fund’s cost projections, which the fund’s board of trustees said it alone should control.

See here and here for the background. The suit was dismissed by a district court judge, and the appeals court was basically ruling on whether that judge was correct to dismiss or not. You can read the opinion here, but it’s pretty dense and technical, and my eyes glazed over almost immediately. In short, the appellate court said the trial court judge’s decision was fine. The firefighters’ pension fund, who filed the suit and the appeal, will appeal again, to the Supreme Court. So we’re not quite finished with this yet.

The case for a second MLB team in the Metroplex

It’s an interesting argument, with a lot of aspects to it.

[T]he 2019 Street & Smith Baseball Yearbook contains an article (“Where to Next?” by G. Scott Thomas) rating the top 20 metro areas [for potential MLB expansion]. More than 100 reporters and editors filled out a report card (using grades from A to F) for each contender. In ranking order, the results are: Montreal, Portland, Nashville, Charlotte, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Vancouver, Raleigh-Durham, Mexico City, Austin, Monterrey, San Juan, New Orleans, Indianapolis, New Jersey (i.e., North Jersey), Havana, Sacramento, Columbus, Orlando, and San Bernardino. I was a bit surprised to see Nashville rank so highly, but otherwise the top 10 more or less line up with the favored locales of other pundits.

One viable metro area is missing from the list, however. That’s might be because it already has one team. I refer here to Dallas-Fort Worth, the Metroplex, or simply North Texas as it is increasingly referred to. Just as the Southern California conurbation eventually evolved into SoCal in popular discourse, North Texas will likely progress to NorTex (admittedly, it sounds like a public utility or a petroleum corporation) in the near future. Remember, you heard it here first.

Now it might seem unfair if not downright bigamous to bestow a second team on a metro area when so many other suitors are out there. On the other hand, such fairness was not a factor when Los Angeles and New York were awarded franchises in the first round of expansion. But a realistic case could be made for those teams then. The same is true for a potential NorTex franchise now.

First of all, did you know that NorTex is the largest market in the US with only one team? Yep, it’s true. One smaller metro area, San Francisco-Oakland (4,728,484 as of 2018) has two teams, though in past years some have opined that is one team too many. If the A’s can’t find a new home in the East Bay, they may be proved right. At any rate, the Bay Area has roughly 2.8 million people fewer than NorTex does, and has had two teams for more than half a century.

NorTex has 7,539,711 people according to a 2018 estimate (way up from 2,424,131 in 1970, two years before the Rangers hit town). That’s good for fourth place in the metro area population sweepstakes. Of course, New York and LA lead the pack and are not within striking distance. But third-place Chicago has “only” 9,498,716 people.

More important, however, are the metropolitan growth rates. NorTex has grown 17.33 percent since the 2010 census. Chicago is virtually stagnant with a growth rate of just 0.4 percent. This is not only much lower than DFW, it is lower than any of the other top 25 metro areas, including such renowned meltdown towns as Detroit and St. Louis. You have to go all the way down to Pittsburgh (No. 27 metro) to find a lower growth rate – in fact a negative rate of -1.34 percent. (The only other major league metro area in the red is Cleveland at -0.97 percent.)

You don’t have to be a math wizard to see that NorTex will likely surpass Chicago for third place within the lifetimes of many if not most of the people reading this article. As Bob Dylan once sang, “You don’t need a weathervane to see which way the wind blows.”

It’s a good read, so check it out. Obviously, MLB has to be in expansion mode for any of this to be a possibility. My guess is that when the expansion to 32 teams comes around, D/FW will not be on the short list, but if and when 36 teams are the target, it will be. How long that may take, I have no idea, but however long it takes I’d bet D/FW will still be in the picture.

The lamentations of Big John

You guys, he may finally lose a race. I’m serious!

Big John Cornyn

There is no ghostwritten Cornyn memoir. His ego does not seem to live and die on how many times he appears on Sunday morning talk shows. And he’s never launched a presidential bid, exploratory campaign or even a vice presidential lobbying effort.

“I haven’t run for president,” he said. “My wife told me if I decided to run for president, I needed to get a new wife. And I’ve been married 39 years, and I’m not going to go down that path.”

It is that understated quality — what some observers describe as “boring,” “vanilla” and “not Ted Cruz” — that lends so much uncertainty to his 2020 reelection campaign.

But Cornyn’s calmness may also prove to be his greatest asset amid potential Texas political tumult. He is the de facto leader of state Republicans this cycle, with his name set to appear on the 2020 ballot below only the presidential contest.

And from this perch, Cornyn, despite his usually steady manner, is cranking the alarm as loudly as he can to his fellow Texas Republicans.

“We are, I think, no longer the reliably red state we have been,” he said. “We are at risk of turning purple. And if we don’t do our job, then we could turn blue in the coming years. “

Some of the most respected minds in Texas politics agree.

“He’s unbeatable in a regular year, but this is not a regular year,” said Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist who ran Cornyn’s first statewide race in 1990. “A presidential year like this one changes the outlook. Otherwise, he’s unbeatable in the state of Texas.”

Now, thanks to former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s near-ouster of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in last year’s midterm elections, Texas Democrats smell blood. An endless stream of Democrats across the state spent the winter and spring floating their own names to run against Cornyn. At this point, Air Force veteran MJ Hegar is the most prominent Democrat to officially enter the fray.

Cornyn is the first to agree that the ground is moving.

“Everything’s changed [since 2014],” Cornyn said. “I think 2018 woke up everybody on the Republican side to the fact that we not only need to be competitive in the primaries, but we need to talk to broader general election voters, too.”

There’s not really anything new in this story, which is mostly about how steadfast and unexciting the big lug is. News flash, John Cornyn is not Ted Cruz, both in his boring style and his more substantive manner, as has had passed actual legislation of consequence in his time in office. Some of it has even been bipartisan. He goes into 2020 a favorite for re-election (with, obviously, an awful lot of things still to happen that can and will affect that outlook) but not a lock. Honestly, I think he’s more at the mercy of Donald Trump and the voters he will inspire to go to the polls than anyone wants to admit. It occurs to me that if he does lose, there will be a bit of an echo of the 2006 Senate race in Rhode Island, in which longterm and generally well-liked incumbent Lincoln Chaffee, one of the last liberal Northeastern Republicans standing, was ousted by an electorate that liked him personally but wanted to send a message to then-President George W. Bush, whom they did not like. Other than being a multi-term Republican incumbent Senator, Cornyn isn’t anything like Chaffee, but it’s hard for me to imaging him losing in a world with anything but a deeply unpopular Republican President. I mean hell, he might not be seriously challenged in such a world. But here we are, and say what you want about the guy, he recognizes the peril he’s in. It’s just that there’s only so much he can do about it.

Biden talks big about Texas

And other states, too.

Joe Biden

Democratic front-runner Joe Biden said Monday he plans to campaign during the general election and win in South Carolina, Georgia and Texas, states that have consistently supported Republicans for about four decades.

“We plan on campaigning in the South. I plan on — if I’m your nominee — winning Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina. And I believe we can win Texas and Florida, if you look at the polling data now,” the former vice president said at the Poor People’s Campaign forum in Washington. “It’s a marathon — it’s a long way off.”

Georgia most recently backed a Democrat in 1992, and that was Bill Clinton. The last Democrat who carried Georgia, South Carolina and Texas together was Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Biden’s remarks came in response to a question about whether he plans to campaign in the South and the Sun Belt. He mentioned that he visited Alabama in 2017 to support Senator Doug Jones, a Democrat who won a special election in the traditionally red state.

“I have no intention of walking away, if I’m the nominee,” Biden said. “If I’m not the nominee, I have no intention of walking away, in trying to help whoever the nominee is to win those states.”

Obviously, I like the sound of that. Let me make three points here.

1. First and foremost, I am officially neutral on the Presidential primary at this time. If I had to vote tomorrow, I’d be choosing from the trio of Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Julian Castro. My second tier has Beto, Buttigieg, Booker, and Gillibrand. Biden’s in the group after that. He’s currently atop the primary polls, and tends to do the best in general election matchups, so this sort of article usually focuses on him. So be it.

2. One of my criteria for deciding who will get my primary vote is the level of commitment the candidate in question has for campaigning in Texas and competing to win in Texas. I hope that all of them are in on this, thus not making my decision any easier. So as far as that goes, good for Biden.

3. That said, it’s my opinion, bolstered by the polling data we have so far, that who the Democratic nominee will be will not matter that much for how competitive Texas is. The primary factor, by a long shot, is Trump himself. The nominee’s job will be maximizing turnout among those who want Trump out. I’ll be making up my mind about that later on in the cycle.

Anyway. Bottom line, I want all the candidates to be thinking big like this. It’s what the country needs and deserves. CNN has more.

Worrying about the expanded school marshal program

This just seems like such a bad idea.

Would a teacher who volunteered to do double duty as a school marshal in Texas act any braver [than a professional law enforcement officer]? Some might. Maybe most would. Would those who decide not to engage a shooter be subject to arrest?

The bill Abbott signed June 6 removed the 200-per-student cap on the number of marshals a school may have. It was part of a legislative package he sought after the May 18, 2018 mass shooting at Santa Fe High School that left eight students and two teachers dead.

A separate, more expansive bill includes a number of school safety measures, including requirements that all teachers have access to a telephone or another electronic communication device, that school districts routinely hold drills to prepare students and personnel for an emergency, and that a statewide consortium be created to provide more children with mental health services.

While those programs appear laudable, expanding the school marshal program could lead to disastrous results. “There’s so much potential for mistakes to be made, for unintended injuries to occur,” Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, told the editorial board. “A marshal’s gun could be dropped. A student could try to take a marshal’s gun. And what kind of guns are we talking about?”

Texas’ school marshal program, which began six years ago, was modeled after the federal air marshal program. Only certain school officials, local law enforcement, and the Texas Department of Public Safety are supposed to know who the anonymous volunteer marshals are until they are called into action. That, too, is a problem, said Switzer.

“My children went to a large school where not even all the teachers knew each other. If an incident occurs at a large school, an armed marshal might be mistaken for a bad actor,” she said.

Studies showing black students are disproportionately targeted for discipline are also a concern, the gun control advocate said: “I worry about what might happen if an armed school marshal makes an assumption about a kid because of how he looks.”

The less than 40 certified school marshals in Texas in 2018 rose to nearly 200 after the Santa Fe shooting. That number is expected to grow now that the program has been expanded. Any teacher or other school staffer can volunteer to be a marshal and keep a gun in a safe place on campus for use when it’s deemed necessary.

[…]

Asking teachers, coaches, office staff, and counselors to be prepared to safeguard students in an emergency is reasonable. Asking them to take on the role of an armed protector is not.

See here for further information. I basically agree with everything this author says. It’s just a matter of time before there’s an incident, whether due to mishap, carelessness, mistaken identity, incompetence, or bad intent. The odds of that happening are so much greater than a volunteer marshal stopping an actual shooter. What do you think will happen when such an incident does occur?

Will Ken Paxton ever be prosecuted?

At this point, I’d have to say it’s very unlikely.

Best mugshot ever

After mulling the question for nearly six months, the nine Republican judges on Texas’ highest criminal court will not reconsider their 2018 ruling that threatens to imperil the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In November, a fractured Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a six-figure payment to the special prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial for felony securities fraud fell outside legal limits for what such attorneys may be paid. A month later, the attorneys asked the high court to reconsider that decision in a spirited legal filing that went unanswered until this week.

The court did not provide any reason for rejecting the motion, nor did any judges write dissenting opinions. Few expected that the high court would reconsider its own ruling.

Payments for special prosecutors are based on strict fee schedules, but judges are permitted to approve payments outside those strictures in unusual circumstances, as a North Texas GOP judge did for the prosecutors in the Paxton case. But after Jeff Blackard, a Paxton donor, sued in December 2015, claiming that the fees were exorbitant, the Dallas Court of Appeals voided the prosecutors’ invoice and the payment has been in question. Meanwhile, the trial itself has been derailed again and again.

Wednesday’s ruling threatens the long-delayed prosecution of Texas’ top lawyer, as the prosecutors —unpaid in years — have signaled they may withdraw from the case if they cannot be paid. The prosecutors have also argued that the pay ruling, in limiting how much attorneys may be paid even in cases of extraordinary circumstances, threatens the state’s ability to adequately compensate lawyers representing indigent defendants.

See here, here, and here for the latest updates, and here for even more, if you want to do a deeper dive. We should all have friends as steadfast as Ken Paxton has in Collin County, both on their Commissioners Court and in the person of Jeff Blackard. Friends help you move, real friends help you game the criminal justice system to effectively quash felony indictments.

At this point, either the existing prosecutors decide to stick it out and maybe extract a bit of revenge via jury verdict, or they throw in the towel and the whole thing starts over with new prosecutors. Which in turn would open a whole ‘nother can of worms, thanks to the Lege.

Under Senate Bill 341, which moved quietly and without controversy through the Texas Legislature, only county attorneys, district attorneys and assistant attorneys general would be qualified to serve in the high-stakes, often high-profile affairs that require specially appointed prosecutors. Currently, judges may appoint “any competent attorney,” which some have argued is an insufficient standard.

The author of that bill, Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, has presented it as a cost-saving effort for counties — special prosecutors will now be government attorneys who would not require additional funds — and also as a way to raise the bar of qualifications for special prosecutors.

That would limit the selection pool from the more than 100,000 practicing attorneys in Texas to a much smaller group of several hundred elected prosecutors or attorneys employed by the agency Paxton runs. The replacement for Wice and Schaffer would have to be either a Democratic district attorney, who might be seen as overly aggressive in her prosecution of a Republican statewide official; a Republican district attorney, who could be seen as overly sympathetic to a leader of his own party; or an assistant attorney general, who would be an employee of the defendant.

That law goes into effect September 1. This law does make some sense, and if the Paxton prosecution had been handed off to a DA or County Attorney there would not have been an issue with payment. I for one would argue that this case should absolutely be turned over to a big urban county DA’s office – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, or (oh, the delicious irony) Travis – since an aggressive prosecution is exactly what is needed, and the DAs in those counties will have less to fear from the voters than, say, the Denton or Tarrant or Montgomery County DAs would. I will be very interested to see what the presiding judge decides to do, if it comes to that. In the meantime, we need the voters of Collin County to start voting out members of their Commissioners Court, and the voters of Texas to start electing better jurists to the CCA. You want a lower-level cause to get behind in 2020, there’s two of them for you.

Ten Best and Ten Worst 2019

Here’s that famous biennial list from Texas Monthly.

The Best

  • House Speaker Dennis Bonnen
  • Representative Joe Moody
  • Representative James White
  • Representative Donna Howard
  • Representative Dade Phelan
  • Representative Victoria Neave
  • Senator Kirk Watson
  • Representative Tom Oliverson

The Worst

  • Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick
  • Representative Tom Craddick
  • Senator Bryan Hughes
  • Representative Poncho Nevárez
  • Senator Angela Paxton
  • Representative Jeff Leach
  • Senator John Whitmire
  • Senator Brandon Creighton

Special Awards

  • Most Improved: Governor Greg Abbott
  • Cockroach: Representative Jonathan Stickland
  • Freshman of the Year: Representative Julie Johnson
  • Bull of the Brazos: Senator Paul Bettencourt
  • Furniture

Click over to read the stories. Many of these had me nodding my head, others had me saying “huh, I hadn’t realized that”. None of them stood out as egregiously wrong based on the reasons cited, which has not always been the case. Anyway, read and enjoy, and as always consult with Harold Cook for the proper way to respond.

What about Royce?

Gromer Jeffers examines the question of whether State Sen. Royce West will jump into the Democratic primary for US Senate in 2020.

Sen. Royce West

For several months, there’s been speculation that Democrats, against the wishes of some party leaders and donors, will have a competitive contest for the party’s Senate nomination.

Former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston, the Democratic Party’s 2006 nominee for governor, is considering running. Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards is also contemplating a campaign, according to numerous Democrats.

Three mostly lesser-known Democrats are already running: Michael Cooper, Sema Hernandez and Adrian Ocegueda.

But the most intriguing potential candidate is state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, who has contemplated statewide campaigns before. He’s now weighing running for his party’s Senate nomination.

West has not spoken publicly about his plans and has shrugged off questions about the timing of his decision. But he’s been making the rounds in party circles, getting pledges from colleagues in the Legislature and testing whether he can raise the money needed not only to get past [[MJ] Hegar, but also beat Cornyn.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said West and Edwards would be formidable opponents for Hegar because they have strong Democratic vote bases in Dallas and Houston. Jones added that West is more of a centrist, which would help him against Cornyn.

The prospect of a contested Senate primary signals that Democrats are entering a new era in Texas politics. They don’t have to find sacrificial lambs to fill out candidate slates.

“We’re at a point where a credible Democrat may not want to give Hegar a free ride,” Jones said.

There are several reasons this may be the year West takes the plunge. It’s kind of now or never. At age 66, his window for a Washington career is closing. And the changing face of Texas means voters could prefer other emerging politicians in future election cycles. West wouldn’t have to give up much to make the run. He was re-elected last year and won’t be up again until 2022, so he wouldn’t have to surrender his Texas Senate seat. In politics, there’s nothing more sought after than a free look at a campaign for higher office. All that would be at stake is pride.

The longtime Texas lawmaker would also come into the Democratic Party contest with the ability to win — and win big — in North Texas. No other candidate can boast such a launching pad. And he’ll be strong in other parts of the state, particularly where black voters are influential, such as Houston and East Texas. West’s challenge would be garnering support where he’s not well-known, which is most of the state. And he’ll have to prove that he can raise tens of millions of dollars, while captivating the fancy of Texas voters.

Hegar is out there campaigning now – she was just in Houston, at an event I was unable to make. Bell has put out some fundraising emails – I got one in my inbox a few days ago. I have no idea what Amanda Edwards is doing, but like Bell she has not said anything formal. As for West, he’s a good State Senator and he’d for sure start out with a sizable base in a Democratic primary. I’ll be honest, I’d be more excited about him if he’d been the first one to jump in, or if he’d run for Governor or Lt. Governor in 2018. But as I’ve said before, I’m happy for there to be a competitive primary. We need to make sure candidates are out there campaigning hard now, not later on once they’ve won the nomination. An awful lot of people are going to vote in the Dem primary in March, so no one who wants to pursue the nomination can sit around and hope for the best. Whatever Royce West – or Chris Bell, or Amanda Edwards, or anyone else – is thinking about doing, my advice would be to think fast.

Maybe rural counties don’t want hospitals

That’s what the evidence says.

The voters of Fayette County have spoken, and they’ve said that they don’t need a hospital in this rural community of 322,000 people, one hour southeast of Austin — or at least not enough to pay for it. In a landslide vote Thursday night, county residents overwhelmingly rejected a proposition to create a taxing district for St. Mark’s Medical Center in La Grange, which would have kept the deeply indebted hospital open for the foreseeable future. As the polls closed, it was clear that the idea of propping up the institution with public money didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Central Texas. The final tally was 1,360 for, 5,600 against.

“I’m very proud of the grassroots effort that stood against the taxes,” Deborah Frank, the chair of Fayette County’s Republican Party and a member of Concerned Taxpayers of Fayette County PAC, told the Observer Friday. Her group swiftly mobilized an opposition campaign against the proposition after it was put on the ballot in April, holding public meetings and distributing yard signs reading “NO NEW TAXES.” Their message: People here are already taxed enough and shouldn’t be forced to bail out a private institution simply because it’s made what they see as bad financial decisions.

Voters apparently took the message to heart.

The resounding loss is expected to push the 65-bed hospital, which is at least $14 million in debt, even closer to financial collapse. And it comes at a time when the headwinds against rural hospitals in Texas are especially strong.

Across the state, roughly 20 rural hospitals have shuttered since 2013 — casualties of low patient volumes, stingy Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates, and the burden of operating in Texas, which has more uninsured people than any other state. Seventy-five more are at risk of closing down.

One point to note: I have no idea where that “rural community of 322,000 people” figure comes from. Fayette County had 24,554 people as of the 2010 Census, and while it’s been growing over the past few decades, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t grown that much since then. I don’t live in La Grange and I don’t know anything about St. Mark’s Medical Center, so maybe it was a fiscally sound decision to not try to prop it up with a taxing district. I do know that if I lived in La Grange and faced the prospect having to travel 20 miles to Smithville or 26 miles the other direction to Columbus to find an emergency room, I’d be a little concerned about the risks to my health going forward. But hey, at least their taxes won’t go up.

UT/Trib: So this is what a swing state looks like

This is not the poll I’m looking for, but it still tells us something.

Half of the registered voters in Texas would vote to reelect President Donald Trump, but half of them would not, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Few of those voters were wishy-washy about it: 39% said they would “definitely” vote to reelect Trump; 43% said they would “definitely not” vote for him. The remaining 18% said they would “probably” (11%) or “probably not” (7%) vote to give Trump a second term.

“That 50-50 number encapsulates how divisive Trump is,” said James Henson, who runs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-directs the poll. But, he added, the number is not necessarily “a useful prediction for an election that’s 16 months away.”

Among Republicans, 73% would “definitely” vote for Trump; among Democrats, 85% were “definitely not” voting for another term.

“This squarely focuses on Trump,” said Daron Shaw, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. However, he said, “it isn’t a matchup with a flesh-and-blood Democrat. It shows Trump’s relative weakness, compared to a generic Democrat in this state.”

Independents were less emphatic than either the Republicans or the Democrats, but 60% said they wouldn’t vote for the president in an election held today, including 45% who would “definitely not” vote for him.

“The most interesting and more consequential thing, this far out, is that amongst independents, 60% say they will probably or definitely vote for somebody else,” said Joshua Blank, manager of polling and research for the Texas Politics Project. “Overall, Texas independents tend to be more conservative than liberal and tend to look more like Republicans than like Democrats … and things have gotten worse among independents.”

I agree that’s bad, but I’d also point to this: Only 73% of Republicans say they will “definitely” vote for Trump, while 17% say “probably”. For Democrats, 85% definitely will not vote for him, with 6% more probably not. That seems to me to be a bit of an enthusiasm gap, which is a much bigger concern if you’re a Republican who will also be on the ballot next year. Or, you know, if you’re part of the Trump campaign and dealing with crappy polling news coast to coast. Republicans have had a turnout advantage in Texas going on thirty years now. Donald Trump’s lasting gift to our state may be him killing that off. See here for the March UT/Trib poll numbers, here for the most recent actual matchup numbers we have, and here for more from the June UT/Trib poll.

Still filled with dread about I-45

Anyone got a paper bag I can breathe into?

Strip away the enormity of rebuilding Interstate 45 and the promise of speedier trips along downtown Houston freeways, and two questions about the once-in-a-generation project remain:

How many negative effects are acceptable in one neighborhood for other people’s faster commutes?

And, how far should transportation officials go to reduce those impacts, to secure support and not vocal opposition?

“This is the defining project in the city of Houston for the next 20 years,” said Michael Skelly, a local businessman and organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “Doing it properly means minimizing impacts and, where there are impacts, mitigating them properly.”

Impacts expected from the widening of I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway — including a $3 billion remake of the downtown freeway system that buries a portion of the freeways and tears down the Pierce Elevated — run the gamut of environmental and social ills: air quality and flooding concerns for schools, day cares and low-income communities; removal of public housing developments in a city already hurting for affordable homes; concrete pillars and ramps rising above pristine park space along area bayous; uprooting 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes.

“What concerns us as a group is inequity,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, a local transportation advocacy group. “They will feel losses, not gains.”

Texas Department of Transportation officials say they are balancing those concerns with a need to rebuild a freeway beyond its useful life, in a way that officials believe prepares for how Houston will move more than a decade from now.

“We are working real hard to make this work,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for the six-county Houston area. “Everything we’ve heard, we’ve said ‘let’s see if we can make this work.’”

Not every problem, however, has a solution as TxDOT awaits federal approvals, possibly by the end of this year. The total cost of the project could climb above $7 billion. Construction on the segments where I-45, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 intersect could start as early as 2021.

It’s a long story, so go read the whole thing. I’ve already written about Independence Heights and the raw deal they’re likely to get, so I’ll just note two more things. One is that when a certain high-speed rail project needs to use eminent domain to build on rural land, there’s a huge (though to be fair, so far not very effective) political backlash. But when a highway expansion being proposed for the heart of a city that will “uproot 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes”, there’s a much more muted reaction. You tell me why that is. And two, as someone who is now working on the west side of town and commuting on I-10 every day, let me tell you that whatever traffic flow improvements this will achieve when the ribbon is cut, they will not last for long. I head west on I-10 from the Heights every day before 6 AM, and you’d be surprised how much traffic there is already. It moves at highway speed, but if I were to leave even thirty minutes later, that would not be the case at all. I drive home between three and four, supposedly going “against traffic”, and again, you wouldn’t believe how full it is. Most days, traffic is heavy enough to cause standstills, and it’s almost always worst inside the Loop. We’re what, a decade out from the much-ballyhooed Katy Freeway expansion? Good luck with trying to solve this when the clamor for relief starts to rise. My point is, we’re going to go through multiple years of hell, for maybe a few more years of improvement. Again, you tell me if there isn’t a better way.

How good a stepping stone is Mayor of Dallas?

Stephen Young notes that being Mayor of Dallas has not been particularly helpful to others’ ambitions.

Rep. Eric Johnson

If he’s anything, Dallas mayor-elect Eric Johnson is an ambitious guy. He’s got degrees from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, and took his seat in the Texas House of Representatives before turning 40. In the legislature, he’s sought out high-profile fights, sparring over things like criminal justice reform, gentrification and corruption in municipal politics. The resume that Johnson’s put together is almost too perfect for someone who aspires to hold higher state or federal office.

That’s what makes his current position so interesting. Saturday night, Johnson won the keys to one of the most useless big-deal jobs in the United States. Dallas’ mayor is, essentially, just an at-large member of the City Council. He or she gets to run the council’s meetings and can place an item on the council agenda if he or she wishes to do so, but the city manager draws up the city’s budget and has all the real power. Johnson has long been at the top of the list whenever people talk about potential replacements for longtime Dallas U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, but one has to wonder if that’s changed, given the mayor’s office’s challenges and history.

To find a former Dallas mayor who sought and won higher office after leaving city hall, one has to look at the way back to Earle Cabell, who resigned as mayor in February 1964 to run for Congress against incumbent Republican Bruce Alger. Since Cabell’s successful campaign, former mayors Wes Wise, Ron Kirk and Tom Leppert have all run unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. House or Senate. Laura Miller, Kirk’s successor, couldn’t even win a Dallas City Council race 12 years after leaving office, getting trounced by incumbent Jennifer Staubach Gates in May.

I noted when Mayor-elect Johnson won the runoff that he was a politician with ambitions. Does this mean those ambitions are doomed? I don’t think so. I can’t speak to Wes Wise’s experience, but Ron Kirk ran for Senate as a Democrat in 2002, while Tom Leppert joined a primary that already had David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz. I wouldn’t extrapolate much from that.

I’d say three things will matter. One, does a good opportunity come along at a good time? I’d suggested Johnson might want to run statewide, but Young notes he has had his eye on Rep. Eddie Berniece Johnson’s CD30 seat. Maybe the timing will work for one of those options, and maybe it won’t. Two, does he build up his fundraising network enough to be a force in a more expensive race? And three, does he does a good enough job to make him look like an appealing candidate for whatever comes next? It’s not rocket science. This is one of those times where past history isn’t a great guide, but the basic fundamentals still apply.

Scouting the opposition in CD07

Not impressed so far.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

Facing a roomful of conservative voters at a meet-and-greet earlier this month, Republican Wesley Hunt laid out the stakes for his party’s primary in Texas’ 7th Congressional District.

“This is about putting the best candidate forward who can beat Lizzie Fletcher. Period.” Hunt said.

Republican voters still are smarting from their 2018 loss in this suburban west Houston district, where Fletcher, a Democratic Houston energy lawyer, toppled nine-term GOP incumbent John Culberson. Her five-point win flipped the seat blue for the first time since the 1960s, prompting Republicans to take aim at the district almost as soon as Fletcher took office.

The GOP primary field already has come into focus, setting up a clash between Hunt, an Army veteran who works for Perry Homes, and Cindy Siegel, a former Bellaire mayor and METRO board member. Battle lines are sharpening, but not around the two candidates’ conservative bona fides or the strength of their policy proposals. The early contours of the race instead have centered on the question: Who is best positioned to snatch the seat from Fletcher?

Threatening to upend the primary is the potential candidacy of Pierce Bush, CEO of the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters Houston affiliate and grandson of former president George H.W. Bush, who once represented the district.

Bush in an email earlier this month said he still is mulling a run for the seat and has been “flattered by people who are encouraging me to consider running,” though he did not lay out a deadline for a decision.

Meanwhile, both declared Republicans have their electability pitches ready to go. Hunt, 37, contends the party could use a “new generation of leadership,” and he peppers his stump speech with references to his time as a helicopter pilot in the Army, including his combat deployment to Iraq. Siegel, meanwhile, pitches her governing experience serving on Bellaire city council and as mayor, along with a number of boards and commissions.

Also, she contends that it will take a Republican woman to beat Fletcher.

“I feel that way strongly,” the 64-year-old Siegel said. “It’s coming as no surprise to anyone, on a national basis: Women have moved away from the Republican Party.”

[…]

In 2018, Trump’s name did not appear on the ballot, but scores of voters in Texas’ 7th said they viewed the election as a referendum on the president nonetheless. Now, the president’s down-ballot impact is set to become amplified, for better or worse, with his name likely atop the Republican ticket in 2020.

After the president lost the district to Clinton in 2016, 48 to 47 percent, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took notice and weighed in heavily on Fletcher’s behalf, spending north of $3.5 million on the seat in 2018.

This time, House Democrats’ campaign arm again figures to play a heavy role, making early attempts to muddy the GOP waters. When Trump visited Houston in April, for instance, the group sent reporters a news release with the subject line: “With Trump in Houston, How Far Will Hunt and Siegel Go to Win Him Over?”

That last bit is more important than who wins this primary, because whoever it is will have Donald Trump as their running mate. Unless the national mood starts souring on Democrats, I think that’s going to be too big an obstacle to overcome.

Beyond that, it’s just too early to have any opinions about these two, or possibly three, candidates. I fully expect one or two other names to pop up, though whether the field expands like it did on the Democratic side in 2018 I couldn’t say. Given the need to raise funds for this race, time is starting to run out for any other wannabes.

Speaking of fundraising, here’s a data point to note for when Hunt and Siegel file their Q2 finance reports. The top four Dem contenders in CD07 raised $1.2 million combined as of July 2017. Fletcher had the second most, with $365K. The eye-popping early numbers all around the country were a leading indicator of Democratic enthusiasm for the 2018 election. I’ll be very interested to see how things look this time around.

One more thing. What happens to CD07 in the 2021 redistricting cycle. Before the 2018 election, when I figured John Culberson would still be the incumbent, my thinking was that Republicans were going to have to shift some of the district out of Harris County – maybe into Montgomery, maybe into western Fort Bend, maybe northwest into what’s now part of CD10 – to keep it red enough for him. At the very least, they’d have to take some of the bluer-and-bluer inner Harris parts out to keep things in their favor. What happens now if Fletcher wins again? Well, they could try this anyway, to take that seat back by other means. Redistricting doesn’t happen in a vacuum, though, and with CDs 02, 10, and 22 all getting competitive it might be too much to save everyone, especially in a solidly blue Harris County and a much more balanced state as a whole. It would not shock me if the Republicans basically gave up on CD07 and used parts of it to shore up those other districts, especially CD02. That’s more or less what they did with the State House in 2011, making HD133 (which they had lost in 2008) redder while making HDs 137 and 149 bluer. Incumbent protection is still a thing that matters, and in a state with fewer safe Republicans, it may matter more than ever. Just a thought.

Our vaccine exception rates keep going up

A small change to the law in 2003 has had a big effect over time.

As measles cases hit a 25-year high in the United States, Texas medical experts fear the state could see the next outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease. Texas has reported 15 confirmed cases of measles so far in 2019, six more than in all of 2018.

Health officials are watching pockets of Texas closely because of the number of parents requesting exemptions under Texas’s broad vaccine exemption law. Texas is one of 16 states that allow parents to bypass vaccine requirements for enrolling their kids in school by claiming a conscientious exemption, along with citing medical or religious concerns. Just last month, Washington ended conscientious exemptions on the heels of a large measles outbreak with over 70 reported cases. Three states — California, West Virginia and Mississippi — only allow medical exemptions.

Texas’ exemption law used to be stricter. In 2003, a state senator proposed loosening restrictions via a three-page amendment to a 311-page bill. After five minutes of discussion, the amendment was approved. The bill was soon signed into law. Sixteen years later, former state Sen. Craig Estes said the change to Texas’ vaccine laws that he helped enact should be reviewed in the current public health climate.

“Obviously we didn’t ever imagine what would happen,” Estes, a Republican from Prosper, told The Texas Tribune. “With what’s happened recently, I would encourage the legislature in the future to revisit that issue and debate it.”

The speedy way in which the Texas Legislature weakened the state’s vaccine exemption rules suggests that, like Estes, few in office at the time thought it would put Texas at risk for future outbreaks. However, while experts suggest Texas is now vulnerable, efforts to change the exemption law have been dead on arrival in the Capitol.

“There will be a terrible measles epidemic in Texas, and children will be hospitalized in intensive care units, just like they are in New York right now,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said last month. “That will wake up the state Legislature to realize that there’s a problem and close those exemptions.”

Kindergarteners must have 10 immunizations to be enrolled in Texas schools. Since 2006, when the state first started reporting the data, the exemption rate for kindergarteners in Texas has risen from 0.3% for the 2005-06 school year to 2.15% for the 2018-19 school year.

In Texas, school districts, private schools and charter schools are required to report their vaccine exemption rates per vaccine. The data collection is done through a survey administered by the Texas Department of State Health Services, but some schools don’t report consistently, leaving gaps in the data.

The data shows certain communities — like the Dallas Independent School District — have seen a recent spike in conscientious exemptions for kindergarteners. Others — like El Paso ISD — have seen exemptions recently plummet. Some smaller private schools, meanwhile, have exemption rates that are significantly higher than those of other schools. The Austin Waldorf School had the highest vaccine exemption rate for the 2018-19 school year, at 52.9%. Alliance Christian Academy had the second-highest rate at 40.6%.

When enough of a community is immunized against a disease, that group has what’s known as herd immunity, meaning there is a low risk of a disease spreading. Vaccine-preventable disease have different herd immunity thresholds. Measles, which is highly contagious, has a high herd immunity threshold of 95%. According to a state report for the 2018-19 school year, Texas kindergarteners statewide had coverage levels higher than 95% for all required vaccines. Yet the data from individual school districts and private schools suggests that some communities may fall short of meeting that threshold for some vaccines.

The fact that a Waldorf school is atop this list shows the problem is very much bipartisan, though the main anti-vax legislators these days are all Republicans. I’ve repeated this a million times, but the only way to improve things is to throw those anti-vax legislators out of office. Next year is a great opportunity to do that as three of them – Jonathan Stickland, Bill Zedler, and Matt Krause – all had close elections in 2018. The rest is up to us. Now go read the rest of the story for the history of how we got to this point.

Schlitterbahn sold

End of an era, as another iconic family-owned Texas business is sold to a non-Texas firm.

Schlitterbahn Waterparks and Resorts — which has dealt with a gruesome death, indictments and financial troubles in recent years — is selling a chunk of its holdings.

Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. has an agreement with the owners of Schlitterbahn to purchase the company’s New Braunfels park and resort property as well as their Galveston park for $261 million, subject to certain adjustments.

“It’s important to know that Cedar Fair values Schlitterbahn’s character and brand promise,” the Henry family — Schlitterbahn’s owners — said in a statement. “They have committed to not only keeping Schlitterbahn awesome but helping us grow!”

Richard Zimmerman, Cedar Fair’s president and CEO, said the company is “very excited about the opportunity to bring these two award-winning Texas water parks into the Cedar Fair family.”

“These properties represent new markets for us with attractive demographics in the growing Central Texas region, and they align with our strategy to identify compelling opportunities to accelerate our growth and profitability,” he said in a statement.

That’s Schlitterbahn and Whataburger all in the same week, y’all. As we know, the Schlitterbahn has had some trouble in recent years, though at least the criminal charges that were filed have been dismissed. It sounds like the family had been looking to sell for awhile, as they were having cash flow problems that caused some planned new parks to not happen. They are retaining the South Padre park, which will be rebranded. I hope the new owners can get everything back to its old glory, and I hope the Henry family can get themselves back on their feet. The Current has more.

A starter agenda for when we have a Democratic state government

I’ve been pondering the recent legislative session, which as we have discussed wasn’t great but also wasn’t nearly as bad as some other recent sessions have been. The qualification for all this is that the key defining factor for our legislative sessions is defense. How well did we do preventing bad bills from becoming law? Oh, there are occasional good bills, on things like criminal justice reform and medical marijuana and the injection of money into public education this session, which should be good until the lack of a funding mechanism becomes an issue. But actually moving the ball forward, on a whole host of items, is a non-starter.

That’s not a surprise, with Republicans in control of all aspects of state government. But Dems picked up 12 seats in the House and two in the Senate, and came close in several statewide races in 2018. There’s a decent chance that Dems can win the House in 2020, and I have to believe we’ll have a stronger candidate for Governor in 2022. The Senate remains a challenge, but after the 2021 redistricting happens, who knows what the landscape may look like. Dems need to aim for the House in 2020, and have a goal of winning statewide in 2022. It won’t be easy, and the national landscape is a huge variable, but we know we’re moving in the right direction, and if not now then when?

And if these are our goals, and we believe we have a reasonable chance at achieving them, then we need to talk about what we want to accomplish with them. It’s a cliche that our legislature is designed to kill bills and not to pass them, but having a unified, overarching agenda – which, let’s not forget, can get a boost by being declared “emergency items” by the Governor – can help overcome that.

So towards that end, I hereby propose a starting point for such an agenda. Moving the ball forward is the ultimate aim, but I believe we have to first move the ball back to where it was before Republicans assumed full control of the government in 2003 in order to really do that. That’s the idea behind this list, which I want to stress is a starting point and very much open to discussion. There are a lot of things a Democratic government will need to do, from health care to voting rights to equality to the environment to climate change and so much more, but we can’t overlook fixing the bad things first.

My list, therefore, covers bills passed since 2003 when Republicans took over. I am skipping over constitutional amendments like the 2003 tort “reform” item, because they will require a supermajority to pass, which we surely will not have. I’m aiming for simplicity, in that these are easy to understand and rally around, and for impact. So without further ado, here are my ideas:

1. Repeal voter ID.
2. Repeal “sanctuary cities”.
3. Repeal anti-Planned Parenthood legislation, from prohibitions on PP receiving Medicaid to this session’s ban on cities partnering with PP on anything, and restore the previously used Women’s Health Program.

Like I said, simple and straightforward, with a lot of impact. The first two are obvious and should have unanimous Democratic support. The third is more of a challenge because even with a Democratic majority in the Senate, we won’t necessarily have a pro-choice majority. Eddie Lucio, and to a somewhat lesser degree Judith Zaffirini, are both opponents of reproductive rights, though Zaffirini is more nuanced than Lucio and ought to be gettable on this kind of bill via an appeal to health care access.

As I said, this is a starting point. There are things I have deliberately left off this list, though I am not by any means discounting or overlooking them. The “Save Chick-fil-A” bill from this session, whose real life effect is not yet known, needs to go but might be better handled as part of a statewide non-discrimination law. (Also, too, there’s the Eddie Lucio problem in the Senate.) Campus carry and open carry are terrible laws, but might be better handled via comprehensive gun control legislation. Tuition deregulation, a big cause of skyrocketing college costs at public universities, which was passed in 2003 as one of many cut-the-budget effort over the years, will be a more complex issue that may require time to study before a consensus solution can be brought forward. All these things and more need to be on the agenda, but some things are more involved than others.

Again, this is a starting point. I make no claim that this is a be-all or end-all. Hell, I make no claim that I’m not forgetting anything equally simple and substantive. I welcome all constructive feedback. Ultimately, what I want out of this is for Dems to recognize the need to decide what our priorities are before we get handed the power to affect them, and to make it part of the case we will be making to the voters to give us that power. I believe having some uniformity to our message will help us. Now it’s up to us to figure out what that message needs to be.

Whata lot of angst

I’ve lived in Texas a long time, but I wasn’t born here. As such, news like this doesn’t hit me the way it hits some other folks.

Chicago-based BDT Capital Partners said Friday it’s agreed to acquire a majority stake in Whataburger.

The burger chain will remain headquartered in San Antonio, and the groups will “begin exploring expansion plans,” they said in a statement.

Whataburger’s founders, the Dobson family, will keep a minority position in the company. President and CEO Preston Atkinson and Chairman Tom Dobson will retain their seats on the board but retire from daily operations.

Both will turn to running Las Aguilas, an investment company launched by the Dobson family in 2011 that focuses on real estate and philanthropy.

The decision “is both exciting and bittersweet” for the family, Tom Dobson said.

“Whataburger has been the heart and soul of our family legacy for nearly 70 years, but we feel really good about the partnership with BDT,” he said.

The news that Whatburger had been “exploring options” came out about a month ago, and it’s fair to say that it caused some anxiety among the faithful. None of what did happen sounds apocalyptic to me, but then I just never fully acculturated the way some other prominent immigrants have.

My wife and kids are coping as best they can, thanks for asking. We will get through this, y’all. I promise. Texas Monthly, the Rivard Report, and the Current have more.

Justice Democrats find a primary opponent for Rep. Henry Cuellar

It’s on.

Jessica Cisneros

A 26-year-old Laredoan, former valedictorian of Early College High School and current immigration and human rights attorney, Jessica Cisneros is announcing her campaign Thursday to run for Congress in 2020 to represent Laredo and the rest of Texas’ 28th District, which spans from San Antonio to Mission.

“I’m super excited to finally have the opportunity,” said Cisneros to Laredo Morning Times. “I’ve been working for it and praying for it, to be able to give back to my community here in South Texas. From a very young age, I’ve known that I wanted to give back to my community. I’ve been inspired by the people here in Laredo.”

Cisneros will have the chance to give Laredo’s Rep. Henry Cuellar a serious primary challenger in this very blue district, which has solely been represented by Democrats since it was created in 1993.

Cisneros is backed by Justice Democrats, the progressive advocacy group that famously recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her successful primary bid to represent New York’s 14th congressional district. And Cisneros’ platform reflects Justice Democrats’ core values, which have become emblematic of the progressive left. According to a release from the Justice Democrats, they include: fixing the U.S. immigration system, ending family separations, opposing the border wall, instating a $15 minimum wage and a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, the end of corporate money influencing elections, free public college, women’s health and reproductive rights, gun reform, expanding Social Security, and making the wealthy pay their fair share.

Cisneros has pledged to reject campaign contributions from corporate political action committees and lobbyists.

Since Justice Democrats first announced that they would be targeting Cuellar’s seat in the primary, doubt has poured forth about the likelihood of a liberal Democrat winning an election in Laredo. In a recent Texas Monthly story on this very topic, Democratic consultant Christian Archer says he believes the Justice Democrats have misunderstood this congressional district.

“(Justice Democrats) probably don’t know Laredo. … These are farmers and ranchers and people who grew up carrying a gun,” Archer is quoted as saying in the story.

Cisneros begs to differ. She said people believe this area is conservative in part because Cuellar, a conservative Democrat, perpetuates the idea.

“South Texas is its own district. We are placed in a very unique spot in terms of politics and also geographically, being right here on the border,” Cisneros said. “But fundamentally I think the big issues are being able to address things like poverty — the rampant poverty that we have here on the border — health care access and the jobs issue.”

See here for the background. I’m not going to offer an opinion on Cisneros’ chances of winning. I don’t know the district, I don’t know either her or Rep. Cuellar, and I don’t know what kind of campaign she will be able to run. As I noted in that link, the recent history of primary challengers to incumbent members of Congress does not offer a ton of hope, but times change and this particular kind of challenge has not been attempted before. The one bit of pushback I will offer is that CD28 is not actually “very blue”, it’s on the blue end of purple. Cuellar has never had a serious Republican challenger, in part I think because he always outperforms the partisan baseline, which is still pretty blue if not impregnably blue to begin with. This isn’t challenging Gene Green from the left; Cisneros would be advised to not take her district’s partisan leanings for granted if she won the primary. That’s not an argument for her not to run – one could make a case that a more progressive Democrat would do a better job than Cuellar does turning out Democratic voters, for example – just an observation on my part about the numbers.

The x-factor in this and all other primaries for 2020 is the very high turnout we’re going to get thanks to the Presidential cattle call. Will lower-information Democratic voters stick with the name they know? Will newer voters be more inclined to vote for a change? I don’t know and neither does anyone else. Be prepared to take any primary polling of the district with a big ol’ grain of salt. Vox, the Rivard Report, the Current, and Texas Monthly have more.

Well, now we’ve all heard of Waskom

Congratulations, I guess.

Five Old Dudes In Search Of An Audience

Five men this week declared a small town in East Texas a “sanctuary city for the unborn,” commandeering the language of the movement for immigrant rights to counter the reproductive freedom of women.

There are no abortion clinics in Waskom, a city of about 2,200, which lies on the border with Louisiana. But the all-male, all-white City Council decided unanimously Tuesday that prohibiting abortion was necessary as a preventive measure.

The municipal prohibition, which plainly contradicts the judgments of the U.S. Supreme Court, joins statewide bans on abortion sweeping the country in the wake of the solidification of a conservative majority on the nation’s top court. In Texas, abortion already is banned after 20 weeks. Now, a bill awaiting the governor’s signature would require doctors in the state to treat “a child born alive after an abortion,” which happens rarely.

Supporters of the city ordinance say it is the first of its kind in the Lone Star State.

The legislation was modeled on a measure embraced 7 to 1 in March by the City Council of Roswell, New Mexico, which is best known as the site of a purported UFO crash in 1947. Roswell’s move to declare its support for “fetal life” was accompanied by a measure characterizing it as a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City,” in opposition to legislation advanced by the state legislature that expands background checks for private gun sales.

Waskom residents said they were unconcerned by the prospect of a costly legal fight over the abortion measure because, according to local media, “they say God will take care of them.”

[…]

Before the Tuesday vote, Waskom’s mayor told council members that the city lacked the resources to engage in a lengthy legal battle over the legislation, the instigation of which is the professed aim of the ordinance.

“Most likely we will wind up getting sued if this is passed,” the mayor, Jesse Moore, said. “It could go to the Supreme Court.”

That prospect would present fiscal challenges for the city, lawmakers acknowledged.

“We don’t have the possible millions of dollars that it would take to take it to that level,” said alderman Jimmy Dale Moore, who nevertheless voted for the ordinance. “We can’t pay those kind of attorney’s fees. The city don’t have the money.”

Pointing to a member of the crowd gathered to watch the proceedings, the mayor advised, “Save your nickels and pennies,” eliciting chuckles from the public.

“We may need them,” he said.

Maybe you could ask the people of Farmers Branch about their experiences paying for round after round of costly litigation after passing a blatantly illegal ordinance. But, as I say to my own kids, some lessons just need to be learned the hard way. Think Progress has more.

Republicans are worried about Texas, part 583

When was the last time you head about a Republican-oriented mass voter registration effort?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Wealthy Republican donors are preparing a multimillion-dollar effort to register more than 1 million new GOP voters in Texas for 2020 amid anxiety that President Trump could be in more trouble in this reliably red state than some in the party realize.

Richard Weekley, a Houston real estate developer and veteran Republican campaign contributor, is spearheading the new group, dubbed Engage Texas. According to GOP sources, the organization was set up as a 501(c)4, political nonprofit organization and plans to raise and spend $25 million by Election Day next year.

Engage Texas has garnered the support of top Republicans in the state and appears to have the support of party insiders in Washington. They believe the group could be critical to compensating for demographic trends that favor the Democrats — and to holding Texas for Trump and GOP Sen. John Cornyn.

“In 2018, we got hammered not only in the urban areas but in the suburbs, too,” Cornyn, 67, told the Washington Examiner. The third-term senator, who has sounded the alarm about the dangers of taking Texas for granted, described with a sense of relief the “substantial focus and investment, now, that will be made on voter registration.”

[…]

Some Republicans have attributed the outcome last fall, in which the GOP also suffered losses in state legislative races, to Cruz’s unpopularity and the resources invested by O’Rourke and his allies, a feat Democrats are unlikely to repeat in a national presidential contest. Senior Republican strategists in Texas are warning against that line of thinking.

“Everybody thinks it was a Cruz-Beto thing. But it’s a mess,” a GOP adviser said, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly. “Independents are behaving like Democrats — like they did in 2018.”

I wonder if they’ll come to regret supporting politicians who are dedicated to making it hard to register voters. Sure would be nice if y’all could do this electronically, am I right? We should keep an eye on this, but someone with more knowledge of the demography of not-registered voting-age citizens will have to answer the question of whether there are enough likely Republicans (i.e., white people) out there for this to be worth the effort. Link via Political Animal.

Joint primaries

Another potential change to how we vote is in the works.

Diane Trautman

Harris County primary voters could see a big change at the polls in 2020 if local party leaders agree on a new proposal.

Under the current system, voters go to the polls and they’re asked to say which party primary they want to participate in, Republican or Democratic. Voters line up separately. But Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman said Tuesday that combining the lines would be more cost-effective and give voters more privacy.

“You won’t see a Republican party here, Democratic party here. You’ll see one of each at each table, and you’ll have three lines that you could go in,” Trautman said.

Voters would check in at joint primary tables and select one party on an iPad.

“The other thing they’re going to notice is that there aren’t any lines outside the door,” Trautman said. “So that will be refreshing.”

She said the new plan addresses the biggest complaints she hears from voters.

Harris County officials hope to reach an agreement with party leaders by the end of the month. If approved, the new system would be in place for the next primary in March 2020.

The HCDP has agreed to this. The Republicans, not so much.

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson said Texas law allows parties to run their own primary elections, and he is reluctant to cede that role to the county clerk.

“The Democrat county clerk’s proposed joint primary elections would empower the bureaucrats and, worse, let one party’s workers run the other party’s primary election that selects its candidates, running the risk of disenfranchising, inconveniencing, and confusing voters,” Simpson said in a statement.

I actually have some sympathy for Simpson’s position. I have no doubt that if Stan Stanart had proposed this, I’d be suspicious, even with the knowledge that Harris is the only major county in the state that doesn’t hold joint primaries. I’d need to be convinced as a Democratic primary voter, and I’m sure Paul Simpson believes his voters will need to be convinced, too. (He’s on the ballot in 2020 as well, you know.) That said, I hope he goes into the discussion with an open mind. This makes sense on a couple of levels. One, you don’t have to announce your preference in front of strangers, which is the privacy appeal. Sure, anyone with VAN access can look up your record, but how many people do that? It’s also a more efficient use of resources, which should help shorten lines. Again, if there are questions or concerns, then let’s ask the party chairs in the other counties that do it this way, and see what they have to say about it. I’m happy to let Paul Simpson voice his worries, but let’s not be ruled by fear.

Sorry, Smithville

Their loss would be Houston’s gain.

MD Anderson Cancer Center will relocate its nearly 50-year-old research facility near Austin to Houston, a decision that’s upset business and political leaders in the central Texas area.

Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape has gone so far as to try to enlist Gov. Greg Abbott’s influence to convince MD Anderson to keep its Science Park in Smithville, site of Jim Allison’s earliest immune system research that last year culminated in the Nobel Prize.

“We need your help in saving an institution that is vital to Bastrop County,” Pape wrote Abbott in a letter, dated May 14. “Considerations are pending that might move this department to Houston. Please don’t let that happen.”

MD Anderson officials Friday met with employees to provide more specifics on the plan, which calls for the park to be shut down in two years. They said the decision is already final.

The officials said the Science Park will be integrated into MD Anderson’s south campus, where the system has built six new research buildings in the last 15 years and will build another as part of the touted TMC3 initiative, which will unite the cancer center, Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the Texas A&M University Health Science Center on 30 acres of Texas Medical Center land.

In an email, MD Anderson President Dr. Peter Pisters said the decision was made now because the Smithville facilities “are at the end of their lifespan” and necessary renovations would cost more than $100 million. MD Anderson’s investment in TMC3 is expected to cost at least that much.

[…]

The park, established by the Texas Legislature in 1972, opened in 1977 on land acquired from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Formally dedicated as a research center for the study of cancer’s causes and prevention, it has an annual operating budget of $13 million. Its scientists last year brought in nearly $15 million in federal and state grants.

I feel more for Smithville and Bastrop County than I do for The Woodlands – it’s smaller and is less likely to have some similar entity waiting in the wings to fill the empty space. That said, if MD Anderson thinks it makes sense to consolidate the two locations, it’s hard to say why they’d be wrong. Greg Abbott is a weak leader who doesn’t do anything that isn’t politically advantageous. It’s not clear to me why he’d get involved. But you never know with Abbott, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Checking in on the national political atmosphere

From the inbox, via G. Elliott Morris’ weekly email blast:

Are Democrats doing as well as they were in 2017-2018?

The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, but that’s what special elections and the generic ballot are for. These numbers point to stability in the pro-Democratic political environment.

The 2017 Women’s March was one of the largest mass-mobilizations in American history. It was estimated that as many as 5.6 million people marched nationwide in a show of solidarity with women and resistance to then-newly-inaugurated President Trump. That type of mobilization is hard to sustain, though, and it ~anecdotally~ seems like enthusiasm among Democrats has faltered. Matt Grossman, a political scientist, presented this take on Twitter:


Data on public opinion show a similar story, with a few notable exceptions.

The first datum from 2019 that we can compare to last year’s figures is Democrats’ margin in generic congressional ballot polling. A reminder: This is the survey question that asks voters how they would cast their ballot in the election for their congressional representative “if it were held today”. In November 2019, the average poll put Democrats up about 8.7 percentage points. That number ended up being almost perfectly predictive; nationwide, Democrats won the House popular vote by 8.6.

This year, Democrats are hitting a similar benchmark. Though the absolute level of support for their party has waned—this is due to the tendency for voters to drift toward the “not sure” option after an election—so too has the level of support for Republicans, so Democrats’ margin remains at roughly 9 points. Here are the crosstabs from The Economist’s latest polling from YouGov.

Note the pro-Democratic lean of every age group besides 65+ year-olds, and the only slightly-bad 2-point deficit among Males.

Democrats’ margin on the generic ballot is the first point in support of the hypothesis that the national mood is about as liberal and pro-Democratic as it was in the run-up to the 2018 midterms.

The second datum I’d like to consider is Democrats’ performance in special elections. If you recall, the swing from Democrats’ lagged presidential performance in state and federal legislative districts to their off-year margin in special elections in those same districts has historically been highly predictive of the party’s eventual House popular vote. Tracking these special elections from November 2016 to 2018, Daily Kos Elections found that Democratic candidates were running ahead of Hillary Clinton by about 11 percentage points. What is that number for special elections that have occurred since November 2018, you ask? A 7 percentage point swing to Democrats. That’s high, but not *as* high, as last year. This suggests a modest shift back toward the political equilibrium—or, if I may, a reversion to the political mean.

Note the just 2-point swing from Obama’s 2012 margin in those districts. Interesting. Will 2020 look more like 2012 than 2016? That, my friends, is the million-dollar question.

Combined, these data—a lack of comparable mass mobilization, the generic ballot, and leftward swings in special elections—indicate that the Democratic Party is performing slightly below their high-water mark in 2018. Of course, given how well they did last time, this slight decline still puts Democrats’ margin high enough to win the House of Representatives again in 2020. Further, given the high correlation between presidential and congressional vote choice, this also suggests a poor showing for President Trump in November. But my mission here is not to predict what will happen 18 months from now. Instead, it’s to point out the stability in America’s political environment. The Caribbean-blue waters from the wave that washed Democrats to a House majority last year appear to have yet to recede.

I don’t have any grand point to make here, I just wanted to note this for the record. From where I sit, there’s plenty of candidate energy, not just for Congress but also for the Lege and the SBOE. There’s still a lot of engagement, not at 2017 levels but the baseline is higher. People are more experienced now, they’ve learned from the 2018 cycle, and they have their sights on bigger goals. The city races this fall, especially the Mayor’s race, is going to put some strain on everyone, but with primary season following that almost immediately, I figure we’ll get back on track. As always, this is one data point, a snapshot in time as we move forward. Things will change, and I’ll check in on the way they look and feel as we go. For now at least, the data says that Dems are in roughly the same place they were during the 2018 cycle. That’s a fine place to start out.

Let the HD100 candidates come on out

With State Rep. Eric Johnson now also known as Dallas Mayor-Elect Eric Johnson, that means a special election for his legislative district is in the offing.

Rep. Eric Johnson

Dallas community advocate Lorraine Birabil has launched a campaign to replace outgoing state Rep. Eric Johnson, becoming the first of what’s expected to be a large field of contenders.

She told The Dallas Morning News that it’s critical for lawmakers to help develop criminal justice reform, access to affordable health care and quality public schools.

“This district has been home for me, and I know it’s important that we have opportunities for all,” Birabil said. “When we address these impediments, every Texan will be able to reach their full potential.”

Birabil won’t have the field to herself. The race to replace Johnson, who won Saturday’s runoff for Dallas mayor, is expected to be highly competitive.

At least 11 people have expressed interest or have been mentioned as possible candidates to fill his unexpired term in the Texas House.

That number could grow by the time Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sets a special election, presumably in November, to fill Johnson’s seat.

“People are interested in being involved,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “The fact is, a state representative seat doesn’t come open that often.”

Johnson has not resigned, and Abbott has not indicated when or if he’ll call a special election.

Looks like Inauguration Day for Johnson is Monday, June 17, so he’s going to have to resign before then. That leaves plenty of time to call a November special election, which I presume is what will happen. Assuming that is what does happen, whoever wins (in the runoff, of course) ought to be in good position to win the primary, which is what will really matter, as this special is only for the unexpired term. First, we need the resignation, and everything follows from there.

In which I plead for a boon from national writers

Dear national political writers:

MJ Hegar

The former Texas congressman and one-time Senate hopeful has attended at least 67 Iowa town halls, driven nearly 3,000 miles across the state, and hired dozens of staffers there. He’s tall, white, charismatic, and handsome—traits that should serve him well in the famously monochromatic Hawkeye State.

And yet, in the latest Des Moines Register poll, O’Rourke only has 2 percent support. He’s also not faring much better in national polling, where he hovers around 3-4 percent, and his numbers have sharply declined since an early and splashy entry into the race.

Perhaps worst for O’Rourke is that his strategic persona—youthful, well-spoken, vaguely left-liberal, smart yet inoffensive—is being done better and more effectively by South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has surged to a top-five position in the race. Nor does O’Rourke’s presence in the campaign, unlike other candidates like Washington Governor Jay Inslee, serve to highlight issues that would make his candidacy worth the effort even in defeat.

Fortunately for O’Rourke and for Democrats, there is another useful path for him, one that would serve the country far better: making another run for the U.S. Senate against Republican John Cornyn. The filing deadlineisn’t until December 9, which gives him plenty of time to reconsider. And a large number of Texas Democrats would like to see him come back home to do it.

Please, for the love of Molly Ivins, if you must opine about how Beto shoulda run for Senate, could you at least acknowledge, even in passing, that there’s already a strong and exciting Democratic candidate in the race? Like Beto, MJ Hegar raised a ton of money in 2018. Like Beto, MJ Hegar was a viral sensation who drew a lot of favorable press during her campaign. Like Beto, Hegar came very close (within two points in Beto’s case, within three points in MJ’s) of knocking off a Republican incumbent in a race that was originally on no one’s radar. Indeed, MJ Hegar arguably had the more impressive performance, as Trump carried CD31 by 12.5 points while winning statewide by only 9 points. Any way you look at it, Hegar is at least as well positioned to do well at this point in time as Beto was in 2017.

Now, if you want to argue that Beto would be the stronger candidate against John Cornyn, by virtue of his previous experience running statewide and his national profile, that’s fine…as long as you are arguing for Beto versus MJ Hegar, not Beto versus an existential void. My point here, and all that I’m asking, is that you argue based on the situation that actually exists, not the situation you seem to be imagining because you’re not paying attention or because you have a bee in your bonnet about the size of the Democratic Presidential field or Beto’s not-great Presidential rollout or whatever. Beto may well be, or have been, the best candidate to beat John Cornyn, and Lord knows the Dems need to win every Senate seat they can to have a hope of actually governing. But Beto is not the candidate who is running. Please, I beg of you, give me some reason to believe that you are aware of that fact. That’s all I’m asking.

UPDATE: And in the short period of time between drafting this and scheduling it for publication, this story from The Hill arrives. At least it quotes someone who notes that anyone who puts in the work that Beto did in 2018 could win, as Texas is “fundamentally competitive”. I’ll try to be okay with that.

DART to study driverless buses

We’ll see what this means in practice.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit has joined a national association of transit and transportation agencies to explore how autonomous buses could shuttle people around cities in the future.

The Automated Bus Consortium plans to research driverless buses and run pilot projects with “full-sized, full-speed buses” to better understand how they could be rolled out nationwide, according to a news release. The group will study the safety of the buses and how they could reduce congestion. By working together, the transit agencies aim to lower the cost of testing and share best practices, the news release said.

The group is made up of about a dozen members, including the transit agencies of Los Angeles County and Atlanta and the Michigan Department of Transportation. The group was created by Los Angeles-based engineering firm AECOM.

For the first 12 months, the consortium plans to study the feasibility of the autonomous buses, according to the news release. It will buy an initial fleet of 75 to 100 full-sized, automated buses, which it will test in 2021 or 2022 on routes chosen by the transit and transportation agencies.

DART does not have a timetable for testing autonomous buses, spokesman Gordon Shattles said. He said joining the group is another way that DART can keep up with emerging transportation technologies.

This feels more like pie in the sky noodling than a practical roadmap, but whatever. There’s value in looking for current applications of existing technology, and seeing where that can take you. I lean towards that timeline for testing being overly optimistic, but we’ll see. Ask me again in 2021 or so.

It’s not an apology that’s needed

This may make for good rhetoric, but it’s not what the goal should be.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Congressmen Joaquin Castro and Lloyd Doggett on Friday demanded Gov. Greg Abbott apologize to Texas voters for attempting to purge as many as 95,000 people from Texas voter rolls and said Congress should sue for state records that could show how the plan unfolded if state officials continue to stonewall.

The Texas Democrats said Congress should use every tool at its disposal to investigate the purge they said would have suppressed Latino voter turnout in hopes it will prevent a repeat before the 2020 elections.

“I want them to really put the screws on the governor’s office that it looks like has coordinated an attack on our democracy,” said Castro of San Antonio. “It’s important that we make sure this doesn’t happen again, because if they feel like they got away or they got away with it, then I think they’ll do it again.”

[…]

Castro said he expects the congressional committee to request documents from Texas state lawmakers who may have received some relevant records and signed non-disclosure agreements. After exhausting those and other options, he said he would urge the committee to take Texas to court for records.

“If they have nothing to hide, why wouldn’t they turn those documents over? If we don’t get it, then we should sue,” Castro said.

Doggett, whose district stretches from San Antonio to Austin, said “no tools will be off the table. We’re going to take whatever steps are necessary.”

[…]

Agencies have largely declined to release internal communications that could show how the attempted voter purge was conceived or how the error-ridden list of suspected non-citizens was vetted before its release. In declining to release its own emails, the governor’s office has cited broad exemptions, including attorney client privilege and deliberative process.

Joe Larsen, a first amendment attorney with Houston-based Gregor Cassidy, PLLC, said the governor’s office should have to provide those answers.

“There’s a vital public interest in the disclosure of this information,” he said.

The state also has not released the list of more than 95,000 registered voters that were flagged as potential non-citizens.

That’s a departure from 2012, when the state made public the records used to create an erroneous list of dead people it tried to purge from the voter rolls. Then, the Houston Chronicle found the state had mistakenly matched living voters with deceased strangers from across the country.

See here for some background. I’m mostly interested in the “urge the committee to take Texas to court for records”, because I think the only way to get these records is going to be via court order. There’s just no way Abbott et al will give them up voluntarily. They don’t think they need to, and they don’t see themselves as being answerable to Democratic politicians. Taking this to the courts, and voting these unaccountable princelings out of office at the next opportunity are the answers.

Another dive into the Heidi Group grift

The Observer is on it this time, and as before if you’re not mad by the time you’ve finished reading you’re doing it wrong.

Right there with them

The state of Texas has poured hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars into [Carol] Everett’s clinic, which opened in a strip mall in Round Rock last spring, and millions through her anti-abortion organization, the Heidi Group. Everett’s group was tapped as a test case in the effort to defund Planned Parenthood and lift up faith-based, anti-abortion clinics in state and national family planning programs. It didn’t go well. In September, the state announced it would end Everett’s funding, two weeks after the Observer reported that the group had served just 5 percent of the patients promised in its first year.

Now, internal documents, communications and financial statements obtained by the Observer, along with state records and interviews with half a dozen former Heidi Group employees and with Everett, paint a picture of mismanagement, contract violations, lack of oversight and misuse of taxpayer funds — problems that state officials knew about even as they continued to extend the Heidi Group’s contract for more than two years.

[…]

State lawmakers have funnelled millions into the kind of clinics that Everett has championed. The budget for Texas’ Alternatives to Abortion program, which funds faith-based pregnancy centers, has grown 16-fold since its inception in 2006, following this legislative session, with a total investment of about $170 million through 2021. In 2011, Republican lawmakers slashed the state’s family planning budget by two-thirds, shuttering 82 clinics. Two years later, they kicked Planned Parenthood and other abortion provider affiliates out of the state’s low-income women’s health program, forgoing millions in federal dollars to begin a state-funded program instead. At the time, less than a quarter of the estimated 1.8 million poor Texas women in need of publicly funded contraceptive services were getting them. The cuts resulted in tens of thousands more women losing access to reproductive health services like gynecological exams, birth control, cancer screenings and STD testing.

Then, in 2016, the state’s goals and Everett’s aligned in what she called “the greatest possibility for expansion of pro-life care for the poor ever.” Texas’ health agency had scrambled for years to rebuild the reproductive health care safety net without established family planning providers like Planned Parenthood. Now, the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) was launching a replacement program called Healthy Texas Women, which would provide reproductive health care and preventive screenings to low-income women. Officials needed someone to fill the gap left by Planned Parenthood, which had previously served 40 percent of patients in Texas’ women’s health program.

Everett had no experience with state family planning programs. But officials awarded her multimillion-dollar contracts to find and oversee providers in Healthy Texas Women and in the Family Planning Program, the state’s other reproductive health program that also covers men and undocumented patients. Everett pledged to serve an astounding 69,000 patients in the two programs during her first year — more than Planned Parenthood.

The experiment failed dramatically. For fiscal year 2017, the Heidi Group was awarded $1.6 million to serve 51,000 patients in Healthy Texas Women; it spent $1.3 million and served 2,300, according to HHSC data. In the Family Planning Program, the group got $5.1 million to serve nearly 18,000 people. After realizing the Heidi Group was falling short of those targets, the state clawed back and reallocated funds mid-year. It ended up spending $605,000 to serve just over 1,000 patients. HHSC released data for fiscal year 2018 in May, but did not specify the number of patients served by contractors. According to an Observer analysis, which added the patients served by Heidi Group subcontractors and the Heidi Clinic in each program in 2018, roughly 4,000 patients were served through Healthy Texas Women and about 2,700 through the Family Planning Program. The state ended Everett’s contracts in December, and launched an investigation into more than $1 million in questionable spending. Her own clinic, which has served just a few hundred women, faces an uncertain future.

Read the rest. The Chron wrote a similar story a couple of months ago, and it’s just as infuriating. Ultimately, I think Carol Everett was a true believer who got way in over her head by being in the right place at the right time with the right things to say. She’s not evil, she’s just Forrest Gump’s incompetent anti-abortion zealot cousin. It’s everyone who enabled the system to throw millions of dollars at her, all the while consigning thousands of poor women to crappy-at-best health care, who deserve all the scorn. That’s Greg Abbott, his appointed flunkies at HHSC like Stuart Bowen, Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, and every Republican legislator who voted to kick out Planned Parenthood. They made this mess, and some day it will be up to the rest of us to clean it up.

Anadarko anxiety

We know how you feel, The Woodlands.

Occidental last month agreed to buy Anadarko for $38 billion, outbidding the much bigger oil company Chevron. The looming question is whether Oxy will maintain a presence in The Woodlands or move out entirely, relocating the Anadarko employees it opts to keep on the payroll to Oxy’s new headquarters in Houston’s Energy Corridor.

With Oxy under increased pressure to cut both costs and the massive debt it will take on to complete the acquisition, it’s a decent bet that layoffs are coming and Anadarko’s twin-towers headquarters — the tallest buildings between Houston and Dallas — could end up for sale. Oxy recently bought ConocoPhillips’ old headquarters in the Energy Corridor, a campus of low-rise buildings on 62 acres that can accommodate up to about 4,000 people, according to ConocoPhillips.

Oxy, which plans to relocate there from Greenway Plaza, could move its 2,000-plus employees and still have room to fit much of the Anadarko workforce if it sells The Woodlands property, appraised at about $12 million, but likely worth much more on the open market. Anadarko, which first moved to The Woodlands in 2002, is Montgomery County’s largest private employer with nearly 2,000 full-time, local workers.

“It’s a huge impact to have that many people working and living here,” said J.J. Hollie, president and chief executive of The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce. “Losing that would cause ripples we’d certainly feel.”

It’s not that long ago that Anadarko abandoned their office space in the Greenspoint area to move into that then-shiny new building in The Woodlands; they built a second tower a few years after that. Looks like we’ve come full circle. I’m not worried about The Woodlands – there needs to be a lot more businesses leaving town before they have anything to worry about – but I’ll feel bad for any small businesses that depend on Anadarko employees and will suffer in their absence. Sorry this may happen, y’all, but it’s the world we live in.

May runoff results

With 303 of 474 precincts reporting, State Rep. Eric Johnson was leading in the runoff for Dallas Mayor over Scott Griggs, 57% to 43%. At the time I started writing this I didn’t see any news coverage declaring the race to be over, but it sure looks to me like Johnson is going to win. So congratulations to (I presume) Mayor-elect Eric Johnson. You know what this means: There will be another special legislative election, which I would bet will be in November. Johnson’s HD100 is solid Dem so a flip is not in play, but expect there to be a big field.

On a side note here, Johnson knocked off longtime Rep. Terri Hodge (who would soon after be convicted of federal tax fraud charges) in 2010. He’s always struck me as someone who had his sights on bigger things. Having just achieved one of those bigger things, look for him to start getting mentioned in future conversations about statewide candidacy. I could definitely see him taking aim at Dan Patrick in 2022, or Ted Cruz in 2024. Just something to keep in mind.

In San Antonio, Mayor Ron Nirenberg held on.

Incumbent Ron Nirenberg retained his position as San Antonio’s Mayor after defeating Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) in the runoff election on Saturday.

Brockhouse officially conceded at 9:12 p.m.

With 96.98 percent of precincts counted, Nirenberg held 51.07 percent of the vote to Brockhouse’s 48.93 percent.

Nirenberg opened the night with a slight lead in early voting, which tightened as more precincts were counted. The margin was just 1.44 points with 78 percent of the precincts voting before a late surge gave Nirenberg the victory.

“I’ve never worked harder in my life to make sure that this city was well represented than over the last two years, but certainly over the last month where we had to remind folks that we can be a city for everyone,” Nirenberg said.

Unofficial results are here. Brockhouse, who among other things was a shill for Chick-fil-A, went on to whine about how The Media Was Out To Get Him. I’m sure you can hear my eyes roll at this, but it did lead to my favorite tweet of the evening:

Every once in awhile, Twitter proves itself worthy of existence.

Finally, I’m sad to say that Nabila Mansoor failed to win her runoff in Sugar Land. She trailed by almost 600 votes early and closed the gap a bit on Election Day, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

UPDATE: Here’s a Trib story on the two Mayoral runoffs.