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Tony Buzbee

No, crime is not up in Houston

Facts are stubborn things.

Like the rest of the country, crime in Houston has plummeted over the last 30 years, as has residents’ fear of crime being the city’s most pressing problem. FBI data show that most categories of crime in Houston have fallen or remained stagnant during Turner’s term, which began in January 2016. Criminologists also scoff at the claim that Houston is among the country’s most dangerous cities.

Violent crime is down more than 10 percent from 2017, during its peak under Turner’s administration, according to preliminary FBI data. Non-violent crime has dropped about 6 percent since 2015.

From 2015 to 2018, murders dropped and robberies fell; burglaries decreased; thefts fell; and fewer vehicles were stolen. The exceptions were aggravated assaults and rapes, which rose in 2017 before declining again in 2018.

[…]

“We are at the bottom of a 30-year decline, more or less, in the crime rate,” said Scott Henson, of Just Liberty, a criminal justice reform nonprofit.

In Turner’s first year in office, for example, criminals murdered 301 Houstonians. The city saw 279 murders in 2018, a slight uptick from 269 in 2017.

The city’s murder rate is four times that of New York, the safest large city in the United States, and a sixth of St. Louis, the nation’s most deadly. A survey of the nation’s 297 largest cities (meaning they had populations of 100,000 or more) shows Houston’s ranked 75th in murders, and 31st in violent crime.

“When we talk about the murder capitals of the country, the violent crime capitals of the country, Houston is not one of the cities people put on that list,” said Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based criminologist. “At least anyone familiar with the data.”

Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, said it is misleading to compare the crime rate of a city with 2.3 million people to those of small towns, which frequently have much lower crime rates.

A more accurate measure, he said, would be to look at other large cities across the country.

Among the nation’s 30 largest cities, Houston’s murder rate “is thoroughly middle of the road,” Grawert said. “I don’t see Houston as being one of the more ‘violent’ places in the country.”

And while criminologists acknowledge the city’s overall crime rate is indeed higher than 95 percent of other American cities, towns, and villages, they say such comparisons overinflate the importance of more common but less serious crimes like thefts.

“As a major American city, Houston has some crime,” said Asher. “That’s the same as me saying Houston has more trash cans than 95 percent of cities … Houston is one of the largest cities in the country. Of course it does.”

Experts say it is not useful to measure crime on a year-to-year basis because one-year outliers do not accurately reflect trends or significant changes in crime patterns.

Since 1985, the annual number of murders has risen as high as 608 in 1991 and as low as 198 in 2011. Overall, the city’s murder rate has trended downward from about 26.5 per 100,000 to 11.5 per 100,000 in 2018.

“Houston is safer than has been for a really long time, honestly, is the truth of it,” said Henson.

This article was written because the non-Mayors in the Mayoral race were all claiming that crime is up and mayhem is rampant. I mean, what else do they have to talk about? I don’t know about some of these candidates, but I was living here in 1991, and I remember what it was like. I remember looking for rental properties with my roommates in Houston and noticing that the most prominent feature on many places in Montrose was burglar bars. I remember that the conventional wisdom was that single women should not live in the Heights because it wasn’t safe for them. Hell, when I bought my first house in the Heights in 1997, Tiffany’s parents (who live in Bellaire) were worried about its location. The Houston we live in now is so much safer.

One more thing: Insistence that the city is swamped by crime leads naturally to a demand for more aggressive policing – more traffic stops, more “broken windows”-type arrests, more zero-tolerance mindset, etc. We all know what that means for minority communities. At a time when people are recognizing the great harm that over-incarceration and the “war on drugs” have caused, this is dangerous and deeply out of step with the popular will. And pretty much what I’d expect from King and Buzbee, the two loudest voices in that story. Grits, who was quoted in the story, has more.

It’s not really a campaign until there are attack ads

I have three things to say about this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner launched a television ad Monday attacking Tony Buzbee for donating to President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, marking the mayor’s first major attempt to link his political opponent to the president.

Buzbee, a millionaire businessman and lawyer, is one of 11 candidates running for mayor against Turner, who is seeking a second four-year term in November.

In the summer of 2016, Buzbee hosted a fundraiser for Trump — who was then the presumptive Republican nominee — at his mansion in River Oaks.

In October 2016, after a video surfaced in which Trump is heard bragging about groping women, Buzbee disavowed Trump, posting on social media, “Sorry Donald. I’m done with you. Completely.”

He later contributed $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration committee.

Turner’s ad opens with a clip of Trump calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” at his 2015 campaign launch speech, when Trump also accused immigrants of bringing drugs and crime across the border.

“Noise, and more noise, from Donald Trump and his imitator, Tony Buzbee,” a narrator’s voice says.

1. Ideally, incumbents prefer to be able to run campaigns that don’t acknowledge their opposition. Even the most devastating negative ad still has the effect of raising the opponent’s name ID. Attacking Buzbee means there’s more value in trying to take him down than the downside of introducing him to a wider audience.

2. Buzbee is of course a target-rich environment, with his ties to Donald Trump and Rick Perry, his general douche-bro profile, his loose relationship with accurate information, and the fact that he’s basically a loudmouth know-it-all with no experience in government. You know, kind of like some other guy who was also a very bad idea to vote for.

3. The thing about running attack ads in a multi-candidate race is that it can have the side effect of improving the position of the candidate or candidates who are neither the target nor the instigator of the ad. Is Turner attacking Buzbee in hope of softening him up for the runoff, or in hope of knocking him out so he’ll face someone else in the runoff? Hard to say. If he keeps this up for weeks, or if he goes on to attack other candidates, we’ll have a better idea.

Checking in on the Mayor’s race

Remember the Mayor’s race? Yeah, that.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

“The candidates have been running for months but were focused on fundraising and defining their message,” said Nancy Sims, a Houston political analyst. “Labor Day is when people tune into the election.”

The stretch-run of the race follows months of campaigning from Buzbee, a businessman and trial lawyer who announced his candidacy last October. King, also a businessman and lawyer, joined the race in February, then the field expanded in June with the candidacy of District D Councilman Dwight Boykins and, weeks later, former At-Large Councilwoman Sue Lovell.

Seven other lesser-known candidates also are running.

Despite vigorous campaigning from Turner’s opponents, the race has yet to reach its loudest pitch, in part because Turner only has appeared at campaign events without other mayoral candidates. Earlier this week, Buzbee and King criticized the mayor for not yet attending any candidate forums.

A Turner campaign spokesperson said he was not invited to the Wednesday forum or to a prior forum held in June by the Lake Houston Pachyderm Club, which Buzbee and King attended.

Even as the race heats up, mayoral candidates are battling with a bloated field of Democratic presidential candidates for the attention of Houston voters, who typically do not tune into city elections en masse until September.

“I think the challenge for the city candidates this year is that they are greatly overshadowed by the 2020 race,” Sims said. “They are struggling to get the attention they need for people to focus in on the city elections.”

Even without distractions, such as the Sept. 12 Democratic presidential debate in Houston, municipal candidates often struggle to drag voters to the polls: Just 27 percent of registered Houston voters turned out in the 2015 race, the first time since 2003 that turnout was more than 20 percent.

Still, the candidates are entering the critical part of the race with ample resources to draw out voters. Buzbee is self-funding his campaign and as of June 30 had contributed $7.5 million of his personal wealth. He had spent more than $2.3 million at the same point, and recently made a six-figure TV ad buy through the end of September.

“Tony Buzbee is a very unique candidate because of his ability to self-fund, so the normal rules and strategies regarding TV don’t really apply to him, because he effectively has a bottomless wallet,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “For other candidates who have to keep their powder dry, we’re unlikely to see major media buys until the first or second week of October.”

We’ve discussed this before, but as a reminder what drives turnout in city elections is a high profile referendum on the ballot. Contested Mayoral races are a factor too, but the addition of a referendum is the difference between 2003 (381K votes, Metro light rail referendum) or 2015 (286K votes, HERO repeal) and 2009 (181K, no referendum). Even without a contested Mayor’s race, a sufficiently hot ballot item can bring a lot of voters out – see, for example, 2005 (332K, anti-gay marriage Constitutional amendment). The Metro referendum this year isn’t nearly as controversial as the 2003 one was, and there may not be any astroturf opposition effort to it, but Metro will be pushing voters to the polls as well as the candidates are, and that should boost turnout a bit.

I would also push back against the notion that no one pays much attention to the Mayoral races before Labor Day, and I’d point to the last three open Mayoral elections as evidence. Bill White was running those white-background ads in 2003 early on in the year. Annise Parker, Gene Locke, and Peter Brown were releasing position papers and talking about ideas for traffic, crime, neighborhoods, economic development, and a whole lot of other things well before September. The pension issue, HERO, and the Adrian Garcia will-he-or-won’t-he tease dominated 2015. Maybe it was just the more engaged voters tuning in, but speaking as one of those engaged voters, there was a lot more happening in those past elections than there has been in this one.

Why might that be? Well, let me summarize the campaigns of the main Turner opponents so far.

Bill King: I’m a rich old guy who was once the Mayor of a town with fewer people than most HISD high schools, and I’m not Sylvester Turner.

Tony Buzbee: I’m a rich guy who’s buddies with Rick Perry, and I’m not Sylvester Turner.

Dwight Boykins: I’m not Sylvester Turner, and I supported Prop B.

Sue Lovell: I’m not Sylvester Turner, I supported Prop B, and unlike these other guys I also supported HERO.

I mean, you tell me why the excitement level has been set to “Meh”. I don’t see a whole lot changing from here, and it will be turned up to 11 in the runoff. Welcome to election season, y’all.

The 2019 lineups are set

Barring any late disqualifications or other unexpected events, we have the candidates we’re getting on our 2019 ballot.

More than 125 candidates turned in paperwork to run for city office by Monday’s filing deadline, setting up a packed November ballot likely to leave every incumbent with at least one opponent.

The unusually crowded field is driven largely by the city’s move in 2015 to extend term limits, allowing officials to serve two four-year terms instead of three two-year terms, said Rice University political science Professor Bob Stein.

“It used to be that you just wouldn’t run against an incumbent. You would wait until they term-limited out,” Stein said. “Candidates are no longer getting the two-year pass.”

Thirteen candidates have filed to run for mayor, including incumbent Sylvester Turner, who is running for a second four-year term. Turner’s challengers include his 2015 runoff opponent, Bill King, lawyer and business owner Tony Buzbee, Councilman Dwight Boykins and former councilwoman Sue Lovell.

By Friday evening, the city’s legal department had approved applications from at least 97 candidates. Another 28 candidates had filed for office and were awaiting approval from the city attorney’s office, and an unknown additional number of candidates filed just before the 5 p.m. deadline.

Ten candidates were officially on the ballot for mayor, with three others awaiting legal department approval by the close of business Monday.

Early voting begins Oct. 21 and Election Day is Nov. 5.

Late additions include retreads like Orlando Sanchez, who I guess hasn’t found steady work since being booted as Treasurer, and Eric Dick, seeking to become the next Griff Griffin, who by the way also filed. Sanchez is running for Controller, while Dick is in At Large #5, and Griff is once again running in At Large #2.

And there’s also HISD.

Two Houston ISD trustees filed paperwork Monday to seek re-election and will each face a single challenger, while several candidates will jostle to fill two other open seats on a school board that could soon be stripped of power.

HISD Board President Diana Dávila and Trustee Sergio Lira made their re-election runs official hours before Monday’s afternoon deadline, while trustees Jolanda Jones and Rhonda Skillern-Jones will not seek another term.

Thirteen newcomers will aim to unseat the two incumbents or win vacant spots on the board. The prospective trustees will square off in a November general election and, if necessary, runoff elections in December.

So much for them all resigning. You can read each of the stories in toto to see who gets name-checked, or you can peruse the Erik Manning spreadsheet, which is fortified with essential vitamins and minerals. Note also that in the HCC races, Monica Flores Richart has the task of taking out the reprehensible Dave Wilson, while Rhonda Skillern-Jones faces Brendon Singh and Kathy Lynch Gunter for the trustee slot that Wilson is abandoning in his desperate attempt to stay on the Board, and Cynthia Gary appears to have no opposition in her quest to succeed Neeta Sane. Leave a comment and let us know what you think of your 2019 Houston/HISD/HCC candidates.

Metro referendum is set

Here we go.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members voted Tuesday to ask voters in November for permission to borrow up to $3.5 billion, without raising taxes. The money would cover the first phase of what local leaders expect to be the start of shifting Houston from a car-focused city to a multimodal metro region — even if it does not put everyone on a bus or train.

“Even if you ride in your car, it is more convenient if there are less cars on the road,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

The item will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, the first vote for new transit projects in 16 years for the Houston region.

The bond proposition would authorize Metro to move forward on a $7.5 billion suite of projects including extending the region’s three light rail lines, expanding the use of bus rapid transit — large buses operating mostly in dedicated lanes — along key corridors such as Interstate 10 and to Bush Intercontinental Airport, and creating two-way high-occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy toll lanes along most Houston’s freeways.

“It doesn’t do everything we would like to do, but it does everything we can afford to do,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

In addition, the ballot item calls for extending the general mobility program, which hands over one-quarter of the money Metro collects from its 1 percent sales tax to local governments that participate in the transit agency. The 15 cities and Harris County use the money mostly for street improvements, but they can use it for other projects such as sidewalks, bike lanes and, in limited cases, landscaping and traffic safety and enforcement.

Local elected officials and business leaders will soon stump for the plan, which has not drawn sizable or organized opposition but is likely to require some persuasion.

[…]

Transit officials would also need to secure an estimated $3.5 billion in federal money, most likely via the Federal Transit Administration, which doles out money for major transit projects. Federal officials contributed $900 million of the $2.2 billion cost of the 2011-2017 expansion of light rail service.

The federal approval will largely dictate when many of the rail and bus rapid transit lines are built as well as where the projects run, Patman said. Though officials have preferred routes for certain projects — such as light rail to Hobby Airport or bus rapid transit along Gessner — those projects and others could change as the plans are studied further.

“Routes will only be determined after discussions with the community,” Patman said. “I don’t think anyone needs to worry about a route being forced upon them.”

Metro would have some latitude to prod some projects along faster than others, based on other regional road and highway projects. Speedier bus service between the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, for example, could happen sooner if a planned widening of Interstate 10 within Loop 610 remains a priority for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which has added the project to its five-year plan. Work on widening the freeway is scheduled for 2021, giving Metro officials a chance to make it one of the first major projects.

I must admit, I’d missed that HOV lane for I-10 inside the Loop story. I wish there were more details about how exactly this might be accomplished, but as someone who regularly suffers the torment of driving I-10 inside the Loop, I’m intrigued. This would effectively be the transit link from the Northwest Transit Center, which by the way is also the location of the Texas Central Houston terminal and downtown. This is something that has been bandied about since 2015, though it was originally discussed as a rail line, not BRT. (I had fantasies about the proposed-but-now-tabled Green Line extension down Washington Avenue as a means to achieve this as well.) Such is life. Anyway, this is something I definitely need to know more about.

You can see the full plan as it has now been finalized here. Other BRT components include a north-south connection from Tidwell and 59 down to UH, which then turns west and essentially becomes the Universities Line, all the way out to Richmond and Beltway 8, with a dip down to Gulfton along the way, and a north-south connection from 290 and West Little York down Gessner to Beltway 8. The Main Street light rail line would extend north to the Shepherd park and ride at I-45, and potentially south along the US90 corridor into Fort Bend, all the way to Sugar Land. Go look at the map and see for yourself – there are HOV and park and ride enhancements as well – it’s fairly well laid out.

I feel like this referendum starts out as a favorite to pass. It’s got something for most everyone, there’s no organized opposition at this time, and Metro has not been in the news for bad reasons any time recently. I expect there to be some noise about the referendum in the Mayor’s race, because Bill King hates Metro and Tony Buzbee is an idiot, but we’re past the days of John Culberson throwing his weight around, and for that we can all be grateful. I plan to reach out to Metro Chair Carrin Patman to interview her about this, so look for that later on. What do you think?

July 2019 campaign finance reports: Mayoral candidates

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro and the Mayor’s race

This went pretty much as one would expect.

Delivering his fourth State of Mobility speech to Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Chapter, Mayor Sylvester Turner echoed previous years, noting the region needs more options than solo driving if it is to handle the deluge of new residents in the future.

“We need to find ways to move people efficiently and quickly, and that means more than just building more highways,” Turner said.

While touching on the many improvements needed in the region, including deepening the Houston Ship Channel to keep the Port of Houston an attractive call for ships and support of a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, much of the session was spent on the upcoming transit plans.

“We cannot continue to operate a transportation system as if it was 30 years ago,” Turner said.

[…]

“Given the congestion we have now… we must build out our system,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

Patman and others said most of the summer will be spent selling voters on the plan, though officials believe it has strong support.

“Of course, we will have some naysayers,” Patman said.

That includes some of Turner’s opponents in the mayoral race, which also will be on the November ballot. Bill King and Tony Buzbee both have said Houston has invested too much in public transit to the detriment of suburban commuters.

Asked during a June 10 Kingwood forum on transportation solutions, King said “it is not transit or light rail” while congratulating Metro on its commuter bus efforts.

Buzbee focused his remarks at the event on the need to improve neighborhood streets and synchronizing traffic lights for better efficiency. He called the Metro plan too focused on a small portion of the city.

“It is more about career politicians telling us public transit is good,” Buzbee said.

So, Bill King cares more about people driving in from The Woodlands than anything else, while Buzbee demonstrates zero grasp of the topic at hand. As for Dwight Boykins, he wasn’t quoted in the story, probably because he wasn’t at the event. Insert shrug emoji here.

Look, Metro has come a long way since the dark days of Frank Wilson and David Wolff. There are more HOV lanes, a vastly improved bus system, more light rail, good ridership numbers, and forward-thinking planning from the Board and the Chair. All that is at risk, not just with the MetroNext plan on the ballot but also Mayor’s race. All the good work being done goes right out the window if a transit-hostile or transit-ignorant Mayor gets elected. Sylvester Turner is the only choice if you care about transit. It’s not even close.

Buzbee billboard lawsuit dismissed

I did say it was a dumb lawsuit.

“Objection Overruled”, by Charles Bragg

A state district judge has dismissed challenger Tony Buzbee’s lawsuit against Mayor Sylvester Turner and advertising company Clear Channel Outdoor over a series of billboards for the city’s AlertHouston campaign.

In the suit, Buzbee claimed Clear Channel and Turner had conspired to support the mayor’s re-election bid by “promoting him as a civic-minded safety conscious leader” on the ad campaign for a system that sends alerts to Houston residents during emergency situations.

The advertisements, which were taken down earlier this month, featured a photo of Turner next to the words “Be Prepared. Be Safe. Be Alert Houston.”

Buzbee, a trial lawyer, said in a statement Tuesday that he plans to appeal the ruling, which was issued last Friday by 281st District Judge Christine Weems.

[…]

Weems did not explain the dismissal in her ruling, writing only that Turner and Clear Channel had 21 days to set a hearing or file a motion to determine how much they would be reimbursed for attorney fees and other costs.

See here for the background. The billboards were taken down, which is what Buzbee wanted, though the Turner campaign says they were going to be coming down around this time anyway. The motion to dismiss was filed by the defendants, so in that sense Buzbee lost, and unless the suit is reinstated he’ll be on the hook for court costs and attorney fees. This has been your irregularly scheduled Dumb Lawsuits Update.

Buzbee files another lawsuit

Tony Buzbee does what Tony Buzbee does.

Houston mayoral candidate and attorney Tony Buzbee has filed a lawsuit on behalf of two companies that allege they were fraudulently listed as subcontractors by two companies that later secured millions of dollars for Hurricane Harvey relief work from the city of Houston.

Filed Tuesday in Harris County, the action alleges that Blessed Enterprises and A-Status Construction LLC were unaware that they were listed as minority-owned subcontractors by Burghli Investments and Tegrity Houston LLC, which each received $66 million from the city to help rebuild or rehabilitate homes affected by the storm.

They allege that the companies committed “fraud, misappropriation and implied breach of contract” in order to meet diversity goals and obtain contracts that were approved by City Council. The owners of the companies represented by Buzbee said they learned they were listed on the bids through a website run by the Office of Business of Opportunity, which monitors the program.

[…]

At a Tuesday press conference, Buzbee said he filed the lawsuit out of concern for minority-owned businesses that “routinely are shut out” of the bid process and “never get a piece of the pie.”

The companies he represents are both certified for business with the city, but say they have never received a contract. They say the city’s bid process is unfair, and that the allegedly fraudulent use of their names could damage their reputations and, thus, their ability to get future contracts.

“I worked hard to get where I am,” A-Status Construction owner Raquel Boujourne said “I find it extremely unfair to see these same companies be awarded contract after contract while I am over here working my butt off… Businesses like ours, the little guys, are taken advantage of and the city does not lift a finger to do anything about it. It is a huge problem.”

Buzbee also claimed that Burghli Investments received business with the city because it gave campaign contributions to Turner, despite having been sued multiple times for tax delinquency.

The city’s bidding process, Buzbee said, is “not about who you are, it’s about who you know.”

Turner called the allegations “ludicrous” and “vague.”

“Mayor Turner has received no donation from the owner of Tegrity,” a spokesperson for his re-election campaign said in a statement. “He received one donation from Deanna Burghli of $2,000 in December 2015 before he was elected mayor. In that same month, Mr. Buzbee and his wife both maxed out donations to Mr. Turner of $5,000 each, along with donations from his law firm staff. This again shows Mr. Buzbee will say, do and spend anything to be elected mayor.”

Like I said, this is what he does. I’m starting to think that filing all the lawsuits and conducting crappy robo-polls are the entirity of Buzbee’s campaign strategy. Though honestly, I shouldn’t underestimate his ability to dream up stupid stunts. It’s his money, but boy I wish he’d have picked a less public midlife crisis to pursue.

Metro’s challenge

It’s all about BRT.

Houston transit officials are betting on bus rapid transit as a big part of the region’s long-term plans, at times going as far as calling it the “wave of the future.”

If seeing is believing, however, voters in the region will go into the election booth blind when it comes to bus rapid transit, or BRT. Houston has local buses, MetroLift buses, commuter buses and even articulated buses on major routes, but BRT is MIA.

“(Light) rail seems to be very well maintained and it has a high degree of reliability,” said Lex Frieden, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member. “BRT, since we have not experienced that, we can only imagine how a bus can be as stable as the sense you have on a train. How can it be as reliable as a train? Part of the issue is familiarity.”

Growing transit, specifically via BRT, is a major component of the $7.5 billion plan Metro developed over the past 18 months. The agency is expected to ask voters for authority to borrow money in November, with the specifics of the projects still under review. Plans include 20 more miles of light rail, two-way HOT lanes along most freeways and about 75 miles of BRT.

Bus rapid transit uses large buses to operate mostly along dedicated lanes, offering service similar to light rail without the cost or construction of train tracks. It has proven successful in communities such as Cleveland and Los Angeles.

The first foray into BRT in the region will be along Post Oak Boulevard in the Uptown area. Drivers already have felt the construction pain, but riders will not hop aboard until next March, months later than initially scheduled when construction began in 2016.

In the interim, Metro will try to convince people to support something most have never seen. Part of that will mean getting people to reconsider their own biases.

“The second people hear bus, they have an image in their mind,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

[…]

If voters approve, BRT could become a big part of regional transit. Metro plans BRT along five major corridors, at an estimated cost of $3.15 billion. The routes mostly mirror where Metro previously proposed rail, most notably between the University of Houston and Uptown and from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport.

The former, once dubbed the University Line, long has been a point of contention. Voters in 2003 narrowly approved the Metro Solutions plan that included light rail from UH, through downtown and on to Uptown, but the project sputtered under intense opposition from residents along Richmond Avenue.

Now resurrected as a bus rapid transit project, the pains of the previous rail fight linger. Transit critics still question Metro’s ability to execute a major project that does not disrupt traffic, noting the Post Oak project has taken longer than expected and derailed driving along the street.

Rail backers, meanwhile, insist trains are superior, with some opposed to any Metro plan that does not include trains to and from downtown and Uptown.

I mean, we don’t have BRT now, but we almost had it for the Green and Purple lines back when Frank Wilson and David Wolff were screwing things up at Metro. There were questions about the funding for those lines, which were eventually resolved in Metro’s favor. (I wrote about this stuff at the time, but I’m too lazy to look up the links right now. Please take my word for it.) The concept isn’t completely new to Houston, is what I’m saying.

Be that as it may, I’m not too worried about BRT being a negative for Metro in the referendum. The question, as is usually the case with referenda, is who will oppose this, and how much money they will put into opposing it. Will John Culberson rise like a white walker and raise a bunch of untraceable PAC money to block the issue? (We still don’t know who funded the anti-Metro effort from 2003, by the way.) How will the Mayor’s race affect this? We know Bill King is anti-rail, but I don’t know what (or if) Tony Buzbee thinks about it. It’s too early to say how this will play out. Metro does have to come up with a good marketing plan for its referendum, once it is finalized – they’ve been busy running a bunch of generic feel-good spots during the NBA playoffs – but get back to me when and if organized opposition arises.

Off and running for Council

I confess I haven’t paid very much attention to the Houston city races so far. Part of that is the existential angst I feel at being forced to take seriously anything Bill King or Tony Buzbee says, and part of that is because the Council races haven’t really started taking shape yet. Oh, there are plenty of candidates, as this Chron story details, but right now it’s basically spring training, as everyone works to raise some money and put up a website and start making the rounds to civic groups and political clubs and what have you.

This is going to be a weird election, because it’s been four years since the last city election and it’s the first time we’ve experienced that, because of the contested Mayor’s race, and because our city elections are by definition a little weird. It’s just that like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every city of Houston election is weird in its own way.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

More than six months remain until Nov. 5, when voters will cast ballots in the races for mayor, controller and 16 city council seats, but challengers already are taking swings at incumbents and candidates are lining up to replace term-limited office-holders.

“The mayoral race got off to an early start, and that’s having a contagion effect on the council races,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “In some ways, it’s this big collective action problem. I think most people would prefer not to get mixed up in the process so early, but, for instance, if one person starts running hard for At-Large Position 5, everyone else has to, lest they get left behind.”

Activity on the campaign trail has started earlier than ever, prompted by a pace-setting mayoral race that has seen candidates Tony Buzbee and Bill King repeatedly lambast incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner, saying he has mismanaged the long-running Proposition B firefighter pay parity feud and accusing him of failing to adequately distance City Hall from campaign donors. Turner has denied both charges.

District D Councilman Dwight Boykins also could join the mayoral field and will decide sometime in June whether to mount a run or seek re-election to his council seat, he said Monday. Also mulling a run for higher office is At-Large Councilwoman Amanda Edwards, who said she has yet to decide whether to take a swing at the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Sen. John Cornyn.

Prospective candidates for those two seats may be waiting on the sidelines, or seeking other council seats for now, as they wait on the incumbents’ decisions, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“It’s a domino effect,” Rottinghaus said. “There are a couple of offices that are holding up decisions on other races down the ballot, and Edwards is an example of that.”

[…]

So far, five incumbent council members remain without official challengers: Greg Travis (District G), Karla Cisneros (District H), Robert Gallegos (District I), Martha Castex-Tatum (District K) and Edwards.

Travis, Cisneros and Edwards each are coming to the end of their first four-year terms on city council. Castex-Tatum won a special election year to replace former Councilman Larry Green, who died of a drug overdose.

Gallegos, meanwhile, is one of a handful of council incumbents first elected in 2013 who still is eligible for another term.

The shift to four-year terms likely has emboldened potential challengers who ordinarily would wait out an incumbent’s two-year term, but are less keen to sit on the sidelines for four years, Rottinghaus said. More than half the incumbents seeking re-election have drawn opponents.

You can read on for more about the Council candidates, but bear a couple of things in mind. One is that the only “official” candidate list is maintained on paper by the City Secretary. Filing a designation of treasurer is a necessary condition for running, but doesn’t mean you’ll actually file by the deadline, and it doesn’t mean you’ll file for the race you now say you’re running for. People jump in and drop out and change races all the time up till deadline day. Civic heroes like Erik Manning maintain candidate databases, for which we are all grateful, but in the end nothing is official till the filing deadline passes. You will get some idea of who is out there and who is serious about it when the June finance reports get posted, but again, things can and will change between then and the end of August.

Anyway. I really don’t know what I’m going to do about interviews – there are just too many candidates for the amount of time I will have. I’ll figure something out, and should start doing interviews in July. I’ll put up my own Election 2019 page sometime before then. In the meantime, start familiarizing yourself with these names. We’re all going to have a lot of decisions to make in November.

This was a busy week for dumb lawsuits

Exhibit A:

“Objection Overruled”, by Charles Bragg

Houston mayoral challenger Tony Buzbee followed through his pledge to sue Mayor Sylvester Turner Wednesday, claiming that donated billboards for the city’s AlertHouston! campaign violate campaign finance laws because they feature a photo of Turner.

The lawsuit, filed in the 281st state district court, names Turner and Clear Channel Outdoor Inc., the company that donated the 27 billboards, as defendants.

Buzbee’s petition claims Clear Channel is “blatantly supporting” Turner in the November mayoral race “by plastering his smiling face across this city while promoting him as a civic-minded, safety conscious leader.”

The billboards promote AlertHouston!, a system that sends alerts to Houston residents during emergency situations.

I’m not going to waste our time on the details here. Let’s refer to this earlier story for the reasons why this is dumb.

Buck Wood, an Austin-based campaign finance lawyer, equated Buzbee’s allegations to a hypothetical real estate agent who, after announcing a run for public office, would then have to take down any advertisements for their private business.

“I have never seen anything like that,” he said.

Proving the billboards are illegal, Wood said, would require Buzbee to show that the company and Turner struck a deal explicitly aimed at aiding the mayor’s re-election.

“You’d have to have good, strong evidence that they put up these pictures just for the purpose of helping elect him,” Wood said. “…You’d have to prove a conspiracy, and that’s basically impossible to do in this situation.”

Each year around hurricane season, former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett would appear on billboards, in some years directing people to the county’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management website. Emmett said he used campaign funds to pay for the billboards during election years.

I mean, I know Tony Buzbee is supposed to be a super duper lawyer and all, but maybe he might have asked another lawyer about this first? Just a thought.

Exhibit B:

Months after being denied media credentials for the Texas House, the conservative organization Texas Scorecard — a product of Empower Texans, a Tea Party-aligned political advocacy group with one of the state’s best-funded political action committees — has filed a First Amendment lawsuit arguing that its rejection from the lower chamber constitutes “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Before the legislative session kicked off in January, two employees of Texas Scorecard, Brandon Waltens and Destin Sensky, applied for media credentials in both chambers of the Legislature. In the Senate, their credentials were granted; in the House, they were denied. The two chambers follow similar rules about who is allowed special journalistic access to the floor, and both prohibit lobbyists. But the chambers’ political atmospheres are different.

House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican who has sparred with Empower Texans and its PAC in the past, told the group in a January rejection letter that it was ineligible for media credentials because “the organization you are employed by, Texas Scorecard, has a close association with a general-purpose political committee (GPAC) and that the organization’s website prominently displays advocacy on policy matters before the legislature.” As evidence of the group’s affiliation with the PAC, Geren cited the organizations’ shared address — but by the time Geren’s letter was issued, the lawsuit claims, they no longer shared that address.

Empower Texans PAC has backed primary opponents to Geren and has given Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Texas Senate, more than $850,000 in the last five years.

Now, Empower Texans is very likely to get a friendly hearing from the State Supreme Court, so at least from a strategic perspective, this isn’t a dumb lawsuit. It’s very likely to be a successful lawsuit. But come on. If these Empower Texans flunkies count as “journalists”, then that word has no meaning. All of us are made a little more dumb by the existence of this lawsuit.

Turner officially announces his re-election bid

And he’s off.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner made it official Wednesday, launching his re-election campaign for Houston’s top elected office.

Turner announced the news in a 96-second video that appeared on a revamped campaign website, where the mayor also posted notice of a formal kickoff event March 30 at Minute Maid Park.

Election Day is Nov. 5.

Though observers say Turner is the odds-on favorite to win, several politically challenging issues have emerged that could hinder his re-election chances.

Early opponents Bill King, a businessman who narrowly lost to Turner in 2015, and Tony Buzbee, a millionaire attorney, have each taken aim at the mayor over his long-running wage dispute with firefighters. They also have criticized Turner for the city’s recent problems with trash pickup, and levied charges that political donors hold too much sway over City Hall, a notion the mayor denies.

Recently, Turner lost the support of Houston’s largest teachers’ union over the firefighter compensation issue, which now revolves around the city’s slow implementation of Proposition B, a voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding status.

Still, Turner heads into re-election with a multi-million-dollar war chest, according to a January campaign finance report, and a tangible record that he can cite on the campaign trail. That includes a landmark overhaul of Houston’s pension systems, a topic Turner highlighted in his announcement video.

I support Mayor Turner and will vote for him. I’ll stipulate that his first two years, when he pushed pension reform through the Lege, were a lot better than the year-plus since then. The passage of Prop B has done him no favors, but that’s the hand he’s been dealt and he needs to bring it to a resolution. That has also not been the only issue, so to whatever extent one wants to blame Prop B for the rocky road he’s been on, he’d still be bumping around without it. He’s lucky that Tony Buzbee is a joke, and Bill King has nothing to run on now that pension reform has been passed, but that only gets him so far. Sylvester Turner is a smart man, a sharp politician, and a Mayor who has shown he can get things done. He can get himself back on track, and he needs to get going on that. People aren’t really paying attention now, but they are forming impressions. He needs to give them some more good ones.

January 2019 finance reports: City of Houston

It’s January, and you know what happens in January: Campaign finance reports get posted. This is a city of Houston election year, so first order of business is to look at the city of Houston finance reports. I’ve put all the candidate reports I could find from the city’s finance reporting site in this Google Drive folder, so they should all be visible. Now let’s look at the numbers:


Candidate   Office     Raised      Spent       Loan    On Hand
==============================================================
Turner       Mayor  1,240,587    633,726          0  2,853,986
Buzbee       Mayor          0    541,957  2,000,000  1,458,042
King         Mayor          0      1,677    110,000    108,516

Stardig PAC      A     16,204     22,507          0    112,005
Peck             A          0        750      5,000      4,250
Davis            B     20,700     13,976          0    153,846
Cohen            C     12,155     17,533          0     51,885
Hellyar          C     26,663      5,398          0     19,957
Nowak            C      5,426      1,356          0      4,069
Kennedy          C     10,355         20          0     10,331
Boykins          D     14,680     89,412          0     22,829
Martin           E     11,750     22,922          0    121,055
Le               F     48,425      7,787     30,823     51,207
Travis           G     49,250     21,020     21,000     86,307
Cisneros         H     25,250      5,645          0     68,167
Gallegos         I     46,525     22,944          0    102,335
Laster           J      8,500     16,174          0    170,823
Castex-Tatum     K     28,710     15,913          0     16,593

Knox           AL1     32,975     15,352          0     87,083
Robinson       AL2     58,850     17,126          0    205,926
Kubosh         AL3     33,875     16,035    276,000    102,700
Edwards        AL4     60,346     45,727          0    168,581
Christie       AL5      7,513     27,448          0      5,983
Alcorn         AL5    145,906      9,483          0    134,922
Boone          AL5          0          0          0          0

Brown   Controller     91,547     17,145     75,000    199,405

McNeese          ?          0          0          0          0
Adriatico        ?      5,300      1,186      5,000     10,350

All Houston Mayors raise a lot of money, and Sylvester Turner is no exception. He also has the distinct advantage of not having a blackout period, as previous Mayors and Council members had, so he has a running start on 2019. Tony Buzbee has already loaned himself $2 million. Well, technically, he contributed it to himself. I can’t remember if you’re allowed to do that, or if he mis-filed this as a contribution when it’s really a loan that he doesn’t necessarily intend to pay back. Whatever the case, expect that he will continue to self-finance. As for King, he hasn’t really gotten started yet. I’ll need to go back and review his finance reports from 2015, but I do know that he loaned himself $650K in that race, and wasn’t that big a fundraiser outside of that. He wasn’t bad, just not in Turner or Adrian Garcia or Steve Costello’s league. My guess is he writes himself another check, but I don’t know how much of one he cuts. He can’t outraise Turner and I don’t see him out-spending Buzbee. I’m not totally sure where that leaves him, but we’ll see.

The Council group can be sorted into three buckets: Term-limited incumbents, incumbents up for re-election, and non-incumbents. I’m going to save the first group for a separate post, as they have the bigger question of “what next” to ponder. The incumbents who are running for re-election are by and large all in pretty good financial shape. Martha Castex-Tatum has the least on hand, but she also ran in recent memory. Dwight Boykins can self-fund if he wants to. He spent the most by far, with the single biggest expense being $6K for a holiday party. Everyone else is about where I’d expect them to be. No incumbent had an opponent who was in position to file a finance report as of January. As noted before, Raj Salhotra has filed for At Large #1; I am aware of some people who are considering At Large #3 and District F. The July finance reports will tell us much more.

Three of the four-so-far contenders for District C have reports – Nick Hellyar, Bob Nowak, Shelley Kennedy; Abbie Kamin didn’t announce till January. It’s too early to tell who might have a leg up on the field. Amy Peck was just getting started in recent weeks in District A. Keep an eye on Sallie Alcorn in At Large #5, who posted big league numbers in this report. Fundraising isn’t destiny, but it does help to get your name out, especially in a citywide race. I’ve also been told that Laurie Robinson will not be running after all, so Alcorn has a big head start. Marvin McNeese and Nelvin Adriatico did not indicate what office they were seeking in their reports.

As for Controller, Chris Brown did the top two things to smooth his path – he raised decent money, and he avoided doing anything that generated negative press. I won’t be surprised if he gets at most token opposition.

I’ll have some thoughts about the outgoing incumbents tomorrow, and I’ll post about the HISD and HCC reports in the coming days. In the meantime, let me know what you think.

Trying to make “pay for play” an issue

Good luck.

With more than nine months to go until Houston’s municipal elections, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s first two opponents turned their attention this week to limiting political donors’ influence at City Hall.

Both challengers, millionaire lawyer and Texas A&M University System Regent Tony Buzbee and Bill King, the businessman and former Kemah mayor who lost to Turner in a close December 2015 runoff, announced they would spearhead separate petition drives to amend the city charter by temporarily blocking political donors from doing business with the city.

The issue of “pay to play” appears likely to become a focal point in the race for Houston mayor, and could feature prominently in city Council campaigns too, all of which will take place as national Democrats vie for their party’s presidential nomination amid growing calls for politicians to reject money that allegedly comes with strings attached.

Buzbee, in a full-page ad in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle, said he intends to lead a petition drive to bar anyone who donates to a city official from doing business with the city for a year.

King on Monday morning announced a similar idea at a press conference, proposing a two-year moratorium for people who give more than $250 to a city official. His idea would extend the ban to prospective lobbyists and appointees to boards or commissions, and cover candidates for mayor, controller and city council. Buzbee has not yet specified if his proposal would cover non-incumbent candidates.

[…]

“The city has long-established rules that govern potential conflicts of interest regarding campaign contributions, including a black-out period and prohibitions on the members of certain boards and commissions,” Turner said. “As with all city policies, we continually evaluate these rules to ensure they are meeting the city’s needs. The city will always entertain ideas and proposals from anyone, especially if they’re not trying to score political points.“

Houston’s charter bars officials from taking or asking for contributions once the city publicly seeks proposals or bids for a contract. They cannot start accepting bids again until 30 days after City Council awards the contract, or decides not to award it at all.

The same section of the charter also prohibits officials from accepting or soliciting vendors’ contributions at any point they know the vendor has interest in a contract. A separate provision also restricts when candidates who are not in office can accept contributions from vendors.

King’s proposal would prevent people who contribute more than $250 to an official from entering into a contract with the city, registering as a city lobbyist or receiving appointments to city boards of commissions.

I mean, I support the idea, it’s just my experience that this particular issue is not one that gets a whole lot of traction among voters. County Judge Lina Hidalgo is being rightly held up as the model, but you may note that this wasn’t what she campaigned on. She campaigned primarily on bread-and-butter issues like flooding, criminal justice reform, quality of life, and making county government more accessible to more people. I’m not saying this can’t be an effective campaign issue. It’s definitely a meritorious issue. I am saying it’s not the sexiest thing to lead with.

One other thing. At the risk of lapsing into whataboutism, as someone whose mailbox is regularly inflicted with King’s grumpy-old-man emails, his interest in this particular aspect of good government is a tad bit limited. I mean, we just re-elected the heavyweight champion of pay for play politics in this state, but good luck finding any mention of Greg Abbott and his penchant for appointing moneybag donors to statewide positions in King’s missives. Yes, I know, King is running for Mayor and not Governor, but he also regularly complains about the national debt, and last I checked he wasn’t running for Congress or (God help us) President. I know, he’s got his own thing to worry about now, but he was emitting those emails back in 2017 when he wasn’t running for Mayor and Abbott was actively blocking a bipartisan anti-pay for play bill in the Lege. The track record is thin, is what I’m saying.

The 2019 elections

We haven’t forgotten that there are some big elections on tap for us this year, have we? Let’s go a quick rundown.

May elections

Election campaigns are already in progress in the cities that have May elections, which includes big cities like San Antonio and Dallas, and smaller cities in our area like Pasadena, Sugar Land, and Pearland. Pasadena will be a hot zone again, with first-term Mayor Jeff Wagner up for re-election and local Democrats hoping to win the District A seat they came so close to in 2017, which would give them a 5-3 advantage on City Council. I don’t have much to say about these races yet, but I will note that my friend Nabila Mansoor is running for City Council in Sugar Land, so I wish her all the best with that.

Houston – Overview

This is the first city election since 2015, thanks to the change in the term limits law. It’s also the first city election since the election of Donald Trump, and the two high-turnout, Democratic-sweep elections in Harris County. How will that affect the course of this election? Normally, even if we have a hotly contested Mayor’s race, we’d be looking at 200 to 250K turnout max – less if the Mayor’s race was not contested – but with all the newly activated people from the past two years, will things change? The betting money always says No until events prove otherwise. The one other thing that may affect turnout this year is the Metro referendum, which itself will be conducted for the first time with no John Culberson in office. So many factors in play, so all I will say for now is don’t believe any firm, confident pronouncements. There’s a lot of room for variance and for doubt at this time.

Mayor

It’s Sylvester Turner versus Bill King, Round 2, with the extra zest (maybe) of Tony Buzbee. And maybe others, too – will anyone be surprised if Ben Hall manages to get a story published about how he’s “thinking about” taking another shot at it? The last Mayor to fail to be re-elected was Kathy Whitmire in 1991. Past performance does not guarantee future outcomes, but I figure there’s a reason for that. It’s Turner’s election to lose, and King doesn’t have his signature talking point from 2015 now that pension reform has been achieved, by Turner. He’s clearly going to attack Turner, but as to what he might campaign on beyond that, I have no idea.

City Controller

Honestly, I’ll be surprised if Chris Brown draws anything more than token opposition. Controller isn’t that sexy a job, and Brown hasn’t done anything to draw the bad kind of attention to himself.

City Council

Districts A, B, C, J, and At Large #5 are term limited. I’ve already received two invitations to like Facebook pages for District C candidates (Nick Hellyar and Bob Nowak), and I’m aware of at least two more such candidates (Shelley Kennedy and Abbie Kamin). Durrel Douglas listed some potential District B candidates a few weeks ago, and there are rumblings in the other slots as well. Raj Salhotra has announced a challenge to Mike Knox in At Large #1, while Laurie Robinson appears to be gearing up for another run in At Large #5. I’ll be reviewing the finance reports for January when they start to come out, which may yield a few more names. For now, let’s just say I expect a lot of activity, and not just in the open seats. Four years is a long time to go between city elections, and lots of people are in a mind to run for something.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Sallie Alcorn, who had been Steve Costello’s chief of staff, has announced her candidacy for AL5.

HISD

Assuming we have HISD Trustee elections this November – we should know that for sure by August – the following Trustees are up in 2019: Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Sergio Lira, Jolanda Jones, and Diana Davila. Far as I know, all are planning to run for re-election. Lira was elected to fill out Manuel Rodriguez’s unfinished term in 2017, Skillern-Jones was forced into a runoff in 2015 and has had a rocky tenure as Board President, Davila upset Juliet Stipeche (now Mayor Turner’s education czar) in 2015, and Jolanda is Jolanda. I’m not currently aware of any opponents on the horizon, but I’m sure most if not all of them will draw someone. Assuming, again, we have HISD Trustee elections this November.

HCC

It will have been six long years, but we will finally have the chance to rid ourselves of the stain that is Dave Wilson, in HCC Trustee District 2, this November. Also up for election are Zeph Capo and Neeta Sane.

Metro

All of Harris County will have the Metro referendum, which is as yet unfinished, on their ballot in November. Again, I don’t have much to say about this yet, but this is one of my top interests for 2019. It will certainly be a component of the Mayor’s race as well. I figure if Metro could pass the 2003 referendum they have to be a favorite to pass this one, but you never know with these things.

That’s all I have for now. Next up will be the finance reports when they become available. If you know of any candidate announcements or other related news, leave a comment and tell us all.

From the “Needlessly overstated answers to simple questions” department

I have three things to say about this:

Tony Buzbee, a Houston lawyer who recently announced his plan to run for mayor next year, has offered to “mediate” a long-running pay dispute between the city and firefighters, one week after a judge blocked implementation of a voter-approved charter amendment that would grant firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

In a joint statement Friday with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, Buzbee said he believes it is time “we equally value our police and fire first responders in Houston,” seeming to indicate that he supports the push for “pay parity.”

A spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner declined comment, referring to the mayor’s previous comments that a judge should first decide whether a collective bargaining agreement can supersede a voter-approved charter amendment.

1. No.

2. Whether or not the city has any ability to negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is an open question right now. (So is the pay parity referendum itself, but let’s set that aside right now.) Asking the city to come to the table and negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is basically equivalent to telling the city to agree that the firefighters are right about the big picture and to abandon its current course. Which the city may eventually wind up doing, depending on what the lawyers and the courts say, but now is not the time for that.

3. Even if we were to accept the premise of point #2, maybe find a mediator who’s more, you know, impartial? Like, maybe someone who hasn’t announced their candidacy against Mayor Turner? It’s a big city. We have lots of certified mediators. I’m sure someone else might have time in their schedule for this.

4. Again, no.

Oh, right, I said three things, not four. Better call in Tony Buzbee to mediate the difference between what I said and what I did.

Buzbee for Mayor?

Oh, good grief.

Tony Buzbee, a high-wattage trial lawyer, big-time political donor and Texas A&M University System regent, says he is running to be the mayor of Houston in 2019.

“The mayor’s race in Houston traditionally has been as boring as watching paint dry,” Buzbee said on Fox26 Houston Tuesday night, when he announced his bid. “I think that we have a city that is above average with below average leadership, and I’m considering very seriously, because there’s a lot of people asking me to do this, running for the mayor of this town.”

When pressed, Buzbee confirmed he is running and would donate his mayoral salary, if elected, to “a random voter that I choose every year.”

[…]

Buzbee, a former Marine, has a roster of high-profile clients to his name, including former Republican Gov. Rick Perry, whom he successfully defended in an abuse-of-power case.

Buzbee was appointed to the A&M System Board of Regents in 2013, by Perry, and has been known to host raucous and politician-studded parties at his River Oaks mansion, including a 2016 fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Last year, he was rebuked by a local homeowner’s association after he parked an operational World War II-era tank outside his house.

So basically, one part Ben Hall, one part Bill King, and one part MAGA bro. If that’s not a winning combination, I don’t know what is. The Chron has more.

Back to Buzbee

Looks like we’re not done with this yet.

Kim Ogg

Prominent Houston lawyer Tony Buzbee on Monday accused Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg of “playing politics,” saying prosecutors are trying to revive a DWI case against him that has already been expunged.

Buzbee said Ogg’s office has filed a sealed motion seeking to reopen the criminal case by overturning a decision last month by a civil court judge that expunged the case files.

The district attorney’s office declined to comment on the details of the motion.

“We have filed a document that was sealed by the clerk,” said First Assistant District Attorney Tom Berg by e-mail. “As a result, we are not at liberty to discuss that document.”

Buzbee said Ogg singled him out because outgoing District Attorney Devon Anderson personally dismissed his case in the days before she left office at the end of the year.

“Ms. Ogg’s new position is that she didn’t personally sign the agreed motion, and the assistant DA who did so lacked her express permission,” he said Monday by email. “Of course, he says he did have that authority. So, I guess those two can fight about that.”

He called information that has been released about his case “bunk” and said his driving while intoxicated case last year was dismissed not as a political favor by the outgoing Republican but “due to multiple irregularities.”

[…]

Buzbee was arrested a year ago on suspicion of DWI and vowed to go to trial. Instead, Anderson personally dismissed the case, saying the attorney had fulfilled the obligations of a pre-trial intervention program.

However, his conditions were less onerous than the obligations for others who went through Anderson’s DWI intervention program, called DIVERT, which typically lasted a year. And he was allowed to expunge his case immediately, though others have been required to wait two years.

The diversion contract, which typically is placed in the public court file, was not filed publicly. The Houston Chronicle filed a request under the Texas open records law to obtain a copy of the contract, but Buzbee was able to block the request by claiming a third-party interest.

The DA’s office under Anderson then sent it to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for a ruling on whether it was public information; the ruling is pending.

Last month, the public file was sealed by an expunction approved by civil court Judge Robert Schaffer. The criminal file reappeared online Monday, however, on the Harris County District Clerk’s website.

Buzbee said Monday that a motion has been filed under seal in the civil case to reverse the expunction.

“In that motion to set aside, the DA takes a position that her assistant DA had no authority to agree to the expunction – which is an outright misstatement of the law, and which is factually untrue because he claims he did in fact have her express permission,” Buzbee said.

See here and here for the background. The way this case was handled sure looked weird, and the timing of it all, which was after Devon Anderson lost her bid for re-election but before Kim Ogg was sworn in, was awfully convenient. It may well be that there was nothing untoward and that the case against Buzbee was a loser that was never going anywhere, but I’m not inclined to just take his word for it. That said, Kim Ogg has a lot of big fish to fry, and she started out with a big target on her back as the first Democrat to be DA in a million years who has big reform plans and who fired a bunch of her predecessor’s people. Oh, and she’s also a lesbian, which drives some people absolutely crazy. My point is, she already has plenty of enemies, and plenty of obstacles to achieving her goals as DA. Tony Buzbee is an obnoxious blowhard, and the circumstances of his case are extremely fishy. But unless some actual malfeasance is uncovered, I don’t know how much time and energy it’s worth to pursue.

More on the Buzbee DUI saga

This just keeps getting weirder.

Devon Anderson

“It appears to have been an under-the-table deal with Devon Anderson,” said Tyler Flood, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyer’s Association. “I already have clients calling me saying they want the ‘Tony Buzbee deal.'”

Flood and other defense lawyers have questioned the treatment Buzbee received from Anderson and the judge presiding over the case.

[…]

A request to the district attorney’s office for a copy of the pretrial diversion contract, which outlines conditions and consequences of failing to meet those conditions, was sent to the office’s general counsel, who said lawyers for Buzbee have objected to its release. Such contracts generally are publicly available. The office of general counsel said Buzbee’s lawyers have informed it that they will seek an order from the Texas Attorney General’s Office forcing the district attorney to withhold the contract.

[…]

Another reason this case and its resolution is unusual is that the judge presiding over it is the only jurist in Harris County who does not allow pretrial diversions for DWI cases. County Court-at-Law Judge Bill Harmon is opposed to any DWI pretrial diversion program and often cites Harris County’s record number of drunken-driving fatalities as the reason.

When a DWI case eligible for the pretrial diversion program lands in his court, it is often transferred to a different court. That did not happen in Buzbee’s case.

Earlier this week, Harmon acknowledged that he signed the dismissal forms and said he had not approved any diversion for DWI suspects. He said he would continue to refuse to participate in the program.

It’s those inconsistencies that bother Flood and other members of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

“Our target is not Tony Buzbee. That’s not what HCCLA is about. He hired good lawyers and got a good result,” Flood said. “Our problem is the appearance of impropriety between the district attorney and the judge.”

The deal Buzbee was able to obtain from Anderson was extraordinary, Flood said.

“He’s the only person in the whole county who is not excluded from filing for an expunction immediately after his case is dismissed on a DWI on a pretrial intervention.”

See here for the background. It’s weird enough that any of this happened, but it’s possible to imagine that there’s nothing untoward about any of it, it was just maybe handled in a clumsy fashion. But for Buzbee’s attorney to then file to keep the normally-public pretrial diversion contract under wraps, I mean that’s like putting up a giant blinking neon sign saying “THERE IS SOMETHING SUSPICIOUS HERE THAT WE DON’T WANT YOU TO SEE”. Under no circumstances should that file be withheld from public scrutiny. Let’s make the facts known, and then we can see if there’s something that requires a response.

Do the words “appearance of impropriety” mean anything to you?

Seriously?

Devon Anderson

Outgoing Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson personally has dismissed the drunken-driving case against prominent Houston lawyer Tony Buzbee.

Buzbee, who was arrested on March 31, had his case dismissed Dec. 9, after completing “pretrial intervention” a type of informal probation that, if successfully completed, means a case will be tossed. It is common among first offenders, especially shoplifters or other nonviolent crimes.

On Monday, Anderson stood by her decision and issued a brief statement: “Based on the circumstances of the case, this was the right thing to do. He qualified for pretrial intervention and completed all of the requirements typically mandated for a first offender DWI defendant,” she said. “He did not contribute to my campaign in 2016 cycle.”

The dismissal raised eyebrows around the courthouse for several reasons.

First, the elected district attorney signed off on the case personally, which is exceedingly rare, especially misdemeanors.

Second, the DWI pretrial intervention program, which lets people walk away from their first offense without a conviction, generally lasts a year. Buzbee went from arrest to completion in just over 8 months.

Also, the judge presiding over the case is the only jurist in Harris County who does not allow pretrial diversions for DWI cases. The DWI pretrial diversion program, formerly known as DIVERT, has firmly drawn guidelines – the terms of which generally are spelled out in a contract that a judge signs off before it begins. There is no such contract in Buzbee’s file.

Generally, when a DWI case that is eligible for the pretrial diversion program falls in County Court at Law Judge Bill Harmon’s court, it is transferred to a different court. That did not happen in Buzbee’s case.

[…]

Buzbee said it was “silly” to link political connections to a dismissal by the elected district attorney 21 days before she leaves office.

“I give money to most of the politicians in Houston and the state of Texas. To try to connect one thing to the other is silly.”

Courthouse observers said Buzbee’s statement makes the dismissal look like a gift from Anderson as she prepares to leave the office.

“Based on what (Buzbee) said, this is definitely not a diversion. If it’s not, then it is nothing but a political favor,” said JoAnne Musick, past-president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyer’s Association. “Unless (Anderson) just completely lied on a court document, because it appears, on the dismissal, that he completed a diversion – that he participated in some sort of program in lieu of prosecution.”

Buzbee claimed that the case was dismissed for lack of evidence, but that’s not what the form indicates. Maybe there’s nothing to any of this – I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know how these things work – but if so, it would be nice to hear that from someone who isn’t Devon Anderson or Tony Buzbee. Maybe there are more people who got a similar “early dismissal” of their nominally year-long diversion program. Maybe Devon Anderson had a specific reason for intervening on this one case. Maybe the dismissal form was filled out incorrectly and it really was a lack of evidence. Maybe there’s something else we don’t know about. Because if not, on the surface this sure looks like special treatment for a big shot. The Press has more.

(There’s now a bigger controversy breaking out at the DA’s office. I didn’t have a chance to get to it yesterday, but I’ll have something to say about it tomorrow.)