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Trebor Gordon

Fundraising for the next city election cycle has begun

Whether you realized it or not.

BagOfMoney

Last year’s court ruling undoing Houston’s fundraising ban during non-election seasons means that the city’s contribution cycles reset immediately after last year’s general and runoff elections, according to the city, instead of in early spring.

As a result, unless a candidate is retiring old campaign debt, money raised post-election counts toward the contribution limits for the upcoming cycle, rather than the prior one, mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said. City rules cap contributions at $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for political action committees, per election cycle.

[…]

Previously, general election candidates could replenish their coffers until March 4, and runoff candidates could do so until April 4, with the contributions counting against the limits for the most recent election rather than the upcoming one.

Asked if the city sent any clarifying information to officeholders or candidates, Evans pointed to a letter included in packets given to candidates last year.

The memo stated that the city’s temporal fundraising restrictions were no longer in effect but did not specify when the election cycle began and ended.

“It’s going to have very little impact on what we do, except obviously we want to know what the rule is now,” [fundraising consultant Pat] Strong said.

See here and here for background on the lawsuit. Unless I’ve missed something, the suit is still awaiting trial; it was the granting of an injunction by the judge in the trial against the city enforcing its blackout period that led to where we are today. It was quite common in elections past for successful candidates to have post-election fundraisers, partly because it was their last chance to do so for the calendar year and partly because the usual suspects generally wanted to make sure that all the winners got at least a little something from them. No more “late train” fundraisers now – either hedge your bets before November or make sure you back the right horse in the first place. The key to all this are the boundaries of the election cycle. In the old days, you could donate up to the max in these post-election days, then start all over when the blackout period lifted, which marked the beginning of the next cycle. Now the new cycle begins right after Election Day, so there’s not much point to these post-victory events – whatever you donate then is how much less you can donate later. As the people quoted in the story say, it probably doesn’t matter that much from a candidate’s perspective. It just means the timing of when things happen will be adjusted. I’m sure everyone will get used to the new rule quickly.

The incumbents’ advantage

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

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should Lane Lewis resign as HCDP Chair to run for Council?

That’s the question some people are asking.

Lane Lewis

Lane Lewis

“What I want is someone who is going to be, at least in the political world, dedicated 100 percent to the mission of advancing the ideals of the Democratic Party,” said John Gorczynski, a local Democratic staffer and head of the Young Democrats of Texas. “If someone’s going to be running a campaign, I can’t imagine what that would look like.”

Lewis’ fundraiser next month will be hosted at the home of Bill Baldwin, the former county Democratic finance chair who resigned a few weeks ago to raise money for Lewis’ bid, a move intended to make the line between the party and the campaign clear. Some are calling for Lewis to follow Baldwin’s example and resign.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said Lewis should consider that, adding there would be a potential conflict of interest between Lewis trying to neutrally advance the Democratic Party – which includes several members running against him for council – while “competing in the trenches” himself.

“When you serve as party chair, you at least leave some of your political ambition at the door,” Jones said.

Lewis faces Houston Community College trustee Chris Oliver, local Democratic activists Jenifer Rene Pool and Philippe Nassif, Republican activist Trebor Gordon, and possibly Harris County Housing Authority chief Tom McCasland in the non-partisan race to succeed term-limited city councilman Stephen Costello in the At Large 1 council seat.

[…]

The county Democratic and Republican parties typically stay out of endorsing candidates in non-partisan municipal races, but Jones said that some Democratic elected officials and campaign staff may be pressured away from backing any of Lewis’ opponents.

Oliver and some Democratic activists also charge that Lewis could improperly use the party’s email list – though Lewis said the campaign email list was culled from his phone’s contacts, not the party’s -and that his time spent preparing the party for 2016 would now be split between his personal campaign and the party’s.

“That person should be focusing on Democratic Party politics, not city council politics,” said Oliver, a Democrat.

Lewis is not required to resign, as some but not all elected office holders are. My opinion is that we’re early enough in the cycle that being Chair and being a candidate are not inherently in conflict. Any candidate running a full-fledged campaign is likely to find as time goes on that it doesn’t leave much room in his or her life for other things. Lewis may eventually decide he should resign just to ensure he has enough hours in the day to do all the things he needs to do. Alternately, he may find that more and more Democratic activists, the kind of people whose vote he will want in November, are grumbling that the duties of HCDP Chair are being neglected and someone else needs to take over to ensure there isn’t a mess to clean up going into 2016. Or maybe he’ll be able to handle it all, and the complaints will be limited to his opponents and their supporters. As I say, I think it’s too early to know. But he should be prepared to resign at the first sign of the juggling act being too much. Lane Lewis has done a good job as HCDP Chair, but no one is irreplaceable. If leaving will be necessary, better to do so a little too early than a little too late. A statement from candidate Philippe Nassif is here, and Campos has more.

City does a 180 on campaign finances

Not all losses in court are created equal.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

City officials will argue that the city’s election ordinance is unconstitutional as part of a strategy to strengthen their position in a lawsuit that could shape the early stages of this year’s mayor’s race.

After defending the city Monday in civil court, City Attorney David Feldman said he would write an opinion explaining to the City Council why its fundraising “blackout” rule is unconstitutional. A federal judge on Friday ruled that law likely violated the First Amendment.

A separate lawsuit by likely mayoral candidate Chris Bell, the subject of a hearing in state court Monday, accused the city of failing to strictly enforce its fundraising law. Feldman intends to take advantage of the ruling in the federal case to convince the judge in the Bell lawsuit that Bell no longer has a case.

The strategy, hatched in closed chambers by Feldman after more than an hour of heated debate in the 165th District Court, amounts to the city capitalizing on its own loss just days before.

“In the first instance, we have some obligation to defend the constitutionality of (city) ordinances,” Feldman said in an interview following Monday’s hearing. “But we have a ruling from a federal district court judge that the blackout period is unconstitutional. I believe he is correct.”

See here for the background. When the city said it would not fight the injunction in that case, they weren’t kidding. One wonders how enthusiastically they would have adopted the arguments from the Gordon lawsuit that they had previously opposed if the ruling hadn’t been handed down before this case went to court. Timing is everything in this life.

City officials said Friday’s decision made Bell’s lawsuit moot. If no blackout period is in effect, then Turner’s fundraising during that period is proper, the city argued, and there is no need to transfer any money.

Bell said he would challenge Friday’s decision in a new lawsuit in federal court.

It’s my understanding that there is a separate ordinance that regulates the transfer of funds from one account to another, and it is this ordinance, which was not addressed in the Gordon lawsuit, that is at issue here. That’s my understanding, and I’m not a lawyer, so if you know better please say so in the comments. Be that as it may, I do broadly agree that if the blackout period is illegal, then it makes no sense for Turner to be barred from transferring the money he raised in his State Rep account to a Mayoral account. He would have been raising Mayoral money last year if he could have been. Campos and Houston Politics (tangentially) have more.

Injunction granted against Houston fundraising blackout period

It’s a whole new ballgame out there.

Trebor Gordon

Trebor Gordon

A federal judge on Friday temporarily blocked a law limiting when candidates in Houston municipal elections can raise money, prompting a scramble to contact donors sooner than campaigns had intended.

The injunction, two months after a City Council candidate said the law infringed on his constitutional rights, could reorder the timeline for future elections and accelerate this year’s mayoral race – the first without an incumbent since 2009.

An ordinance prevented city candidates from raising money prior to Feb. 1. But hours after the ruling from U.S. District Judge Sim Lake, some mayoral campaigns said they were planning fundraisers and placing calls to donors who were thought to be off-limits for three more weeks.

“There’s not that many days, but political calendars will start to shift based on this ruling,” said Mustafa Tameez, a longtime Democratic consultant. “It creates more pressure for people to announce sooner.”

The lawsuit against the city, filed by candidate Trebor Gordon, argued that his First Amendment right to political expression authorized him to raise money for his campaigns whenever his contributors wished to donate. Lake said in the order that Gordon was likely to succeed on the merits in the case.

“It’s a great victory for the First Amendment,” said Jerad Najvar, the attorney for Gordon, who plans to begin raising funds immediately. “It’s a bigger matter than just this campaign.”

See here and here for the background, and here for Judge Lake’s ruling. This is only an injunction – the merits of the case have not been decided – but it seems clear from that ruling that Gordon is very likely to prevail. I won’t be surprised if the city, which has chosen to accept this ruling rather than appeal it, seeks a settlement. In the meantime, anyone that has filed a designation of treasurer for the 2015 elections can start raising money now. If your mailbox is still a smoldering wreck from all the solicitations it had to handle last year, its brief period of respite is now officially over. You have been warned.

As I’ve said before, I think this was the correct ruling. I also think it will benefit incumbents more than challengers, but we’ll see. The January finance reports will be posted soon, so we’ll get a picture of where things stood going into the year – in particular, who had an advantage prior to the opening of what had been the fundraising season – but the July finance reports will tell the story. We’ll need to look for all donations made in January and see who took the biggest advantage of this change in the rules.

One more thing:

Still unclear Friday was how the decision would affect a separate lawsuit filed by likely candidate Chris Bell, who charges that Rep. Sylvester Turner’s fundraising strategy violates the ordinance. Bell’s attorney said Friday afternoon that he still planned to follow through with his suit, which will be heard in court Monday.

See here for the background on that. The crux of that issue is whether Turner, and possibly Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who were free to raise all the money they wanted for their non-city campaign accounts under the old rules, could then transfer those funds to accounts to be used for a city election. Then-City Attorney David Feldman said that they could, and Bell filed suit to stop it. I’m hard pressed to see how Bell prevails here, but let’s wait and see what arguments he and his attorney present in court.

First city campaign finance lawsuit action this week

As you may recall, City Council candidate Trebor Gordon filed a lawsuit last month alleging that the city of Houston’s campaign fundraising blackout period was illegal. This week, a federal judge is expected to rule on a request for a temporary injunction that would suspend that ordinance.

Trebor Gordon

Trebor Gordon

In court filings, Gordon argues that the abridged timeline makes it impossible for a political challenger to amass the financial wherewithal to unseat an incumbent with a war chest. The city counters that the blackout period is essential to preventing corruption and that nothing stops Gordon from working the stump before asking for checks.

“Campaigning is a larger universe than simply soliciting and accepting donations,” the city attorneys argued in court filings. “Gordon is not prohibited right now from spreading his ideas and seeking support. He simply chooses not to.”

[…]

Gordon and his attorney, campaign finance lawyer Jerad Najvar, sharply disagree, charging that any campaign is feeble and futile until the candidate has the money to execute it.

“A candidate may decide that it would be counterproductive to make sporadic statements via social media before he has amassed enough resources to properly roll out a campaign,” Najvar said in court papers. “This is the kind of tactical decisions that candidates can make with their advisers, without the need for spitballing by government lawyers.”

The current blackout period, they say, is merely a “paternalistic” way for the powerful to insulate themselves from challengers and does little to prevent quid-pro-quo corruption by city officials. In Gordon’s eyes, a contribution is political expression, and Gordon has a constitutional right to serve as the vehicle for his donors’ opinions.

Plaintiffs also note that the fundraising window is unfair. Candidates who currently hold non-city office – such as likely mayoral contenders Rep. Sylvester Turner and Harris County Sherriff Adrian Garcia – can raise money while others cannot and then potentially transfer the money to their city campaign accounts after Feb. 1.

That raise-and-transfer strategy, conducted openly by Turner and approved by City Hall, is the subject of a second lawsuit to be heard in mid-January.

I’ve said before, I think Gordon’s case has merit. Other cities don’t have a similar blackout period, and the Legislature’s blackout is for when they are in session, five months every two years, while Council is in session year-round. One can certainly argue that the 14-month prohibition on fundraising for Council is arbitrary and far too broad. In John Roberts’ America, it’s hard to see how that argument loses.

[Lobbyist Robert] Miller said that if the blackout period is declared unconstitutional, it would make irrelevant when Turner, considered the favorite in the field, raised the donations. He also disagreed with Najvar that allowing donations year round would disadvantage incumbents.

“With term limits, they know that once they win their first election, they only got two more so they’ll be focused,” he said. “There are no incumbents that you’re going to be sneaking up on.”

Here I agree with Miller. Who else has a reason to fundraise during the first few months of even-numbered years? Sure, there are some candidates who know right after one election that they’re in for the next one, but that’s true for every single non-term-limited incumbent. I guarantee you, while a few select non-incumbents may benefit from this if the blackout period is struck down, the main effect you’ll see is greater cash on hand totals for current electeds each January.

Lawsuit filed over Houston campaign blackout rules

From the inbox:

Trebor Gordon

Trebor Gordon

Late Tuesday afternoon, Houston City Council candidate Trebor Gordon filed a First Amendment lawsuit challenging a discriminatory Houston ordinance that prevents city candidates from fundraising until February.

Gordon is a conservative candidate for Houston City Council at large. “Houston is a great city because of the entrepreneurial culture of its citizens, among other things,” Gordon said. “But our current leadership has been chipping away at that spirit, overregulating and fleecing the taxpayers with a runaway budget. I’m running to restore responsible leadership and let Houstonians run their own lives.”

“I’m also compelled to address the deeply offensive posture Mayor Parker has taken towards people of faith in this city, harassing pastors with abusive subpoenas,” Gordon continued. “I have to address these issues now, because they are happening now. I can’t wait until February to start my campaign.”

Gordon will be on the ballot in the city’s next general election in November 2015. Currently, section 18-35(a) of the Houston code of ordinances states that candidates may only solicit or receive contributions beginning in February of the election year and ending on March 4 of the year after the election. This provision prohibits fundraising for a full ten months of every two-year cycle, and candidates have only nine months to raise funds before Election Day.

Gordon is represented by political law attorney Jerad Najvar. “There is no blackout period banning bad decisions by city officials for a part of every election cycle,” Najvar said, “and the government has no authority to tell Gordon—or any other candidate—to wait until February to start campaigning. City officials have access to free media all day long, and my client certainly has the right to fund his campaign and speak to the public. This waiting period serves only to insulate the city from organized opposition.”

Najvar continued: “The blackout period is facially unconstitutional. But it gets even worse, because people who currently hold non-city office are raising money right now, and everybody knows it will be transferred to their city campaign in February. This whole system is an absurd charade encouraging candidates to act like they’re running for something they’re not. While these shadow campaigns are proceeding aggressively, nonincumbents like Gordon have to sit on their hands. The First Amendment does not permit such nonsense.”

The case is Gordon v. City of Houston, No. 14-CV-3146, currently pending in federal court in the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division. Gordon has asked for an immediate injunction, and is awaiting a hearing date from the court.

Gordon’s complaint is available here; the legal memorandum is here.

Gordon was a candidate for At Large #2 last year; he finished fourth out of four with 6.20% of the vote. His July finance report showed about $1000 raised. I doubt this lawsuit will matter much for his 2015 candidacy, but I think he raises a valid point. I’m not exactly sure what the city fundraising blackout period accomplishes. It makes sense to have one for the Legislature while it’s in session, but Council is technically in session year-round, during the blackout period and outside of it. It doesn’t prevent a sitting officeholder from being solicited while an ordinance that affects the donor in question.

According to the Chronicle, Gordon’s lawsuit is the second one to have been filed over this matter.

Gordon’s suit comes a month after Chris Bell, a likely mayoral candidate, filed his own suit asking a state court to disallow Sylvester Turner, considered a frontrunner in the race for mayor, and other competitors from conducting this type of end-around.

Turner has raised money throughout the fall and hauled in more than $400,000 at a recent fundraiser for his state representative campaign despite the fact that he does not have an opponent. Bell is asking for an injunction to be issued prior to Feb. 1.

The city attorney, David Feldman, has signed off on Turner’s plan, despite Bell’s and some campaign finance experts’ view that the Turner plan violates at least the spirit of the ordinance.

I know that Bell’s law partner sent a letter to Feldman questioning his decision about this, but if a lawsuit followed I couldn’t find any news stories about it, either in the Chronicle or via Google. A search of the District Clerk’s records found this action from October 17, so I guess Team Bell did indeed follow up on that letter. One way or another it looks like the preseason to the 2015 elections will be at least as interesting as the main event. Texpatriate has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on Bell’s lawsuit filing, which Teddy Schliefer emailed to me. My search did not find this for whatever the reason.

Chron overview of At Large #2

The Chron looks at one of the most competitive races involving an incumbent on the ballot this year.

CM Andrew Burks

CM Andrew Burks

A minister, architect and city accountant are vying to unseat Councilman Andrew C. Burks Jr. from the Position 2 at-large seat on the Houston City Council, but Burks and his challengers differ on what the most important issue in the campaign should be.

Burks, 62, a minister and owner of AM-PM Telephone Service Inc., is seeking his second term, having won two years ago in his seventh attempt at a city council seat; overall, this is his 13th run for office. He is facing three challengers: David Robinson, 47, owner of Robinson Architectural Workshop; Trebor Gordon, 51, an associate pastor at Central Canaan Christian Church; and Modesto “Moe” Rivera, 58, an accounting supervisor for the city airport system.

The issues they see as key to the campaign are strikingly different, ranging from tax exemptions for senior citizens to the size of the city budget.

Worth reading the whole thing, especially if like me you’re one of those weird people that cares about issues and wants to know what priorities candidates have and what they plan to do about them. My interview with CM Burks is here and with David Robinson is here. I did not interview Trebor Gordon or Modesto Rivera-Colon, but you can see Texpatriate Q&As with them here and here, respectively; Rivera-Colon also did a Q&A with Texas Leftist here. The Chron endorsed Robinson. As I suggested earlier, I think CM Burks may be in some trouble, but we’ll see. Even after two sitting Council members were bounced in 2011, it has still been very difficult in the term limits era to oust an incumbent.