The race for Harris County Judge is a little hard to get your arms around, because there hasn't been anything like it in so long. Never mind a competitive race, there hasn't even been a contested race in November for Harris County Judge since 1998. So this year, for the first time in at least a decade, we have a chance to have a real debate about the direction and philosophy of our county's government, which easily has the highest power-to-public awareness ratio of any entity that will be on the Harris County ballot this year.
In some ways, of course, all of the countywide elections are like this, because we haven't really had any truly competitive races in at least that long; the 2006 campaign for County Treasurer, the least relevant office around, is the closest thing I can think of in recent memory. But at least we've had Democrat-versus-Republican matchups for other offices in recent years. Given that the County Judge is the CEO of county government, and given that we're already talking about the 2009 Mayor's race and the 2010 Governor's race, I really hope we'll take advantage of this apparently rare opportunity.
The good news is that this race should not get drowned out by whatever else is going on this fall. Democrat David Mincberg already has a sizable campaign war chest, and you can be sure that Republican Ed Emmett will be similarly well-armed. These guys will get press coverage, and they'll be on your TV and radio and in your mailbox. In all likelihood, it will be harder to cast an uninformed ballot for one of them than an informed ballot.
Further, there's a good chance that they'll spend a decent amount of their campaign resources talking about actual issues that have an actual impact on the lives of actual residents in Harris County. Taxes, flood control, transportation, the hospital district, a public defender's office, how much we spend on things like jails, that sort of thing. Both candidates position themselves are get-things-done business types, so unlike a Mincberg-Bacarisse matchup, ideology should be of lesser focus than in some races. Neither candidate has any obvious baggage (though I'm sure they've both got some busy oppo researchers buzzing away to find out what may be out there that isn't obvious), which again gives hope that they'll be talking about substantive matters rather than trivia. For those of you who like to complain about politics as sport and too much negativity and stuff like that, this may be your best chance to see a campaign conducted as you say you want them to be. No guarantees, of course, but at least the potential is there.
So, given the similarities in style and background, and assuming no ginormous skeletons emerge from someone's closet, how do these two guys distinguish themselves? For Emmett, I would think the task is to project himself as the guy in charge who knows what he's doing and is getting things done but who isn't connected to any of that bad stuff you might have heard about concerning some other Republicans in county government. He's both a new face for a change-hungry electorate, and a familiar one with his hand comfortably on the tiller and guiding us all through these uncertain times. It's a little tricky, since Mincberg will associate him with the shenanigans of former DA Chuck Rosenthal and current Sheriff Tommy Thomas, as well as County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, but far from insurmountable. Basically, I think the more he can talk about himself, what he's done and what he wants to do, the better off he'll be. The more he has to talk about external things like what some of these other knuckleheads have done, the worse off he'll be.
Mincberg too will want to talk about what he's done and what he wants to do, but he has to draw a contrast between his intentions and those of Emmett's as well. This would have been easier for him to do had Charles Bacarisse won the nomination, as the differences there, both stylistically and substantively, are sharp and easy to see. Mincberg needs to challenge the notion that Emmett, no matter how fresh-faced he may be, represents any real change of direction for county government. He'll want to talk about ethics, as they pertain both to Commissioner's Court and to other county offices such as the Sheriff, and why it's only just now that this is being discussed at all. He'll likely harp on the projected growth of the county - from 3.75 million people now to 5 million in the next decade or two - and how our always-done-it-this-way means of conducting business needs to change. He'll probably discuss the recently and strongly expressed preference for infill development, and talk about how decisions made by the Court affect the city of Houston, which tends to get the short shrift in terms of resources and services. I'm guessing to some extent what particular issues Mincberg will want to bring up, but the overall theme will be that of the need for a change of direction. The more he can talk about things that aren't being done but need to be, the better for him.
At some point, of course, the gloves will come off, and the two will go after each other in a more direct and personal way. I don't have much idea how that will play out right now, but it will happen. I think the risks of driving up your own negatives by attacking the other guy is a bit of a higher risk than usual for this race, but again, it's hard to say at this time. I know I'm looking forward to seeing this campaign unfold, and I hope we don't go quite as long before having another chance to have this kind of debate.
PREVIOUSLY:Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 28, 2008 to Election 2008