October 26, 2008
Endorsement watch: The line in the sand

I am exceedingly pleased to note that the Chronicle has endorsed Diane Trautman for Harris County Tax Assessor.

The duties of the Harris County tax/assessor collector are straightforward: collecting and disbursing property taxes, registering and titling motor vehicles, and registering eligible citizens to vote. Nowhere in the job description is part-time politicking mentioned.

The office is clearly intended to be a service organization. In earlier times, citizens would come to the window at the courthouse to pay their taxes or renew a car registration. Now, many go online to take care of these same chores. It's a good, workable system.

From Texas' earliest days, the state's leaders were careful to keep politics far removed from the business of tax collection. The 1833 Texas Constitution contained language prohibiting tax collectors from holding political office until their tax collecting duties had been fully and finally discharged. That is as it should be.

In his 10 years as Harris County tax assessor/collector, Paul Bettencourt has performed the duties of his office credibly. But all too often the affable Bettencourt has danced near and, on occasion, across the line on politics. Bettencourt is a staunch partisan, and he makes no secret of it. That just won't do for a Harris County tax assessor/collector in 2008.

The most obvious cause for concern over Bettencourt's frequent forays into politicking is the untenable shadow they cast over his function as registrar of county voters. Local Democrats have groused about what they view as hassling of minority citizens seeking to register and/or vote. Even if these complaints are unfounded, Bettencourt does himself and the office no service with his vocal partisanship. Perceptions matter. With his frequent appearances on highly partisan radio talk shows and other activities, he is giving a harmful impression.

We believe the Democratic challenger, Diane Trautman, will clear the air of partisanship while offering able administration of the office's core duties. We recommend a vote for Trautman as Harris County tax assessor/collector.

Trautman vows to run "a service organization, not a political organization." She pledges to return "servant leadership" to the office.

I was a bit wishy washy in calling this one, but I thought Bettencourt would get the nod unless the Chron thought he'd gotten too partisan. Which they did, and I'm delighted to see it. I noted early on that Bettencourt has a somewhat puzzling reputation for being nonpartisan. I think this campaign season has helped to ding that, thanks to the voter registration follies. I hope those two KHOU Defenders stories about the troubles so many eligible voters have had getting his office to approve their applications have gotten wide play, because they really make him look bad. This is a big part of his job, and he's put partisan interests above doing what he's paid and elected to do.

And I'll tell you, if you thought reaction from certain quarters to the Chron's Obama endorsement was fierce, this will be even more so. Bettencourt is the guy the local GOP will truly go to the mat to defend. He's a conservative hero, thanks to his anti-tax advocacy as well as his aggressive efforts to purge the voter rolls. For him to go down would be truly back-breaking for them. If you hear a high-pitched whine in the background today, it's the wailing and gnashing of teeth that this endorsement will engender.

The Chron also finally gets going with the county judicial races with recommendations for the criminal court benches. They pick two Democrats among the nine:

Ruben Guerrero for 174th Judicial District: Guerrero has a distinguished 30-year record as lawyer and judge. The late Gov. Ann Richards appointed the Democrat to an unexpired term for the 263rd Judicial District, and former President Bill Clinton tapped him to lead the Small Business Administration for five southwestern states.

Shawna L. Reagin for 176th Judicial District: In almost 20 years practicing criminal law, Democrat Shawna Reagin has handled thousands of felony cases. Editor of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association magazine, she is committed to citizens' right to fair trial and says her experience helps her understand lives marked by poverty and lack of education.

Guerrero is running against Bill Moore, who survived a four-way Republican primary in a runoff this year to replace the retiring George Godwin. Reagin is running against Brian Rains, who is considered one of the least-liked judges on the bench. Reagin gets the endorsement of A Harris County Lawyer, who was undecided in the 174th race as of September. As far as I can tell, Reagin is the first Democrat to get endorsed by the Chron over a judge who is running for re-election.

(UPDATE: My bad. Reagin is the second such Democrat. Susan Strawn was the first. All other Dems who have been endorsed so far are running against appointees or primary winners.)

Meanwhile, the Star-Telegram has finally made an endorsement in the Presidential race.

Americans need new leadership.

For many of the same reasons that the Star-Telegram recommended Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992, it is recommending Democrat Barack Obama in 2008.

Obama provides the prescription for America's ills at this moment: a fine, inquisitive intellect, paired with an eloquence that allows him to articulate a message with clarity and substance; an ability to inspire people of all ages, races and ethnicities who never before were engaged in the political process; and an unflappable temperament that allows him to weather a barrage of withering personal attacks.

Under his leadership, the Obama campaign has been amazingly disciplined, efficient and effective. Those same talents will be essential for the difficult work ahead to rebuild the nation's faltering economic institutions and restore citizen confidence.

They took their time, but they got it right, and they lay out an excellent case for Obama, hitting on all the appropriate notes. Well done. That gives Obama a majority of the big five, which frankly I never would have guessed would have happened.

Yesterday, the Chron made the easy calls of endorsing incumbent Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Gene Green for re-election. Neither has a serious opponent or a close district. I will say that there's actually a fair number of signs for Jackson Lee's opponent in my general area, almost as many as there are for McCain-Palin. Not that it matters, but I thought I'd mention it anyway.

Finally, Parent PAC added two more candidates to its roster in the past few days, Joel Redmond in HD144, and Laura Ewing for State Board of Education. For Redmond:

The extreme differences between Redmond and his opponent on public education were one reason the Houston Chronicle endorsed Redmond and proclaimed him to be the "best candidate." The Chronicle noted in its endorsement that Redmond pledges "to work to increase state funding for public education and oppose a voucher system that would undercut public schools."

"Joel Redmond understands the importance of a top-notch public education for every child," said Staley Gray of the Texas Parent PAC board of directors. "He knows first-hand from his work with prison ministries that children must have quality education, family support, and character education to grow up and become successful, law-abiding citizens."

She said Redmond speaks with compassion about the need to address the root causes of societal problems, ranging from reducing poverty with expanded vocational training and job creation to stopping the flow of illegal drugs across the border.

He is the founder and president of Christian-based Peace By Believing Ministries, which helps prisoners prepare to be responsible, contributing members of society and to break the cycle of generations of incarceration within families. The ministries also assist those who are homeless.

And for Ewing:

"It's time for a change on the State Board of Education. Parents and children deserve to be represented by someone of Laura Ewing's caliber," said Texas Parent PAC board of directors member Darci Hubbard of Houston. "She is a career educator, former member of the Friendswood City Council, and a respected leader throughout the state."

Ewing is the first State Board of Education candidate endorsed by Texas Parent PAC, created by parents in 2005 with the goal of electing more state leaders who will consistently stand up for public education. In 2006-2007, candidates for the Texas Legislature were the PAC's sole focus. A broad base of individuals and business leaders supports these bipartisan grassroots campaign efforts.

The State Board of Education is not well-known by voters. The 15-member elected board is responsible for establishing policy and providing leadership for the Texas public school system, which educates 4.5 million students on more than 7,900 campuses in 1,227 school districts and charter schools.

"Unfortunately, many view the State Board of Education as dysfunctional, with some decision-making based more on political ideology than the best interest of school children," Hubbard said. She pointed to recent controversies involving Board actions on reading-language arts standards, science standards, and state textbook adoptions.

"This election has statewide implications, because the State Board of Education sets policy affecting every child and every public school classroom in Texas," Hubbard said. "Laura Ewing will bring much needed educational expertise, leadership, and common civility to this important board."

Ewing's superior credentials led to her endorsement by the Houston Chronicle and the Beaumont Enterprise, as well as teacher association political committees. The Chronicle also noted Ewing's experience as an elected official, serving two terms on the Friendswood City Council.

I should add that some questions have been raised about Bradley's legal residence, which has led attorney Chad Dunn to send a letter to Secretary of State Hope Andrade on Ewing's behalf asking for an administrative declaration that Bradley is ineligible to run. You can see a copy of the letter, with accompanying documents, here (PDF). I presume that as would have been the case in SD10, a favorable ruling for Ewing means Bradley would remain on the ballot, as clearly it's way too late to remove him, but would mean that if he won the seat would be vacant and require a special election to fill. I suspect this effort will fail for the usual reason of residency being defined very broadly, but you never know.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 26, 2008 to Election 2008

I was so happy to see the KHOU Defenders stories you posted. I've been hoping someone would look into Bettencourt's voter purging.

A friend told me Friday night that she registered a month before the deadline, then received a letter from Bettencourt stating that her form was rejected for insufficient driver's license information. She's positive she filled out everything correctly and even had her boss look over it before she sent it in. The letter said something to the effect of "if you resubmit within 7 days, you will be registered within 30 days." Too bad the election will have come and gone by then.

This is the second person I know who has been disenfranchised by Betterncourt's office (and I don't even know that many people!) When my girlfriend was at UT, she voted by mail one year. She received a letter from Beverly Kaufman saying the signature on the envelope did not match the signature on the ballot.

I guess all we can do is hope that enough people have been added to the roles to make up for all those being purged.

Posted by: tpc on October 26, 2008 2:39 PM
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