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How’s that city push to get its employees vaccinated going?

Not bad, actually.

Nearly three months after Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order requiring Houston’s 21,000 city employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, receive a medical or religious exemption, or submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks, compliance with the order varies widely among departments.

Just over 60% of Houston firefighters had either been vaccinated, submitted test results or received an exemption as of Nov. 15 — the lowest rate of any city department.

That’s according to city data released to Houston Public Media, which also revealed Houston police, waste management and health staff at the bottom of the list of those who have complied with Turner’s order.

Just 74% of police officers were in compliance with the mandate, along with 74% of Solid Waste Management employees and 74% of Health and Human Services employees.

The city secretary’s office, which has just seven employees, is 100% compliant with the mayor’s order. The legal department with 185 employees and the city I.T. department’s 180 are next on the list with about 98% compliance each as of Nov. 15.

The mayor’s own office is 90% compliant with his executive order as of Nov. 15, 13th on the list of 25 departments.

[…]

The city’s Nov. 15 compliance data was the most recent available. Houston Public Media has requested a more recent report, which was not available as of Thursday afternoon.

On Sept. 8, the date Turner issued his order, 342 city employees had active cases of COVID-19, including 129 police officers.

Fourteen city employees have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the mayor’s office.

Turner had previously mandated face coverings for all city employees in August, after Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local governments from such mandates. Abbott then banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates statewide on Oct. 11, preventing any employer from requiring vaccination. That order is still making its way through state courts, but his mandate ban could nonetheless stymie the mayor’s efforts.

But Turner’s executive order doesn’t require workers to get vaccinated. Instead, it offers unvaccinated employees two alternatives: Either submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks or file a medical or religious exemption.

Under the order, employees were required to submit test results on the first and 15th of each month, beginning on Oct. 15. Employees who don’t comply could be subject to “corrective action up to and including indefinite suspension or termination,” the order states.

“A failure to adhere to the policy will result in disciplinary action and could even cost you your job,” Turner told city council at a meeting where he announced the order.

In a statement Thursday, the mayor’s office didn’t specify how Turner plans to address employees who aren’t complying with the order, but said the city’s Human Resources department is continuing to educate employees on the requirements.

“By implementing the executive order, our goal is save more lives, prevent illness throughout city departments and reduce costs for everyone,” the mayor’s office wrote. “The City intends to enforce the Executive Order and follow the steps outlined to ensure compliance.”

See here for the background. There’s a table in the story showing compliance rates for each department, though it should be noted that the actual numbers may be higher for at least some of them. The president of the Houston Police Officers Union was quoted saying their numbers are better than what was represented, for one. Even without that, the city’s efforts have nudged the vax numbers upward, which is exactly what you want. I thought at the time that Abbott and Paxton would not stand for this workaround on the city’s part, and I’m delighted to be proven wrong. Now let’s see what enforcement there is for the holdouts. No excuses at this point, get on board or say goodbye.

Enron, 20 years later

Memories.

It was hailed as the most innovative company in America, a hometown energy giant whose name graced one of Houston’s skyscrapers and the Astros ballpark.

Enron was founded in 1985 as a natural gas pipeline company and became one of the largest energy and commodities trading companies. Its incredible growth turned the company into the darling of Wall Street, an “it stock” that stood out even among rising tech giants during the height of the dot-com bubble. At its zenith, the self-proclaimed “world’s leading energy company” was the nation’s seventh largest corporation valued at almost $70 billion.

But it was a world of make-believe. On Sunday, Dec. 2, 2001, Enron filed what was at the time the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history after it became apparent that its gangbuster growth was based on accounting gimmicks and a web of lies. Enron’s 20,000 employees lost their jobs and $1.2 billion in retirement funds tied up in company stock; its retirees saw $2 billion of their pension funds evaporate.

Nancy Rapoport, who served as the dean of the University of Houston Law Center at the time of Enron’s collapse and wrote several books on the Enron scandal, recalled the company’s swift and stunning fall from grace.

“Before it blew up, we thought Enron was this amazing company and donor to the city of Houston, the arts and higher education,” said Rapoport, now the law school dean at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “So it was a shock to all of us when we realized that Enron was so different from what we thought.”

Twenty years later, the shock of Enron’s downfall has long faded, but it remains a cautionary tale of corporate hubris and fraud. Its lessons still carry weight, especially as Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes stands trial, accused of defrauding investors and patients about the viability and accuracy of its medical testing technology.

Enron’s Chairman Kenneth Lay and CEO Jeff Skilling convinced the company’s board, Wall Street analysts and investment banks of the energy company’s supposed success. Similarly, Holmes was able to sway investors and Theranos’ esteemed board including former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and Gen. George Mattis that the company could conduct hundreds of medical tests from a single drop of blood.

Rapoport said the lessons of Enron bear repeating. Corporate boards must ward against groupthink and company executives should heed Enron’s advertising tag: Ask why.

“If I had to pick a single lesson from Enron, it would be about being wary of charismatic leaders because they can charm and bully their boards into agreeing to things that in the light of day these sophisticated board members would never agree to,” Rapoport said. “Look at the board of Theranos. Like the board of Enron, you had super famous, super intelligent, super well-educated people, but they were captivated by charismatic leaders who broke down their defenses in terms of common sense.”

It’s a good trip down memory lane, so read the rest. I knew at least four people – two friends, one former co-worker who left for a job there, and a member of my extended family – who worked for Enron circa 2001. My wife later worked for Chevron, in what used to be the Enron building. The collapse of Enron began less than three months after 9/11, so to say the least we were in some very turbulent times, and there were all kinds of hot takes about how this was a massive, possibly fatal blow to Houston’s economic fortunes. All things considered, I think we’ve done all right since then. But it sure was a thing at the time.

MLB Hall of Fame rights a couple of wrongs

Congratulations, Buck O’Neil and Minnie Minoso, and the four other new Hall members.

Six candidates earned election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday via the Eras Committee process, it was announced today on MLB Network.

Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Minnie Miñoso and Tony Oliva were elected by the Golden Days Era Committee, which considered a 10-person ballot comprised of candidates whose primary contribution to the game came from 1950-69.

Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil were elected by the Early Baseball Era Committee, which considered a 10-person ballot of candidates whose primary contribution the game came prior to 1950.

Miñoso was named on 14 of 16 ballots (87.5 percent), while Hodges, Kaat and Oliva were each named on 12 of 16 ballots (75 percent), with all four reaching the 75-percent threshold necessary for election.

O’Neil was named on 13 of 16 ballots (81.3 percent), while Fowler was named on 12 ballots (75 percent)

The Golden Days Era Committee and the Early Baseball Era Committee held meetings today in Orlando, Fla.

Kaat and Oliva are living. Hodges passed away on April 2, 1972; Miñoso passed away on March 1, 2015.

Fowler passed away on Feb. 26, 1913; O’Neil passed away on Oct. 6, 2006.

Fowler, Hodges, Kaat, Miñoso, Oliva and O’Neil will be joined in the Hall of Fame Class of 2022 by any electees who emerge from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voting, which will be announced on Tuesday, Jan. 25.

This is great news for O’Neil and Minoso, both of whom could and should have been inducted while they were still living but weren’t. Both were pioneers and ambassadors in addition to being great players, and the Hall is a better place for finally having them.

The way the Eras ballots worked this year, there were a lot of Hall-worthy nominees to consider, a function in part of better and more comprehensive Negro Leagues data and in part of reconsidering some players who had been under-appreciated before. One of those players was Dick Allen, who fell a vote short but at least came closer to being enshrined than ever before. Maybe next time for him.

You can see comprehensive profiles of all of the Golden Days nominees here, and of the Early Baseball nominees here. They’re worth your time – I learned a lot about some players I’d known very little about before. Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, had a recent podcast episode about the Negro Leagues players on the ballot, and that’s worth your time as well. Really, his whole Black Diamonds podcast series should be on your list. There’s no other baseball to pay attention to now, so make the most of it while you can. And congrats again to Buck O’Neil, Bud Fowler, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Gil Hodges, and Jim Kaat.

Weekend link dump for December 5

“Every age group in Vermont has seen cases rise in the past couple of weeks, with one exception: senior citizens. They’ve actually seen cases fall, which points to the fact that boosters protect not just against hospitalization and death, but also against infection.”

Meet the leading polio anti-vaxxer, whose methods and general message will sound pretty familiar.

A brief primer on the evangelical roots of toxic masculinity.

Good for Elizabeth Berkley.

“They want to be conservative and cosmopolitan, to have it all and every way: to complain about being canceled, but on national television. To spew bigotry, but dress it up as free thought. To be anti-intellectual while running a university. To be contrarian, but never be contradicted.”

“Over the past year, however, the supplement rhetoric has taken a dark and ideological turn. Increasingly, support for supplements has become part of the basket of beliefs that anti-vaccine and COVID deniers expect their community to endorse.”

“This is a clear indicator of the success of the vaccine mandate, as 98.5% of the active force has had at least one shot.”

The y’all of it all.

See ya, Jack. Please stop tweeting about inflation and other things you know nothing about.

“In retrospect, have low-income workers decided they were less happy than they thought at the time? Are they sick and tired of pandemic working conditions and eager to switch jobs just for a change of scenery. Is it just a year’s worth of normal job restlessness all squashed into just a few months? Or what?”

RIP, Lee Elder, first Black golfer to play in the Masters.

“But they’re arguing that, in this exceptional case, that’s a good thing, because white patriarchal American evangelical culture, they believe, is the one culture uniquely capable of properly interpreting the Bible and representing orthodoxy without introducing any of the cultural distortions that will inevitably be introduced by, you know, women, foreigners, or non-white Americans.”

The cast for the Facts of Life live show looks pretty good. If they can get Jennifer Hudson to sing the theme song, I might even watch.

“I think there’s perhaps been some confusion regarding transmissibility vs immune escape in Omicron. The apparent rapid increase in frequency of Omicron in Gauteng does not mean that Omicron is necessarily more intrinsically transmissible than Delta.”

“Tuesday Was the Best Day for American Democracy in Months”.

RIP, Eddie Mekka, actor best known for playing Carmine “The Big Ragoo” Ragusa on Laverne and Shirley.

“Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 80 years ago not only ensured the United States’ entry into the second world war. It inadvertently but categorically changed baseball history.”

“The CIA is too polite to say this directly, but it has issued a report that shows that Donald Trump, while obsessing over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, abandoned one of his primary duties as president: to stay fully informed about potential threats to the nation.”

RIP, LaMarr Hoyt, Cy Young Award-winning pitcher for the Chicago White Sox.

“I have received a request to update my old chart showing the number of politically-related criminal convictions per administration. Happy to oblige”.

“Warning lights are blinking red. We are seeing January 6, the attempted stealing of an American presidency, just in slow motion right now. What we’re seeing right now is no longer about 2020. It’s about 2022 and 2024, making what was attempted on January 6 more feasible the next time around. So I believe we are at an incredibly urgent time in terms of things that we have to do, that we must do.”

Lock them up.

RIP, Bob Dole, longtime Senator and 1996 Presidential candidate.

It’s the power grid, stupid

It’s also a campaign theme.

Texas Democrats want to talk about the power grid.

Specifically, they want to talk about how it failed in February, how they don’t think enough has been done to fix it and why they believe Republicans in statewide leadership positions are the ones to blame.

Democratic candidates and strategists see the power grid as the Republican party’s biggest vulnerability — and they see highlighting it as their best shot at winning crossover voters in the state’s 2022 election cycle, which is expected to be an uphill battle for the minority party.

In stump speeches and messages to supporters, Democrats say that GOP leaders failed at fixing the shortcomings of the state’s energy infrastructure that led to millions of Texans losing power for multiple days during a winter storm in February, which resulted in a death toll that has been calculated as ranging from 210 to more than 700 people.

Beto O’Rourke, the frontrunner to challenge Republican Greg Abbott for governor, has said the two-term incumbent did “absolutely nothing” to heed warnings despite a previous electricity blackout in 2011. Mike Collier, who is running for lieutenant governor, coined the slogan “fix the damn grid” as one of his campaign’s top priorities. And Luke Warford, who is running for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and natural gas industry, has made “Let’s keep the lights on!” his campaign slogan.

“It makes sense for Democrats to want to channel those doubts and put them front and center,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “About the only good thing for Democrats about the extended Republican monopoly [in state politics] and their demonstrated inability to break that monopoly is that there’s only one political party that can be blamed.”

Republicans, not surprisingly, disagree. It’s not much of a campaign slogan if there’s no conflict. The story notes that 1) the public largely agrees with the position that Abbott and the Lege didn’t do enough, according to the polling data we have; 2) the state’s own studies say we’re still vulnerable to blackouts under the right (or wrong, depending on how you want to look at it) set of circumstances; and 3) numerous Republicans, from Dan Patrick to the pack of jackals running against Abbott in the Republican primary, think that Abbott and the Lege didn’t do enough to fix the problem. As I said, this is Greg Abbott’s bet, that things will be sufficiently OK through the next winter and summer, and if so he’ll claim the credit for it. Only time will tell.

Omicron may be coming, but delta is still here

It’s still a big problem, in case we haven’t forgotten.

Omicron’s arrival in the U.S. came as no surprise to federal health officials and will be met with similar anticipation in Texas, where experts believe it could show up in state and local sequencing efforts as soon as this week.

“It’s almost certainly here,” said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a Texas A&M University professor and chief virologist at its Global Health Research Complex, which does sequencing for COVID-19 variants.

On Monday, federal health officials concerned about omicron urged eligible vaccinated adults to get their booster shots to increase their protection from COVID-19, in whatever form it might take over the winter, and to keep masking, hand-washing and social distancing when possible.

In Texas, state health officials say they are ready to assist hospitals should another surge happen over the holidays and they are ramping up their own efforts to identify more variants in more parts of the state.

But their largest push, at least publicly, is for vaccination and booster shots. About 55% of Texans were fully vaccinated as of Dec. 1. Some 18.7% of fully vaccinated Texans have had boosters, according to state health numbers.

“Prevention is important, and vaccination remains our best prevention tool,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

[…]

Texas hospitals are still in the throes of a staffing shortage after almost two years of deadly surges and a summer wave of deaths and hospitalizations that saw record numbers of ICUs filled to capacity.

With more than 13 million Texans still not fully vaccinated, the fear of the medical community here is that another wave will further strain a health care system that is already exhausted and depleted.

At the moment, without more data about omicron, delta is still the variant likely to cause the most problems this winter, Neuman said.

“Today, it’s the delta wave that worries me. Not omicron yet,” Neuman said. “We’ve got to wait and see what omicron does, if anything. But with cases rising across the country — that’s entirely being driven by delta.”

There’s some interesting stuff in the article about how scientists in Texas are tracking different variants here – did you know there was such a thing as the Texas Variant Partnership? I didn’t – so read on. Everything I’ve read about omicron so far suggests it will be a couple of weeks before we have some real data on it, which will help us understand basic questions about how transmissible it is, how deadly it is, and so on. A huge question, especially in a still largely unvaccinated state like Texas is how much protection is natural immunity versus vaccination. I’m betting on the latter, but it’s certainly a possibility that another booster may need to be developed. Which, thanks to the nature of mRNA vaccines, can be done quickly, like three to four months. In the meantime, stay cautious and for crying out loud get your shots.

How Houston has handled homelessness

We’ve done pretty well, actually.

Since more than $65 million in COVID-related funding has poured into Houston and Harris County’s coffers, they have worked in tandem with a number of partners to ramp up the housing units available to move people out of homelessness. As they’ve done so, they’ve picked up the pace at which homeless encampments are being “decommissioned” — the group’s term for offering the residents of a camp permanent housing, then clearing the site, usually with fencing, to prevent the camp from reforming. The process provides a way out of chronic homelessness to the many who choose housing and the services that go with it, a dislocation to the smaller group who do not.

The ultimate success of Houston’s encampment strategy could have rippling effects across the country. Cities including Austin and Dallas are seeking to emulate Houston’s program, said Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives; others, including Denver and Spokane, Wash. are watching closely.

[…]

Out of the 35 people who were living in the encampment when outreach began, 22 decided to take the offer of housing, according to the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County’s data. The others simply moved elsewhere. That ratio was a bit unusual, said James Gonzalez, the director overseeing the coalition’s work at the site. The other encampments where the Houston-Harris County Homeless Encampment Response Strategy has been carried out since the beginning of the pandemic saw between 85 and 90 percent of people choose housing, he said.

Houston, the coalition and their partners began moving people out of encampments in 2018 and has since distilled the process into a manual that has attracted the attention of cities across the nation. Houston, once called out in 2011 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the size of its homeless population, has since more than halved the number of people without homes in Harris and Fort Bend counties to 3,800 in 2020 from 8,500, even as the overall population in those two counties grew 16 percent. For every person housed, taxpayers save approximately $4,800 because the unhoused population’s emergency medical and incarceration costs are so high compared to the cost of housing and supportive services, according to a 2017 study from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

But since 2016, the homeless count in the counties has plateaued. People were becoming homeless as quickly as the Houston area could house them.

Then came COVID — and with it, a sudden influx in funding to help battle the pandemic’s health risks to the homeless population. Part of the funds went toward a program renting units from landlords searching for a secure stream of income. The new units, where residents have access to case workers and other services, allowed partnered groups to pick up the pace of moving people out of camps.

[…]

Eichenbaum said the city plans to clear all of its encampments, but the current bottleneck is housing. “We don’t do this if we don’t have places to put them,” said Ana Rausch, vice president of program operations for the coalition. “There’s no point.”

While the city was able to quickly secure apartments for its program while the need to social distance lowered demand for dense living arrangements, it is now competing with an influx of renters who entered the market as vaccines became widely available this summer. The coalition employs a landlord engagement team which is calling landlords and trying to sell them on the program, in part by dispelling fears of perceived risks (Gonzalez argues that having rent guaranteed and a case worker on hand offers more of a safety net than a landlord has with a normal tenant). Nonetheless, the number of units joining the program have slowed.

In response, the city contracted with a hotel to turn it into what it’s calling a navigation center — a place where people moved out of an encampment can live, along with pets and loved ones, while they await their permanent housing. (San Francisco pioneered the strategy in 2015.) While the current navigation center is temporary, the city has a plan to build a long-term one in Fifth Ward west of U.S. 59.

Before the coalition and its partners began using COVID funding to move people into housing, it had decommissioned two camps in four years. Since December 2020, they’ve decommissioned about eight, Rausch said. As of Tuesday, she said the coalition and its partners had moved 134 people into housing out of encampments with COVID funding. The funds have also been used to help more than 5,000 less visible homeless individuals, including people living in shelters or cars.

I don’t have anything to add here, it’s just a good story and a great use of the COVID relief funds. I’m rooting for the coalition to meet its goal of decommissioning all of the camps.

2021 runoff early voting report: Just checking in

I haven’t been following the daily early voting reports for the runoffs very closely. Only a small portion of the populace is voting, so comparisons to the November EV totals don’t mean anything. But we’re most of the way through the EV period, and I voted yesterday, so I thought I’d take a look. You can see the report through Saturday here. So far, about 15K votes have been cast, with an almost exact 50-50 split between mail ballots and in person ballots.

For what it’s worth, there were about 48K votes cast in the HISD districts that have runoffs. I’m not including the HCC 8 total as there’s overlap – I’m in both HISD I and HCC 8. Maybe we get to about 20K early votes by the end of the period on Tuesday – I’ll take a look after early voting ends. I would guess that in the end maybe 30-35K total votes are cast – I’d bet that early voting will be a significant majority, maybe two thirds of the final total. All of this is of course extremely back-of-the-envelope, but I feel reasonably comfortable saying that final runoff turnout won’t equal or surpass November turnout. At least, not cumulatively – it’s possible one of the districts could be running ahead. I’ll revise all of this when I see the final EV numbers.

One more thing – I voted at the West Gray multi-service center, which used to be my go-to place but isn’t now that there are places closer to my house, and since I don’t have a commute that takes me past there any more. This was the first time I’ve voted there without seeing a single candidate or campaign volunteer. That place is always jumping, so that felt very weird. Have you voted, and if so did you encounter anyone with a campaign?

Filing update: Judge Hidalgo makes it official

She has filed for re-election, in case you had thought there was some other possibility.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced her 2022 re-election campaign Friday afternoon as she filed paperwork at the Harris County Democratic Party headquarters.

Although progress has been made during her tenure, Hidalgo said her desire is for the county to continue its momentum on various social issues.

“This community has given so much to us, but we have to do better to remain competitive,” Hidalgo said. “Over the past few years we have done that on flood control, on early childhood education, on putting politics behind people… there is so much left to do.”

The incumbent Harris County judge will run against Republican candidate and Humble ISD School Board president Martina Lemond Dixon, who announced her candidacy on Sept. 22.

There are other candidates out there. Indeed, if you search the filings, Martina Dixon doesn’t appear yet. To be fair, neither does Judge Hidalgo as of Friday, but that may be updated by the time you read this. In my previous update I mentioned Republicans Vidal Martinez and Alexandra Mealer. On Friday, I heard that perennial candidate AR Hassan has filed as well, in the Democratic primary. Let’s just say I’m not worried about Judge Hidalgo’s chances there. If it makes her start campaigning in earnest earlier, that’s fine by me.

I see a new entrant in the race for County Commissioner in Precinct 4, Alief ISD Board President Ann Williams, whose Twitter account is here and whose personal Facebook page is here. I don’t know anything about her besides what I can tell from those sources. Oh, Williams’ colleague on the board Lily Truong has filed in the Republican primary in HD149 against Rep. Hubert Vo.

I don’t usually pay too much attention to the JP and Constable races, but I couldn’t help but notice that there are three people with filings for Justice of the Peace in Precinct 1, Place 2, which is where I am and where incumbent David Patronella presides. All three – Sonia Lopez, Steve Duble, and Victor Lombrana – are Democrats, which makes me wonder if Judge Patronella is retiring and I missed an announcement. Anyone have any ideas?

In Congress, I still don’t see a Democrat running in CD38. Nor do I see any primary challengers for Reps. Fletcher, Green, Jackson Lee, or Garcia. All of which is fine by me, though given that we’re in a post-redistricting cycle and there’s still a week-plus to go, I would not think that’s the final word. The main news of which I am aware is that Donna Imam, who was the Democratic candidate for CD31 in 2020, has announced that she will run in the new CD37 this spring. That will pit her against Rep. Lloyd Doggett, and with all due respect, she will not win. But no one is entitled to a seat, so go forth and good luck.

We now have a couple of Dems listed on the Svitek spreadsheet for Comptroller. One is Tim Mahoney, who ran in 2018 and lost in the primary to Joi Chevalier. Another is Angel Vega, who is a resident of Fort Bend and works in the non-profit industry. The spreadsheet also lists former HD14 candidate from 2020 Janet Dudding, whose campaign webpage has not been updated if she is indeed running. Dudding is a CPA.

Finally, the other news of interest is that Sen. Larry Taylor will not run for re-election. As with pretty much everything else to do with the state Senate, this is almost certain to make it a worse place than it is today.

Taylor chairs the Senate Education Committee and has served in the Legislature since 2003, first as a member of the House. He is also chair of the Senate Republican Caucus.

His decision comes just under two weeks before the candidate filing deadline for the 2022 primary. Within minutes of Taylor announcing his retirement, state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, announced he had filed for for the Senate seat.

[…]

After news of Taylor’s retirement broke, he told a reporter with the Galveston Daily News that part of his decision was due to Middleton’s interest in his seat. Taylor told the reporter that he tried to dissuade Middleton, but that he is “ready to go and wanting to spend a lot of money.”

Middleton, an oil-and-gas businessman, is the chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus in the House, where he has been a member since 2019.

I mean, Larry Taylor is your basic cookie cutter Republican. I have nothing nice to say about him, but he doesn’t make me want to scream. Mayes Middleton is a rich guy who primaried out the Republican that had been in HD23 because he wasn’t sufficiently wingnutty. We all need another guy like that in the Senate like we need another hole in the head, but that’s what we’re gonna get.

The filing deadline is December 13, a week from Monday. I’ll check in again as we go.

UPDATE: I am reliably informed that Judge Patronella is running for the County Court bench that Lesley Briones is vacating to run for Commissioner. Also, there are even more Republicans than the ones I’ve listed here that are running for County Judge.

HISD will keep its mask mandate

This is in response to that recent Fifth Circuit ruling about mask mandates in schools and whether Greg Abbott’s ban on them violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Houston Independent School District will keep its mask mandate in place, district officials said Thursday, despite a federal appeals court ruling halting an injunction on Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting such requirements.

“The ruling does not impact the requirement that students, staff, and visitors must wear masks while on HISD property. This mandate remains in place for HISD schools,” the district said in a statement. “While we are heartened that we have maintained the lowest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the state and vaccinations are now available for our youngest students, HISD’s mask mandate will remain in place for students, staff, and visitors in all HISD schools, buildings, and buses regardless of vaccination status.”

HISD plans to review the mandate at the end of its semester after the holidays, Superintendent Millard House II said last month.

House implemented HISD’s mandate shortly before the start of the school year and the board of trustees voted to express support for it.

The district, by and large, has avoided significant backlash from individuals opposing the mandate, outside of a handful of parents who have addressed House and trustees at board meetings and during a recent series of community forums.

The district’s statement noted that HISD and other districts sued over the governor’s order in state district court. The lawsuit, it said, is based on state law regarding the authority of Texas school districts to make health and safety decisions for their students. It remains in litigation.

See here for more on the Fifth Circuit ruling. As noted, Superintendent House did say that HISD would consider lifting its mask mandate after the holidays if conditions continue to improve; who knows what will happen now that the omicron variant is out there. The federal lawsuit really didn’t have much bearing on HISD anyway, since they were among the plaintiffs that had sued Abbott in state court over his mandate ban, and won an injunction that as far as I know is still in place; besides, Abbott and Paxton don’t have any authority to enforce it anyway. The district and the Superintendent are doing the right thing. Keep on keeping on. The Press has more.

Our wastewater treatment plant is ready for omicron

One small bit of reassurance in these uncertain times.

The Houston Health Department is testing the city’s wastewater for the new COVID variant, omicron, which experts say could soon be found in the U.S.

The department tests the city’s wastewater weekly for COVID strains. The most recent samples collected the week of November 22 show no trace of the omicron variant, officials said.

“Although our team has not detected Omicron in Houston, we should anticipate it arriving, and the health department is prepared to scale its operations as needed to respond,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a release. “In the meantime, I encourage eligible Houstonians to get fully vaccinated.”

Much is still unknown about the new variant, including if it’s more transmissible, deadly or more bypasses vaccines.

“While we await data to show the level of threat from Omicron, it’s important to remember that vaccination is our best tool to reduce cases, prevent serious illness and death, and slow the emergence of new variants,” Dr. David Persse, chief medical officer for the City of Houston said. “If you are not fully vaccinated or if you are eligible for a booster, please do it now to protect yourself, your family, and our community.”

Note that the omicron variant is already here in the US, and it’s just a matter of time before it’s detected everywhere. The wastewater tracking project here has been a big success, and since the latest variant is detectable via PCR testing, it’s no surprise that we’ll have this method to track it. Let’s please all do our part to keep it at a low level.

Beto and South Texas

Brace yourself for a lot of stories like this in the coming months.

Beto O’Rourke

In the first days of his campaign for governor, Beto O’Rourke made a beeline to this southernmost corner of the state, saying it was no mistake he was choosing to start his run in a part of Texas where Democrats have their work cut out for them after the 2020 election.

His supporters know it, too.

“We are being attacked at all ends,” Amanda Elise Salas said as she introduced him here Wednesday night. “This is a Democratic area, and there is no way we are gonna let Republicans come in here and take over.”

“They’re knocking at our door,” Mario Saenz, a Democratic precinct chair from Brownsville, said afterward. “We cannot let them in.”

A lot of Democratic hopes are riding on O’Rourke this election cycle, but few may be more consequential to the party’s future in Texas than his ability to stave off a strong GOP offensive in South Texas. Emboldened by President Joe Biden’s underwhelming performance throughout the predominantly Hispanic region last year, Republicans have been pushing hard to make new inroads there, and O’Rourke faces an incumbent in Gov. Greg Abbott who has been working for years to win Hispanic voters.

But it is not just about halting the GOP’s post-2020 march in South Texas. O’Rourke, who is facing an uphill battle in the governor’s race, has ground to make up after his own less-than-stellar performance with voters there in 2018 when he ran for U.S. Senate — and turning out more Latino voters has long been key to Democratic hopes statewide.

O’Rourke has been candid about the problem. Days after the 2020 election, which cemented Republican dominance across Texas, he told supporters that the fact that the border region “has been ignored for years by the national party, and even many statewide Democratic candidates, hurt us badly.” Last week, he began his campaign for governor with a swing through the region, calling the early itinerary “very intentional” and vowing to return frequently.

“If the great sin committed by Republicans historically has been to disenfranchise voters, including those in the Rio Grande Valley, then that committed by Democrats has been to take those same voters for granted in the past,” O’Rourke told reporters in San Antonio, before heading south to Laredo and the Valley.

O’Rourke got a wake-up call in South Texas during the 2018 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, losing many counties in the region to a little-known and little-funded opponent, Sema Hernandez. While it was not the first time a candidate with a Hispanic surname beat expectations in a statewide Democratic primary, O’Rourke acknowledged afterward that he needed to do more outreach.

Months later, in the general election, O’Rourke failed to make significant gains in South Texas compared to his party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, which would have been key to defeating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. In the largest South Texas county outside San Antonio — Hidalgo — O’Rourke barely improved on Clinton’s vote share there, getting 68.8% after she got 68.5%.

Then came 2020, when Biden carried South Texas — and the Rio Grande Valley in particular — by a much narrower margin than Clinton did. He outright lost Zapata County, a longtime Democratic stronghold just north of the Valley.

[…]

Beyond any issue, though, South Texas Democrats say O’Rourke needs to show up, especially after a presidential election that left them wanting. Biden never visited Texas, let alone anywhere in South Texas, during the general election, and his running mate, Kamala Harris, visited McAllen only in the final days of the race.

To that end, South Texas Democrats are not particularly concerned about O’Rourke, who is known for his relentless campaigning. He toured all 254 counties during his 2018 race, which included a bus tour specifically focused on the border.

“We’re the poorest region of Texas, maybe one of the poorest regions in the nation, and you know, it was a huge letdown that Kamala and Biden didn’t make a prolonged appearance here in the Valley, but Beto, you know, he’s been recurringly focusing his presence here, especially in his past campaigns,” said Sebastian Bonilla, a 25-year-old from the Valley who came to see O’Rourke speak in McAllen.

Abbott has put an emphasis on South Texas since his first gubernatorial campaign in 2014, and he has been increasingly traveling there in recent months, both in his official capacity and for political appearances.

You get the idea. This kind of story is going to be the “Trump voters in diners” lodestar of 2022.

Because I tend to zero in on any actual numbers that show up in this kind of “collect a bunch of quotes and anecdotes” piece, I wondered about that Hidalgo County comparison. Just for grins, I went back and checked to see what was the best Democratic performance in Hidalgo in recent years:

2004 – JR Molina, 64.08%. For comparison, John Kerry got 54.86% against George W. Bush.

2006 – Bill Moody, 62.54%.

2008 – Linda Yanez, 73.63%.

2010 – Hector Uribe, 67.14%. That sure correlated with good Democratic performance elsewhere, eh?

2012 – Michelle Petty, 70.69%. Barack Obama got 70.40%, an improvement over the 69.02% he got in 2008.

2014 – Leticia van de Putte, 67.57%.

2016 – Dori Garza, 70.98%. Hillary Clinton got 68.50%, as noted in the story.

2018 – Steve Kirkland, 69.34%, with Beto’s 68.81% right behind. Kirkland was in a two-candidate race, while Beto and Ted Cruz also had a Libertarian in their race. Cruz’s 30.64% was actually a tiny bit behind Jimmy Blacklock’s 30.66%, though several other Republicans failed to get to 30% in their three-way races.

Latino Dems, and candidates for statewide judicial positions, were generally the high scorers. Looking at the numbers, I agree with the basic premise that Beto could have done better in South Texas than he did in 2018, and he will need to do better than Joe Biden did in 2020. The new SOS elections result website is trash and doesn’t give you a county-by-county view like it did before, so I went and found the Hidalgo County Elections page, which informed me that Biden got 58.04% in 2020, with Elizabeth Frizell being the high scorer at 61.51%; yes, another judicial candidate.

One could also point out, of course, that Biden came closer to winning Texas than Clinton did, despite doing worse in South Texas. Beto himself came as close as he did mostly by making huge gains in urban and suburban counties – to pick one example, he got 46.53% in Collin County, losing it by 22K votes, after Clinton got 38.91% and lost if by 61K votes. Beto did net 12K fewer votes in Hidalgo than Clinton did (Biden netted 32K fewer than Clinton), and he lost another 10K in Cameron County – that does add up in such a close race, though it wouldn’t have been enough to fully close the gap he still had. Ideally, he’d do better in South Texas and in the big urban and suburban counties. At least we all feel confident he’ll do the work.

By the way, medical abortion is now more tightly restricted in Texas, too

Another piece of crap from the special session.

Misoprostol

A new law limiting the use of abortion-inducing medication in Texas goes into effect Thursday.

The law makes it a felony to provide the medication after seven weeks of pregnancy, putting Texas at odds with federal regulations. It also makes it a crime to send the medication through the mail.

Medical abortion is the most common way women in Texas terminate their pregnancies, according to state data.

These new restrictions reflect a growing concern among abortion opponents about the rise of “self-managed” abortions, in which pregnant people obtain the medications from out-of-state or international providers, with or without a prescription.

There’s evidence that more women turn to self-managed abortions when legal abortion is restricted. Texans have been unable to access abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy since Sept. 1, when a controversial new ban went into effect.

“Texas is looking at the ways that people are navigating around restrictions and trying to essentially make that as unsafe and as frightening for people as possible in order to deter them,” said Farah Diaz-Tello, senior legal counsel for If/When/How, a reproductive justice legal group.

Diaz-Tello and other advocates worry that the new criminal penalties may make pregnant Texans fearful of seeking medical care after a self-managed abortion.

[…]

Texas’ new law also specifies that no one may provide abortion medication “by courier, delivery or mail service.”

Texas already required the medication to be provided by a physician in person. But this specific clause addresses a growing concern among abortion opponents that patients are trying to circumvent the required doctor visit by getting the drugs by mail, especially with the state’s new restrictions that bans abortions after around six weeks.

Called a “self-managed abortion,” this usually entails ordering abortion-inducing drugs online, with or without a prescription, from doctors, pharmacies and other providers out of state or overseas.

The FDA has attempted to crack down on some providers, including AidAccess, a group founded in 2018 by Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, a European doctor. AidAccess provides abortion-inducing medications to women in areas that have restricted access to the procedure.

Gomperts has said she will continue prescribing to patients in Texas. She told CBS News in September that she believes she is on solid legal ground since it is legal to prescribe this medication where she is based.

See here for the backgroun; I didn’t blog it at the time for whatever the reason. A bit more than half of all abortions in Texas are medical abortions, which the FDA says are safe up to ten weeks. I suspect Dr. Gomperts and others like her if they exist will get more business now, despite the prohibition on sending the medication via mail. It’s really a matter of enforcement, and it’s not clear to me how Texas will be able to do that. That FDA action against her was from 2019, by the way. It would be nice for the current FDA to maybe revisit that now. I don’t have anything positive to end with. This is where we are right now.

Some I-45 work to resume

Just some design work, for now.

Federal officials have lifted their pause on a small piece of the planned Interstate 45 mega-project that will remake downtown Houston’s freeway system and has divided state transportation planners, community groups and local politicians.

Giving the go-ahead to two parts of the $10 billion-plus project — work along Interstate 69 and at Texas 288 to rebuild where the three freeways converge near Third Ward — staves off the possibility of state officials removing all of the project’s funding from Texas’ 10-year highway plan and provides a glimmer of hope that officials locally, in Austin and Washington can find some common ground.

“Things are moving in what seems to be a positive direction,” said J. Bruce Bugg, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

[…]

After weeks of meetings between state and federal highway officials, the Texas Department of Transportation can proceed with “detailed design work” of the southernmost stretches of the project, portions of the downtown redesign called Segment 3, removing them from the development pause put in place by federal highway officials in June. In a Nov. 29 letter from FHWA Chief Counsel Andrew Rogers, federal officials said recent discussions represent “a good start” but set parameters for any design work to proceed.

Specifically, Rogers said FHWA “is not prepared at this time to allow TxDOT to resume any right-of-way acquisition in Segment 3.” TxDOT, he added, could acquire properties from owners who approach it on a case-by-case basis “rather than relying on eminent domain.”

See here and here for some background; the story also references the lawsuit filed by Harris County that has been temporarily paused to allow the discussion that led to this agreement. It seems like the intent was to keep I-45 on the TxDOT project list for at least a little longer, to see if an agreement among all the parties can be reached. I don’t know how likely that is, but it never hurts to talk.

Though there is concern about the project’s impacts in Midtown, Third Ward and Eado, the most vocal opposition to the project emanates from north of downtown where TxDOT proposes to add two managed lanes in each direction to I-45. That widening, which requires the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses adjacent to the freeway, has drawn scorn and accusations that highway officials are perpetuating decades of carving freeways through low-income and minority communities to the detriment of those neighborhoods.

“Wider highways are not an appropriate or effective intervention to expand commerce opportunities, and they do not expand opportunities for those bearing the greatest burdens of the expansion,” more than 15 groups wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, released Tuesday. “Highway construction and expansion interrupt lives, displace people from their homes and businesses, and decimate generational wealth, especially in communities of color.”

The letter, a response to a letter sent by seven Houston-area Congressman urging Buttigieg to not impede the project, was drafted by Stop TxDOT I-45, which formed to oppose the project, along with Air Alliance Houston and 14 environmental, community or left-leaning groups.

See here for more on that, and here for the response letter, which also observes that the people who want to get the I-45 project going don’t represent those who will be affected by it. I doubt there’s an agreement that satisfies everyone, but there are definitely options that do a better job of minimizing harm and promoting equity. That’s what we need to aim for.

Deer COVID

In case you were running low on things to feel anxious about.

Scientists have evidence that SARS-CoV-2 spreads explosively in white-tailed deer and that the virus is widespread in this deer population across the United States.

Researchers say the findings are quite concerning and could have vast implications for the long-term course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19, first emerged, there have been several signs that white-tailed deer would be highly susceptible to the virus — and that many of these animals were catching it across the country.

In September of last year, computer models suggested SARS-CoV-2 could easily bind to and enter the deer’s cells. A recent survey of white-tailed deer in the Northeast and Midwest found that 40% of them had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

Now veterinarians at Pennsylvania State University have found active SARS-CoV-2 infections in at least 30% of deer tested across Iowa during 2020. Their study, published online last week, suggests that white-tailed deer could become what’s known as a reservoir for SARS-CoV-2. That is, the animals could carry the virus indefinitely and spread it back to humans periodically.

If that’s the case, it would essentially dash any hopes of eliminating or eradicating the virus in the U.S. — and therefore from the world — says veterinary virologist Suresh Kuchipudi at Penn State, who co-led the study.

[…]

From April to December of last year, about 30% of the deer that they tested were positive for SARS-CoV-2 by a PCR test. And then during the winter surge in Iowa, from Nov. 23, 2020, to Jan. 10 of this year, about 80% of the deer that they tested were infected. At the peak of the surge, Kapur says, the prevalence of the virus in deer was effectively about 50 to 100 times the prevalence in Iowa residents at the time.

During this time frame, the team also sequenced the genes of nearly 100 samples of the virus. They found the variants circulating in the deer matched the variants circulating in people.

Those genomic sequences suggest that during the pandemic, deer have caught the virus from people multiple times in Iowa alone, Kapur says. “The data are very consistent again with frequent spillover events from humans into deer and then transmission among the animals.”

Virologist Linda Saif at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine says humans are likely infecting white-tailed deer across the country. The white-tailed deer is native to North America, Central America and the northern edge of South America. In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 30 million animals.

“We also have detected the virus in deer in Ohio,” she says. “And there are antibody studies that suggest the prevalence of COVID infections among deer are pretty high in the Midwest and East.”

Although the virus doesn’t seem to make the animals sick, Saif says, the new data from Iowa are “very concerning.”

“Now the question is: Can the virus spill back from deer to humans? Or can deer transmit the virus effectively to grazing livestock? We don’t know the answers to those questions yet, but if they are true, they’re obviously concerning,” she says.

Yeah, I’d say so. Have I mentioned lately that getting vaccinated, and then getting boostered when you need to, is a really good idea? The odds are that sooner or later, we’ll all need a different version of the COVID vaccine, just because some awful new variant has arisen. This is the same reason why we need new flu shots every year. The sooner we accept that reality, the better off we’ll all be. USA Today and Texas Public Radio have more.

It’s not looking good for Roe v Wade

Yesterday, it seemed like there was the possibility of a chance that SCOTUS could so something other than eviscerate abortion rights nationally. Today, not so much. I don’t have the energy to write a real post about it, so I’m just going to point you to coverage at The 19th, Slate (twice), TPM, Mother Jones, and Daily Kos. Or you could have spent five minutes on Twitter, or you could be like me and get a billion campaign/action/fundraising emails from a multitude of organizations, all with the same message.

Lots of people think that this will change the political dynamics, and indeed maybe it will. Anger is a strong motivator, and this has already made a lot of folks on my side angry. But winning is a big motivator, too, and the people that have been pushing for forced births for decades are within sight of getting what they want. Whatever happens with the politics, the real world effects of this are going to be very bad, very harmful, and not at all easy to undo. The one thing we can’t do is stop fighting, because the other guys sure aren’t going to.

Vaccine mandate for health care workers blocked

I’d say this is getting ridiculous, but we’re well past that point.

A federal judge on Monday blocked President Joe Biden’s administration from enforcing a coronavirus vaccine mandate on thousands of health care workers in 10 states that had brought the first legal challenge against the requirement.

The court order said that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid had no clear authority from Congress to enact the vaccine mandate for providers participating in the two government health care programs for the elderly, disabled and poor.

The preliminary injunction by St. Louis-based U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp applies to a coalition of suing states that includes Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. All those states have either a Republican attorney general or governor. Similar lawsuits also are pending in other states.

The federal rule requires COVID-19 vaccinations for more than 17 million workers nationwide in about 76,000 health care facilities and home health care providers that get funding from the government health programs. Workers are to receive their first dose by Dec. 6 and their second shot by Jan. 4.

The court order against the health care vaccine mandate comes after Biden’s administration suffered a similar setback for a broader policy. A federal court previously placed a hold on a separate rule requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure their workers get vaccinated or else wear masks and get tested weekly for the coronavirus.

Biden’s administration contends federal rules supersede state policies prohibiting vaccine mandates and are essential to slowing the pandemic, which has killed more than 775,000 people in the U.S. About three-fifths of the U.S. population already is fully vaccinated.

But the judge in the health care provider case wrote that federal officials likely overstepped their legal powers.

“CMS seeks to overtake an area of traditional state authority by imposing an unprecedented demand to federally dictate the private medical decisions of millions of Americans. Such action challenges traditional notions of federalism,” Schelp wrote in his order.

That ruling doesn’t affect Texas, but this one does.

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health care workers from going into effect nationwide next week after Texas and other states challenged the order.

Louisiana Western District U.S. Judge Terry Doughty’s ruling follows the same decision on Monday from Missouri U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp. However, Schelp’s ruling applied for only 10 states.

Doughty wrote in his decision that the mandate exceeds the Biden administration’s authority.

“If human nature and history teach anything, it is that civil liberties face grave risks when governments proclaim indefinite states of emergency,” Doughty wrote.

I Am Not A Lawyer, and I couldn’t find any commentary out there about this, but just knowing that it was two Trump-appointed judges who made these rulings makes me look at them with extreme skepticism. (There are some other reasons for that, as the Daily Kos story indicates. I still want to see some serious lawyers weigh in on it.) The willingness of so many people to put the lives of so many other people in danger just boggles my mind.

On the moderately positive side, there was this.

A judge in Galveston has denied a bid from a group of federal workers seeking an injunction to halt enforcement of the White House’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, saying they had natural immunity from having been infected with the virus.

John J. Vecchione, senior litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance in Washington, D.C., said his team argued it was “arbitrary and capricious” to require vaccinations across the board for all federal employees, because this particular group of workers was not any more dangerous to others than people who have been fully vaccinated. Vecchione says in court documents his clients’ immunity is “at least as robust and durable as that attained through the most effective vaccines.”

[…]

The 11 litigants include a high ranking lawyer at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from Frisco, a Navy technician from Robstown, an air traffic controller from St. Cloud, Fla. , a Georgia-based veterinary specialist from the Department of Agriculture, a special agent with the Secret Service from Springfield, Va. and a supervisory air marshal with Transportation Security Administration in Palos Verdes, Calif. .

The suit is directed at Dr. Anthony Fauci, others on the COVID response task force and representatives of other federal agencies tasked with enforcement or supervision of the mandate. The deadline for vaccinations was Nov. 22 and enforcement was set to begin some time after Nov. 29.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey V. Brown denied the workers request for a temporary injunction, saying they did not face irreparable harm if they complied with the mandate and they were unlikely to win their case on the merits. He noted that all but one of the plaintiffs were pursuing religious exemptions that would allow them to avoid the vaccine. The worker who did not seek an exemption works for ICE; the judge said the civil liberties lawyers had probably erred in failing to sue that agency.

Any win for sanity at the district court level feels like it’s written on sand these days, but I’ll take what I can get. Roy Edroso has more.

Greg Abbott’s bet

What, me worry about blackouts?

Gov. Greg Abbott promised that the state’s electric grid would be able to withstand pressures caused by any potential winter storm that occurs this year in a television interview Friday.

“Listen, very confident about the grid. And I can tell you why, for one: I signed almost a dozen laws that make the power grid more effective,” Abbott said. “I can guarantee the lights will stay on.”

After the winter storm in February that left millions across the state without power, the Legislature passed a number of bills requiring additional “weatherization” measures for companies that maintain the state’s electric grid.

But experts have expressed concerns that loopholes have allowed some natural gas providers to exempt themselves from the weatherization requirements, potentially leaving the system still vulnerable.

“Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said in June when he signed two of the bills.

[…]

“You’re going to have another winter and another summer that’s going to strain the electric grid,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor at the University of Houston. “If there’s any kind of problem for people, there’s a direct connection to how Democrats can use that to their political advantage against Republicans.”

Well, “guarantee” is a strong word.

After last winter’s freeze hamstrung power giant Vistra Corp.’s ability to keep electricity flowing for its millions of customers, CEO Curt Morgan said he’d never seen anything like it in his 40 years in the energy industry.

During the peak days of the storm, Vistra, Texas’ largest power generator, sent as much energy as it could to power the state’s failing grid, “often at the expense of making money,” he told lawmakers shortly after the storm.

But it wasn’t enough. The state’s grid neared complete collapse, millions lost power for days in subfreezing temperatures and more than 200 people died.

Since the storm, Texas lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at making the grid more resilient during freezing weather. Signing the bill, Gov. Greg Abbott said “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid.”

But Morgan isn’t so sure. His company has spent $50 million this year preparing more than a dozen of its plants for winter. At the company’s plant in Midlothian, workers have wrapped electric cables with three inches of rubber insulation and built enclosures to help shield valves, pumps and metal pipes.

No matter what Morgan does, though, it won’t be enough to prevent another disaster if there is another severe freeze, he said.

That’s because the state still hasn’t fixed the critical problem that paralyzed his plants: maintaining a sufficient supply of natural gas, Morgan said.

Natural gas slowed to a trickle during the storm, leaving the Midlothian facility and 13 other Vistra power plants that run on gas without enough fuel. The shortage forced Vistra to pay more than $1.5 billion on the spot market for whatever gas was available, costing the company in a matter of days more than twice the amount it usually spends in an entire year. Even then, plants were able to operate at only a fraction of their capacity; the Midlothian facility ran at 30% of full strength during the height of the storm.

“Why couldn’t we get it?” Morgan said recently. “Because the gas system was not weatherized. And so we had natural gas producers that weren’t producing.”

If another major freeze hits Texas this winter, “the same thing could happen,” Morgan said in an interview.

[…]

Texas has done “next to nothing” to weatherize its natural gas supply, said Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy consultant.

“We don’t have a regulatory system in place that holds the industry accountable. That is the problem,” Lewin said. “It’s not a technology or engineering problem. It’s a regulatory problem.”

And maybe that doesn’t matter, at least for this year. I’m sure Greg Abbott can afford to have a meteorologist on his political staff, and I’m sure that person will have advised him that another freeze like the one we saw this year is unlikely. Even a freeze that isn’t quite as bad probably won’t happen. Given that Abbott isn’t going to lift a finger to improve the grid’s reliability, why not bet big on the more probable outcome, even if the downside is so massive. At this point he’s made his bed anyway, and if we make it through next summer without anything bad happening he gets to claim the credit for it. I’m too risk averse to want to make that bet, but here we are. As they say, it’s a bold move and we’ll see if it pays off for him.

Texas blog roundup for the week of November 29

The Texas Progressive Alliance has recovered from its tryptophan coma in time to bring you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Social media censorship law blocked

For now. As long as the outlaw Fifth Circuit exists, we can’t say more than that.

A federal judge on Wednesday blocked a Texas law that seeks to restrict how social media companies moderate their content and was championed by Republicans who say the platforms are biased against conservatives.

The law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sept. 9, would ban platforms with more than 50 million monthly users in the U.S. from removing a user over a “viewpoint” and require them to publicly report information about content removal and account suspensions. It was set to take effect Dec. 2.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman wrote that the First Amendment protects social media platforms’ right to moderate content and rejected the defendants’ argument that such companies are “common carriers.” Pitman also ruled that some aspects of the law were “prohibitively vague.”

“This Court is convinced that social media platforms, or at least those covered by [House Bill] 20, curate both users and content to convey a message about the type of community the platform seeks to foster and, as such, exercise editorial discretion over their platform’s content,” Pitman wrote.

[…]

Supporters of the law say it ensures that users’ political views go uncensored. State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park — who authored the bill, known as House Bill 20 — compared tech companies to “common carriers” like phone companies or cable providers, which are barred from customer discrimination.

But a federal judge who blocked a similar Florida law in June said such comparisons aren’t accurate. Thomas Leatherbury, the director of the First Amendment Clinic at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, told The Texas Tribune in September that the Texas law is “clearly unconstitutional,” with the same flaws as the Florida law “and then some.”

By targeting only the largest social media platforms, Leatherbury said the law violates the equal protection clause. The law largely prohibits electronic mail service providers from blocking messages based on their content, which Leatherbury said restricts email services’ First Amendment rights.

See here and here for the background. You can see the court order here, some commentary on it here, and NetChoice’s press release here. As with all things, Texas is sure to go running to the Fifth Circuit to get them to ratify their lawlessness, and the usual bet is that the Fifth Circuit will provide room service for them. Maybe this time it will be different since the law attacks businesses instead of just people, but conservatives have decided those particular businesses are Bad for them, so the usual bet is still probably the correct one. But for now, at least this is one terrible new law that won’t get a chance to be enforced. For now.

SCOTUS hears Mississippi abortion case today

Could be the beginning of the end for Roe v Wade, or it could be the beginning of a massive upheaval in the anti-abortion industry.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on Wednesday in a Mississippi abortion case that has the potential to overturn Roe v. Wade. While the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, stems from a challenge to a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, the high court’s ruling could have seismic impacts for Texas.

Texas legislators have ensured the state is ready if Roe v. Wade is overturned by this case or any future ruling. Last June, Texas joined 11 other states by enacting a measure that automatically bans abortion after Roe is overturned without having to call a special legislative session.

[…]

This Supreme Court hearing comes at a precarious moment for abortion access in Texas, as the state and abortion providers await a ruling from the same court on Texas’ most recent efforts to limit abortion. Women have been unable to obtain abortions in Texas after about six weeks of pregnancy since Sept. 1, when the controversial abortion ban went into effect.

Texas’ law, known originally as Senate Bill 8, is unique in that private citizens, not state officials, can enforce it by suing anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion. This civil method of enforcing the law is intended to evade judicial review and is at the crux of the case that the Supreme Court was asked to consider.

Many experts expected the Supreme Court to rule on the Texas case ahead of the hearing in Dobbs v. Jackson, but a decision has not yet been issued.

Yeah, a lot of people thought that, didn’t they? SCOTUS gonna SCOTUS. Look, this is likely going to be Very Bad, but SCOTUS has surprised us before, and if they do so here, expect there to be a huge, world-shattering tantrum from the forced birth crowd. Which is not to say that any “compromise” ruling from SCOTUS would be a thing of beauty, but it could at least mean that abortion remains mostly available. We’ll see. The 19th and Jill Filipovic have more.

Jolanda Jones enters the HD147 race

We have a strong contender for the most interesting local primary.

Rep. Garnet Coleman

At least four candidates have announced they are running for state Rep. Garnet Coleman’s seat, less than two weeks after the longtime Houston Democrat announced he would not seek re-election next year.

The field, made up entirely of Democrats so far, includes Jolanda Jones, a former Houston ISD trustee and at-large city council member, and Reagan Flowers, a Houston Community College trustee. Jones announced her candidacy Monday morning, days after Flowers’ announcement last week.

[…]

In a statement announcing her candidacy, Jones said she would be “a champion for affordable health care, better jobs, safer streets and stronger schools” if elected to the seat. She rolled out an initial list of endorsements from elected officials and community leaders, including state Sen. Royce West of Dallas.

“Representative Garnet Coleman raised the bar for public servants in Texas,” Jones said. “He cannot be replaced, but I will do my best to carry the torch for the residents of District 147.”

Following a stint on Houston City Council from 2008 to 2012, Jones served on the Houston ISD board from 2016 to 2020, where she was known to openly criticize state education officials and her fellow trustees. She opted not to seek re-election, and mounted an unsuccessful challenge to Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett in last year’s Democratic primary.

Flowers, an education nonprofit executive and former science teacher at Jack Yates High School, ran for Jones’ open seat on the HISD board in 2019, narrowly missing a runoff. She was appointed to the HCC board the following year, replacing Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, who was elected to Houston City Council.

In a video announcing her candidacy, Flowers called herself a “proven, progressive Democrat” and said she had a “proven track record of working collaboratively with the numerous institutions within House District 147.” She also bashed Republican state leaders for their approach to health care and education funding.

“Texas schools and colleges should be the best in the world, but state leadership has failed to provide the funding to achieve that goal,” Flowers said.

Also running for Coleman’s seat are Houston realtor Danielle Keys Bess and 23-year-old high school math teacher Namrata “Nam” Subramanian. The only candidate to file before Coleman announced his retirement, Subramanian says on her campaign website that “every person deserves human rights and to be treated equitably in our society.”

See here and here for the background. I know people here will have Feelings about Jolanda Jones. You’re entitled to them, but I will say this: the Lege is a good fit for her. There’s just a lot more room there for her style. No guarantees about anything, but she enters this race as the best known and highest-profile candidate, and that makes her the favorite.

But she still has to make her case to the voters, and Reagan Flowers is a strong candidate as well. I don’t know anything more about Nam Subramaniam than what I learned for the last post, and I know nothing about Danielle Bess. Here’s Jolanda Jones’ website. You can expect me to do interviews for this one. Like I said, this will be – already is – an interesting race.

Social media censorship lawsuit has its day in court

It’s a very dumb law that will hopefully be stopped before it takes effect tomorrow.

Lawyers for two large tech industry groups appeared Monday in federal court in Austin to argue that Texas’ new social media law — inspired by Republican complaints that conservatives are ill-treated on Twitter, Facebook and other large platforms — should be blocked as unconstitutional.

Known as House Bill 20, the law lets social media users sue if they are blocked or their posts are removed based on the user’s viewpoint. It also gives companies two days to respond to user complaints about content removal and two weeks to handle appeals if users disagree with the action.

But lawyer Scott Keller argued that the law should be blocked from taking effect Thursday because it violates the First Amendment free speech right of social media companies to monitor, screen and delete content published on their platforms.

Instead, Keller said, the law requires platforms to continue publishing posts that violate their terms of service, including those that glorify Nazis or spread medical misinformation.

“This is a striking assertion of government power,” he told U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman during a two-hour in-person hearing Monday in downtown Austin. “The First Amendment protects editorial discretion.”

HB 20 also creates an onerous set of regulations on complaints and appeals that would be impossible to meet, Keller argued, noting that in a three-month period earlier this year, YouTube removed 9.5 million videos and 1.16 billion comments for violating decency and other standards.

But Assistant Attorney General Courtney Corbello argued that the law does not stop social media companies from prohibiting certain types of content.

“HB 20 says continue to have your policies, continue to prohibit the content the way you want to, just don’t discriminate against people,” she said. “HB 20 prohibits viewpoint discrimination. It does not prohibit content moderation.”

Corbello also disputed claims that the law is onerous, noting that Facebook and YouTube already inform users when content is removed and have an appeals process in place to resolve disagreements.

See here for the background. I may have been wrong about the timing of the slapdown on this dumb law, but I don’t think I’m wrong about the outcome. This time I can point to someone with fancy law credentials who also thinks this law is trash and the lawsuit will succeed – see here for the analysis of HB20, and here for his thoughts on the filings. There are other analyses of the law and similar ones in equally ridiculous states like Florida, which you should read, and there’s this resource page from NetChoice, one of the plaintiffs, if you really want to go deep. As I said, this and other laws from the special session go into effect tomorrow, so expect there to be something in short order.

Travis Scott’s legal team

Some heavy hitters here.

Prominent Los Angeles trial lawyer Daniel Petrocelli sent an electronic letter late last Wednesday to lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Astroworld Festival tragedy announcing that he now represents rapper Travis Scott and offering to pay the funeral costs of those who died at the Nov. 5 concert in Houston.

“Your client’s offer is declined,” Corpus Christi attorney Bob Hilliard, who represents the family of 9-year-old Ezra Blount, who died at the concert, said in an email response to Petrocelli.

The Thanksgiving Eve email exchange answered the question of who Scott, who was born Jacques Bermon Webster II, would select as his lead lawyer to defend him against more than 120 civil wrongful death, personal injury and premises liability lawsuits filed in the three weeks since the Astroworld event.

Petrocelli, who is head of litigation for the global corporate law firm O’Melveny & Myers, is known for representing high-profile clients.

In 2002, Dallas rocker Don Henley hired Petrocelli to successfully fend off wrongful firing charges levied by Eagles’ guitarist Don Felder. Two years later, Petrocelli defended Enron CFO Jeff Skilling against criminal fraud and insider trading charges. Skilling was convicted. And in 2018, Petrocelli served as the lead trial lawyer for Dallas-based AT&T and Time Warner in the federal government’s antitrust lawsuit seeking stop their merger. AT&T won.

Petrocelli burst into the national spotlight in 1997 when he represented the father of Ron Goldman suing O.J. Simpson for his son’s wrongful death. A jury awarded his client $8.5 million.

“Dan is an absolutely superb, elite trial lawyer,” said Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Rob Walters, who was co-counsel with Petrocelli in the AT&T litigation. “Dan has an uncanny ability of establishing the moral high ground, which resonates well with factfinders.”

“Dan and Neal will be a formidable team in court in this litigation,” said Walters, referring to Susman Godfrey partner Neal Manne, who has been hired by Astroworld festival promotor Live Nation.

Well, when you’ve got a couple of billion dollars’ worth of lawsuits filed against you, you’re probably not going to skimp on the legal defense. It will be very interesting to see how Petrocelli directs the defense, which also includes criminal defense attorney Kent Schaffer, whom you may know as one of the Ken Paxton special prosecutors. Neal Manne, the Live Nation lawyer, was the lead on the misdemeanor bail lawsuit against Harris County. Like I said, heavy hitters.

McConaughey not running for Governor

Thank God that’s over.

Actor Matthew McConaughey on Sunday removed himself from consideration as a potential candidate for governor after months of toying with a campaign.

In a video posted to his Twitter account, McConaughey, who lives in Austin, said he was honored to be considered for “political leadership.”

“It’s a humbling and inspiring path to ponder,” McConaughey said. “It is also a path that I’m choosing not to take at this moment.”

McConaughey’s video came just over two weeks before the candidate filing deadline for the Texas primary.

Since earlier this year, McConaughey said he was mulling a run for governor, though he did not specify whether he would run in the Democratic primary, in the Republican primary or as an independent. He has previously described himself as “aggressively centrist.”

Look, there’s a world in which I’d have taken McConaughey seriously as a candidate. We took Kinky Friedman seriously as a gubernatorial candidate way back in 2006, even as he invited us to not take him seriously, because he regularly spoke about his intent to run for over two years before he actually ran. (Seriously, the first “Kinky for Governor” story I saw was in September of 2003.) Like Kinky, McConaughey never developed anything like a coherent policy position, but unlike Kinky he also never seemed to have any motivation to run.

Normally when a famous person or brand-name politician is asked seemingly out of the blue if they might consider running for a particular office, I assume it was a setup, designed to call attention to the prospect as part of an overall marketing strategy. In this case, I’m not actually sure. I mean, I think the subject came up for publicity reasons, just not “run up a flag to see if this candidacy could be viable” reasons. We can (and I do!) blame all of the ridiculous polling on the subject, which allowed McConaughey as a partyless entity that somehow ended up on a ballot against Greg Abbott, for extending this drama way past its expiration date.

But now we can cut all this nonsense out and get on with the real race. Again, it’s not that McConaughey couldn’t have been a serious candidate, but to be taken seriously he needed to address the question of how he was going to run – was he going to file for a party primary, or go the much more challenging independent route – and not just whether. He never did, so this was always annoying background noise to me. And now it’s over and we can get back to whatever we’d been doing before. The Current and the Chron have more.

We continue to register more voters

Seventeen million and counting.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas has surpassed 17 million registered voters for the first time, continuing a pace that is reshaping the state’s electorate so rapidly that even the politicians cannot keep up.

Despite a series of new election regulations from the Republican-led Legislature and more purges of inactive voters from the rolls, the state has added nearly 2 million voters in the last four years and more than 3.5 million since eight years ago, when Gov. Greg Abbott won his first term.

The result is at least 1 of every 5 voters in Texas never cast a ballot in the Lone Star State prior to 2014 — a remarkable wild card in a state that had stable politics and a slow stream of new voters for a generation before that.

“You have a largely new electorate that is unfamiliar with the trends and the personalities in the area,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor. “That rapid turnover leads to a lot of uncertainty for candidates.”

Texas was just short of 17 million people eligible to vote in the constitutional amendment elections Nov. 2. Harris and Dallas counties combined to add nearly 12,000 more voters as Election Day approached, putting the state over the threshold.

It’s all setting up for a 2022 election cycle that is more competitive, more expensive and more uncertain than statewide candidates are used to seeing in Texas.

Just a reminder, these are the voter registration figures for Harris County since 2014:

2014 = 2,044,361
2016 = 2,182,980
2018 = 2,307,654
2020 = 2,431,457
2021 = 2,482,914

That’s 438K new voters in the county over those seven years. I’ve gone over these numbers before, but 2014 was the first two-year cycle in the 2000s that saw a real increase in the voter rolls. It makes a difference having a government in place that wants to increase voter participation. (And yes, as I have said multiple times before, I credit Mike Sullivan, in whose tenure these numbers started to increase, for his role in getting that started.)

But there’s a group that deserves a lot of credit, too.

Texas is unique in how it runs voter registration, barring non-Texas residents from volunteering to help people through the process. Even Texans can’t help fellow Texans register without first jumping through a series of hurdles or facing potential criminal charges.

Anyone in Texas who wants to help voters register must be trained and deputized by county election officials. But going through the one-hour course in Harris County allows volunteer registrars to sign up voters only in that county. To register voters in a neighboring county, they have to request to be deputized there as well and take that training course, too.

To be able to sign up any voter in the state, a volunteer registrar would need to be deputized in all 254 Texas counties — and those temporary certifications last only two years.

Consequently, voter registrations in Texas grew at a glacial pace before 2014. From 2000 to 2014, the state added just 1 million registered voters — about the number of voters Texas now adds every two years.

Those boots on the ground that [Michael] Adams, the Texas Southern University professor, mentioned began to arrive in 2014, when a group of campaign strategists from President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign launched an effort they called Battleground Texas to build an army of volunteer registrars.

“What we’re going to do is bring the fight to Texas and make it a battleground state so that anybody who wants to be our commander in chief, they have to fight for Texas,” the group’s co-founder, Jeremy Bird, said in a national interview with talk show host Stephen Colbert in 2013.

While pundits scoffed — especially after Abbott beat Democrat Wendy Davis by 20 percentage points in the 2014 gubernatorial election — Battleground Texas says it has identified and helped train 9,000 voter registrars across Texas to find eligible voters and sign them up.

It hasn’t gotten easier to register voters in Texas. There are just more people who are able to do it, and Battleground Texas deserves praise for that. Other groups have picked up the torch from there, and the results speak for themselves. We saw in the 2020 election that Republicans can register voters, too, so like all things this strategy needs to be refined and advanced by Democrats to continue making gains. Let’s keep moving forward.

The Ike Dike is still a work in progress

I’ll be honest, I thought we were further along than this.

Members of Texas’ congressional delegation are gearing up for a “marathon” effort to secure funding for a long-sought barrier to protect the Texas Gulf Coast from catastrophic storm surge.

That’s because it’s unlikely much, if any, of the resiliency funding in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law this month will go toward the $29 billion project.

The effort will begin in earnest next year, when Texans in both chambers will push to include federal authorization for the so-called “Ike Dike” in a massive water resources bill that Congress passes every two years. But members of the delegation are bracing for what will likely be a long, difficult push for as much as $18 billion in federal funding.

“This is going to develop over a number of years,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, told Hearst Newspapers. “This is going to be a marathon.”

Cornyn said he doesn’t anticipate trouble getting the federal OK for the project in the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, a biennial, typically bipartisan bill that helps pay for flood mitigation infrastructure across the country.

But the water bill typically doesn’t pass Congress until fall or winter, and it isn’t expected to include funding for the coastal spine.

“That’s going to be a heavy lift because, unfortunately, it’s easier to get money after a natural disaster than it is to prevent one,” Cornyn said.

[…]

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget is preparing to present the project to Congress for authorization and appropriations, said Lynda Yezzi, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps.

Members of the Texas delegation earlier this year had hoped to get a jump on funding as they pushed to include a dedicated stream of money for coastal resiliency measures like the Ike Dike in the infrastructure bill.

“Now is the time to be innovative and strategic and to spend our resources preparing, in partnership with our local stakeholders and capable federal partners,” Texas members of Congress led by U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat, wrote to leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in May.

That didn’t happen. Instead the package included funding for $47 billion for a wide range of resiliency projects, including coastal projects, but also to help brace against flooding, droughts and wildfires and bolster cybersecurity.

The bill also included about $9.6 billion in funding for the Army Corps, which is overseeing the project. But the Army Corps has a deep backlog that currently includes more than $100 billion worth of work.

“This is why we need to continue to advocate for more opportunities,” Fletcher said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers.

Fletcher said the resiliency funding in the $1 trillion infrastructure package — some of which is targeted to states that have been affected by federally declared disasters, including Texas — is a “good start.” But she said the delegation needs to continue to push for a dedicated funding stream for coastal resiliency projects.

Looking at my last post, I see that we were just at the “presentation of the finalized plan” part of the process, and that getting funding was next. Which is where we are, and at least there appears to be a pathway from here. But we’re still years out from any reasonable expectation that construction will begin, and that’s an awful lot of risk to bear in the meantime. Sure hope our luck holds out.

USFL 2.0

It’s all 1985 up in here.

Houston will be home to another spring football league.

A Fox Sports-backed reboot of the United States Football League, which originally existed from 1983-86, was announced Monday with play starting in April 2022. The eight teams will play in one host city to be determined.

The eight-team league will include the Houston Gamblers, a franchise with the same name as the city’s original USFL franchise that played in 1984 and 1985 and featured future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. He had signed with the USFL after balking at playing for the Buffalo Bills, who selected him in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft.

The league will have two divisions. The North will be comprised of the Michigan Panthers, New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars and Pittsburgh Maulers. The South will have the Gamblers, Birmingham Stallions, New Orleans Breakers and Tampa Bay Bandits. All the team nicknames were used in the original USFL.

[…]

Houston’s last spring football team was the Roughnecks of the revived XFL in 2020. The league suspended operations in April 2020 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with the Roughnecks the only undefeated team at 5-0.

See here and here for more about the “new” league, which unlike in the 80s you can follow on Twitter. I suspect that the rebooted Gamblers, much like the late, semi-lamented Roughnecks will be better than the Texans, though that doesn’t answer the basic question for me of “why did anyone think we needed another reboot of another failed football league”. I thought I saw somewhere the Birmingham will be the city in which all the games will be played – I assume this is for logistical reasons, as that will be cheaper and easier than trying to get eight stadia for use – though it seems like a bad way to build fanbases. But this is probably more about TV revenue anyway, so whatever. If you like this kind of thing, it will probably be the kind of thing that you like. Mean Green Cougar Red has more.

A brief filing update

Just a few observations as we head out of the holiday season and into what I expect will be the busier part of the filing period. I’m using the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet, the SOS candidate filing resource, and the candidate filing info at the harrisvotes.com site for my notes.

– There’s now a fourth candidate listed for Attorney General on the Dem side, someone named Mike Fields, who along with Joe Jaworski has officially filed as of today. I can’t find anything to clarify this person’s identity – there’s no address listed on the SOS page, and Google mostly returned info about the former County Court judge who is now serving as a retired judge and who last ran for office as a Republican. I seriously doubt this is the Mike Fields who is running for AG as a Dem. I know nothing more than that.

– No Dems yet for Comptroller or Ag Commissioner, though I saw a brief mention somewhere (which I now can’t find) of a prospective Dem for the former. I feel reasonably confident there will be candidates for these offices, though how viable they are remains to be seen.

– Nothing terribly interesting on the Congressional front yet. A couple of Dems have filed for the open and tough-to-hold CD15; I don’t know anything about them. State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, in her first term in the Lege, will run for CD30, the seat being vacated by the retiring Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who has endorsed Crockett for the primary. That race will surely draw a crowd, but having EBJ in her corner will surely help. No incumbents have yet drawn any primary challenges, though Reps. Vicente Gonzalez (now running in CD34) and Lloyd Doggett (now running in CD37) will have company for their new spots. I am not aware of any Dem yet for the new CD38, which should be Republican at least in the short term but which stands as the biggest prize available for Harris County Democrats.

Michelle Palmer has re-upped for SBOE6, which will be a tougher race this time around. I’m working on a post about the electoral trends for the new SBOE map.

– Sara Stapleton-Barrera and Morgan LaMantia have filed for the open SD27 Senate seat; Rep. Alex Dominguez has not yet filed. Nothing else of interest there.

– For the State House, I’m going to focus on area districts:

HD26 – Former SBOE member Lawrence Allen Jr, who ran in the 2020 primary for this seat, has filed.

HD28 – Eliz Markowitz still has an active campaign website and Facebook page, but I don’t see anything on either to indicate that she’s running again. One person who is running though he hasn’t filed yet is Nelvin Adriatico, who ran for Houston City Council District J in 2019.

HD76 – The spreadsheet lists four candidates so far. Two ran in 2020, Sarah DeMerchant (the 2020 nominee) and Suleman Lalani (who lost to DeMerchant in the primary runoff). Two are new, Vanesia Johnson and James Burnett. This new-to-Fort-Bend district went 61-38 for Joe Biden in 2020, so the primary winner will be heavily favored in November.

HD132 – Chase West has filed. He’s not from the traditional candidate mold, which should make for an interesting campaign. This district was made more Republican and is not the top local pickup opportunity, but it’s on the radar.

HD138 – Stephanie Morales has filed. This is the top local pickup opportunity – the Presidential numbers are closer in HD133, which does not yet have a candidate that I’m aware of, but it’s more Republican downballot.

HD142 – Jerry Davis is listed on the Svitek spreadsheet as a challenger to Rep. Harold Dutton. He hasn’t filed yet, and I don’t see any campaign presence on the web yet. That’s all I know.

HD147 – I am aware of a couple of candidates so far to fill the seat left vacant by Rep. Garnet Coleman’s retirement. Nam Subramaniam has filed. HCC Trustee Reagan Flowers sent out a press release over the weekend stating her intention to run. I would expect there to be more contenders for this open seat.

– For Harris County offices, there are already some people campaigning as challengers to incumbents. Carla Wyatt is running for Treasurer, Desiree Broadnax is running for District Clerk. On the Republican side, former District Clerk Chris Daniel has filed for his old office, and someone named Kyle Scott has filed for Treasurer. There are no Democratic challengers that I can see yet for County Clerk or County Judge, though there are a couple of Republicans for County Judge, Vidal Martinez and Alexandra Mealer. Finally, there’s a fourth name out there for County Commissioner in Precinct 4, Jeff Stauber, who last ran for Commissioner in Precinct 2 in 2018 and for Sheriff in 2016, falling short in the primary both times.

So that’s what I know at this time. Feel free to add what you know in the comments. I’ll post more updates as I get them.

Harris County at “moderate” threat level again

For now. As with all things, for now.

The COVID-19 threat level in Harris County was reduced Friday to moderate from significant as the local number of hospitalized patients and new cases met thresholds that guide the meter while a new variant raised concerns that prompted countries across the world to once again restrict travel.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office announced the change in the threat level after new data indicators turned yellow, the color designated to the level that calls for unvaccinated residents to remain vigilant, wear masks and continue practicing physical distancing, although can resume leaving home. Under the level, fully vaccinated individuals can resume activities without masking except where required.

The 14-day average positivity rate in the county reached 4.6 percent. As of Friday, 66.5 percent of the county’s population had received at least one dose of a vaccine and 57.2 percent were fully vaccinated.

The risks of the new variant, named Omicron by a World Health Organization panel, were not yet fully understood, according to the Associated Press.

The same panel that named the variant also classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern. Numerous countries, including the United States, Canada and Russia, announced travel restrictions for visitors from southern Africa, where the variant was discovered, according to the AP.

In a tweet Friday evening, Hidalgo said she lowered the level “due to improved indicators” but cautioned “winter COVID spike is still possible.”

“Judge Hidalgo remains concerned about Omicron and the potential for a winter surge as we’re seeing in some other areas in the US,” spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre said Friday. “She is strongly encouraging residents who haven’t been vaccinated to do so — vaccines and boosters are widely available for free.”

I see from my archives that the threat level had been reduced to “Moderate” in late May, back when we all thought it was going to be a hot vaxx summer. Hopefully this time that will last a bit longer, but as before that will depend on getting enough people vaccinated. We’re making progress, and I remain hopeful that the vax’s availability for 5-11 year olds will help, but we still have a long way to go.

As for that new variant:

As global governments, scientists and health experts track the new omicron variant of COVID-19, Dr. Peter Hotez is encouraging people not to “push the panic button,” before we know more about it.

Hotez, who serves as co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, said transmissibility is king in determining if omicron will impact the globe the way previous variants alpha and delta did. More data is necessary, he said.

“Before we press the panic button I think there’s a few things to consider,” Hotez said during an appearance on MSNBC. “Yes, it does have some immune escape properties, or at least it looks like it might, but that’s that’s not what’s associated with high transmissibility. We’ve had other immune-escape variants before that have not really taken off… That’s what I’m looking out for, the level of transmissibility.”

The good news, as I understand it from scanning Twitter, is that it was detected early on, and that PCR tests work to find it, which means that testing for it will be quicker and more effective. The vax makers say they can make a new batch for this in short order, it will mostly be a matter of getting it approved. So yeah, don’t panic yet, wait to see what the data says, and if necessary get yourself another booster. We’re much better placed for this now, if we’re not stupid about it.

Yeah, traffic is worse than before

You’re not surprised, are you?

By most measures, traffic is back to pre-COVID congestion levels — or even more clogged in some cases. What seems to have changed, based on a handful of studies that looked at different facets of how drivers moved around American cities and locally, is who is logging all those miles.

“There are still a lot of people who are not driving like they used to, but those that are driving are driving more miles,” said Jeff Schlitt, director of sales engineering for Arity, which tracks driver behavior.

As they log more miles, however, drivers are not letting up on the gas pedal, not keeping their eyes on the road and often not driving safely.

“Our trend is definitely going in the wrong direction,” Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said during a Sept. 30 update on road safety at the commission’s monthly meeting.

Arity, a spinoff business of insurance giant Allstate, follows drivers via smartphone apps that meticulously track location, allowing the company to measure numerous patterns, including trip routes, speed of travel, mobile phone use and sudden stops. Through data from third-party apps — the company says it receives data from 60 percent of U.S. drivers — the company then studies changes in trends.

In its latest report, released last month, Arity said overall U.S. vehicle travel is 8 percent higher than 2019 levels before the pandemic. Travel varies by state, however, with Texas up 10 percent and Massachusetts up 1 percent.

In Houston, COVID dropped freeway traffic volumes by about 45 percent in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, before congestion crept back up and remained about 10 percent below 2019 averages for most of last year, according to data compiled by Houston TranStar.

When fears of a winter surge in COVID cases sent many back into isolation last December, traffic volumes dipped again, then eased. By March, when the first wave of Texans were fully vaccinated, traffic volumes had risen above pre-pandemic levels.

Traffic dropped off in the summer, as is common when schools are out of session, something Schlitt and others said was a sign of normalcy.

“I think what we are seeing is a return to seasonality patterns,” Schlitt said.

Drivers said they are also seeing people moving back into their old habits of going to stores rather than relying on deliveries or choosing to eat in restaurants rather than cook at home.

[…]

With roughly three months left in the year, 3,278 people have died on Texas roadways, according to the state’s crash reporting system. Typically some reports can take weeks to appear in the system, and Ryan recently said the daily average of deaths has increased to 13 per day for September.

Unless the roadway carnage rapidly slows, Texas is on pace for more than 4,000 deaths. That would be the highest since 1982, when the per-mile fatality rate was three times higher, cars lacked airbags, drivers and passengers were far less likely to wear seat belts and aggressive enforcement of drunken driving was rare.

During the early months of the pandemic, highway and traffic safety officials said fewer drivers on the road left more room for unsafe motorists, who used less-congested lanes to accelerate. That meant that even though Texas had fewer collisions, they were happening at faster speeds, leading to tragic results.

Now, safety observers said with drivers accustomed to those 75 mph and 80 mph speeds, freeways are more crowded and collisions are increasing. For the first nine months of 2020, Texas police logged 393,919 crashes. From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 of this year, at least 459,972 crashes have occurred, a roughly 15 percent jump.

I have done so much less driving over the past 18 months, thanks to working from home. It’s contributed to a significant reduction in stress for me, and I’m not a nervous driver. I’m just much happier not having to drive on our miserable freeways day in and day out. Some number of commuters are taking advantage of more flexible or hybrid work schedules these days to be on the road more in the middle of the day, which is better for them but maybe not as good for the people who are normally on the road at those times. All I know is, the longer I can go as a mostly non-driver, the better.

Early voting starts today for the 2021 runoffs

You know the drill – It’s runoff time for the 2021 elections, and early voting starts today. There are nine early voting locations, which you will find in the various districts that have runoffs – HISD districts I, V, VI, and VII, and HCC district 3, as well as City Council races in Bellaire and Missouri City(*). Early voting runs from today through next Tuesday, December 7. Early voting hours will be from 7 AM to 7 PM each day, except for Sunday the 5th, when it will be 12 PM to 7 PM. You can vote in the runoff whether or not you voted in November, though of course you can only vote if you’re in one of those places.

The HISD runoffs are particularly important because there are some characters in those races that we really don’t want or need to have in positions of power. The race in District I, which is my district, is one where reasonable people may reasonably disagree on the better choice. The races in districts V, VI, and VII involve perfectly fine endorsed-by-the-Chronicle incumbents against people who are going to crusade against masks and “critical race theory” and a whole lot of other nonsense. District VI in particular features a perennial candidate who frankly got too damn many votes in November despite a documented history of sexual harassment, and as I have come to find out, credible allegations of domestic abuse following his divorce a couple of years ago. Vote for Sue Deigaard in V, for Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca in VI, and for Anne Sung in VII.

The race in HCC is also one where you can go either way; the Chron restated their endorsement of challenger Jharrett Bryantt over the weekend. Get out and vote, you have plenty of time to do so.

(*) Several non-HISD districts don’t have runoffs, as a plurality is enough.

Weekend link dump for November 28

“The endless disappointment is painful to the character of Logan. The fact that the boys and the girls, they can’t see the game. It’s a game, but like all games, even when it’s a matter of life and death, it’s still a game. And they can’t see it.”

It’s a little hard to imagine not having Sex and the City, Game of Thrones, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Wire in the top five of your “best HBO shows” list, but then I guess that’s a testament to how deep the list is.

“The inescapable conclusion is that if this Republican Party wins back control of even one house of Congress, they will grind governing to a halt — and that, if they win the presidency again, democracy as we know it may well no longer exist.”

“Scientists have evidence that SARS-CoV-2 spreads explosively in white-tailed deer and that the virus is widespread in this deer population across the United States. Researchers say the findings are quite concerning and could have vast implications for the long-term course of the coronavirus pandemic.”

“We hold Congresswoman Boebert to a far lower standard. If we held her to the same standard as every other elected Republican and Democrat in Colorado – we’d be here nearly nightly chronicling the cruel, false, and bigoted things she says for attention and fundraising. This is not about politics, if politics is still about things like taxes, national security, health care, jobs, and public lands. This is about us as journalists recognizing that we’ll hold a politician accountable if they say something vile once, but not if they do it every day. Our double standard is unfair to all the elected officials in Colorado – Republicans and Democrats – who display human decency.”

“Fundamentally, I hope people learn to understand what people are buying when purchasing NFT art right now is nothing more than directions on how to access or download an image. The image is not stored on the blockchain and the majority of images I’ve seen are hosted on web 2.0 storage, which is likely to end up as 404, meaning the NFT has even less value.”

“Billingsley has just won the Reuben Award for outstanding cartoonist of the year. It is the 75th year of the National Cartoonists Society’s peer-voted prize — whose legendary recipients include Charles Schulz, Matt Groening, Rube Goldberg and Roz Chast — but 2021 marks the first time that it has been won by a Black creator, according to comics historians.” How it is that Morrie Turner didn’t win one, I have no idea.

“Despite all the talk about burnout and reevaluating priorities, the soaring quits rate has little to do with white-collar jobs. It’s more about lower-income people getting the chance to move up.”

“Indeed, the high quit rate is a red herring for understanding the sluggish return of workers to the US labor market following the COVID-19 pandemic, in our view. Instead, the true cause is a hesitation of workers to return to the labor force, due to influences tied to the pandemic such as infection risks, infection-related illness, and a lack of affordable childcare.”

RIP, Doug Jones, former All Star closer for the Astros.

“Executives are seizing a once in a generation opportunity to raise prices to match and in some cases outpace their own higher expenses, after decades of grinding down costs and prices.”

Bankrupt them. All of them.

RIP, Bill Virdon, former MLB player and manager of the Pirates, Yankees, Astros, and Expos.

You may not have known that you needed to see a video of Count von Count singing a Violent Femmes song, but you did. You’re welcome.

Lock them up.

“Everyone keeps talking about covid becoming endemic, but as I listen to the conversation, it’s becoming more & more clear to me that very few of you know what “endemic” means. So here’s a thread on how pandemics end.”

RIP, Stephen Sondheim, legendary Broadway composer and lyricist.

RIP, Curley Culp, Hall of Fame nose tackle for the KC Chiefs and Houston Oilers.

Cracking Asian-American communities

The Trib explores what the new Congressional maps did to Asian-American communities, mostly but not exclusively in the Houston area.

When Texas lawmakers redrew congressional maps following the 2020 census, they split up Asian American populations in both Harris and Fort Bend counties.

One district line, winding between a local car wash and bar, severs most of the Korean neighborhoods, grocery stores, restaurants and a senior center from the community center itself, which now hangs on the edge of one congressional district while most of its members reside in the next district over.

“It’s like (lawmakers) don’t even know we are here,” said Hyunja Norman, president of the Korean American Voters League, who works out of the center. “If they were thoughtful, they could’ve included the Korean Community Center in (our district). But it’s like they are ignorant of us, or they just don’t care.”

As the Asian American and Pacific Islander population has grown and continued to mobilize politically, especially in the midst of rising hostility and targeted attacks, the community’s desire for representation in Texas and U.S. politics has become stronger. But many now feel their political aspirations became collateral damage in Republican efforts to draw political districts designed to preserve partisan power.

Although they make up only about 5% of Texas’ total population, Asian Texans accounted for a sizable portion of the state’s tremendous growth over the past decade. Nearly one in five new Texans since 2010 are Asian American, according to the census. They were the fastest-growing racial or ethnic voting group in the state, increasing from a population of about 950,000 in 2010 to nearly 1.6 million in 2020.

[…]

In Fort Bend County — which has ranked as the most diverse county in the country multiple times — Lily Trieu’s parents grew scared of even routine errands like grocery shopping or filling their gas tanks. They were afraid to wear masks in public.

And when Asian Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a resolution condemning the Atlanta shootings, almost every Texas Republican voted against it, including Fort Bend County’s U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls.

“This is why representation matters,” Trieu told Texas lawmakers when she testified at redistricting hearings. “This is why splitting our community to dilute our votes is directly denying our opportunity to receive that representation.”

[…]

Previously, more than 9% and 11% of the eligible voter populations in CD-7 and CD-9, respectively, were Asian American. But under the approved plans, CD-7 would increase to 17% Asian American population, covering Houston suburbs, while CD-9 would decrease to 9% Asian population — shifting the majority into one district and lessening its power in another.

A majority of the Asian American population in the suburbs also got redrawn into CD-22, a mostly rural district, decreasing its percentage of the Asian population from more than 15% to 10%.

CD-22 also now includes all of Sugar Land, which is the most Asian town in Texas.

Similar manipulations took place around Dallas. In Collin County, lawmakers approved a map for CD-4 that takes most of the Asian community across Frisco and Plano and attaches it to a district stretching north to the Oklahoma border.

Asian American voters, who would have made up 10.8% of the vote in their old district, comprise just 5.6% of their new one.

Chanda Parbhoo, president of South Asian American Voter Empowerment of Texas, said she had organizations members — mostly from Collin County — submit almost 50 written testimonies against the proposed maps during redistricting hearings.

It still didn’t feel like it was enough, Parbhoo said.

“It makes it really difficult for the (South Asian) community, an emerging political entity, that we haven’t had years of experience (with redistricting),” Parbhoo said. “As soon as a map comes out, then I’ll have to try to explain it to my community, like, ‘This is what’s not fair. These are the numbers.’ Everything moves so fast that the process doesn’t really allow for people to absorb it and to be able to ask questions.”

Ashley Cheng, lead organizer of the Texas AAPI Redistricting Coalition, also testified multiple times as lawmakers redrew voting districts and said the community has various issues at stake that a continued loss of representation will exacerbate.

Cheng said translating documents for Asian American voters is vital for the community to participate in voting. She said during the winter storm, many emergency alerts were only in English and Cheng’s mother, who does not fluently speak English, was left without information at her house.

“We are in a time of history where we’re really rising up as a community and making sure that our political voices are heard,” Cheng said. “Part of that is because our lives are being threatened. There’s been a heightened sense of Islamophobia in the last few years, heightened anti-Asian hate because of all of the political rhetoric around COVID. We have so much in common in a need for representation.”

Those Asian-American communities that are now stuck in CD04 had previously been in CD03, which even after redistricting is becoming more Democratic but which has been moved backwards in the process. The most recent lawsuit filed against the redistricting plans, which has now been combined with most of the other lawsuits, had a focus on Asian-American communities and concerns, though as this story notes the courts have not previously recognized Asian-Americans as a minority population in need of protection at the voting booth. I doubt that will change now, but all you can do is try.