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Chron overview of Tax Assessor race

I wasn’t expecting an interesting race here, at least not going into the filing season, but we have one.

Ann Harris Bennett

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett is familiar with elections, appearing on the ballot five times in the last six election cycles and overseeing the office responsible for the voter rolls in Texas’ largest county.

She finds herself in new territory this year, however, with a feisty Democratic primary opponent — former Houston city councilwoman and HISD trustee Jolanda Jones — who is forcing Bennett to defend her record as an incumbent for the first time.

After unseating Republican Mike Sullivan in 2016, Bennett assumed elected office for the first time, taking control of the Harris County office responsible for overseeing billions of dollars in property tax collections and serving as voter registrar. The office also processes millions of annual vehicle registrations and title transfers.

As early voting begins, Bennett is battling for a second term against Jones and frequent local candidate Jack Terence. Though she has endured a few choppy moments during her first three-plus years, she argues that her voter registration outreach efforts and the creation of educational “property tax workshops” are among the reasons she deserves another term.

[…]

Jones, a criminal defense lawyer, said Bennett has missed opportunities to register more voters in Harris County, where the share of eligible voters who are registered to vote is below the state average and far lower than some other large counties.

She said she would make aggressive efforts to register voters, including former felons and high school students, and would have Harris County buy into the “National Change of Address” database, which helps voter registrars keep track of registered voters when they move to new addresses.

Jones argued that Harris County’s voter registration has lagged behind that of other Texas counties that use the database, though Bennett has said her office already uses it to find residents in “suspense” status. Bennett said her office has done “everything that we could possibly do to do outreach,” including partnering with nonprofit groups and holding some 200 trainings for deputy voter registrars.

As a reminder, my interview with Ann Harris Bennett is here, and my interview with Jolanda Jones is here. They’re worth listening to if you haven’t yet. Bennett has had a fairly placid first term, with that SOS purge attempt being the main drama. She’s not a visionary, but she has gotten things done. Jones is smart and has bold ideas that she would aggressively fight for, but she had a tumultuous tenure on City Council and hasn’t been an administrator. Which path do you want to take?

More Astros lawsuits

This one was filed by a dissatisfied customer.

Did not age well

An Astros season ticket holder has filed suit in Harris County District Court against the ballclub, accusing the team of negligence, breach of contract and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act in conjunction with the 2017-18 electronic sign-stealing scandal.

The suit, filed Friday by Beaumont attorneys Mitchell A. Toups and Richard L. Coffman on behalf of season ticket holder Adam Wallach of Humble, seeks class action status for Astros full and partial season-ticket holders from 2017 through 2020 and damages in excess of a million dollars.

The Astros are accused of “deceptively overcharging (fans) for season tickets while defendants and their employees and representative knowingly and surreptitiously engaged in a sign stealing scheme … and secretly put a deficient product on the field that could result (and now has resulted) in severe penalties” from Major League Baseball.

As a result of the scheme, the lawsuit claims, season ticket holders are owed refunds of what attorneys say were inappropriate increases in ticket prices for the last four seasons. The suit also seeks treble damages for the Astros’ “knowing, willful, intentional, surreptitious, wrongful and unconscionable conduct.”

In addition, attorneys seek an order that would prevent the Astros from increasing season ticket prices for at least two years.

There were already two other lawsuits against the Astros over the whole sign stealing thing; this story notes yet another, a hand-written (!) lawsuit from a guy in Nevada who lost money in both 2017 and 2018 betting on the Dodgers to win the World Series. The day will come when this sort of story will end, but today is not that day. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have my doubts that this will survive a motion to dismiss, but the Chron asked some actual lawyers, and maybe it can.

With three potential class action lawsuits pending against the Astros in Harris County courts, the scene is set for what attorneys say is a multi-layered, landmark legal battle that could test the wits and knowledge of lawyers, judges and jurors and perhaps extend beyond information disclosed in Major League Baseball’s report.

“This is a complicated mess,” said Talmage Boston, a Dallas attorney who has written two books on baseball’s history and is a member of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. “We have never seen anything like this before. There will be nothing easy about this case.”

Two additional lawsuits were filed against the ballclub Tuesday, bringing to at least seven the number of cases in state and federal court stemming from the electronic sign-stealing scheme in 2017-18 that resulted in Major League Baseball sanctions against the ballclub.

In the two latest suits, filed by the Hilliard Martinez Gonzales law firm in Corpus Christi, attorneys will seek authority to collect testimony that could go beyond details collected by the MLB probe that led to the firing of Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow by team owner Jim Crane.

John Duff, an associate with the Hilliard firm, said attorneys for the ticket holders will attempt to question not only current and former Astros players and management but also MLB executives and players and managers from other teams, extending the boundaries of the MLB probe.

[…]

Sports-related lawsuits are not uncommon, with examples including the NFL’s “Spygate” affair with the New England Patriots and cases filed by disgruntled New Orleans Saints fans over officiating decisions that affected playoff games.

None of those cases proceeded to trial. Boston, however, said he believes the three Harris County cases, each of which seeks to represent season ticket holders who say they were defrauded by the Astros’ misdeeds, have a chance to proceed.

“The Astros will try to get them dismissed, but I think they will get teed up in front of a jury,” Boston said. “There are some compelling facts, and the evidence discovery will go deeper than anything we know in terms of what (MLB commissioner Rob Manfred) had in his investigation.

“It really is a can of worms.”

So who knows what might happen. Each case is in a different court, and there may be an effort to move them to federal court, which the plaintiffs will resist. I still have my doubts, but it sure would be interesting to see what the discovery process might uncover.

Endorsement watch: Four more

The Chron endorses Rodney Ellis for County Commissioner, Precinct 1, and then proceeds to spend the endorsement mostly talking about his opponent.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Count us among those who were a little surprised when felony court Judge Maria T. Jackson resigned her seat as Harris County’s longest serving judge to run against Rodney Ellis, the powerful, well-funded longtime state senator-turned-county commissioner in Precinct 1.

Count us among those who welcomed her nerve. No public official should get used to running unopposed, even one as productive as Ellis. And the 65-year-old veteran lawmaker and former Houston city councilman has left himself open to criticism for not trying harder to build consensus with Republicans, a pattern that led to a failed tax increase before a legislatively imposed revenue cap.

So it’s disappointing that Jackson, 55, known as tough jurist who also served as a municipal judge and an administrative judge, fell far short of making a coherent case for why she’d be more effective on Commissioner Court.

In a 90-minute interview with the editorial board, Jackson’s main criticism of Ellis centered around his role shepherding through Harris County’s historic bail reform settlement, saying she supported the principle but it didn’t include help for victims and it has led to people out on no-cash bonds reoffending. But she misstated parts of the deal, claiming defendants would get free Uber rides and other assistance, items not included in the final agreement.

Jackson bemoaned millions of dollars for studies on why people don’t go to court — an oversimplification of the scope — saying “most of us know why people don’t go to court. They don’t want to go to jail.” That’s another oversimplification that betrays a lack of compassion for misdemeanor defendants who often balance multiple jobs and transportation challenges.

Asked why she thought her campaign had drawn significant donations from the bail bonding industry, which supported keeping the unconstitutional system of poverty jailing, Jackson answered: “good government.”

Jackson’s most troubling claim was that, when she was elected in 2008, there was only one drug court, and that “under my leadership and direction,” the county established three more and a list of other rehabilitation courts.

“I have been a change maker and been boots on the ground working with everyone and making things happen,” she told us.

In fact, Harris County already had four drug courts in 2007. Jackson didn’t start presiding over a drug court herself until 2017, according to a court newsletter. The other specialty courts were started by other judges.

I agree with the sentiment that no one deserves a free pass, and that having to actually account for oneself each election cycle is the best way to keep officials honest. I also agree with a sentiment that John Coby often expresses each cycle when people start filing for this or that, which is why are you running? Maria Jackson, who declined to be interviewed by me, has done a lousy job of answering that question. She has some undirected complaints, no clear ideas for why she would be an improvement, and multiple misstatements of the facts. You have to do better than that, a lot better when running against someone with a strong record of accomplishment. It’s Candidate 101. I can’t tell you why Maria Jackson is running any more than she can, but Rodney Ellis can, and you can hear him talk about it here.

Oh, and that bit about Ellis “not trying harder to build consensus with Republicans [leading] to a failed tax increase” is utter horsefeathers. Anyone who could type that sentence with a straight face has no understanding of Republican politics and politicians in our time. Treat your readers with more respect than that, guys.

The other three endorsements from Thursday were all for statewide offices.

Chrysta Castañeda for Railroad Commissioner:

Chrysta Castañeda

Ask Chrysta Castañeda what one of the biggest issues facing the Texas Railroad Commission is, and she answers flaring — the burning of surplus gas from oil wells.

The practice is “without any benefit and with environmental harm,” Castañeda, who is running in the March 3 Democratic primary for railroad commissioner, told the Editorial Board. “We’re lighting on fire enough right now to power the city of Houston.”

Castañeda, 57, an engineer and attorney with decades of experience in the oil and gas industry, has been raising the alarm about flaring on the campaign trail. On Tuesday, the man she is trying to unseat, Republican incumbent Ryan Sitton, issued a report on flaring.

[…]

Her opponents include Mark Watson, 63, an attorney who emphasizes the need for strict enforcement of current regulations, former State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, 63, who spent 20 years in the Texas Legislature and Kelly Stone, 41, an educator and stand-up comic, who displays a genuine passion to protect the environment.

All three are also calling for constraints on flaring, but Castañeda’s expertise sets her apart. She understands the Railroad Commission’s dual mission is to both promote the development of Texas’ natural resources by regulating the oil and gas industry and to protect the state’s environment.

Those mandates can often seem at odds, especially during the kind of sustained oil and gas boom Texas has been experiencing. Castañeda’s experience will help her balance the economic concerns of the oil and gas industry with the need to protect the environment for all Texans.

My interview with Castañeda is here and my interview with Kelly Stone is here. They’re the two most active candidates, and while Castañeda has been collecting the newspaper endorsements (here’s your friendly neighborhood Erik Manning spreadsheet), Stone has gotten plaudits from those panels as well.

Brandy Voss for Supreme Court, Place 7.

Brandy Voss

We recommend attorney Brandy Voss for Place 7 on the Texas Supreme Court in the March 3 Democratic primary. Voss lacks the judicial experience of her opponent, Civil District Judge Staci Williams of Dallas County, but more than compensates for that with a career-long immersion in appellate law.

Voss spent a year after graduating Baylor University law school as a briefing clerk for then-Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips, where she helped draft opinions. She then worked as an appellate lawyer in Dallas until relocating to McAllen with her family and later worked for four years as a senior staff attorney for Justice Gina Benavides on the 13th Court of Appeals. She again helped draft opinions and continued learning the intricacies of managing an appellate docket.

Those skills, along with experience in volunteer roles such as a member of the Texas Bar Association’s rules advisory committee, have prepared her well to be a member of the state’s top civil court. Lawyers responding to the Texas Bar Association judicial preference poll backed Voss over Williams by a 2-1 margin.

This is one of those races where I’ve had a hard time choosing, as both candidates look pretty strong and there’s no clear distinction between them. The Trib did a story about the contested Democratic primaries for statewide judicial positions and noted that all but this one and the three-way race for CCA Place 3 are a man versus a woman. If you’re looking for other distinctions, Voss has raised more money and has a slight overall edge in endorsements. Make of that what you will

Amy Clark Meachum for Supreme Court, Chief Justice.

Judge Amy Clark Meachum

Texas Democrats have two experienced judges to choose from as they vote in the March 3 primary to pick their nominee to challenge Chief Justice Nathan Hecht for his seat on the state’s top civil court in November.

Both have experience that would serve them well on the high court. But we strongly recommend District Judge Amy Clark Meachum over Justice Jerry Zimmerer, who sits now in Place 3 of the 14th Court of Appeals in Harris County.

Meachum, 44, is currently a civil district judge in Travis County, where she was first elected in 2010. She scores reasonably well on the local bar evaluation — 50 percent of respondents rated her overall as “excellent” and just 17 percent said she “needs improvement” — and her fellow judges have elected her as presiding judge for the county’s civil and family courts.

Here are Meachum’s Q&A responses. This one, I have a clearer idea of which way to go.

2020 Primary Early Voting, Day Three: Midweek meandering

I don’t have any clever openings today, so once again let’s just jump right in. Here’s the Day Three report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. The totals after Day Three:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2012   5,209    4,962   10,171
2016   8,167   10,231   18,398
2018   7,641   10,896   18,537
2020  13,793   17,731   31,524

2012  11,430   10,205   21,635
2016  11,087   14,869   25,956
2018  11,558   10,243   21,801
2020  13,944   16,833   30,777

The Dems have almost caught up in mail ballots returned, while the two parties remain close in overall turnout. Dems still have about 25K mail ballots out, while Republicans have 17K still out. Dems are running more than 70% higher than they were in 2016, while Republicans are a bit below 20% ahead of their 2016 pace. The first week is usually pretty consistent day to day, it’s on Saturday and in week 2 that we really start to see stuff happen.

I shared a number of analyses from the 2018 election by Derek Ryan, a Republican analyst who did a lot of very useful public number crunching during the early voting period. He’s back with a closer look at the 2020 primaries so far. Here he is after Day Two (via his daily emails):

The average age of a Republican Primary early voter is 62.5, while the average age of a Democratic Primary early voter is 53.6. This is the average for in-person voters only (ballot by mail voters skew the averages up).

4.3% of the voters in the Democratic Primary are people who have previous Republican Primary history, but have not voted in a Democratic Primary in the last four election cycles. Some of these crossover voters could be due to the contested presidential primary. As a comparison, Democrats with no previous Republican Primary history made up 7.0% of the votes cast in the contested 2016 Republican Primary.

While it isn’t one of the top 30 largest counties, I would like to mention that my favorite county, Loving County, has seen seven people show up to vote in the Republican or Democratic Primary.

You can see his report here. As he notes, thanks to a new law passed last year, all counties are required to send their daily EV data to the Secretary of State, and you can see it all here. Pick the election you want, choose the most recent date, and submit for the whole state. Vote rosters for each county are also included. The new additional data makes direct comparisons to previous years impossible, since all we had before were the top 15 counties, but if you want to see what that looked like after two days in 2016, see here.

As of Day Two, there were 203,984 GOP early votes, and 160,353 Dem votes. I predicted way more Dem votes than Republican, which so far isn’t the case. I do think there’s something to the theory that Dems are waiting a bit to see what happens in Nevada and South Carolina, but even with that I clearly underestimated the Republicans. That said, Dem turnout is definitely up, even just looking at the counties where we can make direct comparisons. I’ll do a closer look at that in a day or two.

Statesman overview of the statewide judicial races

It’s good to have a full slate of qualified candidates.

After years of trouble scraping together enough candidates to run for seats on both statewide courts, Texas Democrats have the opposite situation in 2020 — contested primaries in almost every race.

In all four races for the Texas Supreme Court, the state’s highest civil court, two Democrats are vying to challenge Republican incumbents.

And for the state’s top criminal court, multiple Democrats are running in two of three available races for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The renewed Democratic interest comes after the party’s court candidates lost by 6 to 8 points in 2018 — defeats that seem strong after the party’s judicial candidates were drubbed by an average of 24 points in 2010.

As an added incentive, Democratic judicial candidates tend to do better in presidential election years like 2020.

Contested primaries are a mixed blessing, offering an opportunity to improve name recognition but depleting campaign coffers, particularly in Supreme Court races in which GOP incumbents can raise more than $1 million in contributions, largely from civil lawyers and law firms. In contrast, races for the Court of Criminal Appeals tend to be low-cost affairs.

Let me start by saying once again that the “contested primaries are resource drains” narrative continues to be tiresome, and in a year where a lot of people will be voting in the primary it’s very much a good thing for voters to have some idea of who you are ahead of November. There are brief writeups of each candidate, not much more than that, but it’s a start. I have Q&A responses from a couple of the candidates, Judge Amy Clark Meachum (Supreme Court, Chief Justice) and Steve Miears, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4. Texas Lawyer has Q&As with nearly all of these candidates as part of their judicial race coverage. Their Supreme Court candidate Q&As are here and for the Court of Criminal Appeals here. The Erik Manning spreadsheet shows everyone’s endorsements, and as you can see there were a lot of split decisions.

One race has drawn a bit more heat than the others, the Supreme Court Chief Justice primary.

Judge Amy Clark Meachum

Jerry Zimmerer, a Houston appeals court justice running for Texas Supreme Court, said his Democratic primary opponent, Amy Clark Meachum, has “selfish” motivations for running, pointing to the fact that she has cast her campaign to be the first woman elected chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court as a historic one.

“I just think somebody who wants to try to break barriers for their own benefit is not going to be successful,” Zimmerer told The Texas Tribune in an interview Thursday. “I just don’t think that’s what voters are looking for. … I just think that’s a goal she wants to achieve for herself.”

He said his campaign is different because “I actually want the best candidate to win.”

“I may not be the first anything, but I’m going to be the best,” he said.

Meachum said Zimmerer “should run on his own record instead of attacking mine.” Throughout her campaign, Meachum has said she hopes to restore balance to the all-Republican court and champion women in the legal profession.

“If he chooses to disparage a more qualified and experienced judge because of her gender, he’ll find himself on the wrong side of history,” she said. “These sorts of sexist comments are straight from the 1950s.”

[…]

In a state bar poll that gauges Texas attorneys’ support for judicial candidates, Meachum won more favor than Zimmerer, with 1,779 votes to his 326. The Republican incumbent, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, won 2,706 votes.

Meachum has said she is the Democrats’ best chance at winning a seat on the high court for the first time in more than two decades.

“I don’t exactly look like or sound like my primary opponent, my general election opponent, or any of the men who have previously been elected Chief Justice,” she said in a Houston Chronicle questionnaire. “I am making an important statement for women in the law and women in our party in 2020 and I would appreciate your support!”

Reached Friday for comment, Zimmerer said, “As someone who has traveled the state trying to pull together all the different groups that make up the Texas Democratic Party into a cohesive coalition, I have concerns with those who would seek to divide us.”

Yeah, put me down in support of Judge Meachum on this one. I know both of these candidates and I like them both, but I disagree with Justice Zimmerer’s argument. We’ll see what the voters think.

Resilient Houston

It’s good to have a plan.

No traffic deaths on Houston streets, 4.6 million new trees, and no more homes in the floodway. All by 2030.

Those are some of the lofty goals set in the master resiliency plan, “Resilient Houston,” that Mayor Sylvester Turner and city officials unfurled Wednesday, a 186-page document that spells out how the city and its residents can orient themselves to best prepare for future disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

The plan addresses resiliency at five scales — people, neighborhoods, bayous, the city and the region — and sets 18 targets, along with a corresponding set of 62 actions to make those happen.

“There’s a lot in there,” said Marissa Aho, the city’s chief resilience officer, who has spearheaded the production of the plan over the last 18 months. Aho was hired from Los Angeles, where she developed a similar framework.

About a third of the actions are initiatives the city already has in the works. Another third build on existing city projects, and the remaining actions are new.

They range from the immediate term, such as the appointment of resilience officers in each city department this year, to the more distant future, such as reaching complete carbon neutrality by 2050.

As noted in the story, the Resilient Houston plan document is here. It’s 186 pages, so I hope you’ll forgive me that I’ve only skimmed the beginning of it. The eighteen goals of the plan are laid out in the table of contents on page 3, and they include items that ought to have wide consensus like “We will support Houstonians to be prepared for an uncertain future”, “We will live safely with water”, and “We will modernize Houston’s infrastructure to address the challenges of the future”. I’d encourage you to look and get a feel for what it’s about. This is part of a worldwide effort called 100 Resilient Cities, of which Houston is now a member. It’s going to take me some time to process all this, and now I feel like I want to do an interview with Marissa Aho once primaries are over. At a high level, I think this is a good and necessary thing, and I think the goals are both desirable and achievable. How we get there will very much be the tricky part.

2020 Primary Early Voting, Day Two: In for the long haul

Let’s jump right in. Here’s the Day Two report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. As of Day One from those years :


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2012   5,100    3,035    8,135
2016   7,191    6,810   14,001
2018   5,651    6,976   12,627
2020  12,017   12,779   24,796

2012  11,116    6,730   17,846
2016   9,757    9,621   19,378
2018   7,817    6,138   16,955
2020  13,287   11,362   24,649

A couple of clarifications: I had yesterday’s mail and in person totals reversed for the non-2020 years (they’re fixed now), so sorry for the confusion. The group on the top is Dems, and on the bottom is Republicans. Right now, Dems lead in in-person votes while Republicans lead in mail ballots returned. However, Dems have 37K ballots mailed out, while the GOP has only 30K, so that lead could disappear. It’s the in-person votes that will be the biggest factor, though, and as is typically the case Day Two is a little down from Day One, but well head of 2016, with the Dems having a much bigger increase.

Here’s a very early look at who voted on Day One on the Dem side:

Click over for the thread. These numbers will change quickly as the in-person totals begin to swamp the mail ballots. I’ll stay on top of it as we go.

Texas blog roundup for the week of February 17

The Texas Progressive Alliance reminds you that early voting for the Texas primaries begins this week as it brings you the roundup.

(more…)

Endorsement watch: Sri again

The Chronicle endorses Sri Kulkarni in the CD22 primary.

Sri Kulkarni

We see Kulkarni as the strongest possible candidate for Democrats hoping to turn the seat blue. A former Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Department of State, Kulkarni is the son of an immigrant father and a mother whose family descends from Sam Houston. That mix of insider and outsider perspectives has served him well in a career that involved compromise and dialogue with hostile parties all over the world. He seems to prioritize civility and is open to finding common ground with those who differ from him ideologically.

He said he quit his post in the Foreign Service in 2017 when it became difficult to defend positions adopted by President Trump on race and immigration and decided to run for Congress. But for all his global perspective – he says he speaks six languages well – Kulkarni impressed us with his commitment to help people in his district. He wants Congress to remove marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic so it can more readily be used as medicine for veterans and others whom it can help. He also promised to help area residents reduce the flood risk along the Gulf Coast region.

Given his close finish against Olson two years ago, Democrats can be optimistic about Kulkarni’s prospects for flipping the seat. He’s raised enough money for his campaign to contest even the best-financed Republican opposition in November. We recommend Democrats take advantage of that head start and vote for him in the primary.

The Chron endorsed Kulkarni in 2018, so this is not a huge surprise. They also had some nice things to say about Derrick Reed and Nyanza Moore despite the recent unpleasantness between them. Maybe they wrote this before that happened, or maybe they just decided not to clutter up their endorsement of Kulkarni with that side issue, I dunno. They also endorsed the latest Bush progeny in the Republican primary, if anyone cares.

Also in their meandering path to finishing off the endorsements, the Chron recommends Elizabeth Frizell for Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3.

As a criminal defense attorney, Elizabeth Frizell has seen defendants who are wrongfully convicted and others who receive the death penalty in cases where a life sentence would have been more appropriate. She has seen higher courts rule verdicts in criminal trials must stand, even when lawyers or judges made significant errors in the trials that produced them.

Frizell, who is running in the Democratic primary for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Place 3, says those issues would be among her top priorities in reviewing cases if elected.

The former Dallas County Criminal District Court judge, who has 26 years of legal experience, has also served as a municipal court judge and county family law judge. She narrowly lost her 2018 bid to be the Democrats’ nominee for Dallas County District Attorney. Prior to becoming a judge, she was a criminal defense attorney for 13 years and handled death penalty and court-appointed cases.

Frizell would bring a much-needed voice to the Court of Criminal Appeals, long an all-Republican bench. Her experience as a lawyer gives her insight into the flaws of the legal system, something that would help her weigh the life-and-death decisions that come before Texas’s highest criminal court. In the last fiscal year, for instance, the Court of Criminal Appeals reviewed eight death penalty cases.

Frizell has also been endorsed by the Dallas Morning News and San Antonio Express News, according to the invaluable Erik Manning spreadsheet. William Demond has collected most of the group endorsements. Make of that what you will.

The interviews I didn’t do

As was the case with the 2019 Houston elections, there were too many candidates and too many races (and in this case, too little time as well) to do a full slate of interviews. I did what I could, and did a pretty good job of covering the races of interest in Harris County if I do say so myself, but if there had been more time I’d have done more. In some cases, I can point to previous interviews or other resources, so let’s have a review, and look ahead to what might be on tap for the runoffs.

US Senate: I’d have loved to interview some of these candidates, but it was unlikely I’d be able to get time on their calendars, especially after the filing deadline. The Texas Signal has done some Senate candidate forums, and you can see links to Facebook videos from one they did in Houston here. The Texas Trib also did a series of interviews with the five leading candidates, and they can be seen here, as well as a Q&A series here.

CD02: I interviewed Elisa Cardnell and Travis Olsen very early in the cycle, before the filing deadline and thus before Sima Ladjevardian entered the race. I’ve tried but have not succeeded at setting up a time to talk with her, and if there’s a runoff that she’s in that will be a top priority for me.

CD08: This is obviously not a district that anyone expects to be competitive, but I regret not having the time to speak to Laura Jones and Elizabeth Hernandez. They both look like super candidates, and it’s important to support efforts to build Democratic infrastructure in places like Montgomery County. That race is on my list for November.

CD09: Rep. Al Green is the one Democrat in Congress from the area that I’ve never had the chance to interview. Tried to chase him down once a few years ago but couldn’t make it happen. I don’t see this as a competitive race and there’s no need to do a November interview, but one of these days I’d like to talk with him, just to have done it.

CD10: I interviewed Mike Siegel for the 2018 runoff. This race is on my list for the May runoff, if there is one.

CD18: I interviewed Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee back in 2010. I would enjoy talking with her again, but I did not have it in me to do seven (!) interviews for this race. In the unlikely event of a runoff, I’ll definitely revisit this race.

CD22: I interviewed Sri Kulkarni for the 2018 runoff. My original thought was that if this goes to a runoff I’ll be there for it, but after the recent bizarre allegations between the two candidates who might make it into a runoff besides Sri Kulkarni, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

SD11: I interviewed Susan Criss when she ran for HD23 in 2014. I may or may not do this race for November, we’ll see.

SD13: I’ve interviewed Sen. Borris Miles twice, most recently in 2012, when he was running for re-election in HD146. Let’s just say I’d have to ask him some very different questions now, and leave it at that.

HD126: As it happens, I interviewed both candidates in 2018 – Natali Hurtado, and Undrai Fizer. I’ll probably do this one for November, we’ll see.

HD142: I have never interviewed Rep. Harold Dutton, I don’t think I’ve ever met him. I have interviewed Jerry Davis a couple of times, most recently in 2013. I will definitely want to do interviews in this race if there’s a runoff.

HD146: I have not interviewed Rep. Shawn Thierry, but I did run a judicial Q&A from her in 2010. I interviewed Ashton Woods for City Council last year.

HD147: I have interviewed Rep. Garnet Coleman multiple times, most recently in 2012. He’s always been a favorite person to talk to. In the unlikely event of a runoff, I’ll definitely revisit this race.

HD148: Had it not been for the special election in November, I’d have been all over this race. That said, thanks to the special election I’ve already done interviews with Rep.-elect Anna Eastman, Penny Shaw, and Adrian P. Garcia. I also interviewed Cynthia Reyes-Revilla for City Council. I might possibly revisit this in a runoff, but because I’ve done these interviews so recently it’s not clear to me I’d have anything new to ask these folks. We’ll see.

Sheriff: I’ve interviewed Sheriff Ed Gonzalez multiple times, including in 2016 when he first ran for Sheriff. I also interviewed Jerome Moore after he made it to the runoff with Gonzalez in 2016. I didn’t see this race as a particularly serious challenge to Gonzalez, so I put a higher priority on the DA and County Attorney races. If it turns out I was wrong and this one winds up in a runoff, I will of course revisit it.

HCDE: I also regret not doing interviews in the two At Large HCDE races, but there just wasn’t the time, and unlike with legislative offices there’s just so many questions about this position I can reasonably ask. I’ll probably do Position 7 if that race goes to a runoff, but we’ll see.

Yeah, I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years. Always room for more, though not always the time. I’ll be back to the task in March, and again later this year. Hope you find this useful.

2020 Primary Early Voting, Day One: Off to a quick start

And we’re off.

On an overcast and drizzly day in much of Texas, early voting for the 2020 primary elections in some of the state’s most populous counties was up over turnout four years ago, despite warnings by political watchers that an ever-shifting Democratic presidential race might keep some voters at home as they wait for other states’ results.

By about 6 p.m., almost 7,000 people in Tarrant County had cast ballots, already more than the 6,908 that voted on the first day of early voting in the 2016 primaries.

By that time in Harris County, the more than 10,000 people had voted across 52 early voting locations was up significantly from the 7,840 in-person ballots from the first day of the 2016 primaries.

In Bexar, more than 8,000 had voted in person by Tuesday evening — up from 6,118 from Day 1 of early voting in 2016. About 6,000 had voted in Travis County by 4:45 p.m., up from 4,984 in 2016.

[…]

Some Democrats may be staying away from the polls as they hold out for the results of upcoming primaries in Nevada on Feb. 22 and South Carolina on Feb. 29, said Renee Cross, senior director at the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs.

Primary outcomes have the potential to upend the dynamics of a race. After the New Hampshire alone last week, three candidates — former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Sen. Michael Bennet and Andrew Yang — dropped out.

“Given the volatility of this primary for the Democrats, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a much higher than usual strategic voter turnout,” Cross said.

We usually get the bulk of early voting towards the end of the EV period, in particular the last two days, so that’s not unusual. Perhaps it will be more pronounced this year. In any event, the figures cited by the Chron are for both parties combined – we won’t know what the D versus R numbers are until we see the reports from each county. And note that these numbers are for in person voting. There’s also mail ballots:

To be fair, Dems didn’t really do mail ballots in 2008. It’s still impressive. Here’s the Day One report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. As of Day One from those years :


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2012   4,644    1,570    6,214
2016   6,344    3,292    9,636
2018   4,174    3,833    8,007
2020  11,571    6,819   18,390

2012  10,027    3,380   13,407
2016   8,172    4,548   12,720
2018   6,138    3,509    9,547
2020  12,890    5,411   18,301

So just on mail ballots, 2020 D is greater than 2016 D. In person turnout is slightly ahead of 2016, which had a final total of 227,280. We’ll have to pick things up to meet my prediction, but if the hypothesis that some folks will be waiting to see how Nevada and South Carolina go holds true, the opportunity to do so will be there. I myself will probably vote later this week. What was your experience if you voted, and what’s your plan if you haven’t done so yet?

Sen. Kirk Watson to retire

Well, this was unexpected.

Sen. Kirk Watson

State Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, is retiring from the Texas Senate.

His resignation is effective at midnight on April 30, the Austin American-Statesman first reported Tuesday. Watson is leaving office to become the first dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs.

“This is a chance to build a world-class public affairs and policy school essentially from the ground up,” Watson said in a statement. “It is transformative work at a creative and ambitious university, located in one of the country’s largest and most diverse cities. … Only a unique opportunity to serve this state — and a compelling platform for that service — would cause me to leave.”

Watson, an attorney and former mayor of the city of Austin, represents Senate District 14, a historically Democratic seat. It covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County. He was first elected to the seat in 2006, taking office in early 2007.

Watson’s early departure will set off a special election to serve the rest of the term, which will end in 2023. Watson delivered his resignation letter this morning to Gov. Greg Abbott, who will later set the date for a special election.

The race to replace Watson is likely to be a crowded one and could include multiple members of the Texas House’s Austin delegation.

Here’s Watson announcing his departure on Twitter:

Watson was re-elected in 2018 with 72% of the vote, so this is a safe Democratic seat. The special election, which will be for the remainder of this term ending in 2021, will almost certainly be in November, so it won’t be a low-turnout affair, either. I will be shocked if we don’t see at least a couple of current members of the Lege from Travis County take a shot at this. For one, it’s a freebie – you’ll still be on the ballot for your current seat, and won’t need to step down unless you win. For another, opportunities like this don’t come along very often – Watson was first elected in 2006, after all, following the departure of Gonzalo Barrientos. Every State Rep in SD14 should be giving this serious thought.

And if one of the current State Reps eventually wins this, we’ll be in for another round of Special Legislative Elections Happening During A Legislative Session. Assuming no one wins the SD14 special in November, there would be a December runoff. That would mean a special State House election in mid-to-late January, and a runoff if needed in late February or early March. Is it wrong that I’m just a tiny bit giddy about that?

Anyway. Watson was a terrific Senator, and he will be missed. I look forward to seeing him around Houston. Chuck Lindell has a thread with reactions from various potental candidates, and the Statesman and the Chron have more.

Endorsement watch: The story so far

The Chron lists all their endorsements so far as early voting begins.

It’s here. Early voting in the March 3 Texas primaries begins today and ends Feb. 28.

Over the past few weeks, the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board has interviewed and researched dozens of Republican and Democratic candidates, weighing such factors as incumbency, experience and accomplishments, to assemble a list of recommendations we hope will guide voters through some tough choices. We are the only nonpartisan group in the Houston area to provide this service.

Here’s a one-page summary of our picks so far. Take it into the voting booth with you, or print out our PDF online; you can’t take your cellphone:

They have this on a standalone page as well, which I presume will continue to be updated. Note that the linked article includes Republicans, whose races I have mostly ignored, several Democrats whose endorsements do not yet appear anywhere else on their site, and Tina Clinton, candidate for Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4, whose endorsement I had skipped over because it was a lone Dem endorsement and I was waiting for another one to accompany it. They also note the races they still have to endorse in.

The candidates they have endorsed but not yet published said endorsement: Commissioner Rodney Ellis for Commissioners Court, Precinct 1; and Elizabeth Frizell, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3. The races they list as yet to come:

U.S. Senate (D)

Texas Supreme Court (D): Chief Justice, Place 7

Railroad Commissioner (D)

U.S. House

Republican: Districts 9, 29, 36

Democrat: Districts 2, 8, 9, 10, 18, 22

State House

Republican: Districts 127, 128, 138

Democrat: District 149

State Senate

Democrat: District 13

I’m a little confused by the HD149 Democratic listing, since as far as I know the two people who had filed against Rep. Hubert Vo were ultimately rejected, but we’ll see. Still a lot of races to go, and we’ve already started voting, that’s all I know.

Five questions for the primary

Five questions I thought of, anyway. With my own answers, some of which are admittedly on the weaselish side. Feel free to discuss/disagree/ask your own questions/etc.

1. What kind of turnout are we going to have?

The short answer is “a lot”. Texas doesn’t always get to be a part of a contested Presidential primary, but when we are, we go to the polls. Dems in 2008 and Republicans in 2016 both topped 2.8 million voters – hell, more Dems voted in the 2008 primary than in the 2004 general election. I think the bidding on the Dem side starts at 3 million, with at least 500K in Harris County (we had 410K in 2008). I think 3.5 million is in play, which means a lot of first-time Dem voters. It’s going to be really interesting to see people’s voting histories in VAN after this.

2. What does this mean for all of the other races on the ballot?

It’s really hard to say. I feel like when turnout is super low, it levels the field a bit for those who are challenging incumbents or maybe haven’t raised a ton of money because the electorate is limited to the hardcore faithful, who probably know more about the candidates, or at least pay attention to endorsements and stuff like that. In a normal high turnout environment, I figure incumbents and candidates who have raised more money have the edge, since they’re better positioned to be known to the voters. In a super high turnout election, where a significant number of people won’t be all that familiar with the many names before them, who knows? I still think incumbents will be better off, but even the high-money candidates will have to fight for attention as most voters are tuned into the Presidential race. I really don’t feel comfortable making any predictions. At least the number of goofball candidates is pretty low, so even with the likelihood of some random results, there don’t appear to be any Gene Kellys or Jim Hogans out there.

That said, some number of people who vote will just be voting in the Presidential race, so the topline turnout number will be higher, maybe a lot higher, than the size of the electorate downballot. I went and looked at primary turnout in recent elections to see what this factor looks like:


Year    President  Next Most    % Pres
======================================
2004 D    839,231    605,789     72.2%
2004 R    687,615    567,835     82.6%

2008 D  2,874,986  2,177,252     75.8%
2008 R  1,362,322  1,223,865     89.8%

2012 D    590,164    497,487     84.3%
2012 R  1,449,477  1,406,648     97.0%

2016 D  1,435,895  1,087,976     75.8%
2016 R  2,836,488  2,167,838     76.4%

“President” is the number of votes cast in that Presidential primary race, “Next Most” is the next highest vote total, which was in the Senate primaries in 2008 and 2012 and in either the Railroad Commissioner or a Supreme Court race otherwise, and “% Pres” is the share of the highest non-Presidential total. Some people could have voted for President and then skipped to a Congressional race or some other non-statewide contest, but this is a reasonable enough approximation of the dropoff. Bear in mind that context matters as well. In 2004, none of the Dem statewide primaries were contested, which likely meant more people skipped those races. The infamous Senate primary between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst and other lesser candidates was in 2012, which is why nearly everyone also voted in that race. All but one of the Dem statewide races are contested, though none are as high profile as 2012 R Senate – we may never see a race like that again.

So my best guess would be that if 3 million people vote in the Dem Presidential primary, somewhere between 2.2 million and 2.4 million people will then vote in the Senate and other statewide primaries. That’s still a lot, but the downballot races will have a slightly more engaged electorate as a result.

3. What about that Presidential primary?

Again, who knows? The polling evidence we have is mixed. Before the UT/Trib poll, the evidence we had said that Joe Biden was the leading candidate, though whether he has a big lead or a small lead over Bernie Sanders depends on which poll you’re looking at. Throw that UT/Trib poll in there, and maybe he doesn’t have a lead at all. Who knows?

The primaries that take place between now and March 3 will have an effect as well – candidates may gain or lose momentum before March 3. Bear in mind, though, that a whole lot of Texas primary voting will happen before either the Nevada caucus or the South Carolina primary happen, so the effect from those states will be limited. And Texas is one of many states voting on Super Tuesday, so candidates can’t just camp here, they have other states to worry about as well. They do all have campaign presences, however, with some of them having been here for months. Finally, quite a few candidates who have already dropped out, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Julian Castro will still be on the ballot and will get some number of votes. That UT/Trib poll still had Andrew Yang in it, and he polled at six percent, higher than Amy Klobuchar. There are a lot of moving parts here.

To me, the X factor in all this is Michael Bloomberg, who has been carpet-bombing the airwaves (seriously, where do I go to surrender?) and has been ramping up his field presence in a way that other candidates may have a hard time matching. He was basically tied for third or just behind third but still super close in the UT-Tyler poll, and fourth in the UT/Trib poll, in double digits in each case. I won’t be surprised if these polls underestimate his strength. I mean, he sure seems like a candidate positioned to do quite well among those less-frequent Dem voters, and if your top priority is beating Trump, he did quite well on that score in the UT-Tyler poll, too. He’s now getting some establishment support, too. To say the least, Bloomberg is a problematic candidate, and the inevitable round of scrutiny of his baggage may drag him back down, but if you’re not prepared for the possibility that Bloomberg could do quite well in Texas in March, you’re not paying attention.

4. What about the runoffs?

Three statewide races – Senate, RRC, and Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – as well as 15 Congressional races have at least three candidates and could go to runoffs, plus who knows how many other downballot contests. Runoffs generally get far less attention and participation than the main event, but this could be a year where a reasonable share of the initial vote turns out again in May.

Because that’s the kind of person I am, I looked at the recent history of primary runoff turnout. Here you go:


Year    President     Runoff    % Pres
======================================
2004 R    687,615    223,769     32.5%

2008 D  2,874,986    187,708      6.5%

2012 D    590,164    236,305     40.0%
2012 R  1,449,477  1,111,938     76.7%

2016 D  1,435,477    188,592     13.1%
2016 R  2,836,488    376,387     13.3%

There were no statewide runoffs in 2004 for Dems (those races were all uncontested) or in 2008 for Republicans. We already know that the 2012 GOP Senate race is a unicorn, and you can see another dimension of that here. There was a Senate runoff in 2012 on the Dem side as well, and that’s the high water mark for turnout in the modern era. This Senate race isn’t that high profile, but I think there will be some money in it, and there will be some Congressional races of interest, so maybe 300K or 400K in May for Dems? I’m totally guessing, but it wouldn’t shock me if we hit a new height this year. The bar to clear is not at all high.

5. What about the Republicans?

What about them? This is basically a 2004 year for them – incumbent President, a super low-key Senate race, no other statewide races of interest, with a few hot Congressional races being the main driver of turnout. They’ll have several of those to finish up in May as well, but my guess is they top out at about a million in March, and don’t reach 200K in May. There just isn’t that much to push them to the polls at this time.

Judicial Q&A: Colleen Gaido

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Colleen Gaido

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Colleen Gaido and I am running for the Harris County 337th Criminal District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 337th hears all manner of felonies, from state jail felonies like burglary of a building and possession of a controlled substance to first degree felonies such as murder and aggravated robbery.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I was actually on maternity leave when colleagues from both the Defense bar and the District Attorney’s office reached out to me to let me know that the current judge, Judge Ritchie, was retiring and to encourage me to run. I am running because I care deeply about criminal justice in our community and I believe that I have the experience, temperament and progressive values to be an excellent judge for the residents of Harris County.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

Since graduating from the University of Houston Law Center in 2007 I have practiced criminal law exclusively. I began my career at the District Attorney’s Office where I tried dozens of jury trials, including capital murders, robberies and sexual assaults of children. I was also asked to teach at the state and local level on trial skills and prosecutorial ethics. In 2017 I left the District Attorney’s office to practice criminal defense. I have dedicated my practice to solely representing those who cannot afford counsel. This work has brought me a welcome change in perspective on the criminal justice system, the bail system and the effects of mass incarceration on our communities.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because Harris County has made great progress in its criminal justice system and that progress needs to continue. The judge in a criminal court must ensure several things, including ensuring that people’s Constitutional rights are protected; that bail is not used to punish defendants pretrial or as leverage to get defendants to plead guilty; that their court runs efficiently, goes to trial regularly, and gives scheduling priority to those accused who are being held pretrial; that defendants have access to excellent and zealous representation; and that everyone who appears before them is treated with dignity and respect. When a judge fails to do these things the system fails the community, and the community loses faith in that system.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

First, I’ve worked extensively in Criminal District Courts. I’ve handled hundreds of felony cases as a prosecutor and defense attorney, and practicing on both sides of has given me knowledge and a unique perspective that will assist me in being an informed, impartial judge. While that experience means that I know the law, it has not made me blind to the criminal justice system’s faults or weary of striving to make the system better for everyone involved.  Lastly, I have the temperament to treat everyone who comes before me with dignity and respect, and the work ethic to keep working diligently for the county long after I am elected.

UT/Trib: Hegar leads Senate primary pack

A small bit of clarity in a muddled race.

MJ Hegar

MJ Hegar has widened her lead over her rivals for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate, but she’s one of a dozen candidates in that Texas race who remain strangers to a large majority of their primary voters, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Those widely unknown Democrats are vying for the seat held by Republican John Cornyn, a well-known incumbent who first won election to the U.S. Senate in 2002. Cornyn faces four opponents in the Republican primary.

The large number of candidates almost ensures a May runoff after the March 3 primary, but it’s not clear who might be in it. Hegar had the support of 22% of self-identified Democratic primary voters in Texas — the only candidate with double-digit support. Six candidates were next in line, in a tight grouping that makes it impossible to say for sure who’s in second place. With support ranging from 5% to 9%, that group includes Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, Chris Bell, Amanda Edwards, Royce West, Annie “Mamá” Garcia and Sema Hernandez.

The rest said they preferred one of the five remaining candidates or “someone else,” or they refused to say who they’d vote for.

“There’s going to be a runoff, and Hegar is candidate one. But there is a six-car pileup for No. 2. Who knows who No. 2 is?” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s extraordinarily volatile.”

That pretty much sums up my view of this. I’ve largely ignored Dem Senate primary polling, mostly because none of the candidates had much name recognition and that led to poll results with nobody having more than ten percent of the vote. Hegar is the one candidate who has raised significant money, she has the outside group VoteVets spending on her and also has the DSCC endorsement, and she ran a high-profile campaign for Congress in 2018, so she should be leading the pack. As for who is most likely to end up in the runoff with her, I’d pick Royce West (who should get a lot of votes in the Dallas area) and Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez as the favorites. But yes, the rest of the pack are all in the running, and most outcomes would not surprise me.

2020 Primary Early Voting begins today

We don’t have a long primary season in Texas – the filing deadline was barely two months ago, though to be sure some candidates have been running for much longer than that – and the first part of it is drawing to a close, as early voting officially begins today. For those of you in Harris County, you can find the schedule and locations here. Please be aware that there are new locations, and some old locations are no longer in use. For example, if you live in the Heights area, the SPJST Lodge location is not being used any more, but Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church (Room 106) at 2025 West 11th Street is available. You can find a map and get directions to any location here. There are 52 early voting locations in the county, every one open from 7 AM to 7 PM each day except this Sunday (1 to 6 PM as usual for Sundays) through next Friday, the 28th. You have plenty of time, so be sure to go vote.

For other counties:

Fort Bend
Montgomery
Brazoria
Galveston
Waller

This Chron story has the basic facts about voting – if you’ve done this before it’s nothing new, but if you know a newbie, it would help them.

Also new, here in Harris County: Virtual translators.

Harris County residents who primarily speak Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese or 26 other languages now will have access to a virtual translator at the polls, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced Friday, part of a series of initiatives aimed at improving the county’s voter participation rate.

In a nod to Harris County’s diversity — more than a third of its 4.7 million residents are native speakers of a language other than English — elected officials want to eliminate communication barriers at voting sites.

“With this innovative technology, interpreters can communicate with the voter and poll worker in real time via video chat to make the voting process easier and more accessible,” Trautman said.

Flanked by county Elections Director Michael Winn, Trautman offered a demonstration of the machines at the West Gray Multi-Service Center. The tablet devices, which previously stored electronic poll books and were set to be discarded, allow a poll worker to make a video conference call to a translator in the desired language. The translator then can help the poll worker and voter communicate.

[…]

Trautman said the virtual translators will be available at all 52 early voting locations for the March primary elections.

Dozens of Korean-speaking voters were frustrated when then-County Clerk Stan Stanart barred translators from operating inside a Spring Branch polling site in 2018. Stanart said he had to follow the Texas Election Code, which limits who can operate inside a 100-foot buffer zone at polling places.

Korean American Voters League President Hyunja Norman, who helped organize the Spring Branch voters, welcomed the virtual translation devices.

“I think they can be very beneficial,” she said. “Still, the human factor cannot be ignored.”

Norman said many of the Korean-American residents in Houston who need language assistance are elderly immigrants who are new to voting and often intimidated by technology. She said she still would like to see real-life translators gain more access to polling sites.

Pretty cool. And if I’m reading this correctly, the virtual translator will be working with a poll worker at the site, so there will be some human involvement. Hopefully this will help the folks who need it.

I’ve talked about turnout before, and as is my habit I will be following the daily EV reports to see how that is progressing. I have the daily EV reports from other years to serve as points of comparison: 2012, 2016, and 2018. Sadly, I don’t have a daily report from 2008 – looking back at my posts from then, I made the rookie mistake of linking to the report on the County Clerk website, which was the same generic URL each day. Alas. Here’s my blog post after the last day of early voting, and here’s the cumulative report from the Dem primary. Note that back in those early days of early voting, most people still voted on Election Day. For the 2008 Dem primary, there were 170K early in person votes (plu 9K mail ballots), and 410K total votes. That’s one reason why the subsequent predictions about November turnout were so off the charts – in November, unlike in March that year, a large majority of the vote was early, which is the norm now in even-numbered years. But because we had been used to less than half of the vote being early up to that point, we way over-estimated the November numbers. We have a better handle on things now.

So that’s the story. I’ll aim to post daily updates, which will depend to some extent on when I get the reports. When are you planning to vote?

Judicial Q&A: Amparo Monique Guerra

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Amparo Monique Guerra

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Amparo Monique Guerra and I am running for Justice, First Court of Appeals, Place 5. I am a lawyer, judge, mom of three children, and wife. I am the first Hispanic partner in my law firm. I have 17 years’ experience as a litigator, at both the trial and appellate levels, in state and federal courts throughout Texas and the U.S. I handle complex cases for a wide range of clients, from individuals to large multi-national corporations. When I was originally appointed to be a Municipal Judge for the City of Houston in 2005, I was the youngest sitting judge on the court, having been appointed at 28 years old.

I am a graduate of Rice University (double-major in Sociology and Latin American Studies), where I was on the President’s Honor Roll. I obtained my J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center, which awarded me a Dean’s Merit Scholarship, as well as Public Interest Fellowships to work with Texas Rural Legal Aid, and with Farmworker Legal Services in Michigan.

I clerked for a U.S. District Judge immediately following law school. I look forward to bringing my background, strong work ethic, and experience as a lawyer and a judge to the Court of Appeals.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The intermediate courts of appeals hear civil cases (including, but not limited to, business, family, probate, and personal injury) and criminal cases (except death penalty cases, which are appealed directly to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) from the trial courts throughout a ten-county district, which includes Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington Counties.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

Public service has always been a passion of mine. My mother (Retired Justice Linda Yanez) was the first Latina on a court of appeals in Texas. I was a federal judicial law clerk for U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela immediately following law school. Judge Vela showed me that the duties of a judge include being an excellent jurist, but should also extend beyond the courtroom to the community it serves. He often had us law clerks speak at schools and at naturalization ceremonies. In addition, we were instructors in a pre-law academy for undergraduate students. He and my mom instilled in me how one can use a law degree to serve the community, and so as soon as I could be a judge, I became one at 28 years old. As a judge, I treat everyone with dignity and respect no matter who they are or where they come from.

I am the first Hispanic partner at my law firm, and I have been promoting diversity on the bench for years. When I saw that Democrats could win seats at the courts of appeals here (which essentially had not happened in about 20 years), I was ecstatic, but when I looked at the composition of the bench, I noticed that the court sorely lacked the diversity that I know this community embodies. Houston is the most diverse city, and Fort Bend is the most diverse county in the country; however, our courts of appeals have no African American and no Hispanic justices. This is the perfect opportunity for me to utilize my unique background, education, exceptional legal skills, and experience as a judge to serve my community in a greater capacity.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

In addition to the qualifications listed in response to Question 1, I am eminently qualified to be a justice on the court of appeals because I have a wide breadth of experience as a lawyer handling cases throughout Texasin federal and state, trial and appellate courts, and other states, and I have judicial experience in a criminal court.

My most notable strength is my ability to dive into complex legal issues, and quickly master and apply the law to the facts. I have a varied background representing all types of clients from individuals and families, to business of all sizes, including sole proprietorships and large multi-national corporations. In fact, for the past four years, I have served as lead counsel for the largest corporation in the world in state and federal courts in Texas and Colorado.

I have experience as a federal judicial law clerk, and as a trial court judge, having presided over many trials. Therefore, I know firsthand what it means to make decisions from the bench that effect litigant’s lives, and the profound responsibility that entails. I have a deep respect for the rule of law, and I strive to apply the law in the most just way possible.

I handily won the State Bar of Texas Judicial Poll, which shows that more lawyers prefer me and find me more qualified than my opponent in the primary. I am humbled by the outpouring of support I have received during this campaign from elected officials, and highly respected members of the bar, including criminal defense lawyers, civil litigators, personal injury lawyers, legal aid lawyers, appellate practitioners, criminal law and appellate law professors, in-house counsel, and a former Justice on the Court of Criminal Appeals (the highest criminal court in Texas).

5. Why is this race important?

As stated in my response to Question 2, this is a court of general jurisdiction that hears civil and criminal cases from its ten-county district. Unlike the Texas Supreme Court (Texas’ highest court for civil cases), and the Court of Criminal Appeals (Texas’ highest criminal court), which decide which cases to accept on a petition for review, the intermediate courts of appeals must issue opinions regarding each and every case that is appealed to them. Because fewer cases are appealed to our two supreme courts, and those courts do not accept review of every case, the intermediate courts of appeals are often the last word on many important legal issues. Where there is no opinion from the two supreme courts on an issue which an intermediate court of appeals is called to decide, that appellate opinion controls the lower/trial courts within the court of appeals district.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I have a wide breadth of experience in my seventeen years of practice, in addition to being a judge. I have worked in legal aid clinics, municipal and federal courts, as well as law firms of all sizes—small, mid-size, and large. I am the only judge, the only woman, and the only person of color in this race. I am the first Hispanic partner at my law firm. I have 3 children, 2 jobs, and a husband who is a tremendous partner.

I have an outstanding reputation among my peers for excellent research and writing and oral advocacy skills, as well as a keen ability to dive into complex legal issues, swiftly master and apply the law to the facts, and successfully advocate for my clients. I do all of this in an environment where I am typically the only woman and/or the only person of color among my colleagues and opposing counsel.

I have demonstrated I have judicial temperament on the bench. I am a vetted and trusted public servant. I was repeatedly reappointed to serve as a municipal judge because of my impeccable record of integrity, impartiality, and strong work ethic (I handle a demanding law practice full-time, and I serve on the municipal court part-time).

I have represented all types of clients from individuals and families, to businesses of all sizes, including sole proprietorships, small businesses, and national, as well as multi-national, corporations. In fact, I have been lead counsel for the largest corporation in the world for the past four years, handling cases for it in state and federal courts in Texas and Colorado.

I have experience handling very complex (and typically very high-dollar) matters, not just run-of-the-mill cases, in the following areas: business disputes including business torts and breach of contract cases in various industries, such as energy, oil & gas (including Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act matters), medical care, real estate, and insurance; employment and ERISA litigation and advice; consumer litigation; insurance coverage and bad faith; civil rights; receivership; Carmack Amendment; toxic/mass tort; and personal injury, including wrongful death. I also serve as a guardian ad litem in personal injury cases involving minors.

My education has been in highly competitive academic environments. I have always been a studious person ever since I was very young. When I was in seventh grade, I was selected based on my exemplary achievement test scores by the Duke University Talent Identification Program to sit for the SAT with high school students. My scores prompted interest in me by an organization called A Better Chance (ABC), which places academically gifted students in selective college preparatory schools throughout the country. Through ABC, I was accepted to and received a full scholarship to attend St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island as a boarding student. I attended St. George’s for all four years of high school and graduated with distinction. While in high school, I worked during one summer with Mano A Mano, a March of Dimes organization in Brownsville. I worked in medical clinics for indigent people in very impoverished areas on both sides of the border, and did community outreach to educate and disseminate information to women regarding proper prenatal health. This program was, in large part, a response to the prevalence of encephalitic births on both sides of the border. Working in clinics in Mexico and Brownsville without electricity or running water, and witnessing the lives of those much less fortunate than I impacted me greatly and reinforced my interest in public service. That experience showed me two worlds – one of extreme wealth in New England, and another of extreme poverty on the U.S.-Mexico border. That juxtaposition has stayed with me and informs much of what I do and how I think about social justice issues.

I am multi-lingual—an invaluable asset in this most diverse area of the country. I am fluent in Spanish from my family background and formal education. I have a Superior Certification in Legal and Commercial Spanish from the Chamber of Commerce in Madrid, Spain. I also speak Portuguese and Italian.

When I set my mind on a goal, I give it my all. My candidacy is no exception. My hard work is one of the many reasons I have been awarded every organizational endorsement granted to date in this race. My organizational endorsements are in addition to my many individual endorsements from elected officials and well-respected lawyers.

My election will change the face of the court of appeals where we sorely lack diversity. This court of appeals district includes ten counties, including Harris and Fort Bend. It is well-known that Houston is the most diverse city, and Fort Bend is the most diverse county in the country; yet, our courts of appeals do not reflect our rich diversity. We need diversity, not for diversity’s sake, but to have a mixture of backgrounds and ideas at the table on this multiple judge court. My mother, Retired Justice Linda Yanez, was the first Latina to serve on a court of appeals in Texas. She left a legacy I would be honored to continue here on the Houston court of appeals.

I will apply my strong work ethic, unique background, education, exceptional legal skills, and experience as a judge when I am elected to the court of appeals, where I will continue to be a hard-working judge ruling on cases expeditiously with respect for the rule of law.

HISD takes a step towards a bond referendum

Just a step. If there’s to be a bond referendum on the ballot, this year or later, they’ll have to vote again to authorize that.

Houston ISD trustees kept hopes alive for a November bond election during Thursday night’s board meeting, voting to approve spending on a facilities assessment that must be completed before asking residents to provide tax dollars for campus and security upgrades.

Board members voted 6-3 to spend up to $5 million on the assessment, which will document the conditions of HISD’s aging schools, space needs for campuses and demographic trends in the district. District officials said they will use the assessment to guide the creation of any bond proposals, which remain in the early stages of development.

[…]

Trustees and administrators who backed the assessment argued the analysis will provide vital information needed to create an accurate and updated picture of the district’s facilities needs. HISD last commissioned a facilities assessment in 2016, but the work only documented building conditions, with no alignment to academic and space needs.

Three trustees voted against the bond — Judith Cruz, Dani Hernandez and Elizabeth Santos — amid questions about timing of the assessment.

Board members and Lathan have not held extensive discussions about their detailed vision for the district since January, when four new trustees joined the nine-member board.

In addition, public trust in the district has waned over the past two years following extensive in-fighting, as well as the possible ouster of elected trustees due to multiple findings of misconduct by board members and chronically low ratings of Wheatley High School.

“It feels rushed, and I want to make sure we’re doing this the best way possible,” Cruz said.

The vote came after nearly 20 students, parents and educators spoke in favor of rebuilding crumbling schools, describing outdated facilities that disappoint children and scare away prospective families.

See here for some background, and here for a preview story from Thursday, when the vote was taken. The last bond was in 2012, and it’s getting to be time to do some more capital spending. Previous bonds have passed without too much commotion, and even with HISD’s current issues I think they’d be able to get one passed this year, if they do a decent enough job presenting what it would do and get sufficient buy-in from the community. The looming TEA takeover may work in their favor, as I for one have no idea whether a board of managers could or would attempt to authorize a bond, and waiting around for another four or five years seems like a terrible idea. Let’s see what the assessment says and we’ll go from there.

Endorsement watch: Ogg and Moore

Two (*) big endorsements on Sunday, in the races for District Attorney and Commissioners Court, Precinct 3. Let’s do the thing.

Kim Ogg for District Attorney:

Kim Ogg

“We are in the midst of righting a lot of wrongs,” Ogg told the Editorial Board during a meeting with all four candidates in the race. “What needs to be done is the prosecution of the officers involved, the reform of the way we prosecute and, eventually, the reform of the way drug cases are investigated.”

That’s a lot of talk of change for an incumbent who has left herself open to attack over her apparent tepidness on bail reform, most notably her last-minute objection last year to the settlement in the lawsuit over misdemeanor cash bail. Two of her opponents — senior prosecutors who left the district attorney’s office last year — have centered their campaigns on arguments that she’s failed to live up to her own reform pledges.

It’s true — Ogg has expressed concerns about the way the bail reform agreement has been implemented. But voters shouldn’t mistake her calls to tap the breaks — even if her foot is sometimes a little heavy — as a disavowal of her record, which is overwhelmingly for change.

During her first term, she has supported bail reform, expanded jail diversion for low-level misdemeanor offenders with mental health issues, and implemented a diversion program for people caught with small amounts of marijuana, cutting pot arrests by more than half and saving the county millions. She was years ahead of other reform-minded district attorneys in America’s big cities, from Dallas to Philadelphia.

I would encourage you to go listen to the interviews I did with the three main DA candidates (Todd Overstreet isn’t running a visible campaign) if you haven’t done so already: Kim Ogg, Carvana Cloud, Audia Jones. The Chron endorsement does a good job of capturing what this race is about, however you feel about the candidates. Kim Ogg has made real progress, not as much as people might have liked or expected and not without some missteps and backsliding, in an office and a culture that was long overdue for that kind of change. Whether you think she can and should have done more, and whether you think she can and should be doing it at a more rapid pace, will inform your vote in the primary.

Michael Moore for County Commissioner, Precinct 3:

Michael Moore

Moore’s attention to detail and practical focus on flood mitigation, infrastructure, traffic, an underfunded hospital district and other challenges in a growing region are why we recommend him for Precinct 3 Commissioner in the Democratic primary.

Moore, 57, whose private sector work includes communications for BP and regional vice president for Texas Central Partners’ high-speed rail, is well-versed in the intricacies of issues and policies that face county government. Thanks to his communications background, he can also explain the stuff in plain English.

White, his former boss, vouches for Moore’s “servant’s heart and personal integrity.” And Moore is trying to prove that White’s brand of bipartisan pragmatism isn’t passé in this increasingly polarized political climate. His pledge to “work with anyone, anywhere to get results” may not charm partisans, but it’s a more productive mentality than sometimes prevails among Democrats on the court these days.

While Moore has insider cred, he pledges to govern with transparency and efficiency. Based on his six-year track record with White, we believe him.

Let me tout my interviews here as well: Diana Alexander, Michael Moore, Morris Overstreet, Kristi Thibaut. The Chron didn’t think Overstreet or Alexander had sufficient relevant experience, and didn’t think Thibaut articulated a good case for herself. You can listen to the interviews and judge that for yourself.

The endorsements we are still waiting for: US Senate, Congress (all races), Railroad Commissioner, Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals, SD13, Tax Assessor, HCDE, and County Commissioner, Precinct 1.

(*) – They also endorsed Brenda Stardig on the Republican side for Precinct 3, and Amy Klobuchar for President, which shocks me not at all.

Nuro set to roll out

Ready or not, here they come.

Self-driving delivery vehicles that carry no humans will hit Houston roads next month.

Nuro, a San Francisco technology company, is planning to deploy its next-generation autonomous delivery vehicles in Houston after receiving federal approval. The R2, which features climate-controlled compartments and 360-degree cameras, radar and sensors, will carry grocery orders from Kroger and Walmart to customer’s homes, starting in March.

Nuro last year began piloting self-driving Prius cars in Houston, but the delivery vehicles still had a human driver and passenger to oversee the technology. The R2, which weighs about 2,500 pounds and has a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour, will have no human driver or passenger.

[…]

Several grocers, including Kroger, Walmart and H-E-B, are testing self-driving grocery delivery service in Texas. Supermarket chains are investing heavily in new technologies to win over online shoppers. Customers using the autonomous vehicle delivery service will have to pick up their groceries from the vehicle curbside, notified of their arrival via text message. They will use a unique code to pick up their groceries.

See here, here, and here for some background. I am very interested in three aspects of this. One is just how many people will use this service at all, and how that changes people’s grocery shopping habits. You still have to shop, you’re just doing it over an app instead of in person at the store, where your decisions may be affected by the sights and smells of the goods, the samples and specials that are being pushed, whatever other impulses you may have, and what your kids may be nagging you for if they’re with you. I could see this being used more heavily for last-minute and “oops, I forgot I needed this thing and I don’t want to go back to the store” needs than as a full substitute for doing the in-person stuff.

Two, how many people who already use some form of human-delivered groceries will switch to this. The Nuro option will surely be cheaper (and there’s no guilt about tipping), but you have to be home to retrieve the groceries. As I’ve noted before, when we’ve used Whole Foods’ delivery service, we put a cooler on the front porch and have them deliver while we’re at work. That’s a real time and effort-saver for us, and as such it’s worth the extra cost. How tight a delivery window will you get with Nuro? If I know I’m only going to be home or available while I’m at home for a short period of time, do I trust my order will arrive when I need it to? And of course some people will require assistance in bringing their groceries in, and some people will not want to leave their house on days that are cold or scorching hot or rainy to haul bags of groceries inside. How that will break down is not at all clear to me.

Finally, note that the top speed of these things is 25 MPH. That’s nice and safe and very pedestrian-friendly, but it’s also going to mean a lot of aggrieved drivers on Houston’s main roads doing dumb things to get around the Nuro cars. I suspect there will be some number of accidents that aren’t the Nuros’ fault but wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t exist. I can’t wait to see a study about that effect. Also, going back to my second point, how confident will Kroger and Walmart be in the delivery time estimates they give their customers? My guess is their algorithms will have to be tweaked a bit here and there over time. What do you think? Does this option excite you or is it just another tech thing you’ll never use?

Weekend link dump for February 16

If you’re a fan of Lost and some other shows, you’ll be able to stream them for free soon.

“The New Majority Behind Sex Work Decriminalization”.

Finally got around to reading Diana Moskowitz’s story about the Netflix show Cheer and the uncomfortable truth about concussions in cheerleading. It’s worth your time, whether or not you watch that show.

“These folks are essentially asking the president to hate their enemies for them so that they can remain true to Jesus’s commandment to love their enemies.”

Really, almost any alternate primary system would be better than the one we have now.

RIP, Bob Boykin, who has served as the voice of Big Tex from the Texas State Fair since 2012.

All the EGOTs, including those who got them on technicalities.

Four words: Pablo Escobar’s cocaine hippos. You’re welcome.

“The semiannual national tradition of staying up a few hours past bedtime to know who will control our government is over. From close races to voting by mail to human error, it’s becoming clear that counting votes no longer fits neatly into prime-time television windows. Reporters and politicos should prepare to practice patience when handling and digesting the results.”

“I think he feels like the chains are off now. It’s like things have taken a turn. The gloves are off. And everything that used to be hush hush is now just… out in the open.”

“Pulling Liu’s name from the nomination to the Treasury position doesn’t just punish her for failing to give Trump’s associates the kid-glove treatment they deserved. Pulling her name also keeps her from giving public testimony, either on the kind of sentence Stone and Flynn deserved or on how she feels about the actions that have been taken toward her former office and former colleagues.”

RIP, Paula Kelly, dancer and Emmy-nominated actor for her role on Night Court.

“Was The Conners even the right show to choose for this type of live episode? The utter disinterest of most of these characters was so severe that it arguably defeated the entire purpose of the episode. Maybe black-ish would have been a better fit.”

“McClatchy Co., one of the nation’s largest newspaper publishers, filed for bankruptcy protection Thursday, another harbinger of America’s deepening local news crisis.”

“This is precisely what Vindman did. He did not go to the press, which might have been morally justified but not prescribed by military training. Vindman saw something he believed was illegal and reported it to White House lawyers. That is precisely what they’re trained to do. Later, he received a congressional subpoena to provided testimony and he complied with that subpoena, which is literally what you are supposed to do and indeed must do. We are far into the legal-moral wilderness in which we now seem to see subpoenas as suggestions or requests.”

RIP, Paul English, longtime drummer for Willie Nelson.

RIP, Joseph Shabalala, founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

RIP, Clayton Williams, Texas oilman and onetime candidate for Governor, who lost to Ann Richards.

RIP, Katsuya Nomura, Japanese baseball legend.

Judicial Q&A: Cheri Thomas

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Cheri Thomas

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Cheri Thomas. I am running to be the Democratic candidate for Justice of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, Place 7. I am a 15-year lawyer with significant appellate and litigation experience. My husband, Lewis Thomas, is a criminal defense attorney. Together, we have three amazing daughters and one fuzzy Samoyed.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals is an intermediate appellate court composed of nine justices who hear appeals and original proceedings. The Fourteenth Court has jurisdiction over both civil and criminal appeals from lower courts in ten counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

In 2017, I applied for and was selected to be a staff attorney for the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, the same court for which I am now running. In that position, I worked on over 50 civil and criminal appeals, reviewing the record, conducting legal research, and drafting recommendations on various legal matters for the court’s consideration. I know how the court works, and I know what it takes to review appeals accurately and efficiently.

The 2018 election brought new justices to the court, with fresh perspective and a variety of backgrounds. Because the court reviews a wide variety of legal subject matters, justices with different backgrounds act as resources to one another in cases that touch upon their experience. On the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, many of the new justices have experience in criminal law and experience in small firm or solo civil practice. My experience working on complex civil matters in litigation and on appeal will serve as a helpful and necessary resource, balancing the variety of experience on the court.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

In the last few years, I have worked on more appeals than all my primary opponents combined during the same time period. Not only do I have significant appellate experience, I have significant trial experience. I practiced civil litigation at Baker Botts, LLP, working on a wide variety of civil trial matters, including contract, employment, securities, toxic tort, and personal injury matters in state and federal courts. I then joined Stuart PC, where I represented clients in civil and appellate matters, in state and federal courts all over the country. In 2016, I became a Partner at Stuart PC. I have managed cases at all stages of litigation. My experience as a litigator will give my appellate decision-making depth.

I also clerked for a federal judge. After graduating with honors from the University of Texas School of Law, I secured a federal clerkship working with the Honorable Jorge Solis of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, where I had the opportunity to work on numerous civil cases involving various subject matters.

5. Why is this race important?

Except for death-penalty cases, all cases appealed from district and county courts in the ten counties listed above are considered by the First or Fourteenth Courts of Appeals. Intermediate appellate courts like the Fourteenth Court are often the last courts to review these appeals. The Fourteenth Court must review practically every appeal that comes before it whereas Texas’s highest appellate courts, the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals, consider a limited number of appeals.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I understand that the court affects real people and real families. I am one of eleven children in a blended family. We have had our own unique set of struggles, and we have experienced struggles that most everyone has experienced: divorce, cancer, death. Voters can count on me to care.

My education and experience have given me the skills I will need to be an excellent Justice: good judgment and the ability to perform rigorous, meticulous legal analysis. I am the only candidate in my race that attended a top-ranked law school or graduated with honors. I am the only candidate that has worked at a leading international law firm or made partner at a law firm. I am the only candidate that has worked in an appellate court (or any court). I was named a “Rising Star” by the Texas Super Lawyers magazine five times, and I was recently elected as a Fellow to the Texas Bar Foundation. Texans are entitled to qualified, fair, and impartial justices. If elected, I will serve honorably. I will work hard, make well-reasoned decisions, and I will treat everyone with fairness and respect.

How should we police the police?

This article raises a number of interesting questions.

Kim Ogg

A quarter of the 60-plus law enforcement agencies operating in Harris County have refused to sign agreements to help local prosecutors track problem cops.

Under those agreements, all signed since District Attorney Kim Ogg took office three years ago, 46 agencies have promised to voluntarily turn over information about potentially untrustworthy or unreliable officers. But 17 other agencies declined to sign, a move that forces prosecutors to spend time getting the information through subpoenas and can potentially drag out the resolution of cases.

The Houston Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Metro Transit Police are among those that signed memoranda of understanding, but all of the county agencies — including all eight constable precincts and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office — declined to sign.

“Based on the County Attorney’s advice, the sheriff’s office has joined with other Harris County law enforcement agencies that are unable to sign the district attorney’s proposed memorandum of understanding at this time,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle, adding that his agency still “fully cooperates” with prosecutors by “providing all legally required information concerning all pending cases being prosecuted.”

A county attorney’s office spokesman declined to explain why lawyers told agencies not to sign the agreement, saying the office was “not comfortable” commenting on legal advice given to clients.

To Ogg, that’s all far from ideal: Without an agreement in place, her office must send out subpoena orders to make sure agencies turn over everything.

“It’s a great deal of added work,” Ogg said. “I just don’t think this (agreement) is anything that law enforcement agencies should fear.”

Long-time local defense lawyer Patrick McCann agreed that it was a “pretty fair point” that issuing added subpoenas could be a significant burden for prosecutors, and raised concerns about some agencies’ refusal to enter an agreement.

“It is absolutely indicative of the culture of hiding the ball,” he said.

[…]

The three-page agreement asks agencies to tell the DA’s office whenever a potential police witness is charged with or investigated for a crime, relieved of duty or suspended for misconduct allegations, taken off casework, determined to be untruthful through an administrative investigation, or found guilty of misconduct that could call into question their integrity. Getting agencies to sign the agreement, Ogg said, would reduce work time for prosecutors and ensure that they get all the information they need to turn over to the defense.

“We rely upon the agencies to give us the information that we would need to comply with disclosure (requirements),” Ogg said, “and instead of just blindly relying, we’ve asked them to sign written memorandums of agreement.”

To defense lawyers like McCann, the efforts to create a database and get law enforcement on board seem “laudable,” but he pointed out that ultimately it’s up to the DA’s office as to whether or when to turn that material over. “They’re still trying to keep a stranglehold on the information,” he said, “and they’re terrible about timeliness.”

So first and foremost, why is it that the County Attorney advised the Sheriff and the Constables not to sign this MOU? I would definitely have asked this question when I was doing County Attorney interviews if I had known about this. This arrangement has been in place for five years, though it started with just an informal agreement with HPD. Similar formal agreements exist around the country. It’s certainly possible there have been problems with these things in other places, but what about this particular MOU is troubling to the County Attorney? Surely there’s a way to resolve this. I’d like to understand more about this.

The information gathered via this agreement is compiled into a database, which is not publicly disclosed by Ogg. I can understand that – there are privacy concerns, the unions would surely put up a fight, and the possibility exists that a cop could get on this list as a form of retaliation by their department. One might also argue that a cop should be eligible to come off that list after a certain period of good behavior, and that a cop might have some process to challenge their placement on that list. I also understand the argument for making it public. There’s an awful lot of secrecy that surrounds law enforcement agencies, and if we’ve learned one thing in recent years it’s that such secrecy is toxic. I got an email from a person at The Justice Collaborative a little while ago, sending me their documentation about where Kim Ogg and the two main challengers stand on a variety of issues. They had all been sent a questionnaire, and I was given the responses sent by Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud; Ogg did not respond but where her position was known via public statement or her past record, it was noted. The issue of maintaining a disclosure database and making it public was included in the questionnaire – Jones supported having a public list, Cloud said she would not make it public, matching Ogg’s position. I don’t know enough right now to know how I feel about this, but I wanted to share that much with you.

Anyway. Having this arrangement is a good thing. Getting all 63 law enforcement agencies for Harris County on board should be a priority, with the non-participating agencies made known. Whatever is preventing the HCSO and the Constables from joining needs to be resolved. That can and should be a job for all of the relevant elected officials.

Endorsement watch: Supreme Court and SD11

The Chron’s endorsement process has been a bit haphazard this season – there are times when it looks like they’ve got a theme going, then they deviate from it in some head-scratching way that makes it hard for me to do these posts in a coherent manner. They gave us three endorsements on Saturday, two from Supreme Court races and the SD11 race, so I’m just going to roll with it and give them all to you here.

Susan Criss for SD11:

Susan Criss

Within hours of the 2005 Texas City Refinery explosion that killed 15 workers, Judge Susan Criss of the Texas 212nd District Court in Galveston County began meeting with lawyers representing victims and BP to begin handling what would eventually number 4,005 settled claims. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, Criss again oversaw a massive number of disputes over insurance claims even as she struggled to repair her own flooded home.

As a result of her judicial experience, and time as a criminal defense lawyer, Criss has an exceptionally deep understanding of how Texas laws can be improved. She is bursting with ideas for criminal justice reform, mitigating flood damage and making the workings of the Legislature more transparent. We believe all this adds up to make her an extraordinary candidate for the Texas Senate and Democrats’ best choice for Senate District 11 in the March 3 primary.

No argument from me. Susan Criss is a super candidate, and her opponent in the primary doesn’t appear to be running much of a campaign.

Larry Praeger for Supreme Court, Place 6:

Houston lawyer Kathy Cheng sees her race for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court as a prime opportunity for voters to break up what many see as a monoculture among the nine justices currently sitting on the state’s top civil court. There are six men and three women. Of them, only one justice — Eva Guzman — is Hispanic. There are no African-Americans, no Asian Americans and no Democrats, either.

Cheng says her experience as an immigrant, a woman, and a person of color equips her to see the world — and where the law fits into it — with more nuance and depth than her opponent, in part because he is white.

“If you don’t experience, say, racism in your own life, then you won’t have as deep, or as broad, an understanding of what that experience is like or what it means,” she said, describing the extra awareness she believes she’d bring to her role on the bench.

We agree with Cheng that this court could use a greater dose of diversity — and not just along racial lines. More variety in life experience, in legal practice and, yes, political ideology would be welcome. After all, how can judges apply the law to the facts of daily life in legal disputes without ready antennae capable of reading life in all its variegated nuance?

Cheng goes too far, however, to suggest that a vote for her opponent, Larry Praeger of Dallas, would be a missed opportunity to bring diversity of any kind to the court. Praeger, a former prosecutor who has built up his own mostly family law practice over 20 years, would also bring a radically different perspective to the court.

Cheng ran for this same Supreme Court position in 2018, losing to Jeff Brown, who has since stepped down, thus opening the seat and necessitating its spot on the ballot again. I don’t know much about Praeger. Both have received some endorsements, according to the Erik Manning spreadheet.

Peter Kelly for Supreme Court, Place 8:

Justice Peter Kelly of the 1st District Court of Appeals in Houston is our choice between two very qualified candidates in the Democratic primary for Place 8 on the Texas Supreme Court.

Both Kelly and his opponent, Justice Gisela Triana of the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin, have served a little over a year as appellate court judges — so it is their experience prior to their election in 2018 that is the best gauge for voters in assessing what kind of Supreme Court justice they will make. And on that basis, we find Kelly’s decades-long career as an appellate lawyer, one who has argued roughly 30 cases before the court he now wishes to join, a stronger indicator of success than Triana’s impressively diverse career as a trial court judge.

[…]

Democrats are lucky to have two qualified choices in this race, but we urge them to vote for Kelly.

Not much to add here. Either candidate would have to be replaced on their current bench if they win in November, so Greg Abbott will get to appoint someone. That’s the price we pay for having candidates who have previously won elections.

Endorsement watch: For Menefee

We have our first major endorsement against an incumbent as the Chron recommends Christian Menefee for County Attorney over Vince Ryan.

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan’s decision to spend millions of dollars and waste precious legal resources to prolong the defense of an unconstitutional bail system raises serious questions about his judgment.

That Ryan still contends that the bail process was constitutional demands change.

This is a large part of why we recommend civil litigation attorney Christian Menefee in the March 3 Democratic primary for the job Ryan has held since 2008.

We were also impressed by promises made by Menefee, 31, to bring added energy and fresh perspective to the part of the job that goes beyond serving as a lawyer to county officials and judges. The county attorney also is responsible for using civil enforcement to protect neighborhoods, clean up the environment and shut down illegal enterprises.

“We need a relentless advocate who’s going to fight for the people of Harris County, all the people,” Menefee said in an interview with the Chronicle Editorial Board.

[…]

“I have great respect for Judge Rosenthal, but her finding of an unconstitutional system was, quite frankly, not something we agreed with,” Ryan told the Editorial Board, a stand that puts him in conflict with the courts and a growing body of legal reformers locally and across the country.

My interview with Vince Ryan is here, my interview with Christian Menefee is here, and my interview with Ben Rose is here. The Chron did endorse some challengers in judicial races, but this is a more significant decision. I’ve been saying for a long time that the bail lawsuit was going to be the main factor in this race, and however you feel about Vince Ryan – as I have said, I think he has been a pretty darned good County Attorney overall – Ryan has had to answer for this, and his answers have not been great. I don’t understand why the Chron didn’t stick to their position of strong support for bail reform in the primary between Judge George Powell and challenger Natalia Cornelio, but they are being consistent here. Again, I don’t know what the effect of the expected high turnout for the primary will be. I do expect that this issue has resonated with the Democratic electorate, but I don’t know how deep that goes.

UT/Trib: Two out of three polls say Bernie is moving up

This is Bernie Sanders’ best poll result in Texas so far.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has doubled his support among Democratic voters in Texas and now leads the race for that party’s presidential nomination in Texas, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Sanders had the support of 24% of the self-identified Democratic primary voters in the poll, up from 12% in October. Sanders passed both former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the two leaders in the October 2019 UT/TT Poll. Early voting in the Texas primaries starts on Tuesday; election day — Super Tuesday — is March 3.

The field of candidates has changed since the earlier survey. Beto O’Rourke, who was third in October, has dropped out of the race. And Michael Bloomberg, who entered the contest late, landed fourth in the newest poll, ahead of Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the second- and third-place finishers in this week’s New Hampshire primary. Warren finished fourth in that contest, with Biden fifth.

Andrew Yang, who dropped out of the presidential race this week, was behind Buttigieg and ahead of Klobuchar in the latest UT/TT Poll.

“Most of the movement has been Sanders and Bloomberg, with Biden [holding] still,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “To be unable to increase his vote share is pretty telling for Biden.”

While Biden’s support was static, Sanders was surging in Texas, and Bloomberg was rising on the strength of millions of his own money spent on advertising after a late start.

See here for more on the October UT/Trib poll. In the other two recent polls we’ve had, Biden led Bernie by two (Lyceum) and Biden had a commanding lead over Bernie (UT-Tyler). This poll was conducted from Jan. 31 to Feb. 9, so perhaps it better captures any momentum or friction that these candidates may have had following Iowa and New Hampshire. There’s a lot of moving parts so it’s hard to isolate any one factor, but the evidence now says that Sanders is in a stronger position in Texas than he had been before.

As for the general:

A slight majority of all Texas voters — 52% — said they would not vote to reelect President Donald Trump in November. Republicans remain solidly in his corner: 90% said they would vote to reelect Trump, including 80% who said they “definitely” would do so. Democrats feel just as strongly: 93% said they would not vote for the president’s reelection, including 88% who would “definitely not” vote for him. Independent voters were against reelection, but less so: 38% said they would vote to reelect Trump, while 62% said they would vote against him.

“With Trump at the top of the ballot, in congressional and legislative races where candidates are running with margins of 5% or less, where the independent [voters] go could become a factor,” Henson said. “It adds uncertainty to those races.”

But when pitted against some of the top Democrats in hypothetical head-to-head contests, the president topped them all, if somewhat narrowly. Trump would beat Sanders by 2 percentage points, 47%-45%, within the poll’s margin of error. He’d beat Biden 47-43, Warren 47-44, Bloomberg 46-41, Buttigieg 47-42, and Klobuchar 46-41. Trump had 45% support against Yang’s 43%. The president, whose reelect number was under 50% in the survey, didn’t get a majority of the vote in any of the matchups, even while getting more support than each Democrat.

“The Trump trial ballots confirm what we’ve seen, that Trump is winning, but he clearly is under-performing, given the party profile in the state,” said Daron Shaw, a government professor at UT-Austin who co-directs the poll. “It is interesting when you put a flesh and blood Democrat up there, it drops that number, but here’s a Republican in a Republican state who’s not at 50%, which is a sign of weakness.”

That’s pretty much what I’ve been saying all along. For what it’s worth, Sanders was the closest competitor to Trump in the October UT-Trin poll, trailing him by five points, 45-40. Biden trailed 46-39, then-still-a-candidate Beto was down 47-41. We’ve seen these results all over the place as well, and it’s just as hard to isolate any reasons for the movement of one candidate or another. What has been consistent has been Trump’s inability to get and stay above fifty percent, as well as his mediocre approval levels and the significant “will not vote for him” totals. Again, I say compare to 2012 when Mitt Romney had a consistent double-digit lead on President Obama, who never got higher in the polls than the 42% he eventually received. We’re still early and the Democratic primary is still unsettled, but it’s clear the Republicans have reason to be worried. The Texas Signal has more.

The Observer overviews the DA primary

You’ve had a chance to listen to my interviews with DA candidates, now read this story for more on this important primary.

Kim Ogg

When Kim Ogg first ran for Harris County district attorney, she had a simple pitch for criminal justice reform: stop jailing people for petty pot possession. The position, novel to Houston politics in 2014, proved so popular that even her Republican opponent embraced a version of it. Ogg lost that first race, but she tried again in 2016, this time adding bail reform and a promise to create “a system that doesn’t oppress the poor” to her platform. She beat the incumbent by 8 percentage points to become Harris County’s first Democratic DA in 40 years.

Ogg was among the first wave of reform-minded “progressive prosecutors” elected across the country in recent years. This new class rejected a tough-on-crime ethos, advocating instead for fairness and jailing fewer people. Ogg quickly declared herself “part of the national reform movement” and started dismissing low-level marijuana charges for people who took a class and paid a fine. She also rejected so-called “trace cases” involving miniscule drug amounts and called for diversion instead of jail for small-time offenders. 

Over the course of her first term, however, progressives have soured on Ogg. While she publicly supported bail reform, she continued to seek high bail for people charged with minor offenses. She further disappointed them by objecting to historic bail reforms that followed a years-long lawsuit to end the practice of keeping low-level offenders in jail simply because they’re poor. Progressives have also bristled at Ogg’s repeated attempts to expand her office.

Now at the end of her first term, Ogg feels squeezed between opposing forces: a police union that accuses her of being soft on crime and critics on the left who say she’s failed to live up to her reputation. She’s facing a combative Democratic primary next month, flanked by challengers who insist that she’s stood in the way of progress during her first term. A Democratic sweep in the midterms that turned Harris County solid blue further emboldened local organizers who are seeking a new kind of reform prosecutor. 

While Ogg credits herself with boosting diversion programs and reducing prison sentences during her first term, her critics insist more fundamental changes are needed to fix yawning racial inequalities in the local justice system and to decarcerate one of the largest jails in the country. There was palpable tension between Ogg and the forces that helped elect her at a ACLU of Texas candidate forum in downtown Houston last Thursday. Some people in the standing-room-only crowd jeered as Ogg urged them to stick with her “balanced approach” to reform. After the forum, a woman walked up to Ogg and began arguing with her before campaign staffers quickly intervened.

In a phone call this week, Ogg sounded aggrieved and unappreciated, the way incumbents often do during tough re-election fights. “I started running before people in our local political arena even knew what a district attorney did,” she said. “Everything I wanted to do was a reformation of decades of static prosecutorial policy in Harris County. So of course I’m a reformer, and to be labeled otherwise—that’s a political issue more than a factual one.”

Ogg’s primary is one of several prosecutor races in Texas this year that could redefine the bounds of criminal justice reform in the state. As state lawmakers fail to make meaningful progress each legislative session, advocates for change have increasingly focused on amplifying key district attorney, judge, and sheriff races to transform how their communities are policed and prosecuted.

The article touches on the race in Travis County as well, where incumbent Margaret Moore is under similar fire. I have no idea what will happen in these races – they’re as prominent as any local election, but it’s hard to say how much of that breaks through in the non-stop fusillade of national political news – but they will have a significant effect in Harris and Travis Counties. A side issue I’ve been pondering, which I asked Audia Jones about when I spoke to her, is whether the Legislature (especially but not exclusively if it remains in Republican hands) will step in and try to impose some limits on what prosecutors can and can’t do. I can very easily see this as a red meat law-and-order issue for Dan Patrick (and, whenever someone wakes him up and reminds him that he’s Governor, Greg Abbott) in the 2021 session. I have no idea what they may try to do, but I’m sure their imagination won’t be so limited. Just something to keep in mind.

No metal detectors at HISD schools

For now, at least.

Houston ISD trustees shelved a request from administrators Thursday to authorize up to $3 million for metal detectors, arguing district officials need to provide more concrete recommendations and plans for school security before the board votes to allocate money for the machines.

The board’s decision comes as Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s administration continues to solicit feedback and analyze security protocols following last month’s on-campus fatal shooting of Bellaire High School student Cesar Cortes, 19. Lathan said she has not yet decided whether to install metal detectors in some middle and high schools, but her administration wanted quick access to funds for the machines if district leaders decide to buy them.

Some trustees suggested they remain open to possibly deploying metal detectors at access points in schools, though they said administrators and the board first need to conduct more detailed conversations about districtwide security plans. Several trustees questioned why Lathan asked for authority to spend on metal detectors now, rather than waiting until she decided to purchase the machines.

“It’s so easy to try to put a metal detector out there as a quick fix,” Trustee Anne Sung said. “I just want to make sure we’re being thoughtful and utilizing a strategy.”

[…]

Lathan said the prospect of installing metal detectors has received some public support, but three other security measures top her list of potential recommendations as of now: increasing the number of police officers on campuses; bumping up police officer pay to reduce vacancies and turnover; and adding social workers to address students’ social and emotional needs.

Students attending the district’s high schools have been particularly supportive of placing more police officers on campuses, Lathan said. Her comments came after closed-door meetings with about 25 Bellaire students last month and 35 high school students from across the district earlier this week.

“I thought that was powerful,” Lathan said. “Especially in this day and time, when there’s still animosity in some communities when it comes to police officers, what I heard is, we want more police officers.”

HISD trustees have not yet held extensive discussions about specific security recommendations, many of which would require the board to authorize additional funding. Some board members have asked Lathan to present data on the efficiency of metal detectors in schools, though relatively little national research exists.

“I think we need to have a conversation on what our philosophy and approach is as a district, rooted in conversation with community members and students — which I know we’ve begun to do — but also research and policies,” Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said Thursday.

See here for the background. I’m glad we are not charging ahead with this, and I agree with Trustees Sung and Vilaseca that we need to put a lot of thought into this and do some research. And put me down in opposition to increasing police presence at schools, because the research we have on that shows that more police at schools is a key component of the school-to-prison pipeline. Too many kids win up getting citations for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level – that’s what police officers do, after all – and that has significant and long-lasting effect on the kids. Let’s take a long, serious look at other options before we go down this path, because the potential for unintended consequences is great.

Endorsement watch: More State Reps

The Chron finishes the task of endorsing in the State Rep primaries. Here was Round One, now let’s dive into the rest.

Natali Hurtado in HD126:

Natali Hurtado

Hurtado was 19 and a college student working at Olive Garden when she became a single mother. Her husband was arrested and convicted for a crime committed before she knew him and sentenced to life in prison, leaving her to fend for her young daughter. She moved back in with her parents and relied on food stamps and Medicaid. She stayed in school and eventually graduated from the University of Houston, before earning a master’s degree in public policy and administration at the University of St. Thomas.

She told the Editorial Board she’s running for a seat in the Legislature to represent “not just those that had a privileged upbringing but those with real struggles in life.”

Now 36, she has cut her teeth in politics in various positions with elected officials at City Hall, the Texas House and in Congress for U.S. Rep. Gene Green. She currently works as deputy head of a local management district. Hurtado’s ability to connect her own remarkable story, and those of district residents, to policy ideas is exactly what is needed in a legislator. Her platform includes expanding Medicaid, improving public education and addressing flooding. She also has her ear to the ground in terms of economic development and addressing blight in the district.

As noted before, this is a rematch of the 2018 primary between Hurtado and Undrai Fizer. Hurtado was endorsed by the Chron then, and won that race. HD126 is one of the districts targeted by the Dems this cycle – in 2018 it was on the fringe of the fringe – and will be a bigger deal this time around.

Akilah Bacy in HD138:

Akilah Bacy

House District 138 has been represented by Republican Dwayne Bohac since 2003, but the political currents could be changing and Democrats have a strong chance of picking up the seat in the fall. Last time, Bohac won his seat by just 47 votes and he’s not running again. That means the district, which has the Addicks Reservoir at its center and includes Bear Creek neighborhoods and parts of Spring Branch, is wide open.

Democratic primary voters have two strong candidates to choose from. Akilah Bacy, 34, has strong, on-the-ground experience that speaks to her passion and smarts. Josh Wallenstein, 44, has proven his commitment to improving education and other vital local issues. It’s a close decision, but we feel that a vote for Akilah is the best choice for Democrats in this district.

Bacy told the Editorial Board about an experience representing a client who could not read key legal documents, an encounter that motivated her to volunteer to teach adult literacy and ESL in her local school district and to hold free legal-rights classes. She has also represented children seeking asylum at the United States borders at no cost. Bacy grew up in northwest Houston and has an insider’s knowledge of its challenges. She attended Cypress-Creek High School, Spelman College and Texas Tech law school. She began her career as an assistant district attorney for Harris County before starting her own firm. Her focus is on core issues — education, healthcare, flooding, climate, employment rights, restorative justice — all issues voters in her district care deeply about.

I agree this is a tough choice. They’re both strong candidates and would represent the district well. Wallenstein has raised more money so far, but I don’t think that matters too much. This district is a top priority, there will be plenty of establishment support for whoever wins. Jenifer Pool is also in this primary so there’s a good chance this will go to a runoff. Pick your favorite and go with it.

Rep. Jarvis Johnson in HD139:

Rep. Jarvis Johnson

Angeanette Thibodeaux credits her opponent, State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, for joining other community and elected leaders to help defeat plans to locate one more concrete batch plant in Acres Homes.

But rather than a reason to send him back to Austin for a fourth term, she says the fact that the batch plant operator was able to get a permit in the first place is grounds to fire Johnson and vote for her instead to fight for the seat in November. Experience like that, she said, is not worth keeping. “I won’t sleep at the wheel,” she said in a video posted to her website.

In politics, that’s called taking your opponent’s strength and turning it on its head to make it sound like a weakness. It can be effective, but Democratic voters in the 139th District should look beyond the jujitsu and stick with Johnson, 48.

He’s been in office three terms, and has been consequential even as a Democrat in a GOP-dominated chamber. He has passed bills, worked with Republicans and Democrats and rallied allies to safeguard the interests of his constituents. Far from being a liability, his work to help convince owners of the batch plant to drop plans to locate in Acres Homes is a powerful example of success.

I’ve been basically happy with Rep. Johnson. I didn’t think he was all that capable as a City Council member, and he never articulated a good reason for his 2010 primary challenge to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, but overall as far as I can tell he’s been fine as a State Rep. I haven’t met Angeanette Thibodeaux and can’t say how they compare. If you live in this district and have any thoughts about it, I’d love to hear them.

Rep. Harold Dutton in HD142:

Rep. Harold Dutton

There’s a reason why Harold V. Dutton Jr., who has been in the Legislature since 1985, has drawn his first competitive challenge in decades: the looming state intervention in the Houston Independent School District.

House Bill 1842, spearheaded by Dutton in 2015 and approved with overwhelming support, set the district on a collision course with the state over chronically failing schools.

Dutton arrived at that legislation neither lightly nor quickly, he told the Editorial Board. He first proposed other options and tried to work with the school board to help underperforming schools, including Kashmere High School and Wheatley High School, both in his district and both of which have been on the state list of troubled schools for years.

While the remedy — sidelining an elected school board with a state-appointed board of managers — is extreme and offers no guarantees, Dutton believes that it’s better than the alternative of another year of students falling behind.

We wish Dutton’s legislation had allowed otherwise strong districts more flexibility in addressing campuses with long histories of failure. But we are convinced Dutton was acting in good faith to force accountability, and his authorship of this one bill is not enough reason to forget years of accomplishment, nor the advantages that his seniority in the Legislature confers.

Dutton has done a lot in his legislative career, and he’s been a force for good on voting rights and criminal justice reform. I think you can admire the intent of HD1842 and recognize that the overall consequences of it may be significant, without any guarantee of a payoff. Whether the one of these outweighs the other is the choice you get to make if you live in this district. I like Jerry Davis and I think he’d make a fine State Rep. We’ll see if he gets the chance.

The Chron still has a lot to do before they’re done – HCDE, Tax Assessor, District Attorney, State Senate, Railroad Commission, Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals, Congress, US Senate, and, you know, President. My gut feel on Friday as I write this is that they’ll go with Amy Klobuchar, but what do I know? The point is, there are still a lot more of these to come.

Judicial Q&A: Natalia Cornelio

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Natalia Cornelio

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Natalia “Nata” Cornelio. I am an experienced, bilingual, Latina attorney. I am running for the Harris County 351st District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This is a Criminal District Court responsible for presiding over felony level cases. This includes presiding over trials and making decisions relating to pretrial release or detention, pretrial motions, sentencing, and certain post-conviction matters.

The Court is also responsible for making decisions and establishing procedures that are distinct from hearing cases, but that have a substantial impact on the community and on individuals appearing before it. For example, the Court has responsibility for case management and courtroom procedures, the appointment of counsel in indigent cases, and for bail-related schedules or policies.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running because I have the ability to apply the law in a manner that will improve the public’s confidence in our courts and their decisions.

I will work tirelessly to improve case management systems, to demonstrate an exceptional understanding of the law, to always respect the Constitution and people’s rights, and to thoughtfully consider people’s experiences when applying the law.

I am also running to bring desperately needed diversity to our criminal bench. I am a qualified Latina attorney who has directly served the communities that are often hit hardest by our justice system. Of the 38 criminal courts in Harris County, there are zero Latina judges serving on these courts. This is in spite of the fact that the population in Harris County is over 43% Latino.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have over 13 years of high-level legal & courtroom experience. I have substantial experience working directly with communities most impacted by the criminal justice system and have a clear, profound understanding of the consequences that judicial decisions have in these communities.

I received my law degree in 2006 from the University of Chicago Law School. I succesfully defended my first murder trial and suppressed evidence in two additional cases while a student at the Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid and Juvenile Justice Clinic.

I then served as a staff attorney for the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for nearly four years, where I drafted judicial opinions for federal appellate judges in criminal, immigration, and habeas corpus cases. I disposed of all legal arguments from both sides while applying the law and considering the record in each case.

Between 2011 and 2017, I was a Federal Public Defender here in Houston. During these years, I was in court handling criminal cases almost every day. I represented hundreds of clients charged with serious felony crimes through every phase of their trial proceedings. I litigated hundreds of bail and probable cause hearings. I successfully challenged a case on double jeopardy grounds before federal judge Lee Rosenthal, and successfully challenged a case where speedy trial rights were violated. I developed significant expertise in criminal law and procedure and developed a strong understanding of the immigration consequences that attach to criminal proceedings. While there, I also conducted Continuing Legal Education classes for other practicing attorneys regarding bail proceedings and on defending criminal immigration offenses.

From 2017 until 2019, I was Director of Criminal Justice Reform at the Texas Civil Rights Project. I managed a team of attorneys and litigated prominent, complex civil rights cases relating to our criminal justice system under Section 1983 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. I investigated cases under the Fair Housing Act and Title IX. I successfully represented, on a pro-bono basis, parents forcibly separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border under the federal government’s zero-tolerance policy, the medically vulnerable prisoners held in swelteringly hot and cruel conditions in the Texas prison system, prisoners who have been in continuous solitary confinement for over 20 years, a man who was criminally charged in Greenspoint with “standing on the sidewalk,” and a mother in El Paso who was jailed while pregnant for being unable to pay traffic tickets. I was involved in panel discussions, training sessions, and media presentations regarding this work and our criminal justice system.

In the summer of 2019, I became the Director of Legal Affairs for Harris County Precinct One, where I helped negotiate and draft the final settlement agreement in the misdemeanor bail lawsuit against Harris County. This agreement was critical to ensuring and end to the Harris County practice of detaining thousands of misdemeanor arrestees each year prior to trial simply because of their inability to pay a cash bond. I serve as Co-chair of the Harris County Racial and Ethnic Disparities Committee. This committee is tasked with developing strategies to reduce racial disparities in our justice system. My experience in this rols has made me familiar with the resources available to our leaders to support the development of better policies and practices on critical issues relating to race, bail, and incarceration.

I also teach a course on trial advocacy to law students at The University of Chicago Law School for two weeks each year.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because we must always strive to elect judges who will improve the public’s confidence in our courts based on a demonstrated ability to apply the law.

While this includes any aspect of the court’s work, one critical issue facing our courts today is whether the law and Constitution will be faithfully followed on bail decisions and procedures. Federal Courts across the country have now held that criminal courts must not detain people simply because of their economic circumstances. In Harris County, the Fifth Circuit has found that we have harmed thousands of people, their families and their communities by solely relying on ability to pay in making bail decisions. These policies have perpetuated racial disparities in our justice system and act as a force in too often making innocent people plead guilty.

We need leaders who are committed to making changes in order to always comply with the law and Constitution. These changes will require hard work and a willingness to make difficult decisions. I am committed to ensuring that the law and Constitution are followed in all cases including in bail decisions and policies, and to ensure that all people receive equal justice under the law.

Diversity is also a pressing issue facing our courts. The lack of a Latina judge in our 38 criminal courts serves to undermine the public’s confidence in our courts. We have an opportunity to change that.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I will bring integrity, accountability, diligence, and a respect for the law and legal processes to the bench. I will base my decisions on law and fact. I will respect all members of the community, work hard, and never stop learning. I will always strive to build the public’s confidence in our courts. I ask for your vote.

What is happening in the CD22 primary?

Holy smokes.

Nyanza Moore

A state district judge on Wednesday barred Democratic congressional candidate Nyanza Moore from making domestic violence allegations against opponent Derrick Reed after the former Pearland councilman sued her for defamation.

Brazoria County Judge Patrick Sebesta issued a temporary restraining order after concluding that Reed would “suffer immediate and irreparable damage” to his integrity and reputation if Moore persisted with a series of social media posts implying that Reed “beats women.”

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Reed cited a handful of times in which Moore alleged or suggested that he had beaten his ex-wife or otherwise committed domestic violence. In one post, Moore indicated she possessed a protective order between Reed and his ex-wife.

In the court filing, Reed emphatically denied the allegations and said no protective order “exists between he and his ex-wife or any other woman.”

“Mr. Reed was with his ex-wife for approximately 20 years and has never beat or abused her,” the filing reads. “The police have never been called out to any of their residences for domestic violence or any physical altercation.”

In a statement, Reed’s ex-wife, Erin Reed, said, “The claim being made that my ex-husband, Derrick Reed, physically abused me during our marriage is false. This accusation is damaging and unfair to our young and impressionable children and is an untrue characterization of their father.”

The order prohibits Moore from making any allegations that Reed committed domestic violence, and instructs her to retract any prior statement “used to disseminate the defamatory statements.”

The lawsuit is embedded in the story, or you can see it here. There’s a high standard to meet to win in an action like this when you are a public figure and political speech is involved, as noted in the story. A hearing for the injunction will be held on February 25, after which there will be three more days of early voting. I think it’s safe to say that more people are now aware of this allegation than when it was first made.

We’re all more sensitive to claims about violence against women now, and we all know that just because such a claim was not decided in a courtroom doesn’t mean it was without merit. That said, there are two things about this particular case that stand out to me. One is Moore’s claim about that alleged protective order. She did’t say she heard that one existed, she said she had an actual copy of an actual order in her possession, which she has threatened to make public – “Keep it up and the Protective Order will see day light” was a response Moore made on one of the cited Facebook posts (see Exhibit B in the lawsuit). If you claim you have something like this, you better have it. If she doesn’t, that puts a big dent in her own credibility. Sooner or later in this process, she is going to be asked to produce that order.

The other thing is that if Reed is not being fully truthful, there is a chance someone else could come forward now that this has all been made public and provide their own evidence to back up Moore’s claim or make one of their own. We have certainly seen that dynamic play out in other cases. What we know for sure is that it cannot be the case that both of them are telling the truth. It could be the case that both of them are being less than fully honest, but at least one of them is wrong. We’ll see what happens in court.

One more thing, which isn’t relevant to the lawsuit but which I noticed in the document: Moore repeatedly referred to Reed as a Republican in the Facebook posts. The Erik Manning spreadsheet lists candidates’ primary voting history for the last four cycles. Derrick Reed did indeed vote in the Republican primary in 2016; he then voted in the Democratic primary in 2018. Nyanza Moore had no primary voting history shown. Make of that what you will.

Astros offer an apology

We’ll see how it goes for them.

From a local newscast in LA

Astros players issued their first public apology after being involved in a cheating scandal that rocked baseball in the offseason.

“I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team by the organization and by me,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said in a press conference at the team’s spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I have learned from this and I hope to regain the trust of baseball fans. I would also like to thank the Astros fans for all of their support. We as a team are totally focused on moving forward to the 2020 season.”

Jose Altuve followed up with a similar apology and said the team had a meeting Wednesday to talk about how they should move forward.

“I want to say that the whole Astros organization and the team feels bad about what happened in 2017,” said Altuve in a 38-second statement. “We especially feel remorse for the impact on the fans and the game of baseball, and our team is determined to move forward, to play with intensity and to bring back a championship to Houston in 2020.”

[…]

“At that meeting last night, the players showed tremendous remorse, sorrow and embarrassment for their families, organization, city of Houston and baseball,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “I want to ask for the baseball world to forgive them for the mistakes they made.”

Astros owner Jim Crane, who fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow when baseball released its report on the Astros’ cheating scandal, also apologized.

“I want to say again how sorry our team is for what happened,” Crane said. “I want to repeat this will never happen again on my watch.”

I’ll get to Crane in a minute, but suffice it to say not everyone was convinced. I do think this will simmer down over time – if nothing else, the Red Sox punishment is coming, and that will provide a distraction and another target for fans to aim their displeasure – but it will be present for the season, if not longer. Every first meeting against another team, every time an Astros player gets hit by a pitch, any time someone pops off on Twitter, the whole saga will get rehashed. And if there are further revelations, well, as the man once said, hold onto your butts.

As for Astros owner Jim Crane, maybe he should have hired a better apology-writer.

The Astros, who now stand, in the words of one analyst, as “baseball’s unfaithful spouse,” tried to address the 2017-18 sign-stealing scandal Thursday with a hybrid communications strategy that observers say left questions unanswered and failed to mollify the team’s critics.

While observers were more generous toward comments by Astros players in the spring training clubhouse at West Palm Beach, Fla., they were less complimentary of the 30-minute news conference staged by owner Jim Crane, which included brief remarks by players Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman.

Gene Grabowski, a partner at the crisis communications firm kglobal in Washington, D.C., said the Astros were ill-served by advisers in planning the opening news conference that got the morning off to a rough start.

“The core of the problem is that the team’s owner and players tried to declare the crisis over before it’s really over,” Grabowski said. “They sounded arrogant when they said they are moving on. That’s for the fans and sports writers to say — not guilty players and owners.

“The team’s news conference was ill-conceived and poorly presented. It was a horrible performance that has actually made the situation worse for the Astros.”

Mike Androvett, who owns a public relations, marketing and advertising firm that works with attorneys in Dallas and Houston, said the news conference failed to put the past to rest and, instead, “reinforced that the 2017 World Series win will likely be forever tainted.”

[…]

Marjorie Ingall with the website sorrywatch.com, which tracks and rates messages of public contrition, said the Astros news conference “was spectacular in its horridness. It’s the way not to apologize. It’s every example of terrible corporate policy.”

Among Crane’s failures during his news conference, Ingall said, was refusing to acknowledge the damage the Astros inflicted on their opponents.

“You have to apologize to the people you’ve harmed,” she said. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not really apologizing.”

She did, however, have good words for Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who began his remarks in the clubhouse with the phrase, “We were wrong for everything we did in 2017.”

“That’s the first sentence of a good apology: ‘We were wrong,’” Ingall said.

Well, maybe the worst is now over. Gotta think positive, right? Sports Illustrated has more.

Endorsement watch: Some State Reps

The Chron made seven endorsements in contested Democratic State Rep primaries on Thursday, plus two in contested Republican State Rep primaries. This must be Part One, because there are multiple races left for them to do. I’ll get to that in a minute, but for now, here’s a recap of the action.

Rep. Alma Allen in HD131.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson in HD141.
Rep. Garnet Coleman in HD147.

None of those are surprising, or all that interesting given that these are three of the best from Harris County. Moving on.

Josh Markle in HD128.

District 128 borders and straddles the Houston Ship Channel. In the last election, the Democratic Party did not run a candidate against the incumbent Rep. Briscoe Cain. This year, both candidates in the Democratic primary, Josh Markle and Mary Williams, want voters to at least have a choice even if they face long-shot odds. That’s smart, as no seat should be so safe that incumbents aren’t even challenged.

[…]

Markle was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, and besides environmental issues, his platform includes the full gamut of core Democratic issues — healthcare, education, jobs and criminal justice reform. He’ll give voters in the Republican-leaning district a promising alternative to consider in the fall.

Williams served the Houston Police Department as a civilian for more than 23 years. We applaud her spirit of service and dedication to her community. But we believe Markle will give voters ready for a change in the district a better option.

Markle got a fundraising boost from Beto back in September, as you may recall. Good candidate, very tough race.

Ann Johnson in HD134.

Ann Johnson

Child prostitutes were seen as criminals not victims under Texas law until 2010 when Ann Johnson won a case at the Texas Supreme Court involving a girl who was 13 when she was arrested. The case changed both the state law and the national conversation around sex trafficking, and is among several achievements that distinguish Johnson from a strong slate in the Democratic primary for House District 134.

[…]

Ultimately it is Johnson who presents the strongest chance for Democrats to take back control of District 134. She speaks with authority about a broad range of issues and with the persuasive power of a former prosecutor. After the landmark case she argued to the Texas Supreme Court, she was was hired by a Republican district attorney as a human-trafficking specialist. She worked with Republican judges to start the CARE court to assist child victims of human tracking and SAFE court for people 17 to 25 charged with prostitution. Now she’s calling for public-private partnerships to establish a victim recovery village.

Even if Democrats do flip the House, whoever wins this seat will have to work those across the aisle. Johnson has a record of appealing to common values to get important work done.

It is a strong field in HD134, as any of Johnson, Ruby Powers, or Lanny Bose would be an excellent State Rep. You can’t go wrong here.

Rep. Shawn Thierry in HD146.

Rep. Shawn Thierry

Shawn Thierry traces her interest in politics back to early childhood when she was the first black child in her Houston public elementary school. Thierry’s teacher quit because she said she couldn’t teach a “colored child.”

Her mother, the first black teacher to integrate Sharpstown High School, used to call her “little Barbara Jordan,” after the revered Texas politician who was the first African-American woman in the Texas Senate and the first from the Deep South elected to the U.S. Congress.

[…]

Thierry is being challenged for the seat, which represents a demographically diverse community from Sunnyside through Meyerland and Westbury past Sharpstown, by Houston Black Lives founder and community activist Ashton P. Woods.

Woods, who ran for City Council last year, brings passion for communities that often go unheard, especially on issues impacting the LGBT community. His is a much-needed voice that we hope will be heard.

Thierry, however, brings pragmatism and perseverance that is critical in making change happen in the Legislature. We endorse Thierry for House District 146.

Thierry was elected in 2016 after winning the nomination in one of those precinct chair selections, after Borris Miles moved up to SD13 to replace Rodney Ellis. She had a primary challenger in 2018 but won that easily. I heard a brief rumor after the 2019 election that Dwight Boykins might file for this seat, but in the end that didn’t happen. Woods is the strongest challenger to a Dem incumbent this side of Jerry Davis, and he’s picked up a few endorsements including the GLBT Political Caucus and the Texas Organizing Project. Keep an eye on this one as well.

Rep. Anna Eastman in HD148.

Rep. Anna Eastman

Eastman, whose HISD district included 75 percent of District 148, told the Editorial Board that education would be one of her priorities. She wants to ensure that funding from HB3, the school finance bill passed in the last session, is preserved and the money goes where it is needed. She also believes the state school rating system needed to be reviewed.

“There’s a huge disconnect when you have a district like HISD getting a B rating, triggering a board of managers and having schools that we know really are not serving our kids in a way that they’re worthy of,” said Eastman, 52.

She also supports increasing access to safe, legal abortion and a number of gun reform measures, including closing background-check loopholes, red-flag laws and banning assault-style weapons and ammunition.

We were also encouraged by Eastman’s plan to spend the next several months establishing her office, getting to know her constituents and “showing up in Austin in January ready to serve and do work that matters.”

Eastman was the Chron’s choice in the special election, so this is not a surprise. Penny Shaw has racked up all of the group endorsements, however, so this ought to be a tough race. Most likely, Eastman will have to run a fourth time, in a primary runoff, for the opportunity to run for a fifth time, in November.

Still to be endorsed: HDs 126 and 138, the two remaining challenges to Republican-held seats, and HDs 139 and 142, the other two challenges to Dem incumbents. Also, too, SDs 11 and 13, and a bunch of other races. We’re still waiting.