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PPP: Biden 48, Trump 46

And here’s poll number two, which is technically about the Texas Senate race but I’m counting it as a Presidential poll for consistency.

MJ Hegar

Public Policy Polling’s newest Texas survey finds that John Cornyn has basically no profile in Texas. Only 27% of voters have a favorable opinion of him to 34% with an unfavorable one and a 39% plurality don’t have any opinion about him one way or the other. The numbers when it comes to his job approval are similar-29% approve, 33% disapprove, and 38% have no opinion.

Cornyn’s lack of a profile with Texans make him susceptible to the overall political winds in the state, and those are blowing the wrong way for Republicans right now. Only 46% of voters approve of the job Donald Trump is doing to 51% who disapprove, and Joe Biden leads him by 2 points at 48-46.

Cornyn starts out with the lead over likely general election opponent MJ Hegar 42-35. But when you dig into the undecideds (23% of the electorate) for Senate, 59% of them are voting for Biden to only 25% who are voting for Trump. In an era where ticket splitting is less and less of a thing, those people are likely to end up voting the same party for Senate as President. If the undecideds broke that way, Hegar would have the slightest of leads over Cornyn. This is likely to be a highly competitive race.

Our first Hegar-Cornyn poll of 2020 bears a strong resemblance to our first Beto O’Rourke- Ted Cruz poll of 2018. In that poll Cruz lead 45-37, an 8 point lead similar to Cornyn’s starting out point. We pinpointed then that the race might end up close because Cruz had just a 38% favorability rating- and that’s a lot better than the 27% Cornyn starts out with here.

After O’Rourke won the nomination and became better known over the course of the year, he was able to build the race into a tossup. Hegar (who currently has just 34% name recognition) is likely to do the same in the months ahead if she wins the nomination.

PPP surveyed 729 Texas voters on June 24th and 25th on behalf of EMILY’s List. The survey was conducted half by calls to landlines and half by texts to cell phones, and the margin of error is +/-3.6%. Full toplines here.

See here for the other Thursday poll, and here for the poll data. The fact that it was commissioned by Emily’s List answers my question about why they polled MJ Hegar and not also Royce West. This result is pretty consistent with that Fox poll that had Cornyn up on both Dems by ten points, but with a larger share of the “undecided” vote being Dems. If I had to guess, West would probably have done about as well against Cornyn in this poll, as was the case with the Fox poll. It’s clear that the biggest threat to Cornyn is Donald Trump’s sagging fortunes in Texas. The better Biden does, the worse off Cornyn is. Also, too, Trump’s approval rating (46 approve, 51 disapprove) is pretty lousy, and another example of him being stuck at that level in his “vote for” support. Keep keeping an eye on that. Oh, and with these two polls in the books, the average over the ten total polls is Trump 46.8, Biden 44.8, still just a two-point gap. Carry on.

State GOP will have its convention

I hope they don’t kill any convention or hotel workers as a result. Beyond that, I don’t know what to say.

The Texas GOP’s executive committee voted Thursday night to proceed with plans to hold the party’s in-person convention in Houston later this month.

The State Republican Executive Committee, a 64-member body that serves as the governing board of the state party, voted 40-20 to approve the resolution supporting the in-person gathering. Thursday’s vote comes as the state grapples with a surge of coronavirus cases, with Houston serving as one of the country’s hot spots for the virus.

The SREC is scheduled to meet again Sunday to consider changing the party’s rules. Those rules will include a tweak that allows the party to act on an “emergency fallback contingency plan,” if necessary, to hold a virtual convention, party Chair James Dickey told members as he kicked off Thursday’s virtual meeting.

The convention, scheduled for July 16-18, will be held at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where roughly 6,000 people are expected to attend.

[…]

Over the past week, demands have mounted for the party to cancel plans for an in-person convention, with some Republicans stating they would not attend such an event due to safety concerns. Others have also cited concerns about the optics of attending a large gathering while small businesses in their districts remain shuttered under the governor’s orders.

Meanwhile, a faction of activists has argued that canceling an event focused on selecting delegates for the national convention and voting on the party’s platform, among other things, would not reflect well on a party that dubs itself the party of personal responsibility. Some have also suggested that a virtual convention could disenfranchise certain delegates.

On Tuesday, the party’s plans for an in-person convention looked increasingly uncertain, when the Texas Medical Association, the state’s largest medical group, called on the party to cancel the event, a reversal that came just one day after The Texas Tribune reported on TMA’s sponsorship of the convention.

After Thursday night’s vote, TMA announced it had withdrawn as an advertiser to the convention, arguing that face masks alone at such a large gathering were not enough.

“With or without masks, an indoor gathering of thousands of people from all around the state in a city with tens of thousands of active COVID-19 cases poses a significant health risk to conventiongoers, convention workers, health care workers, and the residents of Houston,” Diana Fite, the group’s president, said in a statement. “We are concerned not only for the City of Houston but also for the communities to which the delegates will return, giving the virus easy transportation to parts of Texas that have far fewer cases.”

See here and here for the background. Kudos to the TMA for backing out as sponsors, which they had initially said they would not do because of their need to engage with (read: lobby) Republicans directly. As noted, all this occurred on the same day as Greg Abbott’s mask order, which at least will mostly require attendees to wear them. Abbott’s order banned outdoor public gatherings of more than 100 people but had no effect on the much more hazardous indoor public gatherings. In typically wishy-washy fashion, Abbott expressed no opinion about whether or not this convention should be held in person or online.

There’s nothing we can do about the state GOP’s decision. They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. But we can and should make sure that Houston First, the entity that owns the George R. Brown and the nearby Hilton Hotel, extends full health insurance coverage to all their workers who have to be there for this. If the Republicans insist on risking their own health, that’s one thing. But no one else should be made to suffer for it. The Chron has more.

No fast track on vote by mail lawsuit

I confess, I hadn’t been aware that this was in the hopper.

The U.S. Supreme Court won’t fast-track a bid by Texas Democrats to decide whether all Texas voters can vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving in place the state’s current regulations for the upcoming July 14 primary runoff election.

But the case, which now returns to a lower court, could be back before the Supreme Court before the higher-stakes, larger-turnout general election in November. Current law allows voters to mail in their ballots only if they are 65 or older, confined in jail, will be out of the county during the election period or cite a disability or illness. But Texas Democrats have argued that voters who are susceptible to contracting the new coronavirus should be able to vote by mail as the pandemic continues to ravage the state.

Thursday’s one-line, unsigned order denying the Democrats’ effort to get a quick ruling comes a week after another minor loss for them at the high court. On June 26, the Supreme Court declined to reinstate a federal judge’s order that would immediately expand vote-by-mail to all Texas voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

A spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, which brought the case, said the party will “continue to fight tooth and nail for everybody’s right to vote.”

See here for the background, and Rick Hasen for a bit more explanation of what happened. As Michael Li notes, the case now goes back to the Fifth Circuit. I do think this will wind up before SCOTUS prior to November, and the question of the 26th Amendment will be decided, and that’s the more important matter. Given that we’re already voting in the primary runoff and the deadline for requesting a mail ballot has now passed, I don’t think there was much effect of this denial of certiori. If we don’t have an answer for November, that will be a problem.

UT/Trib: Trump 48, Biden 44

We had two Presidential polls drop on Thursday. Here’s the first, I’ll do the second for tomorrow.

President Donald Trump would beat former Vice President Joe Biden in Texas by 4 percentage points if the election were held today, according to a new poll from the University of Texas and the Texas Politics Project.

The Republican incumbent’s narrow lead four months before the election suggests Texas, a state where no Democratic presidential candidate has prevailed since 1976, is competitive in 2020.

The poll found 48% of Texas registered voters support Trump, while 44% support Biden. Partisans are sticking with their nominees at this point, with 91% of Republicans saying they’d vote for Trump and 93% of Democrats supporting Biden. Among self-identified independent voters, Trump holds a 41-27 edge over his challenger.

Men favor Trump, 53-41, while women favor Biden, 48-43. Among white voters, 59% favor Trump, while 79% of Black voters favor Biden. Among Hispanic voters, Biden holds a 46-39 edge.

Republican candidates haven’t lost a presidential race in Texas in four decades. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 9 percentage points in 2016 in the closest race since Bob Dole beat Bill Clinton here by 4.9 points in 1996. The biggest Texas winners over 40 years were Ronald Reagan (27.5 percentage points in 1984) and George W. Bush, the former Texas governor who won both his 2000 and 2004 contests by margins of more than 21 points.

Voters are split on the job Trump is doing as president, with 46% giving him good marks — a group that includes 85% approval among Republicans. Slightly more, 48%, say they disapprove of the president’s job performance, including 93% of Democrats. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll a year ago, 52% approved of Trump’s performance while 44% did not.

A high level view of the poll data is here; we don’t get full questions and crosstabs. The UT/Trib poll subsamples are often wonky, so don’t pay too much attention to the Black and Hispanic numbers. The April UT/Trib poll had Trump leading 49-44. Of the eleven (now 12, counting the one for tomorrow) poll results we’ve had since Biden became the Dem nominee, only three have shown Trump leading by more than two points, and two of those three are UT/Trib polls. Trump’s 48% “vote for” number is also higher than his 46% approval number, which is a relatively rare thing for him; I’ve got a post in the works on that but there’s been so damn much news this week I’ve been unable to get to it. Anyway, bottom line is it’s a close race. At this point, that should surprise no one.

Abbott finally issues a mask order

Better late than never, but it’s pretty damn late.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a nearly statewide mask mandate Thursday as Texas scrambles to get its coronavirus surge under control.

The order requires Texans living in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while inside a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. But it provides several exceptions, including children who are younger than 10 years old, people who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, people who are eating or drinking and people who are exercising outdoors.

The mask order goes into effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday.

The order represents a remarkable turnaround for Abbott, who has long resisted such a statewide mask requirement, even as the coronavirus situation has gotten worse than ever over the past couple weeks in Texas. When he began allowing Texas businesses to reopen this spring, Abbott prohibited local governments from punishing people who do not wear masks. As cases began to rise earlier this month, he clarified that cities and counties could order businesses to mandate customers wear masks.

In recent days, though, Abbott had held firm against going further than that, saying he did not want to impose a statewide requirement that may burden parts of the state that are not as badly affected by the outbreak.

Abbott on Thursday also banned certain outdoor gatherings of over 10 people unless local officials approve. He had previously set the threshold at over 100 people. The new prohibition also goes into effect Friday afternoon.

[…]

Abbott’s announcement came a day after the number of new daily cases in Texas, as well as hospitalizations, reached new highs again. There were 8,076 new cases Wednesday, over 1,000 cases more than the record that was set the prior day.

Hospitalizations hit 6,904, the third straight day setting a new record. The state says 12,894 beds are still available, as well as 1,322 ICU beds.

Abbott has been particularly worried about the positivity rate, or the share of tests that come back positive. That rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has jumped above its previous high of about 14% in recent days, ticking down to 13.58% on Tuesday. That is still above the 10% threshold that Abbott has long said would be cause for alarm amid the reopening process.

First-time offenders of Abbott’s order will receive a written or verbal warning. Those who violate the order a second time will receive a fine of up to $250. Every subsequent violation is punishable also by a fine of up to $250. The order specifies that no one can get jail time for a violation.

Remember that PolicyLab projection from May that said Harris County would go from 200 cases a day to over 2,000 by now? Thankfully, we’re still not close to that – the ReadyHarris dashboard has mostly shown us in the 600 to 800 cases per day range recently, though I suspect there’s some lag in the data because there’s no reason why this week would be lower than the two previous weeks. Point being, we most certainly could have seen this coming, and we could have done a lot to protect ourselves before this happened. You know, like having mask orders in place all along, and letting local governments have more leeway to control crowd sizes. Note here that Abbott’s order targets outdoor gatherings, but not indoor gatherings. You know, like this one. I don’t understand the logic here, but whatever.

The real question is after all this time and all that bullshit from Republicans like Dan Patrick, how much resistance do you think there will be to this new order? Like, remember when Dan Patrick called Judge Hidalgo’s mask order “the ultimate government overreach”? Also, too, Jared Woodfill and Steven Hotze are suing to basically stop emergency orders, and had previously sued to stop Judge Hidalgo’s mask order, before Abbott overruled it himself. Our state has plenty of people who will perform their rage over being asked to take the health and well-being of their neighbors into consideration. I’m curious, and more than a little afraid, to see how that segment of our population reacts to this. The Current, the Press, and the Dallas Observer have more.

UPDATE: My God, but Dan Crenshaw is a hack.

Three runoff stories

Just a sample from three high-profile and highly-contested Democratic primary runoff races.

TX-SEN: MJ Hegar versus Royce West

MJ Hegar

No two issues have impacted the Texas primary runoffs like the coronavirus pandemic and the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death, but as early voting begins Monday, the latter is looming especially large at the top of the ticket.

In the Democratic runoff to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, state Sen. Royce West of Dallas is hoping to harness the energy of the moment to pull past MJ Hegar on her seemingly well-paved road to the nomination. The former Air Force helicopter pilot has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but West is increasingly seeking to train his party’s attention on the opportunity his candidacy represents, especially now.

“Democrats have got to decide whether they want to continue to be a victim of history or make history,” West said in an interview. With his election as Texas’ first Black senator, he added, Democrats can go the latter route.

Sen. Royce West

West said the “stars have aligned” for him in the runoff, playing to his profile as not only a Black man but also a seasoned legislator who has focused on criminal justice reform, authoring a 2015 state law that aimed to expand the use of body cameras by police in Texas, for example. And he has taken heart in recent primaries elsewhere, most notably in Kentucky, in which candidates of color have ridden the momentum of growing calls for racial justice.

To be sure, Hegar, who is white, has also increased her focus on issues of race and policing, and on Monday, she is holding a virtual news conference with the family of Javier Ambler, a Black man who died last year in the custody of Williamson County sheriff’s deputes. West and then Hegar called for the resignation of the sheriff, Robert Chody, after the circumstances of Ambler’s death came to light earlier this month.

Asked in an interview how she stacks up against West when it comes to meeting the moment, Hegar reiterated her tight focus on the general election.

“I think that you know me well enough to know that I’m running against John Cornyn,” she said, reciting her contrasts with Cornyn. She did argue her November-focused bid means she is already running a “coordinated campaign that is lifting up” down-ballot candidates, including candidates of color.

It should be noted that since this story was written, Amy McGrath has pulled ahead of Charles Booker in that Kentucky Senate primary. You can make whatever you want of the parallels, but the state of that race has changed since original publication. I’m mostly interested at this point in the candidates’ finance reports. Hegar has consistently been the better fundraiser – and I continue to be a little perplexed how a 26-year incumbent like Royce West has had such a hard time raising money (*) – though she’s not exactly performing at Beto levels. Still, with a Presidential race at the top of the ticket, just having enough to get her name out there is probably enough. Hegar is closer to achieving that level of resources than West is, and there’s more promise of national money for her at this time.

(*) – Yes, I’m aware of the claims made that the DSCC has pressured donors to avoid West. This story notes that the person who made those claims has not provided the names of any such donors, so color me a bit skeptical. Certainly not out of the question that this could have happened, but right now the evidence is thin.

CD24: Kim Olson versus Candace Valenzuela

Democratic voters in North Texas’ 24th Congressional District next month will select the candidate — retired Air Force Col. Kim Olson or former school board member Candace Valenzuela — they want to challenge Republican Beth Van Duyne in one of the fall’s most highly anticipated congressional contests.

The decision between Olson and Valenzuela is punishing for many Democrats who see both women as capable of beating Van Duyne, the former Irving mayor endorsed by President Donald Trump. The ultimate goal, Democrats sandwiched between Dallas and Fort Worth have said all year, is flipping the seat that has been occupied by Rep. Kenny Marchant for eight terms.

Marchant is one of several Texas Republicans retiring from Congress this year as the state becomes more competitive for Democrats. Marchant easily won his seat 16 years ago but beat his Democratic opponent in 2018 by just three percentage points. Local and national Democrats see the seat as theirs for the taking and a key component of keeping their majority in the U.S. House.

“We all feel like we’ve been in a holding pattern and we’re waiting for the choice to be made,” said Angie Hetisimer, a Tarrant County precinct chair and member of Indivisible Grapevine, which works to help elect progressive candidates. “I think for me and most of the people I talk to, we just want 24 to flip. Luckily we have two fantastic candidates.”

Given there is little light between Olson and Valenzuela on policy — both fluctuate between moderate and progressive on different questions but would be reliable votes for the Democratic agenda in Washington — the election is largely framed as a decision between Olson’s extensive résumé and Valenzuela’s biography. Olson was one of America’s first female fighter pilots. If elected, Valenzuela would be the first Afro-Latina member of Congress.

Olson was the first prominent candidate in this race and has been the bigger fundraiser, but Valenzuela has also done well in that department and has run a strong campaign. This is a top target for the DCCC, and in my view is the second-most flippable seat in Texas, following only CD23. If we can’t win this one, especially against a xenophobe like Van Duyne, it’s a big miss. I’m fine with either candidate, I just hope everyone involved is able to move on and keep their eye on the prize after July 14.

CD10: Mike Siegel versus Pritesh Gandhi

Democrats in one of Texas’ most expansive battleground congressional districts are choosing between a civil rights attorney embracing the party’s most liberal proposals and a doctor who argues those policies are too radical.

Mike Siegel, the 2018 nominee in Texas’ 10th Congressional District, finished first in this year’s March Democratic primary — about 11 percentage points ahead of Pritesh Gandhi, a primary care physician making his first run for office. Siegel came about 6 points short of winning the primary outright, pitting him against Gandhi in a runoff.

The winner will face U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, who has represented the district since 2005. His political territory stretches from Austin to the Houston suburbs, covering all of five counties and parts of four others.

Beyond the ideological skirmish, the primary is also serving as a case study in whether the coronavirus pandemic will boost political candidates who work in the medical field. The virus has supercharged the public’s interest in health care and led to national TV appearances for Gandhi, but also stripped him of valuable campaign time as he works a grueling schedule that includes swabbing patients for COVID-19 and caring for those who exhibit symptoms.

It also has reinforced Gandhi’s pitch for sending more people to Congress who work in the health care field.

“People, I think, understand the importance of having a diversity of professional experience in Washington. And if that wasn’t clear before, it’s increasingly clear now,” Gandhi said. “I think that people, when they get to the voting booth, are going to want a leader who has experience and a track record in science and in health.”

Siegel was the 2018 candidate and he ran a good campaign, though he fell a bit short in a district that Beto carried by a whisker. Gandhi has been the stronger fundraiser – indeed, both Gandhi and third-place finisher Candace Hutchison outraised Siegel through April – but as with CD24, I expect whoever the nominee is to do just fine in this department. I know more people who are supporting Siegel in this one, and I do tend to lean towards giving a competent candidate who did a good job the first time around another shot at it, but as with the other races here I’m fine with either choice. I’m ready to get to the November part of this campaign.

How it’s going at the hospitals

In a word, it’s bad.

At Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital on Sunday, the medical staff ran out of both space for new coronavirus patients and a key drug needed to treat them. With no open beds at the public hospital, a dozen COVID-19 patients who were in need of intensive care were stuck in the emergency room, awaiting transfers to other Houston area hospitals, according to a note sent to the staff and shared with reporters.

A day later, the top physician executive at the Houston Methodist hospital system wrote to staff members warning that its coronavirus caseload was surging: “It has become necessary to consider delaying more surgical services to create further capacity for COVID-19 patients,” Dr. Robert Phillips said in the note, an abrupt turn from three days earlier, when the hospital system sent a note to thousands of patients, inviting them to keep their surgical appointments.

And at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, staff members were alerted recently that the hospital would soon begin taking in cancer patients with COVID-19 from the city’s overburdened public hospital system, a highly unusual move for the specialty hospital.

These internal messages highlight the growing strain that the coronavirus crisis is putting on hospital systems in the Houston region, where the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has nearly quadrupled since Memorial Day. As of Tuesday, more than 3,000 people were hospitalized for the coronavirus in the region, including nearly 800 in intensive care.

“To tell you the truth, what worries me is not this week, where we’re still kind of handling it,” said Roberta Schwartz, Houston Methodist’s chief innovation officer, who’s been helping lead the system’s efforts to expand beds for COVID-19 patents. “I’m really worried about next week.”

What’s happening in Houston draws eerie parallels to New York City in late March, when every day brought steep increases in the number of patients seeking care at overburdened hospitals — though, so far, with far fewer deaths. But as coronavirus cases surge in Texas, state officials here have not reimplemented the same lockdown measures that experts say helped bring New York’s outbreak under control, raising concern among public health officials that Houston won’t be able to flatten the curve.

“The time to act and time to be alarmed is not when you’ve hit capacity, but it’s much earlier when you start to see hospitalizations increase at a very fast rate,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology who leads the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “It is definitely time to take some kind of action. It is time to be alarmed.”

[…]

Although hospital executives in Houston stress that they have the ability to add additional intensive care beds in the region to meet the growing demand — for a few more weeks, at least — the strain on hospitals is already being felt in other ways.

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said his paramedics sometimes have to wait for more than an hour while emergency room workers scramble to find beds and staffers to care for patients brought in by ambulance — a bottleneck that’s tying up emergency medical service resources and slowing emergency response times across the region.

Part of the problem, Peña said, is that when his crews arrive at a hospital with a patient suspected of having COVID-19, the hospital may have a physical bed open for them, but not enough nurses or doctors to staff it. That’s a problem that’s likely to deepen as a growing number of medical workers have been testing positive for the virus, according to internal hospital reports. Just as New York hospitals did four months ago, some Houston hospitals have posted on traveling nurse websites seeking nurses for “crisis response jobs.”

“If they don’t have the nursing staff, then you can’t place the patient,” Peña said. “Then our crews have to sit with the patient in the ER until something comes open. It has a huge domino effect.”

There’s more, so read the rest. If you’re thinking that the death rate is low and that that’s a small blessing, that is true, but it’s also a bit illusory. For one thing, the sheer number of deaths will increase as the infection rate rises, not all deaths for which COVID-19 is a factor are recorded as COVID-19 deaths, and it is already the case that people are avoiding going to the hospital now for other reasons because of COVID-19, and that some of them will also die as a result. The official death count numbers have always been underestimated, and there’s no good way to spin it. Even if we were to go into total lockdown right now, we won’t begin to see the positive effects of that for another two weeks. We really need masking and better social distancing to have an effect or it’s going to get much worse. Oh, and the Texas Medical Center is above 100% ICU capacity. So we’ve got that going for us.

And as you ponder all that, ponder also this.

Despite Texas’ surge of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Tuesday evening that he doesn’t need the advice of the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci.

“Fauci said today he’s concerned about states like Texas that ‘skipped over’ certain things. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Patrick told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in an interview. “We haven’t skipped over anything. The only thing I’m skipping over is listening to him.”

Patrick also said Fauci has “been wrong every time on every issue,” but did not elaborate on specifics.

Dan Patrick does not care if you live or die. You and everyone you know mean nothing to him.

Second lawsuit filed by bars against Abbott

This one was expected.

Several Texas bar owners filed a $10 million federal lawsuit Tuesday afternoon against Gov. Greg Abbott, in an attempt to void his executive order shutting down bars for a second time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

All of the plaintiffs are members of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance. This is the second lawsuit filed against Abbott this week after more than 30 Texas bars filed a lawsuit in Travis County over his recent shutdown order on Monday.

In addition to the damages, the lawsuit asks the court to stop Abbott from enforcing his executive order which closes bars and to prevent him from issuing similar orders in the future without proper notice. The suit said Abbott should give businesses more than 24 hours notice before shutting them down, “unless in the case of imminent threat of harm.” The lawsuit also asks that future shutdown orders have a clear end date and lay out conditions that would have to be met for the order be extended.

[…]

The lawsuit noted that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission recently posted a notice on its website saying it observed a “high level of compliance” by permit holders. The lawsuit claims that Abbott is abusing his emergency powers “without proper legal notice.”

“With the erratic legal situation fueled (if not created) by the Governor and given that Plaintiffs have largely complied with the spirit & letter of the Governor’s voluntary guidelines, it came as an unfortunate surprise,” the lawsuit states.

The bar owners say in the suit that Abbott’s order violates their constitutional rights for due process, equal protection, and their patrons right to assembly, and “may very well leave long-term scarring on the republican form of government if left unchecked.”

“It wasn’t like he even reduced the bars and nightclubs to 25% — we’re closed to 100%,” said Michael Klein, one of the plaintiffs and Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance president, drawing a distinction between bars and other businesses which are allowed to operate at limited occupancies. “You better have some pretty good scientific evidence if you’re going to take one group of alcoholic beverage licenses over another, or one group of businesses.”

See here and here for the background. The Woodfill lawsuit was filed in state court and this one is in federal court, and someone who is much better versed in legal matters than I am will need to explain the reasons for that. I actually think these guys have some reasonable claims – sufficient notice, a deadline and criteria for the order, etc – though whether those claims are justiciable in federal court is a question I can’t answer. I figure both sets of plaintiffs are going to ask for an order suspending this action on Abbott’s part, and if so we’ll get some kind of rulings quickly. I have no idea what to expect, but can’t wait to see what happens.

More and better police data, please

Like this.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement will ask nearly 2,000 Texas law enforcement agencies to resubmit information legislators intended be used to analyze whether police were treating minority motorists differently — but which turned out to be worthless because TCOLE neglected to ask departments to include the race of the drivers in some of the data.

The change comes days after Hearst Newspapers published a story detailing how the information, required by the 2017 Sandra Bland Act, was impossible to use.

“I’m trying to jump on it pretty fast,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, a sponsor of the bill, who said he spoke Monday morning with TCOLE and they had agreed to correct the problem.

Coleman said he also has asked the agency to work with academic experts to ensure the information it is asking of Texas law enforcement agencies can be used to actually conduct racial bias analyses. Alex del Carmen, a criminal justice professor at Tarleton State University who helps train police executives, said he worked Sunday to create a survey that would produce the necessary information.

Coleman said the new list of questions will be used to gather the information for 2020. But he added the agency said it would also contact police departments to ask them to redo their 2019 surveys, originally submitted in March.

I mean, I’m glad this is happening now, but it’s more than a little embarrassing that the initial data collection was this lacking. Whose job was it to do quality assurance? Kudos to the Chron for bringing this to light.

And let me just add, while it is quite fashionable now to dunk on the idea of “running government like a business”, as someone who has worked for a Large Corporation for many years, this kind of data collection is absolutely the sort of things successful businesses do. It’s critical, to know if what you’re doing is working, to identify and learn from errors, to spot trends and respond to them, and so on and so forth. And really, it’s not that hard to do. Shame on TCOLE for such a shoddy first effort.

And also like this.

Two state lawmakers who reviewed a copy of the Houston Police Department’s audit of its narcotics division are calling on Chief Art Acevedo to release the document to the public.

“The reality is, there’s nothing in this the public should not be aware of,” Texas Sen. Paul Bettancourt said. “The real question is, what are they going to do about it?”

The police department performed the audit after last year’s disastrous Harding Street raid. Two homeowners died in the raid, and investigators later accused former officer Gerald Goines of lying to obtain the warrant on which he based the raid. He is now charged with murder.

In the wake of the incident, the police department launched an internal criminal probe, along with an administrative audit of the Narcotics Division.

[…]

In February, after questions from the Chronicle, Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, and a coalition of other Houston-area state representatives called on Acevedo to make the document public. The chief balked, saying he did not want to endanger the county’s criminal case against Goines and said the document included the names of undercover officers and could reveal information about confidential informants.

Because of the nondisclosure agreement, Wu said he could not comment on the specifics of the document. But he said that reviewing it only confirmed his belief that it should be public.

“Even without the redactions, there is little that can be gleaned from it that is not already public knowledge or could in any sense jeopardize an ongoing investigation or prosecution,” he said.

Yes, release the audit. The public needs to know. The criminal case will be fine – Kim Ogg is filing a bunch more charges now, in part because everyone involved seems to have a problem with telling the truth – but even if that were a problem, this is HPD’s mess. They need to come clean. The Chron editorial board and Odus Evbagharu, Chief of Staff to State Rep. Jon Rosenthal, have more.

UPDATE: And just like that, a draft of the audit was released on Twitter. Here’s a Chron story about it. Now let’s see some followup on this, because audits are all about actions.

Texas blog roundup for the week of June 29

The Texas Progressive Alliance did not need to pause its collection of blog content for your roundup this week.

(more…)

The lack of testing is becoming a more serious problem

It was already serious. Now it’s extra serious.

As the new coronavirus continues to spread in Texas, leaders of some of the state’s biggest cities said Monday that their testing sites were being strained, forcing them to turn away people in the middle of the day or limit who is eligible to take a test.

In Travis County, interim County Judge Sam Biscoe said the county’s public testing is being rationed to only people with symptoms. Previously, local leaders had encouraged anyone to get tested, including asymptomatic people and people that had come into contact with COVID-19 patients.

“The rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott asking to allow metropolitan areas to issue their own stay-at-home orders.

The largest laboratory analyzing tests is also strained, Biscoe said, to the point that the county has decided to prioritize cases from severely ill patients in hospitals. Residents in Travis County who don’t show symptoms still have other options, like private facilities, to get tested.

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner said his city’s two public testing sites, where testing is still available to people who are symptomatic or asymptomatic, reached their maximum capacities before noon.

“The capacity on those sites will be increased from 500 [daily tests] to 650 each,” Turner said. “It is clear that there is a demand out there, and we need to ramp up as best as we can to meet that demand.”

Meanwhile, the two community-based testing sites in the city of Dallas are reaching their capacity “by noon or early afternoon daily,” according to city spokesperson Roxana Rubio. In these sites, testing is restricted to symptomatic patients, high-risk people, first responders, essential workers and asymptomatic patients who have engaged in large group settings.

The obvious problem here is that if you think you need a test but can’t get one, you have the choice of self-quarantine and hope for the best, or keep on keeping on, and hope you’re not the 2020 equivalent of Typhoid Mary. If everyone could reliably get a test and get their results in a reasonable amount of time, people would be much freer to move around, and maybe even socialize with other people who can confidently state that they are safe. Indeed, if we could do this at scale, we could do much more targeted quarantining, and thus let larger portions of society open up safely. Wouldn’t that have been nice? Other countries have managed to do it. Just not this one. SIt with that for awhile.

Meantime, in Houston, the spread of this disease is having a bad effect on crime.

With more than 10 percent of its workforce out due to COVID-19, the Houston Forensic Science Center is dangerously close to having to limit its responses to crime scenes, the agency’s director said Monday.

Of 200 total staff, 10 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, said Dr. Peter Stout, CEO and president of the agency, which manages Houston Police Department’s forensic laboratory and crime scene unit. Another 12 are self-quarantining while they await test results. None of the exposures appear to have been transmitted through their work, Stout said.

Stout said he’s “very worried” because about one-fourth of the agency’s team dedicated to crime scene investigation is out of commission due to COVID-19. He’s concerned what that might mean for the center’s ability to collect evidence at murders, police-involved shootings and child deaths.

“We’re precariously close to having to shift around so we can have any capacity to make scenes that come up,” said Stout.

[…]

Delays in collecting evidence could mean further backlogs in criminal cases, prosecutors said.

“The pandemic is stretching the criminal justice system thin, causing backlogs up and down the system,” said Michael Kolenc, a spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “We will address any impact on a case by case basis.”

The center was already severely understaffed for a city the size of Houston before the pandemic, Stout said. There are usually 27 people working in the CSI unit. In cities like Dallas and Austin, the standard is around 100 crime scene investigators, Stout added.

“It’s not even close to the right magnitude of what we should have,” said Stout. “Especially this year, with the escalation in homicides, we were in a real pinch with the crime scene unit already.”

The unit is now only able to travel to scenes of homicides, officer-involved shootings, deaths of children and around 1 percent of aggravated assaults reported in the city, said Stout.

“It’s a serious issue,” Stout said.

Sure sounds like one. Maybe we’ll do a better job with the next pandemic.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Day One: People seem to like this vote by mail thing

Big surprise, am I right?

Harris County voters cast more than 51,000 ballots Monday in the primary runoffs, an eye-popping total that exceeded turnout for entire runoff elections in some recent years.

Combined with a robust in-person turnout, voters had returned more than 43,000 mail ballots by Monday, the first day of early voting. The turnout nearly doubled the number of votes recorded on the first day of early voting in 2016, the most recent presidential election year. It also eclipsed turnout from the 2018 runoffs, when more than 34,000 voters cast ballots on the first day of early voting.

The surge in voting was largely driven by voters in the Democratic primary, who accounted for 63 percent of the early runoff ballots Monday. And it came weeks after interim County Clerk Chris Hollins sent mail ballot applications to every voter who is 65 and older, which he said was aimed at keeping older voters “safe amid the current health crisis by giving them the opportunity to vote from home.”

Even with concerns about a recent local spike in COVID-19 cases, however, in-person turnout outpaced that of recent election cycles as well. A total of 5,334 Democrats and 1,762 Republicans cast ballots at the county’s 57 polling sites Monday. That is up from the 2,963 recorded the first day of early voting in the 2016 primary runoffs and 4,564 during the midterms.

[…]

The uptick in turnout likley stems from a combination of people paying an unusual amount of attention to politics given their extra free time at home during the pandemic, and a heated political moment fueled by the virus and recent upheaval from the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, said Houston political analyst Nancy Sims.

“People are at home and they’re paying more attention. They’re not as active and distracted as they normally would be, so you’re seeing a little more interest,” she said. “And it’s just a much more intense year to pay attention to elections. The combination of the protests and covid have made people tune in and become more aware.”

Hollins’ move to send ballots to the roughly 377,000 Harris County voters who are 65 and older — about 16 percent of the voter roll — also helps explain the surge, Sims said. Demand for absentee ballots has increased as well, with about 122,000 ballot requests for the runoffs, compared to 51,065 such requests for the 2016 primary runoffs and 67,735 for this year’s March primary. About 95 percent of the 122,000 mail ballot requests have come from voters who are 65 and older, according to a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office.

The comparison between the 2020 runoffs and prior elections is skewed by a number of factors. This year, Gov. Greg Abbott delayed the runoff from its original May 26 date until July 14, and doubled the number of early voting days from five to 10.

You can find the Day One early voting report here. As noted, I will generally be a day behind on these, so please bear with me. I’m not sure yet what kind of comparisons I’m going to provide for this, because primary runoff turnout can be so variable and doesn’t really tell you all that much, but I will do this to start off. Here’s a look at the share of the total vote that mail ballots were, in the March primary and now in the runoffs:


Election     Mail    Early   Total   Mail %
===========================================
D primary  11,571    6,819  18,390    62.9%
R primary  12,890    5,411  18,301    70.4%

D runoff   27,015    5,314  32,349    83.5%
R runoff   16,308    1,762  18,070    90.2%

So, in each case Dems have returned more mail ballots – and as the story notes, there are far more mail ballots left for Dems to return – but as a share of total ballots, Republicans are so far much more dependent on them. Make of that what you will. A statement from the Harris County Clerk is here, and the Texas Standard has more.

Maybe that Republican convention won’t happen after all

First, there was this.

The Texas Medical Association is encouraging Texans to practice social distancing, stay home when possible and wear masks to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. But despite the potential mixed message it may send, the state’s largest medical organization said Monday it is not reconsidering its sponsorship of the Texas Republican convention next month. Some 6,000 people from across the state are expected to gather indoors without a mask mandate at the convention in Houston, one of the nation’s fastest-growing COVID-19 hot spots.

A spokesperson for TMA, which represents more than 53,000 Texas physicians and medical students, told The Texas Tribune that it will honor its commitment to the event.

“The agreement will not be revisited,” Brent Annear said in an email Monday.

He added that despite the fact that the GOP organizers won’t require attendees to wear masks, TMA “encourages everyone who goes anywhere to wear masks.”

“To our Republican friends — and our Democrat friends (and independents and those of other parties) — we say wear a mask, wash your hands, stay socially distant if you must be in groups, and stay home if you can,” Annear said.

[…]

Annear said TMA’s agreement with the Republican Party of Texas was set in stone “before the pandemic was a major issue here — before we hit any stay-home suggestions or mandates, mask policies or anything like that.”

And because the group signed on to the sponsorship before the pandemic began and “no conditions like that were discussed,” it will not back out of the agreement, he said.

“This low-rung sponsorship entitles TMA to have a brief video play for the conventiongoers that reminds them that Texas physicians are here to care for Texas patients,” Annear said. “We paid the same low-level sponsor amount to the Democrats for their convention, and we had a video play during their virtual convention with essentially the same message.”

Dr. Diana Fite, the president of the Texas Medical Association, wrote in an online letter to Texas physicians that they should encourage patients, friends and family members to “for your sake, for your neighbors’ sake, for my sake, and for your grandma’s sake, wear a mask, Texas.”

Earlier this spring, TMA canceled its own annual conference, TexMed 2020, which was scheduled to take place from May 1-2 in Fort Worth, and suspended the 2020 TMA House of Delegates meeting both in-person and online “until the crisis has subsided.”

See here for the background. I get the rationale for participating in the convention and have no quarrel with that. But my goodness, this is not a great look for the TMA. It’s really hard to make the case for wearing face masks, social distancing, avoiding risky behavior, etc etc etc, when you’re hanging out at a crowded indoor venue with a bunch of people who thinks mask wearing is a commie plot meant to bring down the President. It’s exactly this kind of mixed message that has gotten us into the trouble we’re in now. And boy, that’s some weak justification by the TMA.

But it turns out, there was another option. And so on Tuesday, we got this.

The Texas Medical Association on Tuesday called on the Republican Party of Texas to cancel its in-person July convention scheduled to take place in Houston, one of the country’s fastest growing coronavirus hot spots.

The latest development comes one day after The Texas Tribune reported on the Texas Medical Association’s sponsorship of the convention, an indoor gathering that is not requiring masks of the 6,000 people expected to attend. On Monday, TMA told the Tribune that it would not rescind its sponsorship. But at the time TMA had not yet called on the Republican Party to cancel its convention.

In an open letter to party leadership Tuesday, Dr. Diana Fite, TMA president, cited the growing number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Harris County as a reason for the Texas Republican Party to cancel its Houston convention. The county has the highest number of cases and deaths in the state.

“The daily chart of active cases in Harris County has been nearly a straight line upward for the past two weeks,” Fite wrote. “As an emergency physician in Houston treating patients with COVID-19, I speak from firsthand experience: It would be best for the health of your conventiongoers and the residents of Houston for the RPT not to hold its biennial convention there as planned.”

TMA said it made $5,000 contributions to both the Republican Party of Texas and the Texas Democratic Party in exchange for a brief video advertising TMA’s mission at each convention.

“Our staff reassured RPT staff that TMA would advertise in a virtual gathering, but asked that if an in-person meeting would occur to please utilize CDC, state and local guidelines for social distancing and wearing masks,” Fite wrote Tuesday.

In an interview Tuesday, Fite said a variety of factors influenced TMA’s decision to send a letter to the Republican Party of Texas, including pressure from members after The Tribune’s story published.

“We were hearing from a lot of members and some of our board members were concerned,” she said. “And so we definitely want to discuss that situation. We had just heard very recently that the event was going to be held in Houston.”

[…]

Fite’s letter mentioned that TMA previously canceled its own in-person convention in May, stating that “like the RPT, a sizeable fraction of the TMA annual convention consists of longtime activists and leaders — men and women who are now at that age where they are particularly susceptible to the worst that a case of COVID-19 can deliver.”

Protecting the group’s elderly members was “among the reasons” TMA canceled its May convention, Fite said, and is urging the Texas GOP to do the same.

“This is just not the time to bring thousands of the party faithful from around the state to an indoor meeting in a county that, as I write, reports more than 18,000 active COVID-19 cases,” Fite said.

You can see a copy of the letter here. I mean, yeah. Anyone can see the logic in Dr. Fite’s argument. As the story notes, the RPT is actually thinking about it. Scott Braddock is on the spot.

I’ll post an update when I see one. This is clearly the right answer. It may be difficult for the GOP to switch to a virtual convention now, given that the real thing was scheduled to start July 16, but that’s on them. The risk/reward calculation is clear. They just have to recognize it.

UPDATE: Still in wait-and-see mode:

The Texas GOP’s plan for an in-person convention next month in Houston is looking increasingly uncertain as criticism mounts over plans to host thousands of people indoors as the new coronavirus surges across the state.

Party Chair James Dickey said Tuesday that the State Republican Executive Committee will meet Thursday to consider options for the future of the event, which he assured includes an “ultimate contingency plan” to move the event online.

“We have prepared for an online convention as the ultimate contingency plan if we are forced by a government order at any level and not able to hold our convention in person,” Dickey said during a livestreamed announcement Tuesday evening. “We’ve had that plan in place since the beginning of the pandemic so that we can be fully prepared for any turn of events.”

The State Republican Executive Committee, a 64-member body including Dickey and Vice Chair Alma Jackson, could take action ranging from mandating masks at what is expected to be a roughly 6,000-person event to relocating it to another city or moving the convention online.

[…]

State Rep. Sarah Davis, a Houston-area Republican, said it seemed “incredibly irresponsible” to hold such a large gathering and said she does not plan to attend this year’s event.

“I think it’s a horrible idea to proceed with holding the in-person convention,” Davis told the Tribune on Tuesday. “Houston is the last place we need to have a crowd of 6,000 gathering, given our COVID-19 positivity rate increases.”

Other Republicans, such as state Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood, have brushed aside such concerns, arguing instead that Texans should return to some sense of normal in an effort to prevent further damage to the economy.

“Canceling the convention sends the exact opposite message that Republicans should be sending,” Hall said in a statement Tuesday. “There is no reason to cancel a gathering that will help unite Republicans behind a limited government platform.”

Well, good luck unifying your factions. We’ll see what they decide tomorrow night.

More on that bar owners’ lawsuit

It’s something, that’s for sure.

Maybe not the best messaging

They’re here. They serve beer. And they are hopping mad at Greg Abbott.

As the Washington Post’s Teo Amus reported Tuesday, a group of Texas bar owners from around the state has banded together to sue Governor Greg Abbott for what they believe is a prejudiced edict targeting bar-owning Americans.

“You can’t tell me that my tiny little bar is the problem,” said Tee Allen Parker, a 45-year-old bar owner from Kilgore who recently banned wearing masks in her establishment.

Frustrated by the initial shutdown, reopening and subsequent backpedaling in the face of surging coronavirus case numbers, Parker has singled out the governor as the one recurring feature in her misery.

“[Abbott]’s the problem,” Parker says. “He’s targeting us, and it’s discrimination.”

Parker and 21 other bar owners have joined with Houston attorney Jared Woodfill to sue the governor and state alcohol regulators for Friday’s order, which shut down bars and restaurants with alcohol-dominant revenue streams. They claim the order is unconstitutional and unfairly discriminates against bar people and bar spaces.

“It’s just a horde of infringement on people’s individual liberties and constitution,” said Woodfill, a high profile right-leaning litigator who has already filed six lawsuits against state and local governments for COVID-related orders since the pandemic’s beginning.

“This is one individual making draconian decisions that have destroyed the Texas economy.”

I noted this in an update to my local control post from yesterday; here’s the Trib story that was based on. I have three comments to make. One, to Tee Allen Parker, we can indeed tell you that your bar is part of the problem. Or at least, experts like Dr. Peter Hotez can tell you that. Maybe not your bar specifically, but bars as a category. I’m sorry, I truly am, that you’re going through this. It sucks, I agree. But bars really are an excellent vector for this virus. Two, for all the lawsuits that the Woodfill/Hotze machine have filed, we have no rulings or orders from any of them yet to gauge if they’re onto something, or just basically farting in our general direction. I wouldn’t put it past the State Supreme Court to issue some truly oddball rulings, but I also wouldn’t advise anyone to mistake either of these guys for legal geniuses. And three, I’ll ask again, when does Steven Hotze, Woodfill’s partner in crime, announce his primary challenge to Abbott? This all just feels more like real bad blood than a typical fight within the family. We’ll see.

SCOTUS declines to outlaw abortion for now

You may have heard about this from the other day.

Right there with them

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law Monday that would have curtailed access to abortions in the state and that was nearly identical to a measure the court overturned in Texas in 2016.

The ruling is a win for advocates of abortion access, who feared the case could quickly pave the way for states to impose greater restrictions on the procedure. But legal and legislative battles over the procedure are sure to continue, including in Texas, where there are more than 6 million women of reproductive age. More than 53,800 abortions were performed in Texas in 2017, including 1,1,74 for out-of-state residents, according to government data.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the liberal justices in a 5-4 decision that struck down a Louisiana law that would have required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Roberts had dissented in the 2016 decision that found Texas’ restrictions placed an undue burden on a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. He did not agree with the liberal justices’ reasoning Monday, instead citing the precedent set by the previous case.

“The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law,” Roberts wrote.

[…]

While advocates for abortion access celebrated the ruling, they expressed worry about future fights over the procedure.

“We’re relieved that the Louisiana law has been blocked today, but we’re concerned about tomorrow,” said Nancy Northup, head of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a nonprofit that represented the Louisiana abortion providers. “Unfortunately, the court’s ruling today will not stop those hell bent on banning abortion.”

See here for a bit of background. I hate to be the party pooper, but after reading what Dahlia Lithwick has to say, I’m going to keep any celebrations of this ruling to the minimum.

Roberts’ concurrence is classic Roberts—cloak a major blow to the left in what appears to be a small victory for it. Four years ago in Whole Woman’s Health, the court struck down the Texas admitting privileges law by assessing that such a law would constitute an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy—a standard that in Justice Stephen Breyer’s formulation called for a careful balancing of the stated benefits of an abortion restriction against its burdens. Reading Roberts’ concurrence carefully, one sees that in June Medical, he managed to claw back that standard, replacing it with a much more deferential one that asks only whether the proposed regulation is unduly burdensome without requiring any consideration of the benefit. Not only that, he goes further and does essentially what he did in last year’s census case and last week’s challenge to the DACA rescission: He hints that essentially any old pretextual defense of an abortion law will serve; he just doesn’t like when lazy litigants offer up sloppy pretexts.

The problem for Roberts in June Medical is that the state of Louisiana offered up demonstrably bad reasons for insisting on admitting privileges for abortion providers at local hospitals, and then the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals offered up sloppy reasons for disturbing the findings of the trial court showing that two out of three clinics would close and women would be burdened. As was the case in the census litigation, and the DACA litigation, the outcome here is correct, but one can easily reverse-engineer the chief justice’s opinion to say, “Come back to me with the right road map and I’m all yours,” and in fact, he actually grabs your pencil, flips over the napkin, and sketches the map out at no extra cost.

As Mark Joseph Stern and I wrote this time last year, “Lie better next time” could easily be the holding of June Medical, and states seeking to restrict abortion rights can now do precisely that, without running afoul of this ruling, so long as they ground the laws in better pretextual arguments about maternal health and fetal life and women’s need to make better choices. Roberts has turned a substantive constitutional right into a paper-thin debate about regulatory justifications. His scrupulous review of the many abortion restrictions that were permitted in Casey is a useful reminder that nothing is truly an “undue burden” if it comes dressed in the right language of solicitude and benign concern for mothers’ healthy choices. After today, Roberts is telling states wanting to impose all sort of needless regulations that it doesn’t matter if they are utterly without health benefits, so long as the burdens on women are not that bad.

Mark Joseph Stern arrived at a similar conclusion earlier. It was correct to throw out this ridiculous Louisiana law, but the door is still very much open for a similar law to flip Roberts back to his natural inclination. It’s just a matter of time. Mother Jones has more.

What should Joe Biden do in Texas?

“Win” would be my preferred answer, but it’s more complicated than that.

No matter how frequently it happens, it’s always a bit startling.

Ever since February 2019, polls have been coming out indicating that former Vice President Joe Biden is competitive with — sometimes even leading — President Donald Trump in Texas. A June 3 poll by Quinnipiac University gave Trump a 1-percentage-point lead in the state. A recent FiveThirtyEight roundup of “key battleground state” polls taken since May 1 shows Trump up by an average of 1.5 points here.

And every time a survey is released, the same questions arise: Is 2020 the year deep red Texas flips to the Democrats? Is Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in trouble as well?

But for many in politics, the consideration is slightly different: The state is clearly more competitive. But even if Biden can compete here, how seriously will he choose to?

The answer to that question is more complicated. For Biden and his allied groups, making a run for Texas is no simple task and there are strategic considerations beyond looking at the polls. The most immediate objectives for national Democrats in 2020 are to recapture the White House and Senate majority. And Texas is far from necessary for either.

Recent polls have suggested Biden might hold an even stronger position in other states that Trump won in 2016 — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and even Georgia. And because of its vast size, numerous media markets and massive population, Texas is more expensive to compete in. The paths to victory for Biden are so great in number, it’s hard for many political operatives to imagine a scenario where Texas would flip where it would be anything other than icing on the cake in a much broader national victory.

In other words, the cost of seriously trying to win Texas would almost certainly be high, while there’s a decent chance that the reward would ultimately prove inconsequential.

Below the surface, however, the presidential race in Texas still matters — an underperformance by Trump compared to recent history has the potential to reset Texas politics for the next decade. The central question in the political class every time one of these polls is released five months out from Election Day is: What kind of down-ballot damage could Republicans potentially suffer if Biden has coattails?

You know the polling situation; as of the most recent poll, where Biden led Trump by one point, Trump led in Texas by an average of 2.0 points. That’s a smidge less than the Ted Cruz margin of victory over Beto in 2018, and as disappointed as we all were with that result, we saw the effect downballot. I for one would not mind an encore of that kind of performance. What it all comes down to is two competing factors from Biden’s perspective. One is that he doesn’t need to win Texas to take the Presidency. If Texas is truly winnable for him, then he’s pretty much assured to have enough electoral votes to have won. I mean, if Texas is flipping, then surely Arizona and Florida and North Carolina and maybe even Georgia have gone blue, and the rout is on. Texas is an insanely expensive state to compete in, with something like 27 media markets for ad buys. The bang for your buck is much bigger in the old faithfuls like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Boring, but no one wants to take anything for granted.

On the other hand, that same downballot effect is a real thing for Biden to consider. There’s a Senate race here, which is likely going to be roughly as competitive as the Presidential race is. It sure would be nice to have another Dem in the Senate, and that makes Texas a twofer for Biden, which isn’t true for Florida or Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. (North Carolina and Arizona and Georgia and Iowa, on the other hand…) Plus, there are multiple Congressional seats available for pickup, one of which offers the chance to defenestrate Ted Cruz minion Chip Roy. Even the battle for the Texas State House is important, as that would give the Dems some leverage in drawing the next Congressional map. One would hope that Joe Biden learned the lesson of 2010 well enough to consider the advantage of flipping the State House here.

So of course I want Biden to compete here, as seriously as possible. I want Dems to win as many races as possible, and I can’t think of anything that would be a bigger psychological blow to the Republicans, both nationally and here, than seeing Texas go Democratic in a Presidential election. It would sure be a hell of a momentum boost headed into 2022, which for us is an even bigger election. (Another advantage for Biden: The possibility of throwing out the single biggest cause of ridiculous anti-Democratic lawsuits, AG Ken Paxton.) If he has to raise more money to afford it, then get on that. I understand the cost/benefit analysis, but I’m not going to claim to be impartial here. You have a real shot here, Joe Biden. Don’t throw it away.

Hey, how about trying that local control thing again?

Seems like it might be worth a shot to led Mayors and County Judges lead on coronavirus response again, since they’ve done so much better a job of leading than Greg Abbott has.

As Texas grapples with soaring coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, local elected officials in some of the state’s most populous counties are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to roll back business reopenings and allow them to reinstate stay-at-home orders for their communities in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Officials in Harris, Bexar, Dallas and Travis counties have either called on or reached out to the governor in recent days, expressing a desire to implement local restrictions for their regions and, in some cases, stressing concerns over hospital capacity.

Stay-at-home orders, which generally direct businesses deemed nonessential to shut down, were implemented to varying degrees by local governments across the state in March before the governor issued a statewide directive at the beginning of April. Abbott’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of April, when he began announcing phased reopenings to the state and forcing local governments to follow his lead. Since then, a number of local officials, many of whom have been critical of Abbott’s reopening timeline, have argued that the jurisdiction to reinstate such directives is no longer in their hands.

“If you are not willing to take these actions on behalf of the state, please roll back your restriction on local leaders being able to take these swift actions to safeguard the health of our communities,” Sam Biscoe, interim Travis County judge, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Monday.

Biscoe asked Abbott “to roll all the way back to Stay Home orders based on worsening circumstances,” further cap business occupancy, mandate masks and ban gatherings of 10 or more people.

Officials in Bexar County also wrote a similar letter to the governor Monday, writing that “the ability to tailor a response and recovery that fits the San Antonio region’s need is vital as we look forward to a healthier future.”

“Our region’s hospital capacity issues and economic circumstances require stronger protocols to contain the spread of this disease,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote. The two asked Abbott to “restore the ability for the City of San Antonio to take additional local preventative measures, including potential Stay Home/Work Safe restrictions.” They also asked the governor to mandate face coverings when outside a household and “clearer language that strictly limits social gatherings,” among other things.

[…]

Meanwhile, counties and cities across the state have implemented face mask requirements for businesses after Wolff, the Bexar County judge, moved to do so without facing opposition from Abbott. The governor had previously issued an executive order banning local governments from imposing fines or penalties on people who chose not to wear a face mask in public.

Local leaders have also voiced concerns about the testing capacity of large cities. In Travis County, Biscoe explained that because of the “rapidly increasing demand,” they are rationing testing only for people with symptoms. The stress on the system is also making contact tracing efforts more difficult.

“In summary, the rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote.

Here’s the Chron story; Mayor Turner has joined the call for this as well. I seriously doubt Abbott will do any of this, because it will serve as an even more stark reminder of his abject failure to lead. But if the worst is still ahead of us, then it’s a choice between taking action now and making it end sooner, or denying reality and letting more people get sick and die. Abbott’s going to have to live with the consequences of his poor decision-making regardless, he may as well choose to do the right thing this time.

Of course, there may be other complications this time around.

The Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance said it plans to sue the state of Texas over Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order once again shutting bars across the state.

“Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance (TBNA) is taking the necessary steps to protect the rights of our members and their employees across the state, who have been unjustly singled out by Governor Abbott,” TBNA president Michael E. Klein said in a statement.

[…]

TBNA said its members want to be allowed to reopen and have the same capacity allowances as restaurants, grocery stores and big-box retailers. It will sue in both state and federal court seeking to override Abbott’s order.

The majority of Texas bars had been adhering to strict guidelines restricting occupancy and ensuring safe serving practices for both customers and employees, TBNA’s Klein said. His take: if restaurants with bar rooms can operate at limited capacity, why can’t actual bars?

“To suggest the public welfare is protected by singling out one specific type of alcoholic beverage license over another is without logic and does not further the aim of protecting the public from COVID,” he added.

Well, one way to cure that disparity would be to order that all of them be closed for all except to go service. We’d also need to extend that waiver that allow restaurants to sell mixed drinks to go, which I’d be fine with. While I understand where the TBNA is coming from, this is Not Helping at a bad time. But then, given how Abbott folded on enforcing his own executive order in the Shelley Luther saga, I get why they thought taking an aggressive stance might work. Eater Austin has more.

UPDATE: Looks like the TBNA has been beaten to the punch:

Hoping to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s Friday decision ordering Texas bars to close due to a rise in coronavirus cases, more than 30 bar owners filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Abbott’s emergency order.

The lawsuit, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman, was filed in Travis County District Court by Jared Woodfill, a Houston attorney who has led previous legal efforts opposing Abbott’s other shutdown orders during the pandemic.

“Why does he continue unilaterally acting like a king?” Woodfill, former chair of the Harris County Republican Party, said of Abbott in an interview. “He’s sentencing bar owners to bankruptcy.”

[…]

In the lawsuit, the bar owners argue that their rights have been “trampled” by Abbott, while “thousands of businesses are on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Abbott on Friday said it “is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars.”

Tee Allen Parker said she is confused. As a bar owner in East Texas, she’s allowed to walk into church or a Walmart but not permitted to host patrons at Machine Shed Bar & Grill.

“I don’t think it’s right that he’s violating our constitutional rights,” Allen Parker, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Monday in an interview. “The reason I’m speaking up is I don’t like that he can’t be consistent. You lead by example. Everything he’s said he’s walked back. And I’m disappointed in him because I was a big fan of his.”

A copy of this lawsuit is here. I’ll say again, as with all of the other COVID-related lawsuits that Jared Woodfill has had his slimy little hands in, we deserve to have serious questions asked by better people than this. As for Tee Allen Parker, I swear I am sympathetic, but no one actually has a constitutional right to operate a bar. I would suggest that the solution here that prioritizes public health while not punishing businesses like hers that would otherwise bear the cost of that priority is to get another stimulus package passed in Washington. Such a bill has already passed the House, though of course more could be done for the Tee Allen Parkers of the world if we wanted to amend it. Maybe call your Senators and urge them to ask Mitch McConnell to do something that would help? Just a thought.

Kaylynn Williford

Goodbye, and good riddance.

The head prosecutor for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s trial division resigned Monday after posting a meme on Facebook last week that equated protesters who remove Confederate statutes with Nazis.

The meme posted by the veteran prosecutor last week shows a black-and-white photograph of hands holding an overflowing bin of rings.

It says, “Wedding bands that were removed from Holocaust victims prior to being executed, 1945. Each ring represents a destroyed family. Never forget, Nazis tore down statues. Banned free speech. Blamed economic hardships on one group of people. Instituted gun control. Sound Familiar?”

Assistant District Attorney Kaylynn Williford said in a statement that she took down the post after a friend’s daughter and later a Jewish lawyer told her they found it offensive to compare the two groups. Williford, a 28-year-veteran of the office who has tried major capital cases, said this was never her intent.

She posted it, she said, because she thought it was “thought provoking and promoted tolerance.”

You can see what she posted in that earlier story, which came out over the weekend. I held off on posting about this mostly because I wanted to see what the reaction from the DA’s office was going to be first. A group of Democratic State Reps had called for her resignation earlier in the day, and eventually got what they asked for. All I can say is that if Kaylynn Williford really truly had no idea that her stupid image was offensive and why it was offensive, then she should have been fired years ago and should never get on Facebook again. Even if you were to somehow grant her some kind of Sleeping Beauty-level exemption for deeply childlike innocent ignorance, the controlling principle of “don’t post political shit to Facebook if you don’t understand it” should apply. You know the old saying about how it’s better to keep silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt? It was for situations like this that it was first uttered. Keri Blakinger has more.

Ready or not, here we vote

Hope it goes all right.

Poll workers [began] greeting voters from behind face masks and shields as early voting begins in primary runoffs that will look and operate differently from any Texas election in the past 100 years. Although the first statewide election during the pandemic is expected to be a low-turnout affair — primary runoffs usually see single-digit turnout — the contest is widely regarded as a high-stakes dry run for the November general election, when at least half of the state’s more than 16 million registered voters are expected to participate.

More than 30 runoffs are ongoing for party nominations to congressional, legislative and local offices. The most prominent race is the statewide Democratic contest to see who will challenge incumbent John Cornyn for U.S. Senate.

But the shot at working through a new set of considerations — and challenges — for running a safe and efficient election could be complicated by its timing. The runoff was postponed from May and takes place as the state’s tenuous grip on controlling the coronavirus outbreak unravels into record-high daily infection and hospitalization rates.

“We’re saying our prayers,” Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator, said last week. “With this spike in the numbers, I’m praying our good ol’ election officials are going to hang in there with us.”

Like other administrators, Callanen worked to complete a census of the county’s regular fleet of election judges and workers, who tend to be older and at higher risk for complications from the coronavirus. She saw little drop-off, with most willing to work the election.

That was before the effects of Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening of businesses and dismantling of local health restrictions were fully felt, and the county was reporting 30 or 50 new daily cases of people infected with the virus. In recent weeks, that number has skyrocketed to hundreds of new cases a day. If her prayers fail, Callanen has a set of backup county workers ready to step in.

[…]

Texans voting in person will be met with many of the precautions that have become customary at businesses and grocery stores, including 6-foot distance markers and plastic shields at check-in stations. Poll workers will be offering masks and hand sanitizer. At least one county is advising voters to bring umbrellas to shield them from the hot Texas sun while they wait.

But many regular polling sites will have far fewer voting booths — and probably lines out the door — or will be shuttered altogether as officials try to minimize breaches of social distancing.

Collin County election officials typically set up 20 to 25 voting machines at their main polling place in their office building, but they will only be able to fit eight machines 6 feet apart. It likely won’t be a problem for the runoff, but the county will have to be “as creative as possible” for November, said Bruce Sherbet, the county’s election administrator.

“All the things we’re doing for this will really be problematic for November,” Sherbet said. “It’s a tall challenge.”

In a possible bellwether for electoral troubles in November, some counties have lost polling places unwilling to host voters during the pandemic. In Williamson County, officials were informed last week that one of its busiest sites — a community center that primarily caters to older voters — was scrapping plans to reopen for voting. In Bexar County, Callanen had to pull the county courthouse — a longtime voting site — and several school sites off her list of polling places. In Travis County, officials ditched regular voting sites at nursing homes, grocery stores and Austin Community College.

Abbott’s postponement of election day from May 26 to July 14 granted election administrators more time to set up public health precautions. But with the runoff election moving forward at what is arguably the state’s worst point in the pandemic so far, poll workers will be forced to navigate keeping voters safe while safeguarding their right to vote.

In Chambers County, a smaller county east of Houston, County Clerk Heather Hawthorne was waiting on guidance from the Texas secretary of state’s office after the local public health authority asked if poll workers can direct masked voters and those not wearing masks to separate voting machines.

“Everybody is just trying to help figure out, as our Texas numbers grow, what we’re going to do to provide safe voting locations,” Hawthorne said.

See here and here for the background. Postponing the May election was the right call, based on conditions and what we knew at the time. The fact that Greg Abbott screwed up after that and left us in a more dangerous position now is a separate matter. For this election, which ought to be fairly low turnout, my strategy is going to be voting either early in the morning – like, right at 7 AM if my work calendar is open – or maybe between 9 and 10, when I figure the morning commuters are done and the lunch crowd hasn’t started to shuffle in. At least we’ll learn from this experience in a lower-stakes environment. And who knows, maybe something will go sufficiently wrong in a Republican runoff that state leadership will be forced to reckon with the problem in a broader sense than just mindlessly clinging to the idea that it’s sinful for anyone under the age of 65 to cast a mail ballot. Because let’s be clear, letting more people vote by mail, and being prepared for more people voting by mail, is the best answer here.

Here’s the perspective from Travis County, where turnout is likely to be higher than other places due to the SD14 special election.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir reports that a huge crush of mail voting requests by those 65 and older, who are automatically eligible to receive mail-in ballots, could foretell an exceptional turnout by runoff standards, and she promises that in-person voting in this novel circumstance is being conducted with extraordinary attention to public health.

“I don’t think we should be voting in person at all, quite frankly, in the middle of a pandemic,” DeBeauvoir, who would have preferred universal vote-by-mail under the circumstance, told the American-Statesman late last week. “Which is why we’re taking all of these extra precautions to try and make voting in person as safe as humanly possible.”

While the pandemic might logically be expected to depress turnout, DeBeauvoir said that in Travis County, the reverse may be the case.

While turnout for runoffs generally runs in single-digits, DeBeauvoir said this time, “it just might get as high as 30%.”

[…]

Ordinarily, she said, her office would get 1,000 to 2,000 requests for mail-in ballots for a runoff.

But by Friday, she said, “the levels of by-mail ballot requests we are getting are rivaling presidential levels. The most by-mail requests I’ve ever had for a presidential was 31,000. We already have more than 28,000 in house.”

Of those, she said, 85% are from those 65 and older, and another 12% are those with a disability, the other category that is automatically eligible to vote by mail.

But DeBeauvoir said that an estimated quarter of Travis County voters have disabilities, and that, despite the Texas Supreme Court decision that fear of the coronavirus alone was not sufficient reason to seek a disability ballot, that ruling also made clear that “a voter, using their own health history, can make a determination about their risk of injury to their health if they show up inside a public place.”

If so, they can check the “disability” box on the vote-by-mail request, and return it to her office, no questions asked, because, she said, election administrators do not and, under law, cannot check disability claims.

There is still time for any Travis County voter seeking a mail-in ballot to download the application from the clerk’s website, fill it out, check the appropriate box, sign it and return it to her office as long as it received by Thursday.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued warnings that anyone who advises voters that they can vote by mail simply out of fear of COVID-19 can be subject to criminal sanctions.

“Certainly there’s been an effort to make it seem very confusing. It is not confusing at all,” DeBeauvoir said.

“That’s why I am using very carefully picked language,” she said. “That’s why we have decided a voter, using their own health history, can make a determination about their risk of injury to their health if they show up inside a public place.”

If you haven’t and still want to, you can go here to apply for a mail ballot in Harris County – the deadline to submit is the same, this Thursday. Note that if you make an electronic application you must follow it up within four business days with a snail mail application, so don’t skip that part. It will be fascinating, and quite possible horrifying, to see if Ken Paxton targets some mail users for the purpose of making an example of them. The past history of election fraud prosecutions, which this Star-Telegram story catalogs nicely, is one part about persecuting people of color, and one part about loudly trumpeting initial arrests or investigations that eventually end very quietly in dropped charges, dismissals, acquittals, or plea bargains to minor misdemeanors. I won’t be surprised if we get something like that this year.

I will of course be posting early vote totals, but I’ll probably be a day behind, since I expect the results will come in sufficiently late to make it inconvenient for me to be up to date the following morning. Turnout expectations should be kept modest, but with the Senate race and several Congressional races it won’t be a total snoozefest. If Dems can get to 500K, that would be a record for them.

Interview with Rep. Marc Veasey

Rep. Marc Veasey

When I came up with the idea to do a series of interviews about redistricting, Rep. Marc Veasey was among the first people I wanted to talk to. He was a State Rep in 2011 when the original maps were passed, and then he got elected as the first member of Congress in CD33, one of the new districts created in that 2011 session. He was one of the litigants in the consolidated case that made it to the Supreme Court (he was also one of the main litigants in the voter ID lawsuit; the 2010s were a busy decade for Rep. Veasey), and I wanted to get the insight from someone who was in this fight from the beginning. As a member of the now-Democratic majority US House, he’s also got a role to play in making the landscape better in the 2020’s, with legislation to make redistricting fairer that will also generally expand voting rights. Here’s what we talked about:

Here’s my interview with redistricting expert Michael Li if you haven’t listened to it yet. I hope to have more of these in the coming weeks.

Judges added to felony bail reform lawsuit

This could be a sign that things are about to happen.

All 23 Harris County felony judges have been added as proposed defendants in the lawsuit alleging that the region’s felony bail practices are discriminatory and damaging to poor defendants.

The amended filing came late Friday after a second judge on the court intervened in support of the 2019 civil rights lawsuit arguing that it’s unconstitutional to jail poor people before trial simply because they cannot afford bail. These two judges, Brian Warren and Chuck Silverman, could potentially become both defendants and intervenors.

Several other judges said they looked forward to being formally included in the case in order to make changes to the current protocol.

Lawyers for the indigent people at the jail asked in a motion Friday that nearly two dozen judges be included in the case. They said in court documents that amid rising COVID-19 infections at the jail, the judges have continued to mandate that thousands of arrestees come up with secured money bail without first determining that pretrial detention is necessary or the least-restrictive condition to ensure public safety or cooperation with court hearings.

These judges don’t routinely hold adversarial hearings to allow defendants to make their case about bail and make findings about defendants’ ability to pay bail, the motion said.

Warren, a Democrat who was elected as presiding judge of the 209th Criminal Court, defeating a judge who berated Black Lives Matter, said he supports “intelligent bond reform” in his request to join the case. Silverman, of the 183rd Criminal Court, was accepted as a party in the case Thursday, a day after he filed an unopposed motion to join it.

“The pandemic has brought this into stark relief,” Warren said. He noted that bail has disproportionately affected people of color.

“The implementation of bond reform is a complex issue. It requires well-reasoned and intelligent proposals,” his motion said.

The lawsuit was filed last January, and this is the first real news I’ve heard about it since. The misdemeanor bail reform lawsuit settlement was finalized in November and has been in operation since earlier that year. There are lawsuits in other counties over felony bail practices, such as in Dallas, but so far nothing has come to a courtroom.

A big difference between this lawsuit and the previous one in Harris County over misdemeanor bail practices is that all but one of the judges who were named as defendants in the earlier lawsuit were Republicans, and all but two of them (the one Democrat and one of the Republicans) opposed the plaintiffs’ arguments and refused to settle the suit. It wasn’t until Democrats swept the 2018 election, in part on a message of settling that lawsuit, that it came to its conclusion. In this case, all of the judges are Democrats. As of Friday, when this story was written, at least two of them have expressed a desire to join on the side of the plaintiffs. Brian Warren was mentioned in this story, and on Thursday we got this story about the first judge to speak up, Chuck Silverman.

Saying the bail system “perpetuates inequalities” and can have “devastating” consequences on lives and livelihoods, State District Chuck Silverman of the 183rd Criminal Court filed paperwork Wednesday to intervene in the 2019 federal civil rights lawsuit brought on behalf of poor defendants stuck at the jail. In addition, fellow jurist Brian Warren, of the 209th Criminal Court, said he planned to file his own motion to join the case this week, with hopes of reforming the way judges handle with pretrial release.

Silverman said he thinks the majority of his colleagues on the felony bench want to revise how PR bonds work and “want to make the cash bail system obsolete or to make it work better.”

Like his colleagues on the bench, Silverman, a Democrat elected in 2018, is not a party in the lawsuit. He sought to intervene to ensure equal protection and due process rights are fairly administered, while protecting public safety.

Silverman said in an interview that negotiations on the bail lawsuit had been moving slowly and he learned in his civil practice prior to becoming a judge that the best way to push it forward and accomplish true bail reform was to intervene.

“We need systemic change in the cash bail system because it disproportionately affects minorities and the poor,” he said. “The time to do something proactive was now.”

The unopposed motion argues that cash bail discriminates against people who can’t access funds, often forcing them to settle for guilty pleas rather than await trial in lockup.

Neal Manne, one of the lawyers for the indigent plaintiffs, applauded Silverman’s “courageous” move and encouraged other judges to follow his lead.

“Any state judge looking in good faith at the cash bail situation in the felony courts in Harris County can see that the system is broken and requires reform,” Manne said. “I am delighted that Judge Silverman has acknowledged that the current situation violates the rights of poor people.”

I too would like to see all of the judges join with the plaintiffs to work towards a fair and equitable solution as quickly as possible. The way COVID-19 has burned through all the jails in the state, as well as the ever-increasing jail population, should make this an urgent priority, from a public health standpoint as well as a justice standpoint. I hope that most if not all of the judges will take similar action as Silverman and Warren have done, and I am damn sure that those who don’t will need to account for their actions in the next primary election. We know what is right, and we know what needs to be done. There’s plenty of room to negotiate the details and particulars, but the goal is clear and we need to get there. Let’s make this happen.

Is this convention really necessary?

Seriously. I know they don’t care about anyone else, but maybe the state GOP might think about the health and well-being of their own people?

As the coronavirus pandemic engulfs Texas’ metropolitan areas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has left the door open for massive indoor gatherings. And organizers are moving forward with some big ones, including the Texas Republican party’s upcoming convention in Houston.

Harris County, where Houston is located, has the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the state, but the Texas GOP plans to press forward with plans to hold an in-person convention from July 16-18 in the city’s George R. Brown Convention Center.

“All systems are go, folks. This is happening,” Kyle Whatley, the party’s executive director, said Tuesday during a tele-town hall, noting the convention program is already being printed.

On Tuesday, Abbott granted local officials the power to restrict outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people, but made no mention of indoor gatherings. The Texas GOP convention is expected to draw about 6,000 attendees, roughly half of what it would expect for such a convention in normal times, according to Whatley. The party’s website brands its annual convention as the “largest political gathering in the free world.”

Whatley said registrations are “increasing exponentially” as the convention nears.

David Lakey, the former commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said he believes large indoor gatherings of more than 100 people are not advisable at this time.

“I think, right now, I wouldn’t hold a group larger than 100 individuals,” he said. “I think people need to be very cautious about making — especially in the month of July — any plans for a big conference.”

The party does not plan to require masks at the convention, though chairman James Dickey acknowledged Tuesday that Harris County is currently under an order mandating that businesses require customers to wear masks.

“The Republican Party isn’t considered a commercial entity so they themselves are not required to comply with the mask order,” said Melissa Arredondo, a spokesperson for the office of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who issued the mask order.

That order expires Tuesday, and Dickey said the party will “revisit” the mask issue during another tele-town hall next month before the convention.

Maybe read the story of Bill Baker, and then rethink this? Just a suggestion. And it truly is ridiculous to be allowed to ban outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people while being forced to allow a much riskier indoor event of thousands of people. I’m sure someone pointed out to Abbott that if he did the sensible thing and allowed all gatherings of large sizes to be banned by local officials, the GOP convention would be immediately canceled. It’s still ridiculous.

And look, if this were only a bunch of Republican activists putting themselves at risk, I’d shrug my shoulders and let them enjoy their “freedom”, for whatever it was worth. But of course, they’re not just putting their own health and safety on the line, they’re endangering everyone who will be working at the convention as well. Those folks deserve better.

The situation has created what union leaders say is a potentially perilous situation for workers at the Hilton Americas-Houston hotel, which is connected to the convention center and expects to see an uptick in guests during the convention. Officials from Unite Here Local 23, the union that represents hotel and other hospitality workers, say health insurance benefits are set to expire for Hilton workers at the end of the month, since many of them were laid off at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving them short of the hours needed to qualify for coverage.

Houston First Corp., the city’s convention arm, owns the Hilton Americas-Houston and operates the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Houston First Chairman David Mincberg disputed the union’s claim, saying in a statement to the Chronicle that all Houston First and Hilton employees “will have health insurance coverage (except those who have opted out) while working at the George R. Brown Convention Center or the Hilton” during the convention. Mincberg also said Houston First officials “do not anticipate any part-time workers being utilized.”

Hilton employees are set to lose their health coverage at the end of July if they do not work enough hours in June to qualify for coverage, while those laid off earlier will lose it by June 30. Union officials said nearly 450 employees have been laid off by the Hilton since February, accounting for about 95 percent of the hotel’s employees.

Bo Delp, senior political organizer for Unite Here Local 23, questioned how the Hilton could adequately staff the convention if only 5 percent of its employees are set to qualify for health coverage through the end of July.

“Houston First has made a decision that during a global pandemic, it is going to continue to host events,” Delp said. “The minute they made that decision, from our perspective, they had a moral and public health obligation to make sure that the workers who are coming in as a result of their decision to host events, that they are healthy and safe.”

Mincberg said Houston First lacks the ability to cancel the event or require convention guests to wear masks, even if conditions worsen before mid-July.

“(Houston First) does not have the authority to require safety measures, unless included in the original license agreement. Since this agreement was issued prior to the pandemic, no such provision was included,” Mincberg said.

Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, urged Houston First officials to provide health coverage for hospitality workers and “institute preventive activities” to limit the spread of COVID-19 during large gatherings at the convention center.

“We know that closed spaces, crowded conditions, close contact, and duration of contact all enhance transmission of this virus,” Troisi wrote in a letter to Mincberg on Tuesday. “This convention space includes all of these risk factors and particularly without mandatory masking, transmission of the virus is almost inevitable, both to convention attendees and to hospitality employees.”

Every employee who works this dumb convention should have full health care coverage. Whatever it takes to give that to them, make it happen. And in the future, all contracts for conventions in Houston facilities should include clauses about pandemics and requirements for face masks and following county health mandates. The very least we can do from this experience is learn from it.

Weekend link dump for June 28

“The Anti-Vax Movement’s Radical Shift From Crunchy Granola Purists to Far-Right Crusaders”.

How to read the polls like a pro.

“It might seem like a small scandal in the context of everything else Trump has done, but it’s actually a very serious crime. We need to learn the full truth about it.”

“By now you’ve probably heard the news that a Terminator has killed another innocent civilian just days after the last innocent civilian was killed by a Terminator. This unfortunate incident has led to renewed calls to divert funding from the Terminator program and reallocate it into other services that would prevent Terminators from being necessary in the first place. But just because a growing number of Terminators have ignored their AI programming and begun slaughtering humans left and right doesn’t mean we should take the dangerous and radical step of defunding the Terminator program.”

“Five Women Veterans Who Deserve to Have Army Bases Named After Them”.

“Okay I want to talk about the TikTok/K-pop stan let’s-troll-Trump operation and specifically about the data gathering aspect of it.”

“The most important COVID story right now is the age shift.”

“Remember that the original announcement was that Berman would be replaced on an acting basis, not by his current deputy, which is the lawful order of succession, but by the US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Craig Carpenito. This is an entirely irregular, bordering on absurd plan – one US Attorney overseeing two offices at once. There was certainly some corrupt aim behind this whole plan. This is as sure as night follows day. Barr wanted Berman out of the way and was not content to leave key decisions in the hands of his respected deputy, Audrey Strauss. He was confident that he could leave those decisions in the hands of Craig Carpenito. Why?”

RIP, Joel Schumacher, versatile film director.

“And yet, for all the drama, the little matter of why Trump and Barr decided to get rid of Berman in the first place remains a mystery. There are a range of plausible explanations. Some are worse than others, though none represents what one would like to see from the Department of Justice.”

“Otherwise, the focus of the debate was less on the particular words marked for excision than the place of slurs in the game. Many argued that Scrabble would lose nothing by dropping words that obviously cause offense in real life. Such a move, some players said, might also make the game more attractive to sponsors or broadcasters, and could generate positive media and attract new players. More important, they said, it could be a fitting contribution from a cabal of word nerds to the swirling conversation about race and equality.”

That Shake Shack thing involving NYPD cops from a couple weeks ago was utter bullshit from the beginning.

How a freelance photographer got tagged as a lonely Trump supporter at the little Tulsa rally.

“After Nearly Two Bumpy Decades, The Original Segway Will Be Retired In July”.

“A judge has ruled that Rep. Devin Nunes has no right to sue Twitter over statements made by a fake Internet cow, someone parodying his mother and a Republican strategist.”

“What does it mean that the median age of new cases is dropping in some areas? I see three possible explanations, not all good. A thread on how to distinguish between them.”

“But recent data finally does suggest a more complete explanation: the age demographics of the outbreak have changed substantially.”

RIP, Milton Glaser, graphic designer who created the iconic “I ♥ NY” logo.

RIP, Blaine Kern, flamboyant New Orleans float builder known as “Mr. Mardi Gras”.

No relief from SCOTUS on vote by mail

This is not really a surprise.

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an initial bid by state Democrats to expand voting by mail to all Texas voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Justice Samuel Alito — whose oversight of federal courts includes cases coming through Texas — on Friday issued the court’s denial of the Texas Democratic Party’s request to let a federal district judge’s order to expand mail-in voting take effect while the case is on appeal. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery ruled in May that Texas must allow all voters fearful of becoming infected at polling places to vote by mail even if they wouldn’t ordinarily qualify for mail-in ballots under state election law. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Biery’s order while Texas appeals his ruling.

The decision means the state’s strict rules to qualify for ballots that can be filled out at home will remain in place for the July 14 primary runoff election, for which early voting starts Monday. Under current law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

Still left pending is the Democrats separate request for the justices to take up their case before the November general election. The party’s case focuses primarily on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

See here for the background. As noted in the story, Justice Sotomayor added a comment saying that she hoped the appeals court would take up the merits of the case in time for November. We’ll see if they’re listening. In the meantime, do what you were going to do for this runoff. Rick Hasen has more.

Runoff reminder: Judicial races

Previously: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, county races.

Let’s begin with this, because if you only vote in one judicial primary runoff, this is the one to vote in.

An incumbent judge who is under indictment and is battling for her bench maintains that her 12 years of judicial experience better qualify her in the race. But her challenger claims that someone needs to restore integrity and ethics to Harris County’s 164th Civil District Court.

Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas and Cheryl Elliott Thornton are the two candidates in the Democratic Primary runoff race for the Houston-based court. Whoever wins will face Republican candidate Michael Landrum in the November election.

Thornton claimed that because her 33 years practicing law has earned her the respect of colleagues, that both public officials and sitting judges asked her to run for the 164th District Court.

“Harris County needs someone whose ethics are not questioned and who is ready and who is able to serve, both legally and through her qualifications, as the next judge,” Thornton said. “What differentiates me from my opponent is not just the respect that people have for me, it’s also my integrity and my ability to let others be heard.”

Smoots-Thomas was suspended in November 2019 from her court by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct after federal authorities charged her with seven counts of wire fraud. Claiming this is a political prosecution, she’s pleaded not guilty in the case, which alleged she embezzled over $26,000 in campaign contributions and used them for personal expenses like her mortgage and private school tuition for her children.

Smoots-Thomas said that she’s presided over the 164th District Court for 12 years and in that time she’s handled more than 200 jury trials and countless bench trials. She wrote that after Hurricane Harvey damaged Harris County’s courthouse, she used her chambers as a courtroom space so she could keep up her court’s efficiency and allow litigants their day in court. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s helped groups distribute masks and personal protective equipment around the county, she wrote.

“Throughout my years on the bench, I have been given several awards from various groups honoring my service and commitment to the legal community and larger Harris County community,” she wrote. “In short, I believe in and strive to exemplify judicial experience, efficiency, and adaptability.”

It’s possible that this is a politically motivated prosecution against Smoots-Thomas. I can’t prove that it isn’t, and if it is there’s no way to restore equity to Judge Smoots-Thomas. But I can’t take the chance. I’ve known Judge Smoots-Thomas since she was first a candidate in 2008. I like her personally. We’re friends on Facebook. I sincerely hope she beats these charges. I can’t vote for her with them hanging over her. I will be voting for Cheryl Elliott Thornton. I will note that Stace disagrees with me on this one. I also note from the Erik Manning spreadsheet that third-place finisher Grant Harvey was the Chron endorsee in March, so I presume we will see them revisit this one.

There’s one other District Court runoff in Harris County, for the open 339th Criminal Court, featuring Te’iva Bell and Candance White. Bell took nearly all of the organizational endorsements and was endorsed by the Chron as well.

The other judicial race on the ballot in Harris County is for the 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7, Tamika Craft versus Cheri Thomas. That’s another one for the Chron to redo, since they went with Wally Kronzer in round one.

The judicial Q&As that I received from these candidates: Cheri Thomas, Tamika Craft, Cheryl Elliott Thornton. You can watch Thomas, Thornton, Smoots-Thomas, and Bell participate in a judicial candidate forum with Civil Court Judge and all-around mensch Mike Engelhart on the estimable 2020 Democratic Candidates Debate Facebook page. Texas Lawyer covers Bell versus White here and Craft versus Thomas here.

Finally, there is one judicial primary runoff in Fort Bend, for the 505th Family Court, between Kali Morgan (44.6%) and Surendran Pattel (30.3%). I don’t have any information about them, but the Texas Lawyer profile of their runoff is here.

And with that, we bring this series to an end. Hope it was useful to you. Get out there and vote, in as safe and socially-distant a manner as you can.

UPDATE: Today the Chron endorsed in the judicial runoffs, recommending Cheri Thomas and Cheryl Elliott Thornton, and re-endorsing Te’iva Bell.

The pause effect on bars and restaurants

I feel terrible for them, but what could we do at this point?

Ed Noyes was trying to get some shut-eye when he woke up to seven different texts Friday morning.

Three of the five bartenders at his Fort Worth establishment — plus his girlfriend — delivered the news: Malone’s Pub had to shutter immediately under the governor’s orders. His employees wanted reassurances: Would the business survive? Should they file for unemployment? What were his next steps?

“We were just all in shock,” Noyes said.

On Friday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered another economic blow to bars and other places that receive more than 51% of their gross receipts from selling alcohol. The establishments had to shut down by noon after a statewide surge in coronavirus infections officials said was largely driven by activities like congregating bars. There’s no immediate plan for when they’ll be able to reopen.

“The announcement just came out of nowhere,” Noyes said. “When I went to bed last night I thought we’d be open for the weekend, so this really blindsided me.”

Restaurants were ordered to scale back their operations to 50% capacity. And Abbott also banned river-rafting trips. They were his most drastic actions yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas.

But bars arguably faced one of the biggest challenges to operating in pandemic. Every tantalizing aspect of the nighttime hotspots — large crowds, prolonged bouts of close contact, mouths constantly open to drink or speak — clash with the health guidelines put in place as COVID-19 ravages the state.

[…]

Last weekend, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission launched “Operation Safe Open” to ensure bars and restaurants were following coronavirus safety rules. As of Wednesday, 17 bars — out of nearly 600 businesses visited by the commission — got their alcohol permits suspended for 30 days.

In some enclaves, residents have complained about staff not wearing masks, social distancing measures not being enforced and tables not being cleaned after use.

“I went with a friend for a quick night out,” Steven Simmons, who lives in Tyler, said of a June 11 visit to a local pub. “Easy to enter the bar, just checked IDs and that was it. No social distancing being enforced, no hand sanitizer anywhere, tables were not cleaned after use or anything. Employees were not wearing a mask at all.”

But in other parts of Texas, including Austin and San Antonio, some bar owners say they’re trying to strike a balance between their livelihoods and business and public safety.

“We joke at the Friendly Spot Ice House that we make a ‘bestie pack,’” said Jody Newman, the owner of the San Antonio hotspot. “The pact is that people ‘friendly’ distance, that they mask up, that they have clean hands and that they be friendly and understand we’re all going through this together.”

Still, since opening during the first week in June, Newman said she’s seen about 30% of the business she would normally get at this time of year.

With Friday’s announcement, Newman said, “thousands and thousands of livelihoods hang in the balance.”

Here’s a local view of this dilemma.

“The whole thing is a mess for everyone. Obviously, we’ll have to adjust again,” said Alli Jarrett, owner of Harold’s Restaurant & Tap Room in the Heights, adding that reducing capacity means she will not be able to bring back workers she had hoped to re-employ. “It’s not just restaurants. It’s every single business – every segment of the population. We’re all in the same boat. It’s just really, really hard.”

[…]

Brian Ching, owner of Pitch 25 in EaDo, fears the worst. “I don’t know if the business will be here in a month, two months,” said Ching, who also is readying another bar, East End Backyard, to open in July. “We were able to get PPE but we’ve burned through it all.”

He is most concerned for his workers, he said. “This time around, being closed with no PPE, we are likely going to have to furlough employees. I feel for all of them. There seems to be no end in sight.”

Bar owner Andy Aweida said he worries what the bar shutdown will mean not just to his staff but to all those in the bar industry.

“We did everything we were asked and did it well. It’s unfair to them and many others. So many people are doing what is needed and playing by the rules,” said Aweida, a partner in the Kirby Group whose bars include Heights Bier Garten, Wooster’s Garden and Holman Draft Hall. “I truly feel horrible for all those amazing employees, staff and many other good, hard-working people this affects.”

Lindsey Rae, who opened Two Headed Bar in Midtown only six months ago, conceded that the first year for any business is the toughest. But the bar closures are catastrophic.

“This is going to be a financial disaster for us,” she said. “We are down 85 percent since the pandemic. All of our revenues are exhausted. We can only afford to operate for about one more month unless Gov. Abbott will give us some gleam of hope.”

Hope, however, seemed fading on Friday for Lukkaew Srasrisuwan, owner of the new Thai restaurant Kin Dee in the Heights. She saw six reservations cancel after the announcement.

“This is going in the wrong direction,” she said. “We are complying with the guidelines. We are a small restaurant and we just opened. This is tough.”

At 75 percent capacity, Kin Dee was “doing OK,” Srasrisuwan said. But not for long. “We can’t sustain at this level for more than one or two months,” she said. “I’ve seen the number of COVID-19 increase so I am not surprised by Gov. Abbott’s announcement but I am worried. We don’t want to lose our staff but I don’t know how to keep operating at this rate.”

For some restaurant owners, Abbott’s pullback was not unexpected.

“It’s about time, to be honest. I thought we reopened too soon,” said Christopher Williams, chef/owner of Lucille’s in the Museum District. “It’s the most responsible thing I’ve heard from (Abbott) in a while.”

Williams said he will be able to weather the capacity reduction because he was able to remain solvent by streamlining his menu, dropping prices, and increasing take-out. “At a time like this everyone needs to take profitability out of the equation. It’s about sustainability.”

George Mickelis, owner of the iconic Cleburne Cafeteria, said he was grateful for Abbott’s decision, and said he would be able to continue staying in business even at 50 percent.

“Obviously, no one wants to return to a complete shutdown and we pray that that is absolutely never necessary again,” Mickelis said. “We are all Texas tough and we will prevail.”

Two things can be true at once. This is a terrible blow to a crucial part of the Texas economy and culture. I’m much more of a restaurant person than a bar person these days, but bars are a key ingredient to neighborhood life, and a vital hang-out place for many people. They also employ a lot of people who’ve just been put back out of work at a time when we don’t know if there will be further federal assistance coming and the state of Texas has gone back to requiring out-of-work people to be actively job searching in order to get unemployment benefits. It’s also the case that we should have been a lot more careful and deliberate in allowing bars to reopen in the first place, precisely because everything about them makes them a prime vector for spreading a disease like COVID-19. I don’t know what else we could have done now, but it’s surely the case there are things we can and should have done differently before now.

Other businesses are now in a similar bind.

In the backyard of her business, Cutloose Hair, salon co-owner Ashley Scroggins watched a livestream Friday morning on her phone. On the screen was an image of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaking of the risks of COVID-19 to the region.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.” She called for nonessential workers to stay at home.

Scroggins put down her phone and put on her mask. Then she walked into her salon, shut down the online booking system and began calling upcoming reservations: The salon was closing until cases subsided.

Officials have moved to contain the number of known COVID-19 cases spiking across the state, often through conflicting messages that left businesses attempting to weigh health risks against economic concerns.

While Hidalgo recommended nonessential workers stay home, she no longer had the power to enforce such a plan because Gov. Greg Abbott had superseded it with his own plan to reopen the state. Friday morning, Abbott rolled back portions of that plan — ordering bars and tubing and rafting establishments to suspend services and restaurants to cap dine-in capacity at 50 percent — but maintained other businesses could remain open.

That left salons, restaurants, gyms, offices, retailers and other businesses Friday to decide whether to heed Hidalgo’s call to return to the stay-at-home precautions she had the power to enact in March.

Many, like Cutloose Hair, decided shutting down on-premise operations was the right thing to do.

“It’s not getting better,” Scroggins said of the pandemic. “And the only way we can truly support our city is just to do what they’re asking us to do.”

It’s not an easy choice for many. My company, for which I’ve been working from home since March 6, two weeks before the city shut down, has suspended its plan to start bringing workers back to the office until further notice. I suspect there will be a lot more like this, and there should be. If you can reasonably work from home, there’s no good reason not to.

One possible small bit of hope for the bars and restaurants:

Under current state rules, restaurants and bars can sell beer, wine and liquor, but only in closed containers with their manufacturer’s seal intact.

The organization Margs For Life is lobbying to change that.

Founder Kareem Hajjar, also a partner in the Austin law firm Hajjar Peters LLP, is talking with Texas food and beverage associations to build support for an emergency order to let bars sell mixed drinks in containers that they seal on premises.

“While that work continues today, Margs For Life has evolved into a community of people who are either in the industry or support the industry, where we can share news and events, and help one another be as profitable as possible during this pandemic,” Hajjar told the Current.

Margs for Life’s proposed rule change, proponents say, would help restaurants and bars reduce inventory — and allow some facing dire financial circumstances to stay afloat.

“I’m privileged that I work at a bar that has granted me the ability to do to-go cocktail kits… But bars and restaurants would benefit from FULL to-go kits,” said David Naylor, a bartender at San Antonio craft-cocktail bar The Modernist, via a Facebook post. “Manhattans expertly built, Negronis that don’t require you to amass a stocked bar… ALL these are possible if [Gov. Abbott] would allow it.”

Abbott has expressed support for this idea.

Abbott originally signed a waiver March 18 allowing to-go alcohol sales, in an effort to support struggling restaurants after they closed their dining areas. The waiver was originally to last until May 1, but it was extended indefinitely. Abbott teased that this change could be permanent, tweeting at the time, “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever.”

Abbott again tweeted late Saturday that he supports the idea of extending his temporary waiver. State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, replied, saying that he will file a bill in the upcoming legislative session to make it happen, also advocating to allow restaurants to continue selling bulk retail food items to go.

[…]

The Texas Restaurant Association submitted a proposal Thursday evening to Abbott’s office, asking to expand the waiver to also allow mixed drinks with liquor to be prepared, resealed and sold.

Cathy Lippincott, owner of Güero’s Taco Bar in Austin, said its margarita to-go kits were very popular during the beginning of the restaurant shutdowns, but as dining rooms began to reopen, sales dwindled. Now, days could go by without the restaurant selling a single kit.

Under the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission guidelines, restaurants can only serve liquor in manufacturer-sealed bottles and with the purchase of food. For several restaurants, including Güero, this means their drinks are served in do-it-yourself kits, where customers mix the ingredients and liquor together.

Lippincott believes that if mixed drinks were also allowed to be served to go, she could see that being a popular option.

I support this as well, and any action that can be taken now to achieve this should be taken. And then, when the Lege convenes in January, we should not only pass a law to make this permanent, but also revisit all of our archaic and anti-competitive laws that govern the manufacture and sale of beer, wine, and liquor. You know what I’m talking about. Let’s please at least let this terrible pandemic be a catalyst for something good.

Early voting for primary runoffs starts tomorrow

Remember the runoffs? It’s time we settle who our nominees are.

Who can vote in the runoffs?

Texas has open primaries, meaning you don’t have to be a registered member of either party to cast a ballot in a primary runoff. You can check your voter registration status here. But you can only vote in one party’s primary, and which one might depend on how you voted in the first round of the primaries in March. People who voted in the March 3 primary are only able to vote in that same party’s runoff election, as they have affiliated themselves with that given party for that calendar year. Those who did not participate in the March primary are able to vote in either primary runoff election.

What’s different this year?

The primaries were originally scheduled for May, but Abbott delayed them until July because of the coronavirus. Abbott also doubled the length of the early voting period for the July primary runoff elections in a move to aimed at easing crowds at the polls during the pandemic. Early voting runs from Monday through July 10.

“It is necessary to increase the number of days in which polling locations will be open during the early voting period, such that election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices,” Abbott wrote in a May proclamation.

For Harris County, the early voting map of locations with wait times is here. Please take advantage of a less-busy location if you can. The traditional PDF with the map and hours is here. Please note the new and changed locations. Please also note that there is no voting on Friday, July 3 and Saturday, July 4, due to the holiday. Voting hours are extended on Sunday, July 5 (10 to 7, instead of the usual 1 to 6) and on the last day, Friday, July 10 (7 AM to 10 PM). All other days are 7 AM to 7 PM. We should be able to get in and out safely, and you will need to bring a mask. See here for the Harris County Clerk’s SAFE principles.

My Runoff Reminder series will remind you who’s running: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, select county races, and select judicial races. Links to interviews and Q&As are in there as well.

The Chron re-ran a bunch of its endorsements on Friday:

Mike Siegel, CD10
Chrysta Castañeda, Railroad Commissioner
Michelle Palmer, SBOE6
Akilah Bacy, HD138
Rep. Harold Dutton, HD142
Rep. Anna Eastman, HD148

They had endorsed Royce West for Senate in March, and they reran that endorsement on Saturday. (UPDATE: They reran their endorsement of Michael Moore for Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, this morning.)

Also on the ballot for this election: the special election in SD14 to succeed Kirk Watson. I have interviews with the two candidates of interest, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. Please give them a listen if you live in this district. I expect this will go to a runoff, which I hope will not need to endure a delay like the May elections did.

All the elections for July 14 are important, but just as important is that this will serve in many ways as a dry run for November, both in terms of handling a higher volume of mail ballots and also in terms of making the in person voting process as safe as it can be in this pandemic. I was on a conference call a week or so ago with a national group, the Voter Protection Corps, which presented a report for policymakers with concrete steps to protect in-person voting and meet the equal access to voting requirements enshrined in federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins was one of the presenters in that call. You can see a summary of the call with highlights from the report here. I will be voting in person for this election, but however you do it please take the steps you need to in order to be safe.

Fox: Biden 45, Trump 44

Man, if we keep getting polls that show Joe Biden leading in Texas, we just might have to rethink where this state is politically.

Texas is a tossup, as Democrat Joe Biden tops President Donald Trump by a percentage point, 45-44 percent, in a new Fox News survey of Texas registered voters.

Ten percent are up for grabs, and this small subgroup of voters is more likely to disapprove than approve of Trump’s job performance by 52-34 percent.

The good news for Trump: he bests Biden by 51-45 percent among those “extremely” motivated to vote in the election.

Trump corralled the Lone Star State by 9 points in 2016 (52 percent vs. Hillary Clinton’s 43 percent), and it has been in the Republican column in every presidential election since 1980.

Texas voters trust Trump over Biden on the economy (by 14 points) and immigration (+4), while they think Biden would do a better job on race relations (+10 points) and coronavirus (+3).

There’s a 24-point gender gap on the head-to-head matchup, as men pick Trump by 12 points and women go for Biden by 12.

Trump is preferred by Baby Boomers (+12 points) and Gen Xers (+7), while Millennials go big for Biden (+29).

[…]

Republican Sen. John Cornyn leads both of his potential Democratic candidates in hypothetical matchups, although he garners less than the 62 percent he received in his 2014 reelection.

MJ Hegar and Royce West were the top two finishers in the March 3 Democratic primary. Neither received a majority of the vote so there is a July 14 runoff.

The three-term incumbent leads both Hegar and West by a 10-point margin. About one in six voters is undecided/uncommitted in each matchup.

You can see the full poll data here. Yes, I know, Fox News, but their Presidential polls are well-regarded, with an A- rating on FiveThirtyEight. This is now the fourth poll out of eight since the March primary in which Biden has been tied (two results) or in the lead (two results), which is not too shabby. In the four polls where Biden has trailed, he’s trailed by one, two, five, and six. The polling average now stands at 46.5 for Trump to 44.5 for Biden. I know every time I see G. Elliott Morris or Nate Cohn or Nate Silver post something on Twitter about how well Biden is polling right now, someone always comes along with a (not accurate) claim about how Hillary Clinton was polling just as well at this point in 2016. Well, you can see the poll results I have from 2016 on my sidebar. Hillary Clinton was not polling this well in Texas in 2016, not in June, not at any point.

As for the Senate race, the main difference between how John Cornyn is doing against MJ Hegar and Royce West and how Trump is doing against Biden is that Hegar and West do not have quite the same level of Democratic support as Biden does. Cornyn gets 86% of Republican support versus each candidate (the crosstabs break it down by gender as well as party), which is right there with Trump’s 87-88%, but Hegar (80% Dem men, 74% Dem women) and West (85% Dem men, 75% Dem women) lag well behind Biden, who is at 91-92%. Most of the undecided vote in the Senate race is Democratic, which strongly suggests both Hegar and West are doing a bit better than this poll suggests. I’d expect whoever wins the runoff to get a boost, and we’ll start to see poll numbers in the Senate race more closely match the Presidential race. It won’t surprise me if Cornyn outperforms Trump by a bit. Which is to say, it won’t surprise me if there are still a few Republicans who don’t vote for Trump but do generally vote R otherwise. My takeaway from the 2018 election is that most of those Republicans went much more Democratic in the midterm, and I expect the same this year. There’s still a bit of softness on the GOP side for Trump, and who knows, if things continue to deteriorate we could see more of that. I’m sure there will be plenty more polls between now and November to support or refute that hypothesis.

Put a pause on that reopening

At this point, we had no other choice.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday took his most drastic action yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas, shutting bars back down and scaling back restaurant capacity to 50%.

He also shut down river-rafting trips and banned outdoor gatherings of over 100 people unless local officials approve.

“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said in a news release. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”

Bars most close at noon Friday, and the reduction in restaurant capacity takes effect Monday. Before Abbott’s announcement Friday, bars were able to operate at 50% capacity and restaurants at 75% capacity.

As for outdoor gatherings, Abbott’s decision Friday represents his second adjustment in that category this week. Abbott on Tuesday gave local governments the choice to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people after previously setting the threshold at over 500 people. Now outdoor gatherings of over 100 people are prohibited unless local officials explicitly approve of them.

Abbott’s actions Friday were his first significant moves to reverse the reopening process that he has led since late April. He said Monday that shutting down the state again is a last resort, but the situation has been worsening quickly.

I can’t emphasize enough that none of this had to happen. Greg Abbott laid out four metrics for reopening when he first lifted the statewide stay-at-home order: Declining daily case rates, positive test percentages below a certain level (I forget what exactly, maybe seven percent), three thousand contact tracers hired by the state, and sufficient hospital capacity. None of the first three were ever met, even at the beginning, and the predictable result is that now the fourth one is no longer being met. We could have driven the reopening by the metrics, instead of saying “on this date we’ll roll back these things and allow these things to resume”, but we didn’t. Greg Abbott made that decision. What is happening now is on him.

And so, here in Harris County, where our leaders’ efforts to take this pandemic seriously were entirely undercut by Greg Abbott, we are paying the price.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday moved the county to the worst threat level, calling for a return to the stay-at-home conditions of March and April, as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to spike.

She also banned outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people in unincorporated Harris County, while urging mayors to do the same in their cities.

Hidalgo described in dire terms the danger the pandemic currently poses, and said the county is at greater risk than at any other time since the outbreak began here in March.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.”

Her remarks were a rebuke of Gov. Greg Abbott’s phased reopening strategy, which she said allowed Texans to resume normal life before they were safe. They also contradicted the rosy picture Texas Medical Center executives painted a day earlier of the system’s ICU capacity.

Hidalgo unsuccessfully lobbied the governor this week for the power to issue more restrictions, her office confirmed. Abbott’s refusal to let local officials again issue mandatory stay-at-home orders leaves Harris County “with one hand tied behind our back,” she said.

[…]

Though she lacks the power to require compliance, Hidalgo implored all county residents to follow the same rules as her stay-at-home order in March and April. That means residents should stay home except for essential errands and appointments, work from home if possible, wear a mask in public and otherwise avoid contact with other people.

Only a collective change in behavior can reverse the accelerating trend of COVID here, Hidalgo said. The alternative, she warned, is grim.

“If we don’t act now, we’ll be in a crisis,” she said. “If we don’t stay home now, we’ll have to stay home when there are images of hospital beds in hallways.”

Hidalgo and Dr. Umair Shah, the county’s health director, offered no concrete timeline for how long restrictions would be needed. The county judge noted that in some other states, lockdowns of up to three months were needed to bring the virus under control.

A tripling of cases and hospitalizations since Memorial Day have placed intense pressure on state and local leaders to act. With Abbott’s blessing, Hidalgo and other local leaders have issued mandatory mask orders since last week, mandating businesses to require their customers wear facial coverings.

The governor effectively gutted Hidalgo’s original order requiring residents to wear masks at the end of April by preventing any punishments from being levied against violators. Enforcement never was the point, Hidalgo said Friday, but she blamed the governor for signaling to residents that mask-wearing was unimportant.

See here for the background. We can’t know what shape Harris County would be in now if Judge Hidalgo had been allowed to make her own decisions instead of being overruled by Abbott. But it’s hard to say we’d be any worse off than we are now.

Of course, some people still think it’s all sunshine and puppies up in here.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went on national television to declare Texas is not running out of intensive care hospital beds and to assure viewers that the state is “not stepping backward” in re-opening businesses.

Speaking on Fox News Channel on Thursday night, Patrick acknowledged new COVID-19 cases are increasing in Texas, but assured viewers it was expected.

“We have seen a spike in cases. We expected that,” Patrick said pointing to increased testing. “Our hospitalizations are up, but here’s the good news, the good news is we’re not seeing it translate to the ICU unit or into fatalities.”

You can read the rest if you want, but really, what you need to do is CLAP LOUDER!

There is one piece of good news:

The Trump administration reversed itself and extended support for testing sites in Texas on Friday.

The extension followed a public outcry after TPM revealed on Tuesday that federal help was set to end on June 30.

Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir said in a statement that his agency would support five testing sites in Texas for two weeks longer than initially planned.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and John Cornyn (R-TX) sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Thursday requesting an extension of support for the free, drive-through testing sites.

Local officials in Texas have spent weeks clamoring for the sites to be extended. The move comes as cases and hospitalizations in the state have skyrocketed, and as Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has paused the state’s reopening.

“Federal public health officials have been in continuous contact with our public health leaders in Texas, and after receiving yesterday’s request for an extension, have agreed to extend support for five Community-Based Testing Sites in Texas,” Giroir said in a statement. “We will continue to closely monitor COVID-19 diagnoses and assess the need for further federal support of these sites as we approach the extension date.”

See here for the background. It’s two weeks’ worth of good news, which isn’t enough but is better than nothing. Now let’s extend that out to infinity, or whenever we don’t need testing at scale, whichever comes first.

One more thing, just to hammer home the “it didn’t have to be this way” point:

Texas is also a wee bit larger than Taiwan, with less density and public transportation. They’re already playing baseball in Taiwan, have been for a few weeks now. I’m just saying.

Masks for Metro confirmed

It’s official.

Metro riders need to cover up to hop on, following a decision by the transit agency’s board Thursday to require masks on its buses and trains.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members approved the requirement at their monthly meeting Thursday morning, citing the need for all residents to protect themselves — and others — in public as COVID-19 cases in the Houston area increase.

“We owe an obligation to each other to treat our neighbors as we treat ourselves,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said. “In order to flatten the curve we have to take prudent steps.”

The requirement means all riders must wear face coverings, unless it is medically harmful to do so, while on buses and trains and at Metro transit stations and buildings. Workers and contractors also are required to wear masks. Anyone entering a Metro building also will need to have their temperature checked.

Metro drivers will have masks to provide to customers who do not have one, transit agency CEO Tom Lambert said.

[…]

For those who refuse to cover up, [Metro chief operations officer Andrew] Skabowski said, Metro drivers will work through a checklist, informing reticent riders that it is a requirement; if they do not wear a mask, the bus cannot proceed and a Metro supervisor will have to be called to arrange alternative transportation for them, which will take time to coordinate.

“From there, the patron typically either puts on the mask or walks away,” Skabowski said, adding that “peer pressure” on the bus can help diffuse the situation.

As drivers worked to encourage mask use over the past three days, Skabowski said only 10 refusals led to a supervisor being called. In each of those cases, the person either complied or left without seeking alternative transportation from Metro. In two cases, Metro police responded but did not take any action against the rider.

“We are not looking at civil or criminal penalties,” Lambert said.

See here for the background. How Metro has handled recalcitrant riders is exemplary and encouraging. And it really makes you wonder how much better off we’d be if this kind of social pressure to wear masks when out in public had existed at all levels of society. No point crying over spilled hydroxychloroquine, I guess.

So how safe are those driverless cars?

Safer than human-driven cars, but maybe not by as much as you might think.

A new study says that while autonomous vehicle technology has great promise to reduce crashes, it may not be able to prevent all mishaps caused by human error.

Auto safety experts say humans cause about 94% of U.S. crashes, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study says computer-controlled robocars will only stop about one-third of them.

The group says that while autonomous vehicles eventually will identify hazards and react faster than humans, and they won’t become distracted or drive drunk, stopping the rest of the crashes will be a lot harder.

“We’re still going to see some issues even if autonomous vehicles might react more quickly than humans do. They’re not going to always be able to react instantaneously,” said Jessica Cicchino, and institute vice president of research and co-author of the study.

The IIHS studied over 5,000 crashes with detailed causes that were collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, separating out those caused by “sensing and perceiving” errors such as driver distraction, impaired visibility or failing to spot hazards until it was too late. Researchers also separated crashes caused by human “incapacitation” including drivers impaired by alcohol or drugs, those who fell asleep or drivers with medical problems. Self-driving vehicles can prevent those, the study found.

However, the robocars may not be able to prevent the rest, including prediction errors such as misjudging how fast another vehicle is traveling, planning errors including driving too fast for road conditions and execution errors including incorrect evasive maneuvers or other mistakes controlling vehicles.

For example, if a cyclist or another vehicle suddenly veers into the path of an autonomous vehicle, it may not be able to stop fast enough or steer away in time, Cicchino said. “Autonomous vehicles need to not only perceive the world around them perfectly, they need to respond to what’s around them as well,” she said.

Just how many crashes are prevented depends a lot on how autonomous vehicles are programmed, Cicchino said. More crashes would be stopped if the robocars obey all traffic laws including speed limits. But if artificial intelligence allows them to drive and react more like humans, then fewer crashes will be stopped, she said.

I’ve been watching the Amazon series Upload (very funny, check it out), and one plot point in it is the death of two characters in separate autonomous vehicle crashes. Feels a bit more salient after reading this. This is more a model than a study, and it may well be that driverless cars do better, or eventually get to do better, than what this predicts. But one of the selling points of driverless cars is that they will be able to go faster and in denser traffic than human-driven cars can go, which will save time, allow for less road construction, and provide options for mass transit that are currently unthinkable. Those things are a whole lot less feasible if this model is accurate. Sure, a one-third drop in crashes would be excellent, but that’s not transformative. Under those assumptions, we’ll get the driverless cars, but other than not driving the overall experience won’t be much different.

Straight ticket voting lawsuit tossed

Not a big surprise.

A federal judge on Wednesday threw out Democrats’ effort to reinstate the straight-ticket voting option in Texas.

Siding with the state, U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo found that Democrats lacked standing to challenge Texas Republicans’ decision to kill straight-ticket voting ahead of the November general election. The judge dismissed the federal lawsuit after ruling that Democrats’ claims of the electoral fallout that could come from eliminating straight-ticket voting were too speculative.

The Texas Democratic Party — joined by the chair of the Webb County Democratic Party and the Democratic campaign arms of the U.S. Senate and House — filed the lawsuit in March on the heels of Super Tuesday voting that left some Texans waiting for hours to cast their ballots.

They claimed the elimination of straight-ticket voting is unconstitutional and intentionally discriminatory because the longer lines and waiting times it is expected to cause would be disproportionately felt at polling places that serve Hispanic and Black voters.

[…]

In her order, Garcia Marmolejo ruled that that Democrats’ predictions about the negative effects the lack of straight-ticket voting would have on voters and the election process were “uncertain to occur.” She also found fault with their assumptions that the Texas secretary of state and local officials would not work to “ameliorate the situation.”

Garcia Marmolejo also pointed to the likelihood that in-person voting would be transformed by the new coronavirus, which has led to long lines in other states where elections have already occurred during the pandemic, regardless of whether straight-ticket voting was eliminated.

“Considering the pandemic has already caused long lines at polling-places, many Texans will endure longer lines at polling places indefinitely, irrespective of any order issued by this Court,” she wrote. “And other Texans will experience shorter lines given that voters have been encouraged to steer clear from in-person voting where possible.”

See here for the background. I thought this case was weak, and I am not surprised by the ruling. I do find it ironic that the judge is citing vote by mail as a mitigation of the concerns raised by the plaintiffs. From your lips to John Roberts’ ears, Your Honor. Anyway, there’s still a lot of legal action going on out there. We’ll hope to get ’em next time.

Here comes the police task force

Now let’s see them do something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday announced the appointment of 45 people to a task force that will review Houston Police Department policies for potential reforms.

Laurence “Larry” Payne, a former staffer of Mayor Kathy Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, will chair the committee, which includes activists, academics, business leaders, law enforcement officials and clergy.

Among them: Judson Robinson III of the Houston Area Urban League; Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Laura Murillo; former criminal district court judge Marc Carter; George Ryne of the Texas Anti-Gang Center; and rapper Trae the Truth. The full list can be found here.

The task force is expected to bring recommendations in the next 60 days and to complete a report by Sept. 1, Turner said. Its work will invite widespread scrutiny from activists in the community who have pushed for far-reaching reforms and redirecting city funds away from police.

The launch of the working group was met with skepticism by some activists, who argued the city has studied the issue thoroughly in the past and that it is time for action.

“We believe it when we see it. Because we’ve never seen it,” said Tarsha Jackson, an advocate who formerly was the criminal justice director for the Texas Organizing Project.

See here for the background. There was more where that came from on Thursday.

More than 100 people called into a Houston city council committee meeting Thursday to demand that city leaders strengthen oversight of the police or dismantle the department altogether, as council members sought more information from law enforcement officials about potential reforms.

Among the hightlights: the Houston Police Department is not required to tell neighboring agencies when one of its recruits fails a psychological screening; and the chair of the Independent Police Oversight Board — one of the primary targets for reform among advocates and some elected officials — struggled to answer simple questions about how the board’s work could be improved.

Speaking in two-minute intervals, scores of residents challenged City Hall — often in harsh terms — to trade task forces and promises for direct, immediate action in the wake of protests over the death of Houstonian George Floyd. Their comments came a day after Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed the 45 members who will serve on his police reform task force, which generated widespread skepticism that continued Thursday into the committee meeting.

Roughly half the residents who called into the eight-hour meeting advocated for dismantling the police department, with some endorsing a strategy to strip a quarter of its funds every year for four years. They urged that those resources be diverted to other services, such as housing and health care. Other frequent targets included the oversight board; the negotiations underway for a new contract with the Houston Police Officers’ Union; and the department’s refusal to release body camera video and an audit of its narcotics division.

Skepticism is an entirely fair and rational response, and I say that as a supporter of Mayor Turner. I don’t know what this task force might come up with that hasn’t already been proposed, but at least we’ll find out in relatively short order. If I were advising Mayor Turner, I’d go back and review some of those things, and see which of them I could get implemented now, via another executive order or Council action. Maybe the value this task force can provide is by blunting the usual opposition to any meaningful change. Let’s just say the clock is running, and the case for decisive action will never be greater. Transform Houston has more.

We need to understand what we did wrong

So yeah, we need this.

Two of the nation’s most influential experts on the coronavirus pandemic, both based in Texas, are calling for an independent, nonpartisan investigation of the U.S. response to the novel coronavirus.

“We must prevent this from happening again,” said Gerald Parker, who directs the pandemic and biosecurity program at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Public Service. “This is not going to be our last pandemic.”

Peter Hotez, a Houston-based vaccine researcher and frequent commentator on cable news, noted that the current virus, SARS-CoV-2, is the third coronavirus to pose a major health threat in the last 20 years. And given that outbreaks had already wreaked havoc in China and Europe, U.S. public health systems were notably slow to respond.

“What hurt Wuhan was what hurt New York City,” said Hotez, “which is that virus transmission went on for six weeks before there was any public health intervention.”

In a videotaped interview with John Sharp, chancellor of The Texas A&M University System, Parker suggested an investigation modeled on the nonpartisan 9/11 Commission.

[…]

Hotez, who also participated in the interview with Sharp, said later that he feared a congressional panel would become “a political circus.” Instead he proposed a review by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Among the questions Hotez wants answered: How, for the whole month of February, did the U.S. miss evidence that the virus was already here? Given the crowding and high number of underlying conditions in low-income neighborhoods, what was done to prepare African-American and Hispanic communities in the early days? Why didn’t the CDC have a centralized epidemiological model, including models of cities and metropolitan areas? And how can the U.S. prepare for future epidemics?

For those who are fans of comparing government to business, this is a very standard business thing to do. Call it an after-action review, or a root cause analysis, or just a plain old audit, it really is vital to learn from experiences, good and bad, so that you can understand what happened and why it happened, and what you can do better next time. I think we can all agree that there is plenty to be learned from this saga, and we all owe it to ourselves to do that. I would hope that much is non-controversial.

But let’s be real, there’s no way to do this that won’t involve politics. You can put together the bluest of blue ribbon panels, staff it with the bona fidiest of experts, and stick entirely to a just-the-facts narrative, it’s still going to be political. That’s because the single biggest actor in this drama was Donald Trump, and his influence on the decisions made at the state and local level was entirely political. Any review that doesn’t do a thorough accounting of this isn’t worth the effort. If Republicans haven’t figured out that Trump’s mishandling of this is what’s killing them in the polls right now, I can’t help them, but I would think they’d want to help themselves. If we manage to get an all-Democratic government next year (please, please), I won’t really expect Republicans to like anything such a report would say. That’s shouldn’t be the point, or anyone’s concern. Do a thorough review, get all the facts out into the open, learn everything there is to be learned, and let the chips fall where they may.