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January, 2005:

When you gotta go…

There’s nothing wrong with doing a story about the availability of public toilets downtown. Doing such a story without mentioning that there are in fact public toilets downtown – indeed, doing such a story in such a way as to give the impression that there are no public toilets downtown – that’s not so good. But it’s what KHOU did this evening.

I’m talking about the downtown tunnel system, folks. You can’t tell from a street-level map, but once you’re in the tunnels, the maps they have down there very clearly mark where the various public facilities are. Oddly enough, all the Googling I did on “houston downtown tunnel” did not give me a single link that mentioned the presence of bathrooms in the tunnels, so KHOU missed an opportunity to educate here. Trust me on this – if you go in the tunnels, just look at a map there and you’ll find what you need.

The Pink Dome

You know, I was just saying to myself this morning that what the Texas political blogging scene really needs is a snarky Wonkette-style gossip blog centered around the Texas Lege. And lo, the fates have heard my plea. Thanks to Byron for the tip.

Still dreaming the impossible dream

Via Greg, I see there are two editorials discussing State Sen. Jeff Wentworth’s biennial quest to pass a bill that would take the chore of redistricting away from the Legislature and hand it to a balanced bipartisan commission. (His bill hasn’t been filed yet, or at least you can’t find it yet by doing a search for it. Out of curiosity, I called his office and was told it’s still being worked on.) I’m perfectly happy to see this happen, and if it does I hope his proposed commission is charged with ensuring that districts are compact and composed of communities of interest, but come on. There’s a reason things like this are called “quixotic”. The Republican leadership didn’t spend six months in 2003 carrying Tom DeLay’s water so that Jeff Wentworth could undo it all.

(Idle Machiavellian thought: Wentworth is up for reelection next year. Do you think DeLay and his cronies will threaten to have him primaried if he gets any traction? Wouldn’t surprise me, that’s for sure.)

I don’t want to let my pessimism detract from the rightness of this idea. The voters should be picking the representatives, not the other way around. One thing that really stuck out at me in Byron‘s post about Martin Frost’s effect on increasing Democratic performance in Dallas County was realizing that only one of five Congressional districts which contain a part of Dallas County is represented by a Democrat. Dallas was a fifty-fifty county last November, but the Congressional split is 4-1. I’ve never said that DeLay isn’t good at what he does, just that what he does isn’t good.

(For comparison purposes: Harris County’s delegation is 4-3 GOP, Bexar’s is 2-2, El Paso is 1-1, Tarrant is 4-0, and poor butchered Travis is 2-1.)

UPDATE: Byron notes in the comments that Wentworth was nearly knocked off in the primary in 2002:

JOHN H. SHIELDS REP 25,265 48.82% JEFF WENTWORTH(I) REP 26,481 51.17%

Wowser. May want to keep an eye on that for next year.

Your daily Heflin Challenge update

The Chron, which you may recall endorsed Talmadge Heflin for the November election, calls him the poorest loser and urges him to drop his electoral challenge against Rep. Hubert Vo.

I don’t know much about the International Labor Communications Association, but they have two interesting posts up regarding the details of the challenge hearing from last week. This one shows Andy Taylor’s retreat from the wild and ill-founded allegations of fraud that he was spreading around like grass seed as recently as a week ago, while this one concludes that when all is said and done, the revised count done by Discovery Master Will Hartnett will still result with Vo in the lead (latter link via Byron). Stay tuned.

Ashley McElhiney

I was shocked to look at my Sitemeter stats yesterday and see that I was getting thousands of hits from searches for Ashley McElhiney. Shoulda realized that could only mean she’s been in the news: She was fired after a bizarre on-court dispute with her team owner.

“I’m not going to comment on anything right now,” said McElhiney, the first female coach of a men’s pro basketball team. “We’re still trying to work things out. I’m on the phone with my agent right now.”

[Sally Anthony, a partner in the ownership group of the Nashville Rhythm] made national news when she fired McElhiney after an on-court dispute during a 110-109 win over the Kansas City Knights. The argument concerned the playing time of the team’s newest member, Matt Freije.

Playing under a two-game contract that has expired, Freije started and played most of the game despite Anthony’s orders to bench him.

Anthony approached McElhiney during the game and instructed her to bench Vanderbilt’s all-time leading scorer, who was recently released by the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats. McElhiney ignored the demand and Anthony was eventually restrained by security guards and taken off the floor.

After the game, Anthony addressed the team and gave them 24 hours to decide whether they would side with her or McElhiney.

None of the 10 players had contacted Anthony about the ultimatum, but in a statement released Sunday afternoon, the Rhythm’s Adam Sonn said the players were completely in the dark.

“She comes in and gives us this ultimatum, and we’re like – no disrespect intended – but this is all new to us. We hardly knew (Anthony).”

“I didn’t make it a hard deadline like it’s either you call in 24 hours or you’re out,” Anthony later said.

Check out the picture in that article. Looks like Sally Anthony has been taking lessons from the George Steinbrenner School of Sports Team Ownership.

More here and here. What a weird little story this is. I’m not going to claim there’s wisdom or virtue in defying one’s boss, but it’s not Ashley McElhiney who comes out of this looking bad. I thought she had a bright future when I first blogged about her, and I definitely still think that now.

Happy National Gorilla Suit Day!

Even if it is just a ploy by the gorilla suit manufacturers to sell more product. Mark Evanier will be your master of ceremonies for the day. Read more about this important national holiday here and here. Enjoy!

Too cold for beads

Mardi Gras Galveston has gotten off to a lukewarm start.

Tommie LeCroy, who owns a Louisiana-style grill called Bistro LeCroy, said his sales are down 40 percent compared to last year.

“It’s not been good at all,” said Lecroy, 56. “It’s too cold. I’m hoping tomorrow it’ll be warmer. If it warms up, everything goes great.

“The people just don’t drink that much beer and hurricanes when it’s cold.”

Lee Carter, a first-time beer vendor at the event, said he only sold 96 beers on Friday. He said he had hoped to sell more than 400 daily.

“Maybe it’s just the first weekend,” Carter said. “We need it to pick up.”

Temps are expected to be in the 40s and 50s for the next few days around here. I know that’s just breaking your heart up North.

At least someone is giving away a lot of product, whatever the crowd sizes may be.

Lynne Sassi said she believes attendance this year is down significantly. No figures were available late Saturday for Friday’s attendance.

The size of the crowd, however, hasn’t curbed the party mood on the Strand, she said.

“People are just begging for beads,” she said. “It’s been absolutely crazy.”

By early Saturday night, the Sassis already had run out of the 1,000 beaded necklaces they bought for $60 for the event’s opening weekend.

“Next weekend I’m spending $200 a night on beads,” Lynne Sassi said.

As Banjo notes, you don’t have to take your clothes off to get a boatload of beads. But a little flirting would help increase your odds (and your haul).

It’s in Hartnett’s hands

The next step in the Heflin challenge will be taken by Discovery Master Will Hartnett, who will issue his recommendations on Wednesday. Along the way, he rejected some bogus evidence presented by Team Heflin.

Hartnett, R-Dallas, ruled as irrelevant testimony by a Republican pollster who used calculations to project Heflin’s margin of victory.

Michael Baselice, an Austin-based pollster, testified Friday as an expert witness for Heflin.

Heflin’s lawyers said he would win by five votes, based on their analysis of 91 ballots cast by allegedly ineligible voters who have been willing to reveal their votes.

Baselice used a mathematical analysis, known as extrapolation, to determine that Heflin’s margin of votes would increase when applied to the remaining 250 potentially illegal ballots that were cast and counted.

“It’s a projection of a known quantity,” Baselice said. “It gives us an idea about how these may end up.”

Under cross-examination, Baselice acknowledged that what he did was “nothing more than middle school math.” He also said that he knew nothing about the votes, other than the percentage breakdown Heflin’s lawyers gave him.

Of course, we could have taken the evidence that three out of four illegal voters interviewed by the Chron had voted for Heflin, and extrapolated a much larger margin of victory for Vo. It would have been as scientific. Even if you could somehow claim this was a representative sample, the margin of error for a sample of 91 with a population of 40,000 is 10.26% (it’s 8.61% for a sample of 129; see below), which would make it a useless predictor for anything else. Why Team Heflin thought this was relevant evidence is beyond me.

For some odd reason, this story gives a different total in Baselice’s sample:

Taylor got sworn statements from 129 of the 250 people who cast what he says were illegal votes. Of those, 86 said they voted for Vo and 43 for Heflin.

Taylor argued that meant Heflin won the election by 10 votes.

Larry Veselka, one of Vo’s attorneys, said Taylor’s numbers show Vo winning by 37 votes.

As each vote was scrutinized over the past two days, attorneys argued over its legality. Hartnett made occasional comments, sometimes agreeing with one side and sometimes the other. He often said he would have to return to a specific vote.

At one point he told attorneys that “you’re asking me to assume an awful lot here.”

“No one knows for sure what he’s thinking,” said Rick Gray, one of Vo’s attorneys. “He’s giving everyone a fair shake.”

I don’t understand the reason for the discrepancy, but whatever – it was baloney either way. I’m just glad to hear that Team Vo has faith in Hartnett.

Finally, a quick hit from the Morning News.

Defeated GOP Rep. Talmadge Heflin continued his vanity bid Thursday, telling the Texas House why representatives should invalidate his loss to Democrat Hubert Vo. We remind you that this election has been through a few recounts already. And even some Republicans think Mr. Heflin has no business asking the House to throw out his loss. Most of all, we think the last thing the House needs is a partisan sideshow. The redistricting battles of 2003 split the place up enough. It’s time to heal and move on.


And then there were three in HD121

One of the two Republicans in the special election for HD 121 has dropped out and will endorse the other, though his name will remain on the ballot.

“I believe that the Democrats are waging a very strong campaign, and I do not want even one vote displaced for a Republican in that district,” said [Glen] Starnes, a financial adviser.

The election is Feb. 5; early voting runs through Tuesday.

Starnes, 39, was one of two Republicans seeking the seat. The other, Joe Straus III, already has garnered key endorsements from elected area leaders, including U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth and County Commissioner Lyle Larson.

Starnes said he plans to add his name to the list of endorsements and actively campaign for Straus, 45.

Because the ballots already have been printed, Starnes’ name will remain on the ballot, and his vote totals will be reported election night, said officials with the Bexar County Elections Department.

Also on the ballot are Democrat Rose Spector, 71, and independent Paul Silber, 80.

In 2002, total turnout in this district was 49.2%, with about 41,000 ballots cast. Former Rep. Jones, running unopposed, got about 30,000 votes. In 2004, she got 47,000 votes out of 66,000 cast. At a wild guess, I’d peg purnout for this special election in the 5-10% range, or between 4000 and 8000 total votes. Under those conditions, as we’ve said before, anything can happen. Making sure people know to vote, and getting them out to vote, will be everything. Click here if you want to help Rose Spector do that.

Plastic surgery tax

From the Creative Revenue Streams Department:

Lawmakers trying to plump up the bottom line are considering a “vanity tax” on cosmetic surgery and Botox injections in Washington, Illinois and other states.


The tax would not apply to reconstructive surgery for, say, burn victims or women who have undergone mastectomies.

In September, New Jersey became the first and so far the only state to tax plastic surgery, at 6 percent. The tax is projected to bring in $25 million a year.

In Illinois, the state comptroller has proposed a 6 percent tax on cosmetic surgery to create a stem cell research institute. If the Legislature approves, the question could be put to the voters in 2006.

In California, the very capital of cosmetic surgery, such procedures are tax-free.

Melissa Wilson, executive director of the Texas Society of Plastic Surgeons, said that, so far, Texas lawmakers have not suggested such a tax here. However, with other states considering it, Texas may not be far behind, she said. “We know because of the school finance issue that legislators will be looking for any and all sources of income,” Wilson said, adding that the society opposes the tax.

Man. We could fix the school finance system on the revenue generated from Houston alone.

Jokes aside, the point here is that the service side of our economy grows, proposals to tax portions of it will increase. Sooner or later, some legislator will realize that services as a whole should be treated as goods have always been and propose an overall change to his or her state’s sales tax structure. And really, why should lipstick be taxed but not liposuction? Why tires but not tuneups? We’ve had some preliminary discussion on this in Texas, and I daresay it will get a longer look this time around.

Building influence

Here’s an interesting article from the This Week section of the Chron regarding an acrimonious and public battle between a disgruntled homebuyer named Jordan Fogal and the builder who constructed her house, Tremont Homes. The basics of the feud involve claims of defects with the house, a demand to have it bought back by Tremont, and a refusal to use binding arbitration, which is a standard part of most new-home contracts. I’m in no position to judge who’s right and who’s wrong, but I think the following illustrates pretty clearly why many people don’t trust the arbitration process, and why I have a fair bit of sympathy for them.

[William S. Chesney, III, a lawyer for Tremont] said groups like [Homeowners for Better Building, or HOBB] have a skewed view of the arbitration process and in doing so, convince people like [Jordan] Fogal that what they need to do is force builders into buying back a home instead of getting to the bottom of the problem and fixing it.

“It’s customary, if not exclusive, to have arbitration provisions both for homeowners and builders to get quicker and more expedient resolutions to what would otherwise be a 2-3 year court process,” Chesney said. “HOBB thinks 12 people on a jury is better than an independent arbitrator. (Fogal) found HOBB, and HOBB said, ‘This is the position you need to take,’ so she did.

“When she started having some problems, she quickly went to ‘buy back my $360,000 house.’ ”

Said [Charles Turet, another lawyer for Stature and Tremont], “HOBB likes the emotion of 12 people who don’t have any real knowledge of the situation over an impartial arbitrator who isn’t going to be swayed by the emotional argument and is just going to look at facts and determine the best and easiest way to solve the situation.”

Turet, along with being a lawyer for Tremont and Stature, is also an arbitrator for [American Arbitrators Association, or AAA].

Let’s start with the baseless attack on civil juries, something that I’ve noted before. Just once, I’d like to see a reporter ask someone who offers such an opinion if they hold similar feelings about juries in criminal trials. It’s not as if prosecutors haven’t played on the odd emotion or two in search of convictions, yet somehow no one credible seems to think that we ought to scrap that system in favor of judge-only trials. Attacking juries like this is cynical, dishonest, and really quite insulting, since after all everyone reading this is a potential juror. That this now seems to be a standard talking point for the homebuilding industry certainly doesn’t give me any faith in their preferred system of arbitration.

But what really gets me is the last quoted sentence. The lawyer for the builders is also an arbitrator for the AAA, which is the group used to rule on these builder/buyer disputes. If you were brought up on criminal charges, how much faith would you have in getting a fair trial if the judge were an assistant district attorney? Yet here we have an attorney for the homebuilders who also rules on disputes involving homebuilders. Why should anyone outside the industry have any reason to trust this? Remember, restricting access to the courts is something that builders have actively lobbied for, and one of the extra rewards they got for their efforts (and campaign contributions) was a seat on the Texas Residential Construction Commission, the governing body that sets the rules for how these disputes get resolved (see here and here). So again I ask, why should anyone trust this?

As I said, for all I know in this particular instance, the buyer has been irrational and the builder has acted in good faith every step of the way. Without knowing for sure that that’s the case, though, it’s hard for me to sympathize with the builder.

Stuart Rothenberg

In the matter of Stuart Rothenberg versus MyDD (see here, here, and here), I come down firmly on Jerome and Chris’ side. Greg went and saved me the time of writing most of what I think needed to be said about this. The strategy he discusses of recruiting Party Builder types to fill out the slates in low-return districts is one he and I have talked about at some lenghth, and it’s something I fully endorse.

There are a few things I’d like to add to this conversation. One has to do with something Jesse Lee says in response to Greg’s post:

Nobody at the DCCC is stopping [the Party Builders] from running. If there is such a person in every district, who is willing to do all that and much more (forget weekends, running for Congress is full time, so give up your income; having their name dragged through the mud, etc.), then please do come forth, as we would certainly prefer a candidate in every district as well. We don’t appoint candidates, we help recruit when we can, but we can not just “trot out 70 year old former State Supreme Court Justices” as Greg suggests for state races. We cannot “trot out” anybody in fact, as they need to consent to giving up their lives. We also do not maintain any monopoly on recruitment, encouraging candidates to run is open to all, from bloggers to state party chairs.

Jesse’s right – candidate recruitment is everyone’s responsibility. Frankly, this is an area where I’d like to see the DFA-type activist wing take more ownership. This is exactly the sort of cause that’s well-suited for rabble-rousing change-the-world idealists. You have the power, as someone once said.

There are a few things the DCCC could do to help grease the skids for this sort of thing. Both Chris and Jerome have suggested creating a pool of seed money to get these candidates started. Ten grand a pop to cover filing fees and startup costs for a hundred or so races (incumbents and those who can raise their own money don’t need this help) would probably be enough, and would I think give you a pretty decent return on the relatively small investment. Providing domain names and web hosting, plus some professional-looking templates for campaign sites that could be easily and quickly set up would be very helpful. If you really want to make a long-term investment, how about a national candidates’ school to train potential nominees in the basics of campaign reality? Such a thing may already exist, but how many people who aren’t already a candidate know about it and could get in on it if they thought they might want to give it a try? Some of these things could also be done at the state level, too.

An objection I’ve heard to this run-every-race idea is that by funding the Don and Donna Quixotes of the world, we’d be taking money away from the races we could win. I disagree with the premise that the amount of money available to a political party and its candidates is static and zero-sum. If we learned anything from the Year Of The Online Campaign, it’s that by reaching out to folks who haven’t been reached out to previously, we can grow the pie higher. Remember all those articles from 2003 which talked about President Bush’s insurmountable fundraising advantage? I’m not saying that there’s an unlimited amount of moolah out there waiting to be plucked, but I sure don’t believe we’ve reached the bottom of the well.

Rothenberg himself subscribes to that fixed-amount thesis when he writes:

Last cycle, Markos Moulitsas (whose Web bio does not mention any campaign experience) of Daily Kos promoted a number of Democratic House candidates, including Missouri’s Jim Newberry and Ohio’s Jeff Seeman and Ben Konop as good targets for fundraising assistance. Newberry drew 28 percent of the vote against Rep. Roy Blunt (R), while Seeman hauled in 33 percent against Rep. Ralph Regula (R). Konop topped the trio, taking 41 percent against Rep. Mike Oxley (R).

All three races were unwinnable from day one for the Democrats, so raising cash for those challengers was about as useful as flushing money down the toilet.

I won’t dispute the notion that it would have been foolish for the DCCC to divert money from more competitive races into these campaigns, but that isn’t what happened anyway and it isn’t what Kos was aiming to do with his adopted standard bearers. I daresay that the folks who raised a fair bit of the cash these candidates took in came from people who by and large would not have given that money to anyone else. I’m speculating here, but maybe some of those same first-time donors, having come to realize that even their little bit can help make a difference, also made donations to more “serious” candidates, and maybe some (most? all?) of them will now be receptive to giving again in 2006. If so, I call that an investment, not a waste.

(By the way, something Rothenberg doesn’t tell you: In 2002, Blunt’s opponent got 23 percent of the vote, while Regula’s got 31 percent and Oxley’s got 32. Sometimes it takes more than one cycle to beat an entrenched incumbent. Just ask Congresswoman Melissa Bean.)

The difference between a visionary and a crank isn’t always in the vision itself. Sometimes it’s in the execution of that vision. We may all be pie-in-the-sky idealists over here, but please wait until after the 2006 elections to see if we’re visionaries or cranks.

Rock revived

Rock music is back in Houston, and it’s even a little ahead of schedule.

In a not-so-subtle jab at KLOL, which for 35 years billed itself as “The Texas Rock ‘n’ Roll Authority” before switching to a Spanish hip-hop/reggaeton music format aimed at a young Latino audience two months ago, the new station’s call letters are KIOL.

At noon Thursday, Cumulus Media flipped the former KRWP-FM Power 97.5 urban contemporary station to Rock 97.5. The first song played was AC/DC’s For Those About to Rock (We Salute You).

The station is led by radio veteran Pat Fant, who managed KLOL in its heyday from 1983 until 1995, when he introduced the Buzz alternative music format at KTBZ-FM (94.5).

“This town is too big, too fast, too fantastic not to have a real rock station,” Fant told an excited crowd at a launch party at the Fox Sports Grill.

Former KLOL personalities Jim Pruett and Dayna Steele Justiz were among those in the audience. Pruett said he is negotiating with the new station to helm a midday show.

Rumors were flying that the station hopes to sign former KLOL disc jockeys Outlaw Dave and the morning duo of Walton & Johnson when their non-compete clauses expire in the next few months.

Fant said no contact has taken place with the former KLOL DJs, but “when this talent is free to negotiate, my phone is always open, and I’m eager to talk.”

I listened to 97.5 on the way in. So far, so good. I’m hoping they’re a little less metal and (at least) a little more innovative than KLOL was, but this leads me to believe I’ll be disappointed. Oh, well. I won’t tune in to Walton and Johnson, but for now their DJ-free style is just fine.

The hearings

Lawyers for Talmadge Heflin and Hubert Vo had their day in the House yesterday.

Heflin’s lawyer, Andy Taylor, maintains that Vo’s “razor close” victory margin was decided by illegal ballots, and that the election otherwise would have gone to Heflin.

Taylor said he contacted 129 voters who cast ineligible ballots and agreed to reveal their votes, and that Heflin would have won by 10 votes if the ineligible ballots hadn’t been counted.

But Vo’s lawyer, Larry Veselka, said his examination of the ballots increased Vo’s margin of victory to 37 votes.

Taylor, who previously has alleged fraud in the election, toned down that language Thursday, saying only that there were “serious and deep flaws.”

Most errors resulted from actions of unspecified election officials, Veselka said.

“It should be clear what we have at stake here,” he said. “We don’t have voter fraud, but honest mistakes by people living busy lives.”

He said Taylor failed to seek enough evidence to prove that the election results should be overturned.


[Rep. Will] Hartnett, the presiding lawmaker, appeared skeptical of arguments by both sides.

“You are asking me to assume an awful lot,” he said during discussion of the eligibility of one voter. “There’s no clear evidence in all of this. It’s muddied up.”

In considering a dispute over whether signatures on an Election Day list indicated a double vote, he said: “It’s suspicious, but it seems to me we are speculating. At best we have sloppy activity.”

If that sounds like good news for Team Vo, Rick Casey would agree with you.

As the lawyers began arguing over individual cases, Hartnett made it clear he was holding Taylor and Heflin to a tough standard.

Under the law, evidence must be “clear and compelling” in order to throw out a vote as illegal. As Vo lawyer Larry Veselka put it, that is higher than the “preponderance of evidence” needed to decide ordinary lawsuits but lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” of criminal trials.

Here’s an example of Hartnett’s use of the standard.

Both sides agreed that scores of voters had voted illegally, mostly because they had moved. Often they were mistakenly told by election officials that they could vote at their old precincts.

In those cases, their votes would be subtracted if it could be determined for whom they voted. They were sent written questionnaires with questions from both attorneys, and signed them in front of a notary.

In one case a voter testified that he voted the straight Democratic ticket. But in a later question he was asked if he possibly voted for Heflin. He answered “Don’t know.”

It is possible, on the electronic ballots used, to push a button for the straight ticket but to then vote for individuals of the other party down-ballot.

Veselka argued that the voter may have done that. Taylor argued that it was pretty clear that “straight ticket” meant “straight ticket.”

Master Hartnett responded: “My inclination is that under ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ yes. But ‘clear and convincing? No.”

So far, so good. I don’t think I or any other Vo supporter will truly breathe easily until we receive Hartnett’s final recommendations, though.

Finally, this wouldn’t be our Lege if there weren’t an element of unintentional comedy.

Heflin has fellow Houstonian, former legislator and lawyer Ron Wilson on his side. Wilson, a Democrat who lost the primary race in March, said he offered his services — for free — to Heflin because “it just so happened that he’s the one that came out on the bottom.”

They sure don’t make the downtrodden like they used to, do they?

We’re Number 22!

A hundred and sixty thousand new jobs in Texas! That’s so great! Well, until you read the fine print. Lasso explains, here and here.

Round One for Star Bock

StarBock beer has survived a motion for summary judgment in the trademark lawsuit filed against it by Starbucks.

U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Kent issued his decision over the weekend and filed his response with the court Monday, denying all of the requests by the global coffee corporation.

Starbucks delivered a massive, 7-pound volume of legal paperwork to the judge on Dec. 23, citing myriad examples from other well-known trademark cases, and asking him to declare a partial summary judgment or summary adjudication.

The case pits the Seattle-based company against Rex Bell, owner of the Old Quarter Acoustic Café. Bell sells Star Bock Beer from a draught keg at his Galveston bar, a product that Starbucks claims infringes on its well-known worldwide brand.

Bell received approval from the federal trademark office for his beer, but Starbucks opposed the ruling, saying it had subsequently filed its own trademark request regarding its plan to sell coffee-flavored liqueur. Bell’s lawyer countered that move in November 2004 by formally opposing Starbucks’ own distilled spirits trademark.

Kent’s ruling puts the onus on Starbucks to clearly prove in court that Bell’s beer infringes on their trademark.

“Defendants (Starbucks) have not produced evidence of actual economic harm,” Kent wrote in his decision. “The issues of trademark dilution and trademark infringement present nuances of fact best left for trial. Because genuine issues of material fact remain as to each claim, summary judgment is not appropriate.”

One for the good guys. Fight on, Rex.

“Oh, no, there goes Tokyo”

Go, go to see Godzilla, this weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The original Godzilla returns to the big screen in this restored print featuring 40 minutes of previously unseen footage. When the sea erupts, a Japanese steamer sinks in flames, a rescue ship disappears, and a few incoherent survivors babble about a monster! This first Godzilla is truly terrifying—a 30-story Jurassic behemoth intent on destroying the city: an exquisitely detailed miniature Tokyo created by special-effects genius Eiji Tsubaraya. Godzilla is one of the great films by sci-fi master Ishirô Honda (Akira Kurosawa´s close friend and occasional second unit director).

Looks like Pete may have picked the wrong time to go to Sundance.

Another step forward for the Grand Parkway

The expansion of the Grand Parkway from a little state highway in Katy to a zillion-mile mega-loop took another step forward this week.

Despite pleas from Spring residents who oppose the road, Commissioners Court gave the Harris County Toll Road Authority permission Tuesday to spend $5.6 million to plot the route of a possible toll road in the north part of the county.

The county has not committed to building the road, which would be part of the Grand Parkway, a 182-mile super loop around Houston that has been planned for decades.

Before we go any further on this, the phrase “It’s been in the works for years” has been used to brush aside opposition to outlandish schemes like this one many times. Usually what that means is that the developers, speculators, owners of otherwise-worthless land that would need to be bought up, and anyone else with a piece of the pie at stake has been what-iffing about it for years, and now they’ve finally got a sympathetic audience with the powers that be.

The county is looking at a possible 52-mile tollway from Interstate 10 on the west side to U.S. 59 near Porter. The expenditure approved Tuesday was to plot 40 miles from U.S. 290 to U.S. 59.

Most opposition involves a 14-mile section between Texas 249 and Interstate 45, said Commissioner Jerry Eversole, whose Precinct 4 includes much of the area where the road would be built.

One plan calls for this section to be built through the Forest North and Mossy Oaks subdivisions in Spring. The highway would pass within about 1,000 feet of Klein High School and cut across Northwood Catholic’s ball field.

Opponents say the toll road would do little or nothing to alleviate congestion on local roads.

Of course it won’t alleviate congestion on local roads. That’s not what it’s designed to do. Look at the map – it’s designed to get people from Katy to the Woodlands and thereabouts. If you’re in Spring and want to get to one of those places it ought to help you, but getting around Spring itself? Forget it.

Anne, who lives in Spring, is unhappy about this proposal, and points to some useful discussion of alternatives that might actually benefit Spring. She also notes that the folks in my neighborhood got better treatment from the County Commissioners after the ridiculous Heights toll road idea was floated. True enough, but remember, we’ve got other road-expansion threats to deal with as well.

(UPDATE: To be clear, Anne’s criticism was aimed County Judge Robert Eckels. I don’t think I had conveyed that notion properly.)

I’m actually amazed at how many grassroots opposition groups there are to this project. It’s got to be a bit tough to do, since this monster road passes through so many areas, with so many politicians to lobby about it. More info can be found in this Houston Architecture Forum thread.

One last thing:

County officials rejected state Sen. Jon Lindsay’s offer to work for the county as a consultant who would try to persuade north Harris County developers to donate land for the project.

Lindsay, a Republican who represents much of the area where the segment would be built, has long supported the Grand Parkway.

He said he met last year with 14 developers who own land between Texas 249 and I-45. About 10 of the developers agreed to donate land to the county for the toll road, Lindsay said.

With that land, the toll road could have been built without traversing as many Spring residential areas as called for under TxDOT plans, he said.

Lindsay said he met with [Commissioner Jerry] Eversole and other officials in the fall and tried to sell them on hiring him as a consultant.

He would have asked the county to pay him about $5,000 or $6,000 a month for his services, Lindsay said.

“I told them I was not going to do it gratis. It was too much work,” he said.

County officials balked at the proposal, saying it could appear to be improper for the county to hire a state senator to lobby developers who were his business acquaintances or friends and who would benefit from the highway’s construction, Lindsay said. “I did not understand where the conflict of interest was, just because I was a senator,” he said.

Most politicians have the grace to leave office before they cash in on their connections like that. You almost have to admire Sen Lindsay’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Testimony begins in Heflin-Vo case

It’s showtime today in the Heflin-Vo election contest, and you can add Select Committee on Election Contests Chair Terry Keel to the list of Republicans making reasonable public statements about the whole thing.

“You are going to have to have a high level of commitment to integrity and fairness and honesty, and your pursuit of those duties is likely not to ever, in any instance, make people happy,” said Keel, a legislator since 1997. “It’s more likely to always make somebody unhappy.”


Activists from both parties tried to influence lawmakers, but Keel said there’s too much at stake for those efforts to work.

Some questions have been raised about Keel’s role as chairman because he was the treasurer of the Stars Over Texas political action committee, which raised money last year for Republicans in tight election contests. The committee did not give money to Heflin’s campaign, though Heflin once gave money to the group.

Keel said his connection to the group should not cause concern because members regularly help their parties win seats.

Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said he’s confident Keel will be fair because he knows him well. But he said Craddick should have appointed a committee chairman who did not have such visible ties to a group such as Stars Over Texas. “Why set up a situation where these are questions that can be asked?” said Dunnam, who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.


Keel said the House rarely calls for a new election and usually decides to seat the person who was declared the winner on Election Day. But he said history will not determine what happens this time.

“The integrity of the House is the bottom line here,” he said. “Consideration of party label or friendship or any other feelings on this matter have to give way to the law and evidence and the standards that we operate under.”

Actions speak louder than words, Terry. That’s ultimately how we’ll judge you.

Discovery Master Will Hartnett is also joining the chorus.

“I’m concerned about the use of the word fraud based on what I have seen so far,” Hartnett said, adding that he views fraud as intentional misdeeds by individuals seeking to thwart an election. “I’m going to be emphatic on determining what evidence there is of fraud.”

If actual fraud is the standard, then there’s just no way Heflin wins. We’re talking about 200 or so apparently honest mistakes in an election of 40,000 votes cast, which is to say one half of one percent of the votes. Remember, even Andy Taylor has said there wasn’t any fraud. What else is there to say?

Well, there’s this:

Amy Wong Mok, an Austin businesswoman and community activist, says Asians here and abroad are closely following this case. The outcome, she believes, could have long-lasting effects on the overall political landscape of Texas – home to the fourth-largest Asian population in the country. “If they take away Hubert Vo,” said Mok, “Asian-Americans are going to be very angry for the next two generations. It would be a slap in the face.” Mok, a former candidate for Austin City Council who leans Democratic, says the state GOP will have a hard time justifying itself to those Asians who traditionally vote Republican. “Many different Asian organizations are united behind Hubert Vo,” she said. “As we see it, this is about arrogance … it’s about not accepting defeat gracefully.”

Gracefulness has been markedly absent so far, that’s for sure.

Three further items. First, from the Chron story:

Michael Baselice, an Austin-based Republican pollster, will testify as an expert witness for Heflin. University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray and Waco economist Ray Perryman will testify for Vo.

Baselice isn’t just any Republican pollster, he’s Rick Perry’s pollster. Consider that another strand of evidence as to where Perry stands on this issue. The AusChron article says that some people believe Perry would be happy to have the election contest derail school finance reform so that the courts have to do the dirty work (and get the blowback for it). Make of that what you will.

Speaking of the AusChron story:

“I have no numbers to back this up, but the ‘Rs’ have already been hurt in Texas by this effort to seat Heflin,” said Kelly Fero, chief strategist for Take Back Texas, a sister organization of the state Democratic Party. Fero points out that Rep. Martha Wong, R-Houston, the first Asian-American woman elected to the Texas Legislature, is herself vulnerable and could lose her next re-election bid – “with help from the Asian community.” Rep. Joe Nixon, another Houston Republican, could also draw a challenger, already identified as attorney Robert Pham, a Vietnamese-American with a compelling success story like Vo’s, Fero said.

I’ve heard a rumor about a different potential challenger to Nixon, also a person of Vietnamese heritage. That’s all I can say at this time.

Finally, The Red State notes that today is also when committee and committee chair assignments will be announced. This is where Democrats will pay the price for last session’s Ardmore walkout. Regrettable, but not unexpected.

UPDATE: Greg tunes into the webcast of the hearings and commences banging his head against the wall.

Martin Frost DNC interview

Whether you’ve got a favored candidate in mind for DNC Chair or not, I highly recommend this interview with Martin Frost. Frost gave what I think are the right answers to these questions, and though he certainly could be telling us what he knows we want to hear, his stock has risen in my eyes. If nothing else, his promise that Texas won’t be forgotten by the national party means a lot. Southpaw gives it a thumbs-up; Annatopia will offer her thoughts later. Check it out.

It’s your turn, Jacksonville

Oh, Jacksonville. We here in Houston feel your pain.

Via Banjo Jones. It still puzzles me how a city with as many topless clubs as Houston could fail to appeal to a bunch of sportswriters travelling on expense accounts, but there you go. Who knew they were all such aesthetes?

Checking in on Rose Spector

Geez, this special election for the open HD121 is less than ten days away, and early voting is already going on. Here’s a little news roundup for you:

Ken Rodriguez says that in a race this short you’ve gotta have some juice to win.

In a race that begins and ends so quickly, you have almost no chance to win unless you’re anointed to win. Which means you need the blessing of the prominent and the powerful.

The anointed one appears to be [Joe] Straus. In a heavily Republican district, Straus has the support of influential GOP leaders, including U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith.

Though Jones has not publicly endorsed a successor, her family is putting up yard signs for Straus.

While appearing before the Express-News Editorial Board on Monday, Straus noted his friendship with Jones and cited relationships with legislators in Austin.

Also helping Straus is Frank Guerra, a Republican consultant who worked on President Bush’s campaign.

Even with strong GOP support, Straus says he isn’t counting on an easy victory. “Rose Spector is a formidable opponent,” he says. “She’s working hard. So am I.”


Spector knows that Straus is the heavy favorite. “People say I don’t have a prayer,” she notes.

But Spector also believes she can overcome the GOP anointing that makes Straus the front-runner.

“When I ran for judge, every time I did well in this district,” she says. “I have beaten two Republican incumbents.”

You’d think having a seasoned operative like Frank Guerra on your team would help you avoid bush-league errors. You’d be wrong.

[The] Bexar County Democratic Party [has] lodged an ethics complaint against Republican candidate Joe Straus III.

The complaint, filed Monday, claims Straus, a first-time candidate, sent out campaign materials without the “paid for by” disclaimer required by law.

Straus’ campaign said the omission was an inadvertent error on a small batch of campaign fliers and that all his other materials carry the message.

“When you’re dealing with an extremely compressed campaign and you have so little time to get out so many materials, you’re bound to have little things happen,” said Frank Guerra, a well-known Republican consultant advising Straus.

Try giving better advice next time, Frank.

What kind of legislator would Joe Straus be? Here’s a hint.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, endorsed Texas House hopeful and longtime supporter Joe Straus III at the opening of the candidate’s campaign headquarters Sunday.


Straus has been involved in many Republican campaigns, but this is his first run for elected office. He served as campaign manager for Smith’s first congressional campaign in 1986.

“If there was ever a role model for a young legislator, it’s Lamar Smith,” Straus said. “He does the hard work of legislation without seeking the spotlight.”

Great choice of role model, Joe.

If you think the Lege doesn’t need any more of Tom DeLay’s waterboys in it, consider giving Rose Spector a hand. Click the More link for a message from Richard Morrison regarding this race (courtesy of Byron.


The decline and fall of the Illinois GOP

Very interesting read about how the implosion of the Republican Party in Illinois was a long time in coming, even before Alan Keyes showed up to lecture everyone. I daresay there may be a lesson or two in there for folks of both major parties here in Texas. Check it out. Via your one-stop shop for all things Illinois, Archpundit.

One more day till the Heflin-Vo hearing

The end of Talmadge Heflin’s crusade to regain his seat can’t come soon enough for the voters who have been singled out by Heflin and Andy Taylor.

Ignatius Okeze has been voting since he became a citizen in 1998 — same neighborhood, same precinct.

“Of course I’m proud that I can make a contribution through the voting process,” Okeze said.

But in the contest between Hubert Vo and Talmadge Heflin, Okeze’s vote was one of those called into question and he is none too happy.

“I am knowledgeable about the voting process. I know who I am voting for. I know the values I stand for. And I voted correctly,” Okeze insisted. “I’ve been voting for years now.”

He wouldn’t tell questioners who he voted for. That is not the way it’s done he says.


The last thing Manu Patel says he wants is another election. Way too much taxpayer money he says.

“Fixing the roads, there are a lot of other things they can do, you know, for the people,” said Patel.

The good news is that at least some Republican House members are not making with the crazy talk, which is a nice contrast to their Party leadership.

“I’m trying to go into it with an open mind,” said Rep. Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon, who won his first election by 350 votes, “but I’m pretty well convinced that the voters are never wrong, unless something went seriously wrong.”

If the case were to go strictly along party lines, Mr. Heflin would win his contest because the committee and the House have a Republican majority.

But just about everybody agrees that the politics are on Mr. Vo’s side. Democrats can’t lose: If Mr. Vo’s election is upheld, they’ve gained a rising star and secured their first House gain in 30 years. If he loses, they can cry that power-hungry Republicans are defying the voters.

Republicans, however, are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Houston GOP Rep. Gary Elkins said he’s gotten some e-mails from constituents asking him to consider the evidence seriously.

But unlike his party leaders, Mr. Elkins hasn’t decided what the evidence proves. Several House Republicans said the burden is heavy on Mr. Heflin, and he would have to prove outright election-rigging among the 44,000 ballots cast.

“I just don’t see us overturning the will of the people,” Mr. Elkins said. “I’d have to see the evidence, of course, but unless there’s blatant and undeniable fraud, I don’t see it. We’ve never overturned an election and handed the seat to someone [other than the winner]. I don’t see what’s going to be different this time around.”

I’m glad to hear you say that. I just hope that attitude is prevalent among your colleagues.

On the editorial side of things, the Star Telegram bends over backwards to be fair to Heflin, but still draws a line.

Finally, while House members must give Heflin every chance to prove his case and must not let an improper election stand, they cannot ignore the hazards of public perception. They are judging a contest brought by a once very powerful Republican to a Republican-controlled legislative body. Nothing but a clear and convincing case will avoid a perception of political cronyism if this election is set aside.

This is Heflin’s case to prove. If he is able to do so, clearly and convincingly, he asks that the House seat him instead of Vo. Alternatively, he asks for a new election.

If House members are convinced that action is necessary — and that is far from clear at this point — sending the contest back to a new vote in District 149 is as far as they should go.

I’m sure Heflin realizes he won’t win a do-over election, which is why he’s pushing so hard to be declared the winner. Will he win over the Hardcastles and Elkinses? Tune in tomorrow.

The Smartest Guys at Sundance

Apparently, the new Enron documentary is knocking ’em dead at Sundance.

With moonlight drenching the ski slopes outside the theater Saturday night, a collection of about 150 viewers, many with connections to the film, watched the premiere of the nearly two-hour distillation of the people-driven saga of the Houston company.

While paparazzi scoured Main Street for a look at Elijah Wood, Lisa Kudrow, Michael Keaton and Sidney Poitier, the stars of the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, are ex-Chairman Ken Lay and ex-CEO Jeff Skilling. That’s the way director/producer/writer Alex Gibney wanted it. “Jeff Skilling plays Jeff Skilling,” Gibney said.


The picture, with multiple screenings that sold out quickly here, is by no means all fun. It soberly deals with mark-to-market accounting, rank-and-yank management style and the heartbreak of an Oregon electrical lineman whose company Enron swallowed and whose $348,000 retirement stockpile collapsed into a $1,200 shadow of itself.


It’ll be at least late April before the movie opens in theaters.

Then a national audience will get to see this overview of the scandal made more amusing with a clip of Homer Simpson on a roller coaster called Enron’s Ride of Broken Dreams, Marilyn Manson music backing footage of wild motorcycle rides like those Enron’s executives used to take, and the by-now-obligatory topless-club footage thanks to the ex-exec who married a stripper.

Speaking for all Houstonians, I just hope they gave Wayne Dolcefino a cameo in that last segment. And I also hope that Pete can tear himself away from the schmoozing, hot tubs, and near beer long enough to review this flick for us.

Gaddie on the re-redistricting review

Keith Gaddie, who commented on the reconsideration of the 2003 re-redistricting case here, has a guest post at BOR in which he expands on his initial remarks. He thinks the key to the review may not be the Pennsylvania Vieth case, but the Georgia Larios case. Check it out.

One quibble I have with Professor Gaddie:

In Texas, the old maps made a minority of votes into a majority of seats, whereas the new districts do not. In Georgia, the illegal map that was thrown out made a minority of votes into a majority of seats.

I guess it depends on how you define “a minority of votes”. As has been noted before, under the old map six Democratic incumbents (including the now-Republican Ralph Hall) were winning in districts that were otherwise strongly Republican, meaning they got a lot of crossover support. To be sure, they had the advantage of incumbency, but they still couldn’t win on Democratic voters alone. What we most certainly did not have was a map where any Democrat would have a natural advantage in 17 of the 32 districts.

Now, one of the original arguments made for re-redistricting (and this may have been Prof. Gaddie’s point) was that a majority of Congressional votes overall in Texas went to Republican candidates, yet they had a minority of the delegation. True enough, even if the numbers cited at that time were a tad misleading, but by that logic we should have had an 18-14 GOP split, not the intended 22-10 division (again, this is probably Gaddie’s point). We could have even achieved that 18-14 ratio had uber-DINO Hall switched parties a decade ago when he should have and had a couple thousand votes changed sides in the close CD11 and CD17 races of 2002. And of course that line of reasoning was dropped soon afterwards in favor of the argument that only the Lege can draw the lines, and from there it was an easy reach to a map with maximum partisan advantage.

Anyway. The argument is that the Texas and Georgia cases are otherwise identical. We’ll see if the court agrees.

We don’t care it everyone else was doing it

Another loss in the courts for TRMPAC.

Lawyers for Texans for a Republican Majority lost another attempt this morning to show that their clients, accused of breaking Texas election laws, were just doing what the Democrats had always done.

After a morning hearing, State District Judge Joe Hart dismissed the Republican organization’s request that the Texas Democratic Party, the Democratic National Committee and the Texas Partnership, a political action committee once headed by Democratic Speaker Pete Laney, provide documents about inter-party transfers of money.

Texans for a Republican Majority and its treasurer, former State Rep. Bill Ceverha of Dallas, are accused in a civil lawsuit of collecting and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate dollars in the 2002 legislative elections. State law forbids corporate money from being spent on politics, but lawyers for Texans for a Republican Majority, a group created by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, are arguing that the law is vague and Democrats were doing the same thing.

Mike Lavigne, the party’s chief of staff, denies it: “We didn’t do the same thing as the TRMPAC.”

As for the Republicans’ “everybody-else-was-doing-it” defense, Lavigne quipped after the hearing, “My mother never bought that excuse.”

Sorry, fellas. Try again later.

Rose Spector Dot Com

Rose Spector’s campaign website is up and running. Early voting has already started for the Feb 5 special election, so visit now and help her out if you can.

No on Gonzales

I know it won’t make a whit of difference to my Senators, but count me in with the many others who say No to Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General. I do not condone torture, and I do not agree with those who do. Alberto Gonzalez may have the brains, education, and experience to be the Attorney General, but he has no conscience and no morals, and as such he has no business being the nation’s top law enforcer. I say No, and I hope you will join me.

Cintra complaints

Before we sign over the keys to the PerryPike to Cintra, it would be nice to know what kind of power Cintra will wield over its customers. We can look to Ontario, Canada, for examples.

Some toll-road companies can raise tolls without a government hearing, or send collection agencies after drivers with past-due accounts.

Some even negotiate noncompete clauses into contracts so that governments cannot expand other freeways that might take business away from toll roads.

Just how much power Cintra will have is being negotiated behind closed doors in Austin. State officials say that within weeks they expect to sign a contract, known as a comprehensive development agreement, identifying Madrid, Spain-based Cintra as the lead agency, along with San Antonio’s Zachry Construction Corp. and other minority partners.


Ontario has filed several lawsuits attempting to gain some decision-making powers, including the right to veto toll increases, but courts generally have sided with Cintra, citing a 1999 contract signed by both parties.

In fact, Cintra is pushing for additional authority. The company has asked Ontario not to renew vehicle registrations for motorists who are behind on their toll payments, a request the government has declined.

First things first. Within reason, I’m OK with Cintra having the right to pursue delinquent tollpayers, just as any other company can do to deadbeats. I would, however, like to know what rights the accused will have. The story cites “people who are dead, people who have never driven on the highway or people who have been double-billed” as being aggressively dunned by Cintra. What recourse will Texans who say they’ve been billed in error have?

As for toll hikes, that’s the nature of free enterprise, right? Cintra’s a profit-maximizing firm, and they’ll set their price point where they see fit. But what happens if somewhere down the line they’re the only provider for a certain area? Again, what if any checks and balances will exist here? The gas tax doesn’t get raised without public input (sometimes after the fact, but still), so are we comfortable letting Cintra make unilateral decisions about tolls?

A noncompete clause and the power to deny vehicle registrations to delinquent payers are complete nonstarters for me. That’s just way too much power in the hands of people no one voted for. And I don’t know about you, but I have little faith that future Leges will be able to resist the urge to accede to whatever new demands Cintra will have. The potential to give away the store is just too high.

We’ll know what the contract looks like in a few weeks. I just hope there’s enough skepticism in the Lege to keep it from being too outrageous. Via Lasso.

Cowboys for Clean Cement

Here’s an interesting suggestion to clean up the air in Dallas: Enlist America’s Team in the fight against polluting cememnt plants.

Public money will buy cement for the [Dallas Cowboys’] new football stadium. Public financing is intended to be for the public good. Midlothian’s cement production practices do not qualify as public good. They do not deserve Arlington’s taxpayer money.

State-of-the-art, publicly financed stadiums should be built with the best available, state-of-the art, pollution-controlled cement. Anything less will make the Cowboys accomplices to these cement makers’ relentless assault on local public health.


Money, and the prospect of losing it, is the only language that Midlothian’s polluters understand. If we are serious about improving regional air quality, county commissioners, city council members, developers, shoppers at Home Depot — and even Jerry Jones — should ask how their cement is made and at whose expense.

Consumers can draw a line in concrete and declare with their purchasing power that Midlothian’s smokestacks must clean up — now.


As a partner with Arlington, the Cowboys are stewards of public money. They have an opportunity to champion local health by setting high standards for their cement supplier.

In doing so, they would score a huge win for families in Dallas-Fort Worth’s red zone.

Economic boycotts have a mixed record, but getting the Dallas Cowboys to agree to not buy cement from local manufacturers until they improve their air quality record would be quite a coup. I have no idea if this proposal will be taken seriously or not, but it is the sort of thing that can capture the imagination. Worth a shot, that’s for sure. Thanks to Tom B for the tip.

The state of the city

Mayor White made his State of the City address yesterday, which you can find here. The Chron has a bunch of stories relating directly and indirectly to the items mentioned in this address. I’ll start with the two big proposals for 2005:

Foreclosing for affordable housing

The city of Houston will foreclose on 1,500 tax-delinquent properties beginning next month in an effort to add affordable housing and stem the gentrification of poor neighborhoods near downtown, Mayor Bill White said Monday.


White said at a news conference after his speech that with the help of the Texas Legislature, he hopes to complete the foreclosures in six to 18 months. After that, he said, the city envisions working closely with developers and funneling tens of millions of dollars in local, state and federal funds to build mostly subsidized, single-family homes on the 1,500 lots.

The city also plans to improve infrastructure in these areas, he said.

White said that too many subsidized housing units now are being built in outlying areas of the city, “far away from work centers.” White also has expressed concern that the increasing popularity of inner-city neighborhoods could drive out low-income homeowners as rising property values increase tax bills.


Steve Tinnermon, White’s special assistant for neighborhoods, said White’s plan is more ambitious than anything the city has tried in an effort to clean up tax-delinquent properties and build affordable housing.

Tinnermon said the city will ask the Legislature to pass two laws to help the plan. The first would eliminate, in some cases, a requirement that courts appoint a lawyer to represent the interests of property owners who cannot be located.

Tinnermon said the city wants to remove that requirement on properties that have delinquent tax bills and fees greater than their appraised values. About half of the 1,500 properties are in that category, called “upside-down” in real estate parlance.

Tinnermon said such a law could expedite foreclosures by reducing the entire process to as little as four months from as much as 18 months. He said the city has been unable to locate owners for about 80 percent of the city’s tax-delinquent properties and that taxes have been unpaid on some properties for almost 20 years.

The city will also ask the Legislature to create a Houston “Land Bank,” such as one already authorized in Dallas, that would give it the first right to buy foreclosed properties by paying the lesser of either the delinquent tax bill or the appraised value.

The city then could pass along the savings in selling the property to developers who would build affordable housing.

This one seems pretty achievable. The goal is clear, precedent exists, and there’s no obvious and organized opposition. If the legislative hurdle is cleared and the money is there, this one should get done.

Tracking toxic air

Taking his strongest stance yet on the city’s air pollution problems, Mayor Bill White on Monday said the city would set up an air pollution monitoring network along the fences of some of the region’s industrial plants to track down companies contributing to risky levels of carcinogenic chemicals in city air.

“We will begin to place air quality monitors outside the plant gates of those firms most likely identified as the source of these excess levels of air toxics,” White said in his second annual State of the City address.

“I don’t want to wait two or three years,” the mayor later said in a briefing. “I don’t care who does it, but if somebody doesn’t do it quick, we are going to do it.”

The new air quality initiative — one of two unveiled by the mayor for his second year in office — is aimed at addressing “needs we’ve swept under the rug for too long,” he said.

While White applauded business community efforts to cut smog, he said “we cannot ignore air toxics,” a group of 188 chemicals linked to cancer and other serious health effects.

Other goals of his clean air plan include: asking state and federal agencies’ to post their air toxics data on the Internet; assembling a task force of medical experts to analyze the risk from the pollution levels measured; and joining other local governments to bring legal action against companies whose plants are “cutting corners.”

This one will be tough. The goal is certainly laudable, but it’s less clear, and the polluters aren’t going to sit around quietly. Further, it’s not clear that any help will be forthcoming at either the state or national level. Still, this would be a huge feather in White’s cap if he can succeed. We’ll keep an eye on this one.

Other headlines relating to the address or items mentioned by Mayor White:

ChevronTexaco deeds golf course to the city

Texas Rangers to oversee crime lab review

LULAC denounces SafeClear

Council to weigh funding for Emeergency Center audit

Happy reading.

Is Carole just teasing us now?

Strayhorn hints against running for governor

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn indicated Monday she may be about to back away from challenging Gov. Rick Perry in next year’s Republican primary.

Strayhorn’s spokesman, Mark Sanders, issued a statement denying she ever told Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs that she would not seek re-election as comptroller. Combs has been preparing to run for Strayhorn’s office if she vacates it to run for governor.

Say it isn’t so, Carole!

Sanders said in issuing the statement that Strayhorn was not trying to send signals about whether she would seek re-election rather than run for governor. Sanders said Strayhorn just wanted to “set the record straight” about statements attributed to Combs.

Combs was quoted indirectly in Sunday’s Corpus Christi Caller-Times as saying Strayhorn had told her she was not running for comptroller again.

“The people of Texas are certainly asking her (Strayhorn) to run for governor, and she is listening,” Sanders said. “But the comptroller never told Commissioner Combs she is not running for comptroller again, and Commissioner Combs knows it.”

Combs spokesman Reggie Bashur said Combs “agreed” with Strayhorn that Strayhorn “did not tell her directly that she was not seeking re-election.”

Bashur said the Caller-Times article misquoted Combs. The reporter who wrote the story could not be reached for comment. Editors at the paper said they had no information that would cause them to run a correction.

Whew, that’s much better. With or without Kinky Friedman in the Governor’s race, the 2006 elections will be much less fun if there aren’t a few bloody GOP primaries to kick things off. Greg has been saying all along that Strayhorn is doomed in any contested Republican primary, so maybe this is a feint to keep her options open. Who knows?

The briefs are in

Lawyers for both Talmadge Heflin and Hubert Vo have filed their briefs in the election contest, and Andy Taylor is still beating the “irrefutable evidence of massive fraud!” drum. I’ve seen a copy of Vo’s brief, and I have to say they do a pretty decent job of refuting much of that “irrefutable” evidence. I have not seen the Heflin brief, so I have a one-sided view of this. It still looked darned convincing to me. Some highlights from the Vo brief:

1. Team Heflin interviewed a subset of those whose votes were questioned, and extrapolated from there.

2. Among those Team Heflin did interview, Team Vo disagreed with many of their assertions about whose vote should or should not count.

3. Some votes were questioned because voters went to the wrong precinct, but were still in HD149.

4. Some of the voters who had moved to Fort Bend were told by Paul Bettencourt’s office that it was OK for them to vote at their old location.

5. As noted in the story, some votes were challenged on the basis of uncorroborated phone interviews.

You get the idea. The hearing is Thursday, and Discovery Master Will Hartnett will issue his recommendations next week. In the meantime, ponder this:

[Andy] Taylor said Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman agrees with Heflin’s team that Heflin should be declared the winner because so many ballots cast for Vo should be thrown out.

But in a prepared statement, David Beirne, Kaufman’s spokesman, said Kaufman is waiting for the House to conduct an investigation and has not endorsed the findings of Heflin’s team.

“No such endorsement exists or should be construed from the office of Harris County clerk,” Beirne said.

One might wonder what else Andy Taylor is fibbing about.

Last but not least, the Daily Texan calls on Heflin to drop his challenge.