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August 13th, 2006:

Culberson versus Metro

I think there’s a simple way to interpret this article about how John Culberson has forced Metro into a box by publicly opposing a Richmond Avenue route for the Universities rail line.

Culberson said last week that “to my mind, the only way Metro can make this work is to find a way to do an elevated line down the Southwest Freeway that doesn’t destroy traffic lanes or homes or businesses.”

The congressman said the details are up to Metro.

“I’m not going to tell Metro how to build it or where to build it,” Culberson said, adding that he will not support rail on Richmond.

Culberson gave Metro a little wiggle room on Friday, saying that although he prefers no rail at all on Richmond, he might allow a “tiny fragment” near Main, if necessary to connect the line to Metro’s existing rail system.

Such support, however, depends on whether “the community is comfortable with it,” he said.

Metro has been deeply involved in studying the costs and benefits of putting the line on Richmond, Westpark or a combination of the two.

Culberson said the time for such study ended three years ago, a reference to the November 2003 referendum in which voters narrowly approved Metro’s rail expansion plans and a prior vote by Metro’s board to put a line designated “Westpark” on the ballot.

[…]

Culberson said Friday it makes sense to suspend tracks on the north side of the freeway, so they would not interfere with traffic.

He also said that an elevated design on that side would not require riders to cross the freeway to reach Greenway Plaza and Lakewood Church, if the elevated portion continued that far.

[Mayor Bill] White said last week that he has consulted Texas Department of Transportation district engineer Gary Trietsch on how such a structure might be built. Any construction on or over the freeway or its embankment would require TxDOT permission.

White’s Aug. 4 note asked Metro to “seriously consider … some structure, presumably elevated in some portion,” from St. Thomas to a point where it could cross the freeway.”

[…]

Neither Culberson nor [City Council Member Anne] Clutterbuck offered suggestions on how Metro trains could fit over the walled, below-ground freeway without endangering vehicles or taking space now occupied by the Museum District’s decorative bridges, or on where passengers would board.

“Metro created this dilemma,” Culberson said.

“They did this to themselves with deceptive bait-and-switch (ballot) language that said Westpark, and Westpark ends at Kirby.”

The 2003 referendum was an up-or-down vote on the future of light rail in Houston. The pro-rail forces won, and the anti-rail forces have been doing everything they can since then to deny that victory. The phony insistence that the ballot language specified routes and not corridors is just the current incarnation of this attempt to overturn the vote.

Culberson was on the board of the anti-rail advocacy group Texans for True Mobility. The opposition from some segments of the Richmond business community has given him an opportunity to do by fiat what he couldn’t do at the ballot box.

The plan is simple: If Richmond is off the table, Metro is forced to put forth a lesser plan, such as this elevate-it-over-the-freeway scheme. The required feasibility studies then show that ridership will be insufficient and the expense will be excessive. Naturally, the Federal Transportation Administration refuses to provide funding, leaving Metro with the choice of finding its own money or giving up. And thus the anti-rail forces win.

I don’t know what to do about this right now. Frankly, I think Sedosi has the right idea – Mayor White needs to be a little less deferential to Culberson and really push for what’s best for the whole city. That’ll get ugly, and likely cost him some popularity, but that’s why we pay him the big bucks. I just hope he realizes this, and the sooner the better.

The experts’ take on CD22

Well, I had wondered when we were going to start hearing what the national prognosticators thought of the recent doings in CD22. Today’s Chron gives us a hint.

Republicans are putting up a write-in candidate to challenge him. But no write-in has ever won a House race in Texas.

“We don’t want to be the first candidate to lose to a write-in,” said Lampson campaign manager Mike Malaise. “We can’t not run. We can’t sit aside and count on procedure to win for us. We have to win it.”

It’s hard to lose when you are a former U.S. representative with millions in the bank and you are unopposed by the other major party on the ballot, said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“Yet this district is 60 percent Republican in a year when Republicans are going to spend freely to try and get their write-in candidate elected,” Sabato said. “When you add those two together, it equals a tossup.”

The party that is the most shrewd and clever will win this race, he said.

Sabato had already changed his assessment of this race from Lean Republican to Lean Democratic. He has one GOP-held seat (PA-06) listed as Likely Dem Pickup, meaning he thinks CD22 is less likely to flip than that seat.

After this week’s events, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report has moved this race from “leaning Republican” to “tossup,” making it one of the most competitive in the country.

[…]

Republicans will not only have to define their DeLay-replacing candidate, but they must educate voters on how to cast a write-in ballot, said Amy Walter, a Cook Political Report analyst.

“Nick Lampson has a very good chance of winning this seat, and I wouldn’t have said that a few months ago,” she said.

That still leaves CQ Politics and Chuck Todd, but never mind that for now. I’m amazed that this race is still being talked about as if it were potentially competitive. If DeLay had never decided to drop out and were instead gearing up for a re-election battle with Lampson, that would have been competitive. If DeLay had been replaced on the ballot by someone like Crazy Bob Talton, that matchup with Lampson would have been competitive. But this? Seriously?

The way I see it, Lampson’s true opponent in this race is perception. It’s not a question of if he wins, since by now any objective person thinks he’ll win, but by how much. What he wants to do is to project the idea that he’d have won even if there had been an opponent on the ballot against him. The bigger his final vote total and vote percentage, the less anyone can claim that he won by default and the stronger he looks going into 2008. (That will be a competitive race, too, by the way.) He wants to persuade all those voters who might have gone either way had this been a true two-person race to go with him now. As I and others have said before, voting is a habit. If he gets those people now, he’ll keep most of them in his column two years from now.

I’m still puzzling over why the national experts are so reluctant to write this race off. I can only conclude that they think the district’s historic Republicanness is enough to carry even a write-in candidate into contention. I think they’re missing the evidence that the GOP strength here is not what it once was. Consider:

– The local GOP, especially in Fort Bend County, isn’t nearly as organized as you might have thought. From outgoing FBGOP Chair Eric Thode’s laughable ” candidate survey” at the start of the replacement process, to new chair Gary Gillen’s hamhanded support of David Wallace, to the obvious desperation of trying to recruit Paul Bettencourt at the last minute. In Bob Dunn’s handy timeline of events, Tina Benkiser called that closed-door meeting to select a single write-in candidate to rally around on Wednesday. How long does it take to do this? A reasonable conclusion at this point is that they either can’t agree on a single person, or the one person they all would agree on (Bettencourt?) is not seriously interested.

– Party unity is in shambles. David Wallace is running whether he gets the official blessing of the Benkiser Gang or not. Shelley Sekula Gibbs says she’ll run if she’s their consensus choice, which if she were we’d know about it by now. Either she’ll be third runnerup for Miss Congeniality, with at best grudging support from the precinct chairs who really wanted someone else, or there won’t be a consensus choice and I’d guess she runs anyway.

– The rank and file is not happy. As Dunn writes:

From some of the reaction we’ve gotten here over the past few days, I think a few readers believe local State Republican Executive Committee members such as Kathy Haigler favor having party leadership name an annointed write-in candidate to whom everyone else in the party would be expected to bow down.

That would be incorrect. In fact, Haigler has been pushing the idea that if any GOP candidate is annointed, it is the precinct chairs who would have to do the annointing.

Unofficial or not, Benkiser has strongly suggested that the annointing likely won’t be done the old-fashioned way – with olive oil – but with a truckload of Republican campaign cash.

In other words, the grassroots folks, some of whom were already not too happy with the Gang of Four selection process, don’t like the idea of being handed another Great White Hope that they never voted for, even if said person was picked by precinct chairs. I see way more support being voiced in the comments at Fort Bend Now and Texas Safety Forum for the Libertarian Bob Smither than I do for the potential write-in anointee.

– The Democrats, in the meantime, are fired up and have been working not just for Lampson but for the various local candidates within CD22 such as the Fort Bend countywides and HD129’s Sherrie Matula for months now. Read what Bryan and Hal and Muse have said about recent events. Which side looks better prepared for the election to you?

Put this all together and I just can’t see why this is still seen as a real race. About the only scenario I can envision right now where I’d reconsider is if Bettencourt (who again did not express any interest in being the Chosen One back when he would have been the official on-the-ballot nominee) does decide to leave his cushy Tax Assessor post and run as the officially sanctioned write-in candidate, and this in turn gets Wallace to drop out. That at least has the potential to be competitive. Unless such a thing happens, I will continue to question what the national folks are thinking.

Finally, though it’s not a report of recent campaign activities, do read Mark’s summary of last week’s events. He brings in a Battle of Endor reference, which is something you’ll never see Larry Sabato do. Check it out.

Pluto: Still a planet

After reading about the possibility that Pluto would lose its status as a planet, I was quite a bit relieved after doing a little more research to find that it status is safe.

Some astronomers had lobbied for reclassifying Pluto because it is so tiny. And at least one major museum has excluded Pluto from its planetary display. But sources tell NPR that under a proposal to be presented at a big meeting of astronomers in Prague next week for a vote, Pluto would become part of a new class of small planets. Several more objects could be granted membership.

[…]

So earlier this year, the International Astronomical Union, which has decided tricky nomenclature issues since it was formed in 1919, appointed a panel to try to define the word “planet.”

Seven experts, including a science writer and a variety of astronomers, met in Paris this past June. Under the guidance of Owen Gingerich, a historian and astronomer emeritus at Harvard, they debated for two days.

Gingerich would not discuss the conclusions, but says “I think we have done something that will make the Plutocrats and the children of the United States happy.”

NPR interviewed five of the seven panel members. All but one said they thought of Pluto as a planet, or had made statements in the public record to that effect.

Whew! There’s still a full vote to worry about, but I’m happy for this development. It may turn into something more, too.

Several panel members have favored dividing planets into categories: terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars), giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) and a third class that would include Pluto.

“We’ll call them dwarf planets or something,” says Iwan Williams, an astronomer at the University of London who favors the idea and also served on the panel.

Sources say the panel’s new definition for planets would, in fact, create a third category embracing Pluto.

[…]

Some panel members say they favor counting any object which is large enough that its gravity has made it round. If the object is spinning, a small bulge would be tolerated. “We’re talking about no more than four or five new planets,” says Iwan Williams.

Small potato-shaped asteroids wouldn’t make the cut. But Ceres, a big round asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, might qualify.

Hmm. Better start working on some new mnemonics, in case Mary Vincent Eats Many Jelly Sandwiches Under Ned’s Porch or My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas become inoperable. Thanks to SciGuy for the link. Oh, and as long as you’re reading about Pluto, here’s a nice story about Clyde Tombaugh, the guy who discovered it.