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November, 2006:

Another contender for Council?

I’m hearing rumors that two-time Congressional candidate Tom Reiser will be throwing his hat into the ring to replace Shelley Sekula Gibbs on City Council. Reiser spent big bucks in losing a 2000 primary for what was then CD25 to Phil Sudan and a 2002 general election to Chris Bell, in which there was a lot of nastiness. He also underperformed in 2002, getting 43% of the vote in a district whose statewide Republican index was 49%, according to the Texas Legislative Council. Eyeballing the demographics of CD25 as it was back then, I’d say it’s not far from what Houston looks like today – CD25 was about 54% black and Hispanic, 39% Anglo, and 7% other, while Houston is about 62% black and Hispanic, 32% Anglo, and 6% other.

Suffice it to say that I’m not terribly impressed, if this turns out to be true. There are two known candidates in the race now, Melissa Noriega (website forthcoming) and Noel Freeman. There’s also still a lot of potential questions about whether or not the city really will call for the special election or not, which is a topic I’ve explored at Kuff’s World here and here. One more item in favor of the no-election theory is that there’s no constituency that would claim to be unrepresented if Shelley’s seat were left unfilled. It would be different if this were a district seat, but she was at large. That doesn’t change any of the legal equations, of course, but I daresay it’s still a factor. We’ll see.

UPDATE: Two commenters have mentioned Roy Morales, who ran unsuccessfully for At Large #1 last November, losing to Peter Brown. Morales’ name has come up before, so I don’t think of him as a new contender. If he’s made a formal announcement, however, that is new. If it turns out I was confusing him for Reiser, well, that’s why it’s called a rumor. We’ll know soon enough.

Robinson Warehouse – Seeing daylight

Well, the weather permitted but my schedule didn’t, so the next chance I had to take a picture of the Robinson Warehouse demolition was yesterday. They’ve clearly made a lot of progress, and at first glance I thought my initial estimate of completion circa year’s end was pessimistic, but as you’ll see from the next picture, they still have a lot to do. Click on for more.


More on Houston’s smog extension

The Baytown Sun has an article on Houston’s smog problem, with more details from GHASP’s Sabrina Strawn about why the TCEQ’s response is so lame.

Sabrina Stawn, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, bemoaned the SIP revisions.

“In essence, it’s not a plan. At this point, we have a deadline of 2010, and TCEQ is saying we can’t meet the deadline for the Houston-Galveston area,” she said.

“We feel there are other control measures they could be looking at. We also don’t accept the reasoning that transportation is totally off-limits, or controlling emissions from transportation,” she said.

Strawn said TCEQ already has legislative authority to implement stricter controls, and there may be growing sentiment around the state for even more authority.

Strawn said the North Texas Clean Air Coalition, a subsidiary of the North Texas Council of Governments, has recently adopted a series of resolutions aimed at helping the Dallas-Fort Worth region reach attainment.

“One of the things they proposed is that Texas should go ahead and adopt California’s vehicle emissions standards,” the most stringent in the nation, Strawn said.

She said she expected the Texas Legislature to consider bills next session that would “fully fund” the Texas Emissions Reduction Program, which she said wasn’t fully funded when the Legislature created it.

Strawn said the Houston-Galveston Area Council is considering similar resolutions.

“I think there’s considerable interest in the Legislature to take available cost-effective measures to reduce air pollution,” she said.

Strawn said there also should be “considerable more interest” in reducing emissions by industrial facilities.

“We know from previous scientific work that the emissions are undercounted. We think if they’re fully accounted for, there are other control measures that can be used,” she said.

Strawn said California plants which have been required to implement “flare minimization” plans have shown reduced emissions as well as significant cost savings.

“So we’ve got some good examples out there of where emissions can be further reduced. I think TCEQ should be looking at those and requiring them,” she said.

A public comment period on the proposed SIP revisions begins Dec. 29 and lasts until Feb. 12. A public hearing date is tentatively scheduled in the Houston area on Jan. 29. To read the proposed rules, visit the Web site

There’s your chance to affect the TCEQ if you choose to do so. I’ll post the hearing details when I know them.

Meanwhile, UH law professor Victor Flatt has a blog post about why the EPA should tell TCEQ to take its extension request and stick it. I see he too reaches for the lazy-student-who-expects-an-extension metaphor. Hey, if the shoe fits, and all that. Check it out.

UPDATE: Muse has more.

Explaining the spending cap

The CPPP has a nice, concise explanation (PDF) of the constitutional spending cap and why it must be lifted to pay for the property tax reductions that were passed in the special session this year. Among other things, they note that this is highly likely to be a one-time occurrance. Check it out.

So much for beautification

Scenic highways. Hike & bike trails. Graffiti abatement. Who needs ’em?

State transportation officials have abruptly ended a program aimed at making roadways prettier, safer and historically relevant, blaming federal budget pressure caused by war and hurricanes.

But the Texas Historical Commission’s director said Tuesday the state Department of Transportation purposely targeted millions in proposed “transportation enhancement” initiatives because agency officials have never liked the program. An agency spokesman denied the claim.

“People can philosophically have that position, but this money was appropriated by the U.S. Congress, which had a big debate over whether to continue it,” said Larry Oaks, executive director of the historical commission, which had projects among the hundreds denied funding by the Texas Transportation Commission’s decision to cut back enhancement projects and focus on congestion relief.

“It’s not just about driving on the roads. It’s about having a great experience as you travel America,” Oaks said.

A letter sent last week by Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson told the historical commission and others hoping for enhancement money that it was merely responding to three Federal Highway Administration requests this year to give up more than $305 million promised to Texas, “with the majority of the cuts coming from the Transportation Enhancement program.”

“The spending authority withdrawn by the FHWA is due in part to hurricane response and the continuing war on terrorism,” Williamson said.

The letter went on to tell applicants that because of “unstable and unreliable” federal transportation funding, state officials won’t pursue future enhancement projects unless mandated by law.

That seems awfully petty to me. I could see a temporary suspension of this program, but forever? What’s the rush?

I should note that TxDOT has a fair bit of unallocated money lying around, as was discussed earlier this year when State Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer proposed using it to fund a temporary rollback of the state gas tax. There’s really no reason why they couldn’t withstand a temporary cutback in funds if they wanted this program to continue.

One project that’s still safe for now, as it has already had its funds allocated, is the Green Ribbon Project, which State Rep. Garnet Coleman discussed in his guest post in August. Coleman released the following statement (Word doc) about TxDOT’s decision, which includes a list of all affected Houston-area projects. A full accounting of the state’s projects is here (PDF). Note the wide variety of things that have been made possible by this program – it’s a lot more than just planting trees. I have a feeling this one isn’t going to go away without a fight, so stay tuned.

Cuellar backs Ciro

Maybe this has something to do with his rumored interest in the 2008 Senate race and maybe it doesn’t, but I for one am glad to see Rep. Henry Cuellar bury the hatchet and get behind Ciro Rodriguez in his runoff race versus Rep. Henry Bonilla.

Rodriguez and Cuellar had been friends but had a falling out when Cuellar opposed Rodriguez in 2004. Cuellar, who also squashed Rodriguez’s attempt to win back his seat in March, now represents the 28th congressional district.

Cuellar joined Texas’ House Democrats, 11 total, in signing a letter to Rodriguez pledging support.

“The members of the delegation are committed to travel to your district, send you resources and work with our colleagues in the House to get you re-elected,” they said in the letter.

Vince is also pleased by this development. Look, I was as big a booster of Ciro over Cuellar in March as anyone. I’d still prefer Ciro over Cuellar if that were the choice before me. But that fight was fought, and the side I picked lost. It’s time to get over it and move on, because the prize here is the even bigger one of ousting Bonilla. I applaud Cuellar for doing his part, and I promise to do mine. We’re on the same team now, so let’s make the most of it.

Greg also notes this story, and has a video of the DCCC’s ad that’s now playing in the district. Check it out.

The WiFi contenders for Houston

Didn’t manage to get to this yesterday: We’re not officially down to two finalists for the city WiFi contract, but we’re close enough to tell who’s leading.

San Francisco-based EarthLink Municipal Networks, run by one of the nation’s largest high-speed Internet service providers, is already building in several cities. It’s going head-to-head with Convergent Broadband, a local group headed by former Reliant Energy CEO Don Jordan that has ties to business leaders in Houston.

“If everything is equal, there’s a preference for dealing with a vendor that has a strong local employment base and a commitment to the community,” said Mayor Bill White. “At the same time, when dealing with national firms, you’re able to evaluate their performance in other markets.”

White was speaking generally since he has not announced the two finalists.

He and other city officials have been mum about the vendor-selection process, which began with five bidders, but he said the announcement of a vendor could come as early as the end of this week.

Several sources involved in the process, who asked not to be identified for fear of damaging their relationship with the city, confirmed the two finalists are EarthLink and Convergent.

They certainly sounds like reasonable enough choices. I note that Earthlink’s experience with Philadelphia’s WiFi network was brought up, which counts as a plus in my book. Beyond that, I’ve not got a favorite. I’m just ready to see this project take the next step forward.

The Legislative Study Group

And as long as I’m touting sites with information about the bills that the Lege will be considering, let me also give a shoutout to the Legislative Study Group. They’ve been around since 1995, they do a ton of research on just about every bill that comes through the Lege, and they have a real effect on the debate – among other things, their research was a factor in getting the votes of the Hochberg Fourteen in 2005.

And they could use a little help. As Vince points out, the LSG is a caucus, so there’s no governmental funding for their work. They rely on donations, and they’ve got some fundraisers coming up to generate some:

At the home of Jim Reeder
Tuesday, December 5
5:30 PM 7:30 PM
1802 Albans
Houston, Texas

At the home of
The Honorable Harryette Ehrhardt
Wednesday, December 6
5:30 PM – 7:30 PM
5731 Swiss Avenue
Dallas, Texas

At the home of
Dennis Karbach & Robert Brown
Thursday, December 7
5:30 PM – 7:30 PM
811 Congress Ave.
Austin, Texas

Please RSVP to [email protected]

If you can’t make it to any of these, you can also click here to contribute directly. Phillip has more on the LSG. I have a feeling you’ll be hearing their name and seeing some examples of their work in the coming months.

Expanding the death penalty

Via DallasBlog, I see that Rep. Debbie “Pit of Hell” Riddle wants to expand the death penalty to crimes other than murder.

So far, two bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature that would make aggravated sexual assault of a child younger than 14 punishable by death if the defendant had been previously convicted of a similar crime. SB 68 by Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) and HB 8 by Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) would require the death penalty even if the victim lived. This would represent a radical departure from present assumptions on the death penalty. In 1972 the US Supreme Court struck down then existing death penalty laws as too broad and therefore unconstitutional. Most experts believe that the Court would still strike down any application of the death penalty beyond the offense of murder. Critics of the idea also point out that applying the death penalty in non lethal assaults would all but guarantee the victim’s murder as the victim is often the only eye witness. Still, the Court is moving right and the Texas law could prove to be a test case.

There are many reasons why this is a bad idea, beyond the one listed above. Both Grits and Corey Yung delve into them. What concerns me is that (as Will Lutz pointed out in the DB comments), the low number attached to Riddle’s bill all but guarantees that it will come up for a vote. This is definitely something to watch as the session progresses.

If you want to do some more reading on this and related matters, Grits kindly pointed out the House Research Organization‘s report on Texas’ sex offender laws (PDF). Since that report brings up the subject of “Jessica’s Laws”, be sure to also check out what their adoption would mean in practical terms.

UPDATE: More here.

TEC backs Farrar

Remember State Rep. Jessica Farrar’s complaint to the Texas Ethics Commission about pressure by lobbyists on her fellow legislators to support Tom Craddick for Speaker? Well, the TEC has addressed her complaint and found that it has merit.

In a Nov. 9 letter to the Texas Ethics Commission, Democratic state Rep. Jessica Farrar said the lobbyists had promised some House members that a candidate for speaker would give them sought-after assignments during the next session and would see to it that his loyalists have “the right support” in the next election cycle.

Farrar, who later identified the candidate as Craddick, asked whether that constituted legislative bribery, which is barred by state law.

The commission adopted an advisory opinion on Monday that said the conduct she described “is intended to influence a member in casting a vote for or against a speaker of the House of Representatives.”

But the opinion said it would be up to a “trier of facts” to determine whether the conduct violated laws against legislative bribery.

Farrar, a Democrat from Houston, said she planned to talk to her colleagues and figure out how they want to proceed. She said she has not been contacted by lobbyists but said the actions have been “pretty widespread.”

“Hopefully the practice will just stop,” she said.

Given that this is the paper tiger known as the TEC, this was probably the best we could hope for. At least it’s now on record that this is a no-no, so if all else fails a little public shaming might be an option in the future. We shall see.

Precinct analysis: SD07

I was going to save this one for later, but given the mostly fawning profile that just ran in the Statesman, plus my own recent tweaking of him, I suppose now is as good a time as any to analyze the performance of Dan Patrick in SD07.

To be honest, I wasn’t planning to even run the numbers in this one. The district is pretty monolithic, and it’s not like Patrick’s opponent (and onetime financial backer) Michael Kubosh ran any sort of campaign against him, so I didn’t think there’d be anything of interest there. But I reached the end of the State Rep districts and had a little extra time on my hands, so I figured what the heck.

And I’m glad I did, because I didn’t get the result I had expected. I thought Patrick, given his celebrity status, universal name recognition, and (let’s be honest) high charisma level, would be the pacesetter in his district. I fully anticipated seeing him at the top of the heap.

I was wrong. By any reasonable measure, Patrick’s performance was mediocre when compared to his fellow Republicans. Take a look at how he stacks up to the statewide and countywide candidates:

Candidate Votes Pct Opponent Votes ============================================== Abbott 125,195 74.23 Van Os 43,457 Hutchison 123,420 73.60 Radnofsky 44,270 Combs 123,070 73.37 Head 44,672 Dewhurst 120,539 72.93 Alvarado 44,731 Kaufman 120,491 71.80 Pierre 47,326 State GOP 118,883 71.65 State Dem 47,049 Cong GOP 118,480 71.34 Cong Dem 47,607 Patrick 117,975 69.19 Kubosh 52,531 Keller 117,578 70.32 Molina 49,629 Bacarisse 117,377 70.71 Shike 48,630 Patterson 117,042 71.41 Hathcox 46,848 Staples 116,591 70.72 Gilbert 48,277 Ames Jones 115,698 70.48 Henry 48,456 County GOP 114,251 69.01 County Dem 51,297 Willet 110,812 67.60 Moody 53,100

Recall that every statewide race save for Keller-Molina had a Libertarian in it as well; there was no Lib in SD07. I’d guess that Patterson and possibly Staples would have surpassed Patrick otherwise. Patrick did do slightly better than average at the county level, but then so did Kubosh – he garnered more Dem votes than everyone except for Sharp, Moody, Garcia, and Green.

Note also that the combined GOP Congressional vote exceeded Patrick’s total. This provides a nice comparison, since every precinct in SD07 is also in either CD02, 07, or 10. Here’s how that broke down:

Candidate Votes Pct ========================== Poe 24,289 74.72 Binderim 8,217 25.28 Patrick 22,514 69.07 Kubosh 10,084 30.93 ---------- Culberson 61,433 68.22 Henley 28,614 31.78 Patrick 60,749 67.05 Kubosh 29,854 32.95 ---------- McCaul 32,758 75.25 Ankrum 10,776 24.75 Patrick 33,443 74.61 Kubosh 11,382 25.39

Patrick got a teensy bit more votes than McCaul, but Kubosh got almost as many votes more than Ankrum, so the percentages favor McCaul, who as with the statewides and like Culberson and Poe had to contend with a Lib candidate as well.

Want more? Here’s how Patrick compares to the various State Reps who faced a contested election:

StateRepGOP Votes Pct StateRepDem Votes Pct ================================================== Harless 14,885 74.62 Khan 5,064 25.38 Patrick 14,896 73.54 Kubosh 5,360 26.46 Murphy 8,234 66.70 Thibaut 4,111 33.30 Patrick 8,094 65.47 Kubosh 4,269 34.53 Wong 1,965 53.76 Cohen 1,690 46.24 Patrick 2,049 57.80 Kubosh 1,496 42.20 Woolley 19,806 71.75 Brann 7,799 28.28 Patrick 19,461 69.34 Kubosh 8,605 30.66 Spivey 186 31.79 Hochberg 399 68.21 Patrick 193 33.33 Kubosh 386 66.67 Bohac 2,336 63.79 McDavid 1,326 36.21 Patrick 2,283 61.60 Kubosh 1,423 38.40 Riddle 22,384 70.23 N-Turnier 9,487 29.77 Patrick 22,177 69.54 Kubosh 9,713 30.46 Total GOP 69,796 70.03 Total Dem 29,876 29.97 Patrick 69,153 68.87 Kubosh 31,152 31.13

The totals are smaller here because some of the State Rep districts in SD07 were uncontested. Patrick did do better than Sylvia Spivey and Martha Wong. I think that’s the definition of not saying much.

The point I’m making here is that despite everything that he had going for him, Dan Patrick performed only slightly better than the average anonymous downballot Republican judicial candidate. He got only a few more votes than the second tier Republican statewides, who had to contend with greater dropoff and third-party candidates. He failed to match any of the three Congressmen (in a year where Congressional approval levels threatened to dip below those of the Ebola virus) and most of the State Reps. In short, the only remarkable thing about his performance was that there was nothing remarkable about it.

And remember, he was running against a fringe candidate who did no visible campaigning and reported zero dollars raised during the race. Really, if anything stands out in all these numbers, it’s how much better than the other Dems Michael Kubosh did. Some of this can be explained by the lack of a Libertarian to serve as the not-Republican alternative, but not all of it. At the statewide level, there were generally about 5000 votes cast for the Lib in the SD07 precincts. You’d have to transfer all of those votes and then some (about 1000 more for the lower tier races, 3000-4000 for the top four) to Kubosh to balance things out. Maybe Kubosh did pick up all those votes, I can’t say for sure. As there was no reason to vote for Michael Kubosh, the one explanation that makes sense to me is that there was a small but dedicated group of people who just wanted to vote against Dan Patrick. Didn’t matter who the alternative was as long as it wasn’t Danno. Kubosh was the beneficiary of that. Who knows, maybe if Kubosh had been a real candidate who ran a viable campaign, he might have done even better. I don’t expect to find that out in a district like SD07, but maybe we will someplace that isn’t so brightly red, say statewide. (Not that such a thought has ever occurred to Danno. Oh, no, not him.)

Anyway. You just never know what the numbers will say. That’s what makes this so much fun. Tune in tomorrow for another installment in this series.

Who’s got bad air? We’ve got bad air!

From yesterday’s Chron: Houston still can’t get its air clean enough to satisfy federal requirements.

The greater Houston area will remain too smoggy to comply with federal clean air standards by a 2010 deadline, Texas officials say.

This almost certainly will prompt the state to seek an extension of its allotted time for clearing the skies, perhaps even a lengthy one. State environmental officials say they expect the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria region to meet healthy air standards no later than 2018.

“We feel comfortable that it will happen by then,” said David Schanbacher, chief engineer of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency responsible for developing a plan to ensure the state meets clean air goals.

I’m glad you feel comfortable about that, dude. I just have one question: How long can you hold your breath? Eight years is a bit beyond my capacity. With all due respect, Schanbacher sounds to me like a school kid who’s not worried about completing his homework because he’s “sure” the teacher will grant him an extension.)

(Actually, I have another question as well: What happens if the EPA says “no can do”, and hits us with sanctions like cutting off highway funds? Are we not at least a little bit worried about this possibility?

As you might imagine, the folks (like Sabrina Strawn of GHASP) are not particularly pleased by this development.

“We believe the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria area could meet the standards if there were the political will to do so,” Strawn said. “So far, that hasn’t been there.”

To clean its air, Houston must control emissions of two “precursor” chemicals, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic chemicals, that react near the surface of the Earth with sunlight to form ozone. This chemical, helpful in the upper atmosphere for shielding the planet from ultraviolet rays, is harmful lower down, where it can irritate the respiratory system and aggravate asthma.

Strawn said a lack of political will is evident in a document released last week by the TCEQ, which has proposed several revisions its plan to clean Houston’s air.

Among the new strategies: limiting chemical emissions from marine and storage tank sources and requiring certain marine fuels to meet Texas Low Emission Diesel standards.

The new strategies, Strawn said, fail to address the biggest contributor of nitric oxides to the atmosphere – cars and trucks. In the Houston area, 55 percent of these chemicals come from such mobile sources.

I’ve said before that Sabrina is my neighbor, and I chatted with her about this last night. Among other things, she told me that her quote wasn’t quite right. Here’s her correction:

Yesterday’s article on Houston’s ozone problem needs clarification. Cars and trucks (on-road sources) contribute not 55% of the NOx as stated, but only about 35%. All mobile sources (on and off road such as construction equipment) do contribute just over half of all NOx emissions here. But if, as TCEQ claims, cars and trucks are the major part of the problem, how can Dallas, with a much greater contribution from mobile sources than in Houston, meet the deadline while we cannot? Well, Houston has way more industrial emissions.

Meeting clean air goals will require additional industrial controls, which TCEQ avoids; and considering mobile sources, something TCEQ wrongly claims only the federal government can do.

Houston voters recently turned out incumbents holding positions labeled “toxic” (e.g., Wong lost to Cohen). Again it’s time for Houston residents to rise up and say no, Houston deserves clean air, just like our prissy lil’ sis Dallas. We need clean air for ourselves, for our economic well-being, and for continuing the tradition of Houstonians coming together working to solve problems facing all.

In the meanwhile, TCEQ also is ostensibly accountable to the federal EPA. GHASP has sued EPA for accepting TCEQ’s most recent (we say inadequate) clean air plan for Houston. TCEQ’s thumbing its nose at EPA, we think, is the direct result of EPA’s failure to hold TCEQ accountable earlier this year. It’s time to express our will to our elected officials, public servants, and industrial leaders – follow the law and clean our air.

The article goes on to discuss the possibility of legislation to mandate stricter vehicle emission standards, which is certainly a step in the right direction, but as noted above, it isn’t enough. Sabrina Strawn’s question is exactly right: Why Dallas and not Houston? If they can do it, why can’t we? More to the point, don’t we deserve the same as they?

Houtopia has more.

A story about “A Christmas Story”

I like this deconstruction of “A Christmas Story”. I think it gets at the melancholy that underpins the movie without overdoing it.

Think of all the despair that grinds through the movie. The horrible department-store Santa Claus. The Old Man, played with such weariness by Darren McGavin. The furnace. The fire hazard of an overloaded electrical outlet.

The lapse in taste that is the leg lamp, the twinge of regret you feel for the Old Man when it is broken – until he begins to argue about it with his wife.

Ralphie’s fantasy of academic success, dashed by a real grade. Flick’s gauzed-up tongue after the flagpole incident. The pent-up rage in Ralphie when he finally turns on Scut Farkus; as intimidating as Scut has been, Ralphie unleashed is pretty frightening, too.

Getting your dream present, at last – only to, after all those warnings, nearly shoot your eye out.

And finally, as Ed Grant noted in Time magazine, the ache in [Jean] Shepherd’s narrated acknowledgment when he refers to the rifle as “the greatest Christmas gift I ever received – or would ever receive.”

Don’t forget Christmas dinner in the (otherwise empty) Chinese restaurant after the neighbor’s dogs eat the turkey.

Many Christmas movies wrongly believe that an ideal ending is the best way to give the message of Christmas. In fact, it’s better to find the smidgen of happiness Ralphie feels at the end because life isn’t really all that much better.

It’s a Wonderful Life, the best Christmas movie ever made, understands that notion. At the end, George Bailey has still lost his money, his business is in trouble, his house is shabby and the evil Potter still owns the town.

Although George’s friends’ support will keep him out of jail, what will become of him in the following year? George’s “wonderful life” is one in which he has helped others, not one that is materially great for himself.

The denizens of A Christmas Story are in a similar place. Ralphie’s family will never have grandeur. The Old Man’s dreams will go unrealized. So when he watches the snow fall on Christmas night, with his wife beside him and her arm on his back, that’s a moment to cherish. You may not get anything better.

I suppose that’s one way to look at it, though I’d say that what the Old Man is getting is pretty darned good, which is why we feel happy about how things turn out. Same thing with George Bailey, who finally gets that at the end of his movie. That’s a pretty consistent theme with Christmas movies, after all, that things like home and family outweigh just about everything else. These movies are better than most at making us believe that without feeling manipulated. That’s why they’re worth watching, and watching again.

The McGwire conundrum

It’s that time of year again, when the Hall of Fame ballot is released. This time, it comes with a side order of heartburn.

Mark McGwire, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. headline the first-time candidates on the 2007 baseball writers’ Hall of Fame ballot released Monday, sure to spark debate on Big Mac’s place in history as the steroid era comes under renewed scrutiny.

Jose Canseco, whose book last year led to a congressional hearing on steroid use in baseball, also is on the ballot for the first time. Canseco said he used steroids along with McGwire when they were teammates.

McGwire denied using illegal performance-enhancing substances, but when he appeared before a congressional committee, he evaded questions. “I’m not here to talk about the past,” was his repeated response.

McGwire finished his career with 583 home runs, seventh in baseball history while Canseco, a former MVP, is 30th at 462. Dave Kingman, 34th with 442, has the most home runs for a player who has been on the Hall of Fame ballot and was not elected.

Canseco is easy enough to dismiss. At his peak (say, 1988) he was Hall-worthy, but he spent way too much time not playing. I mean, only five seasons with 150+ games played? Please. The homers only count for so much.

As for McGwire, well, lots of voters don’t like him very much.

The Associated Press surveyed about 20 percent of eligible voters, and only one in four who gave an opinion plan to vote for McGwire this year. That’s far short of the 75 percent necessary to gain induction.

“There is a clause on the ballot indicating that character should be considered and after his nonperformance at the congressional hearings his character certainly comes into play,” said the Dayton Daily News’ Hal McCoy.

“He doesn’t want to talk about the past?” he said, “Then I don’t want to consider his past.”

I’m a lot less exercised about steroids than most people – I’m not convinced they have a measurable positive effect, and I think too much attention is focused on ‘roids and not enough on stimulants. But to each his own. I think McGwire hit more home runs per plate appearance than any other player ever. He belongs in the Hall, and I think that over time he’ll eventually get the support he needs to make it. I’ve no quarrel with anyone who wants to sit him out for a year or two to make a point, but sooner or later I think his record on the field needs a fair evaluation. Circumstances may yet cause me to change my mind, but if I had a ballot, he’d be on it.

I suppose what really bugs me is the kind of ignorance that folks such as Frank Robinson, who ought to know better, will express and the effect it will have on McGwire’s candidacy.

“Let’s take Barry Bonds,” Robinson said. “You don’t get better as you get older.”

Bonds won his last four – consecutive – of seven Most Valuable Player awards after he turned 37. In order, in those four seasons, Bonds hit 73, 46, 45 and 45 home runs. When Robinson was the same age, he hit 19, 30, 22 and nine homers , respectively, the usual decline as a slugger passes 35 years old.

As suggested by David Pinto, here are Hank Aaron’s seasonal homerun totals from ages 35 to 39:

Age 35 – 44
Age 36 – 38
Age 37 – 47
Age 38 – 34
Age 39 – 40

The 47 dingers in 1971 was a career high, as was the .669 slugging percentage that accompanied it. He had a career-second best .643 SLG at age 39. Is there anything untoward about this?

Similarly, here’s Babe Ruth from ages 35 to 39:

Age 35 – 49
Age 36 – 46
Age 37 – 40
Age 38 – 34
Age 39 – 22

Ruth actually did decline all five years – his slugging percentage started at .732 and went down each year, ending up at .537 in 1934. He started at such a ridiculously high peak, of course, that he had nowhere else to go but down, and unlike Aaron (and Barry Bonds, for that matter), he wasn’t the classically sleek athletic type that ages more gracefully.

We’re on a side track here, but as Barry Bonds will inevitably be dragged into these conversations, it’s important to remember that merely having a late peak is not of itself evidence of anything other than being in good shape. McGwire, as it happens, was out of baseball by the time he was 38 after a miserable last season. If ‘roids gave him a peak, they sure didn’t ease his descent.

Anyway. My ballot, if I had one, would include McGwire, Ripken, Gwynn, and the players from last year who were passed over – Bert Blyleven, Rich Gossage, and Tommy John. I guess I still haven’t made my mind up about Alan Trammell. Who’s on your list?

Tax cuts or spending caps? You decide

This has the makings of an interesting conundrum for some legislators.

Paying for promised cuts in local school property tax rates over the next two years would put lawmakers at least $4 billion over a constitutional cap on state spending, and that’s before they fund growth in any other programs.

So, leaders are thinking about tying a legislative vote to exceed the cap directly to the tax-relief measure. That could make a cap-busting vote more palatable to the GOP-majority Legislature.

“You offer a bill that reduces property taxes and you tell everybody that the amount of money involved exceeds the spending cap, and let’s vote,” said Sen. Steve Ogden, a Bryan Republican who heads the Senate Finance Committee. “We’re exceeding the spending cap so we can cut your property taxes. I think everybody’ll vote for that.”

Maybe they will, I don’t know. I feel confident in predicting that it won’t be unanimous. Someone’s not gonna like this.

I have one particular someone in mind, but as yet I’ve not seen any public statement from him. Before I get to that, read this:

A 1978 constitutional amendment limits growth in certain state spending to the rate of Texas’ economic growth, now measured by growth in personal income.

The cap applies only to state tax revenues not constitutionally dedicated to other purposes. It doesn’t apply to dedicated state tax funds, fees or federal funds. A legislative majority can vote to exceed the cap.

Even under the most generous estimate of personal income growth examined by the board, 17 percent, the cap would limit such spending to $65 billion for a two-year budget period, up $9.5 billion from $55.5 billion.

But the board staff said promised property tax relief for the next two years will cost $13.5 billion.

Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Craddick said they’ve heard no sentiment for cutting discretionary spending to fit tax relief under the cap.

Dewhurst said, “I, for one, am going to ask any of our senators that are talking about arbitrarily cutting $13.5 billion out of a $55 billion budget ‘Great, show me where.’ ”

Note that 17 percent figure. Now consider what a certain freshman Senator from Houston has to say on the subject:

3. Reduce government spending now

We elected Republican majorities in the Texas House and Senate and expected them to be fiscally conservative. Our legislature has let us down. The most recent state budget includes a 20% increase in spending. We should focus on needs-based-budgeting, rather than revenue-based-budgeting.

I’m not sure how Senator Patrick calculated that 20% figure, but given the 17% figure cited previously, I suspect he’s factoring in federal “pass through” monies. If so, he needs to learn a bit more about how the budget actually works.

But never mind that for now. What’s more important to Sen. Patrick – funding the full 1/3 property tax cut that I daresay his listeners strongly favor, or holding some imaginary line on government spending? Call me crazy, but I suspect that Dewhurst’s “show me where I can cut $13.5 billion” remark was aimed at him. So what’s it going to be? I look forward to hearing his answer.

TEC reiterates its “no disclosure” ruling on cash gifts

The Texas Ethics Commission does what it does best, which is to say, “nothing”.

A Texas official who receives any sum of cash as a gift can satisfy state disclosure laws by reporting the money simply as “currency,” without specifying the amount, the Texas Ethics Commission reiterated Monday.

The 5-3 decision outraged watchdog groups and some officials who unabashedly accused the commission of failing to enforce state campaign finance laws.

“What the Ethics Commission has done is legalize bribery in the state of Texas. We call on the commission to resign en masse,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, who heads Texas Citizen, an Austin-based group that advocates for campaign finance reform.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, said the “currency” interpretation would render it “perfectly legal to report the gift of ‘a wheelbarrow’ without reporting that the wheelbarrow was filled with cash.”

The previous action taken was in September. As noted there and BOR, it’s now up to the Lege to fix this little loophole. At least there appears to be the will to do that, with even Governor Perry signalling his support.

Why People Hate Lawyers, in a nutshell:

“The question here is whether the description of a gift of cash of over $250 is required to include the value of the gift,” the Ethics Commission opinion said in part. “The term ‘description’ is not defined in Chapter 572 of the Government Code, nor is it defined anywhere else in the Government Code.”

“In our opinion, the requirement to describe a gift of cash or cash equivalent may be satisfied by including in the description the following: ‘currency,’ or a description of the gift, such as ‘check’ or ‘money order,’ as appropriate,” the ruling stated.

Who knew the word “description” could be so confusing? Maybe we should all chip in to buy a dictionary for all of the TEC members as a Christmas gift.

Precinct review: CD07

Since my examination of the Richmond Rail effect generated a lot of good feedback, I’m going to start my tour of the Harris County precinct data with a look at CD07 and the race between John Culberson and Jim Henley. First, a couple of preliminary comments.

As I said yesterday, I’m going to try to provide a range of data for each district that I examine, so that a given candidate’s performance can be evaluated in the context of how everyone else did among the same group of voters. There are nine statewide races (not counting the Governor’s race, which is generally not comparable for obvious reasons) and 18 countywide contests, and at the macro level the spread is roughly nine points for the statewides and seven points for the countywides, so there’s a lot of information to be gleaned. In all cases, I’m doing a straight up R-versus-D comparison, so don’t be alarmed if some of the percentages look odd. I’ll give both vote totals and vote percentages, so it should be apparent when undervotes are a factor as well.

With all that out of the way, let’s dive into the data. First, here’s how Henley stacked up against his fellow Democrats in the district:

Candidate Votes Pct ========================== Sharp 66,157 41.52 R. Garcia 65,001 40.09 Henley 64,412 39.36 Moody 64,384 40.85 Green 63,788 40.34 County Avg 60,934 38.50 State Avg 57,580 35.99 Pierre 56,086 34.69 Van Os 54,004 33.16

Henley had the third highest vote total, trailing only Jim Sharp (whose name you’re going to see a lot in these discussions) and Richard Garcia. He was ninth best in percentage, as four other countywide candidates (Silverman, Connelly, Voigt, and Burks) scored higher than his 39.36%, but as none of them topped 63,000 votes, this was as much a function of Republican dropoffs as anything else. He exceeded the average statewide performance by 3.37 points, and the average countywides by 0.86. He did significantly better than the lowest performers at the state and county levels.

Now let’s look at Culberson:

Candidate Votes Pct ========================== Abbott 108,877 66.84 Kaufman 105,613 65.31 Bacarisse 101,854 63.88 State Avg 102,408 64.01 Culberson 99,236 60.64 County Avg 97,347 61.50 Willet 93,213 59.15 Alcala 93,164 58.48

Of the nine statewide Republicans, Culberson received fewer votes than all but Don Willet. He topped all of the countywides except for Beverly Kaufman and Charles Bacarisse, placing him eleventh overall. He was ninth from the bottom in percentage, again being affected by the higher rate of undervotes downballot. It seems clear to me that Henley was able to get some traction against him, and thus close the 31-point gap that Culberson enjoyed in 2004 to nineteen points this year (here I’m comparing the actual results, not the two-party totals).

Of course, nineteen points is still a pretty comfortable margin by any reasonable standard, so the question is how much potential is there to narrow this difference further. To attempt to answer that, we have to look at CD07 in two pieces, which I think shows both the strength and the limitations of Henley’s campaign. Let’s compare Henley’s performance inside HD134, which is most of the inner Loop portion of CD07 and where Henley’s campaign was easily the most visible, and outside HD134. First, inside HD134:

Candidate Votes Pct ========================== Cohen 24,763 55.67 Henley 22,795 52.06 R. Garcia 21,725 50.68 Sharp 21,653 51.51 Moody 21,455 51.62 Green 21,066 50.69 Burks 20,702 50.18 County Avg 20,084 48.33 State Avg 19,930 45.81 Van Os 18,450 42.64 Pierre 18,394 43.13

Henley was clearly very strong here, running behind only Ellen Cohen, who was practically superhuman. Anyone who spent any time in HD134 could see with their own eyes the huge number of Henley signs in people’s yards. Here’s how it looks from the Republican perspective:

Candidate Votes Pct ========================== Abbott 24,818 57.36 Kaufman 24,250 56.87 State Avg 22,935 54.19 County Avg 21,473 51.67 Culberson 20,993 47.94 Schneider 20,967 50.72 Wolfe 20,552 49.82 Galik 20,490 49.31 Alcala 20,382 48.49 Willet 20,109 48.38 Wong 19,718 44.33

Culberson received the seventh-lowest vote total, and was one of only seven Republicans (the six listed plus Orlando Sanchez) to not get a majority in HD134. It’s clear who this part of the district preferred.

Problem is, of course, that HD134 represents only about a quarter of CD07, and if Henley overperformed there he must not have done quite as well elsewhere. Here are the numbers:

Candidate Votes Pct ========================== Sharp 44,504 37.94 Moody 42,929 37.00 Henley 41,617 34.72 County Avg 40,850 35.00 State Avg 38,190 32.46 Pierre 37,692 31.66 Van Os 35,554 29.72

Here, Henley is much more middle of the pack, at least compared to the countywide candidates, where a total of seven of them surpassed his vote total. I believe this is consistent with the level of visibility his campaign had outside the Loop. For the GOP:

Candidate Votes Pct ========================== Abbott 84,059 70.28 Kaufman 81,363 68.34 State Avg 79,473 67.54 Culberson 78,243 65.28 County Avg 75,874 65.00 Willet 73,104 63.00 Alcala 72,782 62.06

Now Culberson is above average overall, beating all the countywides except Kaufman and Bacarisse (78,800 votes) and four of the statewides (he finished just behind Sharon Keller’s 78,280 votes, but there was no Libertarian candidate in that race, which gave her a boost). This is his turf, and without a serious erosion in his support outside HD134, his re-election prospects will continue to be bright.

The best case scenario for the Dems does offer some hope. Combining the best performances in each section of CD07 (Cohen plus Sharp) and pitting it against the corresponding Republicans (Wong and Alcala) gives a 23,233 voe deficit (69,267 to 92,500), or a 57.2-42.8 spread, which is certainly within reason. Even under these assumptions, however, there were more Republican votes in the non-HD134 portion of the district than there were Democratic votes overall. The bottom line is that any Democrat who wants to knock off John Culberson will need to be able to run close to even in the western portion of CD07. I have no idea who such a person might be, nor is there enough evidence to suggest what the Democratic ceiling is out there. All I know for sure is that this is the obstacle.

That’s a lot to digest. I’ll have more reports (hopefully more concise ones as well) in the coming days.

UPDATE: In rereading this, I don’t think I’ve fully conveyed my appreciation of Jim Henley for accomplishing what he did with relatively little money but a lot of volunteer energy. Henley clearly gained ground for the Dems in this district. He proved that there is a payoff to running an active campaign against Culberson. It’s up to whoever runs in 2008 to build on what he did.

Bowling in New Orleans

It’s still technically unofficial until a formal announcement by Conference USA at noon today, but as Moisekapenda Bower reports in the Chron, the Rice Owls will be headed to New Orleans for their bowl game. If you plan to attend and you want to be counted towards the “official” tally of Rice fans travelling to the game, use this link to buy your tickets:

Rice Online Ticket Office – 2006 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

The game is December 22 in New Orleans. I feel confident that a lot of Owl fans will make the trek for what will be the first opportunity ever for many of them to attend a bowl game that features the Owls.

The Owls get a little love from the national media here and here. One correction that needs to be made, however:

With Saturday’s 31-27 win over SMU, the Owls finished with a 7-5 record after winning their last six games and are eligible to play in a postseason bowl game for the first time since 1961.

Actually, the Owls have been bowl eligible four times in recent years – 1996, 1997, 1998, and 2001. They also went 6-5 in 1992 and 1993, but had a win over Division I-AA Sam Houston State in those seasons, and you needed six I-A wins to be bowl eligible back then. (Under today’s rules, they’d have been eligible.) The 7-4 Rice teams of ’96 and ’97 very much deserved bowl bids, as did the 8-4 2001 squad, but the WAC did not have enough tie-ins to land them in one, so they were bypassed. The accurate statement is that this is the first Rice team to receive a bowl berth since 1961.

But let’s not get bogged down in semantics. Rice is going to a bowl game. That’s really all you need to know.

Robinson Warehouse demolition update

The Robinson Warehouse demolition is proceeding apace. I’ve decided to try and document its progress, since I drive past it so often. Beware of doing that on a weekend, however – all but one of the southbound lanes of Montrose were closed off this Saturday as they were working on the front of the building, and I’d expect there to be more of that in the coming weeks.

Anyway, the old place is slowly being turned to dust and rebar. At this pace, I figure it’ll be gone by the end of the year, give or take a week or so. More pics beneath the fold.


WSJ on CD23

The Wall Street Journal has an article on the CD23 runoff that’s worth a read. It’s for subscribers only, but Phillip has a copy. One bit of interest:

[I]ndependent handicappers say Mr. Bonilla has the edge. “[Ciro] Rodriguez isn’t known for his campaign proficiency,” says Nathan Gonzales of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “He’ll need to step it up significantly to pull it out.”

Democrats say another factor that could aid Mr. Bonilla is the fact that the runoff coincides with Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe, a holy day on the Mexican Catholic calendar. “You have to question the Republicans’ decision to not only schedule the election with just a few days notice, but also to schedule it on a day of worship celebrated by thousands of Mexican-Americans throughout the district,” Mr. Rodriguez says.

In the primary, Mr. Rodriguez was one of seven Democrats running and managed to raise just $125,000. Now, the 21-member Hispanic Caucus, all of them Democrats, is pressing incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to make winning the district a priority, says California congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. “If Democrats want that seat, the national money base can turn on a dime,” she says.

If so, it had better start turning. Early voting begins a week from today, and we’re rapidly approaching the point where diminishing returns applies. The DCCC is in town, so at least organizationally the pieces are coming together. If you want to get on the air to neutralize Bonilla’s cash advantage, however, the time is now. And if you want to get involved in a more direct fashion, consider Online Phone Banking. Thanks to Mario for the heads up on that.

Finally, one of the nice things about running against Henry Bonilla at this time is being able to hold some of his recent votes against him. Click on for more.


Who cares what the beat writers think?

You might have missed the announcements of the MVP awards, as decided by the Baseball Reporters Association of America (BBRAA). No great loss if you did, as they made two poor selections, one defensible and one not. Joe Sheehan has a long and lovely rant about this behind the Baseball Prospectus paywall, and he homes in on the nature of the problem plus a way around it.

Don’t consider the outcome. Consider the process. The process for determining the nominally “official” MVP vote is that it’s restricted to a subset of a subset of the people who cover the game for a living. There was a time when the BBRAA was representative of pretty much all of the people who covered baseball. That hasn’t been true for a long time, and it gets less true each and every year. There’s a strong argument that the BBRAA represents the dying wing of baseball coverage.


One of two things can improve this process. The first would be if the voting pool was expanded to include broadcasters and writers not currently welcome in the BBRAA. I’m not pushing for a vote here; the line of broadcasters who are essentially just as qualified as the writers for this task is extremely long, and the fact that one group gets the job and the other doesn’t is simply an artifact of history. It is likely that the broader the group involved in the process, the greater likelihood that the group will reach the correct conclusions. (The Internet Baseball Awards are an excellent example of this.) I also think this has as much chance of happening as I do of showing up on “Dancing With the Stars.”

The more likely path is that the BBRAA awards are replaced, in the minds of the people within the game and the fans that follow them, with something else. For my money, the IBAs would be a perfect replacement. If you compare the IBA results with BBRAA results for the history of the former, the IBAs hold up much better. The difference between the two is largely that the BBRAA awards have precedent on their side and the advantage of publicity. With each error-filled vote, though, the credibility of these awards erodes just a little, and eventually, it’ll be whittled down to nothing.

If not the IBAs, then why not some other entity? MLB could empanel a hundred or so people, a cross-section of insiders, reporters, personnel and analysts to vote for the awards, rotating the group each year. The Harris Poll didn’t exist 18 months ago; now, it will help determine what team plays for the national championship in college football. Some non-MLB entity could decide to do the same thing, and each year, as each group’s awards were distributed, the public could choose which they thought had more validity. Over time, the better awards would come to be seen as official, and the others would become a footnote.

Right now, the process for selecting these awards is poor, and the outcomes it produces are poor. Why not see if there’s something better out there?

I agree completely. I’m not sure how one goes about campaigning to replace the BBRAA awards with, say, the Internet Baseball Awards, but whatever it is, I’ll do my itty-bitty part to make it happen. Who’s with me?

Is the end of the TAKS test in sight?

Now that they’ve got the court order regarding property taxes off their backs (temporarily, anyway), the Lege can actually visit the idea of school finance (read: figure out how they’re gonna pay for those property tax cuts) and maybe even take up some school reform ideas. On the list of topics to discuss: the TAKS test.

“You never stop discussing education. It’s got to be every session, and it’s got to be major – every session,” Senate Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said.

Public education directly affects more than 4.5 million Texas students, their parents and about 600,000 teachers and staff.

Shapiro is among those who believe the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test “has worn out its welcome,” particularly for high school and middle school grades. She will push for “end-of-course” exams for the upper grades.

She also wants to review the state’s assessment process and minimum standards for student performance. Currently, schools earn “acceptable” status with a 25 percent passing rating.

“Nobody believes that 25 percent passing is acceptable,” Shapiro said. “We’ve got to change that and make (school grades) meaningful and not something to snicker at because that’s what we’re doing right now.”

The article doesn’t have a quote from one of Governor Perry’s spokesbots, but given that ending TAKS as we know it was a major plank in Chris Bell’s platform, don’t expect him to sit by quietly as this is going on. The danger is that the state will eliminate the weasel words without providing the means for school districts to meet the new and improved levels they set. Expect that vouchers will somehow work their way into the conversation, even after the electoral spanking that voucher king James Leininger suffered. As with appraisal caps and other bad ideas, as long as there’s an obsessive and well-financed constituency, stuff like that never goes away.

Elsewhere, Greg has a nice catch regarding the nature of standardized tests and why they’re often futile. Check it out.

Dallas and Williamson

Meanwhile, as you wait for me to give you more data about Harris County in 2006, here’s a couple of things to read about how things went elsewhere:

Via Vince comes this Statesman article about the closer-than-most-people-expected race in HD52 in Williamson County. I guarantee you this will be on everyone’s radar next time.

And Dallasite Eric Folkerth gives his thoughts on the Dallas Democratic sweep. He’s got a series of posts on the elections up there, with this one being the most numbers-oriented. Here’s the point to zero in on:

No Democrat running for state legislature took LESS than 40 percent of the vote in Dallas’ northern suburbs and in North Dallas itself.

We’ve been talking about when Harris County will be like Dallas County and have a big Democratic year. Maybe we ought to also ask when Dallas County will be like Travis County and have a near or total Democratic domination of the State Rep delegation.

Time to start a tour through the precinct data

I’ve been slowly making my way through the Harris County precinct data, with a goal of analyzing all of the interesting races that took place here this year. I’ve got a couple of reports prepped and ready to go, but before I start with those, I want to cover a general point: When the Secretary of State gives the respective Republican and Democratic averages for each Congressional and State Rep/State Senate district, take them with a certain grain of salt. The simple fact of the matter is that the statewide candidates’ average will understate the actual Democratic performance in many, if not all, districts.

How do I know this? By comparing the statewide candidates to countywide candidates in various places. Take Harris County, for example. By my calculation, the average Democratic statewide candidate (not counting Chris Bell; the Governor’s race is a separate post) got 45.12% of the two-party vote. Of 19 contested races, only one Democratic countywide candidate failed to exceed that mark. The average Democratic countywide candidate got 47.77% of the vote. Only Bill Moody, who came close to carrying Harris County, topped that. (Bell did as well for the straight up comparison against Perry.)

You see similar things in Fort Bend (average Dem statewide candidate, 42.73%; average Dem countywide candidate, 45.65%), Galveston (only Bill Moody carried the county, with 48.19% total, but Dems won 9 of 11 contested county races), and Dallas (average Dem statewide candidate 50.02%, with four of ten Republicans carrying the county, while countywide Dems won each of 42 contested races they were in). Even in a Democratic stronghold like Travis County, the pattern holds: The low score among the countywide candidates was Mina Brees with 59.12%; only Moody and JR Molina topped that among the statewides.

After the 2004 election, I argued that using the Bush/Kerry numbers to evaluate districts’ partisan indices was misleading, since Bush was easily the top votegetter in most counties, often outpacing the rest of the Republican ticket by three to five points. I used an average of the other three statewide races as my main factor. This year, I’m going to consider the full statewide averages as a data point, but I think a range of data is going to be needed rather than a single point. I’ll strive to use countywide candidates where I can, and I’ll likely use the Moody and Molina numbers otherwise as the closest approximation of the default Democratic vote. It’s my expectation as I go through the numbers that I’ll see a lot of examples of candidates for Congress and State Rep beating the statewides. We’ll see how that prediction turns out. Stay tuned for more.

Blowing things up in the name of science

A catch-up item from last week: this NYT article on the show Mythbusters as science-teaching tool. To me, the value of the show is that it shows the thought process that one must go through to set up and then evaluate an experiment that’s designed to test a hypothesis. It’s all about “How do we know we’re testing what we want to test?” and “What do the results we got (or didn’t get) tell us about what we wanted to test?”, two questions which I think everyone could spend more time thinking about. I like the fact that they address questions from viewers about the validity of previous experiments and try them again with those concerns in mind to see if they really did get it right the first time.

Real scientists will have legitimate quibbles about their methods, as they express in Chad Orzel‘s comments. It’s still television, after all, so the need for an earth-shattering kaboom will win out over more mundane things every time. The clincher for me is that Olivia likes the show, which gives Tiffany and me the chance to say things like “Science is cool!” to her on a regular basis. And hey, I like a good earth-shattering kaboom as much as the next guy. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Who we’re paying to lock up

Local attorney Randall Kallinen, who was a candidate for judge in Harris County this year, has an op-ed in the Sunday Chron about the makeup of the Harris County jail population.

The Harris County jail has reached 102.31 percent of capacity, 9,660 inmates, as of Oct. 1. That is about 1,000 more inmates than mandated by the state (90 percent capacity is the rule).

The county wants to spend $267 million for construction of new jails that will take many millions of dollars more to operate each year. While Harris County and the city of Houston struggle to hire qualified peace officers, these proposed jails threaten to divert hundreds of new peace officers to the job of warehousing inmates. Flawed criminal justice policy, not crime, is the cause of our jail overcrowding.

Only 1,297 jail inmates (around 14 percent of the total jail population) are convicted misdemeanor offenders serving their sentence. There are more than three times that many not yet convicted, just waiting for trial – more than 4,000 pretrial detainees.


The Harris County jail is also holding 1,319 state jail felons as compared to an additional 577 for the entire rest of the state. Why won’t the state take them? Maybe it is because Harris County is the state’s per capita leader in jailing trace drug cases, such as empty cocaine vials.


Harris County has a growing population categorized as “others” that fits into no listed category of jail inmates as reported by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Last August, the county held 799 “others” and in September this grew to 940 – the largest per capita amount anywhere in the state. Many of these “others” are people sentenced to drug treatment who are languishing in jail, often for many months, waiting to start their treatment.

All of this is of course familiar to those of you who read Grits for Breakfast. Basically, we can continue to spend millions of dollars to imprison up to seven times as many people as we need to, or we can try to figure out a smarter way of spending our tax dollars. Even people like Judge Mike McSpadden think the “lock ’em up first and ask questions later” approach is broken. When will the folks who spend all this money catch up?

By the way, speaking of Grits, he notes that despite Texas’ high incarceration rate, we still have more crime per capita than the national average? One state that does better than average is New York, even though they lock up far fewer people. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

The Christmas Story house

I love stories like this.

Ralphie Parker and Brian Jones know what it’s like to want something.

For Ralphie, the object of desire was an official Red Ryder, carbine-action, 200-shot, range model air rifle. (Go ahead, say it, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”) For Jones, the gotta-have-it item was Ralphie’s house – the one in “A Christmas Story,” the quirky film that’s found a niche alongside holiday classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Jones has restored the three-story, wood-frame house to its appearance in the movie and will open it for tours beginning Saturday. His hope is that it will become a tourist stop alongside the city’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and other destinations.

He’s unsure whether he’ll make enough money to cover his $500,000 investment, but as sure as a kid’s tongue will stick to a frozen flag pole, he’s committed to the project.

“I just want people to come and enjoy it as I have,” said Jones, a 30-year-old former Navy lieutenant.

Now that is what I call preservation (as it happens, the house is 111 years old). Best of luck to you, Brian Jones.

Bowl bound, baby

The Rice Owls are going to a bowl game. For the first time since 1961.

Holy $#|+!

I’m still getting used to the idea. After all I’ve seen since 1988, it’s a little unreal. But at least it’s unreal in a good way.

I don’t yet know what game, when it will be, where it will be, or who the opponent will be. Doesn’t matter – it’s a bowl game. Schedule permitting, I’ll be there. Hot dog!

A deserving turkey

The Houston Press has given its uncoveted Turkey of the Year Award for 2006 to Shelley Sekula Gibbs. I realize there’s been plenty already written about her farcical “term” in office so far, but for my money, this is the reason why she truly deserves the dishonor:

Congress may end up being in session only two weeks before DeLay’s term ends, but Sekula-Gibbs is a woman with a plan.

She’s told reporters she is dedicated to playing “a meaningful role” in working against higher taxes and for better health care.

But what about the second week, after she solves those problems? Again, Shelley has Big Thoughts. Like this, when a KHOU reporter asked her about the Iraq war: “If you put it in perspective, we’ve lost 2,800 brave men and women in Iraq but we lose over 9,000 Americans at the hands of illegal immigrants every year, according to the General Accounting Office.”

A spokesman for the GAO couldn’t confirm the existence of such a report, but maybe Sekula-Gibbs can find it when she’s up there in D.C. (See Hair Balls, page 12).

Here’s the Hair Balls entry to which they refer:

Seeing as how only 16,000 Americans are murdered each year, that seemed like those dadgum illegals were being very, very busy. So we called the GAO.

They were baffled. “I’m trying to think how she got there,” says Rich Stana, the GAO’s director for homeland security and justice issues.

The closest report that might fit, he says, was a snapshot count of all people incarcerated in March 2005. That report showed almost 6,000 illegal immigrants behind bars in federal, state or local facilities for murder, homicide or manslaughter.

But that includes people charged but not yet convicted, not to mention people serving time for murders committed five, ten, even 20 years ago. “Murder charges usually bring a more than one-year sentence,” Stana says.

So where did Sekula-Gibbs get her 9,000-deaths-a-year figure? Not from the GAO, as it turns out. Her spokeswoman, Lisa Dimond, says “She got the information from Curtis Collier at Border Watch.”

Border Watch’s website features much talk about border security; it features a picture of a jet slamming into the World Trade Center; it features a quote from Teddy Roosevelt saying “There can be no 50-50 Americanism in this country. There is room here for only 100 percent Americanism, only for those who are Americans and nothing else.”

What it doesn’t feature is a report from the GAO saying 9,000 people a year are killed by illegal immigrants.

Rick Casey tried to track down this lie in September, when Rep. Ted Poe made the same false claim. His spokesperson claimed it was an FBI statistic. Either way, it’s a shameful lie.

So congratulations, Shelley. You deserve this award, almost as much as you deserve all the bad publicity you’ve gotten since you got sworn in as Congresswoman For A Day. Enjoy your return to the private sector and an equally well-deserved obscurity. It can’t come soon enough.

RIP, Frank Madla

Former State Sen. Frank Madla and his mother-in-law died this morning in a house fire.

A man who was killed in a fire that struck a South Side home early Friday morning was confirmed to be former state Sen. Frank Madla, according to Harold Oliver, who was a senior aide in Madla’s Senate staff from 1994-2004.

Madla’s mother-in-law Mary Cruz died later at Brooke Army Medical Center, officials at BAMC said.

Two other occupants of the house, Madla’s wife, Helen, and the Madlas’ granddaughter, Aleena, were in stable condition Friday morning at University Hospital’s intensive care unit, hospital officials said.

What a terrible tragedy. My prayers and condolences go out to the Madla family. Rest in peace, Sen. Frank Madla.

Hands off!

In writing about why Dennis Franchione is the right coach for Texas A&M, Richard Justice says the following:

The Aggies aren’t going to get anyone better. Franchione is tough, organized, smart and detail-oriented. Unless the Aggies are willing to enter a bidding war for Greg Schiano, unless they’re willing to take a chance on, say, Todd Graham, they ought to stay the course for another year.

I don’t know if Justice was specifically citing the Rice coach as a candidate, or just suggesting a type, as in a young, hungry, assistant coach from a small but successful program. I presume the Ags’ defeat of the surprisingly listless Longhorns today obviates the need to worry about this for at least another year. But for goodness’ sake, can we please allow the Owls to finish their season, which may have two more games in it, before we get subjected to the Which ESU Will Swoop In And Throw Millions At Todd Graham stories? Show some respect for the Rice fans here, people. You’ll have the entire winter to play Fantasy Coach Search. Let us have our moment, OK?

Cuellar for Senate?

The Hotline offers up an intriguing new possibility for the 2008 Senate race against John “Box Turtle” Cornyn.

Despite Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R) resounding ’06 win, one TX Dem insider says Dems are hopeful that a strong challenger to Sen. John Cornyn (R) will still emerge. The Dem claims Cornyn “has significantly lower approval rating” than Hutchison and that Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) plurality win shows the TX GOP base is only 40% of voters. However the Dem concedes that a credible challenger would have to start raising money right now for what could be a $12M campaign.

Already mentioned as possibilities are ’98/’02 LG nominee/ex-Comp. John Sharp (D) and Houston Mayor Bill White (D), but ex-Rep. Jim Turner (D) still has over $1M CoH left over. There are “rumblings” about Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-28) running, and ’02 nominee/ex-Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk’s (D) name gets batted around occasionally too (Hotline reporting, 11/21).

I feel like John Sharp’s day has come and gone, but we’ll leave that discussion for the future. I see Mayor White as a 2010 gubernatorial candidate, not a Senate candidate – like most CEO types, I think he’s more comfortable in an executive role. Who knows about Turner and Kirk? I think they get mentioned because someone has to.

But Cuellar, now there’s a name I hadn’t heard before. I’m not going to claim I’m a big fan, but along the same lines as what I wrote when CD23 was redrawn, the simple fact of the matter is that Cuellar would be a huge step up from Cornyn. Further, the guy has shown he can win elections, and he’ll drive turnout in South Texas, where Dems will need a lot of votes to compete. They certainly love him in Webb County, where his total exceeded the next highest Dem’s by almost 1000 votes. He’s not my first choice, but I think he’d give Cornyn a hell of a race.

For that reason, I reject Kos‘ assertion that a Cuellar candidacy would be a sign of “real trouble” for the Dems. If nothing else, seeing anotherviable candidate on the usual list of same-old-same-olds is cause for celebration in and of itself. And if, as Greg notes, Cuellar’s desire to run stateside prompts him to help his erstwhile friend Ciro Rodriguez in the CD23 runoff, so much the better.

Oh, and the reason that “Democrats claim” Cornyn has significantly lower approval ratings” than Hutchison is because it’s true. Compare for yourself.

What I’m thankful for today

I think it’s pretty obvious…

I am thankful for my family – Tiffany, Olivia, my parents, my siblings, my in-laws, my aunts, uncles, cousins, assorted others, and those who are family by choice rather than by blood. Among all the other things for which I am blessed, that’s number one.

And I’m pleased to tell you that those blessings will grow. Sometime in mid-February, Olivia will acquire the status of Big Sister. According to the ultrasound, we’ll be getting another girl. All of us are very happy about this.

My future is sure to be a chaotic one now that we’ll be playing a fulltime man-to-man defense in the house. (As a friend said to me, the difference between having two kids and having three is the need to switch from a man-to-man to a zone defense. We can still play the man, we’ll just have to give up on the double team.) But it’s one to which I’m eagerly looking forward. On this day, I want to publicly acknowledge my bounty, and to express my thankfulness for it.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I’ll be back tomorrow.

My mom’s most memorable Thanksgiving

Here’s a story from my mom of a legendary Thanksgiving dinner at our old house in New York several years ago. Sadly, I was not there to witness this, but I’ve laughed at the tale many times.

My Most Memorable Thanksgiving

I have to admit my most memorable Thanksgiving was the one the oven died and we almost set the house on fire. Since Charles was in Texas at this time I thought he could save this family story for Olivia.

This particular year, not only were the usual “elders” with us, in all their wheel chair, walker and medication glory, but also Geoff Kuffner, (who had been out partying the night before) and Todd, a college friend of Michael’s from Arizona, (who had never been to the Big Apple).

(Note: Geoff is my cousin, and Michael is my brother. The “elders” included Uncle Joe Abbruzza, who had lost a leg to diabetes and got around in a wheelchair, and Uncle Frank Carasanite, who is a disabled WWII vet who gets around – very slowly – with a walker.)

As we were all seated eating Antipasti I went to check on the turkey and immediately noted the oven was no longer working. No sweat, our soon to be daughter-in-law Cathy, who can fix anything, came to the rescue. She checked under the oven and even went down the basement to the switch box, but even she could not fix the problem. Ok, Dad and I thought let’s put it on the gas grille. After all we had done this many times before, just with smaller turkeys. What I had not thought about was the fact that this one was basted in cognac (an old Martha Stewart recipe). Well cognac and fire do not mix, we would soon discover.

The next problem was heating up the 2 trays of Red’s famous lasagna. Yes, Italians do eat pasta after antipasti and before turkey. So we retrieved an old rotisserie roster from the basement, that first needed serious cleaning, and placed the 2 trays in there. Everyone was given another glass of wine.

(Note: Red was my mother’s mother. And man, was her lasagna good.)

So now while everyone was enjoying Red’s fabulous lasagna I again checked the turkey on the grille. This time I found flames shooting 6 feet in the air and very close to the house. Thanks, Martha.

I quietly went into the dining room so as not to upset the old folks to get Charlie’s attention. I did not have worry, they were all so well carbed and wined no one had a clue anything was wrong.

Geoff just smiled and Todd was wide eyed. Well, we finally got the turkey on the table with no one the wiser.

After dinner everyone said it was the most delicious turkey they ever had. No one realized they just had real barbequed turkey. Todd said it was the most fun he ever had at Thanksgiving and could he come back next year. Geoff just sat and continued to smile. The true test of this well fed crowd was finding the elders sound asleep within an hour of dinner, in their assigned seats in front of the fireplace, while the “young” folks cleaned up.

Charlie and I still giggle at the memory of Cathy in her cute very mini skirt, with a glass of wine in her hand trying to crawl under the wall oven to see what the problem was and she never spilled a drop; a true Kuffner to be.

I think the lesson one learns from this is that the key to overcoming any kitchen mishap is making sure everyone has enough wine. I don’t know if it’s in any of Martha Stewart’s cookbooks, but if not, it should be.