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April, 2008:

Medina grand jury reconvenes, indicts wife

This was sudden.

For the second time, a Harris County grand jury indicted the wife of Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina, alleging she burned down the couple’s Spring home and damaged two neighbors’ homes in a fire last year.

The indictment, handed up Wednesday, charges Francisca Medina with felony arson for the destruction of her home, felony criminal mischief of more than $200,000 for damage to their neighbor’s home and criminal mischief, a state jail felony, for damage done to the house behind the Medinas’ home.

Four months ago, a different grand jury indicted Francisca and David Medina, accusing her of having a role in the June 28 fire and him of fabricating evidence, specifically a letter he gave investigators about the incident. The indictments were dismissed the next day.

Prosecutor Vic Wisner said he didn’t expect any other indictments in the case, effectively clearing David Medina of any wrongdoing. The prosecutor said he remains open to receiving more information about the fire.

Francisca Medina’s attorney called the indictment “ridiculous.”

“There’s no evidence, there’s never going to be any evidence, that Fran Medina burned her own home,” said Dick DeGuerin. “It was her dream home.”

According to this Texas Lawyer story, the new grand jury just heard evidence today. That’s a pretty quick result. It also goes into some more detail about David Medina:

Vic Wisner, an assistant Harris County district attorney, says that in ensuing months, new evidence and witnesses developed in the case that warranted a second grand jury presentation. Wisner presented the case to the grand jury.

“We felt we reached a stage that we had sufficient evidence to go forward,” Wisner says.

Wisner says David Medina could be indicted later “if new evidence comes forth. But at this point, we’re comfortable with the charging decisions.”

“If he has relevant testimony we would call him as a witness at trial,” Wisner says. “We’ve examined the law, and we don’t think the marital privilege applies.”

As for why the grand jury declined to indict David Medina, Wisner says “I think that will be obvious at trial.”

“They examined his conduct and didn’t feel it was criminal conduct, or they felt there was criminal conduct but there wasn’t probable cause,” Wisner says, speaking generally about the grand jury decision. “But, I can promise, it will all be covered at trial.”

Boy, there’s a teaser for you. The report I saw on KHOU said that prosecutors have found away to get around the spousal privilege exception. It didn’t go into detail, and it quoted Dick DeGuerin scoffing at the notion, so who knows what they have in mind. I have a feeling this trial, should it get that far, will be covered pretty extensively.

One more thing, from the Chron:

Shortly after [former DA Chuck] Rosenthal moved to dismiss the [January] indictments, two grand jury members publicly denounced Rosenthal’s unwillingness to prosecute, a rare move for the group whose actions are typically secret. They alleged that Rosenthal’s actions were politically motivated.

The next week, District Judge Jim Wallace, who presided over a hearing to determine whether the two jurors were in contempt for speaking about the grand jury proceeding, criticized the district attorney’s office for not supporting the grand jury’s decision to indict the Medinas.

Wallace would dismiss the entire grand jury because of a procedural error by the district’s attorney’s office.

Members of the grand jury subsequently filed a lawsuit against Rosenthal for permission to discuss the evidence they heard while they were empaneled.

Before the indictments were handed up Wednesday, a judge dismissed the lawsuit, apparently coincidentally, said Scott Durfee, general counsel for the Harris County District Attorneys Office.

Jeffrey Dorrell, one of those grand jurors, is quoted in the Texas Lawyer story saying he feels they have been vindicated by this result, and that the second grand jury was not as kind to Mrs. Medina as they were. Some background on that saga can be found here, here, and here.

Kelley to get $1.4 million

It’s a lot less than what he asked for, but Lloyd Kelley will still get a lot of money out of the Ibarra case.

A federal judge on Tuesday ordered Harris County to pay more than $1.4 million in legal fees to two brothers who won a record settlement resolving their wrongful arrest lawsuit.


In his ruling approving the attorneys’ fees Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt blamed Harris County for refusing to settle the case, even though it had been advised by its own legal expert to do so.

“The tragedy, in the court’s opinion, is that this vast expenditure of time on both sides was driven primarily by Harris County’s mindset that has proven impervious to the truth, even though that truth was presented more than 5,000 billable hours earlier,” Hoyt wrote.

Sounds like Judge Hoyt agreed with Kelley’s argument to some extent, but wasn’t willing to take it all the way to Kelley’s conclusion that the county deserved to be charged more as a way of imposing “punitive” damages.

Harris County also used 26 trial and appellate attorneys on the case, expending nearly $2.3 million in billable hours, when two to four attorneys would have been “more than sufficient,” Hoyt wrote.

“In part, this accounts for the factious tone of the litigation as experienced by the court and, as well, the absence of leadership in the handling of Harris County’s business,” he wrote.

Ouch. This case may be over, but with quotes like that out there, you can count on hearing about it again this fall.

Metro changes contractors

I’m not sure how big a deal this is.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials announced Tuesday they have ended talks with Washington Group International to be prime contractor on four planned light rail lines, saying the two sides were “hundreds of millions” of dollars apart.

Metro now will try to reach an agreement with Parsons Transportation Group, which ranked second among three candidates for the job when WGI was chosen in January 2007, Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson said.

Wilson said WGI will be compensated $77 million for design and engineering work to date, most of which has been paid. He said Parsons will build on that head start, allowing the projects to move forward on schedule.

The Metro board last week approved paying Parsons up to $12 million for work it will perform through December.

Metro announced the change at a hastily called news conference.

According to Miya, the topic of the press conference was not known to the attendees, or even to some Metro vice presidents, and City Hall didn’t know it was coming. That’s a little odd.

Wilson said Metro and WGI were “hundreds of millions” apart on the cost of the project and on how to share various risks that could affect costs — such as delays, inflation, governmental action and unforeseen environmental impacts. The two sides had been in negotiations for a year.


A financial capacity analysis prepared for Metro this month put the cost of the entire Metro Solutions Phase 2 plan at $2.6 billion. However, that includes a fifth light rail project, the University line, which is longer and likely to be more costly than the others.

Wilson said Metro plans to start construction on the East End line in June and on the North and Southeast lines in September. Construction on the Uptown line is expected to depend on funding for the University line.

I don’t know if this is going to add delays to the construction schedule, or if it’s removing obstacles by getting past this impasse. The report I saw on KHOU last night (which for some reason I can’t find on their site now) says Metro plans to break ground on the East and North lines in June, and still expects to meet the 2012 date for completion. It also said they expect to hear from the FTA about funding in July. Here’s hoping for good news on that score.

The appeals courts

Looking at an email I received inviting me to a fundraiser for one of the candidates for the 14th Court of Appeals got me to thinking about those races yesterday. The Appeals Courts – the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals include Harris County – are sort of in-between races, as they cover a ten-county area, with Harris being about two-thirds of the voting population. As we know, in 2006 Jim Sharp carried Harris County in his race for the 1st Court of Appeals, Place 9, but not by enough. Here’s how that broke down:

County Sharp Alcala ========================= Harris 277,820 276,529 Others 120,010 130,209

Sharp won 50.1% in Harris County. Had he won 51.1% – actually, 51.0% would have sufficed – he’d have won the election, as his winning margin in Harris County would have swamped his losing margin elsewhere.

Basically, if you win Harris County by enough, you will win a seat on one of these benches pretty much regardless of what happens in the other counties. So how much is enough? To answer that, let’s look at the other two contested Appeals Court races in recent years: Leora Kahn versus Richard Edelman in 2006, and Sharo versus Evelyn Keyes in 2004.

County Kahn Edelman Kahn % Deficit 2008 % ==================================================== Harris 264,679 286,575 48.01 21,896 52.42 Others 107,825 139,942 43.52 32,117 43.52 County Sharp Keyes Sharp % Deficit 2008 % ==================================================== Harris 478,352 538,788 47.03 60,436 52.60 Others 185,901 242,048 43.44 56,147 43.44

The “2008 %” column represents the percentage that the Democratic candidate would need in Harris County to overcome a performance at the same level in the other counties, assuming the proportion of Harris/non-Harris votes is the same. The math is in this Excel spreadsheet if you’re curious. To put it in simple terms, as I see it, 51% in Harris County will require a strong effort elsewhere (Sharp had 48% elsewhere in 2006) to be competitive. A 52% showing in Harris puts you well within range. Win 53% in Harris, and you’ll almost be surely be called Your Honor at this time next year.

I think this is doable, and it’s consistent with the vote total target that I understand other countywide candidates have been told to shoot for. Obviously, you can hedge your bets by trying to improve in places like the reasonably Dem-friendly counties like Galveston and hopefully Dem-trending ones like Fort Bend, but the fat target is Harris, and that’s where I expect the bulk of effort to be.

As it happens, as I was puzzling through this, I got a tip that another Appeals Court seat will be up for grabs in November. Rumor has it that Justice Wanda Fowler, who ran unopposed for a six-year term in 2006, will be stepping down in May. My understanding is that the party chairs for the ten counties that this Appeals Court covers will then get together and name candidates to replace her, with each chair getting one vote. At this point, that’s all I know. Fee free to speculate about who else you might see on your increasingly crowded ballot this year.

UPDATE: I have now been informed that Governor Perry has convinced Justice Fowler to wait till later this year before stepping down, as that would allow the replacement he names to not have to run until 2010. Needless to say, I’m not the least bit surprised by this. And I think it can be taken as a sign that the Governor and his cronies are worried about these elections.

If you don’t have the cash, don’t get the disease

This WSJ article is really scary.

Hospitals are adopting a policy to improve their finances: making medical care contingent on upfront payments. Typically, hospitals have billed people after they receive care. But now, pointing to their burgeoning bad-debt and charity-care costs, hospitals are asking patients for money before they get treated.

Hospitals say they have turned to the practice because of a spike in patients who don’t pay their bills. Uncompensated care cost the hospital industry $31.2 billion in 2006, up 44% from $21.6 billion in 2000, according to the American Hospital Association.

The bad debt is driven by a larger number of Americans who are uninsured or who don’t have enough insurance to cover medical costs if catastrophe strikes. Even among those with adequate insurance, deductibles and co-payments are growing so big that insured patients also have trouble paying hospitals.

The story is built around the case of a Lake Jackson woman who contracted leukemia and has had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in cash up front to MD Anderson Hospital to receive care. Read it and ask yourself what might happen to you if you were in her position.

On a related note, since many long-term illnesses are really disabilities of some kind, you might care to know what the Presidential candidates’ positions are on the subject. Michael Berube explains it all to you, in detail. Check it out.

Build green

I like the sound of this.

Houston builders will have to incorporate “green” design techniques such as heat-trapping vestibules and “cool roofs” that deflect sunlight under a proposed new energy code for commercial buildings.

The City Council could pass the new code for commercial buildings on Wednesday. A new residential code also is being developed and could come before the council next month.

Houston adopted its first energy codes in 2002 in response to a state mandate. This would be the first update, and it is decidedly more “green” than its predecessor.


The code would require simple things like covers for heated pools. But it delves into specific material requirements for required “cool roofs” that absorb less solar radiation. Acceptable types of window glass would have to strike a balance between energy insulation and a good view, Blake said.

New buildings of at least four stories would be required to have vestibules to prevent Houston’s hot, humid air from rushing in when doors open and close. That was an addition to the engineering code created especially for the city’s climate, said Bob Burch, an engineer with Carter & Burgess and a member of the city’s Construction Industry Council. The CIC, an umbrella association for various builders groups, worked with the city on the new code.

Burch chaired the code-writing committee, which included city officials and representatives from contracting, real estate, architecture and green building organizations.

One would hope this means there isn’t any organized opposition to this plan. At the very least, the article doesn’t quote any opponents.

Burch said many of the requirements would pay for themselves in three years, or less.

“The entire industry is going toward the green,” he said. “These are all things that are industry-proven and can be done and should be done.”

I presume one reason for codifying this, beyond simply making a statement that the city believes in it, is that there will always be some builders who don’t believe in it, or who’d rather take the short-term savings and cut corners. This is why I prefer a regulatory approach to a voluntary one.

The small county effect in the RRC runoff

A reader named Kay sent me a link to this Google spreadsheet, which shows how counties that had more than 10% turnout in the Democratic primary runoff voted in the Railroad Commissioner race. Short answer: Mark Thompson did pretty well there.

Primary Henry votes Henry % Thompson votes Thompson % ================================================ 32,385 37.85 53,183 62.15 Runoff Henry votes Henry % Thompson votes Thompson % ================================================ 24,776 36.68 42,771 63.32

These 22 counties have just over 379,000 registered voters among them – which is to say, about as many as there are in Collin County, a little less than fiver percent of the statewide total – but they accounted for 34% of the runoff turnout, and gave Thompson more than half of his 36,000-vote margin of victory.

I presume a lot of these counties, like Webb, had local runoffs going on that drove the turnout totals. As for why Thompson did well in them, it’s likely as I said before: having collected nearly a million votes in March, he was the name-ID leader, and coasted home on that. How he got to that position will remain a mystery on par with the fate of Jimmy Hoffa, but I think we’ve flogged that horse sufficiently. Anyway, I don’t know how much light this really shines on things, but I love numbers, and these were interesting. Thanks to Kay for pointing them out to me.

Where the voter ID battle goes from here

After yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, voter ID was the hot topic among legislators.

“That’s very encouraging for those of us who worked so long and hard on that,” said state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, lead author of a voter ID bill last year. “It has to help those of us who want to see our election process be protected so that only those who are qualified are able to vote.”

The legislation passed the Texas House but failed in the Senate, where 11 members united to block the bill from consideration.

And the same would happen next year if a similar voter ID bill reaches the Senate, several Democratic members warned Monday.

“Just because the court decision indicates that it’s legal doesn’t mean that it’s right,” said Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston. “The Supreme Court doesn’t have a vote in the Texas Legislature.”

Gallegos risked his recovery from a liver transplant last spring by remaining in the Capitol and providing the decisive vote in blocking the bill. Senate rules allow 11 members to block legislation they consider objectionable, and Democrats needed Gallegos’ presence.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Senate Republicans who wanted the voter ID bill almost got their way on a roll-call vote when Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, was out with the flu. But Uresti rushed into the Senate chamber from a nearby apartment just moments before Dewhurst called his name.

Eye on Williamson, who links to other stories and reactions to the ruling, suggests that electing Joe Jaworski and Wendy Davis to the Senate would help prevent the 2009 edition of a voter ID bill passing out of the Lege. While I wholeheartedly agree with his prescription, I fear that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in his zeal to provide red meat for Republican primary voters in 2010, will find a way to bypass the two-thirds rule and force this through somehow. Frankly, had it not been for the extraordinary circumstances last year, I think he’d have succeeded then. To me, the best line of defense for 2009 is ensuring that a Democrat is the Speaker of the House, because in that case, we won’t have Leo Berman chairing the Elections committee, and any voter ID bills that get filed ought to get strangled in the crib. You know what to do to help make that happen.

I’m not sure if I should be comforted or alarmed by this:

Gallegos and other Democrats did say they would consider an identification requirement as part of a package that made voting easier — such as allowing people to register on the same day they vote.

“That would definitely be a plus for me,” Gallegos said.

The 2007 Republican bill’s author says “maybe” to the idea of same-day voter registration.

“It’s possible that down the road that we will go toward that,” Brown said.

“There are some things that have to be clarified in our process before we could go to that. I don’t have a problem with one-day registration and voting so long as we have assurance that we can know that those people are not voting in other places,” she said.

As always, the devil is in the details. Same day registration would be nice, but not nearly enough in my book. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, the minimum requirement for me includes not just providing photo IDs for free to anyone who needs them, but actively identifying and tracking down those people so they can be sure of receiving their IDs if they want them. I can live with photo ID as a requirement if and only if it’s not an obstacle. And one more thing:

State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said the discussion should begin with an assessment of the election system.

“Public policymaking should begin with identifying real problems,” Villarreal said. “What we know is that the advocates of voter ID have not been able to bring forth evidence demonstrating that there is real fraud happening in the voting polls.”

An honest assessment of absentee voting problems, which would include a critical look at the actions and inactions of our Attorney General, and possible remedies for them, would also be a requirement for me. Let’s be sure there’s an actual problem for us to claim to be fixing.

As the Rocket turns

We have now officially reached the point at which I feel dirty for ever having paid any attention to the circus that is Roger Clemens and his Mitchell Report saga.

On a day when his attorney disputed allegations Roger Clemens had a lengthy affair with country music singer Mindy McCready, McCready offered no such denial.

“I cannot refute anything in the story,” McCready told the New York Daily News on Monday from her home in Nashville, Tenn.

The newspaper described her as “tearful but resolute.”

Rusty Hardin, who is representing Clemens in an ongoing steroid investigation as well as a defamation suit against the man who accused him of taking performance-enhancing drugs, said Clemens’ relationship with the troubled McCready was friendly but never romantic.

“Mindy McCready is a longtime family friend of Roger Clemens and the Clemens family,” Hardin said in a prepared statement. “At no time did Roger engage in any kind of inappropriate or improper relationship with her.”

You can read on or Google around if you want to know the more sordid aspects of this, which if true ought to land Clemens in much hotter water than what he’s in now. I’m not making any judgment about their veracity – indeed, I’m contemplating whether Clorox or Mr. Clean will do a better job of wiping all knowledge of this soap opera out of my brain – just noting that somewhere along the line, this stopped being about steroids and started being about something else. I will say two things before I check myself in for a lobotomy:

1. Being a known sleazeball didn’t prevent Wade Boggs from being elected to the Hall of Fame. On the other hand, Margo Adams wasn’t jailbait (admittedly, neither was McCready at the time when the relationship was alleged to have become intimate), and the sportwriters had more than a decade to forget about all that before Boggs appeared on a ballot. Still, something to keep in mind when some upright member of the BBWAA brings this up in 2012 or whenever.

2. I know I’m not the only person to say this, but you think maybe Clemens might have served himself better by making a tearful admission and plea for forgiveness, followed by a quiet settlement with Brian McNamee? Where’s a reset button when you really need one?

A message from Diana Maldonado to TexBlog PAC

Diana Maldonado, the first endorsed candidate of TexBlog PAC, sent us the following email:

Dear Texas BlogPAC and Friends,

I want to thank you and your donors for your generous contribution to my campaign. We will use your contribution to communicate our message of balanced, progressive leadership to the voters of Williamson County.

I also want to thank you for a great party at Scholz’s! The good news about getting Texas back on track is that so many different people are prepared to pitch in their resources, time, and in the case of your party…their singing voices!

House District 52 covers most of Williamson County including far north Austin, Round Rock, a bit of Georgetown, and all of Taylor and Hutto. The eastern side of the district is home to some of the most productive farmland in all of Texas. To the west, high tech workers and busy commuters have settled in the district because of affordable housing and excellent schools. We must honor and protect our rural roots as we plan for and manage the growth of urban areas.

Just like you, I am prepared to do much more than merely complain about the failures of past leadership. I will advocate for affordable tuition, consumer protection for homeowners, state support for public education, and increased access to healthcare for all Texans. I will fight against toll roads, the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC), and road projects that do not serve the people of my district.

As a former president of the RRISD Board of Trustees, I have worked to put the interests of our kids first. I have worked with my fellow citizens and board members to fully fund classrooms while respecting the pocketbooks of local taxpayers.

I am ready for to fight this battle. As the next legislator from Williamson County, I will build upon my track record of success to provide fair and honest leadership to my district and all Texans.


Diana Maldonado

Candidate HD52

I’m proud to be a part of this. We will be announcing more candidates that we support soon. With your help, we will put together a great slate of contenders to take back the Texas House.

Rev. Lawson responds to the Chron

In my overview of the DA race, I noted that the Chron took former HPD Chief Bradford to task for the 2002 K-Mart raid. That prompted a response from the Rev. William Lawson, who saw a double standard in how the editorial board holds law enforcement leadership responsible for the actions of its employees. I’m reproducing an unedited version of that letter below:

I am deeply concerned about a recent editorial apparently opposing former Police Chief C. O. Bradford, who is a candidate for District Attorney. Let’s say for a moment that, as the Chronicle implies, Chief Bradford was entirely responsible for the officers’ behavior at the scene of the street racing raid. Fine. Chief Bradford knows where the buck stops. He took steps to remedy the situation and made the difficult decision to fire the officers who had created the problem on the scene.

Contrast that with Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas and the Chronicle’s evaluation of his performance. In June 2004, the Chronicle editorialized about several questionable shootings by Harris County deputies. The Chronicle reported that Sheriff’s deputies had shot 19 unarmed citizens over a period of time, six of whom were teenagers. They further reported that sheriff’s deputies numbered fewer than half the officers of HPD and produced almost twice as many such shootings over the same period. One person shot was described by the Chronicle not as a violent suspect but as an “erratic driver.”

According to the Chronicle: “Burt Springer, a lawyer for the Harris County Deputies’ Organization, had this to say about an innocent passenger paralyzed by a deputy’s bullet while riding with a suspected car burglar: ‘If you lay down with dogs you get fleas.’ Such scant regard for the innocent is seldom stated so baldly.”

Just a few months after reporting on these problems with the Sheriff’s office, the Chronicle turned around and actually endorsed Sheriff Thomas writing, “The professionalism of the department’s investigators and deputies is in evidence.” With its knowledge of all of these problems-problems that cost Harris County residents their lives-the Chronicle endorsed Sheriff Thomas and praised his professionalism, as well as that of his deputies.

The Houston Chronicle must explain why multiple shootings of unarmed teenagers by Sheriff Thomas’ deputies should be endorsed, while a good African American public servant like Chief Bradford should be demonized for his efforts to make the city safer.

I would hate to think it is because Bradford is African American, or because the Chronicle wants him out of the way so that the paper can endorse another candidate. James Campbell would never do that. It is painfully clear that the Chronicle has set two separate but unequal standards for our public officials. Those of us in the black community will be waiting for the Chronicle’s explanation-not Chief Bradford’s.

— Rev. William Lawson, Pastor Emeritus, Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church

Pretty strong stuff. I will say, as I said before, that it boggles my mind how the Chron could be calling for New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s resignation the day after the news of his prostitution habit hit the news, and yet they never once made any call for Chuck Rosenthal to step down, even after everyone from Quanell X to Ed Emmett had done so. I don’t know what standards they have in these situations, but whatever they are, they’re pretty unfathomable. A little consistency would be nice.

Ree-C has her say

Here’s what my co-blogger Ree-C Murphy had to say (corssposted here) about the Houston Have Your Say event that I blogged about last week. I’m very much in sync with her about what we experienced, and what we hope everyone got out of it. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be involved, and my thanks again to the folks at KUHT and Ree-C for making it so. Lisa Falkenberg also comments.

Can anyone stop the TTC?

So I’m reading this article about opposition to the Trans Texas Corridor by folks who are living on or near the proposed path for I-69, and a question strikes me.

Although TxDOT has heard a nearly unanimous negative verdict from residents of the area, Dennis Mlcak is not sure how much that matters.

“They keep pushing this thing, and it keeps marching in a forward direction, so we can’t really wait and see if it will die of its own accord,” he said.

The Mlcaks’ friends, Dane and Maxine Rudloff, whose property lies along I-10 near Sealy, have been through this before. When I-10 was built in the 1960s, the family had to sell 13½ acres for right of way. The road cut off 50 acres from what was left.

“We could see it, but eventually we sold it,” Dane Rudloff said. “My mother-in-law went to her grave fuming about that.”

So here’s my question: Has opposition to the Trans Texas Corridor been a deciding factor in any race for state office? I’m hard pressed to think of one. The anti-TTC folks claimed victory when Rep. Carter Casteel lost her GOP primary in 2006, and while every vote counts in a close race like that, it was James Leininger’s millions that put Nathan Macias in a position to win. I suppose you can count Rep. Mike Krusee’s retirement as a win, but it was demographic and partisan trends that knocked him out – Bill Moody scored 47.8% in HD52 (PDF) in 2006.

Beyond that, I got nothing. I thought the anti-TTC fervor would play a role in the 2006 Governor’s race, and maybe it did drive some voters from Rick Perry to Grandma Strayhorn or Kinky Friedman (who spoke the most clearly against the TTC on the trail), but in the end Perry won, and he beat back the toll road moratorium in the Lege. If the Governor’s race were this year instead of 2010, that might be an issue, though I daresay other things would overshadow it. If it’s an issue in any State House races, I haven’t noticed it yet.

Another factor to consider:

It is from there — the ranches and small towns of Walker, Grimes, Waller, Fort Bend and Austin counties — that some of the most unyielding opposition has come.

Walker, Grimes, and Austin Counties are all represented by State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, who was one of the strongest anti-TTC voices in the Lege last session. Waller and the relevant part of Fort Bend are represented by freshman Rep. John Zerwas, who is also an opponent of the TTC. In other words, these folks already have champions in office, so there’s no reason for the TTC to be a big electoral issue. The fact that these four counties plus a slice of Fort Bend only cover two districts demonstrates that however deep the feelings are, it’s not very broad in terms of population. These folks may be passionate, but there’s not that many of them, and that’s not a recipe for success at the ballot box.

If there was an inviting target for their wrath, it would have been State Sen. Steve Ogden, who represents Walker and Grimes counties and is a strong proponent of the TTC, but he won easily in 2006 over a typically underfunded candidate. (Sen. Glenn Hegar represents Waller, Austin, and Fort Bend; he had no Democratic opponent in 2006.) As I see it, until and unless a statewide candidate taps into this sentiment and converts it into votes he or she would not have already had – which is to say, until and unless a Democrat convinces these generally Republican voters to cross over – the TTC will not be much of a campaign issue. The spirit may be willing, but the numbers are weak.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 28

I’m not feeling the clever intro thing this week, so let’s just get right to the business of highlighting the Texas Progressive Alliance’s weekly roundup. Click on for the good stuff.


Supreme Court upholds Indiana voter ID law

This is a disappointment, but not a surprise.

The Supreme Court ruled today that states can require voters to produce photo identification without violating their constitutional rights, validating Republican-inspired voter ID laws.

In a splintered 6-3 ruling, the court upheld Indiana’s strict photo ID requirement, which Democrats and civil rights groups said would deter poor, older and minority voters from casting ballots. Its backers said it was needed to prevent fraud.


The law “is amply justified by the valid interest in protecting ‘the integrity and reliability of the electoral process,'” Justice John Paul Stevens said in an opinion that was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy. Stevens was a dissenter in Bush v. Gore in 2000.

Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also agreed with the outcome, but wrote separately.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented, just as they did in 2000.


The case concerned a state law, passed in 2005, that was backed by Republicans as a way to deter voter fraud. Democrats and civil rights groups opposed the law as unconstitutional and called it a thinly veiled effort to discourage elderly, poor and minority voters — those most likely to lack proper ID and who tend to vote for Democrats.

There is little history in Indiana of either in-person voter fraud — of the sort the law was designed to thwart — or voters being inconvenienced by the law’s requirements. For the overwhelming majority of voters, an Indiana driver license serves as the identification.

“We cannot conclude that the statute imposes ‘excessively burdensome requirements’ on any class of voters,” Stevens said.

So you say. I respectfully disagree.

Indiana provides IDs free of charge to the poor and allows voters who lack photo ID to cast a provisional ballot and then show up within 10 days at their county courthouse to produce identification or otherwise attest to their identity.

Stevens said these provisions also help reduce the burden on people who lack driver’s licenses.

While I agree that this mitigates the bad effects to some degree, I don’t think it’s sufficient. Moreover, what’s the minimum requirement for a state that wants to pass a voter ID law to clear the not-too-burdensome hurdle? Does it have to try to distribute free IDs to people who don’t have driver’s licenses, or does it just have to make them available to those who can somehow travel to (say) a DPS field office to pick one up? Because I guarantee that when the Texas Lege tries again on this, it will do the very least it has to do to pass muster.

HGLBT’s Jenifer Pool achieves a milestone

This is cool. From a press release from the HGLBT Political Caucus.

The Houston GLBT Political Caucus is pleased to announce the appointment of Jenifer Pool, President of the Caucus, to the City of Houston’s Building and Standards Commission.

Jenifer Pool was appointed by Mayor Bill White and unanimously confirmed by City Council to serve on the Buildings and Standards Commission. The first transgendered person to serve in an elected position in the City of Houston, Jenifer’s expertise will allow her to do her duties on the Commission, the purpose of which is hearing and determining cases concerning alleged violations of ordinances relating to dangerous buildings and vector conditions.

“As a Professional Engineer who could not get a job with the City in 1976 because I was transgendered, and as the architect of the 1980 repeal of the City ordinance that made all transgenders subject to arrest, I am very satisfied with the positive changes in City government as evidenced by Ms. Pool’s talents and education being fully utilized in this manner,” said Phyllis Randolph Frye, a recognized leader in the national GLBT civil rights movement, and a partner in the Houston law firm of Simoneaux and Frye, PLLC.

“To be nominated by the Mayor and unanimously elected by City Council, shows the high regard they hold for Jenifer’s expertise and leadership skills in the Caucus and the community,” said Maria C. Gonzalez, Vice President of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. The Honorable Jenifer Pool will serve a two year term on the Commisssion.

The Caucus meets the first Wednesday of every month at 7:00 p.m. The monthly meeting is held at the Havens Center, 1827 W. Alabama. Visitors are encouraged to attend the monthly meeting to learn more about the Caucus. For more information about the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, Caucus events, or volunteer opportunities call 713-521-1000, email [email protected], or visit our web site at

It’s a cliche to say we’ve come a long way, but it’s also true. And it’s a very good thing. My congrats to Jenifer Pool on the appointment. I know she’ll do a fine job.

The rise of Hispanic voting power

Pretty good article today on the growth of Latino voting power in Houston and Harris County.

As the babies born then turn old enough to vote in this year’s November election, politics in the Houston area has a much deeper Hispanic tinge. Hispanics on the voter rolls have nearly tripled in the passing of a generation; the number of Hispanic lawmakers from here is inching upward. The Democratic Party, if it captures county judgeships and government positions for the first time in 14 years, will owe much to a stimulated Hispanic vote and Hispanic candidates, such as Houston councilman Adrian Garcia, who is running for sheriff.

Harris County, however, continues to hold the largest Hispanic population in the United States that has never sent a Hispanic to Congress. And there is a staggering gap between its burgeoning vote of nearly 300,000 and the total number of Hispanic residents, 1.48 million, which includes all ages and residency statuses. Latinos make up 15 percent of the county’s electorate and 38-plus percent of its population, the U.S. Census Bureau and Harris County officials report.

In other words, the so-called sleeping giant, known as the Houston area’s fastest-growing voting group, has been making slow progress without yet achieving dominant clout.

“It’s not asleep, and it’s not a giant,” University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said. “It has come to be a normal-size political animal.”

Houston political consultant Marc Campos remarked otherwise: “The giant is waking up, and he’s making a pot of coffee.”

Couple points here. There’s really only one Conngressional district in Harris County that might be won by a Hispanic candidate, and that’s the 29th. Since beating Ben Reyes (twice) and Felix Fraga in primaries in the 90s, Rep. Gene Green hasn’t been seriously challenged for that seat. When he retires – if I had to guess, I’d pick November of 2014 as the open-seat election for the 29th – it will almost surely be won by someone like State Rep. Ana Hernandez or State Rep.-to-be Carol Alvarado. That person would not be the first Hispanic Congressperson from Houston, however, because we are a lock to get a new seat out of the 2010 reapportionment, and I’d bet on it being an opportunity district for a Hispanic candidate. And so we’ll likely go from zero to two in two elections.

As for the size and wakefulness of the Hispanic electorate, I’d call it a mixed bag. Armando Walle’s victory over Craddick Dem Kevin Bailey was a big step forward, and the HISD bond referendum of 2007 probably couldn’t have passed without strong support in the Latino community. On the other hand, given the chance to elect the first Hispanic At Large City Council member since Orlando Sanchez in 1999, nobody came out to support Joe Trevino in his runoff against Jolanda Jones. I think it’s one thing to elect Latinos in districts that were drawn to elect Latinos, and another to win city- or countywide.

Speaking of the newly-elected Rep. Walle:

For the freshest examples of the stirrings, look near the railroad tracks by the Eastex Freeway in northeast Houston. This is where Armando Walle grew up with his single mother, Connie, who was 16 when he was born. Walle, now 30, became the first person in his family to graduate from high school. After earning a degree from the University of Houston, Walle worked as a staffer for elected officials at the city and county levels and is employed by U.S. Rep. Gene Green, the Anglo Democrat who represents a mostly Hispanic Houston district.

On his first venture as a candidate, Walle defeated longtime state Rep. Kevin Bailey in this year’s Democratic primary in a northside district. District 140’s population was mostly Hispanic for many years, and by 2004 most of its registered voters were Hispanic, too, according to the Willie C. Velasquez Institute, which studies Hispanic voting in the Southwest.

Other Hispanics besides Walle ran against Bailey in previous primaries, when voter turnout was lackluster. This year, Democrats across Harris County swarmed the polls for the presidential primary contest, and the wave carried Walle to victory. He also had campaigned door-to-door, losing about 20 pounds in the walking process, he said, and his mother apparently earned him some votes by calling voters and speaking to them in English or Spanish.

“We knew if we were going to win, that this would be the time to strike,” he said, “and the stars aligned.”

Indeed they were. And it should be noted that a late mailer by Rep. Green in support of Walle helped put him over the top. Reportedly, quite a few people gave their vote to Walle after hearing that Green had endorsed him. So in case you were wondering why nobody has bothered to challenge Gene Green in a primary over the past decade, that would be the reason: His constituents really like him. Sometimes it’s just that simple.

About 115,000 Spanish surname voters cast ballots in the county in the last presidential election and, Murray said, the pattern indicates at least 150,000 Hispanic votes this time. But with Houston Hispanic and outgoing state Rep. Rick Noriega leading the statewide Democratic ticket as a candidate for U.S. senator, the statistic could reach 175,000. “Now,” Murray said of that scenario for the Hispanic vote, “you are finally getting into the league where you become a city or countywide force.”

Numbers-wise, the Latino vote was about 10.8% of the total in Harris County in 2004. Based on equivalent turnout, Dr. Murray’s estimates would represent 14.0% or 16.4% of the total. However, everyone expects turnout to be higher this year; based on an expected total of 1.2 million (there was 1.068 million in 2004), Latinos would be 12.5% or 14.6% of the whole. That’s a nice improvement, but there’s still a lot of room for growth.

Early overview of the County Judge race

The race for Harris County Judge is a little hard to get your arms around, because there hasn’t been anything like it in so long. Never mind a competitive race, there hasn’t even been a contested race in November for Harris County Judge since 1998. So this year, for the first time in at least a decade, we have a chance to have a real debate about the direction and philosophy of our county’s government, which easily has the highest power-to-public awareness ratio of any entity that will be on the Harris County ballot this year.

In some ways, of course, all of the countywide elections are like this, because we haven’t really had any truly competitive races in at least that long; the 2006 campaign for County Treasurer, the least relevant office around, is the closest thing I can think of in recent memory. But at least we’ve had Democrat-versus-Republican matchups for other offices in recent years. Given that the County Judge is the CEO of county government, and given that we’re already talking about the 2009 Mayor’s race and the 2010 Governor’s race, I really hope we’ll take advantage of this apparently rare opportunity.

The good news is that this race should not get drowned out by whatever else is going on this fall. Democrat David Mincberg already has a sizable campaign war chest, and you can be sure that Republican Ed Emmett will be similarly well-armed. These guys will get press coverage, and they’ll be on your TV and radio and in your mailbox. In all likelihood, it will be harder to cast an uninformed ballot for one of them than an informed ballot.

Further, there’s a good chance that they’ll spend a decent amount of their campaign resources talking about actual issues that have an actual impact on the lives of actual residents in Harris County. Taxes, flood control, transportation, the hospital district, a public defender’s office, how much we spend on things like jails, that sort of thing. Both candidates position themselves are get-things-done business types, so unlike a Mincberg-Bacarisse matchup, ideology should be of lesser focus than in some races. Neither candidate has any obvious baggage (though I’m sure they’ve both got some busy oppo researchers buzzing away to find out what may be out there that isn’t obvious), which again gives hope that they’ll be talking about substantive matters rather than trivia. For those of you who like to complain about politics as sport and too much negativity and stuff like that, this may be your best chance to see a campaign conducted as you say you want them to be. No guarantees, of course, but at least the potential is there.

So, given the similarities in style and background, and assuming no ginormous skeletons emerge from someone’s closet, how do these two guys distinguish themselves? For Emmett, I would think the task is to project himself as the guy in charge who knows what he’s doing and is getting things done but who isn’t connected to any of that bad stuff you might have heard about concerning some other Republicans in county government. He’s both a new face for a change-hungry electorate, and a familiar one with his hand comfortably on the tiller and guiding us all through these uncertain times. It’s a little tricky, since Mincberg will associate him with the shenanigans of former DA Chuck Rosenthal and current Sheriff Tommy Thomas, as well as County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, but far from insurmountable. Basically, I think the more he can talk about himself, what he’s done and what he wants to do, the better off he’ll be. The more he has to talk about external things like what some of these other knuckleheads have done, the worse off he’ll be.

Mincberg too will want to talk about what he’s done and what he wants to do, but he has to draw a contrast between his intentions and those of Emmett’s as well. This would have been easier for him to do had Charles Bacarisse won the nomination, as the differences there, both stylistically and substantively, are sharp and easy to see. Mincberg needs to challenge the notion that Emmett, no matter how fresh-faced he may be, represents any real change of direction for county government. He’ll want to talk about ethics, as they pertain both to Commissioner’s Court and to other county offices such as the Sheriff, and why it’s only just now that this is being discussed at all. He’ll likely harp on the projected growth of the county – from 3.75 million people now to 5 million in the next decade or two – and how our always-done-it-this-way means of conducting business needs to change. He’ll probably discuss the recently and strongly expressed preference for infill development, and talk about how decisions made by the Court affect the city of Houston, which tends to get the short shrift in terms of resources and services. I’m guessing to some extent what particular issues Mincberg will want to bring up, but the overall theme will be that of the need for a change of direction. The more he can talk about things that aren’t being done but need to be, the better for him.

At some point, of course, the gloves will come off, and the two will go after each other in a more direct and personal way. I don’t have much idea how that will play out right now, but it will happen. I think the risks of driving up your own negatives by attacking the other guy is a bit of a higher risk than usual for this race, but again, it’s hard to say at this time. I know I’m looking forward to seeing this campaign unfold, and I hope we don’t go quite as long before having another chance to have this kind of debate.


District Attorney

Skelly, Doherty among leaders in cash-on-hand ratio

James L. at the Swing State Project takes a look at the “top 75 non-open seat House races this cycle in terms of each challenger’s cash-on-hand competitiveness”, which is defined as the ratio of the challenger’s cash-on-hand to that of the incumbent. The idea is that having $500K against an incumbent with $2 million isn’t as impressive as having $150K against an incumbent with $200K. Two Texan Democrats – Michael Skelly, at #2 with more than twice as much cash as Rep. John Culberson, and Larry Joe Doherty at #42 – make the list, while no Republican challengers do. Check it out.

Workers Memorial Day

The following is an op-ed by Becky Moeller, the President of the Texas AFL-CIO, which I was asked to run as a guest column by Ed Sills. I thought it was interesting and timely, so here it is for your perusal:

On Workers Memorial Day, We ‘Fight for the Living’

By Becky Moeller

President, Texas AFL-CIO

Monday, April 28 is the 20th commemoration of Workers Memorial Day, an observance that most Texans have probably never heard of. To working families, though, the subject is one of deep and lasting concern as the labor movement pauses to remember the victims of workplace fatalities and rededicate ourselves toward preventing future deaths on the job.

Legendary organizer Mother Jones summed up the spirit of the day: “Mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living!”

In newly released Bureau of Labor Statistics figures covering 2006, Texas saw 489 workplace fatalities, just slightly below the 495 of the previous year. While Texas ranked 25th among the states in per capita fatalities, the number represents a rate of 4.5 deaths per 100,000 workers, which is above the national average of 4.0. Another 258,500 workers reportedly were injured or contracted occupational illnesses, the official statistics suggest.

Almost all the workplace fatalities involved transportation incidents (202), acts of violence (59), contact with objects or equipment (88), falls (60), exposure to harmful substances (54) or fires and explosions (23). A disproportionate number of worker fatalities occur among Hispanics and immigrant workers.

Monday also marks the anniversary of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, signed into law by the liberal President Richard Nixon and enforced since then with lack of gums, much less teeth.

The latest government figures show that Texas businesses experienced a grand total of 3,491 routine OSHA inspections in 2006. At that rate, it would take 148 years for the agency to visit every eligible workplace for a routine safety inspection.

It’s not like there’s nothing to be found. A recent round of OSHA inspections of Texas refineries found numerous violations. OSHA workers are conscientious and effective when given a chance to inspect, and they do a fine job when called in to probe deaths in the workplace. When it comes to prevention, though, they are simply without resources to do the job.

What can Texas do to stave off worker fatalities?

For some years now, the Texas AFL-CIO has advocated for a state OSHA to complement the federal agency and focus on industries that have a history of deadly accidents. We believe preventive care is always cheaper than post-disaster consequences: Witness the BP explosion of 2005, in which about $150,000 of repairs could have prevented a multi-billion dollar catastrophe. A state OSHA would encourage employers in the most dangerous industries to stay ahead of tragedy. It would save far more than it costs, both in lives and money.

Many Texas employers responsibly place safety first, but the state’s mechanism for addressing the ones who don’t is weak. Besides a measured increase in regulation, Texas workers need reasonable access to the justice system when irresponsible employers cause workplace harm.

This week, the House Business and Industry Committee and Senate State Affairs Committee will consider a range of issues involving access to the courts for workplace injury victims. Among the issues: A recent Texas Supreme Court decision that would have denied courthouse access to any worker injured anywhere if the premises owner carried the right kind of workers’ compensation insurance – regardless of whether the worker is even an employee.

The Supreme Court wisely withdrew the unanimous decision in Entergy v. Summers after a bipartisan group of legislators argued that the justices had misinterpreted state law. But to protect the right of workers to seek justice when they are injured, the Legislature should consider clarifying the rights of all injured workers to encourage employers to maintain the safest possible workplaces.

The vaunted “healthy business climate” in Texas must include better incentives for employers to keep workers alive and well. That’s a basic principle that would honor the memories of the 500 or so Texas workers who die each year on the job.

Becky Moeller is president of the Texas AFL-CIO, a state labor federation of approximately 220,000 affiliates that advocates in the Legislature and political arena for working people in Texas.

Single-serving sites

It seems weird in this day and age to register a domain and create a webpage that does exactly one thing, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped anyone from doing it. And I have to admit, some of them are useful, if limited in scope. I can think of about a million people who should not only bookmark this page but who should make sure it’s the first thing programmed onto the chip that will eventually be implanted into their heads some day. And where would Mark Evanier be if he couldn’t check on Abe Vigoda’s status? By however miniscule an amount, the world would be a lesser place without stuff like that. Thanks to Oliver Willis for the link.

You may say it’s not about tort reform, but it is

This front page story about the longstanding battle between a group of homeowners who bought defective houses and the builders who built them largely boils down to this:

The homeowners took photos of tell-tale brown stains under leaky balconies. They collected inspection records showing how the builder had sometimes skipped getting required permits.

They documented how the company changed names and then denied warranty claims.

And they provided their own mounting repair bills.

The District Attorney’s Office refused to take the case. In a letter, consumer fraud division attorney Valerie Turner said she thought it would be too difficult under Texas law to prove Tremont “intentionally and knowingly promised performance to the consumer, which they knew would not be performed.”

“Your complaint, while very serious, is not criminal,” the letter concluded. “We are sorry that civil remedies afforded to you and other homeowners under Texas law … seem inadequate.”

Sarah Reid Ford, one of the homeowners, was confounded by the response.

“We could get dozens of witnesses to say: ‘These people cheated me, they defrauded me,’ … and at the end of the day, the DA’s office does nothing,” she said.

Several years earlier, the Better Business Bureau of Greater Houston also unsuccessfully urged prosecutors to investigate after Stature/Tremont failed to respond to consumer complaints and then changed names, said spokeswoman Carol Ritter.

The BBB ejected both companies from its membership rolls.

Though construction complaints are common, Ritter said, allegations about a pattern of substandard construction and deception by Stature were disturbing.

“They know that if they can string this out for as long as possible, they will just bankrupt everybody,” she said.

Though it’s possible in Texas to make a criminal case against a builder or remodeler who repeatedly takes homeowners’ money and never performs any work, state laws are not strong enough to protect homeowners in many other situations, said Russel Turbeville, chief of the Harris County district attorney’s consumer fraud division, who has seen construction-related complaints surge.

“Texas is a bad place to be if you’ve got a construction problem with your home,” he said.

Tort reform and lack of legal protections have left homeowners who believe they have been victimized by builders with fewer ways to fight back, advocates from Home Owners for Better Building and Texas Watch say.

“To the extent there are builders who are gaming the system and preying on consumers we need to have significant reform,” said Alex Winslow, of Texas Watch.

But Lee Parsley, an Austin attorney for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, said, “Lawsuit reform is not related to the problems people may be having collecting judgments or arbitration awards, and it has nothing to do with whether the district attorney can attempt to punish a person or company that refuses to pay.”

In a narrowly defined sense, what the TLR shill says is true. The 2005 constitutional amendment that capped non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits doesn’t, strictly speaking, have any direct bearing on these cases. But the whole point of the so-called “tort reform” movement is to make it more and more difficult for consumers to seek redress through the courts for wrongs done to them by sellers of goods and services, all to the benefit of those sellers and their bottom lines. They’ve used a variety of tactics, from capping damages awards to requiring complaints to be resolved by a rigged arbitration process or to go through a stacked commission before earning the right to sue, and on and on. And if a pro-consumer bill threatens to make it through the Lege, pour in the money and lobby like hell to make sure it dies and stays dead. We all know that’s what TLR would do in the event a measure to make collecting judgments or arbitration awards or to give DAs more leeway to bring criminal charges against companies that refuse to pay ever gained momentum, right?

So yeah, it is all about lawsuit reform. And don’t you forget it, because for sure TLR never will.

Prairie View voting problems, the continuing story

Quelle surprise.

Nearly a year and half has passed since Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott launched an investigation into allegations of voting rights violations of Prairie View A&M students in Waller County.

The lengthy investigation has left some students at the historically black university wondering why so much time has passed without a resolution. Others expressed a more patient stance, saying it is prudent for the state to do a thorough job.

“Something should have been done by now,” said student Ashley Slayton. “I don’t know think there is a logical explanation for why there hasn’t been anything done.”

The Attorney General’s Office says the investigation is continuing but there is no word on how it is going or when it might end.

“I can’t have any further comment at all,” said attorney general spokesman Tom Kelley.


The investigation began in December 2006 when allegations were made that about 300 students had to cast provisional ballots when their names were not on voting lists. Local black leaders also contended that more than 1,000 voter-registration forms may not have been processed by Waller County officials.

The controversy surrounding the election and the subsequent investigation is not the first time voting and race have been an issue in Waller County.

In November 2003 former Waller County District Attorney Oliver Kitzman wrote a letter to the county elections administrator saying students from Prairie View did not necessarily qualify to vote locally.

But Abbott later ruled Prairie View students do have the legal right to vote locally. He said the students have to show only that they consider Waller County their legal residence.

In the latest incident, the Waller County Leadership Council filed a complaint with Abbott’s office in December 2006, saying the voting rights of Prairie View students were violated during the November election of that year.

I’ve got some background on the stuff from 2003 and a lawsuit that was filed in 2004 here, here, and here.

Waller County Justice of the Peace DeWayne Charleston, who has been an advocate for black voting rights, said he is not upset the probe has taken so long and has confidence in the investigators.

“In all fairness, I think that Attorney General Abbott has satisfied me and that he has done what he can do to protect the integrity of the voting process in Waller County,” Charleston said.

But he added: “I would probably be somewhat disappointed if they came back after taking a year or so with something to the effect that they found nothing.”

It depends. Are there Democrats he can arrest? If not, don’t hold your breath, that’s all I’m saying.

Baseball for Sugar Land?

Is there baseball in Sugar Land’s future? Maybe.

“That was one of the ones that was really at the top of the list of things our community would like to see,” said Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace.

Wallace says it’s too soon to say how big the stadium might be or how much it might cost. He did tell Eyewitness News that the city has already talked to several organizations interested in playing ball there.

“We have had ongoing discussions with a whole host of independents as well as other teams about perhaps coming to the city of Sugar Land,” he said.

Because talks are in infancy, Wallace wouldn’t’ reveal who those teams are. But he does tell us that city leaders recently visited the facility of the Frisco Roughriders near Dallas, not to entice the team to relocate, but to look at their stadium and baseball product as a model to pattern any future Sugar Land team after. One thing he says the city will insist on from all venues built — construction is not to increase the city’s tax burden to citizens.

“We are not going to use general fund revenues to basically pay for something like this,” he said. “It has to be self sufficient.”

Well, they tried and failed to get the Dynamo, so I suppose all that stadium desire has to go somewhere. Good luck in your pursuit, Sugar Land. Link via Houstonist.

The middle name game

I generally don’t watch the national news on TV if I can avoid it; since Tiffany does like to watch, I often can’t. The other night during one of the broadcasts, there was a bit on how Republicans in North Carolina were attacking Obama, and it predictably included a clip with some guy saying “Barack HUSSEIN Obama!” And my first reaction to that was, don’t these people know that the only reason your parents give you a middle name is so you can tell when they’re really mad at you? I mean hell, Olivia isn’t even four yet, and you’d better believe she can distinguish between “Olivia!”, “Olivia Rose!”, and “OLIVIA ROSE KUFFNER!”, the latter of course being the nuclear option. So when I hear some angry white guy on the teevee saying “Barack HUSSEIN Obama!”, I say to myself “What, did he not clean up his room?” Oh, and that you need to put the emphasis on the surname to get the full effect. You’d think they’d know this, but I guess not.

Recycle or lose it

If your neighborhood is lax about curbside recycling, it might lose that service.

The city has compiled a naughty-and-nice list of neighborhoods that get curbside recycling pickup, and those with poor participation rates may get booted from the program, officials said.

If fewer than 10 percent of households in a neighborhood set out recyclables on the curb, then the coveted service could go to a neighborhood on the waiting list.

“It really makes no sense for us to spend resources if those neighborhoods are not going to participate,” said Harry Hayes, director of the city’s Solid Waste Management Department.

The city did two house-by-house counts in 2006 to gauge participation. One count took place after a $350,000 marketing outreach effort by the city.

The problem of insufficient participation in curbside recycling goes back a ways. If you remember the report from last year about imposing a fee for heavy trash pickup, some of the revenue from that was supposed to be used on recycling efforts. I really don’t know why this service is so underutilized, and I think it’s time – past time – for the city to do a real PR/education blitz to get more people to use it. This is exactly the kind of thing that would be ideal for a public/private partnership, as local businesses can help by pushing the concept in their offices as well. Ideally, the recycling program should be a moneymaker for the city. The fact that it’s not, at least as of 2005, is a tragedy and a big missed opportunity.

Garden Oaks is one neighborhood that could lose the service. It had a 9 percent participation rate.

“I would be very upset,” said Ivan Mayers, vice president of the civic club. “The city shouldn’t be reducing recycling, they should be trying to increase it.”

Mayers said the community deserves some more time and education.

“Garden Oaks is a neighborhood that’s changing,” he said. “We have a lot of older retired people and they’re not really used to recycling, but we’re getting a lot of younger, up-and-coming people, and they’re very environmentally conscious.”

Mayers said he will ask for a city official to come speak at the civic club meetings.

I have no problem with giving these neighborhoods one last chance. But let’s get on with it. If there are other neighborhoods that will actually use the service, they need to be allowed to do so.

On a related note, I like this idea as well.

Houston could offer citywide recycling of “wood waste” such as tree limbs, stumps and brush as soon as this fall.

The program could divert more than 90,000 tons of trash from landfills, saving taxpayers $1.7 million a year. But residents would have to sacrifice half of their heavy-trash pickup days.

City Council could vote on the proposal in the next few weeks. Under the plan being considered by the Solid Waste Management Department “wood waste” pickup would take place on the scheduled heavy-trash day, every other month. Heavy trash — such as furniture, appliances and some building materials — and “wood waste” would alternate months.


LETCO will charge the city $12.45 a ton for the wood. That would save taxpayer money, since the city does not own a landfill and must pay tipping fees of $32 per ton to dump its trash. Officials estimate wood waste makes up almost 30 percent of the solid waste generated by the city.

Seems like a pretty clear win here. What’s the concern?

Councilwoman Jolanda Jones expressed concern. She said the recycling is a good idea, but halving heavy-trash pickups could cause problems.

“I don’t think every other month is sufficient,” she said. “On the north side, and especially in Acres Homes, they need more rather than less heavy-trash pickup.”

Then maybe this needs to be done in a way that allows for some areas to get a different level of heavy trash pickup. Maybe that solid waste fee that was discussed last year could be revived for this kind of purpose. I see no reason why this can’t be worked out.

TSU talks to Dynamo about sharing the stadium

This makes a lot of sense.

Texas Southern would like its football team to play in the downtown stadium being proposed by the Dynamo, but the extent of the university’s interest has been limited to talks with the team.

Incoming TSU athletic director Charles McClelland confirmed the school’s interest in the project Friday night but denied knowledge of negotiations that would involve the contribution of funds toward the construction of the building, whose estimated cost is between $105 million and $110 million.

“I can pretty much confirm that TSU hasn’t offered any money,” McClelland said. “There have been talks but not a negotiation; I don’t think we have entered into the negotiation stages, at least to my knowledge.”

Dynamo president Oliver Luck said last week that TSU had expressed interest in playing its football games at the proposed stadium, for which team ownership is seeking partial funding from the city of Houston, something McClelland confirmed this week.


“It’s something we desperately need for our student-athletes, a brand-new stadium, and we think it would help the overall direction of the program,” [McClelland said.]

TSU plays most of its football games on campus.

More uses for a stadium is always better than fewer. The new facility is sure to be better than what TSU is currently using, and having them as a tenant will make the financial picture better for the Dynamo. I hope they can work this out.

Austin to try again for light rail

Good luck, y’all.

A consultant hired by the city is recommending a 14-mile light-rail system for Central Austin, not streetcars as proposed by Capital Metro. The system would run from the airport to downtown, through the University of Texas and east to the emerging Mueller development.

The route is essentially the same one City Council Member BrewsterMcCracken and Austin Mayor Will Wynn have been talking about for the past six months or so. The proposal, finished just seven weeks after the council voted to pay ROMA Design Group up to $250,000 to produce it, comes as a “transit task force” formed by Wynn and state Sen. Kirk Watson moves into the final stages ofcreating a process to analyzerail proposals.

No one yet knows how the proposal, which likely will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, would be paid for.

That task force would almost surely analyze this proposal, and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board (chaired by Watson) would have the final say. But it is not clear whether such an examination could occur quickly enough for the light-rail proposal to be put before voters in November. Wynn has said he would like to have a rail vote this year, but there will be a number ofcomplicated questions about costs and benefits.

Watson, who was in South Texas on Tuesday, had not seen the proposal and had no comment. But Watson said that the process created by the task force “will allow any project to be fully vetted in a transparent, open, complete way.”

McCracken, at least, said he think that the proposal can make it through that gantlet to a public vote in November, which he said would probably involve voters being asked to approve some sort of long-term debt.

“Yes, I think that’s likely,” McCracken said of getting the proposal onto the ballot in time.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell has his doubts. He said that only Wynn and McCracken, to his knowledge, had been briefed on the rail proposal.

“The key to this whole thing has been, how’s this going to be paid for?” Leffingwell said. “If you just want to put the concept on the ballot in November, that would be one thing. But if you’re talking about some sort of financial commitment by the city, I think it would be very hard to get there by that time.”

Leffingwell and McCracken are often mentioned as likely candidates for mayor next year.

That ought to liven up their City Council meetings for the summer. Nothing like a little political rivalry to add heat to otherwise mundane agenda items.

A major criticism of the light rail that voters rejected in 2000 was that it would take street lanes away from car traffic. Not so, in this case, McCracken said, although the tracks would be in “dedicated lanes” segregated from cars. The space for the tracks, McCracken said, would come from available right of way on Riverside east of Interstate 35. Downtown, the tracks would run on pavement currently occupied by parked cars, he said.

The tracks, McCracken said, might take two lanes from the bridge over Lady Bird Lake, he said, although alternatively it could use the space now taken up by sidewalks. In that case, a sidewalk alternative bridge, such as the one on the South First Street bridge, would continue pedestrian and bicycle access across the lake on Congress.

The dedicated-lane concept was news even to Charlie Betts, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance. The alliance has been firmly behind the streetcar plan, in which the trolleys would share lanes with cars. To avoid reducing lanes on Congress would require tearing up the curb and sidewalk extensions that currently delineate the parking spaces.

“That’s a new wrinkle, and we haven’t had time to think about it,” Betts said.

You can see a map here. I don’t know Austin’s geography well enough to know how much sense this makes, but I do know that Mike Dahmus, who had previously crapped on the streetcar plan, is supporting this. The comments at BOR are pretty positive as well. Take that for what it’s worth.

Interesting sidebar, from the News 8 Austin story:

“We have a responsibility with $4 gasoline coming into play in the future, it’s the voters’ decision whether they want to move forward with that plan,” McCracken said.

So far, that argument hasn’t come up all that much in Houston. I think that’s mostly because all of the real fighting was done before gas prices really skyrocketed. But as there are sure to be more battles to come, both over the existing Metro plan and whatever future expansion ideas it’s working on, I expect this point to be raised again. I don’t know how it will play here, but I look forward to finding out.

Kirby Drive pain to be prolonged

Miya brings the bad news.

The Kirby re-construction is a four-phase process. Phases one through three are basically going according to schedule. But phase four is a problem. Though work on the final phase isn’t scheduled for a while, we’ve learned the process is getting delayed even more.

Construction on Kirby near the Rice Village may be inconvenient, but at least it’s underway. A few blocks north near Bissonnet and Kirby, the construction timeline is about to get pushed back.

“You always wish things were planned better,” said Ron Pickett, who owns Charisma Car Wash. Pickett and owners of several neighboring businesses just learned that the contractor who did the street survey for the city made a major measuring mistake. To complete the Kirby reconstruction, the city will now need to take 15 feet of his property along the curb line.

“It makes me feel very nervous because it will be highly detrimental to my business,” he said.

The city will now split up phase four of the project into two parts. The portion south of Bissonnet will go on as scheduled with no delays. However, the area north of Bissionnet needs to be redesigned, and that could take a while.

“We’ll continue to maintain it and patch it, but we’ll redesign it to take into account the additional right of way,” said Houston city councilmember Anne Clutterbuck.

Fifteen feet is a lot. I don’t know how such a mistake could happen, but that’s a huge impact. And a good illustration of why we can’t widen streets like Kirby.

This could get very ugly. And man, are things snarled in the Rice Village area, where the northern end of construction-induced lane blockages are. I have officially sworn off driving in the area for the foreseeable future. Those of you who have no choice in the matter, you have my deepest sympathies.

New digs for the Profs

Every now and then, procrastination pays off. I’d not gotten around to unsubscribing the Professors R-Squared feed from Bloglines because I’m lazy about things like that, and then I looked the other day and lo, they had a new post. Which was announcing that they had moved to a new blog, which has the added bonus of including their colleagues at the U of St. Thomas PoliSci department. And which I’d totally not have known about had I been one of those takes-care-of-things-in-a-timely-manner people. So there! Anyway, this is very good news, so update your links and subscriptions and check ’em out.

TexBlog PAC endorses Diana Maldonado

I’m very pleased to make this announcement.

Last night, TexBlog PAC made our first endorsement of the 2008 general election cycle- Democrat Diana Maldonado, who is running in House District 52 (Round Rock).

The unanimous endorsement is the result of deliberation among the PAC’s seven board members from various progressive Texas blogs, and was accompanied by a $5,000 check you made possible with your generous donations.

In 2006, Democrat Karen Felthauser ran an under funded race, but even with only $16,000 she managed to receive 44.2% of the vote compared to Republican incumbent Mike Krusee, who received 50.44% of the vote. Now House District 52 is an open seat, and Diana Maldonado gives the Democratic Party a strong chance to win one of the five seats needed to win a majority in the Texas House of Representatives.

“Diana Maldonado will represent the people of House District 52, unlike a pro-Craddick Republican,” stated Karl-Thomas Musselman Board Member of TexBlog PAC and Publisher of Burnt Orange Report. “We chose Maldonado because TexBlog PAC is actively working to end the era of one-party Republican rule in Texas by electing Democratic candidates at every level. Texas families cannot afford another two years of Republican corruption, cronyism, and cuts. Maldonado will fight to improve public education, expand access to quality health care, create responsible transportation policies and protect our environment. She will be a voice that represents the people of her District, and we’re proud to endorse her.”

Maldonado’s endorsement is the first of 5 major endorsements by the new PAC. During the 2008 election cycle, the TexBlog PAC will work toward winning 5 additional seats in the Texas House, allowing Democrats to elect a Democratic Speaker. A net gain of 5 house seats will put an end to the Republican claim of unilateral power and bring back the democratic process to the people’s House.

“Texas’ progressive bloggers decided to put our money where our mouse is,” Vince Leibowitz, TexBlog PAC Board Member and Owner of Capitol Annex stated. “There are masses of untapped grassroots resources across Texas. There are exciting technological advancements that we can utilize to help get more good Democrats elected. Rather than sit on the sideline and Monday-morning quarterback, TexBlog PAC will actively engage our readers and supporters to help take back Texas.”

Donate to Diana Maldonado today and visit her website to learn more about our 2008 inaugural endorsee.

You can see some photos from the BOR party at which she was presented with the check for her campaign. It’s pretty amazingly cool to have been a part of that, but it’s only the beginning. We’ve got more candidates to endorse and support, and a lot more events planned and in the works. Our endorsed candidates will also be writing some blog posts for us so we can get to know them better – look for Maldonado’s contributions next week. And finally, more pictures, from Mean Rachel and Elise Hu.

Thoughts on “Houston Have Your Say”

If you tuned in to Houston Have Your Say last night expecting to see me on the TV, you would have been either annoyed or relieved to learn that I was on the sidelines with a laptop, liveblogging it instead. That was a somewhat daunting prospect for me, as my initial foray into that form of media wasn’t terribly successful. You can read my efforts as well as those of my co-liveblogger Ree-C Murphy here and see how I did. At the very least, I think we got a lot more detail than the Chron story includes.

I’m still kind of taking it all in, as is Ree-C, who posted some pix from our vantage point here. I’m going to give a few thoughts here now, then think about it some more and see if I can come up with a coherent narrative.

– I don’t know what I expected of this going into it, but I do know that I expected a fair amount of acrimony, and I was pleasantly surprised to see things remain mostly civil. There were a few jabs thrown by UH/HCCS Professor Luis Salinas and Sen. Dan Patrick at each other, but the funny thing is that in between the two segments, and again after the send half, the two of them were talking to each other, in a fairly calm manner. Here’s Ree-C’s observation from last night:

During the break, I noticed that people were getting together and talking with each other without animous. It was outstanding. It is the way is should be.

Solutions are made person to person. Kuffner said that Patrick and Salinas should be put in a room together and the door locked until they come up with workable solutions. I would agree in principle on that. These people in this room could be the key to working out solutions. It will depend on how far they carry it later…

(Hey, if I can talk to Kuffner with cheer and humor, anything is possible. Right? 😉

Indeed. Though, as I mentioned to someone later, a shared affinity for bad 80s TV shows, which we had, can break a lot of ice. If Mr. Belvedere can’t bring us all together, what hope do we have?

– On a more serious note, I have to say that Sen. Patrick was one of the more pleasant surprises for me from this event. He got his talking points in, and he’s way too fixated on “sealing the border” for my taste, but I do believe he really wants to find a solution, which is not something I would have said 24 hours ago. This dropped my jaw:

Dan Patrick: “We have to remove the fear from all sides.” Calls “amnesty” a buzzword, and says a small group of people in this room with 30 days to come up with a solution would be able to do so. I must say I agree with him. There may be hope yet. Ree-C is with me on this.

He specifically said that the “extremists” on this issue were the main hindrance to a solution. I wouldn’t know if he’s ever said anything like this on his radio station, but he gave me the impression of acting in good faith. For that I commend him, and next spring when the Lege is in session and bad bills are flying about, I hope he remembers and acts on those words. It’s going to take someone like him to change the dynamics of this debate.

– I wish I could say the same thing about some of Sen. Patrick’s ideological colleagues, but the others who there representing a nativist perspective gave no indication of budging or listening. The Border Watch guy, who sat next to Patrick, and another fellow whose name and organization I’ve forgotten (somewhat stupidly, I failed to bring a copy of the guest list home, so I can’t look it up), were prime examples of the “extremists” that Patrick said were in the way and inciting fear. Part of the dilemma here is that the nativists have a lot of “facts” that they like to cite that just aren’t true. If you can’t agree on what the problems are, then you can’t even begin to talk about solutions. The fearmongers and xenophobes have to be marginalized in the discussion so that the legitimate concerns can be honestly discussed and dealt with.

– Still, in the end I came away feeling hopeful about this, and I think Ree-C would agree with me on that. Getting these people into the same room and getting them to talk to each other instead of at each other was a good thing, which we need a lot more of. There’s still a lot of fear and ignorance out there – sadly, this came through very clearly in the video clips, call-ins to the show, emails that were read, and blog comments we’ve gotten – and that must be overcome, but for the first time in awhile, I feel like that can be done. It’ll take a lot of work, and a willingness for people who agree on some but not all of the fundamentals to speak with one voice about the things they do agree on, but it can be done. Some leadership from our elected officials would help, but this is going to take all of us.

– Finally, I’d like to thank Patricia Gras for doing a fine job as moderator, Julie Coan with KUHT for inviting me to participate, the staff of KUHT for providing us with laptops and Internet connectivity, the panelists for their time and efforts, and my co-bloggers Ree-C and Mizanur Rahman for their camaraderie and for making liveblogging a lot more fun than I thought it could be. Having Ree-C to bounce stuff off of before and while this was going on was a big help for me, and she’s right: if we can get along, so can the rest of y’all. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: I see that Michelle, who’s been a stalwart in the HHYS blog comments, saw Sen. Patrick in a considerably more negative light than I did. That’s fair, and had he not made his comment at the end about amnesty being a buzzword and extremists hindering the debate, I’d be fully in sync with her assessment. Maybe I’m being naive, but I agreed with that sentiment, and I want to build on it. Doesn’t mean we should forget what else he’s had to say, of course, and she did a good job highlighting that aspect of it.

Macias’ date in court

State Rep. Nathan Macias, who was knocked off in a ridiculously close Republican primary last month and who has filed suit alleging various frauds and misdeeds did him in, has a date set for his lawsuit.

The first hearing on the suit took place Tuesday in Comal County’s 207th District Court, with visiting District Judge James Clawson ruling that he will preside over the trial — scheduled for May 19 — despite an attempt by Macias to have him removed from the case.

The incumbent had originally filed a lawsuit on March 31 to dispute the election and subsequent recount after losing by 17 votes to challenger Doug Miller.

Last week, Macias’ attorney Rene Diaz filed an objection to having Clawson hear the case, seeking to have a new judge take over the proceedings. But Clawson, who has ruled on numerous election contests in the past, disregarded the objection.

“I frankly kind of enjoy (election contests),” Clawson told the court. “They’re America at work.”

Diaz gave no reasoning as to why he wanted a different judge, other than that it is a “right that every civil litigant has in the State of Texas.” He presented Clawson with a handful of other cases from around the state to try and sway him to step down, ultimately to no avail.

“I’m not disappointed,” Diaz said after the ruling. “I would characterize it as a bit surprised that he did not follow the overwhelming statutory and case law that I presented him.”

Macias and his legal team still can challenge the ruling in a higher court, possibly the Texas Supreme Court, to seek a different judge. Diaz said any decision to do so would likely be made in the next few days.

“We’re considering our options,” Diaz said.


The lawsuit claims over 200 voters illegally cast ballots in both the Republican and Democratic primaries, and nearly 1,000 voted twice in the Republican primary. It also alleges numerous clerical errors and possible voter fraud might have tainted the election.

Quick! Someone notify AG Greg Abbott that there may have been fraud committed in an election! Of course, since it doesn’t involve Democrats, he won’t actually do anything about it. So never mind.

Via Vince, Macias is making other claims as well.

He also claimed convicted felons and mentally disabled people may have voted, and he alleges mistakes or improprieties by election officials, including sign-in sheets and mail-in absentee ballots lacking required signatures by election officials. He also complained that one of Miller’s relatives helped hand-count paper ballots in Gillespie County.

According to the relevant clause in the electoral code, a person is eligible to vote as long as he or she “has not been determined by a final judgment of a court exercising probate jurisdiction to be: (A) totally mentally incapacitated; or (B) partially mentally incapacitated without the right to vote”. That’s a pretty specific requirement, so I don’t know if Team Macias is blowing smoke or actually can prove that one or more people who have such judgments against them voted in the primary and will say under oath that they voted for his opponent. Seems a tall order, especially in such a short period of time, but that’s their problem. The pretrial hearing is set for May 14, so we’ll see what goods he has to produce.

“Vote by mail, go to jail”

This Texas Observer story about Attorney General Greg Abbott’s crusade to prosecute mostly minority Democrats on flimsy charges of vote fraud is a pretty good overview of the saga, and builds to some extent on the work that the Lone Star Project has been doing. I have two criticisms to offer, because it felt to me like the piece came up a bit short; as someone who has been following this, I don’t think I really learned much new. Anyway, on the matter of Abbott’s Democrats-only approach to pursuing prosecutions:

Despite Abbott’s declarations that nobody is above Texas law, he has prosecuted no Republicans. “What is especially troubling is that while Greg Abbott’s office has prosecuted minority seniors for simply mailing ballots, he has not prosecuted anyone on the other side of the aisle for what appear to be open-and-shut cases of real voter fraud,” Hebert told Texas House Elections Committee in January, as the panel held a hearing on a bill making the state’s voter ID laws tougher.

[Gerry Hebert, a former chief of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Voting Section] cited a 2005 election in Highland Park, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country with hundreds of million-dollar homes and where both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney once lived. In 2005, two election judges, both Republicans, and a 10-year-old boy handed out over 100 ballots, Hebert testified, without checking any voter registration or ID cards. The ballots were filled out and turned in, he said, quoting from several Dallas district attorney memos. The memos suggested a strong basis for prosecuting the judges for not following procedures and counting “over 100 more ballots” than there were “signatures on the roster.”

In other words, here was a serious case of apparent ballot-box stuffing–voter fraud–by Republicans, albeit in a state where the GOP holds all the constitutional offices, most judgeships, and controls most county election boards. “Here we are nearly three years later, and Attorney General Abbott’s office has done virtually nothing,” Hebert told Texas legislators. “Rather than exercise his discretion to act directly on the [district attorney’s] request and immediately investigate the voting irregularities and potential voter fraud in Highland Park, Mr. Abbott’s office has instead used his office’s resources to prosecute elderly political activists whose only ‘crime’ was assisting elderly and disabled voters cast a vote by mail.”

I would have liked to know a lot more about this. If this was a violation of the law – and it sure sounds like it was – why isn’t local law enforcement pursuing it? Surely this isn’t the sole jurisdiction of the AG, is it? Are there any public statements about this case beyond Hebert’s testimony? Can someone file a complaint and force there to be an investigation of some kind? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, and I wish the story had at least asked them.

The other omission is the continued effort by Republicans to require a photo ID to vote in person, which many party leaders including AG Abbott himself insists is needed to combat an allegedly massive epidemic of fraud-by-impersonation in the state. Yet every single case Abbott has pursued has involved absentee voting, which would not be affected by any of the voter ID bills that have been filed in recent legislative sessions. It might have been interesting to ask a Leo Berman or a Debbie Riddle – or if you want to go back a session, a Mary Denny – why it is that AG Abbott has never brought charges against any voter-impersonator. You’d think he could at least find one, given his dedication to the effort and the enormous PR victory that such a prosecution would bring to the pro-ID forces. Sadly, the subject was not explored. So do read the story, but keep these things in mind as you do.