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July, 2008:

Pete’s strip club buddies

The DCCC has some fun with Pete Sessions’ strip club fundraiser.

A March 2007 evening at a Las Vegas strip club is creating a great deal of controversy throughout the country, including in Minnesota. The event raised money for the leadership PAC of Republican U.S. Representative Pete Sessions of Texas. Sessions was joined by casino executives and payday lenders at Ivan Kane’s Forty Deuce nightclub, located in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

According to Sessions, the club is a harmless burlesque. Kane, the club’s owner, shared his definition of a burlesque to NPR: “The key component would be to have girls who were dancers taking their clothes off, not just girls taking their clothes off.”

Sessions’ leadership PAC, People for Enterprise, Trade and Economic Growth picked up the tab for the event. NPR noted in a report that “just days before the party at Forty Deuce, casino interests donated $5,000 to his PAC. Payday lenders threw in another $2,500.”

The PAC has contributed $5,000 to the congressional campaign of Erik Paulsen and $2,500 to Rep. Michele Bachmann’s reelection campaign.

“Michele Bachmann and Erik Paulsen have spent their entire careers pushing an extreme right-wing agenda that has been out-of-touch with the views of everyday Minnesotans. Yet at the same time as they say they are pro-family, they take money raised from Casino owners partying at a strip club,” said Carrie James, regional press secretary at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The hypocrisy of this is astounding- a do as I say, not as I do approach to leadership.”

Boy, sex and gambling all rolled together. I’ll bet it was fun, in that “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” kind of way. And given some of the attendees, it’s almost as if he’s an extra Congressman from Nevada, as Wick Allison put it.

Chris Bell easily reached his goal of $10k raised online in considerably less than 10 days, and now he’s shooting for $20k, to offset one of Bob Perry’s donations. The boys at BOR are on strike till they raise $1000 for him – they’re almost halfway there already.

You’ve heard of John McCain’s $500 shoes? That wouldn’t even be enough to buy one of John Davis’ boots.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 sailed through the House today. See a brief video on it here.

Diane Trautman having a volunteer appreciation breakfast on Saturday morning at 9 AM in the King’s Crossing Apartments clubhouse up in Kingwood. Click that link for a map. And don’t forget White Linen Nights in the Heights later in the day.

Finally, Rick Noriega will be hosting a live virtual town hall tomorrow at 1:30 PM. Just go to his website and submit your questions. Noriega was in College Station today for a more old-fashioned town hall. You can read some blog coverage of it here and here.

Landfill power


Anheuser-Busch, the top U.S. beer seller, said today it will begin using landfill gas to help power its massive Houston brewery in a move designed to lower its soaring energy costs and keep beer prices from climbing higher.

The St. Louis-based brewer will use the landfill gas to help run boilers that today are fueled by natural gas.

When the landfill gas begins flowing into the plant later this year, about 70 percent of the brewery’s energy needs will be met by renewable fuels, Anheuser-Busch officials said today during a Houston news conference announcing the initiative.

“It’s going to help us keep beer affordable,” said Doug Muhleman, group vice president of brewing operations and technology at Anheuser-Busch.

The beer maker will purchase the gas from Framingham, Mass-based energy firm Ameresco, which has a partnership with Houston landfill operator Allied Waste Services.

The Houston brewery, the company’s second-largest behind its flagship plant in St. Louis, will receive the gas via a six-mile pipeline into the plant from Allied’s McCarty Road landfill in east Houston. Still under construction, the pipeline will be completed later this year, the companies said.

Other landfill operators, including Houston’s Waste Management, have launched similar efforts to harvest and sell methane gas created by decomposing organic material in trash dumps. In addition to providing alternative energy, the practice reduces emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas.

Well, it’s good to know that our predeliction for landfills has a positive side to it. Kudos to Anheuser-Busch and to the landfill operators for taking advantage of this opportunity.

How many eligible voters are there?

On Tuesday, I asked the question how many eligible voters there were in Harris County, so we could put the number of registered voters into some perspective. Yesterday, I got an answer to that question. The folks at Houston Votes sent me an analysis they had done by Dr. Richard Murray, which gives a pretty good estimate. I’ll go through the elements of Dr. Murray’s math. First, how many people are there?

Based on the Jan 1, 2007 US Census number, Harris County had, as of that date, approximately 3,935,000 residents. If the annual population increase for this decade holds true for 2007 and 2008, which is around 75,000 people per year, then as of November 2008 the population will be probably around 4,080,000 (3,935,000 + 75,000{2007} + 62,500{2008 – 2 months}= ~4,080,000).

1) Under 18 years old: -1,179,120 (28.9% under 18, US Census 2006 for Harris) of 4,080,000).

2 ) Non-Citizens: -300,000 (22% of the general population are foreign born according to the US Census for 2000 . Dr. Murray estimates that of that population in Harris County (897,000), about 300,000 are non-citizen adults).

3) Felons on probation/parole: -100,000 (High estimate of 100,000, according to Dr Murray).

Put all that together, and you wind up with about 2.5 million people who are eligible to vote in Harris County. That answers my first question, as it suggests we’re at around 75% registration. But there’s more to this, as Dr. Murray elaborates:

1) Projected fully registered voters: 1,900,000. As of 3/4/2008, 1,809,000 were people were registered to vote in Harris County. We are awaiting latest numbers from Paul Bettencourt, which are likely to be around 1.9 million.

2) Current suspended voters: -307,000. These voters were on the suspense list as of 3/4/08, meaning they have left, died, or moved. (Voters who have moved must go to their new precinct and file an affidavit and are therefore not classified as fully registered in this count.)

3) Projected new suspended voters: -100,000. Approximately 150,000 additional otherwise eligible people will die, move etc and are added to the suspended voter list each calendar year. (The estimate of 100,000 new suspended voters takes into account the fact that there are only seven months between the last count, 3/4/2008, and the voter registration deadline of 10/6/2008.)

So, if you subtract the names that are or will be on the suspense list, you’ll be at about 1.5 million fully registered voters by the registration deadline, as your baseline. That means there’s room to add a million more people to the rolls.

Now, as I understand it, the folks on the suspense list who have moved can still vote, even if they don’t do the affidavit; I’m told about 100,000 to 150,000 of them will correct their registrations on their own. Generally speaking, if they vote early, the discrepancy between their current and registered addresses will be caught and fixed. If they vote on Election Day and they’re in a different precinct, they’ll be sent to the new precinct to vote. That of course may be problematic for some of them, depending on when they arrive at the polling place, and one assumes that some of them will wind up not casting a ballot. I have no idea what the numbers there may be.

So, depending on how you look at it, there’s between 600,000 and one million people who are not correctly registered to vote. Looked at in that context, you can see why there will be so much effort put into registration drives. You can also see why Diane Trautman has made this issue part of her campaign. Maybe if Bettencourt’s office made registering voters as much a priority as they did scrubbing them, we’d have a higher ratio of eligible adults on the rolls.

One last thing: Using Dr. Murray’s numbers, I estimate the total eligible population in Harris County in 2004 was a bit more than 2.3 million. If as the earlier story said 1.94 million of them were registered to vote, then we would need to have almost 2.1 registered voters this year just to have the same percentage as we did in 2004. That means another 200,000 registrations between now and October 6. I’d say we have our work cut out for us.

It sucks to be a school district

And it’s not going to get better any time soon.

School districts across Texas are likely to face extreme fiscal hardships over the next two years as transportation costs spiral out of control, enrollments continue to grow and the transition from textbooks to technology progresses.

That was the word from a panel of educators and advocates at the Texas Education Agency’s school finance summit Tuesday. They and Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott began laying the groundwork for what they would seek from lawmakers when the 81st Legislature convenes in January.

“We just don’t have enough money, basically, to provide a quality education experience to our students,” said Sharon Shields, superintendent of the tiny La Vega school district near Waco.

Like several of her counterparts who participated in the six-hour discussion, Shields said her district needs more financial aid from the state and greater flexibility to raise and spend the money it receives from local taxpayers.

Most of the educators agreed that the school finance overhaul enacted by lawmakers two years ago — an attempt to settle the ongoing dispute between rich and poor school districts — is already falling short on generating the funds needed to sustain public schools.

“We always pull up with a penny-wise, pound-foolish solution,” said Richard Kouri, who represents the Texas State Teachers Association.

The crux of the problem is that the funding for school districts didn’t include any room for cost-of-living increases. Which might not have been a big deal in some years, but when things like gas and food prices skyrocketed, it put a huge hole in their budgets. Their operating expenses have gone up while their financial resources have not. As you might expect, that has been disastrous for them.

Now, the Legislature could choose to do something about this in 2009. Perhaps with a new Speaker, some help could be on the way for the schools. But thanks in part to the maneuvering that separated the property tax cuts from the rest of the budget in 2007, and in part to the slavish devotion to property tax cuts uber alles, it’s hard to picture anything other than more penny-wise “solutions” coming forth.

Harvey Kronberg reported on this as well.

The informal consensus of the group appeared to hinge on the fact that a significant new infusion of money was not expected for education next session. Indeed, the business margins tax already is showing a lower-than-expected return. That means that lawmakers might have to dig even further into the anticipated $10.7 billion surplus in order to bridge the 50-cent reduction in property taxes.

With all these factors in play, the minimum the group appeared ready to accept was a three-pronged approach to the problem: First, that some type of floor be set on target revenue so that every district hits a minimum target revenue of around $5,000 per student. That amount would be adjusted by various weights.

The second measure would be some type of funding put in place to address the inflation that is eating up school district budgets. If the revenue targets were increased by 1 percent a year, the cost would be about $630 million. If the revenue target were increased 1 percent in the first year and an additional 1 percent in the second year, for a total of 2 percent, the total cost would be about $950 million.

Then it would be the fervent hope of those who have dealt with the school finance system the longest – and especially [Lynn] Moak and Bill Grusendorf of the Texas Association of Rural Schools – that lawmakers start to move the system back to one driven by formulas and not the various past hold harmlesses.

The “hold harmlesses,” added each time the school finance system is revised, is funding intended to make sure no school district is worse off going into a new school finance system than they were going out of the old system. The system has been changed so many times in Texas that the amount of the past three hold harmlesses – or “hold harmli,” as Scott calls it — is now $2 billion, an amount that means the hold harmlesses have more impact on the system now than any aspect of the school finance formula.

What needs to be done is to close the gap between the basic school allotment and the target revenue amount. Either aspects of the funding formula can be adjusted or, as Grusendorf suggested, the guaranteed yield on tax effort can be increased. Right now, in an effort to equalize funding between poor and wealthy school districts, the state guarantees about $43 per penny of tax effort. By raising that yield to $50 per penny, about $1.8 billion can be shifted into the basic allotment, Grusendorf said.

Good luck with all that, that’s all I can say. I just hope everyone can hang on till 2011. Eye on Williamson has more.

Pai pays up

Been awhile since there was an Enron-related story that interested me.

A former top Enron executive who sold nearly $300 million in Enron stock before the company cratered has agreed to pay regulators $31.5 million to settle civil allegations of insider trading.

The amount Lou Pai, 60, agreed to pay is the highest Enron-related settlement reached between an individual and the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the agency said it is one of the highest individual settlements in its history.

Other SEC fines gained in numerous Enron settlements since 2002 range from $30,000 to almost $2 million for individuals, though some higher amounts were split between the SEC and the Justice Department.

But Pai’s settlement is a fraction of the $270 million or more that shareholders who sued him and other executives say he gained from stock sales.

“I’m just shaking my head. That makes me sick to my stomach,” said Diana Peters, one of the thousands of employees left jobless when Enron collapsed in December 2001, months after Pai quit the company.

“He’ll just move down the road and it won’t even be a drop in the bucket for him,” she said. “But if you’ve got that kind of money, I guess you can afford to buy yourself out of anything.”


Pai, who was chairman and chief executive of Enron’s retail energy division, Enron Energy Services, was among the more colorful yet elusive figures at Enron.

He was known to frequent strip clubs as part of enjoying the great wealth he gained from the company’s generous bonuses and stock options, a former employee told the Chronicle for a story in 2003. Yet he avoided the spotlight while at Enron, and has done so since he resigned from the company in May 2001.

Yes, the movie “The Smartest Guys In The Room” talked a bit about Pai and his stripperphilia. He himself did not appear in the film, but there is an image of a jet plane taking off as whoever was speaking talked about how Pai cashed out and headed off to Hawaii with one of the girls from (I think) Rick’s Cabaret.

The bulk of Pai’s stock sales occurred as part of a divorce settlement more than a year before Enron crumbled. Pai has never been charged with crimes, and earlier this year was dropped as a defendant from a massive shareholder lawsuit in Houston.


The stock sales at the heart of the SEC complaint that Pai settled on Tuesday took place from May 18 to June 7, 2001. The SEC said he sold nearly 573,000 shares at $53.78 based on insider information that a division he once ran had financial troubles unknown to investors.

Specifically, the SEC complaint said Pai knew that Enron Energy Services faced substantial losses in the first quarter of 2001. The complaint notes that Enron’s CEO and senior accounting personnel, along with Enron Energy Services management, “secretly revised” division reporting to avoid disclosing those losses. That revision came about by moving the retail division’s trading arm into Enron’s larger trading franchise, Enron Wholesale Services.

That action received much focus in the 2006 fraud and conspiracy trial of Skilling and Chairman Ken Lay. Skilling testified that the retail trading arm was moved into the larger division to combine like functions for efficiency’s sake.

But David Delainey, Pai’s successor as the head of Enron Energy Services, testified that the move was intended to hide millions of dollars in losses, the disclosure of which could threaten Enron’s stock price and credit rating.

Reading this story reminds me why I was bothered less than folks like Tom were about the criminal cases that were brought against the likes of Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and so on. Pai was (eventually) punished through the civil process, but the punishment he received doesn’t come close to balancing the scales, in my view. He’s still a millionaire many times over – assuming he hasn’t blown it all, of course – while so many other people, employees and shareholders, got wiped out. I think the only way the civil justice system could really make these guys pay for their wrongdoings is if it left them in the same shape as the people who were affected by their actions – namely, in a situation where they’d have to work for the rest of their lives because they no longer had any accumulated wealth. Here’s a bit I wrote from my review of “The Smartest Guys In The Room”:

There’s a really poignant scene in which Portland General Electric lineman Al Kaseweter matter-of-factly states that he sold his entire retirement portfolio, which was worth $348,000 at its peak, for $1200.

PGE had been bought by Enron before the crash; like most Enron employees were encouraged to do, Kaseweter put the bulk of his retirement funds into Enron stock. Put Lou Pai in Al Kaseweter’s shoes, and I’d agree that justice had been served. Same with Skilling and the rest of that crowd. But that’s not how it works, so despite the problems associated with the Enron prosecutions, I think they were necessary.

Bye-bye, trees

And away they go…

Some of the live oak trees that lined Kirby Drive were removed [Monday] night as part of a controversial reconstruction project between Westheimer and Richmond.

The oaks, as well as crape myrtles, were taken down on the west side of Kirby from Richmond to Kipling. Trash bins placed along that stretch were full of the destroyed trees early today.

“We knew it would be done at night,” Barry Ward, executive director of the nonprofit group Trees for Houston, said [Tuesday] morning.

“That is fairly typical,” he said. “There is some justification when you do that, so it doesn’t disrupt as much traffic. But, you’d also be naive to think it wasn’t done so they wouldn’t get so much public scrutiny.”


“You don’t want to do it during peak traffic times, and you don’t want to interfere with retail businesses during the non-peak times during the day,” said Travis Younkin, the district’s capital projects director. “This just makes the most sense.”

Overnight on Tuesday, contractors removed the oak trees and crape myrtles on the west side of Kirby from Richmond to Kipling. Trash bins placed along that stretch were full of the destroyed trees. The trees likely will be turned into mulch.

I took Kirby to get to work Tuesday, partly because I was curious to see if any removal work had been done. I saw a bunch of trees with orange construction mesh around them, but didn’t spot the empty spaces where the cuttings had taken place. It’s probably more obvious today. It’s sad to see it happen, and I do think this could have been done a different way, but what’s done is done. I just hope that Upper Kirby is right about what it will all look like afterward.

It’s not stripping, it’s burlesque

It’s stuff like this that reminds me why I love the campaign season.

We had never heard of a member of Congress holding a fundraiser at a Las Vegas burlesque nightclub… until now.

And the culprit is card-carrying conservative Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.). The same Pete Sessions who scolded Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake for forcing “their liberal values upon the rest of the country” after their infamous 2004 Super Bowl halftime striptease.

But that was then.

Now we learn that Sessions held a racy (for Washington) fundraiser for his leadership political action committee last year at Ivan Kane’s Forty Deuce nightclub in Sin City. A description of the club on its web site, which features a scantily clad dancer, reads: “A blue light silhouettes the sax man as one of the sexy, sensual dancers slowly slinks down the stairs to the stage and leans out over the crowd, holding on with only a handful of the world-famous curtain of pearls! Jaws drop and drinks are ignored as the tempo picks up and the dancer steps up, shedding boa, gown and gloves towards the electrifying finale.”

I really don’t think I can add anything to that. Link via TPM.

Meanwhile, Texas on the Potomac reports on a campaign contribution from an unexpected source.

One of President Bush’s first cousins has gone way against the grain.

In February, Alexander “Hap” Ellis III donated $4,300 to Michael Skelly’s congressional campaign, according to Federal Electoin Commission records.

Skelly is a Democrat. He is running against Republican incumbent John Culberson of Houston. The seat was once held by former President George H.W. Bush, Ellis’ uncle. And the former president still lives in the district on Houston’s west side.

As the post notes, Ellis works in renewable energy, so this isn’t that great a stretch, even if it’s his only donation to a Democrat this year. What’s even better is that Ellis isn’t the only member of the extended Bush clan to cross the aisle in 2008. Take a look at the detailed report (PDF) for Sherrie Matula, and scroll down to page ten. You’ll see that none other than Neil Bush kicked in $25 to her effort. So the next time someone asks you how bad a year this is for the Republicans, you can say “Bad enough that even Bushes are giving to Democrats”.

Elsewhere, State Rep. Ellen Cohen may have an unserious opponent, but she’s not taking anything for granted. Some campaign-related events coming up for her include a “Young Professionals Supporting State Representative Ellen Cohen” party at the Rice Lofts downtown next Tuesday evening from 5:30 to 8:00 – if you’re Facebook-enabled, you can see the details here, and a “BBQ, Birthday Bash and Yard Sign Blitz” at her campaign headquarters (4950 Bissonnet, same place as 2006) on Sunday, August 24. Contact the campaign for more info.

And finally, if you find yourself asking “What can I do to help turn Texas blue in the next 100 days”, since there’s now less than that till the election, you can find some simple yet concrete suggestions here. Surely there’s something there that will appeal to you.

Houston gets dinged for non-recycling

I guess that recent run of positive press for Houston couldn’t last forever.

The city’s shimmering skyline may wear the label of the world’s energy capital, but deep in Houston’s Dumpsters lies a less glamorous superlative: It is the worst recycler among the United States’ 30 largest cities.

Houston recycles just 2.6 percent of its total waste, according to a study this year by Waste News, a trade magazine. By comparison, San Francisco and New York recycle 69 percent and 34 percent of their waste respectively. Moreover, 25,000 Houston residents have been waiting as long as 10 years to get recycling bins from the city.

Environmental advocates are pleading for municipal intervention. And some small improvements — an organic waste program, for one — are expected soon.

But city officials say real progress will be hard to come by. Landfill costs here are cheap. The city’s sprawling, no-zoning layout makes collection expensive, and there is little public support for the kind of effort it takes to sort glass, paper and plastics. And there appears to be even less for placing fees on excess trash.

“We have an independent streak that rebels against mandates or anything that seems trendy or hyped up,” said Mayor Bill White, who favors expanding the city’s recycling efforts. “Houstonians are skeptical of anything that appears to be oversold or exaggerated. But Houstonians can change, and change fast.”


Private businesses, like office towers, apartment complexes, and restaurants, are responsible for their own garbage, although advocates of recycling are pleading with the city to regulate them. Commercial recyclers say that despite a recent increase in public interest, their services remain a tough sell.

Mayor White, a Democrat who has consistently crusaded for environmental initiatives, said that a lack of progress on recycling was among his biggest disappointments and that the situation merited “radical changes,” like the organic yard waste program that he says will increase the city’s recycling rate to 20 percent by 2010. The national average is 32 percent.

Mayor White, who served as deputy secretary of energy under President Bill Clinton, stopped short, however, of calling for mandated recycling or charging citizens for excess garbage.

Highlighting the sensitivity to such taxes, last year the City Council considered imposing a mandatory $3.50 monthly environment fee for every single-family home. It was negotiated to a voluntary $2.25 charge and eventually dropped entirely because of fierce opposition, city officials said.

Well, I supported that $3.50 fee, but indeed there was plenty of whining about it. I share Mayor White’s disappointment in the lack of progress on the recycling front, but it’s got to be said: The responsibility for that lack of progress is his. He gets the credit, and deservedly so, for other successes on the environmental front, and he gets the blame for this failure. Mayors who get re-elected with 90% of the vote can take a little heat over a trash removal fee if the end result is a net positive. Surely SafeClear was a bigger fight than this would have been, so why the quick fold? “Disappointment” is a fitting term here.

There is still time in his tenure for Mayor White to move the ball a little bit farther forward, and build on the modest gains we have seen on recycling. But I don’t think anything significant will happen until after the next Mayor is sworn in. I sincerely hope this is a big part of the 2009 campaign.

Interview with Diana Maldonado

One of the things I had intended to do while at Netroots Nation this year was interviews with candidates and other folks. Unfortunately, in the rush to pack and leave, I managed to leave my digital voice recorder at home. That kind of put a damper on those plans, but as I had already scheduled an interview with Diana Maldonado, I needed to figure something out. Thankfully, Eileen Smith came to my rescue by letting me borrow her little video recorder, which she used to great effect on Poll Dancing, so I was able to salvage that. And I quickly learned why folks like RG Ratcliffe, who have done a lot more video interviews than I have, invest in a tripod. It’s harder than you think to hold that camera still for ten minutes. I don’t think I shook it too much, but I’ll apologize in advance for any vertigo this causes.

Anyway. Diana Maldonado is a great candidate, representing one of the top pickup opportunities for Texas Democrats in the House. She was also the first candidate endorsed by the TexBlog PAC. Here she is, in my first and possibly last video interview:

As always, please let me know what you think.

Hillary Clinton to campaign for Obama

It’s a start.

At a press event held by Hillary Clinton about FEMA trailers out on Long Island today, I asked her about the campaigning she planned to do for Barack Obama between now and Election Day.

She said, “During the month of August, they’ve asked me to go to several states. But I’m going to leave it to them to announce. I don’t want to in any way get ahead of them. But, you know, I’m doing whatever I’m asked and whatever I can.”

Send her to Texas! And bring Bill with her! If Obama and the DNC are going to spend $20 million on a 50 state Latino outreach effort, one lousy visit to Texas by the Clintons isn’t too much to ask, is it?

The judges and the HGLBT Political Caucus

Houtopia has an interesting report about a local campaign development.

We have been particularly interested to learn in recent days that at least a few Harris County incumbent Republican judges have been actively seeking the endorsement of the Houston Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Political Caucus — HGLBT for short.

This development is eye-opening to say the least. Perhaps more than any other group, the GLBT community has been the recipient of venom from religious conservatives. And the idea that any incumbent Republican official here would actively seek the Caucus’ endorsement, much less accept it if offered, would have seemed laughable just a few months ago. Apparently, fear of losing can be a powerful motivator.

Don’t get us wrong. We are glad to see some of these judges now acknowledge what many of us have known for a long time, that the GLBT community matters, just like everybody else, and that its votes count too, much as that may bother certain people.

So, it’s good that some of these Republican judges have decided to screen with the HGLBT Caucus and seek its endorsement. But what will the neighbors say?

Very interesting. The Caucus, which has already endorsed a slew of candidates for November – though no judicial candidates as yet – has definitely established itself as a force to be reckoned with locally. Their endorsement matters. That some incumbent Republicans now think so is a pretty amazing statement about where Harris County is these days.

Potty problems

You know, I was just thinking that it had been way too long since we had a story about the availability of public toilets in downtown Houston. Thankfully, our wait is over.

Unlike some other U.S. cities, Houston does not have public pay toilets, even in high-pedestrian areas such as the Texas Medical Center and downtown. Free public restrooms are available in parks, government buildings, grocery stores and most fast-food restaurants.

But unless you are a paying customer, or at least a shopping customer, chances are your eager bladder will not be welcome at many establishments. At least not in downtown. Outside the city center, it can be a different story if you look hard enough, or just ask.


Main Street Market Square Redevelopment Authority officials floated the idea in 2004, shortly after Main Street was redeveloped with the light rail as the centerpiece. Plumbing for five toilets was installed along Main, but the restrooms themselves were never put in place.

“I would love to see them downtown as we invite people to come downtown and to be a part of the things that are going on,” said Vicki Rivers, the authority’s executive director.

Rivers said even if the the authority, the business arm of a tax increment reinvestment zone, could pay for the toilets, it would be expensive to maintain them. She said she would need financial help from public entities as well as the private sector.

Ms. Rivers has been saying this for four years now. Yes, I follow this sort of thing very closely. Hey, somebody has to.

Some cities, in the United States and abroad, use high-tech, coin-operated restrooms that feature self-flushing, self-cleaning toilets. Users are given a certain period of time before a buzzer sounds and the door opens automatically.

The city of San Francisco — despite having problems with one that attracts illegal activities such as drug use and prostitution — has enjoyed some success with its 25 high-tech toilets, the first of which was installed in 1994. The facilities cost 25 cents to use, but free tokens are provided for those who cannot afford a quarter.

Seattle got into the public toilet business in 2004, but put its five high-tech units up for sale on eBay earlier this month, for $89,000 apiece. The auctions, which were slated to end Saturday, had attracted no bidders as of Friday.

Andy Ryan, a spokesman for Seattle Public Utilities, said it has cost the city $1 million a year for each unit on the lease-purchase agreement and the maintenance.

I just quoted that section because I love the idea of buying high-tech toilets on eBay. Truly, we live in wondrous times.

I feel compelled, as I have done before, to point out that there are in fact free public restrooms in downtown Houston. It’s just that they’re in the tunnel system, not on the street. Here’s a nice, easy map (PDF) of the system; once you’re in, you can use the maps there to figure out where the nearest potty is. Discovery Green has public restrooms, too, if you’re in that area. Believe me, as the father of two preschoolers, I need to know stuff like this.,

More on McCaul, and more

Harold Cook gets into an argument with one of Rep. Mike McCaul’s flacks over McCaul’s phony madrassa story, in the enviable position of having the facts on his side. Mean Rachel joins in.

Michael Skelly has a second ad out, which you can see here; that and his prior ad can also be found here. I actually saw the first ad last night while watching “The Closer”, but since it was TiVoed, and since I’d already seen it, I zipped past it. Nonetheless, that counts as the first general election ad I’ve seen for this year.

Harris County judicial candidate Mike Engelhart has his first campaign video up, which you can see here. It’s a warm fuzzy family spot, which is always a nice way to kick things off. Figure there’ll be a ton more local videos between now and November.

And finally, Joe Jaworski received the endorsement of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, which you can read about here. Given that his opponent is known as “Toxic Mike” Jackson, you’ve got to figure that was an easy call for them.

Judge rules Texas’ bilingual education is inadequate

I don’t know what the practical effects of this are going to be, but it sure sounds like a big deal.

A federal judge’s ruling that Texas is not living up to its obligation to properly educate students who struggle with the English language gives hope to many of those children with dismal academic achievement, a civil rights lawyer said Monday.

The state of Texas is not complying with the federal Equal Education Opportunity Act, in that public schools are failing their obligation to overcome language barriers, Senior U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice said in a 95-page ruling on Friday.

“The failure of secondary (limited English proficient) students under every metric clearly and convincingly demonstrates student failure, and accordingly, the failure of the (English as a Second Language) secondary program in Texas,” Justice wrote in the opinion, which reversed his 2007 ruling in the case.

Justice’s ruling disappointed Texas Education Agency officials. “We’re continuing to study this latest ruling, but it is likely that we will ask the attorney general to appeal it,” agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said.

Attorneys for Attorney General Greg Abbott also are studying the ruling, “and we are weighing the prospects of an appeal,” said Abbott spokesman Tom Kelley.

I don’t see any mention in the story as to a remedy, legislative or otherwise, that is being mandated, and I also don’t see the name of the lawsuit, so I’m not sure how to find a copy of the ruling. Be that as it may, it seems likely to me that this is something the Lege will have to address in some fashion, along with so many other school-related issues. Whether it’s in 2009 or later, I couldn’t say. Can anyone help me fill in the gaps here? Thanks.

Metro East End meeting

Just passing this along.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority will host a neighborhood meeting Wednesday to update residents on construction of the East End light rail line.

The route runs mostly on Harrisburg, and plans call for two items that have brought opposition from some residents: a bridge over freight tracks near 65th and a service and inspection facility nearby for light rail trains.

The meeting will be 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Ripley House Community Center gym, 4100 Navigation.

School board campaign finance reports

I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that there were any class of public offices left for which campaign finance reports were not available online, but apparently there are.

Taxpayers can find out with the click of a mouse who has donated to the campaigns of Houston City Council members, the mayor, Harris County officials and state officers.

Getting the same data on school trustees and candidates is not so easy.

Unlike the city, county and state, the Houston area’s 10 largest school districts and many smaller ones do not post campaign finance reports on their Web sites.

Instead, taxpayers generally must trek to district headquarters during business hours to view paper copies of the reports, which detail the money that school board candidates raised and spent.


In interviews this week, several trustees said they had not thought about posting their campaign reports online.

Sonal Bhuchar, president of the Fort Bend school board, said she does not see the need for online reports because anyone can request paper copies.

“I think it’s best that if someone’s interested, an open-records request can be made,” she said. “I don’t think it necessarily has to be on the district Web site.”

Katy board president Eric Duhon said the issue of going digital boils down to cost.

“Someone must prepare the data, catalog the data, present it in an Internet form, and we must maintain that data,” he said. “With that said, I’m still not opposed to the concept of making public data easier accessed. The decision is, ‘What is the best use of public money at this time?’ ”

For copies of paper documents, districts can charge 10 cents a page.

Board presidents for Houston, Cypress-Fairbanks and Aldine school districts said they would not have a problem posting the campaign reports online but said the decision rests with the full board.

“It’s already an open record,” said Cy-Fair board president Don Ryan.

HISD board president Harvin Moore said he would raise the idea at the next board meeting.

“I think it’s something that the board can consider and we can act on right away,” he said. “It seems like a good idea to me.”

HISD trustee Carol Mims Galloway, who previously served on City Council, said she is not opposed to online reports but noted that trustees are unique politicians because they do not get salaries.

“If the body wants to do this, I don’t have any problems with it,” she said. “But we are different than other elected officials. We’re in another category because we are volunteers.”

Sorry, but every one of these excuses – and that’s what they are – for not making campaign finance reports available online is lame. Requiring an open-records request for a paper copy is a significant burden to anyone who might be interested in this information. It won’t cost that much, and if it came down to it there could be some funding allocated by the Lege for this purpose. And the fact that trustees are unpaid is irrelevant. It’s the donor, not the recipient, that really matters here. Voters have a right to know if people and firms that do business with the school districts are funding the trustees’ campaigns. This should not be contentious. I don’t know if it will take legislative action to make this happen, but if so I’ll say up front that I will support such a bill. This is the 21st century. Let’s act like we’re living in it.

Registering voters

We should have over two million registered voters for the election this fall, which would be a record high for Harris County. The question is whether that figure should be even higher.

For starters, 2 million citizens older than 17, in a county of roughly 4 million people, would represent only meager growth from the last presidential election here. The 2004 roll fell only 60,000 shy of 2 million.

On the other hand, the roll dropped to 1.8 million a year ago, due in part to Bettencourt’s groundbreaking efforts under state and federal law to remove outmoded or improper registrations.

Now, consider what the voter roll shows about the record-shattering voter turnout for the county’s March 4 presidential primaries. Those elections were preceded by several voter registration drives as Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton fought for the Democratic nomination and John McCain emerged as the GOP favorite.

But of the 407,102 voters in the Democratic contest, only 9,850 had never registered to vote in Harris County before this year, according to statistics developed for the Houston Chronicle by Bettencourt’s staff. And of the 169,448 people who voted in the Republican primary, a mere 2,454 had never registered here.

The figures indicate that the stimulated local electorate was overwhelmingly people who had been registered without regularly having voted in primaries, according to Bettencourt and other election observers. Or it means that many people re-registered this year after letting their voter status lapse. Or both.

One of the challenges facing the county registrar’s office is the Houston area population’s apparent wanderlust. Half of the residents here rent their dwellings, according to the U.S. Census. Many switch locations every few months or years.

If those voters fail to update their registrations with new addresses, under federal law they are purged from the voter roll after two federal elections. In the meantime, they may be told at the voting place in their new neighborhood that they must return to their old neighborhood to vote.

Bettencourt voluntarily pursues voters to update their registrations after they move from one Harris County location to another. Using driver’s license address changes and other government records in a pioneering project, his staff sends letters to such voters — about 100,000 every summer — encouraging them to update their voter registrations.


Clearly, Harris County takes a lead role in the state for cross-checking government records to remove from the rolls voters who leave the county, are convicted of felonies, are discovered to be noncitizens (80 of those since January 2006) or die. Bettencourt said that, following state law and interpretations by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, his staff also is ahead of most of the state in using government records to challenge whether voters or registration applicants have claimed a real residential address.

Inevitably, a few challenges are misguided. Running six months behind on property records, the county mistakenly has rejected applications from voters who live in new dwellings. They are allowed to register eventually.

Bettencourt’s employees also have been sticklers about following state law on other portions of the voter application. They have rejected applications on which residents without Texas driver’s licenses provided Social Security numbers in lieu of license numbers — but failed to check the box that says they lack a license.

There’s no question that Bettencourt is aggressive about purging voters he believes to be ineligible from the rolls. He’s one of the more vocal claimants of the “voter fraud” myth, so that’s entirely in keeping with his philosophy. Bettencourt denies that he emphasizes purging over enrolling, and that may be, but I don’t think he can deny that his office doesn’t prioritize enrolling new voters. It’s just not what they do. And I hope we’re all clear on the reasons why Democrats are highly suspicious of aggressive voter-roll-purging by Republicans like Bettencourt.

What I’d like to know is what percentage of people in Harris County who are eligible to vote are actually registered to vote. I couldn’t find that information on the voter registration page. For comparison, in Travis County 94.4% of eligible voters were actually registered for the 2004 election. How many people could be enrolled in Harris County but aren’t?

Waiting for KBH, the continuing story

Paul Burka goes to Washington and confirms – as much as one can, anyway – that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison really really really will resign the Senate and run for Governor in 2010.

No, I didn’t hear it directly from her. I got it indirectly from a Texas Republican congressman who is a strong suppporter of hers. He got it from her. She has been having regular meetings with Republican members of the Texas delegation (19 R’s, 13 D’s), telling them that she will run and seeking their support. She has received affirmative answers from all but two. One of the holdouts is Sam Johnson. I did not learn the identity of the other, but my guess is Ron Paul. It certainly isn’t Kay Granger, who wants to run for the seat herself. Hutchison will resign from the Senate about a year from now, my source told me, after the legislative session.

Two things: One, as always with this neverending story, I’ll believe it when I see it. Until KBH takes a tangible step towards running for Governor – like, say, announcing her resignation from the Senate – it’s all speculation and rumor and can be proven false at any time. It’s not that I think she doesn’t want to be Governor, it’s that we’ve seen this movie before, and I’m not convinced she wants to fight for it. And as long as Rick Perry is around, that’s what she’ll have to do. How willing is she to get dirty?

And two, I hope that if she does run, the Democrats don’t decide that no one can beat her, so they may as well focus on other things. The KBH that emerges from a nasty primary fight with Rick Perry is going to look very different that the warm, fuzzy, moderate-of-reputation KBH of today. If Burka’s report that Phil Gramm is involved in her putative campaign is accurate, then there will be plenty of material to use in a race against her. Let’s not give up without trying, okay? If the Democrats are ever going to be a statewide party, we can’t afford to be shy.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 28

The All-Star Break is over, the Olympics are on the horizon, NFL training camp has begun, and through it all the Texas Progressive Alliance blog roundups keep on going. Click on for this week’s highlights.


Bell, Skelly, and McCaul

Chris Bell, noting that there’s now 99 days left till Election Day, has sent out a fundraising email hoping to raise $10K in 10 days on ActBlue. The link is here if you want to pitch in. I’ve been harping on fundraising for this race ever since it hit the radar screen, so the least I can do is point this out. Ten grand isn’t much for a State Senate race, but perhaps a little show of grassroots support might help convince the people who can write the bigger checks to get involved here. We know that the big guns are coming out for at least one SD17 Republican, Joan Huffman, so Bell’s going to need all the help he can get to keep pace.

Meanwhile, Michael Skelly is looking to do a similar grassroots push for contributions to counter an attack by John Culberson that Skelly is financing his own campaign. That’s an odd claim to make, given that in the last filing report, Skelly had 617 individual contributors, who totaled $1.2 million for him, while Culberson had 454 individual donors for about half that much, but whatever. They want to do a one-day burst on Friday, August 1, and are asking people to create their own fundraising page to help out.

And finally, Mean Rachel finds CD10 Rep. Mike McCaul making a very strange and apparently false claim about a couple of kids from Atlanta who spent time in a school in Pakistan. Just watch the embedded CNN video (it’s 8:31 in length) and be amazed.

No Ashby highrise ordinance coming

If there’s going to be any action taken by City Council on a new ordinance to deal with the Ahsby highrise and its ilk, it won’t happen any time soon, probably not until after Mayor White’s successor has been sworn in.

Last week, however, the official who has been the public face of White’s administration during the controversy recommended that the city stop its work on a high-density development ordinance.

Instead, the city should continue to rely on a 60-year-old law governing where driveways connect to public streets, with additional guidelines on how the city will apply the measure to ensure that projects do not cause severe traffic congestion, said Andy Icken, a deputy public works director.

An advisory committee of developers, neighborhood leaders and experts had spent hundreds of hours trying to devise regulations that would apply only to large, dense projects near single-family residential neighborhoods.

Such an ordinance “would give people a warm feeling that this is the way the city does things,” Icken told a City Council committee on Monday. “The disadvantage is … as we explicitly define these development standards, we often find ourselves skirting the Z-word.”

Fear that a new ordinance might resemble zoning is a poor reason for the city to throw up its hands on such a vital public issue, neighborhood leaders said.

“This do-nothing approach that the city is taking will not protect existing residential neighborhoods,” said Jane Cahill, a neighborhood activist who served on the advisory committee that worked on the ordinance. “All parcels of land are not appropriate for all types of development.”

I’m not surprised by this. As you know, I’ve long thought that the best approach is to admit that they’re powerless to change the Ashby project, and to focus instead on a sensible ordinance, perhaps one that incorporates updating the city’s form-based codes, in order to be prepared for future Ashbys. I agree with Jane Cahill that all parcels of land are not appropriate for all types of development. But if a solution that does something about Ashby is too elusive and is hindering the pursuit of something that would otherwise be workable, then I think it’s clear that it’s time to try a different approach. Especially given that the Ashby developers are one step away from being able to move forward.

One more thing:

A Web site devoted to the issue is updated regularly, and includes a link that neighbors can use to check online for the status of the permit application, which last was returned to the developers June 25.

I presume that’s a reference to Why they didn’t just give the URL is a mystery to me, but whatever. I don’t know that I’d call four updates since April 17 “updated regularly”, but it is still there.

Charitable political contributions

The Chron looks at a gray area of political contributions.

For the contractors and lobbyists whose public business rides on the trust and goodwill of politicians, it is no secret that campaign giving is a high-stakes game.

At Harris County Commissioners Court, campaign donations of $5,000 or more come along as often as hot days in a Texas summer. So, donors looking to stand apart from the throngs of high-dollar givers have found another way to make their generosity known: charity.

Over the years, county commissioners have helped local charities raise millions, at times tapping the same donors who fuel their political campaigns. But whereas campaign contributions are public record, donations to most charities are not.

Donors have said they open their wallets to worthwhile causes no matter who runs them. But campaign watchdogs argue that contributing to politicians’ pet charities shelters donors from public scrutiny — an attractive benefit for those who want to earn political favor without having their largesse exposed to watchdogs and competitors.


All four commissioners — El Franco Lee, Sylvia Garcia, Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole — have close ties to area charities, in some cases running their own using county staff.


Tommy Kuykendall Jr., president of the Houston branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said a desire to give back to the community is the sole motivation behind the vast majority of charitable gifts from engineering firms. He questioned how donating to a national organization, such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, would benefit an officeholder, but acknowledged that lines between charities and politics can become blurred.

“I don’t know if I can give a good answer — OK, this is the exact line, once you cross it, you’re done,” he said. “Because there are a lot of good things that need to be supported.”

Well, here’s one place for that line to be drawn. There’s nothing in this story remotely as egregious as that, but it does show what the possibilities are, and why some folks have these concerns. I guess if it were up to me, I’d say if 1) an elected official or a member of an elected official’s immediate family – spouse, child, parent, or sibling – serves on the board of a charity; 2) if as noted in the story, a charity was founded by an elected official and/or is run by that official’s staff, or; 3) a fundraiser for a charity was organized or hosted by an elected official, then any contributions to that charity must be disclosed in the same manner as a political contribution. Actually, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to only require such disclosure for contributions above a certain amount, say $1000. Of course, all this would require the charities to do more paperwork, and it’s unclear what the best course of action for enforcing these rules would be in the event of a screwup with said paperwork – do you fine the charity? Would the TEC even have the authority to do that? Would you fine the elected official, even if the screwup was by the charity? So maybe this is only a good idea in theory. But I do think it’s worth talking about, because the potential for abuse by the truly unscrupulous is there. What do you think?

Green College Station

I suppose the remarkable thing about this story is that it’s newsworthy at all.

COLLEGE STATION — This rural college town is more boots than Birkenstocks, more gravy than granola. It’s a place where conservative values and traditions run deep, and those who disagree with the way things are done in Aggieland are told if they don’t like it, “Highway 6 runs both ways.”

But this year, city leaders not usually associated with liberal causes pledged to fight global warming by slashing their energy consumption and reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide.

The decision has placed College Station on the front lines of a green revolution that now includes hundreds of cities, counties and towns nationwide. Though the stated goal is to save the environment, the reasons for confronting climate change are economic as well.

The logic behind College Station’s decision starts with saving taxpayer dollars, building the local economy and creating jobs. Without changes to business as usual, the city faces a future with a deficient tax base, inadequate water supplies, traffic problems and a lower quality of life, according to a city report that prompted the City Council to pursue progressive policies.

“This is a critical growth period for us,” said Jennifer Nations, who is overseeing the Green College Station campaign. “We’re asking, ‘What will it cost to get new water sources? What will it cost to buy additional power?’ Sustainability is looking more attractive.”

I realize that conservation is just a personal virtue, but really, any municipal government that isn’t aggressively pursuing energy-saving opportunities should be voted out immediately for extreme fiscal irresponsibility. This is the height of no-brainers – cutting costs without cutting services. Failure to do so means just the reverse. Who wouldn’t want to do that? I find the whole “look! conservatives doing liberal things!” angle to be annoying and distracting, but in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is they’re doing the sensible and responsible thing. We’ll get over that silly story line sooner or later.

The Steffy Plan

Credit where it’s due: After his solution-free criticism of the Pickens Plan, Chron columnist Loren Steffy has come up with a plan of his own for energy.

My plan begins with the idea that energy is really about economics. The solutions, therefore, must make economic sense. That doesn’t mean consumers won’t have to pay more — we will. And providers must be able to make reasonable returns.

Subsidies are fine to develop technology, but we can’t sustain businesses that aren’t profitable without them, which is why I’m skeptical of wind power.

Just as the federal enthusiasm for ethanol led to a wave of subsidies that helped feed higher food prices, we must be careful about picking winners before we understand the rules of the game.

Here, then, are the five broad elements of my plan:

1) Enact meaningful conservation programs from the home to the highways. […]

2) Invest in infrastructure. […]

3) Develop what works. […]

4) Continue researching alternative fuels that show economic promise and fund it through federal grant programs and modest tax incentives for promising technology. […]

5) Be prepared to pay for it.

All in all, not a bad effort. I don’t share Steffy’s skepticism of wind energy, which I believe will be a key component to any solution going forward, but I strongly agree with his emphases on conservation and investment in mass transit, both of which will show immediate and long-term gains. And I appreciate the continuation of the conversation. If the focus has shifted from “why do we need to do anything?” to “what’s the best way to deal with this?” then we’ve made progress. Let’s keep that going.

By the way, the Chron got some letters to the editor regarding Steffy’s previous column, including one from the executive director of the American Wind Energy Association Washington. I’m reprinting that beneath the fold. I won’t bother with the subsequent letter, which says little more than “AL GORE IS FAT!!111!!!”, but I will say that if that’s the best folks like that can do, it’s easy to see who’ll eventually win this battle. Click on for the AWEA response.


“Turd Blossom” coming to town

The title to this post makes me think I should start out singing – “You better watch out, you better not cry”…you get the idea. In any event, Vince reports that Karl Rove is coming to Houston for a big-dollar joint fundraiser for four Republican State House candidates: Rep. John Davis (HD129, opposed by TexBlog PAC-endorsed candidate Sherrie Matula), Rep. Jim Murphy (HD133, opposed by Kristi Thibaut), Rep. Gary Elkins (HD135, opposed by Trey Fleming), and Ken Legler (HD144, opposed by Joel Redmond). He’s also coming to El Paso for a fundraiser for John Cornyn. I don’t really know why anyone would want to get assistance from Karl Rove these days, since he embodies the failures of the Bush administration as well as anyone, but maybe they can explain it to their constituents. Maybe he’ll get handed a subpoena at one of these events – that would sure liven things up.

More on Obama and the downballot races

Here’s another story about the campaign Barack Obama will be running in Texas, which is more about getting downballot Democratic candidates elected than it is about Obama carrying the state. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it does give an interesting insight into the Republican view of the strategy.

A lot of the strategy is about voter excitement. Consultants from both parties admit that Democrats are generally more excited about the presidential race than Republicans. And, they said, down-ballot races may actually help boost turnout in the presidential contest.

Democrats in Texas “are very much energized, pretty much across the state,” said Democratic political consultant Dan McClung of Houston. “It’s not just national politics. It’s state politics and county politics that have Democrats energized.”

Texas Republican Party Political Director Hans Klingler said fights over partisan control of Harris and Dallas counties are as exciting for party activists as the presidential contest.

“As important as to what happens at the presidential races at the top of the ticket is what the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are going to do at the bottom-of-the-ticket races at the courthouse level,” Klingler said.

Republican pollster Mike Baselice believes Obama’s plans to put 15 people in Texas — a state with 19 expensive media markets — is a waste of money for his campaign.

“There’s dumb and real dumb and invading Russia,” Baselice said. “If you’re a Democrat, you don’t want to get caught in a land war in Texas, when you’ve got all those states in the Midwest to win.”

Baselice said the problem for Republicans is not what Obama is going to do but a belief by GOP voters that the nation is on the wrong track.

“Half, if not more than half, the Republicans think the country is off-track. That is more concern to me than Obama sending 15 people to the state,” Baselice said.

Is it just me, or does anyone else think Baselice is protesting a wee bit too much? Obama himself is a big part of the reason for the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans. It’s not just that Democrats see a great chance to take back the White House, not to mention the Texas House and all the offices in Harris County, it’s that they see it happening with a candidate that’s broadly acceptable to them, unlike the Republicans and John McCain. The contrast between the two, the forward-looking nature of Obama’s candidacy versus the stuck-in-the-past McCain, it all contributes to that higher level of excitement. And the best way to build on that is for Obama himself to make it clear that Texas matters, to him and to Democrats everywhere. That’s why those staffers matter, whatever it is they wind up doing. It’s a tangible sign that Texas is being taken seriously, and I believe it will have a payoff at the end.

Now of course, there’s plenty more that can be done. It would be nice if Obama himself made a trip here for a real campaign event or two, and not just for money-sucking fundraisers. Going overseas was great, and lent a ton of stature to the man and his campaign, but we have more voters here than they do there. If that’s too much to ask, then send some high-profile surrogates, like Henry Cisneros, or the Clintons. The publicity alone will be worth the investment in time and effort. How about it?

On a tangential note, the most interesting thing to me in the sidebar piece about what races are hot is the omission of any mention of HD134, where State Rep. Ellen Cohen will run for re-election for the first time against a fellow named Joe Agris. There was a time when some experts thought this would be a top-tier battle. Look at what Paul Burka wrote back in January:

Agris was a close friend of the late Marvin Zindler and wrote an authorized biography of the flamboyant Houston newsman best known for closing down the La Grange “chicken ranch”. In 2004, after Saddam Hussein had imprisoned a group of Iraqi businessmen for trading in dollars and then had their right hands amputated, Agris and Zindler arranged for seven of the victims to come to Houston and receive prosthetic hands. This is a real race.

Not so much, it would seem. So far, Agris has raised almost no money, with Cohen having nearly 100 times as much cash on hand. There’s no buzz about this race, no indication that Agris is doing anything resembling the massive door-to-door campaign Cohen ran in 2006 when she ousted Martha Wong. I hesitate to say that the Republicans have written this one off, since Agris could still drop a chunk of his own money on TV ads if he wanted to. But not including it in a list of Republican opportunity districts is very telling, and more than a little amazing given that most Republicans on the ballot in 2006 won a majority of the votes there.

A look ahead to the Council of the future

Carolyn Feibel consults her crystal ball to see what City Council might look like after the 2009 election.

The mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Terence Fontaine, has expressed interest in the At-Large 4 seat. That’s the seat occupied by Ron Green, who has his eyes on the Controller’s office, and is term-limited anyway.

Fontaine is a nuts-and-bolts guy who analyzes city processes, looking for ways to save money. He’s analyzed the fleet vehicles and created a plan for replacement. He knows the ins and outs of fuel usage and tire disposal.

“Six years is not enough time to get it all done,” Fontaine said, referring to his time on White’s team. “I want to continue to find ways of saving taxpayers money.”


Also sending out trial balloons: Deputy Fire Chief Fernando Herrera, for At-Large Seat 1, and two lawyers for At-Large 4: Brian P. Cweren and George Hittner.

Cweren and Hittner previously faced off during a race for the District C seat in 2005, but Anne Clutterbuck prevailed in a crowded field.

Cweren circulated an email about his potential interest in At Large #4 a week or so ago. He finished fifth in that crowded 2005 election with 14% of the vote; Clutterbuck led the first go-round with 20%. I don’t think he was very well known, almost certainly not as well as some of his opponents, so that wasn’t a bad showing. Still, it’s a long way to go from 3500 votes in a district race to an At Large position, especially when there’s going to be a big-dollar Mayoral race at the top of the ticket. He’ll need to do some heavy fundraising, for which I’d give folks like Fontaine and Hittner the early edge. On the other hand, anyone currently thinking about running for At Large #4 had better register all their relevant domain names now, as Clutterbuck can testify.

I don’t know much about Fontaine, but anyone from Mayor White’s staff is going to be a contender in a citywide race. As for Hittner, he tried to outflank Clutterbuck on the right in the 2005 runoff, and lost by a wide margin. I think it will be difficult for anyone running as a conservative Republican to get elected in an At Large race. Perhaps he’ll try a different tack this time around.

Two things I can add to this story: One, since someone in the comments on that post asked about District H, which I hope will be vacant after Adrian Garcia gets elected Sheriff, I am aware of a person who has been making the rounds as a potential candidate for that seat. I don’t know if that person is ready to speak about it publicly yet, so I’ll leave it at that. If I get any feedback from that person, I’ll say so.

Two, on a slightly different note, there have been rumblings for awhile now about a challenge to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in CD18 because of her steadfast support of Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Presidential Primary. Vince had reported on a rumor of a write-in opponent for her this year. I doubt that will happen, but apparently District B City Council Member Jarvis Johnson is putting pieces in place for a primary challenge in 2010. I kind of think that any lingering emotion over the Clinto/Obama primary and who supported who will dissipate after the election in the likely event Obama wins. It’s not like Rep. Jackson Lee is a puma, after all. With all due respect to CM Johnson, I like the way Rep. Jackson Lee votes and will be happy to vote for her in March of 2010.

So that’s what I’ve been hearing. Anyone else have something to add to this?

An alternate suggestion for Kirby

neoHouston wades into the debate over Kirby Drive and its doomed trees and suggests a different approach to improving mobility in the affected area.

The problem with Kirby Drive is that it is the only North/South connector through what has become a very dense, mixed-use area. Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit of a monster. The street is packed all the time. However, the bottleneck zone is pretty small, just the most intensely developed area along Upper Kirby, roughly from Westheimer down to Bissonnet. So, while the road is busy all day, it never really stops moving.

The problem with this particular stretch of road is that you have tons of users from the nearby neighborhoods who need to get to and from their shopping, dining etc who have no choice but to use Kirby, and they clash with the many office workers who come in from 59, and also motorists from that neck of the woods who would like to use Kirby -> Allen Parkway as an alternate route into Downtown.

If you could remove just one small portion of these trips, you’d significantly improve the flow of the road. So how do you do that?

The answer is the network. Kirby is only so packed because it is the ONLY through street. But, incredibly, there are three parallel streets that almost make the connection.

Rather than spending all that money to tear up and rebuild Kirby, causing an absolute traffic nightmare that will undoubtedly put many of the smaller local shops that make that strip so unique under extreme stress, if not out of business all together, the City and the TIRZ should be investing in completing the network of local streets to support Kirby first.

I think there’s a lot of merit to this, though I don’t know if there’s any way to get any of it done. Basically, by extending Lake, Argonne, and Revere Streets, you allow for back-door access to businesses and residences along Kirby, and take some of the short-hop driving pressure off the main road. Looking at the maps of the area provided, this makes a lot of sense. Take a look and see what you think.

The main objection is likely to come from the folks who live along these streets and who I’d venture to guess consider their lack of continuity to be a feature and not a bug. It’s the same reason why Morningside, which not too long ago was a viable alternate route to Shepherd/Greenbriar in the Rice area, is now littered with speed bumps. The residents of that neghborhood didn’t want the cut-through traffic, and I won’t be surprised if the residents of Upper Kirby feel the same way. But it can’t hurt to broach the subject, so here we are.

Even if this were to happen, it’s still not a complete solution for the area, since none of those side roads goes through 59, meaning that the stretch of Kirby between 59 and Bissonnet (which has its own unique problems these days, thanks to some faulty surveying work) would still be on its own. But it would be an improvement on what we’ve got. What do you think?

Run, don’t walk

Race officials with the 2009 Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half Marathon have officially uninvited walkers from participating next year.

For years, they have more or less looked the other way when hundreds of walkers — most of them registered participants — showed up as early as 5 a.m. to get under way before the official 7 a.m. start so they could finish the event before the course closed six hours later.

No more.

“The marathon is going in a new direction to formally ask that walkers who cannot complete our race in the stated time limits — or cannot start at 7 a.m. — seek a race with more lenient time standards,” managing director Steven Karpas said.

Karpas said safety was the primary reason the marathon decided to “step up its management” of the situation.

“We have become increasingly concerned at the hundreds of walkers who choose to risk their lives and the lives of others by crossing the viaduct at 5 a.m., unchaperoned, with no security.”

“Our leaders have had to dodge packs of walkers who do not stay to the side of the road,” he said. “That’s embarrassing. With our growth (18,000 participants) we simply cannot allow for packs of walkers to impede the flow of thousands of runners.

“Ultimately, it’s a recipe for disaster.”


The event had a five-hour cutoff from its first year in 1972 through 1996. In 1997, it increased to 5½ hours, then became six hours in 2003.

But even with a six-hour limit, many of USA Fit’s 600 walkers in the area would be unable to finish the events in the specified times — which require a pace of 13:45 minutes per mile — said Houston Fit organizer Patty Chesnick.

“Since our inception 19 years ago, USA FIT/Houston Fit has consistently pushed for longer official finish times and is willing to work with any race organizers to accomplish this objective,” she said

“While this presents challenges, not the least of which is safety and additional expense, we feel that it is important to work together to overcome these challenges in order to allow participation by as many athletes as possible.”

Said Karpas: “It’s a bigger picture than just extending the time limit. The bigger picture is Metro’s light rail being closed, homeowners enduring the inconvenience, as well as church groups and businesses. It’s emergency groups and city services that are being impacted.

“We are unable to compromise. Everything is designed to accommodate the runners.”

I sympathize with the Marathon here. Their audience is the runners, and they have to do this race without causing too much disruption in the city. The walkers do have other options. Maybe going forward, for future races, one of those options can be for them to pay extra fees to help cover the cost of street closures and race security for two more hours. Doing so up front would still be preferable, as it would minimize the outages for the general population. Finding people willing to be there for a 5 AM start, that’s their problem.

(You could turn this into a nice little math problem, too. “John starts the marathon at 5 AM, walking at a speed of 3.5 MPH. Dave starts the marathon at 7 AM, running at a speed of 12 MPH. At what point in the race will Dave pass John? You must show all work to receive full marks. Partial credit will be awarded as deemed appropriate.”)

Weekend link dump for July 26

The links, they keep coming…

Report from BlogHer, part one.

Yes, I find the whole “purity ball” thing to be unbelievably creepy. What I expect of my daughters is that they will make responsible, informed decisions about their sex lives when the time is right for them to do so. What I expect of myself and of Tiffany is that we will give them the tools and guidance they’ll need to be able to make those decisions for themselves.

Make the pie higher!

I know Netroots Nation is, like, so last week and all but Racymind’s liveblog of a panel on rebuilding New Orleans is worth your time.

I actually do remember when we landed on the moon. Seeing pictures of it on the TV when I was 3 years old is my first conscious memory. I hope we have a huge celebration next year to mark the 40th anniversary.

Sometimes, it’s just as well that some people don’t vote.

The distinguished gentleman. And how that scene should have played out.

Pete debuts on Hair Balls.

The Worst Movie Scenes of All Time (via).

The Nirvana Nevermind baby, 17 years later. 17 years? Gads, I’m old. Via jimthompson on Twitter.

Four mistakes that killed the record industry before file sharing.

An open letter to John McCain from the rest of the world.

Three words: Cow poop power. No, seriously. Via HMNS.

Obama still doing well among Latino voters

Yet another national poll shows Barack Obama doing very well among Latino voters compared to John McCain.

The poll of 2,015 Latino voters conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Democrat Barack Obama, who lost the Hispanic vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 2-to-1 in the Democratic primary, holds a commanding 66 percent to 23 percent lead over Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

The Democratic tide in the Latino community is so strong that Obama leads among every nationality group, including the historically Republican Cuban-American population, where Obama now leads, 53 percent to 29 percent.

The Illinois Democrat is running far ahead among Mexican-Americans, who cast about 40 percent of their ballots for George W. Bush in 2004. Among voters of Mexican ancestry, Obama leads McCain, 70 percent to 21 percent.

Obama is running so far ahead that he has the support of 25 percent of Hispanics who identify themselves as Republicans and holds an edge of about 5-to-1 among Latinos who consider themselves political independents.

President Bush’s approval rating among Latinos has plummeted to 27 percent. More than three-fourths of Hispanic voters have a favorable impression of Obama, while McCain — who has regularly won majority support among Mexican-Americans in his home state of Arizona — is viewed favorably by just 44 percent of Latinos nationally.

Unless McCain can reverse the GOP slide, the Hispanic vote could prove pivotal to Obama in traditionally Republican states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, and could help him close what has been a significant gap in Florida. It also could help the Democrat in three states that went Republican in 2004 but have small but rapidly increasing Hispanic populations: Iowa, Virginia and North Carolina.

Well, that partly explains Obama’s Latino outreach strategy, though it also shows he’s not thinking big enough with it right now. There are opportunities beyond the agreed-upon swing states, that’s the point I’m trying to make.

The full poll report is here (PDF), and it’s pretty much good news down the line for Obama. I wish it had broken out the results by state, as the previous poll by Latino Decisions had done, but I think it’s safe to draw the conclusion that Obama is doing about as well in Texas as he is elsewhere among Latinos. If he ever were to do some real campaigning here, who knows what his ceiling might be. I’ll note again the contrast here with the Baselice poll from May, back when Hillary Clinton was still in the race. It sure would be nice to see a newer version of that, wouldn’t it? MyDD has more.

One more thing, from the report:

The 2008 National Survey of Latinos focuses on Hispanic registered voters’ views on the presidential candidates, the presidential campaign and Hispanic political participation. The survey was conducted from June 9 through July 13, 2008 among a randomly selected, nationally representative sample of 2,015 Hispanic adults, 892 of whom report that they are U.S. citizens and registered to vote. The survey was conducted in both English and Spanish. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points; for registered voters, 4.4 percentage points.

Emphasis mine. I bring that up because earlier this month Sergio Bendixen was quoted casting doubt on the earlier surveys that showed Obama with a commanding lead among Latinos on the grounds that they had only been done in English. Perhaps this will put his mind at ease.

Bob’s your uncle

So there’s an interesting feature of Pat Lykos’ campaign finance report (PDF), which the HCDP has pointed out in a press release. She has just under $32,000 on hand, after raising $114,000, but a total of $50,000 of the cames from the Robet Eckels Committee – see page 25 of the report for that. And $40,000 of that was originally a loan, which was forgiven and thus converted into a donation on June 30 – see page 34. Without former County Judge Eckels, in other words, her campaign would be in the red.

You can make a big deal about that or not as you see fit. Lykos did raise over $60K from other sources – Eckels is obviously a big supporter of his former employee, but we’re still a ways away from Macias/Leininger territory. But it’s almost like Eckels never left his old job as County Judge, isn’t it? He’s certainly still a player in county affairs. Only now he gets paid a lot more, and he isn’t accountable to the voters. Pretty sweet deal, actually.

Nights in white linen

Next Saturday, August 2, will be the third annual White Linen Night in the Heights. It’s basically an outdoor art-and-music festival, spread over several areas in the Heights – you can read more about it here. The event is an import from New Orleans, and the name refers to the tradition of wearing white linen clothing as a way to beat the heat. We went to last year’s and had a lot of fun, and we’ll be going again this year. If you’re looking to get involved, the Greater Heights Democratic Club needs a few volunteers during the event. Regardless, come out and meet some neighbors and enjoy a fun evening in the Heights.

Deputies to back Garcia


Harris County’s sheriff’s deputy unions are expected today to endorse a challenger in the sheriff’s race — an unprecedented move that union leaders say reflects a long-standing dissatisfaction with incumbent Tommy Thomas.

The three unions, which together represent the majority of deputies, plan to endorse Houston Councilman Adrian Garcia over Thomas in the November election.

The announcement is the latest blow against the beleaguered Republican sheriff, whose policies have come under fire by his own deputies and whose jail is under scrutiny by federal investigators.

“It’s basically the lack of the current administration’s willingness to work with us, inconsistency in policies and fair treatment of personnel,” said Richard Newby, head of the largest of the three unions. “This is something that’s been building for a while.”

Deputies have complained about understaffing that has stretched patrols thin and required them to work overtime. They’ve said the department’s contract deputy program — which allows civic associations and municipal utility districts to subsidize deputy salaries in exchange for increased patrols — has created bare spots in patrol coverage and left dozens of unsubsidized patrol positions unfilled.


The sheriff defended his tenure, saying he was unfazed by the unions’ endorsement of his opponent.

“It appears they’re across the board endorsing Democrats in the races,” he said.

The sheriff said he did not believe the contract deputy issue influenced the unions’ decision.

“Bear in mind that the decision to endorse in these races is made by a handful of people,” he said. “It’s not made by all the members of the union.”

This is the first time the unions have come together to support a challenger for the sheriff’s post, Newby said. When polled, union members said they favored Garcia 3-to-1, he said.

How many different ways can you say “The Sheriff is out of touch”? This is a big deal, as it undercuts any claim Thomas might make about his experience versus Garcia’s. He’s lost the trust of the people who work for him, and they want to see a change at the top. What more can you say? Now if we can get Garcia’s fundraising in gear – one hopes stories like this will help it tick up a bit – then we’ll really be on our way. There’s a press conference for today on this, so look for more info later.

UPDATE: I have press releases from the Garcia campaign and from the three unions beneath the fold.