Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

November, 2008:

Weekend link dump for November 30

Still recovering from tryptophan overexposure

Let the people pick Obama’s successor in Illinois.

The dark side of camera phones. Via McGuff.

Time to start thinking about Christmas gifts!

Confessions of an unrepentant BlackBerry addict. Yeah, I’m like that, too. Via Rob on Twitter.

Is it time to consider moving up Inauguration Day?

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performs Shaft. Can you dig it?

Foes of stem cell research now face tough time. As well they should. Via Oliver Willis.

Bye-bye, Freedom’s Watch.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Bacon really does make everything better.

The state of the Speaker’s race in a nutshell

This sounds about right.

House Speaker Tom Craddick’s critics say they’ve got enough signed pledges against him to make his re-election all but impossible.

But Craddick’s opponents have yet to coalesce around a challenger seeking to replace him, ensuring that behind-the-scenes jockeying for one of the most coveted political offices in Texas could continue right up until the Legislature convenes Jan. 13.

If this were a retention election, like some states have for judges, I feel confident that Tom Craddick would be voted out. The problem is that this is basically a multi-candidate special election, and under any scenario I can think of at this time, Craddick will have more votes than any of his eight or so challengers. I don’t know if House rules require a majority or not, but even if it goes to a runoff, I have to think he’d be enough people’s second choice to hang on to his office. More simply put, as Patricia Kilday Hart noted in a nice overview of the Speaker’s race, “You can’t vote for speaker a guy named ‘Anybody But Craddick'”. I hate to say it, but until it’s Craddick versus one consensus candidate, not Tom Craddick Versus The World, he’s the favorite.

[Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, a former Craddick ally who recently announced his own candidacy for speaker,] said he has about 15 members who are ready to emerge publicly as his “second wave” once it becomes evident he can be elected speaker.

“They just want to feel comfortable that there can be life after Tom. That’s all there is to it,” Solomons said. “It’s not as if they dislike Tom. It’s not as if they want to hang him on a tree. But they also understand where we are, here. A lot of that is sinking in now because of the reality of the numbers.”

Solomons won’t say how many of his GOP colleagues make up his first wave of support.

“I have enough to make it clear that Tom can’t win, but when they stand up, it makes it more clear,” he said. “I think we are two or three weeks away from getting this thing decided.”

That sounds a lot like the old newsgroup claim that the lurkers support me in email. I’m skeptical of Solomons’ statement because I’d bet that other Speaker hopefuls could say the same thing to some degree. I hope one of them is right, but until members put their cards on the table and make their intentions known, it’s all wishful thinking.

The Ten Ugliest Buildings in Downtown Houston

Nice little slideshow from the Houston Press about some downtown eyesores. I daresay it’s a largely uncontroversial list, though I personally have no particular beef with the look of either the Alley Theater or the George R. Brown Convention Center. But hey, eye of the beholder and all that. As noted, only one of those buildings is likely to get a facelift soon. Now I’d like to see a similar list for the rest of Houston, since Lord knows there’s ugly buildings in other places, too.

Red light camera study coming

We’ve been waiting for this for a long time: A study of the effects of red light cameras in Houston.

Mayor Bill White’s administration plans next week to release a report on whether the 70-camera system has achieved its stated mission of reducing crashes at intersections.

The study, compiled for the Houston Police Department by researchers at Rice University and the Texas Transportation Institute, is said to show that monitored intersections are safer.

“The percentage of accidents caused by people running red lights where there are red-light cameras goes down,” the mayor said last week.

White’s office declined to release the report, in the works more than a year, saying it still needs clarification on some points.

A favorable study could give HPD a green light to install dozens more cameras, despite the controversy among some who criticize the program.

Critics argue they aren’t effective at reducing wrecks. Rather, they say, the city is mainly interested in collecting the $75 fines.

Well, the critics used to say that the cameras were in violation of the state constitution, but they were wrong about that. Whatever the study says, I rather doubt that these people are going to change their tune. The question is whether they’ll have data on their side, or if they’ll have to find a new angle of attack. I’m looking forward to reading the report, and I hope it helps to at least settle a few questions about the implementation of the cameras here.

The twelfth Senator

The Star Telegram talks about what the election of Wendy Davis to the State Senate means.

With Davis, they now have 12 members — one more than the 11 votes needed to block legislation in the 31-member Senate — and hope to expand to what they would consider a lucky 13 if Chris Bell wins a runoff for a Houston-area seat.


Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who has led Senate Democrats since 2003, said that senators from both parties traditionally put the interests of their districts above partisanship, with Democrats and Republicans often coalescing along rural-urban lines or forming blocs based on particular issues.

Nevertheless, she said, “there are a few core what I’d call non-negotiables for Senate Democrats.” She said they will be “absolutely united” against any attempt to revive a voter identification bill, a measure Democrats blocked last year in a confrontation with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate’s Republican presiding officer.

Other non-negotiables, she said, would include legislation that Democrats perceive as attempts to weaken the state’s public education system or diminish voting rights. Moreover, she said, Democrats are likely to “congeal” around other issues such as insurance, healthcare and consumer protection.


Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who grew up in Saginaw, said that Democrats, with their strengthened bargaining position, might refuse to support certain items in the budget unless they have assurances that state children’s health programs will be fully funded to their satisfaction.

The new Senate configuration also dilutes conservative Republican control of the chamber, Watson said, and creates “a greater opportunity” for bipartisan cooperation. “It swings power back toward the center — not all the way there, but it moves it in that direction,” he said.

The Senate requires a two-thirds vote to bring up legislation, meaning 11 senators can stop a bill from coming to the floor. Davis’ added vote makes it easier for Democrats to forge a bill-stopping bloc.

In particular, it makes the caucus less dependent on the health of Sen. Mario Gallegos and the transitory goodwill of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst; you may recall Dewhurst’s attempt to pull a fast one last year when Sen. Carlos Uresti was home sick. Davis’ presence gives them some slack. It also means they’re less dependent on the whims of Sen. Eddie Lucio, who wasn’t exactly a model of dependability. All these are very good things. Given the budget battles that are likely to come up next year, having more leverage and one more voice for progressive principles will be huge.

And of course, we can still do better than that. If having twelve Democratic Senators is good, having thirteen would be super. That means doing whatever needs to be done to get Chris Bell elected on December 16. If we’re really lucky, this will be the last legislative session with Rick Perry as Governor. Wouldn’t it be great if it was with the most Democratic legislature he’s had to face since his first term? Please go visit Chris and see what you can do to help. Thanks very much.

Finally, you have to wonder if the Democratic establishment up in North Texas isn’t kicking itself over a couple of missed opportunities to make even bigger inroads in the Senate. Sen. Chris Harris, whose district covers parts of Dallas, Denton, and Tarrant counties, won with an unimpressive 54% of the vote against a complete non-entity named Melvin Willms. One can only imagine what might have happened had he faced a challenger of Wendy Davis’ qualities and resources. I can’t wait to get statewide precinct data to see what might have been there. And in Dallas County, Sen. John Carona was re-elected with 56.3% against Rain Minns, who I thought was smart and ambitious, but also young and way underfunded. Given how much more Democratic Dallas is these days, you’d think Carona (and for that matter, US Rep. Pete Sessions) would have had a bigger target on his back, but it wasn’t to be. 2012, anyone?

Tofu tamales

I know, I know, it just sounds wrong. But hear them out.

Tofu tamales in Texas?

One family-owned Houston business is making money selling vegan tamales.

Members of the Chiu family, owners of Banyan Foods, don’t take themselves too seriously and have heard plenty of tofu jokes.

The business’s red chile and green chile tofu tamales package proclaims: Santa Anna, Chiang Kai-Shek and Stephen F. Austin “are rolling over in their graves right about now.”

Their path towards tamale-making began three decades ago. Carol Chiu and her former husband and two sons moved to Houston from Taipei, Taiwan, hoping to go into the import-export business.

But shortly after arriving, she bought some tofu at a local grocery store that she discovered had spoiled.

“How about we make tofu?” said Carol Chiu, company president. “The whole family loved tofu.”


In 2001, the family began selling tofu-stuffed egg rolls.

“It was a way to put tofu in a customers hands in a recognizable form,” said Gary Chiu, Banyan Foods vice president.

They added an assortment of other soy foods and entrees, including tamales. In 2005, they began making tamales of tofu instead of more traditional fillings like chicken, pork or beef.

“There’s skepticism,” Gary Chiu said of the tofu tamale.

A tamale fan since first tasting one a few years ago, Gary Chiu wanted to make a healthier, yet still tasty, version of tamales.

“I think a lot of them would make the healthier choice,” he said.

He doles out samples of the corn husk-stuffed food at local Whole Foods Market stores several days a week.

“I expected people to say, ‘This is not bad,’ ” Gary Chiu said. “People were saying, ‘This is as good as my grandmother’s tamales from the border towns.’ ”

We’ve had their eggrolls. They’re pretty good. And though I believe it comes from a different company, Tiffany has bought soy taco meat and soy chorizo, both of which are pretty decent and a whole lot less greasy than the real thing. Both of our girls love tamales, so I feel confident that I’ll see these in our fridge sooner or later. And that’s all fine.

But I still draw the line at tofurkey. Some things just should not be messed with.

Friday random ten: A little jazzy, but not too much

So I’d said before that I’d made an attempt to compile a Genius list based on something like “Zoot Suit Riot” and got nothing but jazz songs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for. Still, I thought I’d give it another chance with a swing number, this time “Jump, Jive & Wail” by the Brian Setzer Orchestra. And the results were much more interesting. First, as listed:

1. “Jump, Jive & Wail” – The Brian Setzer Orchestra
2. “You and Me and the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight” – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
3. “What You Need” – INXS
4. “Tush” – ZZ Top
5. “Burning Down the House” – Talking Heads
6. “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” – They Might Be Giants
7. “Late In the Evening” – Paul Simon
8. “Something To Talk About” – Bonnie Raitt
9. “I Wanna Be Like You” – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
10. “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” – Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

That’s different from the previous attempt. Maybe having Brian Setzer be a part of if gets it tagged more as “classic rock” than anything jazz-related, with some obvious swing stuff thrown in to make it feel right. Moving on to the list as played:

1. “Jump, Jive & Wail” – The Brian Setzer Orchestra
2. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” – The Police
3. “Ding Dong Daddy of the D-Car Line” – Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
4. “Statesboro Blues” – Allman Brothers
5. “Rocky Mountain Way” – Joe Walsh
6. “The Longest Time” – Billy Joel
7. “She Drives Me Crazy” – Fine Young Cannibals
8. “Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo” – Rick Derringer
9. “Can’t Help Falling In Love” – Elvis Presley
10. “Cat Scratch Fever” – Ted Nugent

Gotta admire the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies/Allman Brothers pairing. That’s genre crossing we can believe in. I take back a little bit more of what I’ve said about Genius’ limitations.

There’s a new Sheriff in town

Have I mentioned lately how glad I am that Sheriff-elect Adrian Garcia administered such a thorough butt-kicking to Tommy Thomas? Apparently, Thomas has not been particularly gracious or professional in defeat.

Garcia soundly beat Tommy Thomas by 12 points on election night after a bitter campaign. As we first reported, Thomas never called Garcia afterwards. And while Garcia calls his one meeting since with Thomas cordial, it hasn’t exactly been easy for Garcia to get vital information out of him. Last week he asked Sheriff Thomas for key documents about spending and the jail investigation.

“I have not received them,” Garcia said. “It concerns me, but we’re moving forward.”

Stay classy, Tommy. In the end, this won’t matter much – unlike, say, the Presidential transition, the things that need to be dealt with in the Sheriff’s office can wait a couple of weeks. What’s important is that the change is coming, and everyone knows it. Even if Tommy Thomas doesn’t want to do anything about it.

Metro ads

I have no problem with this.

Metro has unsuccessfully floated the idea of placing advertising on buses and shelters, but lean economic times call for a renewed effort.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has about 2,000 bus shelters in Houston, and the ads could mean $15 million to Metro in the first five years, according to the transit agency.

Metro, however, remains in the early stages of the proposal, and Houston’s City Council would have ultimate say, said Metro board member George A. DeMontrond III.

“There’s no sense debating it before we know if it’s going to be worthwhile,” DeMontrond said during a recent board meeting.

Metro could begin receiving formal proposals from advertising agencies by next summer.

I’ve already suggested they put ads in the light rail cars – if nothing else, they could be used to help businesses affected by rail construction – so I certainly see no problem with this. What exactly are the objections?

Mayor Bill White and some council members were among those who early on expressed reticence about Metro’s plan.

White’s administration has taken a hard-line stance on billboards that he and other leaders argue clutter the city’s skyline.

White suggested that Metro should first approach Houston’s beautification groups, which he referred to as “stakeholders,” to win their approval.

“I believe that Metro should engage with stakeholders, including people who have fought hard to improve the physical appearance of our city,” White said. “Those stakeholders should also engage with Metro to determine if there are sources of revenue that could help us expand mass transit without creating visual blight.”

Okay, I guess I understand that. I suppose I don’t think of bus stops as being particularly scenic myself, so I don’t see adding ads to them as much of a marginal detraction. But fine, let’s let the beautification folks have some input on this, as long as they are willing to be open-minded.

Speaking of (not) being open-minded:

If city leaders take up Metro’s proposal next year, Councilwoman Toni Lawrence said she would be a hard sell.

“The money is not reason enough for me,” she said. “Tell me something besides money.”

What more do you need to know? Seriously, what is the objection here? Metro isn’t doing this to increase profits, it’s doing it to cover costs. You’re going to have to give me a reason for opposing this potential revenue source besides that to convince me you’re not just being obstructionist. I just don’t see the problem.

Frying turkeys

The comedienne Rita Rudner once said that the reason men barbecue is because they’ll cook if danger is involved. She could just as easily have been talking about frying a turkey.

Deep-fried turkey has been hailed as the solution to a perennial problem of Thanksgiving: a dried-out roast turkey.

Deep-fried turkey is juicy and quick. Emeril Lagasse has endorsed it. Martha Stewart has endorsed it. It’s a Thanksgiving tradition with a kick. It’s also an incredible fire hazard.

The turkey fryers — which combine gallons of boiling oil, open propane gas fires and often unstable frames — can easily become flame throwers, fire safety experts say.

Because of the number of fires and burns, national fire safety groups essentially urge people not to fry turkeys. The city’s Fire Department has issued a warning about turkey fryers. And Underwriters Laboratories, a nonprofit group that gives safety certifications for everything from hair dryers to space heaters, has refused to put its UL safety mark on any turkey deep fryer.

“There are no UL listed turkey fryers because the turkey fryers on the market do not have the level of safety features we deem necessary,” said John Drengenberg, a spokesman for UL.

Most turkey fryers are essentially a large pot over sitting on a frame over an open propane flame, he explained. Most don’t have thermostat controls, and there are situations when the hot oil can spill over into the fire. “Then you’ve got something like a vertical flame thrower in your hands,” he said.

Boy, how can you resist something like that? It’s probably too late for this year, but if you want to try this yourself, here are plans for a do-it-yourself turkey frying derrick (PDF) that may help reduce the risk of flaming death. Bon appetit, and Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Thanks to hangingfire for the links.

HD105 litigation update

The recount in HD105 can now begin, according to a Dallas district court judge, who ruled he did not have the jurisdiction to act on the Democratic lawsuit over “emphasis votes”.

State District Judge Jim Jordan on Tuesday said legal questions over how best to conduct a recount in the House District 105 race should be addressed. But, he said, his court wasn’t the correct venue for it.

“I was looking forward to this case,” Judge Jordan said in ruling that only an appellate court or the state Supreme Court has jurisdiction. “It has some interesting issues I would have enjoyed working with. And it has issues that need dealing with.”

Judge Jordan issued his jurisdictional ruling after hearing all the evidence and testimony in the case that centers on two hot-button election issues – straight-party voting and electronic voting machines.

Democratic Party attorneys, who filed the suit Friday, said they had not decided whether they would appeal the ruling.

Unless another court gets involved, Dallas County elections officials will begin the recount Monday in the District 105 race using the most recent instructions issued directly to them by the Texas secretary of state’s office. Those say that “deselected” or “emphasis” votes from electronic machines should not be counted.


Among the arguments presented during two days of testimony were whether the secretary of state should be a party to the suit, whether any “emphasis” or “deselected” votes existed and what orders Judge Jordan would have been able to hand down if he did have jurisdiction.

Judge Jordan said Tuesday that if a higher court rules that he does have jurisdiction, he has already weighed testimony, evidence and arguments about the case itself.

“I’m ready to rule if they kick it back,” he said.

I’d like to see someone address these issues, too, though ideally it would be the Legislature. In the meantime, let’s get this recount going.

Perry to whine to Obama about the environment


Preparing for a new administration in Washington, Gov. Rick Perry said Tuesday that regulating greenhouse gas emissions would have “devastating implications” for Texas’ economy and energy industry.

Although the Bush administration has rejected such regulation, President-elect Barack Obama is believed to be more receptive to clamping down on the gases that have been blamed for global warming.

Perry said he plans to discuss his concerns with Obama next week. He is among several governors accepting an invitation to discuss the economic crisis with Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden on Dec. 2 in Philadelphia.

Perry said Texas’ economy continues to outperform the rest of the nation. But, he warned, the regulation of greenhouse gases, as outlined in a notice posted by the outgoing Environmental Protection Agency administrator last summer, would run Texas “right off the tracks, into the ditch.”

Oh, cry me a polluted river. This is nothing but politics and fearmongering, and I hope President-elect Obama gives it all of the respect and attention it deserves.

Business tax: Still short

Same as it ever was.

Texas’ new business tax is $1.2 billion short of what it was expected to bring into state coffers its first year, even after adding extension payments made so far, the comptroller’s office said Tuesday.

The shortfall means lawmakers will have to rely more heavily on other revenue sources to help offset the cost of subsidizing a cut in local school property tax rates.

Officials said higher-than-anticipated sales, oil-and-gas and cigarette tax collections will more than make up the gap — but lawmakers also face new demands, including costs associated with damage from Hurricane Ike and the impact on Texas from the national economic downturn.

“What we thought was a surplus very well may not be a surplus at all,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, referring to $10.7 billion in unspent revenue that lawmakers have been expecting when they return in regular session in January.

Comptroller Susan Combs won’t issue a new revenue estimate until Jan. 12, the day before the Legislature convenes, said her spokesman, R.J. DeSilva.

Well, you can’t say we weren’t warned. I’m glad to hear that other revenues made up the difference this time around, but with the economy in recession and oil prices back below $50 a barrel, we should not expect that trend to continue. Of course, the “surplus” of which Rep. Chisum speaks was always more mirage than reality. It’s just now the fig leaf is disappearing as well.

“I think we’re pretty much on the verge of putting the first year to bed,” said Dale Craymer, chief economist for the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association and a member of the state’s Business Tax Advisory Committee.

“We’ll know a lot more in year two,” he said, when businesses are more familiar with the tax and transitional provisions expire.


Chisum and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, agreed with Craymer that the tax’s true yield won’t be apparent until at least the second year.

“Really, we won’t know till next cycle,” said Keffer. “It’s certainly not what some in the business community and some of the right-wingers were saying — that we’re going to be killing business” with higher-than-projected tax collections.


Chisum said it may take three years of tax collections “before you get a real good feeling of where you are.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It sure would have been nice to have known at the time that the revenue projections for this new tax that were used during the 2006 special session were not to be taken seriously. How can you budget like that? Those huge property tax cuts, for which this was supposed to pay, look even more irresponsible now. Honestly, how can these guys claim with any credibility at all that they were fiscally conservative and prudent if we couldn’t say with any real confidence how much money we were going to have? Unbelievable.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, however, voiced concern that lawmakers have so little information now, with the legislative session looming.

“It was supposed to be money that we could count on meeting a basic promise, but yet here we are on the eve of a session and we have so little data about why it may be failing to live up to the promise that was made,” said Watson, a member of the state’s Business Tax Advisory Committee.

He said the fact that it’s a new tax can’t be used to avoid action this session, because that means the Legislature could turn to “old practices of the past, which are to compromise already compromised programs,” such as transportation and the Children’s Health Insurance Program to bridge budget gaps.

Yes, that’s precisely my fear as well. I’ve seen this movie before, and I know how it ends. There’s no possible way that the Republican leadership will admit that we cannot afford that ginormous property tax cut, so the poor and the children can expect to take it in the shorts again. I’m so lookng forward to this next session, let me tell you.

Precinct analysis: Some other views

I’m going to take a holiday break from the precinct data, but don’t worry, I’ve got more stuff in the works. And yes, Peter Wang, I promise to do an analysis of the Steve Radack-Dexter Handy race. In the meantime, here are a few other views of the data:

Marc Campos has some pie charts that show voting behavior in Harris County in precincts that are 70% or more Anglo, black, and Hispanic. As someone who’s been digging through precinct data for days and days now, I don’t think it told me much that I didn’t already know, but it’s interesting to look at anyway. If you prefer pictures to all the numbers I’ve been throwing at you, you’ll appreciate these charts, so check them out.

Meanwhile, new BOR front-pager Katherine Haenschen takes a look at the counties that had the greatest increase in Democratic votes over 2004. I covered some of this earlier, but she goes into some more depth, and sees some new things. I’m glad the idea that Democrats made gains in places you wouldn’t have expected is being more widely recognized. She’s got more number-crunching in the works, so keep an eye on it.

And finally, Greg breaks down the Harris County vote into City of Houston/non-City of Houston components. A bigger share of the vote inside city limits like we saw this year would be a very nice thing to continue to have.

More racist emails surface

Chuck Rosenthal may be gone, but sadly his brand of “humor” lives on at the courthouse.

The Harris County Republican Party chairman is calling for a GOP misdemeanor court judge to resign because, using the courthouse computer system, he circulated e-mail in 2006 that ridiculed blacks, Hispanics, women and gays and contained a racial slur.

Chairman Jared Woodfill’s move against County Court at Law No. 6 Judge Larry Standley comes 11 months after Woodfill and other party leaders called for the resignation of District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal over his scandalous e-mails. Rosenthal resigned a few months later after the controversy intensified.

Standley, re-elected in 2006 to a four-year term, said his only response to criticism now is that his actions were cleared by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which deliberates in private.

“If there were any complaints filed, they were investigated and they were dismissed,” he said.
The commission did look into a complaint about the e-mails and took no official action, according to several officials.

But controversy about Standley’s electronic messages resurfaced this month when County Court at Law No. 14 Judge Mike Fields, the only black misdemeanor court judge here, failed to win a promotion by Gov. Rick Perry to a vacant seat on a Houston-based appeals court.

Woodfill had recommended Fields, a Republican, for the job. He said he later learned Fields had encountered resistance because his objection to the e-mails in 2006 had strained his relationships with other judges.

With copies of the e-mails now in hand, Woodfill recently had Fields and Standley explain their actions to the party’s advisory committee, the same group that helped push out Rosenthal.

Woodfill said merely the content of Standley’s e-mails justifies calling for his resignation, regardless of whether the fallout affected Fields.

“When you see racism like that you have to kill it one act at a time,” Woodfill said. “Regardless of what party you are affiliated with, you have to stand up and say it was wrong.”

“The people have given him the trust of the office of judge, and when you have sent e-mail like that you have compromised the trust that people have given to you,” he added. “You surrender the moral authority when you promulgate e-mails like that. They are not funny and they have no business in the courthouse or your personal life.”

First things first, kudos to Woodfill for doing the right thing. That can’t have been particularly easy for a county party chair after his party just lost a bunch of elections, but he did it anyway, and that’s commendable. Too bad Judge Standley doesn’t see it that way.

As it happens, I recently went through a mandatory corporate training session on harassment in the workplace. I don’t care what the conduct commission said, what Standley did is exactly the sort of thing that would very quickly land you in hot water with HR at just about any private company in town. His lame excuse shows that he doesn’t get it, and the snippy comment from his fellow Judge Sherman Ross shows he’s not alone in that. I don’t know about you, but all of a sudden I’m really looking forward to voting these jokers out in 2010. Thanks in advance for the incentive, fellas.

UPDATE: Mark Bennett has a different view.

Pardon me?

Okay, look. This sort of thing doesn’t bother me.

Daniel Pue is one of 14 people — including two other Texans — who received a pardon from the outgoing president on Monday.

Daniel Pue by no means will go down in the annals of high-profile pardons. It’s not surprising why. His original crime? Transporting sludge.

He was convicted in 1996 on federal charges of illegal storage, disposal and transportation of a hazardous waste without a permit, according to court records. The waste was pentachlorophenol and creosote sludge. He was sentenced to three years’ probation with six months’ home detention on each charge. The sentences were to run concurrently. He was also fined $1,000.


After his sentence, Daniel Pue took seriously the advice of his parole officer who told him to closely follow the restrictions placed on him. His good behavior, she said, could one day make a good case for a pardon request.

He completed his six months’ home confinement but never tried to pursue a pardon until his daughter, Karen Flint, decided to take action. As part of a college government class project, she wrote a letter to the president asking for a pardon for her father.

“We were challenged by our instructor to make a difference and write somebody in office,” said Flint, 37. “Some students were writing about potholes. I had more important things on my mind. My dad was a top priority.”

Flint mailed the letter in February 2003 and got a reply in May 2003 that included paperwork to apply for a pardon. Daniel Pue and his wife completed the application and mailed it. They received a reply about a month later seeking more information, he said.

The Pues didn’t hear anything for another two years. Then one day, an FBI agent called about doing a pardon investigation, Daniel Pue said.

The agent interviewed Daniel Pue, his wife, family, neighbors and co-workers, and said the information would be sent to the pardon attorney for review. That was the last Daniel Pue heard about the pardon, until Monday.

I don’t know that this guy, or any of the other pardon recipients from yesterday, is any more worthy of this peculiar quirk of our Constitution, but whatever. They’re small potatoes, and they benefitted from some good fortune. I’m happy for them. I would not be at all happy if the same kind of good fortune were to be visited on these people.

With a backlog of applications piled up at the Justice Department, high-profile criminals and their well-connected lawyers increasingly are appealing directly to President Bush for special consideration on pardons and clemency, according to people involved in the process.

Among those seeking presidential action are former junk-bond salesman Michael Milken, who hired former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson, one of the nation’s most prominent GOP lawyers, to plead his case for a pardon on 1980s-era securities fraud charges. Two politicians convicted of public corruption, former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and four-term Louisiana governor Edwin W. Edwards (D), are asking Bush to shorten their prison terms.

Duke Cunningham and Edwin Edwards are the sort of people for whom Presidential pardons get a bad name. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account the possibility of all kinds of preemptive pardons for the eight years of unchecked vandalism, destruction, and general lawlessness that has been the Bush regime. I’m not willing to call for the repeal of this Constitutional power the President has, but I think the suggestions in the first comment hits the high points of where changes for the better could be made: No lame-duck pardons, no pardons of Executive branch officials without Congressional approval, and no preemptive pardons. What do you think? WaPo link via Steve Benen.

Noriega to Washington?

This would be excellent if it happens.

State Rep. Rick Noriega of Houston, the unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate who served in Afghanistan and on the Mexican border as a Texas Army National Guard officer, met with President-elect Barack Obama today as Obama worked on filling leadership positions in his administration, according to confidential sources.

Democrat Noriega, who lost the Nov. 4 election to Republican incumbent John Cornyn, declined to discuss the meeting in Chicago. Obama’s transition team spokesmen also declined to comment.

The meeting appeared to be a potential first step toward consideration of Noriega, 50, for appointment to an administration position, and no specific job was mentioned, according to people close to the process who spoke on the condition of not being identified.

How about director of FEMA? I think we can all agree that Noriega has the experience and the know-how to do an outstanding job, and would be exactly the right kind of person to whip that once-worthy agency back into shape. Stace was way ahead of the curve on this one.

Houston political consultant Marc Campos, a Hispanic Democratic activist, noted on his daily Internet diary today that “there is some grumbling going on in Latino political circles nationwide; there haven’t been any Latinos announced for key positions in the new Obama administration — nothing, nada, zilch. Unless I am missing something, there haven’t been any Texans named either. Stay tuned on this one.”

Maybe they haven’t heard about Bill Richardson or Rep. Raul Grijalva, I don’t know. Admittedly, neither is official yet, with only Richardson seemingly sure. But the names are out there. With Rep. Chet Edwards staying home, Noriega would be the first Texan named that I can think of.

“Excellent,” fellow state House Democrat Garnet Coleman of Houston said when told Noriega had met Obama for possible consideration for a White House slot.

“He’s got a lot of areas of expertise, particularly his experience as a soldier and an officer, but he has also worked on utilities (for CenterPoint Energy) and also has an understanding of all the issues that cross the state’s desk,” Coleman said.

Coleman mentioned that Obama, as a former Illinois state senator, knows the value of people who have worked at a detailed level with state policy.

Sources with knowledge of Obama’s talk with Noriega indicated the transition team had not yet examined Noriega’s personal financial records — an inspection that precedes consideration of candidates for top-level appointments such as cabinet positions.

Obama’s team will stay in touch with Noriega as personnel selections unfold before Obama takes office in late January, the sources said.

I sincerely hope this happens. Whether FEMA or something else, it would be a fine choice, and well deserved for Noriega.

HD105 recount litigation

The recount in HD105 has not gotten started yet, but there’s plenty of courtroom action in the meantime.

The crux of the Dallas County case involves straight-party voting on electronic voting machines. When someone votes a straight-party ticket but then also selects the name of a candidate within that party in a particular race, electronic machines “deselect” that candidate. If no other candidate is chosen, no vote is counted in that race.

On paper ballots, however, if someone votes a straight-party ticket and then selects a candidate from that party in a particular race, the vote for that candidate still counts. Democrats call this “emphasis voting” in both paper ballot and electronic machine voting.

Attorneys for the Democratic Party this week said the state’s election law instructs officials to count those votes.

A memo from the Texas Secretary of State’s Office to Dallas County elections officials last week said that deselected or emphasis votes from electronic machines should not be counted.

But an earlier memo to all Texas elections administrators and county clerks said to count emphasis votes. That October memo did not indicate whether state officials were referring to paper ballots, electronic voting machines or both.

On Monday, Republican attorneys accused Democrats of trying to use the courts to contest the election results when that can be done only in front of the state House – typically after a recount.

“It just goes to show why it’s important to have this type of discussion after the … [recount] rather than before,” said Wade Emmert, who is representing Ms. Harper-Brown.

I actually think it would have been better to have had this argument before we started voting, so that everyone understood the rules going in and so that interested parties could try to better educate voters about the procedures, but it’s too late for that now. I suspect what Mr. Emmert means is that this should be done during an election contest, when an appointed chairperson could interview the “emphasis voters” and try to ascertain their intent. We may yet endure that scenario.

Phillip and KT have been discussing the legal aspects of this. While I respect Phillip’s arguments, I don’t agree with them. I say this because for the first time in my life, I pushed the straight-ticket Democratic button this year. I then went to one specific race, and de-selected the Democratic candidate in that race. This was not an “emphasis” vote, it was a deliberate and intentional choice on my part to not cast a vote for that particular candidate. I don’t know what kind of e-voting machines they use in Dallas, but here in Harris taking this action caused a screen to pop up informing me that I was causing that vote to go away. It’s certainly possible that someone could dismiss that screen without understanding it, but it was there, and it was more than I had expected. That makes me highly skeptical of this argument. KT sees it the same way.

While I agree that this is a poor time for the Secretary of State to announce these different interpretations of the law for paper (absentee) ballots versus electronic ones, it seems to me there really is a fundamental difference in the two types of ballot. Checking the straight-ticket box on a paper ballot simply marks one box. I can totally understand how someone, seeing the vast swath of unchecked boxes that follow, could want to go to a particular race and literally or metaphorically underline a candidate they really like. With the eSlate, at least here in Harris, clicking the “straight ticket” button fills in the box of every candidate of that party on the ballot. An “emphasis vote” here, in addition to the aforementioned warning screen, blanks out the box for that candidate; the summary screen at the end also informs you that you made no selection in that race. I’m sorry, but the most charitable thing I could say about someone who did all that and walked away assuming they had voted for the person in question is that they are unobservant. I have a real hard time accepting the argument that they intended to cast a vote in the race given these conditions.

Now, this is not to say that we couldn’t do a better job with e-voting machine interfaces. Maybe when you cast a straight-party vote, it should gray everything out, inform you that you have cast a vote for every member of that party on the ballot, then ask you if 1) you want to undo any of those votes, and 2) if you want to add votes in races where there wasn’t a candidate from your party; if you answer “no” to each, it takes you straight to the finish line. That at least would clear up the intent issue once and for all. But I still don’t think that intent is in question here, at least not based on what I’ve seen so far. Maybe the courtroom arguments will sway me, I don’t know. I look forward to hearing them.

UPDATE: I mistakenly misrepresented KT’s argument, which was the opposite of Phillip’s. The post has been updated to reflect that.

Precinct analysis: The microcosm

If studying all the precinct data for Harris County seems too daunting, you can get a pretty good representation of the county in a smaller scale by studying HD133, where Rep.-elect Kristi Thibaut unseated freshman Rep. Jim Murphy in a rematch of 2006. With one lone exception, the result in HD133 mirrored the countywide result for every single Democrat that was on the ballot; the exceptional case was for the 333rd Civil Court, where Democrat Goodwille Pierre nipped Judge Tad Halbach in the district. No other district I’ve looked at comes anywhere near to this similarity.

There’s another aspect in which HD133 offers a good lesson on Harris County as a whole, and that’s in the matter of turnout, especially when compared to 2006. To illustrate, let’s look at how Thibaut did in each year. There’s not that many precincts in HD133, so we can look at them individually. Unlike some other districts, HD133 is basically split between CDs 07 and 09, with Westheimer being a dividing line through the district separating the 7th to the north and the 9th to the south. Here’s a look at the precincts in each CD from 2006:

CD07 - 2006 Pcnct Votes Turnout Murphy Thibaut T Pct T Margin ====================================================== 130 1295 54.09 918 320 25.85 -598 356 1249 39.51 786 386 32.94 -400 395 901 49.32 608 246 28.81 -362 437 1100 50.39 766 255 24.98 -511 438 1023 54.71 737 246 25.03 -491 483 1576 34.58 884 598 40.35 -286 492 1029 36.55 652 328 33.47 -324 493 862 45.46 581 242 29.40 -339 499 1267 54.15 896 321 26.38 -575 504 1176 51.47 777 348 30.93 -429 625 856 44.75 501 303 37.69 -198 626 1102 36.83 598 428 41.72 -170 706 182 33.09 103 65 38.69 -38 727 513 19.96 193 280 59.20 87 Total 14,131 41.93 9000 4366 32.66 -4634 CD09 - 2006 Pcnct Votes Turnout Murphy Thibaut T Pct T Margin ====================================================== 96 209 16.76 40 153 79.27 113 338 1067 23.96 355 636 64.18 281 429 823 20.64 230 536 69.97 306 487 653 19.87 216 393 64.53 177 503 349 24.15 105 215 67.19 110 508 846 26.81 261 518 66.50 257 559 707 20.75 238 410 63.27 172 565 517 14.14 101 391 79.47 290 620 1500 28.45 741 660 47.11 -81 765 950 26.55 399 467 53.93 68 Total 7621 22.76 2686 4379 61.98 1693

You wouldn’t realize it if you just looked at the number of votes cast, but there were actually a few more registered voters in the CD09 half of the district as there were in the CD07 half – 33,490 in CD09 and 33,353 in CD07. But in 2006, the voters in the precincts that largely favored Thibaut stayed home in droves, and she lost by what looked like a large margin, 57.2% to 42.8% using two party numbers. That was close to the average countywide performance, which was 58.0% for the GOP and 42.0% in HD133 for the Dems. It was clear that this wasn’t really representative of the district (or the county), and that Thibaut would get a boost from the fact that 2008 was a Presidential year. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation by applying 2004 turnout numbers to each precinct, and assigning it the same percentage of the vote for each candidate, and estimated Thibaut would net between 46 and 47 percent of the vote under those conditions. Given that everyone expected more robust Democratic turnout this year compared to 2004, it was fair to assume the race would be close to even, before anyone did any campaigning.

Well, it was that and then some. Compare to 2008:

CD07 - 2008 Pcnct Votes Turnout Murphy Thibaut T Pct T Margin ====================================================== 130 1858 78.90 1383 410 22.87 -973 356 2136 71.65 1245 811 39.45 -434 395 1333 74.43 910 376 29.24 -534 437 1527 73.41 1097 371 25.27 -726 438 1379 77.70 1058 276 20.69 -782 483 2784 64.59 1381 1283 48.16 -98 492 1750 67.15 988 705 41.64 -283 493 1321 72.90 876 388 30.70 -488 499 1810 79.74 1346 410 23.35 -936 504 1688 75.42 1172 473 28.75 -699 625 1330 72.48 798 474 37.26 -324 626 1905 67.43 968 867 47.25 -101 706 342 63.10 174 155 47.11 -29 727 1430 62.83 409 964 70.21 555 Total 22,593 71.24 13,805 7963 36.58 -5842 CD09 - 2008 Pcnct Votes Turnout Murphy Thibaut T Pct T Margin ====================================================== 96 698 62.04 72 600 89.29 528 338 2463 54.86 735 1540 67.69 805 429 2164 55.20 469 1574 77.04 1105 487 1576 50.08 484 997 67.32 513 503 729 51.52 234 450 65.79 216 508 1740 56.92 594 1045 63.76 451 559 2092 64.63 491 1492 75.24 1001 565 1569 46.52 233 1274 84.54 1041 620 3913 67.71 1738 1965 53.07 227 765 2216 60.56 827 1246 60.11 419 Total 19,610 59.06 5877 12,183 67.46 6306

Now this begins to look like a district with an even partisan distribution of voters. In fact, CD09 increased its advantage in registrations to 33,402 to 31,712, but thanks to its near-tripling of turnout over 2006, it actually looks like it’s of equivalent size. The CD07 precincts jumped by 75%, but that wasn’t enough to hold the seat for Murphy. The rising Democratic tide swamped his boat. And that was reflected across the county.

All this is easy to see, and to my mind provides a quick and dirty refutation of Dave Mann’s thesis that the Democratic Party in Harris County somehow failed to turn its voters out, but a closer look reveals something else. Thibaut increased her margin in each precinct in CD09, which included flipping Precinct 620 from red to blue. She also cut into Murphy’s margin in four of the CD07 precincts – 483, 492, 626, and 706 – while building on the lead in 727. I don’t want to reduce this to one precinct, but the gain Thibaut made in 727, which remember is in CD07, is greater than her margin of victory. Obviously, she needed the huge boost she got in the CD09 precincts, which is what everyone expected to happen. The point I’m making, the recurring theme throughout this election, is that she didn’t make it on gains in Democratic districts alone. She needed the help she got in the CD07 precincts where she gained as well. At the county level, or in this microcosm of the county, that’s the story of this election.

More swearing-in ceremonies

In addition to Loren Jackson, our new District Clerk, two more Democratic candidates who won elections to fill unexpired terms will be sworn into office this week. One is Judge Kathy Stone, who was elected to replace the late Judge Russell Austin in Probate Court #1. Via email from her campaign:

I will be officially sworn in on Wednesday, November 26 at 12:00 noon in Probate Court No. 1, 201 Caroline, 6th Floor. I hope to see you there.

And from Judge Robert Hinojosa, who was elected to serve the remaining term for Family District Court 312:

I am pleased to announce that I will be sworn in as Judge of the 312th Family District Court this coming Saturday, November 29th at 3 p.m., in the Great Hall of Christ Church Cathedral, 1117 Texas Avenue, entrance on San Jacinto.

Congratulations to Judges Stone and Hinojosa!

Texas blog roundup for the week of November 24

It’s Thanksgiving time, but the Texas Progressive Alliance isn’t taking the week off. Click on for the usual assortment of highlights.


Precinct analysis: What we’ve learned so far

The final cumulative and canvass reports are out. I’ve been working off of a draft canvass, which did not include provisional ballots, so if you compare those numbers to mine you’ll find a few differences here and there. Shouldn’t be off by more than a handful of votes, but just so you know.

I’ve been poring through the data and will have a few more analyses to present before I call it quits on this, but the thing that has struck me about all of this is how little variation there is in candidate performances when you drill down. Adrian Garcia leads the pack wherever you look. The countywide candidates who did better overall do better at the district and precinct level. That seems intuitive and obvious, but I expected some regional variations, and for the most part I haven’t seen them. I also expected to see Democratic downballot candidates do better against the top of the ticket, which was the norm in 2004, but for the most part the differences haven’t been very great. That too was to be expected to some extent, but beyond the fact that Democrats clearly had less reason to stray, I think it also speaks to the success of the coordinated campaign’s message, which was to vote Democratic all the way down the line. With very few exceptions, each Democrat got about as many votes as the others. That was the point of the coordinated campaign, and by and large it worked.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to win everything, but given that the standard result for Democrats in Harris County had been to win nothing for over a decade, I don’t see much point in quibbling. I think we’ll see more of the same in 2010 and beyond, and it’ll be up to the Republicans to find a way to break through, as a few of them did this year.

To me, the main question that remains is whether the pattern we saw in early voting this year is the new norm or an aberration. It’s been funny to me to see people complain about how Harris Democrats “lost” Election Day this year, even as they were winning 27 of 34 countywide races and picking up a seat in the State House. It’s true – other than Garcia (again), every countywide Democrat got fewer votes on Election Day than their Republican opponent. The same was true in absentee balloting as well. But it didn’t matter, because the cushion they’d built up in early voting was enough to carry most of them across the finish line. And not to put too fine a point on it, but Democrats lost Election Day in 2004 as well. It’s just that they also lost early voting that year, too, by a larger margin so nobody noticed or cared. I’ll take what happened this year over what happened then, if you don’t mind.

Anyway. Here’s another interesting map from Matt Stiles, and a preview of the 2010 battlegrounds in Dallas from BOR. More analysis will be forthcoming here as well.

The Chron on the red light camera car registration plan

The Chron had an editorial over the weekend about the new ordinance passed by City Council that would require people to pay red light camera fines before they could register their car.

In an interview with the Chronicle, Houston Police Department chief financial officer and deputy director Joe Fenninger made a convincing case that concerns about the new enforcement system’s reliability are unfounded.

It’s instructive to review how the red-light citation process works. After a vehicle is photographed running a light, a police officer reviews the video of the infraction and confirms the violation. The vehicle’s current title is checked and the citation sent to the state’s official address of record for the owner, the same destination for registration renewal notices.

By the time cited motorists face the possibility of a hold on their car’s registration, they will have already received at least three notices over 84 days offering them the possibility of paying the fine over the phone by credit card, mailing in a check or paying in person at the Municipal Courts building.

A hold would not be imposed until after a citation has been processed through the court system and a judgment rendered. Those who fail to contest their cases in court would automatically be assessed $75 plus a $25 delinquency fee. Although the hold will be removed in two days’ time after receipt of payment, presenting a valid receipt will allow citizens to renew registrations at the county even if the hold is still in place.

Since registration renewals are staggered throughout the year, it is unlikely that the new enforcement measure would produce long lines at the county.

“Seems to me that the easiest thing for people to do is to pick up the phone, make the call and give credit card information, and two days later the hold is cleared,” says Fenninger. “You can then go ahead and renew by mail.” Although city officials are considering a method to allow the fine to be paid at the county when picking up new vehicle tags, the need for such an option is in doubt.

Without an effective enforcement mechanism, the purpose of red-light cameras to prevent collisions and lower subsequent death, injury and damage totals is compromised. Those who criticize possible inconveniences to those ticketed are missing that basic point.

Well, for the most part, this is really just further criticism of the concept of the cameras themselves. That battle was lost in 2007 when the Lege passed Senate Bill 1119, which explicitly gave cities the right to install and operate red light cameras, with a final bow being put on it in February when anti-camera activist Michael Kubosh dropped his lawsuit against the city. Some of the camera critics have not accepted that reality, so they find other ways to carp about them. I think it was reasonable to have these objections, but I also think they don’t present that great an obstacle. I think if we were talking about any other kind of scofflaws, this would have been totally uncontroversial.

It’s interesting that Paul Bettencourt’s office was one of the objectors to this plan, on the grounds that we couldn’t adequately ensure we were denying vehicle registration to the right person. If they showed the same level of concern about voter registrations, maybe we would have had over two million voters this year as we should have. Priorities, I guess.

Mammoth DNA update

First they found the DNA. Now they’re trying to do something with it.

Scientists for the first time have unraveled much of the genetic code of an extinct animal, the ice age’s woolly mammoth, and with it they are thawing Jurassic Park dreams.

Their groundbreaking achievement has them contemplating a once unimaginable future when certain prehistoric species might one day be resurrected.

“It could be done. The question is, just because we might be able to do it one day, should we do it?” asked Stephan Schuster, the Penn State University biochemistry professor and co-author of the new research. “I would be surprised to see if it would take more than 10 or 20 years to do it.”

And hey, what could possibly go wrong?

No, seriously, this is way cool, and there are direct benefits today:

The more practical side of what this new research will do is point out better the evolutionary differences between mammoths and elephants and even humans and chimps, said [George Church, director of computational genomics at Harvard Medical School], who wasn’t part of the study.

Elephants and mammoths — comparable in size at about 8 to 14 feet tall — diverged along evolutionary paths about 6 million years ago, about the same time humans and chimps did, Schuster said. But there are twice as many differences between the genetic makeup of chimps and humans as those between elephants and mammoths.

“Primates evolved twice as fast as elephants,” Schuster said. But some animals such as rodents have had even more evolutionary changes, indicating that it might have to do with size or metabolism, said study co-author Webb Miller.


Miller and Schuster noticed that most of the mammoths they examined had far less genetic diversity than other species that are still alive and that may also give a clue into the biology of extinction.

So the duo are also applying what they learned from the cold Siberian behemoth to their other efforts to help save the endangered Tasmanian devil of Australia. They notice the same dramatic lack of genetic diversity in that modern day creature, Schuster said.

I wish them luck with that.

Weekend link dump for November 23

T-minus 61 days till President Obama…

We are a center-left country. I like the sound of that.

When Barack met John.

Dealing with modern day pirates.

From the “Conservatism cannot fail, conservatism can only be failed” department. While I agree with Lutz’s assertion that serving the corporate overlords is a foundation built on sand – and that’s a lesson the Democrats should have learned in the 80s and 90s, but really haven’t taken to heart and may well forget again now that they’re on the rise – it seems to me that he hasn’t given any consideration to the possibility that maybe some of those principles he touts aren’t the electoral winners he thinks they are, at least not in 2008. Props for the potshots at TLR and Bob “Judgment-Proof” Perry, though.

The “Motrin Mom” kerfuffle.

You know, if you’re going to pick a fight, you really have no grounds to complain when your targets fight back.

Great moments in parenting. Easily the best laugh I’ve had in weeks. Yes, I’m really 12 years old at heart.

Order a pizza from your TiVo. Unfortunately, it’s just Domino’s. Link via Dwight.

Land use morals.

Loren Jackson’s swearing in as our new District Clerk. Congrats, Loren!

Bush burrowing. A couple of years ago, I said it would take “at least one two-term Presidential administration” to undo the damage that the Bush regime has wrought on America. I now think that may be an understatement.

“Charlie Brown, I’m taking over the team.” This would be the second-funniest thing I’ve seen this week. Link via Ta-Nehisi.

Mike Mussina has retired. Best wishes in retirement, Moose, and here’s hoping the Hall of Fame comes calling in a few years.

Obama won 197 of 196 “battleground” electoral votes. Now that’s a landslide!


My heart is filled with gladness at this news.

I ran into Roy Morales this morning, and he’s definitely interested in running for office, again! A little refresher, the last time we talked about Mr. Morales, he was running against Melissa Noriega for City Council. Morales, a Republican, is a retired colonel from the military. He’s also been active in a number of civic issues.

Morales lost fairly handily to Noriega, but that’s not stopping him from seriously considering a run for the City of Houston’s top job. He said he’s “seriously thinking” about it. Also, that he’s talking to “a lot of my supporters.”

After talking to a lot of my supporters, we all agree that a Roy Morales for Mayor campaign would be very good for the blogging business. You can do it, Roy! Your public awaits you!

The Internet is good for kids

This doesn’t really come as a surprise to me, but it’s still nice to see it backed up by some data.

The MacArthur Foundation has a message for parents worried about their children’s use of the Internet: Chill out. A new study to be released today found that most teenagers steer clear of dangerous sites and use the Web only for research or to communicate with friends.

It’s just that, as usual, parents don’t understand.

“One of the main things we found is that it is highly motivating for kids to learn from peers, whether it’s the everyday social stuff or learning about new technology or making videos or doing creative writing,” said Mizuko Ito, a University of California, Irvine researcher and the report’s lead author. “They’re learning a lot of the basic social and technical skills they need to participate in contemporary society. If kids are excluded from participating, they’re not learning to engage with media and technology in the way that their peers are.”

Two things: First, it never would have occurred to me to prevent my kids from using the Internet. It’s such an ingrained part of my life – and frankly the lives of so many of my family members – that I can’t imagine a reason to deny it to someone. Obviously, age and maturity level matter, and giving them access to it most certainly does not mean without adequate supervision and boundaries. But the idea from the beginning is that this is something they will want and need to know how to use, and it would be doing them a disservice to not teach them about it.

Second, the stuff about how kids are highly motivated to learn from their peers is just amazingly true, at least in my observation. Olivia is by far the biggest influence in Audrey’s life – more so, I sometimes think, than Tiffany and I put together. Olivia is what Audrey wants to be, and does what Audrey wants to do, and I believe that has accelerated her development in a variety of ways. For her part, Olivia has generally been one of the youngest kids in her preschool class, and I believe that has fostered her learning, as she has striven to do what the older kids have done. As such, I can clearly see the benefit here. But even without observing my own kids, it makes sense to me.

Parents, the study said, are tough critics of the notion that updating your Facebook wall or posting a video to YouTube is as necessary as looking up information for a history paper.

Yeah, well, as a degenerate blogger/Twitterer/Facebooker/etc, I don’t think I’d have much of a leg to stand on there. So it’s just as well.

The fight goes on for Debutant

On a somber note, I am sad to report that Debutant has had a relapse of her leukemia, and is back in Houston for more treatment. Which is to say biopsies and chemo and other nasty stuff. And she’ll be apart from her daughter Zoe during this time, and she’s still doing combat with her insurance company, and, well, you get the idea. As her sister, my friend Stephanie, wrote to me, “When she is undergoing the chemo, she really has to be careful interacting with people because of germs, but the only germs over the interwebs is computer viruses. The internet really is her lifeline to people.” So please, take a minute and leave Deb a note of encouragement as she re-fights this battle. Thanks very much.

Pounding the table

It just keeps getting better down in Willacy County.

A county prosecutor who obtained indictments against Vice President Dick Cheney, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others pounded his fist and shouted at the judge Friday about special treatment for high-profile defendants as a routine motions hearing descended into chaos.

Willacy County District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra, who is accusing the public officials of culpability in the alleged abuse of prisoners at a federal detention center, asked presiding Judge Manuel Banales to recuse himself. Guerra has complained about Banales’ handling of the case, a probe he has dubbed “Operation Goliath.”

Attorneys for the vice president and other defendants leapt to their feet in objection, as Guerra pounded the table and accused Banales of giving the defendants special treatment in allowing motions to quash the indictments to be heard before the defendants were arraigned.

“Now all of a sudden there is urgency!” Guerra shouted at Banales. “Eighteen months you kept me indicted through the election!”

Charges accusing Guerra of extorting money from a bail bond company and of using his office for personal business were dismissed in October, but he had already lost the March Democratic primary.

The defendants in the prisoner abuse case, who were not required to be in court, were all expected to waive arraignment, but the hearing never progressed that far.

“Did you think, judge, my grand jury didn’t take this seriously?” Guerra said. “They indicted the vice president.”

Banales called a recess to contact the chief justice of the state Supreme Court for suggestions on how to proceed, and ordered Guerra to remain in the courthouse.

“I will not obey that order,” Guerra said, but agreed to stay if the judge asked him respectfully.

Banales adjourned until Wednesday.

The thing is, I do think his grand jury took this seriously, and if you read stuff like this, it’s easy to see that there’s some really nasty stuff associated with the detention facility, and it really does need to be investigated. It’s just that DA Guerra, whom South Texas Chisme refers to as “DA Hissy Fit”, may not be the best person to be in charge of such investigations. I just hope that the underlying problem here doesn’t get lost in the circus.

Electric cars


Rick Ehrlich has high hopes for his new car dealership but it’s not likely to strike much fear into competitors with lots full of gleaming vehicles from Detroit, Asia or Europe.

From a small warehouse near Minute Maid Park, Ehrlich has launched Houston’s first electric car dealership, selling the Zenn — “zero emissions no noise.”

Under state law, the cars are classified as “neighborhood electric vehicles,” limited to 25 mph and banned from roads with speed limits over 35 mph. But the Canadian-built hatchbacks are hardly golf carts. The same car is sold in Europe with a diesel engine and can take to the highways.

“I don’t have any illusions that we’ll sell in high volumes, but it’s a real car in every way,” Ehrlich said. “It can carry two people nearly anyplace in the city for less than two cents per mile, while creating no air pollution.”


Electric cars aren’t for everyone, said Dale Brooks, an electrical engineer, president of the Houston Electric Auto Association and owner of three electric cars.

Depending on the model, the cars can travel from 25 to 70 miles on a charge. Only a few come with that critical Texas option, air conditioning. And some are subject to the speed maximums.

But the operating cost is well below that of a gasoline vehicle, with a full charge coming in at less than 50 cents and taking three to eight hours, depending upon the vehicle. Maintenance tends to be cheaper for electric cars, too, with just one-tenth the number of parts as vehicles with internal combustion engines. Most battery systems will last for years.

As a second car for most commutes or errands, Brooks said, an electric car is ideal.

“Detroit has defined what a car should be: a big piece of steel with cool lines that can travel at 120 mph and carry five people halfway across the continent in a day,” Brooks said. “But it doesn’t have to be that. Many of us live within 10 miles of our jobs and don’t need a truck or a large vehicle for our work.”

Most of the driving I do during the work week is (or at least has the option of being) non-highway. If a car like this could carry the kids and wasn’t subject to that 25 MPH limitation (according to the sidebar, one of the many bills pre-filed this session by State Sen. Rodney Ellis would raise that limit to 35), then it might be practical for me. Obviously, I’d prefer having air conditioning, but could live without it (as I did with my first car, the 1969 Nova I inherited from my grandmother when I was in college) if I had to. I’ll have to keep this in mind when it’s time to replace the older of our existing cars.

I should note, by the way, that I find it amusing to have read this article on the same day as this one about the end of the Yugo. There’s just something poetic about it somehow.

More school zone cellphone banning

The small town of Santa Fe joins in the school zone cellphone banning brigade.

Santa Fe has joined West University Place in banning drivers from using cell phones while passing through school zones.

By a 3 to 2 vote, the Santa Fe City Council adopted the restrictions Thursday night, said Mayor Ralph Stenzel.

The Galveston County city, population 10,000, wanted to protect children after having reports of accidents in school zones triggered by drivers distracted by their cell phones, Stenzel said.


Those caught breaking the rule can be fined up to $200. Under the rule, motorists cannot use their cell phones while traveling through a school zone when the lights are flashing.

“If they have an emergency or something, they should pull over and stop before using their phone,” Stenzel said.

So Santa Fe joins West U Highland Park, San Antonio and probably others that I’m not aware of, with others likely at least studying it. Add into the mix places like Austin looking at banning texting while driving, and I’m thinking we’ll see someone introduce a bill in Austin to deal with all this stuff at a statewide level, which you may recall was AT&T’s position when West U got into the act. I don’t know of such a bill yet, and even if one gets introduced it may well not pass, but I’ll be surprised if someone doesn’t try to standardize these practices in the spring.

Friday random ten – TGIF

I’ll get right to the point: The past couple of weeks have kicked my rear. I don’t have the energy to think of anything clever to say about this latest venture into iTunes Genius-land, so I’ll just jump straight into the lists. This one was based on Jeff Buckley’s cover of the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah”, which now that I think about it makes for an appropriate theme, since that’s how I feel about this being the end of the week. Here’s the first ten songs of the list:

1. “Hallelujah” – Jeff Buckley
2. “There’s a World” – Neil Young
3. “Atlantic City” – Bruce Springsteen
4. “Summer Skin” – Death Cab for Cutie
5. “Satellite of Love” – Lou Reed
6. “40” – U2
7. “Rock and Roll” – The Velvet Underground
8. “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her” – Simon and Garfunkel
9. “Mercy Street” – Peter Gabriel
10. “Gloria” – Patti Smith

And as played:

1. “Hallelujah” – Jeff Buckley
2. “Summer Skin” – Death Cab for Cutie
3. “Are You Ready for Country?” – Neil Young
4. “Bad” – U2
5. “There’s A World” – Neil Young
6. “Don’t Give Up” – Peter Gabriel
7. “Keep Me In Your Heart” – Warren Zevon
8. “Tempted” – Squeeze
9. “Walking on Broken Glass” – Annie Lennox
10. “Planet Claire” – The B-52s

There was a girl that lived in our neighborhood when I was a kid named Claire. She hated that song in the same way that my sister Eileen hated the song “Come On Eileen”. Other than that one, a whole lot of mellow in those songs. Which fits what I want from today just fine. Happy Friday, everyone.

RIP, Jim Mattox

Former Attorney General and longtime Democratic activist Jim Mattox has died at the age of 65.

Jim Mattox, the self-styled “people’s lawyer” who took on major corporations during eight years as Texas attorney general, has died.

Mattox, 65, died in his sleep Wednesday night or early Thursday morning at his home in Dripping Springs, southwest of Austin, said Democratic consultant Kelly Fero.

A former member of both the Texas and U.S. House of Representatives, Mattox was known as a fierce campaigner. When an opponent called him a “junkyard dog,” he said he would act like one to protect children, the elderly and other powerless Texans.

After serving two terms as attorney general, starting in 1983, Mattox ran for governor but was defeated by Ann Richards in a bitter Democratic primary battle.

As attorney general, he built the office into a modern law firm and diversified it with women and minority lawyers. His legal staff handled more than 2 million cases and won judgments totaling more than $2.5 billion for the state.

He closed nursing homes, took on oil companies that had shortchanged Texas on its royalties, sued car dealers for odometer rollbacks, fought to increase regulatory agencies’ abilities to deal with polluters, and challenged airlines, Quaker Oats and car manufacturers on the accuracy of their advertising.

I remember Mattox mostly for his contentious 1990 primary for Governor against Ann Richards. As such, I have a somewhat one-sided view of him as a bulldog candidate, who was not at all afraid to go for the throat. But he was very well liked and respected in Democratic and progressive circles, and he was still out there stirring stuff up until the end. That’s not a bad way to go, if you ask me. Vince and PoliTex have more. Rest in peace, Jim Mattox.

Waiting for Bill

We may know about Mayor Bill White’s political future soon, according to Gardner Selby.

“He’s going to make a decision in the near future,” said Michael Moore, White’s chief of staff. “It will be based on where he could do the most for Texas with his experience and abilities.”

I touched bases with Moore while preparing a column running in Thursday’s newspaper on jockeying among Texans who might want to succeed U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, if she resigns in advance of running for governor in 2010.

Moore said White, who wasn’t immediately available, is talking to people around Texas by telephone, sounding out his prospects. Most observers expect White to make a try for the Senate or for governor.

White’s goal is to settle his plans well before the end of this year, Moore said. “Days,” Moore said, “not weeks.”

My guess, as Selby speculates further down, is that this has to do with whether or not he wants to be a part of the Obama administration, and not about any future campaign plans. I know Mayor White has said he’d cosinder running for either Senate or Governor in 2010, but I continue to believe that the Governor’s mansion is the best fit for him, and I think that’s what he’ll ultimately choose. While the conventional wisdom is that he would prefer to avoid a potential race against Sen. Hutchison should she choose to run for Governor as well, I don’t think he should be afraid of such a fight. If it were up to me, I’d make that campaign be about how KBH is just a nicer version of Rick Perry, who would want to do all the same things that Perry has done since taking over in 2001, just with a friendlier face on them. I feel confident that Mayor White would have a clear vision for what he’d want to do in Austin, and how he’d be an agent of change at a time when we could really use it, and having seen him run for Mayor as an unknown quantity who wasn’t given much of a chance to win at first, I think he’d have a concise message to communicate that vision in a way that voters would find attractive. I think KBH should be at least as worried about running against White as he should be of her.

There’s one more thing to consider: If White ran for Governor against KBH and lost, her Senate seat, which I presume would remain in Republican hands if White can’t break through, would still be up for a full six-year term in 2012. He could still get a shot at that, potentially with an Obama re-election effort also working in Texas. I think there’s a good chance it wouldn’t come to that, and that somebody else would be the beneficiary of whatever Team Obama does in Texas in four years’ time. But it’s something to keep in your back pocket, just in case.

Finally, since I continue to hear chatter that John Sharp is angling to be the Democratic candidate to replace KBH in DC, let me just say that I am not exactly overjoyed at that prospect. I like Sharp, but if he’s going to take one more shot at a statewide run, I’d much rather see him aim for Lt. Governor again. At least there, as the leader of a body where Dems are still a minority, his moderate/bipartisan creds would be much more useful. I still can’t quite shake the feeling that Sharp is a 1990 candidate wanting to run in 2010, but maybe he’ll prove me wrong. All I can say is that the Democrats really need to start building our their bench.