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November, 2009:

Runoff EV report, Day One

I’ve updated my early vote spreadsheet from the first round to include the early vote totals for the runoff. Note that this is almost entirely City of Houston – there are a few Bellaire voters in there, and maybe a stray HISD Trustee vote or two from outside the city limits, but for the most part, it’s all municipal. Note also the smaller number of locations. Overall, that’s a pretty good total for Day One, especially given the crappy weather. I don’t know if that will continue, but it’s a good start. Do bear in mind that I believe a substantial number of voters will vote early, so don’t make too much of these totals just yet.

It’s interesting to note the Mayoral candidates’ positions on turnout, as expressed by them on a KHOU story during the five o’clock news. I can’t find the link, but basically Parker talks about turning out her voters, while Locke says that turnout “may surprise you”. In other words, they both seem to agree with the conventional wisdom that lower turnout benefits Parker, while higher turnout benefits Locke.

There was also a story about Locke’s current attack ad on Parker, and Parker’s promise to respond in kind. Honestly, I don’t feel like getting into any of that. I don’t know that too many minds are going to be changed by such tactics; it’s more a matter of who you can spur to turn out, and who you can discourage from doing so. Of more interest to me is this.

Locke said he is refraining from “divisive campaigning,” adding, “I am not going to go into issues of race, issues of sexuality.” He said he is asking his supporters to follow his lead in their own public statements because these topics are distractions from important issues such as public safety and creating new jobs in Houston.

When I pressed Locke about whether he would accept or reject Hotze’s endorsement, he repeated the statement. My colleague Bradley Olson reported Nov. 13 that Locke had met with Hotze and sought his endorsement.

Pretty much what I expected. How can you reject something you actively sought out? I’m going to echo the comment John left, which sums up my feelings quite well.

When this race began, I looked at Brown, Locke, and Parker and saw it as a can’t-lose situation for the city. Although I supported Parker from the start, I thought that if she didn’t lose, we’d have a good mayor anyway. But I must say that I have lost enormous amounts of respect for Mr. Locke as this has played out.

Does he think that a Hotze endorsement is what will get him over the finish line? I think that’s a foolish idea, and all he’s doing it raising doubts among those of us who never had those doubts before. And that makes me wonder about his judgment in general.

I think he’s just handling it terribly… and his record is good enough that it’s painful to watch.

It’s a sad thing watching a good man do such bad things to win an election. But he did them, and he owns them. I hope he thinks it was worth it. PDiddie, Stace, and Nancy Sims have more.

Me in the Trib

You might have noticed, when you opened your metaphorical copy of the Texas Tribune this morning, that they’re hosting a discussion between myself and David Benzion on the merits of Houston Mayor and (by God we sure hope he’s a) candidate for Governor of Texas Bill White. You can find the discussion, which we’re conducting by email, here. They’re updating that post each time one of us replies to the other. It’s going to go through Thursday, after which White will (please! pretty please!) end the suspense by confirming that he is in fact a candidate for Governor. So check it out, leave a comment, and let me know what you think. My thanks to Evan Smith for the chance to clutter up their homepage.

Early voting starts today

Today marks the start of early voting for all of the runoff elections, which include Houston, Bellaire, and HISD. Early voting schedule and locations can be found here; remember that EV locations outside of Houston city limits are mostly closed, as there’s no action out there. Early voting runs through December 8, so take advantage when you can.

It’s never too early to speculate about turnout. I’m not going to guess a number just yet, but I am going to guess that about half of all votes will be cast early, based on recent behavior in city runoff elections. Here’s a peek:

Runoff Pct Early ==================== 03 Mayor 36.00 03 Dist F 41.38 03 Dist G 35.53 03 Dist H 26.62 03 AL #3 35.46 03 AL #4 36.80 03 Ctrlr 36.48 05 Dist B 44.71 05 Dist C 31.97 05 AL #2 37.19 07 AL #3 51.88 07 Dist D 46.66 07 Dist E 45.47 07 AL #5 46.12 09 Dist H 47.88

Early here includes votes by mail. The 2007 At Large #3 and the 2009 District H races were both in May. I want to say that the trend is clear, but the voter universes in those non-Mayoral races were so tiny – the 35,922 ballots cast in the 2005 At Large #2 runoff were by far the most in any race – that I hesitate to draw too firm a conclusion from these samples. But my guess is that at least 40% of the votes will be cast before Election Day, perhaps as many as half of them. We’ll see how that goes.

Gattis drops out, Ogden to run for re-election

Well, this is a surprise.

State Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, confirmed today that he is dropping out of the race to succeed Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. Ogden, who announced earlier this year that he was retiring from the Legislature, has changed course and decided to seek re-election.

Gattis was the heavy favorite to succeed Ogden in a GOP-friendly district that includes all of Williamson County and all of the Bryan-College Station area.

“With a young and growing family and a tough economic climate, my focus needs to be on them,” said Gattis, whose children are ages 6, 3 and 1. “That was a decision that my wife and I reached through a lot of prayer and consideration.”

Gattis will not seek re-election to his House seat, where at least three Republicans have been running to succeed him.

Didn’t see that one coming. Far as I can tell, Gattis didn’t have any serious competition for this seat as yet, and frankly once he was past the primary it would have been easy going, so I confess to being a little puzzled by this. Maybe he just didn’t have the fire in the belly for it. Wouldn’t be the first person this has happened to, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. Much better to realize it now and drop out before the election than go to the trouble of winning and then decide it wasn’t what you wanted. EoW and the Trib have more.

Turkey of the Year 2009

Among other things, the Thanksgiving season signals the arrival of year end lists – Top Ten this and that, Best Of, Worst Of, you name it. The local highlight is the Houston Press’ annual Turkey of the Year award, which has been made easier in recent times by the presence of Tom DeLay. He may be gone from the political scene, but thanks to the magic of reality television, he’s still out there racking up the awards. He wasn’t the top turkey this year – click over for that, I won’t spoil it – but you still have to give him an A for effort. It’s a lot harder in the Internet age for a has-been to regain any kind of relevance. As long as he doesn’t take advice on what his next career move should be from Levi Johnston, it’s all good.

In case you needed another reason to vote against Rick Perry

Just in case the fact that he’s Rick Perry isn’t enough, how about the fact that he’s objectively anti-microbrewery?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, running for re-election in 2010, just got the endorsement of the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas. Therefore, that makes Perry the enemy of craft beer lovers in Texas.

If you read this blog earlier in the year, you know that WBDT and its lobbyist, Mike McKinney, single-handedly killed off a bill during the 81st Legislative Session that would have allowed microbrewers to sell their product on the premises of the brewery — a sales-boosting opportunity afforded to Texas wineries, but not to beermakers. They also killed a similar bill in 2007 during the 80th session. The wholesalers have a stranglehold on how beer gets from the brewing tanks to you. Understandably, they don’t want that stranglehold taken away, but the legislators (and Governor) ought to be serving the public, not the lobby.

So if WBDT is getting whole hog behind Perry, then you can guess how things are gonna go in the unlikely event an on-site sales bill ever reaches his desk.

What more do you need to know?

Weekend link dump for November 29

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas sales…

The real trick is to not be an idiot about things you don’t understand.

How To Teach Physics To Your Dog is now available.

Why don’t I ever go to estate sales like this?

How California got into the pickle it’s in.

They do celebrity anti-fur ads a bit differently in the UK. And that link is Not Safe For Work.

Why shouldn’t the wars we fight be deficit neutral? C’mon, all you so-called fiscal conservatives, explain that one to me.

The BCS and Ari Fleischer are totally made for each other.

Fox News and quality control. Yeah, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln was for the public option before she was against it.

James Fallows on what actually happened during President Obama’s trip to China.

The dark side of social network-driven campaigns.

More choices = a good thing, or at least not a bad thing, after all.

Enjoy your later wake-up call, Carl Kasell.

Your liberal media at work.

Want a quick and dirty definition of “slow news day”? Here you go.

I’m not a believer in boycotting Black Friday, but if you are, I hope you especially avoided WalMart.

sigh That’s my home town.

Welcome aboard the Goodship Palin.

I’m more than a little surprised to realize that I own six of these Top 100 albums from the last decade, and about ten of the Top 100 singles – I have to comb through my iPod to see if I missed any. Even at that, it’s still more than I’d have thought.

Hotze endorses Locke

It’s what we’ve all been waiting for, and now it’s on its way to a mailbox near you, as local hatemeister Steven Hotze has endorsed candidates in all six City of Houston runoffs and sent a mail piece out touting his preferred slate. Martha has all of the scans of the mailers. Pay particular attention to these two images, which capture the case Hotze makes for and against each candidate. He uses the phrase “radical liberal” six times – interestingly, the one candidate he doesn’t affix that label to is Annise Parker, though he does say she’s “supported by liberal Chicago labor union interests”, whatever that means – and he makes a point of noting that all seven candidates he opposes have been endorsed by the “Gay Lesbian political action committee”. I don’t think you need an advanced degree in literature to be able to read the subtext here.

The question now is whether Gene Locke will live up to his previous statement that he “rejects any association” with this style of campaigning and repudiates Hotze’s endorsement. If he does, he’ll follow the example set by At Large #1 candidate Steven Costello, who to his great credit sent out the following statement:

Today, some people received a mail piece from Steven Hotze with his endorsements in the upcoming city runoff elections. I did not seek this endorsement and I specifically asked not be endorsed by Mr. Hotze. I am running to represent all Houstonians and my door at City Hall will be open to everyone.

Now that’s how you do it. Note that Costello is a member of the Republican Leadership Council, according to the local GOP. Rejecting Hotze like this, when he’s sending mail to people who would have been inclined to support Costello anyway, took real courage, and I salute him for that. Of course, the problem for Locke is that he did in fact seek out Hotze’s endorsement, so this mailer represents him getting what he wanted. This is why Democrats – and that includes Andrew Burks – need to stay the hell away from Steven Hotze and all that he represents. No good can come from associating with him. So what are you going to do about it now, Gene?

There isn’t a story about this in the Chron yet; hopefully, they will fill in some blanks, such as how many pieces Hotze intends to mail. I don’t know if he’s required to fill out a finance report for a city election – I see some SPAC filings among the city campaign finance reports of recent years, but I’m not sure if he falls under that rubric or not. We may not know for sure what he’s up to unless he brags to a newsie about it. If you receive this mailer, please leave a comment and let me know. Thanks very much.

Lovell v. Burks

And here’s the Chron story on the At Large #2 runoff, featuring Council Member Sue Lovell and Andrew Burks. Unlike Jones v. Christie, my opinion that CM Lovell will retain her seat is much more common. Burks does have a base of support in the African-American community, where he’s picked up several endorsements, but I don’t believe he has enough support beyond that to put together a majority. He’s tried to appeal to Republican voters, but that didn’t work too well for him in Round One. The bottom line for me is that I believe CM Lovell has been a very good Council member, and she deserves to be re-elected. My interview with her is here; I did not conduct an interview with Burks.

One point to comment on:

Burks, a minister and owner of a telecommunications company who has run and lost in four previous City Council races

By my count, and by combing through the city election archives, this is Burks’ sixth run for a Council office, not his fifth. He ran for District E in 1995, finishing second by eleven votes over Gregg Stephens and 20 votes over Danny Perkins; he then lost in the runoff to Rob Todd. He ran for At Large #3 in three straight cycles, from 1997 through 2001, twice losing to incumbent Orlando Sanchez, then losing in a runoff for the open seat to Shelley Sekula Gibbs. Finally, he ran for the open At Large #1 in 2003, finishing second as Mark Ellis won without the need for a runoff. He also ran for Congress in District 29 in 1992, finishing last in a field of five, and ran for Harris County Department of Education Trustee in 2006 against Roy Morales. According to Carl Whitmarsh, Burks also ran for State Rep in 1990 and chair of the HCDP at some point, but the state election archives only go back as far as 1992, and I can’t find a record of the latter race. Suffice it to say that Burks is a familiar presence on the ballot.

The Bill White factor

The thought that struck me as I read this story about Bill White’s expected switch to the Governor’s race is that maybe he was right to have taken this particular route to where he is now. I mean, he’s generated a ton of excitement with this announcement, more than he’d have gotten a year ago when he announced for the Senate instead, at a time when Texas Democrats really needed it. Had he been running for Governor all along, we’d all be as tired of that as we are of the Rick ‘n’ Kay traveling sideshow. I know this is primarily an accident of fate and KBH’s monumental fecklessness, but it’s still brilliant. And I say that, as you know, as someone who thinks he should have been running for Governor all along. Shows how much I know about strategy.

One other point:

“I think Democrats have a right to be pleased about this development, but the giddiness will fade,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. White, he notes, is a credible candidate, but Texas still is a Republican state by a margin of 8 to 12 points.

“Nobody knows whether he has that next gear to generate excitement in a statewide race,” Jillson said, “whether he can go down into the Rio Grande Valley and pull people out, whether he can put enough money into it and raise enough money to wage a credible fistfight in the street.”

All due respect to Cal Jillson, but White’s ability to raise money is not in question. Counting the money that’s in his Mayoral account, which none of the news coverage I’ve seen so far has done but which he will be able to use for a state race, he’s already got more than $6 million in the bank, and all of that was raised under contribution limits of one kind or another. Just going back to his initial donors for the Senate race and reminding them they can now write him another check should rake in a few million more. If there’s one thing I’m not worried about, this is it.

We’re not the only state with food stamp issues

We all know by now that Texas has had many problems with its administration of food stamps. Apparently, so have other states, according to a letter, signed by Kevin Concannon, the department’s undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, sent to state officials. Of interest to me is where he points at least some of the blame:

[The letter] specifically criticized states where private firms, rather than state workers, processed enrollment.

“We believe that the outsourcing of key … processing duties to for-profit organizations is an unwise use of state and federal resources that undermines program accountability,” Concannon wrote.

For-profit enterprises haven’t been able to process food stamp applications or recertifications quickly enough, Concannon said in the letter, in part because dividing responsibilities between the state and the enterprises complicated the process for applicants. As a result, many of those eligible are not receiving food stamps.

Anyone who has gone through a large outsourcing project in the private sector could have predicted this. These things take a long time to get right, and along the way they uncover or create all kids of issues that were not foreseen during the scoping phase, some of which never get resolved because to do so would blow the budget on the overall project. Yet the bizarre faith that privatization will always lead to lower costs and greater efficiency, often held by free-market and small-government-fetishizing conservatives who don’t have any relevant experience in the real world, persists. One wonders what it will take to shake that.

Saturday video break: Mama mia, let me go

Via pretty much everyone on the internets, the Muppets perform Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds.

What can one say? For comparison purposes, stina has a video of the original as well.

Jones v. Christie

And here’s the Chron overview of the At Large #5 runoff between Council Member Jolanda Jones and former SBOE member Jack Christie. I’ve said before that I like CM Jones, and I plan to vote for her in the runoff. I believe she is the favorite to win in the runoff, though not by much. From what I can tell by talking to people, I may be the most optimistic person I know about her chances. It seems to me that Christie may have the strongest level of Republican support among all of the remaining citywide candidates. MJ Khan has never been that popular in Republican circles, Stephen Costello has two Democratic consultants on his campaign staff and downplayed his Republican ties in Round One, and of course both Mayoral candidate are Democrats who will likely split the Republican vote in their race. It wouldn’t shock me if there are more undervotes in the other races than there are in At Large #5 in some parts of town, like out on the west side.

Anyway. My interview with CM Jones is here, and my interview with Christie is here. Both candidates have picked up a couple more endorsements for the runoff, with Jones getting Democracy for America and Christie getting the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, who had originally backed Davetta Daniels. I’d like to know what you think about this race, so please leave a comment and let me know.

Get well soon, Rep. McClendon!

I was shocked to read that State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon was diagnosed a few months ago with stage 4 lung cancer, but I am very glad to see that she has responded well to treatment of it.

“It just felt like I was laid out on the floor, and somebody just dropped a bowling ball in the middle of my stomach,” said McClendon, D-San Antonio, who had quit smoking in 1998. “It was just like — just everything went out of me.”

Then she got busy figuring out what to do.

“You are in shock for a day at least, but then you’ve got to pull yourself together,” McClendon said.

Surgery wasn’t an option, so she embarked on a course of radiation and chemotherapy that drove the cancer into remission.

McClendon plans to start “maintenance” chemotherapy in December. In the meantime, she has gone public with her story because she wants to share her good fortune by urging people to get potentially lifesaving screening and checkups — and not let fear hold them back.

“I wanted people to know if they get detected for it early, if they get treatment, then there is life,” she said. “It’s not a death sentence.”

I’ve corresponded with Rep. McClendon’s staff over the past year – they’ve been very good at sending me information and responding to questions about legislative matters. My very best wishes go to Rep. McClendon, her family, and her staff as she works through this.

BAE Systems

I have four things to say about this story, concerning Sealy-based SAE Systems and the $2.6 billion contract with the Defense Department to build Army trucks that it’s on the verge of losing after 17 years. We first heard about this in September; BAE Systems has been appealing the decision since then.

Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry and the 34-member Senate-House delegation are rallying to salvage a deal for BAE Systems that could be worth $2.6 billion and sustain 10,000 direct and indirect jobs around the sprawling truck manufacturing plant in Sealy.

[…]

The setback for Texas illustrates just how far the state’s political leverage has plummeted since Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Houston, helped BAE’s predecessor win the initial contract in 1991 under President George H.W. Bush, and Sens. Phil Gramm, R-College Station, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Dallas, helped the company retain the contract in 2001 under President George W. Bush.

“We never saw this coming — we were completely blindsided,” says a top aide to Sen. John Cornyn, R-San Antonio, a former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee panel with jurisdiction over military vehicles.

Lawmakers and BAE officials alike felt “sucker punched,” added David Davis, a top Hutchison aide. “ ‘Shocked’ doesn’t begin to describe it.”

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, whose Austin-to-Houston district includes the plant, learned of the Army’s decision while driving to an appearance in his district in late August.

1. Funny, isn’t it, how the federal government is evil and fascistic and doesn’t create any jobs by spending money, except for stuff like this.

2. Am I the only one who thinks that Rick Perry, John Cornyn, and Kay Bailey Hutchison maybe aren’t the best possible representatives to intercede with the Obama administration on BAE’s behalf? I mean, call me crazy, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot of goodwill built up to call on. If I were them, I’d beg Chet Edwards to take the point on this.

3. The story touches on Texas’ loss of clout, but fails to explore the reason for it: the 2003 Tom DeLay-engineered re-redistricting, one result of which was the cashiering of 80+ years of Democratic Congressional seniority. It sure would be nice to have someone like Martin Frost at Rep. Edwards’ side working on this, wouldn’t it?

4. How exactly is it that none of McCaul, Cornyn, and Hutchison had any idea this was coming? I have a hard time believing these processes are so leakproof that there was no advance warning of it. Were there really no little birdies whispering anything into these guys’ ears that something bad was about to happen to their district or state?

I feel like there’s more to this than what’s been reported so far. What do you think? PDiddie has more.

No check for you!

Nice little bit of holiday cheer for Texas’ retired public employees this week.

Retired public employees discovered yesterday that they would not receive additional $500 checks this year. According to Senator Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, they shouldn’t hold their breath for more benefits next cycle either. “I don’t think we’ll be able to,” he said. “The constitution restricts … any sort of benefit enhancement unless the fund is actuarially sound. It’s not.”

The controversy hinges on the wording of the appropriations bill passed in the 2009 session. The legislature set aside $155 million for the additional checks, but rather than distributing the money through state pension funds, the bill put the Comptroller in charge of distribution. The payments would only be made if the Attorney General had a “conclusive opinion that such one-time payments are constitutionally and statutorily permissible,” according the bill’s language — yet the attorney general’s opinion said that there was no way to have a definitive position. “The appropriation provision on its very face makes it impossible for us to conclusively opine that such payments ‘are constitutionally and statutorily permissible,'” the opinion read.

Since the appropriated millions will return to the pension fund, Duncan says the attorney general’s decision will further the fund’s stability. The new money raised the state’s contribution rate to from 6.58 to 6.64 percent. Duncan said he is committed to keeping the fund healthy in the long term, even if that means no additional money for state retirees in the next few sessions. “The popular thing to do is, ‘Give me something today,’” Duncan said of the payments. “But if that’s what we continue to do, these funds will always be short. They will always be actuarially unsound.”

Advocacy groups that lobbied for the additional checks say that in a recession, teachers and other public employees needed the money badly and view the process with the Attorney General’s Office as an underhanded tactic. “We did not expect there to be such a discussion of semantics,” said Tim Lee, the president of Texas Retired Teachers Association. Lee said while the TRTA knew about the decision to go to the attorney general’s office, he did not know the focus would be on the complexities of the word “conclusively.” Duncan, however, said he told groups like TRTA that the language set a high hurdle, and all parties involved agreed to the language knowing the risks.

As you might imagine, the folks who will not be getting those checks in their Christmas stockings aren’t too happy about this. Here’s a press release from AFSCME that laments its loss, and another from the Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers that I’ve placed beneath the fold. It’s always fun times in budget land, isn’t it?

Here’s the Attorney General’s opinion on the matter. Burka weighs in as well. One place he’s wrong is in singling out the Education Committee chairs – according to Rep. Scott Hochberg, whom I asked about this, the bill in question did not go through their committees. I’m sympathetic to the idea of being conservative with pension funds, but the point of this was that it wasn’t pension funds being allocated for this one-time payment, it was general revenue. Using general revenue to boost the pension fund strikes me as iffy at best – if the investments these funds are tied up in continue to tank, it’s good money after bad, and if they recover with the economy, the general revenue infusion was unnecessary. Frankly, handing out a bunch of checks to people who are sure to spend them would have provided a nice stimulus at a time when the state economy could have really used one. But that’s not the sort of thing we do around here, so I guess it would have upset the natural order of things or something.

(more…)

Bob Sheppard officially retires

The legendary Bob Sheppard, the amazing longtime PA announcer at Yankee Stadium, has called it a career.

Bob Sheppard has no intentions of returning to his longtime job as the public-address announcer at Yankee Stadium, MLB.com reported yesterday.

Sheppard, 99, hasn’t worked a game since late in the 2007 season due to illness.

“I have no plans of coming back,” Sheppard told the Web site in a telephone interview. “Time has passed me by, I think. I had a good run for it. I enjoyed doing what I did. I don’t think, at my age, I’m going to suddenly regain the stamina that is really needed if you do the job and do it well.”

More here and here. Sheppard’s voice over the PA, along with Eddie Layton on the organ and Robert Merrill singing the National Anthem, were what made games at the Stadium so memorable. In fact, I’m so overcome with nostalgia as I read this, I need to hear Merrill’s version of the Anthem again:

The singing begins at about 1:30. That, my friends, is how you do the Star Spangled Banner. I’m glad they still maintain the tradition of Merrill performing on Opening Day, and I’m glad Sheppard’s voice will continue to introduce Derek Jeter. The Yankees have always been about their history, and this is a great way to honor it. In the meantime, my best wishes to Bob Sheppard in his retirement, even if he doesn’t like to use that word.

Friday random ten: Thanks for giving

In honor of the holiday weekend, ten songs about thanking and giving.

1. Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again) – Sly and the Family Stone
2. Thank You Girl – John Hiatt
3. Thank You Friends – Big Star
4. Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle – The Mountain Goats and Kaki King
5. Thanksgiving Song – Mary-Chapin Carpenter
6. The Thanksgiving Song – Adam Sandler
7. Give A Little Bit – Supertramp
8. Give It Up – Fishbone
9. Give Me The Love – The String Cheese Incident
10. Give Blood – Pete Townshend

You can be thankful you didn’t have to wrestle with any demonic lawn furniture for your Thanksgiving.

At least, I hope you didn’t have to do that. What songs are you thankful for this week?

Special Friday video break: As God is my witness…

I give you the 1970s precursor to “The Office”, the wonderful and underrated “WKRP In Cincinnati” and their all-time classic Thanksgiving episode. Seriously, if you’ve never seen this, you really need to watch it all the way through. If you have seen it, you don’t require my encouragement for that:

While Mr. Carlson’s iconic line about the turkeys at the end is what everyone remembers, I can’t really pick a single funniest moment in this. I’m giggling as I type this post. Time to watch it again, methinks.

District A runoff overview

Now that we’re into the runoff season, it looks like the Chron will finally do a bit more in depth coverage of the races that are still unresolved. Yesterday, they ran this overview of District A and the remaining candidates Lane Lewis and Brenda Stardig.

Lewis, 42, a community college instructor and Democrat who lives in Oak Forest, was the runner-up in the seven-candidate Nov. 4 election.

Lewis proposes that the city buy the closed 227-acre Inwood Forest Country Club and turn it into a flood control basin and park. Then, he wants to give businesses tax incentives to locate on the park’s periphery.

“I think we have the opportunity to go into our blighted areas and create opportunities for growth,” Lewis said.

Stardig, 47, a real estate broker and Republican who lives in Shadow Oaks, was the top vote-getter with nearly 32 percent of ballots cast.

Stardig said she has specific flood control projects in mind, but did not want to speak publicly about them out of a fear of hurting property values. Instead, she emphasizes that she already is trying to recruit businesses to the district the same way she sells homes, by selling the virtues of District A.

“This is a huge opportunity, because nowhere else in the city like District A or northwest is there a greater return on investment,” she said.

You can listen to my interview with Lewis here and my interview with Stardig here. There will also be a candidate forum for the two of them, apparently the first such one they’ve both engaged in, this coming Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 7:00 PM. It will be held at Woodview Elementary School in SBISD, 9749 Cedardale, (near the intersection of Bunker Hill and Westview), Houston, Texas 77055. Here’s a map to the location if you need it.

Locke releases his tax returns

On Wednesday, Mayoral candidate Gene Locke released his tax returns, about two weeks after Annise Parker released hers. I’m not sure what took him so long, since apparently there’s nothing particularly remarkable about them, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. He released them, and good for him for doing so.

School districts feeling the crunch

The state’s budget problems, which are caused to some degree by the economic slowdown, aren’t just problems for the state. They’re local problems as well, and the entities that have been hardest hit are those that had been given short shrift by the state long before the economy went into a nose dive. I’m referring to school districts, which are feeling all kinds of pain right now, and which have even bleaker short term forecasts.

[B]y far, school districts have reported taking a much harder hit from the economic downturn than have municipalities. For instance, Cy-Fair is predicting a $10 million shortfall in its 2010-11 budget. School authorities say their fiscal problems are exacerbated by funding limits and state regulations.

“Every district has a complaint on the way their funding is figured. It all boils down to that we’re not getting enough from the state,” said Robert Robertson, spokesman for Klein ISD.

Texas schools get their income from allotments paid by the state for each student as well as property taxes that the district levies.

Despite increasing expenses, state funding has been frozen at the level that districts received three years ago — with the only exception being a small shot of stimulus money that was dedicated mostly to teacher raises and programs to help disadvantaged students.

At the same time, lawmakers have capped the property tax rate that districts can levy to cover their operating expenses at $1.04 per $100 valuation. It can be raised by an additional 13 cents, but only if approved by voters in a special tax election.

You know, I’m thinking there’s an opportunity for a Democratic candidate for Governor to win some votes in these suburban, Republican-leaning parts of the state by promising to work hard to find real solutions to these problems. Some of that may include saying words or phrases that might be considered no-nos in Texas elections, and that’s a scary thing to do. But it should be clear to most folks what kind of path we’re on right now, and it should be clear to most folks that without a change in the Governor’s mansion, that path isn’t going to change, either. Certainly, unless someone makes the case for doing things differently, we’ll keep on doing what we’ve been doing.

The ideal candidate

Former State Rep. Rick Green is running for the State Supreme Court.

While in the House from 1998 to 2002, Green drew fire for using his Capitol office as the backdrop for a health supplement infomercial. He also came under scrutiny for successfully arguing before the parole board for early release of a man convicted of defrauding investors (who just happened to have loaned $400,000 to Green’s father’s company); allegedly pressuring the state health department on behalf of ephedrine maker Metabolife International, one of his law firm’s clients; and squeezing lobbyists to pony up at a fundraiser for a private foundation he started. He made Texas Monthly’s list of the 10 worst legislators.

[…]

Green, a lawyer, has worked with the Aledo-based group WallBuilders, whose founder David Barton says the Founding Fathers did not intend for there to be a formal separation of church and state.

(Link added by me.) So he’s a religious wacko with ethics problems. Throw in a sex scandal, and he’d be the perfect distillation of your modern Republican Party. He’s running for Position 3, the bench vacated by Harriet O’Neill, for those of you who may be inclined to vote on the GOP side of the street in March.

Special Thursday video break: You can get anything you want

It’s not the name of the restaurant, it’s the name of the song:

I was hoping to find a video based on the original recording, but failed. Since I always manage to forget to turn on the radio in time to hear its annual airing, this will have to do. So walk on in, it’s around the back.

By the way, am I the last person in the world to realize you can’t buy just this song at the iTunes store? They make you buy the whole album to get it. Even more annoyingly, the album is listed at $9.99, while the other six songs can be bought for the usual 99 cents apiece, thus making this tune, at $3.94 for the balance, probably the most expensive single tune in the store. What a ripoff! Amazon has them beat on both counts, though I’m suspicious of the song’s shorter listed length. And the updated 30th anniversary edition, whose version I can recall hearing once on the radio, isn’t available as an MP3 download. Argh!

Ah, well. Happy Thanksgiving anyway.

For those of you who think turducken is too wimpy…

…I give you Turbaconducken. Yes, it’s exactly what you think it is. If you click the link, you will either rush right out to buy several pounds of bacon, or you will become a vegetarian. If you’re already a vegetarian, for the love of God do not click the link. I cannot be held responsible if you do.

I linked to this last year, but after being reminded about it by Andria, I figured it deserved its own post. As it happens, we’re having turducken – the normal, old school, un-baconified kind – for our Thanksgiving dinner today. Tiffany picked it up on a whim, and I’m psyched about it. Anybody out there doing something a little different for T-Day? Leave a comment and let me know. And Happy Thanksgiving!

Where’d you get those numbers, Richard?

Have we all recovered from the trauma of this week’s Monday Night Football game? Good. Let’s take a minute and look at this Richard Justice column, whose basic thesis that Gary Kubiak and Rick Smith should be hearing the clock ticking is one with which I agree, but being a Richard Justice column says some things that make me wonder what he’s talking about. This is one:

After four years, the Texans still can’t do the basics. They can’t run, stop the run or sack the quarterback. They’re ranked 32nd, 30th and 31st in those three areas.

As it happens, the jump page for this column in the dead tree version of the Chron contains NFL team statistics on it. Going by these traditional measures – which is to say, yards per game – the Texans rank 30th in rushing offense at 87.4 yards per game, and 21st in run defense at 120.6 YPG. (Sack totals aren’t listed there.) If you prefer a less traditional approach, according to Football Outsiders, the Texans are 23rd in run defense and 30th in run offense. None of those are good ratings, but none of them line up with Justice’s numbers, either. My guess is he’s citing Cold Hard Football Facts, which has the locals ranked 32nd in yards per rushing attempt, 30th in yards per rushing attempt defensively, and 31st in percentage of negative pass plays, which covers both sacks and interceptions. On the one hand, I’m impressed that Justice knows about CHFF. On the other hand, I’m wondering why he didn’t cite them as his source, assuming that is indeed where he got those figures from.

That’s kind of a nitpicky point. I don’t think anyone disagrees that these are the Texans’ greatest areas of weakness this year, though one wonders how much of this is simply worse than expected performances from Steve Slaton and Mario Williams, who is reportedly playing through injuries. More troubling to me is this:

The Titans are a reminder that until the Texans can run and stop the run, they’re not going to win. Kubiak’s decision to be a pass-first offense is an indication of how badly he and Smith failed in other areas.

OK, I admit I’m more of a baseball stathead than a football one. I know the traditional wisdom is that running teams win while passing teams are more style than substance. But is that really true? What is the correlation between rushing or passing efficacy and winning? I’m not on firm ground here, but I will say this much. Here are the top ten teams by rushing and passing, according to all three measures, with CHFF’s rankings based on yards per rushing attempt and negative pass play percentage as above:

Rush Traditional Outsiders CHFF ======================================== 1 Titans Cowboys Titans 2 Jets Saints Cowboys 3 Panthers Jaguars Panthers 4 Dolphins Dolphins Jaguars 5 Saints Packers Saints 6 Jaguars Titans Jets 7 Giants Falcons Dolphins 8 Cowboys Eagles Eagles 9 Bengals Ravens Rams 10 Packers Patriots 49ers W-L 59-41 61-39 50-50 Pass Traditional Outsiders CHFF ======================================== 1 Colts Patriots Colts 2 Patriots Chargers Patriots 3 Texans Colts Titans 4 Cardinals Vikings Saints 5 Steelers Texans Vikings 6 Saints Saints Cardinals 7 Packers Bengals Giants 8 Giants Cardinals Broncos 9 Cowboys Steelers Falcons 10 Vikings Giants Texans W-L 73-27 74-26 69-31

W-L refers to the cumulative won-lost record for the ten teams listed. Seems pretty obvious to me which is the group to be in. Of all the top ten passing teams, only the 4-6 Titans have a losing record; the Falcons, like the Texans, are 5-5. Five of the best rushing teams (Titans, Jets, Panthers, Rams, 49ers) have losing records with three more (Ravens, Falcons, Dolphins) being 5-5. Maybe this year is a fluke, but what it suggests to me is that if anything it took Kubiak too long to realize what he had was a pass first and ask questions later team. Like I said, I don’t disagree with the general thrust of Justice’s column, but if this is his reason for criming Kubiak and Smith, I think he’s got it exactly backwards.

Oh, and just for completeness, the best and worst teams against the rush:

Rush D Traditional Outsiders CHFF ======================================== 1 Steelers Vikings Steelers 2 Bengals Steelers Ravens 3 Vikings Jaguars 49ers 4 Packers Packers Packers 5 Ravens 49ers Bengals 6 49ers Redskins Eagles 7 Cowboys Panthers Vikings 8 Cardinals Ravens Jets 9 Titans Cardinals Broncos 10 Eagles Seahawks Dolphins W-L 61-39 53-47 58-42 32 Bucs Bucs Bucs 31 Bills Rams Bills 30 Raiders Browns Texans 29 Browns Bills Rams 28 Rams Chargers Panthers 27 Chiefs Raiders Browns 26 Panthers Saints Saints 25 Redskins Panthers Falcons 24 Falcons Chiefs Chiefs 23 Bears Texans Lions W-L 28-72 38-62 34-66

Some bad, bad teams among the worst run defenders, no question about it, though the presence of the 10-0 Saints on two of the three lists (they’re 19th best by the traditional YPG measure, four places ahead of the 22nd-best Texans) should dispel the notion that you must be good against the run in order to win. Similarly, the seven teams with losing records among the best run-stoppers (Ravens, Titans, Jets, 49ers, Redskins, Panthers, Seahawks) show that being good at that is no guarantee of success. Again, this is not to say the Texans are any good at this, because they’re clearly not, but simply that they could be a team with a better record in spite of it, no matter what Richard Justice or anyone else may say.

UH-Downtown may drop open admissions

This could have some broad implications.

After less than four months on the job, the new president of the University of Houston-Downtown has launched an agenda to reshape the school’s future.

First up: creating admission standards for a school that historically has accepted anyone with a high school diploma or GED.

William Flores, who arrived on campus last summer, said he is committed to non-traditional students and those who need a helping hand.

“But we also want our students to be more successful,” he said, and attending a four-year school may not be good for students who require more than a few remedial courses. Instead, he said, those students would do better at a community college, where they can prepare for college-level work at a fraction of the cost.

You may recall that the University of Houston is seeking to raise its admission standards. If UH-D follows suit, even with the modest standards they are proposing – top 50% of graduating class, 2.0 or higher GPA, 860 SAT or 18 ACT score – that will put a lot of pressure on the community colleges to pick up the slack. The justification for this is pretty straightforward:

Just 13.4 percent of students who entered UH-Downtown as freshmen in 2002 had earned a degree six years later. The state average is 56 percent.

Doesn’t really seem like it’s in anyone’s best interests for that high a percentage of students to not graduate. Of course, at the end of the day, what’s really needed is for high school graduates who want to attend college to be better prepared for it. That can’t be done by decree, and with the neverending school finance battle about to be joined again, I don’t see much hope for that happening soon. But it’s what needs to be done, and the choice is ours as to when we get around to doing it. I say the sooner the better, but good luck with the Governor and the Legislature.

Thanksgiving travel

If you’re traveling this weekend, you’ll find the roads a bit more crowded than last year, but down from the norm.

Americans shaken by last year’s economic crash may be regaining enough confidence to hit the roads in higher numbers this Thanksgiving, according to AAA.

When a wobbly economy finally nose-dived last fall, Thanksgiving trips also plunged, by 25 percent from the year before, the travel association reports.

This year, with unemployment higher than it’s been since 1983 despite economic growth last quarter, 38.4 million Americans — one in eight — will travel 50 miles or more from home, up a slight 1.4 percent.

More here. Drive safe, y’all. Link via the On the Move blog.

Council turnover

One underappreciated aspect of this year’s election is that we may wind up with more than two new At Large City Council members. We started with two open seats, and with incumbents Sue Lovell and Jolanda Jones in runoffs, the possibility exists that we could have as many as four freshman members in January. This would be a first for Houston, at least in the term limits era. Since 1997, here are all of the newly-elected Council members for that year:

1997 – Annise Parker (1), Carroll Robinson (5)
1999 – Gordon Quan (2)
2001 – Shelley Sekula Rodriguez/Gibbs (3), Michael Berry (4)
2003 – Mark Ellis (1), Ronald Green (4)
2005 – Peter Brown (1), Sue Lovell (2)
2007 – Melissa Noriega (3), Jolanda Jones (5)

There actually was a third new Council member in 1997, but not in November. John Peavy won a special election in January of 1995 to replace Sheila Jackson Lee in At Large #4 after she was elected to Congress. After he won re-election that November, he announced in 1996 that he was stepping down. Chris Bell then won a special election in January, and won election to a full term that November. His seat came open in 2001 when he ran for Mayor (Orlando Sanchez, who had been the incumbent in At Large #3, was first elected in 1995 and thus was term limited out that year.) Michael Berry, who won #4 in 2001, briefly ran for Mayor in 2003, and when he pulled back from that he filed instead for At Large #5; I forget what the reasoning behind that was. As such, there were technically three open seats in 2003, but only because of Berry’s seat shifting. Besides, Mark Ellis had been a two-term incumbent in District F before winning a final term in Council as the At Large #1 member, so even if one of Berry or Shelley Sekula now-Gibbs, who nipped Peter Brown in a runoff for her first re-election, had been beaten, there still would have been only two truly new At Large members.

This year, we will have new At Large members CO Bradford and the winner of the Stephen Costello/Karen Derr runoff. I think Sue Lovell will win easily enough in #2, but Jolanda Jones has a tough race on her hands, and may well lose. If either one does lose, then we’ll have the unprecedented situation of three or more new At Large members, and in a year with a new Mayor and a new Controller. I’m thinking the first few Council meetings would be a lot of fun under those conditions.

One other thing to consider in the event we do have three or four new At Large members is that there would not be an open seat until 2013, when Melissa Noriega gets term limited. I would think that a Council Member Andrew Burks or a Council Member Jack Christie would be wise to prepare for a strong challenge from somebody in 2011, for two reasons. One is that those with ambitions for Council aren’t going to want to wait that long. The pent-up demand for an open Council seat by then would surely lead to a ginormous field, in which even a good candidate’s chances would be a pure crapshoot. Seems to me you’d get better odds taking on a freshman incumbent in 2011, in what could be a straight up two-person race. And two, the political establishment might well view Burks and/or Christie as flukes whose victories said more about their opponents than themselves. I believe the likelihood of that is greater if the turnout for the runoff is low. The same could happen to Bradford or Costello/Derr, of course, but I’d expect Burks or Christie to be a more inviting target.

Anyway. Just something I’ve been thinking about. What do you think?

UPDATE: Forgot to include Jolanda Jones as a new Member in 2007. Whether she wins or loses, the only seat that would be open in 2011 is Sue Lovell’s seat, assuming Lovell wins. If Lovell wins and Jones loses, we have one open seat in 2011 and one in 2013, then three in 2015. If Lovell loses and Jones wins, we have no open seats in 2011, two in 2013, and three in 2015. If both lose, no open seats in 2011, one in 2013, and four in 2015. I should have been more clear about that. Also, as noted by Jennifer in the comments, we will have two new District Council seats in 2011, which may provide an outlet for some of those who would otherwise run At Large if there’s a paucity of those seats available.

The budget mess that awaits the next Governor

We already know that the next Legislative session will be a whole lot of no fun thanks to declining revenue estimates and our structural deficits. Here’s a further illustration of the problem.

The current state budget is financed with $12 billion of one-time money (add to the stimulus money several billion the Legislature wisely socked away two years earlier). Some refer to this as our “structural gap.” That gap will have to be filled. On top of that, add several billion for Medicaid growth (and perhaps much more depending on what happens with national health care reform), a couple hundred million for prisons, and a few hundred million more for employee health insurance and retirement. Higher education won’t be left empty handed, either, so throw in another half billion dollars.

Add another billion to public education to pay for the promises in last session’s education bill, and maybe even more. Since the state bought into a system of equalized funding, state aid rises and falls as local property values change. With the economy now suffering, property values will likely stagnate or fall (although your local chief appraiser may disagree). School districts won’t be as wealthy. The demands on state aid may actually increase, driving up the state’s public school budget even more.

Granted, there should be some revenue growth, but with most economists projecting a slow, jobless recovery, it may be muted. If so, revenue growth at best may cover spending growth. That leaves the nagging problem of how to deal with that “structural gap.”

Tax hikes? Not likely.

A simple rollback of the budget-busting property tax cuts from the 2006 special session would suffice. Heck, you probably wouldn’t have to roll it all the way back – the business margins tax does take in some money, just not nearly enough. That’s not likely, either, but it is the simplest and most straightforward solution. Remember, the billions that the Lege “wisely socked away” earlier was general revenue surplus whose sole purpose was paying for those tax cuts. No surplus, no money to pay for those tax cuts. Seems to me anyone who wants to call themselves “fiscally responsible” would demand deficit neutrality from the actions taken in 2006 by the Lege. The alternatives are unacceptable. I sure hope we have a nice, long debate about this as part of the gubernatorial campaign. As of right this minute, we have just barely enough revenue to cover all our expenditures. It’s time to start talking about what the plan is for if and when that is no longer the case.

More back and forth on the latest jail proposal

Grits argues that the latest proposal to build a new processing center for the jail would result in a tax increase because of the need to hire more staff, which is not accounted for in the bonds. The Chron wonders what all the fuss is about. I’m still looking forward to seeing progress made in reducing the overall inmate population. I believe a lot of these issues will be settled, or at least a lot less contentious, when that happens. I hope they will, anyway, because Commissioners Court has agreed to move forward with the plan.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia is proposing a central processing center, where everyone arrested by his deputies and Houston Police Department officers would be booked. It would hold 2,193 prisoners: 1,000 in booking areas and about 1,200 in cells designated for specialized populations, such as the mentally ill, medical cases and women.

The proposal does not estimate how much it would cost to staff a new facility.

The Commissioners Court granted approval of the study, which revives city-county talks that go back more than a decade.

Figuring in the staffing cost, which Grits has been harping on, is a must. Surely the overall cost to the county will be lower if the jail population is reduced, right? The more we move in that direction, the better off we’ll be.

UPDATE: Stace raises a different objection to the proposal.

Get well soon, Pancho Claus!

See you at the parade!

The Houston actor best known locally as Pancho Claus still plans to make his annual holiday appearance in the Thanksgiving Day parade despite suffering a heart attack last week.

Richard Reyes, who has portrayed the zoot suit-wearing, lowrider-cruising Hispanic icon for 28 years, said he was admitted to Memorial Hermann Northwest Hospital on Thursday after suffering a heart attack. He was moved from intensive care to a regular room over the weekend and said he hoped to be released [Monday].

Despite his recent ordeal, Reyes said he sees no reason he can’t be in the downtown Houston parade as usual.

“All I’ve got to do is wave,” he joked in a phone interview from his hospital room.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without Pancho Claus. Good to see he’ll be all right.

Roundup and reaction to White’s announcement

Bill White isn’t officially a candidate for Governor yet, but he’s already picked up endorsements from State Sens. Kirk Watson and Eliot Shapleigh. I feel confident that many more such endorsements will follow, perhaps even before he commits to the race.

For now, at least, the other Democratic contenders for Governor are still in the race. I figure Kinky is in till the end – he has books to sell, after all. Shami has already sunk a bunch of money into TV ads, so it doesn’t make sense for him to decide anything until that runs its course. Alvarado is an afterthought. It makes sense for Hank to switch, either to Land Commish or back to Ag Commish, but I expect he’ll dig in his heels a bit. He got into this race for a reason, and he won’t get out of it without one. He could wind up staying in, but I think a lot of folks will want him to switch. He’s the one to watch.

(Speaking of ads, I saw that KBH for Governor ad last night during the local news. My God, it was as awful as I’d heard. Hard to believe she was once seen as an unstoppable juggernaut in this race.)

Speaking of the other races, there’s already been talk about who else might run for the other offices now that White would be at the top of the ticket. I don’t want to get too far out there in the speculation game, but let me suggest a name anyway: State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte for Lite Guv. She isn’t on the ballot in 2010, so it’s a free shot for her, she would provide a nice bit of regional and ethnic diversity, and she would generate as much excitement for that office as she did as a potential candidate for Governor. There would be some issues to work out first – she would have to want to do it, and there’s the matter of her endorsing John Sharp in the Senate race – but it’s nothing insurmountable. I have no idea what anyone else is thinking here, but this is what I think.

Ross Ramsay lists winners and losers as a result of White’s likely move. I would suggest that it’s too early to call Sharp a winner – we still don’t know for sure that there will be a Senate race before 2012, after all, and for all we know someone else could get into it by then. I’ll say this much – Sharp no longer has an excuse for his lousy fundraising in that race. I’d also suggest that a potential loser is Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. If White’s entry into the Governor’s race is the boost for Democrats in Harris County that a lot of people I’ve talked to think it will be, that may attract a stronger candidate to the County Judge’s race, and could put Emmett in jeopardy. Which would be a bit ironic, given the link White and Emmett have for their work during Hurricane Ike, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

I’m sure there will be a lot more to talk and think about between now and December 4, when White will announce his decision. In the meantime, here’s more from Burka and Swartz, BOR, PDiddie, Hal, Juanita, John Coby, Erik Vidor, Andrea White (not actually related to these events, but amusing to read), and Evan Smith.

UPDATE: Forgot to add in Rick Casey, too.

UPDATE: Here’s Purple Texas.

Trustee Marshall endorsed by former opponents

In the runoff for HISD Trustee in District IX, incumbent Trustee Larry Marshall received the endorsement of the third and fourth-place finishers, George Davis and Michael Williams. I find that a little odd, since one presumes when they ran to unseat Marshall they thought a change was needed, but I guess they decided they didn’t want Adrian Collins to be that change. Marshall has also been endorsed by the HISD Parent Visionaries group, who backed Trustee-elect Mike Lunceford and runoff candidate Anna Eastman. You can read their runoff analysis and recommendation here. Note the difference between Marshall and Collins’ positions on paying prevailing wages for capital improvement projects in HISD. Labor unions are upset with Marshall for breaking promises made to them about prevailing wages in return for their support of the 2007 bond referendum, which is why they are strongly backing Collins. We’ll see if that can be a difference-maker here.

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