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November 4th, 2009:

Nancy and me on TV

If you missed it from last night, here’s a clip of Nancy Sims and me doing the pundit thing on KHOU:

Among other things, it’s a rare opportunity to see me in a suit and tie. My thanks to Greg for grabbing and uploading the clip.

The Controller’s race

I’m still somewhat amazed by this result.

City Councilman Ronald Green led a three-candidate field in the race for Houston city controller Tuesday and will face Councilman M.J. Khan in a Dec. 12 runoff.

Green, whose campaign appeared unharmed by last-minute anonymous phone calls warning Democrats against him, led comfortably for most of the evening and finished with 36 percent. Khan and Councilwoman Pam Holm jockeyed for second place as the returns came in, and Khan finished with 32.5 percent to Holm’s 31.2 percent — a difference of about 2,000 votes.

Last night, as Khan overtook Holm, I thought there might be a recount in this race. With a 2000 vote difference, however, that would clearly be a waste of time and money.

Green said he was looking forward to the runoff campaign.

“Of course, I would have preferred no runoff,” Green said. “But I’m going to run on my qualifications and I feel confident that I’ll be the next controller.”

Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 1985, said he never expected to finish first but picked up support as voters learned more about him. The engineer and real estate developer said he expects that trend to continue during the runoff campaign.

“I believe Houstonians will reward qualifications,” Khan said.

Two questions: Will Green try to raise some money and be more visible in the runoff? Will Khan get the local GOP establishment to back him? I believe this race is fundamentally the same as the Controller’s race was in the beginning, which is to say it’s Green’s to lose. I don’t think the runoff in F will be as big a boost to Khan’s chances as a runoff in G would have been for Holm’s, had it gone that way. The lack of a runoff in G helps Green. If I’m right about Roy’s voters sitting it out – and I note that Martha isn’t so sure about that – that helps Green as well. If the GOP gets its act together – having a chance to knock off Jolanda Jones as well as win this race ought to motivate them – that helps Khan. Khan had $31K on hand as of his 8 days out report, so at least this time they start out more or less even in the money department. That’s what I’ll be watching for the overtime period.

As for whether or not Pam Holm picks a side in the runoff, all I can say is that as yet, she has not done so. Click on to see an email she sent out yesterday morning on the race.

(more…)

More thoughts about yesterday’s results

– I didn’t note it last night, but all 11 Constitutional amendments passed. No surprise there, they almost always do.

– Looking back at my turnout projections, the right number to go with was the 30% scenario. As it happens, going by the numbers in the Mayoral race, 31.0% of all votes cast for the City of Houston races were early votes. Doing the same math for the constitutional amendments, 29.0% of all Harris County votes were cast early. One reason why the City of Houston turnout was so poor is that only 69.5% of all Harris County voters were in the city of Houston. Had it been 75%, as I had assumed in my projections, the city’s turnout figure would have been 192,804 instead of 178,594.

– The Chron story on the turnout contains some funny math.

Part of the difference between this year and previous open-seat races is the jump in registered voters, driven in part by massive efforts to get people signed up for last year’s presidential election.

In Harris County, nearly 1.9 million people are registered to vote, compared to 1.2 million in 1997, and less than 1 million in 2003.

*boggle* Let’s skip over the assertion about efforts to get voters registered last year, since we know that number should in fact be much higher than it is; as a percentage of population, the number of registered voters in 2008 was down significantly from 2004. An awful lot of that effort to register voters was just to re-establish those who had moved since the previous election. Be all that as it may, the relevant figure for 2003 was 1,506,629 registered voters. I can only assume that “less than 1 million” figure refers to the city of Houston, in which case what we have here is an apples and oranges mixup.

– You do recall that Roseann Rogers, the “Buzz Lady”, was running for City Council in Bellaire, right? She finished second to Corbett Parker for that seat, with 28.11% to Parker’s 49.23%. I presume this means a runoff, but am not sure if the law is different for smaller cities like Bellaire.

– Other thoughts on the results, from Greg, Coby, Stace, Martha, and David Ortez. Martha’s analysis of Roy’s performance is well worth reading.

That’s all for now. I figure there will be a short lull, then things will fire up and go red hot till Runoff Day. I at least plan to enjoy the respite, however brief it may be.

UPDATE: On the one hand, regarding Bellaire, state law only requires a majority to win for cities of 200,000 people or more. On the other hand, Bellaire does indeed have runoffs for its elections. You can see how this can get confusing.

UPDATE: Nancy Sims, PDiddie, Hair Balls and Campos weigh in.

Ashby’s developer defends his project

Let me start by saying that I agree with Kevin Kirton, the CEO of Buckhead Investment Partners, also known as the developers of the infamous Ashby highrise, when he says that the “trip number” justification that the city used to block that project for as long as they did was bunk, and that the highrise as originally envisioned, is a better use of the space than the compromise version. The city’s regulatory system simply doesn’t allow for a way to deny this project, and the debate that ensued in which we pretended there was a way to do it ultimately served no one’s interests. We do need a better and more consistent set of rules for development, and we haven’t really begun to engage that particular discussion.

None of this changes the fact that the Ashby highrise is a bad idea. It’s incompatible with the surrounding area, and the reason there was such fierce resistance to it is that everyone outside of Buckhead Investment Partners realized that. I want to address two of the points that Kirton raises in his piece, one broad and one nitpicky, to try to illustrate this. First, the small point:

Consider that this project:

• •  Is located minutes from Downtown, Greenway Plaza and the Galleria and within walking distance of Houston’s major museums, the Texas Medical Center, Rice University and Hermann Park’s many amenities;

• •  Is on one of the top five most utilized METRO bus routes in the city and a quick half-mile walk to both the Main Street and Richmond rail lines;

• •  Will connect its residents to the community with its shared restaurant, specialty shop, wellness spa, and a small suite of executive offices.

Actually, the Ashby is about three-quarters of a mile from what should eventually be a rail stop at Richmond and Dunlavy, and nine-tenths of a mile from the Museum District stations on Fannin and San Jacinto at Binz. Fudging numbers doesn’t make me inclined to believe the rest of what you say. And the problem with claiming that this location is walking distance to the Medical Center and Hermann Park is that Rice is in between it and them, and given that it is private property, it may not appreciate a bunch of people using it as a cut-through. I can’t speak to the point about the bus route, but I am curious how many people that currently live in the area use that bus; more to the point, how many future residents of the highrise do you think would use it, and how many current or potential bus riders would disembark there in order to take advantage of its restaurant, specialty shop, wellness spa, or executive suites. Being accessible to transit is only a virtue if it gets used.

And that brings me to my larger point. The problem with Ashby is simply that it’s misplaced. You can claim, as Kirton does, that it somehow fits in with other pedestrian-friendly development by virtue of it being sort of walking distance from them, but the fact remains that there will be no network effect from putting a mixed-use highrise at 1717 Bissonnet. By that I mean that there won’t be anything else in its immediate vicinity that will also be of interest to someone who is on foot in the area. Ashby is and almost surely forever will be surrounded by nothing but residences. It’s a destination unto itself. Nobody who goes there will then walk to a neighboring shop or eatery or what have you because there aren’t any, and won’t be any. Contrast that with my hypothetical alternate location on Richmond, where a bunch of commercial development already exists and more will likely follow as the stretch of Richmond from Shepherd to Montrose attracts transit-oriented development as Main Street has. The equivalent stretch of Bissonnet is almost exclusively residential. Someone who gets off the Universities line at Richmond and Dunlavy will have a bunch of places to walk to. Someone who gets off the bus at Bissonnet and Ashby is probably going home.

An Ashby highrise that’s actually located in the vicinity of other dense, pedestrian-friendly properties is a valuable addition to that area, one that likely would generate a lot of excitement. An Ashby highrise located in the middle of a bunch of houses is at best a curiosity, and at worst a blight on the existing neighborhood. That’s been the problem from the beginning. To me, the best outcome once we realized that there was nothing to be done to stop Buckhead under the current rules is to come up with a revised set of rules for future Ashbys that will encourage the former and discourage, if not actually forbid, the latter. Unfortunately, we’re no closer to that now than we were when the project was first announced. And I don’t see how we’re going to get there from here.

Our air might be cleaner than we think

This is a pleasant surprise.

Houston, once considered the nation’s capital of dirty air, is on the verge of meeting federal limits for smog for the first time.

If the numbers hold as the smog season draws to an end, the eight-county region will meet the limit for the lung-irritating pollutant by the narrowest of margins.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cautioned that the data is preliminary and will be scrutinized in the coming months. But at first blush, “the news is good,” EPA spokesman David Bary said.

It’s too early to declare victory – among other things, the margin by which we’ve achieved compliance is small and is due in part to things like weather conditions and the economic slowdown. But it’s still mighty nice, and it shows there’s no reason this can’t become the norm. Let’s hope this is the first of many such good reports.

A slow solution is bad but no solution is worse

Same song, yet another verse: The food stamp situation in Texas is truly terrible.

As Texas begins hiring hundreds of food stamp workers to help erase an application backlog that has left families waiting months for aid, no one expects the problems to disappear any time soon.

The new state workers are entering a system in crisis. They’ll have far fewer experienced colleagues than they would have five years ago. Training is shorter. Mentoring has mostly fallen by the wayside. And employees are working an average of 13 hours of overtime per week which, in some cases, is mandatory.

“We’re just overrun,” said Sheila Badzioch, a caseworker in Houston, one of the state’s slowest processing areas. “The attitude of the higher-ups is, ‘You can do more.’ Well, you can’t. There are only so many hours in a day.”

[…]

The Legislative Budget Board earlier this month OK’d the hiring of 250 more workers and directed the agency to fill 400 vacant jobs.

“We’ve moved in the right direction,” Gov. Rick Perry told reporters last week. “Help is on the way.”

But it could take months for the employees to be hired and trained. State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, one of two senators recently tapped by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to monitor food stamps, said that adding employees might be a good long-term solution but isn’t an immediate fix.

“I’m not sure that getting 250 or 500 people in there who don’t know what they’re doing is really going to solve this problem,” Williams said. “The only way out is to have a task force of people we know can do the job, and efficiently, and ask them to help us get out of this hole we’re in.”

The good news, I suppose, is that in another six months or so those 250 to 500 people will have a much better idea of what they’re doing, and that will be a big help. It’s of no comfort to those who are suffering now from the long wait times, of course. About the only thing we could do is build a time machine and undo all of the bad decisions that have led us to this crisis. As that is unlikely to happen, the next best thing we can do is take steps to make sure those bad decisions never get made again. Keep that in mind when we start talking about next year’s elections, because that will be our chance to make that happen.

Initial thoughts on tonight’s results

– My skepticism of those earlier polls that showed Peter Brown in the lead has been justified. Especially in what wound up being a lower-than-expected turnout election, I just couldn’t believe a survey of registered voters that was self-screened for likelihood of voting. Parker’s poll was much closer to the target; though it underestimated everybody else, it just about nailed Brown’s total.

– Though he finished out of the money, Peter Brown may now be the most sought-after politician in the city, as both Parker and Locke try to get his endorsement for the runoff. I can make a case for him to go either way, and I think he’ll take his time. He may make like Sylvester Turner and not offer a firm commitment to either candidate, or he may repeat his own history and endorse them both.

– Speaking of which, anyone wanna guess which way the Chron will go? Having Brown in the runoff sure would have made things simpler for them.

– Oh, and I don’t think it will matter if Roy endorses anyone. Seems to me if the people that voted for him actually cared about affecting the outcome of this race, they’d have voted for someone else the first time around. My guess is the vast majority of Roy supporters sit it out in December.

– As bland as everyone thought the race has been so far, I expect the runoff to be nasty. They always are. This is basically a Democratic primary race, and you know how those get. Plus, while I can’t speak for the candidates themselves, I get the distinct impression that Parker’s staff and Locke’s staff don’t much like each other. I’m just wondering where the money will come from for Round Two, especially for Parker. (Annie’s List has already sent out an email on her behalf.)

– Moving on, the surprise of the night was MJ Khan winding up in the runoff with Ronald Green. I totally did not see that coming. You have to wonder, if Pam Holm had spent as much on TV as Khan did if she’d have made it past the wire instead. On the other hand, spending on TV ultimately didn’t help Peter Brown that much, so who knows? I will say this much, if I’m Ronald Green I much prefer this outcome to a runoff against Holm.

– In the Council races, I’m a little surprised that Bradford won outright in #4, but in retrospect perhaps I shouldn’t be. I think his name recognition was an asset for him. I like Noel Freeman a lot, and I think he’d make a fine Council member, but he just didn’t raise enough money to counter that. In the end, with Freeman not doing all that much better than Garmon and Shafto, this was a Bradford versus non-Bradford race, and Bradford won.

– In At Large #1, it’ll be very interesting to see if the Democratic establishment picks a side. Many Democratic elected officials sided with either Herman Litt or Rick Rodriguez. Do they have a preference between Costello and Derr, and if so will they express it? Watch for that.

– I’m not surprised that Sue Lovell and Jolanda Jones wound up in runoffs, though I am a bit surprised that Lovell did better percentagewise than Jones. I do expect them both to prevail, though Jones has more work to do for that.

– The district races went more or less as expected. I figured Mike Laster would make it to a runoff in F but wasn’t sure who he’d be up against. Seeing the spending reports, I’m not surprised it’s Al Hoang. Kudos to Oliver Pennington for winning outright.

– In HISD, Mike Lunceford won going away in District V. Alma Lara and Anna Eastman ran close to even in District I. They will face off again, as will Larry Marshall and Adrian Collins in District IX.

– Expect a recount in HCC District 3, where Mary Ann Perez leads Dorothy Olmos Guzman by 44 votes. A grand total of 532 hardy souls, myself included, wrote in Eva Loredo’s name for District 8. Democracy at its finest there. The HCC annexation referendum passed in North Forest but was soundly defeated in Spring Branch.

– Sarah Winkler was re-elected to Alief ISD’s Board of Trustees. Of the candidates she was backing, Ella Jefferson won and Grace Parmar lost. The other race is in a runoff between Gary Cook and Marilyn Swick.

– By my count, about 180,000 votes were cast in the Mayoral election. My guess is that the runoff total will not be much less than that, and given the potential for nastiness may even exceed that. I’ll say again, if you voted in this race, expect to hear a lot from the candidates for the next one.

– Oh, and in the end, Bob Stein paid up on our bet, even though Brown failed to cover the three-point spread against Morales. I think he’s expecting a rematch in the runoff. My thanks to everyone at KHOU for having me in their studio this evening, and to Nancy Sims for being such an excellent person to pundit with.

UPDATE: As per Eric Weinmann’s comment, and Mike Sullivan’s in the “More thoughts” post, Alief ISD does not have a runoff. Thanks for the feedback!