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September 12th, 2016:

More on the ground game here

Hillary Clinton

A few days ago I wrote about the opening of a national Democratic campaign office here in Harris County. I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to the campaign over the weekend about this office and their larger plans. Here’s what we discussed:

– The office is part of the coordinated campaign between Hillary Clinton and the DNC, with the intent of helping Democrats get elected up and down the ballot.

– When I asked what the focus was, they said it was for general turnout, and they were not focusing on any specific candidates or races.

– I asked if this office was for Harris County specifically or if it was intended to encompass the broader area. They said the focus was just on Harris County, and that there were coordinated campaign efforts being run by volunteers elsewhere. I personally think that Fort Bend County deserves attention as much as Harris does, but there you have it.

– The Harris County office is the first one they will open. There will be others but did not give specifics when I asked how many or where they would be.

– They emphasized that this is part of a 50-state strategy that was announced in June, that doing this was always in the plan, and that it was not in reaction to anything. (They didn’t mention any polls, but I figured that was implied.)

– I asked about sharing data with the locals. They said they will use their own resources to develop data about voters and aim to bring in new volunteers and other people of interest, and yes, they will share information developed with local and state parties. There is a longer-term focus in that the intent is to help state and local parties build up their voter/volunteer data for beyond this election. This too is something the Clinton campaign has said they would do for some time. It’s frankly one of the reasons why I never “felt the Bern”, because I never got that impression from the Sanders campaign.

– All that said, this office is for this election. There will not be paid staff here beyond November. Hopefully we’ll get enough out of this to build on going forward.

– Those who are interested in participating in any way should go to for more information.

Here’s a Trib story about the opening on of the office on Saturday. It’s got a fair bit of rah-rah and an excellent headline, but not really anything you didn’t already know. Anyone out there attend this? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

Federal lawsuit filed in Alabama over statewide judicial elections

There are now at least two lawsuits like this in the federal courts.

Alabama Supreme Court

Alabama Supreme Court

Tuscaloosa reverend Curtis Travis has been voting his whole life in Alabama. While nearly one-fourth of the voting population, like him, is black, the three highest courts in the state are entirely white, and have been so for more than a decade.

On Wednesday, Travis and three other African American voters sued the state for conducting its judicial elections in a way they say prevents voters of color from electing the candidates of their choice. They argue that at-large elections, in which the entire state votes on all of the state’s top judges, has prevented them from electing anyone who truly represents them.

“There have been years of minorities making strides, but the white men continue to hold disproportionate power our state,” he said on a call with reporters. “Alabama is more diverse now than ever, but our judges are not.”

The Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, representing these four black voters, accused Alabama on Wednesday of violating the Voting Rights Act by electing all 19 of the state’s top judges in statewide, at-large races with partisan primaries. It is one of just five states to choose their judges this way.

Jim Blacksher, an Alabama civil rights attorney working on the case, said that the state’s extreme racial polarization and history of voter suppression made it a prime target for a lawsuit.

“The Republican Party has really mobilized the majority-white electorate of Alabama,” he said. “So the only way African Americans will have a chance to elect candidates of their choice is if the method of elections is changed.”

The plaintiffs are demanding the federal district court in Montgomery divide the state up into districts that each elect a member of the state’s Supreme Court and appellate courts. That way, the few sections of the state with majority-black populations have a chance at electing a judge of their choice to the courts.

The lawsuit notes that since 1994, every African American candidate that has run for any of the three top courts has lost to a white candidate. Only two black judges have ever been elected to the state Supreme Court, and zero have served on either the Court of Criminal Appeals or the Court of Civil Appeals in the entirety of the state’s history.

“We need to create a judiciary that reflects the great diversity you see across the great state of Alabama,” said Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law.

I note this mostly because there was a similar lawsuit filed in Texas in July. As with this lawsuit, that filing requested a district system to replace the at-large one as the solution. (The Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law is involved in both cases.) I have mixed feelings about that, as 1) any district solution would also be subject to redistricting, and that has its own set of issues to contend with, and 2) in each case, the state could effectively pre-empt this litigation by switching to an all-appointment system, which also has its own set of issues. Which is not to say that the current setup is optimal, just that I don’t know right now what might be preferable to it. I mean, getting each of those states to a place where both parties are competitive at the statewide level would probably help, but good luck with that. Daily Kos has more.

The bigger debtors’ prison problem

It’s not just Harris County.


Last week, an Amarillo attorney released documents that he said showed the city jailed disabled people simply because they were unable to pay municipal fines. According to the Amarillo Globe-News, the victims of this apparent debtors’ prison system include “a disabled veteran on social security who owed $539; a woman living on $490 a month from social security disability who owed $520; and a woman living on $723 a month in disability benefits who paid $16 of a $225 fine.”

As we wrote last week, debtors’ prisons are supposed to be illegal, and it’s been that way for a long time. According to the Marshall Project: “Jailing the indigent for their failure to meet contractual obligations was considered primitive by ancient Greek and Roman politicians, and remains illegal and unheard of in most developed countries. Under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the practice is listed as a civil-rights violation.” America officially outlawed debtors’ prisons in 1833, and in 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges could not jail someone simply because they couldn’t afford their fine unless they were found to have “willfully refused” to pay. The ambiguity of the phrase “willfully refused,” however, has left poor people in Texas jails from Austin to El Paso.

In May, an Austin American-Statesman investigation revealed that Texas’s capital city frequently jails people who can’t afford to pay traffic tickets. One was a single mother of seven. Unable to get herself out of debt, she was jailed, while pregnant, for owing traffic fines. She lost her job while in jail, was released, and was jailed a second time because she was unemployed and still couldn’t pay. Another was a 31-year-old mother of five who didn’t have a driver’s license, which she couldn’t afford until she paid off her traffic fines, thus ensnaring her in an endless loop.


In May, a committee organized by Mayor Sylvester Turner released a damning report that found that the city uses its municipal court “as a profit center.” Of the court’s 169,000 convictions in 2014, only 2,800 were given the option to pay their fines through community service, and only six cases saw their fines waived. As the report notes, nearly 25 percent of Houston’s population is below the poverty line, and they estimated that “at least 30,000 people” should have been given the option of community service. “Attempting to finance the city budget on the backs of the poor criminalizes poverty and destabilizes lives, ultimately doing more harm than good,” the report found.

Later in May, the Houston Press highlighted the impact of the city’s broken system through the story of a woman who is the primary caretaker of her multiple grandchildren, can’t find consistent work because she is disabled following a series of surgeries, survives off of a base income of $390 a month in Social Security payments, yet has still served multiple jail terms due to unpaid traffic tickets.

West Texas appears to be rife with debtors’ prisons too. El Paso, a city of 680,000, issued 87,000 arrest warrants in 2014 for people who either missed their court appearances for traffic fines or other low-level cases, fell behind on payment plans, or didn’t finish community service, according to an October investigation by BuzzFeed News. El Paso made nearly $11 million each year from 2011 to 2014 solely off of fines for traffic violations and similarly minor infractions, accounting for four percent of the city’s general fund revenue.

During one of these municipal court hearings last fall, an El Paso judge told the crowd of inmates that they were there because “you don’t have money,” according to BuzzFeed. Another judge toldBuzzFeed that it would be “unfair to a rich person” to let poor people go because they couldn’t afford to pay fines. The same investigation also found that the city of Lubbock had jailed at least eight defendants who were clearly homeless for fine-only offenses like public intoxication or making too much noise. Under Texas law, it’s up to the judge to determine whether a defendant is indigent, and thus eligible for community service in lieu of jail time.

I’ve talked about this a lot lately, almost all in the context of Harris County. It’s not just Texas, it’s a national problem. There are a lot of problems that are hard to solve, but this is one that shouldn’t be. It’s a matter of choosing to do things differently.

Endorsement watch: Time for a change, part 2

The Chron endorses Ed Gonzalez for Sheriff, after indicting incumbent Sheriff Ron Hickman for a litany of failures.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

At the beginning of this campaign we believed that Sheriff Ron Hickman should get the benefit of a doubt on his challenging task. The longtime Precinct 4 constable was appointed to his position by Commissioners Court when Adrian Garcia decided to run for mayor in May 2015. Since then, we’ve seen a series of problems created more by policy choices than inexorable jail conditions. A scandal in his former constable’s department places these problems in a wider pattern of questionable management. Because of these issues, we encourage voters to support Democratic challenger Ed Gonzalez for sheriff.

More than 100 cases have been thrown out at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center because Precinct 4 improperly destroyed more than 20,000 pieces of evidence. People may even have been wrongfully incarcerated. Federal investigators are still trying to figure out exactly what happened, but some fingers are pointing to a single officer who apparently had been inappropriately destroying evidence since 2007 – well within Hickman’s time as boss. We still don’t know what Hickman knew, when he knew it, and what he could have done to prevent this cascading failure of criminal justice. Could Hickman stop a similar problem from happening on his watch as sheriff?

He certainly didn’t predict the consequences of replacing jail guards with deputies: fewer patrols, overtime skyrocketing by 500 percent, exhausted employees and low morale. The budget has been pushed to the limit, and it is putting the county’s crime-fighting abilities at risk.

This personnel change may have been worthwhile if it made the jail safer. Yet this past May, Chronicle reporters James Pinkerton and Lauren Caruba documented four inmate deaths from assaults or head trauma suffered in the jail, including one man held on misdemeanor charges killed by another inmate.

Garcia used every trick in his book to squeeze the budget and prevent jail overcrowding. Hickman put that book back on the shelf. That’s the attitude that we’ve come to expect from Harris County’s eight constables, which often serve more as political fiefdoms than well-oiled law enforcement agencies.

I had wondered if Hickman’s role in the unfolding Precinct 4 evidence scandal was going to get some attention. The Chron has some nice things to say about Gonzalez, though they’re not as effusive as they were about Kim Ogg. Mostly, though, this is about how Hickman has fallen short, and why he needs to be replaced. That case is clear, and the Chron lets Hickman have it.