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December 17th, 2019:

Interview with Kimberly McLeod

Kimberly McLeod

We continue on with the State Board of Education, which is that entity that is subject to redistricting that gets the least amount of attention. To be fair, it’s demanded less attention in recent years thanks to an absence of clownishness on the Board, but the potential remains and can best be addressed by having more Democrats in Board positions. Dr. Kimberly McLeod was a later entrant into the District 6 race. She’s a longtime educator, having been a classroom teacher and a professor and dean at Texas Southern University. She now serves as Assistant Superintendent of Education & Enrichment at the Harris County Department of Education. Here’s our conversation:

I’m just going to give links to previous interviews at this point:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6

Next up for Mayor Turner

A preview of his second term agenda.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he would seek to enact “transformational” changes in his second term, previewing an agenda that will require city leaders to confront politically difficult issues and vastly expand the use of public-private partnerships — a critical step for some of the mayor’s otherwise unfunded signature programs.

Fresh off his re-election victory over Tony Buzbee, Turner also spoke in new detail Sunday about his plans to restructure the fire department, accelerate the city’s permitting process, build a new theme park and intensify efforts to repair damaged streets.

“I said when I came in, in 2015, I wasn’t going to ignore things because they were not politically convenient. That has not changed,” Turner said in an interview with the Chronicle. “If I have to expend political capital to get some things done, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Chief among Turner’s priorities, he said, is to improve Houston’s flood mitigation infrastructure and quicken the pace of recovery from Hurricane Harvey, which has lagged. The key flood control projects, Turner said, are the construction of new gates on the Lake Houston dam, detention basins in Inwood Forest, the North Canal Bypass channel and an underground detention basin south of the Memorial City area.

Three of the projects have received initial funding through a federal grant program that covers a large share of the cost, with only the underground basin awaiting approval.

More immediately, Turner faces a burgeoning flood control challenge in the General Land Office’s cap on how much Houston and other local governments may draw from a $4.3 billion federal mitigation aid package. Since Harvey, Turner has sparred over the recovery process with Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Gov. Greg Abbott, both of whom wield influence over how the resources are dealt.

Turner said he has no interest in “fighting somebody just to be fighting,” but stressed that he would push for Houston to receive a bigger chunk of the aid.

“I want to work with the governor and I want to work with the GLO, but when it comes to making sure that those dollars benefit people in Houston-Harris County that were impacted by Harvey and can be impacted by another storm, how do you justify a disproportionate amount of those dollars going to some other place?” Turner said. “I don’t think you can make that case.”

[…]

Next term, Turner also said he would look to restructure the fire department by switching from a four-shift to a three-shift work schedule, which is generally viewed as more arduous and is opposed by the firefighters union.

Turner affirmed that such a move would involve lobbying the Legislature to raise the baseline at which firefighters begin accruing overtime pay. Under state law, Houston firefighters begin collecting overtime pay when they work for more than an average of 46.7 weekly hours during a 72-day work cycle. Without the added overtime cost, firefighters in other cities often work 53- or 56-hour weeks, with many operating on a three-shift cycle.

Calling the department’s model “archaic” and “not reflective of the current needs,” the mayor contended that these changes would allow HFD to more efficiently handle calls classified as EMS. Those calls make up more than 80 percent of the incidents handled by the fire department, though the fire union has noted that a far lower share of the department’s “man-hours” are spent responding to EMS calls.

There’s a long list, and we didn’t discuss the plan for HERO 2.0, which will surely use some of that capital as well. If there was ever a time to make changes to how the Fire Department operates, it’s now – the firefighters went all in on beating Turner, and they lost. I foresee a rocky road with Harvey recovery money, because it’s more in Greg Abbott and George P. Bush’s political interests to clash with Turner over how the funds are doled out and managed than it is for them to play nice and get things done. For everything else, political capital has a shelf life. We’ll be talking about the next Mayor’s race before you know it. The more the Mayor can get done next year, the better.

Endorsement watch: DSCC picks MJ Hegar

I’m sure no one will have any feelings about this.

MJ Hegar

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is endorsing MJ Hegar in the crowded primary to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The move by the DSCC, the political arm of Senate Democrats, is one of the biggest developments yet in the nominating contest, which has drawn a dozen candidates — some more serious than others but no decisive frontrunners.

Hegar, the former Air Force helicopter pilot and 2018 congressional candidate, entered the primary in April and has emerged as the top fundraiser. But polls show the race remains wide open as Democrats look to pick up where they left off from Beto O’Rourke’s near-miss 2018 loss to the state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz.

“Texas has emerged as a battleground opportunity for Democrats up and down the ballot, and MJ Hegar is the strongest candidate to flip the U.S. Senate seat,” the DSCC’s chairwoman, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, said in a statement.

“As a decorated combat veteran and working mother, MJ has both the courage and independence to put Texas first and is running on the issues that matter most to Texans: making health care and prescription drugs more affordable, protecting coverage for Texans with pre-existing conditions, and taking action to address climate change,” Cortez Masto continued. “We are proud to support MJ in her fight to continue her public service in the U.S. Senate.”

This is where I point out that the entire mission of the DSCC is to elect (and re-elect) Democratic Senate candidates, and that a big part of their function is fundraising. Hegar is so far the best fundraiser among the Democratic candidates, partly because she’s been in the race the longest, and she has track record of strong fundraising from 2018, as well as being the most recent candidate to have run that kind of underdog race. From a strictly pragmatic perspective, it makes sense, and if the DSCC believes that Texas is a viable pickup opportunity and Hegar represents the best shot at it, the rest follows easily enough. Those who align more closely with other candidates and/or believe that another candidate will be stronger against Cornyn will of course disagree with this assessment.

On a broader level, there are arguments to be made for and against an outfit like the DSCC entering a contested primary, especially one without a frontrunner, when they would presumably want to support one or more of the other candidates as well. Bad blood is a thing, as anyone who survived the CD07 primary last year can attest. Perhaps the DSCC was motivated by that, in the sense that they wanted to help someone they already liked break out.

Democrats now officially have their work cut out for them as a dozen candidates — some more serious than others but no clear frontrunners — vie for the chance to face U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, despite universally low name ID and modest fundraising at best.

Tensions in the field have run mostly low, but that is beginning to change. At least one candidate, Latina organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, has started moving more aggressively to distinguish herself, while additional areas of potential scrutiny have begun to emerge around other candidates. Tzintzún Ramirez has increasingly found a foil in rival MJ Hegar, who is holding firm on a general election-focused campaign while resisting the progressive impulses that Tzintzún Ramirez and some others have shown.

To that end, Tzintzún Ramirez’s credentials are getting a boost Friday with the endorsement of the Working Families Party, a labor-aligned third party that backed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016 and is supporting Elizabeth Warren for 2020. The group, which has an increasingly active Texas chapter, shared the endorsement first with The Texas Tribune.

“We think she’s the true progressive in the race, and that’s why we’re getting behind her,” said Jorge Contreras, the party’s Texas state director. “We’ve worked with Workers Defense and Jolt” — two organizing groups that Tzintzún Ramirez helped start — “and we see that she’s actually been throwing down for a long time in the state.”

Tzintzún Ramirez is campaigning on “Medicare for All,” a Green New Deal and a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons — all proposals that Hegar has not embraced or has even overtly rejected. Hegar, an Air Force veteran, is touting herself as neither a moderate nor a progressive but an “ass-kicking” working mom with broad appeal. For months, she has talked openly about training her campaign exclusively on beating Cornyn, ignoring primary rivals and declining opportunities to criticize them.

On a conference call with reporters after filing Monday, Hegar said she had no plans to change that approach as the primary gets closer and the field remains muddled, saying, “This is who I am, and who I am is not interested in taking shots at people who share my values” and are also trying to “move the needle.”

Still, Hegar’s strategy ran into some controversy a couple of days later when she was asked about Tzintzún Ramirez suggesting the primary was coming down to her and Hegar — and Hegar replied, “Well, it is a two-person race. It’s me and John Cornyn.” While Hegar added that she was not taking the primary for granted, Tzintzún Ramirez’s campaign fired back in a fundraising email hours later that said it “seems like MJ forgot that Cristina was most recently shown to be leading this primary, or that there’s a diverse crowd of other incredible Democratic candidates running too.” (The campaign was apparently referring to a November poll that had Tzintzún Ramirez in the No. 1 spot but within the margin of error of other candidates clustered in the single digits.)

[…]

Hegar’s supporters brush off the growing scrutiny, noting she is the fundraising leader in the primary — $2.1 million raised as of last quarter — and arguing she will be the strongest Democrat against Cornyn with her resources and ability to appeal to independent voters and even Republicans. They point to her military background as well as her stronger-than-expected performance in a traditionally red congressional district last year, losing by fewer than 3 percentage points to Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock.

“I think she’s the frontrunner — I thought that before, and I think that now,” said Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets, Hegar’s earliest national endorser. “When you have a huge state with a lot of media markets, it’s gonna come down to who voters get to know first. MJ’s raised more than anybody else.”

I’ll leave the debate over who stands for what and who should be supported for another time. I mean, that’s what a primary is for, and may the best candidate rise to the top. For what it’s worth, I like Hegar and Tzintzún Ramirez both quite a bit, and I also like West, Edwards, and Bell. I’ll pick which one I want to vote for eventually, but in the meantime I’m all about beating Cornyn. They’d all be far better than he has been, so the rest is strategy and fundraising. Let’s see what the January reports tell us, and let’s see who can get their voices heard. The Texas Signal has more.