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February 8th, 2020:

January 2020 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

We’re done with the 2019 Houston election cycle, but there are still things we can learn from the January 2020 campaign finance reports that city of Houston candidates and officeholders have to file. Other finance report posts: My two-part look at the State House was here and here, Harris County offices were here, statewide races were here, and SBOE/State Senate races were here.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       359,567    780,735        0     293,503
Peck           1,075     17,435    5,000          72
Davis          4,000     14,164        0     139,068
Kamin         24,158     93,810        0      18,717
E-Shabazz     14,394     18,965        0       2,145
Martin        14,600     48,754        0     148,989
Thomas        20,263     21,642        0      11,675
Travis         9,850     70,904   21,000      51,484
Cisneros      15,050     44,687        0      24,169
Gallegos      16,850     46,055        0      76,776
Pollard        4,525     25,007   40,000       1,882
C-Tatum       16,250      8,520        0      71,747
Knox           6,900     29,075        0       4,302
Robinson      11,625     82,515        0      40,735
Kubosh        14,770     31,570  276,000      94,540
Plummer       71,168     83,491   21,900      11,068
Alcorn        21,535     76,313        0      16,374
Brown          1,650    102,340   75,000      14,128

Bailey             0      2,400    2,600          70
Jackson       43,845     18,338        0      28,343

Buzbee         1,903    460,888        0      63,531
King          29,925    161,047  420,000      11,567
Parker             0     38,750        0      26,184
Laster             0     12,579        0     162,209
Salhotra      24,010     75,837        0       9,060
Sanchez       40,056     92,678        0      10,636
Edwards          499    109,812        0      89,987

HouStrongPAC       0     10,000        0      51,717

Nominally, this period covers from the 8 day report before the November election (which would be October 27) to the end of the year, but for most of these folks it actually covers the 8 day runoff report to the end of the year, so basically just the month of December. In either case, this is the time when candidates don’t raise much but do spend down their accounts, as part of their GOTV efforts. For those who can run for re-election in 2023, they will have plenty of time to build their treasuries back up.

Mayor Turner will not be running for re-election again, but it’s not hard to imagine some uses for his existing (and future) campaign cash, such as the HERO 2.0 effort or the next round of city bonds. He can also use it to support other candidates – I’m sure he’ll contribute to legislative candidates, if nothing else – or PACs. That’s what former Mayor Parker has done with what remains of her campaign account. Nearly all of the $38,750 she spent this cycle went to the LGBTQ Victory fund, plus a couple of smaller contributionss to Sri Kulkarni, Eliz Markowitz, and one or two other campaigns. Tony Buzbee has restaurant bills to pay, and those endless emails Bill King spams out have to cost something.

Others who have campaign accounts of interest: As we know, Jerry Davis has transferred his city account to his State Rep campaign account. I’ve been assuming Mike Laster is going to run for something for years now. The change to four-year Council terms may have frozen him out of the 2018 election, when he might have run for County Clerk. I could see him challenging a Democratic incumbent in 2022 for one of the countywide offices, maybe County Clerk, maybe County Judge, who knows. It’s always a little uncomfortable to talk about primary challenges, but that’s what happens when there are no more Republicans to knock out.

Other hypothetical political futures: Dave Martin could make a run for HD129 in 2022 or 2024, or he could try to win (or win back) Commissioners Court Precinct 3 in 2024. If Sen. Carol Alvarado takes my advice and runs for Mayor in 2023, then maybe State Rep. Christina Morales will run to succeed her in SD06. If that happens, Robert Gallegos would be in a strong position to succeed Morales in HD145. Michael Kubosh wasn’t on my list of potential Mayoral candidates in 2023, but maybe that was a failure of imagination on my part. As for Orlando Sanchez, well, we know he’s going to run for something again, right?

You may be wondering, as I was, what’s in Amanda Edwards’ finance report. Her activity is from July 1, since she wasn’t in a city race and thus had no 30-day or 8-day report to file. Her single biggest expenditure was $27K to Houston Civic Events for an event expense, and there were multiple expenditures categorized as “Loan Repayment/Reimbusement” to various people. Perhaps she has transferred the balance of her account to her Senate campaign by this time, I didn’t check.

Most of the unsuccessful candidates’ reports were not interesting to me, but I did want to include Raj Salhotra here because I feel reasonably confident that he’ll be on another ballot in the short-term future. The HISD and HCC Boards of Trustees are both places I could see him turn to.

Last but not least, the Keep Houston Strong PAC, whose treasurer is former Mayor Bill White, gave $10K to Move to the Future PAC. That’s all I know about that.

Chron overview of Commissioners Court Precinct 1

As with endorsement editorials, they’re going to need to write a lot of these in the next couple of weeks.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Few Harris County politicians — of any party — are eager to challenge Rodney Ellis, the widely known, well-funded, well-connected Precinct 1 commissioner. Former state district judge Maria T. Jackson says she is up to the task.

The Democratic primary in March will all but crown the winner in November’s general election, as the Republican Party has put forth no candidates in the heavily Democratic precinct, which includes Sunnyside, Downtown, Midtown, Montrose, The Heights, Acres Homes, Greenspoint, Kashmere Gardens and parts of northeast Harris County.

Ellis casts himself as a champion of progressive causes, citing his work reforming Harris County’s bail system, raising the minimum wage for county contractors and ensuring that funds from the landmark $2.5 billion flood bond benefit rich and poor neighborhoods equally.

“During my four years on Commissioners Court, I think I’ve had the same energy, despite my many years in public service, of being a change-maker,” Ellis said.

[…]

Jackson said she would better represent Precinct 1’s impoverished communities than Ellis and be a moderate advocate on criminal justice issues. She said the commissioner has failed to promote economic development in neighborhoods like Sunnyside and neglected the downtown criminal justice complex which was badly damaged by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. For starters, she said, Commissioners Court needs to build a new criminal courthouse.

“To me, Harris County has gone backwards,” Jackson said of Ellis’s tenure.

After five years as a municipal court judge, Jackson was elected as a felony judge in the 339th State District Court in 2008. She was the longest serving judge in Harris County when she stepped down in September to take a position in the tax assessor’s office and prepare for her Precinct 1 campaign.

During a 90-minute candidate screening with the Houston Chronicle editorial board last month, Ellis displayed a rapt attention for policy details he brings to Commissioners Court meetings. He said he benefits from a sharp team of analysts he assembled, in contrast to other commissioners who organize their staffs around road and park maintenance.

Jackson, 55, struggled to articulate positions on issues such as flood control and criminal justice reform.

She said she supported the landmark misdemeanor bail settlement Ellis helped draft, though she misstated parts of the deal. She alleged the settlement, which could cost as much as $97 million over seven years, would provide free Uber rides and cell phones to defendants. Those benefits were part of a draft settlement proposal, but were removed before Commissioners Court approved the agreement in July.

Jackson said she supports reforming the felony bail system, but criticized Ellis for supporting a potential lawsuit against the county’s felony judges to force changes. Judges have the expertise, she said, to ensure only defendants who pose a public safety risk are jailed before trial.

“You have to be thoughtful about dangerous criminals hurting the public,” Jackson said. “I just want to be smart on who’s released.”

My interview with Commissioner Ellis is here; as noted in that post, Jackson declined to do an interview with me. If you’re wondering what a “moderate advocate on criminal justice issues” might be, this appears later in the story:

Jackson accepted contributions from six bail bond firms, as well as the state bail bondsmen and Houston Police Officers Union political action committees in the last six months of 2019. Bail bond firms and the police union have lobbied against criminal justice reforms that would allow more defendants to be released without bail.

Yeah. The bail reform settlement we got doesn’t happen without Rodney Ellis. I was supporting him anyway, but that clinches it beyond any doubt. This is not a time to go backwards.

The jury duty problem

Some good ideas here, they just need to be implemented.

Marilyn Burgess

One morning in January, about 270 people crammed into the basement of the Harris County administration building for jury duty. Another 1,130 people who were summoned didn’t show.

That day’s low turnout is the norm in Harris County, with just 22 percent of people called in 2019 appearing to serve, according to data from the district clerk’s office. While the attendance rates are stark on their own, experts say, they highlight a wider issue that translates to limited diversity on juries that possibly deprives criminal and civil defendants of their right to fair trial.

“The more people you include, the more equitable the outcome is, the more likely you are to get a jury of your peers,” said Howard Henderson, founding director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University. “When you have a situation where there isn’t fair representation on the jury, then you have unequal justice.”

Those concerns have prompted the Harris County District Clerk’s Office to pursue solutions that could make jury duty more accessible to residents, including a proposed e-Juror system that would allow people to register online and receive reminders in advance of their scheduled date.

District Clerk Marilyn Burgess campaigned in 2018 on the issue. Harris County’s jury duty attendance has remained perennially low, with rates never rising above 26 percent in the past six years. Last year’s actual participation rate — which includes those who eventually show up for duty — was slightly higher, at 32 percent. That rate takes into consideration exemptions, summonses that weren’t deliverable and reset jury duty dates.

[…]

The current summonsing system is also outdated, the district clerk said. Jury pools are picked from an electronic wheel filled with people’s names and addresses — all garnered from driver’s licenses and voter registration cards.

Using historical data, the district clerk’s office determines how many people might be needed for a jury and extrapolates how many people to call. The county then sends letters in the mail and waits to see how many people show up, Burgess said. On the first day, the county pays the prospective juror $6, an amount which state funds kick up to $40 on any following days of service.

Burgess said her office wants to streamline the process and create an e-Juror system, which Travis County has used for years, boosting its own participation and diversity rates. The system encourages people to register online after they’re called for duty, and sends text and email reminders in advance of the date — which isn’t even assigned until the user notes their scheduling conflicts.

After the Harris County jury committee approves and implements the program — at no cost — the district clerk hopes to ask judges to request a certain number of jurors in advance, making it possible to send participants straight to the courtroom and eliminate hours of sitting and waiting. Burgess said she also wants to increase the first day of pay, which would have to be approved by Harris County Commissioner’s Court.

There’s only so much that can be done about people who can’t afford to miss a day’s work because they won’t get paid. At least, there’s only so much that can be done at the county level – the federal or state government could do something about this if they wanted to. Getting a better handle on the need for jurors on a given day, dealing with schedule conflicts ahead of time, electronic reminders, and generally making people spend less time in a crowded jury assembly room waiting around to be called to a courtroom would all go a long way towards making the overall experience less of a pain. Let’s make this the year we get these things done.

Lawsuit filed over sign stealing effect on fantasy baseball

This ought to be interesting.

Major League Baseball (MLB) teams secretly distorted player statistics and deprived fans of an “honest fantasy baseball competition,” a lawsuit filed by a fan alleges in the fallout to a sign-stealing scandal involving the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox.

The lawsuit, which named MLB, the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox as defendants, was filed in a Manhattan federal court on behalf of all fans who participated in DraftKings’ fantasy baseball contests, which plaintiff Kristopher Olson claimed were tainted by the sign-stealing scandal.

“At the very least, all of DraftKings’ fantasy baseball contests from early in the 2017 baseball season through the end of the 2018 regular season and into the 2019 season, were tainted by cheating and compromised, at the expense of DraftKings’ contestants,” according to the filing on Thursday.

DraftKings’ fantasy sports and betting operations are big business; it said in December it would go public this year in a deal putting its value at $3.3 billion.

The complaint claimed MLB has actively promoted fantasy baseball competition through its equity stake in fantasy sports and gambling company DraftKings.

CBS News and ClassAction.org have more details about the lawsuit if you want a deeper dive. I don’t play fantasy sports, but the basic idea is you draft a team, you designate which players “start” in a given game that is actually being played, and you get points based on the statistical performance of your players in those games. The idea here is that pitchers on fantasy teams who were designated to start against the Astros did worse than they would have because of the sign stealing, and since MLB knew about the sign stealing and didn’t do anything about it at the time, while they were also promoting and profiting from fantasy baseball, they were essentially defrauding the fantasy team owners. It seems a bit of a stretch to me, but there’s real money at stake. It’s also pretty clear that there’s more to the sign stealing story than what has been made public so far, and if this suit is allowed to proceed there’s a good chance we’ll learn a lot more about what really happened. So I’m very interested to see what happens.