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February 9th, 2020:

Weekend link dump for February 9

“So because Republicans have now become the party of intransigence, that is the new norm and gets a pass when it comes to accountability. The burden is placed on Democrats to conjure up some magic trick to stop Republicans from employing a strategy that has worked marvelously for them—partly because the media fails to identify the source of the problem.”

“Supporting USA Softball is valid and a good thing to do, but there are women who want to play the sport that Major League Baseball plays, and the league should do more for them.”

The tragic case of Jim Tyrer.

“I want to say this as clearly as I can: This is not an argument against impeaching Donald Trump, or calling witnesses. This is an argument that nullifies the legitimacy of the impeachment power so long as the president’s party can maintain discipline.”

TV By The Numbers is no more. I miss the Cancel Bear already.

“Now that acquittal is a sure thing, it’s become safe to quietly admit that Trump was guilty all along. The modern GOP is just chock full of profiles in courage.”

There are plenty of options to replace those dumb Iowa caucuses with a much better primary system.

If you dislike Valentine’s Day and have some unresolved feelings about an ex, the San Antonio Zoo has an activity just for you on February 14.

“Still, there was something a bit unseemly about major media figures taking to cable news and social media to blast the state party for failing to satisfy their curiosity about the outcome on a more personally convenient schedule. For it was the media that turned the Iowa caucuses into a decisive event in presidential politics beginning in 1972, when journalists interpreted George McGovern’s third-place finish in a sparsely-attended vote (behind Ed Muskie and “uncommitted”) as a game-changing moral victory, and it’s heavy media coverage every four years that gives what might otherwise be an obscure and unimportant event its outsized influence on the behavior of voters in subsequent contests, setting some candidates on a path to the White House and driving others out of the race entirely with 99 percent of the national delegates still unselected.”

On differential response and polling results.

“They will note merely that I was among the senators who determined that what the president did was wrong, grievously wrong.”

RIP, Kirk Douglas, legendary movie star best known for Spartacus.

Welcome back to Earth, Christina Koch.

“Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg—each claiming to be champions of the planet—are running for president. If either of them really cared about the planet, there’s a better way to show that: by spending the money they’re currently blowing on their presidential campaigns on supporting Democrats in just about any other race, in the hopes of making climate change–fighting legislation a reality in 2021.”

“A 25th birthday might not be as significant a milestone as one’s 18th or 21st. Sadly, for your mother, Sybrina Fulton, for you and for all of us, you only had the opportunity to celebrate 17 birthdays. The rest were stolen from you. From Sybrina. From us.”

“We have grown used to being cynical about politicians. That is often warranted by those who seem to put their own interests above those they represent. But at least for today, in a vote that will define their professional careers, Mitt Romney and Doug Jones did the opposite. They voted to defend what is right and true because, as Representative Adam Schiff said, it matters. You don’t need to agree with either of them on anything else to commend their courage.”

“The Boston Red Sox traded their franchise player for a man who is listed on a police report as being present when a girl was raped, and no one in sports media seems to care. PED suspensions are reported with a player’s name for years. This incident has been essentially forgotten.”

RIP, Ruby Mosley, longtime community activist known as “The Mayor of Acres Homes”.

RIP, Roger Kahn, baseball writer and author of the book “The Boys of Summer”.

A look at the other SBOE races of interest

There are three races in the State Board of Education that Democrats have a shot to flip based on recent election results. We are pretty familiar with SBOE6, so let’s take a look at districts 5 and 10. The Statesman does the honors.

Ken Mercer

The Republican-dominated State Board of Education could see up to two-thirds of its members replaced this election cycle. It would be a seismic political shakeup for a body that often tackles divisive issues, such as sex education, evolution and racial topics.

Four Republican members on the 15-member board are retiring, two Democrats are seeking higher office and four incumbents are facing opponents. The board is tasked with adopting curriculum for all Texas public grade schools, approving textbooks, signing off on new charter school operators and managing the $44 billion Permanent School Fund.

“Typically, what we’ve seen is the far right faction voting together as a bloc,” said Dan Quinn with the Texas Freedom Network, a liberal group that closely monitors the board’s more controversial decisions. “But we’re seeing probably the last of the old guard, religious right faction on the board leaving the board this year,” referring to Barbara Cargill, R-Woodlands, and Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, who were elected in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

Both Central Texas seats are up for reelection – Mercer’s District 5 and District 10, represented by Tom Maynard, R-Florence, who has drawn a Democratic opponent for the November election but is running unopposed in the March GOP primary.

[…]

The Republicans running to replace Mercer, who is retiring, are Inga Cotton, executive director of San Antonio Charter Moms, which connects families to charter school resources; Lani Popp, a speech pathologist at the Northside school district in San Antonio; and Robert Morrow, an ardent opponent of Donald Trump’s presidency who was recently blasted by the Travis County GOP for what they say is his use of vulgar, misogynist and slanderous language.

The Democrats running for Mercer’s seat are Rebecca Bell-Metereau, a Texas State University professor of English and film who’s making her fourth run for the board, and Letti Bresnahan, a former school board president at San Antonio’s North East school district and a director of continuing medical education at University of Texas Health San Antonio.

The Democrats running for the chance to challenge Maynard for District 10 are Marsha Burnett-Webster, a retired educator and college administrator, and Stephen Wyman, a school bus driver.

At least two Republican seats on the board have a possibility of flipping to Democrats this year – Mercer’s district, which includes parts of Austin, as well as District 6 represented by Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, who is not running for reelection.

In District 6, the percentage of votes for a GOP candidate has declined since at least 2008, from 79.3% to 54% in 2016.

Mercer’s percentage of votes also has dropped each time he has run for reelection, from 71.1% in 2006 to 49.6% in 2016, when he prevailed against Bell-Metereau and Ricardo Perkins, a Libertarian. Mercer’s district includes all of Texas House District 45, which flipped from red to blue in 2018.

“The demographics of the district have changed over the past. Northern Bexar County, Comal County, Hays County, southern Travis County have had tremendous population growth, and those tend to be suburban voters and (those) who have moved from out-of-state,” Cotton said.

The two Democrats seeking other office are Lawrence Allen, running in HD26, and Ruben Cortez, who is challenging Eddie Lucio in SD27. Both were re-elected in 2018, so they will only step down if they win this year. All SBOE seats are up in 2022, in the same way that all State Senate seats are up in the first cycle after redistricting; I’m honestly not sure offhand if there would be a special election in 2021 to fill out the remainder of those terms, or if the Board appoints an interim person.

The Statesman story doesn’t consider SBOE10 to be competitive. It’s the least flippable of the three, but it’s in the conversation, especially if Dems have a strong year. For sure, if we flip SBOE10, we’ve run the table and Dems have taken a majority on the Board.

The story has some quotes from the candidates, so read on to learn more about them. One last point I’ll make is about the lack of straight ticket voting, which Dan Quinn from the Texas Freedom Network noted. Putting aside the partisan question, which I still consider to be open, SBOE races are pretty close to the top of the ticket. In order, there will be the three federal races – President, Senate, Congress – then the statewide races, which this year is Railroad Commissioner and seven judicial slots, and next after that is SBOE. Look at the results from 2012 to see what I mean (I’m using those instead of the results from 2018 because there were no non-RRC statewide offices on the ballot in 2012). The order in which the results appear is the order of the races on the ballot. People may not know much about the SBOE races, which admittedly may make some of them skip it, but they won’t be especially taxed by the effort it takes to get to that race.

What can Houston do about hazardous buildings?

It’s a good question, but there’s another question that has to be considered alongside it.

For the first time, Houston City Council members publicly floated proposals Wednesday for how the city can better protect its residents from explosions like the one at Watson Grinding & Manufacturing, which killed two people and damaged hundreds of homes.

Among the ideas: tighter thresholds for reporting chemicals, more inspectors for the fire department, or requiring companies to pay for and submit their own third-party inspections.

The suggestions raised at the Public Safety and Homeland Security hearing marked the start of what Mayor Sylvester Turner has promised will be a long, transparent discussion about how the city can better balance the safety of its neighborhoods with the city’s robust chemical industry. He said last week that he hopes that conversation will produce policy changes by the end of the year.

The region has had six major chemical fires since last March.

“This is only the beginning of a much-needed conversation on the issue of neighborhood safety when it comes to not only manufacturing plants, but the storage of chemicals and other potentially dangerous materials,” said council member Abbie Kamin, the committee’s chair.

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña told the committee that Watson Grinding & Manufacturing, which had a 2,000-gallon tank of the chemical propylene that investigators have said fueled the Jan. 24 blast, was not functioning as a “high hazard” business, according to thresholds laid out by the International Building Code.

The facility fell into other categories, Peña said. They included business, storage and factory designations, according to the IBC standards. The company was also up to date on all permits, he said.

“It doesn’t mean that the other ones are not hazardous, it just doesn’t meet a certain threshold,” he said.

Lowering those thresholds is one possible response, as is tightening disclosure requirements. This is the start of the conversation – CM Kamin says there will be another hearing with the Regulatory and Neighborhoods Affairs Committee on March 26 – so there may be other ideas. This is all well and good and necessary, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough because the city has to be wary about what the Legislature might do if they decide that any tighter regulations on businesses like Watson Grinding are offensive to their doctrine and those of their overlords. Meddling in the affairs of cities is now official policy, so if the Republicans maintain control of the House, you can be sure that a response to any action City Council takes will be on the table. We get the chemical explosions we vote for, and we better not lose sight of that.

“You guys Codebreaking?”

You thought the Astros sign stealing saga was over? It’s not over.

Did not age well

Roughly four weeks ago, Major League Baseball disciplined the Houston Astros for what commissioner Rob Manfred called the “banging scheme.” The Astros were busted illegally stealing signs in 2017 and 2018. The scheme involved banging a nearby trash can to relay the signs to the hitter at the plate.

Here is a recap of Houston’s punishment:

  • $5 million fine (maximum allowed by MLB Constitution)
  • Manager A.J, Hinch suspended one year (he was then fired)
  • GM Jeff Luhnow suspended one year (he was also fired)
  • Top two draft picks in 2020 and 2021 forfeited

In his nine-page report detailing the investigation, Manfred explained the Astros stole signs illegally throughout their 2017 World Series season and early in 2018 as well. The report says the investigation “revealed no evidence to suggest that Luhnow was aware of the banging scheme.” There appears to be more to the story, however.

According to a bombshell report by the Wall Street Journal‘s Jared Diamond, Manfred sent Luhnow a letter 11 days before the discipline was announced saying “there is more than sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that you knew — and overwhelming evidence that you should have known — that the Astros maintained a sign-stealing program that violated MLB’s rules.”

Diamond reports an intern showed Luhnow an algorithm used to decode signs in September 2016. The spreadsheet, nicknamed “Codemaker,” was fairly rudimentary — someone would manually input the sign sequence and the pitch, and the algorithm would decipher the pattern — but illegal nonetheless. The system was also referred to internally as the team’s “dark arts.”

The Astros used Codebreaker to decode signs during home and road games, according to Diamond, and the information was passed on to the dugout. As Manfred detailed in his report, the information was initially used by runners at second base. Eventually the Astros started banging on garbage cans to cut out the middle man and relay signs even with the bases empty.

See here and here for some background. There’s more:

Among the other details that have come to light:

  • The use of Codebreaker continued into 2018 and not just at home games, but also on the road. Until this point, it was assumed that the Astros only used their system at home. This story suggests they used at least some version of it on the road.
  • Luhnow, however, told MLB that he thought the use of Codebreaker was only for decoding signs after games, not in real-time.
  • The Codebreaker system was developed by Derek Vigoa, then an intern and now the Astros’ senior manager for team operations.
  • Tom Koch-Weser, the team’s director of advance information, plays a central role in this latest story. He told MLB investigators Luhnow would “giggle” at the name “Codebreaker.” Koch-Weser said Luhnow would sometimes say, “You guys Codebreaking?” when he came to the Astros video room during road games. Luhnow denied this to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Koch-Weser would often call the system the Astros’ “dark arts,” according to e-mails obtained by MLB. He said once in a team Slack channel, referring to Luhnow: “I know the secrets that made us a championship team, some of which he[’]d definitely feel a lot safer if they were kept in-house.”
  • Another Astros front-office staffer Matt Hogan told MLB investigators that no one tried to hide their actions from Luhnow. “It would have been something to show we were working and get validation of our work,” Hogan told investigators.
  • Luhnow was updated via e-mail by many in the front office about Codebreaker, the investigation shows, however Luhnow’s defense was that he didn’t read the full e-mails.
  • Regardless of Luhnow’s claim he didn’t know about any of this, Manfred’s letter said, “there is more than sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that you knew—and overwhelming evidence that you should have known—that the Astros maintained a sign-stealing program that violated MLB’s rules.”

I’m not sure what’s worse at this point, the new details about how entrenched in the organization this all was – you saw that this was happening on the road, too, right? – or how pathetically incomplete the Manfred report was. We can think of it as more like the Barr-summary-of-the-Mueller-report rather than the real report, because as before, it pointed us in a totally wrong direction. We need to be asking Rob Manfred a lot of questions about this.

The Journal states that the league’s evidence included knowledge of the existence of Codebreaker, yet the league’s report completely omits it and exonerates Astros non-uniformed personnel. The league’s report also somewhat pointedly omits any mention of actions prior to 2017, even though Manfred apparently knew about the Codebreaker implementation and that program’s 2016 origins.

Why?

Why did MLB not punish any personnel besides Lunhow? The intern who reportedly originally presented Codebreaker to Lunhow, Derek Vigoa, is now Houston’s senior director of team operations. For that matter, why has nothing become of Kevin Goldstein, who according to a report from Jeff Passan asked his scouts to point their cameras into other teams’ dugouts? That information became public before the conclusion of the league’s investigation. Is the front office-driven nature of the scheme the reason that AJ Hinch never put a stop to the banging?

Beyond that, what happened in 2018 when the use of Codebreaker stopped? Was it because there was a better system implemented, and was there front office-driven cheating in 2019? Tom Verducci point-blank asked Hinch whether there was truth to the rumors that the Astros used buzzers to convey signs during the interview that aired tonight on MLB Network. Hinch stated that the league found that no buzzers were used (h/t to Brendan Kuty for transcribing the full exchange). That’s not exactly a “no.”

It’s also worth noting that the Journal states that the aforementioned euphemism “dark arts” was used in the Advance Scouting Department’s 2019 budgeting spreadsheet. Is that a reference to the initiative Goldstein proposed, a new sign-stealing scheme, or something else entirely?

A lot of things about this whole story never added up. Why didn’t Hinch ever flat-out tell the players to cut it out? Why didn’t they get the message when he went as far as to smash the monitors, and did so twice? How could Luhnow – and owner Jim Crane, for that matter – not know about any of this?

The picture is becoming clearer now. We still need more information, and the question of Crane’s knowledge of these matters is still not satisfyingly resolved. But for some reason, MLB decided to conceal this side of the story, and decided to leave everything that happened before 2017 out of the report. Baseball deliberately shielded everyone in the Astros’ front office besides Jeff Luhnow.

Rob Manfred needs to tell us why.

Yes, he does. Also, maybe people need to ask AJ Hinch some more questions, too. We’re about to find out the fate of the Red Sox, as well as MLB’s plan for avoiding this kind of scandal in the future. My advice is to treat this in the same way the large organizations that are serious about cybersecurity treat that threat to their business: Hire people whose mission it is to monitor for this activity in real time, who proactively review past data for signs of misbehavior, and who use intel and other techniques to hunt for bad actors and actions proactively. I’m sure MLB already has cybersecurity experts on their payroll. They need to take that to the next step and treat this as a threat to their business, because it is. Rob Arthur and ESPN have more.

Cite and release

This has been a long time coming.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County law enforcement officials on Tuesday will begin a “cite and release” program that treats some misdemeanor charges like court citations for speeding tickets, just days after the district attorney’s office said it could not fully comply with the initiative.

The program, which applies to six charges handled in Harris County’s misdemeanor courts, comes amid countywide discussions about bail reform and over-incarceration, as well as District Attorney Kim Ogg’s repeated requests that Harris County Commissioners Court fund more prosecutors for her office.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is the first policing agency in the area that is reported to be participating in the program approved by a working group that includes judges. After voicing concerns in a letter to the sheriff, Ogg’s office agreed to the new procedures.

Ogg’s office sent the Chronicle a copy of the letter but declined further comment.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez noted that Harris County is behind the curve on using cite and release, as other Texas counties began employing it after the state Legislature in 2007 authorized such programs. The hope is that fewer bookings will allow deputies to have more time to patrol neighborhoods, while people who are eligible can stay with their families and keep going to work, he said.

“This administrative policy should help reduce our pre-trial county jail population and provide local costs savings to taxpayers,” the sheriff said. “Citations can divert lower risk individuals from detention, reserving limited space and resources for more dangerous individuals.”

The class A and B misdemeanor charges that apply are criminal mischief, $100-$750; graffiti, $100-$2,500; theft, $100-$750; theft of service $100-$750; contraband in a correctional facility; and driving while license invalid.

If a resident is stopped on one of those offenses, the sheriff’s office will run a check for active warrants and contact the district attorney’s office to see if the person is eligible for cite and release, according to an internal memo about the procedures.

Once prosecutors accept the charges, the deputy completes the citation as long as it’s signed off by the defendant. The suspect is given a court date on the spot and then released.

These are exactly the types of defendants who would be at the top of the list for a personal recognizance bond, so it makes sense to treat them this way. I feel like we’ve been talking about this for a long time, including with HPD, but it just hasn’t happened before now. As the story notes it’s happened as a direct result of the 2018 election, as the Democratic misdemeanor court judges were a driving force behind it. This is the moment, and it’s clearly the way to go. And now that the Sheriff’s office has adopted this policy, maybe HPD will follow.