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February 15th, 2020:

UT/Trib: Two out of three polls say Bernie is moving up

This is Bernie Sanders’ best poll result in Texas so far.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has doubled his support among Democratic voters in Texas and now leads the race for that party’s presidential nomination in Texas, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Sanders had the support of 24% of the self-identified Democratic primary voters in the poll, up from 12% in October. Sanders passed both former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the two leaders in the October 2019 UT/TT Poll. Early voting in the Texas primaries starts on Tuesday; election day — Super Tuesday — is March 3.

The field of candidates has changed since the earlier survey. Beto O’Rourke, who was third in October, has dropped out of the race. And Michael Bloomberg, who entered the contest late, landed fourth in the newest poll, ahead of Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the second- and third-place finishers in this week’s New Hampshire primary. Warren finished fourth in that contest, with Biden fifth.

Andrew Yang, who dropped out of the presidential race this week, was behind Buttigieg and ahead of Klobuchar in the latest UT/TT Poll.

“Most of the movement has been Sanders and Bloomberg, with Biden [holding] still,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “To be unable to increase his vote share is pretty telling for Biden.”

While Biden’s support was static, Sanders was surging in Texas, and Bloomberg was rising on the strength of millions of his own money spent on advertising after a late start.

See here for more on the October UT/Trib poll. In the other two recent polls we’ve had, Biden led Bernie by two (Lyceum) and Biden had a commanding lead over Bernie (UT-Tyler). This poll was conducted from Jan. 31 to Feb. 9, so perhaps it better captures any momentum or friction that these candidates may have had following Iowa and New Hampshire. There’s a lot of moving parts so it’s hard to isolate any one factor, but the evidence now says that Sanders is in a stronger position in Texas than he had been before.

As for the general:

A slight majority of all Texas voters — 52% — said they would not vote to reelect President Donald Trump in November. Republicans remain solidly in his corner: 90% said they would vote to reelect Trump, including 80% who said they “definitely” would do so. Democrats feel just as strongly: 93% said they would not vote for the president’s reelection, including 88% who would “definitely not” vote for him. Independent voters were against reelection, but less so: 38% said they would vote to reelect Trump, while 62% said they would vote against him.

“With Trump at the top of the ballot, in congressional and legislative races where candidates are running with margins of 5% or less, where the independent [voters] go could become a factor,” Henson said. “It adds uncertainty to those races.”

But when pitted against some of the top Democrats in hypothetical head-to-head contests, the president topped them all, if somewhat narrowly. Trump would beat Sanders by 2 percentage points, 47%-45%, within the poll’s margin of error. He’d beat Biden 47-43, Warren 47-44, Bloomberg 46-41, Buttigieg 47-42, and Klobuchar 46-41. Trump had 45% support against Yang’s 43%. The president, whose reelect number was under 50% in the survey, didn’t get a majority of the vote in any of the matchups, even while getting more support than each Democrat.

“The Trump trial ballots confirm what we’ve seen, that Trump is winning, but he clearly is under-performing, given the party profile in the state,” said Daron Shaw, a government professor at UT-Austin who co-directs the poll. “It is interesting when you put a flesh and blood Democrat up there, it drops that number, but here’s a Republican in a Republican state who’s not at 50%, which is a sign of weakness.”

That’s pretty much what I’ve been saying all along. For what it’s worth, Sanders was the closest competitor to Trump in the October UT-Trin poll, trailing him by five points, 45-40. Biden trailed 46-39, then-still-a-candidate Beto was down 47-41. We’ve seen these results all over the place as well, and it’s just as hard to isolate any reasons for the movement of one candidate or another. What has been consistent has been Trump’s inability to get and stay above fifty percent, as well as his mediocre approval levels and the significant “will not vote for him” totals. Again, I say compare to 2012 when Mitt Romney had a consistent double-digit lead on President Obama, who never got higher in the polls than the 42% he eventually received. We’re still early and the Democratic primary is still unsettled, but it’s clear the Republicans have reason to be worried. The Texas Signal has more.

The Observer overviews the DA primary

You’ve had a chance to listen to my interviews with DA candidates, now read this story for more on this important primary.

Kim Ogg

When Kim Ogg first ran for Harris County district attorney, she had a simple pitch for criminal justice reform: stop jailing people for petty pot possession. The position, novel to Houston politics in 2014, proved so popular that even her Republican opponent embraced a version of it. Ogg lost that first race, but she tried again in 2016, this time adding bail reform and a promise to create “a system that doesn’t oppress the poor” to her platform. She beat the incumbent by 8 percentage points to become Harris County’s first Democratic DA in 40 years.

Ogg was among the first wave of reform-minded “progressive prosecutors” elected across the country in recent years. This new class rejected a tough-on-crime ethos, advocating instead for fairness and jailing fewer people. Ogg quickly declared herself “part of the national reform movement” and started dismissing low-level marijuana charges for people who took a class and paid a fine. She also rejected so-called “trace cases” involving miniscule drug amounts and called for diversion instead of jail for small-time offenders. 

Over the course of her first term, however, progressives have soured on Ogg. While she publicly supported bail reform, she continued to seek high bail for people charged with minor offenses. She further disappointed them by objecting to historic bail reforms that followed a years-long lawsuit to end the practice of keeping low-level offenders in jail simply because they’re poor. Progressives have also bristled at Ogg’s repeated attempts to expand her office.

Now at the end of her first term, Ogg feels squeezed between opposing forces: a police union that accuses her of being soft on crime and critics on the left who say she’s failed to live up to her reputation. She’s facing a combative Democratic primary next month, flanked by challengers who insist that she’s stood in the way of progress during her first term. A Democratic sweep in the midterms that turned Harris County solid blue further emboldened local organizers who are seeking a new kind of reform prosecutor. 

While Ogg credits herself with boosting diversion programs and reducing prison sentences during her first term, her critics insist more fundamental changes are needed to fix yawning racial inequalities in the local justice system and to decarcerate one of the largest jails in the country. There was palpable tension between Ogg and the forces that helped elect her at a ACLU of Texas candidate forum in downtown Houston last Thursday. Some people in the standing-room-only crowd jeered as Ogg urged them to stick with her “balanced approach” to reform. After the forum, a woman walked up to Ogg and began arguing with her before campaign staffers quickly intervened.

In a phone call this week, Ogg sounded aggrieved and unappreciated, the way incumbents often do during tough re-election fights. “I started running before people in our local political arena even knew what a district attorney did,” she said. “Everything I wanted to do was a reformation of decades of static prosecutorial policy in Harris County. So of course I’m a reformer, and to be labeled otherwise—that’s a political issue more than a factual one.”

Ogg’s primary is one of several prosecutor races in Texas this year that could redefine the bounds of criminal justice reform in the state. As state lawmakers fail to make meaningful progress each legislative session, advocates for change have increasingly focused on amplifying key district attorney, judge, and sheriff races to transform how their communities are policed and prosecuted.

The article touches on the race in Travis County as well, where incumbent Margaret Moore is under similar fire. I have no idea what will happen in these races – they’re as prominent as any local election, but it’s hard to say how much of that breaks through in the non-stop fusillade of national political news – but they will have a significant effect in Harris and Travis Counties. A side issue I’ve been pondering, which I asked Audia Jones about when I spoke to her, is whether the Legislature (especially but not exclusively if it remains in Republican hands) will step in and try to impose some limits on what prosecutors can and can’t do. I can very easily see this as a red meat law-and-order issue for Dan Patrick (and, whenever someone wakes him up and reminds him that he’s Governor, Greg Abbott) in the 2021 session. I have no idea what they may try to do, but I’m sure their imagination won’t be so limited. Just something to keep in mind.

No metal detectors at HISD schools

For now, at least.

Houston ISD trustees shelved a request from administrators Thursday to authorize up to $3 million for metal detectors, arguing district officials need to provide more concrete recommendations and plans for school security before the board votes to allocate money for the machines.

The board’s decision comes as Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s administration continues to solicit feedback and analyze security protocols following last month’s on-campus fatal shooting of Bellaire High School student Cesar Cortes, 19. Lathan said she has not yet decided whether to install metal detectors in some middle and high schools, but her administration wanted quick access to funds for the machines if district leaders decide to buy them.

Some trustees suggested they remain open to possibly deploying metal detectors at access points in schools, though they said administrators and the board first need to conduct more detailed conversations about districtwide security plans. Several trustees questioned why Lathan asked for authority to spend on metal detectors now, rather than waiting until she decided to purchase the machines.

“It’s so easy to try to put a metal detector out there as a quick fix,” Trustee Anne Sung said. “I just want to make sure we’re being thoughtful and utilizing a strategy.”

[…]

Lathan said the prospect of installing metal detectors has received some public support, but three other security measures top her list of potential recommendations as of now: increasing the number of police officers on campuses; bumping up police officer pay to reduce vacancies and turnover; and adding social workers to address students’ social and emotional needs.

Students attending the district’s high schools have been particularly supportive of placing more police officers on campuses, Lathan said. Her comments came after closed-door meetings with about 25 Bellaire students last month and 35 high school students from across the district earlier this week.

“I thought that was powerful,” Lathan said. “Especially in this day and time, when there’s still animosity in some communities when it comes to police officers, what I heard is, we want more police officers.”

HISD trustees have not yet held extensive discussions about specific security recommendations, many of which would require the board to authorize additional funding. Some board members have asked Lathan to present data on the efficiency of metal detectors in schools, though relatively little national research exists.

“I think we need to have a conversation on what our philosophy and approach is as a district, rooted in conversation with community members and students — which I know we’ve begun to do — but also research and policies,” Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said Thursday.

See here for the background. I’m glad we are not charging ahead with this, and I agree with Trustees Sung and Vilaseca that we need to put a lot of thought into this and do some research. And put me down in opposition to increasing police presence at schools, because the research we have on that shows that more police at schools is a key component of the school-to-prison pipeline. Too many kids win up getting citations for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level – that’s what police officers do, after all – and that has significant and long-lasting effect on the kids. Let’s take a long, serious look at other options before we go down this path, because the potential for unintended consequences is great.

Endorsement watch: More State Reps

The Chron finishes the task of endorsing in the State Rep primaries. Here was Round One, now let’s dive into the rest.

Natali Hurtado in HD126:

Natali Hurtado

Hurtado was 19 and a college student working at Olive Garden when she became a single mother. Her husband was arrested and convicted for a crime committed before she knew him and sentenced to life in prison, leaving her to fend for her young daughter. She moved back in with her parents and relied on food stamps and Medicaid. She stayed in school and eventually graduated from the University of Houston, before earning a master’s degree in public policy and administration at the University of St. Thomas.

She told the Editorial Board she’s running for a seat in the Legislature to represent “not just those that had a privileged upbringing but those with real struggles in life.”

Now 36, she has cut her teeth in politics in various positions with elected officials at City Hall, the Texas House and in Congress for U.S. Rep. Gene Green. She currently works as deputy head of a local management district. Hurtado’s ability to connect her own remarkable story, and those of district residents, to policy ideas is exactly what is needed in a legislator. Her platform includes expanding Medicaid, improving public education and addressing flooding. She also has her ear to the ground in terms of economic development and addressing blight in the district.

As noted before, this is a rematch of the 2018 primary between Hurtado and Undrai Fizer. Hurtado was endorsed by the Chron then, and won that race. HD126 is one of the districts targeted by the Dems this cycle – in 2018 it was on the fringe of the fringe – and will be a bigger deal this time around.

Akilah Bacy in HD138:

Akilah Bacy

House District 138 has been represented by Republican Dwayne Bohac since 2003, but the political currents could be changing and Democrats have a strong chance of picking up the seat in the fall. Last time, Bohac won his seat by just 47 votes and he’s not running again. That means the district, which has the Addicks Reservoir at its center and includes Bear Creek neighborhoods and parts of Spring Branch, is wide open.

Democratic primary voters have two strong candidates to choose from. Akilah Bacy, 34, has strong, on-the-ground experience that speaks to her passion and smarts. Josh Wallenstein, 44, has proven his commitment to improving education and other vital local issues. It’s a close decision, but we feel that a vote for Akilah is the best choice for Democrats in this district.

Bacy told the Editorial Board about an experience representing a client who could not read key legal documents, an encounter that motivated her to volunteer to teach adult literacy and ESL in her local school district and to hold free legal-rights classes. She has also represented children seeking asylum at the United States borders at no cost. Bacy grew up in northwest Houston and has an insider’s knowledge of its challenges. She attended Cypress-Creek High School, Spelman College and Texas Tech law school. She began her career as an assistant district attorney for Harris County before starting her own firm. Her focus is on core issues — education, healthcare, flooding, climate, employment rights, restorative justice — all issues voters in her district care deeply about.

I agree this is a tough choice. They’re both strong candidates and would represent the district well. Wallenstein has raised more money so far, but I don’t think that matters too much. This district is a top priority, there will be plenty of establishment support for whoever wins. Jenifer Pool is also in this primary so there’s a good chance this will go to a runoff. Pick your favorite and go with it.

Rep. Jarvis Johnson in HD139:

Rep. Jarvis Johnson

Angeanette Thibodeaux credits her opponent, State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, for joining other community and elected leaders to help defeat plans to locate one more concrete batch plant in Acres Homes.

But rather than a reason to send him back to Austin for a fourth term, she says the fact that the batch plant operator was able to get a permit in the first place is grounds to fire Johnson and vote for her instead to fight for the seat in November. Experience like that, she said, is not worth keeping. “I won’t sleep at the wheel,” she said in a video posted to her website.

In politics, that’s called taking your opponent’s strength and turning it on its head to make it sound like a weakness. It can be effective, but Democratic voters in the 139th District should look beyond the jujitsu and stick with Johnson, 48.

He’s been in office three terms, and has been consequential even as a Democrat in a GOP-dominated chamber. He has passed bills, worked with Republicans and Democrats and rallied allies to safeguard the interests of his constituents. Far from being a liability, his work to help convince owners of the batch plant to drop plans to locate in Acres Homes is a powerful example of success.

I’ve been basically happy with Rep. Johnson. I didn’t think he was all that capable as a City Council member, and he never articulated a good reason for his 2010 primary challenge to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, but overall as far as I can tell he’s been fine as a State Rep. I haven’t met Angeanette Thibodeaux and can’t say how they compare. If you live in this district and have any thoughts about it, I’d love to hear them.

Rep. Harold Dutton in HD142:

Rep. Harold Dutton

There’s a reason why Harold V. Dutton Jr., who has been in the Legislature since 1985, has drawn his first competitive challenge in decades: the looming state intervention in the Houston Independent School District.

House Bill 1842, spearheaded by Dutton in 2015 and approved with overwhelming support, set the district on a collision course with the state over chronically failing schools.

Dutton arrived at that legislation neither lightly nor quickly, he told the Editorial Board. He first proposed other options and tried to work with the school board to help underperforming schools, including Kashmere High School and Wheatley High School, both in his district and both of which have been on the state list of troubled schools for years.

While the remedy — sidelining an elected school board with a state-appointed board of managers — is extreme and offers no guarantees, Dutton believes that it’s better than the alternative of another year of students falling behind.

We wish Dutton’s legislation had allowed otherwise strong districts more flexibility in addressing campuses with long histories of failure. But we are convinced Dutton was acting in good faith to force accountability, and his authorship of this one bill is not enough reason to forget years of accomplishment, nor the advantages that his seniority in the Legislature confers.

Dutton has done a lot in his legislative career, and he’s been a force for good on voting rights and criminal justice reform. I think you can admire the intent of HD1842 and recognize that the overall consequences of it may be significant, without any guarantee of a payoff. Whether the one of these outweighs the other is the choice you get to make if you live in this district. I like Jerry Davis and I think he’d make a fine State Rep. We’ll see if he gets the chance.

The Chron still has a lot to do before they’re done – HCDE, Tax Assessor, District Attorney, State Senate, Railroad Commission, Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals, Congress, US Senate, and, you know, President. My gut feel on Friday as I write this is that they’ll go with Amy Klobuchar, but what do I know? The point is, there are still a lot more of these to come.