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August 2nd, 2020:

Weekend link dump for August 2

The Space Force has a horse. Of course, of course.

“An extraordinary new archaeological discovery has revealed that humans arrived in the Americas at least 11,000 years earlier than previously thought – rewriting the human story of the continent and dramatically changing our understanding of world prehistory.”

We can virtually eliminate the virus any time we decide to. We can be back to a reasonably normal existence: schools, travel, job growth, safer nursing homes & other settings. And we could do it in a matter of weeks. If we want to.”

“There was no significant difference by mode of interview on any of four questions asking directly about Trump.”

“Not once in the hour did Stepien mention the coronavirus or how the campaign would handle messaging around the pandemic’s toll.”

“Biden has been able to grow his lead by keeping the focus on Trump — a job made easier by the nationwide surge in coronavirus cases.”

“When It Stops Being A Joke: Did We All Indulge Suspected Killer By Mocking Him?”

“Which is to say, dogmatic adherence to conservative orthodoxy is not even in the best interest of the conservative ideological project. If your primary concern is curtailing progressive redistribution, preventing the Democratic Party from taking power in the midst of a historic economic crisis should be a top priority. But a critical mass of congressional Republicans missed the memo differentiating what the conservative movement actually believes (that economic policy should be directed toward maximizing plutocratic prerogatives) from what it pretends to believe (that countercyclical spending doesn’t work). And so McConnell must reason with colleagues who genuinely think the party can revive the economy by removing all fiscal life support.”

“These Photos Of Lonely Baseball Mascots In Empty Stadiums Are A Whole Mood”.

You can add “being invited to throw out the first pitch at the Yankees-Nationals game on August 15 at Yankee Stadium” to the long list of things Donald Trump has lied about. Speaking as a Yankees fan, I’m very happy to hear that.

“Trump’s New Favorite COVID Doctor Believes in Alien DNA, Demon Sperm, and Hydroxychloroquine“. And she’s here in Houston, so we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

“A watchdog group is alleging that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has laundered $170 million through companies controlled by campaign officials as part of an effort to avoid disclosing which vendors it is really paying for services.”

“NASA Invites Public to Share Excitement of Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Launch”.

Hey, remember when Joe Biden suggested that Donald Trump might try to do unsavory things with the November election and people thought he was crazy? There sure were a lot of people who were very sure that was a crazy thing for Joe Biden to say. Not so crazy now, is it?

Three things Congress needs to do now to facilitate election security.

“Just to repeat that: Trump deliberately decided to let Americans die, in huge numbers, not because there was nothing that could be done, but because it was decided that it would “politically advantageous” to have people dying in states with Democratic governors.”

RIP, Wilford Brimley, versatile actor known for playing characters a lot older than he himself was.

Congressional Dems winning the money race in Texas

The times, they have definitely changed.

Early this election cycle, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn publicly worried about complacency within the Texas Republican political class — even after Democratic gains made in 2018.

So in early 2019, the state’s senior senator encouraged Texas Republicans in the U.S. House to bolster their fundraising and think twice about sending money out of the state.

“There’s an attempt by the leadership to extract as much money as possible out of the state as they can and use that wherever they need it, and I understand that,” he told The Texas Tribune in June 2019. “But we need to make sure our Texas races — from the president and all the way down to the courthouse — are adequately financed and resourced. And that’s going to require us to raise a significant amount of money.”

More than a year later, a Texas Tribune analysis of recent campaign finance reports shows that Cornyn’s fears of a funding problem have come to life. Democratic U.S. House candidates in Texas have millions more aggregate cash on hand than their Republican counterparts. It marks an extraordinary six-year shift within the Texas delegation.

In 2016, U.S. House Republican candidates in Texas had $32.3 million on hand in July of that year. Their Democratic counterparts reported $11.4 million.

The next cycle, boosted by a backlash to President Donald Trump, Democrats saw a jump in fundraising. In 2018, Texas Republican U.S. House candidates had $34.8 million in cash on hand, compared with $21.8 million on the Democratic side.

Newly filed campaign finance reports show a complete shift this year. Republicans running for the U.S. House in Texas reported $19.2 million. Democrats had $26.7 million.

[…]

And the money affects more than just the seven or so competitive U.S. House races on the ballot.

Take the state’s 3rd Congressional District. Situated entirely in North Texas’ Collin County, it has been a longtime undisputed GOP stronghold. Mitt Romney won the district in 2012 with 64% of the vote to Barack Obama’s 34%. But in 2018, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, carried the county by only six percentage points, and U.S. Rep. Van Taylor of Plano saw the district’s margin narrow from 27 points in 2016 to 10 points during his first run for the seat in 2018.

Taylor took that race seriously, advertising on broadcast television, and he has over $1 million in cash on hand this year. His opponent, attorney Lulu Seikaly, only had about $40,000 on her last financial report, but the way she is spending that money is noteworthy. That same report revealed she had hired a national direct mail consultant. Additionally, her campaign said in a news release that it had raised $100,000 since the mid-July runoff and has had a well-regarded polling firm conduct an internal poll of the race.

Should a Democratic wave hit the state in the fall, Seikaly will already have poll-tested messaging and located vendors to potentially take advantage of the environment. If not, her efforts to bring Democrats in her district to the polls could still help others in her party above and below her on ballot. Taylor’s district overlaps considerably with that of state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who is one of more than a dozen GOP incumbents Democrats are targeting in an effort to flip the state House.

You can see the July finance reports for Democratic Congressional candidates here. As this story notes, much of the difference comes from the two freshman Dems who knocked off Republican incumbents in 2018, Reps. Lizzie Fletcher in CD07 and Colin Allred in CD32, plus the challengers in CDs 21, 22, and 23. Sri Kulkarni in CD22 is the laggard of the bunch, with $2.5 million raised and $1.2 million on hand; the others all have at least $3.8 million raised and $2.9 million on hand. Wendy Davis has practically lapped Rep. Chip Roy in CD21. Mike Siegel in CD10 and Candace Valenzuela have less cash on hand after having to compete in the primary runoffs, but both had raised a lot as of the Q2 report and I expect they will keep it up. Sima Ladjevardian may not be able to keep up with the moneybags Dan Crenshaw, but she’s still hauled in $1.6 million.

It’s not just about what the candidates themselves have raised. Republican Congressional incumbents have been asked to kick in a bunch of money to the RNC, but their on requests to get a little help coming back have fallen on deaf ears. Usual suspects like the Club for Growth will spend big to protect their own, but the list that needs defending keeps getting longer. If there are three takeaways from all this, they’re 1) Dems should have all the resources they need to make a maximum push this November; 2) expect to be bombarded with ads like you’ve never been before – seriously, live sports is going to be a wasteland of political ads, if there are live sports this fall; and 3) Dems have no excuse for not raising a ton of money to win statewide elections in 2022.

Revisiting the May elections

I’m ambivalent about this.

Most cities in Texas — from Galveston to Lubbock — moved their May elections to November under a pandemic-era decree by Gov. Greg Abbott.

But the choices facing voters will remain limited to candidates who filed for office months ago — at least for now.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton, a Galveston County Republican, wants to reopen the filing period for candidates to lead cities and other political jurisdictions, including school boards. He believes voters may have soured on incumbents facing little or no competition.

Middleton is asking Attorney General Ken Paxton whether the state should give candidates who want to run in a postponed local election until mid-August to file for a spot on the ballot.

“I think it’s also only fair that this occur because there are a lot of people that have been frankly unhappy with how some of the decisions… have been made in local government during this pandemic,” Middleton said.

The legal rub: Abbott’s March 18 order was silent on the filing deadline. But Abbott’s secretary of state, Ruth Hughs, wrote local officials that “the postponement does not have the effect of reopening candidate filings.”

Middleton believes that guidance is not supported by election law and Abbott’s order. Middleton, who chairs the arch-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, contends in his July 2 letter to Paxton that Texas law clearly states that if the election day is changed or moved, the filing period rolls forward with it.

He said the ripple effects of a legal opinion by Paxton go well beyond proving greater scrutiny for elected officials who have issued shutdown orders or mask requirements, which have drawn the ire of many conservatives. Some local officials believe that tax rates adopted by cities for the coming fiscal year could greatly exceed what voters have the appetite for amid curtailed local tax revenues due to the pandemic.

I mean, I don’t agree with Mayes Middleton on much, and I think his motives for this action are screwy. But I confess that a part of me thinks that an election held in November, even if it was supposed to have been held in May but had to be postponed for whatever reason, should have a filing deadline that’s standard for a November election. On the other hand, the original filing deadline for the May 2 elections was February 14, more than a month before Abbott’s order that rescheduled the thing. As such, it’s hard to argue that people may have been unfairly excluded from filing. Obviously, conditions have changed, and I think there’s a valid case to be made that if these elections had been scheduled for November in the first place, there would be a very different lineup for them than what exists now. I think you can also make a valid case that the voters have it in their power to persuade the candidates they do have to prioritize the things they want now, as opposed to the things they would have wanted then.

On the related question of whether we should have regular elections in May at all, I’m also ambivalent. No question, turnout would be much greater in November elections, and as a general principle I think that’s preferable. But November elections, especially November elections in even-numbered years, are full of races with a lot more money and noise-making ability, which combine to drown out whatever local issues would be heard in a quieter context. It would be so much better if people simply took a greater interest in their local and school board elections, so that they could be held at any time and didn’t need the boost of a Presidential or gubernatorial election to get even semi-decent participation. I’d like to have a robust debate about this, but I fear that only the hardcore, vote-in-every-election types would be tuned in for it, and that would miss the point entirely. I don’t know what else to say.

One more thing:

Republican Cheryl Johnson, the Galveston County tax assessor, wrote Paxton in support of Middleton’s position. She said the pandemic has “opened the eyes” of Texans to potential government overreach, namely local tax rates that could soar as cities try to bridge budget shortfalls. Johnson wants officials considering tax hikes to feel the pressure of a campaign challenge.

Johnson noted that Senate Bill 2, signed into law by Abbott during the 2019 legislative session, requires cities to receive voter approval before levying taxes that would result in collections 3.5 percent higher than the previous year. But the bill contains a disaster provision that permits a city to collect more than twice as much for at least two years if any part of the city is declared a disaster area during the current tax year.

State and local officials are at odds over whether the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a “disaster” to trigger this provision.

“I’m of the opinion that COVID-19 is not the type of disaster that would warrant the disaster provision of Senate Bill 2,” she said.

The Texas Municipal League says it conducted a survey of cities recently and found the “vast majority” plan to keep increased collections below the 3.5 percent threshold allowed by Senate Bill 2.

Yeah, sorry, if you don’t think what we’re in now counts as a “disaster”, then I’m afraid I just can’t take you seriously. SB2 was a terrible bill for many reasons, and this is one of them. But look, if you don’t want cities and counties to try to deal with their massive revenue shortfalls on their own, then there is a simple alternative, and that’s to push the Senate to pass the HEROES Act, which the House passed months ago, to provide fiscal relief to local governments for precisely this purpose. If you’re not down for that either, then I think we know all we need to know about your priorities.

The Renaissance Festival will go on

I haven’t gone to RenFest in years, and I can’t say I was itching to go this year, but it will be there for those who want it.

The 46th annual Texas Renaissance Festival will go on as scheduled this year, but things will look a little different due to the pandemic.

Beginning Saturday, Aug. 1, tickets will be available for the 2020 festival, which starts Oct. 3 and runs through Nov. 29. Tickets will be date-specific, sold in advance online only and will not be available at the gate, according to the festival website. Tickets may also be purchased at participating H-E-B stores beginning Sept. 1.

The most visible change at the nine-week-long festival is that all staff, performers and vendors will be required to wear a face-covering and receive daily temperature checks before each shift, according to a press release.

If a statewide mask order is in place at the time of the festival, patrons will also be required to wear face masks. If no state order is in place, patrons will not be required but “strongly encouraged to do so.” In line with the festival’s long-standing tradition of themed weekends and creative costumes, a face mask contest will be held every day in search of the attendee with the most creatively decorated mask.

Texas counties with more than 20 coronavirus cases are currently under a statewide mask order. Grimes County, where the festival is held, has 828 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the latest available data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The Houston region is still considered a COVID-19 hotspot and is currently at 98,565 cases total. Texas saw the second-highest day for newly reported deaths on Wednesday, per a Houston Chronicle analysis of state data.

[…]

[Texas Renaissance Festival Marketing Manager Marlena] Solomon said the festival’s 200-acre campground typically never meets 50 percent capacity during a normal season, so capacity limitations will not be issued for this season. She added that in anticipation of capacity limitations that could be issued closer to October, the festival grounds will be limited to 22,500 guests per day.

My interpretation of this is that all guests would be required to wear a mask at this time, since Grimes County is covered by that statewide mask order. But after reading this additional story, I’m not so sure of that.

The mask-optional policy has left some workers feeling that the festival will be unsafe. Niki Korontana has been working at the Renaissance Fest for 12 years, performing as a Transylvanian and pirate for 10 of those years.

She is anemic and has to have iron infusion treatments to correct the disorder. Her fragile immune system leaves her vulnerable to COVID-19, she said, and the festival’s resistance ro institute a mask order puts her in danger. She said she resigned via email and has not received a response from management.

“I do understand that we’re dealing with a lot of upheaval,” she said. “Maybe getting back to me is not a priority, but I put a lot into this job. There’s no way to socially distance in a lot of places. There’s limited access to water and hand-washing. The faire population, as a whole, is broke with no access to health care. On the regular we all get ‘faire sick’ every year even without the outbreak. We’re used to working through all of that, and I can easily imagine people infecting others.”

The festival has lost more than half of their performing staff this year, said marketing and communications manager Marlena Solomon. That estimate includes elderly workers, people in at-risk populations and those who may not want to wear masks in the hot early weekends of the event.

“We respect their decision not to come this season due to their concerns regarding facemasks,” Solomon said. “They will be welcome back next year. No one will be penalized for not being a part of this season.”

Ginnie Eatchel, who has worked at the festival for five years, doesn’t have health issues, but she said she’s quitting, too, without at mask mandate. She said she doesn’t understand how patrons can expect performers to work in full medieval dress, including suits of armor, while they balk at being asked to wear a mask.

“Many of these people at fair are of the Trump mindset saying, ‘No one can impede on my freedom’ or ‘If they make me wear a mask, I’m not buying a pass this year,’” she said. “It’s such a selfish mindset. You’re doing it for other people.”

Solomon said that partisan concerns are not behind the voluntary mask policy. “The decisions are not being made based on political views of our patrons,” she said.

Sure seems like a good case for mandating masks to me. I’d prefer that the RenFest require mask wearing, but I’m not likely to attend anyway, so who cares what I think. Honestly, I’m a little surprised to see that they’re open at all, since many other outdoor events have been cancelled. I would have thought RenFest is sufficiently spaced out that they can reasonably minimize the risks, but now I’m rethinking that. Sure would be nice to be able to do reliable contact tracing just in case. Anyway, RenFest has been going through some changes, so maybe this was just about trying to have a little more normality in our lives. I can sympathize with that.

Restaurants may get to use parking lot space for dining

I like this idea.

Restaurants in Houston, currently limited by 50% indoor capacity limits, may soon be able to serve diners in parking lots to accommodate more guests.

Pending a vote by the Houston City Council, a “More Spaces” plan developed by Houston’s Chief Transportation Officer David Fields would allow restaurants to convert 50% of off-street parking spots to dining spaces.

The ability to make such conversions would allow restaurants to serve more guests in an open-air environment that limits the spread of the coronavirus more effectively than dining indoors, according to Centers for Disease Control guidance. The efforts mirror that of other cities, such as Austin and Atlanta.

Restaurant owners would not need to apply for the authority to do so; instead, they would file a notification with the city so that the planning department can track restaurants’ compliance with the new protocols. The proposal prohibits music in the adapted outdoor dining areas and limits closing hours to no later than midnight. Participating restaurants must also ensure that ADA-accessible parking spaces remain available.

If enacted, the policy will only remain in place under coronavirus emergency orders, but it could serve as a test period for future efforts.

“I think we could learn a lot from this pilot in the immediate term and go back out to the industry and the community and show what we have learned,” Fields said.

I know, eating outdoors on a concrete or asphalt surface in July and August may not sound appealing, but fall is coming, plenty of dining hours are as or after the sun goes down, and I’m sure the restaurants themselves can figure out what will work for them. The point here is that outdoor is safer than indoor, and this will add capacity to restaurants that are currently limited to fifty percent of their indoor capacity. Their parking lots are already underutilized, so why not give them some options? It can’t hurt to try.