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October 10th, 2020:

UT/Trib: Trump 50, Biden 45

I’ll get into a broader discussion in a minute, but for now, there’s this:

President Donald Trump leads former Vice President Joe Biden with the support of 50% of the state’s likely voters to Biden’s 45% in the 2020 race for president, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

The Republicans — Trump and his running mate, Vice President Mike Pence — had strong support from white (62%-34%) and male (55%-39%) voters, while the Democrats, Biden and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, are the favorites of female (51%-46%), Black (87%-11%) and Hispanic (54%-37%) voters in Texas.

Among Republican voters, 92% favor Trump, while 96% of Democratic voters said they’ll vote for Biden. The state’s independent voters prefer Biden, 45%-37%, over Trump.

Despite the dramatic swings in events and issues during 2020, the contest for the hearts and minds of Texas voters has changed little in the race for the nation’s top elected office. The latest poll is a case in point; the survey was conducted during a period that included the first presidential debate and Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19. Even so, the result is in line with previous UT/TT surveys. In February, a UT/TT Poll found Trump ahead of Biden 47%-43% in what was then a hypothetical head-to-head race, because the Democrats had not chosen their nominee. In April, Trump led 49%-44%, and in June, 48%-44%.

[…]

While Trump is 5 percentage points ahead of Biden in the head-to-head matchup, he comes up a bit short of what might be expected of a Republican on a Texas ballot. In a generic congressional race pitting an unnamed Republican against an unnamed Democrat, the poll found the Republican had a 7-percentage-point advantage (51%-44%) among Texas voters. In a generic race for the state Legislature, a Republican would have an 8-percentage-point edge (51%-43%). And Republican John Cornyn, seeking reelection to the U.S. Senate, has an 8-percentage-point lead over Democrat MJ Hegar in this poll, outperforming the president by 3 percentage points with Texans.

For what it’s worth, the UT/Trib poll has been more favorable to Trump than many others have been, and that remains true when compared with other recent polls. In October of 2018, they had Ted Cruz leading Beto O’Rourke by six points, 51-45; in 2016, they had the race as closer than it ended up, putting Trump up 45-42 over Hillary Clinton. In that race, they accurately pegged Clinton’s level of support but underestimated Trump. In 2018, they nailed Ted Cruz’s number but undershot Beto. Both the 538 forecast (Trump 51.2 to 47.8) and the Economist forecast (Trump 51.4 to 48.6 in the two-party vote) have it closer than this poll, but are nearer to where Trump is than to where Biden is.

In 2018, the Trib poll that had Cruz leading Beto by six had similar levels of partisan support for each candidate, but a bigger lead among indies for Beto. They had other Republican candidates leading by double digits – the next closest race they had was Ken Paxton leading Justin Nelson 48-36 – with Republican support often a bit overstated and Democrats way underestimated. That’s not unusual for a lower profile race, which everything other than Cruz-Beto was in 2018.

The UT/Trib poll is also in the “Trump is doing much better with Latinos this year than he did in 2016” camp, which we have explored before, though not quite as much as some other pollsters. I find this dichotomy fascinating and would much rather read someone’s attempt to analyze it instead of the eighty-seventh article about how Biden needs to step it up among Latino voters that is mostly based on Florida. This is one of those times for the old “the only poll that matters is on Election Day” proverb.

I’ll leave you with this before we go.

When early voting starts on Tuesday, Jill Biden will be in Texas hoping to boost turnout for the Democratic presidential ticket led by her husband, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Democratic sources say Jill Biden will make stops in Houston, Dallas and El Paso, although exact times and locations have not been released.

The Joe Biden campaign has begun to invest more heavily in Texas as polls show a closer-than-usual race in the Lone Star State.

Earlier this week, the campaign launched a TV ad blitz aimed at voters in San Antonio and El Paso. On Monday and Tuesday, Doug Emhoff, husband of Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, campaigned along the Texas border and in San Antonio and Dallas.

The New York Times cited unnamed sources in reporting that Democrats are trying to persuade Harris to campaign in Texas herself.

President Donald Trump took to Twitter early Friday morning to assert that his campaign is in great shape in Texas.

You can click over or search Twitter yourself if you find the need for that in your life for some reason. Does it mean anything that Jill Biden is scheduled to come to Texas next week? Well, it is the start of early voting, so that’s a reason. They could be sending her other places – candidates’ and surrogates’ time is a very precious commodity – so the fact that they think it’s a good use of that time to send her here is encouraging. I don’t know how much more I’d read into it than that.

Abbott to allow bars to reopen

Sort of. It’s kind of the most Abbott thing ever.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that bars in Texas can reopen for in-person service next week — as long as their county governments choose to allow it.

Effective Oct. 14, bars in counties that opt in will be able to resume in-person service at 50% capacity, though all customers must be seated while eating or drinking. The governor will impose no outdoors capacity limits on bars or similar establishments.

“It is time to open them up,” Abbott said in a Facebook video. “If we continue to contain COVID, then these openings, just like other businesses, should be able to expand in the near future.”

But soon after Abbott’s announcement, the state’s two most populous counties indicated they would not go along with the reopening plan. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said on Twitter that he “will not file to open them at this time,” noting that “our numbers are increasing.” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a statement that “indoor, maskless gatherings should not be taking place right now, and this applies to bars, as well.”

In addition to bars being allowed to reopen, businesses currently limited to 50% capacity may now expand to 75% capacity — including establishments like movie theaters, bowling alleys, bingo halls and amusement parks.

But Abbott said in his order that bars in regions of the state with high hospitalizations for coronavirus won’t be able to reopen. He defined those regions as areas where coronavirus patients make up more than 15% of hospital capacity.

“It is time to open up more, provided that safe protocols continue to be followed,” Abbott said. “If everyone continues the safe practices, Texas will be able to contain COVID and we will be able to reopen 100%.”

The announcement drew mixed reviews from bar owners. Some applauded the step, while others complained that Abbott left the power in the hands of counties.

“The truth is we remain closed until someone else makes the decision to open us up based on whatever parameters they deem appropriate — data, politics, personal animus, you name it,” said Michael Klein, president of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance. “Abbott has forced 254 other people to make this decision for him with no guideposts as to how to make that decision. He’s officially passed the buck.”

Klein predicted that most urban counties, where the majority of his organization’s members are located, will not reopen.

You can add Bexar County to that “no bars yet” list as well. There’s a very good reason why most counties will likely decline this invitation from Abbott:

You have to admire Abbott’s consistent strategy of making local officials be the ones who have to make the tough decisions – when he lets them – and otherwise grabbing the power and glory for himself. Naturally, Republican-led counties are all over this, so be sure to keep an eye on the infection rates in places like Montgomery over the next month. To be sure, many bars have been able to operate with various workarounds as restaurants. And for things like outdoor service and to-go service, I support all that. It’s not enough for most bars, and the best thing we could have done about that is allocate a bunch of federal money to help them all – bars, breweries, wineries, distilleries, restaurants, music clubs, hotels, you name it – get through this, to the point where the disease is under control and it is safe for everyone to gather again. Abbott and his buddies were never really interested in any of that, though, so here we are. I feel like I’ve said this before, but I sure hope this works out. I don’t expect that it will, but I hope so anyway.

UPDATE: At least initially, only Denton County among the ten most populous counties will go forward with bar reopenings.

More on Nate Paul

This Trib story delves into the life and times of Nate Paul, the young Austin real estate entrepreneur whose relationship with Ken Paxton is the underpinning of the current scandal surrounding Paxton. The story goes into some detail about Paul’s life, which includes a habit of stiffing creditors and a general dickishness that I find crummy but which apparently don’t bother Paxton, but the key bit is right here:

Best mugshot ever

Meanwhile, Paxton’s office has come to Paul’s defense in at least one other legal matter, records show. Paul’s World Class firm works through a complex web of more than a dozen affiliated business partnerships, which jointly own properties with investors.

A dispute arose two years ago between companies affiliated with World Class and the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, which invested in multiple Austin properties with the companies. The foundation is an Austin-based nonprofit that provides grants to charitable organizations and academic scholarships for students with financial needs.

The Mitte Foundation sued Paul in 2018, claiming he wasn’t sharing financial information on their jointly owned investments that Paul’s businesses managed. The case went to arbitration, and on July 1, 2019, a company affiliated with World Class agreed to buy out Mitte’s interest in the real estate partnerships for $10.5 million with payment due that August.

It never came, said Ray Chester, the lawyer representing the Mitte Foundation in the case.

In October 2019, the judge in the case ordered a receiver to take over the business partnerships, which would compel Paul to reveal the financial records that Chester said still hadn’t been shared with the Mitte Foundation. Chester said that within days, Paul “blatantly defied” the arbitrator’s ruling and said he had sold the partnerships at less than half of their market value.

But the sale was to another company affiliated with Paul, Chester said.

“He basically sold it to himself at below market value,” Chester said, although court records show the sale was never consummated.

As Paul’s firm cycled through teams of attorneys and held back on making the $10.5 million payment, Paxton’s office intervened in the case on behalf of World Class and its business affiliates this June, court records show. Paxton argued that his office needed to “protect the interests of the public” because the suit involved a charitable trust.

In July, Paxton asked a judge to halt the case. During that time, Chester said Paxton’s office called him five to 10 times per day to try to get him to settle for “pennies on the dollar,” calls that Chester characterized as “vaguely threatening.”

On Sept. 20, less than two weeks before news broke about the allegations against Paxton, the attorney general’s office reversed itself and announced its intention to step away from the case, which is still ongoing.

After filing for bankruptcy in August, the World Class affiliate handling investments in the property did not pay the $10.5 million or turn over the records, Chester said. But a clause in the settlement agreement does allow the Mitte Foundation to take a valuable, larger ownership share in the downtown property, Chester said.

One can certainly see some parallels to another well-known real estate personality, but that’s not what caught my interest. The obvious question here is why was Ken Paxton inserting himself into this particular dispute? It sure seems like a standard fight between a creditor and a debtor, so what was the state’s interest? I didn’t publish this post on Thursday because of Too Damn Much Other News, which is just as well because I then saw this Statesman story, which helped with some of these questions. As noted above, Ray Chester is an Austin attorney who has been representing the Mitte Foundation in its legal battles against Nate Paul and World Class, and apparently also Ken Paxton.

Chester contends the attorney general’s office exerted undue pressure to push for a settlement financially advantageous to Paul — or “pennies on the dollar” compared with what the foundation was owed under a previous $10.5 million settlement reached in 2019.

“We suspected all along that something fishy was behind the AG’s intervention in our case,” Chester said. “There is no legitimate reason why they would be helping Mr. Paul’s companies at the expense of a charity.”

The limited partnerships are called WC 1st and Trinity LP and WC 3rd and Congress LP, named after the locations of their properties. The 1st and Trinity partnership owns prime waterfront land on East Cesar Chavez, next to the Four Seasons Hotel and across from the Austin Convention Center. The WC 3rd and Congress partnership owns several tracts around the Austonian high-rise condos downtown.

In court documents and in an interview with the Statesman, Chester said Paul didn’t pay the $10.5 million settlement.

And as things continued to “go south” for Paul, Chester said Paxton started taking an interest in the legal fight.

Any time a charity is involved in litigation, the charitable trust division of the attorney general’s office must be notified because it has a right to intervene on behalf of the public interest in the charity.

But the only reason the attorney general should get involved in such cases “is to help the charity — not help the criminal guy against the charity,” Chester said. “And that’s what happened here, and that’s what’s made it so unusual.”

Michael Wynne, an attorney for Paul, told the Statesman that the foundation “refused to engage in any meaningful resolution” to the litigation, however, and also “colluded” with a court-appointed receiver in the case, squandering “over a million dollars in legal fees to line their lawyers’ pockets.”

Those are the among the reasons Paul brought the case to the attention of the attorney general’s charitable trust division, he said, disputing a contention by Chester that Chester’s office did so when the lawsuit was first filed — as it was required to do by law.

Wynne also said he is unaware of anyone from the attorney general’s office attempting to pressure Mitte to accept a settlement.

“We were obviously not privy to any of those conversations and have no basis to comment on them,” he said.

This at least helps me understand the claim that the AG needed to step in because the case involved a public trust. I’d love to hear from someone with actual experience what they think about all this.

Paxton mounted an investigation into allegations made by Paul that federal agents with the FBI and U.S. Department of Treasury acted unlawfully during [2019 searches of some of his properties]. Paxton tapped an outside attorney, Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, to conduct that probe.

Seven senior Paxton aides — including his first assistant, who recently resigned — subsequently filed a criminal complaint against the attorney general that they say stems from his dealings with Paul, who donated $25,000 to Paxton’s reelection campaign in 2018. They’ve asked federal agents to investigate their boss for potential crimes that include bribery, abuse of office and improper influence.

Cammack’s appointment was among the actions that prompted the complaint. Paxton’s intervention in the Mitte case also has sparked controversy.

A senior official in the attorney general’s office recently voiced concerns to the American-Statesman about Paxton’s involvement in the Mitte lawsuit, saying attorneys in the agency’s charitable trust division were instructed by Paxton to weigh in, even though Paxton doesn’t typically take such a hands-on approach.

“I saw just no interest why our office should get involved in this thing,” the official said. “Legally, and just the optics of doing something for a guy who is under FBI investigation — I am like, ‘This is reckless.’”

Documents obtained by the Statesman indicate Paul prodded some staffers of the attorney general’s office to discuss with him their handing of the Mitte case and what Paul alleged to be improprieties by the foundation.

“Your decision to not even respond to my emails has only amplified my concern about your bias toward helping the Mitte Foundation,” Paul wrote in a July 1 email to Josh Godbey, head of the attorney general’s charitable trust division. “I have raised many issues and you have chosen not to respond.”

In a July 23 email, Paul complained to Jeff Mateer — Paxton’s former first assistant who recently resigned — about Godbey’s lack of action. Mateer responded to Paul’s attorneys, asking that all communications be conducted through them, and he also attempted to make clear the agency’s position on such matters.

“It is not our role to assist a party adverse to a charity in pending litigation or provide status updates on those matters,” Mateer wrote in a July 24 email. “Any such non-privileged communications subject to public disclosure might be perceived as questioning our office’s necessary impartiality, which we carefully guard at all times.”

Chester said his firm notified Paxton’s office about the lawsuit as required when it was filed, but was told the agency’s involvement wasn’t needed.

“A junior attorney called me, asked me a few questions and said, ‘You’re fine, we don’t need to intervene,’” Chester recalled.

That was the end of it, he thought.

But subsequently, Paul suffered a series of setbacks in the case. In addition, the court-appointed receiver started making plans to sell the 1st and Trinity property.

“The next thing you know, (the attorney general’s office) intervened,” Chester said. “At that point, we knew there was some connection between Nate and the attorney general’s office.”

“We quickly started getting pressure to settle the case,” Chester said, and “for much less” than the 2019 agreement of $10.5 million.

“They were strong-arming us to settle,” Chester said. “It was very uncomfortable and very threatening. Multiple people told me the pressure was coming straight from Paxton.”

There’s been a lot more reporting on this saga, which I have covered in another post. This is going to be a challenge to follow because multiple publications are all chasing different leads and advancing the story in a variety of ways. We still don’t have a clear picture of what was happening, and some facts are in dispute. But boy, everything we’ve seen so far looks deeply sketchy. I have no idea what Ken Paxton is thinking, but I suspect he’s in for some very rough times. And deservedly so.

Endorsement watch: For MJ

The Chron changes its course in the US Senate race.

MJ Hegar

For 18 years, John Cornyn has represented Texas in the U.S. Senate with dignity, decorum and a legislative work ethic that has made him one of the more productive, and often bipartisan, lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

He’s championed criminal justice reform, stood up for trade with Mexico, stood against President Trump’s child-separation policy and passed major bills tackling sex trafficking and other complex threats to American welfare. Most recently he worked with Texas’ full delegation to send billions in aid following Hurricane Harvey and, when that money got snagged by bureaucracy, he helped to get it flowing.

“I work with people on a daily basis to pass legislation who I know get up in the morning trying to figure out how they can defeat me in my next election,” he told the editorial board in an hour-long interview last week. “… But you do what you can where you can.”

In an ordinary year, that might have been enough to endorse him for a fourth term, as we did for a third in 2014.

But in this year, in these deadly and divisive times, it is not enough. Not nearly. As a result, we heartily endorse Democrat MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who flew medical evacuation missions in Afghanistan where she earned a Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device, to become Texas’ next senator.

We find Hegar’s mix of energy, moral clarity, and assertive pragmatism invigorating.

“I just want our country to live up to the ideals for which it stands,” Hegar, 44, told us in an interview last week, vowing to put some “function” back into the Senate.

[…]

What weighed most heavily in our decision to urge voters to embrace Hegar is our veteran senator’s failure to lead.

From 2013 to 2019, he was the second-ranking Republican leader in the Senate and yet has been almost uniformly silent as the party he represents has been steered off course by the tea party insurgency beginning in 2010, and more recently has been completely unmoored by Trump.

Cornyn told us he distinguishes between Trump the man — with his divisive and dishonest rhetoric — and Trump the president, whose policies Cornyn said he appreciates. We’ll grant that conservatives cheered Trump’s success in cutting taxes, even if primarily on businesses and wealthy individuals, and the remarkable pace with which he’s pushed the federal judiciary farther to the right.

But on issue after issue, Trump has conducted himself in ways that Cornyn surely agrees are damaging to the presidency, to our nation’s standing in the world, and to the institutions that safeguard our democracy, including Congress itself.

[…]

Texas needs a leader who would make that speech, rally allies, and press for legislation that is morally right, even if it means having to irritate the party bosses.

In response, Cornyn points to former Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who clashed with Trump only to see his career derailed. What good for Texas, he asks, could a senator do once sidelined by the president or the party?

But preserving one’s clout is only sound strategy if that clout is eventually used. We see very little evidence Cornyn has used it. After 18 years, Texans are entitled to ask — if not now, then when?

In between those last two segments is a long airing of grievances against Trump, and Cornyn’s lily-livered response to them, culminating in his stated willingness to bring up a stand-alone bill to help the Dreamers but not actually doing it because Mitch McConnell would ignore him. You can compare this to their endorsement of Dan Crenshaw and mumble something about different standards for different folks, but at least here there’s asking the right questions. I’ll take it.

The Chron also endorsed a bunch of legislative incumbents, the most interesting of which being Rep. Gina Calanni.

Rep. Gina Calanni

Voters in Texas House District 132 have a luxury that residents in most other districts don’t: A choice between two experienced legislators on the Nov. 3 ballot.

State Rep. Gina Calanni, 42, has served with distinction in her first term, which she won narrowly two years ago. And her opponent, Republican Mike Schofield, is the lawmaker she drove out of office after two terms.

He’s back for a rematch and at stake is how the district, which includes much of Katy and unincorporated areas of Harris County, will be represented in Austin, where Republican control of the House is no longer assured.

We believe voters got it right in 2018, and recommend they retain Calanni this year.

It’s been a mostly incumbent-friendly endorsement season, Hegar over Cornyn notwithstanding. Calanni’s been a hard worker who did all the things she said she’d do when she ran, as she noted in the interview with the ed board. She’s got the toughest road to re-election, having won by a tiny margin in 2018, but she’s done the job, and this is at least as favorable an environment as 2018 was. I like her chances.