Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

November 20th, 2020:

A high level look at the changing suburbs

The Trib takes a broad and high-level look at what I’m digging into now.

Although they didn’t get the blue wave they expected, Democrats narrowed the gap with Republicans in five of the most competitive and populous suburban counties in Texas.

An analysis of the presidential vote in solidly suburban Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, Hays and Williamson counties, plus partly suburban Tarrant County, showed that Republicans went from an advantage of more than 180,000 total votes in those counties in 2016 to less than a thousand votes in 2020, according to the latest data.

“This was not, on a whole, a good night for Democrats, it’s not what they hoped,” said Sherri Greenberg, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. “But Democrats did see some gains and some success flipping areas in the suburbs.”

[…]

Some of Democrats’ biggest gains happened in Central Texas. Williamson County, where Trump won by 9.7% four years ago, flipped in 2020 and went to Biden by just over 1%. Hays County, which Trump won by less than 1% in 2016, gave Biden a nearly 11% victory this year. Both counties also supported Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 midterm elections.

Greenberg said those two counties are a perfect example of the trend that is helping Democrats in the suburbs: a growing population, particularly in demographic groups that tend to be more left-leaning. Since 2010, Williamson County alone has added more than 160,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“You see a growing population, a younger population, highly educated. Those kinds of voters are moving towards the Democrats,” Greenberg said.

In the Greater Houston area, Fort Bend County, which supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, was even more favorable for Biden, who won by 37,000 votes, compared with Clinton’s roughly 17,000-vote margin in 2016.

Fort Bend’s population is 811,688, and 20% of the population is Asian, according to the U.S. census.

“That county has become pretty solidly Democratic, and that happened quickly,” Cross said. “And it’s because of these younger, more educated and more diverse voters. It’s an example of what the Asian American vote can change.”

In North Texas, in Denton and Collin counties, Republicans expanded their margins from the 2018 midterms, but compared with the 2016 presidential election, Democrats narrowed the gap: In Denton County, Trump’s 20% victory in 2016 shrunk to 8.1% this year, while his margin in Collin County fell from 16% to 4.6%.

Meanwhile in Tarrant County, where Fort Worth is surrounded by a tapestry of suburbs, counting is still ongoing, but the latest results show that Democrats might be able to flip the county.

Not all suburban counties became as competitive as Tarrant. In Montgomery County, north of Houston, where more than 270,000 people voted, Republicans still had a comfortable 44% margin in 2020, 7% less than in the 2016 presidential election.

All of this is true, and there are some nice charts in the story to look at, but it obscures a couple of points. One, with regard to Montgomery County, it’s not the percentage margin that matters, it’s the raw vote differential. Trump won Montgomery county by 104,479 votes in 2016. He won it by 118,969 votes in 2020. It’s nice that the second derivative of their growth curve is now negative, but we need to start shrinking that gap, not just slowing its acceleration. Joe Biden will end up about 650K votes behind Donald Trump. That’s about 160K votes closer than Hillary Clinton got. If we want to make it easier for Biden, or Kamala Harris, or someone else, in 2024, that’s the target. It’s preferable if Montgomery County is not making that job more difficult.

The other point is that this discussion leaves out too much. The reason I wanted to look at all the counties that surround the big urban areas is so we can be aware of the places that are growing into becoming like Montgomery – think Parker and Johnson Counties up north – as well as the small counties that punch well above their weight, like Chambers and Liberty. Maybe we don’t have a clear answer for those places yet, but we need to be thinking about them, and we need to make having a plan for them a priority. We’re just conceding too much ground otherwise.

Matthew McConaughey?

I suppose I’m required to have an opinion about this.

Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey isn’t gearing up to run for governor in Texas, but he certainly did not rule it out during a radio interview this week.

“I don’t know,” McConaughey said when asked by talk radio host Hugh Hewitt in a national interview. “I mean, that wouldn’t be up to me. It would be up to the people more than it would me.”

But the 51-year-old Uvalde native was clear: He sees big problems with how things are going with politics in general.

“Look, politics seems to be a broken business to me right now,” he said. “And when politics redefines its purpose, I could be a hell of a lot more interested.”

In the interview to promote his new book “Greenlights,” he talked about watching other actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood get involved in politics and thinking it was interesting to see people of different backgrounds doing the work. But he said he’s still not sure it’s the best route to get things done.

“You know, I still question how much you can really get done in politics, and I don’t know if politics is my avenue to get what maybe I am best equipped to get done,” McConaughey said.

McConaughey didn’t say whether he is a Republican or a Democrat.

Yeah, my opinion is that this is a slow-news-day kind of story, with nothing actually to it. I could write a whole lot of words as to why I think this, but honestly, it’s not worth the bother. I’ll just say this much: I am not gearing up to run for Governor either, but I certainly have not ruled it out. My publicist is now standing by to book interviews.

UPDATE: Looks like not having an opinion was the smart move.

Legislators call for no STAAR test this year

Fine by me, and very fine by my kids.

A bipartisan group of 68 Texas House representatives signed a letter calling on the Texas Education Agency to cancel the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exam or at minimum not use student scores to rate schools or districts this school year.

The letter, penned by Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, asks that the state apply for waivers from the U.S. Department of Education to cancel the standardized test, which is administered to students in third through 12th grade.

Should the test still be administered during the coronavirus pandemic, it “should only serve as a diagnostic instrument to see where our students stand academically as opposed to an assessment instrument to determine district and campus sanctions,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.

The letter is addressed to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, but it’s “just as much a letter to the governor,” Bernal said in an interview, adding that Gov. Greg Abbott “very easily could call the play to change the landscape right now.”

“If we take our time talking to educators — not administrators — but educators, counselors, parents and students, of course, that the last thing they all need right now is the extra and added stress of STAAR,” Bernal said.

You can see a copy of the letter and its signatories here, and a late addition here. As you may recall, the STAAR test was waived last spring at Greg Abbott’s order. The Chron adds some details.

The federal government and Texas Legislature set broad frameworks for testing and accountability, while the TEA fills in many details for the state. Texas did not administer STAAR in the spring of this year after the TEA sought and received a federal waiver because of the pandemic, which forced the abrupt shutdown of all public schools in March.

The U.S. Department of Education has not decided whether it will grant similar waivers in 2021. The decision likely will rest with President-Elect Joe Biden’s new administration, which has not yet taken a firm stance on the issue.

At a State Board of Education meeting Wednesday, Morath said the state plans to apply for waivers related to student participation rate requirements, which essentially punish districts when some children do not take exams. However, he did not commit to canceling the exam or outline potential changes to the state’s A-through-F accountability rating system.

“I think there’s still a lot of question as to how we might pursue this,” Morath said. “We’ve got 10 or so different options, as it were, to consider. No final decision has been made as we gather feedback from folks.”

If Texas education officials move forward with STAAR in the spring, the group of 68 state representatives wants the TEA to set aside its traditional campus and district accountability framework.

“At most, any administration of the STAAR exam during the 2020-2021 school year should only serve as a diagnostic instrument to see where our students stand academically, as opposed to an assessment instrument to determine district and campus sanctions under the current A-F accountability system,” the legislators wrote.

The letter echoes some of the arguments made in recent months by educator organizations and unions, which lobbied against high-stakes standardized testing before the pandemic. Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said STAAR testing “should be the last priority” in schools.

“Our students, educators and their families can’t afford the distraction of STAAR as they struggle to stay safe and continue to adjust to new methods of teaching and learning,” Molina said in a statement Wednesday.

I mean, this entire year has been at best a struggle for many, many students. I don’t see the point in making it any harder on them. Ditch the STAAR until things are back to normal.

Texas Central once more gets to deal with the Lege

They’re both farther along, and not as far along, as they might like heading into this session.

Less than two months before the Texas Legislature begins its next session, the yearslong battle over a controversial high-speed rail project is expected to spark more legislative skirmishes.

And after years of public skepticism, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signaled his support for the project in a letter to Japan’s prime minister, although his spokesperson later said that Abbott’s office will “re-evaluate this matter.”

Last month, Abbott sent a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga saying: “This venture has my full support as Governor of Texas, and I am hopeful that final negotiations of this project with Japan can be concluded so that construction can begin. Public support and momentum are on our side, and this project can be completed swiftly.”

The Oct. 2 letter also included a significant error. Abbott told Suga that the company developing the high-speed rail line had “all the necessary permits to begin construction.”

The Texas Tribune found that Texas Central, the Dallas- and Houston-based company in charge of the project, is far from receiving all permits needed to build the 240-mile line, which would stretch from Dallas to Houston and cost around $20 billion, according to the company. When contacted by the Tribune with this information, Abbott’s office said it would review the matter.

“From the beginning of this project, the Governor made clear that he could support this project if, and only if, the private property rights of Texans are fully respected,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman told the Tribune on Oct. 7.

“The Governor’s team has learned that the information it was provided was incomplete. As a result, the Governor’s Office will re-evaluate this matter after gathering additional information from all affected parties,” Wittman added.

The governor’s office has not responded to multiple follow-up questions about the results of its review and has not explained why Abbott didn’t know the project lacked permits or who Abbott was relying upon for information about the project.

[…]

Texas Central has said that it plans to start construction by the first half of 2021 and that it has already secured sites for stations in Dallas, Houston and the Brazos Valley.

But the Tribune found that Texas Central still hasn’t applied for a key permit from the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates transportation projects, for the construction and operation of the proposed rail line, according to an STB spokesperson.

And two Texas agencies, the Texas General Land Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said they haven’t received all the necessary permit applications from the company, including the route proposal and a permit to discharge stormwater during the construction process.

A third agency, the Texas Department of Transportation, must approve permits for the rail line to cross state roads during construction, but a spokesperson said the agency would consider any proposals from the company only after the STB approves the project.

The company did receive two key approvals in September from the Federal Railway Administration, which provided the regulatory framework and the environmental review for the high-speed train. The railway administration explained that these rulings covered several of the permits needed by the project in areas like railroad safety, protection of parkland and protection of cultural resources.

See here for the previous update, about the approval provided by the Federal Railroad Administration. I have no idea where the other permits stand, or how long that part of it is supposed to take. We’re about to enter at least the third legislative session where I find myself saying “if they can just make it through this session, they’ll probably be okay”. They did fine in 2019, but their opponents are organized and dedicated, and even though I suspect they’re a minority, I have no idea offhand who their best champion in the Lege is. A small group of people who really care about something can often beat a larger group of people who don’t feel all that strongly about whatever it is they’re being asked to care about. TCR might also want to check in with Greg Abbott and make sure he has up to date information from them – assuming he bothers to respond to their requests, of course. On the plus side for TCR, the Lege has a pretty packed agenda, which may crowd out anything their opponents want to do. But I wouldn’t count on that.