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September 3rd, 2021:

Now we look to see what happens with Greg Abbott’s approval ratings

The first data point is bad for him. Which means it’s good for the rest of us.

Gov. Greg Abbott had the lowest approval rating since February 2016 and his highest disapproval numbers during his tenure as governor, The Texas Politics Project’s August polling found.

The poll queried 1,200 registered voters in Texas, finding that 50 percent disapproved of Abbott’s job performance and 41 percent approved. Nine percent didn’t know or did not have an opinion, the lowest such number of Abbott’s time in office. The margin of error was 2.83 percent, and the poll was conducted from Aug. 20 through Monday, Aug. 30.

The Texas Politics Project, which is housed at the University of Texas-Austin, has been conducting surveys since 2008, and has measured Abbott’s approval since November of 2015. Abbott’s previous high for disapproval was April 2021, at 45 percent.

The poll also found that 52 percent of respondents said Texas was “headed in the wrong direction,” the highest such number it has posted. A spokeswoman for Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Everywhere you look in the poll there’s just signs that the mood here is very dour. And when you have one party that owns the policy environment, that’s not good news,” said James Henson, director of the poll. “The Republicans have had a pretty easy ride for the two-decades-plus they’ve been in power in the state. And there’s now a convergence of factors that’s really going to test their ability to govern. And we’ve seen a very clear approach to that in this last legislative session, and it doesn’t seem to going over very well.”

[…]

The poll also asked whether respondents approved of Abbott’s handling of COVID-19 specifically, and the findings closely mirrored his overall approval numbers: 53 percent disapproved, 39 percent approved and the rest didn’t know or had no opinion.

“The election isn’t tomorrow, it’s not until next year, but it’s been a long time since there was a widespread sense in the state that things aren’t going well, and I think we’re seeing more indications of that,” Henson said.

The usual caveat about this being one data point applies. It’s also important to remember, as we have seen in UT/Trib polls (among others) that Abbott’s numbers tend to be the best among the officials whose ratings are being checked, with President Biden being the closest competition. This poll only tracks Abbott, so we lack that context. Given the dip in Biden’s poll numbers (which I think will be at least somewhat transitory, but I am an optimist), it’s reasonable to think that he may still compare well to others. We won’t know until we see more data.

Just looking at these numbers, the two things that stand out are just how far Abbott has fallen from his early COVID peak, and how the number of “don’t know/no answer” respondents have fallen. He was still in solidly positive territory as recently as February, and was at even levels in June, when we were still thinking we’d get a hot vax summer and everyone was feeling good. It’s not unreasonable to think that the right wing legislative onslaught has eroded his numbers a bit – remember, as we have discussed before, he used to poll decently for a Republican among Democrats – and my guess that the numbers now reflect his intransigence on COVID mitigations. Moreover, with more people having an opinion on him now, it’s likely the case that the fence-sitters have been making up their minds, and what they have decided is they don’t like him.

Again, this is one poll, and as Prof. Henson says, we’re a long way out from next November. Abbott also doesn’t have a Democratic opponent yet, and as we know that matters a lot. Intensity of feeling matters as well, especially in an off year election when turnout is critical. Abbott has been focusing exclusively on the hardcore base, mostly because he wants to win his primary but also because he wants to have a lot of “victories” to crow about to keep them engaged. Maybe this means Abbott’s stature will suffer. There’s plenty of reasons why that should be the case. It’s still too soon to tell for sure, that’s all I’m saying.

Constable Rosen removed from sexual harassment lawsuit

Good news for him, but the suit continues.

Constable Alan Rosen

Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen has prevailed in a legal effort to be removed from a lawsuit accusing department supervisors of sexual misconduct against female subordinates in an undercover anti-prostitution unit.

In a five-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt on Monday ruled Rosen could not be personally sued for the misconduct allegations that several current and former deputies and another employee had made about conduct within the unit. Plaintiffs can continue to pursue their lawsuit against Harris County and Assistant Chief Deputy Chris Gore and Lt. Shane Rigdon, the judge ruled.

Hoyt explained his ruling by saying he’d concluded that the plaintiffs’ allegations against Gore and Rigdon were “enough to raise a right to relief” but that the plaintiffs had not made any claims that would support Rosen’s individual liability under civil rights law.

Rosen touted the ruling in a news release in which he said he had “full faith in the Court’s review” of the motion.

“I thank the court for its considered review of the law as it pertains the motion to dismiss me from this matter,” he said, “and for granting that dismissal such that my full focus can remain on the needs of the residents of Precinct 1.”

Lawyers for the female deputies said they were undeterred, pointing to Hoyt’s decision to allow the suit to proceed against Harris County and against Gore and Rigdon.

“While Alan Rosen has been able to protect his personal financial interests, his conduct is still very much a part of the lawsuit,” attorneys Cordt Akers and Bill Ogden said, in a written statement.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. You can see a copy of the ruling in the story. While this is good news for Constable Rosen personally, the lawsuit is still active – this was a motion to dismiss, and it was denied for the other two defendants. For that reason, ignore this:

Rosen attorney Ben Hall said Wednesday that his client “should never have been in the lawsuit in the first place.”

He said believed Rosen was added to the lawsuit to tarnish his political viability.

“I think the fact the judge dispensed (with this matter) so quickly will at least remove this stain,” Hall said, “So he can move down the road. And if it is his fate to be sheriff, I think he’d be a fabulous sheriff.”

Sorry, but this still happened on his watch. He may not be legally liable for damages, but he’s still responsible. Maybe if the remaining defendants are cleared we can talk about his future ambitions, but until then let’s cool our jets. This is far from over.

Of course there’s time for a stupid election “audit” bill

Of course there is.

Fresh off their success passing legislation to tighten Texas voting laws, Republicans in the Texas Senate are working to hastily push through a bill filed just two days ago that would pave the way for county audits of the 2020 general election and set new rules for handling charges of irregularity in future elections.

The Texas Senate signed off on Senate Bill 97 on a 17-14 vote Thursday to create a new county-level auditing process for elections and give all state or county party officials the ability to trigger mandatory reviews. It was filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who has acknowledged the Senate is “operating a little bit at warp speed” to move the legislation in the waning days of the special legislative session.

The bill was filed Tuesday, the same day the Senate suspended three rules so the legislation could be considered in committee the next morning. It was voted out Wednesday by the Republican-majority committee, setting it up to reach the Senate floor Thursday, where more rules were suspended to grant it swift passage.

It’s unclear whether the bill will make it to the governor’s desk before the end of the special session on Sunday. An identical bill was filed in the House on Wednesday but has not yet moved forward in that chamber.

“This bill, SB 97, is about election irregularities, giving a chance for the people involved to ask questions,” Bettencourt said before the Senate’s vote. “This is not about anything else except what gets measured gets fixed because if we know why they’ve had that discrepancy, we can fix the problem in the future.”

[…]

Under SB 97, state or county party chairs could mandate a review of the 2020 election simply by submitting a request in writing to a county clerk. Those election officials would then be responsible for forming an “election review advisory committee” based on a list of voters in the county submitted by Republican and Democratic county chairs.

The review would generally include all in-person and mail ballots from Election Day in randomly selected county precincts and some early voting ballots, giving committee members access to all of the ballots cast in three to five races, one of which must be for a federal office, a statewide office or a county office.

The Texas secretary of state would be charged with setting an “acceptable margin of error” between ballots and the final vote counts. Discrepancies outside the margin of error would trigger additional reviews, including a countywide audit for races for federal, statewide or county offices.

Audit results outside the margin of error would prompt an analysis by the secretary of state to determine likely causes for the discrepancies and recommended corrective action.

In future elections, a second part of the bill would allow candidates, county party chairs, presiding polling place judges or heads of political action committees that took a position on a ballot measure to push for audits if they suspect irregularities.

That process would begin with a written request to the county clerk for an “explanation and supporting documentation” for alleged irregularities or election code violations. If the person requesting the review is not “satisfied” with the response, they could request “further explanation.” If they are still unhappy, they could turn to the Texas secretary of state to request an audit of the issue.

If the secretary of state determines the county’s explanations are inadequate, it must immediately begin an audit of the issue at the expense of the county. If a violation is identified, the state can issue $500 penalties for each violation that is not corrected by the county clerk within 30 days.

It’s not as stupid and cynical as the fraudit proposed by Rep. Steve Toth, but it’s still stupid and cynical and completely unnecessary. It’s designed to sow doubt and uncertainty, and it’s going to be another hassle and unreimbursed expense for county election officials to deal with. Specifically, this is aimed at the big urban Democratic counties, though I suppose there’s nothing stopping Democrats in the other counties from doing the same thing. There may or may not be time for this to get a vote in the House even with the ridiculous speed this was given in the Senate, but there will be at least one more special session, and Greg Abbott wants to put this on the agenda, he can.

Zombie trees

We are still experiencing the effects of the freeze.

Never turn down an opportunity to reference a Rush song

Zombies are in your yard, in parks and along roadsides and other green spaces throughout Texas.

They’re trees that are partly dead and partly alive, struggling to move forward and waiting for the next big thing — even hotter temperatures, a drought, a hurricane — to seal their fate.

Count zombie trees as one more lingering effect of February’s winter storm.

Arborists and other tree experts say that in the months to come, the state could lose thousands if not millions of trees ranging from tall Mexican or California fan palms to a wide range of hardwoods such as lace bark elm, Chinese tallow and water oak. This would be the most dangerous threat to Texas’s tree inventory since the 2011 drought.

Trees with lots of dead branches and new green sprouts shooting out of the center are likely zombie trees. Even tall palms with new green fronds on top could be zombies, because you can’t see the potential damage inside of their lanky trunks.

Matt Petty, assistant district manager and a certified arborist at the Davey Tree Expert Co., said that the International Society of Arboriculture is calling for a two-year watch on trees damaged in the freeze.

“The zombie tree concept comes from trees that, from a distance, appear to be normal or healthy and as you get closer, you see the differences. They’re dead and we don’t know it yet,” Petty said, noting that the trees could have been struggling before the freeze. “Trees that lost their leaves from the freeze have sprouted out and, in many cases, look like they have recovered. As temperatures heat up, though, we’ll have trees that die.”

Petty said that he’s seen sycamores, rain trees, Chinese tallow, elms and water oaks suffering damage, but live oaks and magnolia trees — both popular shade trees in the Houston area — are doing well.

[…]

David N. Appel, a Texas A&M professor and a specialist in tree pathology noted that “zombie tree” isn’t a horticultural or agricultural term and showed restraint in using it.

He said that most trees with dead-looking branches and new shoots coming from the center could be zombie trees, but not all are. They’re certainly damaged trees, some of which will live and some of which will die, and it’s fairly obvious which branches should be pruned back.

“I’ve been from the Rio Grande all the way up to Wichita Falls, and I have talked to a lot of arborists and one thing is clear: The damage was remarkably similar, it’s just that the species were different depending on where you are,” Appel said. “In one place you hear a lot about lace bark elms, but in another place it might be some of the oak species. In Wichita Falls it was the Japanese black pine and Mondell pine.”

Appel said Texas will lose hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of trees.

“The picture has become much clearer than it was two months ago, but we still (won’t know the fate of) a lot of these trees for a long while,” he said. “We aren’t out of the woods yet, and that’s not a tree joke.”

The story references the 2011 drought, which was hell on trees in Houston and around the state, and Hurricane Harvey, neither of which is a great comparison for arborial life. Some trees, like palms, were recognizably dead following the February freeze, but for others it may not be certain for another year or two. For those of us who live in neighborhoods with older trees, it is worth the time and expense to have an arborist look at the trees around your house, because dead branches are a real threat in a big storm. Hope for the best, and do what you can to take care of the trees on your property.