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November 17th, 2021:

Republicans sue over new Commissioners Court map

Hilarious.

Republican Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey have filed a voting rights lawsuit in state court in hopes of halting a Harris County redistricting plan they claim strips more than 1.1 million people of their right to vote in 2022.

Cagle and Ramsey, who are in the political minority in county government, lost ground in the redistricting plan their three political opponents supported, as Cagle’s Precinct 4 was redrawn last month to become majority Democrat.

Cagle and Ramsey announced Tuesday they were suing Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the county itself, but indicated through their attorney they see Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia as equally culpable of depriving voters’ rights. Three fellow plaintiffs who stood with the commissioners at a news conference were identified in court documents as registered voters and ethnic minorities.

One plantiff, Ranya Khanoyan, a senior in ROTC at Klein Cain High School, voted for the first time in November, but she would not be able to vote for Precinct 4 commissioner in the March primary or November election because the plan moves her to Precinct 3, which does not have an election until 2024.

“I’m not willing to look Ranya who just turned 18 in the face and say, ‘You know, sweetie, you’re going to have to wait til 2024 to vote,’” said the commissioners’ attorney, Andy Taylor. “The right to vote is sacred.”

See here for the background. Sure does suck to be on the other side, doesn’t it, fellas? And hey, welcome back to the spotlight, Andy Taylor. With Jared Woodfill filing all the crazy political lawsuits these days, I’d almost forgotten you existed.

My initial reaction, when I saw the early version of this story, was that this lawsuit was ridiculous on its face. If “I don’t get to vote for County Commissioner in the next election” is the standard, then it would be impossible to ever move a voter from, say, Precinct 1 to Precinct 4. I’d be willing to be that if we went back to past redistrictings, like the 2011 redistricting, we had some motion from an odd-numbered district to an even-numbered one, or vice versa. It would mean that the next time HISD has to redraw boundaries, it could only move voters between districts that are on the same four-year schedule. I have a hard time believing that’s a constitutional or statutory right that’s being violated here. At least one person agrees with me:

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the commissioners’ lawsuit takes a creative approach but added, “This isn’t going anywhere.”

“The premise of it is that somehow because of staggered terms for county commissioners a person’s constitutional rights are being violated because they’ll have to wait two years to vote,” Jones said.

Those who might have to wait this time around because of the new map would vote in 2024 and 2028, he said. They wouldn’t lose their right to vote in Jones’ view. Like other southern politicians following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder, which cut out key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the members of commissioners court had much more flexibility in reshaping districts in 2021 than in 2011, 2001 or 1991. The did not need preclearance to make the changes.

Jones likened the Republicans’ announcement this week to the Democratic redistricting lawsuits against the Texas House and Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This is much more political posturing rather than legal strategy,” he said. “This is more a negative reaction to the extreme partisan gerrymandering by Rodney Ellis, Lina Hidalgo and Adrian Garcia.”

Jones’ colleague at Rice, Robert Stein, agreed that the county’s new district boundaries undoubtedly disadvantage both Republican commissioners and many of their supporters.

“There is great irony in the fact the two white Republican males are suing the County Judge over the county commissioners redistricting plan,” Stein said. “For the last 100 years Blacks and Hispanics have argued, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, that the partisan drawing of legislative districts prevented them from voting for the candidates of their choice.”

This was filed in state court, so some Harris County judge will get to deal with it. There’s no federal standard for partisan gerrymandering, because the concept was too hard for John Roberts to deal with, but state courts could find that such a thing had happened. I don’t know that the Republicans in Austin will be all that thrilled in that event. I will of course keep an eye on this.

Michelle Beckley files for Lt. Governor

And now there are three.

Michelle Beckley

Democratic state Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton, who gained national attention for joining lawmakers who fled to Washington, D.C., to block a Republican election bill this summer, is running for lieutenant governor, expanding her party’s primary to three contenders.

In her campaign announcement on Tuesday, Beckley said she was running because Republican incumbent Dan Patrick is implementing policies that “hurt Texas business and make life harder for all Texans.”

“I’m running for Lieutenant Governor because politicians are putting ideology ahead of results that matter to Texans,” she said. “In the last legislative session alone, they worked to limit voters’ rights, put bounties on women, marginalize minorities, and make-up false boogeymen in our schools, and the health and wealth of Texans suffered. I’m running to stop them.”

Beckley joins a race that already includes political commentator Matthew Dowd and Houston accountant and auditor Mike Collier, who was the Democratic nominee for the position in 2018 and came within 5 percentage points of beating Patrick. She said she was recruited to run for the position but did not say by who.

Beckley said she joined the race to give Democratic voters another option and a candidate with more legislative experience.

“Neither one of those candidates has won an election,” she said. “I won an election in a hard district and improved my margins.”

[…]

Beckley said Republicans will have a fundraising advantage over her, but she plans to raise enough money to get her message out and win over voters.

“I was outspent 10-to-1 my first election. Nobody thought I was gonna win that either,” she said. “I’ve done it before. So I’m confident I could do it again. I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think that.”

Beckley said her top priorities as lieutenant governor would be expanding Medicaid, fixing shortcomings in the state’s power grid and fully funding public education. Those issues are in line with the priorities of the other candidates in the Democratic primary.

But Beckley, one of the most liberal members of the Texas House, is also known for her support for marijuana legalization, abortion rights and her call for more gun control after the 2019 mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa.

Beckley said she is a candidate who can bring “balance” to the position of lieutenant governor. Issues like marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion would benefit rural communities whose farmers could benefit from growing marijuana for business and whose struggling hospitals would be helped by a change in the health care system, she said.

But she does not back down from the positions she’s taken on immigration, abortion rights and guns, saying she’s portrayed as a liberal when she believes her actions are in step with the majority of Texas voters.

“Our state has gone to the extreme and I am the values of the moderate,” she said. “In many other states I would not be considered liberal at all.”

I don’t know about that last statement, but as we know there’s been consistent polling in recent years showing popular support for marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion, with at worst modest support Roe v Wade and not making abortion more illegal in Texas. Whether any of that can flip her some votes in East Texas is another question – and I say this as someone who advocates for the Medicaid and marijuana issues as a way to appeal to rural constituencies – but she will hardly be out on a limb campaigning for them.

As the story notes, Beckley had announced a candidacy for CD24 before the map was redrawn to make it a Trump +12 district. Her HD65 was also made to lean Republican, though it would not surprise me to see it flip in a cycle or two. If she can win the nomination, it’s likely that she has at least as good a shot at beating Dan Patrick as she would have had in either of those races.

She does have to win the primary first. As a two-term State Rep, her name ID will not be very high – I’d say Mike Collier is much better known, at least among Dem primary voters, thanks to his past candidacies – but being the only woman on the ballot (if no others join in) will help her. She had $25K on hand as of July, so fundraising is going to be a high priority for her – there’s only one way to get your name out there in a statewide race, and it doesn’t come cheap. I welcome her to the race and look forward to seeing what she has to say. The more people out there telling everyone what a lousy Lite Guv we now have, the better.

HISD will consider lifting its mask mandate

After the holidays, depending on how things go.

Houston ISD will consider changing its mask mandate policy after the winter break in the wake of expanded vaccine eligibility for youngsters and improving pandemic conditions in the city, Superintendent Millard House II said Monday.

House noted there have been spikes of COVID-19 infections following holidays since the pandemic began and said he would like to get through the winter holidays before deciding whether to lift the face-covering rule.

The district will seek feedback from the community about whether it should modify its mandate before making a decision, he said.

“We would like to get through the holidays and then we will come back from the holidays and consider what the data is telling us at that particular point,” House said. “And if we are continuing to push forward in the right direction — like we are heading right now — there will be consideration around, you know, not making the mask mandate mandated.”

[…]

Earlier this month, County Judge Lina Hidalgo reduced the threat level of COVID from “severe” to “significant” due to a decrease in new cases and hospitalizations. She encouraged unvaccinated persons to avoid gatherings, wear a mask and get a vaccine while asking those fully vaccinated to wear masks indoors due to significant transmission.

The Texas Medical Center reported 43 new hospitalizations on Sunday. Approximately 56.7 percent of the county’s population is considered fully vaccinated, per county data; that reflects nearly 69 percent of population aged 12 and older who are eligible for the vaccine. Across Texas, 54 percent of the population is considered fully vaccinated, according to state data.

Dr. Omar Matuk-Villazon, a pediatrician and Chief Medical Officer at the UH College of Medicine, said he has heard from children who are excited to get a shot because they see it as a way to get rid of masks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal masking in schools, but he said discussing paths to getting rid of mandates is a worthwhile conversation.

“Let’s have every kid who wants to be protected get protected and then let’s decide after that,” Matuk-Villazon said. “We may lose public health care trust. … We need to have a plan.”

At HISD, House has repeated since implementing the mandate less than two weeks before a full return to in-person instruction in August that it could be changed, depending on the circumstances of the pandemic. During recent town halls, he told some parents who asked him to consider changing it that it was his hope to, when the time is right.

Since the start of school, the district of nearly 195,000 students, has logged 3,569 cumulative cases among kids and 496 among staffers. As of Monday, it reported 241 active cases, 213 of which were students and 28 staffers.

As the story notes, some area districts have already lifted their mask mandates, while others haven’t made any plans to do away with theirs. HISD is also partnering with the Houston Health Department to provide vaccines for children ages 5 and up at select schools. I’m basically fine with this plan, and if you’ve listened to any of my HISD candidate interviews, you know this combination of “more vaccinations plus a sufficiently low case rate” was the consensus view for when the mask mandate should be eased up. I don’t think we need to be in any rush, so waiting to see if there are any post-holiday spikes is a good idea.

HISD really has done a good job of keeping everyone safe so far this semester. I can tell you, the number of calls and emails I’ve gotten about confirmed cases at my kids’ schools is far less than it was last spring. We should want to get to a point where it’s safe to let people go maskless. I hope this means that the vax rate among HISD teachers and staffers is sufficiently high to pursue this, and I would be very happy for them to continue to enforce masking among those who aren’t vaxxed. They’re the risky ones, after all. In the meantime, let’s set this goal, and then work to make it reachable. It’s worth doing.

Here’s a look at that long-awaited Ismaili Center

Looks really nice.

Designs for Houston’s the Ismaili Center Houston were unveiled Monday afternoon, revealing architecture and gardens likely to set a new bar in a city increasingly devoted to modern design and lush green spaces.

With a structure designed by UK-based Farshid Moussavi and gardens by Thomas Woltz of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects — a renowned landscape architect known locally for his work transforming Memorial Park — the new Ismaili Center will sprawl across 11 acres at the southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard.

Clad in a silvery beige Turkish marble, the building will be a cultural landmark where local and visiting Ismailis can worship, and where others can attend cultural and educational events. Gardens on all four sides will include terraced plantings and water features in a configuration that pays homage to ancient Islamic architecture but with vegetation found in Texas ecosystems.

Houston was chosen several years ago by His Highness Aga Khan as the site of America’s first Ismaili Center, picked for its large population of Ismaili Muslims and for its overall diverse community. The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader — or imam — of Ismaili Muslims, and is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, who founded Islam some 1,400 years ago.

The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the local land in 2006 and later donated seven monumental artworks — Jaume Plensa’s “Tolerance” sculptures — that sit across the street in Buffalo Bayou Park. Excavation on the site is already under way and a formal ground breaking will likely take place early next year with construction finished by the end of 2024.

[…]

The Ismaili Center has no front or back; each side is equally detailed and welcoming, though there will be entry doors off of West Dallas and Montrose streets, Moussavi said. Deep on the lot toward West Dallas, the building had to be located outside of the 500-year flood plain to avoid damage in future weather events.

Woltz, who leads the landscape architecture team that will craft 10 acres of lush garden where there is now dirt and scruffy weeds, also did the landscaping for the Ismaili Center in London. Houston’s center will be the seventh throughout the world; the others — built between 1985 and 2014 — are in London, Toronto, Lisbon, Dubai, and in Burnaby, British Columbia, and Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

See here for the previous update, and here for an aerial view of what the property will eventually look like. It sounds great and the pictures are amazing. I still don’t know why it all took so long, but at least something is finally being built there. Maybe there will be hope for The Stables some day.