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December 18th, 2021:

Filing update: How many contested judicial primaries are there? (Part one)

Pretty much all of the updates I’ve given about who has filed for what have been for legislative or executive offices. These are the highest-profile races, and they’re also easier to keep track of. But as we know, there are a crapton of judicial races on the ballot in Harris County, and as has been the case in recent cycles, there will be a lot of competition for them. Since Dems swept the judicial races in 2018, that means (with a couple of limited exceptions) challenges to incumbents.

I’ve gone through the list of judicial races for Harris County, and these are the contested ones that I can find. I’ll post the state court races here, and will do a separate post for the county and JP courts. Strap in, we have a long ride ahead of us.

14th Court of Appeals, Place 2: Kyle Carter and Cheri Thomas. Carter is the incumbent judge for the 125th Civil District Court. Thomas was a candidate for a different 14th Court of Appeals position in 2020, but lost in the primary runoff.

14th Court of Appeals, Place 9: Chris Conrad and William Demond. Demond was a candidate for Court of Criminal Appeals in the 2020 primary. I can’t find anything about Conrad.

183rd Criminal District Court: Gemayel Haynes and incumbent Judge Chuck Silverman.

184th Criminal District Court: Incumbent Judge Abigail Anastasio and Katherine Thomas.

185th Criminal District Court: Andrea Beall, Kate Ferrell, and incumbent Judge Jason Luong.

189th Civil District Court: Lema Barazi, Tami Craft, and incumbent Judge Scott Dollinger. Craft ran for 14th Court of Appeals in 2020, losing in the general election. Her webpage still references that campaign.

228th Criminal District Court: Incumbent Judge Frank Aguilar and Sam Milledge.

230th Criminal District Court: Incumbent Chris Morton and Joseph Sanchez.

245th Family District Court: Angela Lancelin and incumbent Judge Tristan Longino.

248th Criminal District Court: Linda Mazzagatti and incumbent Judge Hilary Unger.

263rd Criminal District Court: Incumbent Judge Amy Martin and Melissa Morris. Morris ran against Sen. Borris Miles in the 2020 primary for SD13, and was endorsed by the Chron in that race.

270th Civil District Court: Denise Brown and incumbent Judge Dedra Davis.

280th Family District Court: Dianne Curvey and incumbent Judge Barbara Stalder. Curvey has been a candidate for judge before, more than once, and as her website notes she is also known as Damiane Banieh.

312th Family District Court: Paul Calzada, Teresa Waldrop, and incumbent Judge Chip Wells.

313th Juvenile District Court: Glenda Duru and incumbent Judge Natalia Oakes.

315th Juvenile District Court: Ieshia Champs and incumbent Judge Leah Shapiro.

482nd Criminal District Court: Sherlene Cruz, Alycia Harvey, and Veronica Nelson. This is a new court, created by the Lege this past session. The incumbent judge, Judge Maritza Antu, was appointed by Greg Abbott.

That’s the end of part one. In part two, I’ll look at the county and Justice of the Peace courts, which also have a ton of contested races. Please note that if you don’t see a court in this post and you know that it’s on the ballot, it means that the incumbent is unopposed in their primary. There are a couple of unopposed challengers running for Republican-held appellate court benches as well. If I didn’t link to a campaign webpage or Facebook page, I couldn’t find one with a basic Google search. I mentioned the past candidacies of the challengers that I know ran for something in the past; if I missed anything, it was an oversight. Look for the next post tomorrow or the following day, depending on how long it takes me to put it together. And as always, let me know what you think.

Indictments and guilty pleas in FBI investigation of former HISD officials

Woof.

A former top Houston ISD official and vendor were indicted Thursday in connection with an alleged bribery scheme over the last decade that federal prosecutors estimate cost the district millions of dollars and resulted in plea agreements with at least five other former district officials, including a former president of the district’s Board of Education.

Federal authorities arrested former Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby, 43, and contract vendor Anthony Hutchison, 60, both of Houston, on Thursday, hours before their initial court appearance. Both men pleaded not guilty to all counts and were expected to be released under conditions that include no contact with current and former HISD employees with the exception of Busby’s wife, who prosecutors said has filed for divorce.

Prosecutors accused Busby of helping award HISD construction and grounds maintenance contracts to Hutchison in return for cash bribes and hundreds of thousands of dollars in home remodeling, according to a 26-count indictment unsealed Thursday.

“This investigation and resulting indictments reflect my office’s commitment to rooting out public corruption,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery said in a statement. “We will not stand idly by when there are people in positions of trust who are suspected of such wrongdoing.”

Dick DeGuerin, Busby’s lawyer, denied any wrongdoing by his client.

“For most of his adult life, Brian Busby has been a loyal employee of HISD, rising from the lowest employment to chief operating officer,” DeGuerin said. “He has never taken a penny from any contractors or any illegal money — ever. I am sure that a fair jury will find him innocent.”

[…]

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who served two terms as HISD trustee between 2012 and 2019, and as board president in 2015 and 2018, was among the former officials charged in connection with the alleged bribery scheme and pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. She currently serves as a Houston Community College Trustee. It was not clear Thursday whether she would have to resign or be fired. A spokesman for the college did not respond to a request for comment.

She also worked for Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ community and government affairs team until Thursday.

“The news today came as a shock to us, and we never had any indication of such inexcusable wrongdoing during her time at Precinct One,” Ellis’ office said in a statement. “Upon learning of this news today, her employment was immediately ended.”

Attempts by the Chronicle to contact Skillern-Jones, as well as the other former officials who entered plea agreements, were unsuccessful Thursday.

Those other former employees were identified by prosecutors as Derrick Sanders, 50, Missouri City, officer of construction services; Alfred Hoskins, 58, Missouri City, general manager of facilities, maintenance and operations; Gerron Hall, 47, Missouri City, area manager for maintenance; and Luis Tovar, 39, Huffman, area manager for maintenance.

Sanders had joined Aldine ISD in September 2020 and voluntarily resigned Oct. 22, school officials there said.

Saying he was “extremely outraged,” HISD Superintendent Millard House II, who began leading the largest public school district in Texas in July, told the Chronicle he had ordered a review of the internal team and systems for contracting and vendors, as well as an external review of the district’s procurement procedures before he was even made aware of the charges. He said he had made changes “to make sure everyone on my staff knows it is a new day inside HISD.

“I am outraged. Outraged that we’re talking about this. Outraged how adults who are supposed to be working for the public trust may have taken money from children,” House said. “In my 26 years as an educator — in Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee — I have never seen such a failure. As a parent, as a teacher, as a taxpayer, I promise you – HISD will do everything in its power to never be vulnerable to this kind of alleged misconduct again.”

He added: “I will not be deterred by 10 years of corruption, waste, and fraud that came before me. My team did not create this problem, but we will solve it. Permanently.”

See here for the background. The Chron’s editorial board ripped into Skillern-Jones for her role in this debacle. I wish Superintendent House all the best in cleaning up whatever remains of this mess. And a note to the other HCC Board members: You should probably try to get Trustee Skillern-Jones to resign from that position.

On a completely tangential note, the story that the FBI raided Brian Busby’s house was in late February of 2021, so about 21 months ago. There’s another FBI probe of interest happening in this state, and it began in November/December of last year, or about 12-13 months ago. Just offering that data point as some perspective on how long it can take for these things to go from beginning to indictment, in case your mind works like mine does.

UPDATE: Rhonda Skillern-Jones has resigned as HCC Trustee. Good. The HCC Board will name a replacement for her, with that person having to run again in 2023.

The Lege will get worse before it gets better

I have three things to say about this.

More than two dozen members of the Texas Legislature are retiring or running for a different seat next year, creating a slew of vacancies that could push both chambers to become redder and more polarized by the time lawmakers reconvene in 2023.

Many of the outgoing members are center-right or establishment politicians with years of experience, opening up seats for younger and more ideologically extreme replacements. In many cases, their districts were redrawn to strengthen the GOP’s hold on the Legislature, eliminating all but a few of the battleground contests that tend to attract more moderate candidates.

Those changes, paired with new political maps that leave little opening for Democrats to gain ground in November, have laid the groundwork for an even more conservative Legislature, even as Republicans toast the 2021 legislative session as the most conservative in the state’s history.

“The tides are shifting again,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, a moderate Republican from north Houston who is not seeking re-election. “You have different political leaders, and the constituency has a view of what they want. You’re going to see a shift. I would assume it’s going to be more conservative.”

The Capitol is also poised to lose some of its longest tenured legislators to retirement, draining “a generation of policy expertise” on areas such as health care, education, agriculture and the border, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. The average tenure of the departing members is 13 years.

We’ve covered this before. What distinguishes members like Dan Huberty and Chris Paddie and Lyle Larson and even otherwise crappy ones like James White is that they had policy chops, in at least one area, and took that part of legislating seriously. They were perfectly happy to vote for all of the destructive wingnut crap, and we should never forget that as we say nice things about their legislative experience, but the truth is that whoever survives the freak show primary to replace them will almost certainly be worse than they were. Until such time as Dems win a majority, or Republicans become collectively less sociopathic (whichever comes first), the Lege will become a worse place than it now is.

In 2011, Huberty was one of 37 mostly Republican freshmen in the Texas House — a mix of conservatives and moderates who rode the tea party wave into office, including three members who had served in the House previously, lost their seats and then gained them back that year.

By 2023, few of the moderate new members elected from that class will remain, with most of the remaining holdouts — including Huberty, John Frullo of Lubbock, Lyle Larson of San Antonio and Jim Murphy of Houston — declining to seek re-election next year.

We’ve discussed this before as well. What do all these members have in common? They will have served twelve years in the House, which makes them fully vested in the Lege’s pension plan. There may well be other reasons for their departures, and of course the first post-redistricting election is always an exodus, but I guarantee you that’s a factor.

In the Senate, [Sen. Eddie] Lucio’s seat could be the sole competitive race next year. The other open districts are solidly Republican, and those who are likely to replace the outgoing members are ideologically further right than their predecessors — or are, at least, closely allied with [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick, the leader of the upper chamber.

[Sen. Kel] Seliger was known for frequent fallouts with Patrick, defying him at times and blocking passage of priority bills. But state Rep. Phil King, the Weatherford Republican vying to replace him, has already earned Patrick’s stamp of approval.

[Sen. Larry] Taylor, one of the most moderate members of the Senate, is also poised to be replaced by a more conservative successor. Those running to replace him include [Rep. Mayes] Middleton and Robin Armstrong, a physician backed by Attorney General Ken Paxton, a tea party favorite. (Armstrong gained attention last year when he controversially administered hydroxychloroquine to COVID-19 patients at the Texas City nursing home where he works.)

We really need a better descriptor in these stories than “moderate”, which has lost all meaning in the post-Tea Party, post-Trump era. Kel Seliger is conservative in the way someone from the Reagan/Bush years would recognize the term. He’s also a legitimate work-across-the-aisle guy, and was maybe the last Senate Republican to not care about whatever Dan Patrick wants. You could fit a term like “iconoclast” or “maverick” to him if you had to, but he’s just a guy who was generally faithful to his political beliefs, and voted in what he believed was the best interest of his district. Which these days is pretty goddamned quaint. As for Taylor, look, he’s as down-the-line a Republican as there is. It’s true, he doesn’t spew conspiracy theories every five minutes, he’s not performatively nasty on Twitter, and as far as I know he eats his food with a knife and fork, and chews with his mouth closed. That makes him fit for human society, but it has nothing to do with how he votes or whether there’s an inch of distance between him and Dan Patrick. If that’s what we mean these days when we refer to a Republican legislator as “moderate”, can we please at least be honest about it?

District G special election lineup set

Hey, did you know there was another filing deadline this week? It’s true!

Greg Travis

Five candidates are running to represent west Houston as the next City Council member for District G.

Councilmember Greg Travis resigned the post in October to run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. He will remain in the seat until his successor is elected.

Candidates had until 5 p.m. Thursday to put their name on the ballot.

The candidates are: Mary Nan Huffman, a lawyer and the former GOP candidate for Harris County district attorney; Piper Madland, a community organizer and nonprofit worker; Roy Reyes Jr., a retired firefighter; Duke Millard, a former federal prosecutor; and Hank Taghizadeh, who works in construction.

The special election will be Tuesday, Jan. 25. Early voting will run from Monday, Jan. 10, through Friday, Jan. 21, except for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17. The polls will be open 7 a.m. through 7 p.m. except for Sundays, when the open at noon. The city still is finalizing the list of voting sites.

See here for the background. This is of course one of the Republican districts in the city, and there’s every reason to expect it will stay that way following this election. Piper Madland is the lone Democrat running, which should at least give her a decent shot at making it into a runoff. I’ve got a whole lot of primary interviews to do, and there’s a very short runway for this election, so I may defer doing interviews for this race until we go to overtime. Whoever wins will have to run again in 2023, as that is when outgoing CM Travis’ term is set to end.