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January 1st, 2022:

Sheriff Gonzalez’s status

Two words: In limbo.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate has yet to confirm Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez as director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, meaning he will likely need to be nominated again and will face an uphill battle to be confirmed in that role.

The Senate must agree unanimously before Jan. 3 to hold over the nomination of Gonzalez or nominate him during the 2022 legislative session.

Even if Gonzalez is held over — or nominated a second time — a number of political obstacles remain in the way of confirmation.

“The prospects for the confirmation of Sheriff Gonzalez in 2022 would not be very auspicious were Biden to nominate him again,” said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones, who noted the confirmation process would essentially start over from scratch in that case.

“The fact that there was a hold that remained now suggests that if Biden nominates Gonzalez again, he’s likely to face the same result in 2022 that he has in 2021,” Jones said.

The struggle to confirm Gonzalez reflects shifting norms in the Senate and increasing difficulty to confirm political appointees in recent years, aid Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes more effective government.

“Everything is becoming harder and slower, and you have even fewer people actually being confirmed for very important positions,” said Stier.

As of Dec. 30, just 266 of Biden’s political appointees had been confirmed, according to the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post, compared to 383 during the Obama administration.

The position of ICE director is especially challenging to confirm, considering the polarizing beliefs on immigration law enforcement and the 50-50 split of party control in the Senate.

“The position itself in this instance, ICE director, is one that’s become a bigger lightning rod, a more controversial position,” said Stier.

Trump failed to secure someone in that role during his entire term.

Mark Jones said he doesn’t believe the Senate’s failure to confirm Gonzalez has much to do with his ability to lead the agency, but much more to do with how Republicans are likely to utilize the hot-button issue of immigration during the 2022 midterm elections.

Gonzalez “still has a long track record of criticizing ICE, which means that during a time when Republicans realize that immigration policy is an advantageous one for them, they’re unlikely to support his confirmation. Even though from a policy perspective, his position is not nearly as far from their position,” Jones said.

Republicans have questioned the Democratic sheriff’s commitment to immigration enforcement since he was tapped for the role in April.

As a reminder, Sheriff Gonzalez was nominated in late April, and was approved by the Senate committee in early August. It’s not clear what the actual holdup is here, as Gonzalez would get through if he has full Democratic support. It may be that one or more Democratic Senators are not on board with him, or just don’t want to confirm anyone to this position without some action on immigration in general or ICE in particular, or it may be that this was just another thing moved to the back burner while everyone was chasing Joe Manchin to get his vote on Build Back Better. If it’s the latter, then I think there’s a decent chance Sheriff Gonzalez eventually gets confirmed next year. If not, then we’ll know when he eventually withdraws his name from consideration.

One reason for the fight to stop the I-45 project

Because the project as it now stands would be bad for a lot of kids.

Principal Shawn Nickerson can see the highway connector from Bruce Elementary’s basketball court. Cars whiz by, spewing dangerous pollutants into the air. And if the proposed Interstate 45 expansion moves forward, Nickerson fears the children will be at greater risk. Some already moved because their apartments were sold to make way.

Federal officials earlier this year paused the state’s planning efforts on a rebuild of I-45 and various highway connections because of concerns about how it could affect communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. Critics recently filed a federal complaint calling for greater scrutiny of those impacts.

Bruce Elementary serves as a striking example of the project’s potential harm, following a history of environmental injustice in Greater Fifth Ward. Houston ISD relocated the school in 2007 from a spot across from a lead-contaminated industrial site. It was put near the juncture of Interstates 69 and 10, northeast of downtown. Advocates say students had among the district’s higher asthma rates.

Some of the kids live in a Houston Housing Authority property across I-10, walking on a bridge over 10 lanes of traffic, never escaping the fumes. The city earlier sold the state another housing authority property where students live. Fifth Ward residents navigate too among train tracks, concrete batch plants and a rail yard contaminated with likely cancer-causing creosote, used to treat rail ties.

“Ms. Dr. Nickerson,” as students call her, can’t fix all that, but she considers it her job to advocate for better air quality and traffic safety. Her students play outside during recess. Some take puffs from inhalers at the nurse’s office beforehand.

The $9 billion I-45 project, the largest freeway redo in Houston’s history, includes expansion work from central Houston all the way up to Beltway 8 in Greenspoint. It also reroutes the highway’s path around downtown. Instead of curling west as it does now, I-45 would circle to downtown’s east alongside I-69, until it meets I-10, right by Bruce Elementary.

A newly built interchange there would include a connector that would cut right by the northwest corner of the school, seeming to come as close as possible without actually taking any school property. “Our students, when they go out to recess, what is that going to be like for them?” Nickerson asked. “What does that mean in terms of safety? Even beyond just outside, our indoor air quality, how will that change?”


Concerned about various impacts, Air Alliance Houston in 2019 helped coordinate an assessment of how schools could be affected. The environmental advocacy group looked specifically at nine schools, including Bruce. Researchers noted that children were especially vulnerable because their bodies are still developing.

Traffic-related air pollution can cause asthma to develop, the report says. Poor air quality could affect their day-to-day lives, perhaps causing missed school days from being sick and lower academic performance.

Advocates at the time suggested TxDOT build tree-lined buffers, install air monitors and not allow vehicles to idle in the carpool line. But then the argument around the project grew so large that detailed requests got lost, said Harrison Humphreys, an advocate Air Alliance Houston.

TxDOT says in the story that the project will bring about air quality improvements, and that they have reached out to the parents at Bruce Elementary. Any infrastructure project is going to have some negative effects on some people. Ideally, we try to minimize that while we maximize the benefit to the community as a whole, and we compensate the people who are being negatively affected. The deeper issue here is that the same people have been harmed by I-45 from the beginning, they continue to be harmed by it, and they’ll be first in line to be harmed by the expansion. The rest of us won’t be. This is why there are federal complaints about the project, and why Harris County filed its lawsuit, which is now on pause pending current negotiations. If we can’t come to an equitable resolution, then we really shouldn’t make the same people pay a higher price for the expansion of this highway.

It was twenty years ago today

As of today, this blog is officially 20 years old. I started it because I wanted an outlet for my writing – before that, I mostly shared my thoughts via email, mostly but not entirely on various email discussion lists, now all long defunct – and a place to store them that would be accessible by me over time. I didn’t really intend for it to be about politics, but that wound up being what interested me and gave me fodder for basically everyday writing. I’d heard about blogs, had in fact come across a blog written by my friend Ginger, and I asked her how to set one up the next time I saw her. And here we are, two decades later.

I suppose I should have some retrospective, or a Top Ten Posts list or some such, but that’s not how I think. Feel free to nominate something in the comments if there’s a post that stands out to you, but I feel like I’m a force for consistency, so to me it’s just another day of business. My mission is the same, to talk about and analyze local and state politics, with some diversions for transportation and technology and a few other things. I’ve been regularly publishing interviews with political candidates for 15 years, and consider that (the judicial Q&As are a special case of those) and post-election data reviews to be my big selling point. If that sort of thing is your jam, I’ve got it for you.

I know my audience has changed over the course of 20 years – for sure, regular commenters come and go – but I’ve managed to maintain a steady readership, judging by the analytics I occasionally look at. As of this writing, I have 1,406 likes and 1,509 followers for the Off the Kuff Facebook page, so if you feel the need to mark this occasion you could add yourself to those totals, if you’re not already among them. Thank you for reading, thank you for commenting, thank you for listening to the interviews, and thank you for all the feedback over the years. It still makes me smile whenever someone tells me they like the blog. Here’s to the next however many years. Happy 2022, y’all.