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January 10th, 2022:

Interview with Ben Chou

Ben Chou

This week I will focus on what may be the most important local race, for Commissioners Court in Precinct 4. As you know, in the new Commissioners Court map, Precinct 4 was redrawn as Democratic-leaning, which gives Dems the opportunity to unseat incumbent Commissioner Jack Cagle and take a 4-1 majority. There are seven candidates in the Democratic primary, and I have interviews lined up with five of them. We start today with Ben Chou, a Houston native and Rice graduate. Chou is an attorney who has worked in politics for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. More recently, he served as the Director of Innovation for the Harris County Clerk’s Office during the 2020 election, leading the team that pioneered drive-through voting. If you remember that preview of what Commissioners Court redistricting might look like from early last year, it was Chou who provided the maps. Here’s what we talked about:

As with the judicial Q&A’s, more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet. I will periodically round up the links to these posts as well.

Judicial Q&A: Teresa Waldrop

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Teresa Waldrop

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Teresa Waldrop. I’ve been a resident of Harris County for 25 years. I am Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and have practiced law for over 30 years. I am running as a Democratic candidate for the 312th Judicial District Court of Harris County, Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This Court hears divorce cases, suits affecting parent-child relationship, adoptions, name changes, and enforcements. This court also hears Child Protective Services cases.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running to unseat the incumbent. The incumbent ran for judicial office 4 times for 3 different family law benches over a span of 8 years. The blue wave landed him a bench in the 2018 election cycle. He has touted his experience, compassion and common-sense approach when responding previously in this blog to questions about seeking judicial office. He failed to mention shortcomings in the areas of professionalism, temperament and emotional outbursts. Over the course of my career, I have had my share of judges who did not like me, my client, my argument, or my side of a case. I have witnessed judges lose their cool. Getting dressed down by judicial bullies has been part of my job for 30 years. But what took place in my 3-day bench trial before the incumbent was new-level different. Not only do Harris County citizens and their lawyers doing business in this Court deserve to be treated with professionalism, dignity and respect, the judicial canons require it. I have the temperament, demeanor and experience to run a professional family law court, the type of court one would expect to encounter in Harris County, Texas.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced law for over 30 years. I have been Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization since 2009. Ninety-eight percent of my practice is devoted to family law matters. I have handled all phases of litigation from intake to trial, both jury and bench, and post-trial matters, including several appeals. My last jury trial lasted 12 days. My longest non-jury trial was 9 days. I have been the trial lawyer in three family law cases of first impression in the State of Texas. I am a graduate of Leadership Houston (Class XXII) and a Past President of the (Houston) Association of Women Attorneys. I have both the professional experience and leadership underpinnings needed to run this Court in a patient, dignified and courteous manner.

5. Why is this race important?

Because bullies don’t belong on the bench. Humiliation, sarcasm and snark are a judicial bully’s tools of oppression. Harris county citizens access this Court in times of crisis. Those citizens and their lawyers pay the salaries of our Harris County family law jurists. They deserve to interact with a judge who is patient, dignified and courteous when they find themselves in family law court. Every. Single. Courtroom. Day.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

I am the most qualified candidate for this job. The incumbent has had a judicial term to demonstrate his experience, compassion and common-sense approach, and he’s come up short. Judicial incumbents who have shown themselves incapable of managing the job you gave them should now be returned to private practice. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, ‘when people show you who they are, believe them’.

The hospitals are getting slammed again

Take precautions, y’all.

Pandemic forecasters in Texas say the state’s current surge of omicron infections and hospitalizations is likely to get much worse before it gets better, with hospitalizations expected to continue climbing for at least three weeks if social behaviors don’t change and slow the trend.

Across the nation, hospitalizations are already on the verge of breaking new pandemic records. In Texas on Thursday, according to state data, about 9,200 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 — far short of the record 14,218 hospitalizations from Jan. 11, 2021.

But with current numbers climbing exponentially each week, hospitalizations of Texans with COVID are likely to follow national trends and surpass previous levels in the state before they start to decline, said Anass Bouchnita, a researcher at the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which uses data and research to project the path of the pandemic nationally.

The number of Texans testing positive for the virus every day is already at an all-time high, reaching a seven-day average of almost 44,000 confirmed cases on Friday. The seven-day average of new confirmed cases during the peak of the delta surge back in September was over 15,000.

That trend is likely to continue for at least another week, Bouchnita said.

“The situation in Texas is that it probably won’t reach the peak [for cases] until the second half of January,” he said.

Experts say the extremely high case count is why so many people are showing up in the hospital even as medical evidence suggests that the omicron variant — responsible for most new and active cases in Texas — is less severe than the previously dominant delta variant.

Bouchnita talked to The Texas Tribune on Friday, the same day the UT consortium released a report with the research team’s latest calculations about omicron’s projected path nationally. The report, which looked at eight scenarios in which omicron had varying degrees of severity, infectiousness and resistance to immunity, suggests the nation could see its new cases of this more contagious but less severe strain peak by mid-January before decreasing by half in early February.

The report called the current surge the largest COVID-19 wave in the United States to date.

[…]

Intensive care units at more than 50 hospitals are at 100% capacity, according to state reports, and some regions of the state, including El Paso, are reporting no ICU beds available in the area.

Already, the state’s children’s hospitals have more patients with COVID-19 in their beds than at any other time in the pandemic — 351 statewide on Thursday, which is higher than the last peak during the delta variant surge of 345 in early September.

“It’s pretty crazy,” said Frisco pediatrician Dr. Seth Kaplan, immediate past president of the Texas Pediatrics Society. “Our volume is way up.”

It’s mostly omicron now, very little delta in Texas, though there’s still a fair amount of delta in other parts of the US. It is true that omicron is less severe than delta, but it’s also true that it’s far more transmissible, and it’s affecting far more vaccinated people. Even with less severity, the sheer number of people being infected is driving the higher number of hospitalizations.

And while more vaccinated people are being infected by COVID, there’s still a big difference in outcomes between the vaxxed and the unvaxxed.

Omicron is sending a larger share of vaccinated people to the hospital that any previous COVID-19 variant, but unvaccinated people are still more likely to need critical care, according to Houston-area hospital officials.

Twenty-two of the 27 COVID patients in Harris Health System’s intensive care units are unvaccinated. At Houston Methodist, roughly 60 percent of the 80 COVID patients in the ICU are unvaccinated, and a high percentage of the remaining patients have underlying health conditions, said Dr. Faisal Masud, the hospital’s medical director of critical care.

It’s a similar story at St. Luke’s Health and Memorial Hermann Health System, both of which say 70 percent of ICU patients are unvaccinated.

“The vast majority of the people who are critically ill are either unvaccinated or have significant comorbidities,” said Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann. “We are not seeing middle-aged, healthy, vaccinated individuals in the ICU like we did in the previous wave.”

[…]

Statewide, the number of patients in the ICU has been steadily rising since Christmas Eve, from 1,030 to 1,711 on Wednesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. That’s about half of the patients in the ICU at the peak of the delta wave, but some Houston hospitals are already seeing ICU rates double over the last week.

The number of incoming ICU patients could exceed all previous peaks, said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System. While the vaccines may not be as effective as they were initially, the current ICU population indicates that “they are still extremely effective against severe disease,” he said.

“More and more breakthrough infections are going to happen,” Porsa said. “We’re going to get a higher percentage of people who are vaccinated, but that number is never going to be a big number. It’s always going to be minority of people.”

Overall, doctors say omicron is not damaging the lungs as much as earlier strains. Fewer COVID patients in the Harris Health ICU require mechanical ventilation compared to delta, said Porsa, but other health issues like kidney and heart failure are becoming more common.

At Methodist, Masud has observed a similar pattern. A large portion of ICU patients Masud has treated ended up in the unit because the virus exacerbated an existing disease. The risk of facing such complications is higher for unvaccinated people, he said.

“This is eliciting an immune response, which is not only limited to lungs but which makes the patients sicker, with existing disease becoming much worse,” he said.

Masud said that now is a critical time to wear a well-fitted mask in public, especially for people who are not vaccinated.

It’s the same as before, in that the things you can do to mitigate your risk haven’t changed. Get vaxxed, and get your booster. Wear an N95 or KN95 mask when out with people. Avoid large indoor events and gatherings. Stay home if you’re not feeling well. This will pass, but how bad it gets before it passes is still up in the air. For more on the national picture, see TPM, Mother Jones, and Daily Kos.

Mike Fields

I’ve been wondering when someone will write a story about Mike Fields, who had been a respected Republican criminal court judge in Harris County before losing in the 2018 sweep and is now running for Attorney General as a Democrat. Well, here it is.

Mike Fields

As a former Republican judge in Harris County, Mike Fields hopes to cater to a broader swath of voters than his more progressive competitors in the race for the Democratic nomination for Texas attorney general.

“I really do think the center is where most Texans are,” Fields said. “I think the majority of citizens, who are not hard partisans, want their leadership to adhere to those things that unite us, not focus on those wedge issues that divide us.”

Fields served as a criminal court-at-law judge for 20 years before he was unseated in 2018 in a Democratic sweep that flipped all remaining judicial seats in the county. Earlier that year, he had split with his fellow Republicans to side with poor defendants advocating for affordable or cash-free bond for low-level offenders.

After his re-election loss, no longer in a career in which he was expected to be politically neutral, Fields said the bail issue helped him to see that his views better aligned with the Democratic party than the GOP.

“When I joined the party to run (in 1997), it was a different party, led by different people who saw the value in compromise,” Fields said. “And now it seems that things have just gotten so polarized and some of the issues have become such hot button issues that it’s hard to recognize this Republican Party.”

[…]

Unlike the other candidates, Fields noted that he has first-hand experience in the office: He spent about a year and a half working in the attorney general’s prosecution assistance division starting in 1995.

“The first thing I do is dismiss all of those frivolous lawsuits against the Biden administration and others that tied up Texas resources, tilting at windmills, and rescind a lot of the memos that have been sent out in support of far-right issues that really have nothing to do with the attorney general’s office,” he said.

Also unlike other candidates, Fields said he won’t be making Paxton’s legal troubles a highlight of his campaign. Paxton has been under indictment since 2015 for felony securities fraud charges and is facing an FBI investigation after being accused of corruption by his top aides last October; he’s denied any wrongdoing.

“I have spent my life in this judicial process affording people the benefit of their presumption of innocence — I don’t want to stop now,” he said.

He acknowledged, however, that for his own campaign, “not being under criminal indictment is certainly a plus.”

The “longtime former Republican who is now running as a Democrat because his former party has lost its mind” angle is a great hook, which is why I’m surprised I hadn’t seen one of these stories before. Fields is an appealing candidate in a field with multiple appealing candidates – Joe Jaworski, Lee Merritt, and Rochelle Garza. (There’s a fifth candidate, Stephen “T-Bone” Raynor, about whom I know nothing.) I may or may not try to reach out to statewide candidates for primary interviews, but if I do I’ll be interested in talking to him. For now, I’ll just say that there are a lot of good choices on the ballot. And all of them would be a billion times better than Ken Paxton, and at least a million times better than any of Paxton’s primary opponents.