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October 14th, 2022:

Judicial Q&A: Judge Tonya Jones

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Tonya Jones

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

My name is Tonya Jones and I have the honor and privilege of serving as the presiding judge of Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 15.

I am a native Houstonian and graduated Baylor University and Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, LA. Prior to my election to the bench in 2018 I worked mainly as a criminal defense attorney in both Harris and Fort Bend County. My then practice also included family law and personal injury.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Court 15 is one of sixteen county criminal courts at law that serve the citizens of Harris County. This court has jurisdiction over class A&B misdeamenors, as well as appeals from justice of the peace and municipal courts. Some class A&B misdemeanors include driving while intoxicated, theft, assault, an burglary of a motor vehicle.

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

Collectively my colleagues and I accomplished great things collectively while in the first term on the bench. The historic s O’Donnell lawsuit was settled which help to eliminate unconstitutional bail practices in the misdemeanor courts as well as insure due process and timely evidentiary hearings. From that litigation several useful pilots were created including Cite and Release Court, Open Hours Court, and the Managed Assigned Counsel program. We have really worked hard to eliminate some of the most crippling obstacles that made court appearance yet another hurdle to clear.

I’m most proud of the creation of the B.A.Y.O.U. City Community Court, which includes the Fresh Start Program. BAYOU is an acronym which means “bringing knowledge to you with outreach and understanding”. The first program under that initiative is the Fresh Start Program where we have partnered with the public defender’s office as well as other community organizations to assist non-violent offenders with non-disclosures where applicable.

I have also successfully reduced my case backlog from 2300 to below 1800 active cases pending.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

I hope to expand the BAYOU City Community Court and continue to reduce my case backlog to what it was pre-pandemic and Harvey.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because it will either solidify and build upon the great strides my colleagues and I have made in criminal justice or completely erase those efforts. We have transformed the criminal justice system in many ways and have demonstrated a commitment to progressive policies. I want the opportunity to continue this work for all the residents of Harris County.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

People should vote for me in November because I have delivered on the promises I made in 2018. I have demonstrated a commitment to leadership in the administration of justice, not only in Court 15, but all county courts at law, having been elected as the Local Administrative Judge for the 20 County Courts at Law. I have consistently come up with ways to increase case management efficiency and utilized all the resources available to combat case backlog without doing so at the expense of due process. I have remained flexible and versatile under extreme and unprecedented conditions and have worked extremely hard with my court team and other stakeholders to improve access to justice and efficiency. I’ve remained active and involved in diverse communities throughout the county as well as opened the courts to young people interested in the practice of law. I’ve done the work but there is more to be done and I want the opportunity to continue.

Houston City Council approves its new map

Now we wait for the lawsuit(s).

City Council on Wednesday approved new boundaries for the city’s 11 districts for the 2023 elections, featuring modest adjustments affecting parts of downtown, Braeburn, Greater Inwood and a few areas in southeast Houston.

The new boundaries aim to balance district populations based on the latest census data.

By law, the most populous district should not have more than 10 percent more residents than the smallest district. Based on the 2020 census, Districts C and G need to give up some neighborhoods. Districts H, I and J, on the other hand, have lost too many constituents and need to expand. Overall, fewer than 3 percent of the Houston’s 2.3 million residents will change districts.

The redistricting plan had gone through several iterations based on months of internal discussions and public feedback. On Wednesday, four council members also offered amendments to the proposal, three of which were successful.

Despite the majority support for the new maps, council had to vote twice to approve them after it was revealed late Wednesday that the city secretary called out the wrong agenda item before the council voted during the morning session.

The council reconvened at 6 p.m. for a public hearing on a proposed bond election. Following the hearing, which drew no speakers, the council confirmed the new maps by a 14-2 vote, with District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos and District E Councilmember Dave Martin dissenting.

[…]

City Demographer Jerry Wood said throughout the design process he had to juggle competing interests from council members and the public and was unable to accommodate some requests.

“If you go into this thinking that you’re going to make everybody happy, you’re going to be sorry for thinking that,” Wood said. “If you go into this thinking that you’re going to make as few people unhappy as possible, then you might have some success.”

See here for some background. The map I’ve embedded is from the early part of the process and doesn’t include any of the changes made at that Council meeting, so go here for the latest details. CM Gallegos has some issues with the process and with an amendment that affected District I; the story did not say why CM Martin voted no. Overall, this was pretty painless, certainly easier than it was in 2011 when we had to add two new districts. That doesn’t mean there won’t be legal issues:

Much of the discussion around redistricting has centered on the lack of Hispanic representation at City Hall.

While about 45 percent of Houston residents are Hispanic, Gallegos of District I is the only Hispanic council member out of the 16, even though the city previously created two other Hispanic-opportunity districts, H and J.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, has promised to sue the city over what its advocates characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos on the council.

The goal of the lawsuit is to replace the city’s five at-large seats, which represent voters citywide, with single-member seats, which cover a certain geographical area, to improve minority representation.

The city has hired a law firm in anticipation of the legal challenge.

“We are asking for equity and fairness, and we just don’t have that with the current districts,” said Sergio Lira, a Houston-based leader with the organization. “That’s why we are filing the lawsuit to push for changes.”

Some are worried that Kamin’s amendment could have an adverse effect on Hispanic votes.

The areas set to move to District H instead of Freedmen’s Town, have high percentages of Hispanic constituents, but are experiencing gentrification and are expected to see a decline in Hispanic populations in the following years, according to Wood.

Gallegos said that he did not originally agree with LULAC’s demand to abolish Houston’s at-large seats, but in light of these new developments, he plans to work closely with the organization to advance its cause.

“After what happened this morning, I agree that we need all single-member districts to make sure that we have the representation we need,” he said.

See here for some background. I don’t have anything to add to what I wrote then. I think the plaintiffs would have a decent chance of prevailing if they file, but it’s not a slam dunk. An alternate possible outcome would be to agree to move City Council elections to even-numbered years, as the natural boost in turnout would create a more diverse electorate and thus could raise the chances of Latino candidates in citywide races. That was one of the things that happened in Austin, in addition to the switch to districts from At Large; their elections had been in May of odd years, for maximal non-turnout. Greg Wythe wrote on this topic some years ago at his sadly defunct blog, and it’s stuck with me ever since. There are good reasons to keep city elections in the odd years – Lord knows, we have enough to vote on in the even years, and putting them in the even years would very likely make them more overtly partisan – I’m just saying it’s a possible option. We’ll see what happens.

More big money in the Governor’s race

Thirty day reports are in.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke continue to shatter fundraising records in Texas with over $200 million that is funding a statewide ad war as the state’s most competitive governor’s race in decades heads into its final four weeks.

Both candidates reported raising another $25 million over the last three months of the campaign, adding to the combined $150 million they had previously reported raising.

O’Rourke now has raised $66 million for his campaign — a record for any Democratic candidate for governor in Texas. That tops the more than $40 million Democrat Wendy Davis raised in 2014 against Abbott. In 2002, Laredo Democrat Tony Sanchez spent $76 million in his failed bid against Republican Rick Perry, but more than $60 million of that came from the billionaire’s own fortune.

“I’m grateful for everyone who helped raise $25.18 million in just three months as we support the work of our organizers and record-breaking 100,000 volunteers,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke is still far behind Abbott, who reported raising $25 million over the last three months and now has raised $134 million since he began collecting donations for his re-election in 2019. No candidate for governor in Texas history has raised more.

Abbott’s cash on hand advantage is also gone, though that may depend on when they did some spending. It’s complicated. Look, the bottom line is that Beto raised a ton of money and was basically even or a bit ahead of Abbott on that score over most of this year. Whatever happens, that’s pretty good. The Observer has more.

Endorsement watch: Yeah, I’m still mad

Here’s that Chuck Crews endorsement I thought we were going to get on Wednesday instead of that giant turd the Chron gifted us with.

Chuck Crews

State Rep. Briscoe Cain’s three terms in the Texas House could charitably be described as harmful buffoonery, full of extreme and divisive social media rhetoric that mirrors his approach to policymaking. But, as Texas Monthly rated him the state’s worst legislator in 2017 and in 2021, he’s inept even at that.

What’s clear to us is that the people in his district — which straddles the Houston Ship Channel and includes Pasadena, Deer Park, most of Baytown and La Porte — aren’t well-served by his leadership. Voters in the Republican stronghold keep returning him to office, but people in this area need a representative focused on chemical plant safety, education and air quality. Cain’s priorities? Election fraud, Twitter trolling and abortion lawsuits.

[…]

While Cain sets a low bar, we hope for more out of a challenger than the bare minimum. Fortunately, Democratic challenger Chuck Crews struck us as direct, capable and thoughtful, with a professional background that would help his constituents. A longtime petrochemical engineer, Crews said he’d put his extensive knowledge of the industry to use right away in the Legislature to make plants mechanically safer and environmentally cleaner for surrounding communities. He said he’d do all he could to improve the energy grid, legalize cannabis and bolster rural health care.

“You can’t throw a rock in this district without hitting a chemical plant somewhere. I’m a chemical engineer with 15 years experience in the field,” Crews told us. “I would be the better representative for this district because I know the work, I’ve crawled through distillation columns to inspect them … we need a representative who actually represents us.”

Crews, 48, said he was a field organizer in O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate, his first foray into partisan politics, though he’s also worked numerous times as an elections judge. Prior to 2020, no Democrat had even run for the District 128 seat in more than a decade.

We urge voters there to choose Crews because he is the candidate focused on policy and people, and not on partisan noise.

My interview with Chuck Crews is here. They go on at some length against harmful buffoon Cain, but I’m too bitter to enjoy it right now. You go ahead if that feels good to you, they make a solid case. I will stop here before I say something I might later regret.

They also endorsed in three SBOE races.

The culture wars have turned schools into political battlegrounds, as few things spark voters’ passions more than the future of their kids and, by extension, the future of our state. In Texas, the State Board of Education has the final say on curriculum standards, veto power over new charter schools and shared responsibility for managing the permanent fund that backs the debt schools take on.

In their meetings with the editorial board, the candidates who made the strongest case were the ones who kept the best interests of students and teachers in mind, rather than parroting party platform talking points.

They endorsed Republican incumbent Will Hickman in SBOE6 in a close call over Democrat Michelle Palmer, whose interview is here. I don’t have anything bad to say about Hickman, but Palmer is a star and I will be happily voting for her. In District 7 they endorsed Democrat Dan Hochman against a Republican wingnut, and in District 8 they endorsed Republican incumbent Audrey Young against a Libertarian perennial candidate, a fellow who has run as a Democrat and as a Republican in past elections.