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An early look at the primary for Commissioners Court, Precinct 4

I have a few thoughts about this.

With a new Harris County precinct map in place, Democrats may have their best chance in a dozen years of capturing Precinct 4. That’s set up a fierce, three-way contest in the Democratic primary to challenge the incumbent Republican, Commissioner Jack Cagle.

The Democratic primary to face Cagle includes former civil court judge Lesley Briones, former state representative Gina Calanni, former county elections official Ben Chou, and Alief ISD board president Ann Williams.

Briones joined the bench as presiding judge of Harris County Civil Court at Law Number 4 in April 2019, when Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court appointed her to fill out the term of Bill McLeod. Briones won a full term in 2020, but resigned from the bench in order to run for county commissioner.

Gina Calanni previously served as state representative for House District 132, representing portions of Katy. She served a single term, defeating Republican State Rep. Mike Schofield in 2018 but losing a rematch to him in 2020.

Ben Chou has held no elective office. He previously served in the Harris County Election Administrator’s office, overseeing 2020 voting innovations that included expansion of drive-thru voting. Before that, he worked for former governor of Maryland and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley and for then House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Ann Williams was first elected as Alief ISD board trustee in 2007 and has served as the board’s president for the past seven years.

“This will be a primary runoff election,” said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, who prefaced his remarks by saying Chou was a former student of his. “I don’t think any one of these…candidates is likely to win 51% of the vote or 50% + 1.”

[…]

Even if the new map stands, Stein said, the power of incumbency means it is far too early to count Cagle out. He noted Cagle, who was first elected in 2010, has a long record of addressing flooding and road congestion problems that gives him broad appeal.

“I would think at this point,” Stein said, “if you’re going to beat an incumbent Republican, you’re going to have to have a Democrat who can draw on some Republican voters, or at least some independents.”

Stein doubted Calanni’s ability to do that, noting her record as much more progressive than her two Democratic rivals. “It remains to be seen whether Ben Chou has that, what I’d call, ideological moderate or centrist position,” Stein said. “But clearly, I would say former Judge Briones is in a strong position.”

First, there’s an error correction appended to the story that says it should have referred to this race being a four-way contest, not three. That said, there are actually seven candidates running, the four named in this story plus Jeff Stauber, Clarence Miller, and Sandra Pelmore. Stauber has run for Sheriff in 2016 and for County Commissioner in Precinct 3 in 2020. Miller and Pelmore are first time candidates as far as I know, with Miller making the pre-COVID and pre-redistricting rounds as a candidate. He has a campaign website, the others do not. I doubt any of them will get much in the way or financial or establishment support, but they are in the race and they will get some votes.

We haven’t really had a Democratic primary for a Commissioners Court seat like this before. There were multi-candidate primaries in 2020 for Precinct 3, which was open after the announced retirement of Steve Radack. The Republicans were favored to hold the seat, so their primary was a reasonably close analog for this one, and all three of their candidates were current or recent elected officials. On the Democratic side there were multiple candidates, but no electeds. I feel like the stakes are higher for Democrats than they were in 2020, since they invested capital in redrawing the Commissioners Court map, and if they fail to expand their majority they don’t really get another shot until 2026. And yes, there is a low but non-zero chance Dems could lose the majority they have now, and maybe see any chance to do more go away as Republicans would surely try to redraw the existing map.

As for Commissioner Cagle, it is true that incumbent Commissioners have punched above their weight in the past. Jack Morman ran ahead of other Republicans in 2018, even against a strong and well-known Democratic opponent in Adrian Garcia, and came close to hanging on. Garcia only took the lead in that race late at night, around the same time that Judge Lina Hidalgo was finally pulling ahead. Going back a little farther, then-Commissioner Sylvia Garcia also came close to hanging on in 2010 – again, she ran well ahead of other Dems on the ticket that year. If the environment is sufficiently favorable to Republicans, or if Cagle can really convince the muddled middle to stick with him, he could survive. That said, I say it’s Cagle who is going to have to draw on these voters, at least as much as the Democratic nominee. The whole point of the redistricting exercise was to make this precinct as favorable as reasonably possible for a more or less generic Democrat. If that’s not enough to unseat Cagle, it’s a pretty massive failure.

I’m not sure why Professor Stein singles out Calanni as less electable than any of the others. I mean, with rare exceptions (Jasmine Crockett comes to mind), freshman Democratic legislators tend to not get noticed all that much. I can’t think of anything in her record that would stand out as a clear liability. That’s not to say that she couldn’t be attacked for something that the Dems supported or opposed in the 2019 legislative session, though that was a fairly modest and serene one all things considered. But really, anything she could be attacked for, I’m pretty sure the others could be as well. I don’t quite understand this thinking.

I do think Briones has an early advantage, at least in the primary, for having received endorsements from Commissioners Garcia and Ellis. I expect that to show up in the campaign finance report as well, and that’s something that can extend to the general election also. But I would not sleep on Ann Williams as a candidate, as she has easily the longest electoral record, having been an Alief ISD Trustee since 2007. Those are very different elections, in terms of turnout and the electorate, but still. She’s the only one who’s been elected to something more than once, and I think that counts for something. Calanni also had more challenging races to win in each of her times on the ballot, and I’d say she overperformed in 2018. None of this is intended in any way as a slight to Lesley Briones, just my observation that there’s more nuance to this than what is expressed in the story.

Anyway. I hope to see a lot more stories like this one, as we are very much in the swing of primary season. It will be early voting before you know it, so let’s get to the campaign and candidate overviews. I’ll be running interviews with at least these four named Democratic candidates the week of January 10.

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