First, a lamentation.
Not even a month has passed since Sylvester Turner was sworn in as Houston’s new mayor, and already the next election cycle is just around the corner. Early voting for party primaries is about a month away, running from Feb. 16 through Feb. 26. Election Day is March 1. Safely gerrymandered districts often mean that these party primaries serve as the functional election for the state Legislature, Congress and other positions. It can be frustrating to know that the November election has a predetermined outcome for all too many politicians, but this version of democracy feels practically Athenian in contrast to the process for replacing the late El Franco Lee, the longtime Democratic county commissioner for Harris County Precinct 1.
Because Lee died after the filing date to get on the ballot, his name will remain voters’ only choice. Republicans and Libertarians offered no opponent for the general election and the Green Party candidate has withdrawn. Under state law, Democratic Party precinct chairs for Lee’s precinct will select his replacement. At no point in this process will voters in Precinct 1 have a direct say about who will represent them on Commissioners Court.
This election-free appointment should be anathema to the values of our representative republic, but the problem isn’t new. County government has a history of avoiding an active electorate. In fact, Lee never faced a serious challenger throughout his 30-year career as county commissioner. If his successor has similar luck, it is possible that people could live their entire voting lives without seeing a single competitive race in Precinct 1.
I don’t disagree with any of this, but it should be noted that the process to select a party’s nominee when the filing deadline has passed is prescribed by the Legislature. You may not like the idea of having such a small group of people (myself included) picking the next Commissioner, but look at it this way – if Commissioner Lee had died in, say, October, he would have remained on the ballot and then his spot on the Court would have been filled by Judge Emmett, all by himself, as was the case when Jerry Eversole resigned. That person would have gotten to serve for two full years before having to run to serve the remainder of the four-year term, and would have been a heavy favorite to not just win but be essentially unopposed at that time. It is what it is.
We certainly could do this process differently, and now is as good a time as we’ll ever get to discuss what if any alternative methods might be better. One obvious possibility is that we just declare a special election to fill the seat for the next term – Judge Emmett can appoint an interim Commissioner as he sees fit for the rest of the year – and let whoever wants in file for the now-vacant position. Of course, given the timing that may either cause vacancies in other races, or may prevent someone who might have jumped at the opportunity had it presented itself at another time to let it pass. It also all but guarantees that the winner would be decided in a much-lower-turnout December runoff. Is that better? Is there another way that’s better than that? You tell me. It would have been nice for the Chron to offer a suggestion to go along with the complaining.
Oh, and one more thing: On the matter of people possibly living their entire voting lives without ever having the chance to vote in a real Commissioners race in Precinct 1, I have five words: “Term limits”, and “campaign finance reform”. Either of them would address the issue. As above you need to take that up with the Legislature. I don’t care for term limits, but if they’re good enough for City Council, they’re surely good enough for the much more powerful office of County Commissioner.
After some griping about the, um, flexible ethics standards for County government, the Chron gets to what they would like from the next Commissioner in Precinct 1.
Normally editorials urge voters to select good candidates, but now that duty falls upon Democratic Party officials. We encourage them to follow County Judge Ed Emmett’s example and reject the politicians who rushed at first word of Lee’s untimely death to ask for an appointment. Harris County needs commissioners who are mindful of the future. There’s nearly as many people living in the unincorporated county as there are in the city of Houston, and county governance wasn’t designed to handle that burden.
Precinct chairs should look for someone ready to tackle this issue, and that should include discussions about incorporation in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, merging city and county services, and bringing greater transparency to county business. The next commissioner of Precinct 1 also will have the responsibility of saving the Astrodome.
You know what I’m looking for. Again, I basically agree with the Chron list, though again some specifics from them would have been nice. Precinct 1 is overwhelmingly part of the city of Houston, so it’s reasonable that the Commissioner there be a leader in forging city-county relations. I’ll give this some more thought and write it up when I have something to say.