I had wondered if the Chron was going to weigh in on any of the candidate-selection processes that will be going on over the next two weeks. I even sent an email to a couple of their editorial board members on Saturday morning to ask about it. Turns out, I needn’t have wondered, they were on it.
It looks like Election Night will be over before it began, if you can even call it an election. State Sen. Rodney Ellis is already claiming victory in the bizarre June 25 contest to replace the late Precinct 1 County Commissioner El Franco Lee on the November ballot.
Lee died earlier this year with his name as the only choice in the March 25 primary and no opponent in the general election. The byzantine dictates of election law and political party structure mean that a smattering of 125 otherwise inconsequential precinct chairs get to pick his successor for this powerful position.
The United States has never been a direct democracy, but this entire process is about as far as a political system can get from representative government without leaving the realm of a republic altogether. After a primary season that left plenty of voters jaded across the political spectrum, Democrats need to take a hard look at this replacement process.
With only 65 votes, Ellis can claim an unopposed path to a seat on Harris County Commissioners Court, where he’ll represent 1.2 million people across a heavily gerrymandered and largely urban district that includes the heavily African-American Third and Fifth wards, in addition to southern parts of the county. In that seat, he’ll control a $200 million budget and receive a base annual salary of nearly $170,000. Important issues like flooding, toll roads and the criminal justice system are controlled by that five-member court.
Some candidates told us that they had to file open records requests to learn the names of the precinct chairs. Others said they still weren’t sure whether the eventual vote on June 25 would be a secret ballot or not. And Provost told the editorial board that she thought the party was working to push the whole thing in Ellis’ direction.
While the bulk of local Democrats don’t get to vote, they should at least consider themselves lucky that the chairs are apparently going with a well-qualified candidate. The only other challenger who comes close is Locke, a former Houston city attorney who was appointed to the position by County Judge Ed Emmett. Locke has worked as an attorney for the county and already has a deep knowledge of how county government functions and all the personalities at play. However, this insider perspective means that he’d be unlikely to shake up the status quo of the board’s under-the-radar activities. For example, when he met with the Chronicle editorial board, Locke rejected claims that responsibility for recent flooding rests with the Harris County Flood Control District. Does this show that Locke is too close to county government to see the big picture?
Let’s deal with that penultimate paragraph first. Precinct chairs are actual elected officials, so their names are a matter of public record. Go to the Secretary of State website – you can find that link right here on the HCDP page entitled “Precinct Chairs and Senate District Leadership” – and you can get a list of every precinct chair for both parties in the entire state. That wasn’t so difficult, was it? If you want contact information for precinct chairs, I’m sure a simple call or email to the HCDP will do. I’ve been a chair for eight years, and I’ve received plenty of email and snail mail from candidates during that time seeking the support and endorsement of my colleagues and myself. On the matter of how the June 25 ballot will be conducted, Gerry Birnberg has stated publicly at two different events – the spring CEC meeting and the May 25 candidate forum – that Texas Democratic Party rules expressly forbid secret ballots for this sort of thing. I don’t expect the Chron editorial board to know these things offhand – though honestly, how hard is it to go to harrisdemocrats.com and poke around a bit; it took me like 10 seconds to find what I was looking for – but anyone seeking this post really ought to be capable of reading the TDP rulebook or contacting their friendly neighborhood SDEC rep for clarification. I wish the Chron had identified the people who had made these claims, because to me it’s evidence that they are either too misinformed or dishonest to merit consideration.
Finally, in regard to Georgia Provost’s complaint, clearly this is the year of candidates claiming that The System is rigged against them. Let me state for the record that no one from the HCDP has contacted me about this race in any fashion except to announce public events like the candidate forum and the upcoming precinct convention. I suspect her beef is based on the forum and the convention being held at the CWA hall, with the CWA being supporters of Ellis. All I can say is that every official Democratic Party event I’ve ever been to has been held in one of three places – the old jury assembly room downtown, the IBEW hall next door to HCDP headquarters, and the CWA hall. How this is supposed to affect the outcome in any way is a mystery to me.
Now for the Chron’s grievances about the process. As one of those 125 otherwise inconsequential precinct chairs, believe me when I say I’d rather not have this power. I can’t wait for it to be over, and if you’ll allow me a bit of personal bitching, I’d much rather spend this Saturday morning driving up to Camp Allen to pick up my kids than spend it at the CWA hall engaging in what is likely to be an un-fun process. That’s life in the big city, and I doubt anyone cares. If you don’t like the process that we have, I encourage you to express that opinion to your legislators, since it’s state law that compels us to take this path. I’d advise you to suggest a replacement process if you do – the Chron did not offer any alternatives – and to bear in mind that this is a really unusual set of circumstances at play. Remember that a slightly larger group of precinct chairs will be selecting two judicial nominees next week, and nobody is having any agida about that. The difference is that those positions have less power than County Commissioner, and those candidates will face general election opponents in races that are seen as tossups. It’s the combination of the position’s power and the lack of a general election opponent that makes this one stand out.
I get the concern with that, I really do. But if you want to argue for a special election as an alternate process, bear in mind that this is to select a party nominee, not a general election winner. Any such election would need to be limited to the people who participated in the most recent primary election, since those are the people who would have made the choice if El Franco Lee had timed his death more propitiously. Had he died before December 15, someone else could have filed to be on the March ballot. Any special election process – including a runoff – would need to take place between March and August, to ensure that the replacement nominee would be on the ballot in time for the early September deadline for printing overseas ballots. That would be going on at the same time as other primary runoffs and the May general election, which I guarantee would lead to complaints of “election fatigue”. Finally, remember that if Lee had waited till after Labor Day to die, he’d have been on the November ballot, and after his term expired next January 1, Ed Emmett would have picked his replacement for the ensuing two years, after which whoever he named would get to be on the 2018 primary ballot as the incumbent. That is of course the Jack Cagle story, with Jerry Eversole resigning instead of dying, and I don’t recall there being this much fuss about it. If you don’t like the idea of 125 (duly elected) precinct chairs picking the next County Commissioner, how much would you like one County Judge, from the opposing party, doing it instead? It could have been worse, is what I’m saying.