It’s deja vu all over again.
Republican Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan once again faces a challenge from Democrat Ann Harris Bennett, a rematch from four years ago for an office that oversees billions of dollars in property tax collections, maintains voter rolls and registers more vehicles than any other county in the state.
Bennett lost to Sullivan in the 2012 election by about two-tenths of a percent, or less than 2,400 votes.
Now, she is back, with a mission to unseat Sullivan and end the succession of Republican tax assessor-collectors, including Don Sumners and now-state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, that she said represents the establishment.
“They have used (the office) in ways that I don’t think the taxpayers of Harris County would be pleased with,” the former court coordinator said.
Sullivan has made “customer service” his motto. He was a former city council member before becoming the county taxman, and was on the Humble ISD school board before that.
In almost four years in office, he has launched initiatives that he said touches virtually every resident of Harris County.
Among them, he said, were workshops to help people challenge their property appraisals and training sessions for high school principals in Houston ISD on how to register students as voters.
He pointed to his work with the county budget office to upgrade the office’s computers and software, and touted his creation of a military help desk to aid soldiers and their families navigate what can be complex tax rules. He said he also instituted an employee recognition program to improve morale.
He also points to decisions to allow people to pay for registration renewals or other transactions with credit cards and put televisions in the lobbies of all of his offices.
“For me, it’s all about serving the public,” Sullivan said.
For Bennett, a big part of what separates her from Sullivan centers on how and when to use the office’s soapbox to advocate for issues beyond its immediate control.
Last year, Sullivan was part of a delegation of county officials whose lobbying in Austin helped torpedo a bill that would have allowed Texas voters to register online.
Sullivan said that the process already is fraught with irregularities, adding that his office regularly has to deal with discrepancies between Department of Public Safety records and information on the voter rolls, discrepancies he said would only grow with online voter registration.
Sullivan pointed to a record number of registered voters in the county this fall – close to 2.2 million – as evidence that current methods are working.
There’s two ways of looking at this race. One is that Sullivan has unquestionably been an upgrade over the two clowns that preceded him, Don Sumners and Leo Vasquez. He’s also been less political than Paul Bettencourt was. The big strike against him, which led to the Chron endorsing Bennett, is his opposition to online voter registration. He has his stated reasons, and it is true that registrations are at a record high for the county. It’s also true that this is contrary to his generally modern approach to technology in other aspects of his office, that he could have pledged to work with the DPS to fix the problems he says they have with their data, and that even if people have been able to overcome the existing obstacles to getting registered, they shouldn’t have had to overcome them when a much easier solution was available. Like the other countywide races, the partisan tide will be the biggest factor in who wins and who loses. I think Sullivan has the best chance of the three Republican incumbents to survive if the Democrats have the overall advantage. Whether he does or he doesn’t, the issue of online voter registration is not going to go away.