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Interview with Kelly Stone

Kelly Stone

Today we take a break from the State House to return to the one statewide office on the ballot, Railroad Commissioner. It will be the fourth race you see on your ballot this fall, after President, Senate, and Congress. If Democrats make a breakthrough in state government this year, this will be the place it happens. Four Dems are lined up to take a shot at the RRC position that is on the ballot, held by incumbent Ryan Sitton. Kelly Stone was the first to throw her hat into the ring. Stone is an educator, environmental activist, and comedian from San Marcos. She’s also a lifelong athlete, who has completed the “world’s toughest canoe race” and was the placekicker on her high school football team. Please note, she was in town visiting family with her two sons when we did this interview at the Heights Library, and each of them wandered into the room as we were talking and started offering their own answers to my questions, so you’ll hear a bit of their voices as well. Here’s the interview:

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Kimberly McLeod – SBOE6
Debra Kerner – SBOE6

Chrysta Castañeda – RRC

Vince Ryan – Harris County Attorney
Ben Rose – Harris County Attorney
Christian Menefee – Harris County Attorney

Ann Johnson – HD134
Ruby Powers – HD134
Lanny Bose – HD134

Judge Powell back on the ballot

So be it.

Judge George Powell

A civil court judge Wednesday ordered that sitting criminal district Judge George Powell be included on the March primary ballot after the Harris County Democratic Party denied his application for candidacy last month.

Party officials had to accept Powell’s application within 24 hours, and he needs to appear as a choice for voters during the election, Judge Lauren Reeder ordered. But the ruling is technically temporary and could be subject to appeal by the party or Powell’s primary opponent, who was a third-party “intervener” in Powell’s suit against the party.

“I’m very happy that the judge granted our request for an injunction and that he gets the chance to run again,” said Kent Schaffer, Powell’s attorney. “Ultimately, it’s the voters who should decide who the candidate’s going to be, and not a select few people who feel like it’s their right.”

During a Tuesday court hearing, the local chapter of the Democratic Party sought to justify its decision in leaving Powell off the ballot, urging him to take responsibility for his application’s failure. A statement party officials issued after Wednesday’s ruling made little mention of the outcome, however, and pointed to issues with the election code.

Party leaders weren’t able to approve Powell’s candidacy because state rules prevented it, they said. The judge paid an insufficient filing fee too close to the filing deadline, meaning his application was denied and the problem couldn’t be fixed without breaking state rules, party chair Lillie Schechter testified Tuesday.

“The Harris County Democratic Party regrets the situation Judge Powell found himself in,” party officials said in a statement. “Without question, we believe all eligible candidates should have access to the ballot.”

See here for the background, and here for a pre-hearing version of the story, which was also covered by Texas Lawyer. On the one hand, I agree with the HCDP: The rules are easy to understand. He could have filed earlier than the very last minute, when there was no time to fix this easily-corrected mistake. The party doesn’t have much discretion according to the law. On the other hand, I hate seeing people bumped from the ballot for nit-picky reasons. The law in question should be amended to allow a post-deadline grace period to correct technical errors like this (though again, if you know you’re going to run, file at least a day before the deadline and save yourself the trouble).

This is probably the end of the story. The HCDP does not plan to appeal, and intervenor/primary opponent Natalia Cornelio does not appear to be appealing, either. Fine by me, let’s get on to the campaign. One more thing first:

Powell’s lawyers hinted in Tuesday’s injunction hearing that the party might have an interest in keeping the judge from running for re-election, even though paying the incorrect amount might have been no more than a convenient mistake. Schaffer clarified afterward that he believes Ellis is pulling strings in the local Democratic Party, and wants his employee to run unopposed for the 351st state judicial district.

Ellis and Cornelio both helped draft a landmark settlement over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail system, which a federal judge said was unconstitutional and discriminated against poor defendants.

Powell was one of 11 current and former judges in the area who were admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in 2019 related to complaints that they instructed hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to indigent defendants. That admonishment has since been retracted for unknown reasons.

Randle called the claims “ludicrous,” and Cornelio’s attorney, Mynor E. Rodriguez, said he hadn’t heard those accusations.

Yeah, that admonishment, whatever happened to it. I wasn’t inclined to vote for Powell before any of this happened. I’m less inclined to vote for him now.

HISD gets another injunction

In state court this time.

A state judge Wednesday evening immediately blocked Texas from taking over the Houston Independent School District until she issues a final ruling on the case, complicating the state’s plan to oust the district’s school board by March.

In doing so, Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy preliminarily sided with Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, in a legal battle that will ultimately determine whether Texas can indefinitely seize power from its elected school board. At a hearing Tuesday morning, lawyers for Houston ISD argued that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath exceeded his authority in nearly every step in the process of deciding on a takeover.

[…]

Mauzy also denied Morath the ability to strike down the injunction on appeal. The trial is set for the morning of June 22, months after the state intended to seat a board of managers.

In the ruling, she said Houston ISD proved it needed the injunction because once Morath takes action to remove power from the elected board, the district would then have no recourse.

At Tuesday’s court hearing, Houston ISD’s lawyers challenged Morath’s reasons for the planned takeover, accusing him of inaccurately interpreting state law and skipping procedural steps to get the results he wanted.

“They don’t get to ignore the law and take over the district just because they think [the Texas Education Agency] could do a better job,” said lawyer David Campbell.

See here for the previous update, when a federal judge denied HISD’s request to halt the takeover but said they could file in state court. I’m still not betting on HISD prevailing, but they haven’t lost yet. Now the TEA needs to figure out how this affects their plans. Check back in June, this is going to be interesting. The Chron has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 6

The Texas Progressive Alliance refuses to play the game of how close events from our memories are to events from history as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Interview with Lanny Bose

Lanny Bose

We wrap up our tour of the candidates who seek to flip HD134. HD134 is now truly a Democratic district, at the county candidate level, at the state candidate level, and yes, at the judicial candidate level. It just needs to be Democratic at the State Rep level. Our third candidate in this quest is Lanny Bose, a native of Illinois who came to Houston to attend Rice University and perform the vital task of being Sammy the Owl. Bose was a classroom teacher for a decade, and now owns a company that makes an app that helps teachers communicate home with parents when there’s a language barrier. Here’s the interview:

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Kimberly McLeod – SBOE6
Debra Kerner – SBOE6

Chrysta Castañeda – RRC

Vince Ryan – Harris County Attorney
Ben Rose – Harris County Attorney
Christian Menefee – Harris County Attorney

Ann Johnson – HD134
Ruby Powers – HD134

DMN profile of Amanda Edwards

Second in the series, focusing on now-former Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards.

Amanda Edwards

On the day of her last Houston City Council meeting, outgoing at-large member Amanda Edwards wasn’t in the mood for goodbyes.

“In my mind it’s not really closing a door,” Edwards said as she drove a reporter past homes damaged by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. “It’s kind of remodeling and expanding. I’m completely ready to turn my next position on its head in terms of what people have grown accustomed to thinking it is.”

After just one term on the council, Edwards is running for Senate against incumbent Republican John Cornyn, a bodacious move that reflects her considerable confidence and the changing perceptions of what it takes to win a high-profile post.

[…]

Edwards, 37, was born in Houston to Isabella and Eugene Edwards.

Her parents were health care providers; Eugene was a pharmacist and Isabella is a retired physical therapist.

Eugene Edwards was diagnosed with cancer when Amanda was 10 years old, and he died when she was 17.

The questions Edwards had about his treatment helped shaped her views on health care.

From her father “skunking” her in table tennis and both parents stressing education, Edwards developed a competitive spirit.

She boasts about her skills in basketball, ping-pong and volleyball.

“Just ask the mayor,” she said, alluding to a basketball game between the council and staff and the mayor’s staff, in which she starred.

Edwards has degrees from Emory University and Harvard Law School. At Emory in Atlanta, she worked in six neighborhood community development corporations.

After college, she served as board president of Project Row Houses in Houston, where she helped redevelop homes as living art pieces.

She said she ran for council in 2015 to promote servant leadership. She won easily.

“I knew that a lot of things I felt strongly about were issues of leadership, like how to appropriately invest in under-resourced areas alongside the will of the community,” she said.

Edwards touts her work in bringing venture capital to Houston, as well as her push to develop neighborhoods without harmful gentrification.

She’s campaigned heavily on her work to help neighborhoods mend after Hurricane Harvey. Edwards and her community partners canvassed affected homes to determine what victims needed and how to improve the allocation of aid.

Here’s the interview I did with Amanda Edwards in 2015, when she first ran for Council. I included the bits from this story about her time on Council because I would not have known it off the top of my head. That’s partly because this was behind-the-scenes stuff, and partly because in our system here in Houston, Council members usually only make news if they’ve done something dumb or they’ve gotten into a fight with the Mayor. It’s good to be reminded that they do a lot of things we don’t easily see.

As for her candidacy, I guess I’ve been a skeptic. I doubted the reports that she was thinking about running, and I have my doubts she can break out in this field. I’ve long believed that she had a path to being Mayor in 2023, which may be affecting my perception. Edwards says in this story that people have underestimated her for her whole life, and I may be doing exactly that. I look forward to seeing her Q4 finance report, that’s for sure. Having said all this, I do think she’ll be a compelling candidate in November if she makes it through the primary, and whatever happens in March I fully expect we’ll be hearing plenty from Amanda Edwards.

(Previously: Chris Bell.)

It’s not just the Astros

Oh, boy.

The Dodgers have not won the World Series since 1988. They have only appeared in the World Series twice since then, in 2017 and 2018.

Both teams that beat them — the Houston Astros in 2017 and the Boston Red Sox in 2018 — now are under investigation by Major League Baseball over allegations they improperly using technology to steal signs.

During the 2018 regular season, according to a story posted by the Athletic on Tuesday, the Red Sox visited the replay room during games to review signs flashed by opposing teams.

“It’s cheating,” one person who was with the 2018 Red Sox told the Athletic. “Because if you’re using a camera to zoom in on the crotch of the catcher, to break down the sign system, and then take that information and give it out to the runner, then he doesn’t have to steal it.”

The league monitored replay rooms during the 2018 postseason, making it unlikely the Red Sox would have been able to use the system during the World Series.

The Red Sox said in a statement Tuesday: “We were recently made aware of allegations suggesting the inappropriate use of our video replay room. We take these allegations seriously and will fully cooperate with MLB as they investigate the matter.”

See here and here for the most recent updates on the Astro investigation. As a Yankees fan, I’m torn between stifling a giggle, and lighting a thousand candles in the fervent hope that my team isn’t the next one in the barrel. I can believe that some teams may have been doing this more (and more egregiously) than others, but I have no trouble believing that most if not all of them were at least dipping a toe into this kind of illegal activity. In the meantime, Astros fans, enjoy the schadenfreude while you can.

Interview with Ruby Powers

Ruby Powers

We continue with candidate interviews in HD134. You might have thought HD134 was a prime Democratic opportunity in 2018 based on the 2016 Presidential vote, but downballot, especially in judicial races, it was still a fundamentally Republican district. And then 2018 rolled around and lots of Dems were winning in HD134. Which leaves the task of winning the most important race in HD134, the one for State Rep. Ruby Powers is one of the Dems who aims to do that. Powers is a native of San Antonio who grew up on both sides of the US-Mexico border. She is an attorney who operates her own firm and specializes in immigration law. Here’s what we talked about:

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Kimberly McLeod – SBOE6
Debra Kerner – SBOE6

Chrysta Castañeda – RRC

Vince Ryan – Harris County Attorney
Ben Rose – Harris County Attorney
Christian Menefee – Harris County Attorney

Ann Johnson – HD134

We’re not going to get an independent redistricting commission

Nice to think about, but the set of circumstances that might lead to it are exceedingly narrow.

Most of the seven states that have independent commissions adopted them by a citizens’ initiative. Since Texas doesn’t have that option, the only way it would happen would be if lawmakers voluntarily gave up their redistricting power.

Kathay Feng, national redistricting director of the progressive government watchdog group Common Cause, said that’s unlikely to happen in Texas, but not impossible.

“The reality is that when a legislature is looking at potentially split control or the changeover of control from one party to another, they’re the most likely to entertain the possibility of redistricting reform,” Feng said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said it would take a unique set of circumstances.

“It would take us reaching a tipping point where Republicans are pessimistic about their prospects for retaining a majority, but Democrats are also pessimistic about their prospects for taking a majority as well,” Jones said.

I think Jones’ assessment is basically accurate, but it’s important to understand what Republican pessimism about retaining a majority means. We’re talking about them being afraid that they might face unified Democratic government in 2031, the next time redistricting will come around. And not only must they fear this thing that might happen ten years and three statewide elections from now, they must conclude that their best option now would be to curb that future theoretical Democratic hegemony via the creation of an independent redistricting commission. All this happens following a Democratic takeover of the State House, because otherwise Republicans can do what they’ve done before, which is draw whatever districts they want without fear. You see what I mean by exceedingly narrow?

Let’s keep one other thing in mind here. If we do get a Democratic State House, Republicans can still push for whatever maps they want for the SBOE, the State Senate, and the State House. That’s because if the two chambers can’t agree on maps for those three entities, the job gets thrown to the Legislative Redistricting Board, which is the Lite Governor, the Speaker, the AG, the Comptroller, and the Land Commissioner. In other words, a Board on which Republicans would have a 4-1 majority, and thus no trouble passing those Republican maps. The one map that would still be up in the air would be the Congressional map. If there is no map passed legislatively, it gets thrown to a federal court, over which neither side would have any control.

There is room in this scenario for some compromise. Republicans would prefer not to let a court do this work. Democrats would of course like to have some influence in the mapmaking process. You can imagine an agreement to draw maps for all four entities – Congress, SBOE, Senate, House – that leans towards incumbent protection rather than greatly advantaging or disadvantaging one party over the other. If that happens, you could also imagine them including an independent commission as a bonus Grand Bargain, but that seems a bridge too far. But compromise maps that mostly don’t make any incumbents’ lives too difficult, that I can see maybe getting done.

Maybe. The situation I’ve just described here is like what happened in 2001, which was the last time Dems controlled the House. The LRB drew the state maps, which led to the massive GOP takeover in the 2002 election, and a court drew the Congressional map. And then, once Republicans had control of the House, they went back and redid the Congressional map. That was the original, stated motivation when Tom DeLay pushed for re-redistricting in 2003: The Congressional map should be drawn by the legislators, not by a court. Obviously, they wanted a map that was much more favorable to Republicans, but that was the original reason they gave. It seems to me that this is a very plausible outcome in 2021 as well – the Republicans decide to let a court draw the map, which in all likelihood would be quite deferential to incumbents anyway, then take their chances on retaking the House in 2022 and doing a new Congressional map again. Hey, it worked once before, and now they have a more favorable Supreme Court to back them up.

Honestly, this may be the single most likely scenario – the LRB draws the state maps, a court draws the Congressional map, and everything hinges on the 2022 election. Maybe Dems keep the State House. Maybe we manage to elect a Democratic Governor, who could then veto any new Congressional map. Maybe Republicans win and do their thing. Heck, even in the Great Map Compromise scenario, who’s to say that Republicans wouldn’t tear it all up and start over in the event they retake the House and retain the Governor’s Mansion? I’d put money on that before I placed a bet on a redistricting commission. 2031 is a long, long way away. It’s not at all irrational to prioritize the now over what maybe could possibly happen if everything goes wrong.

Another voter registration lawsuit filed

This time, the point of contention is electronic signatures.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday in San Antonio, the Texas Democratic Party and the campaign arms for Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate allege that Texas is violating the U.S. Constitution and federal and state law by rejecting voter registration applications without an original signature.

The legal challenge springs from a 2018 electoral kerfuffle over the Texas secretary of state’s rejection of more than 2,400 registration applications filled out by voters using Vote.org, a website run by a California nonprofit. That online application asked Texans to provide personal information and a picture of their signature to auto-populate a paper voter registration form that was then mailed to county registrars.

Days before a registration deadline that year, the secretary of state’s office indicated that applications submitted through the website should be considered invalid because they included electronic signatures, not physical ones.

In the lawsuit, the Democrats argue the secretary of state’s signature requirements are unconstitutional and impose “an arbitrary requirement that limits access to the franchise.” While the state allows eligible Texans to submit registration applications in person, by mail or by fax, Texas law “makes no reference” to requiring an original signature, they argue in the legal challenge.

[…]

In suing the state, the Democrats pointed out that the secretary of state does allow for one kind of electronic signatures — those submitted on voter registration applications received through the Texas Department of Public Safety. That agency allows Texans obtaining or renewing a driver’s license in person to enter their signatures on electronic keypads, which then may be used to populate voter registration applications. (Texas has been wrapped up in separate litigation for more than a year over claims it is violating federal law by not allowing voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online to reregister to vote.)

Bolstered by Republicans’ narrowing margins of victory and polls showing that Texas might be at least slipping from the GOP, Democrats have signaled they see voting rights litigation — and the voters that might be helped through it — as part of their long-term strategy in the state.

See here for more on that “motor voter” lawsuit, which like all good things went to the Fifth Circuit to die. This same Democratic coalition has also filed a lawsuit over the law banning temporary voting locations, one of two such suits in the courts. You know my feeling about pursuing voting rights litigation in this climate, with the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS standing in the way, but I do agree that pursuing these cases anyway sends a strong signal to voters about who stands for making it easier for them to vote. And honestly, who has not electronically signed dozens of documents by now? One of the original (and silly) arguments for voter ID was that if you have to show a drivers license to rent a movie from Blockbuster (this is a truly old-school argument), there’s nothing wrong with having to show your drivers license to vote. Well, I’ve electronically signed documents at bounce house and indoor skydiving places affirming that I forsake my right to sue them if me or my kids wind up getting maimed by their services. If that’s legally binding, then an electronic signature on a voter registration form should be plenty good enough for the Texas Secretary of State. See the TDP press release for more.

Interview with Ann Johnson

Ann Johnson

The next three weeks will focus on the three highest-priority legislative races in the Houston area. The road to a Democratic State House, and all the good things that go along with it, go through HDs 134, 138, and 26. HD134, as you know, has been a bit of a white whale since it was flipped by Sarah Davis in the 2010 massacre. Just purple enough to be enticing, but stubbornly resistant to any Democratic efforts or the overall blue shift in Harris County. Until 2018, that is, when Beto took over 60% and Democratic judicial candidates were all carrying it. Three candidates have lined up to take what sure looks like the best shot yet to bring this district, which was represented by Ellen Cohen from 2007 till 2011, back into the fold. You know the first candidate well: Ann Johnson, who made a strong effort to unseat Davis after her freshman term. Ann is a former chief human trafficking prosecutor and the reason why the law now recognizes underage prostitutes as victims and not criminals. Ann is a cancer survivor and private practice lawyer. I interviewed her in 2012, and I interviewed her again for this race:

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Kimberly McLeod – SBOE6
Debra Kerner – SBOE6

Chrysta Castañeda – RRC

Vince Ryan – Harris County Attorney
Ben Rose – Harris County Attorney
Christian Menefee – Harris County Attorney

DMN profile of Chris Bell

The Dallas Morning News did a series of profiles of Democratic Senate candidates during the Christmas break. They’re worth reading, especially since polls show many of us don’t know these candidates all that well. I’m going to post about each of these, so let’s start with the first one they ran, featuring Chris Bell.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell has never gotten over being drawn out of a congressional seat, a move by Republicans in 2003 that altered the course of his political career and robbed him of a job he loved.

“People forget that things were going great for me in the United States Congress and I was damn good at the job,” Bell told The Dallas Morning News during an interview in his Houston campaign office. “It could not have been going any better.”

It got worse. A GOP-led redistricting plan ushered Bell out of Congress after just one term.

But Bell is running again, this time in the Democratic Senate primary for the nomination against Republican incumbent John Cornyn.

Bell said he’s uniquely qualified to send Cornyn back to Texas and lead the push for progressive legislation in the Senate, including providing affordable health care, curbing gun violence, reversing climate change and creating an economy that benefits all Americans.

“If you look at my background and the fact that not only I have that experience in government and politics but been a practicing trial attorney, they realize that I can hold my own and go toe to toe.”

[…]

After a career as a popular radio news reporter in Amarillo and Houston, Bell left journalism to practice law. He’s always had a love for politics.

He’s been a part of numerous political campaigns, beginning with failed bids for an Amarillo-based congressional seat in 1984, a Houston council race in 1995 and a Houston mayor’s race in 2001.

Bell broke through in 1997, winning a Houston council seat that propelled his career. He was later elected to Congress, where he became one of two freshman on the whip team and helped develop the port security caucus.

But former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s aggressive redistricting plan targeted Bell and other white male Democrats from Texas.

Bell was placed in a district dominated by black voters with Democrat Al Green, who is black. Critics said that after Bell lost his original, 65%-Anglo district, he should have stepped aside in favor of Green.

“It was interesting from the standpoint of getting to see Washington from two different viewpoints, one as an up-and-coming, rising star member of Congress to outgoing member of Congress in a year’s time,” Bell said.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder what might have happened if the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003 had not happened, and Bell had not been drawn out of what was then CD25. He won by almost 12 points in 2002, and I’d say he could have easily held the seat through 2008. The 2010 massacre would probably have taken him out – in this alternate universe, maybe Roy Morales is the first Latinx member of Congress elected from the Houston area – but even if he managed to survive that, I’m sure the 2011 redistricting would have been the end. Much of what was once CD25 is now split among CD07, CD18, and CD09, the district that Bell was drawn into. I cannot imagine anything like the old CD25 making it into this decade.

In this fantasy world I’m spinning, Bell gets some extra Congressional tenure, including two terms in the majority. He doesn’t get his folk hero status for filing the ethics complaint against Tom DeLay that led to his indictment and subsequent resignation from Congress – for all we know, DeLay could still be the incumbent in CD22 in this scenario – nor would he had run for Governor in 2006 or State Senate in 2008. Where he might be now is too big a leap for me to make.

Anyway. We’re in this universe and this timeline, and we have the Chris Bell that we have. I’ve interviewed him a couple of times, most recently in 2015 when he ran for Mayor. He’s a perfectly good candidate, the only one who has run in a statewide general election, and he’s positioned himself on the left end of the spectrum among the main candidates running. Read the piece and see what you think.

Marijuana arrests stay down

We really should view this as the new normal, and not a problem to be “fixed”.

It’s been more than six months since Texas lawmakers legalized hemp and unintentionally disrupted marijuana prosecution across the state.

Since then, the number of low-level pot cases filed by prosecutors has plummeted. Some law enforcement agencies that still pursue charges are spending significantly more money at private labs to ensure that substances they suspect are illegal marijuana aren’t actually hemp.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and local government crime labs expect to roll out a long-awaited testing method to distinguish between the two in the next month or so. But that’s only for seized plant material. There’s still no timeline for when they will be able to tell if vape pen liquid or edible products contain marijuana or hemp. And DPS said even when its testing is ready, it doesn’t have the resources to analyze substances in the tens of thousands of misdemeanor marijuana arrests made each year — testing it didn’t have to do before hemp was legalized.

“If law enforcement agencies and prosecutors asked for all of those to be tested when these new procedures become available … DPS would start with such a huge backlog that it would likely never get caught up,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “One decision for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies and the labs is: How do they triage these cases to focus on the most important ones?”

[…]

In 2018, Texas prosecutors filed about 5,900 new misdemeanor marijuana possession cases a month, according to data from the Texas Office of Court Administration. The first five months of 2019 saw an average of more than 5,600 new cases filed a month. But since June, when the hemp law was enacted, the number of cases has been slashed by more than half. In November, less than 2,000 new cases were filed, according to the court data.

For those who support marijuana legalization, that change is welcome, adding to an already growing effort in some of the state’s most populated counties to divert pot smokers from criminal prosecution or not arrest them at all.

“It means that there are fewer Texans that are getting slapped with a criminal record for marijuana possession, something that is already legal in other states,” said Katharine Harris, a drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

See here for the background. There’s no serious argument to be made that the drop in marijuana arrests has had any negative effect on public safety, but it has had the positive effect of keeping thousands of basically harmless people out of the criminal justice system. The main problem with the new status quo is that the reduction in prosecutions is completely ad hoc and not systemic. Whether one gets arrested and jailed or warned and released is entirely a function of where you are and which law enforcement agency is dealing with you. The Lege in 2021 needs to look at what has happened since this inadvertent loosening of marijuana laws and make it a real, permanent thing. We’ve already seem that nothing bad will come of it. Grits and the Current have more.

Weekend link dump for January 5

Welcome to the third decade of the 21st century…

Do better, Chuck Todd. And if you don’t know how, get out of the way and let someone else do it.

“Americans may feel as though Christmas lasts forever, but at worst the holiday spreads out over two months, from Halloween until January 2. We do, however, have one truly endless season: campaign season. According to CNN, the 2016 presidential campaign took 597 days, which seems accurate if you believe the campaign ended on Election Day 2016, which everyone knows it did not. It’s still going strong and will continue going strong until at least Election Day 2020. In Japan campaigns last 12 days, in Australia they last 33 to 68 days, and in America they last forever.”

“But if you think of the GOP as being organized around identity groups, these policies hang together quite well. The clear beneficiaries of the Trump administration’s actions have been businesses and corporations whose leaders back the president (such as those in the coal industry), conservative Christians, farmers, gun rights enthusiasts, people wary of increases in the number of foreign-born Americans and Islam, people wary of movements like Black Lives Matter and MeToo, pro-Israel activists and residents of rural areas.”

The histories hidden in the periodic table.

Seriously, just fire Bret Stephens already. Among many other things, he sucks at his job.

Fervently wishing Rep. John Lewis all the very best.

“Despite this turbulence, 2019 was the year that UFOs managed to propel themselves into an uneasy political legitimacy”.

Donkeys love violin music, thus proving there are some worthwhile things left in this world.

“As a result [of the Trump tariffs], US manufacturing has seen job losses and higher prices for consumers.”

“In honor of the end of this year, I wanted to give a thread summary of the state of Devin Nunes’ lawsuits, both for those who don’t know exactly what’s going on and those who could use a refresher.”

Here are your 2019 Golden Duke Award wnners.

And here are your 2019 Worthy Award nominees.

Have you been drawn into a debate about whether or not we actually are in a new decade? Well, this will settle that argument.

RIP, David Stern, former NBA Commissioner.

RIP, Don Larsen, former Yankees pitcher who threw a perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

News flash: We are old. So very, very old.

“The conventional wisdom is that the Republicans in the Senate will rush to acquit Trump. I outline here why I think that overstates the case, and that the process has any number of variables in which things may change.”

Texas is on track to pick up three more Congressional districts

Put an asterisk next to this, as the actual Census will need to bear that out.

The U.S. population continues to shift south and west, according to new Census Bureau data that offers the clearest picture yet of how the 435 congressional seats will be distributed among the 50 states.

The latest numbers, released Monday, represent the final estimates from the government before next year’s decennial Census, which will determine how many House seats and Electoral College votes each state will have for the next decade. That reapportionment, expected in December 2020, will kick off the year-and-a-half-long process of redrawing congressional-district maps — still in many states a brazen partisan battle that makes strange bedfellows, unplanned retirements and intense member-versus-member races, especially in states poised to lose seats.

“The first two years of any decade when districts are drawn produce the whitest knuckles in Congress,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who led House Democrats’ campaign arm in the 2012 cycle. “People are trying to hold onto their seats at all costs.”

According to projections from Election Data Services, a political consulting firm that specializes in redistricting, 17 states are slated to see changes to the sizes of their delegations, including 10 that are forecast to lose a seat beginning in 2022.

The biggest winners appear to be Texas and Florida, which are on track to gain three seats and two seats, respectively, according to the projections. Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and North Carolina are estimated to add one seat, as is Montana, which currently has just one at-large seat.

Meanwhile, 10 states are on track to lose one seat: Rhode Island, West Virginia, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Alabama, Illinois and California, which would drop a House seat for the first time in its 169-year history.

[…]

The looming reapportionment brings into sharper focus the high stakes surrounding the partisan battle for control of state legislatures and the fight to ensure an accurate Census count.

Some states, such as Rhode Island and California, are actively working to avoid an undercount. Other state governments, such as Texas, have not made similar investments.

In his projections, Brace is using the estimates released Monday by the Census Bureau to predict what the states’ populations will be next year, when the Census is taken. Other estimates, which simply apportion House seats according to the 2019 estimates, show smaller gains for Texas and Florida, where the population has been booming year-over-year this decade.

Brace also noted he’s unable to take into account the accuracy of the Census, which will be a major factor in determining the final reapportionment. “We’ve seen it over the decades: Less and less people are likely to participate in the Census,” he said. “That participation rate has gone down each 10 years.”

Moreover, unsuccessful attempts by President Donald Trump and his administration to include a citizenship question on next year’s Census have advocates worried that millions of residents, especially nonwhites, won’t fill out the Census. That could negatively impact the count in heavily Latino states like Texas, where Democrats are plotting a political comeback — if they can get a seat at the table in redistricting.

How we are handling the Census has always seemed like a key aspect of this, but I admit I may be overestimating its impact. The rubber will be meeting the road soon enough, and we’ll have the official verdict in a year’s time. Brace yourselves, it’s going to be tumultuous no matter what happens. Daily Kos has more.

A view of Texas and polling

The premise of this is sound, but don’t read too much into it.

In Texas, the nation’s biggest, most important red state, Trump’s disapproval rating has consistently lagged behind many of the 30 states he carried in 2016. This potentially puts the state — a must-win for the president if there ever was one — in play for 2020.

To think Trump’s unpopularity in Texas is because of Twitter, or Ukraine, or the media, or a smear job by the left is to underestimate the problem. The reality is that Trump’s signature policies are out of step with what most Texans want.

Take Trump’s threat of tariffs against Mexico as punishment for the flow of unauthorized immigrants across the border. While railing against Mexico might work at a campaign rally in the Midwest, Texans perceive it as a direct threat to their bottom lines. Mexico is Texas’s biggest trading partner, accounting for nearly 35 percent of state exports in 2018. In comparison, Mexico accounts for only 5.8 percent of exports for Ohio.

Polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin found that roughly half of voters believe that tariffs against Mexico would hurt the Texas economy. Only 16 percent of suburban voters and 18 percent of women — coveted 2020 voting blocs — think tariffs on Mexico would benefit Texas.

[…]

Trump’s immigration policy is also unpopular. While one might assume that the state with the longest southern border, the largest share of Mexican Americans, and one of the highest rates of illegal immigration would appreciate Trump’s hard-line immigration approach, the opposite is true.

Texas has maintained one of the nation’s most moderate stances on immigration. It is one of only seven states — and the only red state — to provide in-state tuition rates and state financial aid to undocumented immigrants. Those provisions were signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Perry and a Republican-controlled legislature. More recently, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called the Trump administration’s separation of migrant families at the border “disgraceful.

While the United States struggles to adjust to a changing demographic makeup, Texas has been “majority minority” for more than a decade, with Hispanics expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites in the next few years. Hispanics and non-Hispanics live by, work with, are friends with and go to school with each other, and this familiarity increases fondness. Which is why Trump’s fear and disparagement of immigrants — and Mexicans, in particular — falls flat here.

According to a Texas Politics Project poll, more Texans strongly disapprove of Trump’s immigration approach than strongly approve. Only 39 percent of Texans support additional federal spending on border barriers along the Mexican border, according to a November 2019 report by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center.

In the same poll, the majority of Texans — 60 percent — agreed that “We should find alternatives to immigration detention for families fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in the U.S.” And a majority, 65 percent, agreed that “unaccompanied children caught attempting to cross the border illegally should be placed into the care of child-welfare specialists, not border or immigration enforcement officials.” Turns out the cowboys are a bunch of bleeding hearts.

This article is in the Washington Post, and as you know I’m always interested in outside views of our state, partly to see how the perspective differs and partly to see what kind of dumb mistakes they make. In this case, the author is a Texan, an economist and pundit named Abby McCloskey who also writes for the Dallas Morning News. I’d not read anything by her before, and checking Facebook and Twitter I found almost no overlap between the political types I know and her. Doesn’t really matter, it was just curious to me.

Anyway. As I said up front, the basic premise is sound. Polling of Trump in Texas has been weak, in terms of approval, favorable/unfavorable, and re-elect numbers; as I’ve noted before, there’s some correlation between those things, though it’s not particularly strong. One way I look at this is that in the 2012 cycle, Mitt Romney was always above 50% in Texas, usually around 55%, while President Obama hovered around 40%. Trump is usually in the low-to-mid 40’s, occasionally nearing 50 but almost always below it. That’s just not great for him, and as we saw in 2018 if Republicans overall aren’t performing in the 55%-plus range, they have a hard time winning districts and counties they’ve been used to winning.

The rest doesn’t impress me much. There may be some Chamber of Commerce types who voted for Trump in 2016, mostly out of loathing for Hillary Clinton and a longtime affinity for Republican politics, who won’t vote for him in 2020 because of trade policy, but I suspect you could count them all individually if you put some effort into it. Immigration policy is a multi-layered subject in Texas, but the Republicans who voted for that 2001 bill to grant undocumented immigrants in-state tuition aren’t the Republicans that are in charge of the state now. The Texas GOP is far, far to the right of that cohort – the modern Texas GOP officially opposes that 2001 law (see item 134 from the 2016 platform and item 129 from the 2018 platform). Citing that 2001 law as evidence of “nuance” is to me ignorant in the way that people who still say that “the Texas Governor is only the fourth or fifth most powerful official in the state” is ignorant. Keep up with current events, please.

How Nuro is mapping Houston

Really interesting story.

On the muggy streets of suburban Houston, amid McMansions, bright green lawns and stately oak trees, a futuristic race is quietly afoot.

The contestants are not people but late-model Toyota Priuses outfitted with an array of sophisticated sensors. Despite fierce competition and unending pressure to perform, the nearly silent electric vehicles do not speed. They move cautiously, rigorously following traffic laws and never topping 25 mph.

Their goal is not an easily discerned finish line but to map large swaths of the nation’s fourth-largest metropolis, a sprawling patchwork of neighborhoods, mini-cities, strip malls, gridlocked superhighways and mazelike gated communities – an area so prodigious in size it easily could swallow Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island whole.

The vehicles are owned by Nuro, a Silicon Valley robotics company with an ambitious goal – to become the world’s preeminent autonomous delivery service, allowing millions of people to have groceries and other goods delivered by robots instead of making trips to the store, potentially reducing traffic and kicking off a new chapter in our relationship with machines. For months now, Nuro’s robotically piloted vehicles have been successfully, if quietly, delivering groceries to restaurants and homes around Houston, the vehicles’ sensors mapping the city as they go.

The faster Nuro’s vehicles map Houston’s notoriously chaotic roadways, the faster the company can refine its software and export its business model elsewhere. But time is in short supply.

Like Nuro, companies such as Amazon, Alphabet-owned Waymo, Robomart, General Motors’ Cruise division, Ford-affiliated Argo AI, Starship Technologies and many others are also rushing to deploy high-functioning autonomous vehicles for delivery and passenger transport, with some companies attracting major deals and billions in funding. Their goal is to earn public trust and offer real-life convenience, experts say, heightening their chances of securing a valuable foothold in a new era defined by autonomous transportation.

To get there, they will first have to run their autonomous vehicles, or AVs, through millions of miles of driving tests in cities such as Houston until they are glitch-free and unquestionably safe.

“The pressure is real,” said David Syverud, head of robot operations at Nuro. “And to be clear, it is a race in the AV space to deploy quickly and be the first to really get there.”

It goes from there, and it’s worth your time to read, even if it’s a few weeks old at this point. We’ve met Nuro before, and I see their cars around; I’ve seen a couple in and around my neighborhood. Like most stories written about Houston by people not in Texas, this one is both a window into how others view us, and how they can get confused about certain basic things we understand. Like, for example, how you have to distinguish between the city of Houston and the greater Houston area. This is what I mean:

Company officials say they were also drawn to Houston for the complexity of its metropolitan environment, a puzzle of independent communities, each with its own road conditions, zoning ordinances, parking rules and traffic laws. Some area neighborhoods offer wide lanes and little traffic, others are narrow and perpetually hectic – providing the company’s robotic software a massive variety of testing conditions.

As the country’s most ethnically diverse large city – and with a foreign-born population of 1.4 million – Houston also is a place where Nuro officials could probe fundamental questions about its business model.

“The big question for us is: Who is going to use this service, and how often will they do it?” said Sola Lawal, a Nuro product operations manager based in Houston who formerly worked for Uber. “Our robots don’t care who they’re delivering to, but we want to understand how different demographics interact with and feel about the robots. Houston allows for this broad swath of experience in one city.”

That’s all well and good, and it’s easy to see why Houston would be an attractive testing ground, but come on. The city of Houston has a population of about 2.3 million. I assure you, the population of the city of Houston is not three-fifths foreign-born. The greater Houston metropolitan area has a population of about seven million, and I daresay that’s what they meant when they dropped that statistic in the story. But please, let us be precise about these things.

Anyway, despite such glitches, the story is worth reading, so go check it out. We occasionally use grocery delivery, via Whole Foods and Amazon Prime. They leave the goods in a cooler we put out on the porch, and however successful this Nuro project is I don’t see that part of the task being robot-ified any time soon. There’s a lot of money being bet on this business expanding rapidly. I’m usually skeptical about this sort of thing, but what do I know?

Mayor Turner’s second term begins

He’s on the clock now.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Freshly sworn in Thursday morning, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner promised to make significant strides in street repairs and flood control while boosting services for the city’s homeless in his second term.

He also called on private businesses and nonprofits to be more generous in their giving, saying they are crucial to helping the cash-strapped city fund his signature initiatives, including the Complete Communities neighborhood program.

“We ask financial institutions, businesses, developers, nonprofits and endowments to leverage their resources with the city and with one another to share the risks and expedite the transformation,” Turner said his inaugural speech at the Wortham Center. “Though many have stepped forward to assist, we are still missing that level of support, the investments that will serve as game-changers for those under-served communities in our city.”

Turner easily prevailed in the Dec. 14 runoff election over second-place finisher Tony Buzbee. In a post-election interview with the Chronicle, Turner promised to make transformational changes in his final term, including restructuring the fire department, accelerating the city’s permitting process and repairing streets as top priorities.

See here for some background. Turner is the first Mayor to have a four-year lame-duck term, but being in one’s last term has not been a hindrance to getting big things done in the past. Mayor Parker shepherded HERO through in 2015 (yes, that subsequently went south, but it was still passed by Council) and Mayor Brown oversaw the completion of the Main Street light rail line and the passage of the 2003 referendum that led to more light rail being built in his last year. I don’t think anyone will perceive of Mayor Turner as being in his last term until the candidates for the next Mayoral race begin to make themselves known. So barring big external events that force themselves onto the priority list (you know, like another big flood) I’d expect him to have the opportunity to get more big things done. He should have a fairly amenable Council, and at least some of the items on his list will have broad support. We’ll see how he does.

Who sues first?

It matters whether Harris County or the state of Texas is first to the courthouse against an industrial polluter.

As chemical plant explosions and fires have disrupted lives and raised air-quality concerns in the Houston area this year, the state and its most populous county have been jockeying to take the lead in penalizing polluters.

The state’s more active role has aroused suspicions among some local officials and environmentalists, who believe state leaders with a record of pro-business actions may be trying to take control to soften the blow of any court rulings against major corporations.

“It’s obvious there’s been an attempt to limit Harris County legal office from pursuing these cases,” said Neil Carman, a former air inspector with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who now works with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.

The legal maneuvering reflects growing public concern about environmental disasters in the Houston area and the ongoing tug of war between the Republican-led state government and officials in major metro areas over the setting of policy.

Who sues first dictates not only where the case will be heard, but also where the money will go if there are civil penalties. If Harris County leads with the state being a party to its lawsuit, the money is split between both parties. But if the state sues without the local government’s involvement, it goes back to the state’s general revenue

County officials say they have to sue to have a role in the process and to make sure companies are held accountable for the damage they cause. State lawmakers say that such suits are redundant and that there needs to be a statewide approach; the Legislature has passed bills restricting local governments in such cases.

“It’s not efficient, and it’s not a good way to function,” said Rock Owens, special assistant Harris County attorney for environmental matters. “If you have an emergency that requires immediate attention, that’s a reason to move quickly. But I just have to move quickly to make sure Harris County keeps a seat at the table, and that’s an unnecessary use of resources.”

In the end, he added, “everybody loses.”

See here and here for some background. There’s no question that the state is doing this to block Harris County from taking stronger action against the big offenders. The track record could not be more clear. Harris County has done pretty well regardless, and if you listened to my interviews with the County Attorney candidates you should feel confident that that will continue, at least until such time as the Lege clips the county’s wings further. We all know what we need to do to keep that from happening.

The robo-umps are coming

Not right away, but you can see it from here.

Computer plate umpires could be called up to the major leagues at some point during the next five seasons.

Umpires agreed to cooperate with Major League Baseball in the development and testing of an automated ball-strike system as part of a five-year labor contract announced Saturday, two people familiar with the deal told The Associated Press. The Major League Baseball Umpires Association also agreed to cooperate and assist if Commissioner Rob Manfred decides to utilize the system at the major league level. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because those details of the deal, which is subject to ratification by both sides, had not been announced.

The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game on July 10. Plate umpire Brian deBrauwere wore an earpiece connected to an iPhone in his pocket and relayed the call upon receiving it from a TrackMan computer system that uses Doppler radar.

The Atlantic League experimented with the computer system during the second half of its season, and the Arizona Fall League of top prospects used it for a few dozen games this year at Salt River Fields.

MLB has discussed installing the system at the Class A Florida State League for 2020. If that test goes well, the computer umps could be used at Triple-A in 2021 as bugs are dealt with prior to a big league callup.

[…]

It is not clear whether the Major League Baseball Players Association would need to approve computerized ball and strikes.

“We are aware the umpires and MLB are in negotiations over a new CBA,” said players’ union head Tony Clark, a former All-Star first baseman. “MLB will have their negotiation with them, and they will need to discuss with us.”

See here for the background. Everyone agrees that robot umps are coming, at least for ball/strike calls, we’re all just arguing about the timeline. One of the things we’ve learned from the Atlantic League’s experience, is that the low-and-away part of the rulebook strike zone is generally not called a strike by human umpires but is by the robo-umps, and there’s a good argument that the automated system should be adjusted to be more like the human umps. Another thing we’ve learned is that accurate height data for the players is needed, else the automated zone, which is calculated based on those measurements, is not a true reflection of what it should be. There are still refinements to be made, and there’s no rush to get there. I’ll be a little surprised if we have this system in place in five years, but I’ll be even more surprised if we don’t in ten years.

After-deadline filing review: Courts

Let’s return to the wonderful world of scoping out our candidates. Today we will concentrate on judicial races. Previous entries in this series are for the greater Houston area, Congress, state races, and the Lege.

Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals

I’ve actually covered all of these races, and given bits of info about the candidates, here and here. Go read those posts for the details, and here as a reminder are the candidates’ names and Facebook pages:

Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice) – Amy Clark Meachum
Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice) – Jerry Zimmerer

Supreme Court, Position 6 – Brandy Voss
Supreme Court, Position 6 – Staci Williams

Supreme Court, Position 7 – Kathy Cheng
Supreme Court, Position 7 – Lawrence Praeger

Supreme Court, Position 8 – Gisela Triana
Supreme Court, Position 8 – Peter Kelly

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – William Demond
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Elizabeth Frizell
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Dan Wood

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Tina Yoo Clinton
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Steve Miears

First and 14th Courts of Appeals

Covered to some extent here, but there has been some subsequent activity, so let’s get up to date.

Veronica Rivas-Molloy – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3
Dinesh Singhal – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3
Jim Sharp – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3

Rivas-Molloy and Singhal were mentioned previously. Jim Sharp is the same Jim Sharp that won in 2008 and lost in 2014.

Amparo Guerra – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5
Tim Hootman – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5

Both candidates were also previously mentioned. This is the seat now vacated by Laura Carter Higley.

Jane Robinson – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 1, Chief Justice
Jim Evans – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 1, Chief Justice

Jane Robinson has been mentioned previously. Jim Evans was a candidate for Family Court in 2014, and was appointed as an associate judge on the 507th Family Court in 2017, making him the first openly gay family court judge in Texas. He doesn’t have a campaign presence yet as far as I can tell.

Wally Kronzer – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Tamika Craft – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Cheri Thomas – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
V.R. Faulkner – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Dominic Merino – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Lennon Wright – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Not sure why this court has attracted so many contestants, but here we are. Kronzer was the only candidate I knew of in that previous post; Cheri Thomas came along a bit later, and the others were all later in the filing period. Texas Judges can tell you some more about the ones that don’t have any campaign presence.

Harris County District Courts

The following lucky duckies have no opponents in the primary or the November general election:

Kristin Hawkins (11th Civil)
Kyle Carter (125th Civil)
Mike Englehart (151st Civil
Robert Schaffer (152nd Civil)
Hazel Jones (174th Criminal)
Kelli Johnson (178th Criminal)
Ramona Franklin (338th Criminal)

The next time you see them, congratulate them on their re-election. The following almost-as-lucky duckies are in a contested primary for the 337th Criminal Court, with the winner of the primary having no opponent in November:

Brennen Dunn, who had been in the primary for the 185th Criminal Court in 2018; see his Q&A here.
Colleen Gaido.
Veronica Sanders.
David Vuong
John A. Clark, whom I cannot positively identify. I hope everyone sends in Q&A responses, but I’m not voting for any candidate I can’t identify. I hope you’ll join me in that.

The following do not have a primary opponent, but do have a November opponent:

Fredericka Phillips (61st Civil).
RK Sandill (127th Civil), who in 2018 was a candidate for the Supreme Court.
Michael Gomez (129th Civil).
Jaclanel McFarland (133rd Civil)
Elaine Palmer (215th Civil).

Natalia Cornelio is currently unopposed in the primary for the 351st Criminal Court following the rejection of incumbent Judge George Powell’s application. That may change pending the outcome of Powell’s litigation in the matter.

The following races are contested in both March and November:

Larry Weiman (80th Civil, incumbent).
Jeralynn Manor (80th Civil).

Alexandra Smoots-Thomas (164th Civil, incumbent). Formerly Smoots-Hogan, now dealing with legal issues of her own.
Cheryl Elliott Thornton (164th Civil), who has run for Justice of the Peace and County Civil Court at Law in the past.
Grant Harvey (164th Civil).

Ursula Hall (165th Civil, incumbent).
Megan Daic (165th Civil).
Jimmie L. Brown, Jr. (165th Civil).

Nikita Harmon (176th Criminal, incumbent).
Bryan Acklin (176th Criminal).

Randy Roll (179th Criminal, incumbent).
Ana Martinez (179th Criminal).

Daryl Moore (333rd Civil, Incumbent).
Brittanye Morris (333rd Civil).

Steven Kirkland (334th Civil, incumbent). It’s not a Democratic primary without someone challenging Steve Kirkland.
Dawn Rogers (334th Civil).

Te’iva Bell (339th Criminal).
Candance White (339th Criminal).
Dennis Powell (339th Criminal), whom I cannot positively identify.
Lourdes Rodriguez (339th Criminal), whom I also cannot positively identify.

Julia Maldonado (507th Family, incumbent).
Robert Morales (507th Family).
CC “Sonny” Phillips (507th Family).

That about covers it. I should do a separate entry for JPs and Constables, and I did promise a Fort Bend entry. So there will likely be some more of this.

UPDATE: I missed Robert Johnson, the incumbent Judge of the 177th Criminal District Court (the court that now has Ken Paxton’s trial), in the first go-round. Johnson had an opponent file for the primary, but that application was subsequently rejected. He has no November opponent, so you can add him to the list of people who have been re-elected.

Julian Castro ends his Presidential bid

Sorry to see him go.

Julian Castro

Julián Castro has ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, capping a nearly yearlong bid during which he distinguished himself as a progressive crusader but never found the polling or fundraising support to gain wide appeal.

“I’m so proud of the campaign we’ve run together,” Castro said in an almost four-minute video Thursday morning. “We’ve shaped the conversation on so many important issues in this race, stood up for the most vulnerable people and given a voice to those who are often forgotten. But with only a month until the Iowa caucuses and given the circumstances of this campaign, I’ve determined that it simply isn’t our time.”

The video highlighted some of the causes he championed during his campaign — in some cases, largely on his own — that endeared him to the progressive wing of the party but did not translate into the traction needed to thrust him into the top tier of the sprawling Democratic field.

[…]

After years of being regarded as a rising star in Texas politics, Castro threw his hat into the ring early, months before some of his fiercest competitors launched their respective bids. But he consistently raised millions of dollars less than his rivals and polled in the low single digits, failing to qualify for the two most recent debates despite launching a do-or-die fundraising drive before the first of them. He hit his $800,000 target and stayed in the race but still did not make the cut for that debate.

I’m sad to see him depart – Lord knows, I can think of several candidates I’d rather see get out. It’s a lot easier to stay in a race if your goal is something other than winning. Be that as it may, this is far from the end for Castro. He’d be a good VP choice – I thought that in 2016 as well, but that’s the way it goes – and h could certainly wind up in someone’s Cabinet. I for one will be rooting for him to run for Governor in 2022. I don’t think I need to explain that one. Thank you for running, Julian Castro. I look forward to seeing you on the trail again, hopefully soon. The Observer has more.

Interview with Christian Menefee

Christian Menefee

Our third candidate in my series of interviews for Harris County Attorney is Christian Menefee, who was the first candidate to declare for the race. A native Houstonian, Menefee is a former intern in the Harris County Public Defender’s office, and now works as a litigator with Kirkland & Ellis. He has worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Texas Appleseed, he has served on the Houston Independent Police Advisory Board, and he is a past President of the Houston Black American Democrats club. Here’s the interview:

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Kimberly McLeod – SBOE6
Debra Kerner – SBOE6

Chrysta Castañeda – RRC

Vince Ryan – Harris County Attorney
Ben Rose – Harris County Attorney

Abbott and refugees

The moral choice is clear. It’s also clear for a variety of other reasons. I don’t expect Greg Abbott to make it, because he’s Greg Abbott.

For years, more refugees have resettled in Houston and Texas than any other city or state in the country.

Now that may end.

Under a new requirement imposed by President Donald Trump’s administration, state and local governments must consent in writing before refugees can arrive next year. At least 34 governors, including 13 Republicans, and 86 county and city executives have given their approval.

Mayors and county leaders of all Texas’ biggest cities —including Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin — sent letters opting in.

But Gov. Greg Abbott, who has lead efforts to block Syrian refugees and withdrew from the federal resettlement program in a largely symbolic move in 2016, has not.

If he does not agree, no refugees could be placed in the state, despite what local authorities may want.

John Wittman, Abbott’s spokesman, did not return multiple calls, texts, and emails seeking comment.

“Our understanding is that he’s still weighing his options,” said Jen Smyers, director of policy for Church World Service, one of nine national resettlement agencies in the country. “Given its size and the welcome that refugees receive in Texas, and the faith community’s support, and businesses who rely on refugees for workers in agriculture, manufacturing, and meatpacking, it certainly would have a sizable impact if Texas were not to continue to resettle refugees.”

The Catholic Church, of which Greg Abbott claims to be a devout member, is strongly pro-refugee. The Bible, which people who claim to be Christian claim to believe in, is strongly pro-refugee. Greg Abbott is a Republican, and a Donald Trump minion. You do the math. I’ve said many times in this space that nothing will change until the government changes. Well, in this case this was a change brought about by a change in government, the election of Donald Trump. What has been done can still be undone. The rest is up to us.

Christmas tree recycling 2019

For your last act of Christmas 2019, here’s how to dispose of your tree.

Twenty-five recycling centers in the Houston area will take your Christmas trees.

All city recycling facilities will take trees through Jan. 25. All you have to do is haul the tree over to one of them and and city staff will take it to be ground into mulch and redistributed back to the earth.

Private composting service Living Earth will also take your trees for free. The facilities are closed New Year’s Eve and Day, but stay open one day later — Jan. 26 — for all you procrastinators.

“Living Earth has offered complimentary holiday tree recycling to the city of Houston and its residents since 1992 with the goal of diverting beneficial organic material from the landfill to extend landfill life, reduce methane created when green organic material is buried in a landfill and recycle those materials for beneficial use in the environment as mulch, compost or soil mixes,” said Lora Hinchcliff, a spokesperson for Living Earth.

Just make sure you take all the decorations off before handing it to recyclers. Grinders will not accept trees that have any bits of sparkly tinsel, tree skirts or those pesky wires that affix ornaments to branches.

[…]

There are a few recycling options here in Houston for electronics. In our Houston How To on recycling in Houston, we found that electronics could be dropped off at one of the neighborhood depositories up to four times a month. It’s a perfect option if you decide to embark on a little New Year’s decluttering.

Broken electronics can be taken to some Houston-area Goodwill stores, where the organization will send recyclable waste to Dell Technologies for repair and resale.

You could also donate working appliances and other new or gently used gifts to Catholic Charities of Greater Houston. Note that they do not accept TVs or used computers.

There’s more, for things like wrapping paper and TV boxes, so check it out, and also check out that Houston Solid Waste link. And please dispose of your Christmas leftovers responsibly.

Texas blog roundup for the week of December 30

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes everyone a very happy New Year.

(more…)

Interview with Ben Rose

Ben Rose

Incumbent Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan has two opponents in the March primary, the first time he has had company in a March race. Ben Rose has an LL.M. in Environmental Law from Tulane University, where he wrote his doctorial thesis on how to protect Houston’s Ship Channel from hurricanes. He has managed two law firms and practiced civil and environmental law here in Houston. He was also the Democratic candidate for HD134 in 2016; you can listen to that interview here. My interview with Ben Rose for this race is here:

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Kimberly McLeod – SBOE6
Debra Kerner – SBOE6

Chrysta Castañeda – RRC

Vince Ryan – Harris County Attorney

More flood tunnel studies

Has some promise.

Japanese flood tunnel

With engineers working at a feverish pace to get more than 200 projects in its $2.5 billion bond program moving, much of the Flood Control District’s efforts are focused on nuts-and-bolts improvements — including widening bayous, digging detention basins and purchasing flood prone homes.

From his cramped office at district headquarters, however, engineer Scott Elmer is pursuing the most ambitious project the agency has ever conceived: massive tunnels that could funnel stormwater beneath the region’s bayou network to the Houston Ship Channel.

The tunnels could provide a crucial new tool to complement existing flood control methods, as new development in fast-growing Harris County and more intense storms wrought by climate change place additional pressure on infrastructure.

“When you look at events such as Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda, it’s time for that type of out-of-the-box thinking,” Elmer said.

The flood control district has considered tunnels since the 1990s, though plans have never advanced beyond paper. Since Harvey in 2017, which flooded more than 200,000 county residences and damaged many of the district’s defenses, the county has revisited the idea.

A study engineers completed in October reached two important conclusions — that tunnels feasibly could be constructed and they could move substantial amounts of stormwater that otherwise could pool in neighborhoods or push bayous over their banks. Encouraged by the results, the district has begun a second phase of research, which over the next year will map one to five possible routes. A third one-year phase would include a geotechnical analysis to evaluate construction challenges.

[…]

Experts also offer cautious approval. Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, long has urged Harris County to more aggressively approach flood control. Tunnels are a bold idea, he said, so long as they do not exacerbate flooding downstream.

“What I’m concerned about is that in an effort to keep the cost down, they may attempt to terminate it in an area that may already be congested, from a water standpoint,” Blackburn said.

See here and here for the background. I assume this is the result of the study funded by a federal grant that was approved in February. Cost is an issue, though we can try for federal funds and the tunnels can be built in stages. This would just be one piece of an overall strategy, not the entire approach. No other place that has flood tunnels sees the kind of rainfall Houston does, so it’s hard to model an approach after an existing system. There’s more to it than all this, so go read the rest. It seems like a good idea to pursue, but we’re a long way from starting to dig.

Interview with Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

This week we focus on the Harris County Attorney primary, one of several high-profile primaries in the county where a sitting incumbent faces serious challengers. Vince Ryan was first elected to the office of Harris County Attorney in 2008, part of the first wave of Democratic wins in the county. Ryan had served in the County Attorney’s office in the 1980’s as First Assistant to Mike Driscoll, and he served three terms on Houston City Council in District C. His office provided me with a timeline of the bail lawsuit and a copy of the consent decree, which you can see here. I’ve interviewed Vince Ryan for each of his past County Attorney elections. You can hear the 2016 interview here, and you can hear the 2020 interview right here:

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Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Kimberly McLeod – SBOE6
Debra Kerner – SBOE6

Chrysta Castañeda – RRC

Cy-Fair Dems Senate candidate forum

There are actually multiple clubs hosting this forum, but there’s only so much room in the headline:

Event details can be found here. The forum will be held at the Green House International Church, 200 W Greens Rd, Houston, TX 77067, with a meet and greet beginning at 2 PM, the forum itself at 3:15, and a Q&A at 4:30. As of this publication, the following candidates have confirmed their attendance: Amanda Edwards, Chris Bell, Jack Daniel Foster Jr., Sema Hernandez, Royce West, and Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez.

Everyone is asked to bring a nonperishable food item to donate to the food pantry. Hope to see you there!

UPDATE: Here’s the EventBrite link for the forum.

Weekend link dump for December 29

“Baseball’s plan to kill off dozens of [minor league] affiliate teams is a clear act of collusion.”

“Among millennials, fewer than half identify as Christians. More than 40 percent identify as nothing in particular.”

“Netflix Reportedly Lost 1 Million Subscribers to Disney+”.

“This is an extreme case of what, actually, is a pretty normal habit, though it sounds kind of strange when written down: People regularly speak as their pets, babies, or even, yes, stuffed animals, in order to communicate with people around them.”

Very glad to see Charlie Pierce on the road to recovery.

“Democrats, for the most part, are engaging with the factual record; Republicans, for the most part, are not. These positions are manifestly not equivalent. Treating them as such does not serve any useful concept of fairness; instead, it rebounds clearly to the advantage of the one side (Republicans) for whom nonsense being taken seriously is a victory in itself.”

“White evangelicals were mostly partisan Republicans in 1980, but because we were Cold Warriors, not culture warriors.”

4 false claims in under 30 words: Kevin McCarthy’s IG report tweet is an exercise in gaslighting”.

Donald Trump’s one-line cameo in Home Alone 2 was edited out of a Canadian TV broadcast, and people reacted exactly as you’d expect them to.

RIP, Allee Willis, songwriter who composed the theme to Friends.

“It’s been clear for a while that political satire in the U.S. has a Trump problem. The jokes are getting redundant, but even worse, the president seems immune to them.”

RIP, Gertrude Barnstone, Houston artist and civil rights activist.

RIP, Daddy-O Wade, Texas artist who created the iconic San Antonio North Star Mall cowboy boots.

RIP, Don Imus, pioneering radio shock jock.

RIP, Lee Mendelson, TV producer who created A Charlie Brown Christmas and the other Peanuts specials.

“So we can be filled with hope by realizing that we have the capacity to be good and kind and decent. And we can be filled with dismay by realizing that we’re only able or willing to be that way in short bursts.”

Precinct analysis: 2019 HD148 special election

I started this post while doing other precinct analysis stuff. Didn’t finish it with the others, but now that the legislative special election runoffs are next up on the calendar, I thought I’d finish it off. First, here’s how the main Mayoral candidates did in HD148:


Turner    9,631
Turner%  44.65%

Buzbee    6,280
Buzbee%  29.11%

King      2,947
King%    13.66%

Boykins   1,253
Boykins%  5.81%

Lovell      467
Lovell%   2.16%

Others      993
Others%   4.60%

Not actually all that different than how they did overall in Harris County. Mayor Turner was about 1.7 percentage points lower, while Sue Lovell gained 0.86 points. Oddly, it was the “Other” candidates who collectively gained the most, going from 3.72% overall to 4.60% in HD148, for a gain of 0.88 points. Keeping it weird, y’all.

Since I started this before the runoff, and even before the date for the HD148 runoff was set, I wondered what the effect might be of having Anna Eastman and Luis LaRotta slug it out at the same time as Mayor Turner and that other guy. I decided to zoom in on the best precincts for Eastman and LaRotta and see how the Mayorals did in them:


Eastman top 4

Eastman 1,557
LaRotta   557
Dem     1,508
GOP       547
Others  2,055

Turner  2,389
Buzbee    974
King      592
Others    370

LaRotta top 4

Eastman   242
LaRotta   600
Dem     1,006
GOP       515
Others  1,521

Turner    835
Buzbee  1,001
King      412
Others    245

Putting it another way, Anna Eastman’s best precincts were more Democratic, and more favorable to Turner, than LaRotta’s precincts were Republican and favorable to That Guy. Didn’t much matter in the end, but I was curious, and that’s what I learned.

Finally, there’s always the question of how much turnout efforts from one race can affect another. For sure, the Mayoral race was the big turnout driver in Houston in November, but as overall turnout was below thirty percent, there would still be plenty of people in HD148 who would normally vote in an even-year election, when this race is supposed to be on the ballot, but who may not vote in odd-year races. To try to get a handle on this, I looked at the undervote rate in the Mayor’s race in HD148, and compared it to the overall undervote rate for the Mayorals. In Harris County, 1.59% of the people who showed up to vote in November did not cast a ballot in the Mayor’s race. The undervote rate in the HD148 special was 5.87%, which is another way of saying it was the Mayor’s race that drove the majority of the action.

In the HD148 precincts, all of which are in the city of Houston, there were 22,001 total votes cast, according to the draft canvass sent to me by the County Clerk. That’s a smidge less than what you’ll see on the official election report, which is almost certainly a combination of cured provisional ballots (my canvass does not include provisional votes), split precincts (many voting precincts are partly in and partly not in the city of Houston, which makes all of the calculations I do that also involve non-city entities a little fuzzy), and whatever stupid errors I made with Excel. Be that as it may, of those 22,001 cast ballots, there were 387 non-votes in the Mayor’s race, for an undervote rate in the HD148 precincts of 1.76%, a hair higher than the overall undervote rate. If the voters in HD148 had skipped the Mayor’s race at the same rate as voters everywhere else in Harris County skipped it, there would have been only 350 Mayoral undervotes.

So, I’d say that the turnout effect of the HD148 special election was pretty small, since the voters in that race behaved very much like voters elsewhere. Perhaps if this had been a higher-profile race, with more money and a longer time on the ballot and a clearer partisan split – in other words, a race more like the HD28 special election – we might have seen more people who came out to vote for it and who had less interest in the other races, and thus a higher undervote rate in the Mayoral election. Sadly, we won’t know what that might look like at this time. I should note that I have no idea how many of the 1,288 non-voters in the HD148 special were also non-voters in the Mayoral race; there’s just no way to tell that from the data I have. Maybe some of those people were just there to vote for the Constitutional amendments, or the Metro referendum, or District H, or who knows what. I feel on reasonably firm ground saying that the turnout effect of the Mayor’s race was considerably higher than the turnout effect of the HD148 special election. Anything beyond that needs more study. You’re welcome.

That’s a weird definition of “thriving”

I have three things to say about this.

Surrounded by fellow Libertarians during a 2018 election night watch party at a rented Airbnb in Fort Worth, Eric Espinoza, who was running for state Rep. Jonathan Stickland’s seat, saw a Facebook message notification pop up on his phone.

“‘It’s people like you who are preventing other candidates from winning,’” he recalls the message saying, though he doesn’t recall which candidate the sender supported.

“I was like, ‘Hey, guys, look — I think I finally made an impact,’” Espinoza remembers saying, as he passed his phone around to others in the crowded living room.

“That to me was like, OK, cool, I was able to affect something so much that somebody who knows nothing about me, and nothing about why I ran, blames me for somebody losing — when it’s not the votes. It’s not that I took votes from them; it’s that people didn’t want to vote for that person, and they had a better option.”

Republicans and Democrats alike will blame third-party candidates for siphoning votes from traditionally two-way races. Espinoza not only took votes that might have gone to Stickland, a Republican, but he had more votes than Stickland’s margin of victory. Stickland beat his Democratic challenger by fewer than 1,500 votes, and Espinoza, in third place, had racked up more than 1,600.

It’s still rare for third-party candidates to capture enough votes to potentially sway an outcome — in the past three general elections, there have been just six such instances, according to a Hearst Newspapers analysis. But the number is growing, in a sign of tightening Texas elections.

[…]

A year after some of the most competitive state-level races in decades, Texas Republicans moved to make it easier for third-party candidates to receive and maintain a spot on the ballot. In doing so, they returned ballot access to the Green Party after it lost it following the 2016 election.

“Maybe Republicans are just kind of viewing this as, either you could call it an insurance policy or maybe it’s a way to subject the Democrats to things they’ve been subjected to on the part of the Libertarians,” said Phil Paolino, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas who has studied the effect of third parties on presidential races.

As elections get tighter, Paolino said, “you might see a few more races where third-party candidates are able to cover the margins — whether it’ll have the effect of altering the results is a big question.”

1. I’ve said my piece about third party voters. I will add that in 2018, the last year we’ll get this statistic, 0.49% of all straight party votes in Harris County were straight party Libertarian. That continued an upward trend in the off-year elections, which has come to an end thanks to the end of straight ticket voting.

2. Along those same lines, I’ve also said that I’m not particularly worried about the Green Party effect in Texas. Among other things, Green Party candidates just don’t get that many votes, and there are very few of them in non-statewide races. And as Professor Paolino notes, we don’t know that much about what might have happened in a race won with a non-majority due to the presence of one or more third-party candidates in the counterfactual event where they hadn’t been present. Maybe someday the poli sci professionals will take a crack at that, but until then we’re all just guessing.

(This is usually the point at which someone chimes in to remind me of the merits of ranked choice voting, which would provide a measure of what third party voters would have done if there had been only two choices. This is also the point at which I remind everyone that we don’t have ranked choice voting, and there is no prospect of getting anything like it in the foreseeable future. This is just a restatement of the “but what if there had been only two candidates” hypothetical.)

3. I dunno, when I read a story about a political party “thriving”, I imagine it’s going to be about how that party is winning more elections, or at least competing more strongly in elections where they had not been before. This story is about how one party is thriving in a way they hadn’t been before, it’s just that the party in question is the Democrats. I don’t see what that has to do with the Libertarians, but maybe that’s just me.

Beto PAC

In case you were wondering what he’s up to now.

Beto O’Rourke

Weeks after dropping out of the presidential race, Beto O’Rourke has launched a new political group to boost Texas Democrats in the 2020 election.

In an email to supporters Friday morning, O’Rourke said the group, Powered by People, will bring “together volunteers from around the state to work on the most important races in Texas.” He named a few battles in particular: the fight for the state House majority, national Democrats’ drive to flip six Texas congressional seats, the race to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and the presidential general election in Texas.

“Powered by People will organize grassroots volunteers to do the tough, necessary work that wins elections: registering Texans to vote (especially those that have just moved to Texas and those who are just turning 18), knocking on their doors, making phone calls, and connecting the dots so that we all understand that in order to make progress on the issues we care most about — like gun violence, healthcare and climate — we will have to register, volunteer and vote,” O’Rourke said.

Powered by People is set up as a political action committee — notable given O’Rourke’s long aversion to PACs in his campaigns. As a congressman, 2018 U.S. Senate candidate and 2020 presidential candidate, O’Rourke refused to accept PAC donations, denouncing the influence of big money in politics.

“I think it’s a really good question — ‘Why would you then start a PAC?'” O’Rourke said in a Texas Tribune interview later Friday. “There literally was no other legal organization that would allow us to raise money and spend money to help organize people in Texas.”

O’Rourke said he looked at starting a 501(c)(4) nonprofit but was not comfortable with the lack of transparency — such groups do not have to disclose their donors. Those organizations also require that politics can’t become their primary focus.

I presume this is the mechanism Beto will use to support State House candidates in this cycle, and perhaps going forward. I’ve never been of the opinion that PACs are evil, or that one needs to shun them to be a “good” progressive. PACs are a tool, no more and no less. Where they are problematic is when they are used to circumvent disclosure requirements, and contribution limits. The fundamental problem isn’t PACs, it’s Citizens United. The only way to fix that is to put enough people who want to fix it in power, and that’s going to mean raising the resources to support them along the way. It’s the system we have, and we’ve got to do what we can to be able to change it. That’s what Beto is doing, and I applaud him for it.