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Democratic primary

New felony court coming

Your 2022 ballot is about to get longer.

A new Harris County felony court will open Sept. 1 after decades of population growth and no new criminal district judges.

The addition comes as judges, prosecutors, administrators and defense attorneys battle a massive backlog in the criminal courts, with almost 98,000 docketed cases near the end of July. Almost 54,000 of those cases were felonies, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

The 22 existing felony judges are each juggling an average of 2,392 cases on their dockets, county data shows.

Gov. Greg Abbott on June 18 signed the existence of the 482nd district court into law. He has not yet selected a judge, and the 11th Administrative Judicial Region of Texas will make a jurist available until an official appointment takes place, said Harris County district court administrator Clay Bowman.

All of the current felony judges are elected Democrats, meaning Abbott could appoint a lone Republican to the bench.

“Will appoint a Republican”, you mean. That person will very likely be voted out next November. There are already going to be a lot of contested Democratic primaries for the judicial positions. This one will surely draw a crowd as well, it just won’t be against a Democratic incumbent.

Matthew Dowd

Not sure what to make of this.

Matthew Dowd

A little more than a week after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Matthew Dowd announced he was leaving his job as chief political analyst with ABC News after thirteen years with the network. Freed from his talking-head obligations, Dowd could now speak out even more pointedly about what he believes to be the threat to democracy posed by Trump and his imitators. This summer, in tweets and cable interviews, the Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat has excoriated Governor Greg Abbott for a response to COVID-19 that has cost Texans lives. In a June appearance on MSNBC, Dowd said that democracy is in peril and “the only fix to this is Republicans have to lose, and lose badly, in a series of elections, and I’m willing to do whatever I can, on any day I can, to make sure that happens.”

[…]

TM: In early August you retweeted a message from University of Texas political psychologist Bethany Albertson: “It seems like TX could use a gubernatorial candidate who can stand up for voting rights and science. ASAP.” A week later you tweeted, “I will do whatever I can to defeat the GOP up and down the ballot in Texas in 2022. Literally, our values and our lives depend on it.” Are you thinking about challenging Abbott?

MD: So, here’s the best way to answer that for me. I will do whatever I can to defeat the GOP leadership and that begins with Greg Abbott, but doesn’t end with Greg Abbott. I describe Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton as craven, cruel, and crook. One’s craven. One’s cruel. And one’s a crook. And they need to go. I wish they had the gumption or wish they had the strength to resign after how much they failed the state. They won’t. So I’ll do whatever I can, in any way I can, to help in that.

I am not going to run for governor, though that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t run for something in 2022. But I haven’t made any decision about that. I’m just trying to figure out how best I can help do this and assist the Democrats in any way I can. And I’m going to speak out for sure, and whether or not that includes running for office, we’ll see. But it wouldn’t be for governor.

TM: Explain why you’d be willing to run for another statewide office but not for governor.

MD: I think there’s people positioned that would carry that mantle better. And the other thing is, I don’t want to get in a debate in a governor’s race, which would become exceedingly high intensity, about “the former Bush guy,” “the former Republican” running.

TM: That leaves Patrick and Paxton as potential targets.

MD: I don’t want to say any more, but I’m also not a lawyer so you can take it from there.

TM: Mike Collier, who came within five points of Patrick in 2018, is seeking a rematch.

MD: Yeah, he ran last time and he ran for comptroller in 2014 and lost [to Glenn Hegar by nearly 21 percentage points]. He seems like a nice guy. That’s up to him to make the right decision and the Democratic party to make the right decision of who they want to nominate.

Dowd had briefly flirted with the idea of running for Senate in 2018 against Ted Cruz, which the interview touches on. I like Mike Collier and think he’s a pretty good foil for Dan Patrick, but if Dowd thinks he can do better – in particular, if he thinks he can raise more money and get more attention for that race – then come on in and we’ll sort it out in the primary. The main thing here is that he has the right attitude. We could use a lot more of that. Campos, who had an inkling this was coming, has more.

July 2021 campaign finance reports: Harris County

PREVIOUSLY: Congress

There will be plenty of crucial races in Harris County in 2022. Because of the Democratic sweep in 2018, all of the countywide offices are held by Dems, meaning this is the first non-Presidential year in which Democrats will be running for re-election. That also includes two of the three Democratic members of Commissioners Court, which obviously has played a huge role in Harris County politics these past two-plus years.

It’s early in the cycle, but that doesn’t mean that no one has an announced opponent. There are a few names out there that I hadn’t heard before I went looking. That’s another reason why these July-the-year-before rituals are worth doing – you never know what you’ll find. With that, let’s get started.

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge

Adrian Garcia, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
John Manlove, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jack Cagle (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Clarence Miller, County Commissioner, Precinct 4

Teneshia Hudspeth, County Clerk

Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Desiree Broadnax, District Clerk

Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Stephen Kusner, County Treasurer


Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
======================================================
Hidalgo         660,776    102,858    1,400  1,023,311

Garcia          948,820    102,120        0  1,735,396
Manlove          53,750         46   10,000     53,703
Cagle           990,021    164,080        0  1,291,557
Miller           10,243      2,093        0      8,013

Hudspeth          1,066      5,597    1,000      6,162
Burgess           3,068      7,207        0      8,207
Broadnax            325         75        0        249
Osborne               0        174        0        505
Kusner              100          0        0        100

Probably a few names on there that you don’t recognize as well. Let’s take it from the top.

The big question surrounding County Judge Lina Hidalgo, now that she has officially announced her re-election bid, is whether she would draw a primary challenger. As we’ve discussed before, there are many reasons why someone might challenge Judge Hidalgo in the primary, none of which are directly related to the job she has done. One thing that may scare off potential rivals is a show of force in the fundraising department, which I’d say we have here. Hidalgo was not a big fundraiser in 2018, which is no surprise given she was running against a well-established incumbent and was a first-time candidate that was widely underestimated. She has stepped things up in the last year – as of July 2020, she had $371K on hand, after having raised $173K in that filing period. She wasn’t on the ballot, and surely didn’t want to compete with Dems who were, but still. She’s showing she can raise money with anyone, and she would start out in a primary with a big cash advantage. Maybe that scares off competitors and maybe it doesn’t, but it definitely sends a message.

I should note that if you search for campaign finance reports on the HarrisVotes website, and you sort by Office, you will see that there is another person listed for County Judge, Juanita Jackson. My first thought was that she is challenging Hidalgo next year, but I needed to double check that, because we have seen people whose intended office is actually one of the County Court benches be listed like this before. Indeed, it appears that Jackson is really running for Harris County Criminal Court #10 – the picture there matches the one on her Facebook page, and it appears she may have run for a similar position in 2010. I feel pretty confident she is not challenging Judge Hidalgo but the incumbent judge on that bench, Lee Harper Wilson.

Both of Hidalgo’s colleagues on Commissioners Court who are up in 2022 do appear to have opponents, though both are November challengers. Running against Commissioner Adrian Garcia in Precinct 2 is John Manlove, a former Mayor of Pasadena and a two-time Congressional candidate. He previously ran for CD22 in 2008 – he finished third, behind Shelley Sekula Gibbs and eventual winner Pete Olson – and for CD36 in 2014, following Steve Stockman’s switch to the Senate race – he finished third again, though this time much farther out of the money. Of his modest total, all but one donation was for at least $1,000, so this is not what you might call a grassroots movement. His report lists a $10,000 contribution to himself, and also a $10K loan – it’s on the Subtotals page, not the topline summary. I don’t know if the is an error is in how he filled out the form or if he double-counted that $10K. Not that big a deal, and he may file a corrected report, we’ll see. Garcia’s total speaks for itself and it’s what you’d expect from someone in his position.

The same can be said for Jack Cagle, who has been a Commissioner for longer than Garcia but who is (for now, at least) in a less competitive district. Remember, Commissioners Court will be redistricted as well, and we have no idea yet what that map will look like. Clarence Miller has been running for this position for awhile – I know I have spoken to him, maybe in early 2020, it must have been in person because I can’t find a written message. He doesn’t have a lot of cash to show for it yet, but he’s there and he’ll have an easier time of things when in person events begin happening with frequency again.

Teneshia Hudspeth was on the ballot in 2020 to complete the unexpired term of office that had been vacated when Diane Trautman resigned. She is now running for a full term and has no opponents as yet. Generally speaking, County Clerk is not a big fundraising office, so her totals here are perfectly normal.

The other two incumbents, both in their first terms, appear to have opponents. Desiree Broadnax looks like a primary opponent for District Clerk Marilyn Burgess, and according to her personal Facebook page, she works at the Harris County District Attorney’s office. I didn’t find anything for “Stephen Kusner” at first, until I made the obvious decision to look for Steve Kusner, and there I found the announcement of his candidacy. While I infer that Desiree Broadnax is a Democrat, it’s quite obvious that Steve Kusner will be running as a Republican. As with County Clerk, neither of these races draws much in the way of campaign contributions. Everyone will rise or fall more or less on the topline partisan vote in the county.

Finally, while I didn’t include them in the table above, there are two other reports of interest. As you know, I’ve been checking in on the finances of the late El Franco Lee, since there was over $3 million in his account at the time of his death. While there was a report in 2019 that “all campaign funds have been allocated for the El Franco Lee campaign account in accordance with the guidelines from the Texas Ethics Commission”, there still remains $900K in his account, with expenditures of just $1,000 over the past six months. The deadline for disposing of the rest of that is 2022.

The other report belongs to the now-retired Steve Radack, who remains with $1.1 million on hand. As with Lee, he can give it to other candidates or campaigns, the state or county Republican Party, the state treasury, a tax-exempt charity, a school or university for a scholarship program or as a refund to donors who gave in the final two years the candidate accepted contributions. He has a deadline of 2026 to do something with the funds.

So that’s what’s going on at the county level. I’ll take a look at the city of Houston – yes, I know, there are no municipal elections, but they can fundraise now and I like to check in – and HISD/HCC next. Let me know what you think.

Michelle Beckley announces for Congress

Interesting.

Rep. Michelle Beckley

State Rep. Michelle Beckley, one of the House Democrats who is camped out in Washington, D.C., announced Tuesday that she is challenging U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Irving, a national Democratic target.

Beckley unveiled her plans in a video filmed inside a hotel room in the nation’s capital, where House Democrats fled earlier this month to break quorum in protest of Republicans’ priority elections bill. In the video, Beckley contrasted her commitment to the voting rights battle with Van Duyne’s vote earlier this year to object to the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania.

“Beth Van Duyne can walk away from her duty to defend democracy, but not me,” Beckley says.

Beckley launched her campaign with endorsements from 30 fellow House Democrats, including caucus Chair Chris Turner and Joe Moody, whom House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, removed as speaker pro tem in retaliation for the quorum break.

Beckley is the second serious Democratic opponent that Van Duyne has attracted. Earlier this month, she drew a challenge from Derrik Gay, a Carrollton tax lawyer and former intelligence officer in the Marine Corps.

You can find Beckley’s announcement video here. The quorum break is sure to come up in any campaign, so she’s correct to address it head on. Derrik Gay made his announcement on July 6. We don’t know what CD24 will look like, but it’s already a DCCC target, and it seems reasonable to think it will be competitive in 2022.

We also don’t know what Beckley’s HD65 will look like. She won 51.2 to 48.8 in 2018, and 51.5 to 48.5 in 2020, and as we have discussed, it’s the biggest mover in a Dem direction in Denton County. But not the only big mover, and that means the Republicans’ choices in map-drawing are not obvious. As Scott Braddock notes, until we have a clear idea of what all the districts will be, someone who holds one office and announces for another has room to change their mind if the numbers say they should. So we’ll see. Either way, there should be plenty of interest in CD24.

Lee Merritt officially joins the AG race

We now have a contested Democratic primary for Attorney General.

Lee Merritt

Lee Merritt, the nationally known civil rights attorney, is officially running for Texas attorney general as a Democrat.

Merritt is set to launch his campaign at a 9 a.m. news conference outside the Texas Capitol in Austin, with an emphasis on the voting rights battle that prompted state House Democrats to flee the state Monday.

“Texas Republicans have launched an all-out assault on voter rights and civil liberties,” Merritt said in a statement, adding that incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton and other GOP leaders are “blatantly attempting to turn back progress in the Lone Star State using the familiar tactics of voter suppression, divisive rhetoric and corporate money.”

“This campaign is a response from the people of Texas,” Merritt said.

[…]

In addition to voting rights, Merritt’s camapign said it would focus on “fixing Texas’ failing power grid, reigning in soaring property taxes, ending mass incarceration and challenging gubernatorial overreach.”

Merritt joins Joe Jaworski, a Galveston lawyer and former mayor of the city, in the Democratic primary against Paxton. The incumbent has his own competitive primary, featuring challenges from Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Eva Guzman, a former justice on the Texas Supreme Court.

Merritt announced his intent to run in March, with a promise to make a formal announcement later. Joe Jaworski has been in the race for awhile, and of course there’s the Republican side of things. It will be interesting to see how Democratic interest groups line up for this one. I know Jaworski, I have not yet met Merritt, but he’s got a great resume and I’m eager to hear what he has to say. It’s good to have some contested primaries among good candidates on the Democratic side, as that will generate some much-needed attention. Good luck to Lee Merritt and Joe Jaworski, and may the best candidate win.

We return again to the “Is Beto running for Governor” question

It’s all about tonal shifts.

Beto O’Rourke

There’s no road trip, no soul searching. No beard or blogging. But Beto O’Rourke is making a political life decision again.

Three years after becoming Democrats’ breakout star out of Texas, and a year removed from crashing back to Earth in a short-lived presidential run, O’Rourke is again weighing another campaign — this time for governor.

But now O’Rourke, who teased an announcement of his bid for the White House on the cover of Vanity Fair, is being quiet about it. He says he hasn’t ruled out anything, but isn’t saying much else. And Texas Democrats are itching for an answer.

“Impatience is not the word for it,” Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. “But anxious is.”

For months, O’Rourke has kept his options open. A top aide to the former Texas congressman and presidential candidate said O’Rouke, 48, has not ruled out challenging Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in 2022 but has taken no formal steps toward a campaign, like calling donors or recruiting staff. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss private deliberations more freely.

[…]

The decision facing O’Rourke comes at a dark moment for Texas Democrats, even by the standards of a hapless 25 years of getting clobbered in statewide elections and steamrolled in the Legislature. For one, they are still wobbling after their massive expectations for a 2020 breakthrough flopped spectacularly. The party had hoped to flip the Texas House and O’Rourke led a massive campaign to do just that, but failed to give Democrats a single extra seat.

The Election Day wipeout emboldened Texas Republicans, who have responded by muscling through staunchly conservative measures over guns, abortion and teaching curriculum that Democrats are all but powerless to stop.

Any Texas Democrat running for governor faces long odds against the well-funded Abbott, who could ultimately face a stiffer challenge from actor Matthew McConaughey and his musings about joining the race himself. Still, O’Rourke went from virtual unknown to nearly upsetting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, and relishes the role of underdog.

You know my opinion, and the less said about McConaughey, the better. Honestly, this kind of “insider speaking anonymously to a reporter” story is an old tactic, meant to keep the name out there and gauge interest without having to make the formal commitments just yet. Not talking to a reporter, even anonymously, is always an option for someone who has no intention of being candidate, as well as their associates. In that light, this is an indicator that he really is thinking about running. But then, that is what I would think.

The 2022 primary target list

We’re likely to see a significant number of primary challenges in 2022, in all districted offices. That’s partly because 2022 is a post-redistricting year, and with boundaries being shuffled there are always new opportunities for people who find themselves in newly-redrawn districts, partly because party activists have less patience with members who they believe aren’t working in their interests, and partly because some members of the Lege make themselves a target by their actions in the session. To that latter group, let us welcome Rep. Leo Pacheco of San Antonio.

Rep. Leo Pacheco

The Bexar County Democratic Party has censured State Rep. Leo Pacheco, who once served as its chairman, for voting to approve a controversial bill nixing the requirement for Texans to obtain permits to carry handguns.

Pacheco was one of just seven Democrats in the Texas House to vote in favor of the GOP-backed legislation, which is likely to be signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. Democrats largely opposed the measure, as did gun control groups and some members of law enforcement.

A letter of censure posted Wednesday by the Bexar Democrats points out that the party’s state platform calls for preserving gun rights while “implementing prudent safeguards” to avoid firearm deaths. The platform also calls for prohibiting “open carry of all firearms and repealing ‘campus carry’ policies.”

In an emailed statement, Pacheco’s office declined comment on the letter.

“The representative is waiting until after the end of session to issue any response because his priority is focusing on passing substantive legislation,” the statement said.

Ironically, Rep. Pacheco had previously served as the Bexar County Democratic Party Chair. He was elected in 2018 following the retirement of Rep. Joe Farias. I don’t know a whole lot about his legislative career to this point, which is another way of saying he hadn’t rocked the boat before now. There’s always been a diversity of opinion within the state Democratic Party, more so when there were more Anglo members in rural areas (i.e., prior to 2010, when they were all wiped out in the Republican wave), though the party is more cohesive on a number of issues now. One of those issues is gun control, especially for things like background checks and restrictions on automatic weapons. As we’ve discussed before, public polling data suggests that voters as a whole do not approve of permitless carry, and Democrats really really don’t approve of it. This is what happens when you get out of step with the people you represent.

I will note for the record that while some Democratic reps may have been considering the current political trends when casting their vote on permitless carry, Rep. Pacheco doesn’t really have the same concern. His district voted 55.1 to 40.0 for Hillary Clinton, and 56.2 to 42.4 for Joe Biden. Clinton carried HD118 by 7,233 votes, Biden by 8,380. No shift here.

That doesn’t mean you should start drafting Rep. Pacheco’s political obituary. It doesn’t even guarantee that he’ll face a strong challenger in May or whenever we do get to have our primaries. It does mean he’s on notice, and he’ll either have to do something to make up for this or fight his way through it. We’ll see how it goes for him.

By the way, of the seven Dems who voted for the House permitless carry bill, five were from South Texas/Rio Grande valley districts, which are more rural and shifted towards Trump in 2020, and probably aren’t as out of step on this as Pacheco. The seventh Dem was none other than Harold Dutton, who is on quite a streak here. When the time comes to support a challenger to Dutton, remember that throwing trans kids under the bus isn’t the only reason you have to be mad at him.

Dragging Dutton

Richly deserved.

Rep. Harold Dutton

Houston area political action groups, activists, and unions gathered outside the office of Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton Jr. on Tuesday to call for his resignation.

“It’s better if he goes now than in the next election,” said Alexis Melvin, president of the Houston-based nonprofit Transgender Foundation of America.

“We the Houston community are here to call for the resignation of Harold Dutton for his attacks on education but more specifically his attacks on transgender kids,” said Brandon Mack, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Houston.

The fury stems from a bill Dutton revived and voted in favor of last week, Senate Bill 29. The legislation would prohibit trans youth from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

[…]

The Tuesday press conference and protest was organized and attended by major political groups in the Houston area, including the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, Houston Federation of Teachers, Black Lives Matter Houston, Indivisible Houston, Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, and others.

“In the labor movement, we say an injury to one is an injury to all,” said Ashira Adwoa an organizer with the Houston Federation of Teachers. “When your civil rights are under attack, we will speak out with you.”

Adwoa said Dutton should instead focus on making housing more affordable in his district, and pull funding from charter schools to finance smaller class sizes and more wraparound services in public schools.

“This school year has been traumatizing to students, and we need to help them recover from this pandemic,” Adwoa said.

Hany Khalil, executive director of Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, described Dutton’s behavior as shameful.

“Dutton didn’t vote for SB 29 when it first came up in committee because he knew it was a terrible, hateful bill,” Khalil said. “He knew it would hurt vulnerable kids. And so he used it as a cudgel to go after legislators who stood up to him and his attempt to strip democratic power from our schools.”

“Trans kids deserve to be safe and loved, just like all of our kids,” Khalil continued. “And they’re not pawns — they’re not pawns to be sacrificed in a disgusting game of legislative chess.”

See here for the background. Rep. Dutton has served for a long time, and while we have seen our share of Houston-area Democratic State Reps get bounced in primaries, mostly during the Speaker Craddick era, it’s not an easy thing to do. None of the groups present were Dutton supporters before – certainly not in 2020, when Dutton had to win in a runoff against Jerry Davis – so the work of building a sufficiently large coalition to oust him still needs to be done. The starting energy is good, and the cause is just. There remains a long way to go.

One more thing:

“I am hopeful that he doesn’t just get one primary challenger but a whole team of them,” [Houston GLBT Political Caucus President Jovon Alfon B.] Tyler said.

With all due respect, I don’t think that’s the best path to beating Dutton. Find one strong candidate that everyone at that demonstration can line up behind, and go from there. The problem with a stampede is that you’ll have too many people expending effort and resources in competing directions. There’s a real risk the same energy wouldn’t carry over into a runoff, as one would likely be needed in such a scenario. Join forces and unite behind one champion, that’s my advice.

Mike Collier gearing up again

I was hoping he’d be back.

Mike Collier

Mike Collier, the 2018 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor who lost to Dan Patrick by 5 percentage points, is gearing up for another run.

Collier is launching an exploratory committee to challenge Patrick again next year, though he said it is more of a “confirmatory” committee and that he is “intent on doing this.”

“This is a rematch, and it’s all about holding Dan Patrick accountable,” Collier said in an interview, arguing that two major recent events — the winter weather emergency and coronavirus pandemic — have shown “what poor leadership does in the state of Texas.”

Collier, a Houston-area accountant, said he plans to pitch himself much like he did in 2018, playing the mild-mannered policy wonk to Patrick’s conservative firebrand. But he said he believes he has additional factors working in his favor this time, and not just the recent crises that have put a harsh spotlight on Texas Republican leaders. He has assembled a top-flight campaign team, is better-known statewide than ever and believes President Joe Biden will be an asset, not a liability, next year in Texas.

“Biden, I believe, is going to be a very popular president because his policies make sense, and then we have COVID, and then we have an insurrection, and then we have a power crisis, and all sorts of reasons for people to pay attention,” Collier said. “So you roll all that together, and I think it’s a very winnable race.”

Collier remained politically active after his 2018 run, continuing to criticize Patrick and endorsing Biden early in the 2020 primary. Collier went on to serve as a senior adviser to Biden’s Texas campaign in the general election.

Collier’s campaign-in-waiting includes alumni of Biden’s campaign both nationally and in Texas. Collier is working with ALG Research, Biden’s pollster, as well as Crystal Perkins, the former Texas Democratic Party executive director who was Biden’s finance director for a region that included Texas.

Collier acknowledged he needs to raise more money than he did in 2018, when he collected $1.3 million over the two-year election cycle, a fraction of Patrick’s fundraising. However, Collier said his team has “already been in communication with the donors [for 2022] and we feel very bullish about that.”

I’m a longtime fan of Mike Collier, and I think he’s an asset on the ticket. He’s correctly identified his main weakness from 2018, and appears to be working on it. The thing about running against Dan Patrick is that you can let him grab most of the attention – it’s not like you can prevent him from doing that – but you do need to be able to remind everyone that they have another choice. Collier was a top performer in 2018 because he was an acceptable choice to voters who were sick of Patrick. If he can build on that – and if he’s right about the national atmosphere and President Biden’s relative popularity – he can win. The Chron has more.

Lee Merritt

We have a new contender for Attorney General.

Lee Merritt

Civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt has announced he’s running for Texas Attorney General in 2022 via his social media pages Saturday.

“Texas deserves an attorney general that will fight for the constitutional rights of all citizens,” tweeted Merritt.

In a video posted Saturday evening, Merritt said he didn’t plan to announce his run for the position this soon.

He expressed how his concerns for a lack of inaction and the lack of resources available for people in mental health crisis in Texas led to his decision on the heels of the death of Marvin Scott III.

Scott died at the Collin County jail after seven guards tried to restrain him in a cell on Sunday, March 14. Those employees have been placed on leave while the Texas Rangers conduct an investigation into the circumstances of his death.

Merritt is the attorney for the Scott family. He told WFAA that Scott’s mental health crisis was not appropriately addressed by police and detention officers.

You can see Merritt’s announcement here. He joins Joe Jaworski, and maybe George P Bush on the Republican side in challenging our official state felon, Ken Paxton, for the AG’s job. I don’t know much about Lee Merritt, but he sounds like he’s perfectly well qualified and won’t be afraid to mix it up. If he can raise some money, so much the better. Welcome to the race, Lee Merritt.

Matthew McConaughey redux

Again? sigh All right…

Two weeks ago, in these very same digital pages, I claimed that Matthew McConaughey had shown more leadership during Texas’s devastating winter storms than Senator Ted Cruz, simply by clearing the low bar of not scuttling off to Mexico. Now, I don’t know for a fact that Matthew McConaughey reads this column, or that he’s even aware of its disturbingly obsessive chronicling of weekly McCona-nutiae. However, it now seems like he may have caught wind of the sentiments expressed, and—rather than sending me hate mail, like a normal person—he may be taking it to heart. McConaughey now says that running for Texas governor is a “true consideration,” and no longer just an idle fantasy to fill magazine interviews.

The Austin actor took his latest tentative step into genuine statesmanship during an appearance on Crime Stoppers of Houston’s The Balanced Voice podcast, where host Rania Mankarious brought up the political aspirations he’s been casually floating since last fall. “I’m looking into now again, what is my leadership role?” McConaughey replied. “Because I do think I have some things to teach and share, and what is my role? What’s my category in my next chapter of life that I’m going into?”

See here for the background. Look, there are three options here, if McConaughey is actually thinking about this and not just letting his mind wander a bit on a podcast: File as a Republican, file as a Democrat, and file as an independent. I think we can all agree that I have as good a chance of beating Greg Abbott in a Republican primary as McConaughey does. As for filing as an independent, I have two words for that: Kinky Friedman. Here are two more, as a bonus: Grandma Strayhorn. The one thing that such a move would do is split the anti-Abbott vote, for which the only possible outcome is an Abbott re-election. Abbott would surely do better than Rick Perry’s 39% in 2006, making any plausible pathway to beating him that much less likely. Maybe if literally nobody filed as a Democrat there might be a chance, but that’s not going to happen – even if no remotely credible candidate chooses to take on Abbott, some Gene Kelly type will, and that will be that.

Which leaves filing as a Democrat as the only viable option. I grant that the odds of winning against Abbott as a Democrat aren’t that much greater than either of the other two scenarios, but they are greater than zero. That means doing the work to win over a Democratic primary electorate, which I assure you wants very much to beat Greg Abbott and which right now is hoping that Beto O’Rourke or Julian Castro files to run against him. McConaughey could win a Dem primary, especially if he announced first and started raising money and actively campaigning and, you know, stated some policy opinions and action items for his hoped-for term as Governor. If he did the work, in other words. No guarantees, of course – if Beto or Julian or some other Democrat of reasonable stature and accomplishment threw a hat into the ring, I’d make that person the favorite just for their having been committed to the party and its ideals and membership for more than five minutes. But at least he’d have a chance. If he did the work. No sign of that yet, so my position remains the same: Until I see some evidence of actual candidate-like behavior, this is not a thing. Nothing to see here, move along.

On Judge Hidalgo’s principles and politics

This op-ed about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo looks at her background and her style as an elected official to explore her political future.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

The question remains, is Hidalgo so focused on being a benevolent wonk that she ignores the risk — both pragmatic and political?

It’s a mistake to assume that she doesn’t care about politics or isn’t learning to play the game. Political observers point to her reliance on consultants and her passionate championing of social issues, which surely pleases her base but saps precious political capital she’ll need to influence Republicans on the balkanized court.

Still, Hidalgo’s sense of principle is what led her to implement protective lockdowns that are unpopular and cause real economic suffering. It’s what led her to support bail reform and changes to the criminal justice system that will be used as a cudgel against her.

Even if Democrats rally around her to hold off challengers, the right Republican can still put up a fight.

Hidalgo defeated Emmett by fewer than 20,000 votes, a smaller margin than what the Libertarian candidate pulled in.

“Harris County is not Dallas County, it’s not Travis. It’s still in play,” Siegel, the head of the Harris County GOP, said. “She’s going into areas that are not good for the county or its citizens.”

What’s undeniable is that Hidalgo is running the county as she said she would — and the only way she knows how.

“We’re willing to ask the question, ‘What does the evidence say we should do?’ Rather than taking the easy political route,” she said.

She doesn’t give out turkeys and she won’t take them, either. Hidalgo refuses contributions from those who have business with the county, which she recognizes makes her political future more difficult, limiting a source of legal funding that most local officials don’t think twice about securing.

She wants to run for a second term but says she has no interest in county government beyond that, an unusual admission for a politician that in and of itself leaves her vulnerable to challenge.

“I don’t want to be in the county for 30 years. I’m afraid that if I did that, I would kind of lose that fresh perspective. I just don’t know how much more value I would add,” she said. “But I definitely want to be able to see these things through.”

Sorry, Cindy Siegel, but after three straight shutout elections, Harris County is blue until proven otherwise. I get that this is an off year, and we’re now under a Democratic President, and the two elections like that before 2018 sucked for us, but I stand by that assessment. As such, I believe the larger threat to Judge Hidalgo’s re-election in 2022 is a primary challenger, a subject I’ve discussed before and don’t have anything to add at this time.

I guess I find the continued dissection of Judge Hidalgo’s unconventional history and policy-over-politics approach interesting but ultimately kind of pointless. She’s been very consistently and genuinely herself, and I just don’t think the average voter cares that much about this. She does a good job, she has helped enact policies that have benefited people and that have significant support among voters, and she has been an effective communicator in difficult times. There’s not a whole lot of mystery here.

Finally, as far as her future beyond 2022 is concerned, her answer is a more blunt version of “I’m just focused on what’s in front of me now, and don’t care to speculate beyond that”, which is actually a pretty normal answer. She has said she’s running for re-election, she’s deflecting the chatter that exists that she might run for higher office, and she’s leaving her options open for what comes next. She’s just using more direct words to say that, which may be confusing if you were expecting the usual kind of obfuscatory response. I don’t see where the vulnerability is in that.

A different focus on human trafficking

This story might have slipped past you last week.

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee — who was elected on a promise to transform the region’s approach to criminal justice — removed 36 suspected sex workers Thursday from a proposed injunction aimed at shutting down street trafficking on the Bissonnet Track, a notorious hub in Southwest Houston.

Menefee said suing these newly identified human trafficking victims was not a solution to curbing illegal activities in the neighborhood, and it only compounded the harm for vulnerable people. His office is also “taking a hard look” at dozens of others still named in the lawsuit, although some suspected pimps — both male and female — will remain for the time being as defendants. None of the removed defendants are believed to be traffickers, he said.

“One thing we do know is targeting sex workers, many of which have been confirmed to be victims of human trafficking, is not a sound approach to solving the issues that are faced on the Bissonnet Track,” he said.

He believes that in the case of a known hub for human trafficking, the government should prioritize ending these crimes while protecting victims.

“This lawsuit did not achieve those goals,” he said. “It proved to be ineffective and the proposed injunction would likely create another layer of harm for victims”

In the 2018 lawsuit, announced to great fanfare by Menefee’s predecessor, Vince Ryan, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo at a packed City Hall gathering, officials sought to prevent 86 people accused of engaging in the sex trade from entering an “anti-prostitution zone.”

The sweeping injunction they envisioned never came to fruition. Only a handful of defendants made progress by presenting evidence the county should drop the charges or by agreeing to steer clear of criminal conduct within the few-block circuit.

A copy of the press release from the County Attorney’s office is here. I thought I had written about this at the time, but if I did I wasn’t able to find it. I do know it was an issue in the primary for County Attorney last year, and County Attorney Menefee discussed it in the interview I did with him for that race. As the story notes, groups like the ACLU and experts on human trafficking disagreed with the injunction on the grounds that Menefee cited. In the end, Vince Ryan himself ultimately agreed with that assessment:

Ryan said Thursday he thought the injunction was the right move to address a glaring problem for the local management district his office represented by bringing a lot of attention to it.

“It’s always easy to look backwards and say we coulda, shoulda,” he said. But in time, he came to believe that the real problem was the pimps and it didn’t make sense to punish the people being sold. He said he spoke briefly with Menefee about the policy shift and he supported the new thinking.

“It’s a different time now than it was then,” he said.

Hopefully this step will help refocus the effort and get things moving in a better direction. It’s a thorny problem, with no easy solutions, but at least now we’re more united about what to try.

Castro says he’s not likely to run in 2022

Bummer.

Julian Castro

Julián Castro — formerly a presidential candidate, secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, and mayor of San Antonio — told KXAN this week that it’s “very unlikely” that he will seek any elected office in 2022.

Castro said he is focused on helping elect Democratic candidates through his political action committee, People First Future.

“Right now, I don’t plan to run in 2022,” Castro said. “I feel like I just went through the marathon of 2020 and then supported candidates and so, right now, I don’t have a target in mind in terms of when I’m going to run again.”

[…]

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said the political window could soon close for candidates like O’Rourke and Castro, if they don’t win races soon.

“There’s a real shelf life for a political career if you can’t strike while the iron is hot,” Rottinghaus told KXAN. “The likelihood is that activists are going to move on, donors are going to consider new people, and people are going to forget you.”

As we know, Beto is thinking about running, so we’ve got that going for us. I don’t speak for Julián Castro, I have no sway over him, I have no business telling him what to do, but I basically agree with Brandon Rottinghaus about political shelf lives. One reason for that is that the Democratic bench is a little deeper than it used to be – remember when every article that speculated about which Dem might run for a statewide position mentioned John Sharp, mostly because there were so few obvious possibilities to mention? I will remind everyone, myself included, that it is still early, though given the short runway to the filing deadline and the need to raise a gazillion dollars against Abbott and his war chest, it gets late real quickly. My request to Julián Castro, if he really isn’t going to run, is to make that clear to other potential candidates so they don’t have to factor him into their thinking, and maybe encourage – and promise to support – other potential candidates that he thinks would do well. We do need to start forming a lineup, so that we can speak with a more unified voice against Abbott and his myriad screwups and failures as quickly as possible.

District court judges to be removed from the felony bail lawsuit case

Hopefully, this brings us a step closer to settling the case.

Harris County’s 23 felony judges are no longer being sued over uneven bail practices that plaintiffs say discriminate against poor defendants. The civil rights lawsuit against the county and its reform-minded sheriff will move forward without them.

The federal judge presiding over Russell v. Harris County ruled Wednesday that once the bulk of the state district judges withdraw an appeal of one of her earlier rulings, they will be automatically removed as defendants in the case.

Lawyers for poor defendants say the mechanics of who is listed as a party will not prevent them from pursuing their goal of full adversarial bail hearings. The judges were not part of the original lawsuit, but were added at Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s request. Their removal was precipitated by an appellate court ruling in a similar challenge to the bail system in Dallas County, in which the 5th U.S. Circuit found the judges were cloaked by immunity and should therefore be excluded from the Dallas lawsuit.

See here for the background. If as that previous story suggests Ken Paxton and the AG’s office are also removed from the case, that should further the likelihood of a settlement. It also may mean I don’t have to be mad at the district court judges who were being represented by Paxton, though that will depend on how things go from here. And for those of you who insist that changing the existing policies will lead to mayhem in the streets, I will remind you that many of the US Capitol insurrectionists, who actually caused mayhem in the streets and elsewhere, as well as three-time murderer Kyle Rittenhouse, are now out on bail. It’s not a question of “safety”, it’s a question of who has privilege and who does not.

Beto for Governor?

He says he’s thinking about it.

Beto O’Rourke

Democrat Beto O’Rourke has left no doubt that he’s weighing a run for governor next year.

“You know what, it’s something I’m going to think about,” O’Rourke said in an exclusive interview on an El Paso radio station earlier this week.

And in case anyone missed the interview, a political action committee O’Rourke started called Powered By People is circulating it on social media.

The former congressman from El Paso who lost a close race for U.S. Senate in 2018 told KLAQ host Buzz Adams that Texas has “suffered perhaps more than any other” state during the pandemic and criticized Gov. Greg Abbott for a “complete indifference” to helping local leaders try to save lives.

“I want to make sure we have someone in the highest office in our state who’s going to make sure that all of us are OK,” the 48-year-old O’Rourke said. “And especially those communities that so often don’t get the resources or attention or the help, like El Paso.”

You can listen to the interview here. As you know, I am on Team Julian, but at this point I am willing to listen to anyone who is willing to say out loud the actual words that they are thinking about running. (As opposed to just saying they’re not ruling it out, which more or less applies to all of us.) That doesn’t commit anyone to anything of course, but it at least lets us know that the thought has crossed their mind. More likely than not, even expressing that mild sentiment is a sign that there’s some activity behind it, even if it’s just chatting with some folks.

Abbott, 63, might have more to worry about than just the general election as he runs for his third term.

Abbott has been under siege from some in the Republican Party of Texas for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including party chairman Allen West, a former Florida congressman who now lives in Garland. West has opposed Abbott’s mask requirement, called for a special session to curb Abbott’s executive powers during the pandemic and was part of a lawsuit seeking to overturn Abbott’s expansion of early voting last November. Some county GOP executive committees have even gone so far as to publicly censure Abbott for his handling of the pandemic.

There are other potential primary challengers, including Texas State Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas. During a rally near the steps of the Capitol in early January, Huffines tore into Abbott, calling him “King Greg” and saying he hasn’t done anything on big GOP priorities like election security.

It’s always hard to know how seriously to take the inchoate bloviations of an irrational dishonest person like Don Huffines, or Allen West. There is some discontent with Abbott among the frothing-maniac wing of the GOP, but that doesn’t mean they’d be able to do him any damage in a primary, or that they would continue to hold a grudge in the general against someone they consider far worse, which is to say any Democrat. It could happen, but I’m going to need to see it happen in order to believe it.

On the Democratic side, 2018 lieutenant governor candidate Mike Collier has been sounding like he’s ready for a rematch. Earlier this week he said in a tweet that Texans want Patrick out of the office and “my phone is ringing off the hook.”

Also up for re-election in 2022 will be Attorney General Ken Paxton, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, State Comptroller Glenn Hegar and Land Commissioner George P. Bush. All are Republicans.

Mike Collier is terrific, and he came pretty close to winning in 2018 as well. As we know, former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski is in for Attorney General, likely with some company in that primary. That’s one reason why I’m not going to jump on the Beto train at this point – it’s fair to say that having three white guys at the top of the ticket is not an accurate representation of the Democratic base, nor is it a great look in general. Obviously, it’s very early, and who knows who will actually run, and who might win in a contested primary. Let’s get some more good people raising their hands and saying they’re looking at it, that’s all I’m saying. The Trib has more.

Bail reform plaintiffs want Paxton booted from case

I for one am a fan of kicking out Ken Paxton in any context.

Best mugshot ever

In a strategic move that could speed up their case against Harris County, the plaintiffs challenging felony bail practices are hoping to kick two dozen players out of the game — 23 judges and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who represents most of them in the landmark suit.

These judges who dole out bail rulings on a daily basis to people accused of crime would become third parties. They would no longer go toe-to-toe with indigent defendants who sued in a civil rights case saying courts offer a vastly different outcomes to people arrested depending on how much money they have in their pocket.

The motion filed Wednesday asks Lee H. Rosenthal, the chief judge of the Southern District of Texas, to dismiss the felony judges as parties from the 2019 lawsuit. Should the judge grant it, the remaining defendants in the case would be the county and its sheriff. The majority in county government are in sync with bail reform and the sheriff’s office is headed by Ed Gonzalez, who has said that setting arbitrarily high bail rates doesn’t protect the public.

Paxton has been an impediment to progress, said Neal Manne, a pro bono lawyer from Susman Godfrey LLP, who is among the lead counsel behind twin bail challenges, to misdemeanor and felony bail.

“The county and the sheriff are actually operating in good faith and would like to figure out a solution to a terrible problem. The attorney general is not acting in good faith, he just wants to find ways to disrupt and disrupt and prevent any reform from happening.”

[…]

The idea of removing the judges from the case stems from a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case that took on Dallas County’s bail system. The appellate court determined that sovereign immunity protected the Dallas judges from being sued over their bail practices. The 5th Circuit ruling said the sheriff is the key party to sue to obtain relief for people who are being detained unconstitutionally due to unaffordable bail.

See here for the previous update. The theory, as espoused by Judge Chuck Silverman, who is not represented by Paxton and agrees with the plaintiffs, is that this would thin the herd in the courtroom, which in turn might make it easier to come to a settlement agreement. It might also put some of the judges who are currently being represented by the AG’s office on the spot, and I’m fine with that.

PAC to boot Paxton formed

No time like the present to start the fight against America’s worst AG.

Thursday, the Boot Texas Republicans Political Action Committee launched a campaign that is dead set on kicking Paxton out of office. Treasurer Zack Malitz said the PAC is raising money to aid Democratic efforts against the attorney general when he’s up for reelection in 2022.

“Someone who is corrupt and criminal should not be the top law enforcement official in Texas — at a basic level,” said Malitz, who also served as former Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s statewide field director during the 2018 U.S. Senate race.

[…]

The Boot Texas Republicans PAC will set up sturdy campaign infrastructure for future candidates running statewide, Malitz said. It will be a data-driven operation aiming to create small-dollar fundraising and volunteer bases for whoever Paxton’s Democratic opponent will be.

On top of Paxton’s legal woes, the attorney general failed his constituents when he tried to block local public health regulations in El Paso during the COVID-19 crisis, Malitz said.

Paxton isn’t focused on his basic duty of serving his Texas constituents, he added.

“Of course, [Paxton] is unfit to serve, given the legal problems that he’s facing,” Malitz said.

The Boot Paxton campaign won’t be taking a position in terms of backing a particular candidate during the primaries, Malitz said. Rather, the PAC is focused on a general election effort and will put all its support behind whoever the eventual nominee is.

Malitz is also the founder of the Beat Abbott PAC that was set up in July. The basic idea is to do some fundraising now, to help the future candidate later. As we know, Joe Jaworski is in for AG, and I feel confident he’ll have some company in the primary. It’s hard to know right now what the 2022 environment is going to look like, but there’s no reason not to prepare for 2022 as if we can win. This is a good start. The Current has more.

“Natasha Ruiz” indicted

At long last, an update to the weirdest local election story of the year.

Rep. Harold Dutton

A grand jury has indicted two Houston residents on election fraud charges, accusing them of orchestrating a phony candidacy of a woman that forced longtime state Rep. Harold Dutton into a runoff in this year’s Democratic primary, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced Friday.

Richard Bonton, one of Dutton’s other primary opponents, is accused of conspiring with Natasha Demming to register her on the ballot as Natasha Ruiz, an alias that garnered enough support to force Dutton into a runoff with another challenger that he later won.

Dutton and Houston Councilman Jerry Davis, who lost to Dutton in the runoff, both said they never saw Ruiz during the primary or found any evidence she was running a campaign.

Bonton and Demming face felony charges of tampering with government records, which carries a maximum sentence of two years. They also are charged with election fraud and conspiring to tamper with government records, both of which are Class A misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail. Demming also is charged with perjury, a misdemeanor.

“Richard Bonton filed numerous election documents on behalf of Natasha Ruiz, intentionally circumventing laws designed to ensure that voters have legitimate candidates to choose from and intentionally obscuring his own involvement in putting up a straw candidate,” Ogg said, holding up a copy of Ruiz’s campaign treasurer’s report that she said contained false information.

See here, here, and here for the background. As a reminder, someone showed up at HCDP headquarters with a drivers license that said she was Natasha Ruiz and lived in HD142. Later, Natasha Demming claimed in an interview that she’d had her identity stolen. I infer from this story that Demming was the person who showed up as Ruiz – if someone else had done it, one presumes that person would also now be under indictment – and the perjury charge is for claiming under oath that it wasn’t her. As for Bonton, who had run unsuccessfully against Dutton in the 2018 primary as well, well:

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle two days after the primary, Bonton said he had never encountered Ruiz during the primary and was conducting an investigation of his own. He said he was upset about her candidacy, contending that she may have cost him a spot in the runoff against Dutton.

“It seems odd to me that somebody that’s never been seen on the campaign trail all of a sudden mysteriously pops up,” Bonton said in the March 5 interview. “Not a yard sign, not a speech, not an event, a forum, nothing. A campaign of nothingness has resulted in 21 percent.”

Whoops. I wonder how much assistance Dutton’s private eye was in this investigation. The ironic thing is that if Bonton wanted a Latina to run against Dutton and maybe siphon some support away from him, he could have just found a real person to run as a stealth candidate. That’s not even a novel strategy, and it involves forging fewer documents. Lesson for the future, y’all.

There was another indictment as well.

Meanwhile, Damien Jones, a Democratic political consultant, was also indicted Friday on an allegation of sending an anonymous text threatening Calanni in an effort to get her to resign from office instead of running for reelection, according to the news release. The threat, Ogg said, was sent to Calanni in December 2019 just ahead of the 2020 election filing deadline. Calanni reported the threat to the Texas Rangers, which investigated the complaint with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Public Corruption Division.

Jones, who was indicted for two Class A misdemeanors — coercion of a public servant and false caller identification information display — could face up to a year in Harris County Jail and up to a $4,000 fine, if convicted.

There’s a bit more on this indictment in the Chron story and in the Press. It’s the first I’ve heard of this, and don’t have any idea about it beyond what’s in those articles. Jones has released a statement via his attorney, denying all the charges. We’ll see how it goes.

More 2022 speculation

From Campos:

Judge Lina Hidalgo

I was watching “What’s Your Point” yesterday and the 2022 election was brought up. Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo would face an opponent in the Democratic Primary. My friend Bill King went a bit further and said that Judge Hidalgo would face an African American or former H-Town Mayor Annise Parker in the primary. Huh?

Anyone can plop down the $1,250 filing fee to run. I am not hearing among Democrats that Judge Hidalgo is doing a lousy job. I think she is doing a pretty good job. She’s promoting issues that Democrats like. What is wrong with rental assistance and supporting small businesses during a pandemic. She would be tough to beat in the Democratic Party Primary if you ask me.

I wonder where Bill and Mark are getting their local Democratic Party intel.

I have no idea where Mark Jones may get his intel, but let me state for the record that I am extremely skeptical of the idea that Bill King is in any way plugged into the local Democratic scene. I strongly suspect that neither of them have heard real chatter from reliable sources, but instead are speculating based on three factors:

1. The 2018 “That could have been me” hangover. I noted this before. As we know, there was a lot of talk about who might have run for County Judge in 2018, with Judge Hidalgo ultimately being the only person to file. Lots of people didn’t want to run against then-Judge Emmett for a variety of reasons, with Annise Parker being the best known of them. It is possible that someone who now regrets not throwing their hat into the ring in 2018 is considering a 2022 run, now that the main challenge is in March and not in November. For what it’s worth, I’ve not heard anything to this effect, but I don’t claim to be especially plugged in at this time, either.

2. The business interests. I am very much in the “Judge Hidalgo has done a fine job” camp, and I agree that she has acted very much in ways that Democratic primary voters would approve. But there are groups that don’t like bail reform, and there are groups that don’t like putting extra regulations on development, and there are groups that likely feel like their influence has waned under Judge Hidalgo and the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court. If these folks now believe that Republicans are at a disadvantage running countywide, then one way to do something about that is to recruit and support a candidate for County Judge for the Democratic primary that will be more amenable to them and their concerns. It’s not the only thing they could do – I’m sure Commissioner Garcia will be targeted in November of 2022, though the Commissioners Court redistricting process may make that a less attractive option for them – but it’s on the menu. And let’s just say that I do believe Bill King is a reliable source of information for what the big capital crowd is thinking.

3. The real question is, can I win? Elections are funny things, and as we well know, the “best” candidate doesn’t always win. One question anyone who runs for office has to answer is who are my voters? Are there enough of them to get me past the finish line? I’m sure Bill King’s suggestion of a Black candidate running against Judge Hidalgo is based on the observation that there are a lot of Black voters in the Harris County Democratic primary, and that candidates often attempt to appeal to voters on affinity more than issues. Doesn’t mean such a person would be successful, or even a credible threat, but it’s a possibility.

All of this is my speculation about their speculation. We’re at the time in the calendar when people like to take early looks ahead to the next election, and no one ever keeps track of this sort of nattering, so why not put out a hot take or two. I’ve certainly indulged in this sort of thing before. It’s all fun and games until someone files a designation of Treasurer report. If there’s anything to any of this besides filling up some air time, we’ll know soon enough.

Felony bail reform lawsuit moves forward

Pending the next appeal, anyway.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the case challenging Harris County’s felony bail system should proceed to trial. Nineteen felony judges represented by state Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately gave notice they planned to appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit

[…]

The defendants include Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who does not oppose the litigation, and 23 Harris County felony district judges, who have split into a larger group represented by Paxton, who opposes the lawsuit, and a smaller faction represented by attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represented the judges in the misdemeanor bail case.

In a 65-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal denied the state and felony judges’ motions to dismiss the case, finding that the evidence involved “vigorously disputed factual allegations that must be developed further to resolve the legal issues the parties present.”

Lawyers for Abbott and 19 Democratic district judges argued in October the judges were protected by immunity, the federal courts do not have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees do not have standing to sue.

Rosenthal found the court had standing and thousands of indigent arrestees, even though the individuals changed over time, had grounds, as a group, to sue.

See here, here, and here for the background. This was a motion to dismiss on largely procedural grounds, so there’s plenty of room for the Fifth Circuit to step in and throw this out without the merits of the case ever getting litigated. Obviously, I hope that does not happen.

This is the first I’d heard of the judicial plaintiffs being in two different groups; I need to understand what that means going forward. You know where I stand on this, and I plan to make a Big Deal out of which judges are on the right side of this issue, and which are actively obstructing it. So far, that standard hasn’t been met, but if the Fifth Circuit upholds this ruling then I will look very sideways at further appeals.

Looking ahead to 2022

Continuing with the brain dumps, which are my post-election tradition. This is a collection of thoughts about the next big election, in 2022.

As I said earlier, I take no position on the question of what effect the disparity in door-to-door campaigning had. I can buy there was some effect, but we have no way of how much of an effect it was. The good news is, whatever the case, this isn’t a trend, it’s a one-time effect of an election in a pandemic. I feel pretty confident saying that barring anything extraordinary, traditional door-knocking will be a big component of everyone’s 2022 campaigns. Perhaps Democrats will have learned something useful from this year’s experience that will enhance what they can do in 2022; admittedly, what they have learned may be “this sucks and we never want to do it this way again”.

There are a couple of things that concern me as we start our journey towards 2022. The first is that after four long years of hard work, with one rewarding election cycle and one disappointing cycle, people will be less engaged, which needless to say will make keeping the ground we have gained, let alone gaining more ground, that much harder. I think people will be focused on bringing change to our state government, but we can’t take this for granted. People are tired! These were four years from hell, and we all feel a great weight has been lifted. I get it, believe me. But we felt this way following the 2008 election, and we know what came next. We cannot, absolutely cannot, allow that to happen again. We know what we need to do.

Second, and very much in line with the above, the national environment matters. What President Biden will be able to accomplish in the next two years depends to a significant extent on the outcome of those two Georgia Senate runoffs, but however they go we need to remember that there are significant obstacles in his way. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans were greatly rewarded for their all-out obstructionism throughout the Obama presidency. We can’t control what McConnell et al do, but we can control our reaction to it. Do we get discouraged and frustrated with the lack of progress, or do we get angry with the people whose fault it really is? How we react will be a big factor in determining what the national mood in 2022 is.

I’m already seeing people give their fantasy candidate for Governor. They include the likes of Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro (my choice), Cecile Richards, Lina Hidalgo, and others. I don’t know who might actually want to run – it is still early, after all – but we just need to bear in mind that every candidate has their pros and cons, and we need to worry less about matters of personality and more about building coalition and continuing the work we’ve been doing.

For what it’s worth, four themes I’d like to see our eventual candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor emphasize: Medicaid expansion, marijuana legalization, emergency/disaster preparedness and response, and improving the voter experience, with a focus on online voter registration. The first two have proven they are popular enough to be adopted by voter initiative in deep red states, the third is obvious and should include things like hurricanes, flooding, and drought in addition to pandemics in general and COVID-19 in particular, and the fourth is something there’s already bipartisan support for in the Lege. Let Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick defend the status quo here.

(Increasing the minimum wage was also a ballot initiative winner in states like Florida, and it generally polls well. I very much support raising the minimum wage, but don’t have as much confidence that it would be an electoral winner here. I’m open to persuasion otherwise.)

Here are some numbers to contemplate as we look towards 2022:

I’d attribute the regression in performance in the biggest 15 counties to Republican improvement more than Democrats falling short – as noted multiple times, Democrats hit new highs in the big urban counties, but so did the GOP. There’s still room for growth here, especially in an environment where turnout level is much more volatile, but the marginal growth is smaller now. Putting that another way, there’s no longer a deficit of voter registration in these counties. We need to maintain and keep up with new population growth, but we’re not behind where we should be any more. If we do that, and we prioritize maximizing our own base, we’ll be fine.

It’s the bottom two groups that we need to pay some attention to. A lot of these counties have medium-sized cities in them, and that’s an obvious place to focus some effort. (I’ve been beating that drum for months and months now.) But we really need to do something about the small rural counties, too, or face the reality of huge vote deficits that we can’t control and have to overcome. I know this is daunting, and I have no illusions about how much potential for gain there is here, but I look at it this way: If Donald Trump can convince some number of Black and Latino people to vote for him in 2020, after four years of unrelenting racism and destruction, then surely nothing is impossible. I think marijuana legalization could be a good wedge issue here. Remember, the goal is to peel off some support. A few points in our direction means many thousands of votes.

It’s too early to worry about legislative and Congressional races, because we have no idea what redistricting will wrought. I think we should be prepared for litigation to be of limited value, as it was this decade, and for the Republicans to do as much as they can to limit the number of competitive districts. They may be right about it in 2022, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be right in subsequent years.

In Harris County, we should expect competitive primaries for all of the countywide positions, and for many of the judicial spots. Judge Lina Hidalgo has done an outstanding job, but we know there are people who could have run in 2018 who are surely now thinking “that could have been me”. Don’t take anything for granted. We need to keep a close eye on the felony bail reform lawsuit, and news stories about how the current judges are handling bail hearings, because we are going to have to hold some of our folks accountable. We need to make sure that all of the Republican justices of the peace have opponents, especially the ones who have refused to do same-sex marriages.

Overall, there’s no reason why we can’t continue to build on what we have done over the past decade-plus in Harris County. Complacency and disunity will be our biggest opponents. The rest is up to us.

The 2022 election has officially started

And Joe Jaworski is the first candidate out of the box.

Joe Jaworski

Joe Jaworski, a mediator and former Galveston mayor, is not a fan of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican first elected to statewide office in 2014.

“I have always thought the attorney general should be the attorney for the people, not a particular political party or ideology,” he told me Tuesday.

That may sound naive to Texans who’ve followed state politics in recent years. But Jaworski, a Democrat, has a unique vantage point as the grandson of the late Leon Jaworski, the Houston lawyer and one-time Nuremberg prosecutor who gained fame as the second special prosecutor during the Watergate scandal.

Jaworski said his grandfather — “the Colonel,” to family members — put country over party. A Democrat, he became disillusioned with the party after Lyndon Johnson’s administration and voted for Richard Nixon twice. His legal clash with Nixon over Oval Office audio recordings culminated in Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

“Leon Jaworski was always on the right side of history, and that is a meaning that I feel very strongly about,” Joe Jaworski said of his grandfather.

Joe Jaworski announced his own bid for attorney general last week, getting an early start in a bid to unseat Paxton, a Republican, in 2022. Jaworski doesn’t expect to be the only Democrat vying for the job.

But Paxton might as well be on the ballot this cycle, Jaworski argued. Some of Paxton’s peers in statewide office have laid low this election cycle, or focused their efforts on fundraising for downballot GOP candidates. But the attorney general, who continues to fight his own five-year-old indictment for felony securities fraud, has vigorously inserted himself into the political fray.

We are familiar with Paxton’s actions. I met Joe some years ago and did an interview with him for his 2008 race for State Senate in SD11. He’ll be an energetic campaigner and I suspect a decent fundraiser. I’m not surprised that he expects company in the primary – I can imagine 2018 AG candidate Justin Nelson giving it another shot, and there will likely be others out there – but it’s exciting to think about a compelling lineup of primary contests. Lord knows, there will be no shortage of issues to highlight in a race against Ken Paxton, even if he still hasn’t seen the inside of a courtroom for his alleged misdeeds by then.

Jaworski’s got a campaign Facebook page up, which I had come across a couple of days ago, before Erica Greider wrote that column. Obviously, what’s happening this November is the top priority, and the legislative session that follows will be next in line. But the 2022 election has a chance to be truly transformative in Texas, and even if you think that’s an overbid, there will surely be a hotly contested effort to take or maintain control of the House, plus all 31 Senate seats will be up. The sooner we can get some quality folks out there for the statewide positions, the better.

Smoots-Thomas takes a plea

A sad but hardly unexpected end to this story.

The ex-judge in an orange jail uniform stood before a judge in black robes, swore to tell the truth and tried to make sense of her predicament.

“My world truly turned upside down,” Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, a former Harris County civil judge, told federal Judge Lynn N. Hughes on Thursday, enumerating the heartbreaks amid tears. Her husband’s unemployment. A house in foreclosure. Her cancer treatments. Her father’s cancer diagnosis. Two divorces. A child’s suicide attempt.

“I regret wholeheartedly leaving such a terrible stain at what is the end of a wonderful and rewarding 18-year legal career,” she said. “I truly apologize for my actions. I apologize for the stain that this has placed on my family and even my former colleagues on the bench.”

The 44-year-old pleaded guilty to using campaign funds to pay personal expenses, capping off a turbulent year that included chemotherapy, remission, a failed bid to reclaim her former bench and criminal charges last month alleging she fired a shotgun at her husband’s girlfriend. The government dropped six remaining counts of wire fraud.

Her plea agreement details how she siphoned off campaign money to purchase a Zales engagement ring and two Prada handbags, and to make two mortgage payments and cover private school tuition for her two sons. As a convicted felon, she will no longer be permitted to practice law, the only career she’s ever known, according to her lawyer in the assault case.

Hughes took into consideration her admission of guilt, her hardships and her likelihood of re-offending, and sentenced her to the 36 days she’d just spent in jail for a bond violation connected to the shooting charges, as well as three years of supervised release.

He ordered her released from federal lockup in Conroe, and made off-handed remark to a deputy U.S. marshal to make sure she got a ride back into Houston.

Prosecutor Ted Imperato, of the U.S. Attorney’s public corruption unit, challenged the “unreasonableness” of the sentence. The judge responded, in his trademark snarky bluster, that the sentence was “pure wisdom.”

The prosecutor had requested a sentence within the guideline range of 18 to 24 months in prison, saying the defendant abused her power and authority as a sitting judge.

Imperato noted that rather than agree to a deal where she would leave the bench, “She thumbed her nose at us, and, with these charges pending, ran for re-election.”

See here and here for the background. As I’ve said before, I know Smoots-Thomas and I feel terrible for the things she has gone through. I truly hope she is able to get the help she needs to get her life back on track. I hope her children are doing all right – the story goes into more detail about the effect this has had on their lives, and it was not good. I’m also glad she lost her primary election – I voted against her in both rounds. And I hope the next time we see her name in the news it’s for something positive.

On a side note, we can certainly have a debate about the prosecutor’s complaint that the sentence she received was too light. One could argue that the guideline range is too harsh, or too limited, or that we should just let judges have the discretion to sentence defendants as they see fit. Perhaps the problem is not that she got off too easy, but that other, less prominent, defendants in her position get sentences that are overly severe. It’s a good debate to be having in many contexts.

Green Party candidate for Supreme Court withdraws

It’s not an election without a bit of ballot drama.

Judge Amy Clark Meachum

Charles Waterbury, the Green Party candidate for Texas Supreme Court chief justice, has dropped out of the race after an opponent questioned his eligibility to run.

Waterbury’s withdrawal notice was submitted to the Texas secretary of state’s office Monday and notarized Friday, the same day his Democratic opponent, Amy Clark Meachum, sought a court order declaring his candidacy invalid.

Meachum’s emergency petition to the Supreme Court, the same body she hopes to join, argued that Waterbury is prohibited from appearing on the ballot as the Green Party nominee because he voted in the March 3 Democratic primary.

State law prohibits candidates for state or county office from representing one political party in the general election if they voted in another party’s primary in the same election cycle.

Laura Palmer, co-chair of the Green Party, criticized the petition, saying party officials were given only one day to respond to allegations that Waterbury was ineligible to run and that Waterbury decided to withdraw on Friday.

“The filing is moot, baseless and harassing,” Palmer said.

But Meachum’s lawyer, Brandi Voss, said Monday that the Supreme Court petition was filed because of tight election deadlines after Green Party officials did not respond by a 2 p.m. Friday deadline. A candidate’s name can be omitted from the ballot up to the 74th day before an election, which is this Friday for the Nov. 3 general election, according to Meachum’s petition.

I’m not sure what the timing of all this is. The Greens (and the Libertarians) nominate by convention, and Waterbury was not listed as a candidate as of April 18, when the party confirmed seven other nominees. He was listed on their July newsletter, so somewhere in there he must have been confirmed. Once he was known to be a candidate, someone had to notice that he had cast a Democratic primary vote, and then whatever correspondence leading up to the SCOTX emergency petition had to happen. It’s plausible this could have all taken place on a compressed timeline.

This is also one of those situations where I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for the candidate who’s been booted off the ballot. Waterbury has run for statewide office before – he was a Green nominee for SCOTX in 2016 and 2014 and probably before that as well but I stopped looking – and so presumably had a passing familiarity with the rules. As with candidates who screw up their ballot applications, it’s not an onerous burden to get it right. All he had to do was not vote in another party’s primary, the same standard to which I as a precinct chair am held. He had one job, and he blew it.

The Libertarian Party has a full slate of candidates, including one for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, if that sort of thing interests you. Losing Waterbury is a blow to the Greens as a whole, because they need to break two percent in a statewide race in order to ensure future ballot access, and with Waterbury out they only have two others running statewide, David Collins for Senate and Katija Gruene for Railroad Commissioner. With all due respect to Collins, that isn’t happening for them in the Senate race – I mean, the Green candidate for Senate in 2014 got all of 1.18%, and that was with a lousy Dem candidate and with the Green being a Latina (as I have noted before, Latinx third party candidates tend to do better than non-Latinx third party candidates). It is doable in the RRC race, as Martina Salinas cleared 2% in 2014 and 3% in 2016, though in that latter race the major party candidates were the unqualified hack Wayne Christian and perennial candidate Grady Yarbrough. It might be tougher this year, and with turnout expected to be a lot higher, the bar is raised further. It’s not that Waterbury was likely to meet this threshhold – he got 1.23% in 2016, and 0.75% in 2014 – but at least he represented another opportunity. So much for that.

Once again with female Congressional candidates

This is another post that was drafted in the Before Times, specifically right after the March primary. I went through the runoffs and assessed all of the races that could or would contain a female candidate or incumbent against a male opponent or open seat with a retiring male incumbent, mixed in the likelihood of said female candidate winning, and presented a range of possibilities for the number of female members of Congress in Texas in 2021, a number that now stands at six. That’s six female members of Congress out of 36 total – five Democrats (out of 13 total) and one Republican (out of 23). With the lineups for November settled, let’s do a quick review, then you can click on to see what I had written originally.

First of all, the next member of Congress in CD24 will be a woman, either Democrat Candace Valenzuela or Republican Beth Van Duyne. It would be nice to say that this means the number of women in Congress from Texas will go up, but Rep. Lizzie Fletcher could lose her race to Wesley Hunt, which would leave us at six as before. I think as things stand right now Fletcher is a clear favorite to win, but we have to allow for the possibility.

Other than Van Duyne, the only Republican running in a competitive district is Genevieve Collins in CD32 against Rep. Colin Allred, who like his fellow freshman Fletcher is the favorite to win but could lose if things go poorly from here. CD24 is one of the more Dem-leaning seats that are currently held by Republicans, but since it’s Republican-held I’d say it has slightly better odds of staying red than CD07 or CD32 have of flipping to red. Republicans can add up to two women to their caucus, and they can subtract one from the Democratic caucus, but I think the single most likely outcome is that Rep. Kay Granger remains the only Republican woman in Congress, and Rep. Lizzie Fletcher gets another term.

If that’s the case, then Dems will add at least one woman to their caucus, but given the bigger picture it’s nearly impossible to imagine that it would be one and only one. I can’t envision a scenario in which Candace Valenzuela wins but Gina Ortiz Jones does not. Wendy Davis is a notch behind those two, and then a little further behind we have Sima Ladjevardian, Lulu Seikaly, Julie Oliver, and Donna Imam. A gain of two Democratic women feels like the single most likely possibility, followed very closely by a gain of three. Four or more is more remote, but not at all out of the question.

That’s the nickel summary. More recently, The 19th wrote about this from a national perspective, with a focus on Republican efforts to recruit more and better female candidates for Congress. They all pretty neatly avoid the Donald Trump-shaped elephant in the room, but that’s their problem. Read on for my original post, which included all of the candidates who are now out of the race or who are running for seats that are not competitive.

(more…)

July 2020 campaign finance reports: Congress

Congratulations, everyone. Not only have we made it to the other side of another quarterly reporting period, we have also successfully navigated the primary runoffs. My next quarterly finance report post for Congress will thus be shorter, as this is the last time the folks who did not win their runoffs will be listed. So let’s get on with it already. The January 2019 roundup is here, which closed out the 2017-18 election cycle, the April 2019 report is here, the July 2019 report is here, the October 2019 report is here, the January 2020 report is here, and the April 2020 report is here. For comparison, the January 2018 report is here, the April 2018 report is here, and the July 2018 report is here. The FEC summary page for Congress is here and for the Senate is here.

MJ Hegar – Senate
Royce West – Senate

Lizzie Fletcher – CD07
Colin Allred – CD32

Hank Gilbert – CD01
Sima Ladjevardian – CD02
Lulu Seikaly – CD03
Sean McCaffity – CD03
Stephen Daniel – CD06
Elizabeth Hernandez – CD08
Mike Siegel – CD10
Pritesh Gandhi – CD10
Adrienne Bell – CD14
Rick Kennedy – CD17
David Jaramillo – CD17
Wendy Davis – CD21
Sri Kulkarni – CD22
Gina Ortiz Jones – CD23
Candace Valenzuela – CD24
Kim Olson – CD24
Julie Oliver – CD25
Carol Ianuzzi – CD26
Donna Imam – CD31
Christine Eady Mann – CD31


Dist  Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
============================================================
Sen   Hegar         6,605,966  5,751,355        0    902,092
Sen   West          1,867,804  1,689,538  258,103    178,265

07    Fletcher      4,384,162    978,573        0  3,453,656
32    Allred        3,801,649    924,378        0  2,980,715  

01    Gilbert         245,146     96,526   50,000    148,619
02    Ladjevardian  1,674,680  1,129,634   50,000    545,046
03    Seikaly         409,531    370,312    3,000     39,219
03    McCaffity       507,661    441,938        0     65,723
06    Daniel          328,097    243,191        0     84,906
08    Hernandez
10    Siegel          917,771    756,306        0    164,956
10    Gandhi        1,276,854  1,200,742        0     76,112
14    Bell            103,734     81,576        0     11,247
17    Kennedy          97,859     87,125   11,953     12,161
17    Jaramillo        21,246     17,942        0      3,303
21    Davis         4,467,270  1,536,995        0  2,930,275
22    Kulkarni      2,530,971  1,352,948        0  1,205,791
23    Jones         4,133,598  1,215,227        0  3,009,888
24    Valenzuela    1,119,403  1,008,739        0    110,664
24    Olson         1,667,400  1,417,247   20,000    250,153
25    Oliver          681,850    591,851    2,644     89,999
26    Ianuzzi          84,645     66,691   46,050     17,954
31    Mann            372,445    353,802   44,500     20,080
31    Imam            449,274    407,175        0     42,099

First things first, any worries about fundraising capacity in these brutally awful times have been assuaged. The totals speak for themselves, but let’s go into some detail anyway. Basically, the candidate in nearly every race of interest is ahead of their 2018 pace, often by a lot. Let me put this in another table to quantify:


Dist  Year     Candidate     Raised       Cash
==============================================
02    2018        Litton    843,045    407,674
02    2020  Ladjevardian  1,674,680    545,046

03    2018         Burch    153,559     19,109
03    2020       Seikaly    409,531     39,219

06    2018       Sanchez    358,960     67,772
06    2020        Daniel    328,097     84,906

10    2018        Siegel    171,955     46,852
10    2020        Siegel    917,771    164,956

21    2018        Kopser  1,594,724    364,365
21    2020         Davis  4,467,270  2,930,275

22    2018      Kulkarni    405,169     89,434
22    2020      Kulkarni  2,530,971  1,205,791

23    2018   Ortiz Jones  2,256,366  1,150,851
23    2020   Ortiz Jones  4,133,598  3,009,888

24    2018      McDowell     61,324     28,091
24    2020    Valenzuela  1,119,403    110,664

25    2018        Oliver    199,047     78,145
25    2020        Oliver    681,850     89,999

31    2020         Hegar  1,618,359    867,266
31    2020          Imam    449,274     42,099

With the exception of CD31, where no one has come close to MJ Hegar (who as the US Senate nominee may help boost turnout in this district anyway), and CD06, where Stephen Daniel is a pinch behind Jana Sanchez in fundraising (but also a pinch ahead in cash on hand), each nominee is substantially better off this time around. Todd Litton, Joe Kopser, and the original version of Gina Ortiz Jones were all strong fundraisers, and they’ve all been blown out of the water this year. Mike Siegel, Sri Kulkarni, and Julie Oliver have all greatly outpaced themselves. I will maintain that we might have won CD24 in 2018 if we’d had a candidate who could raise money; that’s very much not a problem this year. Lulu Seikaly is well ahead of Lori Burch, who was herself quite a pleasant surprise in CD03.

There are still things to address. Seikaly, Siegel, and Valenzuela all needed to spend a bunch of money in the extended runoffs, and thus need to build up cash with less time to do it. Given their records so far, I’m not too worried about it. Both Jana Sanchez and 2018 Julie Oliver had May runoffs to win, so their modest cash on hand totals were understandable, but Stephen Daniel and 2020 Julie Oliver were both March winners, so I don’t understand why they’ve been spending as much as they have at this point. I hope that isn’t a problem. Donna Imam is not going to approach Hegar’s fundraising prowess, but she alone among the crowd in CD31 seemed to have some capacity for the task, so maybe she’ll at least make up some ground.

The big difference is that there isn’t a juggernaut Senate campaign, which was a boost to downballot candidates in 2018, this time around. On the other hand, we do have a Presidential campaign, which is already airing ads, and we have the DNC airing ads, and we have the DCCC, which has added CD02 to its already-long target list (though they may have dropped CD31 by now). Point being, there will be plenty of other money invested that will help with these races, directly or indirectly.

So overall, a pretty rosy picture, and the financial resources to support the notion that a whole lot of seats are actually in play. Remember how I spent much of the 2018 cycle talking about how there never used to be any Congressional money raised in Texas, outside of CD23? The world is in flames, but that one small part of the Before Times, I don’t miss.

Last but not least, a brief shoutout to Hank Gilbert, playing the part of Dayna Steele in this cycle – a great candidate and a swell human being in an absolute no-hope district against a terrible incumbent who is raising a surprising amount of money. If doing good and being good were all it took, Hank would be in the top tier of next year’s freshman class. Maybe someday we’ll live in that world. Godspeed, Hank.

Some brief runoff thoughts

You know the drill here…

– The Election Night Results page at the SOS shows 955,735 votes total in the Democratic Senate runoff. That number is likely to increase a bit over the next few days, as we’ll see shortly. It means about 300K votes were cast on Tuesday, a bit more than thirty percent of the overall total. This turnout is the highest of any Democratic primary runoff since 1990, back when Dems were the dominant party.

– That turnout was fueled in part by the Senate runoff, and in part by a burning anger at the botched pandemic response and zealous attempts by the Republicans to curtail mail voting. Some national folks commented on this, and how it maybe lends credence to the whole “Texas is in play” narrative, and not just at the Presidential level. We’ll keep checking on the polls going forward to see how far that carries us.

– As there were no statewide Republican runoffs, a direct turnout comparison is tricky. The early voting total for Republicans was 421K, not too shabby all things considered. So maybe they got to 600K or a bit higher.

– Let’s talk mail ballots for a minute. Texas Elects has a terrific overview, but let’s focus on this:

Absentee ballots are counted by a subset of election officials known as the Early Voting Ballot Board (EVBB). Well, in many counties, there are two EVBBs for primary and runoff elections. County political party chairs are the presiding judges, and there are at least two other members. A separate Signature Verification Committee with as many as 12 members may also be created, and larger committees are possible. If you’re interested in the minutiae of all this, the Secretary of State’s 2020 EVBB handbook (pdf) has it in spades.

Counties with a population of 100,000 were able to convene their Early Voting Ballot Boards as early as July 4 (likely July 6 because of the holiday) to begin the process of qualifying and scanning mail ballots. Counties with populations under 100,000 were able to convene their EVBBs as early as last Friday.

An absentee ballot may only be accepted if:

  • The carrier envelope was “properly executed”
  • The voter’s signatures on the ballot application and carrier envelope were not signed by someone else, unless it was a lawful witness
  • The ballot application states a legal ground for voting by mail (In other words, one of the pre-printed boxes is checked or otherwise marked and the voter hasn’t hand-written some other reason, like coronavirus)
  • The voter is registered to vote
  • The ballot was sent to the applicable address; and
  • If required, a statement of residence was included and properly completed.
  • It also has to be received by the county election official by no later than 7 p.m. on Election Day, with exceptions for certain overseas civilians and military voters.

When the EVBB accepts the ballot, the voter’s name is entered on the poll list and the ballot is separated from the envelope. The ballots cannot be counted until polls closed on Friday, the end of the early voting period, in counties with 100K or more residents, and until polls open tomorrow (Tuesday) in all other counties.

This is an easily overwhelmed process. All of this requires human intervention. Absentee ballots arriving by 7 p.m. on Election Day are supposed to be counted and included in election night results. There is reason to believe that a significant number of absentee ballots will arrive very late in the process. For example, as of Friday, Harris Co. had received more than 70K absentee ballots, and another 74K had not yet been returned.

Mail ballots received on Election Day are still treated as “early voting” and will be included within the early vote canvass. In close races, we will be noting who is ahead among absentee ballots, as that may provide an advantage as more votes are counted. Or not.

All of this is to put perspective on why we may not have definitive results on Election night. All of this may be magnified in November, and not just in Texas.

That’s why the final vote totals may creep up a bit, and also something to think about for the fall. You may want to ask your local elections administrator what you can do to help.

More along those same lines.

As dress rehearsals go, Tuesday’s Texas primary runoff elections weren’t bad, but for some voters and poll workers, they revealed problems that need to be fixed before November’s big show.

With much lower turnout than primary or general elections, the first in-person election day during the coronavirus pandemic saw voters reporting heavily sanitized polling places, an ample supply of gloves, finger cots or pencils to mark up their ballots, and socially distanced lines. With a tiny ballot in many places, some were in and out of polling places in minutes.

But some Texans who sought to vote by mail — and submitted their applications on time — indicated they never received their ballots. Some opted instead to vote in person. Others went uncounted. It’s unknown how many were affected.

Other voters sent in their mail-in ballots only to have them returned unopened. Some of those reached county elections offices after a second attempt, while others still appeared lost on election night. It’s also unknown how many were affected.

In some counties, previously advertised polling places were shuttered at the last minute for lack of workers, some fearing the pandemic or reluctant to risk exposure to voters who were not required to wear masks. Others walked off the job Tuesday morning after discovering some of their fellow poll workers wouldn’t be donning masks.

And throughout the night, the Texas secretary of state’s portal for reporting election night returns was either broken or incorrect, first displaying garbled numbers in various races on the ballot and later showing discrepancies with county reports.

“I would say a number of the problems we saw in this election are red flags that, left unaddressed, could result in massive problems in November,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, in a statement.

At least the SOS website got fixed in relatively short order. The rest of it, yeah. No one should have to do this to cast a ballot.

– Looks like there will be a fight over the CD23 Republican result. Good luck sorting that one out, fellas.

– The SD14 special election runoff needs to be scheduled. I expect it to be in the end of August or so. My condolences to everyone in that district who will have to see two perfectly good Democrats rip each other up for the next six weeks or so.

– Beyond that, I don’t have any deep insights at this time. We’ve got a good slate of candidates, and as of Wednesday we’ll start seeing June finance reports for everyone. Eyes on the prize in November, y’all.

2020 primary runoff results: Statewide

It was a tight race all night, but it looks like MJ Hegar will win.

MJ Hegar

MJ Hegar was holding a 5-percentage-point lead over Royce West on Tuesday night in the Democratic primary runoff for U.S. Senate, according to unofficial results.

With 71% of polling locations reporting, Hegar was ahead of West, 52.4% to 47.6%. Hegar is the former Air Force helicopter pilot endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and West is the longtime state senator from Dallas.

Speaking to reporters shortly after 10 p.m., Hegar said she was not declaring victory yet but felt “very confident.”

West and his campaign, meanwhile, said the runoff was still too close to call and that they expected it to come down to about 10,000 votes.

With about three-fourths of the precincts reporting, Hegar was leading by 40K votes. I don’t think there’s enough time, or enough outstanding ballots, for West to make up the ground. For what it’s worth, West had about a 3K vote lead in Harris County after early voting, but Hegar whittled away at that on Election Day, and very slowly stretched her lead out over the state. There was some bad blood in this race towards the end, and West picked up a number of endorsements from elected officials, while John Cornyn ran some ads stoking the fire. I expect people will mostly forget about all that in November, but for now there’s some healing to do.

In the Railroad Commissioner race, Chrysta Castaneda led everywhere I looked in early voting by a wide amount, and then kept adding to it. She was easily over 60% as Election Day results were coming in. I called that race on Twitter pretty much right away.

We’ve talked about the potential pickup of the Senate seat, as that is one extra reason for the Biden campaign to invest in Texas. The polling we’ve had in the Senate race doesn’t suggest a top tier opportunity, but it’s not like John Cornyn is anywhere near fifty percent, nor is he appreciably ahead of Trump in his level of support. Basically, if Joe Biden can win Texas, or maybe even if he can just come really close to winning Texas, MJ Hegar/Royce West can win that race as well.

The thing is, that also holds true for the RRC race and the statewide judicial races. I can make the argument that Biden will run ahead of other Dems (mostly because there will still be some Republican crossover at the Presidential level but not downballot, as was the case in 2016), and I can also make the argument that Trump will run ahead of other Republicans (mostly because I think there will be more vote-for-Trump-only people than vote-for-Biden-only people, and maybe because the third party vote will be bigger downballot than at the top, as it usually is in Presidential years), but the same basic calculus holds. If Biden wins Texas, the odds are good he will have company. If he falls short, even by less than a point, the odds are no one else makes it across. The national folks have very little reason to care about these races, but the rest of us should.

2020 primary runoff results: Congress

I’m going to bullet point these just for simplicity. There will be news stories to look at later.

CD03 Dem: Lulu Seikaly cruised to an easy win here. She was just over 60% at around 10 PM, with some Election Day precincts in.

CD10 Dem: Looking good for Mike Siegel, who is leading in Harris and Travis counties, where most of the votes are.

CD24 Dem: This was surprisingly not close, as Candace Valenzuela led early thanks to a big lead in Dallas County, but as of 10 PM she was also leading in Tarrant and Denton. A really hard-fought battle, with Valenzuela gaining a ton of momentum and stepping up her fundraising as the election neared. This is one of those where you might wonder if things would have been different with the runoff in May as originally scheduled.

CD31 Dem: Donna Imam takes it in both Williamson and Bell counties for the win.

On the Republican side, Ronny Jackson in CD13, Pete Sessions (yeah, that guy again) in CD17, Troy Nehls in CD22 (say goodbye to another $8 million, Kathaleen Wall) are all winners. I’m not prepared to all CD23 between Raul Reyes (endorsed by Ted Cruz) and Tony Gonzales (endorsed by Donald Trump). There were other runoffs, but all involving candidates with no hope to win in November, so I’m not too worried about them. The Texas Tribune has a good result tracker for both parties if you want to be a completist.

UPDATE: Tony Gonzales has slipped ahead of Raul Reyes in CD23, but the contest has not been called yet, and Reyes has not conceded.

2020 primary runoff results: SBOE, Senate, House

Again, bullet points. Get used to it.

SBOE6 Dem: Michelle Palmer had a 65-35 lead after early voting, and that was pretty much all there was to it.

SBOE5 GOP: It’s much more boring and sedate, but the Republican candidate who didn’t arrive in a clown car, Lani Popp, defeated performance artist and semi-professional troll Robert Morrow. This is the best pickup opportunity for Dems, but since no one pays attention to SBOE races – the district are ginormous and candidates never have any money – there would have been a chance Morrow could have won if he’d been the nominee. Having Popp carry the GOP banner lowers the Dem chances slightly, but as we know from other elections it’s never a good idea for a chaos agent to be a viable candidate in any race. Whatever happens in November, this was the better outcome.

SD14 special election: Sarah Eckhardt has been over fifty percent all night. This may change by the morning, but as I type this she appears to be headed for a victory without a runoff.

UPDATE: The final results from Travis County show Sarah Eckhardt winning with 51.1%, but I’d forgotten that Bastrop County is also in SD14, and Eckhardt is only at 31% there thanks to 38% of the vote going to Republican Don Zimmerman. It appears that is enough to keep her under 50%, which means a runoff with Rep. Eddie Rodriguez.

SD19 Dem: State Rep. Roland Gutierrez has bounced back from his second place finish in March to lead 53-47 as I write this. Seems likely he’ll hand on.

SD27 Dem: Alas, Sen. Eddie Lucio has also hung on, leading 54-46 in the later evening. I believe he said this would be his last term. We can only hope.

State House Dem Sarah DeMerchant will get her third shot at HD26 in Fort Bend County. In Harris County, Akilah Bacy crushed it in HD138, Rep. Harold Dutton eked it out in HD142, and going late into the night, Penny Shaw was leading Anna Eastman in HD148. Eastman had a sizable lead in mail ballots – her campaign worked that pretty hard – but Shaw equaled that in early votes, and had a small but growing lead on Election Day. Anna’s a friend and I’m sad for her, but Shaw appears to be the nominee. I suspect – and I’d have said this regardless of who won – there will be another hotly contested primary in HD148 in 2022. It’s a fact of life with redistricting, and there’s a high potential for the neighborhoods in and around HD148 to be swapped in and out of various districts, as was the case in 2011. (I personally was at various times that year drawn into HDs 134, 143, 146, 147, and 148, before finally landing in 145. I can hardly wait to see what happens next.)

In Dallas, Lorraine Birabil, who had won the special election in HD100 and was leading by enough early on for me to say she had won, was trailing Jasmine Crockett by about 90 votes late in the evening, with three vote centers yet to report. (Hat tip to Scott Braddock and his indefatigable Twitter feed.) Elsewhere, Liz Campos won in HD119, while Lorenzo Sanchez (HD67) had a small lead. Two Republican incumbents were ousted, Dan Flynn (HD02) and JD Sheffield (HD59). Jacey Jetton had a modest lead in HD26.

UPDATE: Birabil is still trailing Crockett in HD100, but it’s not quite final yet.

2020 primary runoff results: Judicial and county races

Winding things up…

The big, albeit not unexpected, news is that Cheryl Elliott Thornton defeated incumbent Judge Alex Smoots-Thomas, with over 70% of the vote. That honestly comes as a relief. I sincerely hope Judge Smoots-Thomas gets her stuff straightened out.

Tamika Craft led early and by a significant amount in the 14th Court of Appeals Place 7 race, while Te’iva Bell took the prize in the 339th Criminal Court.

Michael Moore was the winner in Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, winning with about 57% of the vote against Diana Martinez Alexander. These are both fine, decent, hardworking people, who ran strong campaigns and displayed a ton of knowledge about the issues and solutions for them. Diana would have been a terrific Commissioner, and I hope she runs for something again. Michael will be a terrific Commissioner, and you should be delighted to vote for him in November.

Good news in the Constable Precinct 2 race, as the good Jerry Garcia has defeated the problematic incumbent Chris Diaz. Sherman Eagleton won in Precinct 3, and Mark Alan Harrison will carry the banner in Precinct 4.

Finally, in Fort Bend County, your winners are Bridgette Smith-Lawson (County Attorney), Jennifer Cantu (Commissioners Court, Precinct 1), and Kali Morgan (505th Civil Court). In the Sheriff’s race, Eric Fagan had a 26 vote lead (out of over 38K votes cast) over Geneane Hughes. That one’s almost surely headed for a runoff.

The progressives and the runoffs

May as well check in on this.

Sara Stapleton Barrera

Judging from March, the ideological left wing of the Democratic Party in Texas should be inconsolable.

After months of high hopes, the faction ran into a centrist buzz saw in the March 3 primary. Joe Biden practically locked up the Democratic presidential nomination, and progressive candidates experienced electoral drubbings.

Among the fallen: presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros, U.S. Senate hopeful Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, and Audia Jones, a candidate for Harris County District attorney endorsed by Sanders.

But rather than licking their political wounds, leading progressive candidates still in the fight say they’re invigorated — and eager to use the coronavirus pandemic, fights over voting by mail and calls for police reform to score some late victories in the July runoffs.

“Every time we have a progressive run, we get a little bit closer,” said Sara Stapleton-Barrera, who is in a runoff against state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville. “I feel like we’re slowly winning the war, but we have to get through some of these battles first.”

Perhaps the most energy is coming from Austin, where two runoffs have the attention of progressives. José Garza is competing in the nationally watched Democratic primary runoff for Travis County district attorney. Mike Siegel is vying for his party’s nomination in the 10th Congressional District’s Democratic primary runoff.

Garza’s race is where the focus on police reform is arguably the clearest. Even before the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police prompted protests nationwide, Garza was challenging incumbent Margaret Moore from the left, arguing she was too harsh in her prosecution of nonviolent offenders. He earned the most votes in March and has promised to bring all police shootings and more police misconduct cases before a grand jury. He has also pledged not to accept campaign contributions from police unions.

Moore, meanwhile, has accused him of being inexperienced with the local criminal justice system and running a campaign focused on national issues instead of local ones.

In the 10th Congressional District, Siegel is running on a platform that includes supporting “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. Siegel will face Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, who has cited his medical experience while pitching Medicare Extra, a proposal that does not go as far as Medicare for All and leaves some private insurance in place.

“I think this is the exact moment in history when progressives are in a place to lead, and it’s because the times have caught up the policies we’re fighting for,” Siegel said. “This is the time to run as a progressive. I feel really good not just about my chances, but the movement overall.”

[…]

Another runoff that has drawn the attention of some national progressives is the one for the 24th Congressional District, where Kim Olson and Candace Valenzuela are competing to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell. The seat is a national Democratic target.

Valenzuela has endorsements like the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Warren, but the runoff has not as sharply split along ideological lines as much as it has on issues of experience and racial identity. Valenzuela, a former Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board member, and her allies are hammering Olson over her time as human resources director for the Dallas Independent School District. Valenzuela and her supporters are also touting that she would be the first Afro-Latina to serve in Congress. Olson is white.

But the divide might be clearest in South Texas, where the winner of the state Senate runoff between Lucio and Barrera will be the overwhelming favorite to win the seat in November.

I’ve said repeatedly that beating Eddie Lucio in SD27 will do more for progressives than beating Henry Cuellar in CD28 ever could have done, because of the relative sizes of the two legislative bodies and the outsized influence Lucio has in the 12-member (for now) Dem Senate caucus. Lucio is terrible, and I’m delighted that that particular race has finally gotten the attention it needs. I think one reason why maybe it didn’t get as much attention earlier is because Sara Stapleton Barrera isn’t necessarily “the” progressive candidate in that race. If Ruben Cortez had finished second, people would be rallying behind him now. This race is much more about Eddie Lucio, and I’d say it’s only now that we’re down to one candidate against him that the race has been viewed through that lens.

As for CD10, I mostly shrug my shoulders. I think Medicare For All is a fine goal to work towards, but Medicare For Those Who Want To Buy Into It is much more easily achieved in the short term, with far less disruption to the existing system and far less resistance from people whose employer-based (possibly collectively-bargained) plan is just fine for them. If we’re lucky enough to have a Democratic Senate in 2021, I think what can get passed by that Senate is what we’re going to get. Will having more pro-Medicare For All members of Congress affect that outcome? Maybe. It’s hard to say. I like Mike Siegel and would vote to give him a second chance to topple Mike McCaul if I lived in CD10, but I think either Siegel or Pritesh Gandhi will be a fine addition to Congress and a major upgrade over the incumbent. Same in CD24, with Kim Olson and Candace Valenzuela, each a good candidate with different strengths and appeals but no major differences on policy.

The race that definitely has the potential to have a big effect is the Travis County DA race, where the ideological lines are clear and the ability for the upstart to make a difference if they win is great, though not unbound. Please feel free to set a good example for the rest of us, Travis County.

As for whether this is another step in a long march towards more liberal candidates and officeholders, I’d say yes, and that we’ve already been on that march for a long time. Ideological sorting is a thing that has been happening for a few decades now. You can see the effect just in recent years – the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008 included a lot of candidates whose politics included “fiscal responsibility”, support from the NRA, opposition to same-sex marriage, immigration restrictionism, and a host of other views that were very much not shared with the class of 2018. The Democratic Party is a big tent, which means there will always be room for vicious family fights over various issues. Having some number of Never Trumpers inside that tent will just make it all more exciting. It’s fine, and I’d rather be dynamic than stagnant. And every primary and primary runoff, the main emotion many of us will feel will be “thank prime that’s over, now let’s please get on to the general election”. Same as it ever was.

A more extensive look at the state polls

As you know, I’ve been computing a poll average for the Presidential race in Texas based on post-primary numbers, meaning that I start with the April 25 UT/Trib result and go from there. As of the June 25 Fox poll, I’ve got Trump leading Biden by the small margin of 46.5 to 44.5, or just two points. There was actually quite a bit of polling done before April 25, but I was paying closer attention to the primary numbers, and didn’t give a whole lot of thought to the horse race that far out. I may have missed a poll or two in there as well.

Fortunately, Texas Elects has been keeping track going back to last November. Here’s what they’ve got, minus the Fox poll, which was their main story in this post, and the two from this week:

Recent Presidential Polls

  • Trump 48, Biden 46 – Public Policy Polling (June)
  • Trump 48, Biden 48 – Public Policy Polling (June)
  • Trump 44, Biden 43 – Quinnipiac Univ. (June)
  • Trump 47, Biden 41 – Emerson (May)
  • Trump 43, Biden 43 – DMN/UT-Tyler (May)
  • Biden 47, Trump 46 – Public Policy Polling (April)
  • Trump 49, Biden 44 – UT/Texas Tribune (April)
  • Trump 45, Biden 44 – DMN/UT-Tyler (March)
  • Trump 46, Biden 43 – Univision/Univ. of Houston (February)
  • Biden 48, Trump 47 – CNN/SSRS (February)
  • Trump 47, Biden 43 – UT/Texas Tribune (February)
  • Trump 44, Biden 42 – DMN/UT-Tyler (February)
  • Trump 51, Biden 46 – Texas Lyceum (January)
  • Trump 48, Biden 47 – CNN/SSRS (December 2019)
  • Trump 45, Biden 39 – DMN/UT-Tyler (November 2019)
  • Trump 46, Biden 39 – UT/Texas Tribune (November 2019)

Links go to our coverage or commentary on the polls.

So we have ten post-primary results, and nine from March or earlier. How do the two compare? Well, crunching the numbers gives me 46.7 for Trump over these nine polls, and 43.4 for Biden, with his two worst results being the two oldest ones. Take those two out and you get Biden at 44.7 over seven polls, putting him exactly two points behind Trump, just a smidge farther back than he is now post-primary.

Now let’s be clear, I’m not making any scientific claims with this data. There’s plenty of professionals out there who can give you a much more nuanced view of the situation, and you should be reading what they have to say. What I am saying is that these numbers have been remarkably stable, with Trump consistently polling below fifty percent. I didn’t start tracking 2016 polls consistently until June that year – to be fair, there were far fewer such polls then, as basically no one thought Texas was in play, especially after the butt-kicking Dems got in 2014 – so I can’t make a good comparison, but it feels like things are fairly steady now. That could certainly change, because Lord knows this year has been a hell of a thing. But the basic story here has been that it’s a close race, and that has been true all along.