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Election 2003

Turner prepares his exit from the Lege

Looks like we’ll have at least one more legislative special election this year.

Rep. Sylvester Turner

Rep. Sylvester Turner

In 2003, state Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston made the most definitive decision of his political career.

Turner had arrived in the Texas House 14 years earlier, when he and his fellow Democrats outnumbered Republicans 91 to 59, Gib Lewis was speaker and Democrats still ran the show. But by 2003, the tide hadn’t just turned against Democrats — it was running away without them.

Republicans took the chamber’s majority for the first time in more than a century, Democrat Pete Laney, the previous session’s speaker, was about to become just another member, and Tom Craddick was poised to take the top post.

Reading the political winds, Turner led a group of Democrats who became known as the “Craddick D’s” who cast their support behind the Midland conservative in hopes of salvaging some level of access and influence.

It was a pivotal moment for Turner, and some in his party were not at all happy with him.

But as Turner prepares to leave the House after more than a quarter century, that decision captures the politician’s essence — a savvy personability that allowed him to emerge as a Democratic pillar in the Republican-controlled House.

The 60-year-old Harvard Law School graduate will give up his seat in a few weeks to run for mayor of his hometown, a post he’s unsuccessfully sought before. His departure will leave a gaping hole that House Democrats will be hard-pressed to fill.

[…]

Turner, whose influence is seldom hobbled by showmanship, deflects the significance of his departure.

“The Texas House, the Texas Senate and the Legislature was in existence way before I came, and it’ll be in existence a long time after I’m gone,” he said during a recent interview in his Capitol office.

Turner attributed his success to becoming fluent in House rules, learning the ins and outs of the legislative process and making himself valuable to leadership.

“Because even when you find yourself in the minority — numerically speaking — the process sometimes becomes the equalizer,” he said.

Rep. Turner has certainly made a mark, and his session in 2013 was especially good, but he’s right: No one is irreplaceable. His departure will change things for the Democratic caucus, and the dynamics of the 2017 session will necessarily be different from this one, but his leaving is an opportunity for others to step up and show what they can do. That’s the way of the world, and it happens every time someone of Rep. Turner’s experience and ability leaves the Lege.

I’m a little surprised to hear that he’s stepping down and not waiting to see how the Mayoral race plays out, which is what happened in 2003. He may just be ready for a change, and for what it’s worth I’d heard that he’d been thinking about calling it a career before now. There ought to be quite the scramble to fill his seat when it comes up, with a second shot at it in the March primary. If Allen Fletcher gets appointed Sheriff that will make two legislative specials, presumably on the November ballot. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure. I thank Rep. Turner for his service in the Lege and look forward to seeing him more regularly on the campaign trail here.

UPDATE: The following has been appended to that Trib story:

*Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the timeline for Rep. Sylvester Turner’s departure from the House has not been set.

They appear to have edited out a quote from statement attributed to Turner in which he insisted he’d be stepping down regardless of the result of the Mayor’s race. So it looks like we’ll be waiting to see what Turner does.

UPDATE: Sorry, that wasn’t a direct quote that I remember, but something that the story said Turner had said.

Turner & Whitmire

No, not the latest buddy cop movie, just two old legislative friends helping each other out.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Texas’ most senior state senator turned to the crowd during a September fundraiser for state Rep. Sylvester Turner and ribbed his friend and would-be Houston mayor.

“My name is John Whitmire, and I’m Sylvester Turner’s state senator,” he said, a go-to laugh-line that landed in a sea of donors. “Everyone in my district is important, but Sylvester Turner kind of stands out.”

Kind words like those – exchanged again and again over the past 12 months in both directions – have gone a shade past the standard “good friend” lavished by nearly every politician on their predecessors at a dais. The alliance between Turner, a powerful Democratic state representative, and Whitmire, the most senior Democrat in the Senate, say people familiar with their ties, is genuine yet politically potent and already is sculpting the local Democratic landscape.

“The moon, the sun and all the planets have come together in the Sylvester-John orbit,” said Carl Whitmarsh, a longtime Democratic activist close to both men.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

[…]

Facing his first primary challenger since winning the seat in 1992 – and an African-American one at that, in a district that is only 28 percent Anglo – Whitmire called on Turner to introduce him to his Acres Home base. Other black legislators rallied behind Whitmire in the final months before his primary against Damien LaCroix. Turner hugged Whitmire tightest, introducing him to ministers and bringing him to black churches.

“I don’t think it was a race that John was in danger of losing,” said Mark Clark, who directs the police union’s political work. “But it seemed to me that Sylvester was investing as much as he possibly could to communicate with voters out there that Sen. Whitmire was the guy and still is the guy.”

Some point to that backing to explain Whitmire’s prominence in the mayoral race.

“They’ve been allies for a long time. It doesn’t surprise me that they support each other,” said Turner opponent Oliver Pennington, a city councilman who is critical of the pension deal struck by the Democratic pair.

I see this story as kind of a Rohrschach test. How you feel about Rep. Turner and/or Sen. Whitmire going in almost certainly correlates to how you feel about them teaming up like this. The main takeaway for me is that Turner isn’t going to leave the Anglo Dem bloc to the Bell/Costello/McVey/King/Garcia (*) crowd. He had very little traction with those voters in 2003, thanks in part to Bill White’s months-earlier entry into the race and heavy TV advertising. Things are different this time. We’ll see how much effect it has.

(*) Until he actually says he’s in, I’m giving Sheriff Garcia an asterisk.

Endorsement watch: Firefighters for Turner

From the inbox:

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

HOUSTON, March 23, 2015 – State Rep. Sylvester Turner has earned the endorsement of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association in this year’s mayoral race, the HPFFA said today.

HPFFA President Alvin W. White, Jr. said 84 percent of voting fire fighters approved the recommendation of the HPFFA board of directors to endorse Turner after a review of the public safety records of the mayoral candidates.

“Sylvester has been a consistent friend of fire fighters and an advocate for public safety in Austin for 25 years,” White said. “He is clearly the best choice for us in this mayoral race. We also appreciate that he has built a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, business leaders, unions and community groups.”

White added, “Rep. Turner understands that Houston fire fighters are delivering excellent service to citizens, are good stewards of city resources, and are giving back to the community. He also has been a sensible voice – here and in Austin – in the debate about city employee pensions.”

Rep. Turner said, “I am proud to have earned the support of Houston’s firefighters. Together, we will work to keep our neighborhoods safe, teach our youth the values of courage and shared sacrifice and show the world that Houston is a place that working families are proud to call home.”

Rep. Turner has served 25 years in the Texas House of Representatives. He is a member of the Legislative Budget Board; Vice Chair of the House Appropriations Committee; Chair of the Subcommittee on Articles 1, 4 and 5 (General Government, Judiciary, Public Safety and Criminal Justice); and the House State Affairs Committee.

Born in the Acres Homes community of northwest Houston, Rep. Turner graduated from Klein High School, where he was valedictorian and student body president. He then attended the University of Houston and Harvard Law School. More information is available at www.sylvesterturner.com.

The press release is here, for when I get around to creating a 2015 Election page. I’m not going to note every endorsement that comes my way, but this one was of interest for two reasons. One is that it happened at all, especially this early on. I figure a lot of endorsing organizations are going to take their time – at the very least, until they’re sure if Adrian Garcia is in the race or not – and many may keep their powder dry till the runoff, since Lord only knows who might make it that far. The other is that it wasn’t clear early on who if anyone would be the firefighters’ preferred candidate, given the intense focus by several campaigns on the pension issue. Once the pension deal was announced that sort of settled that matter, but for awhile there it was not obvious.

This is a nice get for Turner, since every inch is going to count in a race where the difference between making the runoff and being a runnerup is likely to be small. That said, the firefighters’ record in recent Mayoral elections is not that great. They endorsed Gene Locke in 2009, Fernando Herrera in 2011, and Ben Hall in 2013; going back a bit more, they backed Orlando Sanchez in 2003. We’ll see if they have better luck this time.

Sylvester Turner announces his entry into the Mayor’s race

What we’ve all known about for months is now official.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner announced his candidacy for Houston mayor today, formally adding the name of an influential lawmaker with deep ties to the African-American community to the growing field of contenders.

For 25 years, Turner has risen through the ranks of the state House and twice before has looked to parlay that experience into the city’s top job. Turner, who for the past year has openly talked about his plan to run a third time, made his decision public Friday in a video to supporters.

“People in my generation inherited a great city, with folks who have big dreams, and they made big things happen,” Turner, a Harvard-educated lawyer who grew up in low-income Acres Homes, will say in the video. “I see a city still doing that.”

Turner likely will be the early front-runner, as much as there can be a leader at all in a field featuring a dozen potential candidates, nearly all of whom have elected experience.

But few have reached out to the city’s movers and shakers over the past 12 months like Turner. He first made his ambitions public last February and has won over many power players in the Democratic establishment, from Sen. John Whitmire to the lobbyists and donors who can steer endorsements, dollars and ultimately votes.

He also has steadily raised mayoral money through his legislative account for at least six months. That fundraising – occurring while other mayoral candidates were subject to a fundraising blackout period – allowed Turner to enter 2015 with $1 million in the bank.

That’s the subject of some legal wrangling, but until and unless a judge says otherwise, it’s so. And Turner will need it to be so, because unless he decides to resign from the Legislature, he’s barred from further fundraising until sine die at the end of May, assuming no special sessions get tacked on. We’ll see if Greg Abbott is less promiscuous with those than Rick Perry was. Be that as it may, Turner will have a campaign kickoff event on March 28. A statement from his campaign is beneath the fold.

One more thing:

Given the caliber and crowd of the field, most mayoral candidates likely will appeal to small slices of the electorate in order to earn the 40,000 votes that most campaigns expect they will need to earn a place in a December runoff.

For Turner, that path is heavily dependent on strong support from the African-American community he has represented for two decades and which typically casts about 30 percent of the vote in municipal elections.

Yet that path could be complicated by the entrance of Ben Hall, an African-American pastor who lost to Mayor Annise Parker in 2013, who also is running for the job again.

Not really sure where that 40,000 number comes from. It has to be a function of how many “viable” candidates there are – does Ben Hall count? is Adrian Garcia in? – as well as overall turnout – are we in 2003 territory, where over 300,000 people voted in the first round, or 2009 territory, where that number was 180,000? If you assume five “viable” candidates (Turner, Bell, Pennington, Costello, King) and 200,000 total votes, then 40,000 is a reasonable goal. It’s also a goal that may well change as time goes on. Let’s just say that whatever the goal is, I’d want to exceed it by as much as possible.

(more…)

Where are the women?

I have several things to say about this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The slate running to replace Mayor Annise Parker features a globetrotting sailor, a triathlete grandfather, a millionaire minister and no women.

Despite the most-crowded pack of mayoral contenders in decades, no female candidates are expected to announce bids this spring, a reality that all but guarantees women will have fewer positions of power at City Hall next year than they had during the last six.

“You are sending a message,” said Kathryn McNeil, a longtime fundraiser who helped elect Parker. “My niece is now 16. For the last six years, she’s seen a strong woman running the city. There’s no question in her mind that a woman could be mayor.”

Though more than 10 candidates likely will appear on November’s ballot, few women even seriously considered the race, which some call a reminder of how much more work Houston’s women must do to achieve political equality.

Some say it creates a less compassionate and less personal, even if equally qualified, field of candidates. It also affects the strength of the democratic process, limiting the diversity of the candidates that voters can choose from when they imagine whom they would like as their next mayor.

“Regardless of who actually wins the race, not having a viable woman candidate can be a disservice for everyone,” said Dee Dee Grays, the incoming president of Women Professionals in Government in Houston.

For the record, in the eleven city elections post-Kathy Whitmire (i.e., since 1993), there has been at least one female Mayoral candidate not named Annise Parker in eight of them:

2013 – Charyl Drab, Keryl Douglas, Victoria Lane
2011 – Amanda Ulman
2009 – Amanda Ulman
2007 – Amanda Ulman
2005 – Gladys House
2003 – Veronique Gregory
2001 – None
1999 – None
1997 – Helen Huey, Gracie Saenz
1995 – Elizabeth Spates
1993 – None

Now, most of these were fringe candidacies – only term-limited Council members Helen Huey and Gracie Saenz in 1997 could have been considered viable, and they were both crushed in the wake of the Lee Brown/Rob Mosbacher/George Greanias campaigns. But for what it’s worth, history does suggest there will be at least one female name on the ballot this year.

Research shows that women nationally need to be recruited to run for office much more than men. That especially is true for executive positions, such as governor or mayor.

Amber Mostyn, the former chair of Annie’s List, a statewide organization that recruits and backs Democratic female candidates, said there is a need for local versions of the organization that would encourage qualified women to make bids for mayor.

“You’ll see men throwing their hat in the ring when they’ve never done the job before and say, ‘I’ll figure it out,’ ” said Mostyn, a Houston lawyer and prominent donor. “Women are very reluctant to do that.”

I’m well aware of the research regarding the recruitment of female candidates. It’s definitely an issue, though I wonder if it will turn out to be a generational one. Perhaps today’s girls and younger women won’t need the same kind of encouragement that their elders currently require. Be that as it may, if there was ever a bad year for that dynamic in the Mayor’s race, it’s this year. I mean, nearly the entire field, not to mention Adrian Garcia, has been known to be planning to run for a long time now. With that many candidates already at the starting line, and presumably working to collect commitments and financial support and campaign advisers, it would undoubtedly be that much harder to make a case for someone else to gear up now and thrown her hat in the ring. As I’ve said many times already, there’s only so much room for viable candidates in this race.

Cindy Clifford, a public relations executive and City Hall lobbyist, said the key to electing a female mayor is to first focus on recruiting women for lower-level elected office and to serve on boards and commissions. That requires a commitment by the city’s leaders to tapping individual women and showing them that they have support.

“If we’re not doing it, no one’s going to come and look for us,” Clifford said. “I always think the cream rises once they’re in the process.”

Council members Brenda Stardig and Ellen Cohen could be joined next year by several top-tier female candidates in council elections this fall, but some worry that the political “pipeline” of female candidates is thin, with few who conceivably could have run for mayor this year. One, Laura Murillo, the head of Houston’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, did publicly explore a mayoral bid last summer before deciding against it.

I would point out that one of the top tier candidates for Mayor this year is someone whose entire political career has been in the Legislature, and that the three main candidates currently running for Mayor in San Antonio include two former legislators and one former County Commissioner. One doesn’t have to be a city officeholder to be a viable Mayoral candidate, is what I’m saying. Hell, none of the three Mayors before Annise Parker had been elected to anything before running for the top job, let alone running for Council. The size of the “pipeline” is as much a matter of framing as anything else. Note also that several women who were once elected to city offices now hold office elsewhere – I’m thinking specifically of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Sen. Sylvia Garcia, Rep. Carol Alvarado, and HISD Trustee Wanda Adams. Pipelines can flow in both directions.

As for the four open Council slots, the seat most likely to be won by a female candidate as things stand right now is At Large #4, where two of the three announced candidates so far are women. Jenifer Pool is running in At Large #1, but if I were forced to make a prediction about it now, I’d say that a Lane Lewis/Chris Oliver runoff is the single most likely outcome. Two of the three candidates that I know of in District H are male – Roland Chavez and Jason Cisneroz – and the third candidate, former HISD Trustee Diana Davila, is ethically challenged. One’s commitment to diversity does not include supporting someone one doesn’t trust. I have no idea at this time who may be running in District G, which is the other term-limited seat. Beyond those races, any additional women will have to get there by knocking off an incumbent.

One last thing: There may not be room for another viable candidate for Mayor, but that isn’t the case for City Controller. There are three known candidates at this time, with two more thinking about it, all men. A Controller campaign would take less time and money, and would therefore likely be fairly ripe for recruitment, especially given that a female candidate in that race would have immediate prominence. As Mayor Parker, and for that matter former Mayor Whitmire, can attest, that office can be a pretty good stepping stone. Just a thought.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that HCC Trustee Sandie Mullins is planning to run in District G. That not only adds another female candidate for Council, it also indicates that an HCC seat will be open this fall.

January campaign finance reports – HISD trustees

Four HISD Trustees are up for re-election this year. There are nine Trustees in all, and they serve four-year terms, so in a normal year either four or five are up for re-election. As things stand right now, all four incumbents would be running for re-election, which would be the first time there would be no open seat since at least 2001; Harris County Clerk election records only include HISD results as far back as that. Here’s a brief look at those incumbents, along with their January finance reports and a summary of their campaign balances.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, District 2

Skillern-Jones is serving her first term as HISD Trustee. She was the only candidate in 2011 to succeed Carol Mims Galloway. After serving as Board Secretary last year, she was elected to be Board President this year. Prior to the redrawing of Trustee district boundaries last year, hers was one of two districts to absorb schools and students from the former North Forest ISD. She officially announced her intent to run for another term a few weeks ago via email and Facebook. As far as I know, she was the first Trustee to make such an announcement, and is the only one whose plans are known so far.

Manuel Rodriguez, District 3

As noted, there are four Trustees that would be on the ballot this year if they all do run. Of the four, I’d gladly vote for three of them if I lived in their district. The fourth is Manuel Rodriguez, who disgraced himself in 2011 by sending an anti-gay mailer as an attack against his opponent, Ramiro Fonseca. (Fact I did not realize until I scanned through old election results in researching this post: Fonseca also opposed Rodriguez in 2003, when the seat was last open. He finished third in the field of four.) Rodriguez eventually offered a lame apology for his actions, which caused the Houston Chronicle to retract their endorsement of him, after winning an excruciatingly close vote. There was a bit of a hubbub initially, then everyone moved on to other things. I hope everyone remembers this, and that the voters hold Manuel Rodriguez responsible for his despicable behavior if he does choose to run this year.

Paula Harris, District 4

Paula Harris is serving her second term on the HISD board, having won an open seat race in 2007. A prominent supporter of HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, she served as Board President in 2011, during some of the more turbulent times of the Grier era. She was also the focal point of some conflict of interest allegations at that time, which eventually led to a revamp of the Board’s ethics policies. Despite that, she won re-election in 2011 easily over token opposition, and has had a much quieter second term. Harris is an engineer who has published a children’s book encouraging kids to explore engineering, and has been a booster of STEM education on the board.

Juliet Stipeche, District 8

Juliet Stipeche, who served as Board president last year, is finishing her first full term in office. She won a special election in 2010 to fill a seat left vacant by the resignation of then-Trustee Diana Davila. She was one of the driving forces behind that ethics policy revamp, which occurred in 2012, before the last bond referendum. She has also been one of the more active critics of Superintendent Grier, though as noted things have been quieter on that front of late. Her district also contains some former North Forest ISD territory. In my opinion, she’s one of the Board’s best members.

So that’s my brief overview of the incumbents who are up for re-election. As noted, so far there are no open seats. I am also not aware of any declared opponents as yet. Here are the January finance reports for these four:

Skillern-Jones
Rodriguez
Harris
Stipeche

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Skillern-Jones 18,215 12,119 0 9,345 Rodriguez 0 0 0 340 Harris 0 1,500 12,000 0 Stipeche 5,500 7,162 0 15,618

The HISD Board does not have a Council-like blackout period, so incumbents and candidates were able to raise money during 2014. Rhonda Skillern-Jones was the busiest of the four, but I wouldn’t read too much into any of this. We’re very early in the cycle, and the one thing I feel confident saying is that we don’t know what kind of Trustee races we’re going to get yet.

Garcia appears to be in for Mayor

Not official yet, but stories like this don’t get run without justification.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia is sending every possible message that he intends to run for mayor this year, aggressively increasing his political operations and signaling to some of his closest advisers and fiercest backers that a campaign may be imminent.

Garcia, under the Texas constitution, would have to resign as a county official immediately upon declaring his candidacy. That presents Garcia, who watchers expect to rocket to the field’s top tier if he joins the burgeoning mayoral fray, with a fateful decision: Does he step down as the county’s premier Democratic officeholder to make a bid that will make him Houston’s first Latino mayor or politically unemployed?

“At the end of the day, it’s like standing at the craps table, placing the bet – and you could walk away with nothing,” said Garcia confidant Greg Compean.

It is a bet Garcia allies said this week he has grappled with and seems willing to make.

“I’d be really surprised if he didn’t,” Compean said.

Garcia, who said last week he still is listening to others and has not yet officially committed to the race, has met with many of the city’s political leaders in advance of an announcement and privately is telling some close allies that he will run. And other evidence is mounting.

[…]

Backers of Garcia have high hopes he could raise the money to compete and that he could win voters beyond Houston’s Latinos, who comprise more than 40 percent of the city but at the most only 15 percent of the electorate. The county’s highest vote-getter in 2012, Garcia is expected to make appeals to some Republican voters in the nonpartisan election.

Garcia also would open himself up to personal attacks over a yearlong political brawl. Some in political circles for months quietly have questioned whether Garcia, who has no college education, can handle the rigors of the city’s top job. And if Garcia resigns as sheriff, some Democratic judges and Latino leaders worry whether the party and the Hispanic community would be hurt without him leading the local ticket.

My thoughts, in no particular order.

1. Garcia would have the advantage of being likely to be the clear frontrunner among at least one segment of the electorate – Latino voters – in the same way that Sylvester Turner would be among African-Americans and Oliver Pennington would be among conservatives. Sure, that is generally a smaller slice of the electorate, but it’s still an advantage, one that most other candidates don’t have. It also makes the pool of voters outside of Turner and Pennington’s bases, which those other candidates will be relying on, that much smaller. Remember that in Mayoral elections, turnout is not immutable. We had some 300,000 voters in 2001 and 2003, 190,000 in 2005 (spurred mostly by the Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage constitutional amendment), between 175,000 and 180,000 in 2009 and 2013, and in the 130,000 range in 2007 and 2011. Remember also that the goal in November is to make it to the runoff. In a multi-candidate field where a couple thousand votes could be the difference between going on to December and going home, being able to coax out some irregular voters is a big deal.

2. I’m not worried about the implications for 2016. The Presidential race will be the driving force for 95%+ of all voters. Hell, if anything having a spirited campaign between an appointed Sheriff that wants to hold the job and a Democratic challenger that wants to win it back is more likely in my opinion to generate excitement than Garcia trouncing another hapless Republican challenger. Note that this isn’t me arguing that Garcia should run for Mayor, or that I’m shrugging off him stepping down as Sheriff if it happens. I’m just thinking through the implications, and that’s how I see it.

3. What Garcia and his backers should be worried about is how pissed off Democratic loyalists could be at the prospect of handing over the Sheriff’s office to a Republican. I mean, everyone is still very raw and angry about what happened this past November. Losing a high profile office, especially one that wasn’t on the line and in the service of someone’s ambition, is going to be a bitter pill for some to swallow. How many is “some”? I don’t know. How hard will it be for Garcia to win them back? Again, I don’t know. I do know that there are two viable Democratic alternatives to Garcia, so those that do decide to carry a grudge have someplace decent to take it. This is their problem to solve, and if they haven’t given it a lot of thought then his path to City Hall is going to be rockier than they might think.

4. The one thing I do know for sure if Garcia gets in is that the current field of hopefuls – declared, soon-to-be-declared, still-thinking-about-it, and so on – will not be what we get on the ballot. Some number of current candidates – at least one – will drop out or decide not to gear up at all. There are a finite amount of resources to help a campaign, and there’s only so much to go around. Fundraising is a component of that, of course, with the proviso that the ability of some candidates to at least partially self-fund may minimize that effect, but it’s not the only one. There are only so many able and willing volunteers, and only so much support from endorsing organizations, many of which may choose to keep their powder dry until a runoff. Some number of candidates – at least one – will not be able to mount the campaign they want to mount. Those candidates will not make it to the starting line. Bank on it.

5. I am now, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, officially undecided in the Mayoral race. There are several candidates I could support. I will need to know more about what they want to do before I make any decisions.

Don’t forget about Pasadena

There’s still a lawsuit in the works regarding their 2013 redistricting referendum that switched their Council from an eight-member all-district makeup to six districts and two At large seats, all at the behest of Mayor Johnny Isbell.

Pasadena City Council

Pasadena is preparing to change the makeup of its city council in a way that city fathers hope fosters new development, but that some Hispanics allege dilutes their influence. The case could become a test of the Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down most of the federal Voting Rights Act, giving cities in many Southern states new latitude to change election laws affecting minorities without first getting federal approval.

“Clearly it was racism,” said Pasadena Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra, one of two Hispanics on Pasadena’s eight-member council, about the town’s planned council changes. The campaign for a new voting system “was meant to scare Anglos, and it was effective,” he said.

In Pasadena, which is roughly 60 percent Hispanic, voters approved a referendum that replaces two city council seats representing districts with at-large seats, which Hispanic leaders say will negate their growing population numbers. The new format was proposed by the mayor, who is white, in July 2013, one month after the high court decision.

The mayor and supporters insist the new format will bring more participation by all Pasadena residents because they’ll have more to vote for. They note that other cities, including Houston, have at-large council members.

[…]

Some Hispanics fear that wealthier white candidates will have the upper hand in at-large races that demand costlier citywide campaigns.

Suing the city on behalf of five Hispanic residents is the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which also took Texas to court over the state’s new voter ID law.

Since the Supreme Court ruling last year, most attention has focused on statewide-voting changes made in some of the 15 states covered by the Voting Rights Act, which was passed during the Civil Rights era. The Pasadena case is one of the first involving a city.

The plaintiffs face the burden of proving intentional discrimination. Civil rights attorneys say they worry that the money and effort of mounting a challenge will discourage action in many cities.

See here, here, here, here, and here. I don’t see any information about when the lawsuit that was filed will be heard, but I’m sure it’s on a docket somewhere. The bit I quoted above is what interests me here, as it contains a testable proposition. The city of Pasadena, which is to say Mayor Isbell and his enablers, claim that by switching to a hybrid at large/single member district system, turnout will increase in Pasadena. I’d love to review what turnout has been in Pasadena over the past few cycles, but for the life of me I can’t find past election results from Pasadena anywhere – they are not in the Harris County Clerk election results, much to my surprise. If anyone can point me to them, I’d be grateful. In any event, there’s another avenue for investigation, and that’s turnout in the Houston district Council races versus turnout in the At Large races, since the Houston model is cited as what Pasadena aspires to. What I’m going to look at is the undervote rate in district versus At Large races, on the theory that if no one casts a vote in a particular race, it’s hard to claim that that race affected overall turnout in a positive way. Here’s the data for Houston, for the last six elections:

2013 Undervote 2011 Undervote 2009 Undervote ============================================================= Mayor 2.76% Mayor 4.18% Mayor 2.05% Dist A 10.36% Dist A 8.85% Dist A 18.24% Dist B 11.12% Dist B 9.78% Dist B 14.94% Dist D 12.53% Dist C 5.61% Dist C 13.30% Dist F 21.40% Dist D 8.91% Dist D 15.05% Dist G 22.47% Dist F 12.96% Dist E 14.98% Dist I 10.44% Dist G 14.32% Dist F 8.64% Dist I 11.73% Dist G 22.51% AL 1 27.49% Dist J 10.74% AL 2 29.76% Dist K 11.44% AL 1 28.48% AL 3 26.37% AL 2 30.65% AL 4 24.87% AL 1 22.50% AL 4 28.36% AL 5 28.03% AL 2 17.97% AL 5 25.89% AL 3 20.81% Controller 22.32% AL 4 20.05% Controller 15.39% AL 5 12.03% 2007 Undervote 2005 Undervote 2003 Undervote ============================================================= Mayor 6.73% Mayor 5.51% Mayor 1.38% Dist B 10.55% Dist A 19.01% Dist A 13.49% Dist C 11.40% Dist B 8.65% Dist B 11.97% Dist D 10.66% Dist C 12.82% Dist C 12.86% Dist E 10.29% Dist F 10.13% Dist E 12.90% Dist I 9.80% Dist H 12.10% Dist F 13.97% Dist I 9.33% Dist G 14.20% AL 1 31.53% Dist H 10.29% AL 2 24.94% AL 1 20.88% Dist I 13.13% AL 3 18.61% AL 2 26.37% AL 5 19.86% AL 3 24.62% AL 1 20.46% AL 5 22.92% AL 2 22.84% AL 3 18.05% AL 4 19.24% AL 5 17.29% Controller 14.04%

So over six cycles, covering the full tenures of two different Mayors and including high-turnout and low-turnout elections, the undervote rate in every single contested At Large race was higher, often significantly higher, than the undervote in every single district race, with the sole exception of At Large 5 and Districts F and G in 2011. That was the year Jolanda Jones was defeated in a runoff by Jack Christie, and it was the highest profile race that year, certainly the highest profile At Large race in any of these six years.

This to me is very strong evidence that At Large races don’t do anything to drive turnout. This should make intuitive sense – At Large races are as expensive to run as Mayoral races, but no one has anywhere near the funds to do that, while District races can be reasonably run with shoe leather and some mail. Candidates in At Large races are not as well known as candidates in district races, who have a far greater incentive to attend smaller neighborhood and civic club meetings. I’d bet we’ll see a similar pattern in Pasadena, with the district races having greater participation than the At Large races. I just hope I’ll be able to find their election results so I can check that.

This will be the first election in Pasadena under this new arrangement, assuming it isn’t thrown out before the election, which I would not expect to happen. I wish I could say that Mayor Isbell was on the ballot and that this was a chance to throw him out, but alas, he has a four year term and was re-elected in 2013. This is a chance to unseat a couple of his minions, however, and if there’s a good local opportunity for anyone upset with the 2014 elections to focus on, it’s here. The Texas Organizing Project did a lot of good work in trying to defeat the 2013 redistricting referendum, and with a little more help they might have succeeded. Whatever happens with the lawsuit, it would be nice to turn the tables in this election. You want to make a difference, get involved with TOP and help support some good candidates in Pasadena this year.

Laurie Robinson to run in At Large #4

From Texpatriate:

Laurie Robinson

Laurie Robinson

Laurie Robinson, a local businesswoman, will run for the Houston City Council next year. Specifically, as Houston Chronicle reported Theodore Schleifer reported on Twitter, she will seek out At-Large Position #4. The seat is currently held by Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4), who is term limited. The seat, which was previously held by now-Controller Ronald Green, has historically been held by an African-American officeholder, and this recent history has been noted repeatedly in recent weeks as a plethora of Caucasian candidates have stampeded into At-Large Position #1 and only that position, the other open seat.

A number of other names have popped up for this seat in conversations taking place behind closed doors, but none with enough certainty to be written in ink. Thus far, as noted above, most activity has taken place around Position #1, currently held by the term limited Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), a likely mayoral candidate. As I noted in the article I linked above, Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis will run for the post, as will Jenifer Pool, Philippe Nassif, Trebor Gordon and Griff Griffin. All except Nassif have run for office a few times (Griffin in particular about a dozen times).

Just a nitpicky note here, but it was At Large #5 that was held by African Americans for a long time; in particular, by Judson Robinson from 1971 to 1990, then by his son Judson Robinson III through 1997, then Carroll Robinson through 2001. It was in 2003, when Michael Berry, who had previously served one term in At Large #4 before making an aborted run for Mayor in 2003, won to break the streak, after which we had Jolanda Jones and then Jack Christie. AL4 was held by Anthony Hall and Sheila Jackson Lee before John Peavy won a special election in 1995 to succeed SJL after she ousted Craig Washington in the primary for CD18; Peavy was re-elected in November of 1995, then Chris Bell (’97 and ’99) and Berry (’01) represented AL4. Had Berry not chosen to make a run for Mayor in 2003, thus paving the way for Ronald Green with an assist from Bert Keller’s bumbling campaign, he might have won two more terms there, and then who knows what might have happened. (All data on city elections courtesy of the City Secretary webpage.) Berry himself was the beneficiary of some infighting over whom to support to continue the tradition of African American representation in AL5. Point being, the history is more interesting than what we have been saying, and for a few terms back in the day there were consistently two African American Council members serving at large; there were three following the 1991 election, when little-known Beverly Clark ousted Jim Westmoreland after he was caught making racist remarks relating to the late Mickey Leland and an effort to rename IAH in his honor. Clark served one term and was succeeded by Gracie Saenz. Thus endeth the history lecture.

Aaaaaaaaanyway. Robinson made a decent showing in AL5 in 2011 (my interview with her for that race is here, and though she was rumored to be a candidate for AL3 in 2013, she declined to run, saying she might try again another time. Which appears to be now. As for Griff Griffin, all I can say is that we can’t miss you if you won’t go away.

Three thoughts on the state of the Mayor’s race

Inspired by this story, which doesn’t name any potential additions to the ever-large field of Mayoral wannabes for 2015 but which does put some things in context.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Most observers consider Rep. Sylvester Turner, with his support base from the African-American population that could cast a third of next year’s vote, to be the man to beat in November. Yet his fortunes to win in a December runoff – all but guaranteed to be needed in a large field – depend heavily on whom he faces in a one-on-one comparison.

Councilmen Oliver Pennington and Stephen Costello have committed to the race, with Pennington going as far as to send mailers to potential supporters in July, 18 months before the first votes are to be cast. Ben Hall, who lost to Parker in 2013, launched radio advertisements last month, and former Kemah mayor and Chronicle columnist Bill King designated a campaign treasurer. Former Democratic congressman Chris Bell also is an all-but-filed entrant.

Six weeks before the campaign fundraising floodgates open, the field is settling save for a potential entrant who looms over much of the discussion in Houston power circles: Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who has not yet declared his intentions. Legally, Garcia cannot make an affirmative move toward running without being forced to resign his county post, though he has acknowledged the pressure he faces from others.

That pressure, though, is pushing him in both directions. Commissioners Court likely would replace Garcia with a Republican sheriff ahead of the next election cycle.

“You’re going to be giving them an early 2016 gift,” said Democratic Sen. Sylvia Garcia, who had the sheriff at her home this month and expressed concern about a run. “Nobody wants a Latino mayor more than I do, but it’s got to be the right time.”

[…]

If Garcia does not enter the race, Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a close friend of Garcia, could look to capture Latinos’ support. Other prominent Hispanic leaders look to pass on the race, including Metro chairman and Parker ally Gilbert Garcia and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce head Laura Murillo. Both expressed some signs of interest earlier, but do not appear to be joining the field.

Garcia’s exit also could create political lanes for other Democratic alternatives to Turner, like Bell. Though Bell has not formally committed to the race, he has filed a lawsuit challenging Turner’s fundraising strategy and plans to make an official announcement in January.

The other four candidates most seriously weighing bids are: Councilman Jack Christie, an at-large councilman uncertain whether he can raise the money needed to compete; County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, who like Garcia would have to resign to run for mayor; Sean Roberts, a local attorney; and businessman and political neophyte Marty McVey.

Councilmen Michael Kubosh and C.O. Bradford considered the race earlier this year, but both now say they are unlikely to launch campaigns. And despite floating the idea that he was open to a run, outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said this month he had no plans to do so.

Conservatives have not yet coalesced around any of the six non-liberal candidates: Pennington, Costello, Hall, King, Christie or Sanchez.

“Right now, there’s no clear conservative choice yet, but people are obviously angling for being it,” said Paul Bettencourt, the new Republican senator from northwest Harris County.

1. It may be useful to think of these candidates as falling into one of three groups: Candidates with an obvious base of support, coalition candidates, and gadflies. Turner and Pennington fall into the first group, and as such you can sort of guess about what they might expect to get in November if that’s the limit of their appeal. It’s a decent position from which to start, especially in a multi-candidate race, but it’s no guarantee, as Turner himself could attest from his 2003 experience. Coalition candidates don’t have an obvious base of support, but can reasonably hope to draw from a broad range of constituencies. Bill White is the poster boy for such candidates, and folks like Bell, Costello, King, and Christie will all be competing for the kind of voters that propelled White to victory in 2003. Coalition candidates have a higher ceiling, but with so many people fishing in the same pond, it will be harder to stand out. White also had the advantage of lots of money to spend and no activity from anyone else at the time he launched his campaign. No one has that this year. Another consideration is that Turner and Pennington could have their bases eroded by Hall and Sanchez. I’d consider Sanchez a much bigger threat to Pennington if he runs than Hall would be to Turner – and Sanchez would have some appeal to Latino voters as well, not that he did so well with them in 2003 – but in a race where the difference between first and fourth or fifth could be a few thousand votes, I’d still be worried about it if I were Turner.

As for gadflies, he’s not mentioned in this story but Eric Dick, who I feel confident will run again since the publicity is good for his law firm’s business, is the canonical example. From what I have heard, Sean Roberts may be following in those footsteps. One could argue that Hall is a gadfly at this point based on the ridiculousness of his ads so far, but anyone with that kind of money to spend is still a threat to do better than the three to five points a typical gadfly might get.

Yes, there’s one candidate I haven’t mentioned here, and no I don’t mean Marty McVey, about whom I know nothing. I’ll get to him in a bit.

2. Conservatives may be better off not falling in line behind a single candidate just yet. Getting someone into the runoff is nice and all, but any Republican candidate will likely be an underdog in that runoff. The dream scenario for conservatives is what happened in the 2013 At Large #3 race, where three well-qualified Democratic candidates split the vote so evenly that none of them were able to catch up to the two Republicans. Michael Kubosh and Roy Morales were splitting a smaller piece of the electorate, but their two shares of that smaller group were greater than each of the three shares of the larger group. I still think Sylvester Turner is the frontrunner right now, but it’s not insane to imagine a Pennington-Sanchez runoff, especially if Ben Hall can be serious enough to put a dent in his numbers.

3. And then there’s Adrian Garcia. Will he or won’t he? You already know how I feel, so I won’t belabor that here. Garcia is both a candidate with a base and a coalition candidate, which is why he was as strong as he was in 2008 and 2012. Running against flawed opponents those years didn’t hurt him, either, so a little tempering of expectations may be in order here. I’m sure Garcia is carefully measuring the support he might have if he ran. I wonder if he’s trying to gauge how many Democrats he’d piss off by resigning and handing his office to a Republican, and how long said Dems would nurse that grudge when they will have at least two viable options in Turner and Bell to go with instead. It would be one thing if this were December of 2008, and Democrats had just had a great election and were feeling good about themselves. After last month’s debacle, I don’t know how forgiving anyone will be about any Dem that yields a freebie like that to the Republicans. I may be overestimating the effect, especially given how much time Garcia would have to make up for it, and I personally think the Presidential race will have a much larger effect on Democratic fortunes in Harris County in 2016 than Garcia would. But I think it’s real and I think Garcia needs to be concerned about it. Whether it’s enough to affect his decision or not, I have no idea.

Texas Transportation Commission continues to be obstinate

This continues to be ridiculous.

Continued disagreement about certain features of a planned Uptown bus rapid transit system prompted a Texas transportation official to suggest Thursday that $25 million in state funding should be redirected.

The comments by Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Moseley were the latest setback for the project, intended to relieve traffic congestion in the Galleria area. After months of planning and lobbying to secure local, regional and state money, it has faced increasingly vocal opposition and a fraying of the partnership among the Uptown Management District, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation.

[…]

The $192.5 million project is expected to open in 2017, with some still holding out hope that portions will open in time for Houston’s hosting of the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 of that year.

Metro, city officials and TxDOT have dozens of items to resolve while they try to counter criticism of the project.

Topping the list of disputes is the state’s role in the project: elevated bus lanes along Loop 610 between Post Oak Boulevard and the Northwest Transit Center. A $25 million commitment from the state led state transportation officials to seek Metro’s assurance the project was strictly a bus plan, not a prescursor to rail.

“We didn’t want our involvement in this project to be clouded by rail versus bus,” Moseley said.

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said he must clarify whether signing the agreement with TxDOT, which specifies the bus project “will not support a rail component,” puts Metro at odds with its 2003 referendum, which included a rail line in the Post Oak Corridor.

On Metro’s behalf, the county attorney has asked Attorney General Gregg Abbott’s office to determine whether signing the agreement would violate the will of the 2003 voters. Waiting for Abbott’s decision could take months.

Moseley said the potential delay “compromises the availability of those funds” related to the elevated lanes, because state officials have many construction projects ready to go. At a meeting in Austin on Thursday, Moseley said that if the Uptown project is not ready to move forward, he will ask that the state funds shift to a project at Texas 288 and Sam Houston Tollway.

I’ve already ranted about this, and I don’t have much to add to that. The potential delay here is entirely of Jeff Moseley and the TTC’s making. For the life of me, I cannot understand the justification of forbidding the inclusion of some design elements that may someday, if a bunch of things eventually happen, allow for this BRT line to be converted to light rail as the voters approved in 2003 in a cost-effective manner. The TTC has no power to forbid that from happening, and even if Metro agrees to their conditions now a future Metro board will not be bound to keep the Uptown line as BRT if they decide it’s in the public’s best interest to finally move forward with the light rail line we thought we were getting. All the TTC can do is make that future Metro board’s job harder and more expensive. Why would they want to do that?

No one gets to dictate that the Uptown line must be BRT forever

So as we know, the Uptown line is moving ahead as BRT. It will be paid for with a variety of funds, coming from the city, from an Uptown/Memorial TIRZ, from grants, and so forth. A key component of this is an HOV lane on 610 for the buses that will carry the passengers for this line. The Uptown Management District and Metro were recently given $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission to facilitate this part of the construction. That money came with the proviso that this was really and truly going to be a BRT project, not a light rail project. Apparently, the recipients haven’t pinky-sworn hard enough on this to convince the TTC of their sincerity.

State transportation officials approved adding the Loop 610 phase to the state’s transportation plan, making it eligible for $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission. When commissioners approved the project in June, it was clear they meant it to be a bus project.

“We’ve had very open discussions that there is not contemplation it will be used for rail,” state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley said during the June 26 meeting in Baytown.

State officials and skeptics of Metro’s regional light rail efforts are looking for signed assurances that the bus lane won’t be converted to rail, which Metro officials say they must carefully review.

The question becomes how far Metro must go in pledging not to build rail. In a June 2 letter to Moseley, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said “Metro has no plans to convert the dedicated bus service on Post Oak to light rail.”

Moseley suggested Metro’s pledge on not building rail “could be stronger,” according to an email the same day. He suggested noting that any construction would not facilitate rail conversion.

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia reiterated Metro’s lack of any defined rail plans last week, but he said transit officials can’t take light rail entirely off the table because the 2003 referendum specifically lists a Post Oak corridor for future rail development.

“I am being respectful of the will of the voters,” Garcia said.

As a result, his signature is missing from a July 3 agreement prepared by state transportation officials, seeking another assurance. The one-page document says all the parties “agree that the I-610 dedicated bus lane facility is to be designed and built to support a dedicated bus lane. As designed, the facility will not support a rail component.”

Uptown and state officials have signed, but Garcia said he is still mulling the significance of the agreement.

Converting bus rapid transit lanes to rail requires subtle but significant changes, and the initial design of the Post Oak project could make that conversion easier or more difficult. Sharp curves where buses are capable of going might not be as easy for trains.

“I don’t think it is our role or intent to make this something it is not,” Garcia said. “Likewise, I don’t think it is good public policy to prevent a conversion.”

His partners disagree.

“We favor building the (Loop 610) dedicated bus lanes so they cannot carry the weight of light rail,” Uptown Houston board chairman Kendall Miller wrote in a March 7 letter to state transportation officials. “We also do not support building electrical utilities necessary for light rail transit being constructed.”

See here for the background. I for one agree with Gilbert Garcia. The casual disregard for the 2003 referendum by light rail opponents continues to astonish me. The Uptown line was intended to be light rail. That’s what the voters approved. I’m okay with it being built as BRT for now, because we do need to do something today and because at this point it doesn’t make sense to do the more expensive investment of light rail infrastructure until we know for sure that the Universities line will be built and/or until a commuter rail line along US290 gets going. But how does it possibly make sense to cut off, or at least make much less viable, a transit option that may not be on the table for ten years or more by putting a ridiculously long-term condition on a measly $25 million grant today? It would be better to forfeit those funds now than to sign away future enhancements that may someday look like a great idea or that may never happen. What authority does the TTC have to impose such a short-sighted condition? As far as the Uptown board goes, no future Metro is going to go ahead with a light rail conversion for the Uptown BRT line without the cooperation and co-funding of the Uptown Management District. The current board has no more right to shackle its future successors than the TTC does to shackle Metro. Can we please quit with the posturing and get on with the plans already? Sheesh.

Turner for Mayor 3.0

This is what you call a poorly kept secret.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

Just three months after Annise Parker captured a final term as mayor, a major contender has declared his desire to succeed her in the City of Houston’s top job.

“You know I’ve had my challenges. I’ve come through them,” said State Representative Sylvester Turner.

In what can only be viewed as a warning shot aimed at other potential candidates Turner has let his intentions be known. The well regarded 25 year veteran of the Texas Legislature believes his key role writing and balancing state budgets equips him well to tackle Houston’s financial challenges.

At age 60, Turner stands ready to make his case.

“They have to believe that you will be there for this city, not for any one group, not for any one class of individuals, but you will be there for your love of this city. If you can’t convince them that what drives you most of all is your love for the city and your ability to move this city forward in a positive direction. Than you failed the test,” said Turner in an interview with Fox 26.

Barring a reversal of course this will be Turner’s third run for the Mayor’s office having narrowly lost to Bob Lanier in 1991 and later to Bill White in 2003. Having recently played a critical role in securing more than $300 million in additional funding for the state’s mentally challenged Turner believes it’s time to bring his consensus building back to the Bayou City.

Those of us that pay too much attention to this sort of thing have been hearing Turner’s name for awhile now. Makes sense for him to try again now if he’s still got a desire to be Mayor, as there’s no clear frontrunner to inherit the job from Mayor Parker. I’m sure he’ll make a strong contender, and I’m also sure no one who thinks he or she would make a strong contender themselves will concede the field to him. I have no doubt it will make for a great race next year once it gets going, but I’m with Texpatriate: it’s too damn early to start thinking about it. We haven’t even begun early voting for the primaries, for crying out loud. I’ll make note of it when someone makes an announcement, even if it’s just an “I’m thinking about it” announcement, but I have no interest in speculating or in reporting on any of the ridiculously early “polls” that have been floating around. Let’s get through 2014 before we spend too much time worrying about 2015. Greg has more.

Interview with Dwight Boykins

DwightBoykins

We move now to District D, which is open with the term-limited end of CM Wanda Adams’ tenure. It’s easily the biggest field for any race, with 12 declared candidates. I’m not going to be able to interview them all, of course, but I do have five interviews lined up for the week. First in line is Dwight Boykins, who has run for At Large Council seats in the past, most recently in 2003 against Michael Berry. Boykins is a businessman and community activist. He served on the Hurricane Ike Relief Fund Board under Mayor Bill White, and on the ReBuild Houston Oversight Committee under Mayor Parker before resigning to mount his campaign. Here’s what we talked about:

Dwight Boykins interview

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2013 Election page.

July finance reports for non-candidates

Not everyone who files a finance report with the city is running for something this November. Term-limited incumbents, and former candidates who still have money in their campaign treasuries are required to file reports as well. Here’s a look a those who did this July:

Dist Candidate Raised Spent On Hand Loan ------------------------------------------------------- AL3 Noriega 25,245 5,224 23,602 11,000 D Adams I Rodriguez 0 3,274 10,293 0 2011 Jones 0 0 3,203 0 2005 Lee 0 0 1,287 0 2009 Locke 0 427 4,065 0 2003 Berry 0 5,000 0 71,622

Here are all the reports. I did not find one for CM Wanda Adams. Doesn’t mean she didn’t file one – as noted CM Cohen filed one but it’s not visible on the city’s finance reports page – but one was not to be found.

Noriega report
Rodriguez report

Jones report
Lee report
Locke report
Berry report

CM Melissa Noriega has some debt, which is why she raised funds this year. I have no idea if she plans to run for something else in the future, but if she does I’ll be in the front row, cheering her on. I’m pretty sure she lives in Commissioners Court Precinct 2, not that I’m hinting or anything. CM James Rodriguez has been reportedly interested in taking on Commissioner Morman in 2014, but if so he hasn’t started fundraising for it.

As for the former candidates, I listed the year of their last election instead of an office, since only two of them held one. I presume at this point that Jolanda Jones is not going to push boundaries and run for District D. It wouldn’t surprise me if she does run for something else someday, but it doesn’t look like this will be the year for that. Mark Lee ran for Controller in 2003 and District C in 2005, narrowly missing the runoff in the latter race. Neither he nor Gene Locke nor Michael Berry seem likely to run for anything again, but one never knows. Unlike Congress and the Legislature, there’s just not that much leftover city campaign money lying around.

Opposition gearing up for the water fund amendment

The legislation to create a state water infrastructure fund, and the joint resolution that authorized tapping the Rainy Day Fund for up to $2 billion to seed it, had a rocky road in the legislature and wasn’t completed until the last weekend of the regular session. Now the task is to pass the constitutional amendment that the joint resolution enabled on the ballot, and that’s no sure thing, either.

If ratified in the Nov. 5 election, the proposed constitutional amendment would create a state water development bank that supporters say is vital to help Texas avert a worsening water shortage over the next half-century.

The unfolding campaign appears almost certain to match the contours of the legislative debate, balancing the need to keep Texas economically vibrant with a robust water supply against Tea Party-fueled opposition over spending rainy-day money on the multibillion-dollar program.

Nine other amendments are heading to the state’s 13 million-plus voters, but Senate Joint Resolution 1 is easily the farthest-reaching. Senate Natural Resources Chairman Troy Fraser, a chief proponent, said he hopes to muster “an army of people” into the campaign to push the measure to victory.

The effort is expected to include much of the state’s political leadership, including Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

H204Texas, a coalition that includes chambers of commerce, energy companies, water suppliers and other interests, has already started mapping out a political-style campaign that includes fundraising, media buys, op-ed pieces and elaborate use of social media.

“We’re already in full force,” said Heather Harward, the coalition’s executive director.

[…]

But opposition is also taking shape as an array of conservative groups — including Tea Party and citizens lobby organizations — work their formidable email networks to point up what they say are a number of reasons why the initiative should be defeated.

Recycling a major element from the legislative debate, opponents have begun to denounce the proposed use of $2 billion in state rainy-day funds, which lawmakers approved in a separate appropriations bill to capitalize the proposed bank.

Opponents say that putting the $2 billion into a constitutionally dedicated fund enables supporters to avoid having the money count against a state spending cap, which conservatives both in and out of the Legislature have vowed to protect vigorously.

“We’re going to have to oppose it,” said JoAnn Fleming of Tyler, executive director of Grassroots America, which she said networks with more than 300 Tea Party and liberty organizations.

Fleming said members of her organization and related groups plan to work through summer and fall in a “good old-fashioned grassroots effort” to drum up votes against the initiative. “We’ve been successful with that in the past,” she said.

One influential conservative group, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, came out against the proposal during the just-ended regular legislative session, but group President Michael Quinn Sullivan said in an email that “it’s premature to speculate on what we may or may not be doing in the fall on constitutional amendments.”

“A great many conservative groups opposed SJR1 in the legislature,” said Sullivan, who is president of Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. “We know a lot of folks are going to be talking about it in the fall. If or when we decide to engage in that issue, we’ll engage.”

Chuck Molyneaux of McKinney, 73, a retired software developer who heads the North Texas Citizens Lobby, said his organization is reaching out to its allies in the Tea Party community to oppose the measure and the proposed use of rainy-day funds.

“We’re going to do our best to keep it from being passed,” he said. “This one just reeks of smoke and mirrors.”

I’ll save the debate about the merits of the amendment for another day. I just want to point out that historically speaking, the vast majority of amendments that get put on the ballot do get passed. However, three of the five that were defeated in the past decade went down in 2011. Here’s a brief recap of how this voting has gone:

2011 – 7/10 passed
2009 – 11/11 passed
2007 – 16/16 passed
2005 – 7/9 passed
2003 – 22/22 passed

There are two interesting things about the 2011 election. One is that the referenda that failed were not exactly high profile or had any apparent opposition going into the election. Here’s the ballot statement of the five amendments in 2011 and 2005 that were rejected, first from 2011:

Prop 4 Permit county to issue bonds for development, 40.26 to 59.73
Prop 7 Permit El Paso County to create reclamation districts, 48.29 to 51.50
Prop 8 Appraisal for ad valorem tax of land devoted to water stewardship, 47.00 to 52.99

And from 2005:

Prop. 5 Commercial loan interest rates defined by Legislature, 43.41 to 56.48
Prop. 9 Six-Year term for regional mobility authority, 46.67 to 53.32

Unlike 2005, the year of the Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage amendment, there wasn’t anything particularly high profile in 2011, though Prop 4 was opposed by various anti-toll road groups. I have no memory of the defeated issues from 2005. The other thing about the 2011 election was that it had the lowest turnout of any referendum on this list:

2011 Turnout – 690,052
2009 Turnout – 1,058,986
2007 Turnout – 1,096,410
2005 Turnout – 2,260,695
2003 Turnout – 1,470,443

That might have had something to do with it, though recall that the 2003 election, which included the medical malpractice tort “reform” referendum was held in September (back when there was still a uniform election date in September) for the deliberate purpose of keeping turnout low, which supporters of tort “reform” assumed would be better for their cause. They didn’t want to be on the same ballot as the high-turnout Houston Mayoral election that year. It’s not clear to me whether turnout will be a factor one way or the other for SJR1, but on the whole the lower the turnout the greater the influence of the more motivated voters, and I’d put my money on the antis being more motivated at this time. So keep an eye on that. EoW has more.

Midyear 2013 election update

Back in January, I took an early look at the 2013 elections in Houston. At the request of the folks at the Burnt Orange Report, who also printed my initial overview, here’s an update on the races in the city of Houston in 2013.

Mayor

Back in January, Mayor Parker had no declared opponents, though everyone expected former City Attorney Ben Hall to jump in, and there were whispers of other potential entrants. Hall made his candidacy official about two weeks after my initial report, and formally launched his campaign in March, though things have been fairly low key so far. Mayor Parker, who just kicked off her own campaign a couple of weeks ago, has been busy touting her achievements, of which there have been many in recent months, and pointing out all the glowing praise Houston is getting in the national media for its food scene, arts, employment opportunities, and affordable housing. Hall has been introducing himself to voters – he was the featured speaker at a recent event at HCDP headquarters; Mayor Parker will get her turn for that later in June – though thus far he has stuck to general themes and not presented much in the way of specific policy initiatives. He suffered some bad press a month ago when news of his frequent delinquency when paying property taxes surfaced. That subject, and the fact that Hall lived outside Houston in the tony suburb of Piney Point until last year – he was ineligible to vote in the 2009 city election – will likely come up again as the campaigns begin to engage with each other.

Two other candidates have joined the race as well. One is Green Party perennial Don Cook, who ran for an At Large Council seat in 2009 and 2011, for County Clerk in 2010, and for CD22 in 2012. The other is 2011 At Large #2 candidate Eric Dick, and you can keep the jokes to yourself, he’s way ahead of you on that. Besides his name, Dick is best known for covering the city with bandit campaign signs two years ago; the signs and the controversy that accompanied them did wonders for his name recognition and no doubt his law firm’s bottom line. It’s not clear if he intends to run a more serious campaign this time or if it’s just going to be another round of nailing things to utility poles and denying all knowledge of how they got there, but Dick’s emphasizing that he’s the “Republican” candidate in this nominally non-partisan race suggests that at least one person is thinking about the old pincer strategy.

We’ll have a better idea of where things stand when the campaign finance reports come out in six weeks. Hall has made much noise about his willingness to self-finance his campaign, but nothing says “broad-based support”, or the lack of it, than one’s list of small-dollar donors. It will also be interesting to see where the establishment goes, and if there are any defections from Parker 09 to Hall or Gene Locke 09 to Parker. Finally, on the subject of Republicans, it’s well known among insiders but not at all outside that circle that Hall has a couple of Republican operatives on his campaign payroll. I feel confident saying that fact will gain prominence after the July 15 reports begin to emerge. Until then, there’s the parody Ben Hall Twitter feed to keep those of you who are into that sort of thing amused.

City Controller

Incumbent Ronald Green, who like Mayor Parker is running for a third term, also now has an opponent, a Republican accountant by the name of Bill Frazer. Frazer now has a Facebook page for his campaign, but still no webpage that I can find. As noted before, Green has had some bad press, and he has never been a dynamic fundraiser or campaigner. He didn’t have a lot of cash on hand in January, and I don’t recall much activity there since then. He could conceivably be vulnerable to the right candidate and some bad luck. I don’t think Frazer is that candidate, and as far as luck goes all Green really needs is no more dirt to come out about him before November. Outside of open seat years, we really don’t have a history of Controller races in Houston. The office tends to get a lot less attention than Council does.

City Council At Large

I took an early look at At Large #3, the one open At Large seat, back in April, and nothing much has changed since then. It’s an interesting field, to say the least, with three candidates that have run citywide in the past, and the three that haven’t can credibly claim to have a base of support. There is no clear frontrunner, though the lack of a prominent African American candidate in the race is a factor that could ultimately affect its trajectory. I continue to believe that’s a void that will eventually be filled. Again, the campaign finance reports will bring a bit of focus to the picture, but most likely there will be not that much to see just yet. Generally speaking, the usual powers that be steer clear of these multi-candidate pileups until the runoff.

I noted before that there might be more opportunity in a head-to-head matchup against one of the two freshmen At Large Council members than in the wide open At Large #3 scramble. David Robinson, who finished fourth in the open At Large #2 race in 2011, has apparently taken that to heart and is challenging CM Andrew Burks for that seat. Burks has not particularly distinguished himself in his first term, but he is generally well liked and remains well known due to his many previous candidacies. So far, no one has emerged to take on Burks’ fellow freshman, CM Jack Christie, and the two members running for their third terms, CMs Stephen Costello and Brad Bradford, are also unopposed. Both Costello and Bradford are known to have future Mayoral ambitions, so the tea leaf readers will have some material to work with after the election. Actually, they’ll have some before it as well, since Bradford is listed as a Hall supporter, while Costello, along with CMs Ed Gonzalez and Al Hoang, are Parker supporters.

District City Council

There are only two open district Council seats thanks to the resignation of now-Harris County Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan, who was succeeded by CM Dave Martin last November. Martin will likely draw a challenger or two as the newbie on Council, but so far all of the action is elsewhere. I am aware of four candidates for the District D seat now held by CM Wanda Adams: businessman and former ReBuild Houston oversight board member Dwight Boykins, who had previously run for At Large #5 in 2003, losing to Michael Berry; Houston Housing Authority board member Assata Richards; photojournalist and businesswoman Georgia Provost; and community advocate Keith Caldwell, who ran for D in 2007 and finished fifth in the field of seven. There had been some buzz about former At Large #5 CM Jolanda Jones throwing her hat in and forcing a legal decision to clarify Houston’s term limits ordinance, but I haven’t heard anything about that in months and have no idea if it is still a possibility.

District I has proven to be the liveliest race so far, as candidates Graci Garces and Ben Mendez have already gotten into the kind of spat that one only sees in election years. Garces is the Chief of Staff to current District I member James Rodriguez, who in turn was Chief of Staff to State Rep. Carol Alvarado when she held that seat; Garces was also on Alvarado’s staff. Mendez is a businessman. They are joined in the race by community activist and Sheriff’s Department employee Robert Gallegos, and Leticia Ablaza. Ablaza is the former Chief of Staff to District A CM Helena Brown, who resigned from that position along with Deputy Chief of Staff RW Bray after less than five months on the job, and she challenged CM Rodriguez in 2011, finishing with 35% of the vote. To say the least, her presence in this race makes it one to watch.

Speaking of CM Helena Brown, the field for District A is big enough to make you think it was an open seat as well. In addition to the incumbent, candidates include former CM Brenda Stardig, who assured me on the phone a few weeks ago that she’s going to run a much more organized and focused campaign than she did in 2011 when Brown ousted her; Amy Peck, the District Director for Sen. Dan Patrick who finished third in District A in 2009; and Mike Knox, who has been an HPD officer, Board Member of the Houston Police Patrolmen’s Union, and Director of Community Service for the Spring Branch Management District. All three have good establishment Republican credentials, and I suspect the strategy for all three is to get into a runoff with Brown and hope to consolidate enough support against her to win. As always, the July finance report will tell an interesting tale, and this is one time where I think the usual suspects will not be on the sidelines early but will already be backing one horse or another.

HISD and HCC

There is one update to report on HISD races. District I Board Member and current Board President Anna Eastman is now opposed by community activist Hugo Mojica, who ran in the special election for City Council District H in May 2009 to succeed Sheriff Adrian Garcia and finished eighth in the field of nine. District I is my district, and while I think Hugo is a perfectly nice person, I think Anna Eastman is an outstanding Trustee, and I’ll be voting for her in the fall. There are no other active races I’m aware of, but the impending takeover of North Forest ISD will necessitate a redraw of Trustee districts that could force a special election in Districts II and VIII, where Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Juliet Stipeche now serve. Neither would be on the ballot in 2013 otherwise. I don’t know what all of the ramifications of this will be, but that’s a possibility to watch out for. Finally, while no one has yet announced a campaign against him, District IX Trustee Larry Marshall continues to provide ammunition for whoever does take the plunge.

Lastly, there are two developments in HCC. There is now a second special election on the ballot, as former Board President Richard Schechter stepped down in January after successfully leading the push for HCC’s bond referendum in November. The board appointed attorney and former General Counsel for HCC Leila Feldman to succeed Schechter. Feldman is also the daughter-in-law of Houston City Attorney David Feldman and is married to Cris Feldman, whom aficionados of all things Tom DeLay will recognize as a key player in bringing about his demise. In any event, she will be on the ballot in November along with appointee Herlinda Garcia, who succeeded State Rep. Mary Perez, and incumbents Bruce Austin, Neeta Sane, and Yolanda Navarro Flores. In the second development, Navarro has drawn two opponents, Zeph Capo, the vice-president and legislative director for the Houston Federation of Teachers, and community and Democratic activist Kevin Hoffman, who lost to Navarro Flores in 2007. HCC Trustee races never get much attention, but this one will be as high profile as these races get.

That’s all I have for now. I’ll be taking a close look at the finance reports when they come out.

UPDATE: Whenever I write one of these posts, I’m going by what I’ve seen and heard. Until the July finance reports come out, there’s no easy way to compile a list of candidate names, unless you drop in on the City Secretary and ask to see the dead tree document of people who have filed designation of campaign treasurer forms. As such, I’m going to miss some people, and I inevitably hear about them after I publish.

Three such names have come to my attention since I posted this. One is former State Rep. Al Edwards, who apparently is actively campaigning for At Large #3. The second is Clyde Lemon, who according to Burt Levine is going to run against HISD Trustee Larry Marshall. Neither has a webpage or a campaign Facebook page that I can find, and Google told me nothing about their efforts, so make of that what you will.

The third candidate I’ve heard of since posting is Ron Hale, who is running in the increasingly large District A field. Hale left a bizarre comment on Levine’s Facebook page, saying that I’m “another blogger trying to keep [his] name out of the article as if it hurts my campaign” and “one person in the district A race is a contributor to off the cuff (sic)”. I have no idea what he’s talking about – I am of course the only “contributor” to Off the Kuff – but whatever. Ron Hale is also running for District A, and now you know.

If only it were that easy to get our act together

Outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has some blunt words for Houston about light rail.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood likes Houston’s light rail that’s up and running but warns that regional transit officials have squandered opportunities the past decade by not building greater consensus.

“The region needs to get its act together,” LaHood said during a brief question and answer session after an unrelated news conference Wednesday in Houston.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board Chairman Gilbert Garcia conceded a tarnished transit image and political opposition has slowed progress, but the past three years have seen Metro make significant progress.

“It may not go the pace we all want but we’ve gone very far,” he said.

Going further, Garcia said, will take more buy-in from local congressional and statehouse lawmakers.

Though the Main Street line has been a success, and three more lines are under construction, LaHood said the area is coming up short because more hasn’t been done to extend lines to the suburbs where most people live.

He said he spent the morning in Houston talking about projects to extend transit farther from the downtown area. Suburban taxpayers who supported referendums in 2003 and 2012 especially have demonstrated a desire for development, only to have officials shortchange them.

“The fact that these people voted for a referendum and are paying these taxes and have never seen any benefit from it is just not right,” LaHood said.

LaHood, who is stepping down as transportation secretary as soon as a successor is confirmed, said in other cities that have won rail funding, it’s been because everyone from City Hall to Capitol Hill has shown their support for transit funding. In Houston, that hasn’t been the case, and that’s going to hamper getting federal funds.

“If there is not going to be universal agreement then it is not going to happen,” LaHood said.

I certainly agree that as long as we are all rowing in different directions, we’re going to get nowhere, and that’s very much to our detriment. But that’s the reality we live with. Rep. John Culberson is a staunch opponent of the University Line, and has done everything he can to block its construction. While I appreciate Secretary LaHood’s honest assessment, the best thing he could have done to help us all get on the same page would have been to use whatever Republican street cred he had left to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with his former colleague Culberson and tell him to quit being such a jackass. The sad fact is that there is no leverage to be had on Culberson. The voters he answers to agree with him, and if there’s a way for someone else to put pressure on him, I don’t know what it is.

Now to be sure, there’s plenty of responsibility for the excruciatingly slow progress on light rail in Houston that extends beyond Rep. Culberson. Metro itself did a lot of things wrong in the years immediately following the 2003 referendum, including the BRT flipflop, the Buy America fiasco, and just generally being lousy at community engagement and communication. Bill White did a lot of good things as Mayor, but Metro was broken on his watch – it wasn’t until after he’d left office that it became clear just how badly Metro was broken during his tenure – and even if it had been a well-oiled machine, he never spent much time or energy pushing the light rail expansion projects. Commissioners Court, in particular Steve Radack, has been another burdensome obstacle for Metro. Metro is in much better shape now, thanks in large part to the Board that Mayor Parker selected and the tenure of George Greanias as CEO. Radack got what he wanted in the Metro referendum from last year. It would be delightful to get Metro, the city, Commissioners Court, and the entire Congressional delegation all on the same page, but as long as some members of that group are pushing for the opposite of what everyone else wants, I have no idea how to make that happen.

Finally, Secretary LaHood’s comment about suburban taxpayers struck me as a bit odd. For one thing, Metro has spent a ton of money on the park and ride network, which very much serves the suburbs. For another, though I don’t have precinct data from the 2003 referendum in front of me, I’d bet money that the suburban parts of Houston voted against Metro’s 2012 Solutions plan. What he’s talking about sounds a lot like commuter rail, which strictly speaking outside of the US90/Southwest Corridor rail project, which was part of the 2012 Solutions plan and for which work continues, commuter rail is outside Metro’s scope, at least as far as planning and seeking funds go. Still, any viable commuter rail plan will also require everyone to work together in perfect harmony, so in a larger sense it does speak to LaHood’s overall point. Ultimately, we work together or we get nothing done. The message is clear, it’s just a matter of what we’re going to do about it.

On African-American turnout in city elections

Bill King makes an observation about Ben Hall’s chances in the upcoming Mayoral election.

Ben Hall

When Lee Brown was elected mayor in 1997, many pundits predicted that with Houston’s growing minority community, Houston had seen its last white mayor.

That, of course, proved not to be the case as Bill White and Annise Parker defeated minority candidates in 2003 and 2009.

In each of those elections, there were credible, well-financed African-American candidates: Sylvester Turner in 2003 and Gene Locke in 2009. However, in 2003, Turner did not even make the runoff, and in 2009, Locke narrowly made the runoff and lost to Parker by a 53-47 margin.

The principal reason that Turner and Locke lost their mayoral bids was a dramatic decline in African-American turnout in city elections.

I looked at the election results in five key, predominantly African-American precincts from around the city. In the 2001 election when Brown faced a stiff challenge from Orlando Sanchez for his third term, the turnout in the general election in these five precincts averaged just less than 30 percent.

For the runoff between Brown and Sanchez, the turnout actually went up to almost 37 percent. The five precincts produced more than 5,600 votes, and Brown won more than 95 percent of those votes.

In 2003, when Bill White, Orlando Sanchez and Sylvester Turner squared off in the general election, the turnout in these precincts was about the same as the 2001 general election, but Turner got only about 80 percent of the vote compared to Brown’s 95 percent.

This was the decisive factor in Turner not making the runoff. With him eliminated, turnout in the runoff in these precincts dropped by almost half to just 17 percent.

In 2009, Locke was unable to motivate African-American turnout or rack up the margin,s that Brown achieved in 2001. In the 2009 general election and in the runoff, turnout in these precincts was only 15 percent, with Locke winning about 84 percent of the vote.

From just these five precincts, Turner got 1,650 fewer votes in 2003 than Brown did in the 2001 runoff. In the 2009 runoff, Locke got a staggering 3,300 fewer votes than Brown did in the 2001 runoff. The significance of this drop in vote totals is highlighted when you consider that Locke lost by fewer than 9,000 votes citywide.

Here’s the problem with this analysis: It assumes that the decline in African-American turnout, as epitomized by these five precincts King highlights, is independent of citywide turnout. That’s not the case, however. Consider:

2001 election – 290,556 total votes, 28.30% turnout in Harris County, Five Key Precincts turnout is “just less than 30%.

2001 runoff – 326,254 total votes, 31.23% turnout in Harris County, Five Key Precincts turnout is “almost 37%”.

2003 election – The page says 381,274 total votes, but that can’t be right since there were 298,189 Harris County votes, for 31.22% turnout. Assume it’s more like 301,000 total votes, with 31.22% Harris County turnout, Five Key Precincts turnout is “about the same as the 2001 general election”, or “just less than 30%”. Don’t you love all this precision?

2003 runoff – 220,725 total votes, Harris County turnout is 22.71%, Five Key Precincts turnout is “just 17 percent”.

2009 election – 181,659 total votes, 19.12% Harris County turnout, Five Key Precincts turnout is “only 15 percent”.

2009 runoff – 160,046 total votes, 16.48% Harris County turnout, Five Key Precincts turnout is again “only 15 percent”.

In other words, the Five Key Precincts turnout tracks the overall citywide turnout pretty closely. The question isn’t “why did African-American turnout decline so much from 2003 to 2009”, but why did overall turnout decline so much? I don’t have a good answer for that. I can say that one reason why Sylvester Turner got a lower percentage of the African-American vote is because unlike Lee Brown, he had a Democratic opponent as well as a Republican one. Maybe Ben Hall will do a better job turning out African-American voters than Gene Locke did, but to some extent that’s a function of overall turnout.

There is almost a demographic component to the decline. African-Americans, who tend to vote in higher percentages, are increasingly leaving their inner-city neighborhoods for the suburbs, just as their white counterparts did in past decades.

Pearland and several of the cities in Fort Bend County now have significant African-American populations. To some extent, the out-migration of African-Americans has been backfilled by Latinos, who so far have shown little interest in participating in city elections.

Also, when you drive through some of the historically African-American areas in the city, there is an obvious “hollowing out” of these neighborhoods. There are an estimated 8,000 abandoned homes in the city.

The vast majority of these are in historically African-American neighborhoods.

As we’ve just seen, African-American turnout is correlated to overall turnout. Beyond that, there’s a lot of anecdote and supposition but not much hard evidence. It’s true that population has declined in certain historically black neighborhoods. This is a long term trend. But that doesn’t mean that African-American population in the city of Houston as a whole is declining. According to the Census, black people were 23.7% of Houston’s population in 2010, and they were 25.3% of the population in the 2000 Census. That may sound like a steep decline, but the overall population of Houston went from 1,953,631 in 2000 to 2,099,651 in 2010, so if you do the math the black population actually went up, from 494,269 in 2000 to 497,617 in 2010. Unless you posit that black people outside the Five Key Precincts vote differently than those inside them, I think another explanation is needed.

Now, I do agree with King that Hall will need more than just African-American votes to win, and that he will need to develop another constituency, which as Campos notes they are trying to do. The question is how does he succeed where Gene Locke failed. Maybe there’s something in the numbers to suggest what that is, but if so it’s not apparent to me.

Buses and trains, not buses or trains

I have a lot of emotion about this, but I’m still working through how to express it.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials say the agency is on firmer financial footing than it has been in years. They plan to add shelters at 100 bus stops in the next year, replace aging buses with larger and smaller vehicles in some cases and rethink how the Houston area is served by bus.

The refocus is a shift for the agency, as rail has dominated the political discussion since a 2003 vote for transit improvements that included five light rail lines, three of which are under construction now.

“What got focused on and what got done was the rail component,” said George Greanias, Metro’s president and CEO. “That has not always worked to the benefit of the system. … We’ve not focused as much as we should on buses.”

Metro board members and local officials, notably Houston Mayor Annise Parker, lauded the chance to correct years of underinvestment in the bus system.

“They began paring back on the bus system, dropping off the lower ridership routes, rerouting the buses, saving money, saving money so they could do rail,” Parker said Wednesday.

[…]

Around the same time Metro placed the referendum in front of voters, officials also created a strategic planning committee. One of the committee’s main tasks will be to determine how Metro’s 1,300-square-mile area can best be served by buses, including how to tie them to the rail lines, said Metro board member Christof Spieler.

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it is steel wheels or rubber wheels, it is all transit and it needs to work for the rider,” Spieler said. “What I would like to see is a better job of putting the whole network together.”

Some of that paring back of the bus system was necessary and correct. The main advantage to buses as transit is their lack of infrastructure, which thus enables routes to be redrawn at will and as needed to cope with shifting populations. Metro did a good job of identifying low-performing bus routes, but it hasn’t done nearly enough to improve the bus system and attract new riders to it. Part of their thinking behind this referendum and the “no incremental sales tax revenue on rail” deal, as expressed by Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia in the interview he and Spieler did with me, is that by working to get Metro’s overall numbers up they can build more public approval of the system as a whole, which will benefit future rail expansion. It feels a bit like a bank shot, but the bus system does have unaddressed needs, and as I said before taking care of those needs will remove a key pillar of the anti-rail contingent’s argument against more rail. I still think a big part of the problem here is that those who are the most vociferously anti-rail are not equivalently pro-bus, or pro-transit in general. The focus in this region has always been on roads uber alles, and getting any change in that focus has been hard fought and very incremental. Still, I continue to believe that there is a lot of potential for moving the region’s transportation and mobility forward if the stakeholders can agree to work together for once. Metro needs to maintain its commitment to fulfilling the 2003 referendum and building the University Line, and we all need to tell our elected officials, loudly and often, that we expect them to work with Metro to make that happen. Nothing about this referendum should change that.

Joshua Sanders: Required Referendum Does Not Need To Be A Bump In The Road For A New Metro

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Joshua Sanders

The METRO Board should not risk its newfound goodwill by raiding its member entities’ General Mobility Program (GMP) funds after the end of September 2014. Instead, METRO should move forward with a required referendum that offers voters the clear choice to extend the General Mobility Program at its historic level of .25 of the 1-cent METRO sales tax for a shorter extension to fulfill its obligations from the 2003 referendum.

The 2003 METRO Solutions Plan election extended the General Mobility Program from 2003 through September 2014, extending a partnership with the County, the City of Houston and smaller member cities that has been in place since a coalition of these same entities helped establish METRO, its service area and the penny sales tax. This coalition has been held together by balancing the funding from the penny sales tax between the General Mobility Funds for roads and streets at 25%, and the rest of METRO’s budget for buses and related transit services including light rail at %75. Although the General Mobility Program was not officially set at 25% until 1988, mobility investment from METRO to its member entities has always been at the core of the partnership that created METRO in 1978.

The New METRO Leadership has done well to overcome the recent controversies that have delayed the implementation of the 2003 METRO Solutions plan approved by voters in 2003. The new 2012 Business Plan and Budget lays out a five-year plan with the stated goal of being a better community partner. It would have been even better if it introduced real metrics for judging success like ridership and future debt level expectations, which are currently $1.1 billion plus perhaps another $539 million for pension liabilities. But the 2012 Business Plan did introduce a new level of transparency on how much more light rail expansion is going to cost than originally estimated in 2003. METRO looks to “boldly accelerate” spending on light rail to complete 3 of the 4 lines approved in 2003 for a little over $2.1 billion, or $1.4 billion more than estimated for same three lines in 2003. The North, Southeast and East lines are slated to be completed by the end of 2016, 8 years, 7 years, and 5 years late, respectively.

Unfortunately, the bus service expansion promised in 2003 of increasing capacity by 50% will not be delivered under the 2012 Business plan. In fact, bus service and routes have significantly decreased from their 2003 levels to help make room for the accelerated commitment to light rail transit funding.

Despite this profligate spending plan, some argue that the General Mobility Program should be capped or cancelled to support more rapid bus and rail expansion. We are now being told that METRO needs more money to complete the goals that were outlined in the 2003 referendum. We believe Metro needs the discipline of the GMP and the chance for the public to access the performance of light rail after completion and operation of the current expansion. The primary reason the 2003 referendum was set to expire next year was due to METRO’s outlined promise in the METRO Solutions Plan to complete the components of the referendum by this time. By completing the goals of the 2003 referendum in 2012, the member entities and the taxpayers would have had adequate information on the true capital costs, operating costs, and ridership numbers to justify the investment in the transit plan. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened and won’t happen for another couple years.

Destroying the long standing coalition of community partners that created METRO by changing the General Mobility Program in the required referendum runs the risk of the METRO Board losing its discretion. It would be one thing to come to the taxpayers and member entities with results to justify their request for more funding, but METRO is asking its member entities to forget their part of the bargain and is now trying to remove needed funding for roads and mobility.

The General Mobility Program is not a diversion from transit as some like to characterize it. Since when did roads stop becoming part of the transit and mobility equation? Those same roads are responsible for moving the other %95 of the people, goods, and services in the region that don’t utilize transit. Roads and infrastructure I might add that METRO buses run on every day.

With the State of Texas and the Federal government having an ever decreasing ability to fund road and infrastructure projects, it is important to also look at the GMP as a great source of local transportation funding. Not many other cities in Texas, rather the US, have discretion over a funding source for transportation and mobility projects that comes directly out of their tax base. This funding helps not only maintain existing roads and infrastructure in the City of Houston through the Rebuild Houston plan, but it goes to build new capacity in Harris County where 92% of the growth in our region was accounted for during the last census.

Houstonians for Responsible Growth urge the New METRO to not make the voters choose between a situation where METRO gets more money either way. What do we mean by that statement? METRO has the ability to choose the ballot language and details of the proposed referendum. If a proposal is put on the ballot that its member entities have not reached a consensus on, the likelihood of passing the referendum decreases and the General Mobility Program agreement runs the risk of ending with METRO keeping all the funding from the 1 cent sales tax. It turns into a situation of “heads METRO wins, tails you lose.” Either situation impacts the member entities’ budgets, and those entities may have to seek new revenues sources to pay for existing debt and future infrastructure projects.

METRO’s new image may not be strong enough with voters to win support for a capped General Mobility Program, and an ugly referendum fight could hurt the other important City of Houston bond priorities on the ballot. That is why it is important that METRO find a compromise solution with its member entities to avoid this public fight.

METRO would do best to extend the General Mobility Program program in its current form until completion of the 3 lines under construction are done. As stated above, this would give the member entities and the taxpayers the ability to judge for themselves whether or not METRO’s investment justifies the cost and is in line with what the voters approved. New METRO would come out a winner by proving their newfound fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers. By admitting to the public that mistakes were made and even government’s plans need to be adjusted, they would go a long way to rebuilding a solid foundation of trust with the public.

Joshua Sanders is the Executive Director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth.

Christof Spieler: Deciding the future of Houston’s transit

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Christof Spieler

We as a region are facing a huge decision about our future. If we don’t increase transit use by offering more people the option of high-quality transit, we will be stuck in gridlock. But among all the money we spend on transportation, we have only one dedicated transit funding source, and we are spending a quarter of it on roads in what is known as the “General Mobility” program. Over the past 30 years, METRO – our transit agency – has spent more on roads than it has on building transit infrastructure. If General Mobility continues at 25%, we will not be able to significantly expand transit service – be it local bus, park-and-ride, Bus Rapid Transit, streetcar, commuter rail, or light rail – for a decade or more, even as the population – and the demand — continues to grow.

We know this: when Houstonians are offered high quality transit they use it. Our park-and-ride system – buses that run as often as every 5 minutes during rush hour from suburban park-and-ride lots down HOV lanes directly to Downtown – carry 30,000 boardings every weekday. Half of Downtown employees who live in the areas served by the system use it. With 37,000 boardings a day, our light rail line carries more people per mile than any other in the U.S. besides Boston; Dallas has 10 times as much track as we do, but carries less than than twice as many people. Even outside rush hour, trains are standing room only. Bus service on Westheimer, where bus service runs frequently all day, every day, carries about 15,000 boardings. These riders have found out that high quality transit – transit that is frequent, reliable, and goes where people want to go – makes their lives better.

But most Houstonians do not have the option of using high quality transit. Greenway Plaza, Uptown, and Greenspoint, which are not served by rail and are not connected to the HOV lanes that keep park and ride buses out of traffic, have less than a third of the transit ridership that Downtown and the Texas Medical Center do. If we build the infrastructure to offer those areas better service, many of those employees will use transit like employees in Downtown do. Corridors like Kirby and Washington Avenue, where density is growing, don’t have the frequent bus service that Westheimer does; therefore the new residents moving in are all getting in their cars to go to their jobs. With better service, many of them would be on the bus.

We have a plan to connect more people to high quality transit, approved by the voters in 2003: light rail lines that link Greenway Plaza and Uptown to the park-and-ride system and to the other major employment centers; new park-and-rides; expanded local bus service; links to the airports; and commuter rail.

Unfortunately, good transit infrastructure costs money, but it’s cheaper than the alternatives. The HOV lane park and ride system cost $1 billion to build, and the current 3-line light rail expansion costs $2.1 billion, (including $435 million in upgraded roadways and utilities). Even expanding local bus service on city streets costs a lot of money: METRO’s biggest expense year in and year out is operating or maintaining bus facilities. But the alternatives to good transit are even more expensive: the Katy Freeway widening, originally estimated to cost $1 billion, came in at $2.8 billion dollars, and it bulldozed over 1,000 homes and businesses. Widening 290 is estimated at to cost $4.6 billion.

Roads and transit alike are funded primarily by the general taxpayers, not just the users of those facilities. The state and federal government collect gas tax, and toll roads collect tolls, but the majority of transportation funding comes from income tax, property tax, and sales tax. TxDOT has calculated that the gas tax collected on the fuel burned on a typical Texas highway covers well under half of the cost of building and maintaining that highway. And the gas tax doesn’t pay for arterials or local streets. The rest of the cost – half of the cost of that highway and all of the cost of that street – comes from the taxpayers as a whole, regardless of whether they taxpayers drive, walk, bike, or take transit.

METRO’s “General Mobility” funding for roads started as a political deal, but only the roadway part of that deal has been upheld. In 1988, voters committed to spending 25% of METRO’s sales tax on General Mobility for twelve years; in 1999, the METRO board extended that program for another 10 years, and in 2003, voters reauthorized it through 2014. Both the 1988 and 2003 votes were part of a package that included rail expansion. Those rail expansion promises have not been kept. The 1988 rail system was never built, and, of the 4 lines that the 2003 ballot called for to be opened by 2012, only 3 are under construction, projected to open by 2014. But though we have not kept our rail construction commitments, we have spent every bit of the money promised — and more — on roads. From 1988 to 2014, METRO will actually have spent 27%, not 25%, on roads through General Mobility. In addition, METRO spent another $1.2 billion to rebuild major streets in Downtown, Midtown, and the Texas Medical Center.

Of the billions of public money the Houston region spends every year on transportation, only a small part is available for transit. While most tax revenues received by state or local governments are – in theory – “flexible” funds that could be spent on highways or roads; in reality, the city, the county, and the state are spending only miniscule amounts of their money on transit. Many of the Federal and local funds are–in theory–“flexible” funds that could be spent on highways or roads, but in reality the city, the county, and the state are spending only miniscule amounts of their money on transit. The only dedicated funding source we have for transit in this region is METRO’s 1 cent sales tax. Spending a quarter of this on roads is not “balance”, it’s part of a larger imbalance.

But over the years, METRO’s member jurisdictions have become dependent on General Mobility. Some have gotten very good deals. Piney Point Village, a city of 3,150 surrounded by Houston on every side, has gotten $16.49 for every $1.00 it has contributed in sales tax, while the city of Houston has gotten $0.20 for each of its dollars contributed. Hedwig Village, a neighbor of Piney Point Village, has gotten $10,016 per capita from 1999 to 2014 while Houston has gotten $810. In addition to hefty General Mobility payments, both villages get local bus service, METROlift, and the benefits of reduced congestion on the Katy Freeway due to Park-and-Ride buses. It’s no wonder that the property tax rates in these villages are only a third of the property tax rates in Houston. General Mobility has become a massive subsidy for these small cities. But even Houston and Harris County, which have not gotten these special deals, have come to rely on this METRO money for their capital infrastructure budgets. General Mobility has never been promised or authorized past 2014, but everyone is counting on it.

Unfortunately, funds are tight, and we know METRO does not have enough sales tax revenue to continue both General Mobility and transit expansion. After the 2003 referendum, METRO – just like cities, counties, and school districts around the country – was hit with unprecedented increases in construction costs as the global economy boomed. Then in 2008 the economy crashed, dramatically reducing the sales tax revenue we use to fund transit. By 2010, sales tax revenue was 16% below projections, and while it’s rising again now, we don’t expect it to get back to the pre-2008 projections for 20 years or more.

METRO is being open and transparent about the decision we face. The 2003 referendum required that we call a vote by this year to answer the question of whether general mobility payments will continue. Simply the fact that the voters will be able to decide this issue is unusual in the world of transportation; you won’t find highway expansions on the ballot, and nobody has ever required that the City of Houston or Harris County get specific taxpayer approval for every road they plan to widen. But METRO is going beyond just letting the voters decide at the ballot by giving the public a chance to have input on what goes on the ballot. We’re going beyond that. We have already held two public meetings – one of which ran for nearly 4 hours – to get input, on what should be on the ballot and we’ll be scheduling more public meetings before adopting ballot language in August.

Since Annise Parker appointed 5 new board members in 2010, we’ve put METRO’s financial house in order, securing $900 million in federal funding for new rail lines, cutting costs, and paying down debt, all while continuing to replace 100 aging buses a year and budgeting to keep our facilities in a state of good repair. We are also being unprecedently transparent: every check we issue is posted online; we’ve issued a 200-page budget book that details what we spend and why; and video of every board meeting and every committee meeting is posted online.

METRO is working together with local stakeholders to solve this problem locally, not leave it to Austin or Washington. We’ve heard from many people telling us that all of METRO’s sales tax should go to transit. We’ve heard from others, especially representatives of the smaller cities, who say that 25% — or more – should continue to go to roads. We’ve also heard suggestions for compromise, including a proposal from board chair Gilbert Garcia to freeze General Mobility at the dollar amount it will reach in 2014, with the growth in sales tax revenue above that amount going to transit. Based on all that input, we will put a clear, simple proposition on the ballot, and it will be for the voters to decide. I have already heard people stand before the board and tell us that, if they did not agree with the wording of the proposition on the ballot, or if the voters decided didn’t vote the right way, they would go to the Texas legislature to invalidate the result. That’s simply unacceptable. This is our region’s money, not the Texas legislature’s or Congress’.

We need to be clear about what’s at stake here: we are making a decision about the future of our region. We are deciding about the future of transit in Houston; the outcome will decide how many of us have the option to use high quality transit. This is not some abstract discussion about funding formulas; it is a decision about what options Houstonians will have to get to work, school, and all the other places they need to go in their day-to-day lives for decades to come. If General Mobility continues at 25%, we will not be able to significantly expand transit service – be it
local bus, park-and-ride, Bus Rapid Transit, streetcar, commuter rail, or light rail – for a decade or more, even as the population continues to grow. The next new light rail line – the one the voters voted to open by 2012 – would not start construction until 2028 or 2030. The impacts of such a delay on our region’s economy, our mobility, and the quality of our day-to-day lives are huge. If General Mobility were to expire with the current contracts in 2014, we could see significant bus expansion by 2015 and start more rail by 2018. We are deciding about the future of transit in Houston. The outcome of this year’s General Mobility referendum will decide how many of us have the option to use high quality transit.

Christof Spieler is a licensed professional engineer who has written and spoken extensively on transit and urban planning. He was appointed to Metro’s Board of Directors by Mayor Parker in 2010.

Culberson’s Univesity Line attack makes it through the House

Great.

It's all on KBH now

Advocates of federally subsidized expansion of the Houston Metro light rail system lost a crucial round to Houston Congressman John Culberson on Friday, leaving dwindling opportunities to overturn spending restrictions on the Richmond Avenue project.

The House adopted a $51.6 billion spending measure on a 261-163 vote that included Culberson’s ban on federal spending for any Metro expansion along Richmond Avenue and Post Oak Boulevard. The measure also requires an in-depth audit of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County by the inspector general of the Department of Transportation.

In a boost for Metro, the spending package included $200 million in 2013 to support continued work on the lines in the North Corridor and Southeast Corridor.

[…]

The House vote left Metro supporters holding their fire and looking to deliberations by a House-Senate conference committee later this year to make the final decision on a ban included in the House bill but not included in the Senate version.

“We will await the outcome of the normal process in the House and Senate,” said Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “We remain hopeful that Congress will respect the wishes of local voters on local issues, as is normally the case.”

Robin Holzer, of the pro-Metro Citizens Transportation Coalition, said voters and civic organizations have voiced strong support for light rail construction along both Richmond Avenue and Post Oak Boulevard.

“Culberson is pandering to a handful of his supporters at the long-term expense of this district,” Holzer said. “Marketing himself as “Letting Texans run Texas,” while pushing his personal anti-rail agenda in Washington is ironic.”

Retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, will be squarely in the middle of any House-Senate negotiations on Culberson’s spending restriction.

Point of clarification here, the CTC is pro-transit, not pro-Metro. If you don’t get the distinction, go look up some of the things Metro was doing when Frank Wilson was CEO. Despite Culberson loading up KBH’s office with his baloney about Metro and rail expansion, I think there’s a decent chance that KBH will do the right thing. But now would be a very good time to contact her office and let her know that she needs to step up and support transit in Houston. Call 713 653 3456 or 202 224 5922, send email from here, write on her Facebook wall, or send her a tweet. Be nice, be respectful, and be clear.

Long term, the only solution is to elect a new member of Congress. To that end, it would be nice if the two Democratic contenders for the nomination in CD07 could take a few minutes out of their busy schedule of sniping at each other and maybe put out a press release on this or something. It would also be nice if the business interests in Greenway Plaza that support the University Line would say something about this. Barring a significant change in the Congressional map resulting from the DC Court’s long-awaited ruling on redistricting, the best chance of getting an upgrade in CD07 is going to be in the Republican primary. That’s not going to happen as long as these folks refuse to rock the boat. Until we all get on the same page here, Culberson will continue his crusade to nullify the 2003 referendum and ensure Houston is unable to move forward as a competitive 21st century city.

Can we please call a critic a critic?

Metro had a public meeting on Thursday to address the question of the diversion of transit funds to cities for road projects, which is expected to be a referendum topic this fall. The Chron has a story about the meeting that contains the following facepalm-inducing paragraphs:

Resident Thomas Bazan said many residents don’t support the rail lines under construction that are absorbing millions of Metro’s dollars.

“Metro has poisoned the well of the public,” Bazan said. “Unaccountable bureaucrats have diverted our precious tax resources away from improving the bus system in favor of an unsafe and unreliable at-grade tram line on Main Street. Metro has failed to honor a 50 percent increase in bus service promised in the 2003 referendum.”

I don’t know who Chron reporter Renee Lee is, but apparently she is unfamiliar with the players in this game. Tom Bazan, as a passing familiarity with Metro or 30 seconds on Google could tell you, is a longtime Metro critic and zealous opponent of light rail. He’s one of the dedicated cranks in this town who have been trying to overturn the 2003 referendum on the grounds that it doesn’t say what they say it says. Quoting him being critical of Metro and light rail is like quoting a Red Sox fan being critical of the Yankees. Not identifying him for who and what he is borders on journalistic malpractice.

Beyond that, the story does deal give some feedback from Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen and Houston City Council member Stephen Costello, both of whom urged the Metro board to continue dedicating some portion of its sales tax receipts to road projects. While there is some push to dedicate all of the funds to transit, in part to correct a longstanding imbalance, I don’t think that’s likely to be on the table, and if it were it would be more challenging to pass at the ballot box. I believe Metro will propose some change in the allocation to give transit a boost, and that will most likely be fine. I will say that I have heard stories about cities receiving more funds than they can actually use on road projects, and that some cities have used these funds for general revenue purposes. I don’t have any specifics and I don’t know if there’s more to this than just anecdote, but I would advocate for more transparency on how these funds are used. This should be Metro’s responsibility to track and report, and for all I know they already do this. All I can say is that if they do it’s not something I’ve ever seen publicized or highlighted. Point being, whatever we decide to do with the mobility funds, we should know exactly how they’re spent and what we’re getting out of it. I think that’s an outcome that even a persistent critic would support.

Precinct analysis: The 2011 Mayor’s race

I finally have a draft canvass of the 2011 Harris County vote. You know what that means. Here’s the breakdown in the Council districts for the Mayor’s race:

Dist Simms Ullman Wilson Herrera Parker O'Connor ===================================================== A 4.41% 1.28% 16.31% 18.03% 41.89% 18.09% B 22.41% 3.02% 11.92% 12.71% 43.80% 6.14% C 1.65% 0.83% 9.11% 11.21% 65.38% 11.83% D 15.33% 2.63% 11.07% 11.67% 50.84% 8.45% E 2.48% 0.81% 18.23% 15.03% 38.25% 25.20% F 5.20% 2.15% 10.81% 13.48% 48.78% 19.59% G 1.49% 0.51% 12.16% 9.43% 50.50% 25.91% H 6.04% 2.09% 7.70% 29.48% 47.33% 7.36% I 5.95% 2.47% 8.82% 29.98% 44.68% 8.10% J 5.82% 2.15% 13.27% 13.97% 50.05% 14.74% K 9.62% 1.99% 10.29% 11.00% 56.63% 10.47%

For comparison purposes, here’s my analysis of the 2009 Mayoral runoff. A couple of thoughts:

– As expected, Mayor Parker had her best showing in her District C stronghold, but let’s be honest: 65% against a bunch of no-names is nothing to write home about. Even on her friendliest turf, she failed to top the Lee Brown line. This is what I mean when I say that her problems begin with a lack of enthusiasm in her base. That needs to be Job One for her political team.

– All things considered, Parker did pretty well in the African-American districts, certainly compared to her 2009 head-to-head with Gene Locke. Obviously, not having a top tier African American candidate opposing her helped, but at least she can say she got a lot more support in these areas than before.

– On the flipside, the Mayor lost a lot of support in Republican areas, though she maintained a (slim) majority of the vote in District G. While there were no A listers among them, the fact that there were three conservative Republicans running against her was certainly a contributor. Seeing this makes me wonder why Republicans didn’t back Roy Morales more strongly in 2009. He’s no worse a candidate than any of the three Rs this time around were, and he’d run citywide before.

– The results in district H and I should concern Team Parker. How much of that was genuine dissatisfaction with the Mayor, and how much was Latinos voting Herrera’s name plus a lack of engagement from the Parker campaign? In my neighborhood, I saw a lot more Herrera signs than I did Parker signs. No question that a lot of the former was driven by the issues we’ve discussed before, but the latter I suspect was mostly about lack of outreach. I spend a lot of time in District C, and I barely saw any Parker signs there. What, other than run some TV ads, was her campaign team doing to reach out to voters?

– Looking at this, I wonder if the strategy of squeezing Parker out by running an African-American and a Republican against her – say, Ben Hall and Paul Bettencourt – would really have worked. I’ve no doubt that Hall could have taken a chunk of African-American votes away from Parker, but it’s not clear to me that Bettencourt had much room to improve on the performance of the three Republicans. For one thing, if you replace Wilson, O’Connor, and Herrera with Bettencourt, I’d bet he’d lose some of the Latino votes Herrera got in Districts I and J. He might do better in District G than the non-Parkers did, but maybe not. It’s also possible that the presence of a polarizing figure like Bettencourt, combined with the possibility that she might actually lose to this partisan, conservative Republican, could galvanize the Democratic vote in the Mayor’s favor. It’s anybody’s guess who would benefit from higher turnout, but I don’t think it would strongly favor any one candidate. I think the odds are very good that a Parker-Bettencourt-Hall race winds up in a runoff – Parker had very little margin for error, after all – but I think the most likely ordering would be Parker, then Bettencourt, then Hall – remember, it was Sylvester Turner that got squeezed out in 2003, not Bill White. In that scenario, I’d make Parker a solid favorite in the runoff. Ironically, if she went on to post a decent win in that hypothetical runoff, say 55-45, she might then have been perceived as stronger than she is right now. You can drive yourself crazy thinking about these things.

I’m sure I’ll have more things to say about this as I keep thinking about it. For now, this is what we have. I’ll run the numbers for the At Large races next. Greg has more.

Turnout is only half the story

One other thing that I noticed while compiling the data for the elections from a bygone era is something that I never hear about whenever the turnout level in city elections gets bemoaned is the number of registered voters in the city of Houston. A quick check shows that this is definitely a factor:

Year Houston RV Harris RV Hou % ==================================== 2009 935,073 1,881,112 49.7% 2007 912,888 1,799,757 50.7% 2005 964,551 1,849,820 52.1% 2003 955,205 1,506,629 63.4% 2001 1,006,301 1,837,714 54.8% 1999 1,223,998 1,725,372 70.9% 1997 1,212,937 1,680,542 72.2%

There were nearly 300,000 fewer registered voters in the city of Houston for the 2009 election than there were in 1997, which as we saw was a high water mark for Mayoral contests. To put that in perspective, if the turnout rate in 2009 had been 28.2% as it was in 1997, total turnout in 2009 would have been 263,691, which is nearly 80,000 fewer votes than there were in 1997. To get to 342,099 total voters as we did in 1997, turnout in 2009 would have to have been 36.6%, which is higher than it was for the 2006, 2002, and 1998 statewide elections. Conversely, the 19.12% turnout we had in 2009 would translate to 231,914 voters, less than 50,000 more than what we had in 2009.

The question is why turnout has dropped so much in Houston. I’m sure the Harris County Tax Assessor’s tireless efforts to rid the voter rolls of anyone they deem ineligible is part of it, but I’m also sure it’s more than that. I’d guess it’s largely out-migration from Houston to the rest of Harris County and elsewhere, with the population that Houston has gained as replacement having a greater concentration of people who are not eligible to vote. I’ll have to defer to Greg on the question of Houston’s historic CVAP numbers, but I’d bet it’s been on a downward trend. Add that to what I’d suppose is a slight upward trend in the number of eligible but unregistered voters, and here you are.

Now clearly, there’s more to it than just this. Voter reg numbers in 2003 were similar to that of 2009, yet turnout in 2003 was much higher. (I have no idea why the Harris County registration numbers were so abnormally low that year. Given the bounceback in 2005, my guess is the reported number was simply wrong.) I don’t have a good explanation for that, nor do I have a hunch yet for whether the 2009 race will be seen as an anomaly or the new normal. What I am saying is that if you want to understand why turnout numbers in city elections are lower now than they were for many elections in the 1990s, there are two factors you cannot overlook: Lower voter registration numbers, and the lack of high profile city charter referenda.

Tort “reform” is still a scam

I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

A national report released Wednesday says the 2003 Texas law that limited damage awards in malpractice suits has caused health care spending to rise and has not significantly increased the number of doctors in Texas.

[…]

The 24-page report by Public Citizen, “A Failed Experiment,” says that using Texas as a model would benefit doctors and insurers — not residents.

The report claims that Medicare spending in Texas has risen faster than the national average, and so have private health insurance premiums. It also says that, contrary to Perry’s claims, the per capita increase in the number of doctors practicing in the state has been much slower since the state passed the so-called tort reform law than it was before the law.

Organizations that support the 2003 law — the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Alliance for Patient Access — disputed the report’s assertions on the number of physicians who have come to the state. As for health care costs, “we never said consumer costs would go down,” Jon Opelt, the alliance’s executive director, said Wednesday.

You can see the Public Citizen press release here, and the full report here. I wish I had done enough blogging on the 2003 tort “reform” issue to take a crack at evaluating Opelt’s claim that no one promised this would help consumers, but I didn’t so I can’t. It sure sounds bogus to me, and I don’t believe him for a minute. I distinctly remember seeing pro-tort “reform” propaganda in the waiting room of our obstetrician around the time of the vote, and while I can’t remember exactly what it said, I’m sure it promised some benefits to the voting public. Anyway, while I can’t directly judge that claim I can say that the pro-tort “reform” side did make some outlandishly exaggerated promises about insurance rate reductions for doctors that they later tried to walk back. The Public Citizen report notes that insurance costs have eased a bit for doctors since 2003, but not that much. Anyway, check it out for yourself, and if you have any clearer memories – or better yet, evidence you can point to – about what the tort “reform” crowd said would happen if we all gave the insurance lobby a pony, leave a comment and let us know.

The 70 Percent Solution

Where have I heard this before?

November’s election really is about 2013, said lawyer, lobbyist and blogger Robert Miller. He speculates that the mayor needs to win big against low-profile opponents in November to discourage stronger candidates from running against her as she seeks a final term in 2013.

“If she looks weak, blood attracts sharks into the water,” Miller said.

Bill White and Bob Lanier never had a close call in their re-elections. But Lee Brown’s 67 percent of the vote in 1999 against weak candidates, by Miller’s thinking, attracted strong enough opposition two years later that Brown was forced into a runoff to keep his office.

Sounds familiar, but I just can’t quite place it.

You get the point. I still believe the true consensus among the “chattering class of political insiders” won’t be truly set in stone till the election results are in, but it never hurts to get out in front of these things.

More angst over May elections

The Star Telegram adds to the litany of woe surrounding the upcoming changes to the state’s elections calendar.

Over three months, some voters would face a primary, followed by city and school elections, followed by primary runoffs, followed by city and school runoffs. And then, of course, the statewide and national general election next November.

“We have overlapping election cycles, and I am very concerned that voters are going to be confused,” Tarrant County Republican Party Chairwoman Stephanie Klick said. “With that confusion, it may impact turnout.”

“There’s going to be a lot of confusion,” agreed Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Maxwell. “You’ve got three elections that voters are showing up for in the space of about eight weeks.”

[…]

In Tarrant County, cities including Arlington, Haltom City and Keller and school districts including Fort Worth typically hold May elections in even-numbered years. Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn originally told those entities that he didn’t have enough voting equipment to handle both the nonpartisan elections and the primary runoffs in May.

Almost immediately, officials with several local entities made clear that they didn’t like their options. Moving elections to November would mean placing nonpartisan and partisan races on the same ballot, a shift that some worry may negatively affect the tone of the nonpartisan races.

Holding elections only in May of odd-numbered years, as cities including Fort Worth do, also poses problems, especially for entities that stagger their council terms so that only some seats are on the ballot each year.

Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes said that he has heard from almost all the cities in his Northeast Tarrant precinct and that they are against moving their election dates.

“I see some real problems with forcing our government entities to change their elections,” Fickes said at a recent meeting.

I’m not exactly sure what the problems are with holding elections only in May of odd-numbered years. One presumes they would have existed before now but were somehow coped with; the point is that the issue of primary runoffs being too close to them would not arise. Frankly, for any affected city that has two or four year municipal terms, I’d say that’s the best solution if moving those elections to November is undesirable. Cities whose Council terms are three years, like Austin, remain screwed, but you can’t have everything.

For what it’s worth, as recently as the 2003-2004 election cycle, the uniform election calendar was much busier than it is now. There were uniform election dates in January and September – the constitutional amendment election of 2003 was held in September instead of November because the Republicans that were pushing the tort “reform” amendment on that year’s ballot didn’t want it to take place at the same time as a high-turnout city of Houston Mayoral election – with special elections and runoffs occurring in December, February and April. Go see the SOS Election Results page and look at all of the elections that took place between the 2002 general and the 2004 primaries. The 2005 Lege cut all this back to the May/November with March primaries calendar we know now; at the time people fretted about how long it could take to fill legislative vacancies and stuffing too many elections onto the May and November ballots. The point I’m making is that we adjusted to that change, and we’ll eventually adjust to this one. It’ll be more painful (and expensive) some places than others, but we’ll figure it out.

May elections

As we know, the Lege passed a bill that would have the effect of moving the date for primary runoffs into May. This is causing heartburn for cities like Austin that hold their municipal elections in May of even numbered years.

The proposal would give U.S. troops deployed overseas more time to receive and mail back their ballots in party primary elections. The change is mandated by a federal law passed in 2009 .

But in a sort of domino effect, Texas would wind up holding more elections in May than some counties can handle, said Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir , who is legislative liaison for the County and District Clerks Association of Texas.

In the case of Travis County, DeBeauvoir said, her office could not run Austin’s May 2012 election.

“There wouldn’t be much of a choice,” DeBeauvoir said. “We do not have the time and resources to run the city’s election and satisfy the new requirements for the state primaries.”

That would probably force Austin to move the May 2012 election to November. Voters usually have to approve such a change, but the legislation allows the City Council to make that call. City Council members up for re-election in May, in addition to Leffingwell, are Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman.

[…]

Austin and many other Texas cities hold municipal and school board elections in May to ensure they aren’t lost amid the higher-profile state and federal races.

For the past 30 years, only about 35,000 or so people have voted consistently in Austin city elections, even as the city’s population has swelled, said Peck Young, a longtime Austin political observer. Turnout is now abysmal, with somewhere between 7 percent and 13 percent of the registered voters showing up to the polls. Energized neighborhood groups, environmental activists and some Democratic clubs hold outsize influence. Slightly more than 7 percent of Austin’s registered voters cast ballots in this year’s May election.

A November 2012 election, by contrast, would be paired with a presidential contest and state races. If history is any guide, it would draw a much larger pool of voters, including the younger ones who turned out in force for Barack Obama in 2008, Republicans eager to vote against Obama and casual voters who don’t pay close attention to city politics.

In 2008, 65 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots.

“Austin is still going to be a very blue city,” political consultant Mark Littlefield said. “What changes is that a few small but politically important groups that are very influential in May may be somewhat less so in November. They’re still important, but not the be-all, end-all. Who that change favors, I’m not sure.”

Young said a November election would be decided by voters who don’t pay attention to city issues.

“Judging by the turnout in local elections, most people in Austin don’t know or care who’s on the City Council,” he said. “If the candidates don’t have high enough name ID — and I think only the mayor might, because of the media attention — this becomes the electoral equivalent of throwing darts. Holding the election in November is the stupidest idea I’ve heard this year, and it shouldn’t happen because we’re too cheap to fund elections.”

For comparison purposes, here are turnout numbers for Houston elections in recent years:

2001 general – 28.3%
2001 runoff – 31.5%
2003 general – 31.2%
2003 runoff – 22.7%
2005 general – 19.6%
2005 runoff – 4.0%
2007 general – 13.5%
2007 runoff – 2.7%
2009 general – 19.1%
2009 runoff – 16.5%

Outside of the 2005 and 2007 runoffs, which had no Mayoral races and only a few Council contests, our turnout is considerably better. The 2005 election had no Mayoral race, but that was the year that the Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment was on the ballot. Both the 2007 and 2009 elections were considered to be disappointing for turnout. All a matter of perspective, obviously.

I was going to ask why not move Austin’s elections to odd numbered years, like Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas (among others) have, but Austin City Council members serve three-year terms. I believe Fort Worth has the same issue. Given that, I don’t know what the best answer is. I’m just glad we don’t have to deal with that here.

Apparently we do have an opponent for the Mayor

Deputy Fire Chief Fernando Herrera, who had previously said he was 95% sure he wasn’t running for Mayor, has now decided that he will in fact run for Mayor.

Houston Fire Department Deputy Chief Fernando Herrera plans to formally announce his candidacy for mayor on Thursday, according to a press release.

In his press release he says he can steer the city out of its budget mess without layoffs, furloughs or cuts in city services that would compromise public safety. At the same time, he says in the release, ”Nor should we put the burden on taxpayers, homeowners and businesses with tax increases, fees, or costly regulations.”

Herrera was not available Tuesday to explain how he would close a $130 million budget gap without raising fees or laying off employees, whose salaries and benefits account for the vast majority of the budget. Herrera could not spend time on political activity while on duty for the fire department Tuesday, a campaign aide explained.

Sadly, I’m not on his press release distribution list, so I can’t tell you what else he said. I did discuss his budget ideas before, and let’s just say that if you rule out raising revenue and cutting costs it can be difficult to bridge a budget gap. Maybe he’ll talk about some other ideas when he formally announces, like voucherizing Medicare or something.

Whatever. As a Republican, he’s guaranteed to get a certain amount of support, and maybe he’ll pull some Latino votes from Mayor Parker. I’ll be very interested to see what his June campaign finance report looks like. In the meantime, remember that just because someone says they’re running doesn’t mean they’ll run – see, for instance, Michael Berry’s Mayoral campaign of 2003. Until the filing deadline passes, anything can happen.

Hey, big secret spender

I know you’re as shocked as I am to learn that there are unknown entities spending large quantities of money in this election.

Campaign finance watchdogs say the tactic conceals important information about who is backing a political cause, but both groups insist they have followed the law and anonymity had nothing to do with their rationale for setting up as nonprofits.

“We are plunging deep into scandal,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance reform advocate for Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy organization. “Without disclosure, we have no idea where this money is coming from and no way to determine whether it’s legal or illegal. You could have drug cartels investing in an election on the Texas border, wanting to soften the laws, and there would be no way to know it.”

[…]

The national trend has manifested itself locally this year with two groups: King Street Patriots, an advocacy organization that was accused by Democrats this week of being responsible for complaints of voter intimidation at minority precincts; and Renew Houston, the driving force behind a ballot initiative asking voters to pay for a 20-year, $8 billion infrastructure program for the city.

Both organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code as “social welfare” organizations, which by tax law requires that at least 51 percent of their spending be dedicated to non-political purposes such as education. The use of that designation also exempts them, under federal law, from having to disclose donors.

The Texas Democratic Party on Monday said that under Texas law, King Street Patriots, due to the nature of its political advocacy, should be registered as a political committee, which would require that its donors be publicly disclosed. The party said it would include the group in a lawsuit over allegations of illegal election practices.

“You can spend all the money you want in Texas on political speech, you’ve just got to tell people who’s paying for it,” said Chad Dunn, general counsel of the Texas Democratic Party. “But when you have the King Street Patriots out there doing what they’re doing on the side, it’s all in the dark.”

The US Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove are leading the way on this. The Chamber has been arguing that it should be allowed to continue to shield the identity of its donors because some of them might face criticism and bad publicity for doing so. Who knew they were all such delicate flowers? Seems to me that’s a pretty good argument for them to not make such donations, but what do I know?

While the amount of money being sloshed about is unprecedented, it’s not like we’ve never seen this sort of thing before. Remember Texans for True Mobility? How about those anonymous attack mailers against Adrian Garcia in 2003? The only difference between then and now is the level of brazenness, and the size of the checks.

It’s unfortunate to see the Prop 1 campaign lumped in with these other groups on this story, since they did the right thing and disclosed their donors when they weren’t required to, and became an official PAC when they switched from getting on the ballot to advocacy mode. They’ve had some other issues with their campaign, but they got this right.

The tasks before the new Metro board

The new Metro board has its work cut out for it.

Gilbert Garcia, the financial analyst nominated by Mayor Annise Parker Thursday as Metro’s new board chairman, said the controversies won’t prevent him and his colleagues from proceeding diligently with Metro’s business.

“My job is to get us back on mission,” Garcia said. “With a new administration, this is an excellent time to focus on really increasing customer service.”

The challenges the board will face include improving bus service, continuing work on three light rail lines and coming up with the money for two more, and launching a new commuter rail project.

The board will be tasked with doing all this amid a challenging economic environment and skepticism in some quarters that Metro’s priorities, particularly light-rail, represent the best use of its assets.

It’s been a rough couple of months for Metro, and the new board’s task list is long, but I feel confident they’re up to it. Improving communications, which is key to repairing relationships with various stakeholders, is probably job one, and it seems clear that a change of CEO will help with that. I’ve seen the transition team’s report, and much of what they talk about flows from this. It’ll be interesting to see what’s on their agenda next month for their first official meeting.

(If you haven’t seen the transition team’s report – I couldn’t find it on the city of Houston web page – I’ve got the main docs uploaded:

Report of the Committee on Regional Transportation

Report of the Light Rail Punchlist Committee

Report of the Funding Structure Committee

Report of the Basic Services Committee)

The story also contains a quote from Bill King’s latest anti-rail screed, which was published in Sunday’s paper. It’s basically another lecture from a rail opponent telling us that the 2003 referendum means what he says it means. I’m not sure why some people want to keep arguing about that after all these years, but maybe the new board will listen to him. But because I can’t help myself, I’ll say this much: We’ve spent a ton of money in recent years, and will spend a ton more in the coming years, making it easier to get to and from the far-flung suburbs. The light rail system represents the first thing the city has done since I first moved here that makes it easier for those of us who spend most of our time getting around inside the Loop to do so. I say the latter is as much a priority and a need as the former. I don’t see why that’s so hard to understand, or why it seems to represent such a threat to some people.

Parker expresses doubt about University and Uptown lines

This is not the sort of thing I want to see.

Mayor Annise Parker cast doubt Wednesday on whether the Metropolitan Transit Authority has the money to pay for two planned light-rail lines that proponents say are critical to the success of the agency’s plans.

Parker said members of her transition team have “drilled down” into Metro’s finances and she now feels comfortable only with the funding plans of three rail lines: the East End, North and Southeast. Construction on those lines is under way.

Parker’s goal is to make sure those three lines are built “very, very rapidly,” she said. The other two, the Uptown and University lines, “are lines that I want to see built, but until we can finalize all the numbers, and some of them are still moving, I’m not going to commit to whether that is possible.”

The difference between building the two U lines and not building them is the difference between having a fully functional rail transit system and having a few light rail lines. Among other things, the various commuter rail lines that are being talked about will be far less useful if you can’t continue riding rail into places like Greenway Plaza and the Galleria. The University line is the linchpin, as David Crossley put it, and not having it would leave a gaping hole.

Having said all that, it’s a little early to panic. The University line is an excellent bet to receive federal funds, which will help a lot. If you listened to my interview with John Breeding of the Uptown Management District, he believed the Uptown Line was at least five years away, perhaps more like ten, and it’s likely that the financial picture will be quite different by then. And of course there’s the matter of the 2003 referendum, in which the voters approved building these lines. You’d think there will be some pressure to finish the job.

Responding to Parker’s comments, [Metro Board Chair David] Wolff said he believed the agency’s funding plan is feasible, although he was happy to discuss the matter further with the mayor.

Metro confirmed this week that it intends to issue $2.6 billion in bonds in the next few years, about four times the amount of debt approved by voters in 2003, to finance its rail plans. The agency said voter approval of the bonds is not necessary.

Wolff said Metro will be able to pay down the bonds it will have to issue for the University and Uptown lines and remains confident that the remaining puzzle piece — an additional $700 million in federal funding — will be approved by the Federal Transit Administration.

The bond question was the subject of a story from yesterday in which we get the usual treatment of someone who is not a rail supporter trying to tell the rest of us what the referendum really said. I’ll simply note here that that point was not addressed by Mayor Parker and leave it at that until we see what the transition team has to say.