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Election 2019

It always comes down to fluoride

I swear, it’s at the root of most election conspiracy fantasies.

Laura Pressley and three other people huddled inside a Fredericksburg courtroom Monday, bowing their heads, closing their eyes, holding hands, and beginning to pray in hushed voices.

“In Jesus’ name, Amen,” the group whispered, just moments before the trial was set to begin in their lawsuit contesting the results of a three-year-old city election.

Their prayers appear to have gone unanswered. On Monday, almost immediately after arguments concluded, 216th District Court Judge Stephen Ables denied the relief they sought. He would not, he said, overturn the election.

“I had to make a finding that these ‘irregularities’ changed the results of the election,” he said. “I don’t think I have the basis to do that.”

The lawsuit was filed against Fredericksburg’s former mayor in early 2020 by poll watcher and anti-fluoride activist Jeannette Hormuth and local election judge Jerry Farley of Fredericksburg. The suit claimed election malfeasance in connection with the defeat of a 2019 proposal to remove fluoride from the city’s water system. Pressley’s Austin-based attorney, Roger Borgelt, represented Hormuth and Farley in court Monday.

It is the latest in a string of court losses for Pressley, a long-time Central Texas anti-fluoride activist, conspiracy theorist, perennial candidate for office, and self-styled trainer for poll watchers who even has her own state political action committee. This year alone, the Texas Supreme Court has dismissed at least two lawsuits she filed against the secretary of state, in which she claims the office isn’t following election law. This pattern, election experts and advocates say, promotes misinformation, wastes resources, and could further harm the election process.

“You see this maneuver among these fringe conspiratorial organizations where a lot of times they say that ‘there’s reason to believe that there’s fraud’ in the election system, but what they point to are, at worst, deviations from procedure,” said James Slattery, senior attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project’s voting rights program. “This is merely one tactic in that broader strategy to undermine faith in elections.”

See here and here fore more Gillespie County shenanigans. Many years ago, I wrote about my first encounter with Texas politics, a 1985 referendum in San Antonio to finally add fluoride to their city’s water, which went down to defeat thanks to some local weirdos and a lot of fearmongering. The more things change, and all that. I think my headline for that post is one of my better efforts.

Still, while I remain capable of being somewhat amused by these characters, there are real world effects outside of good dental hygiene that they can have, and they’re just as bad for us:

One lawsuit, tossed out by a judge last month, sought to direct the secretary of state to retract advice the office gave counties about the use of randomly numbered ballots. Borgelt told Votebeat he’d already filed a motion for a rehearing on the decision.

Experts have time and time again said the practice Pressley’s allies advocate — consecutively numbering ballots — could facilitate election fraud. Consecutively numbered ballots could also more easily make voters identifiable, and aren’t necessary for audits.

Putting my cybersecurity hat on for a moment, using sequential numbers like this is a known vulnerability for databases that could allow for entire datasets to be easily stolen. Any code that involved secure data that did this would flunk an audit. So maybe we shouldn’t be taking suggestions about election security from known crackpots. I’m just saying.

SCOTx to rule on the HISD takeover lawsuit

This feels like something from another era.

The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments on a yearslong case over whether the Texas Education Agency has the authority to remove all of the Houston school district’s board members and temporarily replace them with a state-appointed board. At the center of the hearing was the impact of a law that updated the education code last year and that TEA lawyers argued cleared the path to implement the agency’s plan.

The state’s highest court took the case nearly two years after the Third District Court of Appeals sided with the Houston Independent School District and upheld a temporary injunction barring TEA Commissioner Mike Morath from taking over the board in response to the continued low performance of HISD’s Phillis Wheatley High School as well as allegations of misconduct by trustees.

The current HISD board will remain in office as long as the injunction stands. If the court were to eventually side with the TEA and overturn the injunction, state education officials could install a new board, which in turn could vote to terminate the HISD lawsuit.

[…]

Appealing the decision during oral arguments Thursday, TEA’s attorney Kyle Highful said that factoring major updates to the Texas Education Code introduced by Senate Bill 1365, which was passed last year, would “greatly simplify” the case.

For instance, appeals court justices previously ruled that Delaney’s time overseeing Kashmere High School did not count toward her time as a district-level conservator, so the state had yet to meet the two-year requirement of having a district-level conservator to trigger state law. Highful said this new law has now removed the distinction between campus-level and district-level conservators.

He also noted that while Wheatley High School has recently earned a passing grade, the school had seen years of consecutive failures beforehand.

“The court should go ahead and take the opportunity to resolve this dispute now both for judicial economy because the case has been moving up and down through the courts for several years,” Highful said, “and because the HISD students are still in need of state intervention.”

In response, HISD’s attorney David Campbell said it would be appropriate to remand the case for a trial court to consider changes to the temporary injunction based on the new law.

But he stressed that the current temporary injunction had been in place for almost three years, adding that HISD was ready to “move expeditiously” and make a case for a permanent injunction in 2020. On the other hand, he said there has been limited ability to update their arguments to take into account the new law.

“We have not tried to delay things in any way. If we could have developed facts under the new law, we would have. We haven’t been given that opportunity, because the case has been on appeal,” Campbell said.

The original talk about taking over HISD began in 2017 and was accelerated by an ethics investigation into the actions of several HISD trustees, nearly all of whom are no longer on the Board. The lawsuit by HISD was filed in 2019 and it argued that the TEA did not follow the law in doing the takeover, as noted in the story. HISD won the injunction in state court after being denied in federal court, and last year the Supreme Court ruled that the appellate court had the power to impose the injunction for while the suit was being litigated. And so here we are.

The TEA is now arguing that because the law in question that the TEA didn’t follow correctly has been changed by the Legislature so that the TEA would meet its requirements now, the takeover can proceed. HISD is basically saying that there’s no longer a need for a takeover since the two schools in question are both meeting state standards, but if we have to consider the new law then the case should go back to the district court and be re-heard with the new facts. The questioning from SCOTx seems to indicate that this might be where they go with this. In addition, as the Chron story notes, there’s another factor to consider:

It’s also important for the justices to consider that it was a mostly different board and superintendent in charge when talks of a take over began, said Duncan Klussman, an assistant clinical professor with the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department at University of Houston.

“The system has many new board members and completely new leadership is in place,” Klussmann said. “My feeling is that at this stage this is really about whether the commissioner really has the authority to do this.”

Yes, that’s the same Duncan Klussman who’s running for CD38. The argument that the Board is different now was also made by two then-newly elected Trustees, Judith Cruz and Dani Hernandez, who had just defeated the two main players in that ethics incident. Two more of the trustees involved were defeated in 2021; only one of the five named in the complaint is still on the Board. Other trustees are new since 2019 as well. If nothing else, if the TEA does get to step in, they should put the Trustees who weren’t on the Board then on their appointed Board. That would seem to be a reasonable compromise if it comes to that, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First the Supreme Court has to decide what to do with this appeal. After that, if it’s relevant, we can argue about what comes next.

More on the planning for the University BRT line

Yes, Metro has to make some predictions about where transit will be needed. Building a line that goes through some of the densest parts of town probably helps with that.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials told voters in 2019 “we have a plan for traffic,” and more than two-thirds of those who cast ballots bought in.

Now that the plan is coming into focus, agency officials will need more than just good ideas to make the lines they have drawn on a map a reality.

The challenge for Metro is picking routes and lines for the future when travel patterns constantly change and economic factors can upend commutes. Even with $7.5 billion in local and federal funding plotted, Metro can only do one or two major projects at a time. Picking the first steps in some ways influences whether the agency can avoid lingering concerns about transit leaders’ ability to deliver big projects.

Officials admit much of their plan is an educated guess, but still a guess about how Houstonians will want to get around in the years to come.

“It is not possible for us to be future-proof, but it is possible to be future-ready,” Metro board chair Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

[…]

The long-range plan for transit in Houston, estimated to cost $7.5 billion, spans the entire region, including 75 miles of bus rapid transit, two-way HOV or HOT lanes for park and ride buses along all major freeways and plans for extending light rail to Hobby Airport.

While things such as shelters at hundreds of Metro’s 8,900 bus stops and improved sidewalks along major routes already are in progress, the first big-ticket project on Metro’s list is the University Line. It is among the longest bus rapid transit lines planned in the nation, connecting a dozen of the region’s major transit hubs and roughly 20 neighborhoods, using large buses that stop at stations and act more like light rail than conventional bus service.

The buses use their own lanes along major streets, in some cases taking lanes now open to car and truck drivers, to avoid traffic and offer access to about 40 stops along the 25.3 mile route. It is about one-third of the dedicated lanes Metro wants to build, and along with a planned BRT line along Interstate 10 forms the two east-west transit backbones that join the light rail system downtown and the Silver Line BRT through Uptown.

Transit advocates have called the line critical to linking Houston neighborhoods clamoring for better, faster transit to the job centers and educational opportunities abounding in the region.

“If we can get 5 to 10 percent of the region using transit, that is going to make life better for the 90-95 percent,” Ramabhadran said.

See here for some background, and look for a detailed description of the route embedded in the story. This BRT route will connect with all of the existing light rail lines as well as the Uptown BRT line, and will later connect with the Energy Corridor BRT line that’s also on the drawing board (see page 2). I will never get over the fact that we could right now already have an operational Universities light rail line, but there’s nothing to be done about that. I do see the same old critics making their same old tired arguments in this story, and all I can say is that I hope they have a lot less influence this time around. We’re still a long way out from a ribbon-cutting, and I know I’ll be worried about things that can go wrong until we get to that. In the meantime, learn what you can about this and show your support. We’re going to need all the good transit options we can get.

July 2022 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

We’re still more than a year out from the 2023 election, but we are now up to three serious conteners for Mayor, plus two others in the wild, so the finance reports are beginning to generate some real interest. The January 2022 reports are here, the July 2021 reports are here.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       209,950    129,870        0     802,194

Peck          19,100     19,457    5,000      24,057
Jackson       17,400     11,330        0      33,436
Kamin         86,461     14,691        0     193,807
E-Shabazz      8,000      5,591        0      17,691
Martin         2,500     18,138        0     151,767
Thomas         5,750      2,887        0      51,761
Huffman       45,350     45,284        0      30,697
Cisneros      13,500      1,164        0      38,094
Gallegos      27,050     14,126        0     127,933
Pollard      286,341     11,800   40,000     716,441
C-Tatum       51,950     16,089        0     154,697

Knox          18,425     10,266        0      37,185
Robinson      67,675     17,595        0     247,700
Kubosh        14,000     31,141  196,000      59,273
Plummer                   6,417    8,175      33,010
Alcorn        38,305     17,321        0     178,429

Brown            500      4,849   75,000      34,861

Hollins    1,123,316    138,079        0     941,155
Edwards      789,227     96,378        0     712,066

As a reminder, no links to individual reports here because the city’s system generates PDF downloads, and I don’t have the time to rename and upload and share them. Next year, when there are candidates, I’ll do that. Not this time.

All of the current officeholders submitted reports in a timely fashion this period. The only oddity was with the report for CM Letitia Plummer, which did not list an amount raised on either the summary or section totals pages. She clearly did raise some money, as a perusal of the rest of the report shows, but didn’t include a total for it anywhere. I didn’t feel like tallying it up myself, so I left the mystery in place. The only non-officeholders of interest to file reports are the two 2023 Mayoral candidates listed at the bottom, who made a decent splash with their unprecedented totals for this point in the cycle. While he did not file a city of Houston report yet, and while there is some uncertainty about how much he can move from his state account, Sen. John Whitmire had $9.7 million on hand as of July 15. Even if he can only transfer, say, 25% of that, it’s a lot of cash to start out with.

We must once again talk about the finance report for Ed Pollard, who I will say again must be planning something for his future because there is absolutely no need for this level of fundraising for his re-election campaign in District J. I had speculated that maybe he was aiming for a Mayoral campaign, but at this point that seems less likely – I can’t rule it out, but there’s already a big field of well-financed players, and Pollard would be the least known and tied for least-funded among them. Maybe next time, or maybe something in 2024? Or maybe he just really likes fundraising? Who knows.

Other than that, honestly kind of a boring set of reports. Things should start to get more interesting with the January 2023 reports – if nothing else, I’d expect to see a few new names. I’ll skip the HISD and HCC reports this cycle so look for those next January as well. I’ll round up a few state reports of interest for next time. Let me know what you think.

Time to meet the University Line BRT plans

A big step forward, but there are many miles yet to go.

The biggest of Metro’s big bus offerings is about to turn from lines on a map to a full-fledged discussion for Houston residents, as transit officials prepare for the first round of public meetings over the planned University Line.

Just don’t expect fast action on what could be the spine of Metro’s east-west mass transit system. A host of hurdles remain for the bus rapid transit planned between northeast Houston and Westchase, including segments similar to those proposed 15 years ago that ran into a buzzsaw of opposition in some Houston neighborhoods. Elected officials at the time took that opposition and clamped off funding for the project.

Public meetings start Tuesday, with two evening events planned. Nine more meetings follow, where residents can look at display boards of where the Metropolitan Transit Authority proposes widening local streets to allow for bus-only lanes and dedicated stations similar to rail where passengers will enter and exit the 60-foot buses that operate the line.

The meetings are not detailed designs, but a chance for the community to evaluate the plans and offer suggestions of where and what Metro should build to best serve riders, who might not hop onto the buses for a decade or more in some spots. Construction is not likely to happen before 2025, if then, with opening day in 2029 at a cost of $2 billion or more.

“This is a complicated engineering project. It’s going to take some time,” Metro chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

The line, likely built in five phases, would be among the largest BRT lines in the nation, stretching more than 25 miles from the Tidwell Transit Center near Loop 610 and Interstate 69 to Westchase. Metro’s preferred route uses Lockwood to travel through Denver Harbor and Fifth Ward to the Eastwood Transit Center, then jogs through Third Ward with stops at the University of Houston and Texas Southern University. Following Alabama and Wheeler, the line crosses Midtown at the Wheeler Transit Center using Richmond before turning south at Edloe. From there, the buses would use their own lanes along Westpark Drive to Westchase.

The length, combined with the complexity of building practically anything in the densest parts of the Houston region, makes the project monumental to plan but also critical to tying together a growing but gap-riddled reliable bus network across an area built for the automobile.

“There are multiple pieces to the puzzle,” Ramabhadran said. “We are going to be crossing every highway in the region with the exception of (U.S.) 290.”

Information about the public meetings can be found here. The goal is to submit a proposal for funding to the Federal Transit Administration by August to get in line for funding. After that, we’ll see. Just remember as you look at all this, if we lived in a world where John Culberson never existed, we might already have a light rail line in this corridor right now. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can at least get this project on track, as it were. Attend a meeting if you can, and show your support for making it a little easier to get around town.

Metro approves I-10 Inner Katy BRT route

Big step forward.

Metro officials Thursday settled on the route for a busway along Interstate 10 that they predict will improve transit for urban and suburban travelers, whether they hop on board or not.

The elevated busway planned along the southern side of I-10 between Uptown and downtown will allow park and ride buses and bus rapid transit to avoid freeway traffic between the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 and I-10 and Houston’s central business district. Metropolitan Transit Authority board members approved the route Thursday, keeping the $400 million-plus project on pace for construction starting late next year and buses speeding along it by 2027.

“It takes us a long way in my judgment to having a rapid transportation system that Houston can depend on as it grows in the 21st century,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

As part of Metro’s long-range plan, approved by voters in 2019, the agency expects to build 75 miles of of bus rapid transit — large buses that operate similar to rail, using a separated lane to bypass traffic and stop at stations. Though a major component of the region’s transit plan, the first BRT line in Houston, the Silver Line along Post Oak through Uptown, so far has struggled to attract riders as park and ride service to Uptown and office occupancy in Uptown have been affected by the COVID pandemic.

By 2045, officials expect about 30,000 commuter bus riders and 12,000 rapid transit riders to use the busway daily. A trip from the Northwest Transit Center to downtown would take 19 minutes — less than many peak-time commutes by car or truck take now.

[…]

In addition to setting the route, the plan approved Thursday calls for three new stations along I-10 at Memorial Park, Shepherd-Durham and Studemont. Those stations line up with anticipated demand from nearby neighborhoods and expected improvements to major bus routes as part of the agency’s long-range transit plan, said Amma Cobbinah, a Metro senior transit planner overseeing the project.

Within the central business district, the BRT vehicles will use the existing light rail platforms along Capitol and Rusk. Two other stations, at St. Emmanuel and Franklin at Bagby, will be built for the buses.

Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said officials have not decided if the BRT along I-10 will be an extension of Silver Line service, or a separate line.

Still unresolved, however, is how buses will transition from the elevated busway along I-10 to Franklin and Bagby. Metro’s preference is to use the existing high occupancy toll lane connector into downtown, but the future of that link is in jeopardy because of the Texas Department of Transportation’s plan to rebuild Interstate 45 near and around downtown.

There are some more details in the preview story, which ran on Thursday morning before the Metro board meeting, including the “recommended alignment” document and an embed of this video, which shows the proposed route; there is one option in there, which depends on the existing HOT lanes that may be taken out by the I-45 project.

I’ve discussed this project, which was part of the 2019 Metro Next plan, a couple of times. The idea of a Memorial Park stop has come up before, and I think having it in this project makes a lot of sense. And though the Chron story doesn’t mention it, this Inner Katy route has been an implicit part of the plan to have the Texas Central terminal at or near the Northwest Transit Terminal.

As someone who lives about a mile from the future Studewood station, I very much approve of this plan. I will note that to really make this effective, some work will need to be done on the sidewalks on Studemont/Studewood, both north from I-10 into the Heights and south towards Washington Avenue. There are a couple of large residential properties being built on the west side of Studemont, plus whatever is to come on the old Party Boy site, and this station will be close to an entry point to the White Oak bike trail, for further connectivity and easy access to the Sawyer Heights developments, which includes another large new apartment building. The potential is very much there for a lot of people to use this, if it’s easy and safe to walk or bike to it. I’ll never drive to the Galleria again if they do this right. Construction is set to start later this year, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing it all take shape.

January 2022 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

January finance reports are always worth a look, if only as a ritual to start the new year. We’re a year out from election season truly beginning for Houston, but as we now have two brand name contenders for Mayor already, we should check in and see how our current electeds are doing in the fundraising department. I last looked at these reports in July of 2021. Let’s see what folks have been up to since then.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       311,976    156,329        0     723,455

Peck          25,620     13,989    5,000      27,442
Jackson        2,775      8,725        0      27,367
Kamin         14,620      7,824        0     124,434
E-Shabazz      8,440     13,625        0      15,282
Martin        56,350     32,011        0     162,311
Thomas        
Huffman       21,550     24,921        0      27,040
Cisneros       9,495      2,033        0      25,758
Gallegos      50,355     16,218        0     114,905
Pollard      151,275     12,946   40,000     441,900
C-Tatum       10,000      8,576        0     118,827

Knox          13,385      5,227        0      17,884
Robinson      50,595     11,758        0     189,134
Kubosh        33,200     31,914  196,000      73,174
Plummer       14,191     22,440        0      25,473
Alcorn       153,700     26,652        0     158,067

Brown          3,000      6,067   75,000      38,887

As a reminder, no links to individual reports here because the city’s system generates PDF downloads, and I don’t have the time to rename and upload and share them. Next year, when there are candidates, I’ll do that. Not this time.

Mayor Turner is the biggest recipient of campaign cash, which is usually how it is. He won’t be on the 2023 ballot, but we will have at least two charter referenda in our future, and I’m sure he’ll want to be able to have some influence over them. As was the case with Mayor Parker and term limits in 2015, he might want to add one or two more to that list, on policy matters that have been discussed but not yet addressed. I’m thinking of the stupid revenue cap, and a second try at an equal rights ordinance, this time for the charter. I have no special insight on these matters, just a long memory and a searchable archive, both of which I endeavor to use for good and not evil.

The fact that we have two high-profile Mayoral candidates in place (well, as much as one can be at this early hour) doesn’t mean that there aren’t other potential Mayorals out there. Last time I noted CM Ed Pollard’s prodigious fundraising, in which he amassed an amount that far outstripped his possible need for re-election in his district, and noted that he has been on some people’s lips as a possible candidate for Mayor. His January finance report does nothing to turn that speculation down, though also as noted before he may have his eye on some other prizes as well.

On the other end of that spectrum is the one person I had felt most confident about as a 2023 Mayoral candidate, and that’s City Controller Chris Brown, who seemed a natural fit for the Mayoral candidate role and who has demonstrated fundraising prowess in the past. Not these past six months, though, and his cash on hand total is looking awfully paltry. Does that mean anything? It’s too early to say. But now that John Whitmire and Chris Hollins are out there doing Mayoral candidate things, the time to decide whether or not one wants to join them in that is not far off. Michael Kubosh, who is currently doing Michael Kubosh things, falls in between the two of them in fundraising action. He’ll be facing the same decision as well.

A person who turned it up several notches after a sedate second half of 2021 is CM Sallie Alcorn, who was a top fundraiser for her initial election and now seems to be preparing for her second race. Note that in recent years, the old “blackout” period for fundraising was eliminated, so incumbents can get a head start on building up their treasuries. Fewer of them have need to do that now, as about half of them are term-limited. Some of those term-limited folks will be leaving with a decent amount of cash in their kitties – I’m thinking Dave Martin, Robert Gallegos, and David Robinson. It’s not clear to me what if any office they might use those funds for in the future – maybe one of them has an eye on Controller – but they have them if they want them.

Not much else of note. Greg Travis is now filing state reports, so he’s been swapped out for Mary Nan Huffman, who still has a few bucks in her account. I did not find a report for Tiffany Thomas. I’ll do HISD and HCC next to finish this off. Let me know what you think.

Huffman wins District G election

No runoff needed.

Mary Nan Huffman

Mary Nan Huffman, an attorney for the Houston Police Officers’ Union, has won a special election to become the next District G representative on City Council, according to the unofficial returns.

With all voting centers reporting Tuesday night, Huffman finished with 54 percent of the vote, enough to clear the threshold to win without a runoff.

Community organizer and volunteer Piper Madland came in second with 30 percent, followed by attorney Duke Millard with 12 percent, retired Houston Fire Department assistant chief Roy Reyes, Jr. with 4 percent, and Houshang “Hank” Taghizadeh with 0 percent.

The election in west Houston was triggered to replace Councilmember Greg Travis, who resigned his post late last year to run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. Travis will remain at City Hall until his successor is sworn in.

[…]

Off-cycle elections typically feature meager turnout, and that was true in this race.

Roughly 8,300 people cast ballots in the election, a turnout of about 6 percent. That is down from 29,500 votes and a 23 percent turnout in the 2019 general election. The district has more than 137,000 eligible voters.

See here for the previous update, and here for the final unofficial vote totals. Huffman was just over 50% after early voting, and expanded on that on Election Day. I assume she’ll be sworn in shortly after the vote is canvassed, so maybe by the end of next week.

As for the turnout question, let’s fill in the rest of that table from the previous post:


Election        Mail   Early   E-Day  Total  Mail%  Early%
==========================================================
May09 Dist H     647   1,259   2,280  4,186  33.9%   45.5%
May18 Dist K   1,737   1,867   1,531  5,135  41.2%   70.2%
Jan22 Dist G     191   4,101   4,154  8,446   3.7%   50.8%

Remember, “Mail%” is “Mail” divided by “Mail + “Early”, and “Early%” is “Mail + “Early” divided by “Total”. As previously noted, final overall turnout as a percent of registered voters was 4.46% in H in 2009 and 6.01% in K in 2018. Going by the Election Day reporting (click on the box with the check in it, which is the “Voter Turn Out” tab), turnout here was 6.10%, just beating out the District K special in 2018. Did the previously-discussed lack of mail ballots result in a reduction of overall turnout, or did it mostly just shift voting behavior from mail ballots to in-person ballots? We can’t say from one data point. Might be worthwhile to check the voter files for previous odd-year elections to see who the regular mail voters had been and then see if they showed up for this one. I don’t have the time for that now but maybe someone else does. Whatever the reasons were, it’s a striking difference and will be worth paying attention to in future elections. Anyway, congrats to CM-elect Huffman, who will be on the ballot again next year for a full term.

Is it time to ditch At Large seats on Houston City Council?

Here’s one argument for it.

The lack of Latinos on the City Council undermines the legitimacy of Houston’s government, experts say, and is something that a prominent Hispanic organization is pushing to change with a lawsuit and ballot proposition.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, is tackling what they characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos in one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. by proposing that the five at-large positions on council elected citywide be replaced with four seats in heavily Hispanic districts.

Currently, just one Hispanic — Robert Gallegos — holds a seat on the 16-member body. By contrast, 45 percent of Houston residents are Hispanic.

“The most serious threat to the legitimacy of Houston city government is this idea that you can have half of the population of the city represented by 6 percent of the council,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “Imagine if we flipped things around and there’s only one African American on the Houston City Council, or there’s only one Anglo, or there’s only one woman … It would be seen as a national travesty of democracy; it would be the subject of constant outcry.”

The city is expected to look at redistricting prior to its 2023 election, and could redraw the 11 districts if they are deemed unbalanced at that point. But LULAC said replacing at-large seats with more single-district seats would reduce barriers that undercut Latino representation.

“If we had parity, half of this council would be Latino,” said local LULAC leader Sergio Lira, co-chair of a new Houston taskforce created under the direction of the organization’s national President, Domingo García, who launched the effort in a meeting with local leaders last week.

García, a lawyer with offices statewide, said the effort includes a push to bring a charter amendment with the proposition to citizens to vote on and to file a lawsuit against the city.

Houston has the worst Hispanic representation in city councils among all Texas cities with populations over 500,000, all of which have eliminated at-large positions in their governments, according to census and government data.

“Houston is the outlier in Texas when it comes to Latino representation and is the only large city with at-large seats,” García said.

Those cities — San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, and El Paso — all have councils that look much more similar to their cities’ Hispanic populations. Dallas, which is 42 percent Hispanic, has the next-lowest Hispanic representation on council with 29 percent Hispanics.

It’s tough to get elected to Houston’s at-large seats, García said.

“They are very difficult for Latinos to win because of the amount of money, coalitions and logistics it takes to win,” he said. “It’s like running for mayor.”

There’s a lot to say here, and I’ll try to get to the main points, but let me start by saying it’s a little more complex than what Garcia and Lira are arguing. There are multiple districts that have are at least plurality Latino – H, J, F, and A. H, currently held by CM Karla Cisneros, had reliably elected Latinos before Cisneros and likely will again; none of the others have elected Latinos. There is of course a big difference between “population”, “voting-age population” and “citizen voting-age population”, and that’s before we take into account voter registration and who generally turns out to vote in our odd-year elections, where 20% turnout is on the higher end. We could elect more Latinos with the map we have now, at least in theory. It very much hasn’t worked out that way in practice, and I doubt you’d find anyone who would argue that the current map is conducive to having more than two Latinos get elected from the current districts.

It’s also true that Latinos have been shut out from the At Large seats since the days of Orlando Sanchez and Gracie Saenz twenty years ago. We also haven’t had a lot of strong Latino contenders for At Large seats lately. In 2015, no Latinos ran for At Large #3 or #5, and the only one in At Large #1 was perennial candidate James Partsch-Galvan. There were Latinos in all the At Large races in 2019, but none of them raised any money. That’s what Garcia and Lira are saying, and others have said it before them, but it just doesn’t take as much money to run a credible At Large campaign as it does to run for Mayor. Mayoral candidates need well over a million bucks, but the big money candidates for At Large raise in the $200-400K range. Not nothing, but not a huge pile of money either. It’s a bit of a vicious circle – people who might want to run are discouraged because it’s hard for them to raise money and the recent record of citywide Latino candidates is brutal, which leads to a paucity of such candidates for anyone to support.

I can’t leave this point without bringing up, once again, the 2007 At Large #5 runoff, in which Jolanda Jones defeated Joe Trevino in a race where about 25K total votes were cast. Jones had run citywide before (in At Large #3) and was better known, and the other runoffs on the ballot were City Council District D and HISD District II, both of which favored Jones’ candidacy. Trevino was a longshot no matter how you looked at it, but still. This was the clearest shot to get a Latino elected citywide, and he got bupkus in terms of financial support, including from the folks who had been threatening to sue to force City Council redistricting prior to the 2010 Census. Public support of campaigns and candidates is a complicated and nuanced thing that is more often solicited than given, I get that. I’m just saying, none of the folks who were lamenting the lack of Latino representation on Houston City Council were moved to write Joe Trevino a $100 check. Make of that what you will.

(There was also the Michael Kubosh-Roy Morales runoff of 2013. The politics of that one are different, for obvious reasons. I went back and looked, and Roy Morales actually raised about $50K for that runoff, which isn’t too shabby. There were only a couple of Latino names among his donors, though. Again, make of that what you will.)

Moving on. I have generally been supportive of having the hybrid district/At Large Council that we have. At least if you have a sub-par Council person in your district, you still have five At Large members you can turn to for support if you need it, and I think there’s value in having people who need to have a broader perspective. That said, I’d bet that most of the At Large members we have had over the past 20 or so years have come from a limited geographical distribution – this was very much the problem with Austin’s at large system, where nearly everyone on their Council came from the same part of town – and let’s just say that some of our At Large members are better than others and leave it at that. All in all, I don’t think it would be a great loss to change to an all-district system, and I would be inclined to support it if and when it comes to a vote. I’d like to see the proposal first – there are, as we well know, good and not-so-good ways to draw maps – but as a concept, I support it.

Knowing it is a long shot, LULAC decided to initiate a drive to collect 20,000 signatures in February in favor of their proposition, as the early voting for the state primaries begins. The number is the minimum needed to force the inclusion of a charter amendment in the ballot, bypassing the approval of City Council, which would only decide when it should be put for a citizens’ vote.

LULAC is simultaneously preparing a lawsuit it plans to file in court by March to eliminate all at-large positions in favor of single districts.

We’ll see how that goes. Petition drives have been pretty successful in recent years, even if they don’t always get their referenda on the next available ballot. There are already two items scheduled for the ballot in 2023, and with an open seat Mayoral race that will make it a very busy cycle. An item like this could get a bit lost in the noise, or it could be a big issue, as surely the various Mayoral candidates will need to weigh in on it. I’ll be very interested to see how the petition drive and the litigation go.

District G special election final early turnout

I’m going to start this post with some numbers, to provide context.


Election        Mail   Early   E-Day  Total  Mail%  Early%
==========================================================
May09 Dist H     647   1,259   2,280  4,186  33.9%   45.5%
May18 Dist K   1,737   1,867   1,531  5,135  41.2%   70.2%
Jan22 Dist G     157   4,102                  3.7%

In the comments to my previous post, I was reminded that there was another recent special City Council election, the one in 2018 to succeed the late CM Larry Green, which I had overlooked. You can see the totals for that and the 2009 District H special election above, with the reminder that the 2009 election was done before the Council lines were redrawn and Districts J and K were created. Now compare those to the District G special election totals. Looks a little different, don’t they?

“Mail%” above is the share of mail ballots in all early votes – in other words, it’s the “Mail” column” divided by the sum of the “Mail” and “Early” columns, with the latter representing early in person votes. “Early%” is the share of all pre-Election Day votes, so “Mail” plus “Early” divided by “Total”.

It’s hard to say exactly what is happening in District G, but it is very obvious that the share of mail ballots is way lower than we’d normally expect. Perhaps this won’t have much effect on final turnout, as the early in person number is pretty good in comparison. We’ll have to see what Tuesday brings to make a guess about that. For what it’s worth, final overall turnout as a percent of registered voters was 4.46% in H in 2009 and 6.01% in K in 2018. I don’t know how many RVs are in District G right now, but I do know that in November 2019 there were 129,611 of them. That means we’d need a final turnout of 5,780 to reach District H’s level, and 7,790 to get to District K. That would mean 1,521 or 3,531 total votes on Tuesday, respectively. The former should be easy, the latter might be a stretch, though again it depends on whether people who might have otherwise voted by mail are still voting in this race. I should also note that District G is normally a high-turnout place – 28.83% in 2019, second only to District C and its 30.01% mark. That figure was 19.76% in H and 23.85% in K for 2019, so just equaling the special election turnout mark for those districts here is not much of an accomplishment. Unless a lot of people show up tomorrow – which could happen! We don’t know! – then I’d have to call turnout for this race a bit underwhelming.

Just too many variables in play. Another thing to consider is how much money the candidates have had to spend to inform voters about the race and push them to the polls. The Friday Chron story about the last day of early voting touches on that.

The candidates are: Mary Nan Huffman, an attorney for the Houston Police Officers’ Union and former candidate for Harris County district attorney; Piper Madland, a community organizer and volunteer; Duke Millard, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor; Raul “Roy” Reyes Jr., a retired Houston Fire Department assistant chief; and Houshang “Hank” Taghizadeh — though only “Taghi” will appear on the ballot — who said he works in construction.

City elections officially are nonpartisan, but Huffman, Millard and Reyes are running as conservatives. Madland is progressive, and Taghi has not responded to Chronicle inquiries and does not appear to be actively campaigning.

The candidates have focused mostly on flooding and public safety as they campaign for the seat. Huffman has raised $50,000 for her bid and spent $35,600; Madland has raised $26,000 and spent $16,000; Millard has raised $2,600 and spent $9,400; and Reyes and Taghi do not appear to be raising money.

Not a whole lot of money in this race. I’d be interested to know, if you’re in District G, if you’ve had any contact from any of the candidates. There will almost certainly be more money in the runoff, and I’d bet turnout notches up a bit as well, as it did in H in 2009; Martha Castex-Tatum won District K outright in 2018, so no runoff there. There are 15 polling places open tomorrow, from 7 AM to 7 PM, and you can vote at any of them if you’re in the district. I’ll have results on Wednesday. Go vote, and vote for Piper Madland.

Nobody is voting by mail in the District G special election

Here’s the early voting report through Saturday for the District G special election. A total of 1,608 ballots have been cast in the first six days, of which 1,569 have been in person and thirty-nine (39) have been by mail. Yes, thirty-nine. That’s out of 260 total mail ballots that have been sent to voters who have requested them.

To put this in a bit of perspective, in the November 2021 election, the HISD District I race had the smallest number of mail ballots cast. In that election, 1,438 people voted by mail out of 9,480 total votes. That’s about fifteen percent of votes cast by mail – we’re at 2.4% mail ballots in this race so far. In the November 2019 District G election, there were 2,308 mail ballots cast out of 29,500 total. That’s a much smaller 7.8% of the total, but still more than three times the rate of what we’re seeing so far. Given the increase in voting by mail since 2020, it’s clear something is happening here.

As to what that is, you have to assume that voter suppression bill SB1 is largely to blame. People will vote by mail if it’s available to them, but with only 260 mail ballots being sent out, zero of which had been returned by the first day of early voting, it’s clearly not available to the vast majority of District G voters. The Harris County Elections Administrator’s office is not allowed to send ballot applications to eligible voters. The candidates are, but given the compressed timeline for this race and the likely lack of funds for them so far, I have to assume they haven’t done so. We don’t know how many, but we can assume that a larger than usual number of mail ballot applications are being rejected. The result speaks for itself.

I don’t want to overstate what is happening here. This is a weird election, and as noted it seems likely that none of the candidates has been sending VBM applications to people. That won’t be the case in the primaries or the 2022 general election, and the parties can send applications as well. It’s still shocking to see such low numbers. I should note that we have basically no data for city of Houston special elections – the last one we had was the May 2009 District H special election, which was pre-redistricting and for which there was a much longer lead-up – so I can’t begin to guess how this might affect turnout. A total of 4,141 people voted in that District H race, and we could easily exceed that here. Of course, G is a high-turnout district while H is not, and even with there being fewer districts in 2009 there are far more registered voters in G right now (over 129K in G in 2019 versus 93K in H in 2009), so just surpassing H’s raw total means nothing. Given all the weirdness of this election and the many factors that could be affecting it, who knows what effect what the lack of mail ballots might have. But surely there is some.

2021 Day Seven EV report: After the weekend

Let’s get right to it: These are the early voting totals for the 2021 election after Sunday:

Mail ballots: 36,517
In person: 19,901

You can see the full Day Seven report here. The “voters by type” breakdown on the last page only goes through Saturday, so I don’t have the most up to date numbers on drive through voting, but it’s a pretty small fraction of the total.

The thing that I noticed when I looked at the numbers was that Saturday was not the biggest day of in person voting, as I had expected it to be. My first thought was that this was an outlier, and that there had to be some reason for it that I would need to speculate on. Turns out, this is the new normal, at least for odd-numbered years. Look at the EV daily totals for 2019, 2017, 2015, and a few elections before then, and you’ll see that Saturday is a good day for turnout, but generally only the second best day. It’s the Friday that leads the pack, and that has been true for odd-numbered years going all the way back to 2009, the last year in which Saturday led the first week’s totals.

Odd years continue to be unlike the even-numbered years in that early voting is a much smaller piece of the pie. I consider the year 2008 to be an inflection point in voter behavior, in that it was the first year of any in which more than half of the total vote was cast before Election Day. That very much persists in even-year races, with nearly 88% of the vote in 2020 being cast early. Looking at previous Presidential years, 2016 followed this year’s pattern of Saturday not being the biggest day of the first week, but in 2012 and 2008 Saturday led the way. 2020 was a different kind of outlier because of the extra week of early voting and the supercharged early energy, but there you can see that there was a significant dropoff on Saturday after that frenzied first week.

So what has happened? Two things, I would guess. One is just that we are all used to voting early, even those of us who persist in waiting until Election Day. And two, because early voting is such a part of the fabric now, it’s more common for people to do it as part of their workday routine. I have voted during my lunch hour most years, and I think that’s pretty common. Whatever the reason, Saturday is not the huge narrative-setting day that it used to be in the EV process.

The rest of this week, if previous patterns hold, will wind up exceeding the first five days. I kind of think that won’t be the case, because of the large number of mail ballots, but we’ll see. In any event, the norm is for the first two to four days of this week to be similar to last week, with Friday being the biggest day of the whole period. I don’t know if that’s what we’ll get this time, but we’ll see. Have you voted yet?

HD118 runoff on November 2

Should help a bit with turnout, I guess. Better than some random day in January, anyway.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that Nov. 2 will be the date of the special election runoff to replace former state Rep. Leo Pacheco, D-San Antonio, a seat that Republicans are pushing to flip.

Early voting begins in a week.

The runoff for the Democratic-leaning seat in House District 118 features Democrat Frank Ramirez and Republican John Lujan. Ramirez is a former staffer for the San Antonio City Council, while Lujan briefly held House the seat in 2016.

Lujan finished first in the initial special election late last month, getting 42% of the vote to 20% for Ramirez. There were two other Democrats on the ballot and one other Republican.

Republicans have latched on to the race as an early test of their drive to make new inroads in South Texas after President Joe Biden underperformed there last year. Meanwhile, Democrats are working to show they will not be upset like they have been in past special elections in the San Antonio area.

Nov. 2 is also the date of the statewide constitutional amendment election.

See here for the background. Just for grins, the turnout in Bexar County in 2019 for the constitutional amendments was 9.6%, and in 2017 it was 3.7%. I’ve forgotten the entire year 2019 so I couldn’t tell you if there was something on that ballot that might have moved people – there wasn’t anything specific to Bexar or San Antonio that year that I saw. Like I said, may push the runoff totals up a bit, but probably not very much. And I am once again asking you to remember that Bexar County is not in South Texas, and that Democrats in Bexar County did better in 2020 than in 2016, including in HD118. Doesn’t mean Dems can’t lay an egg there, just that the “South Texas” narrative strikes me as misguided. Anyway, if you live in this district or know someone who does, make sure they get out and vote.

I regret to inform you that Dave Wilson will be back on the HCC Board of Trustees

From Campos:

Commentary was scrolling through the November 2 ballot for races in Harris County. I got to the HCC Trustee races and bam, I saw a Dave Wilson running in District 6. Running unopposed. The district is on the westside. Surely it had to be another Dave Wilson.

I texted my friend, HCC Trustee Adrianna Tamez and she confirmed it was the same Dave Wilson. How does this happen?

Adrianna also said there was a write-in candidate also in that race. It really doesn’t matter.

How does this happen?

You can see the candidates list here. None of the non-incumbents had filed a finance report for July, so they were below the radar. District 6 is currently held by John Hansen, who did not file for re-election. The write-in candidate is Jim Noteware, last seen as the losing plaintiff in a lawsuit over ballot language for the 2017 pension bond referendum. As I understand it, he didn’t fill out his candidate application correctly, and apparently there wasn’t time for him to fix it. You’ve heard me rant about that before, so just assume I did it again.

Noteware did manage to file for status as a write-in candidate, which just simply means that any write-in votes cast for him will be officially counted, as opposed to a write-in vote for “Mickey Mouse” or “Shelley Sekula-Gibbs”. The odds that he can win as a write-in, even against a sack of pestilence like Dave Wilson, are not good. Yes, I know, incumbent Trustee Eva Loredo won as a write-in back in 2009. The difference is that there were no other candidates in the race, so all she needed was literally one vote. (She got 532 votes, including one from me, out of nearly 11K ballots cast in the district.) Wilson will get a bunch of votes for being the only listed candidate. It’s possible that Noteware could beat him, but it would take a massive campaign to inform voters of why not to vote for Wilson as well as why and how to vote for Noteware. That ain’t happening, and so we will be stuck with the repulsive menace that is Dave Wilson for another six years. I’m sorry to have to ruin your Monday like this, but here we are.

PS – Yes, I know, this is a different district than the one Wilson won back in 2013. It’s also different than the one he ran for in 2019, having resigned from the office he held so he could establish residency in the other district. Our residency laws are meaningless, and Wilson doesn’t represent anyone but himself, so what does it matter what district he runs for? One warehouse is as good as the next. It’s all the same to him.

Metro moving forward on new BRT line

As they should.

Even with fewer riders hopping aboard and a more dour financial outlook, Metro officials say the agency is full steam ahead on a host of projects aimed at adding buses to scores of routes and neighborhoods.

That includes an approval scheduled for Thursday by the Metropolitan Transit Authority board to commit $40 million to development of a planned bus rapid transit line from around Tidwell and Interstate 69 to Westchase, via Denver Harbor, downtown, Midtown, Greenway Plaza and Uptown.

The project, similar to the Silver Line along Post Oak that opened a year ago and uses dedicated bus lanes to deliver service to stations akin to light rail, is one of dozens in Metro’s $7.5 billion long-range plan. That plan, approved by voters in November 2019, relies heavily on federal grants, which could come quickly if Washington lawmakers approve budget and infrastructure bills in the coming weeks or months.

“If we can get our ducks in a row on as many corridors as we can, that is good for the agency,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

Metro submitted a preliminary application for funding related to the so-called University Line bus rapid transit project to the Federal Transit Administration in late July. Houston transit officials heard back from their federal counterparts in one week, a quick turnaround for a first series of questions, said Shri Reddy, executive vice-president of planning, engineering, and construction at Metro. Among the issues raised by federal officials was more assurance that Metro had committed money for developing the project, prompting Thursday’s vote.

That story was published on Wednesday; on Thursday, the board approved the money as planned, while giving me a bizarre sense of deja vu.

Seriously, Afton Oaks? After all this time? I mean, it’s all residential on that stretch of Richmond, so I doubt any stops there would be busy, but geez. Anyway, Metro is projecting less revenue now than it had originally planned for and that could lead to some uncomfortable decisions about service levels down the line if actual revenue is in line with that, but that’s a concern for later. For now, this is a good start.

The charter referendum will be in 2023

So be it.

The organizations and residents who petitioned the city to give City Council members more power will have to wait until 2023 to vote on the measure, after the council declined to put it on this year’s ballot.

Council voted unanimously to set the election in 2023 instead of this November, despite the objections of several council members and the groups that pushed for the charter amendment. An amendment to put it on this year’s ballot failed, 13-4, before the 2023 vote. Councilmembers Amy Peck, Ed Pollard, Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh supported the earlier date.

The measure would give any three council members the power to place an item on the weekly City Hall agenda, a power almost entirely reserved for the mayor under Houston’s strong-mayor format.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who opposes the measure, said pushing off the election was prudent so the city could include other pending charter amendments, which would lower the cost by hosting one election instead of several. He also argued an off-cycle election would have low turnout.

“If any of you have problems getting something on the agenda, I’d like to hear that,” Turner told council members. “So, we’re going to spend $1.3 million in a very low-turnout (election) on an issue that doesn’t really pertain to this council?”

[…]

At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh likened a delay to voter suppression, a suggestion that irked several of his colleagues. He referred to Democrats in the Legislature who fled to Washington, D.C. to stop a voting restrictions bill.

“If we don’t vote to put this on the ballot, we are doing the same thing (as the Legislature): We are suppressing the vote,” Kubosh said. “I believe voting delayed is voting denied.”

District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas said he deserved a “Golden Globe for drama,” arguing the later election date would improve access to the polls by encouraging higher turnout.

Kubosh said it does not matter whether officials like the content of the charter amendment; their duty is to put it on the ballot.

I’ve said before that I believe this referendum, as well as the firefighters’ referendum (the petitions have not yet been certified, which is another issue altogether), should be on this November’s ballot. I do think the right thing to do is to be prompt about these things, even though the law allows for the discretion to put the vote on the next city election. But CM Thomas has a point, which is simply that at least twice as many people and maybe more will vote in 2023 than in 2021, and as such having this referendum in 2023 will be closer to a true reflection of the public will. I mean, even with a heavy GOTV effort by the pro- and anti- sides this year, we might be looking at 100K in turnout. Turnout in 2015, the last time we had an open Mayor’s race, was over 270K, and turnout in 2019 was 250K. Turnout in all of Harris County in 2017, with no city of Houston races, was 150K; I can’t calculate the exact city component of that, but based on other years it would have been in the 90-110K range. There’s just no comparison. Is the tradeoff in turnout worth the two-year delay? People can certainly disagree about that, and I sympathize with those who wanted it this year. But putting it in 2023 is legal, and can be justified.

(No, I still have no intention of voting for the “three Council members can put an item on the agenda” referendum. Its proponents may have a point, but their proposition is still a bad idea. I remain undecided on the firefighters’ item.)

July 2021 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

PREVIOUSLY: Congress, Harris County

As we know, this is not an election year for city of Houston offices. That usually makes for a pretty dull summary of finance reports, since it’s just incumbents and about half of them are term-limited and thus not really motivated to do much. But I had last checked on these in January 2020, which was the conclusion of the 2019 election cycle, and I didn’t want to wait till next year for a first look. And you never know what you might find.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       185,055     76,357        0     522,058
Peck          14,915     10,892    5,000      18,072
Jackson       19,700     14,126        0      33,317
Kamin         79,860     10,697        0     115,828
E-Shabazz     36,000     19,879        0      20,468
Martin             0      3,473        0     130,577
Thomas        
Travis        34,950      5,886   21,000      76,500
Cisneros       1,000        456        0      18,296
Gallegos       2,075      8,620        0      77,372
Pollard      280,908     11,371   40,000     303,572
C-Tatum       58,718      6,847        0     117,013
Knox          11,685      4,571        0      16,510
Robinson      58,983     16,085        0     149,046
Kubosh        60,910     24,318  206,010      65,667
Plummer       30,770      6,417    8,175      33,010
Alcorn         3,200      5,251        0      31,013
Brown         24,550      3,892   75,000      19,281

Edwards            0      2,580        0      45,081

Sorry, no links to individual reports this time – the city of Houston’s reporting system spits out downloaded PDFs, which I have to rename and upload to Google Drive to be able to provide links for them, and it ain’t worth the effort at this point. I’ll do that in 2023, when things heat up.

One of these things is not like the others. I’ve been asking folks who they think will run for Mayor in 2023, partly to see how my own speculations have turned out. One name that has come up a lot is that of Ed Pollard, the first-term Council member in District J. Let’s just say his July report does nothing to temper that kind of talk. To put it mildly, one does not need $300K to run for re-election in a low-turnout district like J, and that’s more than two years out from the actual election. Pollard may have his eye on something else, of course – he ran for HD137 in 2016, and who knows what opportunities the next round of redistricting may present – but if one is being mentioned when the question of “who is thinking about running for Mayor” comes up, this is the kind of finance report that supports such talk.

Other names that come up when I bring up the question include Michael Kubosh, Chris Brown, and Amanda Edwards. Neither of the first two has raised all that much, though they both have the capability. Kubosh has knocked $60K off his loan total, which may have contributed to his lower cash-on-hand total. As for Edwards, she’s the opposite of Pollard at this point.

The one person who has been openly talked about as a candidate – by someone other than me, anyway – is Sen. John Whitmire, who has enough cash in his treasury to not sweat the small stuff. He recently announced his intent to run for re-election in 2022, which is completely unsurprising and not in conflict with any 2023 speculation. Mayor Turner ran for and won re-election in HD139 in 2014 before officially beginning his Mayoral campaign in 2015.

Beyond that, not a whole lot to report. Mayor Turner has some money on hand if he wants to influence a charter amendment or two. CM Tiffany Thomas did not have a report that I could find – sometimes, the system is a little wonky that way. The only other number of note was for term-limited CM David Robinson, who has added over $100K to his cash on hand since last January. Maybe that’s a sign that he has his eye on another race, and maybe that just means that some people are good at fundraising. I’ll leave that to you. Next up, HISD and HCC. Let me know what you think.

Let’s try and get those federal transit funds now

Works for me.

Transit officials, sensing the timing may be right to tap federal funds for major projects, are moving quickly on portions of a planned bus rapid transit line viewed by some as the backbone of Houston’s future movement.

The segment of the planned University Line between Hillcroft Transit Center in Gulfton and the Wheeler Transit Center in Midtown is one of the most highly sought but historically controversial routes in the Metropolitan Transit Authority system.

Envisioned as bus rapid transit that uses some dedicated lanes to stop at key stations, delivering service similar to rail without the expense or design complexity, the project was included in the long-range Metro plan voters approved in November 2019. With a new federal government in place, proposing massive investment in transit, Metro officials said speeding up at least central portions of the line makes sense.

“Getting it in line for potential federal funding is critical,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said. “The sooner we do it, the better.”

Accelerating the project means beginning discussions with the Federal Transit Administration around September, pending Metro board approval next month. From there, planners would spend about two years designing the project and holding public meetings to gauge community preferences.

That timeline would allow for the project to gain federal approvals — and perhaps money from Washington — by September 2023. Construction would take months or potentially years, depending on what exactly Metro builds.

“There is some risk to go with it,” Metro Deputy CEO Tom Jasien said of the acceleration. “We are going to have to work our way through this project development process very quickly.”

The reward, however, is federal clearance for a long-sought link, along with funding for it.

“It is our best chance to get in line for the federal funding we keep hearing that is likely to come,” Jasien said.

[…]

Having projects in the planning stages for construction three-to-five years away is warranted, Metro officials said, noting the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan means transit planners will need to juggle numerous projects simultaneously so all of them are poised to proceed to design or construction when money is available.

Those aims align with indications from federal officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has said projects that add transit options are needed to revive America’s cities.

See here for some background. Metro is also seeking funds for the Hobby Airport light rail extension, though that may require the infrastructure bill to happen. I’m in favor of anything that will make this happen in as timely a fashion as possible, but looking at the dates in this story made me realize that if everything goes well, we might be able to have this project completed in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 2001 Metro referendum that authorized a Universities Line in the first place. I am now going to get myself a beer, write John Culberson’s name on a piece of paper, go out into the back yard, and light that piece of paper on fire. Feel free to celebrate along with me.

The I-45 effect on Metro

There will be a lot of disruption to mass transit as a result of the I-45 project.

Metro’s board on Thursday approved hiring design and engineering firm STV Incorporated for services related to the controversial Interstate 45 project. Though the bulk of the project will widen I-45, it includes a near-total redesign of the downtown freeway system, starting with work along Interstate 69 at Spur 527, putting Wheeler — where Texas Department of Transportation officials plan to bury the freeway below local streets — in the first phases.

The contract with STV, valued at up to $9.6 million for the next five years, allows Metro to consult the company as it plans for transit operations during construction and how what is built will affect its own upcoming projects.

The goal, officials said, is to limit disruptions to bus and rail service and preserve the space Metro will need for future transit lanes and stations, so adding them later does not become a costly and complicated challenge.

“It is absolutely imperative we understand the impacts of the (I-45 rebuild) on the Wheeler site,” said Clint Harbert, vice-president of system and capital planning for Metro. “That includes all of the stakeholder activity around us and the loss of property at the Wheeler site, as well as how is BRT going to go through.”

The transit center, which at times has had safety concerns because of its isolated location practically beneath the freeway between Fannin and Main, is rapidly getting new neighbors and more visibility. The former Sears property in Midtown is the centerpiece of a planned “innovation hub” and redevelopment is occurring on many nearby blocks.

[…]

Though TxDOT has halted development of many segments, the portion along I-69 from Spur 527 to Texas 288 — which includes Wheeler — remains on pace for construction to start next year. Widening I-45 and redoing the downtown system is spread across many distinct but connected projects, and TxDOT had approvals and design ready for the first segments, but has halted development of the others until a lawsuit filed by Harris County and the federal review are settled.

That work could affect Wheeler and the Red Line early on, as burying the freeway through Midtown and rebuilding city streets could mean months of detours and delays for transit in the area.

The Wheeler work and potential to have the Red Line, the most-used transit line in Texas, cut in half by construction is not the only impact Metro is weighing with the I-45 work. In 2017, Metro estimated reconstruction of I-45 could cost transit officials an additional $24 million annually simply in employee time and fuel related to detours.

Wheeler already is a major stop in the Metro system, but its importance is set to increase, based on the agency’s long-range transit plan. Riders will use Wheeler to transfer to and from the Red Line light rail, the spine of the train network, and the longest planned bus rapid transit line serving northeast Houston, Midtown and Westchase.

See here, here, and here for some background. The thought of the Red Line being interrupted for months because of freeway construction blows my mind – the amount of chaos that will cause is enormous. I won’t relitigate the question of if it’s all worth it or not – if nothing else, we can wait and see what the Harris County lawsuit brings. There is the potential here for federal money to pick up some of the cost of the BRT line that is now the Universities Line plus a northeast extension, and that would be sweet. And who knows, maybe some of this construction chaos doesn’t happen, or at least isn’t as bad as we now fear. There’s still hope. Some of this work would be done regardless anyway. Whatever happens, I wish all the best to everyone who’s going to have to deal with it for however long.

Other May election results

Roundup style, mostly.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg easily wins a fourth term.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg

Mayor Ron Nirenberg vanquished the ghost of repeat challenger Greg Brockhouse in Saturday’s City election and secured his third term in office with a win of historic proportion.

Nirenberg is now on course to become the city’s first four-term mayor since his mentor, former Mayor Phil Hardberger, led a successful campaign in 2009 to relax term limits from two, two-year terms to four, two-year terms.

That longevity in office should give Nirenberg the time and space to forge the kind of legacy established by Hardberger and Julián Castro before him.

Hardberger can point to completion of the San Antonio River’s Museum Reach, acquisition of Hardberger Park, redevelopment of Main Plaza, and jump starting the transformation of Hemisfair Park after it lay idle for 50 years. He recruited Sheryl Sculley to become city manager. Her long tenure led to the modernization of the city’s financial practices, ambitious five-year bond cycles to address critical infrastructure needs, and a new level of professional standards for city staff.

Castro, then the youngest mayor of a Top 50 city, led efforts to bring early childhood education to the forefront, well in advance of national trends, with successful passage of Pre-K 4 SA. He launched SA2020 and with it, the Decade of Downtown. Castro joined forces with Sculley to take on the powerful police union and address runaway health care costs. His growing national profile earned him a cabinet seat as Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Obama administration.

Nirenberg is poised to establish his own legacy. Voters chose him by a 31-point margin, 62% to 31%, over Brockhouse, with the remainder going to a dozen other names on the ballot, a definitive verdict on Nirenberg’s second-term record. A Bexar Facts poll conducted with the San Antonio Report and KSAT-TV in late March accurately predicted as much. The reason: Nirenberg’s strong leadership through the pandemic.

Nirenberg won by a much wider margin against Brockhouse this time. When I look around at current Mayors for future statewide potential, Nirenberg certainly belongs on the list, but for whatever the reason I haven’t heard his name bandied about. Maybe that will change now.

San Antonio had a high-profile ballot proposition, which would have stripped the city’s police union of it collective bargaining power. It was narrowly defeated, but its proponents are encouraged they did as well as they did, and expect to continue that fight.

Austin had its own slew of ballot propositions, with a particularly contentious one that would outlaw the public camps that homeless people are now using. That one passed, and we’ll see what happens next.

The folks behind Proposition B, the citizen initiative to re-criminalize public camping in Downtown Austin and near the UT Campus, got the victory they sought for the more than $1 million they spent. With all votes counted Saturday night, the measure backed by Save Austin Now prevailed by 14 points, 57.1%-42.9%.

That’s a slightly weaker showing than was predicted before polls closed by SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak, also chair of the Travis County Republican Party, but a win’s a win:

Those who have been paying attention will note that Mayor Steve Adler and much of Council have already decided that the June 2019 vote that Prop B reverses was a failed experiment, and have moved on to other strategies to house Austin’s unsheltered poor. Perhaps SAN will catch up soon. Whatever its merits as policy, the campaign for Prop B did almost certainly boost turnout, which all told was 22.55% countywide (just under 90% of that was city voters). That’s the highest Austin’s seen in a May election since 1994.

Even CM Greg Casar, the politician most directly rebuked by tonight’s results, is looking ahead: “I do not believe Austin is as divided as this election makes it seem. The overwhelming majority of Austinites share a common goal, no matter how folks voted on Prop B. We all want to get people out of tents and into homes,” Casar said in a statement. “Our community must come together after this election & house 3,000 more people.”

I’ll leave it to the Austin folks to figure this out from here, but from my vantage point one obvious issue here is the ridiculously high housing prices in Austin, which is fueled in part by way more demand for housing than supply. I hope the city can find a way forward on that.

Fort Worth will have a new Mayor, after a June runoff.

Fort Worth voters will chose a new mayor for the first time in a decade in June with Mattie Parker and Deborah Peoples apparently headed to the runoff.

Mayor Betsy Price’s decision not to seek an unprecedented sixth term sparked 10 candidates to run, including two council members, the Tarrant County Democratic Party chairwoman and a slew of political newcomers.

According unofficial results in Tarrant County, Peoples, a former AT&T vice president, led with 33.60% of the vote Saturday night while Parker, a former Price chief of staff, had 30.82%, with all 176 vote centers reporting. Council member Brian Byrd was in third place with 14.75%.

Parker and Peoples maintained the upper hand with results for Denton County. There, Parker took 35.17% of the vote compared to 16% for Peoples. In Parker County, Parker had 42% of the vote followed by Byrd’s 23.3%. Peoples had 12.5%.

The runoff will be June 5.

Here are the Tarrant County results – scroll down to page 21 to see the Fort Worth Mayor’s race. There were 1,106 votes cast in total in this race in Denton County, and 176 total votes cast in Parker County, so Tarrant is really all you need to know. In 2019, Peoples lost to Mayor Betsy Price by a 56-42 margin. Adding up the votes this time, counting Ann Zadeh as progressive and Brian Byrn and Steve Penate as conservative, the vote was roughly a 55-42 margin for the Republican-aligned candidates. We’ll see how it goes in the runoff.

And then there was Lubbock.

Lubbock voters on Saturday backed a “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance that tries to outlaw abortions in the city’s limits, likely prompting a lawsuit over what opponents say is an unconstitutional ban on the procedure.

The unofficial vote, 62% for and 38% against the measure, comes less than a year after Planned Parenthood opened a clinic in Lubbock and months after the City Council rejected the ordinance on legal grounds and warned it could tee up a costly court fight.

The passage of the ordinance makes Lubbock one of some two dozen cities that have declared themselves a “sanctuary … for the unborn” and tried to prohibit abortions from being performed locally. But none of the cities in the movement — which started in the East Texas town of Waskom in 2019 — has been as big as Lubbock and none of them have been home to an abortion provider.

It’s unclear when the ordinance will go into effect, and if it will be challenged in court.

The push to declare Lubbock a “sanctuary city for the unborn” began in the last two years and was galvanized by the arrival of a Planned Parenthood clinic in 2020. Anti-abortion activists gathered enough signatures to bring the ordinance to the City Council — where it was voted down for conflicting with state law and Supreme Court rulings — and to then put it to a citywide vote.

Ardent supporters of the measure, who liken abortion to murder, say it reflects the views held by many in conservative Lubbock. They believe the ordinance would stand up in court and say they have an attorney who will defend the city free of charge if it is challenged.

But the strategy of bringing the abortion fight to the local level has divided even staunch anti-abortion activists, and Texas towns like Omaha and Mineral Wells have voted down similar ordinances or walked them back under advice from city attorneys.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which previously sued seven East Texas towns that passed similar ordinances, has said they were watching the vote closely and hinted at a lawsuit in a statement Saturday.

Drucilla Tigner, a policy and advocacy strategist with the organization, said the “ACLU has a long history of challenging unconstitutional abortion bans and will continue to fight to protect the fundamental rights of the people of Lubbock.”

[…]

The Lubbock ordinance outlaws abortions within the city, and allows family members of a person who has an abortion to sue the provider and anyone who assists someone getting an abortion, like by driving them to a clinic.

There isn’t an exception for women pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

The ordinance would not be enforced by the government unless the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, or made other changes to abortion laws.

It instead relies on private citizens filing lawsuits.

Richard D. Rosen, a constitutional law professor at Texas Tech University, expects someone would sue Planned Parenthood and the legal fight would go from there.

“As long as Roe is good law I think these suits will ultimately fail, but it [could make] abortion providers … expend money for attorneys fees and it takes time,” he said.

See here and here for the background. The lawsuit that was filed against those seven towns was later dropped after the ordinances to remove language that declared the Lilith Fund and the Texas Equal Access Fund “criminal entities”. The language banning abortions in those towns remains, however. Lubbock is in a much different position than those tiny little towns, and I have no idea what happens from here. It can’t be long before someone files a lawsuit for something.

Finally, I’m sorry to report that Virginia Elizondo lost her race for Spring Branch ISD. I wish her all the best in the future.

The infrastructure bill and the Hobby Airport light rail extension

More good thing we could get from the eventual Infrastructure Bill.

Houston was made and marketed by the slogan “where 17 railroads meet the sea.” Local elected officials now think its short-term future, and the local success of a proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package, is getting light rail to Hobby Airport.

“Yes, there will be some repaired bridges, that’s very important,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said Thursday along a stubbed section of rail south of MacGregor Park. “But in an urban center like this, I hope everybody can see we will get a route to Hobby Airport and other routes that have been waiting to enhance the quality of life for our citizens.”

The national debate over infrastructure places one of the most expensive and controversial projects in Metro’s long-range transit plan front and center locally as officials juggle dozens of smaller bus-focused projects, as well as expansion of bus rapid transit across the region.

Lee, joined by elected officials, Metropolitan Transit Authority leadership and community groups, said new train service to the airport — through struggling areas ripe for investment — could be a primary local benefit of a proposed infrastructure package by the Biden Administration.

“This will be life-changing for them,” community advocate Cesar Espinosa said of the students and elderly residents in southeast Houston who need improved transit options that connect them to major locations, such as downtown and Hobby Airport.

[…]

That allowance for planning and prioritizing projects that have local support and ready planning is what officials argue makes light rail appealing. Metro in 2019 won voter approval of a $7.5 billion long-range plan that included a $2.1 billion for light rail expansion, the bulk of that aimed at Hobby rail expansion.

Years of study and planning are needed to finalize the proposed light rail extensions, but Metro officials have suggested a route that extends the Purple Line from the Palm Center Transit Center along Griggs and Long, where it would connect to the Green Line and both would operate along shared tracks into the airport.

Getting the Green Line to Telephone Road or somewhere close remains undecided. Various officials prefer different routes and there has yet to be consensus in the community over whether to use Telephone or Broadway.

Wherever the line eventually is located, officials said they expect it to be a major boost, not only for jobs during construction, but for development in the future.

“If the president’s plan is implemented it will absolutely transform our community,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metro board.

The original idea (click to expand MetroRail LRT) was to extend the Green and Purple lines separately, and have them both go to Hobby. That was expensive and there were questions about the routes, so in the end the plan was one extension to Hobby, route to be determined as noted above. Funding for that would come later, but could be greatly accelerated if the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill develops as hoped. The intent is to boost local transit, and this would certainly do that. Maybe we could even get that extension to Washington Avenue on the other end of the line. A boy can hope, can’t he?

Charter amendment petitions are in

I need a simpler name for this thing, so that Future Me will have an easier time searching for relevant posts.

Houston voters likely will get to decide in November whether City Council members should have the power to place items on the weekly City Hall agenda, a power currently reserved for the mayor.

A group called the Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition on Monday delivered a measure with nearly 40,000 signatures to the city secretary, who now has 30 days to verify them. It takes 20,000 to get the issue onto the ballot.

If the city secretary approves the signatures, the issue likely would go to voters in November. It would allow any three of the City Council’s 16 members to join forces to place an item on the weekly agenda, when the council votes on actions. The mayor now has nearly full control of the schedule in Houston’s strong mayor form of government.

[…]

Two of the council’s 16 members, Amy Peck and Michael Kubosh, showed their support at the press conference Monday when the coalition delivered its signatures.

The coalition includes a broad group of political groups, including the Houston firefighters’ union, the Harris County Republican Party, and the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

But the opposition is similarly wide-ranging. In addition to Turner, a Democrat, conservative Councilmember Greg Travis also thinks it would be harmful. He would be open to other reforms, but three members is too low a bar, Travis said, and would result in “all kinds of irrational, wacky, inefficient” items reaching the council.

“You don’t sit there and open a Pandora’s box,” Travis said. “It’s not the correct solution to the problem.”

See here and here for the background. “Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition” it is, I guess, but that’s still pretty damn generic. I must admit, I’m a little surprised to see CM Travis speak against this, since I had him pegged as a chief contributor to the forthcoming irrational wackiness. Good to know that our local politics can still surprise me.

If nothing else, this will be an interesting test of the ability for a (potentially high-profile) charter referendum to generate turnout, since this is a non-Mayoral election year. Turnout in 2017, the previous (and only so far) non-city election year was 101K, with the various pension obligation bonds that were a (forced) part of the pension reform deal as the main driver of interest. By comparison, the 2007 and 2011 elections, with their sleepy Mayoral races, each had about 125K voters, and that’s at a time with fewer registered voters (about 920K in Harris County in 2011, and 1.052 million in 2017). I’m not going to make any wild-ass guesses about turnout now, when we have yet to see what either a pro- or con- campaign might look like, but for sure 100K is a dead minimum given the data we have. At a similar turnout level for 2007/2011, and accounting for the increase in RVs since then (probably about 1.1 million now; it was 1.085 million in 2019), we’re talking 140-150K. Those are your hardcore, there’s-an-election-so-I’m-voting voters. We’ll see if we can beat that.

CM Jackson’s residency questioned

You’ve gotta be kidding me.

Tarsha Jackson

The election in Houston city council’s District B was put on hold for a year as courts addressed whether one of the two finalists for the seat, Cynthia Bailey, was eligible to run for office.

Now, the winner of last month’s runoff, Tarsha Jackson, is drawing scrutiny of her own, just weeks after she prevailed against Bailey and took office at City Hall as District B’s city council member.

Some civic leaders in District B are asking the city attorney’s office to review Jackson’s eligibility because she lives in a portion of Harris County that Houston annexed for limited purposes. Residents in those areas can vote in city elections — Jackson’s voter registration shows she lives in District B — but state law appears to bar them from running for office. The Texas Local Government Code says residents in those areas are “not eligible to be a candidate for or to be elected to a municipal office.”

A city map of Houston annexations shows the north Houston address where Jackson lives was annexed by the city in 2002. The city planning department said it was a limited purpose annexation, in which the city does not collect property taxes but can levy a sales tax. Jackson does not pay city property taxes on her home, according to the Harris County Appraisal District.

That could make Jackson ineligible, although the city has not taken a stand on the issue. City Attorney Arturo Michel declined an interview request.

[…]

The city does not vet candidates’ addresses in determining eligibility. Instead, city attorneys confirm the address listed is in the district they hope to represent. The mayor’s office said in 2019 it declared eight candidates ineligible after those checks and others to ensure candidates have marked a box swearing they have not been convicted of a felony. More than 100 people ran for city council in 2019.

Jackson, a criminal justice organizer, said she did not know about the phrasing in the Local Governmental Code or her neighborhood’s annexation history. She votes in District B elections and said she did not have any concern about eligibility. Jackson said she disclosed her address on her ballot application and the city allowed her to run. She said her mind is on getting to work for District B residents.

“I’ve been forthright on everything when I applied to run to represent the residents of District B. My address is on all the documentation,” Jackson said. “I looked at the criteria we needed to run, and as far as I’m concerned, I met that criteria.”

She was sworn in by Mayor Sylvester Turner on Dec. 21.

Doug Ray, an Austin-based attorney with Ray & Wood who specializes in election law, said it is possible someone could pursue what is called a quo warranto lawsuit, a special type of filing designed to challenge officeholders. The county or district attorney would have to bring the suit themselves, or on behalf of another individual if they approve the claim.

“It’s within their discretion, and if they don’t sign on, it would be subject to dismissal,” Ray said, referring to the county and district attorneys.

He said the annexation question gets complicated based on the different types. The planning department said Jackson’s neighborhood is part of a limited purpose annexation through a strategic partnership with a municipal utility district.

“Assuming all those things are true … that limitation would apply,” Ray said of the barrier on running for office.

Man, I don’t know what to say. As the story notes, the city generally doesn’t enforce this unless there’s a complaint or it’s otherwise brought to their attention, as was the case with Michelle Bonton in 2019. On the one hand, the uneven nature of the enforcement is frustrating, and we always seem to hear about these things at a time when it’s too late to do anything about them. I generally have no patience for non-city of Houston people who try to run for city of Houston offices. (Plenty of them find various ways to bend the rules to make themselves appear eligible – I can think of at least one other serving right now.) This case feels more like a technicality, but one should probably be aware if one is paying city of Houston property taxes or not, especially if one is planning to file for a city office. Against all that, there was a ton of time for this information to come out, and the people of District B waited a long time for this election. What are we supposed to do with this information now? I guess we’ll see if someone pursues this. I don’t know what else to say.

Bike lanes for the Red Line

I approve.

The belief that Northside Houston residents will bike to buses and trains if it is safer to do so is bringing more curb work to Cavalcade, paid for out the same pot of federal money that brought the neighborhood trains.

Metropolitan Transit Authority on Nov. 19 approved the use of nearly $1.3 million left over from building the Red Line light rail extension — which opened nearly seven years ago — to add protected bike lanes to Cavalcade from Irvington to Elysian.

The upcoming work will extend bike lanes along Cavalcade from Airline to Irvington, adding about a half mile of protected lanes. Tikon Group won the contract with Metro, which includes altering the road where needed and striping for bike lanes in each direction, installing rubberized bumps — often called armadillos — to separate cyclists and motorists, and building new curbs at major bus stops.

The curbs and intentional curves force bicyclists to slow at spots where people will be standing for the bus, while making sure biking through “will not have a conflict with the buses,” said Bridgette Towns, vice president of project management and engineering at Metro.

The extension will connect bike lanes already in use along Cavalcade between Irvington and Airline to bike lanes along Hardy and Elysian that act as a major spine for cycling through Northside.

I’m a longtime proponent of combining bike capacity with transit capacity, so this makes a lot of sense to me. Fixing sidewalks is also a good way to make transit more attractive, as well as just being a general boon to the area. This work is being funded by some leftover money from the original Red Line expansion – it’s a bit of a story, read the article for the details. As we know, there’s more work coming from the 2019 bond referendum, but for obvious reasons things are taking their time getting started. There’s still other stuff in the meantime.

Tarsha Jackson wins District B runoff

The long saga comes to an end.

CM-elect Jackson led early voting, and as of 9 PM was up by a 68-32 margin, about what the initial returns had. As of shortly after 9, Cynthia Bailey conceded the race. Here was a Chron story from yesterday morning that largely recapped The Story So Far, and another story that followed Bailey’s concession.

Thirteen months after the first round of voting, Houstonians in District B on Saturday finally picked their city councilperson.

Tarsha Jackson beat out Cynthia Bailey, whose 2007 felony conviction became cause for a lawsuit that stalled the runoff.

Saturday’s decision ended the long period of limbo, both for the candidates and residents of the district.

Bailey congratulated Jackson in a statement.

“I look forward to continuing to fight to solve neighborhood issues together,” Bailey said. “District B will benefit from her leadership. It’s time to get to work.”

Congratulations, Council Member-elect Tarsha Jackson. It was a long road to this point, but you have arrived.

So whatever happened to Astroworld II?

It’s still out there, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for it.

For more than four years, Mayor Sylvester Turner has trumpeted Houston’s need for a destination theme park that would boost the region’s tourism industry and provide an outlet for families.

In the final weeks of his reelection campaign last year, he even said an amusement company was interested and that an announcement could come within weeks.

“I’ve had investors come and sit around my table to talk about it,” he said that October.

That teaser came months after the mayor appeared at rapper Travis Scott’s concert — part of the Grammy-nominated Houston native’s “Astroworld” tour, named for a theme park that sat across the South Loop from the Astrodome for 37 years before closing in 2005. Standing on the Toyota Center stage, Turner gave a beaming Scott a key to the city and drew thunderous applause when he said, “Because of him, we want to bring another amusement theme park back to the city!”

The announcement hinted at last fall never came, however. After he won reelection last December, Turner said investors had surveyed land on the north side but determined the site was not a good fit.

Still, Turner said several large parcels within the city limits could host a marquee park, and said he planned to form a task force in January of this year to focus on the idea, with the goal of having a park open by the time term limits force him from office at the end of 2023.

Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton said this month that the mayor was in the process of asking people to join his theme park task force when the pandemic arrived and became the administration’s main focus. Still, she said, Turner has not abandoned the goal.

“The mayor looks forward to resuming work on developing a theme park as soon as possible,” Benton said. “There is strong interest among developers who recognize the value of building a new theme park venue in Houston.”

[…]

There are many reasons why few major parks have been developed in the U.S. in recent decades, however, and that still fewer have been built without public subsidies, said Wonwhee Kim, chief intelligence officer for The Park Database, whose staff also work with developers hoping to build new parks.

“They’re a type of infrastructure costing hundreds of millions of dollars, and once you build it, it can’t easily be changed,” Kim said. “In the 1970s you could get by with opening a theme park with 10 attractions because that was the beginning of the industry. But now because expectations are so high, a developer would have to come in and build to the level of the existing parks. It’s very risky, and so most theme parks these days are built with some kind of public-private partnership.”

See here for an early mention of this possibility. As noted, in the Chron story and in that post, only half of the original Astroworld site is available, so location is a possible issue. And, not to put too fine a point on it, now is not a great time for theme parks in any form or fashion. Maybe put that one on the agenda for the next Mayor, and review the remaining items on the to-do list for the second term.

Early voting starts today for District B runoff

At long last, the voters in District B will get to elect a new City Council member.

Here’s the Chron story.

Cynthia Bailey

Tarsha Jackson, a consultant and criminal justice organizer, and Cynthia Bailey, a neighborhood advocate, both aim to bring fresh, grassroots energy to the district. Jackson won 20.9 percent of the vote in the 14-candidate general election last November. Bailey came in second with 14.5 percent.

[…]

District B has been represented by Jerry Davis, who faced a term limit last year, for nine years. It has the second-highest concentration of Black residents in the city (47 percent), stretching from historic neighborhoods such as Kashmere Gardens and Greater Fifth Ward to Acres Homes and Greenspoint.

Early voting begins Wednesday, pauses for Thanksgiving and resumes Nov. 30 through Dec. 8.

Jackson has the institutional and financial edge. The progressive organization she used to work for, the Texas Organizing Project, is supporting her bid. Jackson has $21,000 in campaign cash to Bailey’s $3,000, according to the most recent campaign finance filings.

Bailey, though, proved a gritty campaigner last year, surprising other candidates in the field by reaching the runoff. She is known to some as the “Mayor of Settegast.”

Tarsha Jackson

Jackson, 49, was thrust into activism and organizing after her son was arrested for kicking a teacher in elementary school.

She helped advocate for reform legislation in 2007 that ensured young people would not be sent to state jail for misdemeanors. Jackson ultimately became Harris County criminal justice director for TOP, which aims to mobilize Black and Latino communities across the state.

As an organizer, she has been involved in Harris County’s historic bail settlement, has called on the city to end what she calls a “debtors’ prison” system that can jail people for failing to pay fines, and this summer led a report of recommendations for police reform.

Jackson hopes to bring that activist spirit to City Hall on council.

She said the defining issue for District B is poverty. District B has the poorest median household income ($33,257) in the city. Nearly 40 percent of the district’s roughly 193,000 residents live in a household that brings in less than $25,000 per year.

“I’ve watched my communities be left behind in all areas. Infrastructure, jobs, the schools that I went to,” Jackson said. “Once we start addressing income disparities, getting people to work, that’s going to start fixing some of the issues.”

For that reason, Jackson said a top priority would be job training. She plans to push for stronger community benefit agreements when the city gives tax incentives to developers. Those deals can include provisions about hiring local workers, including affordable housing and funding for community programs.

“Let’s make sure we’re benefiting from the dollars we’re putting out,” Jackson said.

Another priority would be flooding and illegal dumping. Jackson said she would push for more regular maintenance and cleanings for drainage ditches and bayous, and seek to broaden access to dump sites, which she said require a driver’s license and matching electricity bill. Many renters lack those documents, which contributes to dumping, she said.

I did an interview with Cynthia Bailey in November of 2019, which was intended for that year’s December runoff. That was before all the craziness about her eligibility to be on the ballot and the long drawn-out legal process that finally wrapped up a couple of months ago. I don’t know how relevant this is now, given how much has changed since we spoke, but here it is:

I did make contact at the time with Tarsha Jackson for an interview as well, but by the time we connected the runoff had already been pushed back, and we agreed to try again later once the legal maneuvering had ended. That didn’t happen, as I did not get back to her, so this is the best I can do.

The PDF map of early voting locations is here, along with the times they will be open. Note that there are also runoffs for the cities of Baytown, Humble, La Porte, and Nassau Bay, and there is at least one EV location in each of those places. There are also three drive-through EV locations, two in District B and one in Baytown. Get out there and vote while you can.

The next elections

Just a reminder, there are two elections on the calendar for December:

See here for the background. The first link in that tweet goes to this County Clerk press release, which came out right after the election was officially set by the court. Doesn’t look like early voting information is available at harrisvotes.com yet, but I expect it will be soon. Oh, and if somehow you or someone you know who lives in the district is not registered to vote, the deadline to do so and vote in this election is tomorrow.

Meanwhile, up north:

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Saturday that Dec. 19 will be the date for the special election runoff to succeed state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper.

The runoff in Fallon’s solidly red district pits state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, against fellow Republican Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who was jailed earlier this year over her refusal to close her business due to coronavirus restrictions.

Early voting for the runoff will start Dec. 9, Abbott said.

Luther and Springer finished close together in the Sept. 29 special election, which included three other Republicans and a Democrat. Luther edged out Springer, 32.17% to 31.93%, ahead by 164 votes out of 68,807 total.

That story is from October – there were just too many other things happening around then to blog about a two-months-out special State Senate election, but now is a better time for that. If Rep. Springer wins, then there will be another special election to fill his seat. Some years we get a fair bit of shuffling after the November election. In 2019, we had a special election to fill SD06 after now-US Rep. Sylvia Garcia was elected in CD29, then another special election to fill HD145 after now-Sen. Carol Alvarado won that race. Specials were also needed in HDs 79 (Joe Pickett resigned due to health issues) and 125 (Justin Rodriguez was appointed to Bexar County Commissioners Court). You never know what may happen this year. One way or another, it’s always election season somewhere.

Metro moving forward with its construction plans

As well they should.

Carrin Patman greeted the supporter by grabbing both of his hands in a packed downtown Houston event space above a bustling sports bar. The buffet laid out for Metro’s 2019 election night watch party was thoroughly picked through and waiters and waitresses were bringing out more.

“I don’t want to jinx it, but everything is looking great. It’s going to pass,” Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board, told the man among a throng of celebrants clinking glasses and talking about the big win for buses and trains. As she let go, Patman said she was looking forward to starting the “real work” of building Houston’s future transit system.

A year later, Metro has to work its way through a pandemic that took away more than half its ridership and still is roiling its financial outlook before it can tackle more than a decade of rail, street and transit stop construction.

Nonetheless, transit officials are moving ahead with millions of dollars in engineering and design of new lines and services, confident they can plan now for major projects that riders eventually will demand.

“We don’t want to lose that time,” said Roberto Treviño, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction. “We don’t want to wait. Now is the time to plan.”

After months of discussion, contracts for design oversight and preparation of the lengthy federal environmental process for a major bus rapid transit line could be solicited by the end of the year, as Metro starts the work Patman predicted.

You can read the rest. Some projects have been de-prioritized for now, which is fine. The people voted for doing this work, and it would be a dereliction of duty to not do it. Unless you think we’re never going to get back to the level of activity and traffic we had before, there’s no reason to put this off. Keep moving forward.

District B runoff officially scheduled

Hooray!

Cynthia Bailey

At long last, voters in the north Houston neighborhoods that make up City Council’s District B will get to select a new representative in December.

Visiting state District Judge Grant Dorfman on Monday ordered the long-delayed runoff to be held Saturday, Dec. 12, almost exactly a year after the election was originally scheduled last year. Tarsha Jackson, a criminal justice organizer, and Cynthia Bailey, a neighborhood advocate, will face off in the election.

That is the same date for any runoffs necessitated by the Nov. 3 general election.

[…]

Tarsha Jackson

Council member Jerry Davis, the incumbent set to leave office last January, has remained in the seat to ensure the district had representation during the legal fight. Davis narrowly was defeated in his July runoff against state Rep. Harold Dutton for the District 142 seat Dutton has held since 1985.

District B includes nearly 200,000 people from many historic north Houston neighborhoods, such as Acres Homes, Kashmere Gardens and Settegast. The district stretches up to include Greenspoint and Bush International Airport. It has the second-highest concentration of Black residents, 47 percent, in the city.

See here for the background. Not much else to say here, we’ve been waiting a long, long time for this. It’s time to finally get a new Council member in District B.

We are finally about to get that District B runoff scheduled

About damn time.

Cynthia Bailey

A court hearing set for Oct. 19 finally could end the election dispute that has delayed a runoff in Houston city council’s District B for nearly a year.

A state district judge is scheduled to hear an unopposed motion to set the election for Saturday, Dec. 12, which would be almost exactly a year after the initial runoff on Dec. 14, 2019.

Houston, Harris County and the three candidates involved in the dispute support that election date, according to legal filings.

Tarsha Jackson

That would mean voters in District B, which is concentrated in north Houston and stretches up to Bush International Airport, could elect a new representative in December.

Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey were the top two finishers in the general election last November and now would proceed to the runoff.

[…]

The runoff could not be held on Nov. 3 because state law mandates it be held on the same date as the original election, which was a Saturday.

The date of the court hearing was delayed because state law prescribes a maximum amount of time between the court order and the runoff. Oct. 19 was the earliest date possible for a court order to get on the Dec. 12 ballot, according to legal filings.

See here for the previous update. December 12 is the date that a city runoff election would have been held this year, if there had been any city elections on the November ballot. It’s always the second Saturday in December. It sounds like this court hearing is pro forma, so once it’s over we should have an official, scheduled runoff election date. All I san say is “Hallelujah”.

Appeals court upholds District B ruling

We will finally get a runoff election in District B.

Cynthia Bailey

An appeals court ruled early Tuesday that Houston did not err when it declined to disqualify a District B city council candidate who had a felony conviction, clearing the way for a long-delayed runoff in the district.

Renee Jefferson-Smith, the third-place candidate in the race who filed the lawsuit, said she does not plan to appeal the ruling, which would effectively end the nine-month dispute.

“I am pleased with the court’s decision and I pray that Cynthia Bailey and Tarsha Jackson remain safe as they continue on with their campaigns to become the next City Council Woman for District B,” Jefferson-Smith said in a statement.

Tarsha Jackson

“It’s been long enough and the District deserves to know who will represent them. My family and I are truly excited about the opportunity to move forward and focus on what’s ahead in our lives.”

It is not yet clear when an election can be held. Attorneys involved in the case said they believe it will return now to the lower court, where visiting judge Grant Dorfman can order a new election date. In February, he ordered a May 2 election, which was derailed amid appeals.

One wrinkle is that the Texas Election Code mandates the runoff be held on the same day of the week as the original election, which was a Saturday, according to Assistant Harris County Attorney Doug Ray. That would mean the District B race cannot go on the Nov. 3 ballot, he said.

See here for my previous update. The law in question is quiet clear, mandating that a runoff election that was delayed by an election contest must be held on the same day of the week as the originally scheduled runoff. I hate the idea that this election can’t be held on the same day in November that everyone will be voting anyway, but I don’t know what can be done about it, other than Judge Dorfman saying “screw it” and daring someone to challenge him.

The central question of the case is whether Bailey, who finished second and qualified for the runoff with Jackson, is eligible for office despite her felony conviction.

Jefferson-Smith, who finished third and missed the runoff, had argued she is not. Jefferson-Smith filed two lawsuits seeking to have Bailey removed from the runoff ballot.

The Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas, like others that have handled the case, did not address directly the question of Bailey’s eligibility. A state statute says candidates cannot have felony convictions from which they have not “been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities,” but it does not define that phrase, which has led to varying interpretations and enforcement.

Instead, the court addressed Jefferson-Smith’s claim that the City of Houston erred in administering the election by failing to declare Bailey ineligible. Her team had sent the city a packet of documents, after the election but before the vote was certified, proving Bailey was convicted.

A trial court judge said the packet did not conclusively prove Bailey was ineligible because it did not say whether she had been pardoned or otherwise released. (Bailey has argued she is released because she completed her sentence.)

In a decision posted after midnight, the three-justice panel of the First Court of Appeals agreed.

“Because the documents that Jefferson-Smith presented to the Mayor’s Office in connection with her Demand for Administrative Declaration of Ineligibility present a fact question—whether Bailey has been pardoned or otherwise relieved of her disabilities—that the Mayor had no authority to resolve, the Mayor had no ‘duty imposed by law’ to declare Bailey ineligible and made no ‘mistake’ in declining to do so,” Chief Justice Sherry Radack wrote.

Candidates who run for office in Houston check a box on their application form swearing they have not been finally convicted of a felony. The city verifies they have checked the box but does not vet their accuracy.

I’ve read the decision, and while it’s pretty dry and technical, it’s easy enough to understand. The takeaway I got from it is that Jefferson Smith might have prevailed had she taken somewhat different actions, but given what she did do, it wasn’t enough to meet the requirements of the law. I suppose it’s possible the Supreme Court could have seen it differently – for what it’s worth, the panel that ruled on the case was two Republicans and one Democrat – but Jefferson Smith ultimately chose to end her pursuit, and for that I thank her. Now let’s get this election scheduled. Houston Public Media has more.

Hey, remember District B?

This makes me so mad.

Cynthia Bailey

For the last couple months, Tarsha Jackson has organized north Houston neighborhoods around criminal justice reform, helping to release a “Justice Can’t Wait” policy platform she said the city could enact immediately.

Cynthia Bailey has been working in the same communities, solving what she calls “neighborhood issues” and distributing masks and food amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected underserved communities like those in north Houston.

Renee Jefferson-Smith said she has helped ensure seniors there have hot meals and groceries.

They are familiar roles for candidates running for local office, but lately frustrating ones. Other candidates who ran on the same ballot last fall have been in office for seven months now, working within City Hall to enact policies they favor and helping to deploy city services to constituents that need them.

Tarsha Jackson

The election Jackson, Bailey and Jefferson-Smith ran in — the District B seat on city council — has been on hold since December amid an ongoing legal battle over the ballot.

District B, a majority Black and Latino area between just northeast of downtown to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, has been particularly challenged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Incumbent Jerry Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for a spot in the Texas House, has remained in the seat to ensure district residents have representation. Still, many residents and community leaders there feel left behind.

“They have gone from being upset about it, to trying to understand, to now they’re mad as hell,” said Angeanette Thibodeaux, president of the Acres Homes Super Neighborhood Council. “How ironic is this? How terrible is this? That in a time when we need representation and leadership and support, the one district that needs it more than any is disenfranchised once again. That hurts. In the pit of my stomach, that hurts.”

[…]

The candidates’ lawyers expect an appellate ruling in early August, perhaps as soon as next week, that they hope will settle the matter. Mayor Sylvester Turner has said the city will call an election as soon as the courts decide it can.

See here, here, and here for some background. First and foremost, I’m mad that our laws continue to punish people who have otherwise completed in full the sentence for whatever past crime they may have committed. Cynthia Bailey had as much right to be on that ballot as anyone. We need to fix these racist old laws.

Second, I’m mad at Renee Jefferson Smith for dragging this out. I can understand that she felt like the system wronged her, but the damage she has caused far outweighs any injury she may have received. At any point, she could have accepted the result, allowed the voters of District B to select their next Council member, and worked to change or clarify the law so that this situation would not happen again. She could have chosen to put the district’s needs ahead of her own, but she did not. She may prevail in court – I don’t think that would be a just outcome, because you cannot conclusively determine that she would have finished in the runoff had Cynthia Bailey never been on the ballot, but it is a possible ruling we could get – but if so she does not deserve to be rewarded for it. The only acceptable result at this point is for Tarsha Jackson or Cynthia Bailey to be the next Council member in B.

And just think, this situation could be even worse right now. If Jerry Davis had won his primary runoff against Harold Dutton, then District B would have no one sitting at the Council table for them, for however long it would take to get a court ruling. Even that could come with a down side, as the possibility still exists that someone will file a lawsuit over some vote or other action Davis has taken while serving as Council member-in-overtime, on the grounds that he was not legally able to serve past the end of his term. That hasn’t happened yet thank God, but it still could.

At this point, if we get a ruling before August 17, I think we can have the runoff on the November ballot. I’m assuming here a ruling that denies Jefferson Smith’s appeal and verifies that Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey are the only candidates for the office. I don’t know if this has to be approved by City Council or not, but if so we’ll need the ruling even sooner than that, say by August 10. It would be very nice to get that ruling this week. And if Jefferson Smith prevails and we need to have some kind of do-over…I don’t even want to think about it. Let’s just file this in the “Underappreciated Ways In Which 2020 Has Sucked” folder and go from there.

Budget amendments and a fight over police reform

That’s your City Council agenda for today.

City council members have authored more than four dozen amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget to trim spending, create new sources of revenue and expand police accountability measures.

Council members will take up the proposals Wednesday when they consider the mayor’s $5.1 billion budget plan, which is coming forward at an especially fraught moment. The city’s usual budget challenges have been aggravated by the economic crisis tied to COVID-19, while activists are gaining traction around the country in their calls to defund or scale back police departments after the death of Houston native George Floyd.

Many of the 50 budget amendments are a direct response to those topics, including one from Councilwoman Amy Peck that would establish a group to audit all city departments and programs, then recommend whether they should be continued with certain changes, folded into another program or dissolved altogether.

The process would in some ways parallel the zero-based budgeting process used for Turner’s spending plan, which required department heads to analyze every function and justify each dollar spent rather than adding to existing budgets. Peck said Turner’s administration never showed council members the detailed results of zero-based budgeting — and her so-called sunset review commission has a broader scope.

“With the sunset review, it’s looking at every line item, but it goes past that,” she said. “It involves citizens and stakeholders and really gets into whether (the program is) serving the constituents, whether there are ways to consolidate, if there are technology advances to make. There could be some program within a department that’s just not needed anymore.”

Other cost-cutting amendments include Councilwoman Sallie Alcorn’s proposal to study where Houston and Harris County can join forces instead of providing duplicate services, and a program suggested by Peck and Councilman Robert Gallegos that would allow city workers to voluntarily take unpaid time off. Councilman Greg Travis also proposed letting private firms compete with city departments for certain contracts, or studying whether it would save money to do so.

[…]

The mayor has expressed opposition, meanwhile, to a sweeping police reform amendment introduced by Councilwoman Letitia Plummer that would eliminate nearly 200 vacant positions in the Houston Police Department. The funds saved by getting rid of the positions and a cadet class would go toward beefing up de-escalation training and the police oversight board, among other proposals sought by those pushing for police department reform around the country.

Turner repeatedly said during last year’s mayoral campaign that he wants to grow the police department by several hundred officers, and he rejected the idea of reducing the police department’s budget during an appearance on CNN last week.

With a budget of over $900 million that is devoted almost entirely to personnel, HPD is by far the city’s largest department and would have little room to cut spending without diminishing the police force. The police union previously negotiated a 3 percent pay bump from July 1 through the end of the year, accounting for much of the department’s proposed budget increase.

On Monday, five black Houston council members released a series of proposed HPD reforms that include many of the measures contained in Plummer’s plan, but without the spending cuts. The letter included every black member of council — Martha Castex-Tatum, Jerry Davis, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, Edward Pollard and Tiffany Thomas — except Plummer.

In a statement, Plummer said, “After reading my colleagues’ open letter, it appears we all want the same things. I look forward to having their support for my amendments on Wednesday.”

See here for some background, and here for the five Council members’ proposals. Here it must be noted that the police union was a big supporter of Mayor Turner, and they were the instigators of the lawsuit that killed the firefighter pay parity referendum. He campaigned on hiring more police, and that’s where he is. That said, nine votes on Council can pass a budget amendment, and in addition to those six black Council members there are five other Democrats – Abbie Kamin, Robert Gallegos, Karla Cisneros, David Robinson, and Sallie Alcorn – who should be open to persuasion on this matter. Maybe some of the Republican Council members might be willing to trim some budget as well – CM Dave Martin received no money from the HPOU PAC in 2019, for instance. Point being, there’s plenty of room to get at least the group of five amendments passed, if not the Plummer amendment. There’s a rally this morning at City Hall to build support for that. There won’t be any better opportunities anytime soon.