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Election 2020

We should have a full statewide slate

Nice.

Judge Gisela Triana

For Brandon Birmingham, a state district judge in Dallas, the 2020 race for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals started on election night 2018.

As he watched Beto O’Rourke win more votes than any Texas Democrat ever had in a statewide race, Birmingham — who himself won reelection that night with 100% of the vote in his countywide district — began to mull his own chances at winning Texas. Within weeks, he’d reached out to the state Democratic Party. By December, he’d sat down with party officials over breakfast in Dallas to discuss a possible run.

Now, as the 2020 election season begins in earnest after the start of the filing period Nov. 9, Birmingham is one of 14 Democrats seeking one of seven seats on the state’s two high courts — an unusually crowded and unusually qualified field for races that have over the past two decades plus proved suicide missions for Democrats. This year, with a controversial Republican president on the ballot and sky-high stakes for Texas Democrats, candidates are hoping the races look more like heroes’ journeys.

“In 2018, 2016, 2014, 2012, the last four cycles, the month of October was spent talking and begging people to come to us, to run for these kinds of offices,” said Glen Maxey, a former Texas House member who is coordinating statewide judicial races for the Texas Democratic Party. “That’s what’s different about 2020. We did not make a single phone call. … We have not twisted a single arm about doing this.”

In past years, Maxey said, the party was often scrambling to find “any qualified attorney” to put on the ballot. This year, nearly every race involves at least one sitting judge or justice with years of experience.

[…]

Strategists sometimes consider statewide judicial races the best measure of the state’s true partisan split: Whom do voters pick when they know little or nothing about either party’s candidate?

Statewide judicial races are “important to watch in terms of partisan vote behavior,” said Mike Baselice, a GOP pollster. They show a “good reflection of base Democratic and base Republican vote in the state.”

That also means that judicial candidates typically rise and fall as a slate: Most likely, either all of them will win or none of them will, strategists acknowledge. It’s a blunt theory, but it offers clear strategic guidance: A rising tide lifts all boats.

“We won’t have them each deciding to be at the same chicken fry in Parker County on the same Friday,” Maxey said. Instead, he said, they’ll tell nominees: “We need you to travel. We need you to be making appearances as seven people in seven different media markets every day, so that people are hearing a Democratic message about equal justice, all over, everywhere.”

I agree with Mike Baselice that judicial races do indeed do a good job of measuring partisan vote behavior. As you know, I’ve been using CCA races across the years as my point of comparison. I like judicial races at the county level even more because they are almost always straight up R-versus-D contests, but a lot of these go uncontested in counties that have strong partisan leans, so the statewides are the best overall proxy.

By that measure, 2018 was easily the most Democratic year in recent memory. The Supreme Court and CCA Democratic candidates ranged from 45.48% (in a race that included a Libertarian) to 46.83%, the best showing since Sam Houston got 45.88% in 2008 and Margaret Mirabal got 45.90% in 2002. I’d quibble slightly with the assertion that all the Dems will win or none of them will – there is some spread in these races, so if the state is basically 50-50, you could have a couple Dems sneak through while others just fall short. That’s basically what happened in Harris County judicial races in 2008 and 2012, after all. The presence or absence of third party candidates could be a factor as well, as more candidates in the race means fewer votes, and only a plurality, are needed to win. Again, this is only relevant if the state is truly purple, and the range of outcomes that include a split in the judicial races is narrow, but it could happen.

My one complaint here is that the story only names one Democratic CCA candidate, while teasing that there are many more. So I asked some questions, of reporter Emma Platoff and Patrick Svitek, reporter and proprietor of the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet of announced candidates, and now that Statewide tab is full. Here. for your perusal, are your Democratic statewide judicial candidates:

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

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

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

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

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

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham

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

Kelly is a Justice on the First Court of Appeals, elected in 2018. He doesn’t appear to have an online campaign presence yet, but a search for “peter kelly texas supreme court” yielded this.

William Demond is a “constitutional rights attorney” in Houston. Elizabeth Frizell is a former County Criminal Court judge in Dallas who ran for Dallas County DA in 2018 but lost in the primary. This story in The Appeal has some information about her candidacy from that year. Dan Wood is a criminal appellate lawyer who ran for the Fifth Court of Appeals in 2012 and for CD05 in 2018.

Brandon Birmingham, the one candidate named in the story, was elected to the 292nd Criminal District Court in Dallas in 2014, re-elected in 2018.

Tina Clinton serves as Criminal District Judge Dallas County Number 1, which is a felony court. I don’t know why the nomenclature is different from the other District Courts as I had not heard of this kind of court before, but similarly-named courts exist in Tarrant and Jefferson counties as well. She was elected to this court after serving eight years as a County Criminal Court judge, and you can scroll down the 2018 election results page to see more judges like her. Steve Miears is a criminal and criminal appellate attorney from Grapevine.

And now we’re as up to date as we can be The Secretary of State is now providing candidate filing information, which tells me that as of Friday Lawrence Praeger was the only one to have formally filed. More are to follow, and I’ll keep an eye on it.

Will Kay Granger get KO’ed?

Rep. Henry Cuellar isn’t the only longtime Texas Congressperson facing a serious primary challenge.

Rep. Kay Granger

It’s the question on the minds of Republicans from Washington to Cowtown: Is one of Texas’ most powerful U.S. House members in political trouble?

Enough people think so that many in the GOP political class are bracing for Fort Worth to serve as the setting of the next nationalized battle between the party’s establishment and rebellious conservative factions.

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, is running for reelection in her Fort Worth district. But at least one well-funded primary challenger has emerged: Chris Putnam, who shot out of the gate this fall with a burst of cash and accusations that Granger is not sufficiently loyal to President Donald Trump.

Unseating Granger would undoubtedly be a tall task — she’s a 12-term member of Congress who has been a force in Fort Worth politics since before she was mayor in the early 1990s.

“I sure as hell wouldn’t want to run against her,” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth resident and brother of the man Granger replaced in Congress.

But Granger, who is the only Republican woman representing Texas at the federal level and the most senior Republican woman in the House, has never faced a competitive Congressional race, leaving state and national Republicans to wonder how she will respond.

“Sometimes, sitting congresspeople have knuckleheads who run against them in primaries, who have no chance,” said former Tarrant County GOP Chairman Tim O’Hare, who lives outside the district but is supporting Putnam. “This is certainly not one of those. He certainly has a chance. He is far more popular among conservatives than she is.”

The story notes a few factors that may lead to Granger’s electoral demise:

– Insufficient Trumpiness. Granger, first elected in 1996, is a “moderate” in the sense that she’s not a barking lunatic who spews unhinged conspiracy theories on Fox News and lower-rung media outlets. In a Republican primary, that’s not a compliment.

– Lack of recent experience with competitive campaigns, thanks to a red district and few primary challenges. The last contested primary she faced was 2012, which she won with 80%. Before that there was 2010, which she won with 70%, and 2002, where she won with 87%. She’s neither a seasoned campaigner nor one who has had to do much of it – she’s currently seeking out campaign staff, which is not a great place to be when one has a viable challenger four months out from the election.

– No major financial advantage. Granger has a senior leadership position in the GOP caucus, and a part of that is kicking into the national committees to help out other Republicans. That has left her cash on hand lower than you’d expect for someone like her, and enabled her challenger to mostly achieve parity with her. She’s got some heavy hitters ponying up for her now, and in the end should have all the resources she needs, but she has to get there from here.

– Not mentioned in the story but inescapable in this context, she’s a woman running in a Republican primary with a male opponent. That’s not a recipe for success in the modern GOP.

I have no dog in this fight, and I have no particular insight as to what Tarrant County GOP primary voters may do. I will be watching this result on Primary Day.

Smoots-Thomas suspended from the bench

What you’d expect.

Alexandra Smoots-Thomas

A district court judge in Harris County has been suspended after she was indicted on federal wire fraud charges for allegedly misspending campaign donations.

Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, 44, will be removed from her bench without pay until the State Commission on Judicial Conduct determines otherwise, the oversight board said Tuesday, the same day it was presented with the indictment and ordered her suspension.

“We’re not surprised, but we’re still very disappointed that the state chose to take that action,” Smoots-Thomas’ attorney, Kent Schaffer, said. “It just adds to the fight that we have before us.

[…]

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has the authority to suspend judges, but can only recommend their removal to the Texas Supreme Court after conducting an investigation, according to the commission’s procedures.

Smoots-Thomas has rarely sat on her bench this year, Schaffer said, because she has breast cancer and has undergone several rounds of treatments.

See here for the background. I guess I can understand being disappointed in this entirely expected decision, but I don’t know what else might have happened. I can’t imagine a scenario in which a judge in similar circumstances would not be suspended. If nothing else, anyone appearing before her might reasonably question whether she could be on her game, since there would obviously be bigger things on her mind than whatever case was being argued.

I know that Judge Smoots-Thomas is collecting signatures to get on the ballot next year. I don’t know at this time if anyone else is doing the same. I’ll be surprised if that isn’t the case, but stranger things have happened. In the meantime, we’ll see how long this investigation takes.

News flash: Republicans still like Trump

I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

As in any sports bar in Texas when the Dallas Cowboys are playing on Monday night, most of the TVs at a British pub in northwest San Antonio were tuned to the game.

But on one side of The Lion and Rose, the sights and sounds were just a little off. None of the fans wore silver or blue. Instead, about 50 people, predominately wearing red, gathered around a bank of big-screen TVs playing C-SPAN as they ate bar food and cheered with each applause line that President Donald Trump delivered on a stage in Kentucky.

Trump’s re-election campaign organized the watch party to connect with more potential volunteers as it seeks an army of campaign workers to help extract more votes, even out of Democratic-leaning areas like San Antonio. The event was part of the Trump campaign’s National Week of Action, essentially a dry run to “activate” thousands of volunteers needed next November to get out the vote.

It was the second San Antonio event in just three weeks — on Oct. 15 the president’s son Donald Trump Jr headlined a rally downtown aimed at firing up the party faithful as well as collecting names, emails and phone numbers of volunteers who can be deployed next fall. And President Trump himself was in San Antonio seven months earlier meeting with business leaders and holding a fundraiser.

“We’re not giving up on one single voter,” said Toni Anne Dashiell, the Texas Republican National Committeewoman from nearby Kerr County who was at the watch party last week.

Dashiell said the strategy is to mobilize while the Democrats are locked in a potentially long primary battle to determine their nominee. While the opposition is working on Iowa and New Hampshire, the Trump campaign is pouring resources into states such as Texas to shore up support.

The Democrats are convinced Texas is more in play that it has been in a generation, but by the time they get their presidential nominee, Dashiell said Trump will be way ahead in building the kind of ground game needed to hold the state.

Still, GOP optimism can be a tall order in Bexar County, which wasn’t kind to Trump in 2016. While Trump won Texas by 9 percentage points, his defeat in Bexar County wasn’t just bad — it was historically bad.

In winning just 40.7 percent of the vote, Trump did worse in the San Antonio area than any Republican Party candidate in nearly 50 years. Hillary Clinton won Bexar County by more than 79,000 votes — the biggest vote margin of victory for a Democrat in the county’s history.

Trump campaign officials say the 2016 returns are a symptom of “having left votes on the table.” They are convinced that if they can begin working now in Republican pockets in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, they can far exceed their 2016 showing.

On the bright side, Trump did do slightly better in Bexar County than Ted Cruz did in 2018. I mean, we know that Republicans are going to work for the 2020 election. They’re trying to register voters, they’ll spend a bunch of money, that sort of thing. What makes that newsworthy, of course, is that they feel they have to do that. It’s not just that Republicans came close to losing several statewide races last year, it’s also that they got annihilated in urban areas, lost numerous suburban counties that had long been their strongholds, and saw Democrats at every level set turnout records. All of that was driven by Donald Trump, and the strong need so many people felt to put the brakes on his destructive reign. Polling data we have so far suggests none of that has abated.

Now having said all that, Republicans should expect to get more votes statewide in 2020 than they did in 2018. I say that because they got more votes in 2016 than they did in 2018. Some number of Presidential year Republicans did stay home in 2018. That’s true of Democrats as well, even with the record-setting turnout, but it’s fair to say that Republicans start with a deeper well to dig into. Not that much deeper – we know that a lot of people with Republican voting history went Democratic in 2018, again as a response to Trump. I don’t see any evidence to suggest that has changed. But there are voters out there for the Republicans to reach, likely more in the rural and exurban areas than the urban areas, and I expect they will mostly succeed in reaching them. Democrats have the harder task, which is not only reaching their 2016-but-not-2018 voters but also finding the new voters, and they have more ground to make up. That’s the challenge we have to meet.

By the way, in regards Engage Texas, the right wing-funded voter registration project: Tiffany and I each received a mailer from them last week, urging us to get registered. Which is hilarious, because we are the very definition of vote-in-every-election people, and we are not the people that Engage Texas is looking for. I mean, even a third-rate data processing operation would have figured that out. Maybe the ROI for this extreme blanketing approach is worth the presumably high cost per new registration that they manage to generate. It’s fine by me if they want to waste their money like that, though. Send us more mail, Engage Texas!

State Rep. Poncho Nevarez busted for cocaine possession

It’s been a week, hasn’t it? I have three things to say about this.

Rep. Poncho Nevarez

Authorities issued a warrant Thursday for the arrest of state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, an Eagle Pass Democrat, on felony drug possession charges. A state special investigator claims in the warrant, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, that Nevárez was caught on surveillance footage in September dropping an envelope with cocaine as he was leaving the Austin airport.

A magistrate judge in Travis County signed the warrant Thursday afternoon. Nevárez faces a charge of third-degree felony possession of a controlled substance, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.

Neither Nevárez’s office nor the Travis County District Attorney’s Office immediately responded to a request for comment.

Thursday’s news came hours after an affidavit detailing the allegations, filed Oct. 29 in Travis County court by the Texas Department of Public Safety, was revealed and later obtained by the Tribune and other news outlets. The affidavit was attached to a warrant seeking to conduct a test to determine whether Nevárez’s DNA was on the envelope. The document says that the envelope had Nevárez’s official House seal and held “four small clear baggies” containing a substance found to include cocaine.

Nevárez, who chairs the House Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee, announced last week he was retiring from the lower chamber. And in a statement to the Tribune Thursday morning before the warrant was issued, Nevárez confirmed that the “news is true” — and that the events detailed in the affidavit prompted his decision to not seek reelection.

“I do not have anyone to blame but myself,” he said, noting that he plans to seek treatment. “I accept this because it is true and it will help me get better.”

1. Nevarez had previously announced he was not running for re-election, which I think we can all agree is for the best. Sometimes, regardless of other considerations, stepping back in order to get one’s life together is the stronger course of action.

2. And I really do hope he gets his life back together. Addiction is a terrible thing, and it has real costs not just on the addict but on the addict’s family and friends. Even if I am grossly overstating the issue here – I am making some big assumptions – I stand by the main point about the personal cost to all involved.

3. I hope we take this as an opportunity to further reflect on how the criminal justice system handles drug usage and possession. I would not advocate for decriminalization of cocaine, but I would hope we would all by now recognize that a ten-year jail sentence for possessing a small amount of it is ridiculous and serves no worthwhile purpose. It’s needlessly punitive, exorbitantly expensive, and surely does not have a positive effect on addiction and drug abuse. And we should reflect on the fact that while someone like Rep. Nevarez is unlikely to spend much if any time in jail, many many people in Texas and around the country are not so fortunate. Our drug laws are harmful and woefully out of date. We really should do something about that. If Rep. Nevarez’s situation helps even one legislator realize that, then at least one good thing will come out of this.

Filing period preview: Harris County

Previously: Congress, Statewide, and SBOE/Senate/House.

For County races, I cannot use the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet, as it doesn’t include local races. I am instead using the Campaign Contribution and Expenditure Reports for Various County Offices link on the County Clerk webpage, as it includes Appointments of Treasurer. I set the filter for a time frame beginning July 15, and including all offices. Not perfect, and may miss candidates who filed Appointments of Treasurer, but it’s close enough. Earlier candidates will have been included in my roundup of July finance reports for county candidates.

So with all that said, here we go. I’m not looking for incumbents’ campaign webpages, we already know about them. I’m trying to identify the party for each of the candidates I found, but some are not easy to determine, so I left them as “unknown”. Feel free to correct me if you know more.

District Attorney

Note: I used some information in this Life at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center post in the following.

Kim Ogg (D)
Audia Jones (D). Has been running for several months.
Carvana Cloud (D). Former division chief within the DAO (see link above).

Mary Nan Huffman (R) Former ADA in the Montgomery County DA’s office, now working for HPOU.

Lori DeAngelo (Unknown) Another former assistant DA (see link above again). I can’t find much else about her.
Todd Overstreet – (Unknown). I have no new information about him since the July post.

Finally, rumor has it that our old buddy Lloyd Oliver is running for DA as a Republican. I don’t see any filings for him so I can’t readily confirm that, but 1) I’m sure he has an appointment of treasurer always on file, and 2) Lloyd Oliver is a barnacle on the body politic, so it pays to always expect something annoying from him.

Sheriff

Ed Gonzalez (D)
Harry Zamora (D). I have no new information on him since the July post.
Jerome Moore (D). Ran in the Dem primary in 2016. No new info on him, either.

Paul Day (R). He is a “Pro-Life, Christian Conservative”, and he ran in the Republican primary for Sheriff in 2008, against then-incumbent Tommy Thomas, getting 17% of the vote.
Joe Danna (R). As noted in July, a multi-time candidate for Constable in Precinct 1.

Lawrence Rush (Unknown). Current employee of the HCSO.

County Attorney

Vince Ryan (D)
Christian Menefee (D)
Ben Rose (D)

Nothing new here, both of these challengers have been running for months. I don’t see any evidence of a Republican candidate for County Attorney as yet.

Tax Assessor

Ann Harris Bennett (D)

Chris Daniel (R)

Daniel is the former District Clerk, elected in the 2010 wave and then un-elected in the 2018 assertion of Democratic dominance. His Appointment of Treasurer was filed on Wednesday but not yet viewable. His Friends of Chris Daniel PAC reported $438 on hand and $25K in outstanding loans as of July.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 1

Rodney Ellis (D)
Maria T. Jackson (D). We know about this one. I could not find any web presence for her – her personal Facebook page still lists her occupation as a Judge – but I did find this Houston Style article about her campaign launch. I will be very interested to see what her January finance report looks like.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

Steve Radack (R)
Brenda Stardig (R)

Diana Alexander (D)
Michael Moore (D)
Kristi Thibaut (D)
Erik Hassan (D)
Luis Guajardo (D)

The first three Dems, we know about. Alexander was the first candidate in. Moore is the former Chief of Staff to Mayor Bill White. Thibaut served one term in the Lege in HD133. Erik Hassan was a candidate in the 2016 Dem primary for Precinct 3, losing to Jenifer Pool. Luis Guajardo is a very recent filer whose personal Facebook page lists him as an urban planner. As for Brenda Stardig, soon to be former Council Member in District A, she filed her Appointment of Treasurer on November 8. Chron reporter Jasper Scherer says that Radack is running for re-election, so there’s another contested primary for you. Radack has a pile of cash on hand, and he may have to spend some of it in the next couple of months. As with Maria Jackson, I will be very interested to see what Brenda Stardig’s January finance report looks like.

I’m going to stop here, in part because this is long enough and in part because I’m not prepared to do the same exercise on Constables and Justices of the Peace. Just remember that Beto carried all eight Constable/JP precincts in 2018, so ideally every Republican incumbent should have a challenger, this year and in 2022 as well. I may take a stab at this next week, but for now this wraps up my look ahead at the filing period. I’m sure I’ll have more to say as actual filings pile up.

Filing period preview: SBOE, Senate, House

Previously: Congress, and Statewide. As before, I am using the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet as my primary reference.

Buckle up, there’s a lot to talk about here. I’m going to limit my discussion of State House races to the greater Houston area.

SBOE: There are three SBOE seats on the ballot that were carried by Beto in 2018. Winning all three would give Democrats am 8-7 majority on this famously flaky board. One of these seats in within Harris County, and that’s SBOE6, where Michelle Palmer and Debra Kerner have been in for some time.

State Senate: Unlike 2018, there’s really only one competitive district on the ballot, and that’s SD19, the seat Dems fumbled away in the special election. State Rep. Roland Gutierrez and Xochil Peña Rodriguez, daughter of former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, are in. Despite the self-own in 2018, the district is basically 55-45 Dem, with a bit of variance on either end. Beto took it by 15 points, but even Lupe Valdez cleared fifty percent. A return to normal partisan behavior should make Pete Flores a temporary Senator.

Democratic incumbents Carol Alvarado (SD06) and Borris Miles (SD13) do not have primary opponents as yet. I tend to think someone will run against Miles after those harassment allegations against him were reported, but if so it will likely be a newcomer. One other Dem who both needs and has primary opponents is Eddie Lucio; I discussed Ruben Cortez and Sara Stapleton-Barrera, his known opponents, here. SD29 in El Paso is open following the retirement of Jose Rodriguez, with State Rep. Cesar Blanco the only contender to succeed him so far.

The two Republican-held seats in the Houston area have Dem challengers. For SD04, mostly in Montgomery County, there’s Jay Stittleburg, who ran for Montgomery County Judge in 2018. Griffin Winkworth is listed in the spreadsheet as having filed a designation of Treasurer. SD11 has two contenders: Margarita Ruiz Johnson, who was a candidate for CD22 in 2018 but did not advance to the runoff, and Susan Criss, former District Court judge in Galveston County and candidate for HD23 in 2014. Neither district is particularly competitive – Beto got 41.5% in SD11, but most Republicans carried it by 20 or more.

State House: Let’s start with the districts that don’t have Dem challengers yet. As noted, this is limited to the greater Houston area. You can peruse the spreadsheet at your leisure for other districts.

HD03 (Montgomery/Waller)
HD15 (Montgomery)
HD16 (Montgomery)
HD18 (Liberty)
HD23 (Galveston)
HD24 (Galveston)
HD29 (Brazoria)
HD85 (Fort Bend/Wharton/Jackson)
HD127 (Harris)
HD129 (Harris)
HD133 (Harris)
HD150 (Harris)

HDs 29 (which originally had a Dem who later withdrew) and 127 were the only ones in 2018 that went unchallenged. HD29 in particular is a district of interest, as it was a 47% Beto district in 2018.

Now for Republican-held districts that do have Dem challengers, at least according to the spreadsheet.

HD25 (Brazoria, the now-open Dennis Bonnen seat) – Someone named J. Patrick Henry, whom I cannot conclusively identify.
HD26 (Fort Bend) – Sarah DeMerchant, the 2018 candidate; Rish Oberoi; Suleman Lalani.
HD28 (Fort Bend) – We all know about Eliz Markowitz, right?
HD126 (Harris) – Natali Hurtado, the 2018 candidate.
HD128 (Harris) – Josh Markle, who got a nice fundraising boost from Beto after his little tiff with incumbent Briscoe Cain over automatic weapons.
HD130 (Harris) – Bryan Henry.
HD134 (Harris) – Ann Johnson, the 2012 candidate; Ruby Powers; Lanny Bose, the most recent entrant.
HD138 (Harris) – Akilah Bacy; Josh Wallenstein, who was a candidate in the primary for HCDE at large in 2018.

Two Democratic incumbents so far have primary opponents, Alma Allen in HD131 (Carey Lashley) and Garnet Coleman in HD147 (Aurelia Wagner). Both always seem to draw primary opponents, for whatever the reason. Ron Reynolds in HD26 usually draws one as well, for reasons that are more clear. I note that the spreadsheet lists Richard Bonton as a Republican opponent for Harold Dutton in HD142. Bonton ran against Dutton in the Dem primary in 2018.

We can’t end this conversation without bringing up HD148. I fully expect Anna Eastman to win the special election runoff, which is most likely be on December 14, the same day as the city of Houston runoffs. It doesn’t have to be on the 14th – Greg Abbott sets the runoff date, and he has some discretion. The last time we had a special election for a State Rep seat in an odd year was 2005 with the election in HD143, and that runoff was held on the same date as the city runoffs. Not a guarantee, but a data point. In any event, whatever happens in that race, there’s no reason to believe that some other candidates won’t file for the primary in HD148 as well. Any of the runners up may conclude that this was a wonky election, and that maybe they lost some votes to not-that-Adrian-Garcia. For sure, the primary will have a very different electorate, and Anna Eastman will not be very well known to them. I will be a little surprised if Eastman has the primary to herself.

Last but not least in this series: county races. I don’t get to lean on the spreadsheet for that one.

Filing period preview: Statewide

Previously: Congress. As before, I am using the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet as my primary reference.

Statewide elections are much less exciting in Presidential years in Texas, since the state offices are on the ballot in the off years. We do have a US Senate race of interest, which I think you are familiar with. Beyond that, there’s the one Railroad Commission spot (there are three Railroad Commissioners, they serve six year terms, with one slot up for election each cycle), and the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals positions. We’ll take a look at those this time around.

Railroad Commissioner: We discussed this recently. Chrysta Castañeda and Kelly Stone are in, 2016 candidate Cody Garrett is thinking about it, and I will worry about Grady Yarbrough rising like a zombie to sow chaos until the filing deadline.

Supreme Court: There are four races, thanks to a previous retirement and appointment by Greg Abbott. Three of the races are contested.

Against Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, in Position 1, we have Amy Clark Meachum, a District Court judge in Travis County first elected in 2010, and Jerry Zimmerer, a Harris County judge elected to the 14th Court of Appeals in 2018.

For Position 7 against Jeff Boyd, the candidates are Brandy Voss, an attorney and law professor from McAllen, and Staci Williams, a District Court judge from Dallas County, first elected in 2014.

Position 6 is the open seat, where Jeff Brown was replaced by Jane Bland, a former First Court of Appeals judge who was defeated in 2018. Kathy Cheng, a Houston attorney who ran for this same position in 2018, finishing with 46.3% of the vote, and Lawrence Praeger, also a Houston attorney, are the contenders.

Position 8, held by Brett Busby, is the only one that has a lone Democrat, at least so far. Gisela Triana, a longtime District Court judge in Travis County who was elected to the Third Court of Appeals in 2018.

Court of Criminal Appeals: Three positions are up, as per usual: Bert Richardson (Place 3), Kevin Yeary (Place 4), and David Newell (Place 9). There are candidates running for Place 6, except that that election may not happen this cycle. The spreadsheet only lists the Place 3 race and doesn’t mention any Dem candidates, so at this point I don’t have any knowledge to drop on you. I’m sure there are people running for these positions, but for what it’s worth the one statewide office that Dems did not challenge in 2018 was a CCA slot. I will of course keep my eyes open for this.

Next up: SBOE, State Senate, and State House. Let me know what you think.

Filing period preview: Congress

So even though we still have the 2019 runoffs to settle, the 2020 election is officially upon us. I say this because the filing period for 2020 candidates began on Saturday the 9th, closing on December 9. I expect there will be a tracker of filed candidates on the TDP webpage, but until such time as we have something like that, my guidebook for this is the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet of declared and rumored candidates. I’m going to do a series of posts on who has announced their candidacies for what this week, and I’ll be using that as the springboard.

I begin with Congressional candidates. We’ve sort of been tracking this all along via the quarterly finance reports, since you can’t be a candidate (or at least, you can’t be taken seriously as a candidate) unless you’re filing finance reports. My roundup of Q3 filing reports is here, and I’ll supplement that in this post.

The first thing I noticed after I clicked over to the spreadsheet to begin my research was that there’s a new Democratic candidate in CD02. And sure enough, there was a Chron story to go with it.

Travis Olsen

Former Homeland Security Department employee Travis Olsen this week joined the race for Texas’ 2nd Congressional District, becoming the second Democrat to vie for the seat held by U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston.

Olsen, who filed his candidacy with the Federal Election Commission Tuesday and launched his campaign Thursday, said he would seek to “provide an alternative” for residents “looking to move past partisanship and polarized politics,” contending that Crenshaw has not sought common ground with Democrats during his first term.

“We need leaders in Congress who are going to put country above party,” Olsen said in an interview. “And what we have seen is that Rep. Crenshaw will just follow the party line, follow the president, in his choices.”

[…]

To take on Crenshaw, Olsen first would have to win a Democratic primary next year that already includes Elisa Cardnell, a Navy veteran who filed her candidacy in February.

In response to Olsen’s campaign launch, Cardnell said in a statement that the race “has been, since day one, about how we put country over party and defeat Dan Crenshaw in 2020.”

“We’ve been making the case now for six months; if we want to hold Dan Crenshaw accountable for voting against lower prescription drug costs and against reauthorizing the national flood insurance program, it’s going to take a female veteran who can make him come to the table and talk about the issues, not just his past service,” Cardnell said.

Here’s Olsen’s website. He’ll need to start raising money ASAP, Crenshaw has bags and bags of it, and Cardnell has taken in $177K so far. From my perspective, this means another set of interviews to do for the primary. You’ll note as we go on there’s more where that came from.

Among Democratic incumbents, only Rep. Lizzie Fletcher in CD07 has no primary opponent. I won’t be surprised if some character wades in, but she won’t have much to worry about. Not in March, anyway; she will have a well-funded Republican opponent in November. Reps. Al Green in CD09 and Sylvia Garcia in CD29 each have one primary opponent. Melissa Wilson-Williams has reported $31K raised, though it all appears to be her own contributions. Someone named Nile Irsan says he’s running in CD29, but he has no web presence or finance reports as yet.

The primary for a Democratic seat with the most action is in CD18, where four announced candidates face Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee: Marc Flores (Q3 finance report), Bimal Patel (Q3 finance report), Stevens Orozco (Q3 finance report), and Jerry Ford (Q3 finance report). Flores and Patel have been in the race for awhile and have raised a few bucks; Orozco has only taken in $3K, while Ford has loaned himself $50K. Jackson had a token challenger in 2018 and took 85% of the vote. She had more serious challengers in 2010, including then-Council Member, now State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, but still won with 67%. It’s hard for me to believe she’ll face much adversity this time around.

The main event races are CDs 10 and 22, and there’s no change in status for them. It won’t surprise me if some stragglers file for them, but the contenders are as they have been all along – Mike Siegel, Shannon Hutcheson, and Pritesh Gandhi in CD10; Sri Kulkarni, Nyanza Moore, and Derrick Reed in CD22. The newest candidates are in CD08, the Kevin Brady district mostly in Montgomery County. Jacob Osborne established a campaign committee in May and has a campaign finance account, but no money raised or web presence as far as I can tell. Laura Jones is a more recent entrant and the Chair for the San Jacinto County Democrats, but has not filed any finance reports yet. Democrat Steven David got 25% in CD08 in 2018 so this is not exactly a prime pickup opportunity, but it’s always nice to see qualified candidates take a shot.

Elsewhere in the state, most of what we know I’ve covered in the finance report posts. I’m still hoping for a more serious contender in the admittedly fringey CD17, and we have things to sort out in CDs 03, 06, 25, and 31. We may yet see some new entrants here and there but for the most part the big picture is fairly clear. I’ll take a look at legislative offices next.

The evolving CD31 candidate landscape

We have a lot of Democratic candidates raising 2018-type money in the big, targeted Republican-held Congressional districts. Some have clear frontrunners, at least based on money raised – Wendy Davis in CD21, Sri Kulkarni in CD22, Gina Ortiz Jones in CD23 – while CDs 10 and 24 have multiple candidates raising competitive amounts of money. And then there’s CD31, the district that MJ Hegar put on the map last year, where no one has yet raised much money or established themselves as a force to be reckoned with. With candidates still coming and going, let’s check in and see who’s who and what’s what.

Tammy Young

Round Rock City Council Member Tammy Young announced her bid for U.S. Rep. John Carter’s seat Wednesday, joining a crowded field of candidates hoping to unseat the Round Rock Republican.

Young moved to Round Rock after leading a nonprofit in New Mexico for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. In Round Rock, she taught special education and later worked as a real estate broker. She was elected to the City Council in May 2017.

Democrats have been eyeing the district, which encompasses most of Williamson and Bell counties, after Carter defeated Democrat MJ Hegar by 2.9 points last year.

Young has hired major Democratic consultants, including AKPD, an ad firm that worked for U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, in 2018 and is now Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s ad maker; AMHC, which did mailing for former President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns; GQR for polling and 4Degrees for digital.

Young, 50, said she was a teenage mother and a survivor of domestic violence. She has two children with ADHD, which led her to write a book for parents titled “Slow Down, So I Can Tell You I Love You.”

“I know what it’s like to struggle and to have to find solutions to what seem like impossible challenges,” Young said.

On the City Council, Young worked to pass a $15 minimum wage for all city employees and worked with the city’s Chamber of Commerce to invest in workforce skills training.

“Through that experience on council, I’ve learned that it’s possible to work in a bipartisan way,” she said. “I know that this can be replicated in Congress.”

[…]

Computer engineer Donna Imam raised more than $60,000 between July and August and has $53,000 in cash on hand. Christine Eady Mann, a family practice physician who ran for the seat last year, announced in August that she would run again. She raised $53,000 between July and September, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Omar Kadir, a former candidate for Williamson County treasurer; singer Eric Hanke and Dan Janjigian, an actor and ex-Olympic bobsledder, are among the other Democrats in the race.

Here’s Tammy Young’s webpage; she has a pretty compelling life story. Other candidates in the race include Dan Jangigian, Eric Hanke, Donna Imam, and 2018 returnee Christine Eady Mann, who was runnerup to MJ Hegar in the primary that year. Murray Holcomb has apparently dropped out, as have a couple others mentioned in this August AusChron story that I linked to in my Q3 finance report roundup. We’re less than a week out from the beginning of the filing period, so we should be getting clarity real soon. At this point what we need is for one or more of these candidates to demonstrate the ability to raise the kind of money that will enable them to run the kind of race that will be needed for CD31 to be competitive again. Hegar, with a big assist from Beto, moved the ball a long way in 2018. CD31 was on paper one of the less likely to flip districts in 2018 – Hillary Clinton lost it by 12 points in 2016. Hegar made it close enough that it’s already on the DCCC target lists for 2020. What we need at this point is for one (or more!) of these candidates to show that they can take that next step. I hope the Q4 finance reports will provide some evidence of that.

District Court Judge Smoots-Thomas accused of wire fraud

Yikes.

Alexandra Smoots-Thomas

A Harris County judge is facing federal charges that accuse her of using campaign donations for personal expenses, including for mortgage payments, private school tuition and travel.

Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, 44, is charged with wire fraud charges, according to federal prosecutors. She turned herself in to U.S. Magistrate Peter Bray, appearing before him with chains wrapped around her waist and ankles.

She pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the magistrate set a pre-trial conference for Jan. 6.

Wearing a gray and black suit, she kept her head down for most of the arraignment. Smoots-Thomas has breast cancer, and had a round of chemotherapy on Thursday, attorney Kent Schaffer said.

Schaffer denied the charges after the proceeding, alleging that the U.S. Attorney’s Office, under Ryan Patrick, was targeting Smoots-Thomas because she is a black female Democrat.

“She has not defrauded anybody,” he said.

Patrick’s office has been contacted for comment on Schaffer’s allegations.

A federal grand jury on Oct. 24 returned a seven-count indictment against Smoots-Thomas, who presides over the 164th District Court and has jurisdiction over civil cases within Harris County. The indictment was unsealed on Friday.

[…]

The indictment alleges Smoots-Thomas of soliciting campaign contributions on the premise the money would be used to help facilitate her re-election campaigns in 2012 and 2016, prosecutors said. She concealed the expenses from her campaign treasurer and the Texas Ethics Commission by filing false campaign finance reports, according to the charges.

Obviously, this is bad and upsetting. She is of course innocent until proven guilty, but federal prosecutors tend to prefer bringing charges in cases they feel confident about winning.

Judge Smoots-Thomas was first elected in 2008. She was known as Alexandra Smoots-Hogan then; I know she had gotten divorced, and I presume remarried. There’s always a question about whether elected officials who are accused of crimes should resign when that happens. This is where I point out that Ken Paxton is still Attorney General, and I have not called for his resignation because he has not yet been convicted of anything. I’m inclined to believe that Kent Schaffer’s allegation about Assistant US Attorney Ryan Patrick is more defense lawyer strategy than anything else, but if all it took was an indictment to force someone out of office, then it’s certainly possible to imagine a politically motivated prosecutor filing sketchy charges as a partisan tactic. Plenty of people have been unjustly prosecuted in other contexts, after all. It’s a terrible look and I’m sure Republicans are rubbing their hands with glee over the potential attack ads, but even public officials get their day in court.

You really have to plan for every election

Whether or not they actually happen.

Judge Michael Keasler

For months, Democrats Mark Watson and Mike Snipes have been running 2020 campaigns for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Place 6. They’ve raised money, filed official paperwork, gathered signatures, traveled to far corners of the state, devoured East Texas delicacies, created Facebook pages, won endorsements, launched websites and given interviews with journalists.

There’s just one problem: There is probably not going to be an election.

The current occupant of that seat, Republican Judge Michael Keasler, is 77, and according to the state’s mandatory retirement law for judges, he must finish his decades of service on the state’s highest criminal court by the end of next year at the latest. State law permits him to finish four years of the six-year term he was elected to in 2016.

According to the Texas Constitution, Keasler’s seat will become vacant at the end of next December, and Gov. Greg Abbott is empowered to fill judicial vacancies. But the little-known and rarely relevant law seems to have led to some confusion: Would Keasler’s seat be filled in 2021 by the governor, or in 2020 by the voters?

If the Democrats were confused, they certainly weren’t the only ones.

In August, when an official from the state Democratic Party emailed state elections administrators to ask whether there would be a race, a lawyer for the secretary of state’s office reported that there would.

“I figured it out,” wrote Christina Adkins in an Aug. 15 email obtained by The Texas Tribune. “Judge Keasler is subject to mandatory retirement so his position is on the ballot in 2020.”

The race was included on the state’s list of offices up for election in 2020, posted earlier this year, and remained there as recently as Wednesday morning. Later that day, a Texas Tribune journalist emailed the agency to ask whether the seat would be up in 2020. As of Thursday, it was no longer listed on the state’s website.

A spokesman for the agency said Friday that “there is no vacancy until December 31, 2020, and the office is not already on the ballot.”

The story includes a before-and-after screenshot from the SOS website, which one day did list CCA6 as a 2020 race and then the next day did not. At this point, I’d have to say that barring anything unexpected this race will next be on the 2022 ballot as currently scheduled. At least Watson and Snipes will be ready to hit the ground running when that time comes around.

Justice Higley resigns

This is clearly the best course of action.

Justice Laura Higley

Justice Laura Carter Higley, who lives in West University and served on the Houston-based court, submitted her notice to Gov. Greg Abbott, the appeals court’s clerk confirmed Tuesday. In the letter, she did not offer a reason for stepping down from the bench, he said.

“Her service is appreciated by us and the state of Texas,” clerk Christopher Prine said.

The justice, a Republican, has held Place 5 on the court since 2002. She was re-elected in 2008 and 2014, with her term set to expire December 2020.

[…]

It’s unknown whether Justice Higley has been on the receiving end of any official complaints related to her work. Those would be brought to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the oversight group for judges, interim executive director Jacqueline Habersham has said.

See here for the background. Greg Abbott has accepted the resignation, and will appoint a new justice, who will be on the ballot in 2020 as Higley would have been. If recent patterns hold, he’ll appoint one of the Republican judges who were ousted in either 2016 or 2018. Regardless, I wish Laura Higley all the best with her health and care.

Roland Gutierrez running in SD19

Most of the action in Texas in 2020 is in the Congressional and State Rep races, but there’s one big State Senate pickup opportunity, and we need to close the deal on it.

Rep. Roland Gutierrez

State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, is set to announce Saturday that he is running again for Senate District 19 after coming up short in a special election last year that ended in a Republican upset.

Gutierrez’s campaign said he will make the announcement at 2 p.m. at an event in San Antonio.

After the 2018 debacle, conditions are expected to be much more favorable for Democrats in November 2020, and they are confident they can knock off Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton. But first there will be a contested Democratic primary: San Antonio lawyer Xochil Peña Rodriguez is already running. She is the daughter of former U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio.

For now, SD-19 is the only Texas Senate race expected to be competitive in the general election next year. Still, it has high stakes: If Democrats flip the seat, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick could lose the 19-member supermajority that is required to bring bills to the Senate floor without Democratic support.

That story was from Friday; Rep. Gutierrez subsequently did formally announce his candidacy. He’ll have to give up his State Rep seat to do this, but he will likely be the strongest candidate against Pete Flores. I feel like residual bad blood following the 2018 special election, in which later entrant Pete Gallego finished ahead of Gutierrez but then lost the runoff, was a part of why Dems failed to hold this seat. Having Presidential year turnout in a district that was basically 55-45 Dem in 2016 will certainly help, but having unity would be nice as well. Whoever wins the primary needs to have the support of everyone else going into November. No screwups this time, please.

So what happened with the election returns?

The County Clerk puts the blame on the Secretary of State.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman said a last-minute directive from the secretary of state caused significant delays in reporting election results on Tuesday evening.

Trautman said an Oct. 23 election advisory, issued after early voting had begun, required the county to change its counting process. The clerk’s office had originally planned to tally results at 10 sites spread across Harris County, and report them to a central headquarters via a secure intranet connection.

The state advisory, Trautman said, forced the county to abandon that plan and instead count results from each of the 757 voting centers at the clerk’s downtown Houston office.

“Our office is as frustrated as everyone else because of the state’s decision,” Trautman said in an email late Tuesday evening.

[…]

This was the highest-turnout election to date in which Harris County used its new countywide voting system, where residents can visit any polling station on Election Day, instead of an assigned precinct.

Voting appeared to go smoothly across the county on Tuesday, with the exception of some voters receiving incorrect ballots at three polling stations. The clerk’s office said election workers were to blame for the errors.

I will engage this argument, but before I do let’s keep something in mind: The vast, overwhelming majority – like, 99% plus – of Harris County voters had no idea any of this was happening, and if they did know they wouldn’t have cared much. If they watched any election coverage Tuesday night, when they went to bed they knew Mayor Turner and Tony Buzbee were headed for a runoff, they knew the Metro referendum was going to pass, and they knew who was winning in their Council and HISD districts. Only a handful of people – reporters, candidates and campaign staffers, and some diehard nerds, a group that certainly includes me – cared that there wasn’t more than that. We’re talking a few dozen people on Twitter, max. Put the pain and suffering of this group of very special interests – again, a group that includes me; I was up till 2 AM on Election Night, obsessively hitting Refresh on harrisvotes.com like all those other chumps – up against the fact that no one in this higher-turnout-than-expected election complained about long lines or not being able to vote at all because they were at the wrong location, and tell me which matters more. Stan Stanart was bad at his job not just because he had a lousy track record of administering elections, but because he was an active impediment to engaging voters and encouraging participation. We’re way better off without him no matter what time he might have had returns up.

So that’s Diane Trautman’s explanation, and it may well be fully fair and accurate, but it’s all we got from that story. The Trib adds to what we know.

In past elections, results from individual precincts where taken to several drop-off locations around the county, which fed the tallies to the central office. This time, however, the electronic ballot cards with vote counts from individual precincts had to be driven from polling sites — some of them nearly 40 minutes away; some still running an hour after polls closed — into downtown Houston for tallying to begin. Just a quarter of returns had been reported right before midnight. A complete set didn’t come in until nearly 7 a.m. Wednesday.

“This was a painstakingly manual process that amounted to only one person processing [results] cards at a time where we could have had one person at each of the 10 drop off locations submitting electronically with our original plan,” Diane Trautman, the Harris County clerk, said in an email Wednesday morning. “The contingency plan we were forced to use was only meant to be used in case of natural disaster or power outage.”

The county switched to the more cumbersome process after an election advisory issued by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office days into the early voting period forced it to ditch its usual practice of sending returns to “rally stations” throughout the county to be downloaded.

Harris County had used a similar system for years, plugging memory cards, known as “mobile ballot boxes,” into specific readers at the rally stations and transmitting the vote tallies to a central office through a secure phone line, according to county officials. As it had in the May municipal election, the county was planning to use a secure encrypted internal network this time around.

But citing security worries, the secretary of state’s advisory required the county to make copies of those memory cards if it wanted to transmit the data over encrypted lines. The originals could be processed directly at the main office.

Though the advisory was issued on Oct. 23, election officials in Harris and other counties said they weren’t made aware of it until several days later. By then, county officials said, it was too late for the county to purchase the equipment needed to make copies.

“We could’ve done that if there had been more than 13 days warning,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “It was just too short a period of time to get from point A to point B and pull this off in the way we intended to do it.”

Instead, the county turned to a contingency plan that included law enforcement escorts transporting ballot box memory cards from each polling site to the central counting station. The effort was further delayed when more than half of the county’s 757 polling places were still running at 8 p.m. as voters who were in line when polls closed finished casting their ballots.

In the aftermath of the Election Day mayhem, Harris County officials said they plan to get technology in place to resume using “rally stations” in the next election. They wonder why the secretary of state’s decided this year to object to a process long in place.

Ray says Keith Ingram, the state’s director of elections, told county attorneys during a conference call this week that Harris County’s procedures have actually been out of compliance with state law for a decade. Ray said state officials told him and other lawyers on the call that the secretary of state’s office was “compelled to issue” its advisory ahead of Tuesday’s election after facing external pressure from the Harris County GOP.

That tells us a lot, and the complaint from the Harris County GOP shows there was a political element to this. I mean, if this practice had been standard while Stan Stanart was Clerk, then what other reason is there for pushing a complaint now that he’s not except to make the new Clerk look bad? We still don’t have an official statement from the SOS, so there may well be more to this, but what we know now adds a whole other layer on top of this.

As to what the Clerk was doing, it sure sounds like they were planning to use a VPN connection to transmit the data. Encrypted VPNs are standard practice in enterprise security, and on its face should have been perfectly acceptable for use here. (It’s possible that the relevant state law that apparently forbade this is outdated, which may also explain why there had been a laissez-faire attitude towards it in the past.) From a practical perspective, this sounds fine, but the fact that it was not compliant means it was a risk, and we see what happened as a result.

Maybe they’re all still asleep, but I didn’t see any response to this story from the Twitter complainers about it when it came out on Wednesday afternoon. We still need to know more – what the SOS was thinking, why there was a delay in the Harris County Clerk getting this advisory, what the substance was of that GOP complaint, what other counties were in the same boat and how they handled it, etc etc etc – and so we need Commissioners Court to do a full and transparent interrogation of what happened, why it happened, and what we will do to make sure that the next elections – not just the December runoff but the massively larger 2020 primaries and general – don’t suffer from the same problems. Let the Commissioners and Judge Hidalgo ask Trautman and her staff all the questions, and don’t stop till everyone has the answers they’re seeking. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. The voting centers, as places to actually vote, worked great. The same bitchy Twitter conversation that moaned about the non-existent returns also credited them with maybe increasing turnout. Remember how many provisional ballots used to be cast in these elections, which was in part due to people voting at the wrong location? We won’t have any of that this time, and that’s a very big deal. But no one foresaw this possibility, and that failure led to the massive delays we experienced, which completely overwhelmed those positives. We need answers to all the remaining questions, and we need a more thorough plan for the next time, because a second performance like this one just cannot happen.

UPDATE: One more thing:

Accountability matters, and so far at least only party in this drama has been accountable.

UPDATE: The SOS finally speaks.

Keith Ingram, director of elections for the secretary of state, directed a reporter to an agency spokesman and hung up.

Ingram later shared an email he sent Wednesday evening to Houston Democratic State Sen. Carol Alvarado, in which he said Harris County ignored state law that prohibits counties from connecting voting systems to external networks such as an intranet. Alvarado on Monday asked for clarification of the election advisory.

“The clerk was planning to use this risky method of results reporting even though they were fully aware it was illegal to do so, and with apparent disregard to the fact that the intelligence community has repeatedly warned election officials since 2016 of the continuing desire of nation states to interfere with our election process,” Ingram wrote. He also told Alvarado he had explained the state’s rules about vote counting systems to a Harris County Clerk’s representative on Oct. 2.

I would question the “risky” assertion. The legality is a separate matter, though enforcement has seemingly been inconsistent. There are still a lot of questions to be answered here.

2019 election results: State

Nine out of ten Constitutional amendments are on their way to passing.

Amendments to the state constitution that would make it harder to enact a state income tax, stabilize funding for state parks and allow retired law enforcement animals to be adopted by their handlers received wide support from voters Tuesday.

Supporters of one of the most contentious issues on the ballot — Proposition 4 — proclaimed victory within hours of the polls closing, with about three fourths of voters supporting the proposal in early voting returns.

[…]

The only item on the ballot that looked as though it might not pass was Proposition 1, which would permit elected municipal court judges to serve multiple municipalities at the same times. With votes still being counted late Tuesday, returns indicated that it had received just over one-third of the vote.

The other propositions were poised to pass easily. Proposition 5 would stabilize funding for state parks and received overwhelming support. The proposition allows money accumulated from existing sales tax on sporting goods to be used for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission. Current law allows the Legislature to allocate that money however they see fit.

Proposition 10, which had the highest level of support, amends the state constitution to allow retired service animals, such as dogs or horses, to be adopted by their handlers or other qualified caretakers. These animals are currently classified as surplus property or salvage and can be “auctioned, donated or destroyed.”

Prop 4 is terrible, but that usually doesn’t stop us. I just hope it’s not as bad as I fear it may be.

Meanwhile, in Fort Bend:

Eliz Markowitz

A Democrat and a Republican were leading in unofficial returns Tuesday night in a nationally targeted special election for a historically Republican Texas House seat.

Democrat Eliz Markowitz — the only Democrat in the race — was in first place, while Republican Gary Gates was in second, according to unofficial returns. The race will head to a runoff if no candidate gets over 50%.

Gates was one of three serious GOP candidates out of six total. The two other viable Republicans in the race, Tricia Krenek and Anna Allred, were third and fourth, respectively. Allred appeared to concede at about 10:30 p.m., saying she was “disappointed with the results” but “pleased with our campaign.”

The race for House District 28 — where former state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, stepped down at the end of September — was one of three contests Tuesday to fill state House seats. The two others happened in solidly Democratic districts where runoffs were also looking likely, based on the early vote and initial Election Day results.

In House District 100, where former Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, vacated his seat earlier this year after becoming Dallas mayor, Democrat Lorraine Birabil had a wide lead over three Democratic rivals but had not clinched more than half the vote. James Armstrong III, Daniel Davis Clayton and Sandra Crenshaw were in a close race for second place and a spot in an expected runoff.

Here are the results from Fort Bend County for HD28, and Dallas County for HD100. The SOS election night results webpage is bizarre and not up to date, so skip it for now.

Markowitz got 39.1% of the vote, with Gates getting 28.5%, Tricia Krenek 18.1%, and Anna Allred 9.3%. While I expect Republicans to unite for the runoff, I can’t help but feel that Gates was their third best choice in this race. His main asset is that he’s loaded and willing to spend on himself, which I figure helped him in this race. How much he’ll excite voters as that kind of candidate in December is the question. I feel very certain he won’t have a clear path to the GOP nomination in the March primary. Here’s the Chron story on this race.

I’m saving the HD148 race for last, because of the delay in Harris County results (see here for why that happened.) As of 5 AM, we still didn’t have full results. The best I can tell you at this time is this:


Eastman     1,870  17.87%
La Rotta    1,818  17.37%
McConnico   1,266  12.10%
Garcia      1,261  12.05%
Leal          904   8.64%
Shaw          853   8.15%
Watt          667   6.37%
Camarena      473   4.52%
Carmona       433   4.14%
Block         311   2.97%
Nunez         185   1.77%
Denson        165   1.58%
Trevino       140   1.34%
Mundy          71   0.68%
Isaacson       49   0.47%

There’s still a lot of votes out as of this post, so things can change quite a bit. My initial speculation that some people may vote for Adrian Garcia based on the belief that he’s the County Commissioner appears to have had some validity. Beyond that, we’re just going to need to wait and see what the final tally says. Note that the total Republican vote is 34% – Ryan McConnico got 32% against Jessica Farrar a year ago. Put a pin in this one, we’ll come back to it. Oh, and as with the Republicans in HD28, I don’t think Anna Eastman (assuming nothing weird happens between now and the final count) will have a clear path in March, either.

October 2019 campaign finance reports: Congress

Moving on to the Q3 FEC reports, we again have new candidates making their appearance. The January roundup is here, which closed out the 2017-18 election cycle, the April report is here, and the July report is here. For comparison, the October 2017 report is here. The FEC summary page for Congress is here and for the Senate is here.

MJ Hegar – Senate
Chris Bell – Senate
Amanda Edwards – Senate
Royce West – Senate
Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez – Senate
Sema Hernandez – Senate
Adrian Ocegueda – Senate
Michael Cooper – Senate

Lizzie Fletcher – CD07
Colin Allred – CD32

Henry Cuellar – CD28
Jessia Cisneros – CD28

Hank Gilbert – CD01
Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Sean McCaffity – CD03
Tanner Do – CD03
Stephen Daniel – CD06
Mike Siegel – CD10
Pritesh Gandhi – CD10
Shannon Hutcheson – CD10
Rick Kennedy – CD17
Jennie Lou Leeder – CD21
Wendy Davis – CD21
Sri Kulkarni – CD22
Nyanza Moore – CD22
Derrick Reed – CD22
Gina Ortiz Jones – CD23
Liz Wahl – CD23
Rosey Ramos Abuabara – CD23
Jan McDowell – CD24
Kim Olson – CD24
Candace Valenzuela – CD24
Crystal Lee Fletcher – CD24
John Biggan – CD24
Julie Oliver – CD25
Heidi Sloan – CD25
Carol Ianuzzi – CD26
Christine Eady Mann – CD31
Murray Holcomb – CD31
Dan Jangigian – CD31
Eric Hanke – CD31
Donna Imam – CD31


Dist  Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
============================================================
Sen   Hegar         2,058,080  1,211,904        0    893,657       
Sen   Bell            206,629     94,894   10,000    111,734
Sen   Edwards         557,430    219,645        0    337,785
Sen   West            347,546    172,926  202,162    376,782
Sen   T-Ramirez       459,442    233,953        0    225,489
Sen   Hernandez         7,551      7,295        0      3,891
Sen   Ocegueda          1,048        262      900        786
Sen   Cooper

07    Fletcher      1,789,359    391,448        0  1,439,978
32    Allred        1,705,723    355,711        0  1,453,457  

28    Cuellar       1,099,758    400,328        0  3,244,434
28    Cisneros        465,026    173,329        0    291,697

02    Cardnell        177,733    115,886        0     61,847
03    McCaffity       155,404      7,080        0    148,324
03    Do               16,947     15,725        0      1,221
06    Daniel          111,009     70,409        0     40,600
10    Siegel          355,691    207,532   20,000    161,650
10    Gandhi          527,967    209,989        0    317,978
10    Hutcheson       534,515    161,665    4,000    372,850
17    Kennedy          31,298     15,079   11,953     17,646
21    Leeder           15,697     14,509        0      1,188
21    Davis           940,581    336,645    8,863    603,936
22    Kulkarni        817,139    299,219        0    545,687
22    Moore           112,311    102,863   12,915      9,447
22    Reed            114,137     60,268        0     53,868
23    Ortiz Jones   1,652,739    303,861        0  1,440,396
23    Wahl              9,000      6,521    1,000      2,478
23    Abuabara
24    McDowell         57,515     52,519        0     18,316
24    Olson           567,394    241,708   20,000    325,685
24    Valenzuela      201,377     92,814        0    108,563
24    Fletcher        122,427     35,099      823     87,327
24    Biggan           45,893     35,999   13,834      9,894
25    Oliver          223,417     75,836    2,644    147,580
25    Sloan            56,043     23,125        0     32,918
26    Ianuzzi          67,828     35,539   47,604     32,288
31    Mann             95,449     58,685        0     38,200
31    Holcomb          66,610     57,770        0      8,840
31    Jangigian        23,265      2,248    1,500     21,016
31    Hanke            18,302      9,098        0      9,203
31    Imam             60,441      7,088        0     53,353

There’s a lot here – so much that it’s taken me this long to post, and so much that I thought about splitting this into two separate posts – but let’s start with the Senate candidates. MJ Hegar has been in the race the longest, and she has raised the most, matching her performance from the previous quarter. All the other candidates (save for the low-profile no-hope types, and hey isn’t it nice to finally see Sema Hernandez file a finance report?) entered during Q3 and their finance reports can be graded on a curve as a result. That said, time keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking, and John Cornyn keeps on raising piles of money, so everyone needs to kick it up a notch or two. It was nice that every candidate at the Texas Signal candidate forum was asked about their path to victory, but raising money is a key part of that, even if it is a tacky subject to bring up. We’re going to need to see a lot more in the January reports.

Incumbents Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred are doing what they need to do. Their potential Republican opponents are raising a bunch of money, but they’re staying ahead of them, which they need to keep doing. Jessica Cisneros has done well in her challenge to Henry Cuellar, who is made of money, and she is getting some national press for her efforts. I still don’t know how much either money or national attention will mean in this race, but I do know that if she does win, it will be a very big deal and will make a lot of Dem incumbents look over their shoulders.

There are a number of new names on this report. Hank Gilbert is not going to win in CD01 because it’s a 70%+ Trump district, but Hank is a mensch and Louie Gohmert is a death eater from a hell dimension, so the least I can do is note that Hank is taking on the thankless task of challenging Gohmert. We noted last time that Lorie Burch has ended her campaign in CD03, and now several others have stepped in. Sean McCaffity, who is off to a strong fundraising start, and Tanner Do have reports for this quarter, and they will have company next time. Chris Suprun, whom you may remember as one of the wannabe faithless electors from 2016, has entered the race. He had also run in the CD27 special election last year, and had a brush with the voter ID law before that. Plano attorney Lulu Seikaly is also in the race, and I apologize to her for making her follow that.

Elsewhere in new candidates, Heidi Sloan has entered the race in CD25. Julie Oliver, the nominee from 2018, is well ahead of her fundraising pace from that year, so we’ll see how that goes. There are now a bunch of candidates in CD31, though I can tell you now that that article from August is out of date. I’ll have more on that in a separate post. Among the newcomers here are Dan Jangigian, Eric Hanke, and Donna Imam. Jangigian may have the most interesting resume of any Congressional candidate in recent memory – he’s a onetime Olympic bobsledder, and acted in the legendary bad movie The Room. He was subsequently portrayed in the movie The Disaster Artist, the movie about the guy who made The Room, by Zac Efron. And now he’s running for Congress. What have you done with your life?

A more familiar candidate making her first appearance here is Wendy Davis, who took in nearly a million bucks for CD21. That’s one of several top target races where there’s a clear frontrunner, at least as far as fundraising goes, which is a change from 2018 when most of the hotter primaries had the money more widely dispersed. Gina Ortiz Jones did even better, topping $1.6 million already. Rosey Abubara, who I thought might give her a challenge, has not filed a report. Candace Valenzuela and Crystal Fletcher have raised a few bucks in CD24, but Kim Olson is well ahead of them both, while Sri Kulkarni is lapping the field in CD22. The exception is in CD10, where all three candidates are doing well, but 2018 nominee Mike Siegel is a step behind Pritesh Gandhi and Shannon Hutcheson.

Rounding up the rest, Elisa Cardnell stepped it up in CD02, but faces a steep challenge as Dan Crenshaw is one of the biggest fundraisers in Congress now. Stephen Daniel is doing all right in CD06. I know their totals don’t look like that much compared to some of these other folks, but remember how much time we spent in 2018 talking about how rare it was for any Democratic challenger to raise as much as $100K for an entire cycle? We’ve come a long way. And I’m still hoping for either Rick Kennedy to start doing more in CD17 or for someone else to jump in, even if that race is a big longshot. The Quorum Report made my heart flutter with a teaser about a poll testing former CD17 Rep. Chet Edwards against carpetbagger Pete Sessions. I don’t know if this is a real thing or just someone’s idea of a cool thought experiment, but I’d be all in on another run by Edwards. We’ll see if there’s anything to it.

UT/Trib: Trump 46, others 39

It’s Election Day, so I’m going to be brief about this.

None of the top Democrats seeking the presidential nomination would beat President Donald Trump in Texas in an election held today — and neither would either of the Texas candidates in that race, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Joe Biden of Delaware, the former vice president, is running 7 percentage points behind Trump in Texas, as is U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont falls 5 percentage points short in a head-to-head with the president among Texas voters. And the two Texas candidates also lag behind Trump: former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso (who dropped out of the race Friday, after the poll was completed) by 6 percentage points, and former U.S. Housing Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro by 13 percentage points.

In each matchup, significant numbers of Democrats are holding back their votes — possibly a sign that while they oppose the Republican incumbent, they favor a different Democrat. For instance, 89% of Republicans say they would support Trump over Biden, and 5% say they would favor Biden, leaving 6% unwilling to pick. But in the same race, 82% of Democrats favor Biden, and 4% favor Trump, leaving 14% who either like another Democrat more or don’t want to pick yet. The biggest gap was in the Trump-Castro matchup, where 93% of Republicans have a definite choice and only 71% of Democrats do.

“I don’t think this is a reflection of what’s going to happen in the election, but as we move from registered voters to likely voters in Texas, we tend to get more Republican [results],” said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin.

While Trump is doing well against those Democrats in Texas, he’s not faring as well when voters are asked whether they will vote for his reelection. Slightly more than half say they “definitely” (46%) or “probably” (6%) will not vote for Trump in 2020. Meanwhile, 40% say they will “definitely” vote for the president’s reelection, and 8% “probably” will.

“That seems to be the durable feature of this poll — that Trump’s durable core is about 40%,” said Daron Shaw, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “It’s lackluster, but it’s not fatal. He’s running 5 or 6 points better in Texas than he is nationally.”

For what it’s worth, in the June poll, the “would vote for/would not vote for” numbers were exactly 50-50, and here they’re 48 would and 52 would not. These numbers are actually the most favorable Trump has had for re-election in Texas in recent months – he’s been behind in several other polls. Doesn’t mean this poll is wrong and the others are right – I did find some of those other polls a little weird – just that this is another data point, as those polls were. I do think the bit about Dems holding back a bit on candidates who aren’t their preferred choice is accurate, and I think that will go away once we have a nominee. Ultimately, Trump is the favorite to carry Texas, but the fact that that doesn’t go without saying is saying something.

UT/Trib: Impeachment inquiry more popular than not

Seems like a big deal.

Not quite half of Texas registered voters agree that “Congress is justified in conducting impeachment investigations into actions Donald Trump has taken while president,” according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Almost as many — 42% — disagree with that statement. Republican and Democratic voters are predictably partisan in their responses, while independent voters are more likely than not to say the investigations are merited: 46% agree, while 32% do not.

“The rank and file is still mostly solid behind the president,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project. “But among voters who identify themselves as conservatives first, there are some reservations.”

Texas registered voters are evenly divided — and strongly partisan — about whether Trump ought to be removed from office before the end of his term, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Although Trump hasn’t been impeached or tried, voters are drawing some conclusions. To the question, “Based on what you know, do you think that Donald Trump has taken actions while president that justify his removal from office before the end of his term?” 43% of registered Texas voters say yes and 44% say no. Again, the partisan splits are what you might expect — 79% of Democrats say early removal is justified, while 79% of Republicans say it’s not. Independents were divided, 34% yes, 33% no and 24% unsure.

Democrats in Congress are more likely to get good marks on the impeachment proceedings than Republican members, but both groups have more detractors than cheerleaders. While 25% of voters approve of the way Republicans are handling the investigations, 49% don’t. For Democrats, it was 40% approval and 45% disapproval. Trump’s numbers are in the same neighborhood: 39% approve of the way he has responded to the impeachment investigations, and 45% do not.

“The difficulties Republicans in Congress are having in dealing with this are evident here,” said James Henson, who co-directs the poll and heads UT’s Texas Politics Project. “Republican voters are split on Congress, and Republicans in Congress are trying to figure out how to defend the president without defending his conduct.”

This all tracks with the national numbers, though there a plurality already support impeachment and removal. Pollsters Jim Henson and Joshua Blank share their thoughts about the poll here. The poll also showed Trump with 47% approval and 48% disapproval, which are actually better numbers in that department than he’d had in September. The June UT/Trib poll doesn’t directly ask the approve/disapprove question, but the partisan breakdown on who will or won’t vote for Trump net year look a lot like the approve/disapprove numbers for the impeachment inquiry. All of this is just more evidence that Texas is in play next year. Trump is a drag on the Republicans, and while we’re a long way out from anything, it doesn’t look like that’s going to get any better for them.

Dan Patrick’s budget destruction

It’s not what you think it is, but it’s still bad.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Texas state government, an arcane team of 100 or so budget nerds has led a private, if stressful, life — running financial models, ensuring state government and its private contractors aren’t spending beyond their means, and keeping lawmakers informed about each line item in the state’s 1,000-page, $250 billion two-year budget.

But these days, interviews with current and former budget agency staff indicate the emptying halls of their downtown Austin office feel more like the setting of an Agatha Christie novel.

The Texas Legislative Budget Board, created in 1949 to support full-time experts who track fiscal issues for the state’s part-time Legislature, provides the analysis on which the state bases its budget calculations — for example, how much money it costs to pay public school teachers or to fund hospital beds for people in mental health crisis.

It’s up to state lawmakers to set spending priorities, but legislators say their ability to make funding decisions is only as good as the information they receive from the experts.

“The LBB provided invaluable, unbiased information, which is critical to the development of the state budget,” former state Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.

The quality of that information may be in jeopardy; the agency is moldering as a quiet war erupts between its two masters.

State law names the lieutenant governor and House speaker as co-chairs of the 10-member board, which is supposed to jointly appoint an executive director to lead the agency. Last year, for the first time in nearly 70 years, that failed to happen; by Halloween, the agency will have been headless for a year.

Veteran employees have departed in droves with no one to replace them, leaving behind a trail of vacant offices and a dearth of institutional knowledge. Staff size has fallen 26% since 2015 — from 146 to 108 employees — and four of the agency’s five executive leadership positions will soon be unfilled. The agency’s lone remaining executive told a tearful staff last week that he, too, intends to resign.

Now, with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announcing he will not run for reelection next year amid a scandal that has shaken the entire lower chamber, the board finds itself in its most precarious position yet.

Interviews with more than a dozen budget agency staff, Capitol staff and state lawmakers — who requested anonymity to discuss private board deliberations — indicate that the Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has wielded a kind of veto power over the board to keep the agency undermanned and under fire.

They contend that his motive is to remake the agency to give the Senate more direct control over the number-crunchers; the current group of nonpartisan bureaucrats has produced analyses that at times conflicted with the lieutenant governor’s political messaging.

Basically, this is an attack on expertise and data. Dan Patrick doesn’t want accurate and objective facts about revenue and fiscal notes and what have you. They don’t serve his purposes. He wants minions who will tell him what he wants to hear so he can use it as a cudgel. If he can starve the LBB to death, maybe the end result (as the story suggests) would be two separate budget agencies, one for the House and one for the Senate, which would be under the control of the Lite Governor. Patrick is on the leading edge here – Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson had similarly nice things to say about the LBB as outgoing House Appropriations Chair John Zerwas did – but where Dan Patrick goes, other Republicans tend to follow. The longer he gets to press this attack, the greater the odds he’ll eventually get what he wants. Do I need to add that this is yet another reason why we need a Democratic House and a Democratic Speaker in 2021?

Every Speaker’s race is unique

The one to come has a more uncertain outcome than the last few we’ve seen.

Found on the Twitters

The current party mix is 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats. Republicans hope to hold their advantage after the 2020 elections, while Democrats, encouraged by their 12-seat gain in 2018, hope to win back the majority they lost in 2002.

The next race for speaker, a certainty with Bonnen’s announcement that he won’t seek reelection, probably won’t happen quickly — unless Bonnen can be persuaded to leave office earlier than January 2021 to allow a faster switch to new management.

Why? If the House majority isn’t overwhelming — in either party’s favor — it will probably take a coalition to replace Bonnen. A Republican speaker will need some Democratic votes to win; a Democrat, some Republicans. And until they know what the mix will be, uncertainty will prevent most state representatives from committing to any speaker candidate.

[…]

The list of people who might succeed Bonnen probably starts with the list of people he beat last time in a race that started slow, percolated for about a year, and then sprinted to a close. Straus announced in October 2017 that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term. A couple of aspirants announced quickly, and more trickled in as the year went on — especially after the primary elections were over.

But nobody could put together 76 votes. Bonnen, who had demurred when he was first mentioned as a candidate, became a late entry. Within a matter of days after the 2018 general election, he had the votes he needed.

And a year later, the House is back where it was two years ago, looking for new leadership with a tough election ahead, doing the preparatory work for a redistricting session with high political stakes, a huge budget to write and other big issues to confront.

And no strong incentive to hurry.

In early September of 2018 there were seven candidates for Speaker, six Republicans and one Dem. Two of them – Republican John Zerwas and Democrat Eric Johnson – are no longer in the Lege, while the others are in safe seats. Seems like those five would be in the mix, but there would be plenty of others, including who knows how many Dems. Bonnen got in as Zerwas got out just before the 2018 election, and he was the clear choice shortly thereafter. My guess is that while there are a lot of members who can envision themselves as Speaker right now, they’re mostly going to keep it on the down low until after the election, when it will at least be known which party will have the numerical advantage. After that, it will all be about counting votes. We may not know who the Speaker will be until the start of the session. The potential for excitement, and some bruised feelings, is quite high.

A wrapup for early voting

Here’s the Chron story on the end of early voting.

Early voting ended Friday with a late surge in turnout among Harris County voters, surpassing voter participation in some prior mayoral election years but falling short of totals seen during the last city election in 2015.

Through 12 days of early voting, more than 152,000 voters cast ballots ahead of the Tuesday election, with about 137,000 voting in person and some 15,000 returning mail ballots. The total represents about 6.5 percent of Harris County’s more than 2.3 million registered voters, far less than the 9.4 percent early voting turnout in 2015 but slightly more than the 5.6 percent turnout in 2013.

Harris County was on track to fall slightly short of 2013 turnout before Friday’s influx of more than 34,000 voters. The final day turnout was roughly double this year’s prior single-day high and accounted for more than one-fifth of overall early voting turnout.

The overall standard turnout rate comes despite a Houston mayoral race that has seen a record $16 million spent between the 12 candidates, according to Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, and several months of vigorous campaigning by Tony Buzbee and Bill King, the top two challengers to Mayor Sylvester Turner.

“For all the money spent, all the bluster, all the hype — that has done nothing to increase turnout,” said Houston Democratic strategist Keir Murray. “We’re seeing a very typical, low-interest municipal election with the great majority of voters being people who always vote.”

[…]

Harris County’s unremarkable turnout reflects the same relatively low voter participation seen in mayoral elections earlier this year in Dallas and San Antonio, Aiyer added. In Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, just 11.5 percent of registered voters turned out for the May election, which included a mayoral contest.

“I think there was a faulty assumption coming off of 2018 that we would have really high turnout,” Aiyer said. “And I think that’s just not borne out by the data at the municipal level statewide.”

The underlying early voting data also show that candidates are drawing few new voters to the polls. Through Thursday, 93 percent of Houston voters in Harris County had participated in at least two of the last three general elections, with 75 percent voting in all three, according to data from the Texas Democratic Party shared by Murray. Just 2 percent did not vote in any of the last three elections.

See here for the final data, and here for Keir’s Saturday Twitter thread on who did the voting. At this point, I think the odds are in favor of betting the under on my 200K to 220K projection for Houston. The 2009 Mayor’s race (178K in Harris County) and 2013 Mayor’s race (174K in Harris County) are looking like better comps. It’s possible that Election Day turnout will be higher than expected – the four-year cycle may be altering previous patterns, and the Astros’ playoff run may have distracted people – but probably not. I’ll run through some scenarios tomorrow and come up with concrete numbers to throw around.

In the meantime, the new college campus EV locations got positive reviews.

The University of Houston’s Student Center was bustling over the weekend with pre-Halloween festivities, at least one lively pep rally, sorority and fraternity events, and, for the first time, early voting.

“It’s been a fair turnout, and people who have voted are very appreciative that the voting is happening here,” Bruce Davis, an alternative election judge for Harris County, said Monday.

Numbers at UH’s polling station — like those at two other new early-voting locations in the county — were modest, and Davis said there were still kinks to be worked out.

This year, the Harris County Clerk’s Office introduced three new early polling locations — at UH, Texas Southern University and Houston Community College’s West Loop campus — in hopes of reaching at least 50,000 more voters, mostly students, according to Michael Winn, administrator of elections for the Harris County Clerk’s office, which oversees elections. The target includes 40,000 new voters at UH alone. The office is now led by Democrat Diane Trautman, who unseated Republican incumbent Stan Stanart last year and has backed countywide election centers to encourage higher turnout.

As of Wednesday evening, the early-voting totals were 750 at UH, 452 at TSU and 796 at HCC’s West Loop campus. But officials were not worried. According to Winn, it’s all a part of the process as people adjust to their new polling locations. In the meantime, officials are keeping a watchful eye ahead of next year’s primary and presidential elections.

“We just want to begin to lay the foundation for those locations to already be in place so people will be accustomed to going to those locations and utilizing the facilities,” Winn said.

In the end, the HCC location got 1,262 early votes, UH got 1,125, and TSU got 750. It’s a decent start for brand new locations. I agree that 2020 is both the priority and the bigger test.

The case of Justice Laura Higley

This is a sad situation, one with potentially fraught political implications.

Justice Laura Higley

An appeals court justice serving Southeast Texas continues to sit on the bench as she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, all while facing familial discord over the control of her $8 million estate, court records show.

Her sons launched an effort this month to become her legal guardians, alleging that Justice Laura Carter Higley, 72, is continuing with her daily routine in a manner contrary to the path of her failing cognitive health. That includes driving herself to work downtown and serving in her capacity on the First Court of Appeals based in Houston, said sons Garrett C. Higley and Robert Carter Higley.

“Due to the recent (and rapid) progression of her Alzheimer’s disease, Justice Higley’s mental state has deteriorated to the point that she is no longer able to care for her own physical health or manage her own financial affairs,” the Higley brothers said in the filing for guardianship.

Laura Carter Higley became the subject of the guardianship case in mid-October, just a week after receiving an official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, according to documents filed in Harris County Probate Court No. 2. Her wellness issues began more than a year earlier with a diagnosis of an unspecified mild neurocognitive disorder, the sons said in their attempt to pull decisions regarding Higley’s care away from her husband, West University Place Mayor Bob Higley.

[…]

The judge began experiencing mild neurocognitive issues as early as November 2017, according to her sons’ filing. The unspecified disorder progressed to a mild neurocognitive disorder stemming from possible Alzheimer’s disease in March, which again worsened to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease on Oct. 9, court records show.

The justice’s name is not listed next to any decisions made on appeals cases since her diagnosis earlier this month, according to the First Court of Appeals website. But she has been involved in hundreds of decisions on civil and criminal cases since March.

Higley is one of nine justices on the court, which serves Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller and Washington counties. The judges mostly hear appeals on cases decided in lower district and county courts in their jurisdiction.

Lillian Hardwick, a Texas attorney who wrote the “Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics,” said that judges may be fearful of leaving their bench too early while facing an illness. They might enjoy the work, be hesitant to cut off retirement benefits or may not know the scope of their problem.

On the other hand, a justice might feel they’re having issues remembering certain things at home, but “by golly, she can tell you the family law code backwards and forwards,” Hardwick said. Only in the event their disability impedes the ability to perform their duties would they be violating constitutional requirements.

“They should either be retired by somebody or they should be removed,” she said. “That judge is not able to be a judge, it’s pretty simple.”

The justice’s colleagues might be in the best position to notify the commission of a potential unfitness for office, said Jonathan Smaby, the executive director at the Texas Center for Legal Ethics.

The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to be competent and diligent, he said, although the justice might not be aware of their own lack of competence.

“It’s not always obvious to the person when they’re suffering from age-related decline,” Smaby said. “To say it’s an ethics violation makes it sound like it’s intentional.”

There’s a lot more in there about the dispute between Justice Higley’s husband and sons. I don’t want to get into that, but we have to consider the implications of Justice Higley’s health. That assumes there is an issue with her health – we have allegations but no confirmation, so we’re in the realm of speculation, which is an uncomfortable place to be. I hope she is well, and I hope that if that changes, or if any of her colleagues has reason to believe that it has changed, that they take appropriate action with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The people who have cases before the First Court of Appeals deserve judges who are all at the top of their game.

In the meantime, Justice Higley will be up for re-election in 2020. It is certainly possible that she will step down and allow Greg Abbott to appoint someone to her seat, so that person would run instead. Like I said, all speculation. I expect we’ll hear something more in the near future.

Beto ends his Presidential campaign

It was fun while it lasted.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke is dropping out of the presidential race.

The former El Paso congressman announced the decision Friday evening, ahead of a major Democratic gathering here in Iowa.

“Though it is difficult to accept, it is clear to me now that this campaign does not have the means to move forward successfully,” O’Rourke wrote on Medium. “My service to the country will not be as a candidate or as the nominee. Acknowledging this now is in the best interests of those in the campaign; it is in the best interests of this party as we seek to unify around a nominee; and it is in the best interests of the country.”

O’Rourke’s decision ends a White House bid that began with much anticipation in mid-March, months after his near-miss loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. O’Rourke’s campaign launch coincided with a splashy article on the cover of Vanity Fair, and he reported raising $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his bid — at the time, the largest announced first-day haul of any 2020 Democratic contender. Soon after, he showed double-digit support in multiple national polls.

But O’Rourke never lived up to the high hopes, and after the initial fanfare of his entrance, he sunk into the low single digits in polls and saw his fundraising come back down to Earth.

He was facing the possibility of missing the cut for the next debate, which is Nov. 20 in Georgia. As of Friday evening, he had gained only two out of four qualifying polls, and the deadline is Nov. 13. A poll of likely Iowa caucus participants released Friday showed he had 1 percent support in the critical early state.

After O’Rourke’s announcement — “a decision we made so recently and so reluctantly,” he said at an event in Des Moines on Friday evening — a person close to him reiterated that his future will not include running for U.S. Senate next year in Texas. Some supporters have been encouraging him to challenge the state’s senior senator, John Cornyn, but he has long said he is not interested. A massive Democratic field has already assembled to take on Cornyn, but so far no candidate has been able to match the excitement O’Rourke created in his 2018 bid.

We all owe Beto a debt of gratitude for his 2018 Senate campaign, which has done more to inject life in the Democratic Party in Texas than anything I can think of. He had his moments during the Presidential race, especially after the mass shooting in El Paso, but that field was too deep and too talented for him to gain traction. He’s not running for Senate next year – you know how I feel about that – but maybe Governor in 2022 is on the menu, especially if Julian Castro is busy in Washington DC at the time. Take some time off and spend it with your family, Beto. Then do everything you can to help Democrats get elected next year. Daily Kos, Slate, Texas Monthly, and the Texas Signal have more.

The next bathroom bill

You can see it coming from here.

The Texas House LGBTQ Caucus is counting on Democrats flipping the Republican-held House to keep another possible ‘bathroom bill’ off the table during the 2021 legislative session.

Texas Republicans last week rallied around a child custody case of a Dallas 7-year-old whose mother says is transgender, pledging to intervene against children’s gender transition. Members of the caucus, who fought the controversial “Chick-fil-A bill”, said flipping the House will be key to winning the brewing battle over the care of transgender children.

“The only way we’re going to avoid that is by flipping the House,” Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said at a caucus town hall at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. “We are nine seats away from controlling the flow of legislation in the House so that we don’t feed that beast anymore.”

[…]

Rep. Julie Johnson, a freshman Dallas Democrat, said the government has no right to intervene in the “personal decision” for children to transition. The child lives in Johnson’s district.

She agreed that winning the House is the best strategy to combat bills such as the one promised by Rep. Matt Krause to ban puberty blockers for children to transition. Johnson noted that the Fort Worth Republican also authored the “Chick-fil-A bill” banning governments from taking “adverse action” against someone based on affiliation to a religious organization.

LGBTQ advocates say the law, which gained traction after San Antonio’s city council booted Chick-fil-A from its airport for its donations to Christian organizations that oppose expanding LGBTQ rights, gives a license to discriminate.

“He’s going to be filing those bills, so hopefully if Democrats are in charge those bills won’t get a hearing,” Johnson said.

See here for the background. I agree with Reps. Israel and Johnson, and I daresay Republicans also believe that whether a bill targeting trans kids gets a House hearing or not depends very much on which party has a majority. There’s not really anything else to say at this time, so let me encourage you to read this Twitter thread, and reflect on the fact that Greg Abbott et al would consider that man to be an abusive parent.

Last bail lawsuit hearing

At least I assume it’s the last one. I’ve been thinking this was all over but for the formality for months now, so what do I know?

Dianna Williams has witnessed the “collateral damage” of jailing on the fabric of a family. The 61-year-old criminal justice advocate told a federal judge Monday that for generations, her relatives lived paycheck to paycheck and could not afford cash bail when her father and then her brother and her son were held pretrial on low level drug charges.

Mary Nan Huffman offered an opposing take to the judge presiding over a deal upending Harris County money bail for low level offenses. She recounted how her friend was walking with her 3-month-old when a man in a red truck trailed her and later showed up in her yard, masturbating with a knife in his hand. Under the new bail deal, the man would never see a judge and no one would hear that he was a three-time felon who’d been to prison for rape, indecent exposure or kidnapping, said Huffman, a spokesperson for Houston Police Officers’ Union.

Ultimately, the sheriff who oversees the third largest jail in the country sought to assuage fears of constituents on both sides of this contentious issue, telling Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal the consent decree approved last summer provides fundamental guarantees of justice enshrined in American law and warning against the inclination to let scary scenarios involving particular cases be the foundation of a bail system.

“I don’t think it’s effective for us to develop public policy on outliers,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said during the court gathering known as a fairness hearing. “We have to rely on research and facts.”

The hearing attended by six misdemeanor judges who support the historic settlement and three commissioners court members, two of whom oppose it, and about 100 stakeholders lasted three hours, with the judge saying she would consider the input and issue an order soon.

[…]

In a typical class action, a fairness hearing offers class members a chance to express concerns with a settlement. The hearing Monday was unique in that nearly all the speakers were not parties in the lawsuit.

Here’s a preview story of the hearing. I think we all know the basic outline at this point, so all I really care about is when we’ll get the final order from Judge Rosenthal. And then we can relitigate everything in the 2020 elections.

The Democratic Senate candidate forum

This was a good event.

Six of the Democrats hoping to defeat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn next year will square off in the first big candidate’s forum in Houston tonight in what promises to be one of the hottest political races in Texas.

Former Congressman Chris Bell, Houston City Council member Amanda Edward, combat veteran MJ Hegar, 2018 U.S. Senate candidate Sema Hernandez, civil rights activist Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez and Texas State Sen. Royce West are all scheduled to attend the forum sponsored by The Texas Signal, a self-described progressive media company. A total of 11 Democrats have filed statements of candidacy with the U.S. Federal Elections Commission to run for the Senate in 2020.

The Signal, which organized the event, which I attended, has its own report. Basically, each candidate was on stage for 20 to 30 minutes, answering questions posed to them by moderators Kevin Nix and Royce Brooks. Questions ranged from issues (health care, gun violence, immigration, voting rights, etc) to impeachment (everyone was on board with the inquiry, and letting it come to completion before committing to further action) to their roadmap to victory.

As I said, I attended this event, and I thought it was a useful introduction to the candidates, especially for people who didn’t know them as anything more than a name. There’s video of each of the conversations with the candidates on the Texas Signal Facebook page, which I’ll link to here. Check them out, you’re going to have to decide on someone to take on Big John Cornyn in four months’ time.

MJ Hegar

Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez

Amanda Edwards

Chris Bell

Royce West

Sema Hernandez

Warren’s interest in boosting Texas Dems

I heartily approve of this.

Elizabeth Warren

As Elizabeth Warren climbs the polls — threatening Joe Biden’s lead in the Democratic primary — her campaign is turning its attention to Texas, a state she called home for a decade and a place her campaign has deemed the “future of our party.”

Warren announced this week she’s soon to dispatch staff to Texas, and her campaign manager says her commitment to the state includes pouring money into down-ballot races here, part of a broader national strategy to help candidates in other races.

“We’re targeting our resources to invest in places that will be critical to keeping the House, taking back the U.S. Senate, and regaining ground in key state legislatures in 2020,” Roger Lau, Warren’s campaign manager, wrote in a strategy memo this week. And he vowed that the campaign is “continuing to build the future of our party by investing in states like Texas.”

The memo comes as Warren rises in the polls, surpassing Biden to take the front-runner spot in several, including a Quinnipiac University poll released this week that showed Warren with a lead of 2 percentage points over the former vice president.

It’s also the latest example of national Democrats paying serious attention to a state they long saw as a Republican stronghold beyond their reach. The party picked Houston to host a presidential debate earlier this month. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has opened an office with senior staff in Austin and has operatives working in the half-dozen GOP-held congressional districts they’re targeting for the 2020 election. And the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a Washington entity headed by former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder, has said it plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in hopes of seizing the nine seats that Democrats need to take back the Texas House.

Warren’s campaign manager summed up the effort: “If we want to make big, structural change, we need to make sure Democrats control the U.S. House and Senate and win important gubernatorial and state legislative races across the country.”

That was from a couple of weeks ago; I forgot I had it in my drafts. We don’t know what the shape of this effort will be, but so far Team Warren is saying all the things I’d want a Democratic frontrunner to say. She has already endorsed in the CD28 primary, which is either bold or meddling, depending on one’s perspective. This is a different type and level of commitment, and it won’t be clear what it means till some time next year. I’ve said before that putting real resources in Texas is a must-have for me in a Presidential candidate. This is a good example of what I’m talking about. Well done.

No charges against Bonnen

No surprise.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will not be criminally prosecuted for the things he said during a secretly recorded June meeting with a hardline conservative activist, the district attorney in his hometown announced Thursday.

“As repugnant as Speaker Bonnen’s actions and statements are,” Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said in a statement, “I do not believe there is sufficient evidence from the June 12, 2019 meeting to warrant a criminal prosecution of Speaker Bonnen for Bribery or Solicitation of a Gift by a Public Servant, therefore no criminal charges will be brought.”

[…]

A spokesperson for Bonnen said Yenne’s decision “deflates Michael Quinn Sullivan’s entire reason for going public three months ago — that, according to him, the Speaker solicited a bribe and broke the law.”

“Unfortunately, we now live in a political climate where one is guilty until proven innocent, and not only has that thrown the ability of Republicans to hold onto our House majority into jeopardy, it sets a dangerous precedent moving forward,” Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary, said in a statement. “While justice prevailed today, unfortunately, the damage has been done.”

See here, here, and here for the background. This was the conclusion of the Texas Rangers investigation – their report was submitted to DA Yenne earlier this week, according to the story. There wasn’t anything in the tape to suggest criminal activity, just deep stupidity, for which Bonnen will leave the Legislature and Yenne chewed him out. All things considered, I’ve got no gripes about how this turned out.

Still more Bonnen business

I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be obsessing over the Bonnen implosion, but we’re not done yet. Today’s topic is What It All Means for 2020.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

“The quarterback and coach have been taken off the field,” said Bill Miller, a longtime Republican lobbyist. “It’s short notice, it’s a big leadership change, and they don’t have a lot of time. It’s problematic for Republicans.”

One of the more obvious questions is what happens to Texas Leads, the political action committee that Bonnen unveiled in July to help keep the majority — and touted in his conversation with Sullivan. Bonnen started the group with $3 million transferred from his own campaign, which saw a seven-figure flood of donations after he emerged late last year as the likely next speaker. Bonnen promised an “ongoing commitment” to the PAC, though its first campaign finance report is not due until January, so it is unclear how much more he raised since the PAC’s July launch.

In any case, the money now carries the stain of Bonnen’s scandal — “I don’t see how any of us could take any money from him,” recently remarked a member targeted in the Sullivan recording — and likely would only make a race more complicated. Still, Democrats are not taking any chances.

“I can give you 3 million reasons why Democrats are not gonna let their guard down going the 2020 election cycle,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, who Bonnen referenced in the recording while talking about his rule against member-versus-member campaigning. “Speaker Bonnen’s announcement is by no way a message that Democrats can take the day off. We have a lot of work to do.”

[…]

In addition to the fate of Texas Leads, uncertainty abounds about Bonnen’s end-of-session threat of consequences for members who campaign against other members. Bonnen’s edict was already undermined by comments he made in the recording, but his decision to not seek reelection only further invalidated his self-appointed role as political disciplinarian.

“I don’t think that Speaker Bonnen — and we heard it on the tape — I don’t think he ever was sincere about that edict,” said Royce Brooks, executive director of Annie’s List, which works to elect Democratic women at the state level who support abortion rights.

Brooks and other Democrats involved in House races said Tuesday it was full steam ahead regardless of Bonnen’s political standing throughout the rest of the cycle. For Annie’s List, that means following through on its plan to have female nominees in at least 20 of the 29 seats that it believes are in play.

See here for the previous update. Honestly, I think the main effect of the Bonnen affair will be to depress and disorganize Republicans by at least a little bit. The ten Republicans who were targeted by Bonnen have every reason to be pissed off, and in being pissed off pull back a bit from being a team player in favor of focusing on themselves. Is that a difference-maker at a state level, or in the most hotly contested districts? Probably not. But it won’t help them, and this year they need all the help they can get. On the other hand, it clarifies things greatly for Democrats, and puts focus on the goal of winning the House. I’d say there was already clarity and focus in abundance, but a little more can’t hurt. It’s not much but it’s better for us than for them, and that’s good enough.

Bye bye, Bonnen

Wow.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

First-term Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen on Tuesday announced he will not seek reelection to the lower chamber in 2020 — completing a stunning fall for the Angleton Republican who enjoyed near unanimous support in the House just months earlier.

“After much prayer, consultation, and thoughtful consideration with my family, it is clear that I can no longer seek re-election as State Representative of District 25, and subsequently, as Speaker of the House,” Bonnen said in a statement, which included a list of 43 House Republicans — a majority of the House GOP Caucus — that the speaker said “have made clear that it is in the best interest of both myself and the House to move on.” (Bonnen’s own brother, Greg Bonnen of Friendswood, was among those on the list.)

[…]

Bonnen’s decision not to seek reelection means his seat in House District 25 will be open for the first time in over two decades. One Republican, emergency room nurse Rhonda Seth, was already running for the seat before Tuesday, aiming to take out Bonnen. The district in southeast Texas is solidly Republican.

With Bonnen’s exit, members will be jockeying among one another to become the next speaker. That election officially won’t happen until the next time the Legislature convenes, which is scheduled to happen in January 2021. In the meantime, if Bonnen remains in place until then, he can carry out typical interim duties, which include assigning issues for committees to study ahead of the next legislative session.

The race to replace Bonnen is coming ahead of a competitive election cycle for Republicans, who, after losing a dozen House seats to Democrats in 2018, are gearing up to hold onto their majority in the lower chamber. If Democrats were to flip nine seats and hold onto the dozen they picked up, they could be the party in power in the House and, consequentially, elect a member from their caucus to lead the lower chamber.

It’s unclear what role — if any — Bonnen will play in 2020 in helping to hold onto the GOP seats. In July before Sullivan’s allegations surfaced, Bonnen announced he had infused a new political action committee with $3 million to support House Republicans running for reelection. Since the speaker became engulfed with the drama though, some members have privately wondered whether Bonnen would be a help or hindrance to their fundraising efforts heading into the election cycle.

Shocking, but in retrospect not at all surprising. The day had started with this story about Republicans abandoning the Bonnen ship:

Some of the most powerful Texas House Republicans said Monday they no longer support GOP Speaker Dennis Bonnen, marking the biggest blow yet to his political future amid the fallout from a secret recording released last week by a hardline conservative activist.

Five Republicans considered senior members of the lower chamber issued a statement withdrawing support for him: State Reps. Four Price of Amarillo, Dan Huberty of Houston, Lyle Larson of San Antonio, Chris Paddie of Marshall and John Frullo of Lubbock.

“As long-serving members of the Texas House, we informed Speaker Bonnen earlier today that we no longer support him as our Speaker,” they said in a joint statement released Monday night. “It is clear that trust and confidence in the Speaker has significantly eroded among our membership, and the matter has both damaged the reputation of the House and relationships among individual members.”

All five members were closely aligned with Bonnen this year during his first session as speaker. A number of them also chair some of the chamber’s most powerful committees: Price chairs the House Calendars Committee; Huberty heads the Public Education Committee; Larson chairs the Natural Resources Committee; and Paddie chairs the Energy Resources Committee.

Later Monday night, another high-profile chair, Phil King of Weatherford, who heads the Redistricting Committee, joined the calls for Bonnen to resign. So did Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who said on Twitter she planned to pen a letter on Tuesday to the caucus chair requesting a caucus meeting to vote on it. Even Dan Flynn of Van, who just days before had reiterated his support for Bonnen, said he could no longer support the speaker.

See here for the previous update. Clearly, things snowballed from there. Bonnen likely could have won re-election – HD25 is indeed a strong R district, where Ted Cruz got nearly 70% – as there were no big name primary challengers yet, but he was certainly toast as Speaker, and I guess he didn’t want to deal with life as a regular member again. I’d have had a hard time with that too, given all that has come out. I supported Bonnen as Speaker this year – he was hardly ideal from my perspective, but he was smart and was effective as Speaker pro tem. Dems did all right under him. I’m still shocked that he was dumb enough to trip over his own dick like this. Rick Casey summarizes it well in describing Bonnen’s ill-fated meeting with MQS as “almost criminally stupid – both tactically and strategically.” I don’t know what happens from here – obviously, Dems winning enough seats to put one of them at the podium would be best, but someone from the wingnut faction could end up on top as well – but at this point it’s hard to be sorry about what happened. Dennis Bonnen brought this on himself. He deserves what he’s getting. Good riddance. A statement from the TDP (which has also moved to dismiss its lawsuit over the recordings) is here, and Texas Monthly, the Chron, the Texas Signal, the Observer, and the Current have more.

Jackson to challenge Ellis in Precinct 1

Here we go.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Former Harris County criminal court judge Maria T. Jackson will challenge incumbent Rodney Ellis for Harris County Precinct 1 commissioner, her campaign announced Monday.

Jackson, the county’s longest serving felony judge until her resignation last month, plans to hold a campaign kickoff on Tuesday. She said she was unavailable for comment Monday.

Jackson, a Democrat, served as presiding judge of the 339th State District Court in Harris County between 2008 and 2019. Previously, she was a Houston municipal court judge. She unsuccessfully ran for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2018.

Jackson earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas and graduated from the Texas A&M School of Law. She faces a well-funded opponent in Ellis in the March Democratic primary. Ellis, a former state senator, was first elected Precinct 1 commissioner in 2016.

She faces a well-funded opponent in Ellis in the March Democratic primary. Ellis, a former state senator, first was elected Precinct 1 commissioner in 2016.

On his most recent campaign finance report filing in July, Ellis listed a war chest of $3.8 million, more than any other elected official in Harris County. Jackson listed $13,812 cash on hand for her judge campaign account, which she can transfer to her campaign for commissioner.

University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus said the fundraising deficit is one of several significant challenges Jackson would have to overcome to have a chance of victory. Rottinghaus said Ellis is widely known to the public and popular among Democratic voters. He also said judges often struggle to transition to legislative or executive elected positions.

“Judges tend not to be visible, politically,” Rottinghaus said. “They aren’t used to talking about core political issues and using that to build coalitions.”

See here for the background, and here for my 2016 judicial Q&A with Jackson. Ellis formally announced his re-election campaign on the same day, not that there was any doubt about his intentions. I tend to agree with Prof. Rottinghaus on this, especially when the other candidate is as well known as Commissioner Ellis is. I support Ellis, I voted for him as a precinct chair in 2016, and I’m happy with what he’s done. Guess I need to add this race to my list for primary interviews.

So now what with Bonnen?

Democrats will wait and see.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

On Thursday night, as Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s political fate continued to hang in the balance, some of the most influential Democrats were in El Paso for a town hall and were split on whether the first-term leader should immediately resign from his post.

“That decision, ultimately, isn’t mine,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, a top Bonnen ally. “Like all other situations, that decision is best left up to the voters in the state of Texas. I trust them.”

“There is this urgency to respond in kind with negativity or delight in this situation,” Moody added. “[But] I am sad about this, I am disappointed in it. I don’t delight in this.”

Others were less measured.

“He’s done damage to the body,” state Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, the new head of House Democrats’ campaign arm, told a reporter for The Texas Tribune. “And for that reason, I think he should resign.” (Just months before, at the end of the legislative session, Israel said Bonnen was “the right man at this point in Texas history.”)

Those two answers — and that vast departure from where most members stood earlier this year — provide a glimpse into a caucus that’s navigating how to respond as the minority party to the drama that has dogged Bonnen over the past few months.

[…]

On Wednesday evening, roughly half the House Democratic Caucus met in Austin for a meeting that was already on the calendar. The Bonnen issue, of course, took center stage, and while no formal action was taken, multiple members there said there was talk of calling another meeting sometime soon to discuss potential further actions.

“I think there’s a desire to bring the entire caucus together with a specific agenda to have a discussion that could result in a vote,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, told the Tribune on Thursday. “Certainly [Wednesday’s] discussion was clear that there was no one in the room who felt anything but anger and betrayal and disappointment.”

“The general consensus … was that people should feel free to put their own messages out there and that we should be united as a caucus moving forward,” Howard said. “So far I’ve heard nothing that would indicate that we’re not all on the same page.”

But there has been variation in Democrats’ public positions. There’s also the question of whether it would be politically advantageous for Democrats to act beyond what the caucus chair, state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, has already said — that the latest “revelations are incompatible” with Bonnen serving another term — before Republicans have a chance to move on the issue themselves.

I don’t have any problem with deliberation, and the potential is there for the Republicans to fracture and generate some heat for us, but at some point we need to be speaking with one voice on the topic. Pick a direction and take it.

Meanwhile, the Republicans use harsh language.

After gathering behind closed doors for hours Friday, the House GOP Caucus released a statement condemning “in the strongest possible terms” language used by Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants during a secretly recording meeting with hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.

“Both members violated the high standards of conduct we expect of our members,” the statement said. “Their conduct does not reflect the views of our Caucus membership.”

[…]

“We completely and fully support the [House] members mentioned in the recording,” the statement said. “Further, the views expressed in the taped recording in no way reflect the high regard we have for our locally elected officials.”

The statement was released as members, on the tail end of their annual retreat, left the ballroom at a resort in Austin. Most of them declined to comment as they departed the meeting, which was originally scheduled for 45 minutes but lasted for just over four hours.

But soon after, a group of four Republican lawmakers from North Texas — state Reps. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall; Matt Shaheen, R-Plano; Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, and Jeff Leach, R-Plano — issued a joint statement calling on Bonnen “to work diligently to prove to all 149 House members and, more importantly, to the people of Texas, that he can rebuild trust and continue to faithfully lead the House and our state forward.

“If that is not possible, the people of Texas expect and deserve a new Speaker of the House during the 87th Legislature,” the members said.

You can see the full statement here. Like I said, there’s plenty of potential for further dissension on the GOP side, and it’s fine to give them some room to express it. Just have a strategy and a plan to execute it, that’s all I ask.

Chrysta Castañeda

The Senate race will be the top statewide contest in 2020, but beyond that it’s the judicials and the one Railroad Commissioner slot on the ballot. Candidate Chrysta Castañeda has thrown her hat into the ring for that job.

Chrysta Castañeda

The 2020 race for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission is beginning to seriously take shape as prominent Dallas attorney Chrysta Castañeda enters the Democratic primary to challenge Republican incumbent Ryan Sitton.

“The Railroad Commission’s number one job is to protect our natural resources and prevent the waste of oil and gas, but in its current configuration, it has abandoned that duty,” Castañeda said in a statement Wednesday afternoon announcing her candidacy.

The Railroad Commission is usually one of the lower-profile statewide races on the ballot, but in election cycles like 2020, the candidates play an important role for their parties because they top the non-federal statewide ticket. The contest for Sitton’s seat, one of three on the commission, will appear on the ballot after the races for president, U.S. Senate and U.S. House.

Castañeda has decades of oil and gas experience, first as a software engineer for companies and then as a lawyer for operators and others in the industry. In 2016, she won a $146 million verdict for the late Dallas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens in a high-profile drilling rights dispute.

Castañeda is centering her campaign on the issue of flaring, or the burning of natural gas that companies do not move to market. The practice, which emits harmful pollutants into the air, has become increasingly rampant; Oil and gas producers say it’s because of a shortage of pipelines, while environmentalists say it’s due to economics with natural gas being far cheaper than oil. They also blame the Railroad Commission, which has approved a historic number of flaring permits, and extensions to flaring permits.

In her announcement video, Castañeda says the state “might as well be burning cash” and charged Sitton with refusing to enforce laws to curtail the waste.

“Texans deserve someone who will enforce the law and work for all of us,” she said. “Let’s stop wasting energy.”

No one can say she doesn’t have experience, though I’m sure some folks will be more impressed by it than others. I learned from this story that there is another candidate already in, Kelly Stone, who is clearly from a more progressive background. That should make for an interesting primary, with at least some possibility that either or both candidates could raise some money for the purpose of running a real campaign in the primary. (It’s not just for Senate hopefuls!) The story also notes that 2016 candidate Cody Garrett is thinking about running again. You may say to yourself “I don’t remember seeing Cody Garrett on the November 2016 ballot”. That’s because he wasn’t – he lost to perennial candidate Grady Yarbrough in the primary. I would not put it past Yarbrough to clutter up the 2020 ballot as well, but whether or not he does it’s important that we get a real campaign, with people being aware of their choices. Every race matters.