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Runoff reminder: Judicial races

Previously: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, county races.

Let’s begin with this, because if you only vote in one judicial primary runoff, this is the one to vote in.

An incumbent judge who is under indictment and is battling for her bench maintains that her 12 years of judicial experience better qualify her in the race. But her challenger claims that someone needs to restore integrity and ethics to Harris County’s 164th Civil District Court.

Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas and Cheryl Elliott Thornton are the two candidates in the Democratic Primary runoff race for the Houston-based court. Whoever wins will face Republican candidate Michael Landrum in the November election.

Thornton claimed that because her 33 years practicing law has earned her the respect of colleagues, that both public officials and sitting judges asked her to run for the 164th District Court.

“Harris County needs someone whose ethics are not questioned and who is ready and who is able to serve, both legally and through her qualifications, as the next judge,” Thornton said. “What differentiates me from my opponent is not just the respect that people have for me, it’s also my integrity and my ability to let others be heard.”

Smoots-Thomas was suspended in November 2019 from her court by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct after federal authorities charged her with seven counts of wire fraud. Claiming this is a political prosecution, she’s pleaded not guilty in the case, which alleged she embezzled over $26,000 in campaign contributions and used them for personal expenses like her mortgage and private school tuition for her children.

Smoots-Thomas said that she’s presided over the 164th District Court for 12 years and in that time she’s handled more than 200 jury trials and countless bench trials. She wrote that after Hurricane Harvey damaged Harris County’s courthouse, she used her chambers as a courtroom space so she could keep up her court’s efficiency and allow litigants their day in court. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s helped groups distribute masks and personal protective equipment around the county, she wrote.

“Throughout my years on the bench, I have been given several awards from various groups honoring my service and commitment to the legal community and larger Harris County community,” she wrote. “In short, I believe in and strive to exemplify judicial experience, efficiency, and adaptability.”

It’s possible that this is a politically motivated prosecution against Smoots-Thomas. I can’t prove that it isn’t, and if it is there’s no way to restore equity to Judge Smoots-Thomas. But I can’t take the chance. I’ve known Judge Smoots-Thomas since she was first a candidate in 2008. I like her personally. We’re friends on Facebook. I sincerely hope she beats these charges. I can’t vote for her with them hanging over her. I will be voting for Cheryl Elliott Thornton. I will note that Stace disagrees with me on this one. I also note from the Erik Manning spreadsheet that third-place finisher Grant Harvey was the Chron endorsee in March, so I presume we will see them revisit this one.

There’s one other District Court runoff in Harris County, for the open 339th Criminal Court, featuring Te’iva Bell and Candance White. Bell took nearly all of the organizational endorsements and was endorsed by the Chron as well.

The other judicial race on the ballot in Harris County is for the 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7, Tamika Craft versus Cheri Thomas. That’s another one for the Chron to redo, since they went with Wally Kronzer in round one.

The judicial Q&As that I received from these candidates: Cheri Thomas, Tamika Craft, Cheryl Elliott Thornton. You can watch Thomas, Thornton, Smoots-Thomas, and Bell participate in a judicial candidate forum with Civil Court Judge and all-around mensch Mike Engelhart on the estimable 2020 Democratic Candidates Debate Facebook page. Texas Lawyer covers Bell versus White here and Craft versus Thomas here.

Finally, there is one judicial primary runoff in Fort Bend, for the 505th Family Court, between Kali Morgan (44.6%) and Surendran Pattel (30.3%). I don’t have any information about them, but the Texas Lawyer profile of their runoff is here.

And with that, we bring this series to an end. Hope it was useful to you. Get out there and vote, in as safe and socially-distant a manner as you can.

UPDATE: Today the Chron endorsed in the judicial runoffs, recommending Cheri Thomas and Cheryl Elliott Thornton, and re-endorsing Te’iva Bell.

Runoff reminder: County races

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

There were a ton of contested county race primaries in Harris County, with all of the countywide offices except one HCDE position featuring at least three candidates. When the dust settled, however, there wree only a few races still ongoing, with one on Commissioners Court and one Constable race being the ones of greatest interest. Fort Bend County saw a lot of action as well, with two countywide races plus one Commissioners Court race going into overtime. Here’s a review of the races of interest.

Harris County – Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

This is the open seat left by long-tenured Steve Radack, which has always been a Republican stronghold but which has trended Democratic in recent years. Beto of course carried Precinct 3, by four points, after Hillary Clinton came close to winning it in 2016. Other statewide candidates (Mike Collier, Justin Nelson, Kim Olson) also won Precinct 3, though the Democratic countywide candidates from 2018 all fell short. It’s there for the taking, but it can’t be taken for granted. The top candidates to emerge from the large field of Democratic hopefuls were Diana Martinez Alexander and Michael Moore. Moore was the bigger fundraiser as of January – we’ll see soon how the current finance period has gone; Alexander’s January filing came in later, after I had published that post. Alexander is a grassroots favorite who has been super busy on Facebook, while Moore has the endorsements of incumbent Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, as well as the endorsement of the Chronicle. You can see other Democratic group endorsements on the invaluable Erik Manning spreadsheet. They participated in the first 2020 Democratic Candidates Facebook Debates here. My interview with Diana Alexander is here, and my interview with Michael Moore is here.

Harris County – Constable, Precinct 2

This is the race with the problematic incumbent and Not That Jerry Garcia. The thing you need to know is that in the end, the incumbent, Chris Diaz, was forced into a runoff against the good Jerry Garcia, who was listed on the primary ballot as “Jerry Garca (Harris County Lieutenant)”. Garcia led the way with 39% to Diaz’s 33%. If you live in Constable Precinct 2, please vote for Jerry Garcia in the runoff.

Harris County – Other runoffs

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5, Place 1: Israel Garcia (48.1%) versus Roel Garcia (30.5%)

Constable, Precinct 3: Sherman Eagleton (incumbent, 47.5%) versus Ken Jones (16.1%)

Constable, Precinct 5: Randy Newman, who doesn’t appear to have a Facebook page (43.4%) versus Mark Alan Harrison (34.3%).

I confess, I know little about these race. Look at the Erik Manning spreadsheet to see who got what endorsements. Based on available information, I’d lean towards Eagleton, Israel Garcia, and Harrison, but please do your own research as well.

Those of you with keen eyes may have noticed there are two other unsettled Harris County races to discuss. Both of these will be decided by the precinct chairs in August. I’ll discuss them in a separate post.

Fort Bend County

County Attorney: Bridgette Smith-Lawson (45.2%) versus Sonia Rash (37.8%)
Sheriff: Geneane Hughes (35.2%) versus Eric Fagan (35.1%)
Commissioners Court, Precinct 1: Jennifer Cantu (41.8%) versus Lynette Reddix (25.6%)

The Sheriff candidates are seeking to replace incumbent Troy Nehls, currently in a nasty runoff for CD22. Nehls has not resigned from his position for reasons unknown to me. I presume he’ll do so if he clinches that nomination, but who knows what he’ll do if he doesn’t. Nehls is awful, either of these candidates would be a big upgrade. County Attorney (and also Tax Assessor) is an open seat whose incumbent has in fact announced his retirement. Commissioners Court Precinct 1 is a race against a first-term incumbent who had ousted Democrat Richard Morrison in 2016. I wrote about all the Fort Bend County races here, and unfortunately don’t have anything to add to that. I’d love to hear from someone who has a strong opinion in these races.

Travis County – District Attorney

Jose Garza (44.3%) versus Margaret Moore (incumbent, 41.1%)

As a bonus, this is the highest profile county race runoff. First term incumbent Margaret Moore faces former public defender Jose Garza in a race that will have national attention for its focus on police reform, with a side order of how sexual assault cases are handled thrown in. Garza has an impressive list of national endorsements, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and more recently Julian Castro. Austin has been one of the hotter spots for police violence, so this is a race that could have a big effect on how the reform movement moves forward.

Hope this has been useful for you. I’ll have a brief look at the judicial runoffs next to wrap this up.

How do you conduct an election in a pandemic?

We’re about to find out, one way or another.

There will be an election in Texas in mid-July, apparently with polling sites, election workers and voting machines in place so people can cast their ballots in person. How many voters might be willing to risk a trip to the polls during a pandemic, though, remains unknown.

As Texas Republicans work to block the expansion of mail-in balloting during the new coronavirus crisis, local election administrators across the state are deciphering how to safely host voters for the July 14 primary runoff elections — and eventually the November general election — under circumstances unseen by even the most veteran among them.

Looking to expand curbside voting, some election officials are considering re-tooling parking garages or shuttered banks with drive-thru lanes. Rethinking contact during a process that requires close proximity, others are toying with the idea of buying hundreds of thousands of pencils that voters would take home after using the eraser end to mark their ballots on touch screen voting machines.

Many are scrambling to add sanitizing and protective gear to the long list of equipment needed to pull off a safe election. Plexiglass or plastic shields, like those now common at grocery store registers, could make an appearance at polling place check-in stations.

One huge unknown hangs over all the planning — whether there will be a surge of mail-in voting that creates a whole new sphere of logistical challenges.

“It’s almost like you’re preparing for two elections rather than one,” said Lisa Wise, the elections administrator in El Paso County. “That’s just part of what we’re in right now.”

[…]

Operating polling places during a pandemic creates another set of safety challenges as voters must check in, sign poll books and stand in lines.

Election administrators recently shared among themselves a poll that offered insight into how people feel about voting in person during a pandemic — 66% of Americans said they would feel uncomfortable going to a polling place now.

In Aransas County, elections administrator Michele Carew is considering whether she should establish a pop-up voting center in a tent in a parking lot. Because the county is small, her office warehouse typically serves as the only early voting site in the county. But with social distancing rules in place, she’d only be able to fit five voting machines instead of the 10 that normally run. That would be particularly unworkable for the high turnout expected for the November election, she said.

Other election administrations are exchanging messages about whether reducing polling locations would allow them to get a better handle on the situation; others are responding with suggestions about doubling the number of locations so they can space out voters and machines.

But those conversations often dovetail into another crucial consideration — there’s no way to know if they’ll have enough poll workers to staff their voting sites.

“Sixty percent of my election officials are over 65 so obviously they need to be replaced or a vast majority of them need to be replaced,” said Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator. She’s considering turning to a pool of county workers who she can train up for the election, but the coronavirus will also get in the way of that.

Typically, she’d be able to cram 80 people into her training room, but she’ll be down to 20 at a time with social distancing requirements.

At this point, though, Callanen isn’t even certain how many poll workers she’ll need. A majority of the county’s polling sites would be propped up in public schools, but she’s not sure if they’ll be able to open up those sites to the public during an outbreak.

This is all a big fricking mess, with the huge uncertainties of where we will be with the virus, whether or not expanded vote-by-mail will be allowed, what sites will be available and practical to use, who will be willing to staff them, and so on and so forth. It’s on thing to say “this is the way it is and these are the parameters you have to work with” and ask election officials to plan for that, and another entirely to say “we have no idea what the conditions will be so plan for every possible scenario”, which is where we are right now. We could at least try to settle the vote by mail question, but as is so often the case our wishy-washy Governor has yet to articulate a position on the matter, leaving it up to the courts and his nihilistic Attorney General to sort it out. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that the July primary runoffs, plus the SD14 special election, are going to be pretty low turnout overall. As such, we can probably cobble together something that will more or less work. November is an entirely different story. Remember those pictures from Wisconsin? As the Fort Bend elections administrator says, if we don’t figure this out we’re gonna be Wisconsin times ten. The clock is ticking.

Fort Bend ISD will remain closed through the end of the school year

They will not be alone in making this decision.

Fort Bend ISD campuses will remain closed for the rest of the school year, Superintendent Charles Dupre said Tuesday, becoming the region’s first traditional district to declare its facilities will not re-open this spring.

Dupre’s announcement comes one week after two of the Houston area’s largest charter school networks, KIPP Texas Public Schools and YES Prep Public Schools, made the same decision. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he expects to decide this week whether to extend his statewide school closure mandate, which currently lasts until May 4.

Fort Bend is the region’s fourth-largest school district, with an enrollment of 77,800 students.

“There are several factors we took into consideration, with safety and security being our top priority,” Dupre wrote in a letter to the district community.

“We know that, even if Governor Abbott allows schools to reopen as of May 4, many families and staff members will be reluctant to return to school and work to avoid potential exposure to the virus. Additionally, because there are only three weeks remaining of instruction after May 4, we believe it will be even more disruptive to our students, staff and teachers to ask them to pivot back into our buildings and the traditional classroom environment.”

[…]

Several of the region’s largest school districts, including Houston, Aldine and Spring ISDs, announced in recent weeks that they will remain closed “until further notice.”

Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said last week that district officials are building multiple contingency plans based on when schools could safety re-open, which remains far from known.

I’ve been operating on the assumption that schools will not reopen until the fall, despite the restarting the economy nattering that’s happening right now. Doesn’t seem worth the effort or risk for another three weeks of classes or so. Hell, at this point, I’m not sure schools will fully reopen in August. It would not surprise me at all if there’s some kind of modified in-school/remote learning plan that tries to give students the hands-on experiences that are truly needed like science labs, combined with minimizing exposure to the general population. The main thing I know at this point is that no one really knows what to expect.

Is it finally going to be Infrastructure Week?

I have three things to say about this:

Lawmakers have been talking about striking a deal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure for years. It might take a pandemic to finally get them to do it, and Texas officials are already working on their wish lists, with ports, highways, high-speed internet and more potentially on the line.

There’s growing talk of tackling infrastructure as the next step in Congress to stave off economic collapse from the coronavirus outbreak, following the $2 trillion stimulus package that passed last month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday that House Democrats are beginning work now on the next package, including “bold action to renew America’s infrastructure.”

President Donald Trump appears to be on board.

“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill,” Trump tweeted. “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”

In Texas that could mean a massive injection of federal funding to rebuild highways and bridges, expand ports and brace waterways for future floods. The federal push could also expand much-needed broadband — which 2 million Texans don’t have — with many Americans now stuck at home, relying on the internet for work, school, telemedicine and more.

“Getting the infrastructure bill done makes a lot of sense,” said U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It will be a really important driver to get our country up and running and back to work once we’re on the other side of COVID-19.”

[…]

In the Houston area, planned widening of Interstate 10 in Fort Bend and Waller counties could be at the top of a priority list of projects, along with expanding Texas 146 from two to three lanes in each direction to relieve a well-known truck bottleneck.

Metropolitan Transit Authority has a long list of projects, but also is still drafting much of its $7.5 billion plan, making it unclear whether Houston’s costliest train and bus projects are ready to reap federal dollars.

Then there are the ports and the Intercoastal Waterway, which will likely be at the top of the list for any major federal infrastructure package, said Ed Emmett, the former Harris County Judge who is now a senior fellow at Rice University.

The Houston Ship Channel needs to be deepened and widened, for one thing. Officials with the Port of Houston have been lobbying for federal help for the $1 billion project that would allow the nation’s busiest waterway to accommodate two-way traffic.

[…]

Emmett said he’ll believe there’s federal infrastructure money coming when he sees it.

“I’m a total cynic when it comes to this,” he said. “Anytime there’s a crisis Congress always says infrastructure — ‘we’re going to go spend on infrastructure’ — and it never happens.”

1. What Ed Emmett says. Past attempts at Infrastructure Week have failed because Donald Trump has the attention span of a toddler who’s been guzzling Red Bull. Show me a bill that at least one chamber has on track for hearings and a vote, and get back to me.

2. If we do get as far as writing a bill, then please let’s limit the amount of money we throw at TxDOT for the purpose of widening highways even more. Fund all of Metro’s projects. Get Lone Star Rail, hell even the distant dream of a high speed rail line from Monterrey to Oklahoma City, off the ground. Build overpasses or underpasses at as many freight rail traffic crossings as possible. Make broadband internet truly universal – hell, make it a public utility and break up the local monopolies on broadband. You get the idea.

3. Ike Dike. Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike. Seriously, any gazillion-dollar infrastructure plan that doesn’t fully fund some kind of Gulf Coast flood mitigation scheme is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Ike Dike or GTFO.

Younger people get coronavirus, too

Because that’s how viruses work.

More Houstonians younger than 60 are testing positive for the novel coronavirus than those who are most at risk of developing serious complications from the illness.

Of that number, middle-aged adults — those in their 40s and 50s — have garnered the brunt of the cases that have tested positive, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis.+

A review of 164 cases from March 4 through [March 23] in counties with confirmed diagnoses — Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria, Galveston, Liberty and Chambers — show around 78 percent of COVID-19 cases in the greater Houston region are of children and adults under the age of 60. People older than that, who federal health authorities say they are more likely to require hospital care if infected, make up about 21 percent of those who have tested positive.

[…]

Even a handful of children in the Houston region tested positive for the novel coronavirus.+

Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health, was aware of the trend of younger people contracting the novel coronavirus.

“People like me, who feel like they can go out and do everything — we, too, can test positive,” Shah said Tuesday morning at a news conference, where officials also announced a stay-at-home order.

“All of us have the potential of transmitting that to others,” he continued.

Maybe someone can tell Dan Patrick? It’s one thing for geezers like him to get sick and die, but people in their 40s and 50s aren’t Grandma and Grandpa, they’re Mom and Dad. And, as Dr. Shah notes, they’re all very capable of passing along the virus to whoever else they encounter, old and young. True, they’re less likely to die than old useless people like Dan Patrick, but 1) the chances are still greater than zero, and some people with zero risk factors have died from COVID-19; 2) plenty of younger folks have pre-existing respiratory issues and/or are immuno-compromised; 3) some people have had lasting after-effects of the disease; and 4) getting sick, and especially going to the hospital, can be very expensive. All of which to say, it’s better to not get sick. Which is what human beings with empathy and compassion, who are not sociopaths like Dan Patrick, are trying to accomplish with social distancing and stay-at-home requirements. I can’t believe I have to explain this, but here we are.

(Yeah, I drafted this last week, which now seems like a million years ago, and Dan Patrick has been blessedly quiet since then. He still needs to be raked over the coals at every opportunity for his hateful, nihilistic blatherings.)

The rest of the H-GAC region

As long as we’ve been talking about Waller County and Montgomery County, I thought I’d check in on the other members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council region. Harris County and six of its seven neighbors – Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, and Montgomery, but not Waller – have issued stay-at-home orders. What about the other five counties in the region?

Austin County says the following on its website:

UPDATE 02.24.2020

We have been advised by authorities of one confirmed Covid-19 case in Sealy. The family is self-quarantining and is complying with guidelines. Any potential exposure is being investigated. Our recommendations have not changed. Continue to practice good hygiene and social distancing. Stay home if you are sick. If you have symptoms, even if they are your usual allergies, flu, etc., call your doctor first. Only go to the doctor’s office or hospital if directed by the doctor. We need to isolate the virus. Stay home as much as possible. Limit your exposure. Tell this to your kids if they are running around on their extended spring break. Stay calm and be safe. As the governor says, we can defeat Covid 19 in Texas.

Here’s a news story from Brenham that basically recapitulates this information. One thing you find when you go looking for news about these smaller counties is that there ain’t much out there. For now, this is what we know.

Colorado County has a disaster declaration by its County Judge and the Mayors of three towns (Columbus, Eagle Lake, and Weimar) that “shall be read to comply” with the initial executive order from Greg Abbott, which closed bars and gyms and schools, limited public gatherings to a maximum of ten people, and limited restaurants to take-out only. The Colorado County order says it continues till March 27, but I presume there has been an extension since then; the Abbott order was through April 3, anyway. As of March 25, there were no confirmed cases in Colorado County.

Matagorda County has been under a disaster declaration since March 16, and has closed county parks, community centers, fairgrounds, and county beach access, in addition to restricting access to county government buildings. They reported eleven positive cases as of Saturday morning.

Walker County has a COVID-19 information page, where I learned that they have a midnight to five AM curfew as of March 23, and they report two confirmed cases as of Friday. Walker County is the home of Huntsville, and thus the Huntsville Correctional Unit, and I sure would like to know what their plan is for when the first inmate tests positive.

Finally, there’s Wharton County, which has this press release stating that there have been five positive COVID-19 tests for county residents (out of 50 total, with eight still pending as of Friday), and little else.

Far as I can tell, none of these counties has a stay-at-home order similar to what the big counties have been doing. These five counties combine to have nineteen confirmed positive cases, though given that test results are taking up to ten days to return, who knows what the actual number is. It’s surely higher now than when I drafted this post on Saturday. I have no idea what is informing Greg Abbott’s decision-making process, but at least now you know.

UPDATE: From the Trib, a note on the larger picture: “As of Friday, the Texas Department of State Health Services said 105 of the state’s 254 counties had reported cases. A week earlier, there were only 34.”

What’s up, Waller County?

Meet the lone holdout county in the Houston area.

Trey Duhon

Waller County Judge Trey Duhon says he expected to announce a stay-at-home order for his rural county this week, following the lead of other major counties in the region.

But then Duhon studied other localities’ orders and reflected on President Donald Trump’s message about how the country needs to start getting back to work in the coming weeks, a view not shared by many public health experts.

“It was just the notion that we can’t paralyzed by this event,” Duhon said by phone Wednesday, referring to Trump’s remarks. “America is about ingenuity, it’s about working, it’s about enterprise, it’s about free market. People get up, they go to work. They earn a living. They move up the ladder. That’s what we do. That’s what makes America successful. So, if we’re paralyzed and we do nothing, then everything will just collapse.”

On Wednesday, Duhon stopped short of issuing a stay-at-home order, reflecting a reluctance among some local leaders to adopt the most stringent rules available to them to slow the spread of COVID-19. While Democrat-led Harris and Fort Bend counties have issued stay-at-home orders, GOP-majority Montgomery County has not. Two other counties led by Republicans — Galveston and Brazoria — have opted for stay-at-home orders.

“This action is not being taken lightly,” said Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta, a Republican, during an address live-streamed on Facebook on Wednesday. “As cases rise, the advice across the board has been to take action (now) to slow the spread of this disease.”

[…]

Duhon wasn’t calling for restrictions to be lifted in his county of 51,000 residents, but he acknowledged struggling with how far to go in imposing them.

His order calls for residents and workers to stay 6 feet apart from one another and for restaurants to remain take-out, drive-thru and delivery only. It discourages gatherings of 10 or more and encourages residents to remain in their homes as much as possible, unless they’re going to work, for example. He advised that trips out of the house should be made for essential items only. Churches and other religious institutions should aim to provide services via video or teleconference. However, they are permitted to hold services outdoors if people are 6 feet apart.

If the number of coronavirus cases goes up in Waller County, he said, he would reassess. There were no confirmed cases in the county as of Wednesday afternoon.

The order would go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday and remain in effect until April 3.

In his Facebook post, Duhon said it bothered him “measures are being taken so easily and without regard to our basic constitutional freedoms.”

“This is NO QUESTION that this is a public health emergency, and there is no doubt about that, but at each and every step, we must always carefully balance the restrictions we put in place with a person’s ability to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Duhon wrote.

As we know, Montgomery County has since issued a stay-at-home order, despite its County Judge sounding a lot like Trey Duhon as of Wednesday. Also since then, the first case of COVID-19 in Waller County has been reported. I think we all know it’s just a matter of days before that number is a lot higher than that.

Waller County is one of seven counties that border Harris. It’s mostly rural and sparsely populated (about 53K people as of 2018). Liberty County (population circa 86K) and Chambers County (population circa 42K), both of which also border Harris, are similar in nature, yet they have both already issued stay-at-home orders, Liberty on Thursday and Chambers on Tuesday. Both were stronger for Trump in 2016 than Waller was – Chambers 79% for Trump, Liberty 78%, Waller 63% – but that did not factor into their decision-making process. What’s it going to take to get you to take this seriously, Waller County?

The Houston/Harris County stay-at-home order

Here’s hoping we won’t have to do this for too much longer.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a stay-at-home order Tuesday morning closing most businesses and directing residents to stay put except for groceries and errands in the latest measure aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The order will take effect at 11:59 p.m. and expire April 3.

Workers in the energy, transportation, construction and food service industries will be among those allowed to remain on the job, she said.

The county judge said she was heeding the warnings of health experts, who for days said a mandatory order limiting public interactions was necessary to prevent Houston hospitals from being overwhelmed with cases.

“What these experts and leaders tell us is that if we keep going at the rate we are going, we will end up in the situation that New York is heading towards, that Italy is at, where we simply run out of ICU space,” Hidalgo said.

Italy has reported more than 6,000 deaths; New York is the center of the American outbreak and scrambling to find beds for coronavirus patients.

The rules are the strictest Harris County has enacted in the two whirlwind weeks since the first locally transmitted case was discovered. Thirteen days ago, local officials wondered whether shutting down the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was too drastic a step.

They since have shuttered schools and universities, canceled concerts and sporting events, closed bars and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery, all in an effort to contain the rapid spread of the disease.

The new stay-at-home restrictions, which have no precedent in modern American history, mirror those in other major cities. Mayor Sylvester Turner said the order was difficult to issue, though he said local government cannot wait.

“The goal we have in the city of Houston is that we don’t have 2,400 cases or 24,000 cases,” Turner said. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting two weeks down the road and then deciding this is the time to take these steps.”

[…]

Harris County’s new rules were not met with universal acclaim. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a frequent critic of local government, said it was unnecessary and would do lasting harm to small and medium-sized businesses. He said compliance with social distancing recommendations by the public has been “quite high.”

“Taking sweeping action against… the backbone of our local economy with a shelter in place order eliminates the chance to take a targeted, measured, data-driven approach to achieve better social separation results and far less economic disruption,” Bettencourt said in a statement.

See here for the background, and you can see a copy of the order here. As of yesterday afternoon, Fort Bend County has followed suit, though Montgomery County is not going that route at this time. As for Paul Bettencourt, I invite him to swap bodily fluids with Dan Patrick and hope it all works out for him. I’ll prefer to listen to people who know what they’re talking about and care about whether people live or die.

In the meantime:

Gov. Greg Abbott expressed some dissatisfaction Tuesday with how Texans are responding to various measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic, signaling an openness to imposing stricter statewide action soon.

“It’s clear to me that we may not be achieving the level of compliance that is needed,” Abbott said during a news conference in Austin. “That’s why I said before I remain flexible in my statewide standard.

“We will continue to evaluate, based upon all the data, whether or not there needs to be heightened standards and stricter enforcement,” Abbott added.

[…]

However, Abbott’s remarks Tuesday indicated his thinking may be evolving. He said that while he was heading to the news conference, he was “surprised at how many vehicles I saw on the road.” (Austin is home to Travis County, whose stay-at-home order goes into effect at midnight.)

Can’t wait to hear what Bettencourt and Patrick think about that. I mean look, this is already hard, and it will be harder before it begins to get easier. I really am worried about the restaurant scene, which now I can’t do anything to support. I’m hopeful that the stimulus bill will make a difference. (The stock market likes it, which is all that matters to Donald Trump.) But you know what else would be bad for the economy? Having two million people die over the next year. We can still do something about that, but not if we listen to people like Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt.

Another review of Judge Hidalgo’s first year

Though, oddly enough in a story about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s first year in office, most of the text is about outgoing Commissioner Steve Radack and the two-year-long temper tantrum he’s been throwing.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

For many years, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, which oversees the third most populous county in the country and one of its most diverse, had been a place of easy consensus. At the time of Radack’s outburst, four of the five members of the commissioners’ court were white Republican men. They included county judge Ed Emmett, a popular moderate in a party running out of them. Most sessions passed by with the placidity of a koi pond. By cheering activists who sued the county and asserting that commissioners were supporting a racist policy while simultaneously trying to join their ranks, [Commissioner Rodney] Ellis was cannonballing into the water.

Three years later, in July of 2019, Radack looked considerably more chastened when the newly elected Ellis and the rest of the commissioners’ court met to vote on a settlement to the lawsuit—a sweeping $100 million overhaul that largely abolished the practice of jailing misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford cash bail. Reformers across the country hailed it as a major step toward making the criminal justice system fundamentally more equitable. The settlement was possible only because, just eight months before, Harris County voters had handed control of the commissioners’ court to Democrats for the first time since 1990. Radack and Jack Cagle were now the only two Republicans left on the court. Most astonishingly, voters had seen fit to replace Emmett, the beating heart of the county’s political establishment for more than a decade, with Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Latina who had moved back to Houston to run against the 69-year-old Emmett. She was the first woman and Latino to lead Harris County.

Now Hidalgo and the other two Democrats—Ellis and former Harris County sheriff Adrian Garcia—ran things. For years, meetings had rarely lasted an hour. Under the new management they felt like committee hearings in the state legislature, often going for more than five hours and sometimes as long as nine, as the new majority pushed to enact its agenda—criminal justice reform, bringing transparency to county government, and improving flood planning—while members of the public came to support, oppose, and debate.

At the July meeting, Hidalgo beamed as she introduced the bail-reform settlement to the court. “This is a proud beginning,” she said, in the fight to build a criminal justice system in which “fairness and justice are preeminent.” She quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 address on the National Mall. She exuded, as members of her generation would say, good vibes only.

Ellis, a political operator who served 27 years in the Texas Senate, spoke glowingly too, calling the settlement, somewhat hyperbolically, “just as big as” Brown v. Board of Education. But the most dramatic moment came when he moved closer to his mic and stared at the side of the room where Radack and Cagle sat. “A very oppressive system has existed for decades,” he said. “And I don’t point an accusative finger at anyone, but it did, I think, indicate a certain blind indifference to what was going on. I think it’s incumbent on us to admit that,” he said, slowing for emphasis.

When it was his turn to speak, Radack turned to address the packed chamber, where during the period of public comments, most had spoken in support of the settlement. He understood that there were racial injustices in the system, he said.

But then he began pounding his palms on the wood in front of him. “This is a public table,” he said, his voice rising to a shout. Issues such as bail reform were supposed to be discussed in public, “not [by] a few people from the commissioners’ offices and whomever, behind closed doors . . . sitting there and discussing what they’re going to do for all of us.” He stood up, getting angrier and flipping through the lengthy settlement for the audience. “Every single page says ‘Draft,’ ‘Confidential,’ ” he said. “I think that sucks!”

Hidalgo politely noted that the text of the settlement had been made available to the commissioners three days earlier. “And let’s be careful with the public table,” she said. Radack was learning something Ellis knew very well: It’s not fun to be in the minority in a lawmaking body. “There are consequences to elections,” Ellis added calmly. At the end of the year, Radack announced he was retiring, boosting Democrats’ chances of electing the fourth Democrat to the commissioners’ court this November—and giving them the same level of dominance Republicans enjoyed just a few years ago.

[…]

Now in the minority, Radack and his fellow Republicans have found other ways to show their displeasure. For one, they’ve made a lot of noise. At one meeting regarding transportation funding, Cagle brought copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 to distribute to the audience, accusing Hidalgo’s court of engaging in doublespeak.

But the most important scuffle came in October. The commissioners met to pass a tax hike that would increase the county’s revenue by 8 percent before an annual deadline, citing the need to raise money before new laws passed by the state legislature went into effect that would restrict their ability to do so in the future. Cagle and Radack didn’t show up—depriving the court of a quorum and preventing a vote. (State law requires that four of the five members of county commissioners’ courts be present to vote on tax increases.) Hidalgo says the consequences of that missing revenue will hurt the county in the long run. “You won’t see a huge difference from one year to the next,” she said, “but it will compound over time.”

That anti-majoritarian maneuver is one reason why many Republicans in Austin are closely watching what’s happening in Harris County. Never huge fans of cities and counties to begin with, GOP lawmakers, led by several Houston-area Republicans, cracked down hard on local government during the 2019 session.

Now imagine if the Democrats tighten their grip on Harris County, finally flip Fort Worth’s Tarrant County (the last urban Republican holdout), and take over quickly growing suburban counties like Hays (south of Austin) and Fort Bend (southwest of Houston). Then they draw new county commissioner precincts to solidify their control. In this dark future for conservatives, Republicans in the Legislature work even harder to rein in Hidalgo and her colleagues across the state.

If Democrats can pick up Radack’s seat, only one Republican would remain on the commissioners’ court, which would prevent that Republican from breaking the quorum again. But what if the Legislature, learning from Radack’s example, changed the law to require all five members of the commissioners’ court to be present? Many blue counties, even the big Democratic ones like Dallas and Travis, have at least one Republican commissioner who could, if the law were changed, nullify the wishes of the other four and hold one-person veto power over budgetary matters, with huge consequences for local governments across the board. “That would be a pretty major thing,” said Radack, who’s given the issue a good deal of thought. “Probably one of the most major pieces of legislation to come around in a long time.”

I should note, this story was written, and I wrote my draft post of it, before coronavirus took over all of our lives. It should be clear that every politician going forward will be judged on how they performed during this particular crisis. I think Judge Hidalgo is doing quite well on that score so far, but we still have a long way to go. Now here’s what I wrote when I first blogged about this.

Putting Radack’s jackassery aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about what might happen in the near future as Republicans continue to lose their grip on the larger counties and maybe possibly could lose control at the state level. We saw what they did on the way out the door in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, after all. Imagine if Dems do take over the State House this November. Would Greg Abbott call a special session to get one last shot at passing bills in a full-GOP-control environment? Maybe even take some action to clip a future Democratic Governor’s wings? He’d want to act now and not wait till his hypothetical loss in the 2022 election, because if there’s a Dem-majority House, he’s out of luck. For sure, the assault on cities and counties will be much harder to pull off without a Republican monopoly. The good news for us Dems is that it would be hard for Republicans here to make like their counterparts in WI and NC, but not impossible. We need to be thinking about this, and have some strategies prepared for just in case.

Anyway. To reiterate what I said before, I think Judge Hidalgo has done a very good job, and has positioned herself and the Court to do a lot more good this year. It’s not necessary to trade out Radack for a better model – that 3-2 majority is fine almost all the time – but it would help. And Lord knows, the man has had more than enough time in the spotlight. Move along, already.

(By the way, Fort Bend has already flipped. In the same way that Harris did, by Dems winning one Commissioner’s Court seat and the County Judge’s office, to go from 4-1 GOP to 3-2 Dem. And as with Harris, Fort Bend Dems have a chance to win a Republican-leaning set this year to get to 4-1 in their favor.)

Primary precinct analysis: Who did what in the RRC race

The Railroad Commissioner primary was a bit like the Senate primary – multiple candidates (though not nearly as many), not a whole lot of money, but the candidate who did best in fundraising was also the leading votegetter. Here’s a look at the top 25 counties in terms of votes cast for the Railroad Commissioner’s race:


County    ALONZO   CASTAÑEDA    STONE   WATSON      Total
=========================================================
All        503,666   592,770  380,236  277,578  1,754,250
HARRIS      77,618    85,166   59,552   40,428    262,764
DALLAS      56,824    57,822   48,718   36,255    199,619
TRAVIS      30,199    97,284   37,641   20,290    185,414
BEXAR       50,228    62,708   22,880   16,583    152,399
TARRANT     35,318    36,767   28,238   25,021    125,344
COLLIN      15,227    22,793   18,487    9,250     65,757
EL PASO     25,353    21,426    6,750    7,065     60,594
FORT BEND   12,550    14,895   16,826   12,685     56,956
DENTON      10,804    21,541   14,966    6,851     54,162
WILLIAMSON  11,031    19,375   10,852    9,924     51,182
HIDALGO     24,057    15,382    6,617    3,699     49,755
CAMERON     11,849     9,267    3,691    3,558     28,365
WEBB        13,080     7,841    2,455    1,850     25,226
HAYS         5,161     6,451    6,152    4,059     21,823
MONTGOMERY   4,820     5,963    5,248    3,898     19,929
NUECES       7,364     5,914    3,146    2,424     18,848
BRAZORIA     4,643     4,659    4,961    4,502     18,765
GALVESTON    4,020     5,225    4,914    3,127     17,286
BELL         4,818     4,619    4,056    3,577     17,070
JEFFERSON    4,640     3,132    3,704    4,813     16,289
LUBBOCK      3,462     3,858    2,741    2,081     12,142
MCLENNAN     2,308     3,078    3,623    2,290     11,299
SMITH        2,536     2,512    2,466    2,985     10,499
BRAZOS       3,000     3,429    2,571    1,488     10,488
ELLIS        2,524     2,266    2,410    1,737      8,937

Chrysta Castañeda

Chrysta Castaneda, who led the pack with nearly 34% of the total vote, also led the way in 13 of these 25 counties, including the top six and eight of the top ten. That’s a pretty good recipe for success in the runoff as well. She led in Dallas County, which is the home of runnerup Roberto Alonzo, who represented a State House district in Dallas County for 26 years. Alonzo led in the five big predominantly Latino counties – El Paso, Hidalgo, Cameron, Webb, and Nueces – plus Bell and Ellis Counties. Castaneda leads Alonzo by five points going into the runoff, which is hardly insurmountable, and other than Travis County her lead over him in the biggest counties was small. I feel like Castaneda’s big lead in Travis County is a significant advantage for her for the runoff. It’s hard to project anything based on past primary runoffs because the data set is so small, but given that there will be a Senate runoff as well, and given that Travis County was also a strong performer for MJ Hegar, it could deliver a decent margin for Castaneda in May. If that happens, it may be hard for Alonzo to make up the ground elsewhere.

Of the other candidates, Kelly Stone led in Fort Bend, Brazoria, and McLennan Counties, while Mark Watson topped the field in Smith and Jefferson. There’s another similarity to the Senate race – everyone got to be a leader of the pack. I have no idea how their voters might go in the runoff – neither has made any endorsement, as far as I can tell, and in all honesty that likely would be just a marginal factor. Turnout always drops quite a bit in primary runoffs, and with the coronavirus situation happening now, who knows what effect that may have. I see Castaneda as the solid favorite in this race, but Alonzo can pull it off if he can get his own message out.

Primary precinct analysis: Everyone did something in the Senate primary

MJ Hegar

So while we wait for actual precinct data from the primary, I thought I’d take a look at some county-level data from the non-Presidential races, as they have the county-by-county breakdown on the SOS election night pages. The US Senate primary, with its twelve candidates overall and five topping ten percent seemed like a good spot to do a deeper dive. The main problem is just presenting that much data, as my usual style of doing a table of numbers isn’t going to work well – it’ll be much too crowded and will be hard to spot the interesting bits. So what I thought I’d try was to focus on the counties with the most voters, and to see who did the best in them. I put everything in a spreadsheet, and sorted by total number of voters for each county. I settled on the top thirty to report on, which gave me a good geographic spread and included some big counties that don’t have many Democrats and some smaller counties where nearly everyone voted Democratic. From there, I pulled out the five top performers in each county, to see what story that could tell me.

Rather than try to present that in some form of table here, which would have taken a lot of tedious text formatting on my part, I just put the result into its own spreadsheet, which you can see here. For each of these counties, I reported the top five candidates and gave their vote totals and vote percentage. The top five performers change from one county to the next, so the five selected are listed above each county’s numbers. I think it makes sense, but have a look and let me know if it’s confusing. I’m now going to summarize what I found from this exercise.

MJ Hegar finished first 15 times and second seven times. Only in Webb and Maverick counties did she not finish in the top five. She was especially strong in the Central Texas area as expected, but also finished first in places like Harris, Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, and Montgomery. To me, her performance versus everyone else’s is the difference between having a campaign that has sufficient funding to actually do advertising and other voter outreach, and not having it.

Sen. Royce West

Royce West finished first five times and second four times. He finished outside the top five ten times, including in such large counties as Bexar and El Paso. He won big in Dallas and won Tarrant, but he trailed Hegar in Collin and Denton and finished fifth in Travis. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what his path to winning the runoff is.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez had five firsts (Bexar, El Paso, Cameron, Nueces, Brazos) and five seconds (Travis, Webb, Guadalupe, Maverick, Bastrop), but finished outside the top five ten times, including in places like Harris and Hidalgo where you’d think she’d have done better. She finished behind Sema Hernandez at least nine times, and behind Annie Garcia at least ten times. (I say “at least” because there were a few instances in which neither was in the top five, and I didn’t go back to see where they fell.) I thought Tzintzún Ramirez had the potential to be a force, and I still hope she runs for something in the future, but someone who can’t consistently top no-money, no-organization candidates like those two is not exactly encouraging. Tzintzún Ramirez was the Bernie candidate, and you have to ask what good that did her. Actually, if you’re a Bernie person, you really should ask why it is that the larger Bernie movement didn’t provide any noticeable fundraising support for her, and clearly didn’t give her much of a boost in the polls. If you want to see candidates like that actually win races, you really ought to think about those questions. She has endorsed Royce West in the runoff, but I’m not sure how much that will matter.

Did I mention that Annie Garcia, a candidate who had raised less than $22K as of February 12, finished fourth in this race, ahead of people who had run and won elections before like Chris Bell and Amanda Edwards? I have to think that being called “Annie ‘Mama’ Garcia” on the ballot probably helped her in places where people didn’t know that much about the slate. It also makes me wonder why she got to be “Mama” but Carole Keeton Strayhorn didn’t get to be “Grandma”. What exactly are the rules for that, anyway? Be that as it may, Garcia won Webb, Lubbock, and Maverick counties, while finishing second in El Paso, Williamson, Cameron, Hays, and Nueces. She finished in the money in 22 of the 30 counties, more than either West or Tzintzún Ramirez. If you had bet me that a month ago, you would have won my money.

Sema Hernandez won Hidalgo County and Chris Bell won Brazoria, so there are all your first place winners. Hernandez, for those few people who insisted her showing in 2018 made her a legitimate candidate this time around despite raising even less money than Garcia and failing to file any finance reports until Q3 this year, shows up in 18 of these 30 counties, but was mostly shut out of the top ten, finishing fifth in Harris, fifth in Bexar, and fourth in El Paso, failing to break ten percent in any of them. She did finish second in Brazoria County, while Bell was runnerup in Harris, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Lubbock. Amanda Edwards (Montgomery, Bell, Comal) and Michael Cooper (Jefferson) also had second place finishes. Edwards had ten third-place finishes, three fourths, and four fifths, while Cooper also finished fourth in Webb and Maverick, and fifth in Smith.

So that’s six candidates with at least one first place finish, and eight with at least one first or second place finish. Believe it or not, the other four candidates – go ahead, name them right now, I double dog dare you – also had at least one top five finish:

Victor Harris – Hidalgo County, third
Adrian Ocegueda – Cameron County, fifth
D.R. Hunter – Nueces County, fifth
Jack Daniel Foster – Maverick County, fifth

Let’s just say we’ll probably never have an election quite like this one again. I’ll have more of this analysis/trivia for you in the coming days. I’m still waiting for a canvass from Harris County.

Let’s talk turnout

Just a few random bits and pieces about turnout from the primaries. On the one hand, I think it’s great that Dems got the turnout that we did, in Harris County and around the state. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time pooh-poohing the notion that Republicans’ 1.5 million to 1 million advantage in the 2018 primaries didn’t mean anything for that November, and I’m not going to change that tune now that Dems outdrew them this March. Primary turnout and November turnout are two different things, so let’s appreciate the turnout we got this March on its own merits.

There were 2,076,046 votes cast for Democratic presidential candidates, and 2,008,385 votes cast for Republicans. The crappy election night results pages do not break these out by vote type, so I can’t tell you how many early or mail votes were cast for each candidate, which also means I can’t tell you what Election Day overall turnout looked like compared to early voting for each party. I can give you that picture for Harris County:


Year    Mail    Early    E-Day  E-Day%
======================================
2008   9,448  169,900  231,560   56.4%
2010   7,193   33,770   60,300   59.5%
2012   8,775   30,136   35,575   47.8%
2014   8,961   22,727   22,100   41.1%
2016  14,828   72,777  139,675   61.5%
2018  22,695   70,152   75,135   44.7%
2020  26,710  114,501  180,692   56.1%

Final Harris County turnout for Dems 321,903, and for Republicans 192,985. Well short of 2008, and thus of my own projections, but still pretty darned strong.

Of some interest is turnout in other counties, though again that is not to be mistaken for a deeper meaning about November. Be that as it may, Democrats saw a lot more action in the suburbs.

Democratic primary turnout was up 59% across metropolitan Dallas-Fort Worth.

OK, so the region probably isn’t flipping blue anytime soon, not with Republicans in power and an incumbent president and U.S. senator up for re-election this fall.

But something unusual is happening.

In notoriously conservative Collin and Denton counties, Democrats doubled turnout and outvoted Republicans — in Collin, by 15,429 votes.

“I think the Democrats have been working real hard the last several years,” said Denton County Republican Chairman Jayne Howell, a rural Denton County realtor.
this huge Democratic turnout will wake some people up.”

Democrats saw hard-fought campaigns at the top of the ticket while Republicans only had to choose local nominees, so maybe the numbers aren’t surprising.

But overall, Democrats outvoted Republicans by 22% across the four core metropolitan counties, three of them traditionally solid red.

Republican turnout was down 43% from 2016, when the Ted Cruz-Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders races ignited both parties.

Here are the Presidential numbers in select counties:


County        2016D    2016R    2020D    2020R
==============================================
Bexar       114,524  132,583  170,762   80,785
Brazoria     12,942   39,247   21,661   35,667
Collin       40,034  116,676   84,350   68,909
Dallas      159,086  175,122  231,688   83,304
Denton       32,506   96,060   67,092   66,621
El Paso      54,742   28,805   68,132   18,343
Fort Bend    39,206   68,587   69,540   57,212
Harris      222,686  327,046  321,903  192,985
Hidalgo      58,366   18,666   59,486   12,378
Montgomery   12,677   90,740   25,487   64,138
Tarrant     104,440  213,993  152,676  122,802
Travis      144,144   84,844  223,233   42,043
Williamson   31,141   67,392   60,677   43,868

Couple of points to note here. One is that Republicans really do get a lot of their strength in the smaller counties, since overall they had almost as many votes as Democrats in the primaries. Two, it’s very likely they didn’t have all that many races of interest, not just at the top but also fewer hot primaries for Congress, the Lege, and maybe county offices. Lots of things can drive turnout, and in their absence you mostly get the hardcore voters. And three, Travis County really punches above its weight. Respect, y’all.

I was to take a closer look at how the various candidates did around the state in future posts, but after a few minutes of poking through the Presidential numbers, I recognized it was pointless. The top counties by vote total for any candidate you looked at, from Biden to Tulsi, was basically just a recitation of the biggest counties. The best percentages for the non-Biden and Bernie candidates were generally in the very smallest counties – Bloomberg, for example, got 50% of the vote in King County. That represented exactly one vote out of two cast; Bernie got the other one. It just wasn’t worth a full post. I think there may be some more interesting info in the Senate race, but the SOS’ crappy election night returns site doesn’t have a county-by-county canvass yet. I’ll get back to that later, and of course after I get the canvass from our County Clerk, I’ll do my usual thing here as well.

Coronavirus comes to town

It was just a matter of time.

After months of fear, preparations and cancellations, the new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has officially come to the Houston area.

One day after a Fort Bend man in his 70s was “presumptively confirmed” to have the deadly disease, officials confirmed two more cases, this time in Harris County. Although 11 coronavirus cases had been transferred from foreign countries to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, the Fort Bend case was the first in Texas not to be imported to the state.

As of March 5, the disease, which resembles pneumonia and originated in China in late December, has infected more than 90,000 people, killed 3,000+ in 65 countries and seen more than 150 patients be treated for the disease in 16 U.S. states, 11 of whom have died.

The Chron has a coronavirus landing page with all their coverage of the pandemic, so check that out. In the meantime, don’t panic, stick to reliable information sources, and for crying out loud wash ur hands. Oh, and don’t use vodka as a hand sanitizer except in a dire emergency.

UPDATE: Mayor Turner’s statement is here, and the City of Houston Health Department’s statement is here.

Primary early voting: Comparing 2020 to 2016

The Chron looks into the early voting numbers around the state.

Experts cautioned that early voting data should be taken with a grain of salt — for one because the subset of people who vote early aren’t necessarily representative of the entire state.

Texans who vote early tend to be older, economically well-off and better educated and tend to live in urban and suburban areas as opposed to rural ones, according to a 2010 study by Austin Community College.

A lot could change by Super Tuesday, March 3 — in particular how South Carolina’s primary on Saturday might affect undecided Democratic voters in Texas. An untold number of Texans declined to vote early as they held out for those results; others who may not have voted otherwise may be spurred into action by a shift in the race.

“Let’s put it this way: So much happens every day in politics, voters want to wait until the last minute to decide,” Rottinghaus said. “So we could see turnout bigger on election day because you’re going to see more things happen between the end of early voting and election day.”

Voting has also become more accessible for a wider swath of Texans after four of the top five largest counties in 2019, including Harris and Bexar, moved to allow countywide vote centers, meaning polling places are open to all voters no matter where they live. That switch could also boost turnout.

Republican strategist Derek Ryan said the high numbers of voters casting Republican ballots early surprised him, especially with a noncompetitive presidential primary.

“There isn’t really anything necessarily motivating people at the top of the ticket,” Ryan said. “But turnout right now on the Republican side is above what it was in 2008 and 2012. It’s actually closer to what turnout was at this point in 2016 with a contested presidential primary.”

Ryan said he attributes that to the strength of Trump supporters who are “trying to send a message that they’re behind him,” as well as the number of competitive congressional races across the state.

While Democrats’ numbers are high, Ryan said he expected to see the presidential race propel even greater turnout, and he noted that they are still nowhere near the explosive turnout of 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were going head-to-head for the presidential nomination. That year, turnout in the primary was at about 23 percent for Democrats, with 2.8 million casting ballots, compared to about 11 percent for Republicans, or 1.3 million votes.

Rottinghaus, however, said that year may not be the best comparison point, considering that an unknown number of Republicans were said to have voted in the Democratic open primary as part of “Operation Chaos” to hurt Obama’s chances. Obama and Clinton were also much different candidates, both very well-known and with strong establishment support, compared with the assortment of candidates available to 2020 voters, he said.

With all due respect, I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in a 2010 study of early voting patterns, as we’ve had quite a bit more data since then. Remember, in the November 2008 election, projections of final turnout in Harris County and statewide were wildly optimistic because early voting wound up being a much bigger percentage of final turnout than expected, and that was because we had been used to it being a small share of the electorate. That’s no longer the case, though as we’ve discussed here which type of election it is factors greatly into the calculation. I would expect that a 2020 version of that 2010 study would find different patterns now.

As for the claims about Republican voting in the 2008 Democratic primary, surely by now we can approach a more objective answer to this question. How many people who had a previous Republican primary history but voted Democratic in 2008 then went on to vote in the Republican primary again, in 2010 or 2012? My guess is that it’s a relatively small number, but my point is that someone can actually calculate that number, so no one has to guess any more. In his final email on the primary early vote, Derek Ryan takes a crack at it. I think there’s still work to be done there, but at least he made the attempt, which I appreciate.

We know two things going into Tuesday. One is that overall, nearly as many people voted in the Democratic primary as the Republican primary: 1,085,144 on the Republican side and 1,000,288 Democratic, in each case with a few small counties not having reported yet. And two, where each party’s votes come from is very different.

Let’s take a closer look at that latter statement. Here’s how the top 15 counties performed in 2020 primary early voting:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      104,787     139,256
Dallas       40,996      94,048
Tarrant      68,485      69,508
Bexar        47,101      90,162
Travis       22,901     108,721
Collin       41,400      40,664
Denton       41,366      33,672
El Paso       9,119      33,071
Fort Bend    37,812      34,146
Hidalgo       7,093      46,327
Williamson   23,555      29,621
Montgomery   35,936      10,673

Total       480,551     729,869

Democrats got 73.0% of their total early vote from these big 15 counties. For Republicans, it was 44.3% from the big 15. That’s a significant difference, and I’d say a continuation of the trends we saw that began in 2016 and really blossomed in 2018 where the vote shifted very heavily in the cities and suburbs towards Democrats and in the rural areas towards Republicans. We don’t have early voting information for the other counties in 2016 so we can’t say how big this effect is for the primaries, but we certainly saw it in action in November of 2018.

Now here are the same top 15 counties in 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      131,145      85,793
Dallas       64,274      57,436
Tarrant      95,088      44,308
Bexar        61,139      54,651
Travis       32,350      61,014
Collin       59,739      17,662
Denton       46,298      13,420
El Paso       8,242      17,799
Fort Bend    28,999      14,518
Hidalgo       9,542      43,458
Williamson   31,745      12,981
Montgomery   41,491       4,606

Total       610,052     427,946

It’s important to remember that Republican primary turnout in 2016 was 2.8 million, and for Democrats it was 1.4 million, so we should expect to see bigger Republican totals in almost any subgroup from 2016. To me, the most interesting bit is the big increases in Democratic early voting numbers in Tarrant and the big, historically red suburbs. I would not call what we are seeing here as a clear indicator of continued Democratic growth in these places, but it sure beats the alternative of being stagnant from 2016. I’ll take a much closer look at these numbers after the election.

For grins, I looked at nine more counties, mostly larger, mostly Republican though Dems made gains in 2016 and especially 2018. Many of these feature at least one competitive State House race for November. Here are the EV numbers for these counties in 2020:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     24,318      10,163
Nueces        7,865       9,531
Bell         10,964       7,668
Lubbock      18,848       7,047
McLennan     11,430       5,213
Hays          9,315      12,818
Brazos        8,333       4,571
Comal        12,156       4,879
Guadalupe     9,759       4,356

Total       112,988      66,246

Here are those same counties from 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     18,313       4,882
Nueces       11,234      11,344
Bell         14,398       3,554
Lubbock      22,919       5,120
McLennan     12,282       2,624
Hays          9,213       6,629
Brazos        9,535       2,328
Comal        13,067       2,370
Guadalupe     8,704       2,321

Total       119,665      41,172

Again, some growth on the Democratic side, with a small decline for Republicans, as before with the caveat about overall turnout. I don’t really have a point to make here, I just got curious and wanted to see this for myself. If nothing else, it’s given me some things to look at again once all the voting is over.

2020 Primary Early Voting begins today

We don’t have a long primary season in Texas – the filing deadline was barely two months ago, though to be sure some candidates have been running for much longer than that – and the first part of it is drawing to a close, as early voting officially begins today. For those of you in Harris County, you can find the schedule and locations here. Please be aware that there are new locations, and some old locations are no longer in use. For example, if you live in the Heights area, the SPJST Lodge location is not being used any more, but Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church (Room 106) at 2025 West 11th Street is available. You can find a map and get directions to any location here. There are 52 early voting locations in the county, every one open from 7 AM to 7 PM each day except this Sunday (1 to 6 PM as usual for Sundays) through next Friday, the 28th. You have plenty of time, so be sure to go vote.

For other counties:

Fort Bend
Montgomery
Brazoria
Galveston
Waller

This Chron story has the basic facts about voting – if you’ve done this before it’s nothing new, but if you know a newbie, it would help them.

Also new, here in Harris County: Virtual translators.

Harris County residents who primarily speak Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese or 26 other languages now will have access to a virtual translator at the polls, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced Friday, part of a series of initiatives aimed at improving the county’s voter participation rate.

In a nod to Harris County’s diversity — more than a third of its 4.7 million residents are native speakers of a language other than English — elected officials want to eliminate communication barriers at voting sites.

“With this innovative technology, interpreters can communicate with the voter and poll worker in real time via video chat to make the voting process easier and more accessible,” Trautman said.

Flanked by county Elections Director Michael Winn, Trautman offered a demonstration of the machines at the West Gray Multi-Service Center. The tablet devices, which previously stored electronic poll books and were set to be discarded, allow a poll worker to make a video conference call to a translator in the desired language. The translator then can help the poll worker and voter communicate.

[…]

Trautman said the virtual translators will be available at all 52 early voting locations for the March primary elections.

Dozens of Korean-speaking voters were frustrated when then-County Clerk Stan Stanart barred translators from operating inside a Spring Branch polling site in 2018. Stanart said he had to follow the Texas Election Code, which limits who can operate inside a 100-foot buffer zone at polling places.

Korean American Voters League President Hyunja Norman, who helped organize the Spring Branch voters, welcomed the virtual translation devices.

“I think they can be very beneficial,” she said. “Still, the human factor cannot be ignored.”

Norman said many of the Korean-American residents in Houston who need language assistance are elderly immigrants who are new to voting and often intimidated by technology. She said she still would like to see real-life translators gain more access to polling sites.

Pretty cool. And if I’m reading this correctly, the virtual translator will be working with a poll worker at the site, so there will be some human involvement. Hopefully this will help the folks who need it.

I’ve talked about turnout before, and as is my habit I will be following the daily EV reports to see how that is progressing. I have the daily EV reports from other years to serve as points of comparison: 2012, 2016, and 2018. Sadly, I don’t have a daily report from 2008 – looking back at my posts from then, I made the rookie mistake of linking to the report on the County Clerk website, which was the same generic URL each day. Alas. Here’s my blog post after the last day of early voting, and here’s the cumulative report from the Dem primary. Note that back in those early days of early voting, most people still voted on Election Day. For the 2008 Dem primary, there were 170K early in person votes (plu 9K mail ballots), and 410K total votes. That’s one reason why the subsequent predictions about November turnout were so off the charts – in November, unlike in March that year, a large majority of the vote was early, which is the norm now in even-numbered years. But because we had been used to less than half of the vote being early up to that point, we way over-estimated the November numbers. We have a better handle on things now.

So that’s the story. I’ll aim to post daily updates, which will depend to some extent on when I get the reports. When are you planning to vote?

Early voting for the legislative special election runoffs starts Tuesday

From the inbox:

Early Voting for the January 28, 2020 Special Runoff Election for State Representative District 148 begins Tuesday, January 21 and ends Friday, January 24. During the four-day Early Voting period, five locations will be available to more than 87,000 registered voters within the district. Voters can cast their ballot at any one of the five locations from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The last day to request a ballot
by mail (received, not post marked) for this Special Runoff Election is today, January 17.

“Early Voting locations for this election are only for voters who reside in State Representative District 148,”
said Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman. “A sample ballot is available online at HarrisVotes.com.”

See here for full early voting information, and here for the interactive map. Remember that Monday is the MLK Day holiday, which is why early voting begins on Tuesday. There’s no makeup day for it, just these four days. Don’t dilly-dally, in other words.

And for those of you in Fort Bend County, here’s your HD28 runoff info:

Tuesday is the first day of early voting for the District 28 runoff to fill a term left vacant by the retirement of state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond.

On the ballot will be Democrat Elizabeth “Eliz” Markowitz of Katy and Republican Gary Gates of Rosenberg. Markowitz is the sole Democrat running for the position. Gates topped a field of six Republicans to win his party’s nomination. But neither received the necessary 50 percent of the vote to win the election.

In Fort Bend County early voting will be 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, Jan. 21-24, at the following locations: Bowie Middle School, 700 Plantation Drive, Richmond; Cinco Ranch Branch Library, 2620 Commercial Center Blvd., Katy; Four Corners Community Center, 15700 Old Richmond Road, Sugar Land; Irene Stern Community Center, 6920 Katy-Fulshear Road; and Tompkins High School, 4400 Falcon Landing Blvd.

Election Day will be Jan. 28 and polls will be open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Visit https://tinyurl.com/v9fletv for Election Day polling sites.

Full early voting information is here. If you want a refresher, my interview with Anna Eastman is here, and my interview with Eliz Markowitz is here. Let’s get these women elected.

After-deadline filing review: Fort Bend County

Fort Bend County had a big Democratic breakthrough in 2018 (though the gains weren’t fully realized, as some Republican incumbents were not challenged), but you could have seen it coming in 2016, when Hillary Clinton carried the county by almost seven points over Donald Trump. That did not extend to the downballot candidates, however, as all of the Republicans held on, but by very close margins; outgoing Sheriff Troy Nehls’ 52.05% was the high water mark for the county. With a full slate of candidates, a ringing victory in 2018, and four more years of growth, Fort Bend Dems look poised to continue their takeover of the county. Possibly helping them in that quest is the fact that none of the three countywide incumbents are running for re-election. Here’s a brief look at who the Dems have running in these races.

Previous entries in this series are for the greater Houston area, Congress, state races, the Lege, and the courts.

County Attorney

The first race we come to is Fort Bend County Attorney, where the outgoing incumbent is Roy Cordes, who has been in office since 2006. Cordes was not challenged in 2016. A fellow named Steve Rogers is unopposed in the Republican primary. (Former Harris County Attorney Mike Stafford, whom Vince Ryan ousted in 2008, had filed for this race but subsequently withdrew.)

I am thankful that the Fort Bend Democratic Party has a 2020 candidates webpage, because the first person listed for this office is David Hunter, for whom I could not find any campaign presence via my own Google and Facebook searching. (In case you ever wondered what the value of SEO was.) The searching I did do led to this video, in which Hunter explains his practice as a DUI attorney. Sonia Rash has a civil rights background and clerked in the 269th Civil Court in Harris County. Bridgette Smith-Lawson is the Managing Attorney for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Regions 5 and 6.

Sheriff

This is also an open seat, as incumbent Troy Nehls of “Fsck Trump bumper sticker” fame is one of a bazillion Republicans running for CD22. Someone smarter than me will have to explain why he hasn’t had to resign from office after making his announcement. Three Republicans are in the primary for Sheriff, including Troy Nehl’s twin brother Trever Nehls. Yeah, you really can’t make this stuff up.

There are three Democrats running: Eric Fagan, Geneane Hughes, and Holland Jones. I’m going to crib from this Chron story to tell you this much: “The Democratic primary features retired Houston Police officer and former president of the African American Police Officers’ League, Eric Fagan, U.S. Army veteran and former commander of criminal investigations for the Missouri City Police Dept. Geneane Hughes and U.S. Navy veteran Holland Jones, a former captain for the office of Harris County Precinct 7 Constable, who is also a licensed attorney currently working as an adjunct professor for Texas Southern University.” Without knowing anything more about them, all three would be a clear upgrade over Troy Nehls.

Tax Assessor

As previously noted, all of these offices are now open seats. Longtime incumbent Patsy Schultz, first elected in 2004, has retired. Commissioners Court appointed Carrie Surratt as a replacement, but she has apparently not filed to run this year. Four Republicans are on the ballot for this seat.

Two Democrats are running. Neeta Sane served two terms on the HCC Board of Trustees, stepping down at the end of her term in 2019 to run for this office. She had run for FB County Treasurer in 2006. She has degrees in finance and chemistry and is a Certified Life Coach, which is her current profession. Carmen Turner is a licensed property agent, and I can’t tell a whole lot more about her from her webpage.

Commissioners Court

Here we finally see Republican incumbents running for re-election. Vincent Morales is up for his first re-election bid in Precinct 1, and Andy Meyers, who’s been around forever, is up in Precinct 3. Dems have a 3-2 majority on the Court thanks to KP George winning the office of County Judge and Ken DeMerchant winning in Precinct 4 in 2018. It had been 3-2 Republican from 2008 through 2016, with Richard Morrison winning two terms in the Republican-leaning Precinct 1, then 4-1 GOP after Morales’ win in 2016. Precinct 1 is a definite pickup opportunity, though not as clear-cut as Precinct 4 was in 2018. I’d call it a tossup, and here I’ll admit I did not look at the precinct data from 2018, so we’ll just leave it at that. Precinct 3 is the Republican stronghold and I’d expect it to stay red, with a small chance of flipping.

Democrats running in Precinct 1 include Jennifer Cantu, an Early Childhood Intervention therapist who was the Democratic candidate for HD85 in 2018 (interview for that here); Lynette Reddix, who has a multifaceted background and has served as President of the Missouri City & Vicinity branch of the NAACP; Albert Tibbs, realtor, minister, and non-profit CEO; and Jesse Torres, who doesn’t have any web presence but appears to be a Richmond city commissioner and former Lamar Consolidated trustee. The sole candidate for the much more aspirational Precinct 3 is Hope Martin, an Air Force veteran and healthcare administrator.

There are also candidates for Constable and JP and the various courts, which I am going to skip. I still may come back and review the Harris County Constable and JP candidates if I have the time. As always, I hope this has been useful to you.

Turner defeats Buzbee

Oh my God I’m so glad this is over.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner declared victory over Tony Buzbee as his lead over the millionaire businessman continued to grow with half of all voting centers in the city counted late Saturday.

Turner led from the moment early voting and absentee results were posted shortly after the polls closed at 7 p.m., putting him in position to retain his seat for a second four-year term. Election day results, however, ensured he would see a wider margin than four years ago, when he bested businessman Bill King by 2 percentage points.

Early and absentee ballots are expected to make up roughly half the total votes cast in the runoff, meaning Buzbee likely would have had to win handily on Election Day to make up his initial deficit.

Turner took the stage at his election night party at 10 p.m. to declare victory in front of television news cameras.

“If there’s any lesson from this campaign, it’s that you don’t have to have as much money as someone else. You don’t have to live in a house that’s as big as someone else. You don’t have to drive a car that’s as fancy as someone else,” he said.

Buzbee spoke several minutes earlier. He did not concede the race, but acknowledged his chances were slim.

“I’m not an idiot,” he said. “I see the returns.”

I disagree with your premise, sir. And I am so, so glad I will never have to give any of my brain space to you again.

Election Day returns are here. (Fort Bend results, where Turner did as well as you’d expect, are here.) You may note that Turner built on his Harris County lead on Election Day, outperforming his Early Vote margin by several points. Keep that in mind when you read this:


The comments were…not kind. Symbolic or not, Sylvester Turner won re-election by a comfortable margin. And Tony Buzbee is over. Thank heavens.

HISD and HCC results

From the HISD runoffs:

Early election results showed Houston ISD school board candidates Kathy Blueford-Daniels and Patricia Allen with comfortable leads in their runoff races Saturday, as they aim to fill the final two seats on the district’s closely watched governance team.

With absentee and early votes counted, as well as 38 percent of precincts reporting, Blueford-Daniels, a retired postal manager, led City Council aide John C. Gibbs by a wide margin, mirroring her strong showing in the November general election.

Allen, a retired HISD administrator, appeared poised to break away from management consultant Matt Barnes after the pair each earned about 30 percent of the general election.

The two victors Saturday will join two newcomers who defeated incumbents in November’s general election. Judith Cruz and Dani Hernandez easily topped Diana Dávila and Sergio Lira, respectively, each earning about 64 percent of the vote.

Blueford-Daniels was leading by about 25 points as most voting centers had reported. Allen was up by about nine points. Congratulations to them both, and all the best in what should be a very challenging next few years.

And some very good news from the HCC races.

Monica Flores Richart

Early results in two Houston Community College Board of Trustees runoff races show Rhonda Skillern-Jones with a commanding lead, while Monica Flores Richart and Dave Wilson are locked in a tight battle.

With absentee and early-voting results tallied, as well as 38 percent of precincts reporting, Skillern-Jones, who has served on the Houston ISD school board for the past eight years, comfortably led longtime educator Kathy Lynch-Gunter in the race for District II. Skillern-Jones entered as a clear favorite after taking 45 percent of the general election vote to Lynch-Gunter’s 25 percent.

In District I, Flores Richart, a lawyer, held a slight lead over Wilson, who resigned from his HCC trustee seat in August and switched districts ahead of the race. Flores Richart nearly emerged from the general election with an outright victory, earning 48 percent of the vote to Wilson’s 32 percent.

[…]

The two winners will join newcomer Cynthia Lenton-Gary, who ran unopposed, on the nine-member board. A fourth new trustee will join the board next year if current HCC Board chair Carolyn Evans-Shabazz were to maintain her strong early lead Saturday in her Houston City Council race. Evans-Shabazz will have to resign her seat to join the council.

Flores Richart built on her lead on Election Day. May we never be cursed with Dave Wilson again.

Carolyn Evans-Shabazz is on her way to winning in District D, so we’ll have a new Trustee in her place early next year. With Neeta Sane running for Fort Bend County tax Assessor, we could have two new HCC Trustees before the 2021 election.

Filing update: Focus on Harris County

One more look at who has and hasn’t yet filed for stuff as we head into the final weekend for filing. But first, this message:


That’s general advice, not specific to Harris County or to any person or race. With that in mind, let’s review the landscape in Harris County, with maybe a bit of Fort Bend thrown in as a bonus. Primary sources are the SOS candidate page and the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet.

Reps. Sylvia Garcia and Lizzie Fletcher do not have primary opponents, though the spreadsheet does list a possible opponent for Garcia. As previously discussed, Rep. Al Green has a primary opponent, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has three so far, with at least one more to come. Elisa Cardnell and Travis Olsen have filed in CD02. Mike Siegel and Shannon Hutcheson have filed in CD10, and none of the three known contenders have filed yet in CD22. (Before you ask, no, I don’t know why some candidates seem to wait till the last minute to file.)

In the Lege, the big news is that Penny Shaw has filed in HD148, so the voters there will get their third contested race in a four month time period. At least with only two candidates so far there can’t be a runoff, but there’s still time. Ann Johnson and Lanny Bose have filed in HD134, Ruby Powers has not yet. Over in Fort Bend, Ron Reynolds does not have an opponent in HD27, at least not yet. No other activity to note.

Audia Jones, Carvana Cloud, and Todd Overstreet have filed for District Attorney; incumbent Kim Ogg has not yet filed. Christian Menefee and Vince Ryan have filed for County Attorney, Harry Zamora has entered the race for Sheriff along with incumbent Ed Gonzalez, and Jack Terence, last seen as a gadfly Mayoral candidate in the late 90s and early 2000s, has filed for Tax Assessor; Ann Harris Bennett has not yet filed. Andrea Duhon has switched over to HCDE Position 7, At Large, which puts her in the same race as David Brown, who has not yet filed. Erica Davis has already filed for Position 5, At Large.

In the Commissioners Court races, Rodney Ellis and Maria Jackson are in for Precinct 1; Michael Moore, Kristi Thibaut, Diana Alexander and now someone named Zaher Eisa are in for Precinct 3, with at least one other person still to come. I will note that Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen has not yet filed for re-election, but three other candidates, two of whom filed within the first week of the period, are in for that position. Rosen’s name has been bandied about as a possible Commissioners Court challenger to Steve Radack, and if he is planning to jump to that race it makes sense that he’d take his time, since he’d have to resign immediately afterward. I have no inside scoop here, just a bit of idle speculation. There are no Dems as yet for either Constable or JP in Precincts 5 or 8.

This brings us to the District Courts, and there’s some interesting action happening here. There are a couple of open seats thanks to retirements and Maria Jackson running for Commissioners Court. Herb Ritchie is retiring in the 337th; two contenders have filed. One person has filed in Jackson’s 339th. Someone other than George Powell has filed in the 351st, and someone other than Randy Roll has filed in the 179th. I’m not sure if they are running again or not. Steve Kirkland has a primary opponent in the 334th, because of course he does, and so does Julia Maldonado in the new 507th. Alexandra Smoots-Thomas does not yet have a primary opponent.

Fort Bend County went blue in 2018 as we know, but Dems did not have a full slate of candidates to take advantage of that. They don’t appear to have that problem this year, as there are multiple candidates for Sheriff (where longtime incumbent Troy Nehls is retiring and appears poised to finally announce his long-anticipated candidacy for CD22, joining an insanely large field), County Attorney, and Tax Assessor (HCC Trustee Neeta Sane, who ran for Treasurer in 2006, is among the candidates). The Dems also have multiple candidates trying to win back the Commissioners Court seat in Precinct 1 that they lost in 2016 – one of the candidates is Jennifer Cantu, who ran for HD85 in 2018 – and they have candidates for all four Constable positions.

There are still incumbents and known challengers who have been raising money for their intended offices who have not yet filed. I expect nearly all of that to happen over the weekend, and then we’ll see about Monday. I’ll be keeping an eye on it all.

Early voting for the 2019 runoffs begins tomorrow

From the inbox:

Early Voting for the December 14 Joint Runoff Election begins Wednesday, November 27, halts for Thanksgiving break, and resumes December 2-10. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., except Sunday, December 8, when they will open from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. On Election Day, December 14, the polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The deadline to apply for a ballot by mail (received, not postmarked) is Dec. 3.

Harris County will open 33 polling locations during early voting, and 385 on Election Day. Registered voters can vote in the runoff election even if they did not vote in November. A total of 389,494 people voted in the November 5th election out of the more than 2.3 million registered voters in Harris County.

“We remind voters that they do not have to go to an assigned polling location in this election,” said Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman. “With countywide polling, they can cast their ballots at any voting center near their home, work, school, or wherever they may be during Early Voting and on Election Day.”

On the ballot are races for Houston Mayor, city council members, Houston Independent School District and Houston Community College board members, and City of Bellaire council members. The State of Texas has set January 28, 2020 as the runoff date for the House District 148 Special Election. Early voting for that election is January 20-24, 2020.

“We truly hope that all registered voters exercise their right to vote,” added Dr. Trautman. “Every voice matters, please be proactive and remember you can now vote YOUR way.”

Harris County voters can find individual sample ballots, polling locations, and utilize the new wait time feature at www.HarrisVotes.com. Mobile phone users can text VOTE to 1-833-937-0700 to find the nearest voting center.

District B will also not be on the ballot. You can find the map of early voting locations here – remember that this is City of Houston, HISD, HCC, and City of Bellaire only, so that’s why the farther-out locations are not open. The interactive map is here. Info for Fort Bend folks is here. Remember that the next EV day is Monday, December 2, and after that it’s a normal schedule. Happy voting!

Expecting a runoff in HD28

Seems like the probable outcome.

Eliz Markowitz

Six figures of outside money, warnings of socialism, Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi — and it likely will not end Tuesday.

Both sides in the critical special election to replace state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, are preparing for the race to go to a runoff — and at that point, the partisan choice will crystallize and the race will draw even more attention and drama with it. Most expect the overtime round to feature the sole Democratic candidate, Eliz Markowitz, and one of three serious GOP contenders out of six total.

Blessed with a single candidate, state and national Democrats have rushed to Markowitz’s aid, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race as a parade of surrogates has descended on the suburban Houston district. At stake is an enticing prize: control of a traditionally red seat as Democrats charge into 2020 with their sights set on the House majority.

“It’s definitely a changing landscape, and I don’t think they’re gonna turn it blue, but they are certainly giving us a run for our money,” Republican hopeful Anna Allred said in an interview Friday.

Democrats acknowledge a runoff is likely but are not giving up hope on an outright win Tuesday. Cynthia Ginyard, chairwoman of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party, said she anticipates a runoff, “but we want more — we want to avoid a runoff, and we’re working feverishly.”

Twelve days of early voting ended Friday, and Republicans closed out the period feeling good about turnout. One GOP analysis found that 54% of early voters were Republicans, 23% were Democrats and 23% were Independents.

Still, the GOP vote remains significantly split, and it is unclear which of the three Republican candidates will end up in the anticipated runoff with Markowitz, a Katy educator who unsuccessfully ran last year for the State Board of Education. In addition to Allred, an anesthesiologist from Katy, the viable Republicans in the race are Gary Gates, a self-funding perennial candidate, and Tricia Krenek, a former member of the Fulshear City Council.

Without knowing who did that “GOP analysis” or what methodology they used, I can’t really evaluate it. How split the Republican vote is only matters if Markowitz doesn’t clear fifty percent. (We are all assuming none of the R candidates can get to fifty percent.) On the very reasonable assumption she will get enough of the vote to be in the top two, then it’s just a question of who’s there with her. I’d expect Republicans to be united behind whoever that is, and I’d expect this race to be very much on the national radar. It already is to some extent, but with basically no other races out there it’d be the late 2019 version of GA-06, with Markowitz in the Jon Ossoff role, hopefully with a better ending. If you live in HD28 or know someone who does, make sure you or they get out and vote, and be prepared to do it again in a month.

Cricket in Fort Bend

The sport keeps spreading.

When Malay Vyas played cricket as a child, there were no fields near his home in western India. So he and his friends took to playing in the streets. He remembers getting grounded after hitting a ball into a house and breaking glass, and, years later, one of his own children broke a window in their home, while playing cricket inside.

Now, with the opening of the Jones Creek Cricket Park, Houston-area children will have a safe, convenient place to enjoy the world’s second most-popular sport. Vyas, the president of the Sugar Land Youth Cricket Club, said the proximity of the field will also encourage more families to get involved in cricket.

“The kids could only come practice when the parents had the time to take two hours out of their schedule,” he said. “What this will do is enable parents to bring kids to practices more frequently. “

Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers said the county acquired the Richmond park to expand recreational facilities and to attract more kids to the area. It was community members, such as Vyas, who urged them to add the cricket pitch.

As we know, there is already the Houston Cricket League, and a cricket complex being built in Waller County. There’s a large population in the region that plays and enjoys cricket, and this is just a matter of the facilities catching up to that demand. It’s cool to see.

Our all-important metro areas

Another look at the trouble Republicans face in Texas now.

The key to Texas’ political future is whether it finally follows the geographic realignment that has transformed the politics of many other states over the past quarter century.

Across the country, Republicans since the 1980s have demonstrated increasing strength among voters who live in exurbs at the edge of the nation’s metropolitan centers or beyond them entirely in small-town and rural communities. Democrats, in turn, have extended their historic dominance of the nation’s urban cores into improved performance in inner suburbs, many of them well educated and racially diverse.

Both sides of this dynamic have accelerated under Trump, whose open appeals to voters uneasy about racial, cultural and economic change have swelled GOP margins outside the metropolitan areas while alienating many traditionally center-right suburban voters.

In Texas, only half of this equation has played out. In presidential elections since 2000, Republicans have consistently won more than two-thirds of the vote for the two parties in 199 mostly white nonmetropolitan counties across the state, according to a study by [Richard] Murray and Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. (Trump in 2016 swelled that number to three-fourths.) The GOP has attracted dominant majorities from those areas in other races, from the Senate and US House to the governorship and state legislative contests. Democrats consistently amassed big majorities in 28 mostly Latino South Texas counties, but they have composed only a very small share of the statewide vote.

The key to the GOP’s dominance of the state is that through most of this century it has also commanded majorities in the 27 counties that make up the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas: Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Demographically similar places in states along the coasts and in the upper Midwest have moved consistently toward the Democrats since Bill Clinton’s era. But in Texas, Republicans still carried 53% to 59% of the vote in those metropolitan counties in the four presidential races from 2000 through 2012, Murray and Cross found.

In the Trump era, though, that metro strength has wavered for the GOP. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly beat Trump across the 27 counties in Texas’ four major metropolitan areas. Then in 2018, Democrat O’Rourke carried over 54% of the vote in them in his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz, Murray and Cross found. O’Rourke won each of the largest metro areas, the first time any Democrat on the top of the ticket had carried all four since native son Lyndon B. Johnson routed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race, according to Murray and Cross.

Looking just at the state’s five largest urban counties — Harris (Houston), Travis (Austin), Bexar (San Antonio), Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Dallas — the change is even more stark. In 2012, Obama won them by a combined 131,000 votes. By 2016, Clinton expanded the Democratic margin across those five counties to 562,000 votes. In 2018, O’Rourke won those counties by a combined 790,000 votes, about six times more than Obama did in 2012. Along the way, Democrats ousted Republican US House incumbents in suburban Houston and Dallas seats and made substantial gains in municipal and state house elections across most of the major metro areas.

“We have now turned every major metropolitan area blue,” says Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state.

Yet that, of course, still wasn’t enough for O’Rourke to overcome Cruz’s huge advantages in smaller nonmetro communities. That outcome underscores the equation facing Texas Democrats in 2020 and beyond: They must reduce the GOP’s towering margins outside of the major metropolitan areas and/or expand their own advantage inside the metro centers.

Few in either party give Democrats much chance to record many gains outside of metro Texas, especially given Trump’s national strength with such voters. O’Rourke campaigned heavily in Texas’ smaller counties and made very limited inroads there, even relative to Clinton’s abysmal performance in 2016. Exit polls conducted for a consortium of media organizations including CNN found that O’Rourke carried just 26% of white voters without a college education, only a minuscule improvement from the 21% Clinton won in Texas in 2016.

O’Rourke’s very limited rural gains have convinced many Texas Democrats that while they can’t entirely abandon smaller parts of the state, their new votes are most likely to come from the metropolitan centers.

“It’s a matter of emphasis,” says Smith, a senior adviser to the liberal group Progress Texas. “You’ve got to do urban/ suburban areas first. You’ve got to maximize your advantage there.”

The stakes in the struggle for Texas’ big metro areas are rising because they are growing so fast. While the four major metro areas cast about 60% of the statewide votes in the 1996 presidential election, that rose to about 69% in 2016 and 2018, Murray and Cross found. Murray expects the number to cross 70% in 2020.

And the concentration of Texas’ population into its biggest metropolitan areas shows no signs of slackening. The Texas Demographic Center, the official state demographer, projects that 70% of the state’s population growth through 2050 will settle in just 10 large metropolitan counties. Those include the big five urban centers that O’Rourke carried as well as five adjacent suburban counties; those adjacent counties still leaned toward the GOP in 2018 but by a much smaller cumulative margin than in the past. Overall, O’Rourke won the 10 counties expected to account for the preponderance of the state’s future growth by a combined nearly 700,000 votes.

We’ve been talking about this literally since the ink was still wet on the 2018 election results. I touched on it again more recently, referring to a “100 to 150-county strategy” for the eventual Democratic nominee for Senate. None of this is rocket science. Run up the score in the big urban areas – winning Harris County by at least 300K total votes should be the (very reachable) target – via emphasizing voter registration, canvassing apartments, and voters who turned out in 2008 and/or 2012 but not 2016. Keep doing what we’ve been doing in the adjacent suburbs, those that are trending blue (Fort Bend, Williamson, Hays), those that are still getting there (Collin, Denton, Brazoria), and those that need to have the curve bent (Montgomery, Comal, Guadalupe). Plan and implement a real grassroots outreach in the Latino border/Valley counties. We all know the drill, and we learned plenty from the 2018 experience, we just need to build on it.

The less-intuitive piece I’d add on is a push in the midsize cities, where there was also some evidence of Democratic growth. Waco, Lubbock, College Station, Abilene, Amarillo, Killeen, San Angelo, Midland, Odessa, etc etc etc. There are some low-key legislative pickup opportunities in some of these places to begin with. My theory is that these places feature increasingly diverse populations with a decent number of college graduates, and overall have more in common with the big urban and suburban counties than they do with the small rural ones. Some of these places will offer better opportunities than others, but they are all worth investing in. Again, this is not complicated. We’ve seen the data, we will definitely have the resources, we just need to do the thing.

Metro referendum is set

Here we go.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members voted Tuesday to ask voters in November for permission to borrow up to $3.5 billion, without raising taxes. The money would cover the first phase of what local leaders expect to be the start of shifting Houston from a car-focused city to a multimodal metro region — even if it does not put everyone on a bus or train.

“Even if you ride in your car, it is more convenient if there are less cars on the road,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

The item will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, the first vote for new transit projects in 16 years for the Houston region.

The bond proposition would authorize Metro to move forward on a $7.5 billion suite of projects including extending the region’s three light rail lines, expanding the use of bus rapid transit — large buses operating mostly in dedicated lanes — along key corridors such as Interstate 10 and to Bush Intercontinental Airport, and creating two-way high-occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy toll lanes along most Houston’s freeways.

“It doesn’t do everything we would like to do, but it does everything we can afford to do,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

In addition, the ballot item calls for extending the general mobility program, which hands over one-quarter of the money Metro collects from its 1 percent sales tax to local governments that participate in the transit agency. The 15 cities and Harris County use the money mostly for street improvements, but they can use it for other projects such as sidewalks, bike lanes and, in limited cases, landscaping and traffic safety and enforcement.

Local elected officials and business leaders will soon stump for the plan, which has not drawn sizable or organized opposition but is likely to require some persuasion.

[…]

Transit officials would also need to secure an estimated $3.5 billion in federal money, most likely via the Federal Transit Administration, which doles out money for major transit projects. Federal officials contributed $900 million of the $2.2 billion cost of the 2011-2017 expansion of light rail service.

The federal approval will largely dictate when many of the rail and bus rapid transit lines are built as well as where the projects run, Patman said. Though officials have preferred routes for certain projects — such as light rail to Hobby Airport or bus rapid transit along Gessner — those projects and others could change as the plans are studied further.

“Routes will only be determined after discussions with the community,” Patman said. “I don’t think anyone needs to worry about a route being forced upon them.”

Metro would have some latitude to prod some projects along faster than others, based on other regional road and highway projects. Speedier bus service between the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, for example, could happen sooner if a planned widening of Interstate 10 within Loop 610 remains a priority for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which has added the project to its five-year plan. Work on widening the freeway is scheduled for 2021, giving Metro officials a chance to make it one of the first major projects.

I must admit, I’d missed that HOV lane for I-10 inside the Loop story. I wish there were more details about how exactly this might be accomplished, but as someone who regularly suffers the torment of driving I-10 inside the Loop, I’m intrigued. This would effectively be the transit link from the Northwest Transit Center, which by the way is also the location of the Texas Central Houston terminal and downtown. This is something that has been bandied about since 2015, though it was originally discussed as a rail line, not BRT. (I had fantasies about the proposed-but-now-tabled Green Line extension down Washington Avenue as a means to achieve this as well.) Such is life. Anyway, this is something I definitely need to know more about.

You can see the full plan as it has now been finalized here. Other BRT components include a north-south connection from Tidwell and 59 down to UH, which then turns west and essentially becomes the Universities Line, all the way out to Richmond and Beltway 8, with a dip down to Gulfton along the way, and a north-south connection from 290 and West Little York down Gessner to Beltway 8. The Main Street light rail line would extend north to the Shepherd park and ride at I-45, and potentially south along the US90 corridor into Fort Bend, all the way to Sugar Land. Go look at the map and see for yourself – there are HOV and park and ride enhancements as well – it’s fairly well laid out.

I feel like this referendum starts out as a favorite to pass. It’s got something for most everyone, there’s no organized opposition at this time, and Metro has not been in the news for bad reasons any time recently. I expect there to be some noise about the referendum in the Mayor’s race, because Bill King hates Metro and Tony Buzbee is an idiot, but we’re past the days of John Culberson throwing his weight around, and for that we can all be grateful. I plan to reach out to Metro Chair Carrin Patman to interview her about this, so look for that later on. What do you think?

Raising money to register Republicans

Just keeping an eye on things.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A new super PAC focused on registering new Republican voters in Texas has raised nearly $10 million from some of the state’s biggest GOP donors, according to its first report to the Federal Election Commission.

Filed early Wednesday morning, the disclosure shows that the political action committee, Engage Texas, took in $9.6 million between when it registered with the FEC in mid-April and when the reporting period ended June 30. It spent $336,000 and has $9.3 million in the bank.

“This significant investment in resources will help us reach Texans in every corner of the state to educate them about Texas’ successful, conservative principles and engage them in the political process,” Engage Texas Chairman Mano de Ayala said in a statement.

Engage Texas launched in mid-June with the promise of signing up and turning out hundreds of thousands of new GOP voters to help keep the state red in 2020. The super PAC is led by Chris Young, a former top staffer at the Republican National Committee.

[…]

It appears Engage Texas has wasted little time getting to work, reporting 17 people on payroll through June in addition to Young. One of them is Kristy Wilkinson, who was deputy campaign manager for Gov. Greg Abbott’s reelection bid last year and previously the Republican National Committee’s Texas state director.

The group says it has already opened offices in Austin, Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It also has dispatched organizers to begin work in Bell, Blanco, Collin, Dallas, Denton, Fort Bend, Harris, Hays, Lampasas, Tarrant, Travis and Williamson counties.

See here for the background. This to me falls somewhere in between “legitimate threat to Democratic efforts in 2020” and “awesome get-rich-quick scheme for Republican consultants”, I just don’t know exactly where yet. I don’t think a lack of registered voters has been the issue for Republicans in the last couple of elections, but if this is more of a turnout effort then I think they could have a real effect. It would have been a much bigger disaster for them in 2018 if they hadn’t had near-Presidential levels of turnout on their side. Like I said, worth keeping an eye on but to be determined how big a deal this is.

We’re still #4

We’ll probably be that for awhile.

According to the new report from the Greater Houston Partnership, the domestic population growth for the Houston region has slowed down over the last eight years. The report, which is based on population estimates data from the U.S. Census Bureau released this spring, cited factors such as the downturn of the oil and gas industry and Hurricane Harvey as reasons for the slump.

“At the current pace, Houston won’t overtake Chicago for another 25 years,” the GHP stated in a July 2019 Economy at a Glance report.

Another notable trend the report found is that international migration to the Houston region has outpaced domestic migration over the last eight years, meaning more U.S. residents are moving to Houston’s outskirts while immigrants are moving to the city.

[…]

One-third of the metro Houston population now lives outside of Harris County, according to the report. Harris County accounted for all of the negative losses in domestic migration for the region from 2016 through 2018 – more than 100,000 residents. No other Houston area county experienced a loss in domestic migration, according to the report.

In fact, domestic growth into Houston’s nine surrounding counties has picked up over the last decade. Fort Bend County was ranked as the nation’s No. 10 fastest growing county from 2010 to 2018; while Montgomery was ranked No. 18; Waller No. 41,; Chambers No. 52 and Brazoria No. 83, according to the report.

“Harris County, with two-thirds of the region’s population, captured only 56.3 percent of the region’s growth over the past eight years,” the report stated. “The suburban counties, with one-third of the region’s population, captured 43.8 percent of the growth.”

It doesn’t really matter when, or even if, Houston passes Chicago to become the third largest city in America. This isn’t a race, and there’s no winner or loser. Growth trends can change on a dime, too, so the same kind of report made in, say, 2024 might well give a very different timetable. What does matter is how we respond to and plan for the effect of these growth trends. What can and should the city of Houston do to attract migrants, and retain existing population? Remember, population is representation, which is to say political power. How can the region react and get on top of housing, transportation, and flood mitigation needs in a coordinated way? We’ve had decades of growth in the Katy Prairie area that have had all kinds of negative effects downstream. We can’t afford to continue that. Part of the challenge here is precisely that there isn’t much in the way of regional authority. Needs and solutions don’t end at county lines, so more and better cooperation is needed. These are the things we need to be thinking about and acting on.

Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls will step down

That sound you hear is a domino falling.

Troy Nehls

Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls announced Wednesday that he would not seek a third term in 2020.

“My work in law enforcement, it’s been an honor and a privilege,” said Nehls. “I’ve done it (law enforcement) for almost 25 years. I think it’s time for me to do something else.”

News of Nehls’ decision prompted immediate speculation that he might run for Congress, a possibility he did not confirm or deny in an interview. Nehls said he announced his decision not to seek re-election now to provide time for others who may want to run for sheriff.

“I will again revisit that over the next four, five months,” Nehls said about a possible Congress run. “We’ll just wait to see what happens.”

[…]

Prior to being elected sheriff, Nehls served two terms as Precinct 4 constable in Fort Bend County.

Nehls said he has encouraged his twin brother, Constable Trever Nehls, to run to replace him as sheriff. Trever Nehls was elected Precinct 4 constable after his twin left the job to run for sheriff.

As you may recall, Democrats won all of the contested countywide races in Fort Bend in 2018. They would like very much to repeat that in 2020. Having a longtime incumbent like Nehls will help, as he had the best percentage among countywide Republicans in 2016 and was one of the top performers in 2012. Democrats do have a candidate.

Eric Fagan, a former Houston police officer with 34 years of law enforcement experience, has launched his campaign for Fort Bend County sheriff.

Born in Louisiana but raised in Texas, Fagan has been a Fort Bend County resident since 1991 and has received the ‘Officer of the Year’ award three times by at least two agencies.

“I want to bring the sheriff’s office in Fort Bend into the 21st century,” Fagan said. “I want to bring proactive police work to the county. We can’t be retroactive.”

Fagan, a Democrat, said his top priorities as sheriff include bringing back community-orientated policing, addressing human trafficking and domestic violence and creating partnerships with community groups to address crime and social issues.

Here’s his website. It’s possible there will be someone else – I mean, Dems have to be optimistic to begin with, and open seats don’t come along every day – but Fagan was there first, and he was who I found when I went looking.

As for Nehls, everyone and her cousin expects him to run for Congress in CD22. There were rumors that Pete Olson would step down in 2018, and I’m sure this will amplify them. As I’ve said in other contexts, Q3 is likely the last chance for serious candidates to get into these races, as the demands of fundraising require a lot of time. Sri Kulkarni has already announced a haul of $420K for Q2, so that’s the scope here. As such, if this is what Nehls has in mind, I expect these dominoes to fall quickly.

Did the Lege sort of decriminalize marijuana?

Well, sort of.

Because of a new state law, prosecutors across Texas have dropped hundreds of low-level marijuana charges and have indicated they won’t pursue new ones without further testing.

But the law didn’t decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption. It legalized hemp and hemp-derived products, like CBD oil.

An unintended side effect of the law is that it has made it difficult for law enforcement to tell if a substance is marijuana or hemp, according to prosecutors. Among other provisions, House Bill 1325 changed the definition of marijuana from certain parts of the cannabis plant to those parts that contain a higher level of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. It’s a difference numerous district attorneys, the state’s prosecutor’s association and state crime labs say they don’t have the resources to detect, weakening marijuana cases where defendants could claim the substance is instead hemp.

“The distinction between marijuana and hemp requires proof of the THC concentration of a specific product or contraband, and for now, that evidence can come only from a laboratory capable of determining that type of potency — a category which apparently excludes most, if not all, of the crime labs in Texas right now,” stated an advisory released by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association last month.

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which runs more than a dozen state crime labs to conduct forensic testing, including drugs, for local agencies said it does not have equipment, procedures or resources to determine the amount of THC in a substance. Some involved in the hemp legislation have countered that there is already available equipment to test suspected drugs, even if it isn’t in most crime labs.

Still, top prosecutors from across the state and political spectrum — from Harris to Tarrant counties — have dismissed hundreds of pending marijuana charges since the law was signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and immediately went into effect on June 10. They have also signaled they won’t pursue any new charges without testing a substance to indicate if there is more than 0.3% of THC, the now-legal limit to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.

“In order to follow the Law as now enacted by the Texas Legislature and the Office of the Governor, the jurisdictions … will not accept criminal charges for Misdemeanor Possession of Marijuana (4 oz. and under) without a lab test result proving that the evidence seized has a THC concentration over .3%,” wrote the district attorneys from Harris, Fort Bend, Bexar and Nueces counties in a new joint policy released Wednesday morning.

So basically, some counties are now refusing to accept low-level pot cases out of concern that they would not be able to prove them at this time; Harris County is one of them. Others will carry on as usual and see what happens, while DPS is now pushing to get the lab equipment they would need to adjust to this change. I think in the end that the prosecutors will figure out how to adjust to this, and at some point the lab equipment will catch up, so in a few months things will return more or less to normal. I mean, I’d be happy if they all just decided this was a better state of affairs and adopted the stance that this change was permanent. But that’s not going to happen.

Scouting the opposition in CD07

Not impressed so far.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

Facing a roomful of conservative voters at a meet-and-greet earlier this month, Republican Wesley Hunt laid out the stakes for his party’s primary in Texas’ 7th Congressional District.

“This is about putting the best candidate forward who can beat Lizzie Fletcher. Period.” Hunt said.

Republican voters still are smarting from their 2018 loss in this suburban west Houston district, where Fletcher, a Democratic Houston energy lawyer, toppled nine-term GOP incumbent John Culberson. Her five-point win flipped the seat blue for the first time since the 1960s, prompting Republicans to take aim at the district almost as soon as Fletcher took office.

The GOP primary field already has come into focus, setting up a clash between Hunt, an Army veteran who works for Perry Homes, and Cindy Siegel, a former Bellaire mayor and METRO board member. Battle lines are sharpening, but not around the two candidates’ conservative bona fides or the strength of their policy proposals. The early contours of the race instead have centered on the question: Who is best positioned to snatch the seat from Fletcher?

Threatening to upend the primary is the potential candidacy of Pierce Bush, CEO of the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters Houston affiliate and grandson of former president George H.W. Bush, who once represented the district.

Bush in an email earlier this month said he still is mulling a run for the seat and has been “flattered by people who are encouraging me to consider running,” though he did not lay out a deadline for a decision.

Meanwhile, both declared Republicans have their electability pitches ready to go. Hunt, 37, contends the party could use a “new generation of leadership,” and he peppers his stump speech with references to his time as a helicopter pilot in the Army, including his combat deployment to Iraq. Siegel, meanwhile, pitches her governing experience serving on Bellaire city council and as mayor, along with a number of boards and commissions.

Also, she contends that it will take a Republican woman to beat Fletcher.

“I feel that way strongly,” the 64-year-old Siegel said. “It’s coming as no surprise to anyone, on a national basis: Women have moved away from the Republican Party.”

[…]

In 2018, Trump’s name did not appear on the ballot, but scores of voters in Texas’ 7th said they viewed the election as a referendum on the president nonetheless. Now, the president’s down-ballot impact is set to become amplified, for better or worse, with his name likely atop the Republican ticket in 2020.

After the president lost the district to Clinton in 2016, 48 to 47 percent, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took notice and weighed in heavily on Fletcher’s behalf, spending north of $3.5 million on the seat in 2018.

This time, House Democrats’ campaign arm again figures to play a heavy role, making early attempts to muddy the GOP waters. When Trump visited Houston in April, for instance, the group sent reporters a news release with the subject line: “With Trump in Houston, How Far Will Hunt and Siegel Go to Win Him Over?”

That last bit is more important than who wins this primary, because whoever it is will have Donald Trump as their running mate. Unless the national mood starts souring on Democrats, I think that’s going to be too big an obstacle to overcome.

Beyond that, it’s just too early to have any opinions about these two, or possibly three, candidates. I fully expect one or two other names to pop up, though whether the field expands like it did on the Democratic side in 2018 I couldn’t say. Given the need to raise funds for this race, time is starting to run out for any other wannabes.

Speaking of fundraising, here’s a data point to note for when Hunt and Siegel file their Q2 finance reports. The top four Dem contenders in CD07 raised $1.2 million combined as of July 2017. Fletcher had the second most, with $365K. The eye-popping early numbers all around the country were a leading indicator of Democratic enthusiasm for the 2018 election. I’ll be very interested to see how things look this time around.

One more thing. What happens to CD07 in the 2021 redistricting cycle. Before the 2018 election, when I figured John Culberson would still be the incumbent, my thinking was that Republicans were going to have to shift some of the district out of Harris County – maybe into Montgomery, maybe into western Fort Bend, maybe northwest into what’s now part of CD10 – to keep it red enough for him. At the very least, they’d have to take some of the bluer-and-bluer inner Harris parts out to keep things in their favor. What happens now if Fletcher wins again? Well, they could try this anyway, to take that seat back by other means. Redistricting doesn’t happen in a vacuum, though, and with CDs 02, 10, and 22 all getting competitive it might be too much to save everyone, especially in a solidly blue Harris County and a much more balanced state as a whole. It would not shock me if the Republicans basically gave up on CD07 and used parts of it to shore up those other districts, especially CD02. That’s more or less what they did with the State House in 2011, making HD133 (which they had lost in 2008) redder while making HDs 137 and 149 bluer. Incumbent protection is still a thing that matters, and in a state with fewer safe Republicans, it may matter more than ever. Just a thought.

Early voting for the May elections has begun

From the inbox:

Early Voting for the May 4, 2019 Joint Election starts Monday, April 22 and ends on Tuesday, April 30. During that period, Harris County voters may vote at any of the 25 Early Voting locations designated throughout the county. Polls will be open from 7 am to 7 pm, except for Sunday, April 28, when polls are open from 1 pm to 6 pm. Ballot by mail applicants must submit their applications by April 23.

Launching this election, voters will be able to see the approximate wait time at each polling location. This new Wait Time feature will be available on our website alongside a map of all the Early Voting locations.

“In an effort to make voting easier and more convenient, Early Voting hours have been extended and a Wait Time feature have been added to the website to help voters avoid lines” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman. “I encourage all of the nearly 785,000 registered voters that are eligible to cast a ballot in this election to exercise their right to vote.”

The Harris County Clerk’s office will conduct elections for 23 political subdivisions across the county. Voters residing in these political entities can find their individual sample ballots, the Early Voting schedule, and the Election Day polling locations at www.HarrisVotes.com.

An approximate additional 30 political entities in Harris County will also conduct elections on the same day. Voters should communicate directly with political entities conducting their own elections to obtain more information.

For more information about the May 4 Joint Election, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

###

Entities Conducting Elections with Harris County

City of Humble, City of Pasadena, City of South Houston, City of West University Place, Channelview ISD, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, Goose Creek Consolidated ISD, Humble ISD, Pasadena ISD, Cypress Klein Utility District, Encanto Real Utility District, Greenwood Utility District, Bridgestone MUD, Crosby MUD, Faulkey Gully MUD, Trail of the Lake MUD, Harris County MUD No. 5, Harris County MUD No. 44, Harris County MUD No. 55, Harris County ESD No. 60, Harris County Fresh Water Supply District No. 1A, Harris County Fresh Water Supply District No. 58, Harris County Water Control and Improvement District No. 109.

You can see what the Wait Time feature looks like here. It’s pretty cool, and something we’ll surely need going forward, though for this election I doubt you’ll see anything but green lights. The City of Pasadena elections are the biggest ones of most interest within Harris County, with the balance of power on Pasadena City Council being up for grabs. See my interview with Steve Halvorson for more on that.

Early voting information for Fort Bend County is here. Fort Bend ISD and the City of Sugar Land, where Nabila Mansoor is running for City Council District 2, are races to watch.

Early voting information for Brazoria County is here. There’s a lot of energy right now for three candidates for Pearland ISD Board of Trustees: Al Lloyd, Dona Murphey, and Joseph Say. If all three win, they’d join Trustee Mike Floyd, elected in 2017, to form a majority on that Board.

Elsewhere, there are Mayor’s races in San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth, none of which I have followed closely. There’s a longer story to write about why we still hold these municipal elections in May of odd-numbered years, but that will wait till another day. For more about the Harris County races, see this Chron story. Is there an election for you to vote in? Leave a comment and let us know.

Another reason David Whitley has to go

County elections officials feel like they can’t trust him or his office right now. That’s a big deal.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As the Texas secretary of state’s office rolled out its botched effort to review the citizenship of nearly 100,000 voters, Betsy Schonhoff was local election officials’ main point of contact.

Seven years into her post as the state’s voter registration manager, she was largely responsible for the training provided to county officials ahead of the review. Schonhoff and her team fielded calls from election officials across the state as they began to sift through their lists. And she was the person who reached out to many of them when her agency discovered that thousands of voters’ names had been mistakenly flagged.

But a week and half into the convoluted review efforts, Schonhoff — voter registrars’ main contact within the agency — disappeared.

County election officials who called the secretary of state’s office asking for her were informed she was not available. A county worker who traveled to Austin last week to meet with Schonhoff was told she was out that day.

By then, Schonhoff had been gone from the secretary of state’s office for several days. She abruptly resigned on Feb. 6. But the county workers who relied on her experience overseeing the state’s voter rolls were kept in the dark.

A spokesman for the secretary of state denied that county officials were misled, saying those who called in were “directed to appropriate staff.” But during a call to Schonhoff’s office a week after she tendered her resignation and completed an exit interview, The Texas Tribune was told “Betsy’s not in.”

“It’s extremely odd, ” said John Oldham, Fort Bend County’s elections administrator, complaining at the time that “we don’t know what’s going on.”

The secretary of state’s office has since acknowledged that Schonhoff left. But the maelstrom surrounding her exit highlights the breakdown in communication and frustrations that have emerged between the state’s top election officials and county election offices since the citizenship review effort launched four weeks ago.

I believe the term of art for this is that the SOS office is “in disarray”. Let us continue:

Sharing responsibilities for maintaining the state’s voter rolls, the secretary of state’s office and county election officials regularly review the list of 15.8 million people and counting who are registered to vote in Texas. List maintenance is largely a routine process and typically occurs without incident.

But the state’s latest stab at reviewing the rolls has felt anything but ordinary, according to county officials across the state.

It started with Whitley’s announcement of the new list maintenance process on Jan. 25. For the better part of last year, the secretary of state’s office had been quietly working with the Texas Department of Public Safety to match the state’s voter rolls with data kept on Texans who indicated they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

His office had offered trainings for local county officials ahead of sharing the data, and the secretary of state’s advised them earlier in the day that the data would soon be released. But they had no warning about the press release Whitley sent out announcing the review, nor were they aware that Whitley had provided data of the approximately 95,000 voters who were initially flagged to the state’s top prosecutors even before county officials would have access to it.

Oldham said he was tipped off about the announcement by a former local candidate who had seen a draft of the press release the attorney general’s office would send soon after Whitley’s announcement landed.

But others were caught flat-footed.

“Most of the time, it’s just very routine. [The state and counties] work together very well and then every once in a while something like this comes out,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “They characterized it as list maintenance, but it didn’t look or feel anything like ordinary list maintenance.”

And from there it got worse. The data was quickly shown to be disastrously inaccurate, with the SOS office at first quietly admitting as much to county officials. The lawsuits started coming, with county officials themselves being named in some of them for taking action upon receipt of the SOS advisory. And then the crown jewel, in which Keith Ingram threw county officials under the bus in a mealy-mouthed defense of his office’s incompetence. I’m sure this marriage of state and local elections officials can still be saved, but it’s time to get some counseling.

In the meantime, we’re still waiting for Betsy Schonhoff to tell her story in court, and for the reality to sink in on the Republican side that David Whitley’s days in office are numbered. And all of this began because of a zealous and fanatical pursuit of “illegal voters”, a problem that is very small and usually the result of misunderstanding than any bad intent, where all of the proposed “solutions” cause far more damage than they can ever hope to mitigate. All happening against the backdrop of the biggest election scandal I can recall, in which a Republican candidate for Congress and a shady campaign consultant used absentee ballots to actually steal an election, just last year, which now has to be done over. Just curious here, I don’t follow Ken Paxton on Twitter, but has he had anything to say about that? There are indeed lessons to be learned about election fraud. Our state leadership refuses to try.

January 2019 campaign finance reports: HCC

Here’s our last group of finance reports for people on the ballot in 2019, HCC Trustees. You can find the full list of finance reports here, which includes PACs and past candidates/Trustees. They’re listed alphabetically by first name and the only way to tell if someone has a current report is to click on them, so it’s not the most efficient system. But at least it exists online, an achievement for which I claim some measure of credit. As before, I have separated the three candidates up for election this year (HCC Trustees serve six-year terms, so the default is for three of them to be up in a given cycle) from those who are not on the ballot.

Zeph Capo, District 1
Dave Wilson, District 2
Neeta Sane, District 7

Adriana Tamez, District 3
Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, District 4
Robert Glaser, District 5
John Hansen, District 6
Eva Loredo, District 8
Pretta VanDible Stallworth, District 9 – No January report available as of February 21


Name              Raised    Spent    Loan  On Hand
==================================================
Capo                   0        0       0    2,064
Wilson                 0        0  12,782        0
Sane                   0    4,766       0    6,553

Tamez                  0    1,127       0    4,824
Evans-Shabazz      1,090    1,560       0    1,183
Glaser                 0        0   5,000    8,325
Hansen                 3        0   5,000    8,931
Loredo                 0       72       0      183
Stallworth

Again, pretty boring, but there are a few things worth mentioning. One is that like Diana Davila, Dave Wilson left the “cash on hand” field blank in his form, so it’s your guess and mine how much of that outstanding loan remains available. Not that it really matters, as Wilson has always self-financed his campaigns, and I’m sure he’ll do that again this year. Neeta Sane’s District 7 is partially in Harris County and partially in Fort Bend. That has nothing to do with finance reports, but in November when you’re checking election results, you need to also look at the results in Fort Bend to get the true picture in her race. In 2013, the Harris County Clerk results showed her losing to opponent Anne Williams, which confused me until this fact was pointed out to me.

Yes, John Hansen actually reported a contribution of $3 – it was $2.93, if you want to be exact. I wish I could tell you more about that contribution, but as it was for under $50 it was not itemized. The same is true for Eva Loredo’s $72 worth of expenditures. If either Mr. Hansen or Ms. Loredo would like to fill in the details, I’d love to hear them. I realize that the number of people who could possibly care about this is probably in the single digits, but I’m one of them and I can’t stop thinking about that $2.93 donation to the Hansen campaign. I just have to know more.

What you need to know even more than that is that this is our chance to void ourselves of the rubbish that is Dave Wilson. In our ongoing conversation about how we choose judges, in which I have defended the partisan election model, I’m occasionally asked if that means that I disapprove of non-partisan elections in the odd-numbered years. The answer to that is no, I’m generally fine with that, but let’s be clear that if there had been partisan elections for HCC Trustee, there’s no way Dave Wilson could have gotten himself elected. He would not have made it through a contested Democratic primary, and he could not have won that seat as a Republican. Every election system has its pros and cons, and Dave Wilson exploited a weakness in this one. We can’t let him do it again. At least this time, we know enough going in to make sure he cannot hide under cover of electoral obscurity. Spread the word, and vote his sorry ass out in November.