Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Greg Abbott

More heat on Abbott over his anti-refugee action

Good. Keep it up.

“This is not a Democrat versus Republican issue. It’s not an immigrant versus native-born issue … it is not a religious versus secular issue,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during a press conference with elected officials and leaders of refugee resettlement organizations. “We cannot turn our backs to the most vulnerable facing the most difficult conditions imaginable.”

[…]

On Tuesday, Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Abbott was wrongly conflating refugee resettlement, which involves an extensive State Department vetting process that can last three years, and migrants coming across the southern border to ask for asylum.

Both numbers have dropped dramatically and this year only about 2,000 refugees were expected in Texas, compared to 7,800 admitted during the last year of President Barack Obama’s administration in 2016.

Garcia noted that the federal government fully funds the initial resettlement of refugees and that the state pays no direct costs.

“This is a reprehensible decision,” Garcia said.

State Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat who represents southwest Houston where many refugees are initially housed, said the governor’s choice went against his Catholic faith.

“Gov. Abbott had the choice to live as a Christian and follow what Christ said and commanded and he chose the opposite,” he said.

Opting out of the federal program means funding won’t be given to local organizations to resettle refugees in Texas, said Kimberly Haynes, a regional refugee coordinator with the South Texas Office of Refugees.

She said Abbott’s decision does not prevent refugees from moving here later, but meant the state would no longer receiving funding to help them integrate, including to find jobs and learn English. Most refugees coming to Houston are joining relatives likely will continue to come here no matter where they are settled, Haynes said.

“If someone is resettled here and the next day they want to come to this great state, they can take the bus and come to Texas,” said Ali Al Sudani, who came here as a refugee from Iraq a decade ago and is now senior vice president for programs at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t believe for a minute any of this will affect Abbott – he doesn’t talk to the public, so why would he ever listen to the public? – but it’s still the right thing to do, and maybe there is some level of heat that Abbott might feel. In the meantime, this whole fight may be moot.

A federal judge temporarily blocked a Trump administration policy that would have allowed governors, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and other local leaders to prevent refugees from resettling in those areas.

The Wednesday decision from Maryland-based Judge Peter J. Messitte comes just days after Abbott became the first and only state leader to opt out of the program. Officials had until Jan. 21 to inform the State Department whether they would participate in the program after the Trump administration imposed the deadline in a September executive order. At least 42 governors, including Republicans, have said they would accept refugees.

“By giving States and Local governments the power to veto where refugees maybe settled – in the face of clear statutory text and structure, purpose, Congressional intent, executive practice, judicial holdings, and Constitutional doctrine to the contrary – [the order] does not appear to serve the overall public interest,” Messitte said in his ruling.

You can see a copy of the ruling here. I assume this will be appealed by the Trump administration, and as the original lawsuit was not filed in the Fifth Circuit there’s a chance this ruling could be upheld. For now at least, the madness has been stopped. NPR, Daily Kos, and the Texas Signal have more.

Bishops condemn Abbott’s refugee refusal

Good.

Texas’ Catholic bishops issued a sharp rebuke of Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Catholic, following his decision Friday to ban refugees from initially settling in Texas.

In a joint statement by the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, which includes leaders from Texas’ 15 dioceses, the group called the decision “discouraging and disheartening.”

“While the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops respects the governor, this decision is simply misguided,” the group wrote. “It denies people who are fleeing persecution, including religious persecution, from being able to bring their gifts and talents to our state and contribute to the general common good of all Texans.”

“As Catholics, an essential aspect of our faith is to welcome the stranger and care for the alien,” the statement said.

In response to the bishops’ statement, Abbott spokesperson John Wittman said the governor’s decision won’t deny anyone access to this country.

“No one seeking refugee status in the United States will be denied that status because of the Texas decision,” he stated in an email. “Importantly, the decision by Texas will not prevent any refugee from coming to America. Equally important, the Texas decision doesn’t stop refugees from moving to Texas after initially settling in another state.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the full statement, which isn’t much longer than what was quote above. Abbott’s spokesbot’s assertion is both misleading and wrong, as Chris Hooks explains:

People accepted as refugees by the United States are by definition legal immigrants. They’ve already gone through an extensive vetting process by federal and international agencies, proving that they face great risk if they were forced to return to their home countries. They’ve waited years and years to find a new home, sometimes in dire overseas camps. Border security and federal refugee resettlement are wholly distinct issues, and it would be a lie to pretend otherwise.

The Omaha World-Herald hosts a database where you can find information about refugees officially resettled in the United States since 2002. According to the database, Texas has helped shelter about 86,000 refugees through the program, as the state added a total of 7 million new residents. Those 86,000 people account for about 0.3% of the total population of Texas. They’re spread all over the state, from Abilene to Woodville, but concentrated in big cities with preexisting immigrant populations.

These are not the people trying to get over the Texas-Mexico border right now. Indeed, very few of them come from Central America at all. Since 2002, no refugees settled in Texas came from Mexico. Two came from Guatemala, 47 from Honduras, and 267 from El Salvador. In fact, the most popular Spanish-speaking origin country is Cuba. Some 2,800 people fleeing the communist dictatorship found shelter here, just like Ted Cruz’s dad once did, through the federal program. Helping Cubans, of course, is a project with longstanding conservative support. By and large, the refugees America accepts are people who are exiled from countries most Americans couldn’t place on a map—like Myanmar, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

They have stories like Gilbert Tuhabonye, who spent nine hours buried under a pile of his dead and dying classmates at a schoolhouse in Burundi, waiting for death in a pool of fire and blood and caustic chemicals as genocidaires, his former neighbors, waited outside with machetes, before he broke a window with someone’s charred femur and ran all the way to a hospital, a track scholarship at Abilene Christian University, American citizenship, and a home in Austin. They’re fleeing vicious governments, ethnic cleansing, wars, climate-change-fueled disaster, and genocides. They’re artists, pro-democracy activists, faith leaders, muckraking journalists, and everything else you can imagine.

There is, of course, a hypothetical point at which a society begins to bend under the stress of refugees. The countries that host the most refugees are middle-income countries near war zones, like Turkey, Jordan, and Pakistan, and the accumulation of desperate people causes those nations a lot of problems. But we are far, far from that point. And it’s a truism that helping a single refugee is meaningful. The country, and Texas, doesn’t have to take everyone who needs help to do good. Imagine that there’s a civil war in Canada, and a million people flee from death camps. It seems clear that it would be better to give 100,000 Canadian refugees shelter instead of just 1,000. Just the same, it’s a better deed to give a home to ten rather than zero. Zero is clearly the least acceptable option.

The U.S. helps a very modest number of people every year, arguably many less than it should or could. The Trump administration has already gutted the refugee program—in the 2018 fiscal year, America accepted just 22,491 refugees, a number that could be entirely settled in Texas without anyone realizing they had arrived. Texas took in just 1,697 of that number—a rounding error, a smaller population than that of a large apartment complex in Dallas or Houston. It’s said that the population of Austin grows by 152 people a day, which means Austin has added more people since the new year than the whole state took in refugees in 2018.

This, Abbott says in his letter, represents a disproportionate burden, the state having already “carried more than its share in assisting of the refugee resettlement process.” He notes that Texas has taken 10 percent of refugees resettled through the program, perhaps because Texas has just under 10 percent of the nation’s population. There’s clearly no flood of refugees here, but you might ask, do these people themselves represent a disproportionate burden? Is this small number of people a huge drain on state resources? No. It’s certainly true that when they first arrive, many refugees need public help in the form of food stamps and access to health care, in the same way that you would need help if you were, say, a war orphan who had lost everything you ever owned and had to reestablish yourself in Belarus.

But the performance of refugees in America is closely tracked and quantified, and even the Trump administration’s own numbers show that most refugees work very hard to establish themselves, to integrate into our (extremely complicated and not-always-very-welcoming) society. Soon, they’re paying taxes. They learn English, their kids become doctors, their grandkids get liberal arts degrees and join sketch comedy groups—you know, the American dream. And they find ways to give back—just like Gilbert Tuhabonye did.

Perhaps one of the most head-scratching parts of Abbott’s rejection of refugees is that faith-based groups do most of the hard work. Helping refugees is not entirely, or even largely, the province of bleeding-heart libs. Much of the groundwork is done by evangelical Christians, people who might well have voted for Abbott, along with Catholic and Jewish organizations. “It’s gut-wrenching,” Jen Smyers, director of policy for Church World Service, told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s an abdication of everything Texans claim to stand for: freedom of opportunity, freedom of religion, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”

If you still find yourself feeling uneasy about the prospect of refugees coming to Texas, then, finally, know this. Abbott’s letter doesn’t mean that refugees won’t come to Texas. It means that they won’t get federal help if they do. It means that, say, a female political dissident from Myanmar who was subjected to punitive gang rape and smuggled herself out in the lower reaches of a container ship may not be placed in an apartment in Houston near her cousin’s family, but instead in Fargo, North Dakota. If she then decides to move to Houston, she could forfeit federal assistance and be worse off, less able to integrate successfully. And the charities that could help her will be stretched thinner on the ground.

I’m old enough to remember when various Catholic clergymen made a high-profile vow to deny Communion to Catholic politicians – all Democrats, of course – who supported abortion rights. Mario Cuomo, then Governor of New York, was a favorite target. I thought that was a crappy thing to do then and it would be an equally crappy thing to do now, I’m just pointing it out to note that all things considered, Abbott got off easy. The Chron has more.

Abbott opts out of accepting refugees

Sadly, not a surprise.

Gov. Greg Abbott informed the U.S. State Department that Texas will not participate in the refugee resettlement program this fiscal year.

The decision comes after more than 40 other governors, including several Republicans, said they would opt in to the federal refugee resettlement program. Resettlement agencies need written consent from states and local governments by Jan. 21. The Trump administration imposed the deadline in a September executive order that requires written consent from states and local entities before they resettle refugees within their boundaries.

The news was first reported by The Daily Wire and later confirmed by the governor’s office. The AP reported that Texas is the first state to opt out of the program.

Abbott said the state and nonprofit organizations should concentrate resources on those already here, according to a letter the governor sent to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“At this time, the state and nonprofit organizations have a responsibility to dedicate available resources to those who are already here, including refugees, migrants, and the homeless—indeed, all Texans,” he wrote.

Refugee advocacy groups condemned the move.

“This is a deeply disappointing decision — although not surprising given Texas’ previous but unsuccessful opposition to refugee resettlement a few years ago,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “This is precisely why we filed a lawsuit against President Trump’s unlawful executive order, and we are confident that justice will be served.”

See here for the background. Abbott’s actions not only set him apart from multiple other Republican governors, but also contradicts what many cities and counties in Texas asked for. There are two things I want out of life right now. One is for these terrible, amoral cowards who now hold office to be voted out at the next opportunity. The other is for them all to never be described in terms that attribute positive values to the religious faith they claim to practice. You want to be known as a moral, upright person? Act like one, or get the hell out. The Chron has more.

Abbott and refugees

The moral choice is clear. It’s also clear for a variety of other reasons. I don’t expect Greg Abbott to make it, because he’s Greg Abbott.

For years, more refugees have resettled in Houston and Texas than any other city or state in the country.

Now that may end.

Under a new requirement imposed by President Donald Trump’s administration, state and local governments must consent in writing before refugees can arrive next year. At least 34 governors, including 13 Republicans, and 86 county and city executives have given their approval.

Mayors and county leaders of all Texas’ biggest cities —including Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin — sent letters opting in.

But Gov. Greg Abbott, who has lead efforts to block Syrian refugees and withdrew from the federal resettlement program in a largely symbolic move in 2016, has not.

If he does not agree, no refugees could be placed in the state, despite what local authorities may want.

John Wittman, Abbott’s spokesman, did not return multiple calls, texts, and emails seeking comment.

“Our understanding is that he’s still weighing his options,” said Jen Smyers, director of policy for Church World Service, one of nine national resettlement agencies in the country. “Given its size and the welcome that refugees receive in Texas, and the faith community’s support, and businesses who rely on refugees for workers in agriculture, manufacturing, and meatpacking, it certainly would have a sizable impact if Texas were not to continue to resettle refugees.”

The Catholic Church, of which Greg Abbott claims to be a devout member, is strongly pro-refugee. The Bible, which people who claim to be Christian claim to believe in, is strongly pro-refugee. Greg Abbott is a Republican, and a Donald Trump minion. You do the math. I’ve said many times in this space that nothing will change until the government changes. Well, in this case this was a change brought about by a change in government, the election of Donald Trump. What has been done can still be undone. The rest is up to us.

Maybe try updating your pop culture references?

Allow me to say something very obvious but often overlooked about this.

Gov. Greg Abbott revived a debate Saturday about a controversial line from a decades-old Pace Picante ad: “Get a rope.”

Abbott tweeted the reference after a follower jokingly asked him what he was going to do about a Whataburger that had run out of Dr Pepper.

One minute later, another Twitter user accused the governor of making an insensitive joke about lynching.

“Lynching jokes? Still? It’s 2019, Greg,” Gary M. Sarli tweeted. The governor responded by telling him to “lighten up, dude.”

“It’s a line ripped off of the Pace Picante Get A Rope Commercial,” Abbott wrote with a link to the old advertisement. “Put a smile on your face. Go to Whataburger & order a double with cheese & jalapeños. Tell them Dr. Pepper sent you.”

Sarli said he remembered the ad too, but it doesn’t justify using the remark.

“It’s not OK,” he replied. “Lynching jokes are making light of the mass murder of Black folks by lynch mobs. It’s not OK to joke about this.”

Let me state for the record that Gary Sarli is correct, lynching jokes were never appropriate, and they are very much still being made far too often and in far too much comfort by prominent people now. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there were many jokes made in the culture from decades past that were wrong then and really, really have no place in the discourse now. You’d think that a guy who was lightning-fast to defenestrate Rick Miller for his racist statements about Asian-Americans might have just a tad bit more self-awareness about lynching-related jokes.

But look, maybe someone should gently inform Greg Abbott that the commercial in question was made in 1992. There are many, many people alive and living in Texas right now that have never seen that ad, or that have no memory of it. People react to “Pace Picante Sauce commercial” references in part because of the horrible legacy that underlies the joke in question, but also because they have no idea what the reference is about. It comes completely out of the blue to them, in the way that a joke based on Evening Shade or Blossom or Wings might land. Tell Abbott to have his staffers quiz their children and grandchildren about what’s funny today, and go from there. I mean, Abbott making a joke about the Peloton wife may be painful, but it’s less likely to result in this kind of controversy. I’m just saying.

Next up for Mayor Turner

A preview of his second term agenda.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he would seek to enact “transformational” changes in his second term, previewing an agenda that will require city leaders to confront politically difficult issues and vastly expand the use of public-private partnerships — a critical step for some of the mayor’s otherwise unfunded signature programs.

Fresh off his re-election victory over Tony Buzbee, Turner also spoke in new detail Sunday about his plans to restructure the fire department, accelerate the city’s permitting process, build a new theme park and intensify efforts to repair damaged streets.

“I said when I came in, in 2015, I wasn’t going to ignore things because they were not politically convenient. That has not changed,” Turner said in an interview with the Chronicle. “If I have to expend political capital to get some things done, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Chief among Turner’s priorities, he said, is to improve Houston’s flood mitigation infrastructure and quicken the pace of recovery from Hurricane Harvey, which has lagged. The key flood control projects, Turner said, are the construction of new gates on the Lake Houston dam, detention basins in Inwood Forest, the North Canal Bypass channel and an underground detention basin south of the Memorial City area.

Three of the projects have received initial funding through a federal grant program that covers a large share of the cost, with only the underground basin awaiting approval.

More immediately, Turner faces a burgeoning flood control challenge in the General Land Office’s cap on how much Houston and other local governments may draw from a $4.3 billion federal mitigation aid package. Since Harvey, Turner has sparred over the recovery process with Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Gov. Greg Abbott, both of whom wield influence over how the resources are dealt.

Turner said he has no interest in “fighting somebody just to be fighting,” but stressed that he would push for Houston to receive a bigger chunk of the aid.

“I want to work with the governor and I want to work with the GLO, but when it comes to making sure that those dollars benefit people in Houston-Harris County that were impacted by Harvey and can be impacted by another storm, how do you justify a disproportionate amount of those dollars going to some other place?” Turner said. “I don’t think you can make that case.”

[…]

Next term, Turner also said he would look to restructure the fire department by switching from a four-shift to a three-shift work schedule, which is generally viewed as more arduous and is opposed by the firefighters union.

Turner affirmed that such a move would involve lobbying the Legislature to raise the baseline at which firefighters begin accruing overtime pay. Under state law, Houston firefighters begin collecting overtime pay when they work for more than an average of 46.7 weekly hours during a 72-day work cycle. Without the added overtime cost, firefighters in other cities often work 53- or 56-hour weeks, with many operating on a three-shift cycle.

Calling the department’s model “archaic” and “not reflective of the current needs,” the mayor contended that these changes would allow HFD to more efficiently handle calls classified as EMS. Those calls make up more than 80 percent of the incidents handled by the fire department, though the fire union has noted that a far lower share of the department’s “man-hours” are spent responding to EMS calls.

There’s a long list, and we didn’t discuss the plan for HERO 2.0, which will surely use some of that capital as well. If there was ever a time to make changes to how the Fire Department operates, it’s now – the firefighters went all in on beating Turner, and they lost. I foresee a rocky road with Harvey recovery money, because it’s more in Greg Abbott and George P. Bush’s political interests to clash with Turner over how the funds are doled out and managed than it is for them to play nice and get things done. For everything else, political capital has a shelf life. We’ll be talking about the next Mayor’s race before you know it. The more the Mayor can get done next year, the better.

The extraordinary danger of being pregnant and uninsured in Texas

So utterly appalling.

Right there with them

From 2012 through 2015, at least 382 pregnant women and new mothers died in Texas from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the most recent data available from the Department of State Health Services; since then, hundreds more have likely perished. While their cases reflect the problems that contribute to maternal mortality across the United States — gross medical errors, deeply entrenched racism, structural deficiencies in how care is delivered — another Texas-size factor often plays a significant role: the state’s vast, and growing, problem with health insurance access.

About one in six Texans — just over 5 million people — had no health insurance last year. That’s almost a sixth of all uninsured Americans, more than the entire population of neighboring Louisiana. After trending lower for several years, the Texas rate has been rising again — to 17.7% in 2018, or about twice the national average.

The numbers for women are even worse. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured women of reproductive age in the country; a third were without health coverage in 2018, according to a DSHS survey. In some counties, mainly along the Mexico border, that estimate approaches 40%.

Public health experts have long warned that such gaps can have profound consequences for women’s health across their lifespans and are a critical factor in why the U.S. has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world. Texas’ maternal mortality numbers have been notably troubling, even as errors in key data have complicated efforts to understand what’s going on and led skeptics, including the governorto question whether there’s really a crisis.

Hardly anyone outside the policy world has taken a deep look at how these insurance gaps play out for women in the second-largest state in the U.S. — at how, in the worst-case scenarios, lack of access to medical care endangers the lives of pregnant women, new mothers and babies.

ProPublica and Vox have spent the last eight months doing just that — combing through government data and reports, medical records and research studies, and talking with scores of women, health care providers, policymakers and families of lost mothers around the state. We learned about Rosa Diaz and dozens of others, mostly women of color, by scouring medical examiner’s databases for sudden, “natural” deaths, then inspecting investigator and autopsy reports for clues about what went wrong.

The picture that emerges is of a system of staggering complexity, riddled with obstacles and cracks, that prioritizes babies over mothers, thwarts women at every turn, frustrates doctors and midwives, and incentivizes substandard care. It’s “the extreme example of a fragmented system that cares about women much more in the context of delivering a healthy baby than the mother’s health in and of itself,” said Eugene Declercq, professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health.

Most of the mothers whose cases we examined were covered by Medicaid for low-income pregnant women, a state-federal health insurance program that pays for 53% of the births in Texas, more than 200,000 a year, and 43% of all births nationwide. In Texas, the program covers OB-GYN visits, medications, testing and nonobstetric care, from endocrinologists to eye exams.

But the application process is so cumbersome that women in the state have the latest entry to prenatal care in the country, ProPublica and Vox found. It can take months to be seen by regular providers and even longer to access specialists. This poses the greatest danger for high-risk mothers-to-be — as many women on Medicaid are, having had no medical care for significant parts of their lives. Then, roughly two months after delivery, pregnancy Medicaid comes to an end, and the safety net gives way to a cliff. For many new mothers, the result is a medical, emotional and financial disaster.

More than half of all maternal deaths in the U.S. now occur following delivery, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with as many as 24% happening six or more weeks after a woman gives birth. In Texas, the proportion of late-postpartum deaths is closer to 40%, with black women bearing the greatest risk. “To lose health care coverage really has a tremendous potential to worsen outcomes,” said Dr. Lisa Hollier, chief medical officer for obstetrics and gynecology for Texas Children’s Health Plan and chair of the state’s maternal mortality review committee.

This is a long excerpt, but there’s a lot more to the story, so please read the whole thing. There are numerous policy decisions at fault here – not expanding Medicaid, low Medicaid reimbursements, cutting off Planned Parenthood and substituting in wholly inadequate alternatives, and more – and all of them can be laid at the feet of the state’s Republican leadership. Whoever runs against Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton in 2022 should loudly and repeatedly assert that every maternal death in Texas is their fault. I keep saying this, and it keeps being true: Nothing will change until we have different, and better, government in this state. There’s no other way to do it.

In which Greg Abbott moves to protect an anti-gay judge

First, there was this.

The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct on Monday issued a public warning to a Republican judge from Waco who refuses to perform same-sex marriages but still performs them for opposite-sex couples.

McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley told the commission that the way she has handled the matter is based on her “conscience and religion” despite the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

“I sought a solution so that anyone in McLennan County who wants to get married can get married,” Hensley said in an emailed statement on Tuesday. “I have, do, and always will, follow the law.”

Hensley has spoken publicly about her decision, including in a 2017 article in the Waco Tribune-Herald in which she said she felt she was entitled to a “religious exemption.”

“I’m entitled to accommodations just as much as anyone else,” Hensley was quoted saying.

We’re all aware of the bullshit arguments for “accommodation”, the TL;dr summary of which is No, you’re not, you’re entitled to follow the law and treat everyone equally or resign from the bench. People have a right to get married. You can choose to marry any couple with a license and a wish to be married, or you can choose to not enter that entirely optional part of the job. To say “these people can get married but those people can’t” is illegal, insulting, and frankly worth a much harsher penalty from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct than this jackass received.

And then we got the backstory.

Two former members of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct say Gov. Greg Abbott removed them from the panel because he disagreed with their position on a case involving same-sex marriage.

Amy Suhl, a retired information technology executive from Sugar Land, and retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Maricela Alvarado, of Harlingen, were appointed to the commission as public members in June 2018.

They served as voting members for nine months while waiting for the Texas Senate to confirm their appointments. Then, when they were about to come up for a Senate vote, the governor withdrew the nominations.

It’s extremely uncommon for Abbott’s office to go back on an appointment. Since 2017, only one other nominee has been withdrawn for a reason other than a resignation or death, records show.

Suhl and Alvarado, in recent interviews with Hearst Newspapers, say they were told that the governor had decided to go in a different direction. But they believe Abbott pushed them out because of their votes to sanction a Waco judge who officiates opposite-sex marriages but refuses to conduct gay marriages.

Suhl made an audio recording of a meeting with the governor’s staff and a later phone call. The recordings, which were reviewed by Hearst Newspapers, shows the staffers were encouraging her to act with Abbott’s views in mind.

“When we appoint people, we appreciate so much that people are willing to serve and hope that people understand that they’re serving the governor, not themselves,” one staffer said.

Suhl said the governor’s office wanted to “change them out with the hope that maybe more people would vote the way they want.”

“I thought it was wrong,” she said. “That commission is there to serve the public, to make sure judges are operating ethically, and not to serve any one group’s interest.”

Suhl is of course correct, in the same way that the US Attorney General is supposed to represent and serve the people, not be the personal attorney of the President. I admire her and Lt. Col. Alvarado for their convictions and their willingness to call BS on this. This, at a most fundamental level, is what corruption is. It’s not just about using power for personal gain, it’s also about using it to subvert and go around existing structures and processes to achieve a result that couldn’t have been achieved by letting the system work as designed. It’s about putting pressure on people who were hired or appointed to do a job to do that job in a bent and perverse way, to rig an outcome. This is what that old saying “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Greg Abbott, like Donald Trump, wields his power in service of himself. He does it because he wants to, and because he thinks he’s entitled to. If he had picked less honorable people to serve on this Commission, he might well have gotten away with it, too.

By the way, remember how Abbott rushed to condemn Rick Miller, because (he said) Miller’s comments were “inappropriate and out of touch with the values of the Republican Party”? Clearly, discriminating against some people is inappropriate and out of touch with Republican values, but discriminating against some other people is just peachy. Good to know. The Trib has more.

(Full disclosure: Amy Suhl is retired from the company I work for. I know who she is, though I had no idea about this appointment she was to have had. We never worked together – ours is a big company – and she may or may not know who I am

State Rep. Rick Miller drops re-election bid

This happened in a big hurry.

Rep. Rick Miller

State Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, is no longer running for reelection after he sparked a firestorm for saying he was facing primary challengers because they are “Asian.”

“During a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle I made some statements that were insensitive and inexcusable,” Miller said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “In trying to make a point about the campaign I used a poor choice of words that are not indicative of my character or heart.”

“I do not want to be a distraction for my party or my constituents, and therefore I have decided not to seek re-election,” he continued.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Miller said that two of his Republican opponents — former Fort Bend GOP Chairman Jacey Jetton and Houston Fire Department analyst Leonard Chan — likely joined the race because they’re Asian in a district with a sizable Asian population.

“He’s a Korean. He has decided because, because he is an Asian that my district might need an Asian to win. And that’s kind of racist in my mind, but anyway, that’s not necessary, at least not yet,” Miller said of Jetton.

The backlash was swift earlier Tuesday as Gov. Greg Abbott pulled his endorsement of Miller and the Fort Bend county GOP chair asked him to consider dropping out.

Chan “jumped in probably for the same reason,” Miller told the Chronicle. “I don’t know, I never met the guy. I have no idea who he is. He has not been around Republican channels at all, but he’s an Asian.”

Here’s that Houston Chronicle story. As we know, Beto carried HD26 in 2018, though Miller hung on. There are now four Dems lined up to run, and it seems likely some other Republicans will now get in. Whether this winds up making the seat easier for them to hold or not remains to be seen.

I don’t have anything else to say about this, so let me turn the rest of this post over to Rep. Gene Wu.


Go read the rest.

You really have to plan for every election

Whether or not they actually happen.

Judge Michael Keasler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justice Higley resigns

This is clearly the best course of action.

Justice Laura Higley

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

So what happened with the election returns?

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

Diane Trautman

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: One more thing:

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

UPDATE: The SOS finally speaks.

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

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

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

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

The next bathroom bill

You can see it coming from here.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Abbott and Paxton threaten transgender child

I’m utterly speechless.

Top Texas Republicans have directed the state’s child welfare agency to investigate whether a mother who supports her 7-year-old child’s gender transition is committing “child abuse” — a move that has alarmed an already fearful community of parents of transgender children.

Gov. Greg Abbott declared via tweet Wednesday that two state agencies, the Department of Family and Protective Services and the Texas Attorney General’s Office, are looking into a dispute between divorced North Texas parents who disagree on whether their child should continue the process of transitioning from male to female, a path that could culminate, when the child is years older, in medical interventions.

In a letter Thursday to the state’s child welfare agency, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer declared that the child — who identifies as a girl, according to testimony from a counselor and pediatrician — is “in immediate and irrevocable danger.”

“We ask that you open an investigation into this matter as soon as possible and act pursuant to your emergency powers to protect the boy in question [from] permanent and potentially irreversible harm by his mother,” Mateer wrote, repeatedly referring to the 7-year-old as a boy. Mateer’s nomination to the federal bench was withdrawn in 2017 after revelations that he had called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan.”

A spokesman for DFPS said the agency’s “review of the allegations is already underway.”

The case’s path to public discourse began with the child’s father, Jeff Younger, whose blog has generated a maelstrom of right-wing outrage, including from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who called the child “a pawn in a left-wing political agenda.” Younger, who also appeared at a rally at the Capitol this spring, does not agree with his ex-wife that his child is transgender. In blog posts, he has claimed his child could face “chemical castration.”

In reality, experts say, the transition process for prepubescent children does not involve medical intervention; instead, it consists of social affirmations like allowing children to wear the clothes they like, employ the names and pronouns they prefer, and paint their nails if they choose. During puberty, a transgender child might, with the consultation of a doctor, begin to take puberty blockers, reversible drugs that can stop puberty and the gender markers that come with it, like a deepening voice, the development of breasts or starting a period. Later on, experts say, transgender young adults might explore the option of surgery.

In a court ruling Thursday that granted the parents joint custody, Dallas Judge Kim Cooks noted that there was never a court order for the child to undergo medical treatment, according to The Dallas Morning News. Indeed, the mother, Anne Georgulas, had requested that Cooks require mutual consent before the child underwent any treatment, the Morning News reported.

So yes, this is Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton and Ted Cruz and the rest getting involved in a marital dispute. Am I the only one who remembers when Republicans claimed to be about getting government out of people’s lives? However true that may have been once, it sure isn’t the case now.

This is nothing short of an authoritarian move by Abbott. The governor appoints the head of the Department of Family and Protective Services. How much faith are you going to have in the outcome of that investigation? Or the investigation by the AG’s office, under Jeff “transgender people are satan’s spawn” Mateer, for that matter? Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned yet that they made the child’s name public, so everyone who agrees with them can force their own opinion on her as well. How lovely.

And all because they disagree with this child’s mother about what the child is allowed to wear, and they had the power to stick their noses in. They won’t stop this child from being transgender, any more than they could stop her from being left-handed or allergic to peanuts. They will cause a lot of damage trying, though. We cannot vote them out of office soon enough.

On Abbott, Austin, and homelessness

What Chris Hooks says.

On Wednesday, the governor plunged headfirst into a political controversy that has dominated discussion in the city since June. Back then, the city council partially neutered several ordinances that essentially made being homeless in the city a crime by allowing cops to ticket people for sitting or lying on sidewalks or camping in public places. As a result, homeless people became more visible on the city streets, to the consternation of downtown residents and business owners.

This has led to a tremendous improvement in the quality of life of many homeless people. The old rules meant they were pushed to unsafe places to sleep and live, where they were vulnerable to being raped, robbed, and assaulted. Many were ticketed or arrested dozens of times, inhibiting their ability to get off the streets. At the same time, it’s deeply unpleasant to bear witness to extreme poverty and desperation, and some downtown residents have spoken about dirty streets and feeling unsafe.

[…]

The letter is deeply strange. It consists of two parts: why Abbott is acting, and what he’ll do. The first bit contains a declaration that “as the Governor of Texas, I have the responsibility to protect the health and safety of all Texans, including Austin residents.” That’s a big responsibility, one that makes Abbott sound a bit like the All-father, and it might sound strange to you if you’ve come to think of the governorship as a traditionally ornamental sinecure where people earn a paycheck while they wait to run for president.

The line is footnoted, which looks good and proper, but when you follow the footnote it goes to the section of the Texas Constitution that basically just says there is a governor, and that he’s the head of the executive branch of state government. Presumably the fellows who wrote the 1876 constitution, ex-Confederates scalded by their hatred of Reconstruction-era activist governors, didn’t plan to give future governors the power to supervise “the health and safety of all Texans,” but who can say? They’re all dead and were mostly jerks anyway.

The second part lays out what the governor might do to Austin, and by what powers. The most alarming is the declaration that the Department of Public Safety “has the authority to act” to “enforce the state law prohibiting criminal trespassing. If necessary, DPS will add troops in Austin areas that pose greater threats.” It would be a significant overstatement to call this martial law, but the prospect of the governor deploying a surge of state troopers to Austin streets to selectively enforce laws is—well, bizarre, and a little unsettling. Other Texas cities should take note.

There’s more, so go read the rest, and see here for the origin story. It’s hard to see this as anything but a bit of chest-thumping in Austin’s direction, an easy target for Abbott and unlike the gun issue, one where his preferred way forward (at least rhetorically) is clear. And as Nancy LeTourneau notes, it’s a way for Abbott to hug Donald Trump, with liberal cities and homeless people as the victims. In other words, par for the course for our weak and feckless governor. Grits for Breakfast has more.

The state will be handling the Harvey relief funds

Don’t worry your pretty little heads about it.

Texas is likely another nine months from getting $4.3 billion in federal post-Hurricane Harvey recovery money aimed at better protecting the state from future flooding and disasters. But when it finally arrives, Gov. Greg Abbott made clear Friday the state will be handling the money directly and not turning it over to cities and counties to manage.

While some local officials expressed frustration over the decision, Abbott said he’s turning to Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush to lead the program aimed at large-scale, regional projects. Bush has already been tasked with dealing with housing recovery issues since Harvey hit Texas in August 2017.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was hoping for more direct control over the funding.

“While we’re disappointed in Governor Abbott’s decision to run this program out of Austin instead of providing us local control, we’ll continue to work as a team to make sure we apply every single federal dollar available towards building a stronger, safer Harris County,” Hidalgo said.

Similarly Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city will continue to work closely with Bush’s agency, but made clear who will be to blame for delays in getting work completed.

“If there will be any delay in the distribution and use of flood mitigation aid, it will come from the federal and state government,” Turner said.

Texas has been waiting for the money since February 2018, when Congress first approved the disaster mitigation program. But it took until August for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to publish rules on how the money can be used.

Now, Bush and the Texas General Land Office are required to develop a “state action plan” that must later get yet another approval from HUD. According to a joint statement put out by Abbott and Bush on Friday, that could take another “nine months or more to complete.” That would mean July 2020 — just short of three years after Hurricane Harvey made landfall.

Here’s Mayor Turner’s statement about this. If one wants to feel cynical about this, one might note that while control of the funds will be with the state, blame for any delays or deficiencies will be laid on local officials, who are much more likely to be Democrats. How many people are going to understand it when blame gets pointed at the Land Commissioner? That’s not an intuitive place for these funds to originate, at the very least. Maybe this will all go well – if George P. Bush continues to have aspirations to run for Governor, he’ll have incentive to not screw this up or play politics in too obvious a fashion – but the incentives are not in alignment. Keep that in mind if and when there is something to complain about.

Oh, and since this story was published, both Greg Abbott and George P. Bush have been yelling at Mayor Turner on Twitter, for not being sufficiently grateful to them for the federal funds, which by the way still have not been released. So yeah, there’s good reason for being cynical.

Julián Castro will not be running for Senate, either

In case you were wondering.

Julián Castro

Julián Castro said Saturday at the Texas Tribune Festival that he would not seek the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in 2020 even if he were to drop out of the presidential race.

“No, I’m not going go run for the Senate, that’s never what I intended to do,” Castro said in an interview with MSNBC’s Katy Tur in the penultimate event at the Paramount Theatre, preceding the closing keynote address by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

While Castro is guaranteed a spot on the next Democratic stage in Ohio in October, his chances of qualifying for the November debate are dicey. Castro is at 1.7% in the RealClearPolitics polling average. The raised threshold requires that a candidate earn 3% support in at least four early state or national polls that meet the Democratic National Committee’s methodological requirements — up from 2% for the September and October debates — or at least 5% in two early state polls. The early states are Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Tur noted that Castro had sent out a note to funders saying if he doesn’t qualify for the November debate, he would drop out of the race.

“If that happens would you consider running against John Cornyn?’ Tur asked Castro.

In explaining why he would not do that, Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said, “People ask me, `Why are you running for president?’ My experience is actually as an executive. I actually have some of the most relevant experience in running for president. When you’re a president, you’re a chief executive. I was a chef executive of a federal agency with a $48 billion budget. I’m running for what’s relevant to my experience.”

Castro as a Senate candidate has been discussed before, though not nearly as often as “why won’t Beto run for Senate again?” has been discussed. You know how I feel about that, so I’ll just say again that I have always assumed “Castro for Governor 2022” is the backup plan, assuming 1) Castro isn’t in someone’s cabinet, and 2) he actually wants to run for Governor. It is an executive position, he could get an awful lot done, and it would put him in good position to run for President again in 2028, following (God willing) two terms of one of his current opponents in the primary. Not that beating Greg Abbott would be easy, but that would be the time to try. The Current has more.

Once again, we wait for disaster relief funds

At least people know the drill by now.

Five deaths are linked to floods from Tropical Storm Imelda, the worst storm in Texas since Hurricane Harvey and one of the wettest tropical cyclones in the nation’s history, according to the National Weather Service.

Imelda dumped as much as 43 inches of rain in some parts of southeast Texas, according to the National Weather Service. In comparison, Harvey dropped about 60 inches of rain.

Although Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of emergency Thursday morning, it does not qualify individuals for financial aid. That would have to come from a federal disaster declaration, which would release federal dollars for public assistance or individual assistance. Federal Emergency Management Agency agents began doing damage assessments Monday morning, said a FEMA spokesperson. It’s unclear how long that will take, the spokesperson said.

Public assistance is money reimbursed to state and local governments and certain nonprofit organizations for the cost of disaster-related repairs and protective measures, according to the FEMA website. The affected area must reach a little over $37 million in public damages to qualify, according to Seth Christensen, a representative for the Texas Division of Emergency Management. For individual assistance, paid out to individuals for housing and other disaster-related needs, there need to be 800 homes that took in 18 inches or more of water and are not covered by insurance, Christensen said.

We’ll see about that. And we’ll see about Donald Trump’s promise that federal aid will be expedited, because we all know how good to his word Donald Trump is. Maybe this time we’ll get it before the next 500-year storm hits. The Chron has more.

Other counties also considering property tax rate hikes

I have four things to say about this.

A statewide property tax relief plan that takes effect next year is prompting hefty tax increases this fall in many of the biggest cities and counties in Texas, even in places that have historically kept rates flat or decreased them.

Elected officials in some cities and counties say they have no choice but to raise taxes as high as they can this year to brace for the implementation of property tax reforms that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature called historic earlier this summer. The average effective tax rate for single-family homes in Texas was 2.18 percent in 2018, third-highest in the nation, according to a study by ATTOM Data Solutions.

Starting next year, cities and counties will be barred from increasing property tax collections more than 3.5 percent in any year without a vote of the public. Currently, the state has an 8-percent limit, called the rollback rate, that state lawmakers say has allowed cities and counties to overtax homeowners. The lack of a state income tax makes Texas municipalities especially reliant on property tax revenue.

A look around the state shows many counties and cities are pushing rates to the 8-percent rollback rate this year to bank money or, in a few cases, even to fund pay raises for themselves, in reaction to the new law. El Paso, Harris, Tarrant, Webb and Travis counties are among those pushing to the current rollback rate, or near it. And cities including El Paso, Arlington, Corpus Christi and Austin are similarly considering rates at or near the 8-percent limit.

“I think a lot of cities and counties know that we are putting them on a diet and they are going on one last bender before it happens,” said State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who was a key player in crafting the property tax reforms as the leader of the House Ways and Means Committee.

[…]

In Harris County, which hasn’t raised the tax rate in decades, county officials say the state’s new restrictions are forcing them to react by raising the tax rate by 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county needs to create a contingency fund to ensure it can pay for services, such as health care, transportation and flood control, once the state’s 3.5-percent cap goes into effect. The rate increase, if approved next month, would allow Harris County to collect more than $200 million extra in tax money than last year.

1. There are some extremely bitchy quotes in the story from Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pushed the bill that led to this in the Senate. I may have rolled my eyes so hard that they will never unroll.

2. The counties and cities that are considering this are acting in what they believe is their best interest, and the best interest of their residents. Plenty of expenses that counties and cities face, from disaster relief to health care to salaries and pensions, aren’t subject to any kind of rate limit. HB3 radically changed their long term financial picture. They had no choice but to adjust.

3. Just as a reminder, there are plenty of things the Legislature could have done to improve our property tax system without putting the squeeze on local governments. The Lege could also greatly help counties on the expenditure side of the balance sheet by expanding Medicaid, which would do a lot to reduce the cost of health care on counties. The whining from the likes of Bettencourt on this is just beyond rich. All that is without even pointing out that having a property tax-based system, in which the main expense is completely disconnected from people’s annual incomes, instead of an income tax-based system, is always going to have problems like this.

4. The same voters who will be given the power to approve or reject future tax collection levels also have the power to approve or reject the local officials who may be raising tax rates now ahead of that. They also have that power over people like Paul Bettencourt and Dustin Burrows and Greg Abbott and so forth. Maybe some day that power will be exercised.

UT-Tyler: Trump still looks weak in Texas

Two months later, there may be a story line to watch.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke remains competitive against President Donald Trump in a Texas head-to-head matchup, according to a poll released Thursday by the Center for Opinion Research at the University of Texas at Tyler.

The poll, conducted over three days following last week’s debate in Houston, shows O’Rourke polling better against Trump in a head-to-head matchup than every other Democratic contender except former Vice President Joe Biden.

Both led Trump by 2 percentage points in hypothetical matchups. Four other candidates tested against Trump lagged behind the president, though Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont trailed by less than the 2.8-percentage-point margin of error.

O’Rourke’s campaign boasted that the results vindicate his stance on gun control. He has caught flak from members of both parties since forcefully demanding mandatory buybacks of assault weapons in the Houston debate.

His gun confiscation proposal drew support from 49% of Texans in the UT-Tyler poll, while other plans drew broader support. Nearly 85% supported universal background checks for gun purchases. A “red flag” law that would let law enforcement take guns from someone deemed dangerous drew support from 65%.

Far more Texans — 59% — support an assault weapons sales ban that would let owners keep guns they already own. Gun rights advocates view confiscation as unconstitutional.

[…]

Trump continues to poll underwater in Texas, showing a 40% job approval rating among all respondents. Approval is much higher among Republicans and much lower among Democrats.

See here for the previous poll, from late July. The UT-Tyler Center for Opinion Research press release is here and the poll data is here. Trump’s approval numbers were 40.3% approve, 54.5% disapprove in July, and 39.6% approve, 52.3% disapprove in September. The “will vote for” number he gets, in each matchup, is a close approximation of his approval number. A thing that I noticed that I want to point out, though it’s far too soon to draw any conclusions about it, is how Trump does with Dems and with Republicans.


Candidates   Dem %  GOP %  Ind %  Tot %
=======================================
Biden        74.6%   8.0%  33.1%  39.6%
Trump         2.7%  81.5%  20.9%  38.0%
Neither/NS   22.6%  10.5%  46.0%  22.4%

Warren       69.2%   7.8%  28.1%  36.5%
Trump         3.0%  82.9%  25.9%  39.5%
Neither/NS   27.8%   9.3%  46.0%  24.0%

Harris       61.5%   6.5%  23.6%  31.8%
Trump         3.2%  82.1%  25.5%  39.4%
Neither/NS   35.4%  11.5%  50.9%  28.9%

Sanders      72.0%   6.8%  32.5%  37.9%
Trump         2.6%  82.8%  26.4%  39.6%
Neither/NS   25.5%  10.4%  41.2%  22.5%

Buttigieg    57.0%   6.6%  25.1%  30.4%
Trump         3.2%  82.1%  25.6%  39.3%
Neither/NS   39.8%  11.3%  49.3%  30.3%

Beto         79.2%   8.2%  35.4%  42.0%
Trump         3.5%  82.2%  26.5%  39.7%
Neither/NS   18.3%   9.6%  38.1%  18.3%

“Neither/NS” is the sum of the “Neither/Other” and “Not Sure” responses. Trump gets nearly identical levels of support among Dems and Republicans against each potential opponent. The range of support for him is a bit wider among indies, but indies are also the smallest sample so those numbers may just be more volatile as a result. All Dems get roughly the same amount of support among Republicans. There’s more variance among indies, but by far the biggest variable is the level of support among Dems for each candidate. Beto as native son does best, followed by the two previous Presidential candidates – and thus the best known among them – Biden and Bernie, with Elizabeth Warren a notch behind. Farther down are Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg. They had Julian Castro in the July sample but not this one.

You can compare to the July data, where Trump did a bit better among Republicans and Dems but worse among indies, giving him roughly the same overall numbers. This will be worth watching for trends if UT-Tyler keeps pumping these out every other month, but beyond that it’s only two data points. My main argument here is that Trump seems to have a ceiling, and it’s lower than that of the Dems. Dem voters who haven’t made up their minds or who have a preference than isn’t the named candidate in the given question have the option of giving a non-committal answer. They’re not defecting to Trump, they’re just keeping their powder dry. Fewer Republicans are similarly ambivalent about Trump, and quite a few more are actively against him. That leaves him less room to grow, at least among the easier to get voters. If all of this is for real, then when the Dems have a nominee, or at least a much smaller number of choices, I’d expect to see the Dem candidates’ support get consolidated. That’s what is worth watching.

Now again, there’s the apparent correlation between the approval number and the “would vote for” number, so if the former goes up the latter may as well. And as noted before, this sample seems unusually Democratic, which may be skewing things. The good news is that there is just a lot more polling activity here this cycle, so there will be many chances to see if this poll is in the mainstream or an outlier. For now, the basics of it look better for the Dems than for Trump.

As for the gun control questions, they’re interesting and worth considering, but even with the baby steps Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott have taken in that direction, I don’t think it means much. Lots of things poll well in Texas but have zero traction because literally no elected Republicans in the Lege or statewide agree with that position. There are some tiny cracks in the ice now because of the 2018 elections, but it’s going to take a lot more Republicans losing elections for it to truly matter.

Appealing the Crystal Mason illegal voting conviction

This continues to be an appalling travesty.

When Crystal Mason got out of federal prison, she said, she “got out running.”

By Nov. 8, 2016, when she’d been out for months but was still on supervised release, she was working full-time at Santander Bank in downtown Dallas and enrolled in night classes at Ogle Beauty School, trying, she said, to show her children that a “bump in the road doesn’t determine your future.”

On Election Day, there was yet another thing to do: After work, she drove through the rain to her polling place in the southern end of Tarrant County, expecting to vote for the first female president.

When she got there, she was surprised to learn that her name wasn’t on the roll. On the advice of a poll worker, she cast a provisional ballot instead. She didn’t make it to her night class.

A month later, she learned that her ballot had been rejected, and a few months after that, she was arrested. Because she was on supervised release, prosecutors argued, she had knowingly violated a law preventing felons from voting before completing their sentences. Mason insisted she had no idea officials considered her ineligible — and would never have risked her freedom if she had.

For “illegally voting,” she was sentenced to five years in prison. Now, as her lawyers attempt to persuade a Fort Worth appeals court to overturn that sentence, the question is whether she voted at all.

Created in 2002, provisional ballots were intended to serve as an electoral safe harbor, allowing a person to record her vote even amid questions about her eligibility. In 2016, more than 66,000 provisional ballots were cast in Texas, and the vast majority of those were rejected, most of them because they were cast by individuals who weren’t registered to vote, according to data compiled by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In Tarrant County, where Mason lives, nearly 4,500 provisional ballots were cast that year, and 3,990 were rejected — but she was the only one who faced criminal prosecution.

In fact, Mason’s lawyer told a three-judge panel in North Texas last Tuesday, hers is the first known instance of an individual facing criminal charges for casting a ballot that ultimately didn’t count.

Her case, now pending before an all-Republican appeals panel, is about not just her freedom, but about the role and risks of the provisional ballot itself.

Prosecutors insist that they are not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake. Despite those assurances, voting rights advocates fear the case could foster enough doubt among low-information voters that they’ll be discouraged from heading to the polls — or even clear a path for prosecutors to criminally pursue other provisional ballot-casters.

“There are a lot of people who have questions about whether they can vote or where they can vote,” said Andre Segura, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “You want all of those people to feel comfortable going in and submitting a provisional ballot.”

[…]

Tarrant County prosecutors have brushed off concerns the Mason case could lead to voter suppression. “The fact that this case is so unique should emphasize why this case should in no way have a ‘chilling effect’ on anyone except people who knowingly vote illegally,” Jordan said.

But during the 2019 legislative session, some Republican lawmakers pushed to erase Mason’s legal defense for future defendants by making it easier to prosecute people who cast ballots without realizing they’re ineligible.

Currently, to commit a crime, voters must know they are ineligible; under the proposed law, they would commit a crime just by voting while knowing about the circumstances that made them ineligible. In other words, Mason would have been illegally voting because she was aware of her past felony conviction — even if she was not aware her “supervised release” status made her ineligible.

The fact that Mason’s provisional ballot wasn’t actually counted would have also been ruled out as a legal defense under the proposed changes to state law. That legislation ultimately failed in the House amid major opposition from Democrats.

See here for some background. The appellate hearing was last week, and it drew national coverage. There are three legal justifications given by the ACLU on behalf of Crystal Mason why her attempt to vote was not illegal, but even if you think those arguments are insufficient, there’s still no possible justice in a five year prison sentence for this. I mean, there’s plenty of other crimes that are punished far, far less. This is about scaring certain people so they don’t feel confident about voting. This is why reversing the tide of voter suppression laws has to be a priority for the next Democratic Legislature. Further reading about the case from the ACLU is here and here, and the Observer has more.

Abbott’s gun suggestions

Weak leader makes timid proposals. Film at 11.

Gov. Greg Abbott called for the Texas Legislature to consider laws that would make it easier for private gun sellers to perform voluntary background checks on buyers — declining to go as far as other Republicans in backing mandatory ones — in one of a series of recommendations released Thursday.

The safety action report, which comes after a town hall Abbott convened last month to discuss possible solutions in the wake of recent mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, contains nearly a dozen recommendations to the Legislature, which won’t meet again until 2021 — after the next election.

Select committees in the Texas House and Senate will meet to review and discuss the recommendations in the meantime. It remains to be seen what kind of legislation could come from the report.

Abbott has indicated he has no plans to call a special session, despite calls from a growing chorus of Democratic lawmakers, saying he wants to avoid “hastily” called votes that split along party lines. Instead, earlier this month, he issued a handful of executive orders meant to strengthen the statewide suspicious activity reporting system.

[…]

The 13-page report recommends laws that would speed up the reporting of criminal convictions, crack down on people who illegally buy or possess guns and impose a lifetime ban on convicted felons purchasing firearms.

But the report makes no mention of background checks for private sales between strangers, as Lt. Gov Dan Patrick suggested last week when he side-stepped traditional party lines and the National Rifle Association.

Texas has faced five major mass shootings in the past three years — including two last month. In early August, 22 people were killed by a lone gunman who drove hours to at an El Paso Walmart. At the end of the month, seven died when a shooter went on a spree as he drove through Odessa and Midland.

Ed Scruggs, president of the board of directors for Texas Gun Sense, said it’s “mystifying” how few of Abbott’s recommendations relate to what happened in those shootings.

“The failure to strongly support closing the private sales loophole is mystifying because both the governor and lieutenant governor expressed discomfort what that hole in the system and speculated about how it could be abused,” Scruggs said. “We saw how it was abused in Odessa, so I am really surprised we didn’t see anything more direct on that.”

Here’s the report. It’s not that these are bad ideas, but most of them are reactive – stiffer penalties, better reporting of criminal convictions – and the more proactive ones are presented as things the Lege “may want to consider” rather than as priorities Abbott himself wants to see get done. I mean, unless Abbott calls a special session, as only he can do, the next time any of this will be relevant will be a year and a half from now, and who knows what might be going on then. Not taking immediate action is wiggle room for Abbott and Dan Patrick to let everyone else get distracted and lose focus. Abbott doesn’t want to take real action. He’ll do what he thinks he needs to do to take the heat off, and then he’ll be on to the things he actually wants to do. That’s what this is about. The Trib has more.

Red flag

This seems like maybe it’s a problem.

A report out Wednesday by the San Antonio Express-News found that a gun owner in Texas had sent more than 100 pages of racist and violent letters to the Texas Attorney General’s office threatening to kill undocumented immigrants over the course of a year and a half, and that nothing was done to stop him or to communicate the threat to local authorities.

“We will open fire on these thugs,” the white man who allegedly sent the messages wrote in an email to the office. “It will be a bloodbath.”

Over the same period, local officers in San Antonio responded to 911 calls made by and about the man, and visited his house, on at least 35 occasions. However, because he had never seemingly committed a crime, police did not arrest him or take legal action. Nearby neighbors told the Express-News that the man’s home is covered in security cameras and that he often emerged holding a shotgun.

When alerted by a reporter at the Express-News of the threats made to the Attorney General’s Office, the police force did respond. “Since you’ve made us aware of those threats, our fusion center and our mental health unit have reached out to the AG’s office and are trying to work something to make a case against [the alleged suspect Ralph] Pulliam,” Sargent Michelle Ramos told the paper. “They’re going to investigate that.”

The threats and lack of communication by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to local police takes on a new light in the wake of two mass shootings in Odessa and El Paso. The El Paso shooter had long written about his hatred for immigrants and his mother had reportedly called the police before the shooting because she did not think her son should own a gun.

“These messages are clearly threats of deadly force against San Antonians based solely on the color of their skin,” wrote State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer in a letter to Paxton. “It is deeply alarming to me that despite the large volume and explicit nature of the messages from Mr. Pulliam, the Office of Attorney General has taken so long to cooperate with local law enforcement.”

The story was published in the print edition of the Sunday Chronicle, but there’s no link for it yet on the Chron site and the E-N story is behind the paywall, so this is the best I can do. Do bear in mind that Ken Paxton has been actively encouraging people like this to report their complaints to his office, so it’s no wonder he’s being tight lipped about this. Dude’s one of his best customers. In the meantime, while we hope this guy doesn’t follow through on any of the many threats of violence he has made, let’s see if any of our Republican leaders, who have been trying to convince us that they might actually Do Something this time, will at least voice support for disarming this guy. I’m not going to hold my breath.

Dan Patrick says he’s for slightly expanded background checks

It’s a start.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says he’s “willing to take an arrow” and defy the National Rifle Association by pressing Texas to close one loophole in gun-purchaser background checks.

On Friday, Patrick said it’s “common sense” to tighten background-check laws because in many instances, stranger-to-stranger sales now are exempt from the requirement that buyers be vetted through a federal database of people not eligible to purchase firearms.

Patrick wants to protect transfers among family members from triggering a check. He’d also continue to exempt friends, though he acknowledged that could be abused. Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate, said he’s willing to accede to the preferences of senators on whether to maintain that loophole — and if so, exactly how.

But he said Texas must strongly discourage selling guns to strangers without a background check.

“That gap of stranger to stranger we have to close, in my view,” Patrick, a staunchly conservative Republican and avid gun-rights advocate, said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News.

“When I talk to gun owners, NRA members and voters, people don’t understand why we allow strangers to sell guns to total strangers when they have no idea if the person they’re selling the gun to could be a felon, could be someone who’s getting a gun to go commit a crime or could be a potential mass shooter or someone who has serious mental issues.”

“Look, I’m a solid NRA guy,” he said, “but not expanding the background check to eliminate the stranger to stranger sale makes no sense to me and … most folks.”

You can add in the Abbott executive orders that won’t do much but do help give the impression that they’re doing something, or are at least in favor of doing something. Patrick’s idea would be something, though it’s not clear to me how much of something. Does this also close the gun show loophole, or is that outside the scope? If it does include gun show sales, then I’d call it a real step forward, and I will admit to being pleasantly surprised. If not, it’s still not nothing, but it’s also not much. Until we see a bill, and until the Lege is in session to take action on that bill, it’s hard to say. And even if something does get introduced, there will continue to be resistance to it getting passed in any meaningful form. But I’ve been saying that Republicans will take no action, and this is the first indication that I could be wrong about that. We’ll see.

UPDATE: The Texas Signal is also skeptical.

Greg Abbott is not going to take action on gun violence

Why would he? It’s not who he is.

When Gov. Greg Abbott first convened the new Texas Safety Commission last month after the El Paso shooting, he brought with him a stack of papers and wasted little time directing the media’s attention to it.

“In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Santa Fe, we had discussions just like what we are having today,” Abbott said, holding up thick, paper-clipped packets for the cameras. “Those discussions weren’t just for show and for people to go off into the sunset and do nothing. They led to more than 20 laws being signed by me to make sure that the state of Texas was a better, safer place, including our schools for our children.”

The intended message was clear: He had been here before, and it led to results. But over a year later — with two more mass shootings rocking the state just weeks apart — the pressure that the second-term Republican governor faces to do more to keep Texans safe is higher than ever. And the political divisions are just as intense, as Abbott seeks to navigate between an increasingly influential gun control movement and those in his own party who demand that he hold the line on gun rights.

“My impression is the governor’s in a tight spot … because the majority legislative coalition doesn’t really give anyone on that side a chance to move on this,” said Ed Scruggs, the board vice chair of Texas Gun Sense who has participated in both the post-Santa Fe and post-El Paso roundtables. “They’ve been absolutists for so long that it’s very, very difficult. I really can tell you that the governor wants to do something to prevent this, but politically what is possible — he may be the only one who knows that.”

[…]

However, with Abbott’s response to the shootings still in the roundtable phase, skepticism runs amok. In addition to leaving a trail of gleeful social media posts about Texas gun culture in recent years — tweets that have routinely resurfaced after recent mass shootings in the state — Abbott has overseen a dramatic expansion of gun rights in Texas, from an open carry law in 2016 to the slew of new laws that went into effect Sunday loosening firearms restrictions. And for gun control advocates, the memory is still fresh of Abbott asking lawmakers after the Santa Fe shooting to consider a “red flag” law that would allow local officials to take guns away from people if a judge declares them a danger — only to back away from the idea amid an intraparty backlash.

“I would say I am more cynical about Greg Abbott’s leadership than I am optimistic,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun control group Giffords, who participated in the safety commission meeting in El Paso. “However, I do think there’s a path forward on gun safety legislation. I think that means that Abbott is gonna have to get out of the NRA’s box and take a leadership position that is basically a repudiation of what he’s done in the past and where he’s been in the past.”

Remember first and foremost that the Legislature is not in session, and barring the very unlikely calling of a special session, there’s nothing that can be done in Texas except talk and study until 2021. But look, Greg Abbott believes in more guns and fewer restrictions on them. That’s what he has pushed for, that’s what he advocates, that’s what he is. He may be feeling some political pressure to Do Something about gun violence now, though I’d say that’s more a concern for Republican legislators and Congressfolk losing races than for his own political fortunes, but he also feels a lot of pressure to hold fast against such action. Why would he go along with what Democrats want? It makes no sense, and it collides with everything Abbott has done as a politician. When that changes (spoiler alert: it won’t), let me know. The Chron, the Chron editorial board, Erica Greider, Texas Monthly, the Texas Signal, and the Observer have more.

The Lege will not take any action on guns

By all means, keep calling for a special session to address the issue. Just do keep in mind who holds all the cards.

At least 17 Texas state lawmakers are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session to address gun violence following a mass shooting in El Paso that left 22 dead and dozens injured.

The list includes four state representatives from San Antonio, including Roland Gutierrez, Diego Bernal, Leo Pacheco and Ina Minjarez.

“Our state leadership has failed to be proactive and adopt laws that would allow gun safety,” said Gutierrez, who has secured more than 500 signatures in a related online petition. “All Texans should feel safe in their communities. Every year we lose too many to gun violence. Over 3,353 gun-related deaths occur in Texas each year. One death is too many – time for change.”

Others on the list are: state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston; state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin; state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton; state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston; state Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas; state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin; state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood; state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City; state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin; state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo; state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Fort Worth and state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

In case you didn’t read through that whole list, none of the legislators in question are Republicans. That tells you everything you need to know.

(To be fair, there are other political reasons why there won’t be a special session.)

After the massacre of 22 people at an El Paso Walmart by an attacker with a military-style rifle, Texas’ Republican leadership is still unlikely to push for gun restrictions in a state that has long embraced firearms and has nearly 1.4 million handgun license holders, experts and advocates on both sides of the gun issue say. The shooting comes nearly 21 months after the Sutherland Springs massacre that killed more than two dozen people and more than a year after the Santa Fe shooting that killed 10.

“When Texas Republicans look at these massacres, they don’t blame guns, or gun laws. They blame people. They may blame institutions, schools, families, mental health, but not guns,” said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University. “If a school massacre and a church massacre didn’t change people’s opinion, the El Paso massacre isn’t going to.”

[…]

Abbott met last week with Democratic lawmakers from El Paso who have pushed for gun control and said he wants to keep guns away from “deranged killers.” Abbott said the state should battle hate, racism and terrorism, but made no mention of gun restrictions.

“Our job is to keep Texans safe,” Abbott said. “We take that job seriously. We will act swiftly and aggressively to address it.”

Abbott said he will meet with experts this month to discuss how Texas can respond – much as he did after shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe.

Those meetings resulted in Abbott issuing a 43-page report with proposals for more armed guards in schools, boosting mental health screenings, new restrictions on home gun storage, and consideration of red flag laws.

Gun rights supporters immediately pushed back on anything that could be interpreted as restricting gun ownership, and the Legislature’s Republican majority pivoted to expanding run rights. The only victory gun control supporters could claim was a small item in a $250 billion state budget: $1 million for a public awareness campaign on safe gun storage at home.

“They made things worse,” said Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense. “I went naively into the session thinking ‘Progress here we come.’ But we ran head on into this idea that more guns make us safer.”

Well, more armed guards in schools, in churches, at WalMart, and now after Midland/Odessa, in cars and on the roads. Maybe if we station an armed guard on every street corner, inside every shop and restaurant, and on every floor of every office building in America, we’ll finally be safe from gun violence. We won’t have time to do anything else because we’ll need literally everyone to serve as all those armed guards, but hey, at least we’ll have done something that the Greg Abbotts and Matt Schaefers of the world can abide. Alternately, we can vote them out and elect people who want to do more rational, sensible, and effective things to curb gun violence. Decisions, decisions.

Yet another story about suburbs shifting away from Republicans

Collect the whole set!

Texas is currently experiencing two trends that are favorable to Democrats: increasing urbanization, and big demographic shifts.

The Texas Tribune recently reported that Hispanics are expected to become the largest demographic group in the state by 2022, with Texas gaining nearly nine times as many Hispanic residents as white residents.

As the Tribune noted, almost half of Texas’ Hispanic population is concentrated in the state’s five largest counties, and Hispanic voters in Texas “are registering and voting at significantly higher rates than their population is growing,” according to a Houston Chronicle analysis.

The current rate of population growth among non-white Texas residents is a positive development for Democrats, but they can’t take voters of color for granted.

Despite Latino turnout doubling in Texas between the 2014 and 2018 midterms, according to one analysis, Democrats do not hold a monopoly on Hispanic and Latino voters.

As the Pew Research Center noted, 65% of Hispanics voted for Rep. Beto O’Rourke while 35% backed Sen. Ted Cruz in their high-profile Senate race in 2018. And a slim majority of Hispanic voters — 53% — backed Democrat Lupe Valdez over incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott, who received 42% of the Latino vote.

[…]

Benjamin Ray, a Democratic strategist and communications specialist at the pro-choice political action committee EMILY’s List, told INSIDER that long-time Republican members of Congress retiring in formerly safe districts presents a “great opportunity” for Democrats and a glaring warning sign for the GOP.

Ray further pointed out that many of the districts in the Houston, Dallas, and Austin suburbs were specifically gerrymandered to optimize the chances of a Republican victory, making it all the more concerning that Republicans’ margins of victory in those areas are getting slimmer over time.

“They drew these maps for one particular version of the Republican party to do well in, and the voters that they’re counting on don’t think that their Republican representatives are speaking for them anymore,” Ray added.

He said of the retiring congressmen, “these folks have been in politics for a while, they can tell which way the wind is blowing, and they’re heading for the exits. That doesn’t just happen by accident.”

The story touches on the Romney-Clinton voters, who by and large are the suburbanites that helped drive the big political shifts in 2018 and are expected to do so again next year. I wish there was some detailed polling data about these folks in Texas. We can see the effect, but it sure would be nice to have a deep dive into what motivates them.

I have to say, I’m a little amused by the bits about Latino turnout, and Latino levels of support for Dems. Sixty-five percent support sounds pretty good to me, and it’s fairly close to the overall level of support that Dems get nationally from Latinos (these numbers can vary depending on the time and circumstance). There’s also evidence that lower-propensity Latino voters tend to me more strongly Democratic, which is both the reason why everyone talks about how a spike in Latino turnout would be huge for Dems, and also why Republicans expend so much energy making it harder to vote. There was a surge in Latino turnout in 2018, certainly as compared to 2014, and it definitely helped the Dems overall. The only thing you could want – and what we will have to work hard to achieve – is even more of that. Another million Latino voters at that level of support in 2018 – for all of the turnout boom in 2018, Texas was still under fifty percent of registered voters, and low in the national rankings, so there’s plenty of room for growth – would have given us not only Sen. Beto O’Rourke, it would have also given us Attorney General Justin Nelson. Think about that for a few minutes. What we need in 2020 is what we got in 2018, but more so.

“Mistakes were made”

Oops.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday that “mistakes were made” in his fundraising letter that used alarmist language in calling to “DEFEND” the Texas border and was dated one day before a deadly shooting that targeted Hispanics in El Paso.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the second meeting of the newly formed Texas Safety Commission, Abbott said he talked to members of the El Paso legislative delegation about the mailer and “emphasized the importance of making sure that rhetoric will not be used in any dangerous way.”

“I did get the chance to visit with the El Paso delegation and help them understand that mistakes were made and course correction has been made,” he said. “We will make sure that we work collaboratively in unification. I had the opportunity to visit with [the El Paso delegation] for about an hour to fully discuss the issue.”

In his short remarks, Abbott didn’t address the specific language of the letter, what mistakes were made or what course correction has been made on his end. His comments come nearly a week after The Texas Tribune first reported on the letter, which cautioned of supposed political implications that could come with unchecked illegal immigration.

I try not to pay too much attention to Greg Abbott, because honestly, he’s about as interesting as cardboard. The most amazing thing about this story is that Abbott actually responded to a reporter’s question. Go ahead, find the last story in any reputable Texas news source that doesn’t contain some variation on “Governor Abbott’s office did not respond to our request for comment”. As Chris Hooks points out, Abbott is much more likely to engage with some rando on Twitter than with a newsie. I have no idea what spurred this little bit of passively voicing the quiet part of his inner dialog, but we may as well enjoy it. Who knows when it may happen again. The Observer has more.

Is there anything Houston can do about gun violence?

Not much, unfortunately.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he wants state lawmakers to give cities and counties more flexibility to address gun violence in response to mass shootings this month that killed 31 people, including 22 in El Paso.

Turner made the remarks at City Hall while calling for a special session of the Texas Legislature on the issue of gun violence.

Current state law mostly forbids local governments from passing measures that restrict gun usage.

Among the items Turner said he would like to pursue are background checks on firearms sales at gun shows, including those that have been held at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

“If I could do it today, I would do it today,” Turner told reporters. “But the state has preempted us.”

[…]

In March, Turner announced the city was establishing a task force to combat local gun violence. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has been an outspoken advocate for stricter gun laws, telling Congress earlier this year that gun violence is “one of the greatest public health epidemics facing the nation.”

Turner also allocated $1 million for police overtime pay in April to help officers fight gun violence.

Turner’s comments Wednesday echo those made last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who floated the idea of ending the use of county property for gun shows. The county, however, has no power to enact ordinances.

Hidalgo said Wednesday she is working with Turner on a proposal to take “whatever action we can.”

“We are hamstrung by the legislature. They have passed laws specifically preventing us from making policy around gun safety,” Hidalgo said. “We’re really looking under every nook and cranny for what can be done.”

Dru Stevenson, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, said the state’s lock on local action largely is absolute.

“The state preempts municipalities from having any type of gun control regulation at all,” Stevenson said.

Even Hidalgo’s idea about ending use of county buildings for gun shows likely would not pass muster, according to Stevenson, due to how strict the state preemptions are.

“They’re more likely to get away with it informally than if they adopt a policy,” he said. “Behind the scenes pressure or incentives might work, but the gun shows are big and lucrative for the conference centers.”

There may be some other things the city could try, but the story doesn’t suggest anything interesting. As with a number of other vexing issues, the real solution lies in another level of government. Really, both state and federal for this one, but there’s probably more direct action that could be taken at the state level, if only by undoing the restrictions that have been imposed. That means the first real chance to get something done will be at the federal level, if all goes well in 2020. We’re not getting anything done in Austin until Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, at the very least, have been sent packing.

We have a new SOS

Yippie.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

After losing his last chief election officer over a botched review of the state’s voter rolls, Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday appointed a new secretary of state: Ruth Ruggero Hughs.

Ruggero Hughs is moving from the Texas Workforce Commission, which she has chaired since August 2018. She joins the secretary of state’s office nearly three months after Democratic senators blocked the confirmation of her predecessor, David Whitley, who questioned the voter registration of thousands of naturalized citizens.

Whitley resigned on May 27, lacking enough votes in the Texas Senate to keep the job after he oversaw an effort to scour the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens. The review instead threatened the voting rights of tens of thousands of voters of color, landed the state in federal court and prompted a congressional inquiry into voting rights violations.

[…]

Ruggero Hughs is likely to face a challenge in repairing the secretary of state’s relationship with the hundreds of local officials it depends on to run elections. Some county officials have said they’re still waiting for an explanation from the secretary of state’s office on how they got the review so wrong.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. Abbott took his sweet time naming a replacement, because he’s Greg Abbott and he does what he wants. Whether Ruggero Hughs winds up being a better SOS than David Whitley was isn’t a high bar to clear, but the real question is whether she’ll be Abbott’s flunky or an honest broker. We’ll have to wait and see, and keep a very close eye on her in the meantime. Because the Lege is not in session, she’ll get to serve until 2021, at which point she’ll need to have won over at least a couple of Dems if she wants to stay in that job. The Chron has more.

Special election set in HD28

Looks like I was a bit confused about this.

Rep. John Zerwas

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday set a Nov. 5 special election to fill the Texas House seat being vacated by state Rep. John Zerwas, who last month announced he would retire from the lower chamber.

Candidates have until Sept. 4 to file for the seat, and early voting begins Oct. 21, Abbott’s office said in a news release.

Zerwas, R-Richmond, was first elected in 2006 and chaired the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee during the last two legislative sessions. He said he would step down Sept. 30 from his seat, which covers parts of Fort Bend County from Simonton to Mission Bend and Katy to Rosenberg.

[…]

Last week, former Fulshear city councilwoman Tricia Krenek announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination in Zerwas’ district, House District 28. Democrat Eliz Markowitz, a former candidate for the State Board of Education, is also running.

See here and here for the background. I had assumed that since Zerwas was not officially resigning until September 30 that no special election could or would be scheduled till after he was out. Maybe I’m just scarred by the Sylvia Garcia situation. Anyway, this will still be an interesting test of the trends that began last year, though probably more muted since it will be just another election in November rather than a headliner in May. I expect other candidates to get in, though probably no one serious unless they also plan to run for their party’s nomination in March, since that’s the more important of the two. In the meantime, if you live in this district, keep your eyes open for an opportunity to help out Eliz Markowitz.

No SOS

Just in case you were wondering.

Just as they do every year, hundreds of county officials from all over Texas are packing a hotel ballroom in Austin this week for three days of all things elections.

On the agenda are a session on paying for primary elections and one on procedures for voting by mail. A half-hour is reserved for policy updates from the legislative session that wrapped up in late May.

The annual seminar was originally supposed to begin with a welcome from the secretary of state, Texas’ chief election official. But with county workers gathered around dozens of round tables, this year’s confab kicked off with a deputy; the secretary of state position has been vacant since late May, when David Whitley lost his job over a botched review of the voter rolls.

It’s been 63 days since Democratic senators blocked Whitley’s confirmation and cut his tenure short. The Texas Constitution states the governor shall “without delay” make another nomination to fill the vacant post. Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to questions about why the post has remained vacant for so long and whether there was a timeline in place to name a replacement.

[…]

Some county officials are looking to new leadership as a reset. But there was little mention of the vacancy at the top of the secretary of state’s office or of the state’s errors on Monday morning. Instead, Keith Ingram, the state’s director of elections, informed county workers that the secretary of state’s office would be moving forward with a revised effort to review the voter rolls for noncitizens.

Pointing to the settlement in the litigation from earlier this year, Ingram said the state would be rolling out lists of registered voters who visited the Department of Public Safety and indicated they were not citizens in the last week. Those weekly review efforts could begin as soon as next month.

“We’re currently testing the data with DPS to make sure we don’t run into more problems,” Ingram said.

Election security was top of mind at the state’s seminar, which Ingram opened by noting that the election process — and the need to enforce security measures — was on “display like never before” following Russian interference in the 2016 election and fears about foreign intrusion during the 2020 cycle.

But with no secretary of state, Texas won’t have its top elections official at an all-day training by the Department of Homeland Security on securing elections. This week’s seminar is the only time this many local election officials will all be in the same room discussing election procedures and security ahead of the 2020 election cycle.

“There’s never a good time for them to have that vacancy at the top,” [Chris Davis, president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators] said. “But this really isn’t a good time.”

That sure is some sweet, sweet leadership from Greg Abbott, who as the story notes filled the previous vacancy with Whitley a mere 17 days after the job opened up. It’s not like I have any faith in Abbott’s ability to pick a new SOS, but we ought to have someone who is accountable for election security in 2020. But Abbott’s donors don’t care about this, so then neither does he.

There’s no reason to trust the Republican study to “reform” the judicial election process

Oh, hell no.

After a punishing election for Republican judges, state leaders are set to take a long look at Texas’ often-criticized judicial selection system — a partisan election structure that Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has described as “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”

This summer, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law creating a commission to study the issue — signaling that the GOP-led Legislature could overhaul the system as soon as 2021. That move comes after Democrats killed a sweeping reform proposal that Abbott had quietly backed.

In Texas, one of just a few states that maintains a system of partisan judicial selection all the way up through its high courts, judges are at the mercy of the political winds. They are required to run as partisans but expected to rule impartially. They are forced to raise money from the same lawyers who will appear before them in court. And in their down-ballot, low-information races, their fates tend to track with the candidates at the top of the ticket.

That means political waves that sweep out of office good and bad, experienced and inexperienced judges alike. And while sweeps are perennial problems for the judiciary, 2018’s elections “set records,” said Tom Phillips, a former Texas Supreme Court chief justice.

Democrats, riding on the coattails of Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, left the election with majorities on appeals courts where they had previously held zero seats. Republicans were entirely shut out of major urban counties. Voters, largely uninformed about judicial races, differentiated very little between well-funded, experienced candidates and those who had done little but throw their hats in the ring. The judiciary lost hundreds of years of experience.

“Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind,” Hecht warned lawmakers in January, exhorting them to change the system.

But reform is similarly fraught with politics. Voters don’t like having choices taken away from them, even if vanishingly few recognize judicial candidates’ names on the ballot. And any new system has to win the approval of both parties, as a two-thirds majority in each chamber is required for the constitutional amendment needed to change the system.

[…]

Texas Republicans dominate the state’s judiciary: All nine members on each of the state’s two high courts are Republicans, as are lower-court judges across much of the state. But that dominance began to wilt after last fall’s elections, particularly on intermediate courts of appeals, where Democrats now hold majorities on 7 of 14 courts.

After scores of Republican judges lost their jobs last fall, Abbott set about appointing many of them back to the bench. He also became more vocal on the issue of judicial selection reform.

Eyebrows went up in February, when he tweeted a Houston Chronicle column criticizing the partisan judicial election system. The governor commented, “We need judges devoted to the constitution and strict application of the law, not to the political winds of the day.”

Advocates began to believe this might be the year to push the issue — or at least to tee it up for a big swing in 2021. It was around that time that a group of would-be reformers — attorneys, former judges and donors — formed a non-profit organization, Citizens for Judicial Excellence in Texas, to push the issue in Austin. One lobbyist registered to represent the group at the Capitol this spring.

With powerful supporters in his ear calling for change, Abbott was also pushing the issue more quietly. In March, he met with state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, a Republican lawyer from Lubbock. Two days later, on the Legislature’s filing deadline, Landgraf proposed a constitutional amendment that would have overhauled the system, centralizing much of the power to pick judges in the governor’s office.

The Landgraf pitch — which ultimately stalled out for a lack of bipartisan support — would have scrapped the partisan judicial election system, replacing it with a multi-step process: gubernatorial appointment, qualifications evaluation by a non-partisan commission, Texas Senate confirmation and retention elections. Since judges tend to win retention elections, barring scandal, the proposal would effectively have allowed Abbott to appoint judges likely to serve for three four-year terms — giving Republican-appointed judges a dozen years in power even as Texas creaks toward the political center.

Landgraf’s proposal carved out small, rural — conservative — counties, where voters would still have had the opportunity to elect judges on partisan ballots, unless they voted to opt into the appointment system.

Landgraf’s pitch, blessed by Abbott, didn’t sit well with Democrats, who demanded to know why the urban centers they and their colleagues represent would be treated differently from Republican strongholds. They feared overhauling the system would mean losing the new class of Democratic judges elected in last year’s sweep — a class that brought unprecedented diversity to the bench. And they questioned whether centralizing that power in Abbott’s office might effectively give the Republicans control over the judiciary for longer than the party can hold the other two branches of government.

In April, a House committee hosted a spirited debate on the bill, then left the pitch pending. Landgraf said he wouldn’t push to advance it without bipartisan support; Democrats cheered its defeat.

First of all, no way is it acceptable to put this power in the hands of the Governor. Putting aside who the governor is now, how does that take the politics out of the process? All it does is incentivize anyone who wants to be a judge to suck up to the Governor. Sure, you could redesign things so that no one person or one party has control over the process, but any way you slice it you are granting this power to a small, unelected, unrepresentative group of people. But if this does get traction, then no way do “small rural counties” get exempted from it. If this is a good system for Harris and Dallas, it’s a good system for Loving and Deaf Smith.

But the bottom line remains that this is only ever an issue when Democrats have a good year at the ballot box. The first time Republicans started talking about changing the partisan election system was in 2008. It then got mostly dropped (except for its most ardent supporters, and I will admit that the likes of Wallace Jefferson and Nathan Hecht continued to bang this drum at every opportunity) in the 2010 to 2014 period, only to be revived in 2016. First they ended straight ticket voting (though not in time for 2018, poor things), and now this. The goal is to install Republican judges, hopefully before Democrats can elect a majority to either of the statewide courts. Come back with a proposal that isn’t primarily about that, and then maybe we can talk. Until then, there’s no reason for any Democratic legislator to support this.

The Fifth Circuit Obamacare hearing

Remember, the Fifth Circuit is where hope goes to die. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On the left was Judge Carolyn Dineen King, an appointee of Jimmy Carter; on the right sat Judge Kurt Engelhardt, a nominee of Donald Trump, and in the center sat Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, the George W. Bush appointee expected to represent the critical swing vote on a three-judge panel now charged with deciding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

It was that perhaps fitting seating arrangement that greeted attorneys for Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the state and its allies asked this three-judge panel on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to strike down the sweeping health law known as “Obamacare,” a legal means to a political end that has eluded conservatives for the better part of a decade.

Texas won a major victory in its bid to end the law in December, when a federal district judge in North Texas sided with the state, declaring that the law is unconstitutional in its entirety after Congress in 2017 gutted one of its important provisions, a tax penalty for individuals who chose to remain uninsured. The U.S. Department of Justice, in a highly unusual move, has declined to defend the law.

A California-led coalition of blue states that has stepped in to oppose Texas in the lawsuit quibbles with that question of “severability,” arguing that even if one slice of the law must fall as unconstitutional, its other hundreds of provisions — including a host of popular patient protections — should stand. The question of how much of the law may rightly be salvaged was a focal point of court discussions on Tuesday.

Texas’ odds of total vindication remain in question after nearly two hours of questions before the three judges.

Most of the unusually-large courtroom audience of journalists and interested but unaffiliated attorneys focused on Elrod at the center. By far the most vocal judge of the three, Elrod probed both sides on the issue of standing — whether they have the right to participate in the lawsuit at all. And she seemed highly focused on her court’s options for ordering a remedy, seeming to weigh options for sending the case back to a lower court for further consideration.

Engelhardt, who is among the newest appointees to the court, was harsh and occasionally sarcastic, asking more questions of the blue state coalition than he did of the Texas-led team. He seemed skeptical of the standing of both the California-led coalition and the Democratic-majority U.S. House of Representatives, which intervened in the case although the Republican-majority U.S. Senate did not.

The Senate, Engelhardt remarked, “is sort of the 800 lb. gorilla that’s not in the room.”

King, meanwhile, did not speak at all.

See here and here for the background. The legal basis of this lawsuit is so ridiculous that anything short of tossing it and its lawyers out of court is insufficient, but given where we are I could find a way to live with the idea of sending it back to the idiot district court judge for reconsideration. I fear we’ll get some kind of split-the-baby decision that strikes down parts of the law but leaves some crippled skeleton of it intact, which dumbass pundits will then call a “moderate compromise”, in the same way that the midpoint between “I murder you and burn down your house” and “I leave you alone” is a moderate compromise. Not much to do at this point but wait and work your ass off voting these morons out in 2020. NBC News, CNN, Daily Kos, Mother Jones, and Think Progress have more.