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Harris County Attorney

January 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

As you know, New Year’s Day brings a new round of campaign finance reports, for all levels of government. I’m going to be working my way through these as I can, because there’s lots to be learned about the candidates and the status of the races from these reports, even if all we do is look at the topline numbers. Today we start with Harris County races, as there’s a lot of action and primary intrigue. With the Presidential primary and of course the entire Trump demon circus dominating the news, it can be hard to tell where the buzz is in these races, if any buzz exists. The July 2019 reports, with a much smaller field of candidates, is here.

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Carvana Cloud, District Attorney
Audia Jones, District Attorney
Curtis Todd Overstreet, District Attorney

Lori DeAngelo, District Attorney
Mary Nan Huffman, District Attorney
Lloyd Oliver, District Attorney

Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Jerome Moore, Sheriff
Harry Zamora, Sheriff

Joe Danna, Sheriff
Paul Day, Sheriff

Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Christian Menefee, Harris County Attorney
Ben Rose, Harris County Attorney

John Nation, County Attorney

Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor
Jolanda Jones, Tax Assessor
Jack Terence, Tax Assessor

Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1
Maria Jackson, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Diana Alexander, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Erik Hassan, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Michael Moore, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Morris Overstreet, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Kristi Thibaut, County Commissioner, Precinct 3

Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Susan Sample, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Brenda Stardig (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 3


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Ogg          106,572    83,276   68,489     385,908
Cloud         33,881    17,382        0      16,889
Jones         49,186    29,177        0      29,973
Overstreet         0     1,250        0           0

DeAngelo         500     2,012        0         500
Hoffman            0    41,089        0           0
Oliver             0         0        0           0

Gonzalez      95,636    47,317        0     317,264
Moore         28,595    15,896        0      12,698
Zamora         4,500    18,177        0           0

Danna         78,820    39,274    7,000       9,857
Day                0         0        0           0

Ryan          33,655    18,779        0     101,039
Menefee      135,579    41,249        0     128,547
Rose          89,476    80,932   20,000      53,341

Nation             0     1,369        0           0

Bennett       20,965     8,734        0      39,845
Jones         16,320     1,250        0      16,320
Terence        1,000     1,400        0           0

Daniel            35         1        0         454

Ellis        122,631   396,998        0   3,881,740
Jackson      110,230    71,241    8,000      19,353

Alexander
Hassan          750      4,442        0           0
Moore       209,391     13,248        0     199,052
Overstreet   17,950      2,025        0      15,925
Thibaut      51,180      4,536        0      45,761

Ramsey      154,315     24,281        0     126,619
Sample       26,624      1,828        0      26,620
Stardig      43,700     39,985        0      75,930

I guess I expected more from the District Attorney race. Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud have raised a few bucks, but nothing yet that would lead me to believe they will be able to effectively communicate with a primary electorate that could well be over 500,000 voters. Kim Ogg is completing her first term, but this will be the third time she’s been on the ballot – there was an election for DA in 2014 as well, following the death of Mike Anderson and the appointment of his widow, Devon Anderson, to succeed him. Neither of those primaries had a lot of voters, but a lot of the folks voting this March will have done so in one or both of the past Novembers, and that’s a boost for Ogg. On the Republican side, you can insert a shrug emoji here. I assume whoever wins that nomination will eventually be able to convince people to give them money. If you’re wondering how Mary Nan Hoffman can spend $41K without raising anything, the answer is that she spent that from personal funds.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is the only incumbent here without a serious primary challenger. I’d never advise anyone to coast in an election where they have an opponent, but he doesn’t need to have the pedal to the metal. More than half of the amount Joe Danna raised was in kind, so don’t spend too much time thinking about that.

Both County Attorney challengers have done well, though again the question will be “is it enough?” I actually got a robopoll call the other day for the County Attorney race, but I didn’t stay on the line till the end – they started asking “if you knew this about this candidate” questions, and since they didn’t say up front how long the survey might take, I didn’t want to stick it out. As above, the main challenge for Christian Menefee and Ben Rose is that Vince Ryan has been on the ballot multiple times, going back to 2008. The voters know who he is, or at least more of them know who he is than they do who the other candidates in that race are. That’s the hill they have to climb.

The one challenger to an incumbent who can claim a name ID advantage is Jolanda Jones, who is surely as well known as anyone on this ballot. That has its pros and cons in her case, but at least the voters deciding between her and Ann Harris Bennett won’t be guessing about who their choices are.

I didn’t mention the Republicans running for County Attorney or Tax Assessor for obvious reasons. Chris Daniel could be a low-key favorite to surpass the partisan baseline in his race in November, but after 2016 and 2018, he’ll need a lot more than that.

In the Commissioners Court races, Maria Jackson has raised a decent amount of money, but she’s never going to be on anything close to even footing there. Precinct 1 is one-fourth of the county, but a much bigger share of the Democratic primary electorate. In 2008, there were 143K votes in Precinct 1 out of 411K overall or 35%. In 2012, it was 39K out of 76K, or 51%, and in 2016 it was 89K out of 227K, or 39%. My guess is that in a 500K primary, Precinct 1 will have between 150K and 200K voters. Think of it in those terms when you think about how much money each candidate has to spend so they can communicate with those voters.

In Precinct 3, Michael Moore and Tom Ramsey stand out in each of their races so far. For what it’s worth, the three Dems have raised more (270K to 224K) than the three Republicans so far. I don’t think any of that matters right now. Steve Radack still has his campaign money, and I’d bet he spends quite a bit of it to help the Republican nominee hold this seat.

All right, that’s it for now. I’ll have state offices next, and will do Congress and US Senate later since those totals aren’t reliably available till the first of the next month. Later I’ll go back and fill in the city numbers, and maybe look at HISD and HCC as well. Let me know what you think.

Where the primary action is

It’s on the Democratic side in Harris County. This should come as a surprise to no one.

The crowded Harris County Democratic primary field reflects a new reality in Houston politics: With the county turning an even darker shade of blue in 2018, many consider the real battle for countywide seats to be the Democratic primaries, leading more candidates to take on incumbent officeholders.

“This is the new political landscape of Harris County. Countywide offices are won and lost in the Democratic Primary,” said Ogg campaign spokesperson Jaime Mercado, who argued that Ogg’s 2016 win “signaled a monumental shift in county politics” and created renewed emphasis on criminal justice reform now championed by other Democratic officials and Ogg’s opponents.

In the March 3 primaries, Ogg, Bennett, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and County Attorney Vince Ryan — all Democrats — face at least two intra-party opponents each, while Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis has a primary challenger in former state district judge Maria Jackson.

Excluding state district and county courts, 10 of 14 Harris County Democratic incumbents have at least one primary foe. In comparison, three of the seven county GOP incumbents — Justice of the Peace Russ Ridgway, Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and education department trustee Don Sumners — have drawn primary challengers.

At the state level, Republicans from the Harris County delegation largely have evaded primary opponents better than Democrats. All but three GOP state representatives — Dan Huberty, Briscoe Cain and Dennis Paul — are unopposed.

On the Democratic side, state Sen. Borris Miles and state Reps. Alma Allen, Jarvis Johnson, Senfronia Thompson, Harold Dutton, Shawn Thierry and Garnet Coleman each have primary opponents.

Overall, the 34 Democratic incumbents seeking re-election to federal, state and county seats that cover at least a portion of Harris County — not including state district and county courts — face 43 primary opponents. The 22 Republican incumbents have 10 intra-party challengers.

It should be noted that a few of these races always draw a crowd. Constable Precincts 1, 2, 3, and 6 combined for 22 candidates in 2012, 21 candidates in 2016, and 17 this year. Three of the four countywide incumbents – DA Kim Ogg, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, and Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett – are in their first term, as is County Commissioner Rodney Ellis. There are fewer Republican incumbents to target, so Dem incumbents get to feel the heat. The bigger tell to me is that Republicans didn’t field candidates in nine District Court races. As I’ve said ad nauseum, it’s the judicial races that are the best indicator of partisan strength in a given locale.

The story also notes that the usual ideological holy war in HD134 is on hold this year – Greg Abbott has endorsed Sarah Davis instead of trying to primary her out, and there’s no Joe Straus to kick around. Republicans do have some big races of their own – CD07, CD22, HD26, HD132, HD138, County Commissioner Precinct 3 – but at the countywide level it’s kind of a snoozefest. Honestly, I’d have to look up who most of their candidates are, their names just haven’t registered with me. I can’t wait to see what the finance reports have to say. The basic point here is that we’re in a new normal. I think that’s right, and I think we’ll see more of the same in 2022. Get used to it.

Who sues first?

It matters whether Harris County or the state of Texas is first to the courthouse against an industrial polluter.

As chemical plant explosions and fires have disrupted lives and raised air-quality concerns in the Houston area this year, the state and its most populous county have been jockeying to take the lead in penalizing polluters.

The state’s more active role has aroused suspicions among some local officials and environmentalists, who believe state leaders with a record of pro-business actions may be trying to take control to soften the blow of any court rulings against major corporations.

“It’s obvious there’s been an attempt to limit Harris County legal office from pursuing these cases,” said Neil Carman, a former air inspector with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who now works with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.

The legal maneuvering reflects growing public concern about environmental disasters in the Houston area and the ongoing tug of war between the Republican-led state government and officials in major metro areas over the setting of policy.

Who sues first dictates not only where the case will be heard, but also where the money will go if there are civil penalties. If Harris County leads with the state being a party to its lawsuit, the money is split between both parties. But if the state sues without the local government’s involvement, it goes back to the state’s general revenue

County officials say they have to sue to have a role in the process and to make sure companies are held accountable for the damage they cause. State lawmakers say that such suits are redundant and that there needs to be a statewide approach; the Legislature has passed bills restricting local governments in such cases.

“It’s not efficient, and it’s not a good way to function,” said Rock Owens, special assistant Harris County attorney for environmental matters. “If you have an emergency that requires immediate attention, that’s a reason to move quickly. But I just have to move quickly to make sure Harris County keeps a seat at the table, and that’s an unnecessary use of resources.”

In the end, he added, “everybody loses.”

See here and here for some background. There’s no question that the state is doing this to block Harris County from taking stronger action against the big offenders. The track record could not be more clear. Harris County has done pretty well regardless, and if you listened to my interviews with the County Attorney candidates you should feel confident that that will continue, at least until such time as the Lege clips the county’s wings further. We all know what we need to do to keep that from happening.

Interview with Christian Menefee

Christian Menefee

Our third candidate in my series of interviews for Harris County Attorney is Christian Menefee, who was the first candidate to declare for the race. A native Houstonian, Menefee is a former intern in the Harris County Public Defender’s office, and now works as a litigator with Kirkland & Ellis. He has worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Texas Appleseed, he has served on the Houston Independent Police Advisory Board, and he is a past President of the Houston Black American Democrats club. Here’s the interview:

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Kimberly McLeod – SBOE6
Debra Kerner – SBOE6

Chrysta Castañeda – RRC

Vince Ryan – Harris County Attorney
Ben Rose – Harris County Attorney

Interview with Ben Rose

Ben Rose

Incumbent Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan has two opponents in the March primary, the first time he has had company in a March race. Ben Rose has an LL.M. in Environmental Law from Tulane University, where he wrote his doctorial thesis on how to protect Houston’s Ship Channel from hurricanes. He has managed two law firms and practiced civil and environmental law here in Houston. He was also the Democratic candidate for HD134 in 2016; you can listen to that interview here. My interview with Ben Rose for this race is here:

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Kimberly McLeod – SBOE6
Debra Kerner – SBOE6

Chrysta Castañeda – RRC

Vince Ryan – Harris County Attorney

Interview with Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

This week we focus on the Harris County Attorney primary, one of several high-profile primaries in the county where a sitting incumbent faces serious challengers. Vince Ryan was first elected to the office of Harris County Attorney in 2008, part of the first wave of Democratic wins in the county. Ryan had served in the County Attorney’s office in the 1980’s as First Assistant to Mike Driscoll, and he served three terms on Houston City Council in District C. His office provided me with a timeline of the bail lawsuit and a copy of the consent decree, which you can see here. I’ve interviewed Vince Ryan for each of his past County Attorney elections. You can hear the 2016 interview here, and you can hear the 2020 interview right here:

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Kimberly McLeod – SBOE6
Debra Kerner – SBOE6

Chrysta Castañeda – RRC

The “Has Not Yet Filed” list

Today is the actual, official filing deadline. Anyone who has not filed for a spot in the primary by 6 PM today is not a candidate for a Democratic nomination in 2020. A whole lot of people have already filed, and a whole lot more will file today – I’m going to have a lot to talk about with this tomorrow and for the rest of the week – but there are still a few notable absences (with the caveat that the SOS list may not be complete). So with that in mind, here are the “why aren’t they there yet?” list to ponder as the hours tick down.

US Senate: MJ Hegar is not yet listed. John Love, the Midland City Council member who announced his candidacy in October, has ended his campaign, on the grounds that he lacked the time and finances. Good for him for recognizing his situation, and I hope he looks at 2022 for another possible statewide campaign. Eleven candidates have filed so far, Hegar will make it 12 when she makes it official.

US Congress: Reps. Joaquin Castro (CD20) and Colin Allred (CD32) are not on the list as of Sunday evening. Some of the more recent entrants in CDs 03 and 31 – Tanner Do, Chris Suprun, Dan Jangigian – are not yet on the list. Much-ballyhooed CD28 challenger Jessica Cisneros is not yet on the list. Wendy Davis has CD21 to herself right now, as Jennie Leeder has not yet appeared. CDs 19, 27, and 36 do not yet have Democratic candidates. And while this has nothing to do with our side, the Republican field in CD22 is mind-bogglingly large. Good luck with that.

Railroad Commissioner: Kelly Stone had not filed as of Sunday, but she has an event on her candidate Facebook page announcing her filing at 2:30 today. Former State Rep. Robert Alonzo has joined the field.

SBOE: All positions are accounted for. Letti Bresnahan remains the only candidate in District 5, the most flippable one on the board. I still can’t find any information online about her candidacy.

State Senate: No candidates yet in SDs 12, 18, 22, or 28. Not surprising, as none are competitive, but a full slate is still nice. Sens. Borris Miles and Eddie Lucio now each have two opponents, the field in SD19 is four deep, and Rep. Cesar Blanco still has SD29 all to himself.

State House: Far as I can tell, the only incumbent who hasn’t filed yet is Rep. Rene Oliveira in HD37. Of the top targets for 2020 based on Beto’s performance, HDs 23, 43, and 84 do not yet have Democratic candidates. Those are if not the bottom three on the competitiveness scale, with the first two trending away from us, they’re close to it. If they go unfilled it will still be a waste, but about the smallest possible waste. Rep. Ron Reynolds does not have a challenger. Sean Villasana, running for the HD119 seat being vacated by Rep. Roland Gutierrez as he runs for SD19, has the field to himself so far. In all of the big counties, the only one missing a Dem right now is HD99 in Tarrant, which is not particularly competitive.

District Courts: Limiting myself to Harris County, Judges Jaclanel McFarland (133rd Civil), Ursula Hall (165th Civil), Elaine Palmer (215th Civil), and George Powell (351st Criminal) have not filed. Other candidates have filed in the 165th and 351st, as have candidates in the 337th Criminal (Herb Ritchie) and 339th Criminal (Maria Jackson) where the incumbents are known to not be running again. Alex Smoots-Thomas now has an opponent for the 164th, and I am told another may be on the way.

Harris County offices: All of the candidates I’ve tracked for District Attorney, County Attorney, Sheriff, and Tax Assessor have now filed; I’m told another candidate may be filing for Tax Assessor, but I don’t know any more than that. David Brown has not yet filed for HCDE Position 7 At Large, but he was at the CEC meeting yesterday and I expect to see him on the ballot. Luis Guajardo has not yet filed for Commissioners Court in Precinct 3. There’s still no JP candidates in Precincts 4 and 8, and no Constable in Precinct 8. And Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen is still missing. Could that mean something? We’ll find out today. I’ll have a report tomorrow.

Filing update: Focus on Harris County

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It could be March before District B gets to vote in their runoff

And honestly, by the same calculations, it could go later than that.

Cynthia Bailey

The Houston City Council District B runoff could be delayed until March if a lawsuit contesting last month’s election result is not resolved by Monday, the Harris County Attorney’s office said.

The third-place finisher in the race filed the contest, arguing that second-place finisher Cynthia Bailey’s felony conviction bars her from holding public office.

Meanwhile, incumbent District B Councilman Jerry Davis said he intends to hold the seat until a successor is elected, while Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the runoff should not have been delayed.

“There’s a lot of people out there that are angry,” Ellis said at this week’s Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday. “And to be honest with you, I’m angry as well.”

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said Dec. 9 is the deadline to place District B on the Jan. 28 ballot, which also will feature the runoff for the vacant District 148 seat in the Texas House of Representatives. The county will begin sending mail ballots for that election next week, Ray said.

“We don’t want to have to run another election in addition to the ones that we’re already doing,” Ray said.

A hearing on the election contest has been scheduled for Friday.

See here for the previous update. According to the Secretary of State, the deadline to send out the mail ballots for the March primary election is January 18th. That means that if we don’t have a resolution by the 9th, we have a bit less than six weeks to get resolution in time to have the election in March. Otherwise, the next opportunity is May. Isn’t this fun?

The District B race was a topic of discussion at Commissioners Court, where Ellis questioned whether the county should have yanked the runoff from the ballot. He suggested the county attorney could have sought to quickly dismiss Jefferson-Smith’s suit so the runoff could proceed as scheduled.

Ellis said the county’s decision sets a dangerous precedent where any disgruntled party could cause delays to an election.

“We’re going to be the laughingstock of the country if there’s some last-minute challenge, and then somehow we’re going to affect the presidential primary on Super Tuesday,” Ellis said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo suggested the county attorney’s office develop a strategy to more quickly resolve election challenges in the future.

To be fair, the fact that the state law in question is ambiguous and has not been resolved by a court is part of the problem. Short of declaring Bailey ineligible when she filed, I’m not sure what the County Attorney can do or could have done. That said, I Am Not An Attorney, and they are (it’s right there in the name), so maybe they can think of something. Whatever they do think of, getting that law fixed needs to be a priority as well.

City and county leaders have said they support keeping Davis on council until his replacement is named.

“Although his term will expire on January 2, 2020, the City expects Council Member Jerry Davis to serve on a holdover basis (if necessary) until his successor is elected and qualified for office,” said Alan Bernstein, communications director for Mayor Sylvester Turner.

While some question whether that may run afoul of the city’s term limits, Davis and county officials said the Texas Constitution allows him to stay.

“All officers of this State shall continue to perform the duties of their offices until their successors shall be duly qualified,” Article XVI of the Constitution says.

I’m fine with this as well, but we all know this is another lawsuit waiting to happen, right? Lord help us if Davis is on the winning side of a 9-8 vote in Council in 2020. It sure would be nice if we get a verdict by Monday.

Filing report update

We’re a week out from the official filing deadline for the 2020 primaries. There’s still a lot of known candidates who haven’t filed yet, but I expect there will be a mad flurry of activity this week, as is usually the case. Don’t be surprised if we hear of an out-of-the-blue retirement or two, as that is known to happen at this time as well. I’m going to take a quick look at where we stand now, and will provide other reports as needed before the deadline on Monday. My sources for this are as follows:

The Patrick Svitek spreadsheet.
The Secretary of State Candidate Information page, which is quite handy and reasonably up to date.
Texas Judges, whose provenance is unknown to me, but they have the most information I’ve found about candidates for statewide and Courts of Appeals judicial races.
Jeff Blaylock’s Texas Election Source – I may be too cheap to subscribe, but the free info he includes is always worth noting.

SBOE

We have a third Democrat in the race for SBOE6, Kimberly McLeod. She is Assistant Superintendent of Education & Enrichment at HCDE and a former professor at TSU. She joins former HCDE Board member Debra Kerner (who has filed) and teacher Michelle Palmer (who had not yet filed, at least according to the SOS, as of this weekend).

We have a filing for SBOE5, the most-flippable of the SBOE districts up for election this year, Letti Bresnahan. Google tells me that a person by this name was a Trustee at San Antonio’s Northside ISD (she is not on the Board now). She was elected in 2008, narrowly re-elected in 2012, and I guess didn’t run in 2016; the Bexar County Elections report for May 2016 doesn’t list the NEISD Position 6 race, so who knows what happened. In 2015, she voted to keep the name of San Antonio’s Robert E. Lee High school; it was subsequently changed to Legacy of Education Excellence (LEE) High School in 2017, by which time as far as I can tell she was no longer on the Board. That’s a whole lot more words than I intended to write about her or this race – and mind you, I can’t say for sure this is the same Letti (Leticia) Bresnahan. I noted this because I’ve been keeping an eye on this race – the district was carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, it was the bluest of the Republican-held SBOE districts in 2018, and the incumbent is a wingnut. So I was gonna write something when a Dem filed, I just didn’t expect it to be this.

State Senate

Someone named Richard Andrews has filed as a Democrat against Sen. Borris Miles. The Svitek spreadsheet has him as a General Election opponent, but his website clearly says “Democrat”, and the SOS has him as a Democrat. He’s a doctor, and that’s all I know about him.

State House

Current SBOE member Lawrence Allen, Jr, who is the son of State Rep. Alma Allen, has filed in the increasingly crowded Democratic primary in HD26. It’s one of the nine GOP-held districts that Beto won in 2018. Rish Oberoi, Suleman Lalani, and 2018 candidate Sarah DeMerchant have also filed.

Travis Boldt has filed in HD29, in Brazoria County. That was one of two near-miss districts (Beto got 47.0%) in which no Dem was on the ballot in 2018; HD32, which does not yet have a candidate filed, was the other.

Sandra Moore, who lost in the 2018 Dem primary to Marty Schexnayder, has filed to run again in HD133.

Ashton Woods has changed the name of his Facebook page to indicate he plans to run in the primary for HD146, currently held by second-term Rep. Shawn Thierry. He has not filed as of this writing.

So far, no one else has filed to run in the primary for HD148, where Anna Eastman is in the runoff for the special election, and has made her filing for 2020.

First Court of Appeals

I hadn’t gotten into the Courts of Appeals in my previous discussions, but especially after the sweep of these races by Dems in 2018 (and not just on this court), they will surely be of interest to multiple candidates.

Veronica Rivas-Molloy, who has officially filed, and Dinesh Singhal are in the race for Place 3 against incumbent Russell Loyd, who was elected in 2014. The Texas Judges website also lists Keith F. Houston as a candidate, but he appears to have decided not to run.

Amparo Guerra and Tim Hootman have both filed for Place 5, which had been held by the now-resigned Laura Carter Higley. There are three Republicans running so far, and there may be another if Greg Abbott appoints someone to fill the still-vacant seat prior to the filing deadline.

14th Court of Appeals

Jane Robinson is the (so far, at least) lone Democrat running for Chief Justice. I saw her at the HCDP Friendsgiving last month but did not have the chance to walk up and say Hi. The position is held by Justice Kem Thompson Frost, who is not running for re-election. Justice Tracy Christopher, who holds Place 9, is running for Chief Justice. She was last elected in 2016, so she would not otherwise be on the ballot. My assumption is that if she wins, she will move over from Place 9, which will make Place 9 vacant, and Abbott will appoint someone who would then run in Christopher’s spot in 2022. If she loses, she’ll remain in her spot and run for re-election (or not, as she sees fit) in 2022.

Wally Kronzer, who has filed, and Cheri Thomas are running for Place 7. Kronzer ran for Place 5 on this court in 2010. Ken Wise, in his first term, is the incumbent.

District courts

I don’t see any primary challengers yet for incumbent Democratic district court judges. I have heard someone is circulating petitions to challenge Judge Alex Smoots-Thomas, which I think we can all understand. I’m not in a position to say anything more than that as yet.

County offices

Audia Jones has officially filed for Harris County DA. Christian Menefee and Vince Ryan have both filed for County Attorney. Michael Moore has filed for County Commissioner in Precinct 3; Kristi Thibaut and Diana Alexander both announced their filings on Facebook over the weekend, but the SOS has not caught up to those filings yet. Bill McLeod, of accidental resignation fame, has filed to win his old seat on County Civil Court at Law #4 back. Incumbent Judge Lesley Briones has not yet filed. We will have a contested primary for at least one of the two HCDE at large positions, as Erica Davis has filed in Position 5; here’s her appointment of treasurer. Andrea Duhon, who had run for a different HCDE position in 2018, has already filed an appointment of treasurer for this race. David Brown is running for the other spot, Position 7, and as far as I know has no Dem opponent as yet.

Now you know what I know. We’ll all know a lot more in a week’s time.

Filing period preview: Harris County

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

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

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

District Attorney

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

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

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

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

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

Sheriff

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

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

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

County Attorney

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

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

Tax Assessor

Ann Harris Bennett (D)

Chris Daniel (R)

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

Commissioners Court, Precinct 1

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

Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

Steve Radack (R)
Brenda Stardig (R)

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

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

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

July 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

Before we get to the numbers, please read this.

El Franco Lee

The widow of former Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee has emptied most of her late husband’s $3.8 million campaign account by donating to community groups and charities.

Ethel Kaye Lee, the campaign treasurer, said Thursday she chose the recipients based on the intentions of her husband’s donors.

“The campaign monies were given for two reasons, for support of existing Precinct 1 programs and keeping him elected, so that’s the formula,” she said.

The account donated $3.01 million to 12 groups, including $500,000 to the Precinct 1 Aquatics Program, $200,000 to the St. Paul Scholarship Foundation and $150,000 to the Julia C. Hester House in Houston’s Fifth Ward, according to the campaign’s July finance report. The report covers the period from Jan. 1 to June 30.

The largest expenditure was $1.5 million to the Precinct 1 Street Olympics, a program Lee founded in 1986. The summer event serves thousands of children annually and includes swim lessons, a basketball tournament and career fair. It also supports the North East Adolescent Program, created by Lee in 1989, which seeks to lower rates of teen pregnancy, birth defects and sexually transmitted diseases in poor Houston neighborhoods.

[…]

The Lee campaign also donated to $200,000 to the Baylor College of Medicine’s teen health clinic and $50,000 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Two Catholic groups, the Dominican Sisters of Houston and Dominican Friars, Province of St. Martin De Porres, received $50,000 each.

According to the finance report, the campaign had $791,140 remaining on hand as of June 30, which Ethel Kaye Lee has been allocated. Under state law, the campaign has until 2022 to close the account.

See here for the last update, from April. I had noticed all of the activity when I looked at Lee’s report. I’m glad to see this money going to good uses.

Now, on with the show…

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor

Lloyd Oliver, District Attorney
Audia Jones, District Attorney
Curtis Todd Overstreet, District Attorney

Harry Zamora, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

Ben Rose, County Attorney
Christian Menefee, County Attorney

Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1
Adrian Garcia, Precinct 2
Steve Radack, Precinct 3
Jack Cagle PAC, Precinct 4

El Franco Lee
Diana Alexander, Precinct 3

George Moore, HCDE Position 1, Precinct 2
Eric Dick, HCDE Position 2, Precinct 4
Richard Cantu, HCDE Position 3, At Large
Josh Flynn, HCDE Position 4, Precinct 3
Michael Wolfe, HCDE Position 5, At Large
Danny Norris, HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1
Don Sumners, HCDE Position 7, At Large

Andrea Duhon, HCDE Position 5, At Large
David Brown, HCDE Position 7, At Large


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Hidalgo      318,967   162,328    1,400     192,572
Trautman      11,325     5,778        0      22,450
Osborne        1,000       155        0       1,201
Burgess        9,626     9,681        0       7,263

Ogg          135,860    22,773   68,489     330,425
Gonzalez     178,024    14,344        0     276,714
Ryan          41,925    15,417        0      85,318
Bennett       21,925    19,205        0      37,313

Oliver
Jones         23,669    11,234        0       9,967
Overstreet
Zamora             0     3,026        0           0
Danna        111,268    66,442    3,500      38,338
Rose          22,345     2,257        0      11,605
Menefee       34,869       326        0      34,542

Ellis        715,266   240,145        0   3,823,509
Garcia       552,590   289,169        0     810,149
Radack         5,000    96,250        0   1,634,106
Cagle        398,900   240,512        0     361,787

Lee                0 3,095,767        0     791,139
Alexander      4,210       445        0       1,982

Moore
Dick               0         0        0           0
Cantu          1,250     1,132        0         337
Flynn
Wolfe              0         0        0           0
Norris
Sumners

Duhon            155       262        0         389
Brown            700       406        0         313

County Judge Lina Hidalgo isn’t taking money from vendors, but that hasn’t stopped her from doing well in the fundraising department. At this rate, she’ll be well funded for her first re-election campaign. On the other end of the spectrum…what’s up with Steve Radack? He knows he’s up for election next year, right? I mean, he does have plenty of money, so one low-activity reporting period is no big deal. It still looks weird.

More aware of their ballot status next year are DA Kim Ogg and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, and both responded as you’d expect. I’ll get to their situations in a minute, but the person I’ve got my eye on at this time is County Attorney Vince Ryan. He’s never been a big fundraiser, but he brings in a few bucks. If there’s a cycle where he’s going to need them, it’s this one.

And that’s because Ryan now has two primary opponents, Ben Rose and Christian Menefee, and while he has a cash on hand lead, it’s hardly insurmountable. In this high-turnout environment that the 2020 primary will be, Ryan’s biggest advantage will be the name recognition he has after 12 years in office. With a half million people or so likely to vote, it will take a pile of money to reach enough of them to make an impression. In a more typical year, you could hit the club and CEC meetings and hope to interact with enough of the old reliables to have a shot. In 2020, you’re going to have to do much broader outreach. That takes money, and it’s not clear that kind of money exists in the County Attorney race. We’ll see.

And speaking of opponents, we have them in the DA and Sheriff races. If your reaction to seeing Lloyd Oliver’s name wasn’t basically this, I don’t know what to say to you. Audia Jones we know about; she doesn’t appear to have gotten much traction yet, but there’s still time. I can’t tell from the limited information I have seen about Curtis Todd Overstreet to discern whether he’s running as a D or an R. I’m sure that will be clear enough soon. I can say the same about Harry Zamora running for Sheriff, I can’t tell his party just yet. Joe Danna is a Republican who has run for Constable in Precinct 1 a couple of times. His amount raised is not as impressive as it looks – about half of the total is in-kind donations for a fundraiser, and nearly half of the actual cash he got was a single $25K donation from Janice McNair.

Beyond that, not much we didn’t already know. I’m sure there will be a lot more raised in Commissioners Court Precinct 3, and for sure there will be more candidates. At some point I need to take a closer look at the Constable and JP races, because those are another good source of Dem takeover opportunities. For now, this is where we are.

What can the county do about ethics?

Maybe something. Maybe not. Who can tell?

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has proposed two ethics reforms he says are needed to improve transparency in county government, though Texas counties’ limited rule-making power may scuttle his plan.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously backed Ellis’ request to study how the county can establish mandatory registration of lobbyists and a blackout period for campaign contributions to elected officials from firms who seek or receive county contracts.

“We’re living in a time when public trust in government is shaken and everyday people are concerned about the undue influence of special interests,” Ellis said in a statement afterward. “We have an opportunity and obligation to strengthen public trust by reducing any appearance of or actual preferential treatment when it comes to how public dollars are spent.”

[…]

Ellis said the county needs an ethics commission to enforce any new rules. His vision, however, may be hamstrung by the limited ability Texas counties have to enact such policies. Unlike municipalities, which can establish their own rules and ordinances, counties only can follow the lead of the Legislature, Harris County First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said.

That limitation tied the hands of County Judge Ed Emmett, who established a task force that recommended a series of ethics reforms in 2009. Among them: creating an ethics committee, posting officials’ personal and financial disclosure forms online and ethics training for county employees.

The county attorney at the time concluded Commissioners Court lacked the authority to act on many of the proposals. The ethics committee only met twice before the county attorney said state law prevented the body from meeting confidentially, granting protection to whistleblowers or having the authority to supervise elected officials or their departments.

Some county ethics rules remain in place. Elected officials still must complete the disclosure forms, and any county employee involved in negotiating contracts with vendors must declare conflicts of interest. Commissioners Court members often disclose during meetings why they are abstaining from a vote, though written conflict of interest forms are not filed with the district clerk until afterward.

Soard said the Legislature has not given counties any new powers to establish ethics rules in the decade since Emmett tried, though El Paso and Montgomery counties sought and received special permission from state lawmakers to set up their own ethics commissions. Harris County could try a similar approach, Soard suggested, though the Legislature will not return to Austin for a regular session until 2021.

“We’re certainly working with the commissioners to see what the county can do,” Soard said.

I’m sure I’ve been salty on this blog about past attempts to improve ethics in Harris County. In retrospect, the lack of authority as granted by the state seems obvious. Maybe we’ll have better luck this time, but I agree that getting a bill passed in the Lege would help. There’s always 2021.

Some county race updates

2020 is going to be a very different election year in Harris County, because for the first time in anyone’s memory all of the non-HCDE countywide offices are held by Democrats. If you’re a Democrat in Harris County and you want to run for judge or an executive countywide position, you either need someone to step down or you need to challenge an incumbent Democrat. This month, we’re seeing some activity on that score, as two Democratic hopefuls have filed designation of treasurer reports for the purpose of running for County Attorney against three-term incumbent Vince Ryan. They are Ben Rose, who ran for HD134 in 2016, and Christian Menefee, past president of the Houston Black American Democrats (HBAD). That makes this one of the main local primaries to watch for 2020.

I have expected that someone, possibly more than one someone, would challenge Ryan, assuming he doesn’t decide to retire. We can agree that while Vince Ryan has generally been a fine County Attorney – his office has been sufficiently aggressive in enforcing environmental law that the Lege has taken steps to clip his wings, and he quickly put an end to then-Clerk Stan Stanart’s equivocating nonsense following the Obergefell ruling, among other things – a lot of people did not care for how he handled the bail lawsuit. If Ryan does run for a fourth term, I’m sure we’ll relitigate that with vigor. Regardless of whether Ryan is on the ballot or not, I hope we also have a spirited argument about what the role of the Harris County Attorney should be in a blue county with a Democratic majority on Commissioners Court. Is there room to take a more activist role in fighting against the actions by the state and federal government that directly harm Harris County? Maybe the answer to that question is No, and maybe the answer to that question is “Yes, but it comes with significant risk”, but I think it’s a question worth exploring. Let’s talk about what a Harris County Attorney should be doing, not just what that office and the person in charge of it have been doing.

I mentioned that the two At Large HCDE seats that remain in Republican hands are the last countywide seats held by a member of the GOP. They are At Large positions 5 and 7, now held by the execrable Michael Wolfe and the dinosaur Don Sumners. Both of them now have declared challengers, as Andrea Duhon and David Brown have filed treasurer reports against them. Duhon, who ran for and narrowly lost the HCDE Precinct 3 race last year, is up against Wolfe, while Brown will oppose Sumners. I won’t be surprised if they have company in their primaries, but for now they’re the ones.

Finally, I haven’t seen a treasurer filing, but Diana Alexander has announced her intention to challenge County Commissioner Steve Radack in Precinct 3. Alexander manages the Indivisible Houston, Pantsuit Republic, and Pantsuit Republic Houston Facebook groups; I don’t know anything else about her at this time. I can say for certain that others will be entering this race, as this is the top local prize for Democrats to pursue. Some names I have heard mentioned in connection with this include term-limited Council Member Mike Laster, former State Rep. Kristi Thibaut, and Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen, who would not be able to say anything about this without triggering resign to run. If you’ve heard other names being bandied about for this, please leave a comment and let us know.

Wolfe censured by HCDE

A new episode of the Michael Wolfe reality show.

Harris County Department of Education’s board voted to censure Trustee Michael Wolfe over sexual harassment allegations hours after a state district judge denied his request for a temporary restraining order.

Trustees on Wednesday voted 4-2, with Trustee Don Sumners abstaining, to issue the formal reprimand. Trustee George Moore broke with others in the board’s new majority, of which Wolfe is a part, to vote in favor of the punishment. Moore would not comment about his vote.

At the board meeting, Wolfe said the allegations were politically motivated and he had not had a proper chance to defend himself against such controversial allegations.

“If any of you were in my shoes, you would want your due process in court before being branded a sexual harasser,” Wolfe said. “I’m shocked these allegations have gotten this far, especially in America.”

Wolfe had tried to stop the censure vote Tuesday evening by having his attorney file a petition for a temporary restraining order and arguing for the order Wednesday afternoon.

A state district judge denied Wolfe’s request. Civil Court Judge Steven Kirkland said he was reluctant to get involved in a “political squabble” or to interfere with an elected board’s right to formally punish its own members.

He asked Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Wolfe, whether the censure would result in Wolfe losing his elected position, prevent him from voting on future items or would force him to register as a sex offender. Woodfill said no, but pointed out the official punishment would brand his client as a sexual harasser and could make it more difficult for him to gain future employment.

“There’s no statutory authority for me to interfere with another governmental body and no clear basis for me to jump in and do this,” Kirkland said. “It is not under an authority of the court to interfere with what is, essentially, a political question.”

See here and here for some background. As is usually the case with anything involving Michael Wolfe, you need to read the whole thing, then wash your hands afterwards. Have I mentioned that he’s up for election in 2020? Having him provide opportunities for Jared Woodfill to lose in court is a point in his favor, I’ll admit, but voting him out will still be sweet.

Commissioners Court replaces Judge McLeod

Unfortunate, but understandable.

Judge William McLeod

A divided Harris County Commissioners Court declined to give County Court At Law Judge Bill McLeod a reprieve Tuesday after he inadvertently resigned last week, opting instead to appoint a replacement.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said letting McLeod remain as a holdover judge until a special election for the seat in 2020 was too risky, since he almost would certainly have to recuse himself from cases to which the county was a party, as Commissioners Court would have the power to remove him at any time.

Instead, the court voted 3 to 2 to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to hold the seat through next year, on the recommendation of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I think voters deserve a judge who can be absolutely independent, as he was elected to be,” Hidalgo said. “This would put us in the untenable position that he would no longer be an unbiased person, because he would be beholden to Commissioners Court.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle voted against the appointment. Cagle told Briones he could not support her since the nomination was made just minutes earlier and he did not have a chance to review her qualifications.

Briones, a Yale Law School graduate and general counsel to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation until December, accepted the appointment on the spot.

“I have deep respect for the law and I respect that you made a hard decision, and I respect the consternation in this room,” Briones said. “But know that I will work extremely hard for everyone.”

See here and here for the background. There were some good legal arguments in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, while Judge Hidalgo’s point is worth taking seriously as well. In the end, I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other; I think either decision was defensible. JUst a couple of thoughts to keep in mind as we go forward:

– McLeod’s point that the state constitution is incredibly long and arcane is unquestionably true. It’s also kind of disingenuous coming from a judge. More to the point, this is why potential candidates should talk to a political professional or two before making any public statements about running for office, because there are various weird rules related to candidacy that are easy to stumble over if you don’t know what you’re doing. I can think of a dozen people off the top of my head who could have pointed this out to McLeod before he filed his designation of treasurer. You gotta do your due diligence.

– Not to belabor the point, but there’s a reason why basically nobody had been felled by this problem before. As I said in my first post, nearly every story about then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s rumored candidacy for Mayor was accompanied by a discussion of how he couldn’t say anything without triggering the resign-to-run provision. Sheriff isn’t judge, but in this case they’re both county positions. One might well wonder if that provision applied to one job, would it apply to another?

– All that said, let’s not get too high and mighty at Bill McLeod’s expense. Yes, this was a dumb and avoidable mistake, but it’s not like this particular cul-de-sac of our word salad that is the state constitution was a cornerstone of our inviolable values as a state. County court judges have to resign to run for another office, but district court judges and appeals court judges don’t. All five Democrats who ran for statewide judicial positions last year were sitting on a bench while running for something else, and last I checked our state didn’t collapse. The fact that Bill McLeod had to resign is a quirk and not a principle, and it’s at least as dumb as McLeod’s unfortunate action. I’m sorry this happened to him. I’m sure we’ll all take the lesson to check and doublecheck whether “resign to run” applies to whatever office one holds before stating an intention to seek another, but maybe we should also take the lesson that these same rules are arbitrary and ought to be reviewed to see if they still make sense. Campos has more.

Using floodplain rules to force environmental safety compliance

A county’s gotta do what a county’s gotta do.

Harris County officials are using flood control regulations passed after Hurricane Harvey to delay the reopening of two chemical companies where fires erupted in recent weeks, killing one worker and sending large plumes of black smoke into the Houston area.

The Harris County Attorney’s office cited the post-Harvey rules on floodplain construction and stormwater drainage in its civil lawsuits against KMCO and Intercontinental Terminals Co., where cleanup is still ongoing after the fires.

“We don’t shy away from going after the biggest, baddest companies out there,” said Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan. “It sends a message to everyone.”

The county is digging through maps and available data to determine if both companies are in a floodplain. The new regulations put chemical facilities that are in a 500-year floodplain under tighter scrutiny.

The drainage rules restrict discharges of hazardous materials into the county’s stormwater system. If a company is found to have discharged hazardous materials, it can be cited by the county. Larger releases could lead to additional legal action.

The floodplain rules apply to more than facilities with fires and toxic releases and can force companies to meet new requirements when seeking to expand or change an existing facility, said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section.

The story doesn’t go into detail about what compliance issues there are and how long they may take to resolve. You may be thinking “why doesn’t the county file a lawsuit against these companies to force them to fix their problems?” The answer is that this used to be how things went, but your Texas legislature has taken steps to shackle counties and their enforcement efforts.

But in 2015, the state Legislature started taking away authority from the local governments. Lawmakers approved a bill capping the amount of money a local government could receive from civil penalties sought in environmental cases.

In 2017, another bill passed forcing local authorities to ask permission from the Texas attorney general before seeking penalties. If the attorney general’s office does not file its own suit in 90 days, the local government can go forward with a civil suit.

Lawmakers are currently considering two bills that would restrict local governments even more.

House Bill 3981, filed by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would give the attorney general the authority to settle lawsuits started by the county, without the approval of the county.

House bill 2826, filed by state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood and three others, would let the attorney general prohibit the county from hiring outside attorneys on cases.

“The concern isn’t that the local governments are intentionally causing any problems with these suits, just that a more efficient state-led effort may at times be more desirable,” said Justin Till, Bonnen’s chief of staff.

More desirable for the polluters, that’s for sure. Let’s be very clear, the main reason why bills like these get passed are specifically to muzzle Harris County’s enforcement efforts. (The city of Houston’s efforts were killed by the Supreme Court.) It’s a pollution-friendly Republican Legislature taking care of bad actors, aided and abetted by the business lobby. You know what I’m going to say next: Nothing will change until we change who we elect.

Explode, rinse, repeat

Here we go again.

A massive explosion at a chemical plant in northeast Harris County on Tuesday killed one person and sent two others to the hospital in critical condition, sparking a blaze that sent yet another plume of dark smoke into the sky and forcing residents to temporarily shelter in place.

The fire, ignited by a flammable gas called isobutylene at the KMCO chemical processing plant in Crosby, marked the third time in 17 days that a smoggy cloud of smoke emanated from a Houston-area chemical facility.

It is the first chemical fatality at a Houston-area plant since 2016, when a worker died in an incident at PeroxyChem in Pasadena. In 2014, four workers died at a DuPont plant in La Porte.

Responders extinguished the KMCO fire late Tuesday afternoon, while on-scene investigators with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office began conducting interviews to determine where the fire started and what caused the gas to ignite.

“There’s a lot of hot metal in there,” said Rachel Moreno, a fire marshal spokeswoman. “Until it’s safe for our guys to go in, they’ll continue doing interviews of everybody that was at work.”

The response will stretch Harris County’s resources, Moreno said, as the fire marshal’s office begins its second major investigation in less than three weeks. The site of an even larger conflagration at Intercontinental Terminals Co. in Deer Park less than 15 miles away on March 17 remains too unsafe for investigators to visit.

[…]

KMCO, a subsidiary of an Austin private investment firm, produces coolant and brake fluid products for the automotive industry, as well as chemicals for the oil field industry. Its facility, which has a history of environmental and workplace safety issues, sits about 13 miles away from the ITC plant, where Harris County officials continued to detect carcinogenic benzene this week.

The KMCO plant is less than three miles from the Arkema facility where a series of explosions spewed chemicals and sickened residents after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Let’s talk about that history, shall we?

“As long as I’ve been doing environmental work for Harris County, I’ve been involved in case with this company, either with the previous owner or the current owner,” said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section. “And I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years. This company has been around forever causing trouble.”

[…]

On Christmas Eve 2010, a runaway reaction sent three employees at the plant to the hospital. Workers there couldn’t lower the pressure in a reactor and, as they tried to fix a clogged line, they accidentally mixed a caustic solution with maleic anhydride, a normally stable chemical. The result was an explosion and fire. An explosion in 2011 sent two more workers to a hospital.

[…]

Since 2009, KMCO has paid out more than $4 million in fines or criminal penalties to local and federal regulators.

In 2017, the company pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Air Act filed by the Environmental Protection Agency and was ordered to pay $3.5 million. The violations were in connection to an explosion at its Port Arthur facility and air emissions at the Crosby plant.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued dozens of violations to KMCO since 2010 and fined the company about $250,000.

The facility is currently not compliant with the federal Clean Water Act. KMCO was in violation of the act for seven of the last 12 quarters, records show. It violated the Clean Air Act three times in the last 12 quarters. EPA data shows the facility also violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in February 2018. That law regulates how facilities handle hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste.

[…]

Harris County first sued KMCO in 1987. The company was ordered to pay $49,750 for violations of the Texas Water Code.

The county sued the KMCO plant in 2008 for spills and fumes that gave neighbors headaches. The lawsuit ended in 2009 with a permanent injunction requiring KMCO to pay $100,000 in civil penalties and to give investigators easy access to the facility and prompt notification of releases.

The county sued again in 2013; that case is still ongoing. Owens said the county attorney’s office is still deciding whether to add Tuesday’s incident to the existing case or bring a separate case against the company.

“While there’s been actions before, it hasn’t been sufficient,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group. “We should, in the 21st century, be able to prevent these kinds of things from happening.”

A Houston Chronicle report from 2016 found that there’s a major chemical incident every six weeks in the greater Houston area.

You’d really like to think that we could prevent this kind of thing from happening, wouldn’t you?

Sunday, this editorial board demanded that state officials hold polluters accountable — and not just after a disaster.

We didn’t expect to be repeating ourselves so soon.

But this is what happens in a state where environmental regulators are toothless tigers. Where the TCEQ trusts polluters to police themselves — in part out of necessity, since lawmakers don’t adequately fund the agency. Where violators avoid sanctions and routinely endanger Texans’ health without our knowledge. Where Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton talk tough, maybe even file a lawsuit after an incident makes headlines, but look the other way when the smoke clears.

At this rate, the smoke will never really clear. There will be another fire. And another.

Another round of parents fearing for their children’s safety. Another community fearing the effects of chemicals and pollutants they can’t pronounce. Another black eye to Houston’s already bad reputation as a place where one shouldn’t breathe too deeply, a place where profits outweigh concern for public health.

As we’ve pointed out, Texas facilities in 2017 reported releasing more than 63 million pounds of unauthorized air pollution — including chemicals linked to cancer, heart attacks and respiratory problems, according to a report by Environment Texas. But, in the past seven years, TCEQ issued fines in less than 3 percent of such events.

“These repeated, disastrous fires and explosions can no longer be called isolated incidents,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, told the editorial board Tuesday. “The Texas petrochemical industry has a serious, chronic problem, and Texas workers and citizens are paying the price. How many people have to die, get hurt, get cancer or suffer respiratory failure before the state takes this seriously and overhauls our broken system of oversight?”

Texans, these are questions for Abbott and our other state leaders. It’s up to us to demand the answers.

The only way to get the answers you need is to vote for those who will give them to you, and against those who won’t. If the choices aren’t clear by now, I don’t know what to tell you.

More on McLeod

Here’s the Chron story on the bizarre accidental judicial resignation.

Judge William McLeod

The Harris County attorney’s office was notified in March that Judge Bill McLeod, a Democrat presiding over Harris County Court at Law No. 4, had filed a transfer of campaign treasurer appointment with the Texas Ethics Commission stating he was seeking the office of chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

Unbeknownst to McLeod, this filing triggered Article 16, Section 65 of the Texas Constitution which considers such an announcement by anyone holding a county judicial post an automatic resignation.

“This is insane,” McLeod said Wednesday. “All of the judges are going, ‘You did what? How? We didn’t even know (the constitutional provision) existed.’”

McLeod, who was elected in November, hopes that a different provision of the constitution will help rectify his mistake. Article 16, Section 17 states that a county Commissioners Court is not required to appoint a successor after a county officer resigns, and “may allow the officeholder who resigned…to remain in office” as a holdover. If this happens, McLeod would have to run again in 2020 even though he was elected to a four-year term.

[…]

McLeod is not the first judicial officer to fall victim to this provision. In 2013, Irene Rios, then a Bexar County (San Antonio) court-at-law judge, told county commissioners she intended to run for chief justice of the 4th Court of Appeals, triggering her automatic resignation. Rios remained in her seat for four weeks after her announcement before tendering her letter of resignation, and she continued to make legal rulings during that time.

A 1999 amendment to the Texas Supreme Court judicial code of conduct further affirms that judges can continue to hold judicial office while being a candidate for another judicial office.

[…]

Rodney Ellis, a Democratic commissioner, was noncommittal on McLeod’s future, stating: “I firmly believe that any action taken by Commissioners Court on this matter must uphold the Texas Constitution above all else and that principle is what will ultimately guide my decision on Tuesday.”

Commissioner Adrian Garcia and a spokeswoman for County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the two other Democrats on the court, did not respond to requests for comment.

Republican Commissioner Steve Radack said he would not be receptive to appointing a holdover for a judicial post.

“If he’s resigned then how can you justify having him as a holdover?” Radack said. “That’s certainly not the spirit of the law.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, the judicial code of conduct doesn’t override the Constitution, it just allows judges that aren’t subject to that Constitutional provision to run for other office while remaining on the bench. If you look at Chapter 16, Section 65, all the offices in question are county offices except for District Attorney. It’s a quirk of the code that’s surely a holdover from an earlier time (note the inclusion of public weighers), and when you think about it there’s no real logic to limiting that restriction to just those offices. But that’s the Constitution we have, so here we are.

As to what happens, who knows? Either three Commissioners agree with the argument that it doesn’t make sense to kick McLeod off the bench, thus allowing him to hold over till the 2020 election, or they don’t. Note that if McLeod has his sights on the Supreme Court, he would have to step down after 2020 anyway, as he wouldn’t be able to run to fill the remainder of his term. It’s a coin toss either way, and I don’t envy any member of Commissioners Court the decision.

UPDATE: The Washington Post covers the story, reprinted by the Trib.

UPDATE: Here’s a detailed legal argument in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, sent to me by Adam Milasincic. It’s pretty persuasive.

Please delete April Fools Day from your calendar

I just can’t.

Judge William McLeod

An April Fools’ Day resignation prank? One Texas civil court judge wishes it were so.

A newly elected judge in Houston accidentally resigned on Monday, according to local media and a county official, after he shared plans online to run for the state supreme court, apparently unaware that the Texas constitution considers such an announcement an automatic resignation.

The Harris County Civil Court judge, Bill McLeod, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. Local TV station KHOU 11 News on Monday reported that McLeod declined to comment on the move.

Article 16, Section 65, of the state’s constitution says that a judge’s announcement of candidacy for another office “shall constitute an automatic resignation of the office then held.”

The county attorney’s office will present the matter to county commissioners next Tuesday, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said in a phone interview on Tuesday. County commissioners, who can appoint replacements, may decide to keep McLeod in office until there is a special election, KHOU 11 reported.

The judge’s supporters have organized on social media using the hashtag #IStandWithMcLeod. They plan to attend the commissioners’ Tuesday meeting and express their wish that the judge retain his office despite his blunder.

Here’s Judge McLeod’s Facebook page, where I assume this accidental resignation happened. I tried looking for that post, but there were too many posts in support of him to scroll past, so I gave up. Judge McLeod was one of the more energetic campaigners, both in real life and on social media, in 2018 and I’m not at all surprised that people are rallying to his defense. Commissioners Court has the discretion of allowing him to stay in place until the next election, essentially serving as his own appointed interim successor. If he’s lucky, he’ll just have to run again in 2020 – he should have no trouble winning if that happens – and then can run for re-election as usual in 2022. This KHOU story doesn’t mention the April Fool angle, so I’m not really sure if this was a joke that didn’t land or just a foolishly early announcement with unexpected consequences. Either way, it wasn’t the best idea anyone ever had.

(Just so we’re all clear, the Constitutional provision cited in the story applies to the following offices: District Clerks; County Clerks; County Judges; Judges of the County Courts at Law, County Criminal Courts, County Probate Courts and County Domestic Relations Courts; County Treasurers; Criminal District Attorneys; County Surveyors; County Commissioners; Justices of the Peace; Sheriffs; Assessors and Collectors of Taxes; District Attorneys; County Attorneys; Public Weighers; and Constables. That means that among other things, it does not apply to District Court judges or appeals court judges, which is why the Democratic candidates for Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2018, all of whom were sitting District Court judges in Harris County, did not have to resign. Remember how long there was speculation about Adrian Garcia running for Mayor in 2015 before he ever said anything? That was because he had to resign as soon as he did say it. Let’s all be aware of these things going forward, OK? Thanks.)

UPDATE: Here’s a legal defense of Judge McLeod’s actions. It’s more complicated than it first appears.

County Attorney investigating Wolfe

Good.

The Harris County Attorney is investigating a report alleging that a Harris County Department of Education Trustee Michael Wolfe sexually harassed a job applicant and retaliated against her when she refused to date him.

In a letter dated March 5, Vince Ryan asked Harris County Department of Education Superintendent James Colbert Jr. and Board President Josh Flynn to preserve documents related to the allegations and subsequent third-party investigation against Wolfe. Ryan wrote that the review would be completed “within a few weeks.”

Robert Soard, first assistant attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said Thursday that two senior attorneys are handling the inquiry, which could take several more weeks. He said their work includes reviewing an already published third-party investigation into the allegations, double-checking some points in that report and taking action they deem appropriate. If warranted, Soard said, they could have the authority to remove Wolfe from office.

“I can’t say this would qualify,” Soard said. “But certainly the report… raises questions that need to be reviewed.”

Meanwhile, an attorney representing Wolfe sent a letter to HCDE trustees and Colbert on Wednesday informing them Wolfe would sue if they moved forward with a vote to censure the longtime Republican operative.

Attorney Jared Woodfill said Thursday that attempting to brand Wolfe as a sexual harasser without sworn affidavits or depositions, and only relying on a 15-page third-party investigation that lacked official documentation, would unfairly damage his client’s reputation.

“It’s outrageous to me they would make these types of allegations and not do more to dive into what the truth is before brand someone with this label,” Woodfill said.

See here for the background. Hey, if you’re worried about unfounded accusations against Michael Wolfe, then surely you’re happy to have an official investigation into those allegations. I’m perfectly willing to reserve judgment until the County Attorney presents a report. Not that this should affect how you vote in the HCDE races next year – Michael Wolfe has now twice demonstrated that he is completely unfit for this, or any, office. But one way or the other, we’ll get some clarity on what may have happened in this case.

Harris County sues ITC over Deer Park fire

Go get ’em.

Harris County has sued Intercontinental Terminals Co. for failing to prevent a massive chemical fire that burned for more than 60 hours last week and spewed an unknown volume of hazardous chemicals into the air and nearby waterways.

The county is seeking a temporary injunction and restraining order against the company, alleging that it violated the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, among other rules.

The lawsuit accuses ITC of violating the state’s water code, health and safety code and administrative code on multiple days, by “causing suffering or allowing the discharge of at least one air contaminant without a permit and in such concentration and or such duration as to be injurious to human health, welfare or property, or as to interfere with the normal use and enjoyment of property.”

[…]

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office will hire an in-house auditor to review ITC’s actions during and after the fire.

Soard also said Harris County will demand ITC cover the cost of the government’s response, which included frequent air and water monitoring, mobile clinics sponsored by the health department and an ongoing activation of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here in the updated version of the story. I hope the county collects on every last penny. These guys need to be held accountable for their failures. Yes, I know, there is a state lawsuit as well, but this is about reimbursing Harris County, in the same way that your insurance company collects from the other guy’s insurance company when the other driver is found to be at fault in your fender-bender. If ITC doesn’t like it, they can do a better job of fire prevention in the future.

Meanwhile, on a semi-related note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been holding continuous press conferences on the Intercontinental Terminals Co. fire in Deer Park, delivering updates in both English and Spanish.

Despite the effort to communicate with Hispanic viewers, one area commissioner publicly criticized her use of Spanish during a recent press conference.

“She is a joke,” Chambers County Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Tice said in a comment under a live feed of a press conference Monday afternoon. “English this is not Mexico.”

Tice admitted to making the comment Tuesday afternoon during a phone interview with Chron.com. He also doubled down on the message.

You know the old bit about how every New Yorker cartoon could be captioned “Christ, what an asshole!”? Well, as of today, anything Mark Tice says can be responded to by saying “Christ, what an asshole!” as well.

UPDATE: Tice has apologized following some blowback. My assessment of him has not changed.

Harris County settles ADA voting rights lawsuit

Chalk up another accomplishment for our new county overlords.

The U.S. Department of Justice will monitor Harris County elections, at county expense, for up to four years under the settlement of a federal lawsuit over inadequate access to polling places for voters with disabilities.

Commissioners Court approved the 15-page settlement during at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday. The item originally was designated for a closed-door executive session, but court members simply agreed to First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard’s recommendation they sign off on the deal.

Under the agreement, Harris County will have to make minor accessibility improvements to as many as 300 of its 750 regular voting sites, hire two outside election experts to supervise balloting and designate an in-house Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer. The county does not have to concede it has violated the ADA in past elections.

“It’s a fair settlement,” Soard said. “It’s a reasonable way to conclude this litigation.”

Toby Cole, a quadriplegic attorney who almost exclusively represents wheelchair users, said the settlement and extended federal supervision are essential because disabled voters often are reluctant to complain about problems they encounter.

“They don’t want to make a huge fuss,” Cole said. “So, you don’t vote the first time, then the second time. We cut things out of our lives already, and voting is one more thing to say is too difficult.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said after the meeting she is confident the county will be able to show the federal government much sooner than four years it is capable of running an election in which each polling place meets ADA guidelines.

“We’ve got a court, and a county clerk, and a county attorney that are committed to equitable access to elections,” Hidalgo said. “We’re all working to make sure we adhere to that settlement.”

[…]

Monica Flores-Richart, whom County Clerk Diane Trautman hired in January as the county’s ADA compliance officer, said the office will re-examine each polling place. In most cases, she said problems can be identified and addressed quickly.

“We’re not talking about permanent improvements,” Flores-Richart said. “If there’s a gap of a certain size in the sidewalk, you need to put a mat down. Those are the kind of things we’re talking about.”

The settlement requires the county to submit a new ADA compliance plan to the Justice Department within 120 days. The county also must hire at least 20 contractors, or use county employees, to monitor each countywide election.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve expressed a modicum of sympathy for the County Clerk in the past regarding this litigation, which was filed in August of 2016 following a letter of finding in 2014, but if this is all it took to settle the case, I have to wonder why it took so long. Well, okay, I know the answer to that, and it has to do with whose picture you see when you load up the harrisvotes.com website. But seriously, this should have been wrapped up long before now. Be that as it may, kudos to all for getting it done. I share Judge Hidalgo’s confidence that Harris County can complete the terms of the settlement in less than the time allotted. The Trib has more.

January 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

One last set of finance reports I want to look at, from Harris County officials. I’m dividing them into a few groups:

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Ann Harris Bennett

Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1
Adrian Garcia, Precinct 2
Steve Radack, Precinct 3
Jack Cagle PAC, Precinct 4

George Moore, HCDE Position 1, Precinct 2
Eric Dick, HCDE Position 2, Precinct 4
Richard Cantu, HCDE Position 3, At Large
Josh Flynn, HCDE Position 4, Precinct 3
Michael Wolfe, HCDE Position 5, At Large
Danny Norris, HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1
Don Sumners, HCDE Position 7, At Large


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Hidalgo      239,834   161,503    1,400      51,836
Trautman       4,613       501        0      17,044
Osborne        1,225     2,242        0         122
Burgess        6,647     5,816        0       6,683

Ogg              600    13,936   68,489     212,875
Gonzalez      88,755    26,205        0     114,976
Ryan           6,500    14,656        0      58,464
Bennett        5,250     5,799        0      29,411

Ellis        223,000   310,395        0   2,916,307
Garcia       739,508   310,945        0     531,887
Radack       801,500   331,900        0   1,742,357
Cagle         68,045   113,143        0     171,242

Moore              0         0        0         243
Dick
Cantu          1,070       786        0       1,325
Flynn              0        10        0       1,600
Wolfe              0         0        0           0
Norris
Sumners

Remember that for those who were on the November 2018 ballot, this filing period runs from the 8 day report, which was October 27, through the end of the year. Basically, the last two months, including the last week of the campaign. For everyone else, it’s the usual six month period. HCDE candidates generally raise and spend negligible amounts, so it’s not that odd for some of them to have no activity to report.

$99K of the amount Lina Hidalgo raised was in kind, $95K of which came from the Texas Organizing Project for field work. It’s common for newly-elected candidates to get a surge in financial support right after their election – these are called “late train” donations – but in Hidalgo’s case a fair amount of the contributions reported here were before Election Day. Given her pledge to refrain from taking money from those who do business with the county, it will be interesting to see what her future reports will look like. The Commissioners have not taken a similar pledge, and they tend to be the bigger fundraisers anyway. Keep an eye on Steve Radack going forward – he’s either going to gear up for a tough election, or he’s going to decide to step down and let someone else engage in that battle. If Ed Emmett had been re-elected, it wouldn’t have shocked me if Radack ran again and then resigned after winning, in the grand tradition of Republican county officials, to let Emmett pick his successor. I feel confident saying that Steve Radack will not give Lina Hidalgo the opportunity to replace him.

With the strong Democratic trend in Harris County and the greater level of Democratic engagement – not to mention the possibility of the DNC being here and Texas being contested at the Presidential level – I don’t expect the countywide officeholders to work too hard to raise money for next November. They won’t slack, exactly, but they know they’ve got a lot of support behind them. That said, with Kim Ogg already getting a potential primary opponent, and given my belief that Vince Ryan will also draw one, they may step it up to make next March easier for them. The incentives, and the strategy, are different now in a blue county.

I am going to do one more report, on the Congressional candidates from 2018, two of whom are now incumbents and several others who will be back this cycle. As always, I hope this has been useful for you.

Bail lawsuit 2.0

This one will be tougher to tackle, but the principle remains the same.

A hard-fought battle to reform Harris County’s bail system has prompted a second civil rights action.

The legal team that successfully challenged the county’s bail practices for low level offenses on the grounds they unfairly detained indigents, filed a new federal class action suit this week tackling money bail for felonies, which results in thousands of poor defendants being locked up before trial or entering guilty pleas to avoid lengthy incarceration.

This new lawsuit, which hit the docket during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, claims the county is holding people unjustly, simply because they cannot afford to pay a cash bail. Currently, people arrested who can post a cash bond or hire a commercial bonding company can simply resume their lives as their cases proceed through the criminal docket.

The lawyers argue that pretrial release should not be contingent on how much money a person has. Its one of a number of lawsuits around the country, including one before a district judge in Galveston, attempting to topple bail systems that treat people differently based on their income.

“This mass detention caused by arrestees’ inability to access money has devastating consequences for arrested individuals, for their families, and for the community,” the lawsuit argues. “Pretrial detention of presumptively innocent individuals causes them to lose their jobs and shelter, interrupts vital medication cycles, worsens mental health conditions, makes people working to remain sober more likely to relapse, and separates parents and children.”

[…]

The lawsuit noted there are human costs to keeping people in jail. Since 2009, the complaint stated, 125 people have died while awaiting trial in the county lockup, including a woman who committed suicide this month after she could not pay her original bail of $3,000.

“Now is the time for a new vision and a new era of collaboration and innovation,” the lawyers said in a joint statement to the Houston Chronicle. “We are confident that with the leadership of the county judge, the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender, and the felony judges, all of whom have expressed their commitment to bail reform, we will be able to resolve this case without wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money as happened in the prior case.”

Most of the key stakeholders struck a similar note in responding to the new lawsuit.

Tom Berg, first assistant to District Attorney Kim Ogg,said the office is glad to work with the parties toward “a fair, just and speedy resolution” and at the same time “responsibly conserve the county’s resources so that they go for the staffing needed for bail reform implementation and not litigation costs.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county aims to support public safety, fairness and a cost-effective, fiscally responsible system. She acknowledged that there’s a long way to go.

“We’ve got a system that in a way fails on all three fronts,” she said Tuesday. Hidalgo said the crop of newly elected officials seem dedicated to enacting these types of change.

The sheriff also mentioned safety concerns, saying felony bail improvements require careful examination. However, he lauded the idea of reforming what he has referred to as a “broken system.”

“I support all efforts to improve our criminal justice system that strike a smart balance between our duty to ensure public safety and upholding our American ideal that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in court,” Gonzalez said. “I support equipping judges with the data they need to accurately measure each defendant’s unique risk of failing to appear in court and committing additional crimes before they stand trial.”

Of the three plaintiffs in this lawsuit, two were busted for drug possession and the other for DUI. There’s still a lot of non-violent inmates in the jail awaiting disposition of their case because they couldn’t scrape up a bond payment. As with misdemeanants, the ability to write a check to a bail bond agency has no correlation with whether you will show up for your court date or if you are likely to commit further crimes while out. Again, Robert Durst was out on bail. It makes sense to separate the genuine risks from the harmless shlubs. Will such a system be perfect? No, of course not. Some people who get out on a personal recognizance bond are going to turn out to have been bad risks. But again – I can’t say this often enough – people do that right now, under the current system. We just accept it as the way things are. Well, the way things are is capricious, unjust, and almost certainly unconstitutional, as the system for misdemeanors was as well. We’ll never have a better chance to design a better system. Let’s get to it.

Appeal of bail injunction dropped

Elections have consequences, and thank goodness for it.

Less than a week after the new jurists were sworn into office, Harris County’s misdemeanor judges on Monday withdrew their appeal in the landmark lawsuit over local bail practices that a federal judge said unfairly targeted poor people accused of crimes.

The historic litigation began in 2016, when attorneys and civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of defendants jailed for days because they couldn’t afford bond on low-level offenses. Though Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal said the practice was unconstitutional and amounted to wealth-based detention, so far the county has spent more than $9 million in legal fees to fight the case, according to Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

But many saw the Democratic wave in November’s elections as a sign of change ahead – and Monday’s court filings look to be one of the first indicators of that shift.

“It’s going to be a new day,” Neal Manne, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in November just after the ballot-box sweep. And now, according to Judge Darrell Jordan – the one misdemeanor judge who did not lose his bench in the last election – the parties have already begun hashing out a settlement they hope to have in place in the next few weeks.

“Our goal is have this accomplished by February 1, 2019,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle.

One of a series of documents filed in recent days, the two-page motion simply lists the names of the new judges – who automatically replaced their predecessors as defendants in the suit – and asks that the case be dismissed. The court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal by mid-day.

[…]

Mike Fields, the one outgoing judge who supported the lawsuit, lauded the move as a “great first step” toward reform.

“Quite frankly, it’s overdue,” he said. “I remain convinced that fighting against bail reform was a mistake and, I believe, part and parcel of why the citizens of Harris County voted for such a sweeping change in our political landscape. Hopefully, this issue will, finally, be put to bed and taxpayer money better spent going forward.”

[…]

Meanwhile, the Harris County Attorney’s Office issued a statement expressing confidence in the possibility of a settlement.

“The County Attorney’s Office supports the newly-elected judges in their effort to resolve this case on terms they find acceptable,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. “This is a case about judicial discretion.”

The next hearing, in Rosenthal’s court, is slated for Feb. 1.

Out-fricking-standing. The new judges are now represented by a pro bono attorney, instead of the high-priced guy that had been arguing the case in court. What this means is that the injunction will remain in place while the settlement is hashed out, with no further briefs or arguments or whatever else before the Fifth Circuit. (The last update I had on this was from August; I don’t think there was any other business on the agenda, but if there was it’s now moot.) Perhaps once we get this settlement in place we can stop outsourcing inmates once and for all. Now we need the city of Houston to get its act together and follow the county’s lead. Bottom line is that this, as much as anything, is what I wanted from the 2018 election. Well done, y’all.

So you want to run for something in 2020

You’re an ambitious Democrat in Harris County. You saw what happened these last two elections, and you think it’s your time to step up and run for office. What are your options that don’t involved primarying a Democratic incumbent?

1. US SenateWe’ve talked about this one. For the record, I would prefer for Beto to try it again. He could win, and would likely be our best bet to win if he does. But if he doesn’t, and if other top recruits choose other options, this is here.

2. CD02 – Todd Litton ran a strong race in 2018 against Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw, who was almost certainly the strongest nominee the GOP could have put forward for this spot. Crenshaw has star potential, and a much higher profile than your average incoming GOP freshman thanks to that Saturday Night Live contretemps, but he’s also a freshman member in a district that has move dramatically leftward in the past two cycles. In a Presidential year, with another cycle of demographic change and new voter registrations, this seat should be on the national radar from the beginning.

2a. CDs 10 and 22 – See above, with less star power for the incumbent and equal reasons for the districts to be visible to national pundits from the get go. The main disadvantage, for all three districts, is that this time the incumbent will know from the beginning that he’d better fundraise his butt off. On the other hand, with a Democratic majority, they may find themselves having to take a lot of tough votes on bills involving health care, climate change, voting rights, immigration, and more.

3. Railroad Commissioner – There are three RRC seats, with six year terms, so there’s one on the ballot each cycle. Ryan Sitton will be up for re-election if nothing else happens. Kim Olson may be making noises about this race, but so far that’s all we know.

4. Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals – Nathan Hecht (Chief Justice), Jeff Boyd, and whoever gets named to replace the retiring Phil Johnson will be up for the former, and Bert Richardson, Kevin Yeary, and David Newell will be up for the latter. We really should have a full slate for these in 2020. Current judges who are not otherwise on the ballot should give it strong consideration.

5. SBOE, District 6As we have seen, the shift in 2018 makes this look competitive. Dan Patrick acolyte Donna Bahorich is the incumbent.

6. SD11 – As I said before, it’s not competitive the way the Senate seats of interest were competitive in 2018, but it’ll do. It may be closer than I think it is, at least as far as 2018 was concerned. I’ll check when the full data is available. Larry Taylor is your opponent.

7. HDs 138, 126, 133, 129, and 150 – More or less in that order. Adam Milasincic might take another crack at HD138, but it’s up for grabs after that.

8. 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals – There are two available benches on each, including the Chief Justice for the 14th. Justices do step down regularly, and someone will have to be elevated to fill Phil Johnson’s seat, so the possibility exists that another spot will open up.

9. HCDE Trustee, At Large, Positions 5 and 7 – Unless a district court judge steps down and gets replaced by Greg Abbott in the next year and a half or so, the only countywide positions held by Republicans on the 2020 ballot are these two, which were won by Jim Henley and Debra Kerner in 2008, then lost in 2014. Winning them both would restore the 4-3 Democratic majority that we had for two years following Diane Trautman’s election in 2012. It would also rid the HCDE Board of two of its least useful and most loathsome members, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners. (Ridding the board of Eric Dick will require waiting till 2022, and a substantive shift in the partisan makeup of Precinct 4.) Get your engines ready for these two spots, folks.

10. JP Position 1 and Constable, Precincts 4, 5, and 8 – Dems came close to winning Constable in Precinct 5 in 2016, losing by about one percentage point, but didn’t field challengers in any of the other races. All three precincts were carried by Beto O’Rourke this year, so especially given the limited opportunities elsewhere, one would think these would be enticing options in 2020. And hey, we didn’t field any challengers for JP Position 2 in any of these precincts this year, so there will be another shot in 2022, too.

11. Harris County Attorney – Yeah, I know, I said options that don’t involve primarying an incumbent. Vince Ryan has done an able job as County Attorney, and is now in his third term after being elected in 2008. He has also caught some heat for the role his office played in defending the county’s bail practices. We can certainly argue about whether it would be proper for the person whose job it is to defend the county in legal matters to publicly opine about the wisdom or morality of the county’s position, but it is a fact that some people did not care for any of this. I can imagine him deciding to retire after three terms of honorable service as County Attorney, thus making this an open seat. I can also imagine him drawing one or more primary opponents, and there being a contentious election in March of 2020. Given that, I didn’t think I could avoid mentioning this race.

That’s how I see it from this ridiculously early vantage point. Feel free to speculate wildly about who might run for what in the comments.

There better be a bail lawsuit settlement

I mean, duh.

The Democratic sweep of Harris County leadership posts in the midterm election could prompt a settlement in the protracted legal dispute over how judges handle bail for poor people arrested for petty offenses, according to statements made in federal court Tuesday.

The shift in attitudes became evident during an early morning hearing in Houston before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who has presided over the civil rights action since 2016 and ruled in 2017 that the county’s bail practices discriminated against poor people. Lawyers for both sides acknowledged the proverbial elephant in the room: that all 14 county judges who oppose the bail lawsuit are Republicans who will be replaced in the new year by Democrats who have pushed for deeper bail reform.

Rosenthal congratulated the attorneys’ willingness to “accommodate any changes that have recently occurred in a reasonable way” and set a hearing for Feb. 1 where the lawyers may begin discussing plans for a possible settlement that would avert a costly trial.

[…]

Standing with [plaintiffs’ attorney Neal] Manne and others in the courthouse hallway after the hearing was Franklin Bynum, a 36-year-old Democratic Socialist in the mold of Bernie Sanders, who was elected last week to the misdemeanor bench for County Criminal Court No. 8. Bynum said he’d read documents and sat through hearings in the historic bail case from the beginning.

“It was this lawsuit that originally inspired me to run for judge,” Bynum said.

He said he and his fellow Democratic candidates all promised residents on the campaign trail they intended to settle the bail lawsuit quickly.

“Certainly, we’re going to behave differently than the current judges did, like being obstinate …and defending the indefensible,” he said.

In April 2017, Rosenthal ruled that the county’s bail policy violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. She wrote that misdemeanor judges’ bail determinations amounted to wealth-based detention for poor defendants who could otherwise qualify for pretrial release, whereas similar defendants with money could resume their lives at home on bond.

The topic of a settlement surfaced again an hour later at the start of the first Commissioners Court meeting following the election.

A lawyer for County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench and the only judge to retain his seat in last week’s election, implored county leaders to “stop the hemorrhaging of money” and end their appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Basically, at this point there’s no one in power that wants to see this continue. County Judge-elect Hidalgo, County Commissioner-elect Garcia, and all of the incoming misdemeanor court judges ran on ending the lawsuit and implementing bail reform. We just need to do it, and we have every right to expect results after the new officials and judges are sworn in.

Seeking a solution for the translators

Glad to see it.

Three days after election workers barred translators from asking Korean-American voters if they needed assistance inside a Spring Branch polling place, Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart met with a group of Korean-Americans to find a way to avoid a similar outcome on Election Day.

At the end of the hour-long meeting, which was brokered by Houston Councilwoman Brenda Stardig, the two sides were unable to agree on a solution that would allow volunteer translators to efficiently help Korean speakers cast ballots while following Harris County’s interpretation of the Texas Election Code. Stanart and the Korean-Americans agreed to work together on a fix, and each proposed a set of rules for translators.

“I want them to be successful,” Stanart said of the voters, who are largely elderly naturalized U.S. citizens. “But I want it to be within the law.”

[…]

On Wednesday afternoon, the Korean-Americans and their supporters sat around a table in the Korean Community Center in Spring Branch with Stanart, Stardig, and members of their staffs. Stardig invited each side to share ideas on how to improve the voting experience for Korean speakers.

Stanart said groups like the Korean American Voters League should inform the county when they plan to take voters to the polls so election workers can be prepared. He suggested the translators could set up a stand outside the 100-foot buffer zone and solicit voters there.

Some of the Korean-Americans said that would be impractical, since polling places are often crowded and non-English speakers are unsure where to go. They said making translators shuffle in line for an hour or more in some cases, instead of being available on an ad-hoc basis when voters reach the booths, is inefficient.

Others objected to being called loiterers by the county, noting that label is not applied to journalists and exit pollsters, who are free to work inside the 100-foot zone. They said Harris County is unfairly applying the Texas Election Code, which is silent on what a loiterer is and does not explicitly state where translators may or may not stand.

“It’s really not that clear,” said Sang Shin, Houston branch president of the Asian American Bar Association. “There are different opinions to that, legally.”

See here for the background. I feel like this is an area of the law that has not been greatly tested in the past, and as such no one is quite sure what to do now. As I said in my earlier post, it would be a good idea to revisit this law and take a stab at clarifying and updating it to better serve modern voters. We have nothing to lose here but our current state of confusion.

Translators

I wish there were a better way to handle this.

The Harris County Clerk’s office on Monday defended a decision by election workers to bar translators offering assistance to Korean-American voters from a Spring Branch polling site the day before.

The county said translators are free to approach voters outside the 100-foot protected zone at each polling place, but Dona Kim Murphey of the Korean-American Association of Houston said Harris County is too strict in its interpretation of the Texas Election Code.

“Nowhere does it say we can’t offer that translation at the entrance of the facility,” Murphey said. “That is unacceptable.”

Local Korean-language outlets urged voters to cast ballots at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center on Sunday because translators, including Murphey, would be there to provide assistance. She said poll workers barred the group of translators from asking Korean speakers in line if they needed help.

The translators were permitted to approach voters in the parking lot, but Murphey estimated they were only able to help 40 to 50 Korean speakers instead of the hundreds they had planned. Several thousand Korean-Americans reside in Spring Branch, and more than 30,000 live in the Houston area.

Douglas Ray, a deputy in the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said the translators were considered loiterers under the Texas Election Code when they were inside the polling place, because they lacked a “legitimate business purpose” for being there. The code bars loitering and electioneering — advocating for a particular cause or candidate — within the 100-foot protection zone.

[…]

Voters are permitted to bring translators for assistance, so long as they swear an oath to translate accurately. Ray said the problem arose Sunday because the translators were asking voters if they needed help, instead of the other way around. Though journalists and exit pollsters are permitted to speak to voters waiting in line, with the permission of poll workers, Ray said translators offering help are prohibited.

Ray said translators are free to offer their services to voters at any point before they enter the 100-foot zone.

“We just don’t want them to solicit inside the polling place,” he said.

Sam Taylor, spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office, said the election code supports Harris County’s rationale because a translator who has yet to be requested by a voter does not meet the description of an authorized person who is permitted at a polling place.

See here for an earlier story. I suspect the county’s interpretation of the law is accurate, though perhaps there’s room for a little slack. More likely, I’d say this law was built on some less-than-progressive assumptions and could use a revamp by the Legislature. Wouldn’t be the first time this was the case. I’d like to see someone give this a thorough review and put forth a bill that makes it easier for well-meaning volunteers like the folks from the Korean American Association of Houston to help the people who need it at the polls.

Harris County makes its robot brothel ban official

We can all sleep more soundly now.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously adopted new rules to prevent so-called “robot brothels” from opening and more strictly regulate sexually oriented businesses in unincorporated areas.

The county already had been revising its sexually oriented business rules, first adopted in 1996, but decided to specifically address lifelike sex dolls for rent after Toronto-based company KinkySdollsS considered opening a Houston branch where patrons could try out human-like “adult love dolls” in private rooms at the shop.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Celena Vinson said the county largely adopted language Houston’s legal department had written.

“We wanted to address the sex robot shop that was allegedly going to open in the city, and wanted to ensure our regulations were consistent with what the city of Houston was doing,” Vinson said.

The changes now clearly define sex dolls like the ones advertised by the Toronto firm as “anthropomorphic devices” and prohibit companies from renting them out to customers. Residents of the city and county remain free to purchase such devices for use in their own homes.

See here, here, and here for the background. Despite my best efforts, I still don’t have anything useful to say about this. I just can’t resist blogging about it, and Lord knows we can use the occasional respite from the real news. You’re welcome.

Harris County to follow suit on robot brothels

If it’s good for Houston, or not good for Houston, I suppose…

Harris County commissioners are prepared to ban so-called robot brothels, just as Houston did last week.

Harris County already bans live sex acts at any place of business. Robert Soard, First Assistant County Attorney, said that, in his reading, that includes sex with “anthropomorphic devices.”

“Now, that being said, because of changing technology, it might be a good idea to amend the current sexually oriented business regulations,” Soard said.

[…]

Assistant Chief Tim Navarre said they’ll be ready to present it to Commissioners Court within two weeks. “The dialogue is…almost identical to the city’s, so, we’re way ahead of the curve,” Navarre said.

See here and here for the background. Harris County’s sexually-oriented business ordinance has generally been a mirror of Houston’s, so this is not surprising and mostly a formality. Nonetheless, if you ever had an inclination to attend a Commissioner’s Court meeting, here’s a bit of incentive for you to finally do so. Swamplot has more.

“Viva Texas! Viva Beto!”

It’s been too long since the last time I posted a video.

It all came from a love of the law and a shared dislike of Ted Cruz.

It was a few bigwig local prosecutors, a capital defense attorney, a seasoned member of the Harris County Attorney’s Office and others who got together over the summer, hoping to unseat the junior senator from Texas – with their music. It was, they promised, not as outlandish as it seemed.

“Before John F. Kennedy the only person to ever defeat Lyndon Johnson for public office was Pappy Lee O’Daniel,” said Special Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke.

“Pappy Lee beat Johnson by having a band and they went around to all these courthouses in Texas playing this song – ‘Pass the Biscuits Pappy’ – and Lyndon Johnson lost that election.”

Seeking to replicate that success, the legally-minded balladeers recorded three songs in support of Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke, including ditties like “Viva Texas! Viva Beto!” – released on YouTube Saturday.

“We are part of the resistance, we’re it’s tonal dimension,” said David Mitcham, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office trial bureau chief and lead singer of what’s become the de facto in-house band for the DA’s office, Death by Injection.

But the new political rock gathering calls itself The Yellow Dog Howlers.

Here’s the video, in all its glory:

Well, it’s not The Altuve Polka or It’s A Ming Thing, but I give them an A for enthusiasm. And look, it’s not like anyone is gonna write a song about Ted Cruz.

And since they mentioned it, here’s Pass The Biscuits Pappy:

For sure, they don’t write ’em like that any more.

County Attorney declares registration challenges invalid

That’s one word for it.

The Harris County Attorney’s office said Tuesday that the 4,000 voter registrations challenged by a county Republican Party official were invalid, and the voter registrar should not have sent suspension notices to more than 1,700 county voters.

“The voter challenge they received was not in compliance with the law,” Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said. “If somebody doesn’t respond to that notice, we advise (the registrar) not to place voters on the suspension list.”

[…]

Ray explained to Commissioners Court at its Tuesday meeting that to challenge a voter’s registration under state law, the challenger must have personal knowledge that the registration is inaccurate. Ray concluded that Alan Vera, the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s Ballot Security Committee who brought the challenges in July, could not possibly know each of the 4,037 voters on his list. Therefore, the challenges cannot be considered, he said.

Vera said Tuesday afternoon he disagrees with that interpretation and will “take follow-up actions.”

He previously said he and volunteers had combed through the rolls looking for voters who had listed the locations of post offices, parcel stories or places of business as their address.

State law requires voters to register at the address where they live.

See here and here for the background. The actual standard for voter registration is not where you actually live but where you intend to live, as Karl Rove and a long list of elected officials going back to the first days of the Republic could tell you. If we really want to enforce this standard, there’s going to be an awful lot of politicians hiring moving vans.

There’s another class of voter that this invalid challenge went after as well.

A detailed look at the list of challenges to the voter registration rolls filed by Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Committee Chairman Alan Vera reveals that individuals using facilities dedicated to the homeless as residency addresses were among the 4,000 people targeted.

[…]

In addition, the challenge list had a startling number of facilities used by homeless people in the Houston area. The Beacon at 1212 Prairie had 15 such challenges. When contacted, The Beacon said that they partner with COMPASS, a group dedicated to helping the disadvantaged through employment and other means, to allow people staying at the shelter to receive their mail, including government documents such as voter registration paperwork. The Beacon is also where many of the people temporarily staying with the Salvation Army on North Main Street are referred to. The Salvation Army was listed in 23 challenges, despite the fact that the organization does not allow people to use it as a mail service.

Star of Hope Mission, Healthcare for the Homeless and The Hope Center were also among the challenged addresses. Aable Bail Bonds had 18 challenges, likely because they formerly ran a bunkhouse for homeless clients on the second floor.

Patients listing substance abuse and mental health care center addresses were included as well. The Houston Recovery Center, which attempts to divert individuals caught intoxicated in public away from incarceration, had 12 challenges on Vera’s list. Patients may reside at the facility for 18 months according to their media relations department.

As the story notes, just last year VoteTexas.gov was assuring people who had been displaced by Harvey that they could register to vote at a shelter if that’s where they were staying. How things change in a year, eh? It’s unfortunate that the Tax Assessor’s office took action on these registrations, even if was the result of a software glitch, before consulting with the County Attorney. But at least it has all come to light. If we use this as a catalyst to improve our voter registration process, so much the better.