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Helena Brown

So why did CM Brown go to Korea?

According to the Press, which is really killing it on this story, it wasn’t to meet with airline officials.

CM Helena Brown

Houston City Council Member Helena Brown issued a press release Wednesday touting her recent trip to Asia, which she funded with $11,000 in public money, as a “successful business trip” — but it’s become clear her journey to Asia was anything but, and, in fact, completely different than the city’s official trip to bring direct flights from several Asian capitols to Houston.

Brown, who represents thousands of South Koreans in District A, was initially invited by Houston Airport System Director, Mario Diaz, to go to Korea and meet airlines there, but weeks ago, those airlines cancelled meetings with Diaz, who subsequently called off the trip. Brown, however, did not, continuing on to Korea — but for unofficial purposes.

What’s more, after she booked her $11,000 ticket to Asia, she launched a separate fundraising campaign in the local South Korean business community to raise donations for what, by all appearances, appears to have been a vacation trip to Korea.

She did not meet with any Korean airlines, City Secretary Jessica Michan told the Houston Press. Nor did she accompany Diaz in any part of his itinerary, which involved meeting aviation officials in Beijing and in Taipei, said Darian Ward, a Houston Airport System spokesperson.

It’s unclear what, if anything, Brown accomplished while in Asia. Her office did not return repeated interview requests, and even Michan displayed frustration at her reticence, saying, “It’s her. She really needs to answer these questions. She’s the one who needs to explain why she ended up going.”

Well, she did visit the demilitarized zone, according to the story. I’ve done that myself – I accompanied Tiffany to Seoul in 2001 where she was attending a conference, and took a packaged bus tour from the hotel we were in to the DMZ. I concur that it’s a profound experience, but I bought my own ticket for it. I can’t wait to hear what comes next in this story, which by the way has gone national as correctly predicted by Peter in the comments. Maybe someone outside Houston can get her to do more than just issue statements about what she’s doing.

More on CM Brown’s trip to Korea

Hair Balls recently noted that CM Helena Brown recently submitted an expense report for nearly $11,000 for a plane ticket to Korea; they raised issues about her soliciting donations outside the allowed fundraising period to cover that expense. The Chron picks up the story.

CM Helena Brown

A statement released by Brown’s office Tuesday states that her adviser William Park – who is not a paid member of her staff – sent an email to Korean community leaders saying that if they wanted to sponsor a businessman on the trip they could do so via Brown’s office.

“That statement was sent in error. While CM (council member) Brown could be the vehicle by which private financial assistance of non-city employees could be handled, CM Brown understood full well that this type of situation might be misconstrued as a campaign contribution during the “black-out” period and therefore instructed all potential contributors who communicated to her to deal privately with potential delegation participants instead,” the statement reads.

Brown was in Asia from June 30 through July 7 seeking to increase the number of direct flights from Asia to Houston, according to the statement.

Brown’s statement says she was invited on the trip by Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz, but an email from a spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker states that Brown asked to accompany Diaz, who visited Asia in a bid to lay the groundwork for more nonstop flights from Asia to Houston.

Establishing a direct flight from Houston to Incheon is “one of her many priorities of public office,” according to the statement.

[…]

According to records obtained by the Houston Chronicle, Brown charged $10,883.57 to a city purchasing card for flights to Tokyo, Taipei, Beijing and Seoul. The money comes from her council office budget. The charges do not include a return trip fare to Houston, though Brown still can file for reimbursements. It is not apparent from the report whether she covered the expenses of any other travelers.

Diaz was apparently originally scheduled to go to Korea as well, but that wound up getting canceled. Brown went on her own and met with officials there. One can only imagine how those conversations went.

This all raises as many questions as it answers. I guess I’m just stunned that Brown has “priorities of public office” that include spending money on anything. I don’t know how one would square all her anti-government anti-spending rhetoric that we’ve been subjected to with this revelation, but then I think all of that rhetoric is so much palaver. I’m glad it’s not my job to try to make it all tie together. What will the people who support her and actually buy into that baloney think of this?

That Press story on CM Brown

CM Helena Brown

So I’ve thought about that Houston Press story on CM Helena Brown and her relationship with William Park. There’s much to contemplate here, but I’m going to focus on three things.

1. What were they thinking?

I’m not talking about the voters, I’m talking about the three people who served as Council Member in District A prior to Brenda Stardig.

Almost no one the Press spoke to recently in District A had heard of Brown, and the few who had didn’t know much, if anything, about her. “Is she that libertarian?” one man near Brown’s home asked, then thought for a moment. “I’d heard the name.” Another neighbor, Glen Smith, said: “I don’t know anyone who knows her and I’ve lived here since 1957.”

There was concern among constituents who were more familiar with her. They worried their community would atrophy under her austerity politics. “How are we going to get anything?” asked Cecil Wahrenberger, who said she voted for Brown because past councilwoman Toni Lawrence endorsed her. “The work’s not gonna get done.”

I get that the genesis of the Helena Brown story is that Toni Lawrence had a falling out with Brenda Stardig after Stardig was elected in 2009, and this drove her to support Brown. I don’t know, and the story doesn’t say, if Lawrence helped recruit Brown as a candidate or if she just hitched her wagon to Brown once she filed. But it wasn’t just Lawrence who turned on Stardig: If you look at Brown’s 8 day finance report for the runoff, one of her contributors is Bruce Tatro, who was the Council Member in District A before Lawrence. I could swear I saw Helen Huey, Tatro’s predecessor, on one of Brown’s reports, but I can’t find it now. Be that as it may, someone should ask Lawrence and Tatro why they supported Helena Brown, what they know about her relationship with William Park, and what they think about her performance in office so far. Do they still think she’s the best choice to represent District A? Why or why not?

2. Who would run against Brown in 2013?

Whatever the answer to the questions I’ve posed above may be, I don’t doubt that a fair number of District A voters are happy with what they’ve gotten.

One aspect of Spring Branch, however, hasn’t changed: Who votes, and who does not. Bob Stein, the well-known Rice University political scientist who has studied District A’s voting behavior, says the area’s voters are overwhelmingly older, white, conservative and subscribe to Tea Party orthodoxy.

That was partly why Brown — who despises taxation — got voter support over incumbent Brenda Stardig, who fell into disfavor with the area’s political elite for her support of the so-called “rain tax.” Passed in 2010, it will raise $8 billion in drainage fees over 20 years to revitalize Houston’s infrastructure. But it also taxed churches, incensing conservatives in Spring Branch.

Around this time was when Helena Brown emerged. The political unknown had up until then operated on the fringes, the far-right campaigns, the online discussion groups, the Ron Paul movement. By every telling, she was utterly disconnected from the mainstream constituents of Spring Branch, moving in similar-minded groups like the “Friends of Freedom,” where she theorized communists had infiltrated both the United Nations and the Catholic Church, according to e-mails. After ascending to public office, Brown said she had stopped participating in the radical forum.

So with Stardig’s unpopularity, combined with her ineffectual re-election campaign, Brown won a runoff election with 3,042 votes last December — less than 2 percent of District A’s total population of 200,000 people.

Pardon me while I grind my teeth for a minute: The drainage fee does not “tax” churches because it’s a fee, not a tax. Gah.

It’s certainly possible CM Brown could be in electoral danger next year. There’s this story and there’s the time card story and now there’s the amazing campaign contributions story.

In an attempted violation of city law, and in yet another puzzling move by embattled City Council member Helena Brown, the District A representative solicited money from local Korean businessmen late last month for a trip she took this week to Seoul — though she had already paid for it with public money.

According to chapter 18 of the City Charter, Brown cannot receive direct contributions unless it’s during city-sanctioned campaigning months — February before an election until March afterward. During “blackout” periods, if a candidate or council member gets direct money, said City Press Secretary Jessica Michan, it’s a violation of city law. Whether Brown actually got money is unclear — but she sure did ask for it.

In a recent e-mail, which the Houston Press obtained, Brown said: “The trip to Korea is a costly trip. … Please make checks out to Helena Brown who will personally be offsetting the costs.”

But that wasn’t true. Brown paid for airline tickets to South Korea with public money — $11,000 — according to her expense report. Enrique Reyes, her director of communication, said last week hotel costs hadn’t been charged yet, but declined all questions. Brown’s office said the council member returned to Houston today.

Asking for direct contributions under such circumstances appears to break both city law and Harris county policy. Brown not only solicited money during a period when it wasn’t allowed, but in her e-mail she also asked all contributors to pay her at a June 28 gathering held at a Harris County building in Spring Branch, a violation of County policy. Meeting organizers are informed before forums that fundraising isn’t allowed. “If solicitation for money was happening, that’s not right,” said Ricardo Guinea, director of the Sosa Community Center, which housed the gathering.

To steal from Casey Stengel, can’t anyone in CM Brown’s office play this game? This is amateur night. Any halfway competent staffer or supporter would have known about the fundraising blackout period, and simple common sense would have suggested that collecting contributions at a government building might be a bad idea. And let’s all keep that $11K in travel expenses in mind the next time CM Brown votes against some routine appropriation in Council, shall we?

I’m sure it’s true that the people who bother to vote in our odd-numbered-year elections skew heavily in favor of people who like Helena Brown, at least in District A, though stories like these could change that. Still, who could make a successful challenge to her? One possibility is someone with strong conservative credentials but who isn’t crazy. One person who fits that bill is Amy Peck, who ran for District A in 2009. That could make for an interesting matchup if the 2013 race in A is essentially another Republican primary, as the 2011 race was, since Peck could garner the support of some heavy hitters in the Republican establishment. The other is to reach for the old “broaden the electorate” playbook and find someone unlike Brown to try to put together a winning coalition. District A was touted as a “Latino opportunity district” after the 2011 redistricting, after all. (Yes, I know, Brown claims some Latino heritage. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t part of her pitch in the 2011 election.) I don’t have a name to toss out here, but I’m sure such a person exists. These are much tougher campaigns to run since you are by definition seeking the support of habitual non-voters, at least in these elections, but it is a strategy.

3. What else is William Park up to?

The story makes the case that William Park is basically a con man, and that he has an inordinate amount of influence over CM Brown. It’s a pretty short leap from there to wondering what other ways he might find to exert that influence, and whether he might try to benefit from it directly. The story doesn’t go there, possibly because there’s no there to go to. It’s worth keeping an eye on, that’s all I’m saying.

What were your reactions to this story?

CM Brown alleged to have altered time cards

Oh, my.

CM Helena Brown

Houston City Councilwoman Helena Brown subtracted hours from employees’ timecards in apparent violation of federal law, according to records obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

The first-term councilwoman shorted an employee by more than three hours in a day in several cases. At least six times, Brown deleted enough hours from employees’ reported workweeks that it cost them overtime by bringing their weekly total under 40 hours.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act requires overtime pay and accurate record keeping. City policy prohibits supervisors from changing employees’ timecards except to correct errors. A spokeswoman for the Harris County district attorney said the office does not confirm the existence of investigations but said the Public Integrity Unit would handle a complaint if one were filed. Charges that could result from the circumstances described by the Chronicle could include tampering with a government document, a felony, she said.

Brown’s staff at one time included five 39-hour-per-week employees classified as part-timers. Many of Brown’s changes to the times reported by her employees appear to shorten or lengthen their workweeks to exactly 39 hours.

These are serious allegations, and there doesn’t seem to be much room for mitigation or extenuating circumstances, but we don’t have the full story. I hope there is an investigation by the District Attorney’s office because one way or another we should get some kind of official resolution to this. If you want to play the speculation game, ask yourself how the Chron knew to go looking for this information. Someone tipped them, the question is who. Holiday week or no, I’m sure the rumor mill is on overdrive this week. Whatever happens from here, there has already been one change resulting from this:

[City Attorney David] Feldman said he did give Brown’s office legal advice on how to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act. While he would not specify what that advice was, he said the general issue was with her 39-hour-per-week part-time employees. She has three. The difficulty of properly tracking their hours creates the potential for FLSA violations, Feldman said.

“She is still in the process of converting over the 39-hour employees to regular full-time employees,” he said.

I’m sure they’ll still decline their health insurance benefits, though. By coincidence or not, this investigative piece came out just ahead of this Houston Press cover story on Brown that I daresay will have tingues wagging at City Hall for weeks. I’ve read it and am still thinking about it; I’ll have some thoughts on it later. Bay Area Houston and Stace have more.

Council defers on strip club fee

Tagged for a week.

Consideration of a $5-per-head fee on customers of strip clubs to pay for reducing the city’s backlog of untested rape kits has been delayed for a week.

Council members Melissa Noriega and Al Hoang both tagged the item, a parliamentary maneuver that puts off an agenda item for one week, no questions asked.

Neither Noriega nor Hoang said they were against the plan but wanted more time to consider the measure, which was introduced a week ago by Councilwoman Ellen Cohen.

I suspect this will go through in the end. The clubs themselves are unsurprisingly not happy at the prospect, but their main argument against is unlikely to strike fear in anyone’s heart.

Al Van Huff, lawyer for several Houston-area strip clubs, said the city can expect a court fight.

“It sounds great if you’re a politician,” Van Huff said. “The reality of the situation is, it’s going to be expensive for the city to attempt to impose such a tax on these businesses.”

Enforcing a city ordinance also could be complicated. Cohen estimated that about 30 clubs would be affected. Van Huff said fewer than a handful of clubs fit the city’s definition of a sexually oriented business, while an additional 50 clubs’ entertainers wear just enough clothing to skirt the classification.

The fee unfairly targets clubs with the intent of making them unprofitable and forcing their closure, Van Huff said. The clubs already are responsible for taxes as well as the state fee, he said.

The State Supreme Court upheld the legality of the state fee, and the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that ruling. That case isn’t the be-all and end-all, it was strictly about the constitutional free speech issue, so the clubs may find a more promising avenue for litigation, but again the historical record is against them, as their suit against the 1997 SOB law ultimately went nowhere. Whether or not you approve of the idea, I don’t see litigation as a big threat to it.

Meanwhile, another budget item moves forward.

City Council‘s Ethics, Elections and Council Governance Committee will consider a charter amendment ballot proposition to change term limits from six to 12 years.

Councilman Andrew Burks proposed doubling Council terms from two to four years and keeping the three-term limit in place. Houston voters would have to approve a ballot measure to change current term limits, which are more than two decades old.

The committee would review ballot language, which Burks says will save the city $3 million each two years by reducing the number of elections for the mayor, 16 Council members and controller. Councilwoman Wanda Adams is a co-sponsor of the Burks proposal, which was submitted last week as a budget amendment.

The full Council would have to act by Aug. 20 to place language on the November ballot.

Burks said two-year terms are so short that “We really can’t get anything done” because Council members need to campaign for re-election. Extending terms “improves upon the ability of Council members and mayor to do a better job,” he said.

Councilwoman Helena Brown and Oliver Pennington voted against sending the matter to a Council committee.

“Four years is too long a time for change-out if we’re not doing our job right,” Brown said.

My thoughts exactly, Helena. If this gets approved, it will be yet another referendum on the fall ballot. Get ready to do a lot of voting, y’all.

And finally, there was the plastic bag issue.

Council has approved a budget amendment ordering city officials to consider doing something about the litter problems presented by plastic bags or even to phase them out.

Councilman Ed Gonzalez’s original amendment called for preparing an ordinance within a year that would address a bag ban. Gonzalez spoke of looking to Austin, where a plastic bag ban is in effect, as a possible model.

Numerous speakers criticized the proposal at Tuesday’s public session. The amendment was watered down Tuesday night to say the city should only ”address phasing out plastic bags” and deleted mention of an ordinance. At the Council table today, Councilman Oliver Pennington further softened the proposal by adding language calling on the city to “address littering by plastic bags or phasing out plastic bags.”

Not really sure what that amounts to, but we’ll see. I’m still perfectly fine with the idea of charging a fee for plastic bags and using that money to clean up trash around the city.

UPDATE: In the end, the budget was approved, along with a few other amendments.

Budget amendment time

Now that Mayor Parker has formally submitted her proposed budget for fiscal year 2013, it’s time for Council members to submit their amendments for consideration. I’m going to start at the bottom of the story with the two proposals that intrigues me the most.

Two members called for a November election to amend the city’s term limits law, which forces council members, the mayor and controller from office after three two-year terms. [CM Wanda] Adams proposes two four-year terms; Councilman Andrew Burks proposes three four-year terms.

Councilman Ed Gonzalez has proposed a ban on plastic bags in Houston. Specifically, his amendment calls for the city to draw up an ordinance within a year that would phase out the use of the bags. Brownsville has banned the bags, and a ban goes into effect in Austin next year.

“We have a number of bayous, and they’re littered with plastic bottles and plastic bags,” which conservation groups spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year removing, Gonzalez said. He referred to trees on the banks of bayous with bags snagged in their boughs as “urban Christmas trees.” He said he does not envision the city offering businesses a financial incentive to abandon plastic bags.

As you know, I don’t like term limits at all, but if we have to have them I’d rather put the limit at 12 years rather than 6, for the simple reason that I don’t think six years is enough time to really accomplish much as a Council member. As such, I’d take Burks’ proposal over Adams’, though hers is still better than the status quo. However, I would prefer even more to have six two-year terms instead of three four-year terms. My argument for having two year terms instead of four year terms can be summed up in four words: Council Member Helena Brown. Four years is an awful long time to have to wait to correct an error like that.

As for the bag ban proposal, you know I’ve been following developments around the state and wondering when Houston might get in on the act. About time for it, I say. I don’t have a strong preference for any specific approach to this, whether a ban by fiat or by imposition of a tax on bags, perhaps to be replaced later by a full on ban. As long as the city engages all the stakeholders and gives plenty of opportunity for feedback, I’m sure the end result will be fine. All of these proposals assume Mayor Parker supports them, as they are unlikely to get very far if she doesn’t. We know she’s no fan of the current term limits system, and I’ll be very surprised if she doesn’t back up her Mayor Pro Tem on this one.

Council members Stephen Costello and Wanda Adams both call for giving $160,000 to the Houston Food Bank to help it enroll more people in SNAP, the federal program formerly known as food stamps.

One of Councilman Mike Sullivan’s amendments would eliminate funding for affirmative action monitoring on city contracts. Councilman Larry Green proposes increasing it.

From Councilman Jack Christie came a fill-it-or-kill-it plan that would have Council consider eliminating any position that remains vacant for three months.

First-term Councilwoman Ellen Cohen proposed a Houston version of the so-called “pole tax” she shepherded into law as a state legislator. The state law imposed a $5 per customer fee on strip clubs to raise money for sexual assault victims.

In order:

– I approve of the Costello/Adams proposal. Ensuring children have adequate nutrition is one of the best investments you can make. It is, to coin a phrase, a big effin’ deal.

– Sullivan may have won his Republican primary last month, but between this and some of his other amendments, which include a five percent pay cut for the Mayor and Council members, I guess he isn’t finished wooing those voters. I don’t expect them to go far, and as Campos notes, his colleagues who hope to be on Council longer than Sullivan intends to be probably aren’t too thrilled by this.

– I see some merit in Christie’s proposal, but on the whole I’d prefer to err on the side of more flexibility for department heads.

– I’m a tiny bit ambivalent about Cohen’s SOB proposal. No question, clearing the rape kit backlog is a huge priority, and with the favorable resolution of the lawsuit over the state “pole tax” law (that Cohen authored), this is the obvious vehicle for that. I just feel, as I did about the state law, that sexual assault is everyone’s problem and everyone’s responsibility, and as such it feels a little pat to put the entire burden for funding these needed items on strip clubs and the like. It’s a minor quibble, not enough to make me oppose Cohen’s amendment, I just felt like someone had to say that.

There’s more proposals than just these, of varying levels of seriousness and likelihood of adoption. In addition to her pension default tomfoolery, CM Helena Brown has a variety of no-hope amendments, including one to switch the city from a strong mayor system to a city manager system. There are pros and cons to each approach, and without commenting on the merits of one system over the other, I’ll just note that this would be a ginormous, fundamental change to how we do things, and as such would need a ton of discussion and engagement culminating in a charter referendum. All things considered, it’s hard to see this as anything but another attack on the Mayor by her political enemies. Stace has more.

New frontiers in cost cutting

Apparently, you can cut costs by defaulting on your bills. Why didn’t I think of that?

CM Helena Brown

Councilwoman Helena Brown has submitted a budget amendment aimed at solving the city’s decade-old pension problem: Stop paying.

Her amendment calls for defaulting on more than $200 million in contributions due to the city’s three public employee pension systems in the coming fiscal year.

The idea is that it would force the matter of escalating pension obligations into the Texas Supreme Court “to bring to question the state constitutionality of forcing a municipality into bankruptcy by obliging them to maintain an unsustainable pension plan,” according to the language of the amendment.

Sure. Because nothing says “fiscal responsibility” like declaring that you will not honor your fiscal responsibilities. Just like they do in the private sector.

Now I don’t know if CM Brown came up with this genius idea after reading the Chron story about some pensioners being able to earn more as retirees than as active employees or not, but it doesn’t matter. It’s dumb and a non-starter no matter what its pedigree. As far as that story goes, I will note three things.

1. The deal that the city of Houston has always had with its employees is that they have agreed to trade current compensation for future compensation. Putting it another way, city employees tend to get paid less than they would for doing the same kind of work outside city government, and in return they get a better retirement package. Maybe this deal isn’t so good for the city – or for the employees – any more. Maybe it’s not sustainable even if it is an otherwise good deal. Whatever the case, the point is that it’s a deal, which is to say a legally binding contract that was negotiated in good faith. I haven’t seen the text of Brown’s amendment so I don’t know if she has factored in the possibility that her hoped-for Supreme Court ruling would be in favor of the pensioners, with the city being required to pay zillions of dollars in damages and penalties for illegally denying them the money the city was obligated to pay, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s not discussed in any detail. Bottom line, there’s a substantial amount of risk associated with summarily deciding that you are not obligated by your legal obligations.

2. All of the above is a longwinded way of saying that the way to alter the terms of a legally binding contract that was negotiated in good faith is to negotiate them. If the other party doesn’t want to reopen negotiations, you have to convince them it’s in their best interest to do so. That would be the right thing to do even if it weren’t the legally required way. It’s true that the city is limited in what it can do by state law, but the principle remains the same.

3. Again, as a reminder, over two-thirds of the General Fund budget is devoted to public safety. That’s way more than what we spend on pension contributions. If CM Brown is motivated by a sincere desire to help control the city’s expenditures, and not a crass and perverse motivation to screw public employees, there are other avenues to explore and bigger targets at which to aim. We can and will argue about the best way to achieve cost reductions, if such reductions are a good idea in the first place. Fixating on one means to achieve that end is almost certainly a suboptimal way to do it.

Council approves Mayor’s crime lab plan

It’s a done deal.

City Council has appointed a nine-member board to oversee the city’s crime lab, the first step in yanking it from police department control and setting up a publicly funded non-profit corporation to do evidence testing.

The vote was 15-2.

[…]

Though Council members supported the mayor’s proposal to try to insulate the crime lab from pressure from police, prosecutors and politicians, some raised questions about the city’s plan to go it alone when the county is about to build its own forensics tower.

“There’s so many areas the city and county can save taxpayers money, and this is one of them,” said Councilman Jack Christie, who voted no. Councilwoman Helena Brown, the other no vote, called the plan “a political stunt” that wastes taxpayer money by failing to cooperate with the county.

See here and here for some background. The concern about going solo instead of joining forces with Harris County is a legitimate one, even when expressed in typically Brownian fashion. As Mayor Parker noted in her press release, nothing about this precludes future expansion of the LGC to accommodate Harris County’s participation, and talks with the county are still going on. There is a difference of vision here, however, so that eventual cooperation could take a long time. I don’t think it would have made sense to continue on with the HPD lab as is and defer dealing with those 6,600 untested rape kits until everyone got onto the same page. I say it’s better to move forward now and work through the disagreements along the way. This is a big step and a long overdue one. Hair Balls has more.

Stardig v Brown II?

It’s not too early to start stocking up on popcorn.

Brenda Stardig

A rematch between District A Councilwoman Helena Brown and former Councilwoman Brenda Stardig next year is looking increasingly likely.

Stardig attended Wednesday’s Council meeting, so I asked her about her plans. She said, “It’s highly possible” that she’ll try to win the seat back next year.

[…]

Stardig stopped short of a declaration that she’s in, saying, “I just want to make sure it’s the right thing for the district.”

[…]

The knock on Stardig among insiders was that she did not campaign hard enough. In fact, she left nearly $37,000 in campaign money unspent, which could now serve as the seed money for a comeback.

In fact, her 30 Day report for the November election showed she had spent no money and had basically run no campaign up till that point. By the time she realized she was in a race, it was almost too late for the money she had to do her much good. One presumes she has learned from this. On the flip side, Brown’s January 2012 report shows a balance of $1467. Nobody who wasn’t already a supporter hopped on her late train, as far as I could tell.

Two things: One, redistricting did Stardig no favors. District A is more Republican now, and if this rematch boils down to another Republican primary as the runoff did, Stardig is going to need to rebrand herself at least somewhat. It’s far from clear that being closely associated with Mayor Parker will be an asset. On the other hand, even these voters may prefer to be represented by someone who can get stuff done. Can Brown win as a known quantity with an actual record to defend? How will she do with fundraising? Will the usual establishment players support her as they do nearly all incumbents, or will they prefer to go back to Stardig? Will anyone else jump in? This is already shaping up to be the most interesting race of 2013. Assuming it happens, of course.

The Mayor’s 2013 budget

What a difference a year – and better sales tax receipts and a better real estate market – makes. Mayor Parker has unveiled her budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, and it promises no service cuts, no layoffs, and no tax increase.

Mayor Annise Parker

Last year, the city issued 764 pink slips and cut services as budget officials grappled with a projected $100 million shortfall. Projected growth of city property and sales tax fuel an expected increase of $78 million in general fund income for the coming fiscal year.

Parker’s budget proposes spending all of the increase and tapping the city’s reserve account for $25 million. She’s proposing buying several new things with that money:

  • Offering single-stream recycling – the big rolling green barrels instead of the handheld bins – to at least 30,000 more Houston homes.
  • Increasing staffing hours on the city’s 311 help line to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The one-stop line for reporting potholes, getting city service schedules, checking up on your speeding tickets and accessing scores of other city services currently operates 14 hours a day.
  • Putting $2 million into the operation of a sobering center the city hopes to open later this year. Police will have the option of bringing people they detain for public intoxication to the center instead of jail.
  • $5 million for forensic services. It is to be used for improved crime lab operations by a new independent board of directors the mayor hopes to install or on reducing the backlog of untested rape kits.

The police department budget alone is proposed to grow, by $58 million. Much of the police spending increase is explained by built-in increases in pension contributions, health benefits, seniority raises and fuel costs.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release on the budget, which has more details. Looking at this reminds me why I believe that it may be harder for someone to defeat Parker in 2013 than it might have been to do in 2011. The expansion of curbside recycling, which seemed unlikely to happen previously because of the Mayor’s reluctance to seek a garbage collection fee, is the sort of thing that will make voters happy. The sobering center, which has now been approved by Council, will save the city money and will enable it to reach the Mayor’s goal of getting the city out of the jail business. The money for forensic services is a step towards another of the Mayor’s goals, which she addressed in her inaugural speech. Whether or not the city can work out the governance issues with Harris County, getting that done would be a huge accomplishment. My point is that by the time the 2013 campaign starts up, she’ll have a lot more positive things to point to, something that’s a lot harder to do when you’re cutting $100 million from your budget. It’s not a panacea and there are no guarantees, but I do think any potential challengers may find that the road next year is rockier than they thought it might be in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 elections. The environment just isn’t going to be the same.

There’s still a lot to do before we even start thinking about 2013 elections, and first up is Council’s turn to examine and attempt to modify the budget. I’m sure everyone will have their own priorities. And I can’t let this go without noting the following:

Councilwoman Helena Brown alone opposed city funding for the [sobering] center.

“The project can be better accomplished by the private sector,” she said. She also emphasized her opposition to excessive spending and said the sobering center is “like a slow cancer that will contribute to the death of the city.”

And so she voted against an action that will save the city a couple million bucks a year because she opposes excessive spending. We need a new word, to denote when something passes unanimously except for CM Brown who voted against it for reasons only she can understand. Leave your suggestions in the comments. Stace has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story on the sobering center.

Brown’s staff departures

Normally there’s nothing terribly newsworthy about a couple of Council staffers moving on, but there’s never been anything normal about CM Helena Brown’s office.

CM Helena Brown

Councilwoman Helena Brown’s two highest-ranking staff members have resigned less than four months into her two-year term.

Chief of Staff Leticia Ablaza and Rasuali Bray, Brown’s chief deputy director, resigned Monday.

Brown did not respond to requests for comment.

A third member of her staff resigned in March.

Ablaza confirmed her resignation, but declined to comment further.

Brown staffed her office in January with five employees who worked 39 hours a week and, yet, were classified as part-timers, disqualifying them from city-provided health insurance, pensions, vacations or other benefits.

A statement from her office at the time asserted that all of them were offered health benefits but declined. She also started with two other staffers who worked fewer hours. Brown is the only member of council to employ an entirely part-time staff.

Surely I’m not the only one who suspects there’s a lot more to this than what anyone was willing to say on the record. Staff turnover is unremarkable, but losing three people in your first four months in office is not. Much has been made about Brown’s “part time” staff, which meant they were paid for a maximum of 39 hours a week and got no city-subsidized health insurance. But let’s get real here: Ablaza and Bray, like their counterparts in any other Council members’ offices, were surely working many more hours a week than that. It’s the nature of the job. But not only did they not get insurance, they didn’t get paid time off. Seems to me that no matter what you think about government, most people at some point are going to want a better deal than that, and who can blame them? To me, that’s what this is about. We’ll see how it goes with their replacements, or with whatever volunteers there are to step in.

Homeless feeding ordinance town hall tonight

It’s at 6:30 PM at the Christ Evangelical Presbyterian Church, 8300 Katy Freeway. You can see a map here and the flyer for the town hall here. Judging by the organizers and the fact that the email I was forwarded about it was sent by CM Brown’s office, I’d say it’s likely to predominantly favor the opposition to the ordinance. Of course, nothing is stopping the proponents of this ordinance from holding their own town hall meeting, if they’re interested in people hearing their perspective, or from attending this meeting if they choose. It’s there if you want to go, so go if you want.

The plot thickens

Once again, I got nothing.

They're probably involved, too

Houston City Councilwoman Helena Brown voted against a city construction project Wednesday, warning that in signing off on two energy-efficient building projects the council was handing millions of dollars to a “non-American initiative and interests.”

It was the first of two occasions during the weekly meeting that Brown suggested city projects were linked to Agenda 21, a non-binding resolution the United Nations passed at the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. The catalog of proposals aims to combat sprawl and promote conservation. Brown voted in favor of the second project she linked to Agenda 21, however, because it came in under budget.

Activists and some politicians see Agenda 21 as a U.N.-led conspiracy to impose worldwide control on people, in part by denying private property rights through the implementation of sustainable growth or “green” initiatives by local and state governments.

I’m just curious. Has anyone informed CM Brown that the city of Houston fluoridates its water? It goes so much deeper than you feared, Helena! Run for your life!

One more thing:

The councilwoman’s string of votes against spending Wednesday targeted items ranging from housing for the homeless to dental care for seniors to family planning.

Emphasis mine. According to the Council agenda from Wednesday, that means that CM Brown voted against the following:

18. ORDINANCE approving and authorizing contract between the City of Houston and TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND COMMUNITY AFFAIRS to accept the amount of $985,069.00 from the Housing Trust Fund for use in connection with the Texas Homeless Housing and Services Program

19. ORDINANCE approving and authorizing contract between the City of Houston and TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND COMMUNITY AFFAIRS to accept the amount of $186,753.00 in Below Market Interest Rate Funds for use in connection with the Texas Homeless Housing and Services Program

In other words, CM Brown’s recently professed concern for the plight of the homeless only goes so far. Just so we’re all clear on that.

She showed me her manifesto, I had no reply

I got nothing.

A little light reading before bedtime

District E Councilman Mike Sullivan, until January by far the Council’s most conservative member, was so outflanked from the right by a Council newcomer Wednesday that he found himself uttering into his microphone: “I am not a communist.”

The energy company Entergy is proposing raising rates on 1,500 of his Kingwood constituents by about 13 percent. He championed the Council’s denial of Entergy’s request.

But when the item came up for discussion, District A Councilwoman Helena Brown announced she would vote against the denial. That is, she would support the rate increase.

“We need to support their rate increase because it is justified,” Brown said. She then continued:

I understand my colleague Sullivan expressed the concerns of his constituents in the Kingwood area. But I also understand the folks in Kingwood are conservatives. They do not believe in the regulation of rates of businesses. That’s communism. I will be standing in support of this business and the need that they have.

“Truthfully, I don’t think you have a clue what Kingwood believes in,” Sullivan shot back.

Sullivan explained that a study commissioned by a coalition of cities in Entergy’s service area concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support a rate increase.

“I am not a communist by voting for this rate denial,” Sullivan said.

As Dogbert says, sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate. The woman defies parody. If anyone reading this happens to bump into Toni Lawrence or Bruce Tatro, would you mind asking them just what it was they were thinking? Thanks.

Tag this

Live by the pointless parliamentary maneuver, die by the pointless parliamentary maneuver.

CM Helena Brown

City Councilwoman Helena Brown’s colleagues, after weeks of frustration over her delays of what they consider vital city business, reached the limit of their patience Wednesday and twice took the unusual step of quashing her parliamentary maneuvers and admonished her to stop.

[…]

Council on Wednesday voted twice to override tags by Brown. An override generally is frowned upon as a break from council decorum. It is so unusual that it has not been done since last summer, and regular City Hall observers could not recall the last override before that.

“I understand that an override of a tag is considered a nuclear option around this table,” said Councilman Mike Laster, who said he had reached out to his fellow council members and found none with unanswered questions regarding more than $25 million in road projects in his District J. Brown tagged it without explanation, so Laster made a motion to override, and it passed 13-1. Brown also refused to answer questions after the meeting.

District K Councilman Larry Green called Brown’s tag “careless” and said it revealed a disregard for years of preparation.

“When you start coming into other people’s districts with regard to projects that other people have been working on for many years and to stall, delay if you will, without valid reason or opposition, I believe is disingenuous,” Green said. “I don’t think that it’s a precedent that this body needs to accept.”

The story says the other tag that was overridden was on the agenda item to raise taxi rates; according to Campos, it received the same 13-1 vote to override. Laster asked Brown to remove her tag, then moved for the override when she refused. Good for him, and good for CMs Larry Green and Andrew Burks for calling out their fellow freshman.

In that Hou Politics post, Brown is referred to as a “fiscal hawk”. Putting aside the fact that most so-called (and usually self-styled) “fiscal hawks” these days are huge hypocrites whose definition of “fiscal responsibility” is only spending money on stuff they like, the term has no meaning when applied to someone like Brown. Surely to earn a laudable title like “hawk”, one must at least have some comprehensible set of principles that clearly define what is good and responsible and what is bad and frivolous. Tagging, and voting “no”, on anything and everything for no articulated reason doesn’t make you a “hawk”. It makes you a nihilist and a speed bump. If that’s the way it’s going to be, then the sensible thing for the rest of Council to do is routinely override Brown’s scattershot tags. One of my principles is that you shouldn’t reward bad behavior. Guaranteed overrides would be a simple way of accomplishing that. If Brown can learn to pick her battles, or to at least deign to give a reason for doing her thing, that’ll be different. Until then, I see no reason why Council should play along when there are more important things to do. Campos has more.

It’s all about Helena

Apparently, we have been living in Helena Brown’s world all this time.

CM Helena Brown

District A Councilwoman Helena Brown has voted against spending money on the renovation of a women’s shelter, a street’s reconstruction, the purchase of a police boat, payment to caregivers for the chronically ill, a study on people at risk for HIV infection, gas cards and the cleaning of public pools.

That was just last week. In almost every case, she was the lone dissenter. Between tags – which delay consideration of items for a week – and no votes, Brown opposed or delayed more than a third of Wednesday’s council business.

The rookie council member declined to be interviewed, but she did respond to written questions in an email.

“I have voted no on items which contradict the conservative ideologies and beliefs that I promised my constituents I would uphold. I have voted no on items which will worsen and not stem the pending financial disaster,” Brown wrote.

[…]

Publicly, council members and others say Brown must do what she believes her constituents sent her to do. Privately, she has been called “Dr. No” and “the Jolanda Jones of the right,” in reference to the outspoken councilwoman who so alienated herself from colleagues that several often would leave the dais when it was her turn to speak.

In response to a Houston Chronicle inquiry for a previous story, Brown released a statement that said in part, “By voting me into office this past election, the voters were mandating that the city have a serious dialogue on its spending habits. … My expectations are simple. Balance the budget and end irresponsible spending.”

Even her supporters acknowledged that Brown currently is delivering a monologue.

I realize I’m contributing to the problem as much as anyone, but I confess I’m a little perplexed by the amount of attention being paid to a freshman Council member who isn’t trying to get anything done. I understand the novelty factor here, but really, are our memories that short? She’s Addie Wiseman, the tag-happy no-voting former District E Council member, all over again. (Stace saw that before everyone else did.) The fact that nobody else, not even her current Council colleagues, thought to make that comparison is suggestive of what Wiseman’s legacy was, and what Brown’s is likely to be. I’m sure her anti-spending zeal will have its share of fans, but until she or they advocate for spending less on police, fire, and emergency services, it’s all just meaningless posturing. And sooner or later the next shiny object will come along to distract us.

By the way, if you want a reminder of what exactly is in the city’s budget, here’s that budget-balancing tool that Mayor Parker put out last year. Note that it does not include things like debt service, pension obligations, and health insurance for current employees, none of which can be reduced by fiat. Which of these things would Helena Brown cut or eliminate, and why? I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell from the articles that have been written about her, or the substance-free press statements she puts out instead of answering questions. Being the sole “no” vote based on abstract principles is easy, especially when there’s no consequence to your vote. Having a vision, and convincing other people that vision is the right one, especially when it comes to defining what is “responsible” and “necessary” spending and what is not, that’s hard. Let me know when CM Brown gets around to doing that. Campos has more.

More fun with Helena

When I saw the headline about a clash between Mayor Parker and an unnamed Council member, I was pretty sure I knew before I clicked the link which Council member it was. I was right.

CM Helena Brown

District A Councilwoman Brown tried to replace one of the mayor’s appointees to the Spring Branch Management District, accusing him of “negative communications” that she did not detail. The board is appointed by the mayor and only confirmed by council. The mayor ruled Brown’s request out of order.

[…]

Brown acknowledged that appointments of volunteers should not be hashed out in public and that she did so only because she could not get the delay she sought.

“I’ve been attempting to schedule a meeting with you for about two and a half weeks now,” Parker told Brown. “I’ve made multiple requests and I have resorted to communicating with you by email in order to discuss a range of items. You have consistently refused to meet with me, and had you had the opportunity to meet with me we may have been able to deal with this privately.”

Brown responded, “Mayor, I will not be bullied. You have made a request via one of your assistants for a meeting two weeks ago for which I specifically asked for specifics so I can decide whether the meeting is to be merited. And I don’t appreciate you announcing what is supposed to be our business before the whole city of Houston.” Brown said Parker mentioned “possible legal issues” in her request. “I’m a duly elected council member, and I will not be bullied,” she said.

“I certainly apologize if you feel in any way bullied by my request that you meet with me privately in my office,” Parker told Brown, before moving on to the vote that confirmed all of the mayor’s appointees. Brown alone voted against them.

The volunteer in question had provided space for a campaign headquarters for former CM Brenda Stardig, whom Brown defeated in November, so I can understand why she might be unhappy about this. I’m sure there’s a lot more to this story than what is reported here, but come on. For Brown to say that she wouldn’t meet with the Mayor to discuss the issue because the Mayor hadn’t specified enough specifics to assure Brown that the meeting merited her time is just plain insulting. What exactly did Brown think was going to happen? Doing stuff like that in the private sector would not win you any friends, either.

I had some sympathy for Brown in her dustup with CM Rodriguez. I have some sympathy for her here. But this is why stuff like this needs to be discussed in private. As CM Noriega pointed out, it’s just rude to the people who are volunteering their time to be talked about like this in a public forum. I also note that what these two kerfuffles have in common is that neither was about a matter of policy, or about how something might affect District A. They were both about Helena Brown and how she doesn’t like the way the city’s business is being done. Last I checked, CM Brown only represented one-eleventh of the city. If she wants things to be run differently, it’s on her to convince a majority of her colleagues on Council that she’s right and her way is better. Until then, we’re going to have more of these incidents.

It’s always easier to talk in the abstract

I have three things to say about this.

The city of Houston has been papering over multimillion-dollar budget deficits for nine years by borrowing money, tapping its rainy day fund, selling buildings and just plain putting off bills to the future, according to city finance officials.

[…]

This year, Mayor Annise Parker has pledged not to rely on the patches of the past. She has little choice. The city has spent nearly as much of its rainy day fund as it can without affecting the city’s credit rating. Parker does not support continued borrowing to meet pension obligations. And the mayor learned a difficult lesson last year when she included the sale of city buildings in the budget only to see a $20 million hole emerge when the sales did not come off as planned.

Parker may be able to tap an emerging political will to bring income and spending into balance. There are seven new council members.

One of them, District A’s Helena Brown, has raised eyebrows with her no votes on spending items that previously sailed through council.

“By voting me into office this past election, the voters were mandating that the city have a serious dialogue on its spending habits,” Brown said. “My expectations are simple: Balance the budget and end irresponsible spending.”

Two returning council members have political incentives to act as budget hawks as they seek higher office. And all of the re-elected council members signed off on last year’s creation of the task force, which culminated with this month’s stern warning from Chairman Mike Nichols: “We have no option but to take action and make decisions. … This is not a time to kick the can down the road.”

1. CM Brown’s definition of “irresponsible” spending is “spending with which she does not agree”. This is a very common feature among self-proclaimed “deficit hawks”. The two are not equivalent.

2. One of the two returning Council members who is running for another office is CM Wanda Adams, who is challenging State Rep. Alma Allen in the Democratic primary for HD131. I haven’t interviewed CM Adams yet, so I can’t say with certainty about how she intends to position herself in that race, but speaking as a Democrat I feel reasonably confident that in the first election after Rick Perry and the Republicans in the Legislature imposed savage cuts on public education and many other things that the electorate she faces will not be terribly impressed by boasts and promises of even more austerity.

3. For all of the tough talk about pensions, it remains the case that approximately two thirds of the city’s non-capital budget goes to police, fire, and emergency services. Last year, I interviewed thirty-eight candidates for city office. I don’t recall any of them saying that they intended to cut spending on any of that. Most of them, including quite a few who spoke at great length about the need to cut spending, declared that portion of the budget to be off limits, with some others suggesting that we needed to spend more on those services. If there’s an “emerging political will” to act differently in this budget, it’s not apparent to me.

Brown’s part time staff

You have to admit, she does things her way.

CM Helena Brown

Houston District A Councilwoman Helena Brown, whose lone “no” votes against city spending have differentiated her from the rest of the 17-member council, also is an outlier as an employer: She is the only council member to hire an entirely part-time staff that gets no health insurance or other benefits.

“The Council Member and all her staff were offered benefits but declined, choosing to opt for their own health care coverage in the private sector where it is more cost effective for employees, and let us not forget, for the City too!” according to a statement from Brown’s office.

Brown would have been eligible to receive the benefits after she has served 90 days on the council, technically a part-time job that pays $55,770 a year. Employees pay about one-fifth of the health insurance premiums, with the city paying the rest. The cheapest of the plans calls for a city contribution of more than $200 a month per employee.

Five of her seven staff members are paid hourly to work 39 hours a week, which under city employment rules allows her to classify the employees as part-time. They are, therefore, ineligible for vacation days, sick days, pension benefits or city-subsidized health insurance. The other two Brown staffers work 22 or fewer hours a week.

Well, I’m not going to deny that rising health care costs are a long term financial issue for the city. But neither am I going to agree that requiring your staff to fend for themselves, without any kind of subsidy or assistance, is an acceptable solution. Seems to me that despite her office’s claims about how going the all-part time route will enable them to attract a “more diverse skill set”, this is likely to get people who fall into one of three groups: Those who can get health insurance via a spouse, or parent if they’re under 26 (thanks to the Affordable Care Act); those who are wealthy enough to buy insurance on the individual market, at least until the insurance exchanges mandated by the Affordable Care Act come on line in 2014; and those who rely on publicly-funded health care via Medicare, Medicaid, and emergency rooms. I’ll leave it to you to count up all the ironies involved.

January finance reports: City of Houston

Yes, I know, there are no city of Houston elections this year. (Not yet, anyway.) But the candidates and officeholders have to file reports anyway, covering the period from their last report through the end of the year. That period may be from eight days before the December runoff, eight days before the November election, or even the July reporting period if they were lucky enough to be unopposed in November. It’s how you see what the candidates in contested races did in the last days before the election, and it’s how you see who hopped on the late train for a candidate who wasn’t necessarily expected to win. I’ve updated the 2011 Election page to include links to the January finance reports for current and now-former Council members. I didn’t bother with non-incumbents who lost in November or December because life is too short. Here’s a brief summary:

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ================================================ Parker 64,329 260,317 1,272,794 RGreen 30,794 23,785 46,691 Costello 12,250 47,311 655 Burks 25,175 33,426 2,403 Noriega 4,326 14,600 14,108 Bradford 4,453 35,340 20,282 Christie 16,700 51,138 3,156 Brown 6,900 9,664 1,467 Davis 32,630 39,974 20,703 Cohen 24,008 67,375 6,413 Adams 13,100 27,687 59,572 Sullivan 8,200 14,629 53,641 Hoang 3,450 25,472 5,366 Pennington 89,025 167,555 123,326 Gonzalez 5,254 15,908 56,108 Rodriguez 4,729 26,456 21,328 Laster 20,563 23,314 20,473 LGreen 22,470 27,955 576 Lovell Jones 39,810 62,555 6,397 Stardig 13,450 45,176 36,956 Johnson Clutterbuck 0 22,199 38,223

The first thing to note here is the $1.2 million cash on hand Mayor Parker has. This is significant for two reasons. One, obviously, is that it’s the opening bid for how much a Mayoral wannabee will have to raise to be competitive with her next year. She will be able to add to that total this year, while anyone who has not filed a designation of treasurer will not; I will not be surprised if her COH figure tops $2 million in a year’s time. While this certainly isn’t insurmountable, the first question anyone who might want to challenge her is going to get from a potential donor is going to be “How do you plan to raise enough money to compete with Mayor Parker?” Some of them will likely say “Show me that you can raise some money first, then get back to me”, which needless to say makes fundraising that much harder. It’s a barrier to entry, and the higher it is the better off she’ll be next year.

The flip side to that is that she’s really lucky she managed to avoid a runoff. Not only because that meant she could sit on her cash rather than have to spend it in December, but also because by leaving that much cash in the bank she would have left herself wide open to criticism that she didn’t run as hard as she needed to going into November. Look at poor Brenda Stardig, who had a relative ton of cash on hand in her November 8 day report, mostly because she hadn’t run any kind of campaign up till that point. By the time she was forced to kick it into gear, it was already too late, and the money she had wasn’t of much good to her. This is the cautionary tale that the Mayor was fortunate to avoid.

As such, don’t be surprised by the small cash on hand totals that moneybags like Costello and Cohen posted. They emptied their weapons, left it all on the field, and otherwise engaged in all the suitable cliches when it counted. You don’t doubt their ability to replenish their coffers, right? I’ll check back again in July and again next January and we’ll see where they stand.

Of course, for Council members who have their eye on the next office, as CMs Adams and Sullivan do, the calculus is a bit more complex. Well, not for Sullivan, who was unopposed and was thus able to turn his current stash into a decent opening advantage. Adams also has an early financial lead in her race for State Rep, though as she had an opponent last year it wasn’t entirely without risk.

Since I mentioned the late train earlier, I will note that there wasn’t one I could see for Helena Brown. Her late donors list was short and familiar. As for Andrew Burks, his donors were African-Americans – at least, all of the names I recognized belonged to African-Americans – and the usual PAC and law firm suspects that generally give to all incumbents. Not quite the Republican rainbow coalition that may have helped him win the runoff, but a likely indicator that he’ll enter 2013 with a decent sum in his kitty. I will be very interested to see if the usual suspects latch on to Brown or not. They didn’t rush to do so after the election results were in.

Finally, we have the outgoing Council members. With the exception of Jarvis Johnson, who is running for HCDE Trustee, I don’t think any of them are currently angling for another office. Lovell has been interested in County Clerk, but didn’t run in 2010 and I have not heard anything to say she may in 2014. I don’t get a future candidacy vibe from Clutterbuck, Jones, or Stardig, but who knows. They could take a cycle or two off, do some backstage work or some such, and come back later. Johnson has not filed a report with either the city or the county, nor has he responded to my requests for an interview, so other than his candidacy for HCDE I have no idea what he’s up to.

Brown v Rodriguez

I’ve been wondering how new Council Member Helena Brown’s style will play at Council meetings. I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

In this corner...

Councilwoman Helena Brown and Councilman James Rodriguez squared off publicly Wednesday in the kind of bare-knuckled politics usually deployed in a back room.

The outer layer of the onion had them disagreeing on whether the city should spend $2.3 million on a bike path along Sims Bayou in Rodriguez’s District I. Brown called it a “luxury” the city cannot afford in tough economic times.

Underneath that layer, though, Brown had violated an unspoken commandment of the council horseshoe: Thou shalt not question a project in another council member’s district.

And in this corner...

Rodriguez told Brown in no uncertain terms that his constituents support it. And, in so many words, to mind her own business.

“I think you’re going to find out real quick there’s a 16-1 answer to your question,” Rodriguez said. He was prophetic. Brown was the lone vote against the project.

Peeling further, Rodriguez may have a personal motive. After Rodriguez championed historic designation status for Glenbrook Valley, a neighborhood in his southeast Houston district, Leticia Ablaza, a resident of that district, ran against him in November. Rodriguez won handily. Brown, who represents northwest Houston’s District A, hired Ablaza as her chief of staff.

Here’s video of the exchange:

Note the exchange between CM Gonzalez and Mayor Parker about the flood mitigation aspect of the project, and the fact that the Parks Board is paying for the amenities. Which didn’t deter CM Brown, but I suspect she achieved her intended goals. I have to say, it’s just a wee bit disingenuous of Brown to talk about how Houston is paying for frivolities while its infrastructure crumbles, given that her entire campaign was built around opposition to Renew Houston; judging from the crowd that backed her, I’m sure she also opposed the water rate hike that ensured the city is adequately covering its costs of delivering that service. That’s the thing about infrastructure, you have to actually pay for it.

As for the territorial squabble, on a philosophical level I don’t actually have a problem with a Council member – or any other member of a legislative body – questioning a project in someone else’s district. If something is questionable, then it needs to be questioned. Obviously, I don’t agree with the substance of Brown’s remarks – I support building bike paths along the bayous, and again on a philosophical level, I disagree with Brown’s “we can’t afford that!” mindset – but I don’t consider her speaking out in this fashion to be a sin in and of itself. It was a violation of Council’s norms, however, and I’m certain it won’t be an isolated incident. If I were Sean Pendergast, I’d discuss the hypothetical Vegas odds of who Brown’s next mostly likely sparring partners will be, but I don’t quite have that in me. Feel free to speculate in the comments. Campos has more.

Inauguration Day 2012

Mayor Annise Parker

Tuesday was Inauguration Day for Mayor Annise Parker, City Controller Ronald Green, and all 16 members of Houston City Council.

Annise D. Parker began her second term as mayor of Houston on Monday with a commitment to bring more jobs to the city and to tackle an ambitious to-do list that includes progress on public employee pensions, an independent crime lab, getting out of the jail business and alleviating homelessness.

Immediately before her inaugural speech, she swore in the 16-member City Council, whose support she needs to implement her agenda. Seven of them are new. Afterward, several of the new members pledged to work with the Democratic mayor to solve problems.

“My philosophy is: potholes, not partisans, ” said Republican At-Large 5 Councilman Jack Christie.

Remember when the runoffs were a “strong repudiation” of the Parker administration? Yes, I know, new CM Helena Brown has sworn to be her arch-nemesis, but I daresay that from the Mayor’s perspective, getting Christie in return on the trade isn’t the worst deal ever.

The new council members, however, have yet to flesh out their positions on how to solve those problems, and Parker’s speech was a broad sketch of what needs to be done, not a policy address.

Parker relied instead on the optimism of Inauguration Day to put forward the idea that history is on the city’s side and that Houston residents will build what a recent magazine article called “one of the world’s next great cities” with audacity, a can-docharacter and a willingness to invest in their community even during tough economic times. She paid tribute to Houston as a city that got its unlikely start on a mosquito-ridden prairie, pioneered the artificial heart and played a central role in space exploration.

“Everything we have done as a city has been a matter of vision and will, of taking what we have and deciding what we want, setting an impossible goal, and then creating it,” Parker said.

The full text of the Mayor’s inaugural address is here. The policy-related stuff is as follows:

My number one job for the next two years is to continue to bring more jobs to Houston. We will expand the programs we have already started to stimulate small business with access to loans and training. We will continue the Hire Houston First policy. We will work tirelessly to increase our role as the energy capital of the world and a world leader in the next high tech industrial revolution.

Hard times prompt us to chart the latitude and longitude of who we are. Hard times test our character. The economy still dominates every conversation, and colors everything we do. Too many Houstonians are struggling to find jobs, to make ends meet. Our city workforce has also felt that pain. City employees have been furloughed, and more than 750 were laid off. We are doing more with less.

But …

We did not raise taxes. We did not mortgage our future with debt. We did not compromise public safety. We did not lay off a single firefighter or police officer. Many of our civilian employees stepped up and volunteered additional furlough days to help save the jobs of their colleagues.

We took bold steps to address our aging infrastructure – finally recovering the full cost of this precious asset, emphasizing conservation, and setting aside funds to complete long neglected maintenance. In doing the responsible thing, we unknowingly prepared ourselves to be able to respond to the worst drought in our history.

And I cannot envision voters in any other city in America, in the midst of a recession, doing the right thing, the prudent thing, and creating the funding to invest in critically needed flooding and drainage infrastructure. This is a visionary step akin to that in the 1950’s and 60s which created lakes Conroe and Houston and secured the water rights which sustain us today, or the commitment to set aside land and other incentives to encourage medical institutions to locate together and so lead to the largest medical complex in the world.

As we navigated this city through the toughest economy in generations, I built my administration on 5 pillars, and focused the work of the city around them:

Jobs and sustainable development,
Fiscal responsibility,
Infrastructure,
Public safety,
Quality of life.

Those will remain our strengths – there is progress yet to be made on pension security for both the city and our retirees, an independent regional crime lab, phasing out the city jail and progress against homelessness – these are challenges we are committed to address and have already begun.

Seems like a good idea to remind people that the city is actually going to do something with the money collected from the drainage fee. I’d recommend doing a lot more of that over the next two years. Still no more details about the crime lab. Calling it “an independent regional crime lab” sure sounds like the original city-county jointly funded proposal to me, which makes me wonder what the deal was in that KHOU story. The one item here that’s less familiar is “progress against homelessness”, which I presume refers to the announcement from late November about a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). I presume we’ll hear more about this in the coming months.

I was not able to attend the inauguration, so I don’t have any personal impressions to share. If you were there, what did you think? Houston Politics has more.

Don’t draw broad conclusions from muddled evidence

I have a number of issues with the analysis presented in this Chron story about what happened in the runoffs and What It All Means.

The results illustrate a continuation of a national trend of anger and frustration toward government during the worst economic stretch since the Great Depression, political observers said.

In short: Voters want change.

“A lot of people are angry at virtually all institutions and the government is high on their list,” said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “And these are the people in a low-turnout election that are most likely to show up because they are angry. They’re agitated.”

[…]

The results show clear opposition to the status quo, particularly following a general election in which Mayor Annise Parker and several council members narrowly avoided runoff elections, said Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

“It’s a strong repudiation of this administration – not just the mayor, but the council,” Stein said.

First of all, I believe that voters who are angry and agitated vote. I don’t see how that’s consistent with an election with six percent turnout. I refer you to the 2010 election, and the historically high Republican turnout, for a canonical example. Maybe it’s just me, but the words I use to describe an electorate that fails to show up like this are “disengaged” and “apathetic”. Your mileage may vary.

But maybe turnout was disproportionately high in District A, which is the one election out of the four where I will agree there were angry voters sending a message to someone. To see if that was the case, I checked the ratio of turnout in districts to the Harris County portion of the citywide turnout for runoffs in the past five elections. This is what I found:

Year Dist Turnout Overall Ratio =================================== 2011 A 8.28 6.08 1.36 2011 B 6.76 6.08 1.11 2009 A 18.82 16.48 1.14 2009 F 13.41 16.48 0.81 2007 D 6.29 2.70 2.33 2007 E 5.05 2.70 1.87 2005 B 4.92 4.02 1.22 2005 C 9.38 4.02 2.33 2003 F 18.98 22.71 0.84 2003 G 29.53 22.71 1.30 2003 H 20.57 22.71 0.91

I only went back as far as 2003 because that’s as far back as the County Clerk has runoff data. The ratio of District A turnout to overall is higher than average, but by no means historic. To be fair, the higher level of turnout overall compared to the 2007 and 2005 runoffs may be masking the effect. There’s just not enough data points for me to say, and we’re still talking about eight percent turnout in A. I have a hard time assigning any special meaning to that.

Further, I strongly disagree with taking the result in District A and extrapolating it to the rest of the city. With all due respect to Professor Stein, if the voters intended to repudiate the Mayor a month after re-electing her, Jolanda Jones is the last Council member they should be kicking to the curb. CM Jones was arguably the Mayor’s most vocal and visible critic on Council. I feel pretty confident that they’re not losing any sleep in the Mayor’s office over this result. We may not know exactly what we’ll get with CM-Elect Jack Christie, but we do know that he’s a supporter of Rebuild Houston and that he voted to keep the red light cameras.

Perhaps there was an anti-incumbent message in these results. For sure, CMs Jones and Stardig are the first sitting Council members to be unelected since Jean Kelly in 1999, and only the third and fourth incumbents of any kind to lose since term limits were established. I would argue that there are unique circumstances to each of their losses. To put it mildly, CM Jones had some baggage, and was very nearly ousted in 2009. I’ve been saying all along that a runoff would be a crapshoot for her, and indeed she rolled snake eyes. With the help of Gene Locke’s mayoral campaign she was able to win the turnout fight two years ago, but not this time. I suspect as well that her performance deteriorated in Anglo and Hispanic Democratic areas – I’m sure the Bill White endorsement of Christie had some effect on that – though that’s a question that will have to wait for the precinct data.

As for District A itself, those voters did mostly vote against incumbents last time around, so it’s probably not much of a surprise that they did it to their incumbent District member in the runoff. That said, CM Stardig clearly had her own set of baggage. If anyone can think of another situation offhand in which the three prior incumbents of a given Council district were supporting the opponent of the current incumbent, let me know about it, because I doubt it’s happened any time recently. Far as I can tell, she didn’t have much of a campaign going into the November election – her eight day report showed expenditures on signs, some ads in neighborhood newspapers, and a $6K ad in the Texas Conservative Review that I’m guessing wasn’t well-received; her 30 day report had practically nothing. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, but let this be Exhibit A for future incumbents: Unless you’re unopposed, run hard. You never know. Hell, run hard even if you are unopposed. Never hurts to get people into the habit of voting for you – your name ID probably isn’t as good as you think it is.

Putting this another way, Stardig was primaried, and she was not prepared for it. Redistricting did her no favors on that score, either. It will be interesting to see how CM-Elect Helena Brown reconciles her professed political beliefs with the sort of things that constituents tend to expect to get done. Maybe there is such a thing as a Republican pothole.

There’s still two other races to consider. The result in District B could be considered an anti-incumbent vote, but when you consider that the outgoing incumbent is CM Jarvis Johnson, is it really that surprising? As for Prof. Stein’s thesis, here’s what CM-Elect Jerry Davis had to say for himself:

Davis, 38, said he hoped to begin working with the administration as quickly as possible to cut down his learning curve as he gets set to start his first job as a public representative. He said his main goal as a council member would be to represent the priorities of District B constituents.

“My job is to represent the people and do what the people want me to do and that’s going to be the number one step,” Davis said.

I mentioned before that of the five candidates I interviewed, only Davis said he supported Renew Houston prior to the referendum passing. If you listen to the interview I did with him, you will also note that Davis supported the red light cameras, again being the only candidate in the district to do so. Way to repudiate the Parker Administration, District B voters!

As for Burks v Thibaut, good luck making sense out of that one. Again, I’ll wait till I see precinct data, but it seems to me that the vaunted “pincer strategy” of African-Americans plus Republicans finally worked. Why Republican voters fell into line behind an Obama delegate at the 2008 DNC convention who once ran for HCDP Chair is a bit puzzling to me, but I suppose stranger things have happened. It’s not like Burks is well-known for policy positions, so he’s a pretty blank slate onto which one can project whatever one wants, and then there is that Hotze embrace to whet the appetite. I don’t think this result would have happened in an election where the votes were distributed more proportionally. Perhaps someone will test that hypothesis in two years’ time. Like I said, we’ll see what the precinct data tells us. Oh, and for what it’s worth, the one elected official who endorsed CM-Elect Andrew Burks was CM Brad Bradford. If you want a guide for how Burks is likely to vote, I’d say to start there. Greg and Stace have more.

Christie, Burks, Davis, Brown

Those are your runoff winners.

Jack Christie’s victory was the most dramatic, coming in his fifth attempt to defeat Jolanda Jones, an opponent he had forced into multiple runoff elections.

Helena Brown was the other candidate who beat an incumbent, defeating Brenda Stardig by a 10 percent margin for the District A seat, according to unofficial county totals.

Both Christie, a 63-year-old chiropractor, and Brown, a 34-year-old political activist, are conservatives.

Brown, whose political history is colored by Tea Party activism, campaigned as an anti-tax, anti-fee candidate. She attacked Stardig for her support of policies backed by Mayor Annise Parker, including an increasingly unpopular drainage fee for $8 billion flood prevention projects.

In the race for At-Large Position 2, Andrew Burks Jr. beat Kristi Thibaut by less than 1 percent.

Jerry Davis, a 38-year-old restaurateur, defeated Alvin Byrd, a 58-year-old constituent services director for current Councilman Jarvis Johnson, by 98 votes to claim the District B seat.

First, congratulations to all the winners. I wish them good luck in office. The city needs everyone’s best, and I hope they all exceed everyone’s expectations.

I’ve made my feelings clear about Andrew Burks, and I’m not going to pretend I’m not disappointed in that result. He led in early voting, but a strong showing on Election Day put Thibaut ahead of him in Harris County. He had enough of a lead in Fort Bend to hang on for the win. For what it’s worth, the result in Fort Bend illustrates what I had said before about Burks’ strength as a candidate compared to Jolanda Jones’:

Candidate Votes Pct ========================= Thibaut 325 32.5 Burks 676 67.5 Christie 75 7.1 Jones 981 92.9

I’ll be very interested to see what the precinct data looks like in each of the At Large races. I hope, though I don’t expect, that I have underestimated Andrew Burks and that he will be a good Council member. But if I haven’t, I hope that candidates who are looking at the 2013 elections will consider that with Christie’s victory there will be only one open At Large seat in two years, that being At Large 3, just as there was only one open At Large seat this year. What do you think will offer better odds of victory, a cattle call open seat race or a challenge to a freshman incumbent like Burks?

The bit in the story about Helena Brown and Renew Houston needs some context. It’s true that Brown rode her opposition to that to victory in District A. However, she was not typical. Jack Christie, who supported Renew Houston, defeated Jolanda Jones, who opposed it. In District B, of the five candidates whom I interviewed, only Jerry Davis supported Renew Houston prior to its passage. Even Andrew Burks says he now supports Renew/Rebuild Houston. In addition to that, all three new Council members who were elected in November supported Renew Houston – Ellen Cohen in C, Mike Laster in J, and Larry Green in K. Point being, District A isn’t the whole city.

Oh, and just for the record, turnout has been unofficially pegged at 56,998 – 55,934 in Harris, 1,063 in Fort Bend, and 1 – yes, one – in Montgomery. That person voted early for Thibaut and Jones. Turnout for the city was a hair over six percent.

That’s all I have for now. On to the March primaries, once SCOTUS cleans up the mess they’ve made of that.

Eight day runoff finance reports

Seven of the eight campaign finance reports for the runoff have been posted; all but Jack Christie’s were available online as of last night. Let’s have a look at them. First up, District A:

Candidate Raised Spent Loans Cash on Hand ==================================================== Stardig 74,103 42,308 0 81,023 Brown 13,840 13,340 0 4,409

Helena Brown may have finished ahead of CM Brenda Stardig in November, but the establishment is still backing the incumbent. Brown got $1000 each from Paul Bettencourt’s campaign fund (what’s the deadline on using leftover campaign funds like his?) and the Texas Latino GOP PAC, $750 from Don Sumners, $500 from Norman Adams, and $100 from Bruce Tatro. Stardig got $2500 in kind from Mayor Parker’s campaign, $500 from CM Stephen Costello, and a boatload of PAC money, including $10K from the Council of Engineering Companies and $9500 from the Texas Association of Realtors PAC; they contributed in at least two of the other races as well. I still don’t know why Stardig had spent so little before now; if she manages to survive she’ll at least have a nice nest egg for 2013.

District B:

Candidate Raised Spent Loans Cash on Hand ==================================================== Byrd 23,700 17,672 0 6,027 Davis 37,350 16,480 0 29,435

As noted before, Alvin Byrd received a fair amount of support from elected officials for the runoff. Jerry Davis didn’t get any donations from electeds that I saw, but he did collect $200 from former Congressional candidate Michael Skelley. Roland Garcia, who was Mayor Parker’s finance chair in 2009, and Kent Friedman of the Sports Authority were both in for $500, Rusty Hardin gave $2000, and Jeff Caynon of the Firefighter’s union went for $5000. Both received PAC money, but just eyeballing it I’d say Davis had more.

At Large #2:

Candidate Raised Spent Loans Cash on Hand ==================================================== Burks 13,750 15,698 0 10,455 Thibaut 68,818 53,115 10,000 29,083

Andrew Burks‘ report is just a mess. Each contribution is listed twice. The $9500 he got from the Realtors was credited to Constable May Walker, which would be illegal if it were true; in reality, either Walker was listed erroneously or the total he cited does match the individual dollar amounts listed. I don’t recall seeing that the $10K loan he made himself in the regular cycle was paid off; no balance for that loan is given here. As with Griff, you’d think a guy who runs for Council as a matter of habit every two years would have some idea what he’s doing by now, but you’d be wrong. As for Kristi Thibaut, there’s no question she’s the establishment candidate. She got a ton of PAC money. Her former colleagues State Reps. Borris Miles and Garnet Coleman gave her $1000 and $2500, respectively. Port Commissioner Janiece Longoria gave $1000, Kent Friedman another $500. Former Council Member Peter Brown chipped in $1000 (his Smart PAC kicked in another $1500) and Council Member-Elect Larry Green gave $200. Usually the big money bets correctly, but between this race and the Stardig-Brown runoff, there’s a better than usual chance that it will be wrong.

As for At Large #5, the only action to report is on CM Jolanda Jones, who had another stellar report. She took in $70,217, spent $68,576, and had $24,400 left on hand. She got $2500 from Rep. Garnet Coleman, $1000 each from Rep. Borris Miles, Sen. John Whitmire, Ben Hall, $500 from Roland Garcia and District Court Judge Kyle Carter, $250 from Sylvia Garcia and Chris Bell, $200 from the Rev. William Lawson, $150 from CM-Elect Larry Green, and $100 each from Constable Ruben Davis and JP Zinetta Burney. She had less PAC money than you might expect. No report yet from Jack Christie – I know he’s sent out at least three mail pieces, so I’d guess he’s spent upward of $50K. Whether he’s financing that himself as he did last time or he’s got it covered I couldn’t say. When I see the report, I’ll update this post and let you know.

UPDATE: There was indeed a Jack Christie finance report uploaded. It was from a day earlier than the others, and was amid some amended reports from candidates not in the runoff, so I just missed seeing it. The Christie campaign pointed this out to me, and I apologize to them for the error. Here’s the Jones/Christie comparison:

Candidate Raised Spent Loans Cash on Hand ==================================================== Jones 70,217 68,576 0 24,400 Christie 71,580 43,147 500 33,094

Nearly identical amount raised – inded, roughly $70K is more or less the standard for the At Large runoffs, with three of the four candidates in that vicinity. Christie received $10K from Anne Clutterbuck’s campaign, and $1000 each from Beverley Woolley’s campaign and Peter Brown, whose SmartPAC also chipped in $1500. As with CM Jones, not a whole lot of PAC money on his report.

Early voting for city runoffs begins today

You remember that we have runoff elections for four Houston City Council positions, right? Well, early voting starts today and runs through next Tuesday, December 6. Here are the early voting locations that will be open for the runoff. Early voting will run from 7 AM to 7 PM each day except Sunday the 4th, when it will be 1 to 6 PM. You can go any time you want, as I expect you will be the only person voting whenever it is you show up. The over/under for turnout in this runoff is 25,000, which is to say about what it was for the 2007 runoff. Districts A and B, and At Large #2 and #5 are up.

Eight day finance reports are due Friday, so I’ll be checking for those and posting them along with anything interesting I find in them. The one remaining question is who the Chron will endorse in the District B runoff. They had endorsed Kathy Daniels for the November election, but she finished third. In the other races, they went with CM Brenda Stardig in A, CM Jolanda Jones in At Large #5, and Kristi Thibaut in At Large #2. You can debate how much endorsements mean, but whatever it is it’s surely more so in a low-profile, low-turnout race.

And low turnout it will be. Look at it this way: your vote never counts more than it does when there aren’t that many votes cast. This is your last chance to vote in 2011, so go make it count.

Runoff overview: District A

I don’t remember there being a Chron overview story for the District A regular election, but now that it’s in overtime we get an overview story about the race between CM Brenda Stardig and challenger Helen Brown. Better late than never, right?

Just a few thoughts about the article. First, it’s a little silly to call this runoff a “referendum” on Mayor Parker. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we just had a referendum on the Mayor, and she passed, if just barely. A 5000-vote (if that much) Council runoff in a single district four weeks later isn’t going to tell us anything we didn’t already know. I’ve no doubt the Mayor is an issue in this race, perhaps the key issue, but let’s keep some perspective here.

Some of the other issues in this race are a bit curious.

Brown supports the repeal of Proposition 1, the voter-approved initiative that called for the creation of a monthly drainage fee. Stardig voted in favor of the ordinance that Council passed to implement it. Brown calls for the removal of George Greanias as Metro CEO because of his viewing of pornography at work. Like Parker, Stardig favors leaving that decision to the Metro board “until it impacts the actual function of the business.” Stardig favored the city’s approximately $20 million investment in infrastructure and land to get the Dynamo to build a $60 million soccer stadium downtown that the city and county will own. Brown argues that is an improper public investment in a private business.

I’m pretty sure Council can’t pass an ordinance that overturns a charter amendment that has been adopted by referendum – we do have to respect the will of the voters, right? – but I suppose they could vote to put a repeal referendum on the ballot. That is, if the Mayor gives them a repeal referendum to put on the ballot, which needless to say isn’t going to happen. Or there will be another petiton drive, for which the vote to put it on the ballot is a formality. Greanias isn’t going anywhere unless the Mayor wants him to, and she has shown no inclination of that. As for Dynamo Stadium, last I checked it was about six months from being completed. This Council did vote twice on aspects of the deal – both unanimous, for what it’s worth – but the vote to make the land available for the stadium was taken in 2008, which is to say before Stardig’s time on Council. And ironically, it was Annise Parker who ran an ad that disparaged the deal during the 2009 election. Politics does make strange bedfellows.

Not that there’s anything wrong with examining past issues. I certainly asked plenty of questions about what had gone on before when doing my Council interviews, and knowing how someone would have acted tells you a lot about what they’re likely to do in the future. Long as everyone has a realistic expectation about what a single Council member can do about some of these past issues, I guess.

Finally, I’ll say again that if this election turns out to be little more than a Republican primary, I don’t see how Stardig wins. She’s clearly lost a lot of favor among the activists. She needs the electorate to be bigger than that, which means she needs to convince some Democrats and independents to come out and vote for her. How she does that I don’t know – maybe point out Brown’s history lessons and hope for the best – but with early voting for the runoff set to begin this Wednesday the 30th, she better figure it out quickly.

Looking ahead to the runoffs

The runoff election for the city of Houston will be Saturday, December 10. It’s going to be an extremely low turnout affair – as was the case with the general election, I expect the runoff to have about the same level of turnout as the 2007 runoff, in which 25,382 ballots were cast. Look at it this way: If you bother to vote in the runoff, your vote really counts for a lot.

Some thoughts and questions about the runoff now that we’re two weeks out from the November election and all of the precinct analyses have been done:

– On paper, CM Brenda Stardig has all of the advantages in District A. She had $67K on hand as of the 8 Day reports, while Helena Brown had less than $1500. She swept all of the endorsements of which I’m aware except one, from the odious Steven Hotze. She’s the incumbent, and incumbents generally don’t lose. But the fact remains that she trailed Brown by six points and nearly 500 votes. How does she make that up? Does she try to woo Democratic voters by reminding them that she’s not nearly as bad as Brown, or does she try to out-wingnut her? How much help does she get from groups like the realtors, the police, the firefighters, and so on? Conversely, is Brown able to raise funds now that she’s demonstrated that she can win? Does she get any endorsements from elected officials? This one should be Stardig’s to lose, but then it should have been Stardig’s to win in regulation time. As I said before, I have a bad feeling about this one for her.

– As I said before, a lot of people waited on the sidelines to see who would make the runoff in B before committing to it. Now is the time to get off the fence. Jerry Davis previously announced the support of several former opponents, and Monday it was Alvin Byrd’s turn to make his new supporters known. He now lists former District B candidates Kathy Ballard Blueford-Daniels, Kenneth Perkins, and James Joseph; former Council members Jarvis Johnson, Carol Galloway, Michael Yarborough, and Jewell McGowen (on behalf of Ernest McGowen); and elected officials State Reps. Senfronia Thompson, Sylvester Turner, and Ron Reynolds, plus HISD Trustee-elect Rhonda Skillern-Jones. There are still numerous groups that have not made a choice in this race, including the realtors, the police, the firefighters, HOPE-SEIU, and Planned Parenthood (both Davis and Byrd scored 100% on the PP questionnaire). HBAD and the Chron went with Daniels in the first round, so they’re up for grabs as well. Neither candidate raised much money up till now – Davis has $9,274 on hand, while Byrd has $3,882. There will be another finance report due on December 2, and I’ll be looking to see if some big checks have been coming in. As of this writing, this one looks like a tossup.

– Not much to add to the At Large #2 runoff that I didn’t say before. Kristi Thibaut has the early momentum, and I expect she will collect most of the remaining endorsements in addition to the ones she has already received. I’ll be very curious to see if Andrew Burks reports any major endorsements – off the top of my head, I can’t remember any coming his way in 2009. That was when he was going against an incumbent, however, so this time may be different. Thibaut has $19K on hand, Burks has $12K, most of which is left over from his $20K loan, originally reported as a loan from his wife but later corrected to indicate it was a self-loan. Does anyone write Burks a check? Burks has the advantage of CM Jolanda Jones running, who will turn out voters that will be more inclined to support him than Thibaut, if they bother to vote in his race. What will Burks do to actually try to win? I see this one as being lean Thibaut, with the only thing holding me back from making a stronger statement the low turnout.

– As for At Large #5, what else is there to say? I’ll be curious to see if there’s another big show of support for Jack Christie from some of CM Jones’ colleagues. In retrospect, it’s not clear to me how much that actually helped Christie or hurt Jones, but it sure felt like a big deal at the time. Laurie Robinson picked up a few endorsements, including the police and the firefighters, who I think it’s safe to say will back Christie. If there’s going to be any real money thrown around in the runoff, it’s likely to be in this race. Jones starts out with $40K on hand, while Christie has $23K, but as we saw last time he’s willing and able to write his own check as needed. I feel like there’s another shoe or two to drop in this one, but I have no idea where they may come from or when they may fall. This one is a tossup. Nothing and everything will surprise me.

Early voting for city runoffs begins today

You remember that we have runoff elections for four Houston City Council positions, right? Well, early voting starts today and runs through next Tuesday, December 6. Here are the early voting locations that will be open for the runoff. Early voting will run from 7 AM to 7 PM each day except Sunday the 4th, when it will be 1 to 6 PM. You can go any time you want, as I expect you will be the only person voting whenever it is you show up. The over/under for turnout in this runoff is 25,000, which is to say about what it was for the 2007 runoff. Districts A and B, and At Large #2 and #5 are up.

Eight day finance reports are due Friday, so I’ll be checking for those and posting them along with anything interesting I find in them. One question that remains unanswered is who the Chron will endorse for the District B runoff. For the November election, the Chron endorsed CM Brenda Stardig in A, CM Jolanda Jones in At Large #5, and Kristi Thibaut in At Large #2, but their choice in B was Kathy Daniels, who finished third. As of this morning, they have not updated that recommendation.

Regardless, today begins your last chance to vote in 2011. Your vote never counts more than it does in an extreme low-turnout election, so go take advantage of that.

More thoughts on the Council elections

One district at a time…

– I confess that I did not see the District A result coming. Helena Brown did raise a decent amount of money since entering the race at the filing deadline, about $22K through the end of October, which makes me wonder how she might have fared if she had gotten in the race sooner. For what it’s worth, she’s at a big financial disadvantage in the runoff, as CM Brenda Stardig reported over $67K on hand in her 8 Day report, while Brown listed only $1378 on hers. Maybe Stardig needed to spend more during regulation time. Brown has received donations from the two previous District A members, Bruce Tatro and Toni Lawrence, the latter of whom apparently had a falling out with Stardig a few months back. If Brown wins she will be a big success story for the anti-Renew Houston forces. She would probably like for the runoff to be a low turnout affair in which she can campaign like it’s a Republican primary. Stardig will likely need to persuade some Democrats that she’s worth voting for; I would also expect the Houston Association of Realtors to try to come to her rescue. I have a bad feeling about this one for the incumbent.

– A lot of endorsing organizations avoided choosing a candidate in District B for November. I presume that part of the reason for that was that it was a crowded race with no obvious frontrunner and multiple contenders who might have a shot at making it to the runoff. Now that it’s narrowed down to Alvin Byrd and Jerry Davis, who received the bulk of the endorsements that were made, it’ll be interesting to see who lines up behind whom. Davis had an email out yesterday touting the fact that former competitors Kenneth Perkins, Phillip Paul Bryant, Bryan Smart, and Charles Ingram were all now supporting him. Also up for grabs now are the HBAD and Chronicle endorsements, both of which had gone to third place finisher (and currently unaligned, as far as I know) Kathy Daniels.

– Moving to the non-runoff districts, I’m still not sure if I’m surprised or not that Ellen Cohen won in C without a runoff. I had no doubt that it was possible, but I had no good feel for what the likelihood of it was. I do have a feeling that Cohen’s next two elections will be much easier to prognosticate.

– Given how a few other first-termers did, CM Al Hoang’s 56% win in District F has to be seen as a pretty strong performance, but much like Helena Brown in A, I wonder how Peter Lyn René might have fared if he had entered the race earlier. He missed out on the opportunity to screen for an awful lot of Democrat-friendly endorsements. I’m not saying he would have won, but a swing of less than 300 votes away from Hoang would have put him into a runoff. Surely that was achievable with a few months’ extra time to organize and fundraise.

– I’m just going to point you to what Greg says about District J, because there really isn’t anything I can add to it. I hope CM-elect Mike Laster makes an offer to Criselda Romero to be on his staff so that she can be in a good position to succeed him in 2017.

– Regarding the At Large runoffs, it’s easy to see the AL2 and AL5 races in racial terms, with the fates of the candidates entwined. Here’s Greg again:

As an aside in looking at the At Large runoffs together, I have a hard time seeing the needle threading such that both JoJo and Kristi win, though that’s obviously the outcome I’d most love to see. The more JoJo voters there are, then theoretically, the better the odds are for Andrew Burks. And the better things look for Kristi, the harder they look for JoJo. I really hope I’m wrong on this.

I think it’s a little more complex than that, for the simple reason that Burks isn’t a particularly good candidate. To put it another way, while I would agree that there will be a correlation between the vote totals of Burks and CM Jones, there will also be a lag between their totals. I believe a fair number of people who show up to vote for Jones will not bother to vote for Burks. As evidence, I cite the district returns from the 2009 runoffs, which featured both Burks and Jones as well as Ronald Green and Gene Locke. Take a look at these numbers, which I compiled from these earlier posts:

Candidate B votes D votes ============================ Locke 11,395 15,223 Green 10,017 16,935 Burks 7,773 11,974 Jones 10,673 17,653

Burks received less that 75% of Jones’ vote total in the African-American districts in the 2009 runoff, and he was running against someone who is not nearly as well-liked as Kristi Thibaut. He isn’t anywhere near Jones’ league. Maybe this time it will be different, but I see a lot of room for Jones to win and Burks to lose. And like District B, there are now a bunch of endorsements up for grabs. Thibaut, who had more endorsements by my count than other candidates going into the November election, counted HBAD among her supporters. She has since picked up the support of former candidates Bo Fraga, Jenifer Pool, and David Robinson; a whole host of Democratic elected officials, including numerous African-Americans (Rodney Ellis, Alma Allen, Garnet Coleman, Harold Dutton, Ron Reynolds, and Senfronia Thompson); and the Oak Forest Dems and Democracy for Houston endorsements; both of those groups reaffirmed their support of CM Jones as well. I think that says something, and about Burks’ ability to keep up with Jones.

As far as CM Jones goes, the playbook is the same for her as was two years ago: Run up the score in the friendly precincts, and hope it’s enough. Without a Gene Locke at the top of the ticket to drive turnout, that could be harder to achieve. She does have the benefit of the runoff in B to help her, but that may be canceled out by the action in A. It’s a crapshoot. I wouldn’t bet against her, but boy this is a tough way to go about it.

2011 Houston results

Let’s go through the races…

– Mayor Parker won with a shade under 51%, with none of her opponents cracking 15% on their own. Obviously, this is not a position a Mayor with no serious opposition wants to be in, and it won’t surprise anyone if one or more potential opponents for 2013 are on the phone already calling potential financial backers. It’s certainly possible, perhaps likely, that she will face a much tougher challenge in two years. It’s also possible, given a better economy, a less dire budget, and fewer externally-driven issues like a red light camera referendum, that she could be in a stronger position for re-election in two years and that the time to have beaten her was now. Many people thought Rick Perry looked vulnerable after winning with 39% of the vote in 2006, but things don’t always go as you think they will. Often uncertain the future is, that’s all I’m saying.

– Brenda Stardig trailed Helena Brown in District A by 479 votes. She and Jolanda Jones, who led Jack Christie by about 6700 votes, will be headed to a runoff. All other incumbents won majorities, with CM Stephen Costello having the closest race but winning with 51.2%. So much for the anti-Renew Houston slate.

– Only two of the five open seats will feature runoffs. Ellen Cohen in C (53.62%), Mike Laster in J (67.27%), and Larry Green in District K (67.23%) all won. Alvin Byrd (25.11%) and Jerry Davis (24.38%) head to overtime in District B, while the perennially perennial Andrew Burks led the field in At Large #2, garnering 17.33%. Kristi Thibaut came in second, with 15.65%, followed by Elizabeth Perez and David Robinson. This is at least the third time Burks has made it to a city election runoff – he lost to Sue Lovell in overtime in 2009 – and I wonder if he will get any official support. Being in a runoff with Jolanda Jones and a District B race also on the ballot will help him, but beyond that it’s hard to see him doing much of anything. You have to wonder what Michael P. Williams is thinking this morning. Oh, and Eric Dick finished seventh out of ten. Apparently, it takes more than spreading campaign signs like grass seed and putting out puerile press releases to win public office. Good to know.

– Paula Harris and Juliet Stipeche easily won re-election in HISD, as did Chris Oliver in HCC. Carroll Robinson defeated Jew Don Boney by a 55-45 margin to succeed Williams as the District IV Trustee. The closest race of the election, one that will have people gnashing their teeth all winter, was in HISD III, where Manuel Rodriguez barely held on. I’m a staunch advocate of early voting, but you have to wonder how many early-goers to the ballot box may have regretted pushing the button for Rodriguez before his shameful gay-baiting mailer came out.

– There were 123,047 city of Houston votes cast in Harris and Fort Bend Counties, making this election a near exact duplicate of 2007 turnout-wise. There were 164,283 votes cast in Harris County, of which 120,931 were Houston votes, for a Houston share of 73.6%. The final early vote total for Harris County was 60,122, almost exactly what I hypothesized it would be, and the early vote total was 36.6% of the overall tally in Harris. There were 920,172 registered voters in Houston, about 15,000 fewer than in 2009 but 7000 more than in 2007. City turnout was 13.14% in Harris County.

I have my second tour of jury duty today, this time in the municipal courts, so that’s all from me for now. I may have some deeper thoughts later. What do you think of how the election went? PDiddie has more.

UPDATE: Robert Miller offers his perspective.

UPDATE: Nancy Sims weighs in.

Your annual reminder that every vote matters

HISD Trustee, District III results, with 38 of 38 precincts reporting:

Manuel Rodriguez 2,401 50.25% Ramiro Fonseca 2,377 49.75%

There were 653 undervotes in this race, and turnout in the district was 11.61%. Fonseca carried Election Day by 78 votes, but had trailed by 102. At one point during the count, the Clerk had Fonseca up by one vote. What more do you need to know?

I will have recaps of the elections tomorrow morning. As of publication, about 95% of Harris County precincts are in. Mayor Parker appears to be headed to a just-over-50% victory, which beats the alternatives but is sure to get the chattering classes all fired up. The big surprise of the night to me is District A incumbent Brenda Stardig trailing her teabagger opponent, with the two of them headed for a runoff. We’ll see how that plays out. Other incumbents are all above 50% with the exception of Jolanda Jones, who will go into overtime again against Jack Christie. More tomorrow, see you then.

30 day finance reports for City of Houston races

The 30 day campaign finance reports for City of Houston elections were due last week, and they are now mostly up on the city’s campaign finance report website, with a large number showing up today. Already I’m seeing questionable, curious, and interesting things in the reports. Some highlights so far:

  • Helena Brown, the late-filing candidate in District A, reported a quite respectable $15,848 raised, but she did not file a Schedule A report, so you can’t see who gave her how much.
  • Griff Griffin, who failed to file a report in July, did not include any totals on his report. I did the math and counted $2522 in contributions along with $6443 in expenditures. As he did not report any loans or expenditures from personal funds, there’s no way to reconcile these numbers in the absence of a cash on hand balance from an earlier report. Which Griff, who’s run for Council approximately three thousand times and very well may be carrying a balance from those prior efforts, really ought to know. Perhaps one of the consultants whom he lists as a payee could advise him on this.
  • Jack O’Connor, who switched from At Large #5 to the Mayor’s race just before the filing deadline, also failed to list totals on his report, even though he did so correctly in July. By my count, he raised $7866 and spent $11,195, of which $5295 came from raised funds and the remaining $5900 were personal expenditures.
  • Bo Fraga took in a very respectable $55K in the period. He also reported a $35K loan from Lupe Fraga of Tejas Office Products, which I am told may be a problem because loans are apparently subject to the same $5,000 limit as contributions. I’m not a lawyer and I haven’t read the ordinances myself so don’t take my word for this, but I will say that’s the biggest non-personal loan I can recall seeing offhand.
  • Both of CM Jolanda Jones’ challengers had decent reports. Laurie Robinson raised almost $81K, though a bit over $30K of that was in kind. Jack Christie took in $40K, and unlike last time he’s not loaning himself big bucks. Of interest is that former Council member and Mayoral candidate Peter Brown showed up as a contributor to each. CM Jones’ report is not up yet, so I can’t say yet if Brown went for the hat trick or not.
  • The only thing interesting on Brad Batteau‘s report, which showed no money raise or spent, is that he declared himself a candidate in At Large #3, not District B. There may come a day when I will quit harping on this, but that day is not here yet.
  • Ellen Cohen continues to be a fundraising machine, raking in over $92K for the period. I didn’t scroll through the whole thing, but at first glance she appeared to have quite a few small dollar donors as well. She also continues to be a one woman economic stimulus package, spending $104K since July 1. She still has nearly $93K on hand for the home stretch.
  • CM Al Hoang raised a surprisingly small $10,950, and has less than $14K on hand. Both of his opponents were deadline day filers, so I don’t expect either of them to have that much, but it wouldn’t be that hard to have outraised him. I’ll let you know when I see their reports.
  • CM Oliver Pennington raised a fairly modest $33K, but thanks to previous fundraising prowess and not spending a huge amount, he has $185K on hand. Other than Mayor Parker, no one is going to come close to that.
  • Finally, we have one report from a non-candidate, Jim Bigham, who was going to run in District J but had to drop out because his voter registration had been purged by the Tax Assessor and could not be restored in time. Let this be a lesson to all of us, kids: As long as it is the philosophy of the Tax Assessor that it is better to purge nine eligible voters in order to ensure one ineligible one is removed, no one should take their registration status for granted. Today at 5 PM was the deadline to be registered for this election. I hope none of my readers will find out that they have suffered a similar fate.

That’s enough for now, as this post is getting long. I will follow up with another review post tomorrow, to cover the later report ones and to report on additional oddities and other things that merit comment. I will also be adding all reports to the 2011 Election pageand you can visit this spreadsheet put together by my pal Erik Vidor to see everyone’s running totals so far.