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Republican Party

Let the sun shine in

Make ’em disclose.

Empower Texans, the deep-pocketed conservative advocacy group, is well-known for its heavy hand in steering the Texas GOP further to the right and for its shadowy setup that hides its funding sources from the public.

But a court case seeking to force the group’s leader to register as a lobbyist could reveal more about the inner workings of the organization — and others like it in Texas — than ever known before, after the Texas Supreme Court last month ruled that it must divulge communications and financial records to the state ethics commission.

Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan, through his dark money group — made up of a web of political action committees and of nonprofits that aren’t required to report donors — has made $9.5 million in political contributions since 2007, state records show. All the while, Sullivan has been able to keep secret even basic information such as his own compensation, which a Hearst Newspapers analysis found was hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the salary reported on tax forms.

[…]

The suit stems from a 2014 fine the Texas Ethics Commission assessed against Sullivan for failing to register as a lobbyist starting in 2010. Sullivan appealed, and a series of delays have held up the case from going to trial, including a fight over the county where it should be held and attempts by Sullivan to have it dismissed.

Sullivan and his attorney, Tony McDonald, did not respond to requests for comment.

In a parallel court case, Sullivan is trying to gut the state agency, alleging that the Texas Ethics Commission does not have the legal authority to carry out actions such as levying fines for campaign finance law violations, saying only an executive branch agency, not a legislative branch agency, can enforce laws.

That suit, which is before the 8th Court of Appeals in El Paso, also has the potential to reorganize the ethics commission, which already has some of the weakest enforcement capabilities in the country.

But in a testament to the political influence of Empower Texans in Republican circles, Attorney General Ken Paxton has declined to defend the Ethics Commission in that suit.

Instead, Paxton, who has received more than $400,000 in campaign contributions from Empower Texans since 2009, has sided with Sullivan — saying he agrees with the group’s legal stand and has a “duty to uphold the Constitution,” despite his obligation by statute to defend challenges to state laws, state agencies and state employees.

The ethics commission has hired its own lawyers in the case.

I probably have some posts about this case in the archives, but I didn’t feel like spelunking for them. You already know everything you need to know about Empower Texans and MQS, truly the scum of Texas politics. The bottom line for me is that I do not understand the argument that this organization somehow deserves to be exempted from disclosure laws. Every single thing they do is for the purpose of influencing our government. The rest of us have a right to know who’s paying for that. It’s all just sophistry and special pleading after that.

Your Harris County Republican Party

What can one possibly say?

Keith Nielsen has taken office as the chairman of the Harris County GOP, despite saying he would not do so earlier this summer after facing backlash to an image he posted on Facebook juxtaposing a Martin Luther King Jr. quote with a banana.

Nielsen, elected in March, was set to automatically take over as the party leader in Texas’ biggest county, home to Houston, at 12 a.m. Monday. To forfeit the office, he would have had to notify the party secretary prior to midnight, which he did not do, according to party spokeswoman Genevieve Carter.

By Sunday night, over 120 precinct chairs had signed on to a statement reminding Nielsen of his early June “declination to take the office.”

In recent weeks, all signs pointed to Nielsen reneging on his promise to not take office. He showed up to a meeting with state Senate district chairs last month and left the impression that he was reversing himself, and last week, he announced an Aug. 18 meeting with precinct chairs in an email that he signed as the “chairman-elect.”

Nielsen never publicly confirmed his intentions as questions mounted about whether he was going back on his word. Meanwhile, some of the prominent GOP officials who had initially pressured him to step aside reiterated their calls. The group included Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, of Conroe.

“A bigot whose word is no good,” Brady tweeted Tuesday. “This is not what the party of Lincoln stands for. He needs to be removed. Now.”

It was not immediately clear how Nielsen could be ousted.

See here for some background. As a reminder, there were quite a few other GOP county party chairs who said nasty racist things on Facebook following the George Floyd murder, and they’re still in their positions. Plus, you know, Sid Miller. Good luck sorting this all out, y’all.

State GOP wraps up its historic convention

And what a convention it was.

Allen West, the firebrand former Florida congressman, has defeated Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey to lead the country’s largest state Republican Party.

West claimed victory shortly before 3:30 a.m. Monday, while Dickey conceded about an hour later. The developments came during an early morning round of voting among state Senate district caucuses at the party’s virtual convention.

“I wish Lt. Col. West the very best in this role,” Dickey, who had been running for a second full term, wrote on Facebook. “Thank you for the honor of serving as your Chair. Let’s win in November.”

West moved to Texas several years ago and became politically active here. His victory means an abrupt change in party leadership with less than four months until one of the most challenging elections that Texas Republicans are facing in a long time.

West’s campaign said Monday morning he would “immediately resume the responsibilities of the role and begin to implement his strategy to hold Texas.”

“I am honored and privileged that Republicans of Texas have selected me to Chair their party and to be at the helm during this coming election cycle,” West said in a statement. “We need to focus on maintaining the conservative policies that made Texas strong and drive voter outreach across the state.”

Yeah, that Alan West. Let’s just say that any hope the Texas GOP might eventually stumble their way towards a higher level of rationality and engagement with the 21st century will need to be reassessed.

West brought a high profile to the race and huge financial advantage, vastly out raising and outspending Dickey. While West stumped on building a more ambitious Texas GOP, he also courted support from some in the party who believe Dickey had grown too unwilling to stand up to state leaders when it came to the party’s legislative priorities and the scandal last year that forced House Speaker Dennis Bonnen into retirement.

But no issue overshadowed the closing weeks of the race like the party’s insistence on conducting an in-person convention in Houston despite the coronavirus pandemic. After the convention center operator nixed the party’s contract earlier this month, the party launched a legal battle to continue with an in-person convention. The party lost in the courts shortly before the convention was set to begin, leaving it with a short period to transition to a virtual gathering.

Despite promises that the party had a virtual backup plan all along, the convention opened Thursday with almost immediate technical problems, and the State Republican Executive Committee voted that night to pause the event for a day Friday to resolve the issues. When the convention came back Saturday, things were still rocky — delegates complained they had still not received credentials, committees took much longer than scheduled and livestreaming problems ruined speeches by some of the state’s top elected officials.

West largely stayed out of the convention debate until recent days, when he criticized Dickey for not having an adequate backup plan and questioned the voting technology for the virtual gathering. On Saturday afternoon, he joined calls for Dickey to halt the convention until every delegate could be credentialed.

There were issues, to be sure (more here). I actually think it’s a little bit unfair to blame them all on James Dickey – it was the party faithful that voted to have this thing in person, despite common sense and an eventual Supreme Court ruling – but the buck stops at the top, and there’s no excuse for not having a viable backup plan in place. I’m just saying I wouldn’t expect much better from the Allen West regime. Not my problem, obviously. Have fun sorting it all out, guys. The Statesman and Mother Jones have more.

Federal judge rules GOP can have its in person convention

Unbelievable.

A federal judge on Friday ruled that Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston First Corp. must allow the Texas Republican Party to proceed with an in-person convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center, though the party now only intends to use the facility as a backup option.

Judge Lynn Hughes of the Southern District of Texas found the city had infringed upon the Texas GOP’s constitutional rights by canceling the convention, which initially was set to run from Thursday through Saturday before Turner ordered Houston First, the city’s convention agency, to nix it.

Hughes gave the party the option of using the convention center this weekend and next, according to Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Houston conservative activist Steve Hotze, who initially filed the lawsuit with a handful of other plaintiffs.

The party began its convention online Thursday but encountered numerous technical difficulties, forcing officials to postpone the event until Saturday. The party joined Hotze’s lawsuit Friday “to provide a last-resort method in-person if we needed it to secure our national election obligations,” Chairman James Dickey said in a statement following Hughes’ ruling. He said the party still “is on track to hold its convention online.”

Party officials will elect their party chair and select delegates for the national Republican convention at the state convention.

“Our online convention provides the greatest opportunity for as many delegates who want to participate in the convention as possible,” Dickey said. “We learned a hard lesson yesterday and with this win today, if for any reason there is an issue tomorrow, we know that we have a single location where, with the necessary SREC authorizations, we could” elect delegates to the national convention.

Turner in a statement blasted the party for its legal efforts to proceed with the convention, and said the city and Houston First would appeal upon receiving a written order from Hughes.

“We are in the midst of a pandemic, a public health crisis. More people are being admitted to our hospitals and ICUs, and more people are dying,” Turner said. “The State Republican Executive Committee is being totally irresponsible in continuing to push for an indoor, in-person convention. This reflects a total disregard for the health and safety of employees and people in our city.”

[…]

Hughes, in granting the Texas GOP an injunction that bars Turner from canceling the event, agreed with the argument by Hotze and the party that Turner’s move to cancel the convention “at the last minute” deprived party members “of their right to express their political beliefs, and make core political determinations,” a right protected by the First Amendment.

In a court filing Friday, Woodfill wrote that the party “has attempted a virtual convention and found that it is an unworkable platform.”

“Accordingly, the Republican Party of Texas has no choice but to seek relief from the Court to allow the Republican Party of Texas to prepare for the upcoming election season,” Woodfill wrote.

See here and here for some background. The plaintiffs knew which judge to pick, you have to give them credit for that. The judge bought the argument that the late cancellation of the convention, which came after they had considered but rejected changing to an online convention, which Mayor Turner begged them to reconsider, plus the GOP’s complete inability to get Zoom to work, meant that their rights were being infringed. Putting it another way:

The city and Houston First will appeal, so we’ll see what happens. Even on the Republican side, this was a bit controversial:

Before Friday’s ruling, Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said the party was still working toward resuming the virtual convention Saturday.

“Today we have been hard at work for hours already on Plan A and Plan B and Plan C,” Dickey said during an interview with Texas Values. “We are going to make sure that we can move forward with our convention virtually tomorrow.”

[…]

Dickey’s chairmanship is on the line at the convention, where he faces a serious challenge from Allen West, the former Florida congressman. The election is tentatively scheduled for Sunday.

West has mostly stayed out of the debate over holding the convention in person, though he has increasingly questioned Dickey over the voting technology for the virtual meeting. And earlier Friday, West’s team seemed to reach a boiling point when word got out that the party was making a last-ditch legal push to join Hotze’s lawsuit.

“It is beyond belief that Chairman Dickey and the RPT allowed a foreseeable catastrophic failure such as this to unfold,” West lawyer Clyde Siebman wrote in a letter to Dickey. “Colonel West grew to doubt that it was by mere negligence but continued to give fellow Republicans the benefit of the doubt — until today.”

The party’s 11th-hour participation in the lawsuit “proves an intent to disenfranchise large blocks of grassroot Republicans across Texas,” Siebman added.

I don’t know what’s going to happen at this point, but my advice is to avoid downtown until this is over. And pray for those workers whose lives are being put in danger.

Censuring Abbott

An amusing sideline, if nothing else.

Republicans in eight different Texas counties have now voted to censure Gov. Greg Abbott for his order requiring Texans to wear face coverings and take other protective measures as COVID-19 spreads throughout the state.

Over the weekend, the Henderson County Republican Party Executive Committee, just west of Tyler, held an emergency meeting to censure Abbott, a Republican, for not calling the Texas Legislature into a special session to help manage the COVID-19 emergency.

Since July 4, seven other county Republican Party Executive Committees around the state have approved censures of Abbott, including in Montgomery County, where they voted 40-0 on the censure.

The Montgomery County Republican Executive Committee’s censure resolution says Abbott has acted with “disregard to the Texas Constitution,” pointing to the mandated mask requirement for people in counties with at least 20 positive cases, limiting gatherings and the closing of bars across the state.

It’s similar to a censure resolution passed by Ector County Republicans in the Odessa-Midland area.

“The Ector County Republican Executive Board decided it would be a fitting day for us to send a clear message to Governor Abbott,” the party wrote on its Facebook page. “A message that we will no longer sit quietly while he over reaches his authority again, again, and again.”

I noted the Ector County resolution when it happened. Here’s the list so far, according to the sidebar:

Montgomery County
Ector County
Llano County
Harrison County
Denton County
Hood County
Eastland County
Henderson County

The ones who are arguing that Abbott needs to call a special session and involve the Legislature in some of these decisions are raising a fair point that deserves better elucidation than a Steven Hotze lawsuit. The ones that are basically an expression of “but I don’t wanna wear a mask!” can go pound sand, while wearing a mask. I think that about covers it.

The GOP convention is off to a great start

Ain’t technology great?

Getting the virtual state convention up and running “has not been a walk in the park,” said Republican Party of Texas Chair James Dickey in a Facebook Live chat Wednesday evening.

Glitches related to credentialing had yet to be ironed out Thursday, preventing the party from initiating the business at hand. The live feed displayed text stating “We are at ease” and that everyone would be notified when the credentialing emails had been sent.

The frustration was evident in the social media comments.

“Has anyone received their credentials,” asked one person.

“We didn’t get ANYTHING after the registration confirmation. Feeling shut out & silenced,” posted another person.

“Still no credentials … This is crazy,” wrote a third delegate.

And yet another participant had words of blame for the party’s executive committee, writing, “If you weren’t watching during the last couple of SREC meetings, you should watch them. It is the failure to act that has brought us to this online meeting. Three and a half hour meeting to decide nothing. See which SREC were driving the train off the cliff by their interruptions and antics. If SREC members can’t remember parliamentary procedure, Heaven help us when it comes to the meeting of the convention. If SREC can’t properly use the system, who will thousands of others. Like always, in was not everyone’s fault. See if you were happy with your SREC’s interruptions and actions. Maybe yours were good ones … maybe yours needs to be changed. Make that decision while we wait.”

Never wanting to miss an opportunity to poke at the competition, the Democratic Party of Texas sent out a news release encouraging reporters to watch reruns of last month’s Democratic state convention while waiting for the GOP to fix its technical glitches.

Maybe should have spent more time preparing, and less time in court? Just a thought.

Ah, well, at least Greg Abbott got a warm reception for his keynote speech.

Gov. Greg Abbott delivered a firm defense Thursday of his coronavirus response to delegates at the Texas GOP convention who even he acknowledged have grown agitated with him.

Abbott addressed the discontent head-on as the virtual convention got underway Thursday afternoon, starting with the statewide mask requirement that he issued earlier this month. Since then, several Republican county leaders, including in some of the state’s biggest red counties, have voted to censure the governor.

“Now I know that many of all you are frustrated — so am I,” Abbott said in a video message to the delegates. “I know that many of you do not like the mask requirement — I don’t either. It is the last thing that I wanted to do.

“Actually the next to the last,” Abbott added. “The last thing that any of us want is to lock Texas back down again.”

Coronavirus has surged in recent weeks across the state, and Abbott sought to impress upon the delegates how dire the situation has become.

“Each day the facts get worse,” he said. “If we don’t slow this disease quickly, our hospitals will get overrun, and I fear it will even inflict some of the people that I’m talking to right now.”

Why the facts have gotten worse each day is left as an exercise for the reader.

UPDATE: The state GOP is gonna take today to try to fix stuff, and then resume the convention tomorrow.

State Supreme Court denies GOP effort to force convention to happen

Denied.

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday rejected the state Republican Party’s appeal of a lower court’s decision regarding its in-person Houston convention, all but ensuring that Mayor Sylvester Turner’s move to cancel the event will stand.

In an unsigned “per curiam” opinion, the court ruled that while the Texas GOP has the constitutional right to hold a convention, “those rights do not allow it to simply commandeer use” of the George R. Brown Convention Center, where the event was set to take place Thursday through Saturday.

“Houston First’s only duty to allow the party use of the center for its convention is under the terms of the parties’ agreement, not a constitution,” the opinion stated.

[…]

The Supreme Court also rejected a petition for a writ of mandamus — a court order requiring the city to reverse the cancellation — from Steve Hotze, a Houston Republican activist who challenged the convention cancellation along with three other plaintiffs.

Justice John Devine filed the lone dissenting opinion, arguing that the court had standing to rule on the Texas GOP’s case and that Houston First breached its contract with the party by canceling. Devine also dissented from the court’s decision to deny Hotze’s petition.

Meanwhile, Justice Jeff Boyd decided not to participate in the decision. He is one of four justices whom the Texas Democratic Party called on to recuse from the case, due to their sponsorship of the convention. The other three justices — Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Justices Jane Bland and Brett Busby — opted not to recuse themselves.

See here, here, and here for the background. The ruling was more or less along the lines of that AG brief that supported the city’s position, that this was a matter of contract law, not election law. This was a writ of mandamus, asking for a quick ruling from SCOTX without waiting for the district court to issue a judgment. The denial of the writ means that the case goes back to the district court, but since this shindig was supposed to start on Friday – indeed, some preliminaries are already underway, presumably in virtual fashion – there ain’t much time for that. For their sake, I sure hope the RPT has its contingency plans for an online convention ready to go. You know, like the TDP had for its convention back in March. Mayor Turner’s statement is herer, and the Trib, the Press, and the DMN have more.

UPDATE: It’s official, the GOP will have a virtual convention. Here’s the updated Chron story.

AG sides with Mayor Turner in GOP convention litigation

But only in a limited and technical way, so cool your jets.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas Attorney General’s Office on Saturday sided with Mayor Sylvester Turner in a legal dispute over the state Republican Party’s in-person convention, arguing that the Texas Supreme Court should reject the party’s attempt to proceed with the event.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins — the state’s top appellate lawyer — said that despite the party’s “troubling factual allegations,” the court should deny its petition for failing to “properly invoke [the court’s] mandamus authority.”

The legal proceedings began earlier this week after Turner ordered Houston First Corp., the city nonprofit that manages the convention site, to cancel the event over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. The Republican Party sued Turner and Houston First, but a Harris County judge denied the party’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked Turner from canceling the event. The party then filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Texas Supreme Court.

In its petition, the party invoked a section of Texas’ election code that allows the court to issue orders that “compel the performance of any duty imposed by law in connection with the holding of an election or a political party convention.” In his brief, Hawkins argued that the party’s convention contract with Houston First does not apply, because the convention was to be held under a contract, not a law.

Prior Supreme Court rulings have “distinguished ‘a duty created under [a] contract’ as legally distinct from ‘a duty imposed by law,’” Hawkins wrote.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the AG’s brief. A copy of the original writ is here. As the story notes, the AG similarly opposed Steven Hotze’s petition on the matter, arguing Hotze has no business in this matter. The Court also has the matter of the motion for four of them to recuse themselves to sort out. I presume that has to happen first, since we have to have the question of who is ruling on the write of mandamus settled before the ruling can happen. Gonna be a busy couple of days at the SCOTX. Oh, and Paxton also opposed Hotze’s petition for a TRO against Judge Hidalgo’s latest face mask order, on the grounds that Hotze’s multiple challenges to the Texas Disaster Act may cause “irreparable harm” to the state’s sovreignty. I presume there will be a similar filing against Hotze’s lawsuit challenging Abbott’s face mask order, too. And yes, the correct response to all this is exasperation and exhaustion.

Who wants to enforce Greg Abbott’s mask order?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Gov. Greg Abbott called on police across Texas to step up enforcement of his mask order amid the mounting pandemic, explaining Thursday that they can either “be part of the problem or part of the solution.”

Facing a revolt over the mandate within his conservative base, the governor acknowledged in a new round of interviews that masking is inconvenient, but said the alternative of locking the state down again is far worse.

“We have a short period of time in the next couple of weeks to bend the curve of this explosion in cases and hospitalizations,” he said in an interview on KSAT in San Antonio. “If we can enforce this, we will be able to keep the state open and reduce hospitalizations.”

Some local law enforcement officials, including the sheriffs in Montgomery and Gillespie counties, have refused to enforce the new order, citing personal liberties or enforcement logistics. On Wednesday, the Montgomery County Republican Executive Committee voted 40-0 to censure Abbott, joining at least three other county executive committees that have taken similar steps.

It’s more than just a few.

When Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide executive order requiring Texans to wear masks in public, he gave counties the opportunity to opt out if they have a low number of active coronavirus cases.

A week later, 78 counties have taken him up on that offer. And a handful of other local governments have insisted that they won’t enforce the order even though they don’t qualify for the opt-out provision. Officials cited a desire to preserve personal freedoms or concerns about enforcement.

“I think it’s an insult to Texans to be required to do something they should have discretion for,” said Hugh Reed, the top administrator for rural Armstrong County, near Amarillo, which opted out.

In a press release announcing the order, Abbott said that “wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19.” Public health experts broadly agree that masks slow the spread of the virus, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend face coverings for anyone 2 or older in public settings.

The order came as coronavirus cases have grown quickly in the state. As of Thursday, more than 9,600 people were hospitalized with the virus.

In order to opt out of the requirement, the counties need to have 20 or fewer active COVID-19 cases. Given the spread of the virus in recent weeks, only counties that are sparsely populated and rural tend to qualify. Most are in conservative areas of the state.

Rex Fields, the top elected official in Eastland County, said Abbott’s option for counties with low coronavirus case counts “gives people some personal freedom.”

But a few local officials without that freedom are also choosing not to enforce the order. In Montgomery County, which has a population of over 600,000 and has reported more than 2,700 coronavirus cases so far, the sheriff’s office said July 3 that it would not take action on the mask rule.

“This order includes specific language prohibiting law enforcement from detaining, arresting, or confining to jail as a means to enforce the order,” the agency wrote in a press release. “This language strips law enforcement of the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law.”

Yeah, so maybe undermining the rule of law was not a great idea. Greg Abbott could be in a position to insist that his order be enforced, if only Greg Abbott hadn’t so clearly demonstrated that Greg Abbott’s executive orders regarding COVID-19 are just suggestions.

That said, some places are more serious about trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Greg Abbott signaled his encouragement Wednesday to Austin city leaders to move forward on “additional enforcement mechanisms” related to a recent order Abbott issued requiring Texans to wear masks in most public spaces.

In a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Abbott said the city’s consideration of new enforcement measures “to ensure compliance with my Executive Orders is an important step toward reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).”

“As you know, these Orders were created and adopted based on advise from medical experts, and if these Orders are followed, we will be able to protect both public health and the livelihoods of our citizens,” he added.

The Austin-American Statesman reported Wednesday that the City Council will meet Thursday “to vote on a resolution that would allow for a fine of up to $2,000 for anyone violating a ‘health authority rule’ like not wearing a mask” and to take “civil action against any person who maintains a business or site that does not comply with minimum health standards.”

Another riddle solved, apparently. That resolution passed unanimously on Thursday. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the Hotze contingent files a lawsuit against this, but in the meantime it’s something. (Hey, Greg! Now do letting counties issue stay-at-home orders.)

Now to be fair, if I’m going to advocate for letting local authorities have some of their authority to make local decisions back, I’m going to be circumspect about criticizing a small rural county with a still-low infection rate for not wanting to enforce a mask order. But let’s be clear that all parts of the state are vulnerable, and those lightly populated places also tend to be many miles away from hospitals, so their residents are in greater jeopardy should they get sick. The approach I’m looking for here is one that says “this is the minimum that counties must do – they can go above and beyond it within reason, but they have to do at least this much”. That philosophy has been distinctly lacking in recent years in this state.

But here we are, and here we once again face the worst case scenario, at least as far as Greg Abbott is concerned.

With Texas continuing to break records for new coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations this week, Gov. Greg Abbott reiterated Friday afternoon that things will continue to get worse. And if people keep flouting his new statewide mask mandate, he said, the next step could be another economic lockdown.

“Things will get worse, and let me explain why,” he told KLBK TV in Lubbock. “The deaths that we’re seeing announced today and yesterday — which are now over 100 — those are people who likely contracted COVID-19 in late May.

“The worst is yet to come as we work our way through that massive increase in people testing positive.”

Texans will also likely see an increase in cases next week, Abbott said, and people abiding by his face mask requirement might be the only thing standing between businesses remaining open and another shutdown.

“The public needs to understand this was a very tough decision for me to make,” Abbott told KLBK of his face mask mandate. “I made clear that I made this tough decision for one reason: It was our last best effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown.”

And then when sheriffs in heavily Republican counties refuse to enforce that, then what? Say it with me now: None of this had to happen. But it did, and it’s Greg Abbott’s fault.

Greg Abbott has no one to blame but himself

Let’s be very clear about this.

Gov. Greg Abbott is under increasing political fire from fellow Republicans as well as Democrats as he responds to a sharp rise in coronavirus deaths — a record 112 on Wednesday and 106 on Thursday — by implementing more restrictions on Texans and increasingly warning of another shutdown if people fail to wear masks.

Prominent Democrats are blasting Abbott for reopening too quickly and shrugging off early warning signs. On the other side, county Republican Party committees are passing censures of Abbott for some of his latest orders, including one requiring people to wear masks in counties reporting at least 20 people infected with COVID-19. Those who violate the order face $250 fines, but no possibility of jail time.

On Wednesday, the Montgomery County Republican Executive Committee voted 40-0 to censure Abbott, joining at least three other county executive committees that have taken similar steps.

Even Republican state lawmakers are beginning to press Abbott to call a special session to cede some of the decision-making to them. State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said in a Fox News Channel interview that it’s time for the Legislature to be more involved and not just leave it all up to the governor.

“We have information and a lot of misinformation out there, honestly, that needs to be vetted by a legislative body,” Perry said.

It’s all coming as Abbott warns the daily number of deaths is going to keep rising.

“I think the numbers are going to look worse as we go into next week,” Abbott told Fox 26 in Houston during an interview Thursday night. “We need to make sure there are going to be plenty of hospital beds available in the Houston area.”

[…]

The criticism from Democrats comes days after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Sunday on ABC’s This Week that she and other county and city officials need Abbott to give them the authority to issue stay-at-home orders again, calling it the surest way for them to get out of the crisis. She said leaders need to be taking bold aggressive steps because of how serious things have become in Houston and Texas overall. Abbott has so far declined.

“We don’t have room to experiment,” Hidalgo said. “We don’t have room for incrementalism, when we’re seeing these kinds of numbers, nor should we wait for all the hospital beds to fill and all these people to die before we take drastic action.”

I have many thoughts about this.

– The original sin in all this, from whence all other bad decisions and unenforceable actions flow, was the inexcusable, unfathomable, and completely self-inflicted Shelley Luther saga, which the Chron’s editorial board correctly identifies as a primary failing. It’s not just that Abbott took the teeth out of his own executive orders the very first time they ran into resistance, taking Luther off the hook like that – hell, turning her into a goddam folk hero, paying her court fees, bowing and scraping to her – it’s that this sent a very clear message that there are no consequences for violating any laws or orders related to coronavirus. You can draw a straight line from this to sheriffs saying they can’t or won’t enforce the current mask order, even as Abbott is now practically begging everyone to wear a mask. Turns out undermining the rule of law is a bad idea. Who knew?

– The problem with the Shelley Luther incident wasn’t just the undermining of the rule of law, or the evisceration of any consequences for pro-COVID behavior. It was the message it sent, from the top, that the people who didn’t feel like doing their part to fight the virus, who felt that their feelings and personal definition of “liberty” mattered more than anything else, were legitimate and needed to be handled as special and exceptional. Abbott could have very reasonably expressed empathy for Shelley Luther, said words to the effect of “I know this is hard, I know small businesspeople like her are suffering, but we have to bear down and really beat this virus back so that we can get back to normal life and business like we all want”. The fact that he didn’t is a clear and ongoing failure of leadership on his part.

– Yes, I know, that same message about “my feelings are bigger than your face mask” as well as pressure to “reopen the economy” came from Donald Trump as well, and Abbott had to be concerned about the heat he was getting from his fellow Republicans. I will note that other Republican governors, like Mike DeWine in Ohio, managed to figure this out. No one ever said that being Governor was going to be easy. If Greg Abbott didn’t have the fortitude to withstand the carping from the Steven Hotze wing of his party, then he has no business being Governor.

– Another self-inflicted wound in all this has been Abbott’s abrogation of the executive powers that Mayors and County Judges had exercised in the early days of the pandemic. Remember when cities and counties were issuing stay-at-home orders, and Abbott used that as justification for him not doing the same statewide because different counties have different needs? Abbott eventually and correctly bowed to pressure to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, but in doing so he basically took away all of the local decision-making power that Mayors and County Judges had. That has come back to bite him, as the big urban counties have been complaining for weeks about their need to respond to local conditions. The capper to this was the utterly ludicrous “you solved my riddle”, in which Abbott revealed that County Judges had the power all along to order businesses to require masks for their employees and customers, but he wasn’t going to tell them that, they had to figure that out on their own even though they had been loudly saying that getting more people to wear masks was the main thing they could do to help with the pandemic. Letting local authorities have more power to make local decisions was not only the better call for fighting the virus, it would have shifted a lot of the heat Abbott now feels from him to them, with “them” mostly being Democrats. When Abbott took their power away back in April, it was seen as him coming in to take credit for their work. Too bad for him that work wasn’t finished, because it’s all on him now.

– Let’s also not forget the fact that when Abbott announced his intent to reopen, he announced four criteria that were supposed to guide the reopening timeline. Those were declining case rates, declining positive test rates, enough contact tracers, and sufficient hospital capacity. Only that last one was ever met, and because the other three were completely ignored, the hospitals are now overwhelmed. A more far-sighted leader would have counseled patience, saying we need to reach these benchmarks before we get to do the things we want to do. But as established, Abbott isn’t a leader at all, and so here we are.

– Finally, and I have said this before as well, I do agree that at some point Abbott should have called a special session, partly to clarify his own executive powers and thus blunt some of the lawsuits that have been filed over stay-at-home and face mask orders, and partly to share the responsibility with the legislative body. Abbott has repeatedly shown that he likes to operate in a bubble, where he does his thing and no one gets to ask him any questions unless they’ve been pre-approved and invited to do so. I get that hating on the mainstream media is a standard part of the Republican playbook, but I think Abbott’s self-imposed isolation isn’t serving him well simply because he’s not hearing from anyone who isn’t in his inner circle. The Lege can serve as a foil, or at least a partner in taking the blame, but not when you’re a one-man show.

Every step of the way, Greg Abbott could have made better decisions. It was clear at the time he was making those decisions that he was choosing poorly. Now we are all facing the consequences of those bad decisions. Greg Abbott bears the responsibility for what happened. Never forget that.

Dems ask some Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves from convention appeal

Stay with me here, this will all make sense.

The Texas Democratic Party on Friday called for four of the state’s nine Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves from a case involving the Texas Republican Party’s in-person convention, claiming each had a conflict of interest.

The campaigns of Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Justices Jane Bland, Jeffrey Boyd and Brett Busby each sponsored the convention, according to an archived list of sponsors that since has been removed from the Texas GOP’s website.

[…]

Texas GOP officials are seeking a writ of mandamus from the court that would block Turner from canceling the convention, a day after a Harris County judge denied the party’s attempt to do so in state district court.

Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said the four justices, each of whom is up for re-election in November, are “faced with an obligation to do the right thing and choose the law over political allegiance.”

“A justice who funds a dangerous convention should not judicially decide the fate of that same convention,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “All four have interests in the case coming before them and all four should recuse.”

See here for the background. The allegation is that by sponsoring the convention and being on the November ballot, these judges have a conflict of interest. A press release from the TDP provided the following justification for the petition:

Canon 3(B)(1) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct provides that Texas judges “shall hear and decide matters assigned to the judge except those in which disqualification is required or recusal is appropriate.”

Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 18(b) requires a judge to recuse themself from a case when “(1) the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned” or “(2) the judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning the subject matter or a party.”

I’m not qualified to assess this claim, but I will note that if the four Justices do recuse themselves, there’s still enough justices left to issue a ruling, and since all nine are Republicans it doesn’t change the dynamic. Given the compressed timeline for this litigation, I presume we’ll get an answer quickly.

GOP sues over cancelled convention

As the night follows the day.

The Texas Republican Party on Thursday sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston First Corp. for canceling the party’s in-person convention that was scheduled for next week in downtown Houston.

The lawsuit, filed in Harris County state district court, alleges that Turner erred when he invoked a “force majeure” clause of the contract between the Texas GOP and Houston First, the city’s public nonprofit that operates the George R. Brown Convention Center. The Republican Party also is suing Houston First President Brenda Bazan and the city of Houston.

Turner, who ordered Houston First to cancel the convention on Wednesday, said the clause allows one side to cancel over something that is out of its control, including “epidemics in the City of Houston.” In its petition filed Thursday, the GOP said Turner simply does not want to hold the convention, thus failing to meet the force majeure standard.

“Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s use of the force majeure clause is just a pretext to his intent to treat the Republican Party of Texas differently than other groups, such as those we have seen from recent protests in the city of Houston,” the party said in a statement Thursday. “It should go without saying that a political viewpoint cannot be the basis for unequal treatment.”

Turner said he called off the convention based on concerns about Houston’s recent COVID-19 surge and input from various medical professionals. A spokeswoman for the mayor said he would address the lawsuit at a 3 p.m. news conference.

In the lawsuit, Texas Republican Party officials are seeking a temporary restraining order that would allow the convention to continue as planned and damages due to Turner’s “anticipatory breach of contract,” including the cost of all losses and the “increased costs of handling the Convention elsewhere.”

The party argued that Turner and Houston First violated the “equal rights clause” of the Texas Constitution, and that Gov. Greg Abbott stripped Turner’s power to cancel the convention in one of his COVID-19 executive orders.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. I’d love to hear from any of the attorneys out there about the merits of this one. I can’t remember where I saw this now – probably Twitter, my brain is mush – but Jared Woodfill (who is of course the plaintiffs’ attorney for this, along with fellow genius Briscoe Cain) said he was going to try to get a hearing today and secure a temporary block on the cancellation. I can imagine that happening, at least long enough for a judge to make a preliminary ruling. (UPDATE: Per a press release from the Texas GOP received at 7:30, they were indeed denied a motion to block the cancellation. They will appeal directly to the Supreme Court. Stay tuned.) Beyond that, who knows? Insert giant shrug emoji here. Texas Lawyer and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Jasper Scherer tweets about the TRO denial. Apparently, there’s a second lawsuit as well, by Steven Hotze, because of course there is. Both motions were denied.

UPDATE: An updated Chron story, with more details on the TRO denials. Also, too, this:

The mayor also encouraged party officials to move their convention to Montgomery County, where County Judge Mark Keough offered to host the event and vowed “there will be no last-minute changes.”

“I think Judge Keough in Montgomery County is more than happy to host the 6,000 delegates (there),” Turner said. “I think they should go to Montgomery County.”

Seems like a match made in heaven to me.

City cancels Republican convention

Game on.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on Wednesday that the city has canceled the Texas Republican Party’s in-person state convention in downtown Houston next week.

Houston First, the public nonprofit that serves as the city’s convention arm, sent a letter to the party’s executive committee notifying it that the convention has been canceled.

The letter triggers a part of the contract called a “force majeure” clause, which allows one side to cancel for an occurrence out of its control. The definition included “epidemics in the City of Houston,” according to the Houston First letter.

Earlier Wednesday, Texas Republican Party officials said they were preparing for a legal fight after Turner said the Houston First and the city attorney’s office would review its contract with the party for using the George R. Brown Convention Center for the convention July 16-18.

Turner said he sought the review after Dr. David Persse, the city’s health authority, called the planned convention “a clear and present danger.”

The mayor had been hesitant to leverage his authority to cancel the convention out of fear of politicizing it, and he repeatedly had asked the party to meet virtually instead. He said Wednesday’s decision was prompted by rising numbers and an alarming letter from Persse, who reports to the mayor, outlining the danger of moving forward.

“It is a letter that as the mayor of Houston, that I simply cannot ignore or overlook,” Turner said. “The plan is to exercise those provisions, to cancel this agreement today, to not go forward with this convention.”

Persse’s letter called the spike in Houston an “unparalleled and frightening escalation” since Memorial Day.

“Now, COVID-19 infections are three times greater than they were at the peak experienced earlier this spring,” Persse wrote to Turner and Brenda Bazan, the president of Houston First. “Houston is now among the the national epicenters of the current COVID-19 outbreaks.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the announcement on Twitter. Before anyone gets their Hot Take machines fired up, please note that Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick were going to give their speeches via video, because they apparently had better things to do than bathe in a viral stew for three days. The RPT says they are reviewing their legal options, and I’d bet a year’s supply of N95 masks that someone will file a lawsuit over this. The real question is whether they’ll be able to get an expedited hearing, something the TDP was not able to get from SCOTUS with their vote-by-mail lawsuit. Priorities, you know. Anyway, Republicans should look on the bright side, because they just got something they surely prefer to a dumb convention, namely the chance to play the victim at the hands of a mean old Democrat. All that and a lower chance of death by ventilator – it’s a total win-win. The Trib, the Chron editorial board, and the Press have more.

UPDATE: Right on schedule:

We’ll see if they try for a quick ruling that disallows the cancellation. My head is spinning already.

GOP declines Turner’s invitation to cancel their convention

The ball is back in your court, Mr. Mayor.

The Texas Republican Party is proceeding with an in-person convention next week in downtown Houston, a rejection of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s formal request Monday to move the event online amid a local escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

James Dickey, chairman of the Texas GOP, in a statement Tuesday said the party has been “proactive in implementing safety measures” and had “extensive conversations” with Houston First, the public nonprofit that serves as the city’s convention arm and operates the George R. Brown Convention Center. The convention is set to take place there from July 16 to 18.

“With these precautions currently in place, the Republican Party of Texas intends to proceed with an in-person convention next week in Houston,” Dickey said.

The chairman also responded to the list of conditions Turner, a Democrat, said the GOP would need to follow if it holds the convention. Those guidelines include denying entry to anyone who has tested positive for COVID or come in contact with a COVID patient between July 2 and July 15, requiring attendees to wear masks, and providing touchless hand sanitizing stations throughout the convention center.

“Mayor Turner must not have had the information about the measures being voluntarily implemented,” Dickey said. “The Republican Party, delegates, and guests are looking forward to a safe and productive Convention next week.”

Turner said he was “incredulous” that the GOP is moving ahead with an in-person convention, and reiterated that health department officials would shut down the event if they find people are not following COVID-19 guidelines.

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, the Greater Houston Partnership has also implored the GOP to cancel the in person convention.

The Greater Houston Partnership has called on the Texas GOP, along with state and local officials, to cancel the in-person Texas Republican Convention in downtown Houston next week.

Citing the health and safety of event-goers, staff and volunteers, the group of Houston business leaders said an indoor event as large as the convention — which is expected to draw thousands of people — would be unsafe.

In a letter sent Tuesday afternoon to Gov. Greg Abbott, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and state GOP Chairman James Dickey, the GHP asked “those with the authority to cancel” the event to do so.

“In normal times we would welcome an event that was expected to draw some 6,000 delegates from across Texas to the George R. Brown Convention Center,” the letter read. “Unfortunately, these are not normal times.”

You can click over to see their letter. Of course, the modern Republican Party of Texas doesn’t really represent business interests any more (see: the bathroom bill, for one), so I would not expect this to have any effect. But at least you know, it’s more than just Mayor Turner versus the state GOP.

The one person who could (maybe) put an end to this is Greg Abbott, but I think we all know that ain’t gonna happen. So for now we have this game of chicken, and we hope there’s no significant collateral damage. And if it does come down to the city health department, well, there’s this:

Those “face mask legal exemption” cards are complete BS, in case you were wondering. Not that anyone who has printed out one of those cards for themselves will believe that, of course. If there’s a better definition of “shit show” right now, I don’t want to know what it is.

So how’s Greg Abbott doing post-mask order?

Greg Abbott consistently polls as the politician with the highest approval rating in the state. He was basking in adulation a few weeks ago when things were reopening and the coronavirus numbers still looked good. How are things going for him now that he’s had to shut down the bars and require masks and we’re all worried about the hospitals overflowing? Well, there’s this:

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office says it will not enforce Gov. Greg Abbott’s order requiring most Texans to wear masks when they’re in public.

In a statement, the agency said it “will take NO actions to enforce” the order, arguing that it is unenforceable because it doesn’t allow law enforcement to detain, arrest or jail violators.

“This language strips law enforcement of the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law,” the agency said.

[…]

The sheriff’s office argued the order could subject it to civil liability if deputies stop someone for failing to wear a mask and it is misconstrued as a detention. The agency said “holding someone for the purpose of issuing a citation related to a fine is a legally defined detention under current Texas law.”

“We are in a public health crisis and we will use this opportunity to educate our community while still respecting individual liberties,” the sheriff’s office said.

They did say they would respond to a call from a business who had a customer who refused to wear a mask upon entering. Sheriffs from a couple of other Republican counties have made similar statements as well. I mean, I can kind of see their point here, and as we know Greg Abbott basically destroyed the legitimacy of any kind of enforcement mechanism for mask and stay-at-home orders in the Shelley Luther debacle. It’s still a bit stunning to see a Republican sheriff say publicly that they won’t do what Abbott wants them to do. They appear to have no fear of political blowback.

Which leads us to this:

The Ector County Republican Party voted Saturday to censure Gov. Greg Abbott, accusing him of overstepping his authority in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, while state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, called for a special session so lawmakers could have a say in how Texas proceeds amid soaring caseloads.

The party executive committee in Ector County, home to Odessa, passed the censure resolution 10-1, with one abstention and three voting members who were not present, according to the chairperson, Tisha Crow. She said she was among those who supported the resolution, which accuses Abbott of violating five party principles related to his exercise of executive power during the pandemic.

While the resolution asks that delegates to the state convention later this month consider — and affirm — Ector County’s action, Crow said consideration is “not guaranteed,” and one precinct chair, Aubrey Mayberry, said the resolution “doesn’t have any teeth” for now — but that it was important to send a message about what they consider Abbott’s overreach.

Mayberry, who voted for the resolution, said he was working with precinct chairs in other Texas counties to get similar resolutions passed ahead of the convention.

That’s a pretty direct slap in the face, and with the state GOP convention almost upon us, the potential for this to become A Thing is substantial. Will that represent some steam that has been blown off, or will it be the first step towards a serious rebellion? That’s an excellent question.

[State Sen. Charles] Perry wrote Saturday on Facebook that he is “deeply concerned about the unilateral power being used with no end in sight.”

“This is why I urge Governor Abbott to convene a special session to allow the legislature to pass legislation and hold hearings regarding the COVID-19 response,” Perry said. “It should not be the sole responsibility of one person to manage all of the issues related to a disaster that has no end in sight.”

In the upper chamber, state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, has also called for a special session, as have several House Republicans.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer had previously called on Abbott to work with the Legislature on COVID response instead of acting so unilaterally, though he’s a Democrat and I didn’t see the words “special session” in that article. As I have said repeatedly, the extent of the Governor’s emergency powers is a subject that really demands further discussion, and so far all we’ve gotten is a bunch of Hotze/Woodfill lawsuits, which is the worst possible way to come to a decision about what Abbott and whoever succeeds him can and cannot do. Among other things, I think this is exposing a real weakness in our 20-weeks-every-other-year legislative calendar, precisely because there’s a lot of things that the Lege can and should be doing right now, but is unable to because they’re not in session. The same was true in 2017 following Hurricane Harvey, though at least there everyone understood what the emergency actions were for and there was a clearer metric for when they would be lifted.

I would argue that legislators need to think about proposing some constitutional amendments to 1) more clearly define the parameters of the Governor’s executive power, and 2) maybe automatically trigger a special session under certain crisis conditions. I obviously haven’t thought this all through, and I don’t want to see legislators rushing forth with half-baked ideas, but I am serious that we need to take a look at this. The current model of “Governor hands down orders from on high that no one knew were coming and then gets sued by a couple of crackpots from Houston so that the courts can eventually sort it all out” doesn’t seem like it’s sustainable.

Mayor Turner asks GOP to not hold its convention

Good luck with that.

The city of Houston will deploy health inspectors to enforce COVID-19 restrictions at the Texas Republican Convention, and potentially shut down the event if guidelines aren’t followed, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday.

In a letter to Texas GOP executive director Kyle Whatley, Turner on Monday laid out a series of conditions the party would have to follow if it proceeds with an in-person convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center from July 16 to 18. The guidelines are aimed at limiting the transmission of COVID when an anticipated 6,000 people descend on the convention center.

Those conditions, according to Turner’s office, include denying entry to anyone who has tested positive for COVID or come in contact with a COVID patient between July 2 and July 15, requiring attendees to wear masks, and providing touchless hand sanitizing stations throughout the convention center.

Party officials also must limit attendance and seating capacity “or host smaller events in larger rooms,” and modify room layouts to “promote social distance of at least 6 feet.” The mayor’s letter did not include a specific cap on how many people can attend the convention.

Turner also said he is “strongly encouraging” the Texas GOP to call off the in-person convention, which he said is the only conference or convention in Houston that has not been canceled or rescheduled for next year.

“I believe canceling the in-person convention is the responsible action to take while we are in a critical moment in our battle against the COVID-19 pandemic,” Turner said. “I’ve not yet talked to a medical professional who has said that this is a good idea to hold this convention at this time.”

Echoing Turner’s message, Houston public health authority David Persse said “the wise, prudent thing to do would be for the Texas GOP to reconsider their position” to hold the event in person.

See here for the background, and here for a thread from the official Twitter account of the Mayor’s office that makes things a bit more explicit. I have a hard time believing that the health department will actually step in and order the convention closed because it would be one hell of a political bombshell to do that, but it’s not out of the question. The Trib adds some details.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Turner recently removed language from an executive order and effectively took away his own authority to cancel the convention.

Turner also called on event sponsors to push the party to move the event online, tweeting that all other conferences had already been rescheduled or canceled for the rest of the year. The Texas Medical Association, the state’s largest medical group, has called on the party to follow suit and withdrew as a convention advertiser.

“With or without masks, an indoor gathering of thousands of people from all around the state in a city with tens of thousands of active COVID-19 cases poses a significant health risk to conventiongoers, convention workers, health care workers, and the residents of Houston,” Dr. Diana Fite, TMA’s president, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, various other indoor conventions across the state have recently been canceled or moved online. The Texas High School Coaches Association announced Monday it is canceling its in-person, indoor convention scheduled for July 19 to 21 in San Antonio. The THSCA conference was expected to draw 5,000 attendees who would not have been required to wear face masks, according to the association’s rules.

“It was a tough call to make but in our efforts to support the preventative protocols set forth by our Texas school administrators, the UIL [University Interscholastic League] Executive Staff and governing authorities at both state and local levels, we are choosing to prioritize health and safety first,” the THSCA wrote in a press release.

The Texas Girls Coaches Association also canceled their convention for this week. The state GOP really is alone in their push to gather thousands of people into an interior space like this. I don’t fully understand why Mayor Turner amended his executive order removing his own authority to shut down a gathering like this convention, but my guess would be he was advised it would put the city in a precarious legal position to do so – basically, we’d get our butts sued for it and probably lose. Certainly, in every possible way, the cleanest solution here is for the GOP to decide on its own to cancel and hold their convention online instead. I don’t have any reason to think they’ll do that, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

State GOP will have its convention

I hope they don’t kill any convention or hotel workers as a result. Beyond that, I don’t know what to say.

The Texas GOP’s executive committee voted Thursday night to proceed with plans to hold the party’s in-person convention in Houston later this month.

The State Republican Executive Committee, a 64-member body that serves as the governing board of the state party, voted 40-20 to approve the resolution supporting the in-person gathering. Thursday’s vote comes as the state grapples with a surge of coronavirus cases, with Houston serving as one of the country’s hot spots for the virus.

The SREC is scheduled to meet again Sunday to consider changing the party’s rules. Those rules will include a tweak that allows the party to act on an “emergency fallback contingency plan,” if necessary, to hold a virtual convention, party Chair James Dickey told members as he kicked off Thursday’s virtual meeting.

The convention, scheduled for July 16-18, will be held at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where roughly 6,000 people are expected to attend.

[…]

Over the past week, demands have mounted for the party to cancel plans for an in-person convention, with some Republicans stating they would not attend such an event due to safety concerns. Others have also cited concerns about the optics of attending a large gathering while small businesses in their districts remain shuttered under the governor’s orders.

Meanwhile, a faction of activists has argued that canceling an event focused on selecting delegates for the national convention and voting on the party’s platform, among other things, would not reflect well on a party that dubs itself the party of personal responsibility. Some have also suggested that a virtual convention could disenfranchise certain delegates.

On Tuesday, the party’s plans for an in-person convention looked increasingly uncertain, when the Texas Medical Association, the state’s largest medical group, called on the party to cancel the event, a reversal that came just one day after The Texas Tribune reported on TMA’s sponsorship of the convention.

After Thursday night’s vote, TMA announced it had withdrawn as an advertiser to the convention, arguing that face masks alone at such a large gathering were not enough.

“With or without masks, an indoor gathering of thousands of people from all around the state in a city with tens of thousands of active COVID-19 cases poses a significant health risk to conventiongoers, convention workers, health care workers, and the residents of Houston,” Diana Fite, the group’s president, said in a statement. “We are concerned not only for the City of Houston but also for the communities to which the delegates will return, giving the virus easy transportation to parts of Texas that have far fewer cases.”

See here and here for the background. Kudos to the TMA for backing out as sponsors, which they had initially said they would not do because of their need to engage with (read: lobby) Republicans directly. As noted, all this occurred on the same day as Greg Abbott’s mask order, which at least will mostly require attendees to wear them. Abbott’s order banned outdoor public gatherings of more than 100 people but had no effect on the much more hazardous indoor public gatherings. In typically wishy-washy fashion, Abbott expressed no opinion about whether or not this convention should be held in person or online.

There’s nothing we can do about the state GOP’s decision. They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. But we can and should make sure that Houston First, the entity that owns the George R. Brown and the nearby Hilton Hotel, extends full health insurance coverage to all their workers who have to be there for this. If the Republicans insist on risking their own health, that’s one thing. But no one else should be made to suffer for it. The Chron has more.

Maybe that Republican convention won’t happen after all

First, there was this.

The Texas Medical Association is encouraging Texans to practice social distancing, stay home when possible and wear masks to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. But despite the potential mixed message it may send, the state’s largest medical organization said Monday it is not reconsidering its sponsorship of the Texas Republican convention next month. Some 6,000 people from across the state are expected to gather indoors without a mask mandate at the convention in Houston, one of the nation’s fastest-growing COVID-19 hot spots.

A spokesperson for TMA, which represents more than 53,000 Texas physicians and medical students, told The Texas Tribune that it will honor its commitment to the event.

“The agreement will not be revisited,” Brent Annear said in an email Monday.

He added that despite the fact that the GOP organizers won’t require attendees to wear masks, TMA “encourages everyone who goes anywhere to wear masks.”

“To our Republican friends — and our Democrat friends (and independents and those of other parties) — we say wear a mask, wash your hands, stay socially distant if you must be in groups, and stay home if you can,” Annear said.

[…]

Annear said TMA’s agreement with the Republican Party of Texas was set in stone “before the pandemic was a major issue here — before we hit any stay-home suggestions or mandates, mask policies or anything like that.”

And because the group signed on to the sponsorship before the pandemic began and “no conditions like that were discussed,” it will not back out of the agreement, he said.

“This low-rung sponsorship entitles TMA to have a brief video play for the conventiongoers that reminds them that Texas physicians are here to care for Texas patients,” Annear said. “We paid the same low-level sponsor amount to the Democrats for their convention, and we had a video play during their virtual convention with essentially the same message.”

Dr. Diana Fite, the president of the Texas Medical Association, wrote in an online letter to Texas physicians that they should encourage patients, friends and family members to “for your sake, for your neighbors’ sake, for my sake, and for your grandma’s sake, wear a mask, Texas.”

Earlier this spring, TMA canceled its own annual conference, TexMed 2020, which was scheduled to take place from May 1-2 in Fort Worth, and suspended the 2020 TMA House of Delegates meeting both in-person and online “until the crisis has subsided.”

See here for the background. I get the rationale for participating in the convention and have no quarrel with that. But my goodness, this is not a great look for the TMA. It’s really hard to make the case for wearing face masks, social distancing, avoiding risky behavior, etc etc etc, when you’re hanging out at a crowded indoor venue with a bunch of people who thinks mask wearing is a commie plot meant to bring down the President. It’s exactly this kind of mixed message that has gotten us into the trouble we’re in now. And boy, that’s some weak justification by the TMA.

But it turns out, there was another option. And so on Tuesday, we got this.

The Texas Medical Association on Tuesday called on the Republican Party of Texas to cancel its in-person July convention scheduled to take place in Houston, one of the country’s fastest growing coronavirus hot spots.

The latest development comes one day after The Texas Tribune reported on the Texas Medical Association’s sponsorship of the convention, an indoor gathering that is not requiring masks of the 6,000 people expected to attend. On Monday, TMA told the Tribune that it would not rescind its sponsorship. But at the time TMA had not yet called on the Republican Party to cancel its convention.

In an open letter to party leadership Tuesday, Dr. Diana Fite, TMA president, cited the growing number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Harris County as a reason for the Texas Republican Party to cancel its Houston convention. The county has the highest number of cases and deaths in the state.

“The daily chart of active cases in Harris County has been nearly a straight line upward for the past two weeks,” Fite wrote. “As an emergency physician in Houston treating patients with COVID-19, I speak from firsthand experience: It would be best for the health of your conventiongoers and the residents of Houston for the RPT not to hold its biennial convention there as planned.”

TMA said it made $5,000 contributions to both the Republican Party of Texas and the Texas Democratic Party in exchange for a brief video advertising TMA’s mission at each convention.

“Our staff reassured RPT staff that TMA would advertise in a virtual gathering, but asked that if an in-person meeting would occur to please utilize CDC, state and local guidelines for social distancing and wearing masks,” Fite wrote Tuesday.

In an interview Tuesday, Fite said a variety of factors influenced TMA’s decision to send a letter to the Republican Party of Texas, including pressure from members after The Tribune’s story published.

“We were hearing from a lot of members and some of our board members were concerned,” she said. “And so we definitely want to discuss that situation. We had just heard very recently that the event was going to be held in Houston.”

[…]

Fite’s letter mentioned that TMA previously canceled its own in-person convention in May, stating that “like the RPT, a sizeable fraction of the TMA annual convention consists of longtime activists and leaders — men and women who are now at that age where they are particularly susceptible to the worst that a case of COVID-19 can deliver.”

Protecting the group’s elderly members was “among the reasons” TMA canceled its May convention, Fite said, and is urging the Texas GOP to do the same.

“This is just not the time to bring thousands of the party faithful from around the state to an indoor meeting in a county that, as I write, reports more than 18,000 active COVID-19 cases,” Fite said.

You can see a copy of the letter here. I mean, yeah. Anyone can see the logic in Dr. Fite’s argument. As the story notes, the RPT is actually thinking about it. Scott Braddock is on the spot.

I’ll post an update when I see one. This is clearly the right answer. It may be difficult for the GOP to switch to a virtual convention now, given that the real thing was scheduled to start July 16, but that’s on them. The risk/reward calculation is clear. They just have to recognize it.

UPDATE: Still in wait-and-see mode:

The Texas GOP’s plan for an in-person convention next month in Houston is looking increasingly uncertain as criticism mounts over plans to host thousands of people indoors as the new coronavirus surges across the state.

Party Chair James Dickey said Tuesday that the State Republican Executive Committee will meet Thursday to consider options for the future of the event, which he assured includes an “ultimate contingency plan” to move the event online.

“We have prepared for an online convention as the ultimate contingency plan if we are forced by a government order at any level and not able to hold our convention in person,” Dickey said during a livestreamed announcement Tuesday evening. “We’ve had that plan in place since the beginning of the pandemic so that we can be fully prepared for any turn of events.”

The State Republican Executive Committee, a 64-member body including Dickey and Vice Chair Alma Jackson, could take action ranging from mandating masks at what is expected to be a roughly 6,000-person event to relocating it to another city or moving the convention online.

[…]

State Rep. Sarah Davis, a Houston-area Republican, said it seemed “incredibly irresponsible” to hold such a large gathering and said she does not plan to attend this year’s event.

“I think it’s a horrible idea to proceed with holding the in-person convention,” Davis told the Tribune on Tuesday. “Houston is the last place we need to have a crowd of 6,000 gathering, given our COVID-19 positivity rate increases.”

Other Republicans, such as state Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood, have brushed aside such concerns, arguing instead that Texans should return to some sense of normal in an effort to prevent further damage to the economy.

“Canceling the convention sends the exact opposite message that Republicans should be sending,” Hall said in a statement Tuesday. “There is no reason to cancel a gathering that will help unite Republicans behind a limited government platform.”

Well, good luck unifying your factions. We’ll see what they decide tomorrow night.

Is this convention really necessary?

Seriously. I know they don’t care about anyone else, but maybe the state GOP might think about the health and well-being of their own people?

As the coronavirus pandemic engulfs Texas’ metropolitan areas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has left the door open for massive indoor gatherings. And organizers are moving forward with some big ones, including the Texas Republican party’s upcoming convention in Houston.

Harris County, where Houston is located, has the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the state, but the Texas GOP plans to press forward with plans to hold an in-person convention from July 16-18 in the city’s George R. Brown Convention Center.

“All systems are go, folks. This is happening,” Kyle Whatley, the party’s executive director, said Tuesday during a tele-town hall, noting the convention program is already being printed.

On Tuesday, Abbott granted local officials the power to restrict outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people, but made no mention of indoor gatherings. The Texas GOP convention is expected to draw about 6,000 attendees, roughly half of what it would expect for such a convention in normal times, according to Whatley. The party’s website brands its annual convention as the “largest political gathering in the free world.”

Whatley said registrations are “increasing exponentially” as the convention nears.

David Lakey, the former commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said he believes large indoor gatherings of more than 100 people are not advisable at this time.

“I think, right now, I wouldn’t hold a group larger than 100 individuals,” he said. “I think people need to be very cautious about making — especially in the month of July — any plans for a big conference.”

The party does not plan to require masks at the convention, though chairman James Dickey acknowledged Tuesday that Harris County is currently under an order mandating that businesses require customers to wear masks.

“The Republican Party isn’t considered a commercial entity so they themselves are not required to comply with the mask order,” said Melissa Arredondo, a spokesperson for the office of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who issued the mask order.

That order expires Tuesday, and Dickey said the party will “revisit” the mask issue during another tele-town hall next month before the convention.

Maybe read the story of Bill Baker, and then rethink this? Just a suggestion. And it truly is ridiculous to be allowed to ban outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people while being forced to allow a much riskier indoor event of thousands of people. I’m sure someone pointed out to Abbott that if he did the sensible thing and allowed all gatherings of large sizes to be banned by local officials, the GOP convention would be immediately canceled. It’s still ridiculous.

And look, if this were only a bunch of Republican activists putting themselves at risk, I’d shrug my shoulders and let them enjoy their “freedom”, for whatever it was worth. But of course, they’re not just putting their own health and safety on the line, they’re endangering everyone who will be working at the convention as well. Those folks deserve better.

The situation has created what union leaders say is a potentially perilous situation for workers at the Hilton Americas-Houston hotel, which is connected to the convention center and expects to see an uptick in guests during the convention. Officials from Unite Here Local 23, the union that represents hotel and other hospitality workers, say health insurance benefits are set to expire for Hilton workers at the end of the month, since many of them were laid off at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving them short of the hours needed to qualify for coverage.

Houston First Corp., the city’s convention arm, owns the Hilton Americas-Houston and operates the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Houston First Chairman David Mincberg disputed the union’s claim, saying in a statement to the Chronicle that all Houston First and Hilton employees “will have health insurance coverage (except those who have opted out) while working at the George R. Brown Convention Center or the Hilton” during the convention. Mincberg also said Houston First officials “do not anticipate any part-time workers being utilized.”

Hilton employees are set to lose their health coverage at the end of July if they do not work enough hours in June to qualify for coverage, while those laid off earlier will lose it by June 30. Union officials said nearly 450 employees have been laid off by the Hilton since February, accounting for about 95 percent of the hotel’s employees.

Bo Delp, senior political organizer for Unite Here Local 23, questioned how the Hilton could adequately staff the convention if only 5 percent of its employees are set to qualify for health coverage through the end of July.

“Houston First has made a decision that during a global pandemic, it is going to continue to host events,” Delp said. “The minute they made that decision, from our perspective, they had a moral and public health obligation to make sure that the workers who are coming in as a result of their decision to host events, that they are healthy and safe.”

Mincberg said Houston First lacks the ability to cancel the event or require convention guests to wear masks, even if conditions worsen before mid-July.

“(Houston First) does not have the authority to require safety measures, unless included in the original license agreement. Since this agreement was issued prior to the pandemic, no such provision was included,” Mincberg said.

Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, urged Houston First officials to provide health coverage for hospitality workers and “institute preventive activities” to limit the spread of COVID-19 during large gatherings at the convention center.

“We know that closed spaces, crowded conditions, close contact, and duration of contact all enhance transmission of this virus,” Troisi wrote in a letter to Mincberg on Tuesday. “This convention space includes all of these risk factors and particularly without mandatory masking, transmission of the virus is almost inevitable, both to convention attendees and to hospitality employees.”

Every employee who works this dumb convention should have full health care coverage. Whatever it takes to give that to them, make it happen. And in the future, all contracts for conventions in Houston facilities should include clauses about pandemics and requirements for face masks and following county health mandates. The very least we can do from this experience is learn from it.

Just a reminder, you can get a mail ballot if you need one

No one is going to stop you.

As Democrats and civil rights groups sue to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic, a recent decision by the Texas Supreme Court has left it up to voters to decide for themselves whether they qualify for vote-by-mail.

In its decision in late May, the highest civil court in the state ruled that lack of immunity to COVID-19 alone does not constitute a disability that would allow those under 65 years old to vote by mail rather than at the polls, under the Texas election codes.

But it added — which legal experts say is crucial — that a voter can take the possibility of being infected into consideration along with his or her “health” and “health history” to determine whether he or she needs to vote by mail under the ‘disability’ provisions in the law.

“I think really the story here is that it’s going to be up to individual voters to decide whether they fit this definition or not,” said Joseph Fishkin, a University of Texas professor who studies election law and has closely followed the cases.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray has said Harris is relying on the Supreme Court decision to bolster its recommendation that voters request a ballot if they believe they are eligible.

“If it’s checked disabled, we’ll just send the ballot,” Ray said. “We don’t question that. We don’t have the authority or ability to investigate that.”

In Bexar County, the commissioners court last month passed a resolution supporting access to mail-in ballots for voters afraid of contracting COVID-19 at polling place, but the county has not made any recommendations to voters since.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Monday that such a public notice is on the way.

The Bexar commissioners last week directed the county attorney to help craft language for voter guidance, citing the Texas Supreme Court decision, and requesting for the election administrator, Jacque Callanen, to consider publishing it. Callanen did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’ve asked her to make it clear to voters that it’s up to them to determine whether they have a health condition or a physical condition” that qualifies them to vote by mail, Wolff said. “It’s their decision, not the state’s decision.”

Well, we know what Harris County has done. (Note: That was mail ballot applications the Clerk sent to all over-65 voters, not actual mail ballots.) We’ll see what the demand looks like in November. I would still advise, in my extremely I Am Not A Lawyer way, that there is some risk in applying for a mail ballot under the disability provision. How much there is I can’t say, but given the times and the apparent determination of the Republican Party to salt the earth, it’s definitely greater than zero. Make the best decision for yourself. Campos has more.

Where do they find these people?

News item: Five Texas GOP county leaders share racist Facebook posts, including one juxtaposing an MLK quote with a banana.

Republican leaders in five Texas counties shared racist Facebook posts, some of which also floated conspiracy theories, leading Gov. Greg Abbott to call for two of them to resign.

Abbott and other top Texas Republicans called for the resignation of the GOP chairs in Bexar and Nueces counties after they shared on social media a conspiracy theory that Floyd’s death was a “staged event,” apparently to gin up opposition to President Donald Trump. There is no evidence to support that claim; Floyd, a black Minnesota man, died last week after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

“These comments are disgusting and have no place in the Republican Party or in public discourse,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, the GOP chairman-elect in Harris County, Keith Nielsen, posted an image on Facebook earlier this week that showed a Martin Luther King Jr. quote — “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” — on a background with a banana. The juxtaposition of the quote and the banana can be read as an allusion to equating black people with monkeys, a well-worn racist trope. Nielsen appears to have deleted the post and apparently addressed it on his Facebook page Thursday evening. On Friday he updated his comments to say he would not resign.

[…]

Even later Thursday, Democrats also criticized a fourth post from a GOP chair on Facebook. Sue Piner, chair of the Comal County GOP, shared a post on Sunday that included an image of liberal billionaire George Soros and text that said, “I pay white cops to murder black people. And then I pay black people to riot because race wars keep the sheep in line.”

Piner could not be immediately reached for comment about the post. The unfounded Soros conspiracy theory is among many that have spread online as Americans have protested policy brutality.

Republican Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush late Thursday said all four county leaders should step down.

Sorry, I was busy reading this classic Onion article and got distracted for a minute. Where was I? Oh, yeah. First, who knew that the Harris County GOP could suck even more than it already did? And that Bexar County GOP Chair, nobody could have predicted that she was an utter wacko. Remember when Republican leaders in Texas believed in more wholesome conspiracy theories? Boy, those were the days.

You can see this Patrick Svitek Twitter thread for more calls from these respectable Republicans for these not-so-respectable Republicans to resign. But that, as they say, is not all. News item: In false Facebook posts, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller accused George Soros of paying protesters to “destroy” the country. I’m not going to quote from this one, you pretty much get the picture from the headline. It’s just that spouting bizarre, racist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on Facebook is pretty much Sid Miller’s core competence. I look forward to seeing George P. Bush and the rest of those Respectable Republicans call on him to resign, now that maybe Sid Miller may finally be too big an embarrassment even for them.

UPDATE: We’re now up to a dozen GOP county party chairs with truly Facebook posts about the George Floyd murder, and an equally vile lack of understanding of why they’re so disgusting.

UPDATE: And the new Harris County GOP Chair is out. My advice, leave the position vacant. Won’t make any difference whether they have a Chair or not, and there’s one less idiot to say something ugly and stupid in public.

RIP, Engage Texas

We hardly knew ye.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Engage Texas, the massive Republican super PAC focused on voter registration, is shutting down, citing challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic.

The group began last year with the support of some of the biggest Texas GOP donors and raised $12.7 million while building a staff in the hundreds. Yet the group says that the months-long pandemic has made clear that “person-to-person contact voter registration is going to be challenging for an indeterminate amount of time.”

“Leadership has determined that the highest and best use of supporter and donor energies at this point is to phase out person-to-person voter registration, close Engage Texas and encourage our supporters to engage with candidate and party activities ahead of the November election,” Engage Texas said in a statement to The Texas Tribune on Friday. “Engage Texas is proud of our highly successful voter registration efforts and believes that conservative voter registration will successfully continue through the Republican Party of Texas Volunteer Engagement Project.”

Engage Texas, which had $6 million cash on hand at the end of March, is in the process of redistributing its remaining funds to other GOP groups with similar goals. The reallocations are expected to be detailed on its next quarterly report to the Federal Election Commission, which is due July 15.

The shuttering of Engage Texas leaves the Texas GOP’s Volunteer Engagement Project as Republicans’ chief registration effort this election cycle at the state level. The project is aiming to register 100,000 likely Republicans by Oct. 5, the registration deadline for the November election. Party chairman James Dickey said Thursday the project has surpassed 85,000 registrations.

“Republicans are finally paying major attention again to voter registration,” Dickey said during a tele-town hall about the party’s 2020 convention. “It’s back in our DNA, and we are ceding no turf.”

Still, the shutdown of Engage Texas is a major blow to one of the lessons that state Republicans took from their setbacks in the 2018 election — that they needed to grow their pool of voters and hone in on registration after years of neglect.

[…]

In shutting down, Engage Texas pointed to data that it said showed that for the first time in a decade, “Republican registrations have outpaced Democrat registrations in Texas, and have done so for nine consecutive months.” As of today, the group said, Republicans have registered 18,677 more new voters this year in Texas than Democrats have.

I would not take their claims very seriously. I’m sure they registered some voters, but without knowing their exact metrics it’s hard to take any such claims, especially such specific claims, as anything more than self-aggrandizement. (How would they know how many voters Democratic-aligned organizations have registered, for example?) I would also note that if this mission was that critical, this would be a funny time to abandon it. I’m sure the rest of that money will go to only the most deserving consultants and operatives. See you on the other side, Engage Texas.

RNC sues to halt California mail ballot expansion

Put a pin in this.

The Republican National Committee and other Republican groups have filed a lawsuit against California to stop the state from mailing absentee ballots to all voters ahead of the 2020 general election, a move that was made in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The suit comes after California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced this month that the state would move to encourage all voters to cast their ballots by mail in November — the most widespread expansion of vote-by-mail that has been announced as a result of the pandemic and in the nation’s most populous state.

The RNC’s lawsuit challenges that step, marking a significant escalation in the legal battles between Republicans and Democrats that are currently being waged in more than a dozen states.

[…]

Sunday’s suit — filed on behalf of the RNC, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the California Republican Party — seeks to halt Newsom’s order, arguing that it “violates eligible citizens’ right to vote.”

The groups argue that Newsom’s order will lead to fraud because the state plans to mail ballots to inactive voters automatically, which “invites fraud, coercion, theft, and otherwise illegitimate voting.”

Studies have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud as a result of in-person or mail-in voting.

Rick Hasen has a copy of the complaint here. Part of it is specific to California law and whether or not Governor Newsom has the authority to issue this executive order, and part of it is the claim that mailing a ballot to all eligible voters will result in an unconstitutional “dilution” of the vote because of the likelihood that more “fraudulent” votes will be cast. I can’t speak to the former, but the latter is a claim that bears watching. It’s ridiculous on its face, especially given the utter lack of evidence to bolster any claim about significant “vote fraud”, but that doesn’t mean that SCOTUS couldn’t eventually find a way to justify a limit to voting rights down the line.

None of this directly impacts Texas – we’re in a different judicial district, and there’s not a chance on earth that we would mail a ballot to every registered voter, no matter the outcome of the various federal lawsuits. But we need to keep an eye on this because it could eventually have an effect here.

Harris County preps for more mail ballots

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to spend up to $12 million for an expected uptick in requests for mail-in ballots in the July primary runoff and November general election from voters concerned about contracting the novel coronavirus at polling places.

The three Democrats on the five-member court voted to give County Clerk Diane Trautman enough to send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter in the county over the objections of the two Republican members who said the clerk failed to justify the expense.

Trautman said her office is planning for any outcome in a lawsuit filed by Democrats and voting rights advocates seeking to force the Texas secretary of state to allow any resident to request a mail ballot.

“No matter what the courts and the state decide for the July and November elections, we must be prepared for an increase in mail ballots, which we are already seeing,” Trautman said.

[…]

Trautman said her office “can’t turn on a dime” and must begin preparing to accommodate more mail ballots, which are more expensive to process than votes cast at electronic voting machines because they would require more equipment and staff, as well as the cost of postage.

She outlined the costs of an expanded mail voting program: about $3 million for 700,000 ballots; $8 million for 1.2 million ballots; and $12 million for all 2.4 million ballots. The Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — opted for the full sum, noting the county clerk may end up spending only a portion of the funds.

“We want to make sure, with the possibility of a record turnout, we’re giving… the support they need,” Ellis said. “I want us to do what we can to improve the percentage of people who vote in this county, because it’s embarrassing.”

Hidalgo urged Trautman to keep the court and the county health department apprised of her plans to ensure upcoming balloting is safe for voters.

Whatever happens in the lawsuits, we should expect an increase in people voting by mail this fall. I mean, plenty of regular voters are over the age of 65, and all of them are eligible to receive a mail ballot. There were over 100K mail ballots returned in the 2016 election. That number could easily double or triple without any objection from Ken Paxton. Just preparing for that is going to take time and money, and that’e before any consideration of the possibility that a whole lot more people will be allowed to receive a mail ballot. It would be negligent in the extreme to not address this ahead of time.

One more thing:

Alan Vera, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s ballot security committee, warned that expanding mail voting would be a “logistical nightmare” that would render the county clerk unable to count all votes on election night.

Vera said Harris County should instead adopt an in-person voting system similar to South Korea, which held a national election in mid-April. Election workers in that nation sanitized polling stations and took the temperature of each voter. Residents with confirmed coronavirus cases still could vote by mail.

Trautman said her office already has ordered sanitation supplies for poll workers, including masks, gloves and face shields.

Okay first, as we know, all early mail and in person ballots are counted and the results published on Election Day when the polls close. You also have to get your ballot in by Election Day. I see no reason why the Clerk could not produce an up-to-date set of results on Election Day evening. I agree that the final count would be later, but most results would be clear by then. Second, because Diane Trautman is not an idiot and we are all aware of the courthouse situation, they are planning for extra safety and cleanliness measures as well. Finally, you do know that Republicans vote with mail ballots, too, right? Making it harder to vote in Harris County is going to hurt y’all as well. I can’t believe I have to tell the Harris County Republican Party that, but here we are.

Abbott delays primary runoffs

So this was originally going to be a post about what various groups have been advocating for the primary runoffs. And then Greg Abbott went and pushed the runoffs back to July without addressing any of the other concerns that had been raised. So here’s my post about that, and then because I spent a lot of time writing the other post, I’ve included that beneath the fold, so you can see what would have been.

Texas is postponing its May 26 primary runoff elections to mid-July to help prevent community spread of COVID-19, Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Friday.

State officials had been trying to decide whether to convert that election to an all-mail-ballot, but Abbott on Friday said the state will instead move the election.

“Holding the runoff in May would cause the congregation of large gatherings of people in confined spaces and cause numerous election workers to come into close proximity with others,” a statement from Abbott’s office said. “This would threaten the health and safety of many Texans.”

The election will be moved to July 14 with early voting starting on July 6.

[…]

Some lawmakers had been pushing Abbott to convert the May runoff election into an all-mail election. Because the turnout out is typically low, they said Texas could easily get ballots to people who want to vote in the runoffs.

I mean, this could be adequate. Lord knows, we all hope that we’re finished with social distancing and coronavirus is more or less under control by then. If it’s not, though, then what’s Plan B? I can understand why Abbott might have wanted to take the easy way out, but he doesn’t really have control over that. Hope for the best, I guess. Anyway, read on for what this post was going to be. The Trib has more.

(more…)

2020 primary results: Harris County

Let’s start with this.

Long lines combined with a lack of voting machines turned into frustration for voters at several election sites in Harris County on Super Tuesday.

Margaret Hollie arrived at the Multi Service Center on Griggs Road at 11 a.m. She finished just after 2:45 p.m.

“It was horrible,” she said. “The worst since I’ve been voting. And I’ve been voting for 60 years.”

She decided to stick around and vote at the location in the city’s South Union area. Others did not, opting to find polling sites that were less busy. Under recent changes implemented by county leaders, voters can now cast their ballot at any precinct.

In Kashmere Gardens, at another Multi Service Center, the line of voters stretched from the entrance of the voting room to the exit of the facility.

Bettie Adami was one of about 100 people in the line about 4 p.m. Healthcare, higher paying jobs and raising the minimum wage top the list of her concerns this election season.

She isn’t letting the line prevent her from voting. “I’ll stand as long as I have to to cast my vote,” she said.

[…]

The county’s political parties are in charge of deciding which polling places will be open for primary elections, said [Rosio Torres, a spokesperson for the Harris County] Clerk’s office.

DJ Ybarra, Executive Director of the Harris County Democratic Party , said the decision was made to not include some polling locations in negotiations with Republicans to keep countywide voting in the primary. The parties agreed on the final map of polling locations in January, said Ybarra.

“In that negotiation, we had to come up with what locations we wanted,” said Ybarra. “We wish we could have had more locations, but we had to negotiate and we had to keep countywide voting.

“In the future, we’re going to try our best to get all our polling locations we want earlier in the process, so we’re not put in a position where we don’t have all the locations we want,” Ybarra said.

To sum that up in a couple of tweets:

In other words, there were about twice as many Dems voting yesterday as there were Republicans, but there were an equal number of Dem and Rep voting machines, which is the way it works for separate primaries. Had this been a joint primary as Trautman’s office originally proposed and which the HCDP accepted, each voting machine at each site could have been used for either primary. Oh well.

I had asked if the judicial races were basically random in a high-turnout election like this. The answer is No, because in every single judicial election where there was a male candidate and a female candidate, the female candidate won, often by a large margin. That means the end for several incumbents, including Larry Weiman, Darryl Moore, Randy Roll, Steven Kirkland, and George Powell, some of which I mourn more than others. Alex Smoots-Thomas, who had a male challenger and a female challenger, trails Cheryl Elliott Thornton going into a runoff. I saw a lot of mourning on Twitter last night of Elizabeth Warren’s underperformance and the seeming reluctance many people had to vote for a woman for President. Well, at least in Harris County, many many people were happy to vote for women for judge.

Three of the four countywide incumbents were headed to victory. In order of vote share, they are Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett, and DA Kim Ogg. In the County Attorney race, challenger Christian Menefee was just above fifty percent, and thus on his way to defeating three-term incumbent Vince Ryan without a runoff. I thought Menefee would do well, but that was a very strong performance. Even if I have to correct this today and say that he fell just short of a clear majority, it’s still quite impressive.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis easily won, with over 70%. Michael Moore and Diana Martinez Alexander were neck and neck in Precinct 3, with Kristi Thibaut a few points behind in third place.

Unfortunately, as I write this, Democrats were on their way towards an own goal in HCDE Position 7, At Large. Andrea Duhon, who is already on the Board now, was leading with just over 50%. If that holds, she’ll have to withdraw and the Republican – none other than Don Freaking Sumners – will be elected in November. If we’re lucky, by the time all the votes have been counted, she’ll drop below fifty percent and will be able to withdraw from the runoff, thus allowing David Brown, currently in second place, to be the nominee. If not, this was the single lousiest result of the day.

Got a lot of other ground to cover, so let’s move on. I’ll circle back to some other county stuff tomorrow.

Five questions for the primary

Five questions I thought of, anyway. With my own answers, some of which are admittedly on the weaselish side. Feel free to discuss/disagree/ask your own questions/etc.

1. What kind of turnout are we going to have?

The short answer is “a lot”. Texas doesn’t always get to be a part of a contested Presidential primary, but when we are, we go to the polls. Dems in 2008 and Republicans in 2016 both topped 2.8 million voters – hell, more Dems voted in the 2008 primary than in the 2004 general election. I think the bidding on the Dem side starts at 3 million, with at least 500K in Harris County (we had 410K in 2008). I think 3.5 million is in play, which means a lot of first-time Dem voters. It’s going to be really interesting to see people’s voting histories in VAN after this.

2. What does this mean for all of the other races on the ballot?

It’s really hard to say. I feel like when turnout is super low, it levels the field a bit for those who are challenging incumbents or maybe haven’t raised a ton of money because the electorate is limited to the hardcore faithful, who probably know more about the candidates, or at least pay attention to endorsements and stuff like that. In a normal high turnout environment, I figure incumbents and candidates who have raised more money have the edge, since they’re better positioned to be known to the voters. In a super high turnout election, where a significant number of people won’t be all that familiar with the many names before them, who knows? I still think incumbents will be better off, but even the high-money candidates will have to fight for attention as most voters are tuned into the Presidential race. I really don’t feel comfortable making any predictions. At least the number of goofball candidates is pretty low, so even with the likelihood of some random results, there don’t appear to be any Gene Kellys or Jim Hogans out there.

That said, some number of people who vote will just be voting in the Presidential race, so the topline turnout number will be higher, maybe a lot higher, than the size of the electorate downballot. I went and looked at primary turnout in recent elections to see what this factor looks like:


Year    President  Next Most    % Pres
======================================
2004 D    839,231    605,789     72.2%
2004 R    687,615    567,835     82.6%

2008 D  2,874,986  2,177,252     75.8%
2008 R  1,362,322  1,223,865     89.8%

2012 D    590,164    497,487     84.3%
2012 R  1,449,477  1,406,648     97.0%

2016 D  1,435,895  1,087,976     75.8%
2016 R  2,836,488  2,167,838     76.4%

“President” is the number of votes cast in that Presidential primary race, “Next Most” is the next highest vote total, which was in the Senate primaries in 2008 and 2012 and in either the Railroad Commissioner or a Supreme Court race otherwise, and “% Pres” is the share of the highest non-Presidential total. Some people could have voted for President and then skipped to a Congressional race or some other non-statewide contest, but this is a reasonable enough approximation of the dropoff. Bear in mind that context matters as well. In 2004, none of the Dem statewide primaries were contested, which likely meant more people skipped those races. The infamous Senate primary between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst and other lesser candidates was in 2012, which is why nearly everyone also voted in that race. All but one of the Dem statewide races are contested, though none are as high profile as 2012 R Senate – we may never see a race like that again.

So my best guess would be that if 3 million people vote in the Dem Presidential primary, somewhere between 2.2 million and 2.4 million people will then vote in the Senate and other statewide primaries. That’s still a lot, but the downballot races will have a slightly more engaged electorate as a result.

3. What about that Presidential primary?

Again, who knows? The polling evidence we have is mixed. Before the UT/Trib poll, the evidence we had said that Joe Biden was the leading candidate, though whether he has a big lead or a small lead over Bernie Sanders depends on which poll you’re looking at. Throw that UT/Trib poll in there, and maybe he doesn’t have a lead at all. Who knows?

The primaries that take place between now and March 3 will have an effect as well – candidates may gain or lose momentum before March 3. Bear in mind, though, that a whole lot of Texas primary voting will happen before either the Nevada caucus or the South Carolina primary happen, so the effect from those states will be limited. And Texas is one of many states voting on Super Tuesday, so candidates can’t just camp here, they have other states to worry about as well. They do all have campaign presences, however, with some of them having been here for months. Finally, quite a few candidates who have already dropped out, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Julian Castro will still be on the ballot and will get some number of votes. That UT/Trib poll still had Andrew Yang in it, and he polled at six percent, higher than Amy Klobuchar. There are a lot of moving parts here.

To me, the X factor in all this is Michael Bloomberg, who has been carpet-bombing the airwaves (seriously, where do I go to surrender?) and has been ramping up his field presence in a way that other candidates may have a hard time matching. He was basically tied for third or just behind third but still super close in the UT-Tyler poll, and fourth in the UT/Trib poll, in double digits in each case. I won’t be surprised if these polls underestimate his strength. I mean, he sure seems like a candidate positioned to do quite well among those less-frequent Dem voters, and if your top priority is beating Trump, he did quite well on that score in the UT-Tyler poll, too. He’s now getting some establishment support, too. To say the least, Bloomberg is a problematic candidate, and the inevitable round of scrutiny of his baggage may drag him back down, but if you’re not prepared for the possibility that Bloomberg could do quite well in Texas in March, you’re not paying attention.

4. What about the runoffs?

Three statewide races – Senate, RRC, and Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – as well as 15 Congressional races have at least three candidates and could go to runoffs, plus who knows how many other downballot contests. Runoffs generally get far less attention and participation than the main event, but this could be a year where a reasonable share of the initial vote turns out again in May.

Because that’s the kind of person I am, I looked at the recent history of primary runoff turnout. Here you go:


Year    President     Runoff    % Pres
======================================
2004 R    687,615    223,769     32.5%

2008 D  2,874,986    187,708      6.5%

2012 D    590,164    236,305     40.0%
2012 R  1,449,477  1,111,938     76.7%

2016 D  1,435,477    188,592     13.1%
2016 R  2,836,488    376,387     13.3%

There were no statewide runoffs in 2004 for Dems (those races were all uncontested) or in 2008 for Republicans. We already know that the 2012 GOP Senate race is a unicorn, and you can see another dimension of that here. There was a Senate runoff in 2012 on the Dem side as well, and that’s the high water mark for turnout in the modern era. This Senate race isn’t that high profile, but I think there will be some money in it, and there will be some Congressional races of interest, so maybe 300K or 400K in May for Dems? I’m totally guessing, but it wouldn’t shock me if we hit a new height this year. The bar to clear is not at all high.

5. What about the Republicans?

What about them? This is basically a 2004 year for them – incumbent President, a super low-key Senate race, no other statewide races of interest, with a few hot Congressional races being the main driver of turnout. They’ll have several of those to finish up in May as well, but my guess is they top out at about a million in March, and don’t reach 200K in May. There just isn’t that much to push them to the polls at this time.

Texas Lawyer’s judicial race coverage

As you know, I’ve been busy with judicial Q&As as usual, but this year I’m not the only one chasing down judicial candidates to ask them why they’d make good judges. Texas Lawyer, a part of the Law.com publication, is flooding the zone with its own Who’s Running For Judge In Texas Elections? 2020 Voters Guide. Normally you need to give Texas Lawyer your email address and are limited to three articles per month – they’ll send you a daily newsletter and breaking news, both of which have highlighted stories that I’ve blogged about that I hadn’t yet seen elsewhere – but they appear to have made this feature publicly available. They’ve got their own Q&As with the candidates, most of whom responded to them, which has some overlap with my own questions – not a surprise, there’s only so much you can ask them because there’s only so much they can ethically say. Anyway, a big thumbs up from me, so go check it out and annoy the critics of our current system by making informed choices in the upcoming primaries.

January 2020 campaign finance reports: State House, part 1

I’m going to take a two-part look at the finance reports in State House districts. Part One will be from Harris County, looking at both contested primaries and contested November races. Part Two will focus on races in the counties around Harris. Previous entries in this series include Harris County offices, and statewide races.

Undrai Fizer, HD126
Natali Hurtado, HD126

Sam Harless, HD126

Josh Markle, HD128
Mary Williams, HD128

Briscoe Cain, HD128
Robert Hoskins, HD128

Kayla Alix, HD129

Dennis Paul, HD129
Ryan Lee, HD129

Bryan Henry, HD130

Tom Oliverson (PAC), HD130

Alma Allen, HD131
Carey Lashley, HD131
Deondre Moore, HD131
Elvonte Patton, HD131

Gina Calanni, HD132

Angelica Garcia, HD132
Mike Schofield, HD132

Sandra Moore, HD133

Jim Murphy (PAC), HD133

Lanny Bose, HD134
Ann Johnson, HD134
Ruby Powers, HD134

Sarah Davis, HD134

Jon Rosenthal, HD135

Merrilee Beazley, HD135
Justin Ray, HD135

Akilah Bacy, HD138
Jenifer Pool, HD138
Josh Wallenstein, HD138

Josh Flynn, HD138
Lacey Hull, HD138
Claver Kamau-Imani, HD138

Jarvis Johnson, HD139
Angeanette Thibodeaux, HD139

Senfronia Thompson, HD141
Willie Franklyn, HD141

Harold Dutton, HD142
Richard Bonton, HD142
Jerry Davis, HD142
Natasha Ruiz, HD142

Shawn Thierry, HD146
Ashton Woods, HD146

Garnet Coleman, HD147
Colin Ross, HD147
Aurelia Wagner, HD147

Anna Eastman, HD148
Adrian P. Garcia, HD148
Cynthia Reyes-Revilla, HD148
Penny Shaw, HD148
Emily Wolf, HD148

Lui La Rotta, HD148

Michael Walsh, HD150

Valoree Swanson, HD150


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Fizer            800       319        0         500
Hurtado       25,091     9,588        0      11,752

Harless       73,265    11,022   20,000     103,669

Markle        78,906    12,426        0      68,081
Williams

Cain         125,891    39,462        0     133,616
Hoskins        4,575    26,033        0       3,804

Alix           2,141     1,343        0         898

Paul          85,621    38,444  156,000     116,486
Lee           10,720     4,779        0       5,879

Henry          3,385     2,901        0       3,385

Oliverson     56,555    62,895   60,000     101,693

Allen         11,100    13,251        0      32,798
Lashley
Moore
Patton        43,075     1,100        0      10,000

Calanni       82,002    24,571        0      70,770

Garcia        28,045    20,076        0      21,309
Schofield     27,400    24,152        0     152,549

Moore          2,000     2,539        0       1,502

Murphy       120,076   132,583        0     487,913

Bose          54,573    13,702        0      40,871
Johnson       58,287    31,075        0     148,054
Powers        43,015    40,852        0      18,299

Davis         89,750    76,040        0     230,958

Rosenthal     70,841    42,143        0      41,320

Beazley            0       465        0           0
Ray           52,666    24,644        0      47,082

Bacy          28,066     6,799        0      14,455
Pool
Wallenstein   42,137    35,766   10,000      51,786

Flynn         12,080    20,761        0       9,166
Hull          50,068     4,551        0      45,516
Kamau-Imani   18,800     2,229        0      16,570

Johnson        8,775     3,619    2,500      26,946
Thibodeaux     7,000     2,069        0       4,931

Thompson     104,216   136,801        0     889,738
Franklyn           0     1,873        0       1,336

Dutton        26,876    16,676        0      79,263
Bonton
Davis        139,565     9,787        0     129,928
Ruiz

Thierry       13,710    11,825        0      13,446
Woods          1,485     1,263        0       1,690

Coleman       97,990   129,532        0     110,589
Ross
Wagner

Eastman       75,378    57,861        0      33,967
Garcia        12,100     2,500        0       4,000
Reyes-Revilla  3,547         0    8,000       3,547
Shaw          11,635    15,531   34,000      15,454
Wolf               0         0      200         235

La Rotta      11,280    10,602        0       4,095

Walsh              0        33        0          33

Swanson       10,201    27,643   34,040      34,657

You may also want to refer to this Trib story and this Reform Austin post about the finance reports in the top tier House races. I don’t have the bandwidth to look at all of them, so check them out for their reporting on it.

There are several contested Democratic primaries, including five challenges to incumbents in safe D districts. This was a popular pastime in the 2000s, during the Craddick era – Alma Allen beat Ron Wilson, Armando Walle beat Kevin Bailey, Borris Miles took three out of four against Al Edwards. The latter of those occurred in 2012, and while there have been primary opponents to incumbents over the past few cycles, none have come close to succeeding; Edward Pollard in HD137 and Demetria Smith in HD149, both of whom got about 35% in their races in 2016, came closest. The one this year that has the greatest potential to upset the status quo is in HD142, where longtime State Rep. Harold Dutton faces unrest over his role in passing the TEA takeover bill as well as the tumult in City Council District B. Still-current District B incumbent Jerry Davis, who transferred all of his city campaign funds into his State Rep campaign treasury, is the main threat to Dutton. I can’t wait to see how the endorsements play out – Davis has already gotten the nod from the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation (TGCALF), AFL-CIO, the only challenger to an incumbent in Harris County to do so. Elvonte Patton, who was a candidate for HCDE in the 2018 primary, has a nice fundraising total, but most of that is in kind, and Alma Allen has vanquished previous challengers with 85% or more of the vote in the past.

On the Republican, there’s not much action outside of an attempt to install a grownup in HD128. As I understand it, Robert Hoskins has some establishment support in his effort to knock out Briscoe Cain, but as you can see not a lot of money. We both know which speaks louder.

The four most hotly contested seats, one of which is open, is where the bulk of the action is. All three contenders in HD134 raised similar sums, but Ann Johnson has a commanding lead in cash on hand thanks to a big first half of the year. Akilah Bacy and Josh Wallenstein both raised a few bucks in HD138, with Wallenstein doing a bit better, while Lacey Hull led the pack on the Republican side. I have to assume now that his spot on the ballot is assured, Josh Flynn will ramp it up. Freshman Reps Gina Calanni and Jon Rosenthal both outpaced the totals of their potential opponents. The HD132 GOP race will be interesting, as Angelica Garcia has Greg Abbott’s endorsement but former Rep. Mike Schofield still has cash left over from his 2018 loss. To some extent, none of these totals matter that much because there will be a ton of PAC money on both sides in all of the competitive districts. Still, a candidate or incumbent who can raise cash on their own is stronger than one who relies mostly on others doing that work.

In HD148, where there’s both a contested primary and a special election runoff (happening now!), the main thing to note is that these totals are all from October 27 through the end of the year, as all of the candidates save Emily Wolf had eight-day finance reports from their November 2019 races. Penny Shaw has gotten a couple of early endorsements, so the 30-day report in early February will tell a more detailed picture for this race. As for the special election runoff, there’s nothing to suggest anything unusual, Erica Greider’s weekend daydreams aside.

Beyond that, not a whole lot else to discuss. Jim Murphy’s cash on hand total is one reason why I speculated he might consider a run for Mayor in 2023 if the Lege is no longer amenable to him. Sarah Davis would probably have more cash on hand right now if she hadn’t had to fend off primary challengers in the past. As above, I’m pretty sure she’ll have the funds she needs to run that race. The Dems have some longer shots out there, with HD126 being the most competitive of them, so keep an eye on Natali Hurtado. I’ll be back next time with the State House races from elsewhere in the region.

January 2020 campaign finance reports: Statewide

There’s a whole lot of candidates of interest for state offices. I’m going to break them down into several groups, to keep things simple and the posts not too long. Today we will look at the candidates for statewide office. This will include the statewide judicial races, and both Republicans and Democrats. I have previously done the Harris County reports.

Roberto Alonzo, RRC
Chrysta Castaneda, RRC
Kelly Stone, RRC
Mark Watson, RRC

Ryan Sitton, RRC

Amy Clark Meachum, Supreme Court, Chief Justice
Jerry Zimmerer, Supreme Court, Chief Justice

Nathan Hecht, Supreme Court, Chief Justice

Kathy Cheng, Supreme Court, Place 6
Lawrence Praeger, Supreme Court, Place 6

Jane Bland, Supreme Court, Place 6

Brandy Voss, Supreme Court, Place 7
Staci Williams, Supreme Court, Place 7

Jeff Boyd, Supreme Court, Place 7

Peter Kelly, Supreme Court, Place 8
Gisela Triana, Supreme Court, Place 8

Brett Busby, Supreme Court, Place 8

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

Gina Parker, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3
Bert Richardson, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3

Tina Clinton, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4
Steve Miears, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4

Kevin Yeary, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4

Brandon Birmingham, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9

David Newell, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Alonzo         1,500     8,458    7,340       3,840
Castaneda     46,297    42,196   26,000      46,297
Stone         25,331    23,465    3,875       3,018
Watson           750     3,762        0         750

Sitton       480,850   154,832  378,899   2,514,759

Meachum      139,370    42,854        0     119,067
Zimmerer      10,680    22,213   20,000      45,251

Hecht        296,168   146,575        0     531,660

Cheng          1,315    41,200   84,167       8,129
Praeger        1,280     5,227   10,000       1,280

Bland        335,707    73,945        0     277,965

Voss         100,696   135,076  100,000     169,470
Williams      55,154   105,936        0      59,074

Boyd         134,844   100,193      177     562,533

Kelly         30,527     7,037        0      50,963
Triana       100,970    39,710        0     106,577

Busby        260,378   129,825        0     542,918

Demond        4,250      5,050    5,000       3,599
Frizell       1,000        988        0          11
Wood          6,490     68,592        0      41,291

Parker       58,195     82,247   25,000      21,055
Richardson   52,975     21,690    4,500      35,207

Clinton           0     10,216   25,000       4,944
Miears            0      3,750        0           0

Yeary        14,355     11,203    3,004       6,245

Birmingham   29,770     16,375   10,960      25,003

Newell        8,879      7,370        0       1,391

Railroad Commissioner is not a high profile office and not one for which a bunch of money is usually raised, though Ryan Sitton has clearly made good use of his five-plus years on the job. If you’ve listened to my interviews with Chrysta Castañeda and Kelly Stone, you know that I’m a little scarred by goofy results in some of our statewide primaries in recent cycles. Strange things can and do happen when people have no idea who the candidates are, as the likes of Grady Yarbrough and Jim Hogan can attest. On the plus side, I’d say three of the four candidates running in this primary would be fine – Castañeda and Stone are actively campaigning, Roberto Alonzo is a former State Rep, you can have confidence they’ll do their best. As for Mark Watson, at least I could identify him via a Google search. It’s a low bar to clear, you know?

I don’t often look at finance reports for judicial candidates – there’s just too many of them, for one thing, and they usually don’t tell you much. None of what I see here is surprising. The Republican incumbents have a few bucks, though none of their totals mean anything in a statewide context. I’m guessing the Dems with bigger totals to report had cash to transfer from their existing accounts, as District Court or Appeals court judges. It’s possible, if we really do see evidence of the state being a tossup, that some PAC money will get pumped into these races, for the purpose of making sure people don’t skip them. Everyone has to be concerned about the potential for undervotes to have an effect on the outcome, in this first year of no straight ticket voting.

As for the Court of Criminal Appeals, well, the money’s on the civil side of the house. It is what it is. I’ll be back with the Lege next, and then the SBOE and State Senate after that.

January 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

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

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

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

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

Joe Danna, Sheriff
Paul Day, Sheriff

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

John Nation, County Attorney

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

Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Nation             0     1,369        0           0

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

Daniel            35         1        0         454

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flynn officially on HD138 primary ballot

Score two for formerly-booted candidates.

Josh Flynn

In mediation last Friday, [candidate Josh Flynn and the Harris County Republican Party] agreed that Flynn would appear on the upcoming primary ballot [for HD138].

[HCRP Chair Paul] Simpson said in a statement that he challenged Flynn’s eligibility to “protect the integrity of the ballot,” and continued to dispute that Flynn should be allowed to run.

“As Texas law also requires, we agreed that Mr. Flynn’s name will remain on the primary ballot, even though he is ineligible to run,” Simpson said.

An attorney for Simpson and the party echoed that.

“We’ve left (Flynn) on the ballot because the law requires us to do so, but unless a judge rules otherwise, he’s still ineligible,” said Trey Trainor, an Austin-based attorney.

Regardless of the outcome of the primary, lingering ambiguity about Flynn’s eligibility could be bad for the Republican Party, Rice University political science Professor Mark Jones said.

If Flynn wins the primary, Jones said, his Democratic opponent in the general election could seek to have him declared ineligible. And they would be able to use the Republican Party’s own words to bolster that claim.

The Texas Supreme Court then would need to rule on whether Flynn was allowed to run, and clarify what is or is not a “lucrative office.”

If such a decision goes against Flynn, local precinct chairs would appoint a replacement candidate, which Jones said could be seen as a subversion of the voters’ will.

Even if a court sides with Flynn, Jones said, the legal dispute could cost valuable time, money and resources in the race for House District 138, which GOP Rep. Dwayne Bohac won by only 47 votes in 2018. Bohac announced late last year that he would not seek reelection.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have much else to add – I thought Flynn had the stronger case, and I think the Lege ought to clarify this situation. How much any of this matters, in March and in November, I have no idea. If the district is still on the razor’s edge, then every little bit does count, but given the way things have been going, maybe it’s all academic. As with all the other races of interest, let’s see what the finance reports tell us.

After-deadline filing review: Fort Bend County

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

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

County Attorney

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

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

Sheriff

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

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

Tax Assessor

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

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

Commissioners Court

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

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

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

Flynn stays on GOP primary ballot for now

There’s still litigation to come, but I think he’s got a good case and will probably win.

Josh Flynn

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has weighed in on a lawsuit accusing the Harris County Republican Party of improperly declaring a candidate for the Texas legislature ineligible because he previously held a “lucrative office.”

At issue in the suit is the candidacy of Josh Flynn, a Republican who is running for House District 38 and who, until earlier this month, had been a trustee for the Harris County Department of Education.

Though trustees earn just $6 per meeting, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that “an office is lucrative if the officeholder receives any compensation, no matter how small.”

Flynn was previously declared ineligible for the race by county GOP Chairman Paul Simpson, who said that Flynn had submitted his resignation as a trustee to the wrong person at the county education board.

Flynn sought a temporary restraining order that was granted this week by a district court judge.

In a separate filing, Paxton stopped short of siding with Flynn, but wrote that “the law in Texas is clear that a candidate who effectively resigns from the conflicting office may be a candidate for the legislature.”

[…]

Flynn, meanwhile, will have to wait until their next scheduled court date in January to move forward with his candidacy — though his attorney, former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill, said he is confident that Flynn will prevail.

See here for the previous update. I don’t think anyone is questioning that Flynn had to resign – if that were the issue here, I’d be fully in support of Paul Simpson’s position – it’s basically a question of whether he handed in his resignation letter properly. That to me is too thin a reason to disqualify him, and even though it gives me a rash to agree with Jared Woodfill, I think he’s right about how the case will go.

On the broader resign-to-run question, I am generally in favor of reforming the system we have now, which requires some officeholders – mostly county officeholders, like sheriff and commissioner and constable – to resign to run for other offices, with some legacy variations in there for obscure offices like HCDE Trustee. Because only some people have to do it and not others – like state legislators, for example – it provides an advantage to one class of incumbents, and that feels wrong to me. On balance, I think letting most officeholders serve while running for something else would be better. I doubt the Lege will address this – the current system benefits them, after all – but I would be in favor if they did.