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Rodney Ellis

Another review of Judge Hidalgo’s first year

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

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

County to review countywide voting centers

Let’s make this work better.

Diane Trautman

Commissioners Court has formed a working group to review Harris County’s shift to voting centers and examine what effect it had on hours-long lines at the polls on Primary Day, which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis called unacceptable.

During an at-times contentious discussion with County Clerk Diane Trautman during Tuesday’s Commissioners Court session, Ellis questioned whether she had become too focused on county-wide voting centers, her signature initiative since taking office last year.

Ellis noted that the March primary was the second election overseen by Trautman that had problems. In last November’s municipal elections, the county clerk did not post full voting results for nearly 12 hours. Trautman blamed the delay on a last-minute directive from the secretary of state that forced Harris County to change its vote counting method; that directive, however, came out weeks before Election Day.

“I’d hate for a third one; because at some point, the discussion will have to be held, are voting centers worth it if you have all these unintended consequences?” Ellis said.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was surprised to learn, just days before the primary, that nearly two-thirds of polling sites would be in Republican commissioner precincts. She said that was “functionally discriminating” against Democratic voters, who outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1 on Election Day.

Trautman countered that the voting sites were set by an agreement between the Democratic and Republican parties.

Hidalgo was unsatisfied with that response. She said if Trautman had been more forthcoming about potential voting problems, and asked for more resources from the county, Commissioners Court would have tried to accommodate.

“I don’t know what I don’t know,” Hidalgo said. “I’ve been nothing but supportive of your guys’ effort to expand access to the vote.”

More than 50 counties in Texas use voting centers, including Bexar, Travis, Dallas and Tarrant, according to the secretary of state. November will be the first general election in Harris County to use the system, when more than 1 million voters are expected to cast ballots.

Ellis said he may not have supported the creation of voting centers had Trautman explained how the switch could affect primary elections.

Trautman called the election “a very sad night” for voters and pledged to do better. The working group formed this week will include a representative from each court member’s office, as well as county clerk staff.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’d like to see a broader group involved in that working group, but if they solicit public input I’ll be satisfied with that. People like the voting centers, and there’s nothing here that shouldn’t be fixable, but we need to really understand what happened and then do what it takes to deal with it. It’s not rocket science but it is a commitment. And Judge Hidalgo is right, better communication from the Clerk’s office is going to be a vital part of this effort. Let’s get this going so we can all feel confident about November.

We need to talk about those lines

I wish we could talk about something else, but we have to do this.

Hervis Rogers, the hero we don’t deserve

Dozens of Democratic voters were still waiting to cast ballots at midnight in Houston, turning Super Tuesday into a painful slog for some citizens amid questions about how the County Clerk’s office had allocated its voting machines across the county.

Janet Gonzalez left work early and at 5:30 p.m. checked a website the clerk’s office runs to show wait times at polling places. It seemed Texas Southern University had a short wait, but when she arrived she found a massive line. She waited an hour outside and three more inside before she finally cast her ballot.

Officials with the clerk’s office acknowledged the accuracy of the wait-times website is reliant on election workers manually updating the status of their polling places.

Some people in line gave up and walked away, Gonzalez said. Others briefly sought refuge on a scattering of chairs before giving them up to others as the line inched forward.

[…]

Democratic County Clerk Diane Trautman and her staff said each of the county’s 401 polling places started with between 16 and 48 machines, depending on anticipated turnout, but at each location the machines were divided equally between the Democrat and Republican primaries, regardless of whether the location heavily favored one party or the other.

“If we had given one five and one 10, and that other one had a line, they would say, ‘You slighted us,’” Trautman said late Tuesday. “So we wanted to be fair and equal and start at the same amount. Through the day, we have been sending out additional machines to the Democratic judges to the extent that we ran out.”

During Election Day the clerk’s office dispatched 68 extra voting machines to Democratic polls, including 14 to TSU, in response to election judges’ requests. Trautman added that some of the machines assigned to TSU to start the day had to be replaced after malfunctioning.

Trautman said a joint primary — which would have allowed both parties’ ballots to be loaded on each voting machine, rather than separating the equipment by party — would have reduced the lines, but the GOP rejected the idea.

[…]

County Democratic Party chair Lillie Schechter said her staff did not grasp until Tuesday that when Trautman spoke of allocating the machines “equitably” she meant dividing them equally at each polling site, rather than giving each party the same number of machines but concentrating most of them in areas known to be strongholds of each party.

“We’re thrilled that turnout has been so high today and that’s been super exciting, but I think the story with the voting machines goes a step farther back than just how the voting machines are allocated,” she said. “The machines are part of the problem but not the whole problem.”

In order to preserve citizens’ ability to vote at any polling place on Election Day – a new policy under Trautman, and one GOP officials have opposed – Schechter said the parties needed to agree on shared polling locations. That gave Republicans more power in the negotiation, she said, and resulted in more than 60 percent of Tuesday’s polling sites being located in Republican-held county commissioner precincts, with less than 40 percent in commissioner precincts held by Democrats.

It’s kind of amazing that more people didn’t just give up and walk away after hours of waiting on line. You think you’re committed to American ideals and democracy, tell that to Hervis Rogers and the other people who waited as long as they did to exercise their right to vote. Every last one of them deserves our thanks, and a hell of a lot better from the experience next time.

This story expands a bit on that last paragraph above.

The clerk’s office dispatched additional machines to some poll sites, located in heavily black and Hispanic neighborhoods including Third Ward, Acres Homes and Gulfgate. They provided only partial relief.

At Texas Southern University, where just 48 Republicans voted early, the final Democratic voter cast his ballot after 1 a.m. after waiting in line for more than six hours.

Democratic election workers at a Sunnyside voting center reported functioning machines were broken in a successful ruse to get the clerk’s office to send more, a spokeswoman for Trautman said.

The sheer expanse of Harris County’s 1,777 square miles and most-in-Texas 2.3 million registered voters long has posed problems for county clerks in primary and general elections. When Democratic precincts in past elections had extremely long lines, some in the party blamed the Republican county clerk.

Problems persisted in Tuesday’s primary, however, even though Democrats have controlled every countywide post since last year.

Yes, and many people noticed, though a lot of blame still accrued to Republicans thanks to their long and dedicated record of vote suppression. But we don’t have Stan Stanart to kick around any more, and the spotlight is on us to fix this, not just for next time but on a more permanent basis.

I mean, I can accept that the Harris County GOP’s refusal to go along with a joint primary and the certainty that they’d pitch a fit if Dems got more voting machines than they did even though it was a virtual certainty that Dems would be the larger part of the Tuesday electorate was a problem. But we elected Diane Trautman to solve problems like that, and on Tuesday she didn’t. The onus is squarely on her to be completely transparent about what happened and why it happened, and to come up with a plan to ensure it never happens again. That doesn’t mean just brainstorming with her staff. That means concrete action involving all of the stakeholders – people from the community, election law experts, Commissioner Ellis and Garcia’s offices, County Attorney Vince Ryan and 2020 nominee Christian Menefee, grassroots organizations like TOP and the Texas Civil Rights Project and whoever else, and the HCDP since they have as big a stake in this as anyone. Convene a commission, get everyone’s input on what they saw and what they experienced and what they know and what they need, and come up with a plan for action.

Among other things, that means having much better communications, both before the election so people have a better idea of what polling places are open and what ones aren’t – yes, this is on the website, but clearly more than that needs to be done – and on Election Day, when rapid response may be needed to deal with unexpected problems. Why weren’t there more voting machines available on Tuesday, and why wasn’t there a way to get them to the places with the longest lines in a timely manner? Let the Republicans whine about that while it’s happening, at that point no one would care. Stuff happens, and anyone can guess wrong about what Election Day turnout might look like. But once that has happened, don’t just sit there, DO SOMETHING about it. It really shouldn’t have to take election clerks pretending that machines had malfunctioned to get some relief.

Also, as useful as the voting centers concept is, we need to recognize that for folks with mobility issues, having places they can walk to really makes a difference. Add Metro and transit advocacy folks like LINK Houston to that list of commission attendees, because the mobility of the people in a given neighborhood needs to be weighed into decisions about which Election Day sites are open and which are consolidated in the same way that relative turnout is. If a significant segment of a given population simply can’t drive to another neighborhood to vote, then all the voting centers in the world don’t matter.

I get that in November we’ll have all locations open, and there won’t be any squabble over who gets which voting machines. That will help. But in November, no matter how heavy early voting will be, we’re going to get a lot more people going to the polls on Election Day than the 260K or so that turned out this Tuesday. Voter registration is up, turnout is up, and we need to be much better prepared for it. Diane Trautman, please please please treat this like the emergency that it is. And Rodney Ellis, Adrian Garcia, and Lina Hidalgo, if that means throwing some money at the problem, then by God do that. We didn’t elect you all to have the same old problems with voting that we had before. The world is watching, and we’ve already made a lousy first impression. If that doesn’t hurt your pride and make you burn to fix it, I don’t know what would.

(My thanks to nonsequiteuse and Melissa Noriega for some of the ideas in this post. I only borrow from the best.)

UPDATE: Naturally, after I finished drafting this piece, out comes this deeper dive from the Trib. Let me just highlight a bit of it:

Months before, the Democratic and Republican county parties had been unable to agree to hold a joint primary, which would have allowed voters to share machines preloaded with ballots for both parties.

The Harris County Democratic Party had agreed to the setup, but the Harris County GOP refused, citing in part the long lines Republican voters would have to wait through amid increased turnout for the pitched Democratic presidential primary.

“We wanted them to do a joint primary where you would just have one line and voters could use all the machines, but they couldn’t agree on that,” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who was elected to her post in 2018.

Without a resolution, Trautman chose to allocate an equal number of machines for both primaries at each polling site “because we didn’t want to slight anyone,” particularly as Harris moved to countywide voting to free voters from precinct-specific voting. But the move essentially halved the number of voting machines available to Democratic voters on a busy election day. That meant Republican voting quickly wrapped up across the county while Democratic lines made for extra hours of voting at multiple polling places.

In a Wednesday press conference, Paul Simpson, the chair of the Harris County GOP, reiterated that the party was adamantly opposed to joint primaries and sought to preempt any blame for long Democratic lines. To Simpson, Trautman misfired by pursuing a 50/50 split of voting machines across the board instead of using past turnout data to adjust allocations, and he pointed to the party’s recommendation to give Republicans only four machines at Texas Southern University.

“The county clerk refused and failed to follow our suggestion to avoid the lines that we predicted last summer were going to happen,” Simpson said.

(Previous voting patterns weren’t available for Texas Southern University, which was only added as polling place under Trautman.)

But Lillie Schechter, the chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party, said the excessive wait times Democrats faced Tuesday were part of a broader electoral divide in a county that has turned reliably blue in recent years. That change in power has come with voting initiatives that local Republicans have not warmed up to, including a move to countywide voting that allows voters to cast ballots at any polling place in the county on election day.

To keep countywide voting for the primary election, the political parties needed to agree on the distribution of shared polling places. But the map the GOP pushed for on Super Tuesday established more voting centers in the two county commissioner precincts represented by Republicans, Schechter said.

“If you look at the story to say let’s blame the county clerk’s office, you’re missing the big picture here,” Schechter said.

In the aftermath of the wait time debacle, Trautman acknowledged that Democratic voting on Super Tuesday was bogged down by both technical and training issues. The county’s voting machines — the oldest in use among the state’s biggest counties — went down at different points in the night. Election workers weren’t always able to make the adjustments to bring them back into order. Both machines and election workers were “stretched to the max” during the late-night voting slog, she said.

At midnight — seven hours after polls closed — voting was again interrupted at the two polling places that were still running, including the Texas Southern University site, when the tablets used to check in voters automatically timed out and had to be rebooted.

Later on Wednesday, Trautman signaled she was assessing what the county needed to fix moving forward — a better method for rerouting voters to nearby voting sites with shorter lines, a wait time reporting system that’s not dependent on busy election workers, pushing for more early voting and, perhaps most notably, purchasing additional equipment for the November election.

“We will work to improve to make things better,” Trautman said.

It’s the right attitude and I’m glad to see it. The Clerk’s office is also in the process of scoping out new voting machines, which can’t come soon enough but which will introduce new challenges, in terms of adapting to the new technology and educating voters on how to use it. All this is a good start, and now I want to see a whole lot of follow-through.

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.

Endorsement watch: Four more

The Chron endorses Rodney Ellis for County Commissioner, Precinct 1, and then proceeds to spend the endorsement mostly talking about his opponent.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Count us among those who were a little surprised when felony court Judge Maria T. Jackson resigned her seat as Harris County’s longest serving judge to run against Rodney Ellis, the powerful, well-funded longtime state senator-turned-county commissioner in Precinct 1.

Count us among those who welcomed her nerve. No public official should get used to running unopposed, even one as productive as Ellis. And the 65-year-old veteran lawmaker and former Houston city councilman has left himself open to criticism for not trying harder to build consensus with Republicans, a pattern that led to a failed tax increase before a legislatively imposed revenue cap.

So it’s disappointing that Jackson, 55, known as tough jurist who also served as a municipal judge and an administrative judge, fell far short of making a coherent case for why she’d be more effective on Commissioner Court.

In a 90-minute interview with the editorial board, Jackson’s main criticism of Ellis centered around his role shepherding through Harris County’s historic bail reform settlement, saying she supported the principle but it didn’t include help for victims and it has led to people out on no-cash bonds reoffending. But she misstated parts of the deal, claiming defendants would get free Uber rides and other assistance, items not included in the final agreement.

Jackson bemoaned millions of dollars for studies on why people don’t go to court — an oversimplification of the scope — saying “most of us know why people don’t go to court. They don’t want to go to jail.” That’s another oversimplification that betrays a lack of compassion for misdemeanor defendants who often balance multiple jobs and transportation challenges.

Asked why she thought her campaign had drawn significant donations from the bail bonding industry, which supported keeping the unconstitutional system of poverty jailing, Jackson answered: “good government.”

Jackson’s most troubling claim was that, when she was elected in 2008, there was only one drug court, and that “under my leadership and direction,” the county established three more and a list of other rehabilitation courts.

“I have been a change maker and been boots on the ground working with everyone and making things happen,” she told us.

In fact, Harris County already had four drug courts in 2007. Jackson didn’t start presiding over a drug court herself until 2017, according to a court newsletter. The other specialty courts were started by other judges.

I agree with the sentiment that no one deserves a free pass, and that having to actually account for oneself each election cycle is the best way to keep officials honest. I also agree with a sentiment that John Coby often expresses each cycle when people start filing for this or that, which is why are you running? Maria Jackson, who declined to be interviewed by me, has done a lousy job of answering that question. She has some undirected complaints, no clear ideas for why she would be an improvement, and multiple misstatements of the facts. You have to do better than that, a lot better when running against someone with a strong record of accomplishment. It’s Candidate 101. I can’t tell you why Maria Jackson is running any more than she can, but Rodney Ellis can, and you can hear him talk about it here.

Oh, and that bit about Ellis “not trying harder to build consensus with Republicans [leading] to a failed tax increase” is utter horsefeathers. Anyone who could type that sentence with a straight face has no understanding of Republican politics and politicians in our time. Treat your readers with more respect than that, guys.

The other three endorsements from Thursday were all for statewide offices.

Chrysta Castañeda for Railroad Commissioner:

Chrysta Castañeda

Ask Chrysta Castañeda what one of the biggest issues facing the Texas Railroad Commission is, and she answers flaring — the burning of surplus gas from oil wells.

The practice is “without any benefit and with environmental harm,” Castañeda, who is running in the March 3 Democratic primary for railroad commissioner, told the Editorial Board. “We’re lighting on fire enough right now to power the city of Houston.”

Castañeda, 57, an engineer and attorney with decades of experience in the oil and gas industry, has been raising the alarm about flaring on the campaign trail. On Tuesday, the man she is trying to unseat, Republican incumbent Ryan Sitton, issued a report on flaring.

[…]

Her opponents include Mark Watson, 63, an attorney who emphasizes the need for strict enforcement of current regulations, former State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, 63, who spent 20 years in the Texas Legislature and Kelly Stone, 41, an educator and stand-up comic, who displays a genuine passion to protect the environment.

All three are also calling for constraints on flaring, but Castañeda’s expertise sets her apart. She understands the Railroad Commission’s dual mission is to both promote the development of Texas’ natural resources by regulating the oil and gas industry and to protect the state’s environment.

Those mandates can often seem at odds, especially during the kind of sustained oil and gas boom Texas has been experiencing. Castañeda’s experience will help her balance the economic concerns of the oil and gas industry with the need to protect the environment for all Texans.

My interview with Castañeda is here and my interview with Kelly Stone is here. They’re the two most active candidates, and while Castañeda has been collecting the newspaper endorsements (here’s your friendly neighborhood Erik Manning spreadsheet), Stone has gotten plaudits from those panels as well.

Brandy Voss for Supreme Court, Place 7.

Brandy Voss

We recommend attorney Brandy Voss for Place 7 on the Texas Supreme Court in the March 3 Democratic primary. Voss lacks the judicial experience of her opponent, Civil District Judge Staci Williams of Dallas County, but more than compensates for that with a career-long immersion in appellate law.

Voss spent a year after graduating Baylor University law school as a briefing clerk for then-Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips, where she helped draft opinions. She then worked as an appellate lawyer in Dallas until relocating to McAllen with her family and later worked for four years as a senior staff attorney for Justice Gina Benavides on the 13th Court of Appeals. She again helped draft opinions and continued learning the intricacies of managing an appellate docket.

Those skills, along with experience in volunteer roles such as a member of the Texas Bar Association’s rules advisory committee, have prepared her well to be a member of the state’s top civil court. Lawyers responding to the Texas Bar Association judicial preference poll backed Voss over Williams by a 2-1 margin.

This is one of those races where I’ve had a hard time choosing, as both candidates look pretty strong and there’s no clear distinction between them. The Trib did a story about the contested Democratic primaries for statewide judicial positions and noted that all but this one and the three-way race for CCA Place 3 are a man versus a woman. If you’re looking for other distinctions, Voss has raised more money and has a slight overall edge in endorsements. Make of that what you will

Amy Clark Meachum for Supreme Court, Chief Justice.

Judge Amy Clark Meachum

Texas Democrats have two experienced judges to choose from as they vote in the March 3 primary to pick their nominee to challenge Chief Justice Nathan Hecht for his seat on the state’s top civil court in November.

Both have experience that would serve them well on the high court. But we strongly recommend District Judge Amy Clark Meachum over Justice Jerry Zimmerer, who sits now in Place 3 of the 14th Court of Appeals in Harris County.

Meachum, 44, is currently a civil district judge in Travis County, where she was first elected in 2010. She scores reasonably well on the local bar evaluation — 50 percent of respondents rated her overall as “excellent” and just 17 percent said she “needs improvement” — and her fellow judges have elected her as presiding judge for the county’s civil and family courts.

Here are Meachum’s Q&A responses. This one, I have a clearer idea of which way to go.

Chron overview of Commissioners Court Precinct 1

As with endorsement editorials, they’re going to need to write a lot of these in the next couple of weeks.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Few Harris County politicians — of any party — are eager to challenge Rodney Ellis, the widely known, well-funded, well-connected Precinct 1 commissioner. Former state district judge Maria T. Jackson says she is up to the task.

The Democratic primary in March will all but crown the winner in November’s general election, as the Republican Party has put forth no candidates in the heavily Democratic precinct, which includes Sunnyside, Downtown, Midtown, Montrose, The Heights, Acres Homes, Greenspoint, Kashmere Gardens and parts of northeast Harris County.

Ellis casts himself as a champion of progressive causes, citing his work reforming Harris County’s bail system, raising the minimum wage for county contractors and ensuring that funds from the landmark $2.5 billion flood bond benefit rich and poor neighborhoods equally.

“During my four years on Commissioners Court, I think I’ve had the same energy, despite my many years in public service, of being a change-maker,” Ellis said.

[…]

Jackson said she would better represent Precinct 1’s impoverished communities than Ellis and be a moderate advocate on criminal justice issues. She said the commissioner has failed to promote economic development in neighborhoods like Sunnyside and neglected the downtown criminal justice complex which was badly damaged by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. For starters, she said, Commissioners Court needs to build a new criminal courthouse.

“To me, Harris County has gone backwards,” Jackson said of Ellis’s tenure.

After five years as a municipal court judge, Jackson was elected as a felony judge in the 339th State District Court in 2008. She was the longest serving judge in Harris County when she stepped down in September to take a position in the tax assessor’s office and prepare for her Precinct 1 campaign.

During a 90-minute candidate screening with the Houston Chronicle editorial board last month, Ellis displayed a rapt attention for policy details he brings to Commissioners Court meetings. He said he benefits from a sharp team of analysts he assembled, in contrast to other commissioners who organize their staffs around road and park maintenance.

Jackson, 55, struggled to articulate positions on issues such as flood control and criminal justice reform.

She said she supported the landmark misdemeanor bail settlement Ellis helped draft, though she misstated parts of the deal. She alleged the settlement, which could cost as much as $97 million over seven years, would provide free Uber rides and cell phones to defendants. Those benefits were part of a draft settlement proposal, but were removed before Commissioners Court approved the agreement in July.

Jackson said she supports reforming the felony bail system, but criticized Ellis for supporting a potential lawsuit against the county’s felony judges to force changes. Judges have the expertise, she said, to ensure only defendants who pose a public safety risk are jailed before trial.

“You have to be thoughtful about dangerous criminals hurting the public,” Jackson said. “I just want to be smart on who’s released.”

My interview with Commissioner Ellis is here; as noted in that post, Jackson declined to do an interview with me. If you’re wondering what a “moderate advocate on criminal justice issues” might be, this appears later in the story:

Jackson accepted contributions from six bail bond firms, as well as the state bail bondsmen and Houston Police Officers Union political action committees in the last six months of 2019. Bail bond firms and the police union have lobbied against criminal justice reforms that would allow more defendants to be released without bail.

Yeah. The bail reform settlement we got doesn’t happen without Rodney Ellis. I was supporting him anyway, but that clinches it beyond any doubt. This is not a time to go backwards.

Interview with Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

I don’t think I need to spend too much time introducing County Commissioner Rodney Ellis. A longtime State Senator after serving on Houston City Council, Ellis became the 2016 Democratic nominee for County Commissioner in Precinct 1 via that weird Precinct Chair vote that I was part of following the death of El Franco Lee. Ellis was a force for criminal justice reform in the Senate, which he continued on the Court during the bail lawsuit. He’s a father of four, an avid bicyclist, and a man you don’t have to ask many questions to get a whole lot of good information. I will say here that it was my intent to interview his opponent in this primary, Maria Jackson, as well. I reached out to her campaign, but in the end Jackson declined to talk to me. So be it. We have my interview with Commissioner Rodney Ellis, so what more do you need?

The Erik Manning spreadsheet is back! You can track information for candidates on the Harris County ballot here.

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

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

Chrysta Castañeda – RRC
Kelly Stone – RRC

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

Jolanda Jones – Harris County Tax Assessor

Ann Johnson – HD134
Ruby Powers – HD134
Lanny Bose – HD134

Akilah Bacy – HD138
Josh Wallenstein – HD138
Jenifer Pool – HD138

Sarah DeMerchant – HD26
Lawrence Allen – HD26
Rish Oberoi – HD26
Suleman Lalani – HD26

January 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

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

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

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

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

Joe Danna, Sheriff
Paul Day, Sheriff

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

John Nation, County Attorney

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

Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Nation             0     1,369        0           0

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

Daniel            35         1        0         454

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the primary action is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judge Hidalgo’s first year

Been pretty good so far, I’d say.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

During her longshot campaign in 2018, Lina Hidalgo at times sounded like a candidate for mayor or Congress. With talking points on immigration, criminal justice reform and education, her critics contended she surely misunderstood the role of county judge.

Hidalgo insisted the incumbent crop of leaders had a too-narrow view of what county government could accomplish. She unseated Ed Emmett, the popular three-term county judge, in an Election Night stunner amid a Democratic sweep of countywide posts. And then she set about enacting her vision.

After a year in office, Hidalgo has mollified many concerns about her inexperience, marshaled the county’s response to a series of chemical fires and presided over a Commissioners Court of older men who often clash. With her two Democratic colleagues, she has broadened the size and scope of county government, and pledged to do so further in 2020 with a focus on early childhood development.

“We’ve begun to transform the way we do things in the county,” Hidalgo said. “The county used to be in this box that was just about roads and bridges. Now, we’ve seen and we’ve shown it can be about environmental investment. It can be about criminal justice reform. It can be about voting access.”

She has also seen her national stature rise. Forbes magazine named her to its “30 Under 30” list. Presidential candidates have sought to meet her during trips to Houston, attention she said makes her feel humbled.

Locally, the public views Hidalgo with a curiosity her predecessors did not elicit. After Hidalgo appeared on a BBC panel in November with a state senator and two members of Congress, she was the one several attendees waited to greet afterward.

During a holiday toys for kids event at the George R. Brown Convention Center in mid-December, Hidalgo greeted families waiting in line in English and Spanish. Young women, in particular, asked to take photographs with her. They asked how a person like her ended up in a position like this.

“They ask how did you do it? How did you manage to break into the machine?” Hidalgo said. “My biggest message to young people is to get involved … to volunteer, to participate. We need smart people in government.”

Judge Hidalgo recently gave her first State of the County address, in which she talked about the things that she and Commissioners Court accomplished this past year. As the story notes, the election of Adrian Garcia to the Court as well, which gave Dems a 3-2 majority and the votes on the Court to begin doing the kind of things Hidalgo had spoken about during her campaign, was a key aspect to this. She had the vision from the beginning, and the courage to run when no one else wanted a piece of that race, and she has very much been the public face of the Court and in many ways the county. There’s a lot she has to be proud of, and to build on going forward.

The article mentions that Hidalgo has yet to decide whether to seek re-election in 2022, though it does not quote her directly on that. My guess is this is more of a “I’m just focusing on doing my job and not thinking about that yet” situation than any actual possibility of her not running again. I have heard that there are people who are thinking about running against her in the 2022 primary, which I’d say is likely about opportunity in a newly Democratic county rather than an assessment of her tenure. Be that as it may, I feel confident that 2022 will be a higher profile election year for County Judge than 2018 was. I’ve not heard any names attached to these whispers, but I do know who I plan to vote for.

Judge Powell back on the ballot

So be it.

Judge George Powell

A civil court judge Wednesday ordered that sitting criminal district Judge George Powell be included on the March primary ballot after the Harris County Democratic Party denied his application for candidacy last month.

Party officials had to accept Powell’s application within 24 hours, and he needs to appear as a choice for voters during the election, Judge Lauren Reeder ordered. But the ruling is technically temporary and could be subject to appeal by the party or Powell’s primary opponent, who was a third-party “intervener” in Powell’s suit against the party.

“I’m very happy that the judge granted our request for an injunction and that he gets the chance to run again,” said Kent Schaffer, Powell’s attorney. “Ultimately, it’s the voters who should decide who the candidate’s going to be, and not a select few people who feel like it’s their right.”

During a Tuesday court hearing, the local chapter of the Democratic Party sought to justify its decision in leaving Powell off the ballot, urging him to take responsibility for his application’s failure. A statement party officials issued after Wednesday’s ruling made little mention of the outcome, however, and pointed to issues with the election code.

Party leaders weren’t able to approve Powell’s candidacy because state rules prevented it, they said. The judge paid an insufficient filing fee too close to the filing deadline, meaning his application was denied and the problem couldn’t be fixed without breaking state rules, party chair Lillie Schechter testified Tuesday.

“The Harris County Democratic Party regrets the situation Judge Powell found himself in,” party officials said in a statement. “Without question, we believe all eligible candidates should have access to the ballot.”

See here for the background, and here for a pre-hearing version of the story, which was also covered by Texas Lawyer. On the one hand, I agree with the HCDP: The rules are easy to understand. He could have filed earlier than the very last minute, when there was no time to fix this easily-corrected mistake. The party doesn’t have much discretion according to the law. On the other hand, I hate seeing people bumped from the ballot for nit-picky reasons. The law in question should be amended to allow a post-deadline grace period to correct technical errors like this (though again, if you know you’re going to run, file at least a day before the deadline and save yourself the trouble).

This is probably the end of the story. The HCDP does not plan to appeal, and intervenor/primary opponent Natalia Cornelio does not appear to be appealing, either. Fine by me, let’s get on to the campaign. One more thing first:

Powell’s lawyers hinted in Tuesday’s injunction hearing that the party might have an interest in keeping the judge from running for re-election, even though paying the incorrect amount might have been no more than a convenient mistake. Schaffer clarified afterward that he believes Ellis is pulling strings in the local Democratic Party, and wants his employee to run unopposed for the 351st state judicial district.

Ellis and Cornelio both helped draft a landmark settlement over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail system, which a federal judge said was unconstitutional and discriminated against poor defendants.

Powell was one of 11 current and former judges in the area who were admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in 2019 related to complaints that they instructed hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to indigent defendants. That admonishment has since been retracted for unknown reasons.

Randle called the claims “ludicrous,” and Cornelio’s attorney, Mynor E. Rodriguez, said he hadn’t heard those accusations.

Yeah, that admonishment, whatever happened to it. I wasn’t inclined to vote for Powell before any of this happened. I’m less inclined to vote for him now.

After-deadline filing review: Houston area

There’s a lot to digest following Monday’s filing deadline, and as I’ve said I’m going to take some time and go over it in as much obsessive detail as you’ve probably come to expect from me. As a reminder, the filing info can be found here, with the caveat that it may not be fully complete. Only two Dem filers in CD03 are listed, for example, while the not-listed Tanner Do sure seems to have filed. This will all get fixed over the next couple of days, but let’s do keep that in mind.

Congress: Sima Ladjevardian’s entry into the CD02 primary was the main news here. She doesn’t have much online presence as a candidate yet, just a Twitter account with three tweets. I hope to have the chance to interview her, and if I do I’ll ask about this, but I get the sense this wasn’t just a late filing, but a late decision to run. That process is always fascinating to me. Anyone who runs against Dan Crenshaw is going to have to raise a lot of money, because he has a lot of money. She strikes me as the kind of candidate who is capable of that, which makes me wonder why not get started sooner? I understand, people have their own reasons for that, I’m just curious. She has three weeks till the next reporting deadline, we’ll see how she does.

Elsewhere, CD10 stayed at three candidates but CD22 now has five, as Chris Fernandez (mentioned in passing in this story and someone named Carmine Petricco whom neither Google nor Facebook can find entered. CD08 has two candidates, Laura Jones, who we knew about a month ago, and Elizabeth Hernandez, whom I cannot identify. If you know anything about any of these folks, please leave a comment.

As noted before, Rep. Al Green has an opponent in CD09, and Sheila Jackson Lee has six – count ’em, six – opponents in CD18. Three of them – Marc Flores, Bimal Patel, and Stevens Orozco – have been around campaigning for awhile, the other three are more recent entrants. And while it’s not a contested primary, I feel compelled to note that Rashad Lewis, who became the youngest person elected to Jasper City Council as a write-in candidate in 2017, then ran for Mayor earlier this year but fell short, is in for CD36. I’m going to want to interview him for November.

Legislative: SBOE6 has three candidates as before; I’ll be publishing interviews with them next week. In the Senate, as noted before Sen. Borris Miles has two opponents in SD13. Former Galveston judge Susan Criss and 2018 CD22 primary candidate Margarita Ruiz Johnson are competing in SD11. Carol Alvarado has SD06 to herself, while Jay Stittleburg (SD04) and Michael Antalan have clear paths to November.

The big news for the State House is that the HD148 primary is now a five candidate race: Anna Eastman, Penny Shaw, Emily Wolf, Adrian P. Garcia, and Cynthia Reyes-Revilla. Garcia was in the HD148 special election, and Reyes-Revilla finished out of the money in District H. I think it’s safe to say there will be a runoff in the primary, as there was in the special election. HD126 is a rerun from 2018, as Undrai Fizer and Natali Hurtado square off again. HD128, which was uncontested in 2018 (and is the reddest district in the county) has Josh Markle, who recently got a boost from Beto, and Mary E. Williams, whom I cannot find. HD134 has the three candidates you know, and HD138 has the two you know plus a repeat engagement from Jenifer Pool. HD129 (Kayla Alix), HD130 (Bryan Henry), HD133 (Sandra Moore, who ran in the 2018 primary), and HD150 (Michael Robert Walsh, whom I cannot conclusively identify) are all uncontested for March.

Among the Harris County incumbents, Reps. Alma Allen (HD131) and Harold Dutton (HD142) have four challengers, with CM Jerry Davis in HD142 being the biggest threat to either of them. Reps. Garnet Coleman (HD147) and Hubert Vo (HD149) each have two opponents, Reps. Jarvis Johnson, Senfronia Thompson, and Shawn Thierry have one, and Reps. Gina Calanni, Jon Rosenthal, Gene Wu, Armando Walle, Ana Hernandez, Mary Ann Perez, and Christina Morales are unopposed. Thierry’s opponent, as noted before, is Ashton Woods, who had run in At Large #5.

Elsewhere, Rep. Ron Reynolds (HD27) did pick up a primary opponent. I’ve been hard on Reynolds since his misdemeanor conviction, and I stand by everything I said. He’s now served his sentence, and I’m not aware of any further legal issues. I’m not quite ready yet, but assuming nothing else happens we are going to need to consider extending him the same grace we’re willing to give others who have served their sentences and deserve a clean slate, at least as far as voting and holding office is concerned. The infamously now-open HD26 has the four candidates we already knew of. Eliz Markowitz remains the candidate in HD28, and there are solo Dems running in HD03 (Martin Shupp), HD15 (Lorena McGill, the 2018 candidate), HD23 (Jeff Antonelli), HD24 (former Chron reporter Brian Rogers), HD25 (Patrick Henry), HD29 (Travis Boldt), and HD85 (Friend-of-Dos-Centavos Joey Cardenas).

Harris County: The main races – DA, County Attorney, Sheriff, Tax Assessor – you know about and nothing new has happened. There’s plenty of action in the two HCDE At Large races – Position 5 now has two candidates (Erica Davis, Paul Ovalle) and Position 7 has four (David Brown and Andrea Duhon, the two we knew about originally, and Bill Morris and Obes Nwabara). Also, too, I have not seen anything to indicate that Josh Flynn has resigned his spot as he runs for HD138 on the GOP side, so there’s that. Willie D is now listed in the primary for Commissioners Court Precinct 1, which doesn’t make sense but maybe something changed. If so, that’s a three-candidate race. There are six candidates for Precinct 3, the four you’ve heard of (Michael Moore, Diana Alexander, Kristi Thibaut, Morris Overstreet) and two you haven’t (Zaher Eisa and Erik Hassan, who is now calling himself Erik “Beto” Hassan, which, no). Alan Rosen did indeed file for Constable in Precinct 1.

That’s all I have the energy for now. I’ll keep going with this tomorrow.

Willie D will not be on the Democratic primary ballot

He wanted to run for Commissioners Court but his application was rejected because of his previous felony conviction.

Willie Dennis

Former Geto Boys rapper William “Willie D” Dennis wants to run for Harris County Commissioners Court, but local Democratic party officials rejected his application to get on the ballot, citing his criminal history and a state law that has become a lightning rod in north Houston politics over the last month.

Dennis filed an application Thursday with the Harris County Democratic Party, seeking to challenge incumbent Rodney Ellis for the court’s Precinct 1 seat. He said he wants to bring his unique perspective to government.

On Saturday, the party notified him that he was ineligible because of his 2010 felony conviction for wire fraud charges, stemming from an iPhone sales scam.

The party cited a state law that forbids candidates from running for public office if they have been convicted of felony from which they have not been pardoned or otherwise released from its “resulting disabilities.”

The statute doesn’t define that phrase and has invited varying interpretations that have not been definitively resolved by courts. It is currently the subject of a contentious lawsuit surrounding the stalled runoff in the Houston city council’s District B election.

“I would add that this is not my decision,” said party chair Lillie Schechter. “We follow the Texas Election Code.”

Officials told Dennis that they would reconsider the ruling if he could provide examples in which candidates with felony convictions were allowed to assume office, Schechter said.

Dennis said he was looking at options to appeal the decision. It marks the second time this year his political plans have been foiled by his conviction. His campaign for the District B seat was similarly derailed by eligibility concerns.

“I want my rights back — all of them,” Dennis told the Chronicle Saturday. “I did my time, now give me my rights.”

See here and here for the story of his attempt to run for District B. As far as the ongoing District B runoff situation goes, the latest news is that the hearing we were supposed to get on Friday was rescheduled for today. If there’s an immediate ruling that may provide clarity for both of those situations.

As to why the HCDP would not accept this ballot application when the city accepted Cynthia Bailey’s (and several others’), I’d say it’s simply a difference of interpretation. William Dennis himself said that he decided not to file in District B because he didn’t want to risk perjuring himself by swearing on the affidavit that he hadn’t been finally convicted of a felony. The initial ruling in the lawsuit filed by Renee Jefferson Smith that allowed Cynthia Bailey to stay on the runoff ballot gave him the confidence to try again, but the underlying law remains unclear. I don’t blame him for being upset and confused by this. This needs to be fixed by the Legislature, ideally in a way that allows people who have completed their sentences to fully participate in our – and, ideally, their – democracy again. Until then, we have a mess.

Filing update: Focus on Harris County

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynthia Bailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judge officially approves final Harris County bail settlement

It’s officially finally final and official.

A federal judge has signed off on a historic bail reform agreement for Harris County, setting in place new protections for people accused of minor offenses in the country’s third largest criminal justice system.

The sweeping agreement and consent decree, officially approved Thursday by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, seeks to level the playing field for the thousands of people arrested each year on misdemeanor charges. For years, judges jailed poor people by default while they awaited trial, while those with money to cover bail could walk free and return to their families and livelihoods.

[…]

Rosenthal wrote that her ruling was rooted in extensive legal findings over the past three years.

“No system can guarantee that all those accused of misdemeanors who are released on personal bonds — rich or poor — will appear for hearings or trial, or that they will commit no crimes on release,” Rosenthal said in a 55-page opinion. “No system can guarantee that all those accused of misdemeanors who are detained pending trial — rich or poor — should have been detained. But Harris County … can stop systematically depriving indigent misdemeanor defendants of their constitutionally-protected rights by detaining them simply because they cannot afford to post money bail.”

Her opinion acknowledged the objections brought up by “amici,” or friends of the court, including the state Attorney General’s Office, District Attorney Kim Ogg and County Commissioner Steve Radack, who voiced concerns at the final hearing that the deal limited judicial discretion and did not do enough to ensure the safety of communities.

“The court does not question the amici and objectors’ good faith,” she wrote. “The public safety and public resource concerns they raise are important.

“The proposed consent decree and settlement agreement are approved because these concerns are fully recognized and addressed,” the opinion said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement following the judge’s decision, saying it “puts to rest the arguments used to instill fear regarding the impact of bail reform.”

“We do not have to choose between protecting the constitutional rights of defendants and protecting public safety,” she said. “In fact, by reforming our broken bail system, we are taking a step toward rebuilding trust between our system of justice and the residents it serves.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said: “After decades of harmful injustice and three years of a legal battle waged in defense of our core principles of liberty, equal treatment and due process for all — no matter how much money you have or the color of your skin — Harris County’s oppressive and discriminatory misdemeanor cash bail practices are ending.”

You know the story by now. At this point, we need to focus on making this work as it is supposed to, to ensuring that we are making adjustments to the risk assessment tool as needed, and just generally measuring everything so a year from now we can present some metrics to show how it all has gone. There are still political fights to be had – just ask the people running against Vince Ryan and Kim Ogg, for starters, and the Lege still needs to address bail reform in a meaningful way – and there are still legal fights to be had – the second bail lawsuit, which is about felony defendants, and the Dallas County bail lawsuit, among others – but this was a huge step forward. A copy of the consent decree is here, and a copy of the settlement agreement is here. Kudos to everyone who helped make this happen.

The state of the county 2019

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has a lot of accomplishments to tout.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County in the past year has made significant progress on flood control, criminal justice and improving public health, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in her first State of the County address Friday.

The county executive also announced her administration would make significant investments in early childhood development in the coming year.

Hidalgo said the Houston area continues to enjoy a bustling economy and low unemployment, but said business and government leaders must not be complacent.

“To a veteran coming home ill-prepared for the 21st century job market, a low unemployment rate doesn’t mean much,” Hidalgo said at the annual luncheon, held this year at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel downtown. “To a family who struggles, a great medical center can’t help them if they don’t have health insurance.”

[…]

She lauded a historic settlement to reform the county’s bail system for misdemeanor defendants, which a federal judge had declared unconstitutional. Hidalgo thanked Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has long been an advocate on criminal justice issues.

She noted that in response to a series of chemical fires in east Harris County, Commissioners Court significantly increased the size of the pollution control and fire marshal’s offices, as well as purchased new air monitors.

“We’ve established the most robust environmental policy that Harris County has seen in at least 30 years,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo thanked the county’s flood control district and engineering department for speeding up work on the $2.5 billion flood infrastructure program and fast-tracking drainage projects in 105 subdivisions.

She also said her office has made county government more transparent by holding a series of town halls, developing a 311 call system and making a greater effort to include the public at more open, albeit lengthy, Commissioners Court meetings. Hidalgo said to date, four times as many residents have participated than last year.

You can see a copy of Judge Hidalgo’s prepared remarks here. I like the way she addressed the “concerns” some people had about her age, noting that the legendary Judge Roy Hofheinz was three years younger than she was when he was first elected. I think she has a lot to be proud of, and there’s clearly a lot more she has in mind to do. I’m looking forward to it. The Texas Signal has more.

Filing period preview: Harris County

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

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

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

District Attorney

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

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

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

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

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

Sheriff

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

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

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

County Attorney

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

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

Tax Assessor

Ann Harris Bennett (D)

Chris Daniel (R)

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

Commissioners Court, Precinct 1

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

Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

Steve Radack (R)
Brenda Stardig (R)

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

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

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

Jackson to challenge Ellis in Precinct 1

Here we go.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Former Harris County criminal court judge Maria T. Jackson will challenge incumbent Rodney Ellis for Harris County Precinct 1 commissioner, her campaign announced Monday.

Jackson, the county’s longest serving felony judge until her resignation last month, plans to hold a campaign kickoff on Tuesday. She said she was unavailable for comment Monday.

Jackson, a Democrat, served as presiding judge of the 339th State District Court in Harris County between 2008 and 2019. Previously, she was a Houston municipal court judge. She unsuccessfully ran for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2018.

Jackson earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas and graduated from the Texas A&M School of Law. She faces a well-funded opponent in Ellis in the March Democratic primary. Ellis, a former state senator, was first elected Precinct 1 commissioner in 2016.

She faces a well-funded opponent in Ellis in the March Democratic primary. Ellis, a former state senator, first was elected Precinct 1 commissioner in 2016.

On his most recent campaign finance report filing in July, Ellis listed a war chest of $3.8 million, more than any other elected official in Harris County. Jackson listed $13,812 cash on hand for her judge campaign account, which she can transfer to her campaign for commissioner.

University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus said the fundraising deficit is one of several significant challenges Jackson would have to overcome to have a chance of victory. Rottinghaus said Ellis is widely known to the public and popular among Democratic voters. He also said judges often struggle to transition to legislative or executive elected positions.

“Judges tend not to be visible, politically,” Rottinghaus said. “They aren’t used to talking about core political issues and using that to build coalitions.”

See here for the background, and here for my 2016 judicial Q&A with Jackson. Ellis formally announced his re-election campaign on the same day, not that there was any doubt about his intentions. I tend to agree with Prof. Rottinghaus on this, especially when the other candidate is as well known as Commissioner Ellis is. I support Ellis, I voted for him as a precinct chair in 2016, and I’m happy with what he’s done. Guess I need to add this race to my list for primary interviews.

Ogg continues to have problems with the bail settlement

I don’t like this.

Kim Ogg

District Attorney Kim Ogg is rallying police officers across Harris County to show up in federal court en masse to oppose to a landmark bail reform agreement at a final hearing set for this month.

She emailed about 100 police chiefs to invite them to attend an Oct. 28 court proceeding before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to lend support on an issue she says “endangers the public.”

In addition to recruiting top brass to the hearing, Ogg also requested that her lieutenants be present to support her concerns about portions of the settlement that allowed most defendants arrested on minor offenses to await trial at home without posting up-front cash bail, according to her spokesman, Dane Schiller.

Ogg expressed misgivings about the proposed consent decree approved last summer by Commissioners Court after months of intensive meetings between county leaders, judges and the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the 2016 class action.

Ogg, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, is among a number of parties, including many from the bail bond industry, who submitted concerns about the settlement in court during the summer.

“The district attorney has always supported bail reform, so that nobody is held just because they are poor, but she also says public safety should always be considered,” Schiller said.

[…]

The county public defender, who has been friends with Ogg since law school, said he suspects Ogg’s approach will be perceived as overkill by Rosenthal, the region’s highest ranking lifetime appointee to the federal bench.

“A courtroom full of police officers is not going to intimidate her,” said Harris County Public Defender Alex Bunin. “She might be insulted that they would do that to her.”

“It’s over the top, and this kind of bravado backfires every time,” Bunin added. He said the majority of the concerns Ogg raised were resolved by a judicial rule passed in January.

See here and here for the background. I agree with Alex Bunin here, this is not going to help and will serve as fuel for Ogg’s primary opponents. The fears being expressed are overblown, and frankly it’s fine by me if the county has to experience a little inconvenience to accommodate a non-violent offender who need assistance getting back to court. As I’ve said before, I’d much rather pay for an Uber for that guy than pay to feed, clothe, and house him for some number of weeks or months. Maybe – stay with me here – we could arrest fewer of these non-violent mostly drug offenders in the first place, which would go a long way towards reducing inconvenience for everyone. In the meantime, the bail agreement is in place and it is going to be the law. Let’s all do what we can to make it work.

Cagle and Radack break quorum

They did it.

Two Harris County Commissioners Court members skipped Tuesday’s meeting to prevent the Democratic majority from voting on a property tax rate hike that would increase revenue by 8 percent.

Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle were absent when County Judge Lina Hidalgo gaveled in the session at 10:03 a.m. A staff member for Cagle placed a two-foot stack of constituent comments at his place on the dais, indicating their widespread opposition to the tax increase.

Without a vote, Harris County will revert to the effective tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year, which will collect more than $195 million less than the rate Democrats had proposed, according to county budget analysts.

[…]

Cagle and Radack remained at large when their colleagues began discussing the tax rate at 11 a.m. In a statement, Cagle said he and Radack skipped the meeting to block an “unwise, unfair and unjustified” tax increase.

“The residents of Precinct 4 elected me to represent them. They did not elect me to lord over them or to repress them,” Cagle said. “This is the taxpayers’ money, not the government’s.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a statement from Commissioner Ellis. I will just say this: The people of Harris County, who voted 52-46 for Lupe Valdez over Greg Abbott, and 56-42 for Mike Collier over Dan Patrick, did not vote for the imposition of a restrictive and damaging revenue cap. Collier, for that matter, carried Radack’s precinct and came damn close in Cagle’s, so one could plausibly argue that their own constituents didn’t vote for that revenue cap, either. I can appreciate that Radack and Cagle opposed this plan and used the tool that was available to them to stop it, but they picked a really short-sighted hill to die on. The property tax system in Texas is rigged against homeowners, and Radack and Cagle’s fellow Republicans in the Legislature refuse to do anything about it. By this action, they demonstrate they are part of the problem. Commissioners Court can’t do anything about what the Lege has imposed on them now, but the voters can do something about Steve Radack next year. The Court has undergone a lot of change, but clearly more is needed.

Will Radack and Cagle break quorum to stop a tax rate hike?

We’ll find out today.

Harris County Commissioners Court has scheduled a vote Tuesday to hike property taxes by 8 percent, though the two Republican members can thwart the plan by simply skipping the vote.

A quirk in the Texas Government Code requires a quorum of four court members, rather than the regular three, to vote on a tax increase. The rule affords Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle rare power, as they repeatedly have lost votes to their three Democratic colleagues this year.

The pair said they would not reveal their intentions ahead of the meeting.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said Radack and Cagle could attend the rest of Tuesday’s court meeting and leave the room when County Judge Lina Hidalgo decides to consider the tax increase.

“They can be present for part of the meeting and then leave,” Soard said. “That’s their option.”

Soard said that unlike the governor, Hidalgo has no power to compel any member to be present for a vote.

[…]

The Democrats on the Harris County Commissioners Court proposed a property tax increase of 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value, which the county budget office estimates would add $37.65 to the tax bill on a $230,000 home in the first year. The county would collect more than $200 million in additional revenue.

Garcia said the prospect of Republicans skipping the vote was “disappointing but not surprising.”

“It is their responsibility to come to court and be a part of the process, even if they don’t agree with it,” he said in a statement.

The relationships between court members have been fraught at times since Democrats took control in January. Divided votes have become the norm, and commissioners sometimes snipe at each other from the dais.

See here for the background. The main thing I would add here is that the fraught-ness and the sniping and the divided votes are not because of some generic notion of “politics”, or incivility, or even partisanship, as former Judge Robert Eckels says. It’s about a sincere and significant difference in values and priorities. Which, to be fair to Eckels, is reflected in the differences between the two parties. The Republicans had their way for decades, and then the voters voted for change. That’s how this is supposed to work, minus the anti-majoritarian avoidance techniques. We’ll see what these two do.

Rodney Ellis may have an opponent in 2020

Keep your eye on this:

Here’s a Chron story about Judge Jackson’s resignation, which does not mention the challenge-to-Rodney-Ellis possibility, since at this point that’s mostly informed gossip. It does mean, as the story notes, that Greg Abbott will get to appoint a replacement, which if past patterns hold will be a Republican that had been booted out by voters in either 2016 or 2018. Which in turn means there will be at least one judicial slot available in 2020 for a Democrat who doesn’t want to have to primary someone. I’m sure that will draw some interest.

As far as the rumored challenge to Commissioner Rodney Ellis goes, no one gets or deserves a free pass, and a real challenge is better for democracy than the usual no-name crank filing against an otherwise unbothered incumbent for the office. If we’re going to have an election, let’s have one between real, qualified, purposeful candidates. I supported Ellis in that weird precinct chair election in 2016, I’ll happily support him in 2020, and I fully expect he’ll cruise to an easy win in March, if indeed Jackson runs against him.

Jackson will have several obstacles to winning a primary against Ellis (if, again, that is what she intends to do). Ellis is popular, has a strong base, has been a prime mover of policies widely supported by Democrats while on Commissioners Court, especially while he’s been in the Dem majority post-2018, and has a lot of money in his campaign treasury. Jackson, by contrast, has $13,812 on hand, and will now have to raise money in large quantities in a short time frame. Her one contribution from this cycle came from the Texans for Fairness PAC, which supported a lot of local Dems in 2018, and whose co-founder is Amir Mireskandari, of that weird poker club situation that I haven’t said anything about in part because I have no idea what to make of it. It’s not hard to see how that could be a loud sideshow in a Jackson-Ellis primary battle, which again, as of this time isn’t a thing. But it could be, and so we ought to be aware of what might come with it. Stay tuned.

Quorum question

Who knew?

A quirk in Texas law could allow the two Republicans on Harris County Commissioners Court, despite being in the minority, to prevent the three Democrats from enacting a proposed property tax increase.

Typically, three court members constitute a quorum, the minimum number needed to conduct business. The Texas Government Code, however, requires four members be present to vote on levying a tax.

That exception affords rare power to Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, who have been steamrolled on 3-2 votes on enacting bail reform, appointing a judge and a resolution on gun violence.

The pair simply would need to skip a tax hike vote to prevent the three Democrats from passing it, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said. The trio on Sept. 10 proposed raising the overall property tax rate 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. The existing rate is 63 cents per $100 of assessed value.

“We don’t know how exactly it would play out,” Soard said. “But if there are not four members present, Commissioners Court can’t vote on a tax increase.”

A final vote is scheduled for Oct. 8, and the deadline to set the county tax rates is Oct. 11, leaving the Democrats with little margin for error. Commissioners Court has scheduled public hearings on the proposal on Sept. 20 and Sept. 24.

Radack pointed out that he has not missed a meeting in more than five years, and said Oct. 8’s session is marked on his calendar.

Cagle, through a spokesman, said he has made a decision on the issue but does not want to share his strategy publicly. Cagle proposed a compromise at the Sept. 11 meeting, only increasing the flood control district rate, but his motion was defeated on a party-line vote.

[…]

The proposed property tax increase, which would be the first increase since 1996, would collect more than $200 million in additional revenue over the current rate. Hidalgo said the measure is necessary to ensure the county can continue to pay for services, including billion in flood control projects, after the revenue cap passed by the Legislature takes effect next year.

That cap limits year-over-year growth of city and county revenue to 3.5 percent, down from a previous ceiling of 8 percent. Revenue increases above that threshold would need voter approval.

The county budget office estimates the average Harris County homeowner’s tax bill would increase by $38, based on a home valued around $230,000.

You have to love an anti-majoritarian law. I had no idea this existed, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Let’s please dispense with this nonsense about Radack and Cagle being “steamrolled”, however. They’re on the losing end of majority votes. That’s how this is supposed to work.

The story notes that Rodney Ellis participated in a big quorum break in 2003, while he was in the State Senate and was trying to hold off the Tom DeLay re-redistricting effort. The Senate quorum-busting, which lasted for weeks while Ellis and his Democratic colleagues holed up in New Mexico, followed a similar effort by 51 Democrats in the House. This is fair to bring up. I will note that in these cases, the threshold for a quorum in each chamber was set by the rules they adopted at the beginning of the session, not by state law, and that one of the things that happened as a result of all this was that the quorum rules were changed to make this kind of exercise futile. Also, the reason that Ellis and others fled the state is because the DPS is authorized to round up wayward members and drag them back into the chamber for the vote they’re trying to scuttle. Whether the DPS has the power to place quorum-busting legislators under arrest was unsettled the last time I checked on it, but I feel confident saying that if Radack and Cagle try this, they will not be hauled back downtown in handcuffs by Sheriff’s deputies.

As to the matter of the tax rate increase itself, this is something that Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia think is necessary to enable the county to pay for the things it needs to do, including flood mitigation. They are concerned that thanks to the revenue cap provision of HB3, the county will be hamstrung going forward, forced to implement rate cuts because the county’s growth has been too fast for the law, so they’re taking action to mitigate against that now. You can certainly disagree with that, and you can express that at the next Commissioners Court meeting and at the ballot box. I’d just note that if the Legislature had left the county to its own devices, this wouldn’t be happening now.

More ways to improve access to voting

In Harris County:

Inmates of the Harris County Jail may soon be able to vote. Harris County leaders have approved a study on setting up a polling location at the jail as early as this November.

The County Clerk’s and Sheriff’s Offices will explore if they can set up a polling location at the jail in time for this Election Day. Commissioner Adrian Garcia proposed the measure.

“It’s their constitutional right, and so we need to make sure that we’re following that particular law,” Garcia said.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis seconded the proposal, which passed along party lines in a three-to-two vote. “Remember, the ones sitting in the jail haven’t been convicted yet, unless they’ve been convicted of something else,” Ellis said. “And for what it’s worth, there may be people in line to visit them who can vote.”

If you don’t like this idea, then I have good news for you: The bail lawsuit settlement means that there will be far fewer inmates in the jail who might get to take advantage of this. Just remember, you don’t lose your right to vote until you plead guilty to or are found guilty of a felony, and if that happens you’re going to a state prison, not the county jail. If you’re in the jail awaiting trial or serving a misdemeanor sentence, you’re still a legal voter.

From Bexar County:

[County Commissioner Justin] Rodriguez, a former Democratic member of the Texas House, is asking the Bexar Commissioner’s Court to form an advisory committee to identify improvements to the county’s voting procedures, step up voter education and drive higher turnout. He hopes the group — made up of residents and members of nonprofits and other stakeholders — can make progress on that work ahead of the November 2020 presidential election.

“It doesn’t seem like we’re getting much help from state leaders on how to best administer elections or get people out to vote,” said Rodriguez, who worked with voter-turnout group MOVE Texas to formulate his plan. “I think the best solution for us is to act locally.”

[…]

Rodriguez said he’s confident he has the votes on County Commissioner’s court to support his measure and start assembling the committee in coming weeks.

As that story notes, Bexar County is also implementing voting centers this year. I don’t know what Commissioner Rodriguez and his committee will come up with, but I hope we keep an eye on them here in Harris. I’m sure we’ll be able to learn something from their experience.

UPDATE: Received the following email from County Clerk Diane Trautman:

“Due to the Labor Day holiday and other prior commitments, the Harris County Clerk and Sheriff’s offices are still in the exploratory stage of determining the best way to meet the voting needs of Harris County residents that are in jail. Determining a new voting location requires several steps and usually takes many months to confirm. This process includes wifi connectivity, ADA compliance, available parking, legality of location, and availability of location. Due to voting locations already being set for the upcoming November election, the ballot by mail program will be the best voting option for those who are incarcerated in the November election.”

For more information please email [email protected]

Hopefully this can happen in time for 2020.

Commissioners Court approves bail lawsuit settlement

Excellent.

Harris County Commissioners Court approved a historic settlement Tuesday fixing a bail system a federal judge found unconstitutional and ushering in a new era for criminal justice in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

The deal resulted from months of intensive negotiations between the county and lawyers for indigent misdemeanor defendants who sued over a two-tiered system that jailed people prior to trial if they couldn’t pay up front cash bail but allowed people with similar backgrounds and charges to resume their lives and await trial at home.

“This was the result of careful negotiation,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said just before the commissioner’s voted 3-2 to approve the deal.

The vote split along party lines. Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, the only Republicans now on the the commissioners court, voted against it.

The settlement agreement — which still must be approved by a federal judge — installs a monitor to oversee the new bail protocol for seven years. It provides comprehensive public defense services and safeguards to help ensure defendants show up for court. It will allow about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors to avoid pretrial detention. The settlement also calls for transparent data collection, which will allow the county to keep better track of what’s working and what isn’t.

You know the background, so see here for the previous update. I can only wonder what would have happened in a world where Democrats swept the judicial races but failed to win those two seats on Commissioners Court. I feel pretty confident saying that as of July 30 in that alternate universe, there would not be an agreement in place. Elections, they do have consequences. Congratulations one and all for getting this done.

Once more with more prosecutors

This time, it might work.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office is asking county commissioners once again for more prosecutors to handle fallout from the botched Houston drug raid that left a Pecan Park couple dead earlier this year.

The latest $1.96 million funding request that will go to Commissioners Court for consideration Tuesday would add 10 positions to the office, including seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators housed in the Civil Rights Division.

“What leaders fund speaks to what they think is important and our investigation of the Harding Street shootings is one of the most significant matters we have seen in decades,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. “Community trust depends on us getting to the truth sooner than later; we need to add experienced prosecutors to our Civil Rights Division to handle an investigation this deep and wide.”

[…]

Already, it seems the latest proposed expansion may have more support from the politicians who hold the county’s purse strings. Previously, two Republican commissioners generally voiced their support for adding prosecutors, but this time Democrats look poised to back it as well.

“I’m proud that the district attorney and I have reached common ground in working with an independent consultant to help create a strategy that fosters public confidence in our criminal justice system,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. “This additional resource is critical to supporting our law enforcement officers.”

Similarly, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis — who opposed the request last time around — said he will back it.

“The Harding Street tragedy raises concerns that are bigger than one officer — it’s about an entire system that needs to be held accountable,” he said. “I have worked with the DA to ensure this new request includes robust oversight by an independent third party to identify the failed safeguards that allowed for any miscarriage of justice to occur.”

See here for the previous update. If nothing else, it looks like Ogg took to heart the reasons why her previous asks were rejected. She’s already got the two Republican commissioners in line, so passage appears assured, and it’s just a matter of whether or not Judge Lina Hidalgo makes it unanimous. (Also of note: unlike the previous times, I’ve not gotten an email from the ACLU or TOP opposing the request.) Assuming nothing unexpected happens and this does go through, I’ll be very interested to see what they turn up. I feel confident saying there’s more to that botched raid than we know about right now.

Final bail settlement reached

We are coming to the end of a very long road.

A long-awaited settlement in Harris County’s historic bail lawsuit won tentative approval Friday from all parties, setting up a possible end to a contentious system that kept poor people behind bars on low-level charges while those with money could walk free.

The agreement — if approved by a federal judge and county officials — would formally adopt the judge’s findings and modernize the way local officials handle bail hearings for the steady stream of people arrested every day on misdemeanors.

Key reforms in the lengthy consent decree include revised judicial protocol, access to more public defense services, open court hours for defendants to clear or prevent warrants, as well as text reminders about hearings and a bail education program for officials and the public. The county will have a court-appointed monitor for seven years to oversee implementation.

The county also would agree to pay about $4.7 million in legal costs for the plaintiffs, on top of the $9.1 million already spent to contest the lawsuit. An additional $2.1 million in legal fees has been waived by the Susman Godfrey firm.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has championed bail and criminal justice reform for decades, called the agreement one of the highlights of his career.

“It’s a major civil rights victory that will have national implications,” Ellis said. “This fixes a broken system that has traditionally punished people based on how much money they have before they are convicted of a crime.”

The deal could provide a road map for other jurisdictions around the country to rethink their bail systems amid widespread overcrowding and a nationwide push for criminal justice reform.

Commissioners Court is set to vote Tuesday on the proposed deal. Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal could then consider approving it after a hearing Aug. 21.

See here for some background. I got a press release from the Texas Organizing Project on Thursday about this, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the news story. I can predict with confidence that Commissioners Court will approve this by a 3-2 margin. Elections have consequences. Kudos to everyone who worked hard to make this happen.

What can the county do about ethics?

Maybe something. Maybe not. Who can tell?

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still no more prosecutors

I remain fascinated by this dynamic.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected District Attorney Kim Ogg’s request for more staff to handle fallout from the Houston Police Department’s botched Pecan Park drug raid, the second time this year commissioners have turned down Ogg’s push for more prosecutors.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines after a feisty debate involving the court’s reform-minded Democratic majority, officials from Ogg’s office and the outnumbered conservative commissioners. In the end, Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined County Judge Lina Hidalgo in turning down the request.

Added to the court’s agenda late Friday, Ogg’s request would have granted the district attorney’s office 10 new positions — seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators — to handle what officials in Ogg’s office characterized as an overwhelming caseload aggravated by the Jan. 28 Harding Street raid.

The court’s decision came a day after HPD agreed to give prosecutors thousands of pages of records relating to their use of confidential narcotics informants, avoiding a legal showdown that loomed after prosecutors from Ogg’s office threatened to issue grand jury subpoenas to get the records.

Instead of granting Ogg more staff, Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia voiced support for an external review by an independent third party. They also cited a Chronicle report that raised questions about caseloads and Ogg’s push for more than 100 new lawyers earlier this year, which the court also rejected.

[…]

In a statement, Ogg said her office “remains dedicated to fully investigating the Harding Street shootings” and said the shooting victims’ family members “and our entire community deserve to know the truth sooner, not later. Unnecessary delay creates hardship for everyone associated with this tragedy. If police misconduct led to the wrongful convictions of anyone, then every extra day served in the penitentiary waiting for justice increases the potential financial liability for Harris County taxpayers.”

Ellis, a longtime criminal justice advocate, told officials from the district attorney’s office that he did not feel comfortable receiving Ogg’s request late Friday, and urged King to meet first with an independent prosecutor before having commissioners vote on additional staff.

Hidalgo suggested that Ogg’s request was a reaction to coverage of the botched raid, telling King that Commissioners Court members “don’t write budgets based on headlines.”

See here for more on the first time Ogg asked for more prosecutors, here for more on that Chron story about caseloads, and here for more about the late ask for more prosecutors this time around. I can think of three things to say. One is that Kim Ogg should listen to Rodney Ellis and consult with someone outside Harris County about their staffing needs before taking any further action. Two, that consultation should include reviewing and revising those numbers the Chron cited, if only to present an alternative report that conforms to the specifications cited. And three, one way or another she needs to build or rebuild trust between her office and the Democrats on Commissioners Court, because she sure isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt from them. The campaign ads for her primary opposition are being written for them.

By the way, Commissioners Court updated the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies

Nice.

The Commissioners Court voted 3-2 along party lines to [add sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies].

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, along with Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — all Democrats — voted in favor. Republicans Jack Cagle and Steve Radack voted against. Prior to the vote, several LGBTQ advocates spoke in support of the proposal, while only one person — Dave Welch of the Houston Area Pastor Council — spoke against it.

Welch told the court that sexual orientation and gender identity are “undefinable” — and claimed the new nondiscrimination policies would “be used as a bludgeon against those who disagree.”

Commissioner Garcia responded with an emotional story about his late brother, Huberto, who died from AIDS in 1995.

“My brother was gay, and he grew up at a time when if you exhibited any tendency … you got beat up,” Garcia said. “So, here we have an opportunity to simply say, ‘People matter, and that people will be protected.’

“My brother couldn’t come home to die with his family,” Garcia said. “California at the time was the only place he could get healthcare”.

[…]

The new policies would take effect immediately and bring Harris County in line with other major Texas counties, including Bexar (San Antonio), Dallas and Travis (Austin) counties. Harris County is the third-most-populous in the nation and has more than 15,000 employees. The policies would also cover several hundred employees at the Harris County Flood Control District (think: Hurricane Harvey).

This only merited a passing mention in the Chron, which I find disappointing. Note that this policy applies only to Harris County employees; Commissioners Court doesn’t have the authority to do this for the county as a whole. Despite the failure of HERO, the city of Houston has long had a similar non-discrimination policy for its employees, which Mayor Parker updated to include transgender employees back in 2010. Elections have consequences, y’all. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia for getting this done.

Bail lawsuit settlement outline taking shape

We should have a final version in a couple of weeks.

A proposed settlement in the landmark Harris County bail lawsuit would significantly change how the county treats poor defendants in misdemeanor cases by providing free social and transportation services and relaxing penalties for missed court dates.

The draft deal includes a number of reforms aimed at ensuring poor defendants arrive for court hearings and are not unfairly pressured into guilty pleas. They would, among other changes: require Harris County to provide free child care at courthouses, develop a two-way communication system between courts and defendants, give cell phones to poor defendants and pay for public transit or ride share services for defendants without access to transportation to court.

“I’m not aware of any county, or city the size of Houston… doing those type of innovative things,” said Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the poor defendants. “Ultimately, the county is going to save so much money by not keeping these people in jail.”

The proffered agreement would require the county to operate at least one night or weekend docket to provide a more convenient opportunity for defendants with family, work and education commitments. Courts would be barred from charging any fees to poor defendants, defined as those earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $25,000 for someone with no dependents.

The proposal also would reduce penalties for missed court dates. A defendant could not be deemed to have failed to appear if he arrived in court on the day assigned, even if he was hours late. Defendants would be allowed to reschedule court appearances for any reason at least two times without negative consequences. Judges only could issue bench warrants 30 days after a missed a court appearance, so long as the court already has attempted to contact the defendant with a rescheduled hearing date.

In addition, judges would be required to permit defendants to skip hearings where their presence is unnecessary, such as routine meetings between prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges that do not involve testimony or fact-finding.

At the heart of the 23-page proposed settlement, a copy of which was obtained by the Houston Chronicle, is the codification of a new bail schedule unveiled by the slate of newly elected of criminal judges in January, under which about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors automatically qualify for release on no-cash bonds.

“Our current goal now is to become the model misdemeanor court system in America,” said Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, a bail reform advocate and the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench when the case began. “I think the proposals in the settlement, as far as the wraparound services for misdemeanor defendants, is a great step in that direction.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement late Friday stressing that the proposal is preliminary, and could change.

“We’re working well with the plaintiffs to reach an agreement that will provide a model for bail reform around the country while also being feasible for the county to implement,” she said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he is eager to negotiate a settlement that balances the needs of defendants against those of victims and county taxpayers. He declined to speak to specific provisions in the proposed settlement, but said he has concerns that some may be too expensive or unrealistic.

“I’ll just say there’s a number of things that immediately hit me like, ‘I’m not sure how we’re going to do that,’” Garcia said.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle panned the proposal, which they said is too broad. The pair of Republicans said it should instead focus on implementing bail rules that ignore a defendant’s ability to pay.

“If my learned colleagues are going to strive for free Uber rides for the accused, I’d strongly advocate we provide the same to victims,” Cagle said.

Just a reminder, for anyone who might be fixating on the Uber rides or childcare aspects of this, the goal here is to get people to show up for their court dates. I would remind you that the alternative to paying for those relatively small things is paying to house, feed, and clothe thousands of people for weeks or months at a time, and that we have been doing exactly that for decades now. And if it’s the Uber thing that’s really sticking in your craw, then I trust you support a robust expansion of our public transit and pedestrian infrastructure so that it’s practical for anyone to take a bus to the courthouse. (Though having said that, if Commissioner Cagle was being sincere and not sarcastic, providing rides to the courthouse for victims who need them seems like a good idea to me.)

Again, just to review. Locking people up who have not been convicted of a crime is (with limited exceptions) wrong. Locking people up who have been arrested on charges that would normally not carry jail time if they were convicted is wrong. Locking people up for technical violations that have nothing to do with the crimes with which they have been charged is wrong. We spend tens of millions of dollars of our tax dollars every year doing these things. This is our chance to spend a whole lot less, and to get better results for it.

Was the McLeod replacement too hasty?

Eh, I dunno.

Judge William McLeod

Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court criticized their Democratic colleagues for quickly approving a new civil court judge at Tuesday’s meeting who had not been vetted by the full body.

The three Democrats voted to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to replace County Court at Law Judge Bill McLeod, who inadvertently resigned last week. Briones’ name was absent from the agenda, she had only spoken with the Democratic members and just 36 minutes passed between her nomination and approval.

“This is the least transparent appointment I have ever seen,” Republican Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said. “The unfairness of the process was overwhelming.”

During the meeting, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle held up Briones résumé, which he had been handed minutes earlier, and said he may have supported her if he only had the chance to review it. Instead the vote fell along party lines, 3 to 2.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who regularly pledges her administration will be more transparent than those past, defended the process.

Hidalgo said Commissioners Court faces several pressing issues, including responses to two massive chemical fires in recent weeks and a looming settlement in the county’s landmark bail lawsuit. When an assistant county attorney warned court members Tuesday that leaving Judge McLeod on the bench as a holdover judge almost certainly would force him to recuse himself from some cases, Hidalgo said the court needed to choose a replacement.

She said McLeod, not Commissioners Court, had created the predicament.

“I decided for myself it wasn’t going to go beyond this court,” Hidalgo said. She added, “This is something we needed to get done and move on from.”

See here for my initial reactions, and here for some further background. I have some sympathy for the Court here. This was a weird situation, not of their own making. I think most people would agree that inadvertent or not, McLeod did trigger the “resign to run” condition. I suspect as much as anything they just wanted to put this mess behind them, so they went ahead and named a replacement. I get it, but I have to agree that Commissioner Cagle makes a good point. They could at least have had something like a Judicial Committee hearing, to give all the Commissioners some time to know who they were voting on. I would hope this situation will never arise again, but in the unfortunate event it does, let’s take that lesson from this experience.

UPDATE: Stace sums it all up nicely.

More on McLeod

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

Judge William McLeod

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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