Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Stephen Costello

Chron Mayoral profile: Steve Costello

Here’s “the second in a series of profiles on the top candidates running for mayor in Houston”.

CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

It was July 2007, and Steve Costello, leading a crowded meeting of the region’s most influential engineers, had just silenced the room.

“You know, we participate in a lot of campaigns now,” Costello said. “We need to get someone on City Council who can be our spokesman for infrastructure investment.”

Heads nodded. Many in the room long had contributed to candidates who, in their view, had focused elsewhere while Houston’s street and drainage systems crumbled. But then he added: “Who wants to volunteer to become a council member?”

Three dozen men sat studying their hands, the mood having grown tense. The pause lingered.

“OK,” Costello said. “I’ll do it.”

His peers’ sense of relief, Costello recalls now, grinning, was obvious. Less obvious was how this buttoned-down engineer with a Long Island accent would transform himself into a politician.

[…]

Costello reads constantly, and if a book doesn’t catch his interest in 20 pages, he picks up the next one. If a run is scheduled for 5 a.m. and a friend arrives at 5:02 a.m., she should expect Costello to be two minutes down the trail.

“If we were planning on running at 4:45 a.m., he’d get there at 4:30 a.m. and fall asleep in his car waiting for me every day,” said Donna Rickenbacker, with whom Costello trained for 15 years. “He’s fiercely competitive – but he never used that competitiveness to go out there and try to beat me on the runs or not hold back if I were having a bad day. He just had to get the park first.”

Even his mannerisms suggest impatience, in part because the former smoker always has something in his hands. In the office, he bounces a tennis ball. At council, he trades the dark chocolates he keeps in his desk for rubber bands.

His approach has flaws. In a political culture that assumes council members must praise every civic leader present, Costello never speaks just to speak. As a result, when he weighs in, his colleagues listen – but they do not necessarily fall in line.

Even when trying to rally support, Costello often lays out his logic just once, even if opponents peel away votes by chiming in again and again. He trusts his solution is right, and expects others to recognize that.

Some colleagues find his style refreshing; others think it overconfident.

Like the first entry, about Chris Bell, this one is long on biography and what-makes-him-tick and not so long on policy. Unlike the first one for me, it did tell me things I didn’t already know. I like Steve Costello and I think he’s been a good and effective member of Council. I’ve said before, I think the main obstacle he has to overcome is affinity. Both Republicans (who think he’s a RINO) and Democrats (who are aware of his voting history and continued sponsorship of the annual Harris County GOP fundraiser) have alternatives to him who are equally strong on the issues they care about as Costello, but are one of them. I believe he’d be the second choice, or at worst the third choice, of a lot of voters. That would work in his favor if he makes it to the runoff, but it won’t help him get there in the first place.

Endorsement watch: The score so far

We’ve had a slew of endorsements for municipal races this past week. I’ve been keeping track of them as best I can on my 2015 Election page. This isn’t always easy to do, because some groups are not very good at posting their endorsements anywhere. I gather, for example, that the HPFFA has made endorsements, based on these tweets, but so far no official list appears to be visible. Groups whose endorsements I have added to the page so far:

AFL-CIO
Houston GLBT Political Caucus
Houston Stonewall Young Democrats
Houston Area Stonewall Democrats
Democracy for Houston
Harris County Tejano Democrats

Log Cabin Republicans
Houston Police Officers Union
Houston Building Owners & Managers Association

I’ve separated the traditionally Democratic/progressive groups from the rest. There are still a lot of groups out there to endorse – HOPE (they have endorsed Sylvester Turner for Mayor but I’ve not seen anything else from them as yet), SEIU, Houston Black American Democrats, Houston Association of Realtors, Houston Contractors Association, the C Club, Texas Organizing Project, and the firefighters if they ever produce a list. Things may change as more endorsements come in, but here are my initial impressions on what we’ve seen so far.

Sylvester Turner has done very well so far. I had thought some endorsing organizations might want to keep their powder dry in this crowded field, but Turner has stood out with his ability to collect support from different groups. Given all the competition for the LGBT group endorsements, snagging two of them is an accomplishment. Stephen Costello nabbed the other two, with the nod from the Stonewall Young Dems being a bit contentious. Adrian Garcia got on the scoreboard with the Tejano Dems; I’m sure that won’t be his last endorsement. Chris Bell has impeccable credentials for some of these groups, but he’s come up empty so far. You have to wonder if they’re getting a little discouraged over there, and you have to wonder if their fundraising is taking a hit. Ben Hall is getting Hotze support; I’ll be interested to see if he buys Gary Polland’s endorsement in the Texas Conservative Review. Will also be interesting to see if a more mainstream group like the C Club throws in with Hall or goes with an establishment choice like Bill King.

My initial reaction to Chris Brown’s dominance in Controller endorsements so far was surprise, but on reflection it all makes sense. He’s really the only viable Democrat running – Carroll Robinson has Hotze taint on him, and Jew Don Boney doesn’t even have a campaign website. Frazer got the Log Cabin Republicans, and I expect him to sweep up the other R-based endorsements. Keep an eye on what the realtors and contractors do in this one, if they get involved at all rather than waiting for the runoff.

Lane Lewis has crushed it so far in At Large #1, not only sweeping the Dem/progressive endorsements over three quality opponents, but also picking up support from the police, firefighters, and BOMA, who didn’t endorse in any of the other three open citywide races. He won’t win any Republican endorsements, of course – I assume new entrant Mike Knox will, if he can get his campaign organized in time to do whatever screenings are needed – but at this point I’d make him a favorite for most of what’s left. Amanda Edwards has impressed in AL4, though Laurie Robinson has split a couple of endorsements with her and will be a threat to win others. Not clear to me who will take the Republican support that’s available.

I expected more of an even fight in the two At Large races with Democratic challengers to Republican incumbents, but so far Doug Peterson and Philippe Nassif have taken them all. As I understand it, Durrel Douglas hasn’t been screening for endorsements – this can be a very time-consuming thing if you are doing a solo campaign – so Nassif has had a clear path and has taken it. As for AL3, I get the impression that Peterson is considered the more viable candidate against CM Kubosh. I though both he and John LaRue were good interview subjects, for what it’s worth. CMs Kubosh and Christie have gotten the “friendly incumbent” endorsements so far, and I expect that will continue. CM David Robinson has gotten those and the Dem/progressive nods. I’ll be interested to see if HBAD backs Andrew Burks; I expect Gary Polland to give Burks some love for being a HERO opponent, but I don’t know if groups like the C Club will join in with that. Burks is doing his usual thing campaign-wise (which is to say, not a whole lot), so anything that requires an organized response is probably beyond his grasp.

Not a whole lot of interest in the District Council and HISD/HCC races. I’m a little surprised that Karla Cisneros hasn’t picked up any endorsements in H, but there’s still time. Ramiro Fonseca has done well against Manuel Rodriguez, who is deservedly paying for the rotten things his campaign did in 2011. Jolanda Jones still has some game. Beyond that, not much to say.

So that’s where things stand now. As I said, they may look very different in a month’s time. And as with fundraising, a good showing in endorsements only means so much. Plenty of candidates who have dominated the endorsement process have fallen short at the ballot box. So consider all this as being for entertainment purposes only, and take it with a handful or two of salt.

UPDATE: Corrected to reflect the fact that HOPE and SEIU are no longer affiliated.

Endorsement watch: Houston GLBT Political Caucus 2015

Congrats to all the endorsees.

A raucous municipal endorsement meeting brought mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner the coveted backing of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus on Saturday, positioning the 26-year state representative to broaden his coalition to include the city’s progressive voting bloc.

Caucus members voted 142-85 to endorse Turner after more than an hour of insult-laden discussion in which they rejected the recommendation of the group’s screening committee to endorse former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

Turner also beat out former Congressman Chris Bell, a longtime ally of the gay community who had been considered a likely pick for the group’s endorsement.

Once-shunned, the caucus’ supprt is now highly sought-after by candidates aiming to win over left-wing voters, known for reliably showing up at the polls.

“This is a major step to the finish line,” said Turner, seen as a frontrunner in the crowded mayor’s race. “This is a race about the future of the city versus its past, and this group represents a vital component of Houston’s family.”

[…]

Of the five mayoral candidates angling for caucus support, Turner, Garcia and City Councilman Stephen Costello received the highest ratings from the group’s four-member screening committee.

Committee members said concerns about Bell’s viability landed him a lower rank.

Bell closed out the first half of the year with less money in the bank than any of the other top-tier candidates.

“He’s in a tough position, because absent resources, financial resources, he would need key endorsements like this one to bolster his candidacy,” [consultant Keir] Murray said. “It just makes what was already a tough road even tougher.”

Bell, for his part, remained optimistic after the endorsement vote.

“Obviously not everyone participates in the caucus endorsement process,” Bell said. “I still think I am going to have tremendous support in the progressive voting bloc.”

See here for some background. I followed the action on Facebook and Twitter – it was spirited and lengthy, but everyone got a chance to make their case and to be heard. Here’s the full list of endorsed candidates:

Mayor – Sylvester Turner

City Council
District B – Jerry Davis
District C – Ellen Cohen
District F – Richard A. Nguyen
District H – Roland Chavez
District I – Robert Gallegos
District J – Mike Laster
District K – Larry Green
At Large 1 – Lane Lewis
At Large 2 – David Robinson
At Large 3 – Doug Peterson
At Large 4 – Amanda K. Edwards
At Large 5 – Phillipe Nassif

Controller – Chris Brown

HISD District 2 – Rhonda Skillern Jones
HISD District 3 – Ramiro Fonseca
HISD District 4 – Jolanda Jones
HISD District 8 – Juliet Katherine Stipeche

HCCS District 3 – Adriana Tamez
HCCS District 8 – Eva Loredo

None of these come as a surprise. Several could have gone another way, thanks to the presence of multiple qualified and viable candidates. I look forward to seeing this slate – and the near-misses – do very well in November.

Chron looks at Mayoral fundraising

They focus on small-dollar donors.

BagOfMoney

A Houston Chronicle analysis of the top seven candidates’ campaign finance filings covering the first six months of the year shows most businesses and special interest groups are waiting for the race to shape up before pushing their chips forward, and shows the top campaigns have each drawn roughly half their cash from wealthy donors giving the individual maximum of $5,000.

The most instructive data, political analysts say, comes from grassroots donors giving $50 or less.

For one thing, University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray says, there are far more people able to give $50 than $5,000 – and those folks often will cut additional checks to fund the final push to November.

“They’re the people you expect to do the door-knocking and stuff the envelopes and hustle up some additional votes,” Murray said. “That’s awfully important because turnout has dropped in city elections. Every vote becomes more valuable. And research shows one of the most effective ways to get people to vote is to tell your friends, ‘I’m going to vote and you should to.’ ”

Presumed front-runners Adrian Garcia and Sylvester Turner drew the largest share of their contributions from small donors, followed by City Councilman Steve Costello.

Garcia, the former Harris County sheriff, boasted 315 small donors, a quarter of all contributors to his campaign. Turner, a longtime state representative from north Houston, reported 141 small donors, also comprising about a fourth of his donors.

Costello drew a fifth of his donors from the grassroots. This surprised some analysts, who knew only that the moderate-to-conservative engineer was sure to draw business backing. Others said the haul was notable but needed context, given that Garcia entered the race months after Costello, and Turner had just nine days to solicit checks following the end of the legislative session and associated fundraising blackout rules.

Though his overall fundraising total was modest, former Congressman Chris Bell also drew a solid group of small donors, with these supporters making up 17 percent of his contributors.

Bill King only had 6 percent of his donors come from this small-dollar group, but Mark Jones assures us that doesn’t really mean anything, so don’t go wallowing in existential despair just yet. There’s also a chart that also tallies up contributions from PACs and max donors, or you could have read what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, with more information and fewer expert quotes. Snark aside, looking at the small-dollar donors is a worthwhile exercise that I didn’t have the bandwidth to do. More transparency is good.

Mayoral finance reports: Out of town cash and max donors

You may have noticed that there’s a lot of money in the Mayoral race this year, even after subtracting what the candidates have given or loaned to themselves. You may be wondering where all that money came from. This post aims to shed a little light on that.

First question: How much of the money raised by Mayoral candidates came from Houston donors, and how much came from outside Houston?

Candidate Non-Hou $ Total $ Pct % ========================================== Garcia 539,949 1,441,792 37.4% Costello 312,660 1,276,281 24.5% Turner 296,588 747,793 39.7% King 103,501 721,250 14.4% Bell 51,288 366,770 14.0% Hall 35,925 69,025 52.0% McVey 21,750 43,927 49.5%

Disclaimer time: All reports can be seen here. My methodology was ridiculously simple. All donations for which the city listed in the report entry was something other than “Houston” was counted for this. Obviously, not all “Houston” addresses are actually within the city – mail sent to all of unincorporated Harris County and such small cities as West U and Southside Place say “Houston, TX” on the envelope – but I wanted to complete this exercise before the election took place, so I followed this guideline for ease of use. As with all totals presented here and elsewhere, this was a manual process, which means I looked over the reports and counted up the totals myself. It is highly likely that I goofed here and there, so consider these numbers to be reasonable estimates and not gospel truth. Finally, also as before, the “Total $” figures represent the cash money raised by each candidate, thus excluding in kind donations, loans, and (in the case of Costello) contributions from the candidate himself.

Having done this exercise, I (reluctantly) feel like I should go back and review Mayor Parker’s July forms from 2009, 2011, and 2013, as well as Gene Locke and Peter Brown’s from 2009, to see if what we’re seeing here is completely out of whack with past results or not. I know Mayor Parker had a strong national fundraising network, but I’ve no idea offhand what that meant in total dollars and proportional amounts. Whatever the case, I feel confident saying that Adrian Garcia knocked it out of the park here. He raised more from outside Houston than Chris Bell, Ben Hall, and Marty McVey raised in total combined; his non-Houston total is 75% of Bill King’s overall total. And that still left $900K from in Houston. Holy smokes.

One thing I noticed while perusing Garcia’s report: He received a ton of contributions from people with Asian names, both in Houston and not. He also had a lot of contributions from Latino/a donors, but the sheer number of Asian supporters surprised me. Make of that what you will.

I am curious what motivates someone to donate to a Mayoral candidate they can’t vote for. I get why people contribute to Congressional and Senate candidates from other places – laws made in DC affect them regardless, and partisan control matters a lot – but the justification here is somewhat less clear. To be fair, the vast majority of these non-Houston donations came from places like Katy, the Woodlands, Sugar Land, and so forth. For all the griping I did about non-Houstonians driving the red light camera referendum, it’s clear that folks who work here but live elsewhere have a stake in the outcome of elections like this. And of course some of these out of towners are in the personal networks of the candidates – friends, family, in-laws, colleagues (Sylvester Turner received several contributions from other members of the Legislature, for example), and so forth. I’d still like to understand this phenomenon a little better. Surely one of our Professional Political Pundits can put a grad student on it.

Next item: In Houston, an individual can give a maximum of $5000 to a city candidate in a given cycle, and a PAC maxes out at $10K. Having an army of small-dollar donors is a great thing in many ways, but those big checks sure add up in a hurry. How much of these hauls came from the deep pockets?

Candidate # Maxes Max $ Total $ Pct % ===================================================== Garcia 148 745,000 1,441,792 51.7% Costello 138 720,000 1,276,281 56.4% Turner 76 410,000 747,793 54.8% King 71 365,000 721,250 50.6% Bell 25 125,000 366,770 34.1% Hall 11 55,000 69,025 79.7% McVey 2 10,000 43,927 22.8%

Again with the disclaimers: Same manual process as above. Not all max donors give $5K at once. There were several gifts of $2500 each, and other combinations I observed as well. “# Maxes” is the count of all max donors, both individuals and PACs, which I also counted as one even though they could give twice as much. Multiply “# Maxes” by 5,000 and the difference will tell you how many max PAC donations that candidate got.

With the large amounts of money collected, the large number of donors who gave their all should not be surprising. One reason why I did this was to see who might have a harder time replicating their success between now and the beginning of October, when the 30 day reports come due. You can’t hit up those who are tapped out for a repeat performance, after all. I guess this leaves Chris Bell in better shape than some others, but I’m not sure how much effect that will have.

I should note here that two of Ben Hall’s max donors were named Hotze, an “SM Hotze” and a “JS Hotze”. Hall has gone all in with the haters, despite his weak sauce denials. This could actually present a bit of a problem for King and to a lesser extent Costello, as both of them are in their own way wooing Republican voters. Clearly, some of those Republicans are not going to be open to them. I presume Hotze still has some sway among GOP voters (a subset of them, at least), so if he actively pushes for Hall via mail/robocall/whatever as the One True Candidate Who Will Stand Up To The Gays, then I think that has to put a ceiling on King and Costello. How much that might be I don’t know – if I were forced to guess right now I’d say “maybe two or three points” – but as we’ve been saying all along, this is likely to be a close race where not too many votes could make a big difference in the outcome. Hall is a threat to Turner as well, of course, I just wanted to point this possibility out.

I think that’s about all the patience I have for scouring the Mayoral reports. I may take a closer look at the other candidates’ reports as my copious spare time allows.

Seeking GLBT support in the Mayor’s race

In a crowded field where a small number of votes could be the difference between making the runoff and not, endorsements will be of greater importance. One endorsement that several Mayoral candidates would really like to have if the endorsement of the HGLBT Political Caucus.

Houston’s mayoral candidates are angling for the GLBT Caucus’ coveted support, with state Rep. Sylvester Turner’s campaign purchasing dozens of memberships and others urging supporters to sign up ahead of the group’s August endorsement meeting.

In the last month, caucus membership jumped by about 200 people, from 325 to 525, leaving some longtime members, particularly supporters of former congressman Chris Bell, concerned that this year’s endorsement already may have been bought.

Caucus President Maverick Welsh, however, said the campaigns’ efforts will not be enough to tip the scales.

“We know campaigns actively try to push as many people into the room as possible, and that’s why we’ve strategically tried to grow our membership over the last year and a half,” Welsh said. “I don’t think any candidate has enough members to be able to buy an endorsement.”

[…]

Former congressman Chris Bell has been actively encouraging supporters to join and show up for the August meeting, while City Councilman Stephen Costello has pursued what his campaign described as a “low-key effort” to get people to join the caucus’ ranks.

Turner, on the other hand, opted to write the group a $3,040 check two weeks ago – enough for at least 76 memberships, according to spokeswoman Sue Davis.

“It’s something that’s done every year,” Davis said.

All three candidates, as well as former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, are seen as contenders for the caucus endorsement.

I wouldn’t want to try to guess who will come away with it. Based on what I’ve been seeing in my inbox and Facebook feed, we should start seeing a bunch of endorsements come down in the next few weeks. There’s a lot of races, not just the Mayor’s race, where those decisions aren’t going to be easy. I’ll be tracking them on the 2015 Election page as I see them.

Mayoral finance reports: PACs and consultants

Let’s take a deeper dive into Mayoral candidate fundraising by examining one of the main categories of raised funds, and one of the main categories of spent funds. I speak of PAC money for the former, and consultant fees/staff salaries for the other. Here’s how much each candidate raised in PAC funds in their July report:

Candidate PAC $ Total $ PAC % ========================================= Turner 127,650 747,793 17.1% Costello 124,500 1,276,281 9.8% Garcia 87,150 1,441,792 6.0% King 41,000 721,250 5.7% Bell 5,500 366,770 1.5% McVey 3,000 43,927 6.8% Hall 0 69,025 0.0%

As a reminder, you can see all the finance reports that have been submitted on my Election 2015 page. I considered any contributor identified as a PAC or a business of some kind to be a “PAC” for these purposes. If you want to be technical, I’m adding up the contributions that didn’t come from individuals or couples. I also did not include in kind contributions in these totals. For most candidates, I found the value represented in the “Total $” column on the new Subtotals page, which is the modification to the forms that caused all of the trouble this cycle. Ben Hall, of course, didn’t bother with that page, and also included the $850,000 he loaned himself in his “Total Political Contributions” entry. His form was pretty short and it was easy enough to sort it out. Steve Costello’s total above is lower than what you’ll find on his report. This is because he contributed $175K to his campaign – it was reported as a contribution, not a loan – and his PAC donated an additional $10K. For the purposes of this post, I excluded them from his total amount, and didn’t add the PAC contribution to the “PAC $” figure. Sylvester Turner definitely gets the benefit of being a long-term office holder. We’ll see other effects of that in subsequent reports. I expect Adrian Garcia will pull in more PAC money for the 30 day report. As impressive as his haul is, he’s still catching up in some ways.

Now let’s look at the other side of the ledger:

Candidate Salary $ Consult $ Sum $ Raised Pct ========================================================== King 67,289 306,400 373,689 721,250 51.8% Turner 131,192 224,000 355,192 747,793 47.5% Costello 120,932 181,800 302,732 1,276,281 23.7% Bell 102,226 30,350 132,576 366,770 36.1% Garcia 52,427 31,300 83,727 1,441,792 5.8% McVey 60,500 9,000 69,500 43,927 158.2% Hall 0 24,200 24,200 69,025 35.1%

There are two basic categories of paying for people to do stuff – “Salaries/Wages/Contract Labor” and “Consulting”. I added all of the former to “Salary $”, and I also included anything classified as health insurance for staffers and payroll taxes. I did not include fees paid to payroll management services like ADI, because I’m just obstreperous like that. Here you can see the advantage of Adrian Garcia’s late entry into the race – unlike several of his competitors, he hasn’t been paying for staffers and consultants since January. Bill King raised a decent amount of money, but man that’s a big burn rate. If he’s going to hire all those people and run an air campaign, he’s going to have to keep writing checks to himself. Turner’s burn rate is almost as high, but he started out with (and still has) a lot of cash, and his strategy seems to be more targeted, and thus less likely to run into five- and six-figure media buys. Costello spent almost as much as those two did on people, but his much bigger haul gives him a lot of cushion. Bell is going to need to figure out how to run a lean and cost-effective campaign, because he’s not living in the same ZIP code as those four. While multiple candidates are doing at least some self-financing, Marty McVey shows what the edge case for that looks like. He literally wouldn’t have a campaign without his own money, and he still has plenty of it to spend. It will be interesting to see what he does with it. As for Ben Hall, all I will say is that he paid $12,500 to the Hall Law Firm for legal expenses. Hey, if you want something done right, you do it yourself, amirite?

In the next entry in this series, I’ll take another look at where all this money is coming from. You’re not at all wrong to think we’re swimming in it in a way that we weren’t in 2009 or 2003.

Finance reports come trickling in

As always, the Mayoral reports lead the story.

BagOfMoney

Former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia closed out the first half of the year with more than $1.3 million in the bank, eclipsing City Councilman Stephen Costello by a mere $7,423.

According to their campaign finance reports, Garcia raised $1.5 million and spent just over $122,000, while Costello raised about $30,000 less in contributions, was loaned $90,000 and spent $496,000.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner and former mayor of Kemah Bill King trailed in cash on hand, reporting $1.1 million and $544,000, respectively.

[…]

Costello’s campaign previously said his funds include a $250,000 personal contribution and a $262,000 transfer from his council account.

Among those with reports already in, King spent the most in the first half of the year, coughing up more than $680,000. He raised more than $755,000 and lent himself an additional $500,000.

Turner’s expenditures came in just under King’s, at $601,000, according to his report. However, his campaign noted that $125,000 of those expenditures were related to his state office, not his mayoral campaign.

After starting the race with about $900,000 in the bank from his legislative account, Turner raised an additional $763,000 in the nine days between when his state fundraising blackout period ended and the close of the reporting period.

See here for more. As previously noted, the reports are not in their usual place due to changes in state law and the reporting system. For now, you can see the reports that the city has posted here. I’ve linked to them on my Election 2015 page and will keep updating that as more of them appear. I’ll do a more in depth look at the reports once they’re all there, starting with the Mayorals, which were added to that page as of last night. Expect that for next week.

The Chron story has a spreadsheet embedded in it with totals for candidates who had turned in reports by publication time. Among the other Mayorals, Chris Bell had raised $381K and had $190K on hand; Ben Hall raised $94K and loaned himself $850K to have $812K on hand; and Mary McVey had raised $60K and loaned himself $1.075M to have $1.071M on hand. Forget the price of oil, this Mayoral campaign will be stimulating the local economy over the next few months.

So far, mayoral fundraising has far overshadowed that for Houston’s second-highest political post, city controller.

Deputy controller Chris Brown reported raising $270,000 and spending $22,000, leaving him with more than $222,000 in cash on hand.

Meanwhile, Bill Frazer, runner-up in the 2013 controller’s race, raised $129,000, received $32,000 in loans, spent $120,000 and closed out the first half of the year with more than $53,000 in the bank.

Former Metro board member Dwight Jefferson lagged behind with $11,000 raised $1,800 loaned and $9,000 spent. It was unclear how much cash he had on hand.

Carroll Robinson had raised $50K and had $5K on hand; Jew Don Boney did not have totals posted. Other hauls of note: Amanda Edwards dominated At Large #4 with $165K raised and $118K on hand. Laurie Robinson was the runnerup with $43K and $26K, respectively. In At Large #1, Tom McCasland ($141K raised, $98K on hand) and Lane Lewis ($104K raised, $62K on hand) were far out in front; Chris Oliver raised $37K and had $23K on hand, while Jenifer Pool had not yet reported. CM Michael Kubosh was the only one with any money in At Large #3, raising $63K and banking $44K. Philippe Nassif had a very respectable $73K raised in At Large #5, but only $12K of it remained, far less than CM Jack Christie’s $100K cash on $124K raised; Durrel Douglas had not yet reported.

For district races, CM Mike Laster had a big haul and an equally big financial lead in J, while CM Richard Nguyen had a decent total in F. His opponent, Steven Le, did not have a report up as of last night. There was surprisingly little money raised in the two-person District G race; Greg Travis led in cash on hand over Sandie Moger thanks to a $41K loan to himself. Roland Chavez had the most raised and the most on hand in H, with Karla Cisneros and Jason Cisneroz a notch back. Abel Davila raised a small amount but loaned himself $20K to be even in cash on hand with the other two.

That’s it for now. For the other races, HISD and HCC reports lag behind the city’s – HISD by a little, HCC by a lot – so I’ll keep an eye on those and update as needed. As always, fundraising is just one aspect of one’s candidacy, and is in no way predictive in many races. We only get a few chances a year to see who’s funding whom, and this is one of them. I’ll have more when I can.

Initial Mayoral fundraising totals

Lotta money being raised out there, though not quite as much as the topline totals say.

BagOfMoney

Former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia was first out of the gate with his figures, announcing Tuesday that he raised $1.5 million since announcing his candidacy in May. According to his campaign, Garcia neither contributed his own money nor transferred funds from his sheriff’s account.

Former Mayor of Kemah [Bill] King followed with a statement Wednesday morning saying he raised $1.25 million, $750,000 of which came from donors, meaning King likely supplied $500,000 for his own bid.

[CM Stephen] Costello [who reported raising $1.8 million total] also financed his own campaign to the tune of $250,000 and transferred $262,000 from his city council account, according to his release.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner reported raising $750,000 in the nine days between the end of the state legislative fundraising blackout and the close of the reporting period. Turner started the race with $900,000 from his legislative account already in the bank.

Meanwhile, 2013 mayoral runner-up Ben Hall raised nearly $800,000, according to his campaign, $500,000 of which he donated himself.

Former Congressman and City Councilman Chris Bell ended the reporting period with the lowest number of the group, having raised $400,000.

Businessman Marty McVey and others who have filed to run for mayor have yet to release their fundraising totals.

Couple things here:

1. Money you donated to your own campaign is not money you raised. It’s real money, and it has a real effect, but it is not the same thing. I suspect that the reported self-donation totals here don’t quite tell the full story, but we won’t know until we see the reports.

2. Not all of those “money raised” figures is actual money, whether self-donated or not. In kind donations often make up a big chunk of some finance reports. Some of that represents real value – donated campaign office space, for example, or food and drink for a campaign event – but a lot of it is just plain puffery. Again, we’ll know when we see the reports. Note that the larger the in-kind donation total, the greater the disparity will be between total raised and total on hand, since in-kind ain’t money.

3. The other factor affecting cash on hand, of course, is how much you spent, and on what. Some campaigns wind up spending a lot more on consultants and other things that don’t exactly equate to voter outreach than others.

4. And yes, this stuff matters, which is why I spend time on it. You want to know who a candidate is appealing to, one way or another, finance reports don’t lie. They’re a peek behind the curtain, and no matter how you feel about the process, it’s better to know who’s financially tied to whom. (Nice Cyndi Lauper reference, btw. I always liked that song.)

For now, this is what we know. I will be going over all the reports when they come out, and will have them uploaded and posted to my 2015 Election page for your perusal. I’ll do a few posts summarizing and analyzing what’s in the reports as well. As always, money isn’t everything, but a campaign that can raise it and knows how to use it can be much more effective than one that can’t and doesn’t. Stace has more.

UPDATE: More from Greg.

Turner and Garcia lead early Mayoral poll

We have our first polling numbers for the 2015 Mayoral election.

Rep. Sylvester Turner

Rep. Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner and Adrian Garcia have emerged as the clear front-runners in the first independent poll before the election that will determine Houston’s next mayor.

The KHOU – Houston Public Media Poll indicates a clear divide between two tiers of candidates, with Turner and Garcia well ahead of all other contenders to take charge at Houston City Hall after the term-limited Mayor Annise Parker leaves office at the end of this year.

Turner, the longtime state representative making his third run for mayor, leads the pack with 16-percent of surveyed likely voters. Garcia, the former Harris County sheriff, comes in second at 12-percent.

Adrian Garcia

Adrian Garcia

The rest of the candidates in the poll drop into single digits. Chris Bell, the former congressman making his second run for mayor, won the support of 8-percent of surveyed voters.

Both Ben Hall, the former city attorney making his second mayoral run, and former Kemah mayor Bill King, stand at 3-percent. City Councilman Stephen Costello stands at 2-percent.

“There’s two tiers of candidates,” said Bob Stein, the KHOU political analyst and Rice University political scientist who designed the poll. “If you had to pick a runoff match-up, it would have to be Turner and Garcia. And I don’t think that comes as any surprise.”

And here’s the KUHF version of the story, with audio.

News 88.7 Managing News Editor Jose Luis Jimenez sat down with pollster and Rice University Political Science Professor Bob Stein for a closer look at the results of our exclusive News 88.7/KHOU 11 News Houston Mayoral Election Poll.

Click on the audio link above to listen to the conversation.

To view the full poll results – including what Houston voters think are the major issues in the race – visit the 2015 Houston Mayoral Race special page.

OK then, let’s click the link.

Mayor Annise Parker cannot run again for Mayor because of term limits. There are seven major candidates for mayor. For whom would you be likely to vote for if the election were held today?


Choices            All   RVs   LVs
==================================
Stephen Costello    4%    4%    2%
Bill King           2%    2%    3%
Sylvester Turner   14%   13%   16%
Adrian Garcia      15%   15%   12%
Chris Bell          5%    4%    8%
Marty McVey         1%    1%    0%
Ben Hall            3%    3%    3%
Don't know         53%   54%   50%
Refused             3%    4%    6%

And finally, the methodology:

Methodology: Polling was conducted from May 20 to June 21, 2015 using two simultaneous samples of 500 eligible voters each. The first sample included registered voters (i.e. “Likely Voters”) who voted in two of the last three municipal elections in 2009, 2011 and 2013. The second sample included all other registered voters (i.e. “Registered Voters) who voted in at least one of the last three municipal elections. Results are reported for both samples separately and combined. The combined sample is weighted to reflect the actual representation of likely voters in the 2015 municipal election. The margin of error for each sample is +/- 4.5% and margin of error for the combined weighted sample is +/- 3.2%.

What do I think?

1. I think this mostly recapitulates name ID, which is about what you’d expect at this point.

2. I’ve complained about “likely voter” screens for this kind of poll in the past, but I have no major complaints here. Screening for those who have voted in two out of the last three city elections is the way I’d do it. The Likely Voter sample is whiter, richer, and older (average age = 69) than the sample as a whole and much more so than the city as a whole, which is – for better and worse – the kind of electorate we tend to get in our odd-numbered-year elections. The candidates and campaigns have the capability of altering the size and shape of the electorate, though barring anything strange it’s unlikely to change much. Bottom line is there’s nothing here that screams “unrepresentative sample” to me.

3. Don’t be mesmerized by the high “Don’t know” level. A late September 2013 poll, six weeks out from an election that featured a two-time incumbent, had a 48% “Don’t know” response. Here, each candidate has some base level of support, and the rest are people that I think very likely really don’t know yet. I’d have given the same answer myself if I had been polled, and I’m not exactly a low-information voter. Sometimes “Don’t know” means “I haven’t paid enough attention to it yet to have any idea”, sometimes it means “I do know who I’m voting for but I like to think I’m keeping my options open”, and sometimes it means “There’s more than one candidate that I like and I don’t know yet which one I’ll pick”.

4. Similarly, don’t let the low numbers for the nominal Republican candidates (King and Costello) fool you. Roy Morales polled at five and six percent in those 2009 polls, but wound up with 20% and actually did better than Peter Brown on Election Day itself, thanks in part to Republican voters figuring out and being told that he was “their guy” in the latter stages of the campaign. King and Costello will get their share of the vote, though it remains to be seen if it will be enough for a runoff for either of them. Their main danger is having some of those votes poached, by either a late entry from the wingnut population (think Eric Dick) or from Ben Hall, who has gone full-on anti-HERO. I don’t think there’s a lot of these votes to be siphoned off, but in a tight multi-candidate race like this it doesn’t take much to put the runoff out of reach.

5. When people ask me who I think will make the runoff, my answer is a firm shrug of the shoulders. I can make a case for at least five candidates to have a shot at it – Hall and McVey are the ones that I think are highly unlikely to make it into the top two. It’s entirely possible to me that only a few thousand votes will separate second place from fourth or fifth, and any number of things including dumb luck can affect who winds up a contender and who finishes as a palooka.

So that’s how it looks for now. There will be more polls, and things will surely look different as we go forward. PDiddie has more.

ReBuild Houston and the Mayor’s race

It’s all about the conservative voters, because no one cares what anyone else thinks.

When the most conservative candidate in the Houston mayor’s race dropped out two months ago, the battle to win over right-leaning voters became a two-man show: former Kemah Mayor Bill King versus City Councilman Stephen Costello.

Both candidates bill themselves as moderate fiscal conservatives chiefly concerned about the city’s finances – pensions in particular – and, by all accounts, neither is an ideal choice for the far right.

Nonetheless, support among local Republicans has begun to coalesce around King, who has taken a hard line against ReBuild Houston, the city’s controversial streets and drainage program.

Now, with Houston recovering from severe flooding and the state Supreme Court ruling against the city in a lawsuit over ReBuild, program mastermind Costello only looks to be in trouble.

“The timing of this couldn’t be worse for Costello,” said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, adding that King now has a window to break through.

ReBuild Houston is designed to allow the city to pay down existing debt while financing drainage and road improvements primarily through monthly drainage fees collected from property owners.

Earlier this month, hours after the Texas Supreme Court ruled the language of the 2010 charter amendment did not adequately describe the drainage fee to fund ReBuild, King released a statement attacking the program and Costello.

Last week, he called for ReBuild to be put back on the ballot this November.

Meanwhile, candidates to King’s left barely have touched on ReBuild.

Yes, it would be nice to hear what Adrian Garcia, Chris Bell, and Marty McVey have to say about this. It’s been more than a week, guys. What kind of race are you running here? I don’t even know what to think.

As for this story, it’s an expanded version of the one I blogged about Saturday, in which King called for a revote on the Renew Houston proposition, with more quotes from his and Costello’s campaigns and various Republican types. I won’t repeat myself, so I’ll just take a moment to marvel at how issuing debt is now considered the preferred “conservative” choice over pay-as-you-go. Given the way debt has ballooned at the state level and the fact that this particular PAYGO plan involved creating a new revenue stream instead of cutting something or pretending to cut something, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m going to wait to hear what a court says about the status of the current litigation before I get too deep into all this. I hope to hear what the rest of the Mayoral field has to say before then.

ReVote Houston?

Mayoral candidate Bill King calls for a do-over on Renew/ReBuild Houston.

Bill King

Bill King

Houston mayoral candidate Bill King wants to put ReBuild Houston, the city’s controversial streetand drainage program, back up for a vote.

[…]

King, the most vocal opponent of ReBuild Houston in the race, has seized the moment to attack ReBuild.

“I only see one way out of this quagmire,” the former mayor of Kemah said in a statement Thursday. “We need to have another election on the ReBuild Houston program in November. But this time with clear and transparent ballot language.”

Should ReBuild make it back on the ballot this year, King said he would continue to oppose the program, proposing instead to finance city infrastructure projects with bonds.

See here and here for the background. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to call for a revote, but I’d like to hear something from the trial court first.

King’s full statement is here, and I now have a statement as well from Steve Costello, which is here. Not surprisingly, the two don’t agree on the path forward.

For me, as I have said before, whatever else you may say about ReBuild Houston, it has provided for a supplemental revenue source for infrastructure projects, while also helping to retire existing debt. I support having that supplemental revenue source for this purpose, and would support it again if it does come to a revote. I understand King’s point about bond payments being cheaper than construction cost increases, but that doesn’t do anything to increase the revenue available to pay for it all. Also, debt service comes out of general revenue, meaning that when there are limitations on the budget due to increases in other expenditures and/or the revenue cap, it puts an extra squeeze on everything else. I’m not at all opposed to bond financing, but it’s hardly a panacea. Bond issues do sometimes get voted down and they can generate plenty of their own controversy and opposition.

Basically, King is saying we should go back to financing street and drainage projects as we did before the 2010 Renew Houston referendum. Which is fine as far as it goes, but I believe it is entirely inconsistent with any promise to improve or hasten such projects. I mean, either you’re for increasing funding over what we used to have or you’re not. As I’ve said many times now, if not this, then what? One could promise to kill off TIRZes as a way of adding resources for infrastructure (good luck with that), or cut funds from other projects and programs (please specify, and remember that public safety is 2/3 of general revenue), or perhaps adopt the leadership strategies of America’s most innovative supervillains, among other potential options. As with pretty much every other issue in this race so far, I look forward to hearing more details.

New litigation against ReBuild Houston

To be expected at this point.

A class action lawsuit has been filed against the city, seeking to reimburse residents who pay the drainage fee that helps fund ReBuild Houston, the multibillion-dollar streets and drainage improvement program that voters narrowly approved in 2010.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a Texas Supreme Court ruling issued Friday that found that the ReBuild ballot measure failed to disclose the cost of the drainage fee to the public. The case has been sent back to trial court, where plaintiffs expect a swift victory and legal experts said it’s likely a judge will honor the Supreme Court ruling.

Andy Taylor, attorney for the plaintiffs in that case, is also behind Wednesday’s class action suit. The named plaintiff, or class representative, is resident Elizabeth Perez, one of the plaintiffs in the original ReBuild suit.

In order for the class action suit to move forward, a judge must agree that there is a group of similarly disadvantaged people, constituting a “class.” Taylor is attempting to include all residents who receive a water bill to which the drainage fee is tacked on every month. His argument hinges on the idea that property owners were “under duress” when they paid the drainage fee because they could have their water shut off if they failed to do so.

See here for the background. Is there a form I can fill out to attest that I’d sooner have an arm gnawed off by wombats than consent to be legally represented by Andy Taylor? Because while I have no doubt that there are many homeowners who would like to get a refund on their drainage fees, there are plenty – like me and the commenter on this Chronicle story – who are happy to have paid a few extra bucks each month to help fund infrastructure improvements, however imperfectly they were done. If Andy Taylor tries to claim that all homeowners were coerced into paying the fee, then he deserves to lose, because he sure as hell doesn’t speak for me.

A later version of the story suggests Taylor’s actions are indeed odd.

In order for the class-action suit to move forward, a judge must agree that there is a group of similarly disadvantaged people, constituting a “class.” Taylor is attempting to include all residents who receive a water bill, to which the drainage fee is tacked on every month. His argument hinges on the idea that property owners were “under duress” when they paid drainage fees because they could have their water shut off if they failed to do so.

City Attorney Donna Edmundson called the class action lawsuit “very premature” because the trial court case over the legality of the ReBuild ballot measure hasn’t been resolved. Without establishing that the fee is illegal, Taylor’s class action suit would be moot.

“This presupposes we’ve lost,” Edmundson said. “We haven’t lost on remand yet. We still get our day in court. The charter amendment has not been struck.”

Stanford law professor Deborah Hensler said Taylor’s case is ambitious because he is not only seeking to halt the fee, but also to reimburse residents going back five years. The sheer logistics involved in repaying residents and the financial hardship to the city could factor into a judge’s decision even if the legal case is sound, Hensler said.

“Most judges are sensitive to the size of the damages,” Hensler said.

Well, no one has ever said Andy Taylor doesn’t reach for the stars. He seldom gets there, but he does reach. We’ll see what a judge makes of it.

On a related note, I went and checked the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of each of the five candidates for Mayor who had not made a statement about the Supreme Court ruling as of my previous post. Here’s Sylvester Turner’s statement, posted on June 15 at 11:44 AM. The other four – Chris Bell, Adrian Garcia, Marty McVey, and most puzzling to me Steve Costello still had nothing to say on the subject as of last night. I will ask again: What are you waiting for?

Supreme Court deals a blow to ReBuild Houston

Ugh.

Houston’s divisive, multibillion-dollar effort to fund two decades of street and drainage improvements faces an uncertain future after the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that the ballot measure voters narrowly approved in 2010 obscured the nature and cost of the drainage fee at the heart of the ReBuild Houston program.

The case now returns to the trial court level, where experts say the justices’ strongly worded opinion appears to make a victory for the city unlikely. At issue was whether the ballot language made clear what voters were being asked to decide.

“The city’s semantic obfuscation is particularly egregious here, considering that the ballot proposition at issue concerned a revenue-raising measure,” Justice Eva Guzman wrote, having taken the extra step of penning a concurring opinion to accompany her colleagues’ ruling.

Though the final outcome is far from certain, the possible absence of the largest of ReBuild Houston’s four sources of revenue – the hundreds of millions of dollars Houstonians have paid through the drainage fee – would greatly undermine the city’s infrastructure repairs. As of this spring, $655 million had been spent or earmarked for new projects under ReBuild Houston, with almost 100 projects completed. That work includes 515 miles of rebuilt or repaved streets, 697 miles of ditches graded and 188 miles of storm sewers cleaned – all while paying down old debt, supporters say.

Conservative activists, however, cheered Friday’s ruling as fervently as they long have railed against the drainage fee, which they deride as a burdensome “rain tax.” The lawsuit in question concerns a related criticism: that the ballot language was misleading, making the charter amendment illegal.

[…]

Houston appellate lawyer Richard Hogan, who is not involved in the litigation, said a separate legal action would have to be launched to make the drainage fee disappear from residents’ water bills. However, after reading the Supreme Court opinion and related filings, Hogan said he would put his money on an eventual victory for the plaintiffs.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that they’re not going to win the case when it goes back,” Hogan said. “I can’t imagine that, after the Supreme Court said all this, that a trial judge in Texas would thumb his or her nose at the Supreme Court and tell them, ‘No, it wasn’t misleading.’ ”

I have a copy of the opinion here. I’m still mulling this over, but for now I have three thoughts.

1. I freely admit this may just be sour grapes on my part, but I have a hard time seeing this ruling as anything but ridiculous. I don’t know how any actual voter who didn’t spend the last six months of 2010 in a coma could have failed to understand that voting for the Renew Houston proposition meant imposing a fee on themselves. I’m struggling to not see politics at the root of this decision.

2. So far the only Mayoral campaign reactions I have seen to this have been press releases from Bill King and Ben Hall, both of which hit my mailbox on Friday, and both of which were happy about the ruling. (Mayor Parker also put out a press release, which was quoted in full in the Chron story.) I’ve looked at the Facebook pages of the other five candidates, and so far nothing. Chris Bell, Sylvester Turner, Steve Costello, Adrian Garcia, and Marty McVey – what are you waiting for?

3. There’s still a lot of legal wrangling to come, but it’s fair to say that ReBuild Houston is on life support and may not survive. If it goes down, then what if anything replaces it? I feel like I spent a lot of time back in 2010 asking Renew Houston opponents what they would do to provide more funds for flooding and drainage improvements, and I never got anything resembling a coherent answer. So I’ll ask again, with an eye especially at the Mayoral candidates. If not ReBuild Houston, then what? How do you provide more funds to do more street repairs and flood abatement? Remember, we live in a revenue cap world, so simply proposing a property tax increase (not that anyone would, I suppose) is insufficient. If you don’t propose some kind of supplemental revenue stream, then as far as I’m concerned you’re not serious about wanting to do street improvements and flood mitigation. If you do have a proposal, then I want specifics, and I want to see evidence that you’re going to fight for it. Say what you want about Steve Costello, and I’m sure he’s going to take his fair share of abuse and criticism now, but he put his money where his mouth was in 2010, and he got something passed. If the Supreme Court has taken that away, what will you do instead?

The other stuff that got discussed at the third forum

The third Mayoral candidate forum on Saturday was supposedly about “labor and workers’ rights”, but of course the story is all about the great and powerful pension question, because there’s been so little coverage of it and where the candidates stand on that question is such a mystery. There is a bit at the end of the story about those other boring issues – hilariously, it’s in a smaller font without any spacing between the paragraphs, as if to emphasize the afterthought nature of it – and being the stubborn SOB that I am, that’s what I’m going to highlight here. In a normal-sized font, with spacing added, thankyouverymuch.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Bell said at least twice that he would put a labor liaison on his executive staff as mayor and also stressed the need to address growing economic inequality in Houston. “If we don’t address this issue we’re going to continue to have a city of haves versus have-nots,” he said.

Costello focused several times on worker training. He advocated the use of “best value” rather than “low bid” selections in city contracting to enable the city to better penalize irresponsible companies that cut corners. On affordable housing, he advocated for the city to provide more incentives to developers to avoid gentrification, and for similar efforts creating an affordable district for artists.

Garcia: Touted his efforts while on City Council to get vaccines to Latino kids in his district when he learned his district had one of the city’s lowest immunization rates. He focused heavily on affordable housing and gentrification, and said the city must find ways to prevent citizens from paying for their neighbors’ investments in their own taxes.

Hall said he would give preference in city contracting to companies that provide apprenticeships and said he would pursue policies to “grandfather” existing homes in gentrifying areas to prevent residents from being pushed out.

King: Said he would work to increase the number of and funding for Federally Quality Health Clinics, and would evaluate whether city clinics unnecessarily duplicate services with county clinics. He said any contractor caught stealing workers’ wages should be fired and banned from doing business with the city.

McVey said because the Legislature has blocked the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the city should seek a way to get payments directly from Washington. McVey also called for more urban planning, with a focus on preventing gentrification.

Turner touted his support in the Legislature for expanding a health insurance program for impoverished youth and for increased funding for trauma centers, and took issue with an expansive subsidy program launched under Parker to pay developers $15,000 per apartment or condominium built downtown; “It’s about time we pushed that to the neighborhoods,” he said.

See, now wasn’t that interesting? Combine that with the first two forums, and you might have actually learned something you didn’t already know about what the candidates believe. Even if none of the questions I wanted to see asked got brought up. There’s still time for that, though. PDiddie has more.

Reviewing the Mayoral websites

The Chron reviews the candidates’ online presence so far.

Five months before voters head to the polls, the candidates’ digital platforms are up and running, but most are heavy on biography, light on ideas.

“They’re checking the box. They have a website, they have a Facebook, they have a Twitter,” said Luke Marchant, a Houston-based Republican consultant. “They’re all doing what they need to do, but no one’s really pushing the envelope.”

That is not surprising at this stage of the game, when the hot summer months loom large and politics remain an afterthought for all but the most active voters, political experts said.

[…]

Some of the contenders have made small forays into the online policy conversation, with state Rep. Sylvester Turner’s proposals including a job training program aimed at fixing the city’s streets and lifting the existing cap on public arts funding. Among former congressman Chris Bell’s suggestions are reorganizing the city’s public works department, expanding bus rapid transit and housing pre-kindergarten programs in city libraries and community centers.

“A lot of the effort right now is focused on fundraising, but the people who are donating to campaigns are no different than any other type of voter. They want to know where you stand,” Bell said, “and the best place for them to find that information in a quick manner is online.”

Others, namely City Council member Stephen Costello and former mayor of Kemah Bill King introduce themselves on their websites and broadly outline campaign priorities: Costello wants to add to the Houston Police Department’s ranks, while King suggests auditing the department and doing away with the city’s crime lab.

Former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and businessman Marty McVey leave it mostly at biography. “Before I’m able to govern effectively, I need to know what’s important to the people,” McVey said, noting that his policy is developing as he talks to potential voters.

Meanwhile, 2013 mayoral runner-up Ben Hall’s website was down as of Friday afternoon, having previously sported ‘donate’ and ‘endorse’ buttons, as well as a countdown clock until election day, but no candidate information whatsoever. Hall said he was refining his policy positions before updating his website.

Hall may be between domains. His 2013 website and the site listed on his current Facebook page are different. Not that it matters much – Hall was feather-light on policy in 2013, and I doubt he’ll be any better this time around.

For all the grousing I’ve done about the substance of the campaign so far, I have to admit that as the story suggests, it’s not unusual at this point in time. I went back through my Election 2009 archives, and the first post I wrote about a candidate saying something serious policy-wise was this post about Annise Parker’s crimefighting plan on August 6. Following that, there was this post about Peter Brown’s traffic plan posted on August 10, and this post about Gene Locke’s crimefighting plan on August 26. I guess that means I’ve got another two months of waiting for something interesting and illuminating. That won’t stop me from pointing out, again and again, that there are things happening right now that will greatly affect the decisions and policies of the next Houston Mayor, and right now we have damn little idea of how any of them will react. Someday soon, I hope.

Mayoral candidate forum season is underway

They talk about the arts.

Not exactly

Houston’s mayoral candidates were full of praise for the city’s arts scene Wednesday, when they appeared at a forum together for the first time, though most said they would not support raising taxes or allocating new city funds to support arts and culture.

The forum hosted by four city arts groups – Houston Arts Alliance, Houston Museum District, Theater District Houston and Miller Outdoor Theatre – featured seven of the candidates vying to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker and kicks off a series of similar interest-specific events leading up to November’s election.

The relatively conflict free event at the Asia Society Texas Center drew a standing room only crowd. It opened with statements from each of the candidates, who then went on to answer three arts and culture-related questions.

The first addressed the city’s recently implemented cap on arts funding from hotel occupancy tax revenues, about 19 percent of which are set aside to fund city arts organizations. Two years ago, City Council passed an ordinance capping the city’s arts and culture spending through this revenue stream, prompting criticism from some of the grantees.

Four of the seven candidates – former congressman and City Council member Chris Bell, former mayor of Kemah Bill King, businessman Marty McVey and state Rep. Sylvester Turner – said they do not support the cap. The other three – City Council member Stephen Costello, former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and 2013 mayoral runner-up Ben Hall – did not come out directly in favor of the limit but said they would want to further review it once in office.

The second question addressed whether the candidates would support additional funding for arts education, with the final moderator-posed question touching on whether the candidates would see through Parker’s cultural plan. It is currently being created and is intended to guide Houston’s arts and cultural development in the coming decades.

CultureMap filled in the third question.

While much of the evening was taken up with policy wonk questions about a cap on the Houston Hotel Occupancy Tax (aka the HOT tax), which funds arts projects around the city, the best — and most humanizing question — came from an audience member, who asked, “Who is your favorite artist and why?” You could almost see the wheels turning in each candidate’s head as he scrambled to come up with an unscripted answer.

First up was former Kemah mayor Bill King, who lamely listed Van Gogh, whom he first learned about from his history teacher many years ago. Businessman Marty McVey picked the 13th century poet Rumi for the “great solace” his work provides, which drew applause of one audience member.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner was the first to turn the discussion to Houston artists — John Biggers and Michelle Barnes are among his favorites, and the other candidates quickly followed his lead, with Bell listing Lamar Briggs, Houston City Council member Stephen Costello mentioning Mark Foyle, muralist Ashley Winn and Justin Garcia, and former sheriff Adrian Garcia picking his daughter along with Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe.

Attorney Ben Hall had the most unconventional answer — he’s mad about Surrealists M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali. “Read into that what you may,” he said cryptically.

I’d have gone with Beans Barton myself, though I have to admit that MC Escher is a fine answer if one doesn’t care about local pandering. Nancy Sims and Texas Leftist also reported on this forum.

Next, they talked about the budget.

Houston mayoral hopefuls swapped plans to shore up the city’s finances at a forum Thursday, pledging everything from pension reform to scrapping the city’s crime lab.

The event drew little in the way of political fireworks, with the rival candidates largely sticking to their own talking points at the University of Houston student center. More than 200 people were in attendance.

The forum was hosted by SPARC Growth Houston, a coalition of economic development groups that encircle the downtown core SPARC representatives asked six of the candidates jockeying to replace term-limited Annise Parker four questions, giving them 90 seconds to respond.

The seventh candidate, Ben Hall, the mayoral runner-up in 2013, was not present Thursday.

[…]

The questions from SPARC largely focused on how the candidates would spur economic development in neighborhoods to the north, east and south of downtown. The first question, however, broached how the candidates would curb the city’s looming budget deficit and drew more specific answers.

Looks like the candidate for people who thinks the revenue cap is stupid is Chris Bell, with Sylvester Turner the runnerup. There’s another forum this morning at Talento Bilingue in the East End to focus on labor and community issues, and there will be many many more after that. Find one that appeals to you and go hear what the candidates have to say for themselves. PDiddie has more.

Endorsement watch: Pushback on the process

The early endorsement by the firefighters’ union – and now the Houston Police Officers Union – of Rep. Sylvester Turner for Mayor has ruffled some feathers.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

The Houston Police Officers’ Union on Tuesday followed their firefighter counterparts who on Monday endorsed Turner, a 25-year state representative who long has maintained close ties to first responders. Both organizations said that Turner’s legislative record placed him head and shoulders above his competitors and that the decision to endorse him was easy.

The endorsements arrived as various mayoral campaigns are only beginning to roll out their platforms and before the organizations knew the full field of candidates available to consider. In 2009, the last open mayoral race, the unions only chose to endorse in August. Sometimes, the organizations have made endorsements for a November election as late as September.

The firefighters union endorsement is drawing particular scrutiny because the group did not screen any candidates other than Turner, who brokered a deal this month between the city and the fire pension board that earned plaudits from firefighters.

Scott Wilkey, spokesman for the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, said a more extensive interview process was unnecessary. Given the public statements of the well-qualified field, Wilkey said, the union already knew the positions of most of the candidates.

“Screening candidates who are on record as hostile to firefighters or who are profoundly ignorant of public safety issues just wastes everyone’s time,” Wilkey said in a statement.

[…]

Asked why former congressman Chris Bell and businessman Marty McVey, who have expressed conceivably less threatening positions on pension reform, were not considered, Wilkey said the union compared “a 25-year history versus a 10-year absence in politics versus a neophyte.”

See here for the background. It’s obvious why the HPFFA did not bother to screen candidates like CM Stephen Costello, CM Oliver Pennington, and Bill King. Everyone knows where each side stands on the single issue that matters the most to the firefighters, so why waste everyone’s time? As for the likes of Chris Bell and Marty McVey, endorsing organizations are free to set their own rules and follow their own procedures. The tradeoff for a streamlined process in this case is the possibility of alienating someone who could have been friendly or at least neutral to you. Now that person’s supporters might be less inclined to listen to you, a non-trivial factor in a race that will surely go to a runoff, and you might wind up with a Mayor you’ve annoyed by your process. You pay your money and you take your chances.

But wait, I hear you cry. What about that other guy?

That process snubbed not only McVey but also Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who has not yet announced a mayoral run though people with firsthand knowledge of his plans say he will formally launch his bid in the next few weeks. Garcia, who declined to comment through an adviser, spent 23 years as a Houston police officer.

“Adrian would have been screened Friday if Adrian had announced prior to Friday,” said Houston Police Officers Union president Ray Hunt, who defended the process as thorough and welcoming.

Sources may say that Sheriff Garcia is running for Mayor, but until he himself says it, he’s not a candidate. No organization is going to consider or screen a non-candidate. It happens every two years that some late-entering candidates miss out on endorsements they might have won if they’d been in the race earlier. In this case, the endorsement process was a lot earlier than usual, but them’s the breaks. It’s all part of the process.

Police officers’ pension fund speaks up

The firefighters’ pension fund is the one that gets all the attention, but it’s not the only one the city is responsible for. The Houston Police Officers Pension System (HPOPS) has sent a letter to the city reminding it that they have a deal that restricts what the city can request from the Legislature.

Police pension leaders, in a March 11 letter to Mayor Annise Parker and City Council members, asked for documents proving that city officials are complying with a provision of the 12-year deal, approved in 2011, that requires the city to join the fund in opposing legislation that would affect the terms of the agreement.

The letter named no particular official, but it would be hard to miss the recent actions – and accompanying press releases – of mayoral candidates and City Councilmen Steve Costello and Oliver Pennington, who back a bill filed by Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, that would grant the city local authority over its three pension plans. Today, the plans are controlled in Austin, where lawmakers have stymied repeated attempts at reform. The rising cost of pensions has caused stress at City Hall for more than a decade; Houston is paying $353 million into its pensions this fiscal year, almost twice what it spends on trash pickup, parks and libraries combined.

In writing the mayor, police pension officials also sought a meeting, which they got Friday morning. City Attorney Donna Edmundson said the gathering was cordial and brief, and served simply to confirm that pension leaders and the Parker administration view the agreement similarly and will thus jointly oppose Murphy’s bill, despite the mayor having sought related legislation in years past.

The key, Edmundson said, is that when the agreement refers to “the city” it refers to the executive branch – in this case, the mayor, her top staff and legislative coordinators – and not individual council members in the legislative branch.

“Council member Costello has gone to Austin. But in those trips to Austin, he’s not representing the city of Houston, and they just wanted to be clear on that and make sure we’re on the same page,” Edmundson said. “We can’t stop an individual from going to Austin and expressing his or her views or the views of his or her constituents. They have a First Amendment right.”

Police pension representatives confirmed Edmundson’s characterizations, but declined further comment.

On the fund’s website, however, chairman Terry Bratton on Friday posted that he had met with Parker and that their plans aligned.

“The agreement provides that the city and HPOPS (Houston Police Officers’ Pension System) will work together to oppose bills adversely impacting HPOPS. The mayor is aware of the provision and intends to honor the contract,” Bratton wrote.

Just a reminder that there’s more than one dimension to the pension issue, and that if you think Mayor Parker should be supporting Rep. Murphy’s bill, the 2011 agreement with HPOPS – which as the story notes, both CMs Costello and Pennington voted for – says she cannot. Mayoral candidates Costello and Pennington are free to do what they want, but that agreement with HPOPS will bind them going forward if one of them gets elected.

Meanwhile, the chair of the firefighters’ pension fund sent a letter to the Chronicle to point out a few things regarding the recent deal.

Regarding “Missed chances” (Page B8, Friday), last August, during a special subcommittee meeting of the Houston City Council’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee, several members of City Council challenged the board of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF) to develop an alternative proposal to Mayor Annise Parker’s plan for newly hired firefighters.

In response to this challenge, HFRRF developed a proposal that addressed several issues. Primarily, it maintained the hard-earned and promised benefits of our active and retired firefighters. Additionally, it addressed the City’s contributions needs during the next three fiscal years and avoids costly litigation for all the parties.

Throughout the months of August and September, members of the HFRRF board, including myself, and staff members personally met with almost all members of the City Council and reviewed our proposal.

During these meetings, each of these members were advised that HFRRF was participating in discussions with the mayor about the proposal. Most members expressed encouragement that we had voluntarily engaged in a discussion with the mayor and hoped that some form of agreement might be reached.

Over the next several months, we participated in many meetings in the mayor’s office. Included in these meetings were the mayor, her staff and some members of Council. The mayor also attended two public board meetings at the HFRRF office.

Traditionally, when two parties attempt to come to mutually agreeable terms, each side receives some benefit for their considerations to the other party.

I believe that both the HFRRF and the mayor recognize that the result of this agreement is a reasonable solution, and it addressed the challenge initiated during the August subcommittee meeting.

Todd Clark, chairman of HFRRF

Here’s a post about that Council meeting in August. Looking for that also reminded me that news of the deal was first reported in September. Clearly, a lot of people, myself included, had forgotten about that. The deal that was agreed to this month doesn’t look all that different from what was proposed six months ago. People may not like the deal, but no one can say they didn’t know about it.

Council’s pension meeting

It was about what you’d expect.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Many City Council members who attended a special meeting Friday to discuss Mayor Annise Parker’s controversial deal with the city’s firefighters pension called the gathering a success, despite two members walking out and breaking a quorum before a vote could be held to support or oppose the agreement.

The meeting’s unusual ending matched the unusual situation. Typically, the mayor alone calls City Council meetings and decides what items will appear on the agenda for a vote, a power that council members can subvert only by teaming up in a group of at least three to force a special meeting.

Council members C.O. Bradford, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig and Dave Martin did that last Monday, saying the council had been excluded as Parker negotiated the three-year agreement to lower the city’s costs and that the deal must be vetted publicly.

The unrealized vote would not have been binding because the council has no legal authority over the agreement, but organizers hoped the resolution would raise public awareness of the city’s pension situation and send a signal to the Legislature, which controls Houston’s three pension funds. State Sen. John Whitmire and mayoral candidate and state Rep. Sylvester Turner, both Houston Democrats, have agreed to carry the legislation in Austin.

“A vote would have sent a signal to the state Legislature, so I’m disappointed that we didn’t get the opportunity to express our opinion to the state,” said Martin, who opposes the deal, “but I thought the discussion was good, so I leave here pleased.”

[…]

Parker spokeswoman Janice Evans said the administration is moving forward on getting the deal passed in Austin, and stressed that the mayor has never claimed the agreement represents true pension reform.

“The meeting turned out as we thought it would … a lot of talking, but no new solutions offered and no new information presented,” Evans said.

See here for the background. The Wednesday Council meeting at which Mayor Parker presented the plan to Council could be characterized similarly. Of interest is that not only will there be a bill to enact the negotiated deal, but also one to give the city the kind of control over the pension fund that Mayor Parker had been pushing for before. From the press release that CM Costello sent out on Friday evening:

City of Houston At-Large Council Member Steve Costello was extremely instrumental in crafting House Bill 2608 which was filed today by State Representative Jim Murphy of Houston. Local control of pensions is key to the citizens of Houston. H.B. 2608 will allow the mayor and city council to directly negotiate with its pension plans to create the most beneficial structure for both taxpayers and retirees.

Council Member Costello has also written and distributed a letter to the local Houston delegation encouraging them to support the bill, local control and vote against the Parker/Turner plan.

“There’s no way for the city to pay our pension benefits as currently structured without severely limiting the city’s ability to provide basic city services to its citizens. Without showing real leadership and tackling the pension benefits themselves, the amount the city owes does not change,” Costello said.

“This bill will provide for a more sustainable and responsible pension program that is good for our city, our brave firefighters and Houston taxpayers. Fortunately, Representative Jim Murphy has filed H. B. 2608, and I am pleased to have played a key role in crafting a bill that actually moves us toward a solution,” according to Costello.

Costello continued, “I’m going to continue to fight hard for local control. The City must be able to fulfill our promise to our public safety and municipal employees in a way that is also fair to Houston taxpayers.”

There was no mention of a bill like this at the beginning of the session, when everyone seemed to want the city and the firefighters to work this out among themselves. It’s interesting to hear people like Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who was at the meeting and who expressed his support of Rep. Murphy’s bill, talk favorably of local control when he’s busy helping Greg Abbott eviscerate it elsewhere. Be that as it may, I guess this answers my question about what Costello thinks he can do differently than Mayor Parker – if he’s able to help get HB2608 to Abbott’s desk, it would be quite an accomplishment. The politics of this are going to be fascinating to watch, that’s for sure. I just hope that the Mayoral candidates that lobby for one bill or the other in Austin get equally and visibly involved in beating back the many bad bills out there.

Costello makes his official entry

That makes him number five of some as yet unknown number to make that announcement.

CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

Houston City Councilman Stephen Costello pitched himself Monday as a no-frills, no-nonsense politician who would address the city’s problems like the engineer he is if voters elect him mayor this fall.

Costello, a wonky at-large councilman who chairs the body’s budget committee, told supporters packed into a downtown ballroom that he certainly was not the “flashiest” politician, but a practical problem-solver who would tackle the city’s looming pension liabilities by winning local control over the city’s fire pension system.

If nothing is done, Costello said, Houston could face a “catastrophic financial crisis.”

“Houstonians should have the authority to craft our own solution rather than continuing to leave our fate in the hands of politicians in Austin,” Costello said, drawing applause. “Instead of playing politics on this issue as so many have done, and continue to do today, I am going to lead on it.”

Costello said as mayor he would also launch a “Neighborhoods to Standards” effort to fill potholes and relax congestion, and increase funding for police. The name was reminiscent of former Mayor Bob Lanier, who launched a “Neighborhoods to Standard” program to target small sections of the city with massive infusions of street repairs, sidewalks, street lights and other basic amenities.

Let me say up front that I like CM Costello. I think he’s been a good Council member, I think Renew Houston was a big accomplishment that not many would have taken on, and I can think of a lot of people who would not be my pick for Mayor given the choice between Costello and them. Having said all that, I’ve got to repeat something I said in my public safety manifesto: What makes any candidate think they can succeed on this issue where Mayor Parker has not? How does CM Costello, or anyone who wants to campaign on this issue, plan to get traction in a Legislature that wants the city and the firefighters to work it out between themselves? I’m willing to accept the possibility that there’s something Mayor Parker could have done, or could have done differently, that Candidate X can and will do. But I’m going to need to hear specifics and some corroboration from at least one legislator before I take it as anything other than rhetoric along the same lines as “we need to cut waste and encourage growth”.

Anyway. At this point, I believe CM Oliver Pennington is the only major candidate that is already known to be running who hasn’t done the “official campaign announcement/kickoff” thing. Among the candidates not currently known to be running but widely believed to be in, well, there’s Adrian Garcia. He’ll say whatever it is he’s going to say when he’s ready to say it. Costello’s press release from the event is beneath the fold, and Texas Leftist has more.

(more…)

The pension deal

Not sure yet how I feel about this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker and Houston’s firefighter pension trustees have reached a deal that would lower the city’s payments for three years, a move that would mark an abrupt reversal for the mayor.

The announcement came late Thursday from the fire pension board, whose leaders for years have fought any mention of changes to benefits as Houston’s enormous pension burden has continued to grow. The pension fund estimates the city would pay $77 million less over the next three years.

In a memo Thursday to the City Council, Parker said the agreement is a “modified version” of a proposal the pension board pushed last fall.

“The terms will deliver significant budget relief to the city of Houston,” Parker wrote. “As with any true compromise, both sides have surrendered hard positions to realize a mutually beneficial outcome.”

Craig Mason is a pension consultant who represents the city on the police, fire and municipal pension boards. Mason, who followed the talks but had not seen the final deal, said the deal would see firefighters contribute more of their pay toward their retirement and have the city contribute less, for a term of three years.

Mason and other pension reformers have said, however, that without changing pension benefits the city will not be solving the problem long term.

“I’m opposed to people calling that a savings,” Mason said of the deal. “It’s a temporary reduction in contributions, but it’s going to increase contributions in the future. It’s a short-term focus, which is typical for city administrations.”

[…]

Parker’s support for the deal is curious, given that she said the pension trustees’ proposal from the fall “reflects no true pension reform” and repeated the same stance as recently as Wednesday, saying, “There’s no reform in that … we’re just putting more money into a system that I think needs help.”

The announcement said that as part of the deal the city would drop two lawsuits against the fire pension, one that seeks more data to better predict future costs and another that challenges the constitutionality of the city being on the hook for payments over which it has no control; the pension and the city’s contributions are set by the Legislature. The city would agree not to lobby the Legislature for pension reforms for the three-year duration of the deal, Mason added.

The fire pension trustees’ plan from last fall that Mason said forms the basis of the deal would not touch current or future firefighters’ benefits, but would have them contribute 12 percent of their paychecks into the pension fund, up from 9 percent. In that proposal, the fire pension projected the city’s contribution rate would drop from 33 percent of firefighter payroll to 24 percent.

Before I say anything about this myself, let me quote from the reactions I received in my inbox to this, in the order I received them. First, from CM Stephen Costello:

“Our firefighters deserve to have their pensions covered in full and this deal, negotiated without City Council input or approval, not only leaves their pensions cut short but continues to put the city’s financial well-being at great risk over the long haul. This agreement simply continues the damaging cycle where the City of Houston fails to fund the pension, racking up tens of millions of dollars in new debt in the future. The ultimate solution in the long term is local control. Houstonians should have the authority to craft their own solution rather than continuing to leave our fate in the hands of politicians in Austin.”

From Bill King:

The proposed agreement regarding the Houston Fire Fighter pension plan announced yesterday represents a further abdication of fiscal responsibility. The parties to this deal owe taxpayers an explanation how borrowing $77 million at 8.5 percent is a good deal, or saves the City money. This deal does absolutely nothing to contain the costs to Houston taxpayers, but instead pushes off millions of dollars of pension obligations to the next administration.

I do not believe the City should incur this kind of additional liability without a full and open debate — and approval — by City Council especially when the City’s pension debt has soared by $1.2 billion over the last five years.

From Controller candidate Bill Frazer:

Once again, Houston’s taxpayers have been left holding the bag while its pension issues get kicked down the road for another 3 years. The City Controller stands idly by while the Mayor, a candidate for Mayor and a candidate for City Controller craft a backroom deal based purely on political expediency.

While kicking the can down the road, the Mayor has borrowed another $77 million at “credit card interest rates”, leaving the taxpayers with more debt and no solutions. Houston deserves a higher standard.

From HFRRF Chairman Todd Clark:

Today Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF) and Houston Mayor Annise Parker agreed on a set of legislative provisions that will save the City $77 million over three years while assuring soundness of the pension and putting a halt to the City’s lawsuits against the Fund. Mayor Parker supported the plan which increases firefighters’ contributions by 3% of their salaries and will reduce Houston’s General Fund expenses to the HFRRF by $21.4 million in Fiscal Year 2016 alone.

“The proposal protects Houston’s citizens by keeping and recruiting the best firefighters we can get,” said HFRRF President Todd Clark. “We are pleased the Mayor supports our proposal because it protects promises made to our firefighters and avoids reduction of benefits to new hires, which would be harmful to all parties.”

The Firefighters’ proposal, as accepted by the Mayor, provides a sustainable plan for the City while avoiding additional costly litigation and discontinuing current litigation while not impacting retirees at all.

And finally, from Mayor Parker:

Under the terms of the arrangement, which still needs legislative approval in Austin, firefighters will contribute three percent more to the pension system for the next three years. Correspondingly, the City’s payroll contribution to the fund will be locked in at 25.8% for Fiscal Year 2016, and 24% for both Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018. This represents a more than $70 million decrease from the amount the city would have to pay in the absence of this arrangement.

The HFRRF board proposed that the firefighters who benefit from the system should pay more. “This protects taxpayer interests and provides budget certainty for the next three years,” said Mayor Parker. “The agreement was achieved through good faith negotiations by both parties. While it is not the pension reform I have sought, it is a step forward. The work must not end here.”

The agreement is the result of informal discussions between the City and HFRRF over the last several months. State law gives the city the ability to meet and confer with the police and municipal pensions, but no such mechanism exists for HFRRF.

“Despite our differences, both of us came together to do what is best for the City,” said Parker. “This doesn’t change my position. I still strongly believe that those who fund our employee pensions should have a say in how we pay for them. These are decisions that must be made here at home, not in Austin.”

The Mayor’s full press release is here. Clearly, one’s view of this deal is dependent on how one views the overall pension situation. Also, if one is running for Mayor and one is not Sylvester Turner, who was credited by the firefighters for helping to broker this deal, one doesn’t like it. My view is that while this is clearly a kick-the-can-down-the-road proposal, the fact is that Houston is facing a (hopefully short term) fiscal crunch in the next few years, and will have to make cuts somewhere to cover those bills. Reducing the amount that the city will have to cut by $77 million over the next three years is nothing to sneeze at, especially if one is unwilling to try to lift the stupid revenue cap as a means of helping to mitigate those cuts. If this is a loan that needs to be paid back, or if there is a gap between what the city would have contributed and what the firefighters will wind up kicking in, then this deal doesn’t look as good. I’d like to see an analysis from a disinterested third party before I sign off on any interpretation, but the prospect of having to make $77 million less in cuts over the next three years counts for something to me. Campos and PDiddie have more.

King makes his official entry

Add Bill King to the “made his official announcement” list.

Bill King

In the middle of a noisy, torn-up west Houston street that he said epitomized Houston’s crumbling roads, Bill King launched his campaign for mayor Monday morning, pledging to return the city “back to basics.”

King, a former Houston Chronicle columnist and a mayor of Kemah, pledged to tackle the issue on which he long sounded the alarm – pension reform.

“There is no pathway to financial stability for the City of Houston that does not lead through meaningful pension reform,” said King. “Anyone who tells you differently is either misinformed or is not telling you the truth.”

King recognized that trimming pension payouts is “an emotional and difficult” issue, but stressed that he does not support changes to current city employees’ benefits, just future employees.’

King also took a veiled shot at who is likely to be his main competitor for the votes of the center-right, business crowds: Councilman Stephen Costello, who is tied to a road improvement plan called “ReBuild Houston” that King derided as the “Rain Tax.”

“We cannot afford to wait another five or six years to rebuild our streets,” said King, standing in the median of S. Kirkwood Road. “It’s time that we rethink ReBuild Houston.”

As you know, King is not at the top of my candidate list. Nothing against the guy, as he is perfectly nice and adequately qualified, but we do not see eye to eye on enough issues that I can’t see him being my choice in November. A case in point here is his shot at ReBuild Houston. Putting aside my distaste for anyone that uses the term “rain tax”, if you don’t like it but you want to make fixing the streets a priority, what would you do instead? We all agree that fixing the streets will cost a lot of money. ReBuild Houston provides a funding mechanism for that. There are certainly issues with it, not the least of which is a lack of visibility, but what would you do instead? This was a question that the foes of the Renew Houston referendum never ever attempted to answer. They agreed with the problem, opposed the solution, and had no alternate plan of their own. So I’ll ask again: If this isn’t the answer, then what is? You have eight months to come up with something viable.

Now sure, I get that this was a campaign event, not a get-all-wonky-with-details event, but as I’ve said before, just about everyone running for Mayor this year has been running in one form or another for a long time. I’ve said what my priorities are. I don’t plan to be patient waiting for the Mayoral herd to start talking specifics. I’m not singling out King here – so far, no one has said anything that isn’t suitable for a bumper sticker. I’m saying I don’t plan to grade on a curve, or to cut any slack. Just tell me what you want to do, in enough detail that it makes sense, and we’ll go from there.

Anyway. King is in, and there are still more of these announcements to come. I’ve put the press release I received from the King campaign beneath the fold. On a tangential note, I see via Facebook that Chris Brown has announced his intent to run for Controller this year. Brown is Deputy Controller, and his name surfaced as a potential candidate a few weeks ago. He joins three other candidates so far – HCC Trustee Carroll Robinson, 2013 Controller candidate Bill Frazer, and former Council member Jew Don Boney. That Facebook photo is the only info I have on this, so it wasn’t worth a post on its own, thus the addendum here.

(more…)

Revenue cap will stay in place

Boo, hiss.

BagOfMoney

Houston voters will not be given the option this fall of passing a property tax hike after a City Council committee on Thursday unanimously recommended leaving the city’s much-maligned revenue cap alone.

[…]

The topic has received less attention recently, however, as projections show the cap will mean a projected $24 million less is available to spend in the next budget compared to current one. That is significantly less than the $63 million deficit City Council must close by the new fiscal year July 1, and the even larger deficits projected in the following years.

City finance officials project the revenue cap will allow the city to collect $39 million more in property taxes for the upcoming budget year than it collected in the current one. However, they said, contractual costs – not including staff salaries or the delivery of services – will increase by $58 million, led by rising pension and debt payments.

Still, council members, led by C.O. Bradford, Oliver Pennington and Stephen Costello, said they cannot support asking the public to pay more when they cannot justify to voters all the ways the city spends money today. Only once the city’s budget problems push parks and libraries to close, Costello said, will voters consider a change.

So I guess we need to destroy the city – or at least the city’s budget – in order to save it. I’m sorry, but that’s not good leadership. What it sounds like is a rationalization by some Council members that didn’t want to put this to a vote, but didn’t want to admit that they didn’t want to put it to a vote, either. It’s also fiscally irresponsible, as Council’s hands will continue to be needlessly tied as it deals with the upcoming shortfalls. Funny, considering how much we’re going to be hearing about “fiscal responsibility” from the squadron of Mayoral candidates, that being willing to do what it takes to be able to pay all of our bills is so easily shunted aside. Sorry, but I’m not going to be letting this go anytime soon. The Chron editorial board has more.

Should Lane Lewis resign as HCDP Chair to run for Council?

That’s the question some people are asking.

Lane Lewis

Lane Lewis

“What I want is someone who is going to be, at least in the political world, dedicated 100 percent to the mission of advancing the ideals of the Democratic Party,” said John Gorczynski, a local Democratic staffer and head of the Young Democrats of Texas. “If someone’s going to be running a campaign, I can’t imagine what that would look like.”

Lewis’ fundraiser next month will be hosted at the home of Bill Baldwin, the former county Democratic finance chair who resigned a few weeks ago to raise money for Lewis’ bid, a move intended to make the line between the party and the campaign clear. Some are calling for Lewis to follow Baldwin’s example and resign.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said Lewis should consider that, adding there would be a potential conflict of interest between Lewis trying to neutrally advance the Democratic Party – which includes several members running against him for council – while “competing in the trenches” himself.

“When you serve as party chair, you at least leave some of your political ambition at the door,” Jones said.

Lewis faces Houston Community College trustee Chris Oliver, local Democratic activists Jenifer Rene Pool and Philippe Nassif, Republican activist Trebor Gordon, and possibly Harris County Housing Authority chief Tom McCasland in the non-partisan race to succeed term-limited city councilman Stephen Costello in the At Large 1 council seat.

[…]

The county Democratic and Republican parties typically stay out of endorsing candidates in non-partisan municipal races, but Jones said that some Democratic elected officials and campaign staff may be pressured away from backing any of Lewis’ opponents.

Oliver and some Democratic activists also charge that Lewis could improperly use the party’s email list – though Lewis said the campaign email list was culled from his phone’s contacts, not the party’s -and that his time spent preparing the party for 2016 would now be split between his personal campaign and the party’s.

“That person should be focusing on Democratic Party politics, not city council politics,” said Oliver, a Democrat.

Lewis is not required to resign, as some but not all elected office holders are. My opinion is that we’re early enough in the cycle that being Chair and being a candidate are not inherently in conflict. Any candidate running a full-fledged campaign is likely to find as time goes on that it doesn’t leave much room in his or her life for other things. Lewis may eventually decide he should resign just to ensure he has enough hours in the day to do all the things he needs to do. Alternately, he may find that more and more Democratic activists, the kind of people whose vote he will want in November, are grumbling that the duties of HCDP Chair are being neglected and someone else needs to take over to ensure there isn’t a mess to clean up going into 2016. Or maybe he’ll be able to handle it all, and the complaints will be limited to his opponents and their supporters. As I say, I think it’s too early to know. But he should be prepared to resign at the first sign of the juggling act being too much. Lane Lewis has done a good job as HCDP Chair, but no one is irreplaceable. If leaving will be necessary, better to do so a little too early than a little too late. A statement from candidate Philippe Nassif is here, and Campos has more.

January campaign finance reports – Controller wannabes

CarrollRobinson

Like the Mayoral race, the 2015 race for City Controller is wide open, as incumbent Ronald Green is term-limited. There are three candidates of which I am aware so far – HCC Trustee and former At Large city Council member Carroll Robinson, who formally announced his entry last November; 2013 Controller candidate Bill Frazer, who hasn’t made a formal announcement of which I am aware, but whose campaign website is still live; and Metro Board member Dwight Jefferson, who was kind enough to publicly acknowledge his interest in the office yesterday. I have heard other names bandied about for this office as well – former Council member and Mayoral candidate Peter Brown has come up in conversation, and I have heard rumors that Some People are trying to get Council Member Stephen Costello to switch races to this one – and I’m sure there are other possibilities.

As far as finance reports go, the only ones to reference are for Robinson and Frazer. Robinson has to file biannual reports as an HCC Trustee. They don’t have their January reports posted yet on the HCC Trustees website, so the best I can do for now is his July 2014 report. Frazer still has a city account from 2013, so he has a report on the city’s website.

Carroll Robinson
Bill Frazer

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Robinson 1,820 3,700 25,000 21,637 Frazer 0 3,503 0 160 Green 0 14,402 0 28,563

Incumbent Ronald Green’s totals are included as well for comparison. Not a whole lot to see here. Robinson was first out of the gate with a fundraising email on January 13, right after the injunction against the city’s blackout ordinance was handed down, but that wouldn’t have affected his January report anyway. Frazer ran a solid campaign in 2013 and gained a fair amount of traction against incumbent Green, who had some baggage to carry, but it’s not clear how much of that will stick in an open seat race. Controller races are often low-key, and it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the many Mayoral hopefuls makes the strategic decision to shift into this race, which if nothing else might provide a nice head start on the 2021 Mayoral campaign. And yes, my soul just died a little by the act of me typing that sentence. Anyway, this is what we have for now.

January campaign finance reports – Mayoral wannabes

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

I wrote yesterday about the start of the 2015 campaign season in Houston, and how it’s started a bit early thanks to the ruling in the lawsuit filed by Trebor Gordon that invalidated the blackout period. This week also marked the January 15 finance report filing deadline, so now is as good a time as any to see who has what. The Gordon ruling really had no effect on the January filings – it came way too late for that – so as I’ve said before, the real story of its effect will be told in the July reports, when we can see who raised what during January. Because the blackout was in effect last year, several Mayoral candidates have no reports to file as yet – Chris Bell, Marty McVey, and Joe Ferreira fall into that category. Bill King did file a report, but only had some expenditures to list. Folks like Stephen Costello, Oliver Pennington, and Jack Christie have existing city finance accounts and thus had reports to file for their activity; Ben Hall still has his account from the 2013 race; and of course current holders of other offices like Rep. Sylvester Turner, Sheriff Adrian Garcia, and Treasurer Orlando Sanchez filed reports with their respective authorities. (In Sanchez’s case, since he would not be on the ballot until 2018 if he stays put, he was not required to file a January report he does not have a January report on the County Clerk website that I can find; I have his eight-day report from last year linked.) So without further ado:

Sylvester Turner
Stephen Costello
Oliver Pennington
Ben Hall
Jack Christie
Bill King
Adrian Garcia
Orlando Sanchez

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Turner 657,227 121,719 0 1,014,424 Costello 0 35,324 15,000 273,001 Pennington 0 126,039 0 116,632 Hall 0 26,300 2,000,000 59,300 Christie 0 11,404 0 4,080 King 0 7,300 0 0 Garcia 175,681 350,030 0 57,213 Sanchez 18,041 14,115 200,000 1,258 Locke 0 0 0 4,065 Parker 0 57,109 0 350,695

I included reports for 2009 candidate Gene Locke and Mayor Parker for the heck of it as well as for purposes of comparison. It will be interesting to see if Mayor Parker, who has her eye on a future statewide run, does any fundraising this year.

Turner’s report, with its sizable cash on hand total, and Garcia’s report, with its much less sizable COH number, are the ones that have attracted the most attention. You can see why Chris Bell really wants to enforce a $10,000 limit on the amount Turner could transfer to a city account. A million dollar head start is a big obstacle for him or anyone else to overcome. Turner, for his part, ramped up his fundraising last year in the expectation of being able to transfer it all because now that the Lege is in session, he’s on the sidelines until at least May unless he decides to resign, which I would not expect. As for Garcia, who has held some recent fundraisers for his county account, he could likely bring in some money quickly once he announced, if he does. But as Campos notes, the clock is ticking. The longer he waits, the harder it will get and the more likely that some of the deeper pockets will commit themselves to someone else. You have to figure that if he intends to get into the race, it will happen in the next month or so.

Beyond that, not too much to see. Jack Christie and Bill King can both do a certain amount of self-funding, though probably not to the extent that Ben Hall has done. I can only marvel at his outstanding loans figure, which I’ll bet goes up even more. Costello and Pennington have both shown to be strong fundraisers in past elections. I have no idea about McVey and Ferreira or whoever else might be thinking about it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there’s only so much space for viable candidacies in the Mayoral race. With a cap on how much and individual and a PAC can give in a cycle, there are only so many deep pockets to tap. Mayor Parker has done very well with a big network of small-dollar donors, but that sort of thing doesn’t happen overnight, and one usually has to have an extensive personal network to begin with. Like I said, the July reports will tell us a much more detailed story. I’ll check out the other finance reports in future posts. Stace has more.

UPDATE: A couple of people have asked me about the statement that Orlando Sanchez didn’t need to file a January report. I could swear that I saw something to that effect in the Chronicle, but now I can’t find where I saw it. So, since I can see that Stan Stanart, who also would not be on the ballot till 2018, has a January report filed, I’ve changed my wording above. My apologies for the confusion and for not being more skeptical of that.

And they’re off

Gentlemen, start your fundraising engines.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The Twitter handles have been rechristened, the first attacks have been fired and the “DONATE!” buttons have gone live.

The yearlong slugfest for mayor of Houston has begun.

In what is expected to be Houston’s most wide-open mayoral race in recent history, most of the dozen potential candidates are shedding their coyness after the traditional Feb. 1 starting gun was quieted by a federal court ruling last Friday that cleared the way for them to begin asking for their first dollars immediately.

Seven candidates have not been bashful about their intent to run: Rep. Sylvester Turner, former Congressman Chris Bell, former Kemah mayor Bill King, current council members Stephen Costello and Oliver Pennington, former airline executive Joe Ferreira; and 2013 candidate Ben Hall, who lost to Mayor Annise Parker, who is in her third and final term.

“Let the games begin,” Parker said Wednesday.

And they have.

Nearly every campaign has hired its top strategist and is sifting through the resumes of the potential campaign managers, fundraisers and spokesmen who they can now pay to implement that strategy.

[…]

For the candidates still dithering over a bid, they no longer have the luxury of effortlessly keeping pace with their competitors. Businessman Marty McVey, who previously said he was considering a run, now plans to designate a campaign treasurer next week. Sean Roberts, a personal injury lawyer, is a probable entrant, but has not committed to the race. And council member Jack Christie, who also is weighing a bid, continued to indicate this week that he would hold off on a race unless he knew if the business community would finance his bid.

Two other candidates, who must at least pretend to be undecided for legal reasons, still loom over the race: Harris County Sherriff Adrian Garcia, considered a top-tier candidate if he launches a bid as expected, and Orlando Sanchez, the county treasurer. Both would have to resign their offices under state law to run in a race they very well could lose.

Yes, that ruling has had an effect. I expect my inbox to fill up with invitations and solicitations shortly and quickly. With still more new names surfacing (Joe Ferreira?), no one’s email address is going to be safe.

Finance reports are slowly appearing on the city of Houston reporting site. I’m going to try to slog through the interesting ones this weekend and post a few tidbits. Later, I’m going to post a series of mini-manifestos to highlight the sorts of things I want to see discussed in this campaign. I’ve also got an opening look at the other races that will be on the ballot on my to do list. It’s going to be a long campaign, and it’s already well underway. Houston Politics has more.

Three thoughts on the state of the Mayor’s race

Inspired by this story, which doesn’t name any potential additions to the ever-large field of Mayoral wannabes for 2015 but which does put some things in context.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Most observers consider Rep. Sylvester Turner, with his support base from the African-American population that could cast a third of next year’s vote, to be the man to beat in November. Yet his fortunes to win in a December runoff – all but guaranteed to be needed in a large field – depend heavily on whom he faces in a one-on-one comparison.

Councilmen Oliver Pennington and Stephen Costello have committed to the race, with Pennington going as far as to send mailers to potential supporters in July, 18 months before the first votes are to be cast. Ben Hall, who lost to Parker in 2013, launched radio advertisements last month, and former Kemah mayor and Chronicle columnist Bill King designated a campaign treasurer. Former Democratic congressman Chris Bell also is an all-but-filed entrant.

Six weeks before the campaign fundraising floodgates open, the field is settling save for a potential entrant who looms over much of the discussion in Houston power circles: Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who has not yet declared his intentions. Legally, Garcia cannot make an affirmative move toward running without being forced to resign his county post, though he has acknowledged the pressure he faces from others.

That pressure, though, is pushing him in both directions. Commissioners Court likely would replace Garcia with a Republican sheriff ahead of the next election cycle.

“You’re going to be giving them an early 2016 gift,” said Democratic Sen. Sylvia Garcia, who had the sheriff at her home this month and expressed concern about a run. “Nobody wants a Latino mayor more than I do, but it’s got to be the right time.”

[…]

If Garcia does not enter the race, Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a close friend of Garcia, could look to capture Latinos’ support. Other prominent Hispanic leaders look to pass on the race, including Metro chairman and Parker ally Gilbert Garcia and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce head Laura Murillo. Both expressed some signs of interest earlier, but do not appear to be joining the field.

Garcia’s exit also could create political lanes for other Democratic alternatives to Turner, like Bell. Though Bell has not formally committed to the race, he has filed a lawsuit challenging Turner’s fundraising strategy and plans to make an official announcement in January.

The other four candidates most seriously weighing bids are: Councilman Jack Christie, an at-large councilman uncertain whether he can raise the money needed to compete; County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, who like Garcia would have to resign to run for mayor; Sean Roberts, a local attorney; and businessman and political neophyte Marty McVey.

Councilmen Michael Kubosh and C.O. Bradford considered the race earlier this year, but both now say they are unlikely to launch campaigns. And despite floating the idea that he was open to a run, outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said this month he had no plans to do so.

Conservatives have not yet coalesced around any of the six non-liberal candidates: Pennington, Costello, Hall, King, Christie or Sanchez.

“Right now, there’s no clear conservative choice yet, but people are obviously angling for being it,” said Paul Bettencourt, the new Republican senator from northwest Harris County.

1. It may be useful to think of these candidates as falling into one of three groups: Candidates with an obvious base of support, coalition candidates, and gadflies. Turner and Pennington fall into the first group, and as such you can sort of guess about what they might expect to get in November if that’s the limit of their appeal. It’s a decent position from which to start, especially in a multi-candidate race, but it’s no guarantee, as Turner himself could attest from his 2003 experience. Coalition candidates don’t have an obvious base of support, but can reasonably hope to draw from a broad range of constituencies. Bill White is the poster boy for such candidates, and folks like Bell, Costello, King, and Christie will all be competing for the kind of voters that propelled White to victory in 2003. Coalition candidates have a higher ceiling, but with so many people fishing in the same pond, it will be harder to stand out. White also had the advantage of lots of money to spend and no activity from anyone else at the time he launched his campaign. No one has that this year. Another consideration is that Turner and Pennington could have their bases eroded by Hall and Sanchez. I’d consider Sanchez a much bigger threat to Pennington if he runs than Hall would be to Turner – and Sanchez would have some appeal to Latino voters as well, not that he did so well with them in 2003 – but in a race where the difference between first and fourth or fifth could be a few thousand votes, I’d still be worried about it if I were Turner.

As for gadflies, he’s not mentioned in this story but Eric Dick, who I feel confident will run again since the publicity is good for his law firm’s business, is the canonical example. From what I have heard, Sean Roberts may be following in those footsteps. One could argue that Hall is a gadfly at this point based on the ridiculousness of his ads so far, but anyone with that kind of money to spend is still a threat to do better than the three to five points a typical gadfly might get.

Yes, there’s one candidate I haven’t mentioned here, and no I don’t mean Marty McVey, about whom I know nothing. I’ll get to him in a bit.

2. Conservatives may be better off not falling in line behind a single candidate just yet. Getting someone into the runoff is nice and all, but any Republican candidate will likely be an underdog in that runoff. The dream scenario for conservatives is what happened in the 2013 At Large #3 race, where three well-qualified Democratic candidates split the vote so evenly that none of them were able to catch up to the two Republicans. Michael Kubosh and Roy Morales were splitting a smaller piece of the electorate, but their two shares of that smaller group were greater than each of the three shares of the larger group. I still think Sylvester Turner is the frontrunner right now, but it’s not insane to imagine a Pennington-Sanchez runoff, especially if Ben Hall can be serious enough to put a dent in his numbers.

3. And then there’s Adrian Garcia. Will he or won’t he? You already know how I feel, so I won’t belabor that here. Garcia is both a candidate with a base and a coalition candidate, which is why he was as strong as he was in 2008 and 2012. Running against flawed opponents those years didn’t hurt him, either, so a little tempering of expectations may be in order here. I’m sure Garcia is carefully measuring the support he might have if he ran. I wonder if he’s trying to gauge how many Democrats he’d piss off by resigning and handing his office to a Republican, and how long said Dems would nurse that grudge when they will have at least two viable options in Turner and Bell to go with instead. It would be one thing if this were December of 2008, and Democrats had just had a great election and were feeling good about themselves. After last month’s debacle, I don’t know how forgiving anyone will be about any Dem that yields a freebie like that to the Republicans. I may be overestimating the effect, especially given how much time Garcia would have to make up for it, and I personally think the Presidential race will have a much larger effect on Democratic fortunes in Harris County in 2016 than Garcia would. But I think it’s real and I think Garcia needs to be concerned about it. Whether it’s enough to affect his decision or not, I have no idea.

And we’re still talking about the 2015 Mayor’s race

Here we go again.

Mayor Annise Parker

Still the Mayor

The mayor’s race may be more than a year away, but nearly all candidates have launched shadow campaigns – and not all shadow campaigns are created equal.

[State Rep. Sylvester] Turner and Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, considered early frontrunners if both launch bids for City Hall, already have the name recognition from years of holding public office. That advantage may be multiplied by their ability to raise money through their existing campaign committees – an opportunity they have capitalized on over the last month.

City ordinances prevent candidates from raising money for a mayoral bid before Feb. 1, but because Turner and Garcia currently hold non-city offices, they can raise cash through their committees.

Come February, they are expected to transfer the lion’s share of that money to their mayoral bids, turning the well-liked frontrunners into well-funded frontrunners.

“It’s a little bit of a head start for sure, but the people who are talking about it are lining up their donors the same way they are,” said Lillie Schechter, a Democratic fundraiser. “One person will have to pick up checks, the other person will have to transfer checks.”

[…]

In what is expected to be the most crowded mayoral field since the last open race in 2009, a dozen potential candidates have effectively launched their bids, hiring consultants, meeting with labor and business groups, and telling the political class that a campaign is imminent. They must sit on their hands, however, when it comes to raising the money that determines their political viability, unable to collect a single check until the nine-month brawl for the mayor’s office begins in February.

As many as seven Republicans are looking into entering the race: Ben Hall, who squared off against Mayor Annise Parker in 2013, and councilmen Steven Costello and Oliver Pennington said they will announce bids, while councilmen Jack Christie and Michael Kubosh and former Kemah mayor Bill King are waiting to assess the field.

Republican Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, METRO chairman Gilbert Garcia, [Chris] Bell, City Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford and private equity executive Marty McVey are said to be considering bids.

See here for the previous roundup of wannabes, could-bes, and never-will-bes. I have four things to say.

1. Most of what I think about this story I’ve already said in that previous post. I do consider Rep. Turner to be the frontrunner, for whatever that’s worth, but we’re a long, long way from being able to assess the field. Hell, there really isn’t a field to assess right now. As I said, there are only so many max-dollar donors, only so many endorsements that are worth chasing, and only so much grassroots/volunteer energy to go around. The market, if you will, just can’t support more than about four serious candidates. Most of the names you see and hear now will disappear long before we get to put-up-or-shut-up time.

2. Like Texpatriate, I remain skeptical that Sheriff Garcia will throw his hat into the ring. He must know that a fair number of Democrats will be unhappy with him if he leaves his post to a Republican appointee, which is what we’ll get from Commissioners Court. I do not speak for Sheriff Garcia, I do not advise Sheriff Garcia, and I have zero inside knowledge of what Sheriff Garcia has in mind for his future. If I were advising him, I would tell him to line up a strong successor for 2016, then set his sights on running for County Judge in 2018, when we know Ed Emmett will step down. We all know that Sheriff Garcia has ambitions for bigger things. I’ll be delighted to see him on a statewide ballot some day. Mayor of Houston would certainly be an excellent springboard to something statewide. So would County Judge. I think he’d have a clearer shot at that, and he’d risk angering fewer current allies with that choice. This is 100% my opinion, so take it for what it’s worth.

3. Listing Ben Hall as a Republican made me guffaw, followed by some giggles. Any article that can do that to me is all right in my book.

4. I still don’t think we should be talking about the Mayor’s race now, and we shouldn’t be talking about it until after the election this November. That’s far more important right now. That said, I am thinking about what I do and don’t want in my next Mayor. I’ll publish it when it’s done, which I guarantee you will be some time after November 4.

Firefighter pension board makes an offer to the city

This was unexpected.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The trustees of Houston’s firefighter pension, who for years have fought the mere mention of changes to benefits as Houston’s enormous pension burden has continued to grow, now are shopping a compromise proposal.

Fire pension leaders say they simply are trying to save the city money as it approaches several years of deep budget deficits.

Reaction to the plan is mixed, however, with skeptics viewing it as a shrewd political maneuver aimed at avoiding broader reforms with an offer of modest savings, and others inclined to applaud any dialogue as progress.

The trustees’ alternative would not touch current or future firefighters’ benefits, but would have them contribute 12 percent of their paychecks into the pension fund, up from 9 percent now. The proposal also would change the way assets in the fund are valued, dropping the amount the city would need to contribute if investment returns are strong – as they have been in recent years – and increasing the city’s costs if returns are sluggish.

The fire pension board projects its plan – which assumes annual investment returns of 8.5 percent and yearly 3 percent raises for firefighters – would save the city $82 million over three years, and nearly $500 million in the next two decades.

Board Chairman Todd Clark would not discuss the details, citing ongoing talks, but said his team is “meeting with the mayor to come up with a proposal that will protect new hires and help the city with their budget issues.”

Mayor Annise Parker called the trustees’ idea “a pleasant surprise” on their willingness to talk.

“The offer from the pension is for individual firefighters to contribute more of their take-home pay toward their pension. That’s a very generous offer and we are appreciative, but it reflects no true pension reform,” the mayor said. “So, we countered back with the things we’ve been talking about since the beginning of my administration, things like caps on cost of living adjustments, the ability to have meet and confer.”

Interesting. The surprise is that they made any offer at all to the city, which has not been their strategy lately. As we know, the city has no leverage over the firefighters’ pension fund, and the the board’s position has been that the city needs to meet their obligations to them. I don’t know if this was motivated by the recent proposal by Mayor Parker to implement a different pension plan for new hires to HFD or by something else, but it’s worth seeing if this goes anywhere. What do you think?

Parker proposes new firefighter pension plan

We’ll see about this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

With the city of Houston facing huge and rising pension costs, Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday unveiled a proposal to put new firefighters in a separate, less generous plan that would do away with expensive automatic cost-of-living adjustments.

The move would not affect current firefighters covered by the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund, long insulated from reform by the Texas Legislature. It would be an unprecedented change to new firefighters’ pensions and would mark the latest chapter in the contentious relationship between Parker and the city’s firefighters. There are two lawsuits pending between the city and the pension fund; the fund is expected to sue the city over the latest proposal.

Creating a separate plan, Parker said Thursday, is her only recourse for reining in pension costs. Though the city long has had the ability to create the separate pension plan for new firefighters, Parker said, she has waited to do so until now because she wanted to attempt broader pension reforms first.

“But if I can’t solve that one – Legislature won’t help, I don’t have the ability to negotiate – let’s set up a separate pension and create one that is fair and sustainable for both sides,” she said.

[…]

Todd Clark, who chairs the fire pension board, told a City Council committee on Thursday that the proposal would “put a firefighter on welfare,” hurt morale and weaken the department’s ability to retain and recruit staff.

Council members Larry Green, Jerry Davis and Jack Christie pushed back, asking Clark whether there was room for compromise.

“I understand that you think the fire pension doesn’t have a problem, but as someone who has just gone through the budget process for the city of Houston, we have a problem,” Green said. “Our objective is not to become Detroit. What’s the solution?”

Clark responded, “The best thing you can do is just come up with the money. It’s not my job to balance the city’s budget. What the city should be doing is finding ways to meet the promises made, not trying to cut the benefits. No changes need to be made to our system. We’re a very strong and healthy pension system.”

The Mayor’s press release, with more details about her proposal, is here. I think Todd Clark is correct that the current pension is well-funded and in better shape than many others, but I think he’s got a tough sell politically to say that the city just needs to suck it up and pay whatever they’re told to pay, over which the city has no control. I’m not commenting on what’s right or wrong here, just saying that’s a tough sell. On the other hand, CM Costello, the biggest pension hawk on Council, wants this applied to current firefighters as well. That would have been the Mayor’s preference too, but she never got anywhere with the pension fund or the legislature, so it’s also a tough sell. There’s a dispute over whether this proposal can be implemented by Council or if it requires legislative action like any change to the plan for current firefighters would, so if it does get adopted expect there to be a lawsuit.

Do we really have to talk about the 2015 Mayoral race right now?

sigh All right, all right, if you insist. But let’s make it quick.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The list of possible candidates thus far includes mainly those who have held or sought public office before, though analysts said the guessing game at this point is difficult.

“There are always people who get in the race who no one expected and people everyone expects to run who don’t,” said Houston political consultant Mustafa Tameez. “At this early stage, rumors are often floated about people as an insider game.”

The list of rumored or confirmed candidates includes:

  • Chris Bell, a lawyer who was elected to City Council in 1997, to one term in the U.S. Congress in 2002, was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006, and ran unsuccessfully for Houston mayor in 2001;
  • City Councilman Jack Christie, a chiropractor in his second term;
  • City Councilman Stephen Costello, an engineer in his third term who chairs the council’s budget committee;
  • Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who is in his second term, having served on City Council and, for 23 years, in the Houston Police Department;
  • City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, who spent 18 years with HPD before being elected to City Council in 2009;
  • Ben Hall, an attorney and ordained minister who was city attorney from 1992 to 1994 and who lost to Parker in last year’s mayoral race;
  • City Councilman Michael Kubosh, a bail bondsman in his first term who has helped lead several petition drives to overturn city policies;
  • Laura Murillo, the president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce since 2007;
  • City Councilman Oliver Pennington, a retired attorney in his third term who chairs the council’s ethics committee.
  • State Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Democrat and a Harvard-educated lawyer who was first elected to the House in 1988 and who is vice chair of its appropriations committee; he ran unsuccessfully for Houston mayor in 1991 and 2003.

[…]

The bottom line, [UH poli sci professor Brandon] Rottinghaus said, is that speculation about next year’s politics are, perhaps, better left to next year.

“It’s like trying to predict what the Texans’ record is going to be,” he said. “It’s shaping up – there’s no doubt there are some blocks that have been put in place here. But we still don’t know about so much of this.”

There are a few things we do know. One is that if Sheriff Garcia makes any official move towards running for Mayor, he’ll have to resign as Sheriff. Other people can talk about him all they want, but once he joins them he runs into the state electoral code. If he does resign to run, Commissioners Court gets to appoint a new Sheriff, who would almost certainly be a Republican. I know of a few Democrats that aren’t very happy with that scenario.

What else do we know? Well, after my post about Laura Murillo, I have been informed that she is registered to vote in Pearland. You know how I feel about that. I presume if there is anything to her inclusion on lists like this, the first indicator that there’s something to it will be an update to her voter registration information.

CMs Kubosh and Christie may have made themselves some friends with their anti-HERO votes, but they definitely made themselves some enemies with that vote. I figured that would translate to them getting strong challenges for re-election. I suppose running for something else instead is one way to deal with that.

Beyond that and more generally, this much I know: There’s only so much room available for Mayoral candidates. There are only so many donors, there are only so many endorsing organizations, there are only so many constituencies to court for votes and volunteer energy. Look at that list above and ask yourself who will be competing against whom for which slices of the electorate and a shot at a runoff. Sure, there are people on that list that have demonstrated various levels of ability to draw support from other parts of the political spectrum, but how well will they do when they’re up against someone for whom those parts of the spectrum are their base? This isn’t a buffet line – you can only choose one. Most of the people on this list, if they really are interested in perhaps running for Mayor and aren’t just a name some insider is floating around, will run into that reality. File this list away and take it out again next July when the first finance reports are in for 2015. That will tell you the story.

Laura Murillo

Campos tosses a hat into the ring for Mayor 2015.

Laura Murillo

Laura Murillo, CEO and President of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is telling folks she will be running for H-Town Mayor next year. I said this yesterday:

She would certainly be a fresh face. Being a Latina and the only woman in the race would help her. I think she could raise the money – certainly as much as the other three could. She is smart, articulate, and bilingual.

And:

Here in H-Town we kind of know who is seriously thinking about running for Mayor. Council Member Stephen Costello, State Rep. Sylvester Turner, and former Congressman Chris Bell are the ones most mentioned. We pretty much know what to expect from these three. They have all been around for a while if you know what I mean.

I can see folks getting excited about a Laura Murillo candidacy. She goes into the race with a built-in relationship and record working with hundreds of Latino business owners and professionals. They know her well.

Her going up against three veteran male politicians would certainly provide voters with a choice. A Murillo candidacy also means that the other three candidates will probably not be doing a whole lot of Latino voter outreach.

As noted, he teased this the day before. I’ve met Dr. Murillo a couple of times – I’ve been to at least one candidate forum at the HHCC – and I’m sure she’d make an interesting candidate. There are a lot of people who are at least thinking about running for Mayor next year – Campos’ list doesn’t include CM Oliver Pennington, who is as out there as any of the other three he mentioned. I don’t plan to spend too much time thinking about it until after this year’s elections are over. I will say that all of the wannabees will have lots of challenges to deal with, but also lots of opportunities. I’m going to need to see some big ideas from them if they want me to take them seriously. But not today. Y’all have till December or so to start getting it together. Be ready to hit the ground running.