Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Steve Radack

Flooding affects toll roads, too.

This makes sense to me.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to create a local government corporation to manage Harris County’s toll road system in a move expected to provide a windfall to county coffers and allow surplus toll collections to be spent on non-transportation purposes.

Approved by a 3-2 vote along party lines, the local government model would allow the Harris County Toll Road Authority to refinance its debt at historically low rates and divert funds to help the county respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, and invest more in flood control, supporters said.

Under the proposal by new Budget Director David Berry, the county will receive a $300 million lump sum in toll revenue and then $90 million annually from the system. The toll road authority collected $901 million in the fiscal year that ended in February.

Peter Key, interim executive director of HCTRA, urged the court in a memo to adopt the new governance model.

“This is an unprecedented situation that presents unique financial challenges for the county and may require additional levels of financial support for the county to effectively respond to these challenges for the foreseeable future,” Key wrote.

The toll road authority’s current bond indenture and state law limit the use of surplus revenues to non-toll roads, streets, highways and related facilities, according to a Q&A created by the county budget office. After refinancing under the new governance structure, HCTRA revenues can be used by other county departments.

The proposal would not affect toll rates, the budget office said, nor would it privatize the system or sell off any assets.

[…]

While Fort Bend, Brazoria and Montgomery Counties use local government corporations to finance and operate their toll roads, Harris County’s will serve as a financing vehicle only. The toll road authority estimates Harris County will save $60 million by refinancing the system’s roughly $2.7 billion debt at lower rates through the corporation.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she supported the idea because the county can “maximize every dollar” in a challenging fiscal environment.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said diverting some toll revenues would be an effective way to boost flood control spending. It also could be used as matching funds to state or federal appropriations on ambitious capital projects like deepening the Houston Ship Channel.

I’m fine with this. If the toll roads are generating more revenue than is needed to operate and maintain the roads, then sure, let’s use some of that money for other necessary purposes. Flood control would be high on my list, but other capital projects make sense, too. Commissioners Court will still be accountable for all this, as they currently comprise the board of this LGC, and they will be responsible for appointing subsequent board members. Let’s put this revenue to some good use.

(You may say, if the toll roads were bringing in such excess revenue, we should have cut toll rates. I say that’s a policy choice, and my preferred policy would be to do something like this instead. Lowering tolls is pretty far down on my priority list. Your mileage may vary.)

In the “Would you like some cheese with that whine?” department:

Both Republican commissioners voted against the proposal. Jack Cagle in Precinct 4 lamented the fact that there had been no public meetings on the topic before Tuesday’s vote, unlike the extensive campaign in the summer of 2018 seeking support for the $2.5 billion flood bond program.

Precinct 3’s Steve Radack derided the idea as a ploy by the court’s Democrats who, in his view, are looking to siphon money from the toll road authority instead of asking taxpayers for more.

“This is a money grab,” Radack said. “They’re going to use it to pay for things that are normally paid for via (property) taxes.”

Hey, remember when Commissioners Radack and Cagle broke quorum to prevent the democratically-elected majority on Commissioners Court from voting on a property tax rate hike that was intended to cover future downturns in revenue resulting from COVID-19 and the state’s rigid new revenue cap? Good times, good times. Maybe let the majority vote on its policies next time, and campaign against them on the places where you have disagreements? Just a suggestion.

Another look at the County Commissioner race

It’s the most consequential local race on the ballot this year.

Michael Moore

Every four years since 1968, Harris County residents have been able to count on a Republican winning the Precinct 3 commissioner’s seat.

In that half century, a parade of Democrats have been trounced. Some years, the party did not even bother to field a candidate in the traditionally conservative district, which covers the western portion of the county. The past three Democratic presidential nominees carried Harris County, but no challenger in those cycles came within 16 points of Precinct 3 incumbent Steve Radack, who has held the post since 1989.

Of course, 2020 has been anything but normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended normal life. The Astros play in front of cardboard cutouts. And Democrats say they finally will capture Precinct 3, an open seat since Radack decided not to seek a ninth term.

They said the unpopularity of President Donald Trump in Harris County, against the backdrop of a mismanaged coronavirus response by state leaders and demographic shifts that favor Democrats will help the party’s nominee, political strategist Michael Moore, defeat his Republican opponent, former Spring Valley Village Mayor Tom Ramsey.

[…]

Demographic shifts in Precinct 3 give Moore an advantage, Democratic consultant Keir Murray said. When Radack first was elected, the west Harris County district largely was white and rural. It since has grown rapidly and diversified, with an increase in non-white and college-educated residents. Both groups favor Democrats.

“Precinct 3 now is probably about half white, and that’s a massive change from 15 years ago,” Murray said. “Forty percent of the voters are probably people of color now.”

He said Harris County’s shift to reliably Democratic also affects Precinct 3. Recent elections bear that out.

In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost the precinct by less than 1 point. The 2018 election, in a midterm year where Democrats traditionally struggle, U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke won the district by 4 points.

A wave of Texas Republicans, including six members of Congress, have decided against seeking re-election in 2020. University of Houston political science Professor Jeronimo Cortina said that suggests the party privately is pessimistic about its prospects this year, especially after Democrats made significant inroads in suburban communities in 2018.

“From a political perspective, it’s easier to retire than lose an election,” Cortina said.

I skipped over a bunch of back-and-forth about who’s gonna win, because that doesn’t tell us anything. We know about the Moore poll that shows both him and Joe Biden leading by double digits. Tom Ramsey claims to have his own poll that shows otherwise, and maybe he does, but we have no numbers to go with it, so. The 2016 and 2018 results tell a good story for Dems (see the Moore poll link for links to earlier precinct analyses), and I don’t think the current environment does Republicans any favors. Oh, and there’s some dire warnings in the story from a Republican about how those dumb Dems can’t count on straight-ticket voting to carry them anymore. I think you know what I think of such arguments.

On a side note, as Harris County’s registered voter population has grown over the past few years, so has the RV population in Commissioners Court Precinct 3:


Year      County RVs      CC3 RVs
=================================
2008       1,892,656      507,839
2012       1,942,566      501,988
2016       2,182,980      568,512
2020       2,370,540      622,890

The dip in RV population from 2008 to 2012 is due to redistricting. CC3 as a share of the total number of RVs in Harris County has grown slightly, from 25.8% in 2012 to 26.3% as of July, 2020. The main takeaway from that is that this precinct really is a different place than it was as recently as eight years ago. The precinct has 25% more voters than it did in 2012, and that’s pretty significant. As a whole, Harris County has gotten more Democratic as its number of registered voters has increased. Seems like that’s the same phenomenon in CC3, it’s just a question of whether it’s enough.

Runoff reminder: County races

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

There were a ton of contested county race primaries in Harris County, with all of the countywide offices except one HCDE position featuring at least three candidates. When the dust settled, however, there wree only a few races still ongoing, with one on Commissioners Court and one Constable race being the ones of greatest interest. Fort Bend County saw a lot of action as well, with two countywide races plus one Commissioners Court race going into overtime. Here’s a review of the races of interest.

Harris County – Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

This is the open seat left by long-tenured Steve Radack, which has always been a Republican stronghold but which has trended Democratic in recent years. Beto of course carried Precinct 3, by four points, after Hillary Clinton came close to winning it in 2016. Other statewide candidates (Mike Collier, Justin Nelson, Kim Olson) also won Precinct 3, though the Democratic countywide candidates from 2018 all fell short. It’s there for the taking, but it can’t be taken for granted. The top candidates to emerge from the large field of Democratic hopefuls were Diana Martinez Alexander and Michael Moore. Moore was the bigger fundraiser as of January – we’ll see soon how the current finance period has gone; Alexander’s January filing came in later, after I had published that post. Alexander is a grassroots favorite who has been super busy on Facebook, while Moore has the endorsements of incumbent Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, as well as the endorsement of the Chronicle. You can see other Democratic group endorsements on the invaluable Erik Manning spreadsheet. They participated in the first 2020 Democratic Candidates Facebook Debates here. My interview with Diana Alexander is here, and my interview with Michael Moore is here.

Harris County – Constable, Precinct 2

This is the race with the problematic incumbent and Not That Jerry Garcia. The thing you need to know is that in the end, the incumbent, Chris Diaz, was forced into a runoff against the good Jerry Garcia, who was listed on the primary ballot as “Jerry Garca (Harris County Lieutenant)”. Garcia led the way with 39% to Diaz’s 33%. If you live in Constable Precinct 2, please vote for Jerry Garcia in the runoff.

Harris County – Other runoffs

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5, Place 1: Israel Garcia (48.1%) versus Roel Garcia (30.5%)

Constable, Precinct 3: Sherman Eagleton (incumbent, 47.5%) versus Ken Jones (16.1%)

Constable, Precinct 5: Randy Newman, who doesn’t appear to have a Facebook page (43.4%) versus Mark Alan Harrison (34.3%).

I confess, I know little about these race. Look at the Erik Manning spreadsheet to see who got what endorsements. Based on available information, I’d lean towards Eagleton, Israel Garcia, and Harrison, but please do your own research as well.

Those of you with keen eyes may have noticed there are two other unsettled Harris County races to discuss. Both of these will be decided by the precinct chairs in August. I’ll discuss them in a separate post.

Fort Bend County

County Attorney: Bridgette Smith-Lawson (45.2%) versus Sonia Rash (37.8%)
Sheriff: Geneane Hughes (35.2%) versus Eric Fagan (35.1%)
Commissioners Court, Precinct 1: Jennifer Cantu (41.8%) versus Lynette Reddix (25.6%)

The Sheriff candidates are seeking to replace incumbent Troy Nehls, currently in a nasty runoff for CD22. Nehls has not resigned from his position for reasons unknown to me. I presume he’ll do so if he clinches that nomination, but who knows what he’ll do if he doesn’t. Nehls is awful, either of these candidates would be a big upgrade. County Attorney (and also Tax Assessor) is an open seat whose incumbent has in fact announced his retirement. Commissioners Court Precinct 1 is a race against a first-term incumbent who had ousted Democrat Richard Morrison in 2016. I wrote about all the Fort Bend County races here, and unfortunately don’t have anything to add to that. I’d love to hear from someone who has a strong opinion in these races.

Travis County – District Attorney

Jose Garza (44.3%) versus Margaret Moore (incumbent, 41.1%)

As a bonus, this is the highest profile county race runoff. First term incumbent Margaret Moore faces former public defender Jose Garza in a race that will have national attention for its focus on police reform, with a side order of how sexual assault cases are handled thrown in. Garza has an impressive list of national endorsements, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and more recently Julian Castro. Austin has been one of the hotter spots for police violence, so this is a race that could have a big effect on how the reform movement moves forward.

Hope this has been useful for you. I’ll have a brief look at the judicial runoffs next to wrap this up.

What if it were Ed?

The question to ask yourself in reading this story about Republicans bitching and moaning about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is “How different would things actually be if Ed Emmett were still County Judge?”

Judge Lina Hidalgo

By the time Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered residents to cover their faces in public April 22, Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties already had issued similar measures intended to blunt the spread of the novel coronavirus. Laredo’s mask rule, already 17 days old, also carried a potential $1,000 fine.

Only Hidalgo’s order drew the ire of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

He blasted the rules as an abuse of Hidalgo’s authority. U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, another Republican, said potential fines of up to $1,000 for violators would lead to government tyranny. The Harris County Republican Party and business coalitions decried the order.

Gov. Greg Abbott struck down the punishments on Monday, hours after Harris County’s order went into effect.

Much like the widening national political divide over how government should manage the pandemic, criticism of the county’s response falls along familiar partisan lines. Hidalgo has sparred with Republicans — and sometimes other Democrats — over releasing inmates from the county jail, closing businesses and requiring masks in public.

The clashes often are proxy battles over Hidalgo’s vision for the county she has pushed since taking office last year, when Democrats took control of Commissioners Court for the first time in a generation.

“More or less, they’re the same fights, but magnified because of the political implications for where the state is going to go in the future,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston.

[…]

Some of the critiques lobbed at Hidalgo focus on her youth, ethnicity and gender. She often asserts herself in these situations — whether a public speaker refers to her as a girl or, as Commissioner Steve Radack has called her, “young lady” — but otherwise moves on.

Most of the criticism is not identity-based, however. Many conservatives fundamentally disagree with her expansive view of government, willingness to raise taxes and dipping into the county’s historically high cash reserves.

The two Republican county commissioners, Radack and Jack Cagle, have accused Hidalgo of ignoring her promises of transparency, failing to seriously solicit their counsel and only seeking the advice of experts who are inclined to agree with her. Commissioner Rodney Ellis, formerly the only Democrat on the court, chalked his colleagues’ complaints up to unfamiliarity with serving in the minority.

The complaints extend to her handling of the pandemic. Houston City Councilman Greg Travis, who opposed closing the rodeo and the stay-at-home order, said Hidalgo did not properly consider the economic damage the restrictions would bring.

“It’s up to leaders to listen to experts in various fields and to try to chart a course that is best,” Travis said. “We put 350,000 people out of work.”

He cited Hidalgo’s mask order, which he said was foolish because police had little capacity to enforce it, as a misstep attributable to her inexperience. Travis said if masks were so important, Hidalgo should have required them a month earlier, along with closing down public transit.

Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. I cannot take seriously anyone who thinks Judge Hidalgo should not have shut down the Rodeo – she herself thinks maybe she should have acted more quickly to shut it down – and the rest is petty nitpicking from the peanut gallery. CM Travis’ press release that criticized the Rodeo shutdown is one of those things that is Not Going To Age Well. And really, does anyone believe Ed Emmett wouldn’t have done the same thing, perhaps a bit later, perhaps even a bit sooner? We’ve wasted enough time on this.

As for the Commissioners Court complaints, Rodney Ellis is 100% right. Republicans had forty-some years in the majority. Steve Radack got to build a soap box derby park in Hockley as lord and master of his little fiefdom because he could. The county is a different place now, and they are all cordially invited to sit down and suck it up.

Finally, in regard to Dan Patrick and the rest of the nattering nabobs, again I ask what if anything do you think Ed Emmett would have done differently? Remember, Montgomery County and its extremely Trump-friendly County Judge issued a shutdown order on March 27, a mere four days after the Harris County order was issued. Harris County was a day or two behind the likes of Dallas and Bexar and Travis. The specifics of various county shutdown orders – and remember, it was counties doing this because Greg Abbott was too timid to do the potentially unpopular thing of closing businesses and schools – varied a bit from one to the other, but they were broadly the same. Restrictions on churches were controversial around the state, but only Harris County has the Steven Hotze death squad, while no one particularly cared about face mask orders until Lina Hidalgo issued one.

My point is, she’s done the things that county judges have done, more or less at the same time and in the same way as other county judges have done. But she’s young, she’s Latina, she’s bilingual, she’s not been cowed by swaggering dinosaurs like Steve Radack, and worst of all, she’s a Democrat who beat the one Republican everyone thought would survive the 2018 blue wave. (Did I mention that Dan Patrick lost Harris County by a 56-42 margin in 2018? Harris County doesn’t care what you think, Dan.) Especially for a bunch of self-styled alpha males, the level of whining these guys generate is truly impressive.

I should note, by the way, that if Ed Emmett were still County Judge he’s likely have had some rhetorical rocks thrown at him as well, in large part because the Dan Patrick faction thinks he’s a RINO squish. I just don’t think anyone would be comparing him to a children’s cartoon character. You tell me what that says about the critics and their criticisms.

Might a Democrat challenge her in 2022? Anything is possible, and as we saw this year, nobody is likely to get a free pass. Hidalgo has not been a huge fundraiser, but she’s done all right and she has time to step it up. The questions I would ask are 1) what issue that is likely to resonate with the typical Democratic primary voter would such a candidate champion, and 2) what kind of establishment support would such a candidate be likely to get? The 2022 primary will not be as big as the 2020 primary was, but if there are some compelling candidates for the top statewide offices, it will get decent turnout. For what it’s worth, from my vantage point as Democratic precinct chair, I’ve not heard much in the way of complaint about Judge Hidalgo’s performance – quite the opposite, in fact – nor am I aware of any potential candidates out there shaking the trees. Obviously, it’s ridiculously early, we’re in a moment where basically nobody is campaigning for anything, and there’s still plenty of time for things to happen. I’m just saying, if the bulk of the complaining about Hidalgo is being done by Republicans, I don’t see how that hurts her any in the next Democratic primary.

Another review of Judge Hidalgo’s first year

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

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

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

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

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

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

Joe Danna, Sheriff
Paul Day, Sheriff

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

John Nation, County Attorney

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

Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Nation             0     1,369        0           0

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

Daniel            35         1        0         454

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the no-fares question

I remain skeptical, but we’ll see.

As it stands right now, most of METRO’s operating funds don’t come from the fares. The transit agency gets most of its money from a one-cent sales tax, which caught the attention of Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

Radack recently spoke before the METRO board on why the agency should consider free or reduced fares. He said that people are already paying for the transit service through the sales tax and a financial incentive for riding could get more people on board.

“And so if we just keep going the way we’re going, we’re going to build more freeways, we’re going to continue to do other forms of transportation, but at the end, it makes no sense to have buses only partially full running around,” said Radack.

[…]

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said while fares aren’t a huge part of their budget, they’d have to figure out a way to make up that money if they stopped charging riders.

“I think what people don’t realize is there are unanticipated consequences of a free fare policy that we just need to fully consider before we went to it,” Patman told News 88.7.

And those consequences are what concern Oni Blair. She heads the transportation advocacy group LINK Houston. Blair said to get more riders, METRO needs to put its focus on other issues.

“It’s the little things we take for granted,” said Blair. “Does the bus come on time? Because if I’m trying to schedule my day I need to get there on time and know what to predict. Does the bus come frequently, so people don’t have to wait half an hour to an hour for the bus to come? Can I wait in dignity at a shelter that is accessible and safe for me?”

And Blair said that all those things cost money.

“The loss of revenue from the fares METRO currently has would undermine their other access to improving operations, improving customer service, improving all of those things,” said Blair. “If they don’t have that revenue they can’t address the things that people want.”

See here for my previously-stated concerns. Metro may not get much money from fares, but it does get some money from them, and that would have to be made up elsewhere, which is where I fear that political pressure, or interference from the state, could undermine this whole rationale. I’m of a similar mind as Oni Blair – the top priority needs to be making transit more accessible to more people. We also need to recognize that there’s a limit to how much we can grow transit ridership in this region as long as driving cars is the vastly-catered-to default. That’s a much bigger question, one that will take more than Metro to work out. For now, let’s try to make Metro the best it can be. Maybe that involves reducing or eliminating fares, but I think there are other options to work on first.

All have filed who are going to file

Barring any late challenges, disqualifications, or lawsuits, what we have now is our lineup for the March primary. Most of what there is to say was covered in yesterday’s post, but here are the highlights and there is some big news.

– Pretty much all of the “not yet filed” people did indeed file. There are three notable absences that I can see, though do keep in mind that the SOS page may be behind and shouldn’t be considered final until we have confirmation. Be that as it may, two people I don’t see are Judge Elaine Palmer (215th Civil Court; no one is listed on the Dem side for this court as of Monday night) and Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen. Hold those in mind, because there are news stories about some of the other interesting bits. Until I hear otherwise, the absence of any mention of those two suggests to me there’s no news, just a not-fully-updated SOS filing page.

– News item #1: Commissioner Steve Radack retires.

Steve Radack will not seek a ninth term as Harris County commissioner for Precinct 3, vacating a powerful position he has held for three decades that Democrats hope to flip next year.

Radack, 70, said he plans to invest his time and significant campaign account into helping Republicans regain seats after disastrous elections in 2016 and 2018.

“I’m not through being involved in public service, and I felt that there’s a lot I can do to help the Republican Party,” Radack said.

[…]

Radack and Harris County’s other Republican commissioner, Jack Cagle, endorsed Spring Valley Village Mayor Tom Ramsey for the seat.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said Radack’s impending retirement speaks to the shifting county electorate, which has helped Democrats sweep every countywide race since 2016.

“It is getting harder and harder for Republicans to compete in a rapidly changing county,” Rottinghaus said.

[…]

Several candidates from both major parties have joined the race. Ramsey, City Councilwoman Brenda Stardig and former West University Place Mayor Susan Sample will run in the Republican primary. The Democratic race will feature Michael Moore, chief of staff to former Mayor Bill White, former state Rep. Kristi Thibaut, educator Diana Martinez Alexander and three other candidates.

I wish Commissioner Radack well in his retirement. And I am very much looking forward to seeing a Democrat elected to succeed him.

– News item #2: Council Member Jerry Davis will challenge State Rep. Harold Dutton in HD142.

Houston City Councilman Jerry Davis filed Monday to run as a Democrat for House District 142, a northeast Harris County seat long represented by state Rep. Harold Dutton.

Davis, who has represented District B since 2011, is prevented from seeking re-election due to Houston’s term limits. His council district overlaps part of the House district, which includes the Fifth Ward and runs east and then north to FM 1960.

The move ensures Dutton, D-Houston, will have his most challenging primary in years. He was first elected to the Legislature in 1984 and frequently has coasted to victory without primary opposition. Last cycle, he beat primary challenger Richard A. Bonton, 65 percent to 35 percent.

Bonton is running for the seat again this cycle.

I always figured CM Davis would run for something else when his time on Council ended, it was just a matter of what opportunity there would be. I’ll have more to say about this later, but for now this is an exciting race.

– News item #3:

Well, I did hear that a “big name” was set to enter this race. Now we know.

– News item #4:

And now Beto has endorsed Sima. I’ve already published one interview in CD02, and I have another in the works. I’ll figure out something for this.

– Five Democratic incumbents in Congress do not have primary opponents: Reps. Lizzie Fletcher (CD07), Vicente Gonzalez (CD15), Veronica Escobar (CD16), Sylvia Garcia (CD29), and Colin Allred (CD32). Everyone else needs to be gearing up for March. As was the case in 2018 and for the second time ever, Dems have at least one candidate in all 36 districts.

– All of the statewide offices except CCA Place 9 are contested, with several having three candidates. Already, the potential for multiple primary runoffs is high.

– According to the TDP, in the end Dems have candidates in all but one of the Senate districts that are up (only SD28 is uncontested), and they have candidates in 119 of the 150 State House races. HD23 drew a candidate, but HDs 43 and 84 apparently did not. In Harris County, only HD127 is uncontested.

– There is now a third candidate for HD148, an Emily Wolf. I cannot conclusively identify her – maybe this person? – so it’s impossible to say more than that.

– And on the Republican side, State Rep. Mike Lang in HD62 is your promised surprise retirement. Dems do have a candidate in this not-swing district.

– Looking at the Republican filings, quite a few Democratic judges have no November opposition. We have officially come full circle.

Again, remember that the SOS page may not be complete. The parties have five days to notify the SOS of their candidates. It’s possible there are still surprises lurking, to be confirmed and reported. If you’re not sure about a particular candidate, google them or find them on Facebook, to see if there’s been an announcement. I’ll have more as we go this week.

Filing period preview: Harris County

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

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

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

District Attorney

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

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

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

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

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

Sheriff

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

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

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

County Attorney

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

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

Tax Assessor

Ann Harris Bennett (D)

Chris Daniel (R)

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

Commissioners Court, Precinct 1

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

Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

Steve Radack (R)
Brenda Stardig (R)

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

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

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

Cagle and Radack break quorum

They did it.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

We’ll find out today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Quorum question

Who knew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commissioners Court gets more aggressive on environmental enforcement

Good.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to hire 61 employees across three departments in a bid to significantly boost Harris County’s ability to respond to environmental emergencies after finding numerous shortcomings in its efforts to manage three chemical fires near the Houston Ship Channel this spring.

The $11.6 million investment will go toward purchasing new equipment and add employees to the fire marshal’s office, pollution control and public health departments. It is the most aggressive effort yet by the new Democrat-controlled court, which took office in January, to grow the emergency response infrastructure in the county, home to the heart of the nation’s petrochemical industry.

A Houston Chronicle investigation found that the staffing levels of the three departments have for decades failed to keep pace with the growth of commercial activity along the Houston Ship Channel. Previous Commissioners Courts had not acted with the same sense of urgency after chemical incidents; the county never replaced the Pollution Control employees laid off during the Great Recession. Instead, court members prided themselves on finishing fiscal years with a large fund balance.

“All these resources we’re bringing to the table, after a careful analysis … will help us be in a much better position in the future,” said Commissioner Adrian Garcia, whose Precinct 2 included the sites of each of the chemical fires in March and April.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo hailed the budget increases as the most significant investment in environmental protection the county has made in 30 years. Hidalgo said she was pleased the new monitors, for example, will allow the county to test air quality on a regular basis, in addition to during emergencies.

A report on the blaze at Intercontinental Terminals Co. released on July 29 concluded the county needed more equipment and manpower to monitor pollution and keep the public informed about safety risks. The 133-page “gap analysis” made a total of 49 recommendations.

Two days later, a fire at an Exxon plant in Baytown injured 37 workers.

[…]

Court members unanimously approved the budget increases for Pollution Control and the fire marshal’s office. Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack was the lone opponent to increasing the size of the health department.

See here and here for the background. I’m glad most of the votes were unanimous – I mean, I don’t even know what the counter arguments are for this – but it’s still the leadership of the new Court that made this possible. Going forward let’s be more proactive so there will (one hopes) be less to have to react to.

One more step towards the bail lawsuit settlement

We’re almost there. I know it feels like we’ve been there for awhile and are just waiting for it all to become official, but there were still a few checkpoints to get through first, and this is one of them.

In a move that signals she will likely approve a landmark bail agreement, a federal judge in Houston issued a lengthy opinion Thursday meticulously addressing concerns raised by outside parties to the proposed consent decree that would govern bail practices in Harris County for the next seven years.

The 55-page document from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal is not the norm in that preliminary approvals at this point in most class action suits usually take up half a page, at most two pages, according to lawyers familiar with typical dockets.

In the opinion, the judge addresses whether the deal was properly negotiated, whether it addressed the needs of all parties and whether the solution was adequate given the potential delays, costs and impact on public safety.

Specifically, she said the plan hit on the key factors required: it addressed the constitutional violations, protected poor defendants, safeguarded the public and reduced the chances that defendants would miss hearings.

While atypical, Rosenthal’s comprehensive memorandum and opinion are in keeping with how the judge runs her office, according to a former law clerk who served in the Houston federal courthouse.

“I’d say this is pretty standard for a judge who is thorough to a fault,” the former clerk said. “It definitely signals ultimate approval, but the point isn’t to telegraph.”

The clerk, who asked to remain anonymous, continued, “It’s simply to respond to the filings in a complete and timely way.”

[…]

Two county commissioners who opposed the resolution — Jack Cagle and Steve Radack — submitted their concerns to the judge along with District Attorney Kim Ogg, the Pasadena police chief and several organizations. The objectors included the Harris County Deputies’ Organization, the Houston Area Police Chiefs Association, the Texas School District Police Chiefs’Association, the Professional Bondsmen of Harris County, Equal Justice Now, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Inc. and the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.

The parties directly involved in the case then submitted detailed responses to these amicus or “friend of the court” briefs.

Rosenthal said “the amicus briefs and objections do not identify an adequate basis to deny preliminary approval of the proposed settlement and consent decree.”

See here for the background. Ogg, who continues to talk about the imminent settlement in a way that makes one think she’s asking for trouble in her forthcoming primary election, made a statement about how it’s now all up to the judges to make this work. It’s always been all up to the judges, it’s just that in the past they did a lousy job of that. There’s a “final fairness hearing” set for October 21, and I’m guessing we’ll get the officially signed and sanctioned settlement agreement some time after that. I’m ready for this to be over and done.

We’re up to three candidates running against Steve Radack

Former State Rep. Kristi Thibaut announced her entry into the race to take on longtime Commissioner Steve Radack this week. You can find her campaign Facebook page here. I had previously noted some chatter about her possible candidacy. This is one of those times when there was something to that chatter.

Also in that race, having announced a few days before Thibaut, is Michael Moore, the former Chief of Staff to Mayor Bill White. The presence of Moore and of Thibaut suggests that there’s some serious fundraising ahead, in part because Radack already has a bunch of money. I will be very interested to see what their January finance reports look like.

The first candidate in the race was Diana Alexander, and I would expect her to take a different path towards the nomination. She has a greater grassroots presence and more recent visibility from the 2018 election through the activism of Pantsuit Republic Houston and Indivisible Houston. There’s a CEC meeting for the Harris County Democratic Party coming up in September, and I’ll also be interested to see who has volunteers and supporters out for their preferred candidate at that event.

As I’ve said about the Congressional races, it’s already starting to get late for anyone else who might be looking at this race. Filing opens in less than 12 weeks, and as noted above if you want to hit the fundraising trail, you’ve already got some strong competition. Nobody else getting in would surprise me slightly more than the field expanding further, but not by much.

Ogg’s objections

This kind of came out of the blue.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg — who has been aligned with bail reformers during an ongoing legal conflict over the disparate treatment of poor defendants — filed a brief Thursday opposing portions of the consent decree governing the misdemeanor bail system, prompting fellow Democrats on the bench to question why Ogg is raising her concerns at the eleventh hour.

Ogg’s amicus brief landed on the docket this week amid a flurry of eight or nine pleadings and letters from individuals and groups opposing the bail agreement, including briefs by Republican Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, who both voted against the settlement and have opposed what they consider “bells and whistles” the parties added which they say extend beyond the scope of the lawsuit.

[…]

The district attorney said in her court filing that the bail deal disproportionately favors the convenience of defendants over the needs of victims, witnesses and other stakeholders.

Ogg also expressed concern that the settlement removes the role of the prosecutor in getting defendants to show up for court and sets sanctions for noncompliance with the new bail process without providing clarity about what’s expected from prosecutors.

“It is fundamentally unfair to expose the District Attorney and her employees to federal sanctions for noncompliance with the proposed settlement absent appropriate clarity on her rights and responsibilities under the Proposed Settlement,” it says.

In addition, the DA objected to the “unfettered and unreviewable discretion” allowed to judges to delay or “outright excuse” defendants from appearing in court, which Ogg says violates Texas law.

Judge Darrell Jordan, the presiding jurist on the County Courts at Law, said he and his fellow judges welcome all criticism, but he said Ogg had ample opportunity to give this input while the settlement was being hammered out.

Jordan said Ogg’s office played an essential role in developing rule 9.1, which allows about 85 percent of defendants to be released on no-cash bond.

“Her former First Assistant Tom Berg was a great asset during the entire process,” Jordan said. “Once he left the office Kim Ogg was a ghost.”

“She has not attended any meetings or sent a representative since Mr. Berg’s departure. I have called, texted and emailed the District Attorney and she does not respond,” Jordan continued. “Government cannot function the way it should when there is no communication.”

Jordan said the judges have set an emergency meeting for the misdemeanor judges to review Ogg’s brief “line-by line” and “address all concerns raised by the District Attorney.”

You can read her filing here. I skimmed through it and it seemed more superficial than substantive, but I Am Not A Lawyer so take that for what it’s worth. Alec Karakatsanis, who is a lawyer and in fact represented the plaintiffs, is quoted in the story saying these are “some minor objections that are not significant issues”, so take that for much more than what my comments are worth. They have until Sunday to respond to this and any other brief. Judge Rosenthal will get the final say, presumably some time in September. Grits for Breakfast has more.

Commissioners Court approves bail lawsuit settlement

Excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final bail settlement reached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

Before we get to the numbers, please read this.

El Franco Lee

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Now, on with the show…

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

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

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

Harry Zamora, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

Ben Rose, County Attorney
Christian Menefee, County Attorney

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

El Franco Lee
Diana Alexander, Precinct 3

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Duhon            155       262        0         389
Brown            700       406        0         313

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

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

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

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

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

Some county race updates

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

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

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

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

On prosecutor caseloads

I’m still thinking about this.

Kim Ogg

When a line of prosecutors stepped up to the microphone at Harris County Commissioners Court in February, they told tales of long hours, endless to-do lists and bloated caseloads well into the triple digits.

Their impassioned pleas and barrage of data were part of the push by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office for an unprecedented $21 million expansion that would add more than 100 lawyers to its staff.

But despite a weeks-long campaign, District Attorney Kim Ogg’s budget request failed. Now, four months later, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle and The Appeal indicate that the attorney caseload figures used to justify the request appear to overstate the office’s workload.

The data presented to commissioners and the public did not reflect that about two-thirds of the felony trial bureau attorneys consistently handle a smaller number of complex cases. Instead, it frequently presented the caseloads of the remaining third of the attorneys — those who handle over 900 cases on average — as representative of the whole trial bureau. The office also counted every charge in an arrest as a separate case and included more than 200 cases put on hold after defendants had not yet been arrested or had fled after violating the conditions of their bonds.

Based on the numbers provided by the DA’s office, an average caseload for “felony two” and “felony three” prosecutors combined would be less than 600, if all positions were filled in each court — and would be even lower if chiefs were included. Exact staff assignments that month were not released with the data.

[…]

Four members of the Commissioners Court—including all three Democrats who voted against the budget request in February—did not comment on the caseload figures.

But Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican who offered staunch support for Ogg during the budget cycle, said that he did not feel the DA’s office misrepresented data and reiterated his concern about the county’s refusal to fund Ogg’s request for more prosecutors.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that she didn’t get it,” he said. “Frankly, it’s a misjustice.”

During budget discussions in February, County Judge Lina Hidalgo — the Democrat who heads up Commissioners Court —questioned whether prosecutors could simply lower their caseloads by charging fewer people and leaning more heavily on diversion alternatives.

“This is not the only way,” she said, “and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads.”

Though Adam Gershowitz — a William & Mary Law School professor who co-authored a 2011 study on district attorney caseloads — raised concerns about the representations in the data, such as the inclusion of bond forfeitures, he stressed that too few prosecutors can have a negative effect on the legal system, leaving people waiting behind bars as their cases get reset instead of resolved.

“We could have debates about if (prosecutors) should charge less and maybe they should,” he said. “But they are overburdened and it’s bad on so many levels when the district attorney’s office is overburdened.”

There’s a lot more, so read on for the methodology and the questions about how cases were counted. One issue was with classifying all types of prosecutors as having similar workloads even though one group has many more cases than the others, and classifying things as active cases that aren’t really. The explanations for why things were counted as they were don’t really make sense. Even with that, there’s support – not unanimous by any stretch, but it’s there – for more prosecutors, and for managing caseloads. Maybe if we can all agree on what the case numbers actually are, we can better agree on what the number of prosecutors should be.

Was the McLeod replacement too hasty?

Eh, I dunno.

Judge William McLeod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Stace sums it all up nicely.

More on McLeod

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

Judge William McLeod

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Harris County GOP has not hit bottom yet

I have four thing to say about this.

Never forget

Drubbed. Shellacked. Whooped. Walloped. Routed.

However you want to describe November’s midterm election, it was disastrous for Harris County Republicans. They were swept from the remaining countywide posts they held — the other shoe to drop after Democrats booted the Republican sheriff and district attorney two years ago — and lost all 55 judicial seats on the ballot. For the first time in decades, Democrats will hold a majority of Commissioners Court.

The path forward for the local GOP is unclear. The party’s statewide slate went undefeated yet rebuked by Harris County voters, raising questions about whether its pitch to rural voters alienated urban ones. In the state’s most populous county, and his home base, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz got just 41 percent of the vote.

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson, however, is optimistic. He said several local Republicans would have won, chief among them County Judge Ed Emmett, if straight-ticket voting had been eliminated before the election. Republicans in the Texas Legislature decided to retire the straight-ticket option after 2018, which traditionally benefited their party, but proved disastrous for the GOP in urban counties this cycle.

“Pendulums will swing back,” Simpson said. “I’m confident in the near future, we’ll be back.”

Scholars and Emmett, the county executive for 11 years before his upset loss, offered a less rosy assessment — that of a party catering to a largely white, graying base that is failing to adapt to changing demographics and awaiting the return of a “normal” electorate that has ceased to exist. November 2018 should be a wake-up call, they say, but they wonder if the local Republican Party is listening.

“If you look at ’18 as a turning point for Harris County, there’s nothing data-wise that would give you any indication this was an aberration and not a structural change,” said Jay Aiyer, who teaches political science at Texas Southern University. “If anything, you could see it actually swinging harder to the Democrats in ’22.”

Mark Jones, who studies Texas politics at Rice University, offered a more tepid view. He said the broad unpopularity of President Donald Trump drove some voters to the polls this fall who may not have participated otherwise.

“If you take Trump out of the equation and put in a more liberal Democrat … it’s not clear to me that Democrats have the same level of advantage,” Jones said. “The county is trending from red, to pink, to purple. But I would not say Harris County is blue.”

[…]

Republicans have not won a countywide post in a presidential election year since 2012. University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said the local GOP would be wise to lower its expectations for 2020, which likely will feature an unpopular president at the top of the ticket.

“The Republicans need to show they’ve still got a pulse after the disaster that befell them in ’18,” Rottinghaus said. “That’s about the best they can hope for in a presidential year.”

Simpson, who has led county Republicans since 2014, said the party will focus on recruiting fresh candidates who can appeal to a wide swath of voters, rather than the sliver of partisans who vote in primaries. He lauded the success of Dan Crenshaw in the 2nd Congressional District, a young, charismatic combat veteran who beat better-funded candidates in the primary.

Crenshaw’s win, Simpson said, showed candidates “can be conservative and still be cool.”

The Texas 2nd, however, is a district drawn for Republicans that has a far greater proportion of white residents than Harris County as a whole.

1. I’ve said all there is for me to say about straight ticket voting. The embedded image is a reminder that Republicans used to be big fans of straight ticket voting. Turns out that straight ticket voting works really well for the party that has more voters to begin with. There’s an awful lot of Republicans in this state who never contemplated the possibility that they would not be the majority party.

2. As noted in the title of this post, Republicans in Harris County have not hit rock bottom quite yet. One thing I discovered in doing the precinct data analyses is that Beto O’Rourke carried all eight Constable/Justice of the Peace precincts. I didn’t write about that in part because I didn’t quite believe it, but there it is. The three Republican Constables and three of the six Republican JPs are on the ballot in 2020. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that after the 2020 election, the only Republicans holding county office will be the three JPs in Place 2 (the of-year cycle), County Commissioner Jack Cagle, and the three not-at-large HCDE Trustees. Those last three JPs could then be wiped out in 2022, along with the HCDE Trustee for Precinct 2, with the Trustee for Precinct 3 (who won this year by less than a percentage point) on track for elimination in 2024. Yes, lots of things can change, and I’m assuming that Commissioner Steve Radack will either be defeated in 2020 or will step down and the Republicans will fail to hold his seat. My point is, the Republicans not only have very little left, what they have is precarious and fragile, and there are no obvious opportunities to make gains in county government.

(You may now be saying “But Adrian Garcia will have to run for re-election in 2022, and he won a close race this year under favorable circumstances, so he could lose then.” Yes, but do you know what happens between now and the 2022 elections? The County Commissioner precincts undergo redistricting. Jack Morman benefited from that process after his win in 2010; what I wrote here was premature but in the end turned out to be accurate. I guarantee you, Precinct 2 will be friendlier to Commissioner Garcia’s re-election prospects, and if a Dem wins in Precinct 3 in 2020, it will be friendlier to that Commissioner’s prospects in 2024 as well.)

Legislatively, Dems have more targets (HDs 138, 134, and 126, with longer shots in 129 and 133 and even 150) than they have seats to defend. Lizzie Fletcher will have to defend CD07, but Dan Crenshaw will have to defend CD02, and he didn’t win his seat by much more than Fletcher won hers by (7 points for Crenshaw, 5 points for Fletcher). CD10 and CD22, which cover more than Harris County, are already on the national radar for 2020 as well. We’re not watching the battleground any more, we’re in the thick of it.

3. The Republicans’ problems in Harris County run deeper than Donald Trump. Every statewide elected official, most especially Dan Patrick (here shilling for the ludicrous “wall”) and Ken Paxton, who is spending all of his energy outside his own criminal defense on destroying health care, is a surrogate for Trump. People were just as fired up to vote against Patrick, Paxton, and Sid Miller as they were to vote against Ted Cruz, and the numbers bear that out. They’ll get another chance to do that in 2022, so even in a (please, God, please) post-Trump landscape, there will still be reminders of Trump and reasons to keep doing the work that we started in 2018.

4. All that said, we know two things for sure: One is that there are more Democrats than Republicans in Harris County, which is a combination of demographic trends, Donald Trump laying waste to American values, and sustained voter registration efforts. Two, Republicans have been unable to compete in a high-turnout election in Harris County since 2008. (2010 was a relatively high turnout year, for an off year, but it was still only 41.7%, quite a bit less than this year’s 52.8%.) It is a reasonable question to ask if Dems can be dominant in a low-turnout scenario. 2014 was a terrible year for turnout, and Republicans swept the county, but with the topline Rs mostly winning by four to six points. There’s definitely a scenario under which Rs could do well in 2022 and in which the demographic and political patterns we have seen do not fundamentally change. It’s hard to see how they compete going forward without a serious effort to rebrand, and every day that Donald Trump and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and Sid Miller are in office, that rebranding becomes harder to do. Lots of things can change. The Republican Party needs to be one of them.

Of course we could have done more on flood mitigation before now

From the Chron: Harris County faces challenge, opportunity managing $2.5B flood bond program. I want to focus on this bit.

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, estimates the bond program will complete a third of the flood protection measures Harris County needs. He said leadership from the incoming Commissioners Court, which now will be dominated by Democrats and include a new county judge and Precinct 2 commissioner, will be essential to getting the county the rest of the way.

“We are in a good position, but it’s not an end position,” Blackburn said. “It’s the beginning for the conversation that needs to occur, which is, ‘where are we headed?’”

[…]

The flood control district has issued bonds several times to pay for improvements, including $425 million in the 1980s, but by the 1990s was spending half its revenue on debt service. The district downsized its workforce and opted to pay for future projects up front, which significantly decreased the county’s investment in flood protection to around $15 million per year.

In 2001, after Tropical Storm Allison flooded 73,000 county homes, Harris County significantly increased the district’s funding to $120 million, split evenly between operations and capital projects. That annual sum has remained the same since then, its purchasing power diminished each year by inflation.

Blackburn said Commissioners Court and local members of Congress during this period focused too narrowly on building transportation infrastructure to keep pace with rapid population growth, at the expense of flood control.

“We were, basically, more interested in building the Grand Parkway than we were in fixing Addicks and Barker,” Blackburn said, referring to the west Houston reservoirs the Army Corps listed in 2009 among the most dangerous in the country.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett acknowledged in September that the county could have done more on flood protection in the decade before Harvey, but said he doubted the public would have supported a bond to pay for it.

“Sure, you could say the leader is supposed to get out in front,” Emmett said. “But people were not writing me saying we’ve got to raise taxes and do more for flood control.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, the longest-serving member of the court, predicted a flood bond proposal during the dry years of the 2010s would have gone down in “sizzling defeat.” He rejected the idea that commissioners erred by neglecting to increase the district’s budget in the past.

“There are people who believe we’ve underfunded indigent health care, underfunded roads, underfunded basically every single thing,” he said. “You’ll never be able to make everyone happy.”

In the nine years between Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Harvey, Commissioners Court kept the flood control district property tax rate at roughly 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, less than 5 percent of the overall county tax rate. That figure omits about 2 cents the county carries on its books in the form of debt service on old flood control bonds.

The rate devoted to flood control was two and a half times higher from 1995 through 2000; it took until this year for rising property values to let the district collect more in property taxes — its main revenue source — than it did in 2000.

It was not until Harvey, the wettest storm researchers have ever documented in the United States, that Commissioners Court members saw the urgency in funding the flood control district.

Would it have been difficult to sell a flood control bond ten or fifteen years ago, after Allison but before we started getting walloped on an annual basis? Probably, but you know, Commissioners Court could have tried. They could have engaged with the public about the need to take flood control seriously, and upgrade and improve our infrastructure to do it, and they could have done that even outside the context of a two-month political campaign for a bond. They could have supported other policies that would have boosted flood control efforts. And if they had done these things and encountered resistance, and maybe lost a flood bond referendum and even put their own political careers in jeopardy, well, that’s the nature of public service. As John Culberson can testify, there are downside risks to not taking that kind of action.

Also, too: People, such as Jim Blackburn, have been warning for decades that rampant sprawl into the western and northwestern parts of the county, and the paving over of the Katy Prairie that accommodated it, were bad for flood control. We could have made different choices, including choices that allowed for growth but prioritized growth in a more sustainable fashion. The fact that we’re getting the bill for it now doesn’t mean we couldn’t have taken action then.

Also, too, too: I’ve said this before, but maybe these stories should include reactions and quotes and whatnot from our incoming county executives? You know, the ones who are going to have to take the next steps in this process? Just a thought.

Precinct analysis: Beto does Harris County

He won pretty much everywhere you looked. So let’s look at the numbers:


Dist     Cruz     Beto   Dike   Cruz%   Beto%  Trump%  Clint%
=============================================================
CD02  132,390  129,160  2,047  50.22%  49.00%  52.38%  43.05%
CD07  112,078  129,781  1,843  45.99%  53.25%  47.11%  48.47%
CD08   17,552   11,299    219  60.38%  38.87%  
CD09   22,625   96,747    705  18.84%  80.57%  17.56%  79.70%
CD10   70,435   43,559    849  61.33%  37.93%  63.61%  32.36%
CD18   37,567  145,752  1,314  20.35%  78.94%  19.95%  76.46%
CD22   15,099   16,379    255  47.58%  51.62%
CD29   29,988   86,918    673  25.50%  73.92%  25.46%  71.09%
CD36   60,441   38,985    734  60.34%  38.92%
					
SBOE6 278,443  299,800  4,608  47.77%  51.44%  48.92%  46.59%
					
HD126  28,683   26,642    385  51.49%  47.82%  52.96%  42.99%
HD127  40,910   27,332    491  59.52%  39.77%  61.23%  34.90%
HD128  34,892   17,040    330  66.76%  32.60%  68.17%  28.75%
HD129  35,233   29,467    547  54.00%  45.16%  55.33%  40.06%
HD130  50,631   25,486    581  66.01%  33.23%  68.08%  27.94%
HD131   5,921   35,793    214  14.12%  85.37%  13.33%  84.31%
HD132  32,045   34,388    467  47.90%  51.40%  50.04%  45.68%
HD133  39,175   32,412    578  54.29%  44.91%  54.54%  41.11%
HD134  35,387   54,687    686  38.99%  60.25%  39.58%  55.12%
HD135  26,108   29,740    438  46.38%  52.84%  48.91%  46.80%
HD137   6,996   17,188    184  28.71%  70.54%  28.95%  66.96%
HD138  22,682   25,748    404  46.45%  52.73%  47.80%  47.83%
HD139  10,245   36,770    283  21.66%  77.74%  20.60%  76.12%
HD140   5,181   18,305    123  21.95%  77.53%  21.89%  75.07%
HD141   3,976   27,231    170  12.67%  86.79%  12.58%  85.20%
HD142   8,410   31,178    225  21.12%  78.31%  20.97%  76.20%
HD143   7,482   21,146    164  25.99%  73.44%  26.02%  71.03%
HD144   8,895   14,406    162  37.91%  61.40%  38.41%  57.72%
HD145	9,376   23,500    255  28.30%  70.93%  28.73%  66.91%
HD146	7,817   35,558    301  17.90%  81.41%  17.31%  79.44%
HD147	9,359   45,894    355  16.83%  82.53%  16.76%  79.00%
HD148  14,536   33,378    531  30.01%  68.90%  30.49%  63.83%
HD149  13,603   25,179    252  34.85%  64.51%  32.51%  64.25%
HD150  40,632   30,112    513  57.02%  42.26%  59.18%  36.62%
					
CC1    59,092  230,334  1,851  20.29%  79.08%  19.74%  76.83%
CC2   105,548  122,309  1,617  46.00%  53.30%  46.79%  49.48%
CC3   159,957  173,028  2,501  47.68%  51.58%  48.22%  47.63%
CC4   173,578  172,909  2,670  49.71%  49.52%  51.22%  44.42%

I threw in the Trump/Clinton percentages from 2016 for extra context. Note that for the Congressional districts, the numbers in question are only for the Harris County portion of the district. I apparently didn’t bother with all of the CDs in 2016, so I’ve only got some of those numbers. Anyway, a few thoughts:

– It finally occurred to me in looking at these numbers why the Trump/Clinton percentages from 2016 might be a decent predictor of 2018 performance, at least in some races. Trump’s numbers were deflated relative to other Republicans in part because of the other available candidates, from Gary Johnson to Evan McMullin and even Jill Stein. In 2018, with a similarly objectionable Republican and a much-better-liked Democrat, the vast majority of those votes would stick with the Dem instead of reverting back to the R. That, plus a bit more, is what happened in this race. We won’t see that in every race, and where we do see it we won’t necessarily see as much of it, but it’s a pattern that exists in several contests.

– Okay, fine, Beto didn’t quite win everything. He did come close in CD02, and he came really close in Commissioners Court Precinct 4, the most Republican precinct in the county. Steve Radack may be hearing some footsteps behind him in Precinct 3 for 2020. I’ll talk more about CD02 in another post.

– How about SBOE district 6, the one political entity subject to redistricting that I inhabit where the incumbent is a Republican? Trump made it look swingy in 2016, but the other Republican statewides were carrying it by 13-15 points. Mitt Romney won it by 21 points in 2012, and Greg Abbott carried it by 23 points in 2014. There aren’t that many opportunities for Dems to play offense in Harris County in 2020, but this is one of them.

– Beto was the top performer in 2018, so his numbers are the best from a Democratic perspective. As with the Trump/Clinton numbers in 2016, that means that I will be a bit of a killjoy and warn about taking these numbers as the harbinger of things to come in two years. There’s a range of possibility, as you will see, and of course all of that is before we take into account the political environment and the quality of the candidates in whatever race you’re now greedily eyeing.

– But that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate a little. Clearly, HD138 is the top target in 2020, with HD126 a bit behind. Farther out, but honestly not that far off of where HDs 132, 135, and 138 were in 2016, are HDs 129 and 133, with HD150 another step back from them. (I consider HD134 to be a unicorn, with Sarah Davis the favorite to win regardless of outside conditions.) The latter three are all unlikely, but after this year, would anyone say they’re impossible? Again, lots of things can and will happen between now and then, but there’s no harm in doing a little window shopping now.

More to come in the next couple of weeks.

Hidalgo gets started

If you weren’t paying attention to County Judge-elect Lina Hidalgo before, you are now.

Lina Hidalgo

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, the lone Democrat currently on the court, said Hidalgo is a quick study who will settle into the role quickly.

“She’s smart and was very bold to make the decision to run, and to make a commitment to public service,” Ellis said.

Hidalgo said her immediate focus is recruiting a top-flight staff and pledged to announce a transition plan in coming weeks. Depending on how many Emmett holdovers Hidalgo retains, she could have as many as 30 positions to fill.

[Robert] Eckels, who served as county judge from 1995 to 2007, urged Hidalgo to focus on building relationships with the four county commissioners. Unlike the mayor of Houston, who has significantly more power — and far more leverage over — city council, the county judge can accomplish little without the support of commissioners.

“The county judge position is by nature a weak position,” Eckels said. “One vote is one vote. Three votes can change the world.”

Eckels said the mild-mannered Emmett was successful because he was able to manage the sometimes outsized personalities of commissioners.

Hidalgo said she would welcome Emmett’s advice during the transition. She said a top priority is to make county government more transparent, and suggested holding regular town halls. She also is eager to settle the federal lawsuit brought by poor criminal defendants brought two years ago, in which they argue Harris County’s cash bail system is unconstitutional.

She emphasized the importance of flood control, and said she has yet to determine whether to make changes to the projects list for the $2.5 billion flood protection bond voters approved in August.

[…]

With the election of Adrian Garcia in the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, Democrats will have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court, starting in January.

The Republican commissioners, Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, said they looked forward to working with Hidalgo. Radack, who has served under three county executives since he first was elected in 1988, said he expects court members to continue to work well together with Democrats in charge.

Cagle said he would not be bothered if Hidalgo used her new pulpit to speak out on statewide and national issues like immigration and criminal justice, so long as the county continues to serve its largely nonpartisan functions, like maintaining infrastructure and providing health services.

“When you fix a pothole, there’s no R or D that goes on it,” Cagle said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday morning he was surprised Hidalgo won. He praised Emmett, with whom he worked closely during storm events including Hurricane Harvey and the Tax Day Flood, as a treasured partner.

“The reality is that for all of us, we’re not indispensable,” Turner said. “I can be here, tomorrow I can be someplace else and the city will go forward, the city will go on.”

Indeed. The power on Commissioners Court lies mostly with the Commissioners themselves – they have the bigger budgets, after all. The Court has always operated in a collegial environment and with consensus among the commissioners. We’ll see how that changes now that Dems have the majority. For now, the priority for Hidalgo is going to be getting to know her future colleagues and everyone else who will need to get to know her.

Initial reactions: Harris County

Let’s start with the obvious.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Democrats rode a surge in voter turnout to a decisive victory on Tuesday, unseating several countywide Republican officials, including longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, and sweeping all 59 judicial races.

Emmett, who courted Democratic ticket-splitters and leaned on his reputation as a steady hand during hurricanes, conceded at 11 p.m. to 27-year-old challenger Lina Hidalgo, who was running in her first race for public office.

After defeating the Republican sheriff and district attorney two years ago, Harris County Democrats now will control all of the countywide elected posts. In addition, former sheriff Adrian Garcia defeated incumbent Republican Jack Morman in the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, giving Democrats control of Commissioners Court.

[…]

University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus attributed the Democrats’ success to changing demographics in the largest Texas county and a superb get-out-the-vote effort by Democratic groups.

“Democrats have harnessed the blue wave, at least locally,” Rottinghaus said. “Harris County is going to be trending more purple, which is going to spell difficulty for Republicans in countywide races in the future.”

The upset fulfilled the nightmare scenario Republicans feared: Democratic straight-ticket voters who have a positive opinion of Emmett failed to venture far enough down the ballot to vote for him, handing the win to Hidalgo.

Hidalgo will be the first Latina county judge, and youngest since a 23-year-old Roy Hofheinz was elected in 1936. She has lived in Harris County sporadically as an adult and has never attended a meeting of Commissioners Court.

Hidalgo was an energetic campaigner who implored voters not to settle for the status quo. She criticized Emmett for failing to push harder for flood protection measures in the decade before Hurricane Harvey, when parts of the county were flooded by several storms. Emmett had campaigned on his record, contrasting his 11 years as the county’s chief executive with Hidalgo’s lack of formal work experience.

At Emmett’s watch party at the Hotel ZaZa, his supporters stared in disbelief at monitors displaying the results. Emmett spoke briefly and compared this election to the 1974 midterms following the Watergate scandal, when a wave of incumbents were defeated.

“If this happens the way it appears, I won’t take it personally,” Emmett said. “It is a bitter pill to swallow, but Harris County will move on. I will be fine.”

Supporter Xavier Stokes chalked up the county judge race result to straight-ticket voting, rather than a referendum on Emmett himself.

“He’s done such a good job, and yet here we are,” Stokes said. “It just shows you how this type of voting distorts the outcome.”

I’m not surprised to see straight ticket voting get the blame here. Lisa Falkenberg and Judge Emmett himself are both pushing that narrative, though to Falkenberg’s credit she also recognized that some awful Republicans in Harris County had been the beneficiary of straight ticket voting in the past. Judge Emmett is a good person and he has been a very competent County Judge, but his problem wasn’t so much the straight ticket option as it was that so many more Democrats than Republicans voted. Beto O’Rourke carried Harris County by almost 200,000 votes. All of the statewides except Lupe Valdez (+66K), Joi Chevalier (+97K), and Roman McAllen (+100K) carried Harris by more than the Democratic margin in straight ticket votes. Emmett pitched his campaign at Democrats because he had no choice. He knew he was swimming in very deep waters. To assume that the straight ticket voters cost him the election is to assume that without that option, the Democratic straight ticket voters would have significantly either undervoted in the County Judge race or gone on to vote for Emmett as the (likely) only Republican they chose – which, remember, they still could have done anyway – and also that a significant number of Republican straight ticket voters would have remembered to vote all the way down the ballot as well. Maybe straight ticket voters cost Emmett this race and maybe they didn’t, but when you start out with a deficit that large you need everything to go right to have a chance at overcoming it. Not enough went right for Ed Emmett.

Two other points to note here. One is that I don’t remember anywhere near this level of mourning when straight ticket Republicans in 2010 ousted then-State Rep. Ellen Cohen and then-County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, the latter in favor of a little-known young first time candidate. Two, it was within the power of the formerly-Republican-dominated Commissioners Court to take measures to mitigate against the seemingly pernicious effects of straight ticket voting. They could have engaged in efforts to better educate everyone in Harris County about how its voting machines worked instead of leaving that mostly to the political parties. They could have invested in newer voting machines that provided voters with more information about their range of options in the booth. They did not do these things. Which, to be fair, may not have made any difference in the era of Donald Trump and a rising demographic tide that is increasingly hostile to Republicans. It’s just that when men of great power and influence claim to have been undermined by forces entirely beyond their control, I tend to be a bit skeptical.

Anyway. I understand the concerns that some people have about Lina Hidalgo. I think she’ll be fine, I think she’ll figure it out, and I think Harris County will be fine. I also think that the professional news-gathering organizations could send a reporter or two to Dallas and ask about their experience after the 2006 election when an even lesser-known and much less qualified Democrat ousted the respected longtime Republican County Judge in that year’s blue wave. That fellow – Jim Foster was his name – had a turbulent tenure and was ousted in the 2010 Democratic primary by current County Judge Clay Jenkins. I’m sure we could all benefit from a review of that bit of history.

Beyond that, the main immediate effect of the Hidalgo and Garcia wins will be (I hope) the swift conclusion of the ongoing bail practices litigation. With the defeat of all the Republican misdemeanor court judges, there’s no one outside of Steve Radack and Jack Cagle left in county government who supports continuing this thing, and they’re now outvoted. Longer term, the next round of redistricting for Commissioners Court should be more considerate of the Latino voters in the county, as Campos notes. I also have high hopes for some sweeping improvements to voting access and technology now that we have finally #FiredStanStanart. Long story short, a review and update of early voting hours and locations, an investment in new and better voting machines, and official support of online voter registration are all things I look forward to.

One more point of interest, in the race for HCDE Trustee Position 4, Precinct 3. Democrat Andrea Duhon nearly won this one, finishing with 49.58% of the vote. Precinct 3 is where County Commissioner Steve Radack hangs his hat, and it was basically 50-50 in 2018. Radack is up for election in 2020. Someone with the right blend of ambition and fundraising ability needs to be thinking about that starting now.

How many police forces do we need?

It’s an age-old question.

Harris County could save millions of dollars a year by consolidating overlapping law enforcement agencies, from sharing technological resources to reallocating duties from constables to the sheriff’s department, according to a report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

The report, which was released Thursday, revives several decades-old ideas to combine resources between law enforcement agencies in Harris County, despite likely opposition from the agencies and county government, which would have the ultimate authority in enacting many of the proposed changes.

[…]

Kinder studied the 60 law enforcement agencies that form a patchwork of separate but sometimes overlapping patrols within Harris County, including the sheriff’s office, the Houston Police Department, constables’ offices, school district police departments and smaller municipal police departments. Those agencies spend a combined $1.6 billion per year on law enforcement, according to the report.

“We do have a system that, for all intents and purposes, is working fairly well,” Kinder researcher Kyle Shelton said. “But there are clearly places where there are overlaps and places where we could see what efficiencies would work.”

Among ideas included in the report are a merger of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s police department with the Houston Police Department, and the consolidation of smaller municipal police departments into a larger network.

One of the report’s most aggressive ideas to consolidate would be to move patrol duties from the eight Harris County constables’ offices to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Political opposition to that idea would be too difficult to overcome because agencies would have to cede governing power, [County Commissioner Steve] Radack said.

“People can study it and study it and study it, but I can assure you … the people that are really familiar with this are all going to say, no” said Radack, who was formerly the Precinct 5 constable.

You can see the report here. Two points I would add: One, this is not limited to Harris County. Two, the list above leaves out police departments associated with universities, community colleges, and medical schools. There’s a lot of law enforcement agencies out there.

I find it interesting that the main argument against any sort of consolidation is that there would be political opposition to it, as Commissioner Radack notes. I don’t doubt that he’s right, but it’s not a reason, it’s a justification. Some reforms would require legislative assistance – Constables are constitutional offices, after all – while others shouldn’t need anything more than various entities working together. I’m pretty sure that there’s a dollar figure that could be attached to each recommendation in that report. Maybe if we start talking about it, we can decide what if any of these ideas are really worth pursuing, even in the face of political opposition.

We’ll be voting on flood control bonds in August

Not my first choice, but it is what it is.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to seek a special election on Aug. 25 for what likely will be a multi-billion-dollar bond package that, if approved by voters, would be the largest local investment in the region’s flood control system after Hurricane Harvey.

The move comes a month before the start of the 2018 hurricane season and more than seven months after Hurricane Harvey, with the election timed to coincide with the storm’s one-year anniversary. County officials have spent months wrangling over when best to schedule the election, lest the measure fail and scuttle efforts to overhaul the area’s flood control efforts after one of the biggest rain storms in United States history.

“Why August 25?” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “It’s the one year anniversary of Harvey. I don’t think we want to go a year and not be able to say we’re doing something. People who care about mitigation, resilience, flood control, they’ll be energized and they’ll want to go out. Will there be somebody who wants to stand in the face of what we went through during Harvey and say ‘I want to be against it’? I kind of dare them to do it.”

It is not clear yet what the bond referendum will include. The court on Tuesday floated a $2.5 billion price tag — a number that could change as a priority list of flood control projects emerges. Emmett said the number of projects would be in the “hundreds” and likely would include the buy-out of all of the county’s high-priority areas at highest-risk of flooding, approximately 5,500 properties.

A huge chunk of funds, between $500 and $700 million officials estimate, could go toward local matches for federal grants and projects. A match could be required for the completion of four bayou widening and straightening projects underway with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along Hunting, White Oak, Brays Bayou and Clear Creek. Bayou engineering projects on Halls and Greens Bayou — some of the areas in the county most vulnerable to flooding — also likely would be targeted.

Emmett said all of the county’s 22 watersheds would see some sort of investment.

The bond funds also could help finance the construction of an oft-discussed third reservoir northwest of the city to contain storm water from Cypress Creek.

See here for the background. I would have preferred to have this on the November ballot, and from the article most of the Commissioners at least started out with that same preference. County Judge Ed Emmett pushed for the August date, and convinced them to go along. Again, I get the reasoning, but the county is really going to have to sell this. Recent history has shown that even non-controversial bond issues with no organized opposition don’t pass by much. This one will have a big price tag, a (minor) property tax increase, and no obvious benefit for anyone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey, all wrapped up in a weird election date. This should pass – it’s easy to scratch your head and say “how could it not?” – but do not take it for granted. The county still has to get approval from Greg Abbott, which should be straightforward, then formally call the election. I hope they start gearing up the campaign for this in the meantime.

The timing of a Harvey bond referendum

How does August grab you?

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday will consider calling a special election for August 25 — the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey — to ask voters to OK a massive bond referendum for flood control projects.

The amount of the referendum has yet to be determined as the county continues to assess its needs and as other funds, including as federal grants, become available. At least three members of Commissioners Court said Friday they envision a measure that could reach $2.5 billion.

[…]

The referendum could help finance property buyouts, as well as a range of infrastructure projects, such as the widening and deepening of bayous or the construction of a much-discussed third reservoir in northwest Harris County.

Tuesday’s vote follows months of wrangling over the logistics of holding the bond election, including the cost of holding a special election and the ideal date to ensure voters turn out to support the measure.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Friday said he supports presenting the bond referendum to voters during the November general election, when turnout is expected to be considerable as voters weigh in on mid-term congressional elections.

“Without evidence of a clear path to victory for a summer-time bond election, which is likely to have low turnout, I have serious reservations about the proposed August date,” Ellis said. “The future of Harris County hinges on the success of this flood bond.”

It also is not yet clear what the bond referendum will include. Harris County Flood Control District Director of Operations Matt Zeve said that would be determined after Tuesday’s discussion at Commissioners Court.

County officials have said the necessity for bond money grows as federal grants pour in to prepare the Houston area for future floods or to recover from Harvey, many of which require a sometimes hefty financial match from local governments.

“The risk is that they may allocate the funds elsewhere and, thus, become unavailable for our region,” Emmett states in the proposed letter to Abbott.

See here, here, and here for the background. I get the reason for wanting to do this as quickly as possible, as grant money may get grabbed up by other places before we could approve a November referendum. August is a weird time for an election – looking at the County Clerk election result archives, the only August date I see is in 2014, for a special election runoff in SD04, which is only part of the county.

The last election that wasn’t in March or May or November that included the entire county was the 2003 Constitutional Amendment special election, which included the infamous tort “reform” measure and which was done in September specifically to reduce turnout from the Houston area, since we had an open seat Mayoral race that November. Turnout for that, which was a state election and not a county election, was 238,334, or 13.38% of registered voters. We have more registered voters now, but that percentage would still put us south of 300K. Compare that to the November 2014 general election, which had 688,018 voters, which was still only 33.65% turnout. I’d bet on November this year being closer to 800K voters, and likely a lot more Democratic than either of those other two contexts.

So on the one hand, you’ve got a need to get this done, and the one year anniversary of Harvey as a rallying cry, but a smaller electorate that may be more likely to not support any kind of spending measure. You also need Greg Abbott’s approval to hold this election, which you’ll probably get but is still an unknown factor. On the other hand, you could have a November vote with a bigger and likely friendlier electorate, but you risk losing out on some grant money, and maybe that much farther away from Harvey people will feel less of a sense of urgency to do something, or at least something that may be historically big. All things considered, my preference is still November, but we’ll see what Commissioners Court decides.

Harris County may do Harvey bonds

Turns out Harvey recovery will cost money. Who knew?

A majority of the Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday said they would support a large bond issue, perhaps upwards of $1 billion, and a tax increase to pay for it. The bond issue would bolster cash-strapped flood control initiatives, which could include a improvements to waterways and buyouts of properties that repeatedly flood.

After Hurricane Harvey’s widespread devastation and severe floods of the last few years, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, all Republicans, said in interviews Wednesday afternoon that they would favor a bond issue.

A bond proposal and corresponding tax rate increase would have to be approved by voters countywide, after a majority of the five-member Commissioners Court vote in favor of calling the election and placing the proposal on the ballot.

As to how early such an election could be called, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office was reviewing the potential timing of an election.

[…]

Emmett said the bond issue would likely need to be $1 billion at a minimum.

County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said it is not immediately clear how much of a tax rate hike, if any, would be needed to pay for the bonds. If the county issued $1 billion in bonds at once, today, it would need roughly a 2-cent hike in the property tax rate.

I presume it’s too late for this year. so it’s a matter of when this could be done in 2018. The county could easily do this next November, it’s more a question of whether they can get it on the ballot sooner than that if they want to. There will need to be details filled in on what this bond would entail, but it sure seems like a worthwhile thing to do. I mean, if you think repairing the damage and investing in better flood mitigation going forward are worthwhile, that is. Perhaps someone should ask the Harris County Republican Party, which reflexively opposed Mayor Turner’s proposal, saying the city should “follow Harris County’s lead”. One could argue the county is now following the city’s lead. I’d just argue that by taking action, both the city and county are leading. Isn’t that what we want?

Still a few bugs in the system

A continuing story.

While Harris County officials are complaining that a federal judge’s bail order threatens public safety, the county has failed to provide more than 100 low-level defendants with pretrial services aimed at ensuring they make their court dates.

The latest revelations come amid criticism from District Attorney Kim Ogg, who accused county officials of trying to deliberately undermine the success of defendants released on personal bonds to bolster the county’s argument.

“Clearly the hope is that the reformed bail process fails,” Ogg said in a June 30 email obtained by the Chronicle. “This is necessarily a violation of their ethical duty and certainly not in the best interest of ordinary Harris County citizens.”

Ogg’s email did not identify which officials she believed might be responsible, and her office referred a request for additional comment to a court filing in which she supported changes to the county’s cash-bail system for misdemeanor offenses.

[…]

By missing court, the defendants also miss out on the assistance provided by the county’s Pre-Trial Services Division, such as text reminders about upcoming court dates that other defendants get seven days in advance and again on the day of the hearing.

Kelvin Banks, director of pretrial services, said a vendor, Voice4Net, manages the text messages for the county. He said his office is working with the vendor to set up reminders for those who are released by the sheriff, and is moving forward with plans for an additional staff member and training at the jail.

He said Monday he was reviewing resumes.

“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to give defendants the best opportunity to be succesful on pretrial release,” Banks said.

Another vendor, called Uptrust, met with county officials on June 28, two days before Ogg sent her email, proposing a two-way messaging system that allows defendants to respond and provides information on childcare options and transportation.

It’s a little hard to say what is going on here, based on this story. There’s a lot of he-said/she-said in there. My basic premise all along is that the county has very little credibility on this issue, so I generally discount the complaints from Commissioners and judges about how hard this all is and how they’re Doing Their Very Best and Just Need A Little More Time and so on and so forth. Every action by the county – specifically, by those who continue to fight to support the status quo – is one of foot-dragging and reluctance to make changes, even small ones. I’ve yet to see a show of good faith. If we ever get to that point, then maybe I’ll take their complaints seriously. Until then, I say quit whining and do what the judge ordered you to do.