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Texas

Marijuana arrests stay down

We really should view this as the new normal, and not a problem to be “fixed”.

It’s been more than six months since Texas lawmakers legalized hemp and unintentionally disrupted marijuana prosecution across the state.

Since then, the number of low-level pot cases filed by prosecutors has plummeted. Some law enforcement agencies that still pursue charges are spending significantly more money at private labs to ensure that substances they suspect are illegal marijuana aren’t actually hemp.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and local government crime labs expect to roll out a long-awaited testing method to distinguish between the two in the next month or so. But that’s only for seized plant material. There’s still no timeline for when they will be able to tell if vape pen liquid or edible products contain marijuana or hemp. And DPS said even when its testing is ready, it doesn’t have the resources to analyze substances in the tens of thousands of misdemeanor marijuana arrests made each year — testing it didn’t have to do before hemp was legalized.

“If law enforcement agencies and prosecutors asked for all of those to be tested when these new procedures become available … DPS would start with such a huge backlog that it would likely never get caught up,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “One decision for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies and the labs is: How do they triage these cases to focus on the most important ones?”

[…]

In 2018, Texas prosecutors filed about 5,900 new misdemeanor marijuana possession cases a month, according to data from the Texas Office of Court Administration. The first five months of 2019 saw an average of more than 5,600 new cases filed a month. But since June, when the hemp law was enacted, the number of cases has been slashed by more than half. In November, less than 2,000 new cases were filed, according to the court data.

For those who support marijuana legalization, that change is welcome, adding to an already growing effort in some of the state’s most populated counties to divert pot smokers from criminal prosecution or not arrest them at all.

“It means that there are fewer Texans that are getting slapped with a criminal record for marijuana possession, something that is already legal in other states,” said Katharine Harris, a drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

See here for the background. There’s no serious argument to be made that the drop in marijuana arrests has had any negative effect on public safety, but it has had the positive effect of keeping thousands of basically harmless people out of the criminal justice system. The main problem with the new status quo is that the reduction in prosecutions is completely ad hoc and not systemic. Whether one gets arrested and jailed or warned and released is entirely a function of where you are and which law enforcement agency is dealing with you. The Lege in 2021 needs to look at what has happened since this inadvertent loosening of marijuana laws and make it a real, permanent thing. We’ve already seem that nothing bad will come of it. Grits and the Current have more.

Texas is on track to pick up three more Congressional districts

Put an asterisk next to this, as the actual Census will need to bear that out.

The U.S. population continues to shift south and west, according to new Census Bureau data that offers the clearest picture yet of how the 435 congressional seats will be distributed among the 50 states.

The latest numbers, released Monday, represent the final estimates from the government before next year’s decennial Census, which will determine how many House seats and Electoral College votes each state will have for the next decade. That reapportionment, expected in December 2020, will kick off the year-and-a-half-long process of redrawing congressional-district maps — still in many states a brazen partisan battle that makes strange bedfellows, unplanned retirements and intense member-versus-member races, especially in states poised to lose seats.

“The first two years of any decade when districts are drawn produce the whitest knuckles in Congress,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who led House Democrats’ campaign arm in the 2012 cycle. “People are trying to hold onto their seats at all costs.”

According to projections from Election Data Services, a political consulting firm that specializes in redistricting, 17 states are slated to see changes to the sizes of their delegations, including 10 that are forecast to lose a seat beginning in 2022.

The biggest winners appear to be Texas and Florida, which are on track to gain three seats and two seats, respectively, according to the projections. Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and North Carolina are estimated to add one seat, as is Montana, which currently has just one at-large seat.

Meanwhile, 10 states are on track to lose one seat: Rhode Island, West Virginia, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Alabama, Illinois and California, which would drop a House seat for the first time in its 169-year history.

[…]

The looming reapportionment brings into sharper focus the high stakes surrounding the partisan battle for control of state legislatures and the fight to ensure an accurate Census count.

Some states, such as Rhode Island and California, are actively working to avoid an undercount. Other state governments, such as Texas, have not made similar investments.

In his projections, Brace is using the estimates released Monday by the Census Bureau to predict what the states’ populations will be next year, when the Census is taken. Other estimates, which simply apportion House seats according to the 2019 estimates, show smaller gains for Texas and Florida, where the population has been booming year-over-year this decade.

Brace also noted he’s unable to take into account the accuracy of the Census, which will be a major factor in determining the final reapportionment. “We’ve seen it over the decades: Less and less people are likely to participate in the Census,” he said. “That participation rate has gone down each 10 years.”

Moreover, unsuccessful attempts by President Donald Trump and his administration to include a citizenship question on next year’s Census have advocates worried that millions of residents, especially nonwhites, won’t fill out the Census. That could negatively impact the count in heavily Latino states like Texas, where Democrats are plotting a political comeback — if they can get a seat at the table in redistricting.

How we are handling the Census has always seemed like a key aspect of this, but I admit I may be overestimating its impact. The rubber will be meeting the road soon enough, and we’ll have the official verdict in a year’s time. Brace yourselves, it’s going to be tumultuous no matter what happens. Daily Kos has more.

A view of Texas and polling

The premise of this is sound, but don’t read too much into it.

In Texas, the nation’s biggest, most important red state, Trump’s disapproval rating has consistently lagged behind many of the 30 states he carried in 2016. This potentially puts the state — a must-win for the president if there ever was one — in play for 2020.

To think Trump’s unpopularity in Texas is because of Twitter, or Ukraine, or the media, or a smear job by the left is to underestimate the problem. The reality is that Trump’s signature policies are out of step with what most Texans want.

Take Trump’s threat of tariffs against Mexico as punishment for the flow of unauthorized immigrants across the border. While railing against Mexico might work at a campaign rally in the Midwest, Texans perceive it as a direct threat to their bottom lines. Mexico is Texas’s biggest trading partner, accounting for nearly 35 percent of state exports in 2018. In comparison, Mexico accounts for only 5.8 percent of exports for Ohio.

Polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin found that roughly half of voters believe that tariffs against Mexico would hurt the Texas economy. Only 16 percent of suburban voters and 18 percent of women — coveted 2020 voting blocs — think tariffs on Mexico would benefit Texas.

[…]

Trump’s immigration policy is also unpopular. While one might assume that the state with the longest southern border, the largest share of Mexican Americans, and one of the highest rates of illegal immigration would appreciate Trump’s hard-line immigration approach, the opposite is true.

Texas has maintained one of the nation’s most moderate stances on immigration. It is one of only seven states — and the only red state — to provide in-state tuition rates and state financial aid to undocumented immigrants. Those provisions were signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Perry and a Republican-controlled legislature. More recently, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called the Trump administration’s separation of migrant families at the border “disgraceful.

While the United States struggles to adjust to a changing demographic makeup, Texas has been “majority minority” for more than a decade, with Hispanics expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites in the next few years. Hispanics and non-Hispanics live by, work with, are friends with and go to school with each other, and this familiarity increases fondness. Which is why Trump’s fear and disparagement of immigrants — and Mexicans, in particular — falls flat here.

According to a Texas Politics Project poll, more Texans strongly disapprove of Trump’s immigration approach than strongly approve. Only 39 percent of Texans support additional federal spending on border barriers along the Mexican border, according to a November 2019 report by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center.

In the same poll, the majority of Texans — 60 percent — agreed that “We should find alternatives to immigration detention for families fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in the U.S.” And a majority, 65 percent, agreed that “unaccompanied children caught attempting to cross the border illegally should be placed into the care of child-welfare specialists, not border or immigration enforcement officials.” Turns out the cowboys are a bunch of bleeding hearts.

This article is in the Washington Post, and as you know I’m always interested in outside views of our state, partly to see how the perspective differs and partly to see what kind of dumb mistakes they make. In this case, the author is a Texan, an economist and pundit named Abby McCloskey who also writes for the Dallas Morning News. I’d not read anything by her before, and checking Facebook and Twitter I found almost no overlap between the political types I know and her. Doesn’t really matter, it was just curious to me.

Anyway. As I said up front, the basic premise is sound. Polling of Trump in Texas has been weak, in terms of approval, favorable/unfavorable, and re-elect numbers; as I’ve noted before, there’s some correlation between those things, though it’s not particularly strong. One way I look at this is that in the 2012 cycle, Mitt Romney was always above 50% in Texas, usually around 55%, while President Obama hovered around 40%. Trump is usually in the low-to-mid 40’s, occasionally nearing 50 but almost always below it. That’s just not great for him, and as we saw in 2018 if Republicans overall aren’t performing in the 55%-plus range, they have a hard time winning districts and counties they’ve been used to winning.

The rest doesn’t impress me much. There may be some Chamber of Commerce types who voted for Trump in 2016, mostly out of loathing for Hillary Clinton and a longtime affinity for Republican politics, who won’t vote for him in 2020 because of trade policy, but I suspect you could count them all individually if you put some effort into it. Immigration policy is a multi-layered subject in Texas, but the Republicans who voted for that 2001 bill to grant undocumented immigrants in-state tuition aren’t the Republicans that are in charge of the state now. The Texas GOP is far, far to the right of that cohort – the modern Texas GOP officially opposes that 2001 law (see item 134 from the 2016 platform and item 129 from the 2018 platform). Citing that 2001 law as evidence of “nuance” is to me ignorant in the way that people who still say that “the Texas Governor is only the fourth or fifth most powerful official in the state” is ignorant. Keep up with current events, please.

Who sues first?

It matters whether Harris County or the state of Texas is first to the courthouse against an industrial polluter.

As chemical plant explosions and fires have disrupted lives and raised air-quality concerns in the Houston area this year, the state and its most populous county have been jockeying to take the lead in penalizing polluters.

The state’s more active role has aroused suspicions among some local officials and environmentalists, who believe state leaders with a record of pro-business actions may be trying to take control to soften the blow of any court rulings against major corporations.

“It’s obvious there’s been an attempt to limit Harris County legal office from pursuing these cases,” said Neil Carman, a former air inspector with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who now works with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.

The legal maneuvering reflects growing public concern about environmental disasters in the Houston area and the ongoing tug of war between the Republican-led state government and officials in major metro areas over the setting of policy.

Who sues first dictates not only where the case will be heard, but also where the money will go if there are civil penalties. If Harris County leads with the state being a party to its lawsuit, the money is split between both parties. But if the state sues without the local government’s involvement, it goes back to the state’s general revenue

County officials say they have to sue to have a role in the process and to make sure companies are held accountable for the damage they cause. State lawmakers say that such suits are redundant and that there needs to be a statewide approach; the Legislature has passed bills restricting local governments in such cases.

“It’s not efficient, and it’s not a good way to function,” said Rock Owens, special assistant Harris County attorney for environmental matters. “If you have an emergency that requires immediate attention, that’s a reason to move quickly. But I just have to move quickly to make sure Harris County keeps a seat at the table, and that’s an unnecessary use of resources.”

In the end, he added, “everybody loses.”

See here and here for some background. There’s no question that the state is doing this to block Harris County from taking stronger action against the big offenders. The track record could not be more clear. Harris County has done pretty well regardless, and if you listened to my interviews with the County Attorney candidates you should feel confident that that will continue, at least until such time as the Lege clips the county’s wings further. We all know what we need to do to keep that from happening.

After-deadline filing review: Courts

Let’s return to the wonderful world of scoping out our candidates. Today we will concentrate on judicial races. Previous entries in this series are for the greater Houston area, Congress, state races, and the Lege.

Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals

I’ve actually covered all of these races, and given bits of info about the candidates, here and here. Go read those posts for the details, and here as a reminder are the candidates’ names and Facebook pages:

Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice) – Amy Clark Meachum
Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice) – Jerry Zimmerer

Supreme Court, Position 6 – Brandy Voss
Supreme Court, Position 6 – Staci Williams

Supreme Court, Position 7 – Kathy Cheng
Supreme Court, Position 7 – Lawrence Praeger

Supreme Court, Position 8 – Gisela Triana
Supreme Court, Position 8 – Peter Kelly

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

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Tina Yoo Clinton
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Steve Miears

First and 14th Courts of Appeals

Covered to some extent here, but there has been some subsequent activity, so let’s get up to date.

Veronica Rivas-Molloy – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3
Dinesh Singhal – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3
Jim Sharp – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3

Rivas-Molloy and Singhal were mentioned previously. Jim Sharp is the same Jim Sharp that won in 2008 and lost in 2014.

Amparo Guerra – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5
Tim Hootman – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5

Both candidates were also previously mentioned. This is the seat now vacated by Laura Carter Higley.

Jane Robinson – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 1, Chief Justice
Jim Evans – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 1, Chief Justice

Jane Robinson has been mentioned previously. Jim Evans was a candidate for Family Court in 2014, and was appointed as an associate judge on the 507th Family Court in 2017, making him the first openly gay family court judge in Texas. He doesn’t have a campaign presence yet as far as I can tell.

Wally Kronzer – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Tamika Craft – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Cheri Thomas – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
V.R. Faulkner – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Dominic Merino – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Lennon Wright – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Not sure why this court has attracted so many contestants, but here we are. Kronzer was the only candidate I knew of in that previous post; Cheri Thomas came along a bit later, and the others were all later in the filing period. Texas Judges can tell you some more about the ones that don’t have any campaign presence.

Harris County District Courts

The following lucky duckies have no opponents in the primary or the November general election:

Kristin Hawkins (11th Civil)
Kyle Carter (125th Civil)
Mike Englehart (151st Civil
Robert Schaffer (152nd Civil)
Hazel Jones (174th Criminal)
Kelli Johnson (178th Criminal)
Ramona Franklin (338th Criminal)

The next time you see them, congratulate them on their re-election. The following almost-as-lucky duckies are in a contested primary for the 337th Criminal Court, with the winner of the primary having no opponent in November:

Brennen Dunn, who had been in the primary for the 185th Criminal Court in 2018; see his Q&A here.
Colleen Gaido.
Veronica Sanders.
David Vuong
John A. Clark, whom I cannot positively identify. I hope everyone sends in Q&A responses, but I’m not voting for any candidate I can’t identify. I hope you’ll join me in that.

The following do not have a primary opponent, but do have a November opponent:

Fredericka Phillips (61st Civil).
RK Sandill (127th Civil), who in 2018 was a candidate for the Supreme Court.
Michael Gomez (129th Civil).
Jaclanel McFarland (133rd Civil)
Elaine Palmer (215th Civil).

Natalia Cornelio is currently unopposed in the primary for the 351st Criminal Court following the rejection of incumbent Judge George Powell’s application. That may change pending the outcome of Powell’s litigation in the matter.

The following races are contested in both March and November:

Larry Weiman (80th Civil, incumbent).
Jeralynn Manor (80th Civil).

Alexandra Smoots-Thomas (164th Civil, incumbent). Formerly Smoots-Hogan, now dealing with legal issues of her own.
Cheryl Elliott Thornton (164th Civil), who has run for Justice of the Peace and County Civil Court at Law in the past.
Grant Harvey (164th Civil).

Ursula Hall (165th Civil, incumbent).
Megan Daic (165th Civil).
Jimmie L. Brown, Jr. (165th Civil).

Nikita Harmon (176th Criminal, incumbent).
Bryan Acklin (176th Criminal).

Randy Roll (179th Criminal, incumbent).
Ana Martinez (179th Criminal).

Daryl Moore (333rd Civil, Incumbent).
Brittanye Morris (333rd Civil).

Steven Kirkland (334th Civil, incumbent). It’s not a Democratic primary without someone challenging Steve Kirkland.
Dawn Rogers (334th Civil).

Te’iva Bell (339th Criminal).
Candance White (339th Criminal).
Dennis Powell (339th Criminal), whom I cannot positively identify.
Lourdes Rodriguez (339th Criminal), whom I also cannot positively identify.

Julia Maldonado (507th Family, incumbent).
Robert Morales (507th Family).
CC “Sonny” Phillips (507th Family).

That about covers it. I should do a separate entry for JPs and Constables, and I did promise a Fort Bend entry. So there will likely be some more of this.

UPDATE: I missed Robert Johnson, the incumbent Judge of the 177th Criminal District Court (the court that now has Ken Paxton’s trial), in the first go-round. Johnson had an opponent file for the primary, but that application was subsequently rejected. He has no November opponent, so you can add him to the list of people who have been re-elected.

Julian Castro ends his Presidential bid

Sorry to see him go.

Julian Castro

Julián Castro has ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, capping a nearly yearlong bid during which he distinguished himself as a progressive crusader but never found the polling or fundraising support to gain wide appeal.

“I’m so proud of the campaign we’ve run together,” Castro said in an almost four-minute video Thursday morning. “We’ve shaped the conversation on so many important issues in this race, stood up for the most vulnerable people and given a voice to those who are often forgotten. But with only a month until the Iowa caucuses and given the circumstances of this campaign, I’ve determined that it simply isn’t our time.”

The video highlighted some of the causes he championed during his campaign — in some cases, largely on his own — that endeared him to the progressive wing of the party but did not translate into the traction needed to thrust him into the top tier of the sprawling Democratic field.

[…]

After years of being regarded as a rising star in Texas politics, Castro threw his hat into the ring early, months before some of his fiercest competitors launched their respective bids. But he consistently raised millions of dollars less than his rivals and polled in the low single digits, failing to qualify for the two most recent debates despite launching a do-or-die fundraising drive before the first of them. He hit his $800,000 target and stayed in the race but still did not make the cut for that debate.

I’m sad to see him depart – Lord knows, I can think of several candidates I’d rather see get out. It’s a lot easier to stay in a race if your goal is something other than winning. Be that as it may, this is far from the end for Castro. He’d be a good VP choice – I thought that in 2016 as well, but that’s the way it goes – and h could certainly wind up in someone’s Cabinet. I for one will be rooting for him to run for Governor in 2022. I don’t think I need to explain that one. Thank you for running, Julian Castro. I look forward to seeing you on the trail again, hopefully soon. The Observer has more.

Abbott and refugees

The moral choice is clear. It’s also clear for a variety of other reasons. I don’t expect Greg Abbott to make it, because he’s Greg Abbott.

For years, more refugees have resettled in Houston and Texas than any other city or state in the country.

Now that may end.

Under a new requirement imposed by President Donald Trump’s administration, state and local governments must consent in writing before refugees can arrive next year. At least 34 governors, including 13 Republicans, and 86 county and city executives have given their approval.

Mayors and county leaders of all Texas’ biggest cities —including Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin — sent letters opting in.

But Gov. Greg Abbott, who has lead efforts to block Syrian refugees and withdrew from the federal resettlement program in a largely symbolic move in 2016, has not.

If he does not agree, no refugees could be placed in the state, despite what local authorities may want.

John Wittman, Abbott’s spokesman, did not return multiple calls, texts, and emails seeking comment.

“Our understanding is that he’s still weighing his options,” said Jen Smyers, director of policy for Church World Service, one of nine national resettlement agencies in the country. “Given its size and the welcome that refugees receive in Texas, and the faith community’s support, and businesses who rely on refugees for workers in agriculture, manufacturing, and meatpacking, it certainly would have a sizable impact if Texas were not to continue to resettle refugees.”

The Catholic Church, of which Greg Abbott claims to be a devout member, is strongly pro-refugee. The Bible, which people who claim to be Christian claim to believe in, is strongly pro-refugee. Greg Abbott is a Republican, and a Donald Trump minion. You do the math. I’ve said many times in this space that nothing will change until the government changes. Well, in this case this was a change brought about by a change in government, the election of Donald Trump. What has been done can still be undone. The rest is up to us.

Cy-Fair Dems Senate candidate forum

There are actually multiple clubs hosting this forum, but there’s only so much room in the headline:

Event details can be found here. The forum will be held at the Green House International Church, 200 W Greens Rd, Houston, TX 77067, with a meet and greet beginning at 2 PM, the forum itself at 3:15, and a Q&A at 4:30. As of this publication, the following candidates have confirmed their attendance: Amanda Edwards, Chris Bell, Jack Daniel Foster Jr., Sema Hernandez, Royce West, and Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez.

Everyone is asked to bring a nonperishable food item to donate to the food pantry. Hope to see you there!

UPDATE: Here’s the EventBrite link for the forum.

Precinct analysis: 2019 HD148 special election

I started this post while doing other precinct analysis stuff. Didn’t finish it with the others, but now that the legislative special election runoffs are next up on the calendar, I thought I’d finish it off. First, here’s how the main Mayoral candidates did in HD148:


Turner    9,631
Turner%  44.65%

Buzbee    6,280
Buzbee%  29.11%

King      2,947
King%    13.66%

Boykins   1,253
Boykins%  5.81%

Lovell      467
Lovell%   2.16%

Others      993
Others%   4.60%

Not actually all that different than how they did overall in Harris County. Mayor Turner was about 1.7 percentage points lower, while Sue Lovell gained 0.86 points. Oddly, it was the “Other” candidates who collectively gained the most, going from 3.72% overall to 4.60% in HD148, for a gain of 0.88 points. Keeping it weird, y’all.

Since I started this before the runoff, and even before the date for the HD148 runoff was set, I wondered what the effect might be of having Anna Eastman and Luis LaRotta slug it out at the same time as Mayor Turner and that other guy. I decided to zoom in on the best precincts for Eastman and LaRotta and see how the Mayorals did in them:


Eastman top 4

Eastman 1,557
LaRotta   557
Dem     1,508
GOP       547
Others  2,055

Turner  2,389
Buzbee    974
King      592
Others    370

LaRotta top 4

Eastman   242
LaRotta   600
Dem     1,006
GOP       515
Others  1,521

Turner    835
Buzbee  1,001
King      412
Others    245

Putting it another way, Anna Eastman’s best precincts were more Democratic, and more favorable to Turner, than LaRotta’s precincts were Republican and favorable to That Guy. Didn’t much matter in the end, but I was curious, and that’s what I learned.

Finally, there’s always the question of how much turnout efforts from one race can affect another. For sure, the Mayoral race was the big turnout driver in Houston in November, but as overall turnout was below thirty percent, there would still be plenty of people in HD148 who would normally vote in an even-year election, when this race is supposed to be on the ballot, but who may not vote in odd-year races. To try to get a handle on this, I looked at the undervote rate in the Mayor’s race in HD148, and compared it to the overall undervote rate for the Mayorals. In Harris County, 1.59% of the people who showed up to vote in November did not cast a ballot in the Mayor’s race. The undervote rate in the HD148 special was 5.87%, which is another way of saying it was the Mayor’s race that drove the majority of the action.

In the HD148 precincts, all of which are in the city of Houston, there were 22,001 total votes cast, according to the draft canvass sent to me by the County Clerk. That’s a smidge less than what you’ll see on the official election report, which is almost certainly a combination of cured provisional ballots (my canvass does not include provisional votes), split precincts (many voting precincts are partly in and partly not in the city of Houston, which makes all of the calculations I do that also involve non-city entities a little fuzzy), and whatever stupid errors I made with Excel. Be that as it may, of those 22,001 cast ballots, there were 387 non-votes in the Mayor’s race, for an undervote rate in the HD148 precincts of 1.76%, a hair higher than the overall undervote rate. If the voters in HD148 had skipped the Mayor’s race at the same rate as voters everywhere else in Harris County skipped it, there would have been only 350 Mayoral undervotes.

So, I’d say that the turnout effect of the HD148 special election was pretty small, since the voters in that race behaved very much like voters elsewhere. Perhaps if this had been a higher-profile race, with more money and a longer time on the ballot and a clearer partisan split – in other words, a race more like the HD28 special election – we might have seen more people who came out to vote for it and who had less interest in the other races, and thus a higher undervote rate in the Mayoral election. Sadly, we won’t know what that might look like at this time. I should note that I have no idea how many of the 1,288 non-voters in the HD148 special were also non-voters in the Mayoral race; there’s just no way to tell that from the data I have. Maybe some of those people were just there to vote for the Constitutional amendments, or the Metro referendum, or District H, or who knows what. I feel on reasonably firm ground saying that the turnout effect of the Mayor’s race was considerably higher than the turnout effect of the HD148 special election. Anything beyond that needs more study. You’re welcome.

That’s a weird definition of “thriving”

I have three things to say about this.

Surrounded by fellow Libertarians during a 2018 election night watch party at a rented Airbnb in Fort Worth, Eric Espinoza, who was running for state Rep. Jonathan Stickland’s seat, saw a Facebook message notification pop up on his phone.

“‘It’s people like you who are preventing other candidates from winning,’” he recalls the message saying, though he doesn’t recall which candidate the sender supported.

“I was like, ‘Hey, guys, look — I think I finally made an impact,’” Espinoza remembers saying, as he passed his phone around to others in the crowded living room.

“That to me was like, OK, cool, I was able to affect something so much that somebody who knows nothing about me, and nothing about why I ran, blames me for somebody losing — when it’s not the votes. It’s not that I took votes from them; it’s that people didn’t want to vote for that person, and they had a better option.”

Republicans and Democrats alike will blame third-party candidates for siphoning votes from traditionally two-way races. Espinoza not only took votes that might have gone to Stickland, a Republican, but he had more votes than Stickland’s margin of victory. Stickland beat his Democratic challenger by fewer than 1,500 votes, and Espinoza, in third place, had racked up more than 1,600.

It’s still rare for third-party candidates to capture enough votes to potentially sway an outcome — in the past three general elections, there have been just six such instances, according to a Hearst Newspapers analysis. But the number is growing, in a sign of tightening Texas elections.

[…]

A year after some of the most competitive state-level races in decades, Texas Republicans moved to make it easier for third-party candidates to receive and maintain a spot on the ballot. In doing so, they returned ballot access to the Green Party after it lost it following the 2016 election.

“Maybe Republicans are just kind of viewing this as, either you could call it an insurance policy or maybe it’s a way to subject the Democrats to things they’ve been subjected to on the part of the Libertarians,” said Phil Paolino, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas who has studied the effect of third parties on presidential races.

As elections get tighter, Paolino said, “you might see a few more races where third-party candidates are able to cover the margins — whether it’ll have the effect of altering the results is a big question.”

1. I’ve said my piece about third party voters. I will add that in 2018, the last year we’ll get this statistic, 0.49% of all straight party votes in Harris County were straight party Libertarian. That continued an upward trend in the off-year elections, which has come to an end thanks to the end of straight ticket voting.

2. Along those same lines, I’ve also said that I’m not particularly worried about the Green Party effect in Texas. Among other things, Green Party candidates just don’t get that many votes, and there are very few of them in non-statewide races. And as Professor Paolino notes, we don’t know that much about what might have happened in a race won with a non-majority due to the presence of one or more third-party candidates in the counterfactual event where they hadn’t been present. Maybe someday the poli sci professionals will take a crack at that, but until then we’re all just guessing.

(This is usually the point at which someone chimes in to remind me of the merits of ranked choice voting, which would provide a measure of what third party voters would have done if there had been only two choices. This is also the point at which I remind everyone that we don’t have ranked choice voting, and there is no prospect of getting anything like it in the foreseeable future. This is just a restatement of the “but what if there had been only two candidates” hypothetical.)

3. I dunno, when I read a story about a political party “thriving”, I imagine it’s going to be about how that party is winning more elections, or at least competing more strongly in elections where they had not been before. This story is about how one party is thriving in a way they hadn’t been before, it’s just that the party in question is the Democrats. I don’t see what that has to do with the Libertarians, but maybe that’s just me.

Beto PAC

In case you were wondering what he’s up to now.

Beto O’Rourke

Weeks after dropping out of the presidential race, Beto O’Rourke has launched a new political group to boost Texas Democrats in the 2020 election.

In an email to supporters Friday morning, O’Rourke said the group, Powered by People, will bring “together volunteers from around the state to work on the most important races in Texas.” He named a few battles in particular: the fight for the state House majority, national Democrats’ drive to flip six Texas congressional seats, the race to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and the presidential general election in Texas.

“Powered by People will organize grassroots volunteers to do the tough, necessary work that wins elections: registering Texans to vote (especially those that have just moved to Texas and those who are just turning 18), knocking on their doors, making phone calls, and connecting the dots so that we all understand that in order to make progress on the issues we care most about — like gun violence, healthcare and climate — we will have to register, volunteer and vote,” O’Rourke said.

Powered by People is set up as a political action committee — notable given O’Rourke’s long aversion to PACs in his campaigns. As a congressman, 2018 U.S. Senate candidate and 2020 presidential candidate, O’Rourke refused to accept PAC donations, denouncing the influence of big money in politics.

“I think it’s a really good question — ‘Why would you then start a PAC?'” O’Rourke said in a Texas Tribune interview later Friday. “There literally was no other legal organization that would allow us to raise money and spend money to help organize people in Texas.”

O’Rourke said he looked at starting a 501(c)(4) nonprofit but was not comfortable with the lack of transparency — such groups do not have to disclose their donors. Those organizations also require that politics can’t become their primary focus.

I presume this is the mechanism Beto will use to support State House candidates in this cycle, and perhaps going forward. I’ve never been of the opinion that PACs are evil, or that one needs to shun them to be a “good” progressive. PACs are a tool, no more and no less. Where they are problematic is when they are used to circumvent disclosure requirements, and contribution limits. The fundamental problem isn’t PACs, it’s Citizens United. The only way to fix that is to put enough people who want to fix it in power, and that’s going to mean raising the resources to support them along the way. It’s the system we have, and we’ve got to do what we can to be able to change it. That’s what Beto is doing, and I applaud him for it.

Flynn stays on GOP primary ballot for now

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

Josh Flynn

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

HD28 poll: Markowitz 42, Gates 42

From the inbox:

Eliz Markowitz

With the crowded field now narrowed to two, a new internal poll shows Dr. Eliz Markowitz (D) in a dead heat — 42 to 42 —with her Republican challenger, perennial candidate Gary Gates, in the race to replace retiring State Representative John Zerwas in Texas House District 28.

“Dr. Eliz Markowitz has a big opportunity to flip the 28th,” noted lead pollster, Terrance Woodbury with HIT Strategies. Markowitz starts off in a dead heat, but with less name ID, simply “introducing likely voters to Dr. Markowitz moves them to vote for her in a big way,” Woodbury added. “After just hearing a short bio on her, 58 percent of voters say they are more likely to vote for her.”

House District 28 lies in the heart of Fort Bend County, a rapidly growing community the Houston Chronicle calls, “the model of diversity.” Fort Bend has also experienced increasingly competitive elections, including the 2018 election of Brian Middleton, the county’s first Democratic District Attorney in 26 years. Woodbury notes of their recent poll, “a plurality of voters in this district (43 percent) believe that we need to send Democrats to the Texas legislature that can work across the aisle and fix the hyper-partisanship that is stagnating our politics.”

“The poll reflects what we’re seeing on the ground,” noted Odus Evbagharu, Campaign Manager for Markowitz. “Eliz’s personal story of fighting for education and accessible health care speaks to the issue priorities of our community and the problem-solving leadership voters are looking for.”

The poll, conducted by HIT Strategies and commissioned by The Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee, surveyed 500 likely runoff voters in Texas’ 28th State House between December 10-16, 2019 with a +/- 4.4% margin of error.

You can see the polling memo, which doesn’t actually tell you anything about the poll, here. You should of course take this with several grains of salt – there’s no details about the poll, which was done by the campaign in question, it’s one data point, no one has any idea how to model “likely voters” in a January special election runoff, etc etc etc. That doesn’t mean there’s no value in this, or that a media/academic poll would be more accurate, just a reminder to keep some perspective. It’s also a reminder that this runoff, as well as the one in HD148, is still out there, and early voting will be upon us for it before you know it, which is to say on Tuesday the 21st; the election is the following Tuesday, the 28th. There will only be four days of early voting, as Monday the 20th is MLK Day. We’re all very focused on the primaries now, but let’s not lose sight of the business we already have.

City wins water rights lawsuit

A bit of pre-holiday good news.

A Travis County state district judge on Friday tossed a state law that would force the city of Houston to sell its water rights in a proposed reservoir west of Simonton.

The law, which breezed through the Legislature last session and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, requires the city to sell its rights in the proposed Allens Creek Reservoir by the end of the year for up to $23 million.

The city sued the state and the Brazos River Authority in July, claiming the law was unconstitutional in part because it violates prohibitions on retroactive laws and on forced sales of municipal property that have a public use.

In a ruling issued Friday evening, state district Judge Karin Crump of the 250th District Court agreed with the city’s interpretation, finding the law violates several provisions of the Texas Constitution and Local Government Code.

Crump ruled that the law constitutes a forced sale and “changes the legal consequences of acts completed before the bill’s effective date without sufficient findings to justify passage” of the bill.

See here for the background, and see here for a statement from Mayor Turner on the ruling. I don’t see any other coverage, so I have no idea if there will be an appeal, but I agreed with the lawsuit and I’m glad to see this outcome. Let’s hope it sticks.

Where have all the Christmas tree farmers gone?

They’re not growing them like they used to.

Across the U.S., Christmas tree farmers are getting out of the business. Illinois lost dozens of farmers in recent years, dropping from 212 growers in 2012 to 182 farmers in 2017, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census data.

James Farmer, an Indiana University professor who led a study that looked at farmers in the Hoosier state, said younger farmers aren’t taking the place of those who are retiring. Most growers in Indiana have plans to stop growing or planting trees in the next five years, Farmer said.

“The average farmer was 64 years old. A lot of folks get into Christmas tree farming and start planting trees when they are older. Most of them have smaller operations. But by the time they hit their mid-70s, they get out,” Farmer said.

The physical demands of tree farming can discourage growers from continuing the business, as can the amount of time it takes to turn a profit. About 30 percent of Indiana farmers reported revenues of $10,000 or less in 2017, the study found. And selling Christmas trees is a part-time endeavor for most growers.

[…]

Christmas tree farmers have also been hit by another competitor. Artificial trees sales have been steadily increasing, with 24 million purchased last year compared to about 21 million purchased in 2017, according to data by the National Christmas Tree Association.

“In the last few years, they have taken over a large percentage of the market. It’s hurt us more than we realized,” said Doug Hundley, a seasonal spokesman for the association.

Last year, the average price of a live Christmas tree was $78, and the average cost of an artificial one was $104, according to the 2018 consumer report by the association.

Older consumers who no longer have children living in the household tend to shift to artificial trees or don’t put one up, Hundley said. But there is demand from younger families who drive to farms to pick and cut their own tree. According to the association, 28 percent of the live Christmas trees purchased in 2018 were bought at farms.

“We think sales increase is coming from millennials,” Hundley said.

Hey, something millennials aren’t being blamed for – nice. This was a wire story from the Chicago Tribune, so I went looking to see if Texas Christmas tree farmers are making the same complaints. Far as I can tell, they’re doing fine, though there have been some tree supply shortages, which can be blamed on retirements, the 2008 recession, and hemp. Make a note to get your tree earlier next year, to mitigate against these risks.

Morath’s big talk

But can he back it up?

In his first public comments about plans to strip power from Houston ISD’s elected trustees, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Tuesday that the district’s leaders have engaged in “chronic neglect” of children in long-struggling schools, requiring the appointment of a replacement governing board that will better direct resources to HISD’s neediest students.

In an hourlong interview with the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board, Morath said he wants the replacement governing board to close achievement gaps by improving the district’s pre-kindergarten offerings, placing more high-performing staff at low-rated campuses and re-establishing strong leadership practices during its temporary stay in power. He faulted the district’s elected trustees for failing to address achievement issues in HISD’s longest-struggling campuses, several of which have received multiple consecutive failing grades in the past decade.

“This is how you make real inroads on the achievement gap: you get very serious about resource allocation,” Morath said. “It’s about money and talent. This is, in fact, an underlying root cause as to why you have some of the highest-performing schools in the state and some chronically under-performing schools, all in the same district. It’s a tale of two cities.”

[…]

In his comments Tuesday, Morath made clear that he expects the appointed board to address a few key areas, including “a systemic investment in early childhood education” and “how we properly support teachers and incent them” to work at chronically low-performing campuses. However, Morath said he will allow appointed board members and the superintendent to craft plans for meeting those goals.

“I would expect the board to use its judgment and proceed in a strategic direction that they think, given the intel that’s coming to them, makes the most sense for the kids and taxpayers of Houston,” Morath said.

I mean, if Mike Morath thinks that his appointed trustees can make significant improvements without screwing anything up, blowing a hole in the budget, or taking action that significantly contravenes popular will, then more power to them. As the story notes, HISD already offers pre-K (even though the state has historically not paid for it) and also already offers bonuses for teachers who work at underperforming campuses. It’s not that no one has thought of this stuff before, it’s that doing it right costs money, and I don’t see any plans for the state to address that. But hey, if they really can move the ball forward and leave the district in better shape than they found it, then that would be great. I’ll need to see it happen first.

On a side note:

Morath added that the district’s four newly elected trustees, who will be seated in January, cannot join the appointed board. Three of the four election victors say they have applied or plan to apply, believing they were eligible.

I kind of figured this would be the case, since the word from the TEA all along has been that it will be two years or so before they start reinstating the elected trustees, but a whole lot is up in the air now, so who knows what could have been. I remain sympathetic to the argument that the newly-elected Board members have already solved part of the problem that the takeover is supposed to fix, but clearly Mike Morath is not. This is perhaps another aspect of the law in question that should be reviewed by the next Legislature.

Trib profile of Sima Ladjevardian

CD02 gets a boost in profile.

Sima Ladjevardian

In the final hours before the filing deadline on Dec. 9, Sima Ladjevardian arrived at the Harris County Democratic Party office in Houston to make a little bit of news: She was running for Congress.

The prominent Houston lawyer, Democratic activist and fundraiser, and former Beto O’Rourke adviser had been thinking about running for a while but had thrown herself into O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, which did not wind down until mid-November.

“It really wasn’t much time,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “I just went in and did it then.”

Now Ladjevardian’s candidacy is shaking up the primary for a seat that Democrats consider more flippable than some think — and held by a high-profile target no less: rising star and former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston. About an hour and a half after Ladjevardian announced she was running, O’Rourke endorsed her. The next morning, the 2018 nominee for the seat, Todd Litton, made clear he was supporting her. And 48 hours after filing, she announced she had already raised over $200,000.

In making the last-minute entry, Ladjevardian charged into a primary that already featured two candidates, including one who has been running since February, Navy veteran Elisa Cardnell.

“It wasn’t a complete surprise,” Cardnell said of Ladjevardian’s entrance. “I welcome her to the field, but since day one, this has been about how we hold Dan Crenshaw accountable for his voting record. Honestly, I’m just glad more folks are seeing what we knew back when we launched — that Dan Crenshaw is not safe in Texas 2 and this is a winnable race.”

The 2nd District is not among the six seats that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has prioritized flipping this cycle in Texas, but Democrats have ample reason to believe it is within reach. Litton lost by 7 percentage points in 2018, despite no significant national investment on his behalf and Crenshaw rocketing on to the national stage a few days before the election after “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson mocked his war wound. At the same time, the U.S. Senate nominee, Beto O’Rourke, lost the district by just a point.

The DCCC is nonetheless paying some attention to Crenshaw, targeting him in a statement for this story over his vote last week against a prescription drug price bill.

Sima has a webpage now, which she didn’t have when she entered the race. The fact that didn’t have that kind of basic campaign material readily available, and that there was no pre-filing announcement, leads me to believe this was a late-breaking decision on her part. Which is fine, and she’s done quite well since entering, in terms of attention, endorsements, and fundraising. Her experience with the Beto campaign suggests she can roll out her campaign quickly. The “but” that I’m leading up to is that there’s such a short runway for the primary – hello, early voting starts in less than two months – and there are going to be a lot of people participating in the primary, many of whom will not be plugged-in, habitual Democratic primary voters. That adds a level of randomness to any race, especially for candidates without much name ID.

Elisa Cardnell has the advantage of being in this race for most of the year. She’s been quite active. Weirdly, the fact that she had the field all to herself for most of that time is not an advantage, because a lack of competition for the nomination means a lack of news about the race. This race should get a lot more attention now, which will be good for all three of the candidates in it. It should be on the national Dems’ radar, and I think over time it will be more prominent. For now, the three people running need all the attention this race can get.

From South Texas to the moon

That’s the plan, anyway.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk expects to one day launch people from South Texas to the moon, Mars or beyond — with an update late Saturday that confirmed the company’s long-term presence in a remote area outside of Brownsville where SpaceX this year started testing a prototype of its Starship vehicle.

Founder Elon Musk said SpaceX is planning to launch its latest prototype 12 miles into the sky within the next month or two. And, ultimately, the Starship vehicle would be paired with the Super Heavy Rocket to escape Earth’s gravity and help make humans a multi-planetary species, Musk said.

“This is the most inspiring thing that I’ve ever seen,” Musk said, standing by the 165-foot-tall Starship prototype that was just assembled Friday.

[…]

To better watch the tests and launches in Texas, Cameron County officials built a new amphitheater on the southernmost tip of South Padre Island. The venue, which will also host concerts and other events, was slated to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday, though that was delayed by the SpaceX event, said Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr.

The county thought SpaceX would bring tourism dollars as people came to watch its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket launches. But now that SpaceX has switched its focus, Treviño is waiting to see what the economic impact could be for the region. He’s hopeful that SpaceX can attract other space companies and help develop a local aerospace workforce.

Musk on Saturday said he expects the area will be built up more by the time SpaceX is launching people into space. He would also like to see local propellant production.

“I grew up here,” Treviño said. “I don’t think anybody in their wildest dreams would have thought we’d have potential rocket launches taking place in our backyard. So the fact we’ve gotten to this point … it’s really a heck of an opportunity for us.”

See here for some background. This is a post I’d drafted some time ago, so please overlook the references to recent dates. The relationship between SpaceX and South Texas has been a bit strained at times, but perhaps now things are better. It’s always reasonable to be a bit skeptical of Elon Musk, but we’ll see how this goes. KUT has more.

On Republican female Congressional candidates

The sub-head for this article should be “It’s easy to show large percentage gains when you start from a very low base”.

Heavy recruiting of female candidates paid off for Texas Democrats in 2018, but it is Republican women who are making a splash in 2020.

At least 30 Republican women from Texas have filed to run for election to Congress next year, more than twice as many as in the 2018 elections. That year, 13 women ran under the GOP banner while almost three times as many women ran in the Democratic primary, state and party records show.

“If we’re going to have a pink wave, you need to have red in there,” said Nancy Bocskor, a longtime GOP fundraiser who is now director of the Center for Women and Politics at Texas Woman’s University.

Political strategists say the boost is a reaction to the 2018 election after Democrats made major gains in the suburbs, flipping a dozen Texas House seats and coming within striking distance of defeating several established Republicans in statewide office. Bocskor likens it to a wake up call: “They were asleep at the switch, they were not prepared.”

[…]

The number of Republican women running for Congress is up, but still short of the enthusiasm from Democrats. This year, 34 Democratic women are running for Congress.

We went through a similar exercise last cycle, when three Democratic women were actually elected to Congress – Reps. Lizzie Fletcher, Veronica Escobar, and Sylvia Garcia. It’s good to have a diverse slate of candidates, but some nominations are worth more than others, and having multiple women in a given race is no guarantee that the odds of a woman winning are any better. Let’s take a closer look at the races to see who has a decent shot at getting nominated, and of winning in November if they do.

On the Republican side, there are two open seats in which the Republican nominee is a gold-plated cinch to win in November: CDs 11 and 13. In CD17, the Republican nominee will have excellent odds of winning, surely over 90%. In each of these races, there are female candidates running. None stand out as likely to make the runoff, but who knows. A win by a female candidate in any of these three primaries is by far the best chance of increasing the number of Republican women from Texas in Congress. From one, to two. And that’s assuming that incumbent Rep. Kay Granger doesn’t lose her primary, thus reducing the number of Republican women from Texas in Congress from one to zero.

There are also several high-profile races that could go either way, in which there’s a decent chance the Republicans could win:

– CD07, held by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, in which Cindy Siegel is one of two women vying for the Republican nod. Wesley Hunt appears to have the establishment backing, however.
– CD32, held by Rep. Colin Allred, in which Genevieve Collins appears to be a strong contender.
– CD24, open seat being vacated by Rep. Kenny Marchant. Beth Van Duyne is the best known Republican hopeful.
– CD22, open seat being vacated by Rep. Pete Olson. Kathaleen Wall has moved in to dump more of her millions in a large primary field, but with the likes of Pierce Bush, Troy Nehls, and Greg Hill also running, she may once again fail to make the runoff.
– CD23, open seat being vacated by Rep. Will Hurd. Tony Gonzales is the establishment candidate, but there are some women also running.

I have no deep thoughts on who is or isn’t more likely to win than anyone else. I’m just saying that if I were a Republican and I cared about not looking entirely like an Anglo sausage party, I’d be rooting for a couple of these women to break through.

There are other women running in other Republican primaries, but none of the races will be remotely competitive. Ava Pate in CD18, where there are six people running to be the Republican nominee in a 75% Democratic district, is an example named in the story. I guarantee you, no one will mention Ava Pate’s name after the primary. (Fun fact: She was the Republican nominee in CD18 in 2018. See what I mean?)

On the Democratic side, Gina Ortiz Jones in CD23 and Wendy Davis in CD21 are almost certainly going to win those nominations, and they will both have decent chances of winning in November. All of the leading candidates in CD24 are women, and there are viable women running in CDs 02, 03, 10, 22, 25 (both candidates are women in that one), and 31, with varying levels of hope for November.

So, in a way the Republicans are in the same position Democrats were in 2018, in that there are a couple of open seats that are guaranteed to be theirs, so if they manage to nominate a woman for them they’ll absolutely increase the number of women in their Congressional caucus. Of course, Dems had the likes of Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar to run for those seats in 2018. Republicans don’t appear to have anyone of similar stature this year. They do have some credible female candidates in other races where they can win. So do the Democrats, in more races and with better overall odds of those women making it through the primaries. Ask me again in May after the primary runoffs and we’ll see where things stand.

Anti-gay Waco JP sues for the right to be an anti-gay JP

Ugh.

A Waco judge who received a public warning last month for refusing to officiate same-sex marriages filed a lawsuit against the state agency that issued the warning, claiming the governmental body violated state law by punishing her for actions taken in accordance with her faith.

The First Liberty Institute, a high-profile Plano-based religious liberty law firm closely aligned with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, will represent the judge, Dianne Hensley, in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in McLennan County District Court.

Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court asserted the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry in the landmark 2015 Obergefell decision, Hensley refused to officiate any weddings. But in August 2016, she decided to resume officiating weddings between men and women, and said she would “politely refer” same-sex couples who sought her services to others in the area.

“For providing a solution to meet a need in my community while remaining faithful to my religious beliefs, I received a ‘Public Warning.’ No one should be punished for that,” Hensley said in a statement.

Hensley, who claims the state violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is seeking a declaratory judgment from the court decreeing that any justice of the peace may refuse to officiate a same-sex wedding “if the commands of their religious faith forbid them to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies.”

[…]

Ricardo Martinez, Equality Texas CEO, said in a statement that as a justice of the peace, Hensley took an oath “to serve all Texans.”

“These elected officials continue to waste taxpayer money in an obsession to discriminate against gay and transgender Texans. This is not what Texans want or expect from elected officials,” Martinez said. “Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable. Their actions are mean spirited, futile, a waste of taxpayer money and most importantly, it’s wrong.”

See here for the background. Look, if Judge Hensley had “politely referred” mixed-race couples to other JPs because her religious beliefs were that only people of the same race should get married, no one would take her seriously. If she were a clerk at the DMV who refused to process drivers license applications from women because her religious beliefs were that women should not drive, she’d be fired on the spot. As a public servant, she serves the whole public, not just the public she approves of. That means she can perform weddings for anyone who comes before her, she can perform no weddings as she had originally chosen, or she can find another line of work. It’s that simple.

This was filed in a state court, as the allegation is that the “public warning” violated a state law. I feel like this will eventually wind up as a federal case, especially if she wins. It’s an open question at this point whether the AG’s office will represent the defense, or the State Commission (which is authorized to defend itself) will do it. All things considered, I’d prefer the latter. This case is going to be a hot mess, so buckle up for it. The Waco Tribune has more.

Bonnen “likely violated” the law

Well, isn’t that special?

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The House General Investigating Committee on Friday unanimously adopted a report from its legal advisers that said House Speaker Dennis Bonnen “likely violated” state law during a June meeting with a fellow member and a hardline conservative activist — though members didn’t raise the idea of any possible action against Bonnen and said the investigation was closed.

“Today’s action concludes the committee’s investigation,” said state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the committee, after members met behind closed doors for over an hour.

Meyer, who left the hearing room at the Texas Capitol without taking questions from reporters, said the full report from the three legal advisers retained in October by the committee would be “promptly transmitted” to House members. The committee did not immediately release the report to the public, though a copy was later obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The report concluded by saying the information produced “militates against criminal prosecution” against either Bonnen or state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican considered one of the speaker’s top lieutenants who involved in the political fallout — a line that the speaker’s office reiterated in a statement after the news.

“The committee has confirmed what we have known for months and the conclusion of their report speaks for itself,” Cait Meisenheimer, a spokesperson for Bonnen, said in a statement.

Bonnen “likely violated” section 572.051(a) of the Texas Government Code, according to Meyer, who was reading from the report during the committee hearing — but advisers in the report said the law provided no “independent statutory consequences” for a state official who breaches it.

[…]

Democrats, for their part, said that Friday’s news reiterated the need for the Texas Legislature to pass “substantial ethics reforms.”

“It is unfortunate that Chairman Meyer scheduled today’s hearing to be part of a Friday news dump right before the holidays,” state Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. “If the committee has found that there is no consequence for transacting campaign business in the state capitol building or exchanging House media credentials for political favors, then we need to pass new laws. House Democrats will be ready to lead that effort when the Legislature convenes in 2021.”

Further action is now up to the full 150-member House. The General Investigating Committee, according to House rules, can propose articles of impeachment — but did not do so during Friday’s hearing.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the report. It’s a little frustrating to see the committee acknowledge that there was likely a violation of the law, then state that there’s basically nothing to be done about it. Not that I think Dennis Bonnen needs to be thrown in jail, just that it’s always annoying to see powerful people get away with abusing their power. Then again, at least Bonnen will be out of power soon enough, and not by his preference. It’s something, if not wholly adequate. Read the report and see what you think. And very much yes, this is a thing Democrats should make a priority out of, on the trail and in the Lege next session.

Will the Paxton case move back to Collin County?

Team Paxton is asking for that to happen.

Best mugshot ever

A Harris County judge said Tuesday he will rule by the end of next month on Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to move his felony securities fraud case back to his home county.

Judge Robert Johnson avoided getting into other issues raised in the case until he decides whether to send it back to Collin County, where it originated nearly four years ago.

Special prosecutor Kent Schaffer — who opposed Paxton’s motion to move the case — said after Tuesday’s hearing that he thinks Johnson “will make the right decision” and that he believes “with a high degree of certainty” that Paxton will go to trial by spring 2020.

[…]

The case has been delayed for nearly four years now for reasons ranging from the change of venue request to courtroom damage due to Hurricane Harvey to an ongoing disagreement between Collin County officials and special prosecutors over what they ought to be paid for their work.

It was Paxton’s political influence in Collin County that led a judge to move the case to Harris County in the first place. In 2017, Judge George Gallagher sided with prosecutors who argued that Paxton could not receive a fair trial in the county where many of his friends and political allies live and hold positions of power.

The Collin County District Attorney, for example, recused himself from the case because of a friendship with Paxton, a former state legislator.

Paxton’s lawyers argue that Gallagher exceeded his authority in changing the venue in the first place because his temporary assignment to the case had expired months before he made the decision.

They’ve also said that public attention on Paxton’s indictment has waned since 2016 when the case was the talk of “blogs, media and Facebook posts.” Plus, Collin County is better-equipped to take the case as well, they say, because the Harris County court system is already overburdened.

See here, here, and here for the background. Paxton’s argument seems pretty self-serving here, but in some sense it doesn’t matter. We all know Judge Johnson’s ruling will get appealed, all the way to the CCA, and that whole rigamarole will take a couple more years. We’re all going to be old and gray before this case is resolved.

Maybe try updating your pop culture references?

Allow me to say something very obvious but often overlooked about this.

Gov. Greg Abbott revived a debate Saturday about a controversial line from a decades-old Pace Picante ad: “Get a rope.”

Abbott tweeted the reference after a follower jokingly asked him what he was going to do about a Whataburger that had run out of Dr Pepper.

One minute later, another Twitter user accused the governor of making an insensitive joke about lynching.

“Lynching jokes? Still? It’s 2019, Greg,” Gary M. Sarli tweeted. The governor responded by telling him to “lighten up, dude.”

“It’s a line ripped off of the Pace Picante Get A Rope Commercial,” Abbott wrote with a link to the old advertisement. “Put a smile on your face. Go to Whataburger & order a double with cheese & jalapeños. Tell them Dr. Pepper sent you.”

Sarli said he remembered the ad too, but it doesn’t justify using the remark.

“It’s not OK,” he replied. “Lynching jokes are making light of the mass murder of Black folks by lynch mobs. It’s not OK to joke about this.”

Let me state for the record that Gary Sarli is correct, lynching jokes were never appropriate, and they are very much still being made far too often and in far too much comfort by prominent people now. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there were many jokes made in the culture from decades past that were wrong then and really, really have no place in the discourse now. You’d think that a guy who was lightning-fast to defenestrate Rick Miller for his racist statements about Asian-Americans might have just a tad bit more self-awareness about lynching-related jokes.

But look, maybe someone should gently inform Greg Abbott that the commercial in question was made in 1992. There are many, many people alive and living in Texas right now that have never seen that ad, or that have no memory of it. People react to “Pace Picante Sauce commercial” references in part because of the horrible legacy that underlies the joke in question, but also because they have no idea what the reference is about. It comes completely out of the blue to them, in the way that a joke based on Evening Shade or Blossom or Wings might land. Tell Abbott to have his staffers quiz their children and grandchildren about what’s funny today, and go from there. I mean, Abbott making a joke about the Peloton wife may be painful, but it’s less likely to result in this kind of controversy. I’m just saying.

After-deadline filing review: The Lege

Now we come to the State House, which is where most of the action will be in 2020. In 2018, much of the energy and focus was on Congressional races, to the point where some hand-wringing articles were written about the lack of focus and resources on the legislative races. Dems managed to win 12 seats anyway, and by now we all know of the goal of winning nine more to take the majority. Both parties, and a lot of big-money groups, are locked in on this. That’s where we are as we enter the primary season.

So with all that, see here, here, and here for previous entries. The top target list, or at least my version of it, is here. As before, I will skip over the Houston-area races and focus on the ones I haven’t been talking about. Finally, one correction to that post on Houston-area races: I have been informed, and a look at the SOS candidate info page confirms, the two would-be primary challengers to Rep. Hubert Vo in HD149 have been disqualified.

The top targets: I will start with the districts that Beto carried, then move to the next tier.

HD64Angela Brewer, adjunct professor of communication studies at UNT and Collin College. You can see a short video of her talking to a local journo here. This district is in Denton County, where HD65 flipped in 2018.

HD66Sharon Hirsch, a retired Plano ISD employee who came agonizingly close to winning in 2018 (she lost by less than 400 votes, 0.6 percentage points), will try again. Physician Aimee Garza Lopez is also running to take on lousy incumbent Matt Shaheen.

HD67 – Four candidates are running (a fifth withdrew) in a Collin County district that Beto carried by five and a half points (incumbent Jeff Leach held on by 2.2 points). Attorney Tom Adair, attorney and El Salvador native who fled its civil war in the 80s Rocio Gosewehr Hernandez, former teacher and legislative director Anthony Lo, and real estate agent Lorenzo Sanchez are your options.

HD108 – Another heartbreaking loss, as 2018 candidate Joanna Cattanach fell short by 220 votes, 0.2 percentage points. This was the most Republican district in Dallas County – in some sense, still one of the two most Republican districts, since there are only two left held by Republicans – and yet Beto took 57.2% here in 2018. Cattanach, a teacher, is running again, and she has company, from Tom Ervin and Shawn Terry, both businessmen.

HD121 – I feel like this district, which used to be held by Joe Straus, is a bit of an illusion. It looks less red than it is. Beto won it, but only with 49.7%, while new Rep. Steve Allison (who beat a wingnut in the 2018 GOP primary) took it by eight and a half points. I feel confident the Democratic Presidential candidate will carry it, and it may be Dem in some county races downballot, but much like HD134 has done I expect it to stick with its moderate Republican State Rep. Yeah, I know, I’m a buzzkill. Anyway, 2018 candidate Celina Montoya, founder of an educational non-profit, is back, and she’s joined by consultant and Moms Demand Action state leader Becca DeFelice and Jack Guerra, listed on the SOS page as a “small business owner”.

HD96 – We’re now in the districts Beto didn’t carry, though he only missed this one by 91 votes. I’ll be doing these in decreasing order of Beto’s performance. HD96 is one of five – count ’em five – target districts in Tarrant County, mostly thanks to Beto’s performance in 2018. This is now an open seat thanks to a last-minute decision not to file by Bill Zedler, one of the main anti-vaxxers in the Lege. Attorney Joe Drago has the task of flipping this one.

HD54 – Most of the pickup opportunities for Dems are in the urban and big suburban counties, where you would expect them to be. HD54 is one of three that are not. It’s in Central Texas, split between Bell (blue) and Lampasas (red) counties, it’s been a low-key swing district for some time, and Beto got 49.0% there in 2018. Likeithia “Keke” Williams is listed as the candidate – SD24 candidate Clayton Tucker had originally filed for HD54 but switched to the Senate race following her filing. I can’t find any online presence for her – Tucker mentions she’s a veteran, so we know that much – but I sure hope she gets the support she needs to run a serious campaign, because this is a winnable seat.

HD97 – Get ready for a lot of Tarrant County, with one of the other non-traditional targets thrown in. HD97 (Beto 48.6%) was blue for five minutes in 2008, after Dan Barrett won a special election to fill out Anna Mowrey’s term, then lost that November when Republican turnout returned to normal levels. It’s not been on the radar since, and incumbent Craig Goldman won by nine points last year. No one ever said this would be easy. Attorney and veteran Elizabeth Beck and Dan Willis, listed on the SOS page as an eye doctor, fight it out in March to take their shot in November.

HD14 – The second on the three “wait, where is that district again?” seats (it’s in Brazos County, for the record), HD14 put itself on the list by having Beto (48.4%) improve on Hillary Clinton’s performance (38.1%) by over ten points. Was that a fluke, either in 2016 or in 2018? I have no idea, but any district where Beto can get 48.4% is a district where we need to compete. Certified public accountant Janet Dudding and Raza Rahman, a senior at Texas A&M, have the honors of trying to do that competing.

HD92 – This is – or, thankfully and more accurately, was – Jonathan Stickland’s district. Need I say more? The air is fresher already. Steve Riddell, who lost by less than two points to Stickland in this 48.3% Beto district, and attorney and Air Force veteran Jeff Whitfield, are in it.

HD93 – Staying in Tarrant County, we have yet another anti-vaxxer’s district, this one belonging to Matt Krause. What’s in the water out there, y’all? It’s Beto at 48.2%, and Lydia Bean, sociology professor and non-profit founder and 2018 Dem candidate in the district, is back.

HD94 – Tarrant County has punched way above its weight in the Idiot Legislators department lately, thanks to a cluster of loudmouth anti-vaxxers. That group contains HD94 incumbent Tony Tinderholt, who entered the Lege by knocking out a leading pro-public education Republican incumbent, and who is a dangerous lunatic for other reasons. Tarrant County will be less toxic next session with Jonathan Stickland and Bill Zedler retiring, and taking out Tony Tinderholt would also help. Alisa Simmons, who does not have a campaign presence yet, has that task.

HD32 is a weird district. Located in Nueces County, it was a swing seat in the previous decade, finally flipped by then-rising star Juan Garcia in 2008, when Dems held a total of 74 seats. Todd Hunter, who had represented it in earlier years, won it back in 2010 and hasn’t faced a Democratic opponent since. With Beto taking 47.0% there, it’s again in the mix. Eric Holguin, the Democratic candidate in CD27 in 2018, is running in HD32 this cycle.

HD106 – We’re now very much into “stretch” territory, as the last four districts are all under 45% for Beto; this one, which was rehomed from Dallas to Denton County in the 2011 redistricting, scored at 44.2% for Beto and was won by first-term incumbent Jared Patterson with 58.3%. But if 2018 taught us anything, it’s that things can move in a hurry, so I don’t want to overlook potential possibilities, even if they’re more likely to be of interest in the longer term. Jennifer Skidonenko, who identifies herself as a mother and grassroots activist and who is clearly motivated by gun violence, is the candidate.

HD89 – This is the district that used to be held by Jodie Laubenberg. Remember Jodie Laubenberg? She was the author of HB2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that Wendy Davis filibustered and the Supreme Court eventually rejected. Have I elevated your blood pressure just a little? Good. Laubenberg went off to do whatever horrible things people like her do after they leave the Lege, and Candy Noble is her replacement in this Beto 43.5% district. Sugar Ray Ash, the 2018 Dem nominee who is a veteran, former postal worker, tax attorney, DMN endorsed, and all around interesting guy, is back for another shot, and he has company in the person of Jon Cocks, whose website is from a prior race for Mayor of Fairview.

HD122 – The most Republican district in Bexar County, held by Greg Abbott frenemy Lyle Larson, Beto got 43.4% here, while Larson himself was getting almost 62 percent. Claire Barnett is a consultant for adult education programs and was the Democratic nominee here in 2018. She’s making another run in 2020.

HD84 – Last but not least, this is in some ways my favorite district on the list because it’s where you might least expect it – HD84 is in Lubbock County. Calling it a swing district is certainly a stretch – Beto got 43.1% in 2018, a big improvement over Hillary Clinton’s 34.8% in 2016, and incumbent John Frullo won by 20 points. But the direction is encouraging, and we’ve known since the 2011 redistricting cycle that one could build a Dem-leaning district in Lubbock if one were so inclined. If nothing else, keep that in mind as a thing to work for in the 2021 session. John Gibson, attorney and the Chair of the Lubbock County Democratic Party, announced his candidacy on Monday, deadline day, which made me happy because I’d been afraid we were skipping that race. I’m so glad we’re not.

I’ve still got judicial candidates and maybe a look at Fort Bend County candidates to look at. Stay tuned.

Flynn to “challenge” GOP decision to boot him from HD138 ballot

Still more filing finagling.

Josh Flynn

Texas House candidate Josh Flynn is challenging a decision by the Harris County Republican Party to rule him ineligible for the House District 138 primary because he did not “properly” submit his resignation from the county education department.

Flynn, a Republican who was elected to the Harris County Department of Education board of trustees in 2018, resigned last week after his eligibility for the Legislature came under question and a Houston attorney formally requested the Harris County GOP deem Flynn ineligible.

Under a state law that makes people who hold a “lucrative office” ineligible for the Legislature, Flynn’s position on the HCDE board appeared to bar him from running for the House. Though trustees earn just $6 per meeting, the Texas Supreme Court has determined that “an office is lucrative if the office holder receives any compensation, no matter how small.”

Last week, Flynn submitted his resignation from the board and re-filed for the House District 138 primary. However, in a letter sent to Flynn Tuesday, Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson said Flynn was ineligible to run because he apparently submitted his resignation to the wrong person at the county education board.

“After you withdrew that initial application, HCDE administrative assistant Theresa Perez received notification of your resignation from the office of HCDE Trustee,” Simpson wrote. “The public records do not show that your resignation was delivered to the presiding officer, clerk, or secretary of the Harris County Department of Education.”

In the letter, Simpson cited a section of the Texas Election Code that says if an official is resigning from a governmental body, the resignation “may be delivered to the presiding officer of the body or to its clerk or secretary.”

Flynn did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He told the Texas Tribune Wednesday that he is “fighting” Simpson’s decision, and on Thursday sent an email to supporters assuring them he would appear on the ballot despite the party’s decision.

“While it is unfortunate that they came to this conclusion, I have great confidence that I will indeed be running to be your next State Representative in next year’s election as the Election Attorney feels it is an open and shut case,” Flynn wrote.

See here and here for the background. I assume this means that Flynn plans to take legal action to force his way back onto the ballot, in the same way that Judge George Powell has done. I have a bit more sympathy for Flynn’s position, though as before this is one of those things where good advice from a seasoned campaign professional probably would have saved the day. I have no dog in this fight, but I am very curious to see what happens. And again, the Lege could take action to clean up these bits of law – this here would likely take a constitutional amendment as well – so as to avoid this situation in the future.

Meanwhile, in other HCDE news:

The Harris County Department of Education Board of Trustees voted Dec. 18 to replace trustees George Moore, Position 1, Precinct 2 and Josh Flynn, Position 4, Precinct 3 with Amy Hinojosa and Andrea Duhon, respectively. Both Moore, board vice president, and Flynn, president, had tendered their resignations prior to the meeting.

“I give my sincere appreciation to Dr. George Moore and Josh Flynn for their service to the students and citizens of Harris County,” HCDE School Superintendent James Colbert Jr. said. “Dr. Moore is an outstanding man and has left a significant fingerprint on this organization as a fierce advocate for the underserved and as a great supporter for our 1,100 employees. Mr. Flynn was a good leader who is very well read, extremely efficient and took pride in his leadership post, and I wish him well in his new endeavors.”

Hinojosa, a Pasadena resident, was sworn into office shortly after her appointment. She is a 16-year, oil-and-gas project manager. She volunteers with an education advocacy group called ProUnitas. “I’m passionate about serving my community and about improving student outcomes,” said Hinojosa. “I look forward to the work ahead, and I’m excited.”

Duhon, a Katy resident, is a small business financial advisor who has a record for advocating for public education programs such as Head Start. HCDE currently serves 1,250 Head Start children and families in northeast and east Harris County. “I look forward to serving the community on behalf of the students of Harris County,” Duhon said.

Duhon, as the Chron story noted, lost by about 2,000 votes, or 0.6 percentage points, to Flynn in the 2018 election. I had completely forgotten this, but George Moore had won an even closer election in 2016, barely edging Sherri Matula by less than 500 votes and 0.2 percentage points. Duhon has filed for the Position 7 At Large seat in the 2020 primary, but in response to my question said she will be withdrawing from that race (there are three other candidates, including David Brown, who along with Duhon (then seeking the Position 5 At Large spot) had been an early entrant) and will serve the remainder of Flynn’s term, which runs through 2024. Some other mid-term appointments would require her and Hinojosa to run next year to fill out the unexpired terms, but apparently that is not the case for the HCDE Board.

This also means, as the Chron story points out, that the HCDE Board is now a 4-3 Dem majority, which had been the goal with the two At Large positions up for election. If the Dems win them, it’ll be a 6-1 split, with only Eric Dick on the Republican side (and, if you believe him, only kinda-sorta on the Republican side). That’s both exciting and a little worrisome, since the HCDE has been a target for some Republicans in the Lege to eliminate. Consider that a further incentive to win the State House in 2020. Also, too, At Large incumbent Michael Wolfe – you know, that guy – will not be running for re-election in 2020, as he takes another shot at knocking off Republican JP Russ Ridgway. Lots of changes on the HCDE Board, now and next year.

UPDATE: Flynn has now officially taken action:

Texas House candidate Josh Flynn sued the Harris County Republican Party on Thursday, alleging that party Chairman Paul Simpson erred in declaring Flynn ineligible for the House District 138 primary this week.

Flynn’s lawsuit, filed against the party and Simpson in state District Court, seeks a temporary restraining order and temporary and permanent injunctions to bar Simpson from ruling him ineligible.

[…]

In the lawsuit, Flynn contended that he effectively delivered his resignation to the board secretary — in this case Superintendent James Colbert Jr. — by leaving it with an administrative assistant in Colbert’s office while the superintendent was away.

Flynn, who also served as board president before resigning, claimed that he was personally the “presiding officer” of the board and therefore “delivered his resignation to himself.”

His attorney in the case is Jared Woodfill, the former Harris County Republican Party chair whom Simpson unseated in 2014.

We’ll see what happens with it.

HISD attempt to stop TEA takeover denied

Possibly only a temporary setback, however.

A federal judge on Wednesday denied Houston ISD’s request for a preliminary injunction and dismissed its lawsuit aimed at stopping the Texas Education Agency from replacing the district’s elected board, delivering a temporary victory to state officials.

However, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that HISD could still argue parts of the lawsuit in state court and did not reject a Voting Rights Act violation claim brought by the district’s largest teachers union, keeping the possibility of legal intervention alive.

In a 13-page ruling issued late Wednesday, Yeakel found that HISD officials could not legally bring federal due process and voting rights claims against the Texas Education Agency, and that allegations of First Amendment rights violations by the agency did not warrant issuing a preliminary injunction.

[…]

Yeakel, based in Austin, said claims that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath exceeded his authority on multiple occasions prior to deciding to replace HISD trustees could be heard in a Travis County court, where he remanded the case.

See here for the previous update; as promised, this was a quick ruling from Judge Yeakel. HISD could now pursue this in a state court, where I don’t think they’re any more likely to get a favorable ruling, but in for a penny and all that. In addition, Judge Yeakel wrote that his initial approval of the Houston Federation of Teachers joining the lawsuit was in error, because they have separate claims from the ones HISD was bringing. He said they should file their own separate lawsuit, which centers on Voting Rights Act claims; as the story indicates, that is what they plan to do. Again, based on the North Forest experience, I don’t think this is going to win the day, but there’s no harm in trying. So, while this was a win for the state, it’s not over yet. The Trib has more.

Interview with Chrysta Castañeda

Chrysta Castañeda

As you may have noticed, there are a lot of contested Democratic primaries, and not a whole lot of time between now and early voting. In an ideal world, I’d have time to talk to candidates in all of the races that interest me and devote individual weeks to the interviews from one given race. In the world we’re in, I’ve got to make do and pick my spots. So, some of the time you’ll get bonus coverage from other races or other candidates, as I can do them. Today we visit the Railroad Commissioners race, where Chrysta Castañeda was the first candidate to make news. Castañeda is an engineer and attorney, with years of litigation experience in the energy sector. She is also a board member of the Texas Women’s Foundation and was previously the board chair of Ignite Texas, a non-partisan organization focused on building political ambition in young women. Here’s the interview:

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

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

I am reaching out to the other RRC candidates and will present those interviews as I can.

Trib overview of State House races

Let’s get the 2020 State House conversation started.

For the first time in years, Republicans and Democrats are acknowledging that the GOP could lose its grip on the Texas House — a turning point that would mark the state’s biggest political shakeup since the chamber last flipped nearly two decades ago.

With the 2020 ballot all but set, both parties are readying their candidates for the 150 state House races, with roughly 30 seats seen as competitive.

As recently as 2017, House Republicans relished in a 95-member majority. But now, Democrats, bolstered by their 12-seat pick-up last year, are effectively only nine away from gaining control of the chamber — and having a larger say in the 2021 redistricting process.

Such a prospect has prompted newfound attention — and, in some cases, alarm — in a state that’s long been considered far out of reach for Democrats. And it’s created an awareness among Republicans, who have comfortably controlled virtually every lever of state government in Texas, that an updated — if not entirely new — playbook is needed.

Democrats still have their work cut out for them. The last time they controlled the House was 2001. In addition to holding onto the 12 seats the party flipped last year, Democrats would need to pick up the additional nine — and this cycle, the GOP says it’s more prepared for the threat than it was in 2018.

[…]

The battlefield for the House is large. In addition to the 12 seats that Republicans are trying to reclaim from the 2018 midterm election, Democrats are targeting 22 Republican-held seats where Beto O’Rourke, the 2018 Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, won or lost by single digits. In 17 of those seats, the Republican incumbents won by fewer than 10 percentage points. Of those 17 seats, there are nine where both O’Rourke won and the incumbent won by single digits — those could be considered Democrats’ highest priorities.

Both parties are again calling North Texas ground zero for several of the House races considered to be in play by both parties, with the Austin and Houston areas also featuring clusters of competitive seats.

Even before the 2020 elections, Democrats have a chance to pick up a seat in the late January special election runoff to fill the seat of former Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond. Democrats were already targeting him before he resigned this fall to take a job with the University of Texas System.

Democrat targets have even grown to include once-unthinkable places like House District 32, where state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, is facing his first challenger from either party since O’Rourke came within 5 points of winning the district.

The Democrat now running against Hunter, Eric Holguin, said the district has become more young and more diverse since the lines were drawn in 2011 — and last year brought into focus Democrats’ path to victory.

“In 2018, we were seeing such a seismic shift in our political landscape due to [President Donald] Trump already having been in office a couple years,” said Holguin, who ran for Congress last cycle in the area. “Now that we saw the results of what happened in 2018, we could build off from there. We know where the new bar is set at more locally, and we could take it from there instead of not knowing what would happen post-Trump being elected.”

The embedded chart is from the story, and it includes most of the districts I’ve identified as opportunities. Dems are targeting more than the group pictured, but the ones in that map are the most likely to flip. I’ve got my look at who filed for what in the State House in the works, so go have a look at the Trib story as your warmup.

Interview with Debra Kerner

Debra Kerner

We come to the end of our State Board of Education interviews. For all its dysfunction, the SBOE plays an important role in the maintenance and operation of Texas’ public schools, and it needs the best people it can get to serve on it. Like the other Democratic candidates, Debra Kerner is a career educator, with a speciality in speech-language pathology. She served a six-year term on the Harris County Department of Education Board of Trustees, winning office in the initial Democratic wave of 2008. She is also the current State Democratic Committeewoman for Senate District 17 and a co-founder and former president of the Meyerland Area Democrats. Here’s the interview:

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Kimberly McLeod – SBOE6

Interview with Kimberly McLeod

Kimberly McLeod

We continue on with the State Board of Education, which is that entity that is subject to redistricting that gets the least amount of attention. To be fair, it’s demanded less attention in recent years thanks to an absence of clownishness on the Board, but the potential remains and can best be addressed by having more Democrats in Board positions. Dr. Kimberly McLeod was a later entrant into the District 6 race. She’s a longtime educator, having been a classroom teacher and a professor and dean at Texas Southern University. She now serves as Assistant Superintendent of Education & Enrichment at the Harris County Department of Education. Here’s our conversation:

I’m just going to give links to previous interviews at this point:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6

Endorsement watch: DSCC picks MJ Hegar

I’m sure no one will have any feelings about this.

MJ Hegar

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is endorsing MJ Hegar in the crowded primary to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The move by the DSCC, the political arm of Senate Democrats, is one of the biggest developments yet in the nominating contest, which has drawn a dozen candidates — some more serious than others but no decisive frontrunners.

Hegar, the former Air Force helicopter pilot and 2018 congressional candidate, entered the primary in April and has emerged as the top fundraiser. But polls show the race remains wide open as Democrats look to pick up where they left off from Beto O’Rourke’s near-miss 2018 loss to the state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz.

“Texas has emerged as a battleground opportunity for Democrats up and down the ballot, and MJ Hegar is the strongest candidate to flip the U.S. Senate seat,” the DSCC’s chairwoman, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, said in a statement.

“As a decorated combat veteran and working mother, MJ has both the courage and independence to put Texas first and is running on the issues that matter most to Texans: making health care and prescription drugs more affordable, protecting coverage for Texans with pre-existing conditions, and taking action to address climate change,” Cortez Masto continued. “We are proud to support MJ in her fight to continue her public service in the U.S. Senate.”

This is where I point out that the entire mission of the DSCC is to elect (and re-elect) Democratic Senate candidates, and that a big part of their function is fundraising. Hegar is so far the best fundraiser among the Democratic candidates, partly because she’s been in the race the longest, and she has track record of strong fundraising from 2018, as well as being the most recent candidate to have run that kind of underdog race. From a strictly pragmatic perspective, it makes sense, and if the DSCC believes that Texas is a viable pickup opportunity and Hegar represents the best shot at it, the rest follows easily enough. Those who align more closely with other candidates and/or believe that another candidate will be stronger against Cornyn will of course disagree with this assessment.

On a broader level, there are arguments to be made for and against an outfit like the DSCC entering a contested primary, especially one without a frontrunner, when they would presumably want to support one or more of the other candidates as well. Bad blood is a thing, as anyone who survived the CD07 primary last year can attest. Perhaps the DSCC was motivated by that, in the sense that they wanted to help someone they already liked break out.

Democrats now officially have their work cut out for them as a dozen candidates — some more serious than others but no clear frontrunners — vie for the chance to face U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, despite universally low name ID and modest fundraising at best.

Tensions in the field have run mostly low, but that is beginning to change. At least one candidate, Latina organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, has started moving more aggressively to distinguish herself, while additional areas of potential scrutiny have begun to emerge around other candidates. Tzintzún Ramirez has increasingly found a foil in rival MJ Hegar, who is holding firm on a general election-focused campaign while resisting the progressive impulses that Tzintzún Ramirez and some others have shown.

To that end, Tzintzún Ramirez’s credentials are getting a boost Friday with the endorsement of the Working Families Party, a labor-aligned third party that backed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016 and is supporting Elizabeth Warren for 2020. The group, which has an increasingly active Texas chapter, shared the endorsement first with The Texas Tribune.

“We think she’s the true progressive in the race, and that’s why we’re getting behind her,” said Jorge Contreras, the party’s Texas state director. “We’ve worked with Workers Defense and Jolt” — two organizing groups that Tzintzún Ramirez helped start — “and we see that she’s actually been throwing down for a long time in the state.”

Tzintzún Ramirez is campaigning on “Medicare for All,” a Green New Deal and a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons — all proposals that Hegar has not embraced or has even overtly rejected. Hegar, an Air Force veteran, is touting herself as neither a moderate nor a progressive but an “ass-kicking” working mom with broad appeal. For months, she has talked openly about training her campaign exclusively on beating Cornyn, ignoring primary rivals and declining opportunities to criticize them.

On a conference call with reporters after filing Monday, Hegar said she had no plans to change that approach as the primary gets closer and the field remains muddled, saying, “This is who I am, and who I am is not interested in taking shots at people who share my values” and are also trying to “move the needle.”

Still, Hegar’s strategy ran into some controversy a couple of days later when she was asked about Tzintzún Ramirez suggesting the primary was coming down to her and Hegar — and Hegar replied, “Well, it is a two-person race. It’s me and John Cornyn.” While Hegar added that she was not taking the primary for granted, Tzintzún Ramirez’s campaign fired back in a fundraising email hours later that said it “seems like MJ forgot that Cristina was most recently shown to be leading this primary, or that there’s a diverse crowd of other incredible Democratic candidates running too.” (The campaign was apparently referring to a November poll that had Tzintzún Ramirez in the No. 1 spot but within the margin of error of other candidates clustered in the single digits.)

[…]

Hegar’s supporters brush off the growing scrutiny, noting she is the fundraising leader in the primary — $2.1 million raised as of last quarter — and arguing she will be the strongest Democrat against Cornyn with her resources and ability to appeal to independent voters and even Republicans. They point to her military background as well as her stronger-than-expected performance in a traditionally red congressional district last year, losing by fewer than 3 percentage points to Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock.

“I think she’s the frontrunner — I thought that before, and I think that now,” said Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets, Hegar’s earliest national endorser. “When you have a huge state with a lot of media markets, it’s gonna come down to who voters get to know first. MJ’s raised more than anybody else.”

I’ll leave the debate over who stands for what and who should be supported for another time. I mean, that’s what a primary is for, and may the best candidate rise to the top. For what it’s worth, I like Hegar and Tzintzún Ramirez both quite a bit, and I also like West, Edwards, and Bell. I’ll pick which one I want to vote for eventually, but in the meantime I’m all about beating Cornyn. They’d all be far better than he has been, so the rest is strategy and fundraising. Let’s see what the January reports tell us, and let’s see who can get their voices heard. The Texas Signal has more.

Interview with Michelle Palmer

Michelle Palmer

This week we focus on the State Board of Education. As we’ve discussed before, there are three SBOE seats that had been carried by Beto in 2018 that are up for election this cycle, and if Democrats won them all they’d have an 8-7 majority on the Board. That effort goes through Harris County and SBOE District 6, where incumbent Donna Bahorich is stepping down. Three Democrats have stepped up to run for this seat. Michelle Palmer is a teacher who has Mathematics, ELA, and Social Studies. She has an abiding interest in the school curriculum, and is a frequent presence in online political forums. Here’s what we talked about:

I swear, I will come up with something to keep track of these interviews. In the meantime, you can revisit the ones I did for CD02: Elisa Cardnell and Travis Olsen.

CNN/SSRS: Trump 48, Biden 47

Time for a non-Mayoral poll. The story is about results, primary and general, in both California and Texas, so forgive the abrupt opening sentence.

In Texas, however, it’s a different picture, with Biden holding wide leads across nearly every major demographic divide among those likely to vote in the primary there. The former vice president also tops as best able to handle each of the five issues tested by no less than six points.

Biden prompts the highest enthusiasm among Texas’ likely Democratic primary voters (44% say they would be extremely enthusiastic about a Biden nomination vs. 38% for Sanders, 31% for Warren and 23% for Buttigieg).

On the Republican side of the primary picture, Donald Trump appears unlikely to face a serious challenge in either state. In Texas, 86% of likely Republican primary voters say they back the President, in California, it’s 85%. Neither of his declared opponents reaches even 5% support in either state.

But Trump’s approval rating overall is underwater in both states. In California, just 32% approve of the way the President is handling his job, while 61% disapprove. In Texas, 42% approve and 50% disapprove. Trump’s numbers among independents (38% approve) and women (34% approve) in Texas would seem to suggest a warning sign for his general election prospects in a reliably GOP state.

But hypothetical general election matchups in the Texas poll point the other way.

Trump and Biden run about even in Texas among registered voters, 48% back Trump to 47% for Biden. Against three other Democrats, Trump holds significant leads: He holds 51% over Warren’s 44%, and Buttigieg and Sanders each have 43% support to Trump’s 50% in their matchups.

You can find all of the poll data here. To summarize the important bits:

A1. Do you approve or disapprove of the way Donald Trump is handling his job as president?


Total Respondents
                   Approve Disapprove No opinion
December 4-8, 2019     42%        50%         8%
October 9-13, 2018     41%        50%        10%

Registered Voters
December 4-8, 2019     48%        47%         5%
October 9-13, 2018     47%        48%         6%

Q12. If (NAME) were the Democratic Party’s candidate and Donald Trump were the Republican Party’s candidate, for whom would you be more likely to vote?


                      Biden  Trump
December 4-8, 2019       47     48

                  Buttigieg  Trump
December 4-8, 2019       43     50

                    Sanders  Trump
December 4-8, 2019       43     50

                     Warren  Trump
December 4-8, 2019       44     51

Those are relatively bad approval numbers for Trump, and better overall levels of support, at least in comparison to other recent polls. The same poll as noted shows Biden with a big lead in Texas in the Dem primary; I’m less interested in that. Otherwise, standard disclaimers apply – one poll, snapshot in time, lots of Dems haven’t made up their minds yet, etc – and that’s about all there is to say.

After-deadline filing review: RRC, SBOE, Senate

Moving on to state offices that are not the State House (that’s next). See here and here for previous entries.

RRC: The only statewide non-federal office on the ballot, as is usually the case in Presidential years. There are four candidates, three of whom we’re acquainted with. I’ve previously mentioned two of the candidates, Chrysta Castañeda, whom I met at the recent CEC meeting, and Kelly Stone, whom I’ve not met but have spoken to over the phone. There’s former State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, who was defeated in the primary last year by State Rep. Jessica Gonzalez. The fourth candidate is Mark Watson, whom I cannot conclusively identify. Thankfully, Grady Yarbrough did not file.

SBOE: Late in the day, Rebecca Bell-Metereau filed for SBOE5; she has run for this office a couple of times before, including in 2016, when she lost by four points as Hillary Clinton carried the district. This would be the year to run. I still can’t find anything related to Letti Bresnahan’s campaign, not even confirmation that the person I believe to be the candidate for this office is indeed that candidate. There are two candidates for SBOE10, the third district that Beto carried but the longest reach of the three. One is Stephen Wyman, who has run a couple of times for HD20 in Williamson County, and the other is Marsha Burnett-Webster, who appears to be the wife of Cecil Webster, former Fayette County Democratic Party Chair who has run for HD13 a couple of times. Finally, the Democratic candidate in SBOE8, Sharon Berry, has dropped out.

Senate: I’m going to go through the individual races that I didn’t discuss in the Houston-area post.

Audrey Spanko is running in SD01 – here’s a news story about her. She sounds like a terrific candidate, running in a tough district.

There are two candidates running in SD12, which is the closest thing to a swing-ish district we have – it’s a bit more Republican than SD19 is Democratic, and a teensy bit bluer than SD11. If we’re seriously talking about it being competitive next year, Democrats are having an amazing cycle. Anyway, Shadi Zitoon and Randy Daniels are vying to be the nominee.

SD19 is the noisy epicenter of the otherwise quiet Senate campaign space. In the context of a Presidential year, it should be a ten-to-twelve-point Dem district, and it’s a must have. There are four candidates running, and we’re familiar with two of them, State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, and Xochil Peña Rodriguez,, daughter of former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez. The others are Freddy Ramirez, a Bexar County prosecutor, and Belinda Shvetz.

SD22 and SD24 are not competitive districts. Robert Vick and Clayton Tucker have the arduous tasks of running in them.

Sen. Eddie Lucio is finally getting the serious primary challenge he deserves in SD27. Ruben Cortez and Sara Stapleton Barrera hope to usher him out.

SD29 is open following the retirement of Sen. Jose Rordiguez. State Rep. Cesar Blanco has the field to himself.

Next up, the Lege. As always, let me know what you think.