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Endorsement watch: Judicial races

The Chron endorses two Dem challengers and one Republican incumbent for the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Judge Tina Clinton

A court’s legitimacy derives in part from its capacity to inspire trust in the minds of those who live by its rulings. “There cannot be a trust among the African American community that the system is fair when the judges dispensing that justice are all represented by just one group,” Judge Tina Yoo Clinton, a Dallas County district court judge whom we recommend for Place 4, said last month at a virtual forum organized by the Innocence Project of Texas. She was noting that there are currently no Black justices on the court, and just one of nine members is Latino.

It’s a valid point, but it’s also true that in the context of the Court of Criminal Appeals, diversity must also include a broader range of ideological perspective and of life experience. That’s because how a judge sees the law — and how he or she applies it to a particular case — is far more complex than sound bites about “activist judges” or labels such as conservative and liberal.

[…]

Place 4, Tina Yoo Clinton (D)
Tina Yoo Clinton, 50, has more than 14 years experience as a judge and 10 more as a prosecutor. She brings a combination of a veteran judge’s experience and the enthusiasm and fresh perspective of a newcomer. It’s exactly the mix the court needs.

For that reason, we recommend her over Justice Kevin Yeary, who has been on the court since 2014.

“Clearly when you look at what is going on in the United States within the criminal justice system, we have to recognize that even though we want justice to be colorblind, it is not colorblind,” Clinton said during last month’s candidate forum.

That’s a starting point that will help shape the discussions among the nine justices in ways that keep fairness at the center of the debate. Matched with her long experience and commitment to follow the law, we believe she will help render justice in which all Texans can have faith.

Place 9, Brandon Birmingham (D)
We recommend voters elect Dallas County criminal district court Judge Brandon Birmingham, 43, in Place 9, even at the high cost of losing Justice David Newell, whose voice on questions of actual innocence has been reasoned and refreshing.

But he adheres to the court’s overall emphasis on textualism, and approaches each case within a narrower view of what justice requires than would his opponent. The court’s nine members urgently need new perspectives, new sets of life experiences, and new vantage points from which to see the law and the facts in order to render decisions that have credibility with an increasingly skeptical public.

Birmingham would stretch the boundaries of that debate — and would do so using experience as a judge, a prosecutor and a change agent.

They also endorsed Justice Bert Richardson, who I will agree is a good judge, over challenger Elizabeth Frizell. At least here, the Chron did more than just nod in the direction of increasing the diversity of this court, as they did with the Supreme Court.

In the other judicial races, the Chron endorsed all four Republican incumbents on the First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals, and five Dems and five Republicans (plus one abstention) for the district courts. I’m just going to say this: If there’s one thing we should take away from the Merrick Garland/Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett experiences, it’s that the judiciary is to Republicans (with a huge push from the professional conservative movement) nothing but an expression of political power. Gorsuch was given, and Barrett almost certainly will be given, a lifetime tenure on the US Supreme Court, where they will consistently rule in favor of Republican and conservative positions, because the Republican-held Senate had the power to block Garland and install the other two.

Here in Texas, where we elect judges as part of the regular electoral process, there has been a call to move away from partisan elections of judges and towards some other, as yet undefined system, which may involve appointments or bipartisan panels or who knows what else. This push has emerged and grown as Democrats have begun to assert more political power in Texas – I’ve been documenting it since 2008, when we elected Democratic judges for the first time since the early nineties. What the voters want is more Democratic judges, and so it has become Very Important for the Republicans that still retain full power in this state to make sure they don’t get them.

As a matter of abstract principle, I would agree that we could do a better job picking judges than the current system we have, where judges are voted on by people who mostly have no idea who they are and what they do. I’m sure if we put a few sober and learned types in a room for a few hours, they would emerge with a perfectly fine system for selecting judges on pure merit. But we’ve had this imperfect system for a long time, and when it benefitted the Republicans it was just fine. It certainly benefits them right now, when questions about voting rights are being litigated. If more Democratic judges get elected this cycle, I consider that just to be some balance on the scales. When we get to a point of having solid Democratic majorities on the Supreme Court and the CCA, and there’s a Democratic Governor and Lt. Governor and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, then come back with a fully-formed plan for non-partisan meritocratic judicial selections, and we can talk. Until then, I say elect more Democrats, including and especially Democratic judges. Politics has been a key part of this process from the beginning. The fact that the politics are slowly starting to favor the Democrats is not a compelling reason to change that. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Interview with Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

I knew I wanted to talk to freshman Rep. Lizzie Fletcher this cycle, because there’s just so much to talk about. You know her story from 2018 – the crowded primary, the unprecedented amounts of money raised and spent, the eventual victory in a district that had been held by Republicans for over 50 years – but none of us could have known what the first two years in Congress would entail. Rep. Fletcher serves on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and has passed multiple bills out of the House. This is my last interview for the fall, and as you may imagine, we had a lot to talk about.

PREVIOUSLY:

Hank Gilbert, CD01
Rashad Lewis, CD36
Julie Oliver, CD25
Elizabeth Hernandez, CD08
Sima Ladjevardian, CD02
Rep. Christina Morales, HD145

Why did Ken Paxton hire a newbie attorney to be a “special prosecutor” or whatever he meant to call him?

The Trib has some questions.

Best mugshot ever

It was a baffling, perilous, perhaps unprecedented task.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton hired an outside lawyer last month to look into a complaint of misconduct by a host of state and federal officials, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a U.S. attorney’s office. The claim had been made by a Paxton donor whose home and office were reportedly raided by federal agents last year.

Some legal experts say the investigation should never have been in the hands of the attorney general’s office at all. But if it was, longtime Texas attorneys say, it’s a job for a seasoned prosecutor, perhaps someone with years of experience as a U.S. attorney or district attorney, someone who’d already established a reputation, someone who’d taken dozens of cases all the way from investigation to sentencing.

Instead, Paxton personally signed off on a $300 hourly rate for Brandon Cammack, a 34-year-old Houston defense attorney with ties to the donor’s attorney and five years of experience whose docket, court records show, largely comprises cases involving driving while intoxicated, low-level theft or assault.

Paxton’s office abruptly ended that investigation Friday after political backlash from both parties and criminal allegations from his own top aides. But questions about Cammack’s role — and the process of his selection — persist.

“That’s the $64,000 question: How did Paxton come to hire this particular lawyer?” said Tim Johnson, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas. “You’d expect, for something that would have the possibility for serious consequences, that you’d want to have somebody that had a great deal of experience in the criminal justice system. And it doesn’t appear that they did that.”

Equally inscrutable is the precise job Cammack was hired to perform for the attorney general’s office. Paxton has described him both as an “outside independent prosecutor” and as “independent counsel,” and one subpoena obtained by The Texas Tribune refers to Cammack as a “special prosecutor.”

But Cammack’s contract, which Paxton released this week, shows that Cammack was never independent, nor was he a prosecutor. Cammack can investigate “only as directed by the [Office of the Attorney General],” and his contract specifies that he will not be involved in any indictment or prosecution born out of his investigation. He’s submitted an invoice for more than $14,000 of work, according to media reports.

I’ll get back to this article in a second, but I should note that it’s a pretty good overview of the story so far, and includes a lot of new details. Because this is a sprawling story that’s being told in multiple places, it also covers some stuff we’ve already talked about. No one is going to be able to write a short article for anything related to this just because recapping the backstory will take at least six paragraphs.

Legal experts and lawyers who’ve worked with Cammack, including his estranged father, questioned whether he has the experience needed to take on such a high-profile assignment.

As recently as 2018, a judge appointed a more senior attorney to assist Cammack when he was working as a defense attorney on a felony manslaughter case.

Mark Hochglaube, the longtime prosecutor and defense attorney who was brought in, said it wasn’t clear whether the judge or Cammack himself considered the young lawyer too inexperienced to handle the case alone — but that both were on board with getting Cammack some help.

Their client, who was found guilty of manslaughter, was sentenced to 50 years.

He praised Cammack’s effort on the case but questioned his selection for the high-profile appointment.

“If I were the attorney general, and I was in this predicament, would the name Brandon Cammack be the first name that popped into my mind? No, it wouldn’t,” Hochglaube said.

Young attorneys can often punch above their weight and rise quickly through the ranks, Hochglaube said, but he added, “I have a hard time saying, based on my experience with Brandon, that I would’ve thought this was suitable for him.”

[…]

Beyond questions about Brandon Cammack’s qualifications, the scope of his role is murky, too.

Why, some legal experts wondered, would a state attorney general be investigating claims against federal authorities at all? Some called the situation unprecedented.

“I guess every politician is limited only by his imagination,” said longtime Houston defense attorney Rusty Hardin, “but that’s a pretty unique event.”

Edward Loya, a Dallas attorney and former federal prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, said FBI agents are not above the law, and, in principle, there is nothing wrong with the state attorney general looking into FBI misconduct for violations of Texas law.

But he added that it is unusual — and raises serious ethical questions — for a state attorney general to take on an investigation of FBI misconduct in a case involving alleged criminal activity of one of the attorney general’s donors. The prudent course, he said, would have been to refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, an independent division within DOJ that probes such claims made against DOJ employees.

“I can’t imagine that’s ever happened before,” said Johnson, the former U.S. attorney, adding that if he had been asked to fill Cammack’s role, “I would’ve stayed as far away as I could.”

“Anybody with half a brain would’ve gotten as far away from this as they possibly could,” Johnson said. But Cammack “may not have had enough experience to realize this is something he really shouldn’t want to get involved with.”

Lawyers interviewed by The Texas Tribune said Cammack’s official role as outside counsel raises questions about whether he had the authority to issue subpoenas, a power limited to prosecutors and assistant attorneys general. His actions in the case could open him up to legal liability if he usurped his authority, and Phelps, the former official in the attorney general’s office, questioned whether the issuance of the subpoenas amounted to a criminal offense.

“An outside counsel is not a ‘special prosecutor’ and has no authority to issue subpoenas, appear in front of a grand jury, or prosecute a criminal case,” said Phelps, who also worked for a decade as first assistant district attorney in Brazos County, and head of a special prosecutions division under Morales.

“I wish someone would pull that Brandon Cammack aside because I think he’s being used, because of his inexperience,” Phelps said.

I skipped over a couple of paragraphs that describe Brandom Cammack’s relationship with his father, who is also an attorney and who comes across as an abusive. It’s icky stuff.

After several days and a whole lot of reading, I’ve been thinking about how to summarize what we know so far, so if we get into a conversation with someone who knows nothing about this other than a vague recollection of some headlines or Facebook posts, we can help them understand. The basic gist of it is that a real estate hotshot in Austin named Nate Paul had been the target of an FBI investigation into his finances, which involved raids on his offices. Paul filed a complaint about the investigation and searches of his properties with the office of Attorney General Ken Paxton, to whom he had contributed $25K in the last election. Paxton did open an investigation, going through the Travis County DA’s office first with a somewhat shady legal pretext to get the investigation handled by his office instead of the DA. He then hired Brandom Cammack, an inexperienced attorney, in a role that is not clearly defined but is something like a special prosecutor, except that Cammack was not independent of Paxton, and no one thinks he had the qualifications or experience for the job. All of this looked like Paxton doing some legal work on behalf of Nate Paul but with the official seal of the AG’s office. That caused a revolt among Paxton’s senior assistants, who told him all of this was highly inappropriate at the least. In the end, seven top assistants to Paxton asked for a federal investigation of Paxton’s involvement in the Nate Paul situation, accusing him of being paid off by Paul to help Paul defend himself against the feds in their investigation of him. Whew!

That’s where things stand now, and there are various subplots and unanswered questions and who knows what else. You can see what I mean when I say that it will be impossible any time soon to write a short article relating to this. I feel like there are still some big shoes to drop, but I couldn’t even guess at what that might mean. It’s becoming quite the political hot potato, as US Rep. Chip Roy – a former top lieutenant to Paxton – has called on him to resign (as have a couple of newspaper editorial boards), and Sen. John Cornyn, himself a former AG, has expressed his disappointment in Paxton’s handling of this. I have to believe that this will be an issue in 2022, in a bigger way than the existing Servergy indictments of Paxton ever were.

One more thing, just to expand on an item noted in the story above: Paxton has officially closed the Nate Paul investigation that started all this, shortly after Travis County DA Margaret Moore told him her office was not going to be involved any more in any way.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said his office is closing its investigation into a complaint made by one of his donors, hours after the Travis County District Attorney formally distanced itself.

Also on Friday, the Texas Department of Public Safety said it was not investigating allegations by aides in Paxton’s office that he committed bribery and other corruption crimes but instead the matter had been referred to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. A DPS spokesman said the Texas Rangers are available to assist.

Paxton had argued that he only pursued an investigation urged by the donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, after getting a referral from Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore’s office. Moore already told the Houston Chronicle that it was Paxton who first brought Paul’s request for an investigation to her and not the other way around.

A letter she sent Paxton Friday upped the ante and made clear her office is cutting all ties to the probe. Moore noted all the revelations that have come out in recent days — revelations that demonstrate Paxton has more than gone out of his way to assist Paul and his troubled real estate dealings.

“Any action you have already taken or will take pursuing this investigation is done solely on your own authority as provided by Texas law,” Moore said. “The newly surfaced information raises serious concerns about the integrity of your investigation and the propriety of your conducting it.”

She said the referral of the Paul matter from her office to his — until now in the hands of an outside Houston lawyer Paxton hired — “cannot be used as any indication of a need for an investigation …or an endorsement of your acceptance of the referral.” She also said she had instructed her employees “to have no further contact with you or your office regarding this matter.”

Paxton said in a statement Friday that he closed the investigation because his office “can only investigate in response to a request for assistance from the District Attorney’s office.”

I wonder if we’ll hear some more about this from the perspective of someone in Moore’s office, now that they are free of any constraint. We’re almost a week into this story and it’s still a total firehose of new information. The Statesman has more.

Endorsement watch: For Biden

Duh.

Character, without question, is the starkest divide between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. For all his faults — and there are a few — the latter possesses a rare ability in these polarized times to see the humanity in those who cross his path, even from the opposing side.

At 77, Biden is a politician who Washington, for all its trying, has been unable to break. Even his political foes preface criticisms with caveats of grace or shrewdly aim their arrows askew — at his gaffe-prone speech, at his younger son, and at his tenuous affiliation with the “radical left,” conveniently forgetting that Biden, a lifelong moderate, already fought the fringe and won.

Biden’s humble roots in Scranton, Penn., the personal hardship he endured after a car crash killed his wife and daughter, the 120-mile commutes back and forth to Washington so he could tuck his sons in bed each night — these are experiences Americans can relate to and they help Biden relate to us.

Still, many who plan to vote for Trump, some with pinched nose, act as though character itself were a luxury — nice if you can get it, but not essential.

We disagree. Character, in this election, is everything.

You know, I’m old enough to remember when the people who now dismiss concerns about Donald Trump’s character were the ones who loudly and repeatedly insisted that character was The Most Important Thing for a President and every other elected official. Funny how that works. Anyway, this is a long editorial and there’s much that they have to say about the depraved and destructive individual who now occupies the White House, and you can read it if you wish. I doubt anyone reading this blog needs to be given reasons to vote for Joe Biden to oust Donald Trump, but they’re there if you need them for someone else. For the rest of us, early voting in person starts tomorrow. You know what to do.

Judge briefly halts Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff locations

Late Friday breaking news, which lasted until the early afternoon on Saturday.

A federal judge ruled Friday that Texas counties can have multiple drop-off locations for absentee ballots heading into the Nov. 3 general election, blocking the enforcement of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order that sought to limit counties to just one such location.

Saying Abbott’s order confused voters and restricted voter access, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman granted an injunction late Friday barring its enforcement. With an unprecedented number of Texas voters requesting mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, and concerns about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service, some large, Democratic counties had set up numerous locations to accept the ballots before Abbott’s order.

“By limiting ballot return centers to one per county,” Pitman wrote, “older and disabled voters living in Texas’s largest and most populous counties must travel further distances to more crowded ballot return centers where they would be at an increased risk of being infected by the coronavirus in order to exercise their right to vote and have it counted.”

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party called Friday’s ruling a “common sense order [that] followed well-established law and stopped the governor from making up election rules after the election started.”

Before Friday’s ruling, Democrats had denounced Abbott’s order, labeling it voter suppression in a state that has repeatedly been knocked in federal court for intentionally discriminating against voters of color. Voting rights advocates and civic groups quickly sued Abbott in federal court, arguing the order was based on invalid security concerns and places an unconstitutional and unequal burden on the right to vote.

The Texas and national League of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters filed suit the night of Abbott’s order, and another lawsuit was filed the next day by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans, the get-out-the-vote group Bigtent Creative and a 65-year-old voter.

“Cutting these mail-in voting locations was wrong and done solely to attempt to steal the election from the rising Texas electorate,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “A county, like Harris County, with more than 4.7 million Texans should have more than one hand delivery location. Limiting counties like Harris is a desperate Republican attempt to hold onto power.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the ruling. Looking at the plaintiffs, it appears that the first lawsuit and the second lawsuit were combined. That leaves one other federal lawsuit, plus the one state lawsuit for which there is a hearing next week.

One presumes this will be appealed, and as we all know the Fifth Circuit is where all good things go to die. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that allowing Abbott’s order, which was made more than two months after counties had begun making plans to have multiple dropoff locations and after the state Solicitor General filed a brief saying that state law allowed for this, is the thing that would improperly disrupt the election at this late date. I also think the Fifth Circuit can rise to the occasion of brushing such an objection aside. Travis County, one of the places that had multiple dropoff locations in place prior to the order, has said it will wait to see what the Fifth Circuit does before reopening them. It’s hard to fault them for that. The Chron and the Statesman have more.

UPDATE: As expected, Paxton has filed an emergency motion for a stay of the judge’s ruling. You can read that here. The smart money always says that he gets what he asks for from this court, so it’s a matter of how quickly they have a hearing and issue a ruling.

UPDATE: Faster than you can say “Anything you want, Kenny”, the Fifth Circuit grants Paxton’s motion. Now we wait for a hearing. See why Travis County decided to wait before reopening any of those dropoff locations? Here’s the Chron story about the granting of the stay.

Military ballots

When we talk about the deadline to print and send out mail ballots, we are specifically talking about ballots sent to active duty military personnel, which by federal law are to be sent out 45 days before Election Day to facilitate them being returned in a timely fashion.

The very people risking their lives to defend the nation are among those most likely to have their ballots left uncounted in the presidential election in November.

When nearly 1 million absentee ballots are sent to military and overseas Americans worldwide by Saturday — kicking off voting for the 2020 election — history shows many will never be returned in time, and a greater percentage will be rejected compared to the rest of the population.

“There’s just a high percentage of ballots that just don’t make it back in time,” said Texas State University’s Don Inbody, an expert on the history of military voting and author of The Soldier Vote. “They’re active duty military. They’re usually pretty busy so they are not going to be quite as efficient as you’d like them to be in getting their ballots back.”

That looms particularly large this year, as polls show military voters are more divided than ever on the presidential election and that they could have an impact on close races in states such as Texas, North Carolina and Florida.

[…]

Federal data shows that members of the military are less likely to vote than the civilian population. In 2018, only 26 percent of military members voted compared to 52 percent of the rest of the population. In that election, nearly half of all ballots sent out to military and overseas voters who requested them were never returned. And of those that were returned, nearly 6 percent were rejected by elections officials for various reasons according to a report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Nationwide, about 1 percent of absentee ballots are rejected among the civilian population.

The biggest reasons for ballots being tossed out include them not being returned in time, problems with the voter’s signature and missing postmarks.

During the last presidential election in 2016, Texas elections officials sent out almost 30,000 ballots to uniformed military and their dependents stationed around the nation and worldwide. But just 60 percent were returned, one of the worst rates in the nation. Nationwide military voters returned ballots nearly 70 percent of the time in that presidential election, according to the Election Assistance Commission.

There’s more in the story, so go check it out. Military personnel who cast votes via absentee ballots in Texas can check their ballot status here.

Something I learned when I looked at the vote rosters from the primary runoffs is that military and overseas ballots are coded differently in that file than “regular” mail ballots are. By law, these ballots are counted if they are received up to five days after Election Day, as long as they were mailed by Election Day. That’s only true for military and overseas ballots. For the primary runoffs in Harris County, the number of these ballots was quite small, like 20 or so; I’d have to go back and look again to get an exact number, but it was in that neighborhood. Each ballot matters and we should make every reasonable effort to ensure that these ballots are received and returned and counted, but if the result in Texas comes down to these ballots then the race was super close to begin with.

UT/Trib: Trump 50, Biden 45

I’ll get into a broader discussion in a minute, but for now, there’s this:

President Donald Trump leads former Vice President Joe Biden with the support of 50% of the state’s likely voters to Biden’s 45% in the 2020 race for president, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

The Republicans — Trump and his running mate, Vice President Mike Pence — had strong support from white (62%-34%) and male (55%-39%) voters, while the Democrats, Biden and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, are the favorites of female (51%-46%), Black (87%-11%) and Hispanic (54%-37%) voters in Texas.

Among Republican voters, 92% favor Trump, while 96% of Democratic voters said they’ll vote for Biden. The state’s independent voters prefer Biden, 45%-37%, over Trump.

Despite the dramatic swings in events and issues during 2020, the contest for the hearts and minds of Texas voters has changed little in the race for the nation’s top elected office. The latest poll is a case in point; the survey was conducted during a period that included the first presidential debate and Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19. Even so, the result is in line with previous UT/TT surveys. In February, a UT/TT Poll found Trump ahead of Biden 47%-43% in what was then a hypothetical head-to-head race, because the Democrats had not chosen their nominee. In April, Trump led 49%-44%, and in June, 48%-44%.

[…]

While Trump is 5 percentage points ahead of Biden in the head-to-head matchup, he comes up a bit short of what might be expected of a Republican on a Texas ballot. In a generic congressional race pitting an unnamed Republican against an unnamed Democrat, the poll found the Republican had a 7-percentage-point advantage (51%-44%) among Texas voters. In a generic race for the state Legislature, a Republican would have an 8-percentage-point edge (51%-43%). And Republican John Cornyn, seeking reelection to the U.S. Senate, has an 8-percentage-point lead over Democrat MJ Hegar in this poll, outperforming the president by 3 percentage points with Texans.

For what it’s worth, the UT/Trib poll has been more favorable to Trump than many others have been, and that remains true when compared with other recent polls. In October of 2018, they had Ted Cruz leading Beto O’Rourke by six points, 51-45; in 2016, they had the race as closer than it ended up, putting Trump up 45-42 over Hillary Clinton. In that race, they accurately pegged Clinton’s level of support but underestimated Trump. In 2018, they nailed Ted Cruz’s number but undershot Beto. Both the 538 forecast (Trump 51.2 to 47.8) and the Economist forecast (Trump 51.4 to 48.6 in the two-party vote) have it closer than this poll, but are nearer to where Trump is than to where Biden is.

In 2018, the Trib poll that had Cruz leading Beto by six had similar levels of partisan support for each candidate, but a bigger lead among indies for Beto. They had other Republican candidates leading by double digits – the next closest race they had was Ken Paxton leading Justin Nelson 48-36 – with Republican support often a bit overstated and Democrats way underestimated. That’s not unusual for a lower profile race, which everything other than Cruz-Beto was in 2018.

The UT/Trib poll is also in the “Trump is doing much better with Latinos this year than he did in 2016” camp, which we have explored before, though not quite as much as some other pollsters. I find this dichotomy fascinating and would much rather read someone’s attempt to analyze it instead of the eighty-seventh article about how Biden needs to step it up among Latino voters that is mostly based on Florida. This is one of those times for the old “the only poll that matters is on Election Day” proverb.

I’ll leave you with this before we go.

When early voting starts on Tuesday, Jill Biden will be in Texas hoping to boost turnout for the Democratic presidential ticket led by her husband, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Democratic sources say Jill Biden will make stops in Houston, Dallas and El Paso, although exact times and locations have not been released.

The Joe Biden campaign has begun to invest more heavily in Texas as polls show a closer-than-usual race in the Lone Star State.

Earlier this week, the campaign launched a TV ad blitz aimed at voters in San Antonio and El Paso. On Monday and Tuesday, Doug Emhoff, husband of Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, campaigned along the Texas border and in San Antonio and Dallas.

The New York Times cited unnamed sources in reporting that Democrats are trying to persuade Harris to campaign in Texas herself.

President Donald Trump took to Twitter early Friday morning to assert that his campaign is in great shape in Texas.

You can click over or search Twitter yourself if you find the need for that in your life for some reason. Does it mean anything that Jill Biden is scheduled to come to Texas next week? Well, it is the start of early voting, so that’s a reason. They could be sending her other places – candidates’ and surrogates’ time is a very precious commodity – so the fact that they think it’s a good use of that time to send her here is encouraging. I don’t know how much more I’d read into it than that.

Abbott to allow bars to reopen

Sort of. It’s kind of the most Abbott thing ever.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that bars in Texas can reopen for in-person service next week — as long as their county governments choose to allow it.

Effective Oct. 14, bars in counties that opt in will be able to resume in-person service at 50% capacity, though all customers must be seated while eating or drinking. The governor will impose no outdoors capacity limits on bars or similar establishments.

“It is time to open them up,” Abbott said in a Facebook video. “If we continue to contain COVID, then these openings, just like other businesses, should be able to expand in the near future.”

But soon after Abbott’s announcement, the state’s two most populous counties indicated they would not go along with the reopening plan. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said on Twitter that he “will not file to open them at this time,” noting that “our numbers are increasing.” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a statement that “indoor, maskless gatherings should not be taking place right now, and this applies to bars, as well.”

In addition to bars being allowed to reopen, businesses currently limited to 50% capacity may now expand to 75% capacity — including establishments like movie theaters, bowling alleys, bingo halls and amusement parks.

But Abbott said in his order that bars in regions of the state with high hospitalizations for coronavirus won’t be able to reopen. He defined those regions as areas where coronavirus patients make up more than 15% of hospital capacity.

“It is time to open up more, provided that safe protocols continue to be followed,” Abbott said. “If everyone continues the safe practices, Texas will be able to contain COVID and we will be able to reopen 100%.”

The announcement drew mixed reviews from bar owners. Some applauded the step, while others complained that Abbott left the power in the hands of counties.

“The truth is we remain closed until someone else makes the decision to open us up based on whatever parameters they deem appropriate — data, politics, personal animus, you name it,” said Michael Klein, president of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance. “Abbott has forced 254 other people to make this decision for him with no guideposts as to how to make that decision. He’s officially passed the buck.”

Klein predicted that most urban counties, where the majority of his organization’s members are located, will not reopen.

You can add Bexar County to that “no bars yet” list as well. There’s a very good reason why most counties will likely decline this invitation from Abbott:

You have to admire Abbott’s consistent strategy of making local officials be the ones who have to make the tough decisions – when he lets them – and otherwise grabbing the power and glory for himself. Naturally, Republican-led counties are all over this, so be sure to keep an eye on the infection rates in places like Montgomery over the next month. To be sure, many bars have been able to operate with various workarounds as restaurants. And for things like outdoor service and to-go service, I support all that. It’s not enough for most bars, and the best thing we could have done about that is allocate a bunch of federal money to help them all – bars, breweries, wineries, distilleries, restaurants, music clubs, hotels, you name it – get through this, to the point where the disease is under control and it is safe for everyone to gather again. Abbott and his buddies were never really interested in any of that, though, so here we are. I feel like I’ve said this before, but I sure hope this works out. I don’t expect that it will, but I hope so anyway.

UPDATE: At least initially, only Denton County among the ten most populous counties will go forward with bar reopenings.

More on Nate Paul

This Trib story delves into the life and times of Nate Paul, the young Austin real estate entrepreneur whose relationship with Ken Paxton is the underpinning of the current scandal surrounding Paxton. The story goes into some detail about Paul’s life, which includes a habit of stiffing creditors and a general dickishness that I find crummy but which apparently don’t bother Paxton, but the key bit is right here:

Best mugshot ever

Meanwhile, Paxton’s office has come to Paul’s defense in at least one other legal matter, records show. Paul’s World Class firm works through a complex web of more than a dozen affiliated business partnerships, which jointly own properties with investors.

A dispute arose two years ago between companies affiliated with World Class and the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, which invested in multiple Austin properties with the companies. The foundation is an Austin-based nonprofit that provides grants to charitable organizations and academic scholarships for students with financial needs.

The Mitte Foundation sued Paul in 2018, claiming he wasn’t sharing financial information on their jointly owned investments that Paul’s businesses managed. The case went to arbitration, and on July 1, 2019, a company affiliated with World Class agreed to buy out Mitte’s interest in the real estate partnerships for $10.5 million with payment due that August.

It never came, said Ray Chester, the lawyer representing the Mitte Foundation in the case.

In October 2019, the judge in the case ordered a receiver to take over the business partnerships, which would compel Paul to reveal the financial records that Chester said still hadn’t been shared with the Mitte Foundation. Chester said that within days, Paul “blatantly defied” the arbitrator’s ruling and said he had sold the partnerships at less than half of their market value.

But the sale was to another company affiliated with Paul, Chester said.

“He basically sold it to himself at below market value,” Chester said, although court records show the sale was never consummated.

As Paul’s firm cycled through teams of attorneys and held back on making the $10.5 million payment, Paxton’s office intervened in the case on behalf of World Class and its business affiliates this June, court records show. Paxton argued that his office needed to “protect the interests of the public” because the suit involved a charitable trust.

In July, Paxton asked a judge to halt the case. During that time, Chester said Paxton’s office called him five to 10 times per day to try to get him to settle for “pennies on the dollar,” calls that Chester characterized as “vaguely threatening.”

On Sept. 20, less than two weeks before news broke about the allegations against Paxton, the attorney general’s office reversed itself and announced its intention to step away from the case, which is still ongoing.

After filing for bankruptcy in August, the World Class affiliate handling investments in the property did not pay the $10.5 million or turn over the records, Chester said. But a clause in the settlement agreement does allow the Mitte Foundation to take a valuable, larger ownership share in the downtown property, Chester said.

One can certainly see some parallels to another well-known real estate personality, but that’s not what caught my interest. The obvious question here is why was Ken Paxton inserting himself into this particular dispute? It sure seems like a standard fight between a creditor and a debtor, so what was the state’s interest? I didn’t publish this post on Thursday because of Too Damn Much Other News, which is just as well because I then saw this Statesman story, which helped with some of these questions. As noted above, Ray Chester is an Austin attorney who has been representing the Mitte Foundation in its legal battles against Nate Paul and World Class, and apparently also Ken Paxton.

Chester contends the attorney general’s office exerted undue pressure to push for a settlement financially advantageous to Paul — or “pennies on the dollar” compared with what the foundation was owed under a previous $10.5 million settlement reached in 2019.

“We suspected all along that something fishy was behind the AG’s intervention in our case,” Chester said. “There is no legitimate reason why they would be helping Mr. Paul’s companies at the expense of a charity.”

The limited partnerships are called WC 1st and Trinity LP and WC 3rd and Congress LP, named after the locations of their properties. The 1st and Trinity partnership owns prime waterfront land on East Cesar Chavez, next to the Four Seasons Hotel and across from the Austin Convention Center. The WC 3rd and Congress partnership owns several tracts around the Austonian high-rise condos downtown.

In court documents and in an interview with the Statesman, Chester said Paul didn’t pay the $10.5 million settlement.

And as things continued to “go south” for Paul, Chester said Paxton started taking an interest in the legal fight.

Any time a charity is involved in litigation, the charitable trust division of the attorney general’s office must be notified because it has a right to intervene on behalf of the public interest in the charity.

But the only reason the attorney general should get involved in such cases “is to help the charity — not help the criminal guy against the charity,” Chester said. “And that’s what happened here, and that’s what’s made it so unusual.”

Michael Wynne, an attorney for Paul, told the Statesman that the foundation “refused to engage in any meaningful resolution” to the litigation, however, and also “colluded” with a court-appointed receiver in the case, squandering “over a million dollars in legal fees to line their lawyers’ pockets.”

Those are the among the reasons Paul brought the case to the attention of the attorney general’s charitable trust division, he said, disputing a contention by Chester that Chester’s office did so when the lawsuit was first filed — as it was required to do by law.

Wynne also said he is unaware of anyone from the attorney general’s office attempting to pressure Mitte to accept a settlement.

“We were obviously not privy to any of those conversations and have no basis to comment on them,” he said.

This at least helps me understand the claim that the AG needed to step in because the case involved a public trust. I’d love to hear from someone with actual experience what they think about all this.

Paxton mounted an investigation into allegations made by Paul that federal agents with the FBI and U.S. Department of Treasury acted unlawfully during [2019 searches of some of his properties]. Paxton tapped an outside attorney, Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, to conduct that probe.

Seven senior Paxton aides — including his first assistant, who recently resigned — subsequently filed a criminal complaint against the attorney general that they say stems from his dealings with Paul, who donated $25,000 to Paxton’s reelection campaign in 2018. They’ve asked federal agents to investigate their boss for potential crimes that include bribery, abuse of office and improper influence.

Cammack’s appointment was among the actions that prompted the complaint. Paxton’s intervention in the Mitte case also has sparked controversy.

A senior official in the attorney general’s office recently voiced concerns to the American-Statesman about Paxton’s involvement in the Mitte lawsuit, saying attorneys in the agency’s charitable trust division were instructed by Paxton to weigh in, even though Paxton doesn’t typically take such a hands-on approach.

“I saw just no interest why our office should get involved in this thing,” the official said. “Legally, and just the optics of doing something for a guy who is under FBI investigation — I am like, ‘This is reckless.’”

Documents obtained by the Statesman indicate Paul prodded some staffers of the attorney general’s office to discuss with him their handing of the Mitte case and what Paul alleged to be improprieties by the foundation.

“Your decision to not even respond to my emails has only amplified my concern about your bias toward helping the Mitte Foundation,” Paul wrote in a July 1 email to Josh Godbey, head of the attorney general’s charitable trust division. “I have raised many issues and you have chosen not to respond.”

In a July 23 email, Paul complained to Jeff Mateer — Paxton’s former first assistant who recently resigned — about Godbey’s lack of action. Mateer responded to Paul’s attorneys, asking that all communications be conducted through them, and he also attempted to make clear the agency’s position on such matters.

“It is not our role to assist a party adverse to a charity in pending litigation or provide status updates on those matters,” Mateer wrote in a July 24 email. “Any such non-privileged communications subject to public disclosure might be perceived as questioning our office’s necessary impartiality, which we carefully guard at all times.”

Chester said his firm notified Paxton’s office about the lawsuit as required when it was filed, but was told the agency’s involvement wasn’t needed.

“A junior attorney called me, asked me a few questions and said, ‘You’re fine, we don’t need to intervene,’” Chester recalled.

That was the end of it, he thought.

But subsequently, Paul suffered a series of setbacks in the case. In addition, the court-appointed receiver started making plans to sell the 1st and Trinity property.

“The next thing you know, (the attorney general’s office) intervened,” Chester said. “At that point, we knew there was some connection between Nate and the attorney general’s office.”

“We quickly started getting pressure to settle the case,” Chester said, and “for much less” than the 2019 agreement of $10.5 million.

“They were strong-arming us to settle,” Chester said. “It was very uncomfortable and very threatening. Multiple people told me the pressure was coming straight from Paxton.”

There’s been a lot more reporting on this saga, which I have covered in another post. This is going to be a challenge to follow because multiple publications are all chasing different leads and advancing the story in a variety of ways. We still don’t have a clear picture of what was happening, and some facts are in dispute. But boy, everything we’ve seen so far looks deeply sketchy. I have no idea what Ken Paxton is thinking, but I suspect he’s in for some very rough times. And deservedly so.

Endorsement watch: For MJ

The Chron changes its course in the US Senate race.

MJ Hegar

For 18 years, John Cornyn has represented Texas in the U.S. Senate with dignity, decorum and a legislative work ethic that has made him one of the more productive, and often bipartisan, lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

He’s championed criminal justice reform, stood up for trade with Mexico, stood against President Trump’s child-separation policy and passed major bills tackling sex trafficking and other complex threats to American welfare. Most recently he worked with Texas’ full delegation to send billions in aid following Hurricane Harvey and, when that money got snagged by bureaucracy, he helped to get it flowing.

“I work with people on a daily basis to pass legislation who I know get up in the morning trying to figure out how they can defeat me in my next election,” he told the editorial board in an hour-long interview last week. “… But you do what you can where you can.”

In an ordinary year, that might have been enough to endorse him for a fourth term, as we did for a third in 2014.

But in this year, in these deadly and divisive times, it is not enough. Not nearly. As a result, we heartily endorse Democrat MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who flew medical evacuation missions in Afghanistan where she earned a Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device, to become Texas’ next senator.

We find Hegar’s mix of energy, moral clarity, and assertive pragmatism invigorating.

“I just want our country to live up to the ideals for which it stands,” Hegar, 44, told us in an interview last week, vowing to put some “function” back into the Senate.

[…]

What weighed most heavily in our decision to urge voters to embrace Hegar is our veteran senator’s failure to lead.

From 2013 to 2019, he was the second-ranking Republican leader in the Senate and yet has been almost uniformly silent as the party he represents has been steered off course by the tea party insurgency beginning in 2010, and more recently has been completely unmoored by Trump.

Cornyn told us he distinguishes between Trump the man — with his divisive and dishonest rhetoric — and Trump the president, whose policies Cornyn said he appreciates. We’ll grant that conservatives cheered Trump’s success in cutting taxes, even if primarily on businesses and wealthy individuals, and the remarkable pace with which he’s pushed the federal judiciary farther to the right.

But on issue after issue, Trump has conducted himself in ways that Cornyn surely agrees are damaging to the presidency, to our nation’s standing in the world, and to the institutions that safeguard our democracy, including Congress itself.

[…]

Texas needs a leader who would make that speech, rally allies, and press for legislation that is morally right, even if it means having to irritate the party bosses.

In response, Cornyn points to former Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who clashed with Trump only to see his career derailed. What good for Texas, he asks, could a senator do once sidelined by the president or the party?

But preserving one’s clout is only sound strategy if that clout is eventually used. We see very little evidence Cornyn has used it. After 18 years, Texans are entitled to ask — if not now, then when?

In between those last two segments is a long airing of grievances against Trump, and Cornyn’s lily-livered response to them, culminating in his stated willingness to bring up a stand-alone bill to help the Dreamers but not actually doing it because Mitch McConnell would ignore him. You can compare this to their endorsement of Dan Crenshaw and mumble something about different standards for different folks, but at least here there’s asking the right questions. I’ll take it.

The Chron also endorsed a bunch of legislative incumbents, the most interesting of which being Rep. Gina Calanni.

Rep. Gina Calanni

Voters in Texas House District 132 have a luxury that residents in most other districts don’t: A choice between two experienced legislators on the Nov. 3 ballot.

State Rep. Gina Calanni, 42, has served with distinction in her first term, which she won narrowly two years ago. And her opponent, Republican Mike Schofield, is the lawmaker she drove out of office after two terms.

He’s back for a rematch and at stake is how the district, which includes much of Katy and unincorporated areas of Harris County, will be represented in Austin, where Republican control of the House is no longer assured.

We believe voters got it right in 2018, and recommend they retain Calanni this year.

It’s been a mostly incumbent-friendly endorsement season, Hegar over Cornyn notwithstanding. Calanni’s been a hard worker who did all the things she said she’d do when she ran, as she noted in the interview with the ed board. She’s got the toughest road to re-election, having won by a tiny margin in 2018, but she’s done the job, and this is at least as favorable an environment as 2018 was. I like her chances.

On executive power and the role of the Legislature

Just a few thoughts from recent events relating to Greg Abbott, COVID-19, vote access and suppression, local control, all those Hotze lawsuits, and so forth.

1. I think most of us would agree that however we assess Greg Abbott’s performance in response to the COVID pandemic, we need to have a conversation about the extent of the Governor’s executive powers and the role that the Legislature should have when laws are being amended or suspended on the fly in response to crisis situations. The lack of any input from the Legislature in all these COVID actions, from mask and shutdown orders and the subsequent reopening orders to expanding and contracting early voting and voting by mail, is a direct result of the system we have where the Legislature only meets once every other year, unless called into session by the Governor. All Abbott needs to do to keep the Lege at arm’s length is to not call a special session, which has been his response numerous times going back to the Hurricane Harvey aftermath. It may be time to admit that our quaint little system of “citizen legislators” who leave the farm every other year to handle The People’s Business in Austin just doesn’t work in the 21st century. If we don’t want Greg Abbott or any other Governor to be the sole authority on these matters, then we need to have a Lege that meets more often, and to have a Lege that meets more often means we need to accept the idea of legislating as a profession and adjust the compensation accordingly. I recognize that this is a thing that will almost certainly never happen, but I’m putting it on the table because we’re kidding ourselves otherwise.

2. A somewhat less foundation-shifting response would be to pass laws that mandate an expiration date on all emergency-response executive orders, which can only be renewed with the approval of the legislature. Put in a provision that allows the Lege to convene and vote on such things remotely, which bypasses the need for a special session and also allows for the Lege to operate in the context of a pandemic or other condition that would prevent them from meeting in person at the Capitol. Another possibility, which need not be mutually exclusive, is to mandate some conditions under which a special session must be called, say after an emergency declaration that has lasted for a certain duration or has resulted in some set of actions on the Governor’s part. It is within the Lege’s power to force itself into this conversation.

3. I would argue that when the Lege takes up the Disaster Act, or whatever other response it makes to review and revise executive authority in the wake of a declared disaster, it should clarify what kind of actions the Governor can take. Specifically, any action by the Governor must be taken in the service of containing, mitigating, or recovering from the disaster in question. As I said before, in the context of early voting and voting by mail, extending early voting and expanding vote by mail and allowing for mail ballots to be dropped off during early voting all served the purpose of mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but limiting the number of mail ballot dropoff locations did not, in the same way that limiting the number of food distribution locations following a hurricane would not count as hurricane/flood relief. I say that should make Abbott’s order illegal under the Disaster Act, and whatever the courts ultimately rule about that, the law should be changed to reflect that viewpoint.

4. The law could also be amended to limit litigation that would contravene this goal of mitigating the declared disaster. What is the law here for, and why should we let some cranks make technical (and let’s face it, mostly ridiculous) arguments that would worsen the disaster for some number of people?

5. If the Republican Party still had some affinity for local control, instead of putting all its chips on limiting what local officials they don’t like are allowed to do, then codifying the powers of county officials in response to a disaster might be worthwhile. I have some sympathy for Abbott’s stated impulse to not put a burden on smaller rural counties when it’s the more heavily populated ones that needed shutdown orders, but that sympathy only extends to the limit of what Abbott was willing to let the county judges of those more populated places do. I want to be careful here because a wacko county judge like the guy in Montgomery could easily have a negative effect on his neighbors like Harris if granted too much discretion, but I think if we stick to the mantra of everything needing to be in the service of mitigating and recovering from the disaster in order to be legal and valid, we can work this out.

6. Some of what I’m talking about here will split along partisan lines, but not all of it will. Clearly, there is some appetite among Republicans to limit executive power, though not in a way that I would endorse, but that is not universal. It’s clear from the Paxton brief in response to the latest Hotze mandamus that our AG at least believes in a strong executive, and I believe that feeling extends to other Republicans. Democrats can likely drive some of this discussion, especially if they are a majority in the House, but they will want to be careful as well, lest they wind up clipping the wings of (say) Governor Julian Castro in 2023. This is a multi-dimensional problem, that’s all I’m saying.

(Oh, and any Republican coalition in favor of a strong executive will of course evaporate the minute there is a Democratic Governor. I mean, obviously.)

I’m sure there are other aspects to this that I am not thinking of. My point is that this is a topic the Lege can and should take up, even if any bill they pass is likely to run into a veto. I just wanted to lay out what I think the parameters of the discussion are, or at least what I’d like them to be. Who knows what actually will happen – the election will shape it in some ways – but I hope this serves as a starting point for us to think about.

First hearing for mail ballot dropoff locations

Hopefully we’ll get some action quickly.

Lawyers for voters and voting rights groups asked a federal judge Thursday to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order limiting counties to one location where voters can hand-deliver mail-in ballots.

Abbott waited too long to issue his order on Oct. 1, they argued, not only because it came the same day Travis County opened four drop-off locations after a monthlong public information campaign, but also because voting had already begun in the Nov. 3 general election.

“It is too late and too dangerously burdensome to change election rules midstream,” lawyer Chad Dunn told U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in a hearing that was held via Zoom as a pandemic precaution.

Other lawyers argued that Abbott’s order placed a disproportionate burden on Texans who are most likely to vote by mail — those who are 65 and older or have a disability — by forcing many to endure longer and more difficult travel to ensure that their votes are submitted in a time of decreasing confidence in the U.S. Postal Service.

“It’s ironic and sad,” lawyer John Devaney said. “Now, after voting has started, the plug has been pulled.”

Lawyers for Abbott disputed claims that his order limited voting rights, saying the governor acted to expand opportunities and options for voters during the pandemic.

Abbott’s first election-related order, issued July 27, added six days of early voting and suspended a state law that allows voters to hand-deliver mail-in ballots only on Election Day, lawyer Eric Hudson told the judge.

In effect, Abbott gave voters almost 40 extra days to hand-deliver their ballots, Hudson argued.

“That’s not provided for in Texas law, and without Gov. Abbott’s proclamation, that right … would not be possible,” he said.

Pitman broke in to ask: “Is it the governor’s position that we’ve given you so much it’s OK to take back a little?”

“I don’t think we’ve taken anything back, your honor,” Hudson replied.

This hearing was for the first lawsuit, filed by LULAC and the League of Women Voters. Earlier in the day, the ACLU and the Lincoln Project announced they had filed amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs. Courthouse News has some further details.

Representing LULAC, San Antonio attorney Luis Vera said the fears of election fraud have already been discredited and voters had already turned in their ballots for four days until Abbott’s order.

“The state of Texas wants one set of rules for [the] one party they represent and one set of rules for the others,” he said.

Attorney Chad Dunn, with Brazil & Dunn in Houston, asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction to “preserve the status quo.” He cited federal courts’ reluctance to change the terms of an election so close to Election Day.

“This case is about more than drop-box locations in a county. It is about whether the public believes the results of the election will be honored,” he said.

Attorney John Devaney, with Perkins Coie in Washington, told Pitman the individual voter plaintiffs have standing in the case because of the risk they face voting at the polls and contracting Covid-19, and because they will have to travel further to reach their county’s one absentee drop-off location.

He argued that LULAC and the League of Women Voters have standing as organizations due to the burden of having to reallocate their resources at the last-minute to account for Abbott’s order.

“They will need to change their website, their educational materials and contact their new members” with the new information, Devaney said.

In response to the judge asking if the state also faces a burden if he decides to block Abbott’s order, Devaney responded the state’s burden to maintain the status quo would be smaller than that of the plaintiffs.

“Voters tend to wait until the end of an election to request a ballot. It’s not just procrastination,” Devaney said. “In an election this heated, voters want to wait. There’s going to be a surge of absentee votes … given the two-week period for the USPS, people are going to have to turn in their ballots because they don’t trust the Postal Service.”

Judge Pitman asked the plaintiffs if there was any difference between the drop-off locations closed by Abbott’s order and the still-operation sites in terms of election security.

Attorney Susan Hays, representing Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, responded the county’s shuttered annex locations are “typical business offices” that are more secure than other public places due to employees receiving election security training. She said they are “much more secure because they must show ID before handing over the ballot.”

Pitman said he would issue his ruling “as soon as possible” given the close proximity to Election Day. Early voting locations are scheduled to open on Oct. 13.

It wouldn’t shock me if we get a ruling by Monday, but we’ll see. This is now the fourth lawsuit filed against the Abbott order, with three of them in federal court. According to the Statesman story, there’s a hearing scheduled for the state lawsuit next week.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story:

During a hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman appeared unconvinced by the idea that eliminating the additional locations would have no impact on voting accessibility.

The suit before Pitman is one of several challenging Texas election laws and Abbott’s pandemic executive orders amending them that are still swirling, even as the start of early voting approaches.

[…]

The pool of voters using this method appears to be relatively small so far, though mail-in voting is up across Texas, so demand could rise.

In Harris County, for example, just 0.2 percent of 85,922 absentee voters hand-delivered their ballots during the low-turnout July primary runoff; 39 of the 404 ballots for the Nov. 3 election that have been returned through Thursday were dropped off by voters. Those dropoffs ceased when Abbott’s order went into effect with less than 24 hours notice.

It should be noted that dropoff boxes were basically never mentioned as an option for the July primary runoffs, so the fact that almost no one used them is no surprise. And since 39 out of 404 is almost ten percent, it sure looks like we were on our way to a significant increase in the use of this method. I point these numbers out because one can make an argument about how much of a burden Abbott’s order is based on them.

Paxton’s first line of defense

Settle in, folks, this is going to be a long one. We’ll start with the Dallas Morning News.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is defending his decision to bring on an outside lawyer to look into a complaint from real estate developer and campaign donor Nate Paul.

In an unusual step Wednesday, Paxton’s office released documents to beat back accusations by his own top deputies that the outside attorney, Brandon Cammack, is acting without authority. The records show Cammack is billing the state $300 an hour and that Paxton personally signed his hiring document.

The records — released through the agency’s Twitter account — signal Paxton is digging in for a fight after seven of his most senior employees accused him of bribery and abuse of office. The staff have raised concerns over Paxton’s relationship with Paul, whose home and businesses were raided last summer by the FBI.

Multiple senior officials in the agency told The Dallas Morning News late Wednesday they believed Paul was attempting to use the power of the office of the attorney general for personal and financial gain. And in a document obtained Wednesday by The News, Paxton’s deputy warned Cammack his employment agreement was invalid and may have been signed by Paxton “under duress.”

“The document appears to be signed by Attorney General Ken Paxton. To be clear this office has no record authorizing such a retention under our agency’s operating policies and procedures,” then-First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer wrote in a letter dated Oct. 1.

“We believe this purported agreement is unlawful, invalid, unenforceable, against public policy, and may have been executed by the Attorney General under duress,” Mateer wrote, without elaborating.

“Under duress”? UNDER DURESS? Holy mother of Ann Richards. What does this even mean?

Cammack, 34, told The News on Tuesday that Paxton reached out to him in August to gauge his interest in working as outside counsel. He was asked to look into a complaint from Paul alleging misconduct by state and federal employees that was referred to Paxton’s agency by the Travis County District Attorney in June.

On Thursday, Travis County DA Margaret Moore said Paxton personally asked her to look into the complaint. After her office held a meeting with Paxton, Paul and Paul’s attorney, Moore referred the complaint to the Office of the Attorney General.

“The scope and nature of the complaints comprised matters that the D.A.’s Office would normally refer to a law enforcement agency with the resources necessary to conduct the investigation,” Moore said in a statement. “The entities complained against included the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety, so the only appropriate agency left to whom we would typically make the referral was the Office of the Attorney General.”

But the agency’s investigation into Paul’s complaint stalled. Multiple senior officials told The News on Wednesday they recommended not proceeding further with the probe because they found that the agency had no authority to investigate the claims in the complaint or that they lacked merit. They believed that Paul was attempting to use the office for personal and financial gain.

Paxton reached out reached to Cammack, the lawyer told The News, to pick up the investigation. On Wednesday, the statement from Paxton’s office said he decided to hire Cammack as outside counsel because his own employees impeded the investigation and “because the Attorney General knew Nate Paul.”

But multiple senior officials who would have needed to sign off on outside counsel told The News on Wednesday that they vigorously opposed Cammack’s hiring.

We should note that as some other outlets reported, Paxton made it sound like Travis County DA Margaret Moore approached his office to handle this complaint. Moore has released a statement making it clear that Paxton approached her, and the referral back to his office was because it was legally the only appropriate way to proceed. Once again, my jaw is hanging open.

The way Cammack was brought on is highly unusual, according to a person familiar with the agency’s policies and procedures, who said all contracts must be approved by several divisions and senior officials. It’s unclear whether that occurred in this case.

While Paxton has said he decided to bring on outside counsel because he knows Paul, the agreement released Wednesday does not give Cammack independence from Paxton and requires him to conduct an investigation only as directed by the Office of the Attorney General.

The hiring documents Paxton released Wednesday include an employment agreement and job description, which Paxton said “legally authorized [Cammack] to act.”

Paxton’s office also released emails between Cammack and one staff member, in which the two discussed a draft of a hiring agreement. That staff member, Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Vassar, is one of the seven employees who lobbed criminal allegations against Paxton.

Cammack has said that his work is still going on. Who even knows what that means.

All that is a lot, but there’s still more. The Chron finds some more oddities about Brandon Cammack and how he came into the picture.

While a contract released by the attorney general’s office explains how outside counsel Brandon Cammack came to be hired, it leaves questions unanswered about how the arrangement allows Cammack to be independent of Paxton, who is at the helm of the agency and signed the contract.

“They may very well be allowed to do it,” said Larry McDougal, president of the Texas Bar and a former prosecutor. “I’ve just never actually seen it … Thirty years of being a lawyer, and I’ve never had that come up.”

We’re off to a great start. Now we look at the meeting with Travis County DA Margaret Moore again, and the way that Paxton’s office came to be involved in this investigation that he wanted.

Some lawyers interviewed said Paxton could also have declined the case or referred it to another law enforcement agency. All said it’s unclear what part of the law Paxton leaned on when bringing on Cammack.

Paxton’s office has described Cammack as “outside independent counsel,” but in at least on subpoena, obtained by Hearst Newspapers, he is called a “special prosecutor.”

“I was very surprised to hear that he was appointed as a special prosecutor only because I, candidly, don’t know that the Attorney General’s office has the authority to do so,” said Chris Downey, a Houston-based criminal defense attorney who has been an attorney pro tem three times before. “I think that’s a point of concern and potential exposure.”

The contract released Wednesday by Paxton’s office shows that Cammack was hired to investigate but not prosecute. That differentiation could mean legal consequences for Cammack if a court later finds that he was acting without authority.

In July 2020, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prosecutors aren’t shielded with immunity from lawsuits when they are performing investigative functions.

Attorneys interviewed also raised questions about the choice of Cammack, who graduated from University of Houston law school in May 2015, was licensed in November of that year and has been in private practice for about five years. He’s also the chair-elect of the Houston Bar Association.

“Normally, when you do bring on someone as a special prosecutor, you do so because you’re trying to tap into that person’s unique skill set,” Downey said. “I would be surprised given that he’s been a lawyer for five years that he has a defined skillset that they couldn’t find within the attorney general’s office.”

Everywhere you turn, more and more questions. Many more questions than answers, that’s for sure.

My previous blogging on this topic can be found here, here, and here. I’ll have a separate post on the Nate Paul side of things, because this is all Just Too Much.

The Trib also covered this topic, but the DMN had the most comprehensive story, while the Chron has been running down other angles as well. One more detail in all this is that Paxton’s contract with Cammack pays him $300 and hour. You know who else is supposed to get paid that much? The special prosecutors against Paxton in the Servergy case. The same guys who have been fighting Paxton, his army of cronies and minions from Collin County, and the Republican-dominated courts to actually get that pay, which Team Paxton et al have claimed is extravagant. I expect the rotting corpse of Irony to turn up any day now.

UPDATE: Damn, there’s a lot happening with this story.

Five senior officials in the Texas Attorney General’s Office accused their boss, Ken Paxton, on Wednesday of subverting his office to serve the financial interests of a political donor, according to an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The aides are doubling down on accusations they made last week to law enforcement — that Paxton had committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office — even as the second-term Republican says he’ll forge ahead as the state’s top lawyer under a fresh cloud of criminal allegations and as some in his party call on him to resign.

“It would be a violation of our own public responsibilities and ethical obligations to stand by while the significant power and resources of the Texas Attorney General’s Office are used to serve the interests of a private citizen bent on impeding a federal investigation into his own alleged wrongdoing and advancing his own financial interests,” the aides aides wrote in the email. “We urge you to end this course of conduct immediately.”

[…]

The damning Oct. 7 email was addressed to Paxton and his new First Assistant Brent Webster and sent by five of the same senior aides and whistleblowers — Ryan Bangert, Blake Brickman, Lacey Mase, Darren McCarty and Ryan Vassar— who reported allegations of criminal activity to law enforcement last week. Two of Paxton’s aides, including former First Assistant Jeff Mateer who reported him to law enforcement have since resigned.

Their concerns stem from Paxton’s hiring of a special prosecutor to investigate claims made by Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and donor, of alleged impropriety by federal and state authorities. But several subpoenas served by the prosecutor, the aides said in the email, were “related to private business concerns of Nate Paul” — and were not the subject of the “narrow criminal referral” he was appointed to investigate.

“This office’s continued use of the criminal process, in a matter already determined to be without merit, to benefit the personal interests of Nate Paul, is unconscionable,” they wrote.

They’re bringing the heat, I have to say. It really is mind-boggling what these top assistants are saying about their boss, and sharing with the press. It’s also easy to imagine that there’s more coming. In the meantime, John Cornyn gets on the Concern Train, on which he will Wait And See before drawing any conclusions. Better buckle in, John.

Fourth lawsuit filed over Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff locations

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is heard from:

A copy of the complaint is here – this is a federal suit, filed in the Western District of Texas, in Austin. It joins two other federal suits and one state lawsuit. I have no idea if the sheer number of complaints has any effect on the outcome, but whatever the case, this action on Abbott’s part sure did draw a lot of response.

I don’t really have anything else to add, but I thought you might like this:

People sure are determined to vote. I am cheered by their determination to not get deterred by all of the obstacles in their path, and angry that those obstacles exist in the first place. There are so many things our future Democratic Legislature is going to have to do to fix this crap.

Win one, lose one at SCOTX

The win:

Early voting in Texas can begin Oct. 13, following the timeline the governor laid out months ago, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, rejecting a request from several top Texas Republicans to limit the timeframe for voters to cast their ballots.

In July, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that early voting for the general election in Texas begin nearly a week earlier than usual, a response to the coronavirus pandemic. But a number of prominent Republicans, including state party Chair Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and several members of the Texas Legislature, challenged that timeframe in September, arguing that Abbott defied state election law, which dictates that early voting typically begins on the 17th day before an election — this year, Oct. 19.

Abbott added six days to the early voting period through an executive order, an exercise of the emergency powers he has leaned into during the virus crisis. The Republicans who sued him argued this was an overreach.

The state’s highest civil court, which is entirely held by Republicans, ruled that the GOP officials who sued challenging Abbott’s extension waited until the last minute to do so, when he had already extended early voting in the primary election and announced he would do the same for the general months ago. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted also that the election is already underway.

“To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion,” he wrote in the opinion.

See here and here for some background, and here for the opinion. After noting that Abbott has “issued a long series of proclamations invoking the Act as authority to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a wide range of activities in the State” since his disaster declaration in March, the Court notes that the relators (the fancy legal name for “plaintiffs” in this kind of case) took their sweet time complaining about it:

Relators delayed in challenging the Governor’s July 27 proclamation for more than ten weeks after it was issued. They have not sought relief first in the lower courts that would have allowed a careful, thorough consideration of their arguments regarding the Act’s scope and constitutionality. Those arguments affect not only the impending election process but also implicate the Governor’s authority under the Act for the many other actions he has taken over the past six months. Relators’ delay precludes the consideration their claims require.

The dissent argues that relators acted diligently because they filed their petition in this Court four days after they received an email confirming that the Harris County Clerk intended to comply with the Governor’s July 27 proclamation. But relators’ challenge is to the validity of the proclamation, not the Clerk’s compliance.16 Relators could have asserted their challenge at any time in the past ten weeks. The dissent also argues that the Court has granted relief after similar delays. But none of the cases the dissent cites bears out its argument.17

Moreover, the election is already underway. The Harris County Clerk has represented to the Court that his office would accept mailed-in ballots beginning September 24. To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion.

[…]

Mandamus is an “extraordinary” remedy that is “available only in limited circumstances.”20 When the record fails to show that petitioners have acted diligently to protect their rights, relief by mandamus is not available.21 The record here reflects no justification for relators’ lengthy delay.

The “dissent” refers to the dissenting opinion written by Justice John Devine, who was all along the biggest cheerleader for the vote suppressors. I have no particular quibble with this opinion, which seems correct and appropriate to me, but the grounds on which the mandamus is denied are awfully narrow, which gives me some concern. The Court may merely be recognizing the fact that there are several outstanding challenges to Abbott’s authority to use his executive powers in this fashion, relating to mask and shutdown orders as well as election issues, and they may simply want to leave that all undisturbed until the lower courts start to make their rulings. That too is fine and appropriate, but I can’t help but feel a little disquieted at the thought that maybe these guys could have succeeded if the timing (and their lawyering) had been better.

That ruling also settled the question of counties being able to accept mail ballots at dropoff locations during the early voting process – the relators had demanded that mail ballot dropoff be limited to Election Day only. None of this is related to the issue of how many dropoff locations there may be, which is being litigated in multiple other lawsuits, four now as of last report. We are still waiting on action from those cases.

On the negative side, SCOTX put the kibosh on County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters in Harris County.

The state’s highest civil court ruled Wednesday that Hollins may not put the applications in the mail. The documents can be accessed online, and are often distributed by political campaigns, parties and other private organizations. But for a government official to proactively send them oversteps his authority, the court ruled.

“We conclude that the Election Code does not authorize the mailing proposed by the Harris County Clerk,” the court wrote in an unsigned per curiam opinion.

The Republican justices sent the case back to a lower court in Harris County to issue an injunction blocking Hollins from sending the mailers.

The county has already distributed the applications to voters who are at least 65, who automatically qualify for absentee ballots, and has also begun sending out the applications to other voters who requested them. An attorney for Hollins estimated last week that the county would send out about 1.7 million more applications if the court allowed.

See here and here for some background, here for a statement from Hollins, and here for the unanimous opinion, which is longer than the one in the first case. The Court goes into the many ways in which the Legislature has expressed its intent that most people should vote in person, and then sums up its view Clerks getting creative:

Hollins’ mass mailing of ballot applications would undercut the Secretary’s statutory duty to “maintain uniformity” in Texas’ elections, the Legislature’s “very deliberate[]” decision to authorize only discrete categories of Texans to vote by mail, and its intent that submission of an application be an action with legal gravity.43

Authority for Hollins’ proposed mass mailing can be implied from the Election Code only if it is necessarily part of an express grant—not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any reasonable doubt must be resolved against an implied grant of authority. Mass-mailing unsolicited ballot applications to voters ineligible to vote by mail cannot be said to be necessary or indispensable to the conduct of early voting. Even if it could be, doubt on the matter is certainly reasonable and must be resolved against recognizing implied authority. We hold that an early voting clerk lacks authority under the Election Code to mass-mail applications to vote by mail. The State has demonstrated success on the merits of its ultra vires claim.

I’ve discussed my views on this before, when the appeals court upheld the original order, and I don’t have anything to add to that. I agree with Michael Hurta that this case will be cited in future litigation that aims to limit what Texas localities can do to innovate, which is what Hollins was doing here. It’s basically another attack on local control, and as I replied to that tweet, it’s another item to the Democrats’ to do list when they are in a position to pass some laws.

I hate this ruling for a lot of reasons, but that right there is at the top of the list. The Court based its ruling in part on the fact that Hollins was doing something no one else had thought to try – “all election officials other than Hollins are discharging this duty in the way that they always have”, they say as part of their reasoning to slap Hollins down” – and while I can see the logic and reason in that, we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic, and sometimes you have to step outside the box a bit to get things done in a manner that is safe and effective. I get where the Court is coming from, and I admit that allowing County Clerks to experiment and freelance has the potential to cause problems, but it sure would have been nice for the Court to at least recognize that Hollins’ actions, however unorthodox they may have been, did not come out of a vacuum. Clearly, the fact that the arguments in this case were heard via Zoom didn’t sink in with anyone.

On a practical level, I don’t know how many people would have voted via absentee ballot who would not have otherwise participated. Some number, to be sure, but I really don’t think it’s all that much. It’s the principle here, one part making it harder to vote and one part keeping the locals in line, that bothers me. As has been the case so many times, we’re going to have to win more elections and then change the laws if we want some progress. You know what to do. The Chron has more.

There’s so much more money in Texas races

Item one:

It’s the question that many, many people have raised — often as a joke — for years. But the combination of changing demographics, chaos among the state Republican ranks, and the ongoing struggles of President Donald Trump’s campaign have led some to re-examine this question. Among them are the Republicans behind the anti-Trump PAC The Lincoln Project, betting that this is the year — and they’re putting a $1 million chip on the table to start.

Tuesday, the Lincoln Project announced that they were launching a $1 million ad buy in the Lone Star State, chiefly targeting hundreds of thousands of suburban and rural Republican women and Hispanics, voters whom they believe can be persuaded to vote against Trump.

The current buy is digital only, geotargeted in areas around the state ranging from rural counties like Lubbock, urban neighborhoods in Austin, and the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs.

“We can more easily and effectively target the specific group of individuals we are trying to target digitally than we can with TV,” Ryan Wiggins, the PAC’s senior adviser for communications, told Mediaite. Wiggins added that they were considering expanding to television and mail in the final weeks before the election, and this $1 million investment was just an initial buy, planned to cover a week’s worth of digital ad placements.

The ads will include some of the PAC’s previous videos, like the viral “Mourning in America,” as well as new Texas-specific content, including some that will be in Spanish.

Wiggins and others associated with the Lincoln Project were optimistic that not only would they be dropping more cash into Texas, but that they had a real chance to move the needle.

It’s a long story, so go give it a read. Whatever you think of the Lincoln Project, this looks like a good investment.

Item two:

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign is set to spend millions of dollars on TV ads in Texas as polls continue to show a close race in the state.

The former vice president’s campaign announced earlier this year that it would make TV reservations this fall in Texas, and as of Tuesday, it had booked more than $6 million through Election Day, according to the media-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

“This is historic. That shows you just how important Texas is to them and it shows that Texas is in play,” said Abhi Rahman, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party. “It shows you their investment in Texas is real.” Rahman noted that Biden’s spending is the biggest investment from a Democratic presidential nominee in the last 25 years and is a drastic change from 2016, when then- nominee Hillary Clinton didn’t spend seriously in the state.

[…]

As speculation has swirled about the extent of Biden’s investment in the state, the Texas Democratic Party has been ramping up its advertising. On Tuesday, the party announced a digital, print and radio campaign aimed at Black voters in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and East Texas. The party described the size of the effort as “high six figure(s).”

We can certainly debate about the effectiveness of this approach versus others, the need to be engaged on a more consistent basis, and so forth. All I know is, we are not used to seeing this kind of investment.

Item three:

The Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee has raised over $3.6 million in just under three months, a massive cash infusion as the party pushes to take control of the lower chamber for the first time since 2002.

The $3.6 million haul, which came between July 1 and Sept. 24, is more than double the $1.6 million that the committee raised in the first six months of the year. That in itself was a committee record at the time, exceeding its total fundraising for the entire 2018 election cycle.

“Affordable healthcare, economic security, and a plan to deal with COVID-19 are on the ballot, and achieving those goals starts with flipping the Texas House,” the HDCC’s chairwoman, Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, said in an announcement of the committee’s latest fundraising that was first shared with The Texas Tribune. “That has been our mission from day one, and donors have responded in a big way.”

The HDCC said the $3.6 million came from 4,165 donors, 98% of whom donated online. Over three-quarters of contributions were less than $100, and roughly four out of five donations came from Texans.

[…]

Andrew Reagan, the committee’s executive director, said the money is going toward ensuring that battleground campaigns have “robustly funded paid communications,” including TV and digital ads, as well as direct mail. Some candidates are already running ads that are jointly funded by their campaigns and the HDCC.

The committee did not immediately disclose its cash-on-hand figure, but Reagan said it is “healthily in the seven figures.”

That’s in addition to some eye-popping numbers raised by various other candidates, including $13.5 million for MJ Hegar. The 30-day reports for state candidates is out now, I’ll be reviewing those in the coming days, and then of course I’ll have the Q3 Congressional reports. Remember when all this stuff was boring and perfunctory? Those days are gone.

And to be sure, some of that money is for the bad guys, as we see in Item four:

Outside money is flooding battleground Texas House races across the Houston area, helping Republican candidates erase fundraising advantages amassed by Democrats who are raking in money from individual donors outside Texas.

In all seven battleground districts around Houston, five of which are under GOP control, Democrats raised more cash than Republicans from early July through late September, the period covered by the latest round of campaign finance reports.

However, spending by political action committees and other groups favored Republicans by a more than 2-to-1 margin in those districts, helping three candidates — Republican Justin Ray, state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, and state Rep. Sam Harless, R-Spring — overcome their fundraising deficits.

[…]

During the 12-week period covered by the campaign finance reports filed earlier this week, the 14 candidates in Houston’s seven battleground House districts combined to raise nearly $4.7 million and spend almost $1.6 million. They collectively are heading into the stretch run of the 2020 election with about $2.4 million cash on hand, with millions more set to come from outside groups.

Two longtime political donor groups, Associated Republicans of Texas and tort reform advocacy group Texans for Lawsuit Reform, have particularly escalated their spending on House Republican candidates in 2020, combining to buy $276,000 worth of digital ads, direct mail, canvassing and other expenses to support Ray and another $272,000 on behalf of Davis.

Democrat Ann Johnson, an attorney who is challenging Davis, outpaced the incumbent in fundraising from individual donors. Committees and other groups spent about $525,000 backing Davis, however, helping her rack up more than $597,000 in contributions to Johnson’s roughly $481,000.

A similar dynamic played out last reporting period in the west Houston district where Ray, the former mayor of Jersey Village, is attempting to unseat state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston. Though Rosenthal raised more cash than Ray, the challenger benefited from a massive lead in spending from committees and other groups, giving him a 2-to-1 edge in overall contributions.

And in northwest Harris County, groups including the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group focused on legislatures around the country, and Leading Texas Forward, a PAC run by House Republican lawmakers, helped Harless make up a fundraising deficit to Democrat Natali Hurtado.

Best way to deal with all that money is beat the candidates it was supporting, so that it was all wasted. Feels really satisfying, too.

More on the motion to dismiss the felony bail lawsuit

Should get a ruling soon.

The bulk of Harris County’s felony judges sought Monday to get the federal case against them dismissed, saying they should not be party to the challenge on how bail is determined for thousands of poor people accused of crime.

Lawyers for Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and 19 Democratic district judges argued at a packed online hearing that the judges are protected by immunity, the federal courts don’t have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees behind the case no longer have standing to sue.

The 2019 civil rights case challenges the county’s policy of setting bond that results in the jailing of people who can’t afford cash bail. Nearly 80 percent of the current jail population are people awaiting trial, mostly on felonies.

Although the group of judges asked for the entire case to be dismissed, or alternatively, their removal as parties to the case, the bail challenge is likely proceed regardless of the court’s ruling, since the remaining defendants — the county, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and four felony judges who hired their own lawyers — are not seeking dismissal.

[…]

The state Attorney General’s Office, arguing on behalf of the majority of the felony judges, said the bail process is constitutional because it adheres to ODonnell v. Harris County, the county’s landmark misdemeanor bond case that was resolved through a seven-year consent decree.

But the plaintiffs say the felony bail case, Russell v. Harris County, raises new constitutional issues that the court never had a chance to address in ODonnell.

See here and here for the most recent updates. I will reiterate what I said in that last link: I want this system to be reformed in a manner similar to the misdemeanor case, I want the Democratic judges to be part of the solution and not an obstacle to it, and I will remember who is who and who does what. We’ll see what happens next.

Endorsement watch: Well, he does have a big Twitter following

I’m honestly not surprised that the Chron endorsed Dan Crenshaw for re-election. I just wonder if the editorial board ever reads what they write when they come up with this stuff.

Sima Ladjevardian

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw has 1 million Twitter followers. His fundraising power puts him within shouting distance of high-ranking members such as Steve Scalise, R-La., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A former Navy SEAL, he has managed to appear both loyal and critical of President Trump, and was the only Texan elected official with a major speaking role at the Republican National Convention.

There’s no question of Crenshaw’s outsized national standing as a freshman congressman, but now his fate is in the hands of Houstonians in the 2nd Congressional District, which makes a wiggly westward arc from Kingwood to neighborhoods near Rice University.

Turn the stage lights off, though, and his race against Democrat Sima Ladjevardian, 54, looks rather conventional.

First, let’s consider what is unusual. Crenshaw, 36, has shown a penchant for standing up to party and president. He wrote a letter of support for the inclusion of Log Cabin Republicans, who represent LGBT conservatives, at the Republican Party of Texas’s state convention. He’s called for Republicans to take climate change seriously. When Trump criticized Sen. John McCain months after his death and when Trump told the liberal congresswomen in “the Squad” to “go back,” Crenshaw tweeted at the president to quit. When Trump withdrew troops from Syria, Crenshaw released a nearly 12-minute video that respectfully but emphatically rejects the president’s rationale.

We applaud Crenshaw for using his platform to take these stands. At other times, he has left us both troubled and disappointed. Like many others early in the pandemic, Crenshaw argued that masks weren’t effective against the coronavirus. While he changed his mind as evidence showed otherwise — even purchasing and then donating 50,000 masks — he continued to push misrepresentations, as he did in his more recent videos defending Trump’s coronavirus response. He was wrong to call Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order “draconian” and was wrong to remove his mask for long enough while at a crowded fundraising party to be photographed without it.

We’re also concerned that his positions on key issues for Houston, including how to confront climate change, aren’t far-seeing enough. He’s called renewable energy “silly” and has not embraced a carbon tax, something even many major oil companies are willing to accept. His positions on the border and on prescription drugs also disappoint.

[…]

And yet, it’s impossible to ignore Crenshaw’s star power and his potential to shape the future of the Republican Party around respect, ideas and principles.

In addition, if he retains his seat, Crenshaw is likely to wield the kind of power that matters on delivering funding for dredging, roads and floodgates. We believe voters should return him to Congress.

There are two obvious problems with this. One is that in every way that the Chron cites to support the notion that Crenshaw is some kind of independent-thinking maverick it’s all talk and no action on Crenshaw’s part. Can the Chron name one bill of significance where Crenshaw is teaming up with a Democrat, or one vote he has taken where he opposed the party line? To be fair, even tweeting a mild rebuke at Trump makes him stand apart from the Louie Gohmerts, but surely the bar can be set a little higher than that. To put this another way, what exactly has he done for the greater Houston area and its residents that a replacement level member of Congress couldn’t have done?

Which gets to the second point, the belief that Crenshaw will someday be a force for getting big things for Houston. Which, sure, could happen, but for at least the foreseeable future he’s going to be in the minority, where there’s much less power to be wielded. Compare Crenshaw’s record of accomplishment to Lizzie Fletcher’s to see what I mean. Yes, Congressional majorities are fleeting, and the whole idea of getting anything done is meaningless as long as the Republicans control the Senate, but this puts an awful lot of faith into a guy who’s so far been a total show horse. Remember when the Chron endorsed Ted Cruz in 2012 with the hope that some day he’d grow up to be like Kay Bailey Hutchison? This gives me a similar vibe.

I agree that Crenshaw is a rising star in the GOP, and that the exodus of experienced (mostly Republican) members of Congress from Texas has left the state with less clout than it once had. If one believes that Crenshaw is going places, then there’s reason to hitch a wagon to him and hope that he’ll eventually use his powers for good. Alternately, you could sign on with the candidate who actually agrees with the things you say you value. Maybe Sima Ladjevardian doesn’t quite have Crenshaw’s star power, but I’d put more money on her actually doing the work to get stuff done.

In other Congressional endorsements, the Chron also recommended Rep. Al Green, and Rep. Brian Babin. They also endorsed in the other two countywide races of note. For Tax Assessor, they went with Chrin Daniel, former District Clerk, over incumbent Ann Harris Bennett. I don’t have any issues with Chris Daniel. He was perfectly competent as District Clerk. I also think Ann Harris Bennett has been fine as Tax Assessor, and think she will continue to be fine. (I’ve had this overview story of the Tax Assessor’s race on one of my tabs for a couple of weeks now because I haven’t been able to think of anything more original than that to say.) But look, in the year 2020 if you are on the same ballot as Donald Trump as a Republican, that’s an indelible mark against you. There may come a time when that isn’t the case, but that time is not today. Also, until we get some Democratic power at the statewide level and in the Legislature, we really need a unified county government, because the Republicans who wield power in this state are coming for us, and we need everyone pulling in the same direction to protect our interests as a county. and an independent entity of government As someone once said, it is what it is.

Finally, they endorsed Teneshia Hudspeth for County Clerk.

Teneshia Hudspeth

Hudspeth, 39, is the Democratic candidate running against Republican Stan Stanart, who was the clerk until 2018, when he was unseated by Diane Trautman. With Trautman resigning over health concerns earlier this year, the winner will fulfill the remainder of her term.

Usually, Stanart’s experience would give him the edge, but Hudspeth is no stranger to the clerk’s office, having worked her way up over a 15-year career from an administrative assistant in public affairs to the chief deputy position. Her climb through the ranks has given her a ground-level view of many of the office’s responsibilities, she said, from voter outreach to records preservation and archiving.

That will come in handy as she continues the office’s modernization by upgrading technology and enhancing online services to reduce wait times and improve efficiency. She also wants to make some of the clerk’s services more widely available outside the office by partnering with community centers.

While the clerk will no longer be a direct elections administrator, the position comes with a seat on the county election commission, a role where Hudspeth’s experience will also be important.

“I will be able to sit on that commission and hold the elections administrator accountable,” she said.

While Stanart is as affable as ever, it was time for new blood in the clerk’s office when we endorsed his opponent in 2018 — his pledge to “stop socialist Democrats” didn’t boost our confidence in his judgment — and that need for change continues.

At least this time, they understood who the candidates were. Good call.

Interview with Rep. Christina Morales

Rep. Christina Morales

I have focused mostly on Congressional candidates in my limited series of November interviews, but I did several State House races for the primary – Akilah Bacy in HD138, Ann Johnson in HD134, Sarah DeMerchant in HD26 – and I realized that one important person that I had not yet interviewed was my own State Rep, Christina Morales. She was elected in a special election in HD145 after now-Sen. Carol Alvarado got a promotion to the upper chamber (an opening made possible by Rep. Sylvia Garcia’s election to Congress), and is now running for her first full term. She grew up in the East End neighborhood she now represents, and is the President an CEO of the Morales Funeral Home, a small business founded by her grandparents in 1931. I confess that I had not thought about this going into the interview, but that’s a revealing window into the effect of COVID-19 on many people, especially in the Latino community. That comes up a few times in our conversation, which you can listen to here:

PREVIOUSLY:

Hank Gilbert, CD01
Rashad Lewis, CD36
Julie Oliver, CD25
Elizabeth Hernandez, CD08
Sima Ladjevardian, CD02

Third lawsuit filed against Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff sites

This one’s in state court.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting Texas counties to one mail ballot drop-off location has been challenged in court a third time.

The lawsuit filed in Travis County court on Monday alleges that Abbott’s order exceeds his authority under the state’s constitution and would make it unreasonably difficult for eligible Texans to use ballot by mail.

“The state of Texas should be working to ensure safe and accessible voting for all Texans. The governor’s order does the opposite,” Cheryl Drazin, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Division, which includes Texas, said in a statement. “Limiting the number of drop-off sites available to absentee voters reduces the options Texans have to participate in the 2020 election without risking their health.”

Several Texas chapters of the Anti-Defamation League are plaintiffs in the case, as are the government watchdog group Common Cause Texas, and Robert Knetsch, a 70-year-old voter from Harris County.

[…]

The plaintiffs argue that Texas election code gives local officials, not the governor, authority to manage elections. So by limiting drop-off locations to one per county, Abbott was overstepping his authority.

The order also went against what the state had already said in other cases, plaintiffs said. In late September, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said in a filing to the Texas Supreme Court that the state election code allowed local officials to interpret “early voting clerk’s office” as extending to annexes of those offices and the secretary of state had already allowed that.

Because of projected increases in vote by mail and delays in the U.S. postal service’s mail delivery, taking away the option for multiple drop-off locations would harm voters, like Knetsch, who was at high risk for COVID-19 because of his age, plaintiffs said.

Knetsch had planned to drop off his ballot at one of Harris County’s multiple locations, but “now plans to risk voting in-person at his local polling place, despite the risk to his health” because he fears there will be large crowds at the remaining drop-off site.

“Many of the Texans who qualify to vote absentee have disabilities and are elderly, and they rely on public transportation,” Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas said in a statement. “With only one drop-off site per county, these voters would face challenges in travel that might make it impossible for them to vote. The drop-off site limit will also make the one site in each country prone to lines and crowds, endangering voters’ health.”

See here and here for background on the previous lawsuits, both of which were filed in federal court. A copy of the complaint for this suit is here, and a statement from the Brennan Center, which is representing the plaintiffs, is here; you can also see their Twitter thread. I have no idea if one or the others has a better chance of success, I just know that we need to get a ruling Real Soon Now for any of this to make a difference. You can see all the filings from the first federal lawsuit here, and for whatever it’s worth, the top Democratic Congressional leaders have written a letter to Greg Abbott asking him to repeal this order. I’m sure he’ll get right on that.

Here, have a Paxton scandal roundup

At first I couldn’t decide if I wanted to put the juiciest bit up front or at the end. I decided to put it at the end, to hold your interest throughout.

From the Trib, life and business tries to go on at the AG’s office.

Best mugshot ever

It had already been a difficult fall for the Texas attorney general’s office.

The sprawling agency, which employs some 4,000 people in more than 100 offices across Texas, has for months had to contend with the added challenges of the coronavirus, many staff members working from home and others deployed as legal backup to Gov. Greg Abbott in coronavirus-related lawsuits on everything from abortion rights to business closures.

Communications director Marc Rylander departed more than a month ago, and Nick Moutos, an assistant attorney general, lost his job at the agency in early September after revelations that he had shared racist rhetoric and QAnon conspiracy theories on social media. Meanwhile, top state attorneys are juggling a handful of fast-moving election-related lawsuits — When will early voting begin? Will Texas ballots allow for straight-ticket voting? — and gearing up for a Nov. 10 argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, the culmination of a yearslong effort to strike down the Affordable Care Act.

But things hit a fever pitch this weekend as seven of the agency’s most senior staff members accused their boss, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, of crimes including bribery and abuse of office, as the Austin-American Statesman and KVUE-TV first reported Saturday night. One of the whistleblowers, Jeff Mateer, abruptly resigned his position as Paxton’s top aide Friday after telling a human resources administrator at the agency that he and other aides “have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses.”

But Paxton, who has pledged to forge ahead as attorney general, pointed the finger back at the seven aides.

“Despite the effort by rogue employees and their false allegations I will continue to seek justice in Texas and will not be resigning,” Paxton said.

Now, agency staff will have to juggle coordinating child support payments, open-records requests and major court dates under the cloud of fresh allegations against their boss, without Mateer, and with an internal battle quietly raging between Paxton and many of the most senior aides who remain.

Yes, so many distractions they must deal with as they work so hard to take away your health care and restrict your access to the ballot box. I don’t know how they manage to do it all.

A spokesperson for the agency, Kayleigh Date, said Saturday that the top aides made the allegations against Paxton “to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office.”

And she seemed to suggest that state officials hope to investigate or even prosecute the whistleblowers.

“Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law,” Date added.

Date declined to provide any further details about the investigation or how the agency will run amid the chaos. She also did not respond to questions about how many of the seven remain employed at the agency.

For his part, Paxton worked Monday to signal business as usual, appointing Brent Webster, a former assistant criminal district attorney in Williamson County, to replace Mateer in the critical role of first assistant attorney general.

Paxton also had lunch at an Austin barbecue restaurant with Bill Miller, a friend and longtime lobbyist, who said Paxton was surprised and puzzled by the allegations and maintains that he has not done anything wrong.

Miller said Paxton hadn’t heard from law enforcement or retained an attorney on the matter and pointed out that the aides leveling accusations against Paxton have yet to publicly show evidence: “There’s a lotta smoke; where’s the fire?”

Paxton doesn’t understand where the claims came from, and “he isn’t going anywhere,” Miller said, but is committed to forging ahead with the agency’s work with Webster as the new first assistant.

Yes, it would be nice to know what if anything is happening with these accusations. As per usual custom, there won’t be any comment from the FBI or US Attorney’s office, so unless someone leaks to the press, or until people with badges and search warrants show up at the office, all we can do is wait and speculate. I hate to say it, but there may not be much news on this for awhile.

The Chron goes into the politics and gets some detail on one of the more alarming charges.

Texas political analyst Mark Jones of Rice University, who has studied the felony case that has been hanging over Paxton for five years now, said these allegations are different.

“This isn’t an accusation that comes completely out of left field regarding a public servant who has an unblemished track record,” Jones said. “This is someone, from when he arrived in the state House, moved to the state Senate, moved to the office of the attorney general, has had a trail of questionable ethical behavior.”

Jones added: “We’re talking about the chief law enforcement official in the second-largest state in the country.”

Most state Republicans, watching as Paxton has weathered such allegations in the past, have backed him or stayed silent over the years. This time likely will be different, Jones said.

Hearst Newspapers reported Sunday that Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, whom Paxton hired as a special prosecutor, issued grand jury subpoenas last week targeting “adversaries” of Paul, according to a senior attorney general’s office official. There were 37 subpoenas that targeted actions of federal authorities in an August 2019 raid of Paul’s home and offices, the Austin American-Statesman reported Monday.

One of the signatories on the letter accusing Paxton, deputy attorney general for criminal justice J. Mark Penley, filed a motion in state District Court in Austin to halt the subpoenas. The motion to quash them was granted Friday, records show.

Many questions remain about the nature of the alleged bribery and how Cammack came to work for the office in a move that has been opposed by half of Paxton’s executive staff.

Paxton has not responded to questions about any contract the office had with Cammack, when he was hired, how much he is being paid or any other details.

Hearst Newspapers has filed open records requests for records of payments to Cammack as well as any agreement the office had with him.

This right here is what I want to know more about, and it won’t be dependent on any loose lips or federal action. Let’s get those records and see what they tell us.

The Chron also has a timeline of Paxton’s malfeasance and pettifoggery. The MontBlanc pen episode is probably my favorite of them. The Trib reminds us that AGs in Texas often go on to run for other things, though not always with success. I don’t see much of a future in higher office for Paxton, but he went from the House to the Senate to the AG’s office pretty quickly, so it’s not like it couldn’t happen.

And finally, the bit you’ve been waiting for, from Law.com:

Appointed prosecutors who have been pursuing felony securities fraud charges against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for five years are researching new allegations that Paxton committed crimes in office.

If Paxton gets charged with new crimes, the prosecutors would seek to revoke his bond.

[…]

“We’re making contact with the individuals involved to determine what exactly happened and what evidence exists that suggests he was involved in misconduct,” said Kent Schaffer, one of the appointed prosecutors in Paxton’s pending case.

If Paxton does get charged with new criminal offenses, the prosecutors in his current felony case would file a motion to revoke Paxton’s bond, explained Schaffer, partner in Schaffer & Carter in Houston.

“When you’re under indictment in a felony case and you’re on bond, if you get a new violation, then your bond can be revoked and you can be held without bond,” he noted. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen. So far, we don’t have any evidence. He is not charged in a new case.”

Also, if Paxton eventually goes to trial in the securities fraud case, and he were also charged for crimes related to the new allegations, then Schaffer said the prosecutors would tell the jury about the new alleged crimes during the sentencing phase of the trial in order to argue for a harsher sentence.

Now, this could all be many months off, if it happens at all, but still. Enjoy the thought for a moment. You deserve it.

How many undervotes would it take?

This story about the race for County Clerk has broken me.

Teneshia Hudspeth

[Stan] Stanart has finished in line with the Republican straight-ticket vote in each of his three elections, winning the clerk seat in 2010 with 53 percent of the vote when Republicans won 54 percent of the countywide straight-ticket vote. In 2014, Stanart won with 54 percent, matching the Republican straight ticket. When Stanart lost his seat in 2018, he received 43 percent, running about a point below the Republican straight ticket.

This year, straight ticket voting has been eliminated statewide, adding a layer of uncertainty to what otherwise would be an all-but-impossible uphill climb for Stanart, Houston political analyst Nancy Sims said.

“We don’t really have any ability to predict voting behavior without straight-ticket voting,” Sims said. “I do think both candidates who are deeper in the ballot are going to face more challenges because people are less likely to know them. And I think none of the county races are a shoo-in with the lack of straight-ticket voting.”

Maybe I’ve obsessed too much over the straight ticket voting effect and what not having it may mean this year, but can we please at least try to think about this in terms of the actual numbers? I will once again use the judicial races as my proxy for partisan preferences. In 2016, the typical judicial race was roughly a 52-48 win for the Democratic candidate; there was some variation in there, from about 51-49 to 53.5-46.5, but 52-48 was close to the mark for the average. If we assume that the Clerk candidates would perform at basically the average partisan level of the county, then if every Republican voter goes all the way down the ballot, you will need more than seven percent of Democratic voters to stop voting before they got to this race for it to tip from Teneshia Hudspeth to Stan Stanart. If five percent of Republicans failed to vote in this race, you would need over twelve percent of Democrats to do likewise. If ten percent of Republicans undervoted for Clerk, seventeen percent of Democrats would have to do the same.

It’s even starker if we’re talking about a 2018 partisan context. In 2018, the average judicial race was 55-45 for the Democrat. Under those conditions, if every Republican votes in every race, more than eighteen percent of Democrats would have to miss this one to affect the outcome. If five percent of Republicans skip this race, 23% of Dems would have to do likewise. If it’s ten percent of Republicans undervoting, you’d need more than 26% of Dems to do the same. That’s the level of undervoting you get in Houston City Council At Large races, where nobody knows who most of the candidates are.

Is this plausible, or even possible? I don’t know. We’ve never had an election with no straight ticket voting before, so nobody knows what is possible or plausible or likely. I spilled many electrons following the 2018 campaign shooting down bad arguments about straight ticket voting, all of which are underpinned by the assumption that if Democrats couldn’t vote that way they would be at a big disadvantage because they’re so much more likely to not vote the full ballot. If you want to make that argument, then by all means, go ahead and make it. You may be right! I have no idea. But let’s be clear about what you are arguing, rather than vaguely waving in the direction of “well, not having straight ticket voting could be bad for Dems”.

One more thing: What is clear is that not having straight ticket voting will make it take longer to vote (even if those effects may be overstated), and that in turn may cause longer lines at polling places, which as we all know is a thing that disproportionately affects voters of color, who are the Democratic base. This effect is most closely felt in Harris County, which has so damn many judicial candidates on the ballot. Harris County, and County Clerk Chris Hollins, have taken a lot of steps to minimize this effect, with more mail voting, more voting locations, longer early voting hours, and so forth. (We have also seen how resilient Harris County voters have been, though they should never be put in that position.) We have no way of knowing what the longer-time-to-vote effect of not having the straight ticket option will be, but we do know that Chris Hollins and the Democrats on Commissioners Court have done their best to minimize it. To tie this back to the Clerk’s race, which is where this post started, it’s impossible to imagine Stan Stanart doing all this work to make it easier to vote in Harris County. Even with the move to an appointed elections administrator, that in itself would be enough to not vote for Stan Stanart.

Chip Roy calls on Paxton to resign

Interesting.

Best mugshot ever

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a former top aide to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, called on his former boss to resign from his post after top members of Paxton’s staff said the attorney general should be investigated for multiple crimes, including bribery.

“For the good of the people of Texas and the extraordinary public servants who serve at the Office of the Attorney General, Attorney General Ken Paxton must resign,” he said in a statement. “The allegations of bribery, abuse of office, and other charges levied against him by at least 7 senior leaders of the Office of the Attorney General are more than troubling on the merits.”

“But, any grace for him to resolve differences and demonstrate if the allegations are false was eliminated by his choice instead to attack the very people entrusted, by him, to lead the office – some of whom I know well and whose character are beyond reproach.”

Roy called the office of the attorney general “too critical to the state and her people to leave in chaos.”

“The Attorney General deserves his days in court, but the people of Texas deserve a fully functioning AG’s office,” he added.

Roy served as Paxton’s initial first assistant attorney general during Paxton’s first term, but resigned upon Paxton’s request in a major shake-up of senior staff in 2015. He was elected to Congress as a Republican in 2018.

See here and here for the background. I have some speculation about this, but before I get to that let me answer a question here that was raised in the comments to the previous post. If Paxton does resign, Greg Abbott will appoint a new AG. That person will serve until the next election, which in this case is the 2022 election, when Paxton’s term would be up. Had this all happened earlier – if, say, Paxton had stepped down in January, for example – then Abbott’s appointed AG would have been on the ballot this November as well, in the same way that there’s an election for Harris County Clerk to replace Diane Trautman. Because of the timing here, if Paxton does resign then whoever is appointed in his place will serve out the rest of his term.

Now then. Chip Roy, a former top lieutenant to Paxton, is the first prominent Republican to call for him to resign; as noted before, Abbott and Dan Patrick both issued very milquetoast “wait and see” statements in that Chron story. What might be the reason for this? Three possibilities I can think of:

1. It’s a principled move by someone who has seen enough evidence of wrongdoing and believes in the office enough to want to protect it. Yes, I know, my eyes are rolling as well, but we wouldn’t be in this position if it hadn’t been for the principled action of multiple people who are – or were, anyway – closely aligned with Paxton. I think very little of Chip Roy, but he didn’t have to put out a statement at all, or if he did he could have followed in Abbott and Partick’s extremely timid footsteps. I’m about to give two much more cynical reasons for this, but even if one or both of these other reasons are true, the fact remains that Chip Roy didn’t have to do this, and will almost certainly suffer some blowback for it. Give credit where credit is due.

2. Locked in a tight race for his Congressional seat, in a year where Donald Trump is doing his best to wreck Republican political careers around the country, the last thing Chip Roy needs is for people to think of him as a onetime head honcho for the consistently corrupt Ken Paxton. Getting out ahead of that mushroom cloud of scandal and putting as much distance between himself and Paxton is just Survival 101.

3. Did I mention that part about Greg Abbott appointing a replacement AG if Paxton does step down? And that part about Chip Roy maybe losing his re-election? Now who would be a better and more obvious choice to step in for Ken Paxton than a former Top Man in the office who was the first Republican to call on him to resign, thus giving him the cred he’ll need to clean up after Paxton’s mess and restore some faith in the Attorney General? Don’t tell me Chip Roy isn’t keeping his options open.

By the way, Ken Paxton says he ain’t resigning, but that’s what you’d expect him to say, and it’s what he says now, when we have very little information about these allegations. Let’s see what happens when we all learn more.

Anyway. Speaking of appointments, Paxton has named a replacement for his departed First Assistant AG, Jeff Mateer. Good luck with that, dude. I may need to seriously rewrite this entry if more Paxton news breaks this afternoon, but in the meantime you can read this Texas Signal story that recaps what we know so far. Catch up if you need to, I have a feeling there’s a lot more to come. The Chron, Texas Monthly, and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: The Chron editorial board joins the “Paxton should resign” bandwagon.

When Republicans fight

Such a sight to see.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s most exasperating allies sure chose an awkward time to act up.

In the face of a momentous election, with an array of issues that includes the pandemic, the recession, climate change, racial justice, law enforcement and the next appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, the chairman of the Texas GOP and a gang of lawmakers and activists have instead picked a fight with Abbott, who isn’t even on the ballot, over his response to the pandemic.

On the surface, they’re asking the courts to tell the governor that adding six more days of early voting to the calendar was outside of his powers. Abbott made the move under emergency powers he has claimed during the pandemic — the same powers he has used at various times to shut down schools, limit crowd sizes and limit how many customers businesses can serve at a time, or in some cases, to close businesses altogether.

The timing is connected to the Nov. 3 general election; even with the arguments over emergency powers, opponents of the governor’s action would be expected to grab for a remedy before early voting starts on Oct. 13. One might say the same about other lawsuits challenging the governor’s orders — that they’re tied not to politics, but to current events. Bar owners want to open their bars, for instance, and are not in the financial condition or the mood to stay closed until after the elections just to make the current set of incumbents look good.

What’s unusual is to see so many prominent Republican names on the top of a lawsuit against the Republican governor of Texas this close to an election.

In a gentler time, that might be called unseemly or distracting. Speaking ill of another Republican was considered out of bounds for a while there. Those days are over. What’s happening in Texas illustrates how the pandemic, the economy and other issues have shaken political norms.

As the story notes, this is also playing out in the SD30 special election, where Shelley Luther – supported by a million dollars from one of the Empower Texans moneybags – is busy calling Abbott a “tyrant”. There’s talk of various potential primary challengers to Abbott in 2022 – see the comments to this post for a couple of names – but I don’t see any serious threat to him as yet. If Dan Patrick decides he wants a promotion, then we’ve got something. Until then, it’s all talk.

But let me float an alternate scenario by you. What if the nihilist billionaires behind Empower Texans decide that Abbott and the Republican Party have totally sold out on them, and instead of finding someone to take Abbott out in a primary, they bankroll a petition drive to put some pet wingnut on the November ballot, as an independent or the nominee of some new party they just invented? It’s crazy and almost certain to hand the Governor’s mansion over to the Democratic nominee, but no one ever said these guys were strategic geniuses. It’s been said that there are three real political parties in Texas – the Democrats, the establishment Republicans, and the far right whackadoo Republicans. This would arguably be an outgrowth of that, and in what we all hope is a post-Trump world, there may be similar splits happening elsewhere.

How likely is this? As I said, it makes no sense in the abstract. It’s nearly impossible to see a path to victory for either Abbott or the appointed anti-Abbott. It’s instructive to compare to 2006, where Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman were taking votes away from both Rick Perry and Chris Bell. Nobody who considers themselves remotely a Democrat is going to be wooed by whoever Empower Texans could vomit onto the ballot. Maybe they would consider a victory by Julian Castro or whichever Dem to be preferable to another Abbott term, in their own version of “the two parties are the same, we must burn down the duopoly to get everything we want”. Just because it makes no sense doesn’t mean it can’t happen. For now, if I had to bet, my money would be on some token but not completely obscure challenger to Abbott in the primary – think Steve Stockman against John Cornyn in 2014, something like that. But a lot can happen in a year, and if the Dems do well this November, that could add to the pressure against Abbott. Who knows? Just another bubbling plot line to keep an eye on.

Lots of HISD students will stay remote for now

The people have spoken.

If the state’s largest district follows through with reopening campuses to students on Oct. 19 — the tentative plan, still based on public health conditions — more than half of the district’s nearly 200,000 could remain at home for at least one grading period, HISD officials said this week.

Newly released data shows that 80 percent of the district’s families committed in recent days to a back-to-school option. Of those, about 40 percent chose in-person instruction and 60 percent opted to stay in virtual classes. HISD officials are unsure whether the remaining 20 percent of families will send their children back to classrooms, but district staff are planning as if they will show up on campus.

With those totals in hand, HISD officials are using the next few days to finalize arrangements for Oct. 19, which marks the start of the district’s second grading period. Key decisions are expected to land next week, including whether to limit attendance at some high school campuses and shuffle students’ already-assigned teachers.

“Based on the enrollment data breakdown, campus principals will create schedules to accommodate students returning for face-to-face instruction and those continuing remotely,” HISD’s administration said in a statement.

[…]

Nearly all of the Houston area’s largest districts resumed in-person classes for families that want it in recent weeks, though a few remain in the early stages of reopening, including Alief and Fort Bend ISDs.

To date, only Crosby ISD has reported more than 10 active cases of COVID-19 at a single campus. The district temporarily closed Crosby High School this week and Crosby Middle School last week for cleaning.

HISD will be the region’s last district to offer face-to-face instruction, though the district has operated learning centers at 36 campuses and churches for students without at-home technology access since the 2020-21 school year started virtually in early September.

If HISD reopens classrooms in mid-October, the district likely will bring back thousands of employees who remain fearful of returning to work.

A survey of roughly 7,400 teachers conducted between mid-June and early July found that 35 percent were more comfortable staying in online-only classes, while 14 percent were ready to return to the classroom. About half of respondents said they were open to a hybrid model, in which students wanting in-person instruction spent part of their week on campus and part in at-home classes.

“There have been numerous concerns about the size of the classrooms,” said Scott Parker, a science teacher at Navarro Middle School. “You have literally thousands of students coming back, and they’re all within a closed, confined area.”

Nearly all of the district’s 280 campuses are expected to host all students wanting in-person instruction for five days each week. HISD officials did not release a campus-by-campus breakdown of expected in-person attendance rates Friday.

Our girls will be among those who continue to do remote learning for the next six weeks. Both their schools will have the teachers do in-person and remote instruction simultaneously, which means they will stay with the same teachers and on the same schedule. We’ll figure it out for the next six weeks after that. I am hoping that the initial return to campus will be safe and successful, because I know we need to get students back into their schools. We’re getting by and making do for now, but this is not ideal, and there will be long-term negative effects for many students. As to what happens if the return of students (and teachers, and support staff, and whoever else) to campuses is not successful, I have no idea. I just hope HISD and the TEA do. If you have kids in HISD or other district’s schools, what decision have you made about in-person versus remote learning?

Interview with Sima Ladjevardian

Sima Ladjevardian

Texas CD02 has a fairly short history of being centered in Harris County. It was redrawn in the Tom DeLay re-redistricting of 2003 to stretch from the north end of the county to Beaumont in order to oust then-Rep. Nick Lampson, and in 2011 it became an all-Harris district, where its spiral design running from Kingwood to Tomball to the Energy Corridor and finally inside the Loop is often cited as an exemplar of gerrymandering. It was not intended to be a competitive district, but Todd Litton came within seven points in 2018. Sima Ladjevardian is the candidate seeking to close that gap this year. A lawyer and political activist who fled Iran with her family to escape that country’s revolution, she was a Senior Advisor and Finance Chair to Beto O’Rourke in 2018. She is also a breast cancer survivor, which gives her a deeply personal stake in the health care debate. Here’s the interview:

PREVIOUSLY:

Hank Gilbert, CD01
Rashad Lewis, CD36
Julie Oliver, CD25
Elizabeth Hernandez, CD08

More details emerge about the latest Paxton allegations

The Chron advances the ball.

Best mugshot ever

The top state officials who staged a mutiny against Attorney General Ken Paxton warned that he was using his office to benefit campaign donor Nate Paul, an embattled Austin real estate investor.

Paul, a once high-flying businessman whose offices were reportedly raided by the FBI last year, gave Paxton $25,000 ahead of the attorney general’s hard-fought re-election battle in 2018.

The No. 2 official in the attorney general’s office, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, put Paul at the center of allegedly illegal activities by Paxton in a text message sent Thursday. Mateer, who resigned Friday, joined six other high-ranking employees in accusing Paxton, the state’s top law enforcement officer, of abuse of office, bribery and improper influence.

“Each of the individuals on this text chain made a good faith report of violations by you to an appropriate law enforcement authority concerning your relationship and activities with Nate Paul,” Mateer wrote in the text message, which was obtained by Hearst Newspapers.

The group requested an immediate meeting with Paxton, but the attorney general said he was “out of the office” and asked them to email him with their concerns. The Austin American-Statesman, which first reported on the allegations against Paxton, published a letter the officials sent to the attorney general’s human resources office on Oct. 1.

Neither Paul nor his attorney returned calls or messages left on their voicemail.

Paxton said in a statement Sunday: “The Texas attorney general’s office was referred a case from Travis County regarding allegations of crimes relating to the FBI, other government agencies and individuals. My obligation as attorney general is to conduct an investigation upon such referral. Because employees from my office impeded the investigation and because I knew Nate Paul, I ultimately decided to hire an outside independent prosecutor to make his own independent determination. Despite the effort by rogue employees and their false allegations, the AG’s office will continue to seek justice in Texas.”

The uprising against Paxton crystallized when a special prosecutor he appointed, Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, issued grand jury subpoenas last week targeting “adversaries” of Paul, a senior AG official told Hearst Newspapers.

The official who spoke with Hearst Newspapers said those subpoenas spurred the seven top deputies in the attorney general’s office into action. One of the signatories on the letter accusing Paxton, deputy attorney general for criminal justice J. Mark Penley, filed a motion in state district court in Austin to halt the subpoenas. The motion to “quash” them was granted on Friday, records show.

In filing the subpoenas, Cammack “represented that he was acting on behalf of the office of the Attorney General as a Special Prosecutor,” Penley’s motion said. “He is not properly authorized to act as a Special Prosecutor, and … has no authority to appear before the grand jury or issue grand jury subpoenas.”

See here for the background. The information about the special prosecutor appointed by Paxton who’s been issuing subpoenas that “target adversaries” of this Nate Paul character is what really made my hair stand on end. If there is any truth to that, then this is a massive violation of the AG’s office and I can see why his top lieutenants rebelled the way they did. Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick are quoted in the story issuing “this sounds bad but let’s wait an see” statements – which, in all honesty, is reasonable enough for now – but the pressure is going to be on them, too.

There’s more in the story about Nate Paul, who sounds like a typical “more money than brains or ethics” sort, and I’ll leave that to you to read. This is the other bit that had me going “hmmmm”:

Kent Schaffer, a special prosecutor in [the long-running financial fraud case against Paxton], said Saturday that the latest accusations, if they leads to charges, could imperil Paxton’s odds of securing any kind of deal to resolve the criminal case.

“We were trying to get this case resolved, but if this guy’s out committing crimes while he’s on bond, then it’s going to become an extremely serious matter,” Schaffer said. “I’m not saying that he has — I don’t know the specifics, (but if he has) then it’s game on.

“Maybe the people that reported him are not shooting straight, but I want to hear from both sides, if possible. We’re going to do what we can to investigate.”

Schaffer said he contacted the Texas Rangers on Saturday immediately upon hearing the news. He declined to comment on whether the agency mentioned any existing investigation on the matter.

Paxton has also been accused by his staff of accepting bribes in the past.

Those 2016 bribery allegations did not lead to charges, though they did give us all a momentary thrill. The idea that the special prosecutors in the current case against Paxton might be able to get some leverage against him from this scandal-in-the-making is also giving me a thrill. I should know better by know, but I can’t help myself.

The revelations over the weekend appeared to have shaken the agency, where Ryan Bangert, deputy first assistant attorney general and one of the seven officials who reported Paxton to the authorities, sent out a letter of reassurance to staff.

“I write to assure you that the executive team remains committed to serving you, this office and the people of Texas,” Bangert wrote. “Your work, your sacrifice, and your dedication to this office inspire us all.”

Jordan Berry, Paxton’s political adviser, said he resigned after news of the allegations broke.

Watch what the people around Paxton do. We could be in for a mass exodus. I will try to stay on top of things. The Statesman has more on Nate Paul, and there’s national coverage from Bloomberg and CNN.

How not to be “ground zero” for voter suppression

It starts with winning elections. Which would be easier to do if Republicans weren’t hell-bent on making it hard to vote, but then that’s why they do what they do.

Fewer and fewer states are standing with Texas as it continues to resist calls to expand mail-in voting amid the coronavirus outbreak, with South Carolina on Wednesday becoming the latest to allow anyone to cast a ballot by mail this fall.

Texas is now one of just five states won’t accept concerns about the coronavirus as an excuse to vote by mail and state leaders have blocked attempts by local officials in Harris County to make voting by mail more accessible.

That Texas is out on the edge on an issue of voting access should come as no surprise, experts in voting laws say.

The Republicans who run state government have made Texas a national leader in voting restrictions, ground zero in a series of long-running fights over voting rights, and hotly debated allegations of potential voter fraud. It’s a battle President Donald Trump has escalated in the past week, tweeting repeatedly about mail-in voting, which he alleges will lead to “MAYHEM!!!” despite no evidence of such in the states that already have widespread voting by mail.

Democrats have poured millions into at least 18 different legal battles against Texas over mail-in voting and a host of other election issues — more than anywhere in the nation — as the state’s elections have grown more competitive. They charge that the Republicans who run state government have placed hurdles at every step of the electoral process to keep their power despite demographic changes that have diminished their public support.

Texas’ sluggish voter turnout rates are frequently cited as evidence that GOP suppression efforts are working. The state’s decision not to make it easier to vote by mail, critics say, is just the latest example.

You can read the rest for a recitation of the greatest hits in making it harder to vote, but it’s all familiar. (This was also written before the Abbott order about mail ballot dropoff locations, which shows that there will always be new frontiers in this field.) The key to this whole thing is right there in the fourth paragraph, “The Republicans who run state government”. The only way this is going to change is for the Republicans to not be running state government. We can take an important step in that direction in this election, especially if we can get an all-Democratic federal government that will pass an expansion of the Voting Rights Act and other protections. We can finish the job in 2022 and pass laws to repeal voter ID, allow for no-excuses vote by mail, enable online voter registration, and more. The courts aren’t going to save us. The Republicans have no interest in any of this – indeed, as I’ve argued before, if they maintain their trifecta after this election, they are now strongly incentivized to rein in efforts to send out vote by mail applications to those who hadn’t requested them. We win these elections and we move forward, or we don’t and we move back. The fact that it’s harder for us to win these elections is just too bad. That’s how it is. It’s all up to us.

Endorsement watch: For (just a little) more diversity

The Chron says a few words about the need to diversify the Supreme Court, then mostly endorses the status quo.

Judge Staci Williams

When talk turns to Texas’ highest civil court — as it must, given voters’ opportunity to select four of the nine justices in the upcoming election — the old frames of left versus right take on entirely new and even hazy meanings.

As an editorial board, we’ve grappled with the consequences of one-party rule in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in 26 years. But those concerns are even more relevant when the topic is the Texas Supreme Court, and its criminal law counterpart, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

All 18 justices on these two courts are Republican, and we believe that lack of ideological diversity would do damage to any state, but especially one as big and diverse as Texas. That concern weighed heavy on our minds but still was only one factor in deliberations over which candidates to recommend.

We’re delighted to report that not one of the candidates was unqualified. We faced tough choices in selecting only one for each race. In addition to experience, judicial record, temperament and aptitudes for research, writing and analysis that form the heart of appellate law, we also gave thoughtful consideration to candidates’ ideological and personal backgrounds, including gender, race, ethnicity and life experiences.

What follows is our best advice in each of these four, consequential races. Endorsements in the Court of Criminal Appeals will be published soon.

And then they endorse three of the four Republican incumbents – Chief Justice Nathan Hecht over Judge Amy Clark Meachum, Justice Jane Bland over Kathy Cheng, Justice Brett Busby over Justice Gisela Triana; Judge Staci Williams over Justice Jeff Boyd was the lone exception – with nods to experience and temperament over the other factors. It’s fine to prefer those three incumbents and to value their experience, though I at least would argue that Triana has at least as much experience as the Abbott-appointed Busby, but the expressed concern over “lack of ideological diversity” sounds hollow given the result. The Justices in question may well be sober and experienced and learned, but I doubt anyone would claim they differ in any significant way on their philosophy and jurisprudence. Endorsing more of the same is not a great way to get something different. We’ll see what happens when they review the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Second lawsuit filed against Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff order

From Chuck Lindell on Twitter, on Saturday afternoon:

See here for the background, and here for more on the first lawsuit. This one is a Democracy Docket suit, and you can read the complaint here. As of when I drafted this on Saturday afternoon, there wasn’t any news coverage that I could find – this CNN story mentions the second lawsuit, but it’s primarily about the first one, and doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Marc Elias of Democracy Docket summarizes what the complaint is about:

Monday ought to be a busy day at the federal courthouse. I feel like there may be cause to file a complaint in state court as well, on the grounds that Abbott’s action violates the Disaster Act since it does not conform with the goal of mitigating the disaster and thus isn’t an appropriate use of his emergency powers, but I Am Not A Lawyer so I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ll update this when I see a link to news story about this second lawsuit.

Two more data points about Latino voting preferences in Texas

On the one hand:

On the eve of the first presidential debate of the 2020 electoral season, Univision News publishes its latest electoral polls: the National Latino Voter Poll, a survey that interviewed a representative sample of all Latino registered voters nationwide, and the Arizona, Texas and Florida Latino Voter Polls, which interviewed a representative sample of all Latino registered voters in each state.

These new polls reveal the diversity and complexity of the Latino electorate current political preferences, voting intention, concerns, opinions on recent developments, views on President Trump, Joe Biden and much more.

Complete results of the polls are now available at UnivisionNoticias.com and via all Univision News digital and social media platforms. Additionally, highlights of the findings will be featured in Univision’s programming, from its morning show “Despierta América, to the different editions of its daily “Noticiero Univision” newscasts and its public affairs program “Al Punto”.

Overseen by Dr. Sergio García-Ríos, Director of Polling for Univision News, the surveys were conducted by the polling firms Latino Decisions and North Star Opinion Research from September 17 – 24, 2020. The Latino Texas Voter Poll was commissioned through a partnership between Univision News and the Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS) at the University of Houston.

  • 46% of Latinos oppose moving forward with appointing a replacement to the Supreme Court before the election, while 41% are in favor.
  • Biden leads Trump by 42 points among registered Hispanic voters, but in the key state of Florida that advantage has dropped to only 16 points.
  • Trump’s overall approval among Hispanics is 30%, but in Florida it’s 39%.
  • The coronavirus is the biggest concern for 40% of Hispanics, while 73% disapprove of Trump’s management of the pandemic and 61% believe that Biden would have handled it better.
  • About half of Hispanics (48%) plan to vote by mail, although in Texas, where not all voters have that option, the number is only 33%.
  • 76% of Hispanics support the protests that have occurred in recent days over the death of African Americans at the hands of the police, and 58% would welcome a reduction in funding for the police.
  • 59% of Hispanics believe that Biden would do better on the subject of law and order, which is one of Trump’s main slogans.
  • In contests for the Senate in the key state of Arizona, 55% of Latinos favor Democrat Mark Kelly over 21% for Martha McSally. In Texas MJ Hegar leads with 47% against 30% for John Cornyn.


To see full cross tabulations and methodology of the National Latino Voter Polls, click here.

To view the complete results of the polls, please go to UnivisionNoticias.com.

Here’s a more detailed writeup, and here are the questions and crosstabs. The topline numbers are 66-25 for Biden among Latinos in Texas. For MJ Hegar, it’s 47-30 against John Cornyn, but with a significant undecided contingent, which if you dig through those crosstabs is much more Democratic.

On the other hand, we have this:

President Donald Trump has an apparent lead over former Vice President Joe Biden in a close contest for Texas’ 38 electoral votes according to a new poll of likely voters in the state released today.

Trump has the support of 49 percent of Texas likely voters, Biden is at 46 percent, other candidates on the ballot are at 4 percent and 1 percent are undecided. The poll of 882 likely voters carries a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent.

While male poll respondents are more likely to vote for Trump (52 percent Trump, 42 percent Biden), Trump is polling nearly even with Biden among women in Texas (49 percent Biden, 47 percent Trump); Biden likely needs to widen the gender gap in order to carry the state.

More on voters’ support by party, age and education is available at www.uml.edu/polls.

While Trump is slightly ahead of Biden with likely voters, 50 percent say they approve and 49 percent disapprove of the president. Among those who approve, 37 percent do so strongly and 13 percent somewhat. Among Trump disapprovers, 40 percent strongly disapprove of the way he is handling his job as president. Among Democrats, 95 percent disapprove of Trump’s job performance, including 83 percent who strongly disapprove. Among independents, 60 percent disapprove of his job performance, including 39 percent who strongly disapprove. Among the 92 percent of Republicans who approve of Trump’s job performance, 69 percent strongly approve.

“Trump is hanging onto a lead in Texas, but Republicans shouldn’t be celebrating. Once a stronghold, statewide races continue to tighten and a loss in Texas would not only guarantee a Biden presidency, it would signal a landslide. The fact that Biden is keeping it close is cold comfort,” said Joshua Dyck, director of the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion and associate professor of political science.

[…]

In the closely watched U.S. Senate race in Texas, Republican incumbent John Cornyn leads Democratic challenger MJ Hegar 50 percent to 40 percent with 1 percent saying they will vote for another candidate and 9 percent undecided.

While Cornyn leads by a comfortable margin, his lead also does not necessarily project strength, rather that he is running against a relatively unknown challenger. Cornyn is leading among Republicans 91 percent to Hegar’s 3 percent, while Hegar leads among Democrats 83 percent to 7 percent. However, Hegar also leads among independents by 9 points, 44 percent to 35 percent. Notably, 10 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of independents remain undecided, compared to only 6 percent of Republicans.

As a challenger, Hegar’s relative anonymity among Texas voters shows up in her favorables. She has a net favorability rating of +13 (35 percent to 22 percent), but a large number of Texas voters either have no opinion of her (26 percent) or have never heard of her (17 percent). Cornyn, by contrast, is not a particularly popular incumbent. His favorability rating is net neutral (38 percent favorable, 38 percent unfavorable), while 19 percent of likely voters have no opinion of the senator and 5 percent have never heard of him.

Links to more about the poll can be found here. Why am I grouping this with the Univision/Latino Decisions poll? Because if you look in the crosstabs, Latinos support Biden in this poll by the shockingly small amount of 49-45, with Cornyn leading Hegar among Latinos 44-41. UML also has Black voters giving Trump 16% support, so as with some other polls this may just be some small sample weirdness. But as we’ve discussed before, modeling what Latino voters will do this election, especially in Texas, has produced some wildly divergent results.

This Chron story about that first poll captures what I’m talking about:

Tuesday’s results also aligns with previous polling that has Biden up over Trump among Latinos, though by how much has varied depending on the poll.

An August poll by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation and Rice University’s Baker Institute put Biden up by 9.5 points among Texas Latinos. A Quinnipiac University poll last Thursday had Biden up by 8 points, and a smaller survey by the New York Times and Siena College had Biden up 25.

[UH poli sci professor Jeronimo] Cortina attributed the variation in poll results to small sample sizes that don’t fully encompass the breadth of types of Latino voters.

I mentioned the Quinnipiac poll and the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation poll earlier in this post, with the latter including a roundup of other polls that had this subsample data in it at the time. My quick scan of all the results suggests that maybe three fourths of polls of Texas have Trump’s level of support among Latinos in the 20-30 range, mostly 25-30, and the rest have him around 40. Needless to say, they can’t both be right. I tend to believe the former group, and the results of a large Latinos-only poll like this one and its predecessor carry more weight since they have much larger sample sizes, but we just don’t know for sure. I’m just trying to highlight the evidence that we have.

Federal bribery complaint alleged against Paxton

Holy moly.

Best mugshot ever

Top aides of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have asked federal law enforcement authorities to investigate allegations of improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential crimes against the state’s top lawyer.

In a one-page letter to the state agency’s director of human resources, obtained Saturday by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, seven executives in the upper tiers of the office said that they are seeking the investigation into Paxton “in his official capacity as the current Attorney General of Texas.”

The Thursday letter said that each “has knowledge of facts relevant to these potential offenses and has provided statements concerning those facts to the appropriate law enforcement.”

Paxton, a 57-year-old Republican, was elected in 2014. His office said in a statement Saturday evening: “The complaint filed against Attorney General Paxton was done to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office. Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law.”

The statement did not elaborate.

The letter to human resources was signed by Paxton’s first assistant, Jeff Mateer, who resigned Friday, as well as Mateer’s deputy and deputy attorneys general overseeing divisions that include criminal investigations, civil litigation, administration and policy.

“We have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses,” the letter states.

Their decisions to report possible illegal activity involving their employer represents a stunning development in an agency that prizes loyalty, particularly from within Paxton’s inner circle. It places a renewed spotlight on Paxton, who is already under indictment for alleged securities fraud.

The complaint concluded by saying that they notified Paxton in a text message Thursday that they had reported the alleged violations to law enforcement.

The whistleblowers, who notified human resources to protect their jobs, offered no other details about the allegations and did not describe what they believe Paxton did that was illegal. Efforts to reach them were unsuccessful Saturday.

Mateer’s inclusion in the complaint letter, and his departure as Paxton’s second in command, was particularly significant, coming from a political ally who shared a conservative Christian perspective on many social and legal issues.

“Stunned” doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about this news. This is a bombshell, and it’s a question of how big it is. The fact that this accusation was made by Paxton’s staffers, including an ideological ally like Jeff Mateer, makes it all the more momentous. I cannot wait to see what happens next.

Paxton’s defense appears to be “I’m not doing illegal stuff, it’s these staffers of mine who are the bad guys”. Not sure how well that will work out, but as we do not have any details from either side as yet, it is very likely there’s more to this, and we’re just going to have to wait to see what else there is. Neither this story nor the KVUE story has a copy of the letter, so what you see here is what we’ve got. Stay tuned. See Jessica Shortall on Twitter for more.

UPDATE: Here’s the letter. Doesn’t say anything that wasn’t already quoted, but you can see who signed it. The Trib has more.

Lawsuit filed over Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff locations

As expected.

Voting rights advocates and civic groups have rushed to the courthouse in a bid to block Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s Oct. 1 order allowing Texas counties no more than one drop-off location for voters casting absentee ballots, calling the directive an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote that will disproportionately impact voters of color in the state’s biggest cities.

The Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters asked a federal judge in Austin in a lawsuit filed late Thursday to overturn the governor’s order, which forced Travis and Harris counties — two of the state’s most important Democratic strongholds — to shutter a number of drop-off sites they had already opened this week.

“The impact of this eleventh-hour decisions is momentous, targets Texas’ most vulnerable voters—older voters, and voters with disabilities—and results in wild variations in access to absentee voting drop-off locations depending on the county a voter resides in,” attorneys for the groups argued. “It also results in predictable disproportionate impacts on minority communities that already hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis.”

Attorneys also pointed out that Abbott was making a major change to election procedures just weeks away from an election — an action the state and its attorneys argued was improper in a separate federal lawsuit over straight-ticket voting.

[…]

The lawsuit will have to move quickly, with early voting set to begin in less than two weeks on Oct. 13.

Harris and Travis counties had each set up multiple locations for accepting absentee ballots and had already begun accepting them before Abbott issued his order shutting down the satellite locations. Voting rights experts say access to these locations is especially important given concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays and that closing them will disproportionately impact voters with disabilities or without access to reliable transportation. Harris County is home to 2.4 million registered voters and stretches across some 1,700 square miles, more than the entire state of Rhode Island.

Ralph Edelbach of Cypress, an 82-year-old voter among those suing Abbott, had planned to drop his ballot off at a Harris County location that was 16 miles from his home — but now will have to travel 36 miles, nearly 90 minutes round trip, to reach the only location Abbott has allowed to stay open, according to court documents.

At a press conference Friday morning, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said he could reopen the shuttered locations “at the drop of a dime.”

“Ultimately, anything that’s done to decrease voter convenience, to put obstacles in the way of the voter, is voter suppression, and will lead to disenfranchisement,” he said.

Abbott’s order, which came a day after the Texas solicitor general approved Harris County’s plan for multiple locations under earlier guidance from the governor, also said counties must allow poll watchers to observe goings-on at ballot drop-off sites. Voting rights advocates fear that poll watchers, who are selected by candidates or political parties, will seek to intimidate voters, as has been documented in the past.

Abbott claimed the limits on drop-off locations were necessary to ensure election integrity. But he provided no evidence that the drop-off sites enable voter fraud, which experts say is rare.

And the procedures for delivering an absentee ballot are strict. Voters must present an approved form of identification, show up during specified hours and can only deliver their own ballots.

See here for the background and here for a copy of the complaint. The “approval” from the Solicitor General’s office to the Hollins plan is in reference to the brief filed by Paxton’s office in response to the Hotze mandamus that had already challenged what Harris County was doing. Have fun squaring that circle, y’all.

The Chron adds some details.

The suit, filed in federal court in Austin, alleges that the order violates the Voting Rights Act and First and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee equal protection of the right to vote, and will disproportionately affect minorities and older citizens who are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

[…]

Thursday’s move by Abbott was made in stark contrast to a legal argument that Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins had made in response to a lawsuit the day prior. Then, Hawkins argued in a brief to the Texas Supreme Court that nothing in previous orders disallowed the interpretation of the clerks’ “office” to include annex offices, and the Secretary of State had told local officials that any clerk’s office sufficed for dropoff.

It marked the latest instance of Abbott reversing course under political pressure over his response to the pandemic.

Abbott had spent months holding off on a statewide mask mandate, but later enacted one in line with other states. He similarly resisted a statewide stay-at-home order until cases began to surge.

Following an uproar from conservatives over a Dallas salon owner who faced jail time as indirect result of her keeping her business open in violation of Abbott’s stay-at-home order, he limited punishment to fines.

[…]

“As many states are expanding ballot drop off options to ensure voter confidence this year, it is vile to see Texas’s attempts to do the opposite,” said Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters.

The Texas director of AARP, which represents more than 2.3 million seniors in the state, said Friday that she was “deeply concerned” about the new restrictions on ballot dropoff.

“During a pandemic, now more than ever, older voters need confidence that they can vote safely,” Tina Tran said. “Texas voters, especially those 50-plus, do not need another impediment to voting.”

Despite Texas having some of the most restrictive voting and vote-by-mail laws in the country — it’s one of just five states where voters have to provide an excuse other than COVID-19 to request a mail ballot — counties have reported higher-than-normal levels of interest in the practice.

To manage the influx, Harris County had planned on having locations at the main county clerk office and 11 annex offices throughout the 1,777-square-mile county to collect mail ballots. Neighboring Fort Bend County had planned to open five locations, and Travis County had planned on having three in addition to its main office.

Dallas County told CBS 11 News that it had planned to open multiple locations but is now prohibited.

County officials said they were given no notice of the order, which took effect within 24 hours.

This will have to be litigated quickly for obvious reasons. I will say, even with all of his often-craven flip flops, Abbott has generally used his executive powers under the Disaster Act to mitigate or halt the spread of the coronavirus. Extending early voting to a third week was one such example of that. There’s nothing in this order that conforms to that goal – limiting mail ballot dropoff locations will force more people to one location and may wind up making more people vote in person – and so on that principle it would seem to me that Abbott’s underlying rationale is legally suspect. I don’t know that that’s an issue here – that would seem to be more of a claim for state court. Who knows, maybe there will be another lawsuit that does go that route. In the meantime, this is what we have. Reform Austin has more.

It’s Julie Oliver week

Julie Oliver, the Democratic candidate in CD25, is getting a fair bit of attention this week. First, there’s this Statesman story about what her path to victory looks like.

Julie Oliver

On a recent Zoom fundraiser with Beto O’Rourke, Democratic congressional candidate Julie Oliver was asked what the campaign was doing in the vast rural stretches of a district that extends 220 miles from Hays to Tarrant counties.

“We’re doing everything we did before the pandemic except knocking on doors and having rallies, so we’re connecting with people throughout the district,” said Oliver, an Austin lawyer and former health care executive. “Y’all that live in Austin might not be able to see what is happening in rural Texas. But that’s what’s exciting. The Democrats that have been scared to be Democrats for years and years and don’t tell their neighbors are now loud and proud. And even more than that, Republicans who have lost their party are loud and proud.”

Two years ago, Oliver came within 9 points of defeating U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin.

Williams won reelection in 2016 by nearly 21 points. In 2018, Oliver won 20,000 more votes than Kathi Thomas, the 2016 Democratic nominee, while Williams drew 18,000 fewer votes than he had two years previous.

Most of Oliver’s gains came from winning 15,500 more votes in Travis County, even as Williams’ total declined by 6,500 votes.

But, beyond Travis County, there are all or part of 12 other counties in the 25th Congressional District, and, of those, Oliver only prevailed in the small slice of Bell County by Fort Hood, and only has any chance of adding to the win column this November the western portion of Hays County that lies in the district.

The other counties are mostly rural and extraordinarily hard country for Democrats.

“I do not envision Julie Oliver being in the 20s in Hamilton County,” said Lucas Robinson, the Republican chair in the county, which provided Oliver only 509 votes in 2018, the fewest of any the districts’ counties.

That’s 15.5%, a 2% improvement from 2016.

“We are very, very, very Republican county,” said Robinson, an attorney and businessman. “And I don’t get any sense that that’s changing. In fact, it’s probably improving for Roger, this time around, simply because it’s the presidential year and people are quite fired up in my estimate for Trump.”

[…]

The 25th is the most starkly polarized of the six districts that each carve a piece out of Austin, complicating Oliver’s task as she seeks to overtake Williams.

With growth in the district factored in, Oliver probably has to claim nearly half as many more votes than she received in 2018 to win.

“I think she’s a good candidate, and by running twice, she’s in a more advantageous position than someone who no one in the district has ever cast a ballot for,” said Josh Blank, research director the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, who lives in the 25th.

But he said, “Ultimately, Roger Williams’ task is much easier than Julie Oliver’s, because his success relies on mobilizing reliable voters, as much as he possibly can, while dinging her slightly along the way with voters who might be on the fence, of who they were going to be very few.”

Democrats, on the other hand, are “trying to become competitive by mobilizing groups of voters who are defined by their low propensity in most cases to vote. If you are a voter of low socio-economic status, working multiple jobs, and in need of health care, the Democrats definitely would be very attractive to you, but voting is not your No. 1 priority.”

Oliver cannot overlook any opportunity.

“We’re at a place in America where every election is a base election, every election is about mobilizing your core partisans, if not for you, at the very least, against the other guy,” Blank said. “And as we get closer or more competitive in any place, and Texas is an example of that, ultimately, it does come down to margins.”

That means trying to reduce the magnitude of Williams’ advantage even in places like Hamilton County, while assiduously courting and increasing the ranks of the more than 72,000 new voters in the 25th since the last election, and synchronizing efforts with overlapping state legislative campaigns that are more invigorated than in the past.

My interview with Julie Oliver is here in case you missed it. I generally agree with Josh Blank, in that CD25 has a much greater rural aspect than the other Democratic pickup opportunities. That said, the rural part of CD25 isn’t growing by nearly as much as the more Dem-friendly parts of the district:


County        2016      2018     2020
=====================================
Bosque       12,002   12,209   12,264
Burnet       29,587   31,072   32,208
Coryell      37,644   38,635   39,539
Erath        21,537   22,492   23,063
Hamilton      5,467    5,611    5,714
Hill         22,825   22,743   22,924
Johnson      91,725   97,157  102,458
Lampasas     13,786   14,099   14,728
Somervell     6,018    6,287    6,482

Bell        186,533  195,760  204,863
Hays        121,326  134,403  144,314
Travis      725,035  775,950  829,305

I skipped Tarrant County, as there’s just a tiny piece of it in CD25. Bell, Hays, and Travis are only partly in CD25, and I can’t say how much of their growth is in this district. I feel confident saying that Hamilton County, which had 66% turnout in 2016 and 61% in 2018, will not be the major contributor to a Roger Williams victory, if that is what is in the cards. It’s Johnson County (net 28K to Williams in 2018, followed by Burnet (+10K to Williams), Coryell and Hill (+6K each) that are Oliver’s biggest obstacles. If she can hold those margins down while building on the +42K net she got in Travis and the +3K in Bell (Hays was minus 3K for her, but that was an improvement on 2016; I’d say the goal is to break even here), she can win. A challenge to be sure, but it’s doable.

Meanwhile, the Texas Signal has a nice long profile on Oliver.

In the inevitable-looking saga of Republicans losing power in Texas, there would be no sweeter stroke of fate than Julie Oliver toppling Congressman Roger Williams.

A healthcare finance analyst turned Democratic candidate, Oliver is running one of the most progressive campaigns in Texas that include support for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, abolishing private and for-profit prisons, and going after dark money in politics.

To prove the latter, Oliver is saying no to all political action committee money. Not just corporate PAC money, but PAC money from the major unions and agreeable political action groups that have endorsed her, such as the Texas AFL–CIO, Our Revolution, Working Families, Moms Demand Action and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Oliver’s commitment to the no PAC money pledge goes as far as sending back checks, sometimes worth only $100 or $200, to small Democratic clubs that support her.

“You don’t have to have millions of dollars in cash to win,” Oliver told the Signal, citing the elections Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush — three progressives that defeated more moderate, well-funded incumbent Democrats in safely blue districts during their primaries due to grassroots fundraising and organizing.

Oliver held the same pledge in 2018 during her first bid for Congress against Williams. She raised an impressive $644,928, but fell 9 percentage points short on Election Day — not exactly a nailbiter, but a significant improvement from her predecessor in 2016 who lost by 20 points.

“I’ve heard from some people in the Democratic Party who are like, ‘oh that’s foolish, you’ll have to take PAC money this time,’” Oliver said. “And I’m like, mm-hmm, we’ll see about that.”

Primaries are not the same as general elections, but Oliver has done very well with this approach. She’d already outraised herself from the 2018 cycle as of Q2 and appears to be on her way to topping $1 million in total receipts. That’s pretty damn impressive, especially since the large majority of her donations have come from Texas. The main thing this money, and the level of engagement that has allowed her to get contributions from so many small donors, will allow her to do is to reach out to the new voters and the likely Democrats who were there but didn’t vote in 2018. That’s the kind of thing that a campaign that has resources can do.

And she may have some more resources coming her way.

Julie Oliver, the Democrat challenging U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, is being named to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program.

“Texans know tough, and Julie Oliver has always beat the odds,” DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos says in a statement. “A homeless, pregnant teenager who dropped out of high school, Julie endured to finish high school, put herself through college and law school with a young family and build a successful career.

The Red to Blue designation comes roughly a month after the DCCC expanded its Texas target list to include Williams’ 25th Congressional District and two others. The committee has now designated 10 total seats in Texas that it’s working to flip this November, and Oliver is the seventh contender in those races who’s received the Red to Blue distinction.

See here for the background. The DCCC is of course a PAC, but it does its own spending, not in conjunction with campaigns. More likely, what this means is that they will tell their donors who are looking to put their extra dollars to good use that Julie Oliver and CD25 is worth the investment. At this point in the cycle that’s going to have a fairly limited effect, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing, and a whole lot more than what anyone might have thought possible in 2018.

And just as I was finishing this draft, Texas Monthly began a series it’s calling Get To Know A Swing District, with CD25 and the Oliver/Williams rematch as its first entry. All in all, a pretty good week for Julie Oliver.