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Varloree Swanson

Chron overview of HD150

This could be interesting.

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

The business card for Michael Shawn Kelly, a landscape architect who wants to represent the deep-red suburbs of far north Harris County in the Texas House, touts his conservative values and quotes the late Republican politician Jack Kemp.

The card, however, makes no mention of party affiliation. That is because Kelly is the Democratic nominee for the District 150 seat, one the GOP has held for decades.

With that scarlet D next to his name on the ballot, Kelly faces long odds in trying to defeat Valoree Swanson, who toppled state Rep. Debbie Riddle in the Republican primary by attacking the conservative lawmaker as insufficiently principled.

For Kelly to score the upset Nov. 8, the first-time candidate must find a way to cultivate voters that moves beyond party labels.

“It’s tough for people to jump the fence,” he said. “A lot of our advertising is about giving Republicans permission to vote for a Democrat.”

The district, which sprawls over Tomball, Spring and the Harris County portion of The Woodlands, is politically predictable. In winning seven general elections, Riddle dispatched every Democratic challenger by at least 30 percentage points.

Yet, Kelly, 60, believes he can defeat Swanson, 59, a conservative activist, by persuading a primarily Republican electorate that he can represent it with an independent voice. His strategy is to avoid hot-button social issues while hammering on education spending. He criticizes Republican lawmakers for not giving public schools the tools they need.

“The goal shouldn’t be how to spend less money,” Kelly said. “We should be asking, ‘How educated do we want these kids to be?’ Let’s put a price tag on it and then ask people if it’s worth it.”

One convert is Diane Schumacher, a retired manufacturing executive and lawyer who said she votes “99.9 percent of the time” for Republicans.

“It was an easy decision because he is focused on the right things,” she said. In the district, “people are really looking at him as an individual because his opponent is so far to the right.”

[…]

The race “highlights the importance of the party label in Texas,” Jones said. “It may be that Kelly is closer than Swanson to the median voter in District 150. But it’s likely to hurt him to have ‘Democrat’ next to his name because of the association with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Wendy Davis.”

Donald Trump’s inability to unify the GOP means “this might be the year” that voters spurn straight-ticket ballots, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “But this might not be the district.”

On the surface, there’s nothing to see here. HD150 voted 68-30 for Romney over Obama in 2012. A swing district this ain’t. Kelly’s strategy is finding enough Republicans who don’t care for the Republican candidate, Valoree Swanson, to win. That’s a steep hill to climb, but he has had some success – besides the person you see quoted in the story, he has the endorsements of former State Sen. Jon Lindsay and – this still blows my mind – outgoing Rep. Debbie Riddle herself. He also made a pretty good impression, especially compared to Swanson, at a recent Spring Klein Chamber of Commerce event; see here and here for a report.

Will it work? Well, Romney beat Obama by 25,000 votes in HD15 in 2012, the same margin by which Riddle defeated challenger Brad Neal that year. That’s a lot of people one has to convince to cross over. Still, Democratic State Reps were getting elected in heavily Republican districts as recently as 2008, and the northern parts of Harris County that contains HD150 have undergone a lot of demographic change that favors Democrats. So maybe it’s not quite as lopsided as it was four years ago, maybe the Trump effect will boost Dems and depress Rs, and maybe Kelly’s Republican endorsements will help him. I don’t know that you can get there from here, but maybe it can be a start. Kelly is more conservative than my preference, and he’d likely have a hard time getting party support in a different district or in a countywide race. But he’s a pretty good fit for the district he is in, and Lord knows we’re not going to be competitive in places like HD150 until we have people like Michael Kelly running as and voting for Democratic candidates. So we’ll see how it goes.

Endorsement watch: More State Reps

Part 2:

State Representative, District 135: Jesse A. Ybanez

Consider this an endorsement against Gary Elkins. The Republican incumbent has been in office for 22 years, and his greatest claim to fame is a consistent self-serving advocacy for payday lenders and other shady financial businesses. As the Texas Observer reported in 2014, Elkins owns a chain of payday lending stores and helped create their current model in which they operate as “credit service organizations,” allowing them to evade our state’s anti-usury laws. He made headlines two years ago for working to block statewide regulations that would protect hard-working Texans from being scammed by these sorts of businesses. This defense of exploitive business practices has been the single note that unites his entire political history – the Wall Street Journal documented Elkins’ raison d’etre back in 1999 with an article titled, “Legislator’s Slim Agenda Mirrors His Private Interests.”

What other accomplishments can Elkins tout to round out his two decades in the Legislature? When he met with the editorial board during his last election, Elkins pointed to eliminating lower speed limits at night. Elkins did not meet with the editorial board this year.

Gene Wu

Gene Wu

State Representative, District 137: Gene Wu

“People are tired of dead kids.”

That’s the reason that two-term state Rep. Gene Wu gave the editorial board to explain the political momentum in the state House to fix Texas Child Protective Services. Democrats, like Wu, and Republicans are working together to file bills for the upcoming session that will provide better pay for CPS workers, more money for foster families, and better therapy for kids and drug treatment for parents who need it.

“The vast majority of cases that come to CPS are because of drugs,” Wu said. “Yet we don’t provide drug treatment.”

As a lawyer who takes CPS and juvenile law cases, Wu is an invaluable resource on this issue, and voters should give him a third term in Austin.

I don’t have anything to add to the HD137 race beyond what I’ve already said except to reiterate that Kendall Baker is a fool. As for HD135, Gary Elkins is objectively terrible and should have been turfed a long time ago, but he’s in a Republican district, so that’s easier said than done. HD135 is an interesting case in that it’s one of two districts that were won by the GOP in 2012 that were slightly less Republican than they were in 2008; HD132 is the other, but there’s no Democrat running there this year. I’ll be rooting for Jesse Ybanez, but first let’s see if he can continue that trend.

Here’s Part 3, which I believe brings this to an end.

State Representative, District 147: Garnet F. Coleman

After 25 years in office, Democratic state Rep. Garnet F. Coleman seems to know every inch of his central Houston district, which stretches from Montrose, through downtown, Midtown and the Third Ward before following Interstate 45 south to Beltway 8. He has a particular fondness for the area around Emancipation Park, where he’s worked to protect the historic Dowling Street corridor from being consumed by generic townhouses.

Up in Austin, Coleman has been a key leader on mental health and criminal justice issues, promoting personal recognizance bonds and the diversion courts that help keep people out of jail and connect them with the help they need.

State Representative, District 149: Hubert Vo

State Rep. Hubert Vo can be a soft-spoken advocate for his diverse southwest Houston district that ends at the border between Harris and Fort Bend counties. Sometimes he’s too soft – Vo was deemed “furniture” by Texas Monthly last session for his lackluster participation in the legislative process. But throughout his five terms in office, Vo, 60, has enough important accomplishments on his record – such as creating the International Management District – to justify a return to Austin. He’s been an advocate for economic development and education opportunities, especially vocational training in Alief ISD.

We were also impressed by his political courage during an editorial board meeting in which he pushed back against his opponent’s advocacy of raising the sales tax to lower the property tax burden.

“I believe that if we increase the sales tax it is going to be affecting the low-income families, especially families with kids going to school,” Vo said. “It is not going to be fair.”

State Representative, District 150: Michael Shawn Kelly

Scholars of history know that revolutions have a way of eating their young – even the Republican revolution. First elected in 2002, outgoing state Rep. Debbie Riddle was once both praised and maligned for being the personal embodiment of a hard-right Texas Christian conservative. But somewhere along the way, Riddle’s belief that “free education” and “free health care” came from “the pit of hell” just wasn’t conservative enough for her northwest district, which stretches from the Houston city limits up to The Woodlands and Tomball.

She was defeated in this year’s Republican primary by political activist Valoree Swanson. So how did Swanson boot a longtime incumbent? Political insiders know it’s because Riddle got along with the center-right House Speaker Joe Straus, much to the chagrin of powerbroker and lobbyist Michael Q. Sullivan. During the primary, Swanson was able to paint Riddle as someone who wasn’t sufficiently opposed to Islamic religious law, or Sharia law.

So what does Michael Shawn Kelly, the 60-year-old Democratic candidate for this now-open seat, think of all this?

“I can’t answer without laughing to be quite honest,” Kelly told the editorial board when asked whether Texans should be concerned about Sharia law. “I think it is really something you say to people when you’re trying to get them whipped into a frenzy over a non-issue and not talk about the issues we should be talking about.”

See that same article for my thoughts on HD149 as well. I’ll just add that Rep. Vo is 100% correct to say that a property tax/sales tax swap would be a big win for wealthier folks and an even bigger loser for everyone else. I’m a big fan of Rep. Garnet Coleman, who hits the trifecta of being smart, effective, and very good on the issues. As for HD150, it’s a little hard to believe we won’t have Debbie Riddle to kick around any more, and even harder to believe she could get tossed by primary voters for not being sufficiently unhinged. I’ve heard some rumblings that Swanson hasn’t endeared herself to the non-primary-voting electorate, but this is a very red district, so she has quite a bit of slack to give before she has anything to worry about. In the meantime, I’d say Kelly’s response to that drama is spot on.

2016 primaries: State races

Let’s start with the Democratic race for Railroad Commissioner, and a few words from Forrest Wilder:

Not that Gene Kelly

The Gene Kelly Effect: Texas Democrats are almost perennially embarrassed by what you might call the Gene Kelly Effect — the depressing tendency of many Democratic primary voters to vote for a name they recognize on the ballot, without any regard to the person’s experience or qualifications.

Gene Kelly is the clever/annoying fellow who shares a name with a long-dead dancer and ran repeatedly in the ’90s and ’00s, garnering millions of votes and forcing expensive and time-consuming runoff elections without even pretending to run a campaign. (Perhaps it’s also a reflection of the electorate’s average age, since the dancer Gene Kelly’s heyday was in the ’40s and ’50s.)

Though Gene Kelly hasn’t run for office since 2008, a new spoiler has arrived on the scene. His name is Grady Yarbrough and his last name sounds awfully similar to (but is in fact different from) Ralph Yarborough, the legendary liberal Texas senator. In 2012, Yarbrough won 26 percent of the vote in a four-way race to be the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. That was enough to muscle his way into a runoff with former state Representative Paul Sadler and score 37 percent of the vote.

This year, Yarbrough is running against former state Rep Lon Burnam and Democratic labor activist Cody Garrett for a spot on the Texas Railroad Commission. Burnam is by far the most serious candidate — if measured by endorsements, money raised, legislative experience, etc. Can Burnam (or Garrett) clear 50 percent and avoid a costly runoff, or will Yarbrough, like Gene Kelly, be singin’ in the rain (of ballots)?

Sadly, that was not to be, as Yarbrough led the field with about 40% and Burnam coming in third at 26%. I’ll be voting for Cody Garrett in the runoff, thanks. Burnam did raise a little money, but it was a pittance, the kind of total that would get you laughed at in a district City Council race. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, one of these days the big Democratic check-writers are going to have to realize that they need to robustly support qualified candidates in these low-profile primaries, or we’re going to stop getting any qualified candidates for these offices. I know that the Republican nominee is the overwhelming favorite to win in November, but that’s not the point, and besides, who knows what might happen with Trump at the top of the GOP ticket. One of these days a Democrat is going to win one of these races, and if we’re not careful it’s going to be whatever schmo that bothered to pay the filing fee. Do we want to avoid that fate or actively court it?

Anyway. The marquee race was the rematch in SD26, and it was headed for the same result as before, with Sen. Jose Menendez holding a comfortable lead. However you viewed this race, I’m sad for TMF and sorry to see him leave the scene. He’ll be missed. Congratulations, Sen. Menendez. Also winning, by a much wider margin, was Sen. Carlos Uresti over the widow of former Sen. Frank Madla.

For the State House races, I had said yesterday that I was a little worried about the four Harris County Democratic incumbents who had drawn challengers. Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about. Reps. Alma Allen and Jessica Farrar cruised with nearly 90% (!) of the vote, while Gene Wu and Hubert Vo were up by two-to-one margins. Whew! There was good news also out of El Paso, where Rep. Mary Gonzalez was over 60% against former Rep. Chente Quintanilla. In not so good news, Rep. Ron Reynolds was headed towards a clear win in HD27. All I can say is that I hope he’s not in jail when the gavel bangs next January. As long as he’s still in office, any calls for Ken Paxton to resign are going to ring just a little hollow.

For the open seat races, Randy Bates led in early voting in HD139, but as the evening wore on he was passed by Kimberly Willis and Jarvis Johnson. Former Rep. Mary Ann Perez started slowly but eventually won a majority in HD144, with Cody Ray Wheeler next in line behind her. Other races of interest:

HD49: Gina Hinojosa, daughter of TDP Chair Gilbert Hinojosa, was headed towards a clear win to succeed Elliott Naishtat. Huey Ray Fischer was in third place.

HD77: Lina Ortega wins big to succeed Rep. Marissa Marquez.

HD116: Diana Arevalo was over 50% to succeed TMF. Runnerup Martin Golando was TMF’s chief of staff. To say the least, not a good day for Trey Martinez-Fischer.

Hd118: Tomas Uresti gets another shot at winning that seat. Hope he does better than in that special election runoff.

HD120: Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, daughter of former Spurs legend George Gervin, will face Mario Salas in a runoff.

SBOE6: Jasmine Jenkins and Dakota Carter head to the runoff.

SBOE1: Georgina Perez, the more interesting candidate, won without a runoff.

On the Republican side, there is too much so I will sum up: Supreme Court incumbents all won, while there will be runoffs for the Court of Criminal Appeals. Reps. Byron Hughes and Susan King were the leading candidates for the two open Senate seats. Speaker Joe Straus won his race handily, but several incumbents were losing at last report: Stuart Spitzer, Byron Cook (a top lieutenant for Straus), Marsha Farney, Molly White, Wayne Smith (surprise #1), and Debbie Riddle (surprise #2). I can’t wait to hear some of those stories. Here’s the story on the GOP Railroad Commissioner race, one in which there was a lot of money spent. Last but not least, the crazy may be back in the SBOE, as Mary Lou Bruner was close to a majority of the vote. Praise the Lord and pass the bong.

For plenty of other information on these and other races, here’s your supplemental reading assignment:

Trib liveblog

Observer liveblog

Chron live coverage

Rivard report

Austin Chronicle

BOR

Harris County Dem resultsHarris County GOP results

Democratic statewide resultsRepublican statewide results